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Marco Barricelli: Star Turn

July 1, 2008

Hamlet and Heathcliff are on hold while the actor takes the reigns in Santa Cruz

When, in April 2005, Marco Barricelli announced that he was resigning his position as one of American Conservatory Theater’s four core acting company members, the San Francisco arts community went into shock. The actor’s decision to give up one of the few full-time, salaried regional theatre acting gigs in the country at the height of his powers seemed outlandish both to people in his profession and audiences alike. For eight years between 1997 and 2005, Barricelli’s booming, brooding presence had shaped both ACT, and, to a degree, the entire face of the Bay Area’s theatre scene. Possessed of swarthy good looks, an unassailable frame and a toe-tingling voice that feels like it’s coming at you in Dolby Stereo, the actor seduced audiences not just by virtue of his impressive physicality, but also with his alchemic approach to text and ability to shuttle between roles as wildly contrasting as the Leading Man in Six Characters in Search of an Author and Henry IV’s Prince Hal.

Perloff once memorably referred to Barricelli as her “Stradivarius” for his ability to “play any kind of music there is.” Fellow ACT company member René Augesen, who co-starred with Barricelli in many productions including Buried Child, Night and Day and The Three Sisters, found him to be a generous collaborator: “Whatever choice you’d make, big or small, right or wrong, he’d take it, run with it and throw it back to you.” The playwright Tom Stoppard was also reportedly a fan. According to Perloff, Stoppard loved the performer for his clear intonation, charisma and sheer size. “I remember when Tom was commenting on an actor in another production of The Invention of Love, he said, ‘He wasn’t Marco. He didn’t have the inches.’”

Barricelli’s influence at ACT went well beyond his stage appearances. It was largely as a result of his encouragement that Perloff founded a core acting company in 2001. He was involved in the season planning and production process and directed several plays including Life is a Dream, The Collection, and Mourning Becomes Electra. And he worked as an educator, teaching ACT’s masters degree students and setting up a successful and ongoing international exchange program between the Italian actor training school Accademia Silvio D’Amico and ACT’s conservatory. (The Boston-born actor has Italian roots and speaks the language fluently.) “At ACT, I was part of Carey’s artistic team,” says Barricelli. “I helped with the selection of actors, directors and designers. I could see what it took to build a company and put together a season. Every bit of those eight years was instructional for me.”

But more than two decades of performing weighty roles ranging from Hamlet to Heathcliff on the nation’s repertory theatre stages eight times a week was starting to wear on the then-46-year-old actor. “I got to the point where I would think to myself, ‘why do I do this?’” says Barricelli. “What I should do is become a motorcycle mechanic. When you fix a bike, it either runs or it doesn’t. It’s not the same as doing a play, where people are always saying things like, ‘I enjoyed this but I didn’t go for that.’” Plus, living in California had put some strain on his personal life. His longtime girlfriend, Beatrice Basso, was living on the other side of the country working as the resident dramaturg and literary manager at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. Ready for new opportunities, Barricelli decided to move back to New York, where he had launched his career as an acting student at The Julliard School in the late 1970s. Barricelli had several immediate plans for his life post-ACT, including television work, returning to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (where he acted many leading parts before joining ACT) to play the title role in Laird Williamson’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac, and traveling to Italy to teach. But he also repeatedly expressed a longer-term desire to colleagues and the media: to become the artistic director of a theater someday.

One television series, several plays, and a few summers in Italy later, Barricelli has managed to turn this dream into reality. In October 2007, the Board of Shakespeare Santa Cruz chose the actor from a pool of four finalists to become the California-based company’s new artistic director -- the third leader in the organization’s 27-year history to come primarily from an acting background. Barricelli’s immediate predecessor, the British actor Paul Whitworth, got his start at the Royal Shakespeare Company, appeared in many productions at SCC (and elsewhere) during his tenure with the organization, and continues to perform on stages across the U.S. Another former SSC chief, Danny Scheie, is best known to Bay Area audiences for his work on stage. Though he intends to spend his first season at SSC focusing solely on producing, Barricelli plans to act and direct on the company’s two stages in future years. “I was quite surprised that we went down the same path by hiring another actor, but Marco was the clear choice,” says SSC’s managing director, Marcus Cato. “He has a distinguished career as a Shakespearean actor and amazing connections within the theatre world. He calls people up and they say yes to him even without knowing what project he wants them to work on.”

American theatre history has its roots in the “actor-manager” system of the 19th century. The successful U.S. tours of companies led by such British thespians as Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Henry Irving inspired American actors like Edwin Booth and Joseph Jefferson to run their own organizations. But despite the success of these endeavors, the actor-manager system gradually went into decline as stage managers and later directors replaced performers as company leaders. These days, with a few notable exceptions such as Steppenwolf Theatre’s Martha Lavey and Philip Seymour Hoffman of LAByrinth Theater, relatively few performers head major companies in the U.S.

Barricelli loves his new job not only for the idyllic California coastal setting of SSC’s two stages (including a picturesque outdoor amphitheatre) but also for the opportunities it provides to nurture all three of his passions -- producing, directing and performing. But to him, the scarcity of actors in leadership positions poses a serious problem. He’s particularly critical of artistic directors who don’t respect actors properly. Like most actors, Barricelli endured debilitating audition experiences, including being ushered to continue reading for a part while a director took a phonecall. As a result, he stopped auditioning for regional theatre roles entirely sometime in the mid 1980s and has since consistently won jobs based on the strength of previous performances. Now, as an artistic director, he tries to make the audition process as painless as possible for new actors and doesn’t generally ask veterans to audition for him at all. “Organizations are more likely to hire directors than actors as leaders because of their management experience. But this trend hasn’t gotten us very far,” Barricelli says. I know lots of actors who would make extraordinary artistic directors for their unique aesthetic, ability to communicate with many groups of people, respect for their colleagues and heightened sensitivity to the production process as a whole. It’s time for the American theatre to think outside the box.”

As far as planning his inaugural season goes, SSC’s new actor-manager is certainly doing what he can to shake up widely-held preconceptions about what constitutes Shakespeare Festival fare. The Bard’s works still form the backbone of the University of California at Santa Cruz-affiliated company’s compressed, six-week-long summer season. This year’s offerings include an old favorite, Romeo and Juliet, and a contrasting take on romantic relationships, the complex and less-frequently-performed comedy, All’s Well That Ends Well. But instead of complementing the Shakespeare with other works from Renaissance England or, say, the Comédie Française, Barricelli is devoting his attention to producing plays by established and emerging contemporary American dramatists. Lanford Wilson’s acerbic drama Burn This and Itamar Moses’ precocious take on 18th century mores, Bach at Leipzig, round out the season. “Everything we do takes its inspiration from Shakespeare,” says Barricelli. “But I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that we’re performing in America with American actors and for American audiences. Plays like Burn This are probably going to shock the constituency. I don’t think the word ‘fuck’ has been heard on SSC’s stages before. They may run my ass out of town.”

Whether the artistic director flourishes in his new role or finds himself thrown off campus depends upon his ability to persuade audiences entrenched in the classics to embrace new voices. Barricelli’s old mentor, Perloff, has warned him not to expect audiences to be automatically receptive to such a sweeping change of vision. Barricelli’s success will also owe much to how he manages certain ambitious organizational shifts. The artistic director aims to juggle a complex schedule of four productions for roughly the same budget that the company formerly produced three, mainly through efficient casting. In addition, Barricelli plans to strengthen ties with the university, such as through the creation of a documentary about SSC in collaboration with the institution’s media arts department. And to top it all, he hopes to have mapped out the entire ’09 season in time for this summer’s program. “This will help to get audiences hooked in early for next year,” he says.

Those close to Barricelli believe that there’s no one better equipped to run SSC and meet these ambitious goals. “I would venture to say that there are few people in the world who can do what Marco does,” says Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s former artistic director Libby Appel, who first worked with Barricelli in 1993, when she directed him as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. “All of his qualities as a person will stand him in good stead as an artistic director. He is devoted to the theatre, has a sharp eye, and possesses empathy for the process because he understands what it means to be an actor.”

Yet considerable challenges face SSC’s fledgling artistic director in the months and years ahead. Chief among these is his health. Two months after accepting the position at SSC, Barricelli was diagnosed with cancer. “It’s part of my life,” he says. “The downside is that I want to spend all of my time at the theatre but have to spend some of it at the doctor’s.” Despite undergoing chemotherapy, Barricelli looks and sounds as healthy and energetic as he ever did on stage. Dressed smart-casually in slacks, dark blazer, slate-gray button-down shirt and beige lace-up shoes, he appears both relaxed and alert. Only the hair on his head, now wiry, cropped close to the skull and graying slightly at the temples, where it once fell across his forehead in lustrous dark waves, hints at his inner state. “The act of producing theatre keeps my mind off the cancer,” Barracelli says, the sonorous cadence of his voice defying defeat with every vibrating vowel. “I have to move forward and the best tool I have is this job.”



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