BERKELEY -- Never one to stand by convention, Berkeley Repertory Theatre bumped another stage tradition off the bench by not staying dark on Monday. Instead, the company's new, intimate Osher Studio theater space on Center Street hosted a luminous, Page to Stage conversation.
Artistic Director Tony Taccone and Obie Award-winner Mark Wing-Davey held a one-on-one discussion on acting versus directing, Margaret Thatcherian philistinism, and the wildly imaginative arguments at the core of the visiting director's vision.
Wing-Davey's "Pericles, Prince of Tyre" opens at Berkeley Rep on April 12. It's the fifth stint in Berkeley for the British director, actor and teacher, and Taccone allowed Wing-Davey to dominate the one-hour chat.
"You'll have time for your questions when I'm done asking mine ... maybe," Taccone told the audience, after one particularly lengthy response from Wing-Davey.
The highly animated director gestured and jousted his way through biography and big dreams of what contemporary theater can become.
As an actor, Wing-Davey made his indelible mark playing the multi-headed, extraneously limbed Zaphod Beeblebrox in the BBC radio and television production, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
"Aside from the fact that you don't wear socks," Taccone joked, directing attention to Wing-Davey's au naturel feet, "some people might also not know you were a cult classic."
Wing-Davey caught the drift of Taccone's prompt, sweeping listeners on a rapid ride through his young actor days and how they shaped his artistic endeavors.
"I now work for NYU (New York University) and as part of that academic thing, you have to have a statement," he said with a laugh. "When I started acting, the guiding thing was all about the word on the page."
After working as a young man with what he called "a lefty theater company with a marvelous process," Wing-Davey "spooled on" with multiple interweaving narratives that told his story. His all-over-the-map experiences on recording and theatrical platforms left him feeling un-empowered.
"Every decision had to be done by consensus," he said. "I asked the director why I couldn't have a say. He told me they had agreed, collectively, that he would be the director and make all the decisions."
Frustration led him to directing and teaching for 16 years at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. He claimed to have been fascinated by ideas, like the notion that bad actions were "human nature." Or Neo-Darwinism's reductive, predictive theories explaining why one was more likely to be killed by one's stepfather than by a biological father.
Mysteriously, these subjects led him to conclude that Westerners experience underprivileged countries in a dissonant, "thrumbing" manner. The inner dialogue and silent musings within the minds of the audience became as interesting as the nuances of any script.
Asked how he knows when he's enamored of an idea that doesn't work on the stage, Wing-Davey said he relies on the advice of others. Working on a production of "Henry IV," he incorporated Englishmen in Chinese uniforms to give it "a wobble" and manipulative speeches with "Saddam" thrown in as an alternative.
"I had to ask (playwright) Tony Kushner to help, because people were shouting about the substitutions, saying, 'That's not Shakespeare!' Tony wrote a less obtrusive version that didn't unbalance the production," Wing-Davey said.
"Pericles" interested him because of the innocence of the central character. Having a small cast forced him to "use his theater muscles." The play's episodic structure set up repetitive formatting he explored, including introducing a song the audience can learn, know and eventually hum along with during the final scenes.
"Did you know, if you watch people doing things you can do yourself, you can get more engaged? That's why people like singing along, marching along, Nazi salutes. Unison is exciting to people."
Responding to an audience question about British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died on April 8, he said, "One of the great jewels in the crown has been the subsidized theater and because she had an approach to privatizing things, we're still reaping the (ill) effects. Theaters are closing all over the country."
Given his dream scenario of an unlimited budget, Wing-Davey would change the model of theater and work 12 weeks, perform, work 12 more weeks, perform.
"You don't want to lead people by the nose, you want to take them along," he said. And then, as if trying to help in that process, he added, "As an audience, you can know that everything was meant. The director didn't make a mistake: if something seems shallow, it's meant to be shallow. What does it mean? Be alert to that."
'Pericles, Prince of Tyre,' runs through May 26 on the Thrust Stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Details: www.berkeleyrep.org.