Barbara Oliver, a pillar of the Bay Area theater scene and the founder of Berkeley's celebrated Aurora Theatre, died Monday at her home in Berkeley. She was 85.
A silver-haired dynamo with a keen intellect and a quick wit, Oliver suffered a debilitating stroke in March, and her condition recently took a turn for the worse. She died in her sleep surrounded by her family. The loss can be keenly felt in the tight-knit regional theater community.
"She was without a doubt the Grand Dame of local theater," says Terence Keane, former communications director at Berkeley Rep, "She was so generous with so many people, and she had such a huge impact on local theater. She will be dearly missed. Her creativity, her intelligence, her encouragement, her warmth. It's a real loss."
Born in Ohio in 1927, the veteran actor and director studied drama at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University. She ran a community theater in North Dakota with her late husband, Bill Oliver, who went on to become a legendary theater professor at Cal.
In 1958, the power-theater couple moved to Berkeley, where they raised their children, all of whom became artists in their own right. Soren became an actor, Anna is a costume designer and Michael is a musician. Barbara Oliver first came to fame as one of core company members in the early days of Berkeley Repertory Theatre. As time passed, Oliver feared becoming pigeonholed in the roles of "nannies and grannies" as she often put it.
"I am deeply saddened by the loss of Barbara, who was an inspiration to me. Her generosity of spirit, her profound intelligence and her devilish wit were only parts of what made Barbara one of the greatest artists I have ever known," says Jonathan Moscone, artistic director of Cal Shakes. "I will miss her."
An indomitable spirit never daunted by a challenge, she took matters in her own hands. She produced a play about George Sand, Dorothy Bryant's "Dear Master," which was such a runaway success it launched the formation of the Aurora Theatre in 1992.
"Like many people in the Bay Area, my life has been irrevocably changed for the better by having met Barbara Oliver," said current Aurora artistic director Tom Ross. "Trying to distill the legacy that Barbara left ... is difficult, as she created such a vast foundation, but ultimately, I think that she instilled the belief that we should move forward and grow steadily with absolute integrity and to show unequivocal fairness to all."
Oliver stewarded the troupe from its early shoestring days in the cramped confines of the Berkeley City Club to its current posh downtown venue. She retired as artistic director in 2004 but frequently stole the limelight with her acting. She gave heart-melting turns as the aged governess Anfisa in "Uncle Vanya" at Berkeley Rep and the ashcan bound Nell in "Endgame" at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. She also directed many memorable shows such as "Wilder Times" at the Aurora.
"It goes without saying that she was a talented actor, director, and teacher," says Ross. "Her passion was endless, and she could inspire nearly anyone."
Indeed, Oliver nurtured more than one generation of theater artist. She always had time to dole out sage advice, encourage women to take leadership roles in a craft dominated by men and call you "kiddo."
Asked about her legacy, set designer Mellie Katakalos perhaps put it best: "Barbara Oliver was fierce."
A private funeral service will be held on June 8. A public memorial service has yet to be scheduled. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the organizations close to her heart: Saint Mark's Episcopal Church in Berkeley and her beloved Aurora Theatre Company.