The last time artistic directors Jon Moscone (Orinda's California Shakespeare Theatre) and Tony Taccone (Berkeley Repertory Theatre) joined forces on stage, people wept, laughed, gasped and rose to their feet, applauding.
"Ghost Light," a crossbreed play of memoir and fiction, written by Taccone and based on the tragic, real-life assassination of Mayor George Moscone -- Jon Moscone's father -- was a runaway hit.
At a Jan. 23 Commonwealth Club presentation in Lafayette, the mood was definitely more even-keeled as they paired up to answer questions about theater, Bay Area audience, and the role of risk in their personal and professional lives.
Linda Lee, from Hayward, had brought her years-long crush on George Moscone, along with a memorial program from Nov. 29, 1978, with her. About to retire after 46 years as a postal carrier, she hoped to deliver the memento to Moscone.
"I remember when people were bickering about George growing a mustache," she reminisced. "I liked his look and wrote him a letter. He wrote back on official paper, saying, "Thank you, but you and Mrs. Moscone are in strong disagreement on the merits of my little mustache."
Humor was in abundance as moderator Chad Jones (onetime theater critic for the Oakland Tribune) invited Moscone and Taccone to introduce each other's organizations.
"I don't really know much about Berkeley Rep," Moscone joked, before saying that no season at the theater looks like another because there is no exclusionary aesthetic. "Tony decided to start writing and that has also trickled into the organization's blood. (He's an) artist inquiring about what he needs to do next."
Taccone spoke of Cal Shakes' radical transformation, not just in the recent and ongoing physical renovation of the outdoor amphitheater, but caused by Moscone's embrace of an "every play is a new play" philosophy.
"Whether a play is 4,000 years old or four months old, he's fully committed to living in the moment and making sure it is viscerally transmitted onstage," Taccone said.
Asked about risk, Moscone said the size of his $4.5 million operation still allows him to "see every corner of the room." Rejecting the term "calculated risk," he pledged allegiance to one method he prefers for selecting plays: "I liked them."
Taccone agreed, saying, "My relationship with risk is daily. There's fertile soil I need to dig through. There's 'Oh my god!' fear. At some point, I decided to pursue things that spoke to a quadrant of my fear zone."
Both men said Bay Area audiences are eager for surprise, and sometimes even take the lead in fantastic theatrical experiments.
"There's no question the Bay Area is a home for 'the other.' And Berkeley is home for 'the other, other'" Taccone joked.
Creating new work is vital, they insisted, for reinvesting energy into the field. Younger playwrights see the world differently, and the response from audiences to fresh scripts keeps their theaters fully alive.
At Berkeley Rep, the audience's mix of age, gender, religion, sexual orientation and ethnic background results in a civic discourse about art, culture and boundaries.
"It causes arguments -- significant arguments," Taccone emphasized, mentioning one dark, comedic play that had "kids rolling in the aisles" and others "incensed."
"When people feel violated, they feel motivated to respond," he said. "Everyone has an unspoken contract about what art should be doing for me and to me."
Moscone said he had no intention of installing heaters to combat the sometimes chilly conditions. Attributing his sensitivity to criticism to being haunted by similar barbs angled at his father long ago, he said he avoids burnout by traveling, being on his own, visiting museums and "investing in increasing participation from the audience."
"I'm going to find out what's out there that's not even in Orinda, not in the theaters. It might be on the street," he said, before hitting the road and leaving Taccone to go solo with his audience.
Questions both from Jones and from the audience centered on collaborations. Taccone said working with Moscone was exciting and humbling, and connected him with his own deep feelings about grief.
"But when (Oregon Shakespeare Festival director) Bill Rauch first offered the commission, I said, 'You're out of your mind!' I had never written a play; why would I do that?"
Playwriting is rigorous, Taccone said, and collaborations come with complex scheduling challenges. Still, he dreams of working with his two sons, who are both involved in the performing arts.
"I would love that, but I'm at the point in my life as a parent where (I) go to visit and they say, "I'm too busy. I can't meet with you right now."