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Timothy Near on Life After Being an Artistic Director

by Lily Janiak, San Francisco Chronicle, 2018


Director Timothy Near listens as actors read through lines for the production of Athol Fugard's A Lesson From Aloes at Z Below in SanFrancisco, 2018

Photo: Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

If Timothy Near can be an example to the many artistic directors who are leaving their posts at top Bay Area theatres in the near future, then stepping down from leadership doesn't mean your career is over.  For her, it's meant, "you kind of pick and choose what you want to do."

"I didn't just end my life when I left," says Near, who led the now-defunct San Jose Rep from 1987 to 2009.  "I'm 73 years old, so it is quite different in many ways from the kind of mad energy that you have when you're in your 30s, 40s and 50s.  It kind of mellows out."

What's left are passion projects, and for Near, the latest is directing Weathervane Productions' A Lesson from Aloes, running at Z Below June 3-29.

She describes the 1978 drama by south African playwright Athol Fugard as "a play about trauma," but one that honors "the human urge for survival under traumatic circumstances in a very harsh landscape."  Afrikaner Piet (Victor Talmadge), British-descended Gladys (Wendy vanden Heuval) and mixed-race Steve (Adrian Roberts), all veterans of Apartheid resistance, are all traumatized by an oppressive government and a racist society.  They variously weather arrest, privacy invasion, institutionalization, the loss of home, the loss of career.  As the trio reunite over dinner, they discover they might have lost still more: their mutual trust.


Director Timothy Near speaks with actors Adrian Roberts, left, and Victor Talmadge as they rehearse a scene for the production of Athol Fugard's A Lesson from Aloes at Z Below in San Francisco, 2018.

Photo: Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

Though set amidst the political crackdowns in South Africa in the 1960s, Aloes feels strikingly contemporary, especially when the characters get real about their privilege.  "Just remember it's easier for you," Steve reminds Piet at one point.

In doing historical research for his role, Roberts noticed that "the race politics of that country and this country are very similar...In that, once the elite went along the political movement and the banning orders" - which restricted individuals movement and speech - "and the suppression of other people, once that's ingrained in the society, the sickness then spreads."

You see certain things that are happening in this country," he adds, "and then the silence.  And silence means assent and consent.  My anxiety level, maybe because I am a person of color, is high."

Near got involved with Aloes when, in a reversal of the typical theatrical hiring process, vanden Heuval and Talmadge called her out of the blue and asked to direct them in it.  (Near has helmed Fugard plays twice before, most notably in Aurora theatre Company's acclaimed production of 'Master Harold'...and the Boys, which costarred Roberts and for which Near won a TBA Award.)  "I mean, how often do actors get to say, "We're choosing this project, and we're going to choose the director'?" Near says.

Near knows from the actor's side of the table, having won a 1981 Obie award for her performance in Emily Mann's Still Life, with Mary McDonnell and John Spencer.  She also learned sign language and toured with the National Theatre of the Deaf, going on to play the friend of deaf actor Linda Bove on "Sesame Street" and signing music on tour with her sister, singer/songwriter/activist Holly Near.  That was before sign-interpreted events were common.  "I think I made some contribution to bringing that concept into the world," Near says.

A return to freelance hasn't meant a return to acting, though.  "Unless you're working all the time, like Joy Carlin," it's tough to keep up your chops, she says.  Acting "is like a muscle," not just for learning lines, but for "being able to be present" in an imagined world.

As she surveys the changing landscape of the Bay Area theatre, with leadership changes on the horizon at ACT, Berkeley Rep, TheatreWorks and the Aurora, Near feels "sort of wonderful about it," "a bit celebratory."  The outgoing generation has left "a big impact on theatre both nationally and locally.  We've kept the pool of actors alive and working and healthy - for the most part.  One could always do more to hire local artists."  They've also "been laying groundwork for the next stage of diversity and women taking leadership positions."


Director Timothy Near poses for a portrait next to the show poster for her production of Athol Fugard's A Lesson from Aloes outside Z Space in San Francisco, 2018

Photo: Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

Near believes it's crucial for theatres' boards, as they look for successors, to build on that tradition.  "If you want a diverse audience, you have to do diverse material.  You have to put many faces on your stage."  While she stresses that every theatre's community is different, she also believes an artistic director "needs to some extent to reflect that community but also open doors for that community to other communities."  It's a job that "doesn't separate people" but rather "gathers people in."

"There's nothing more delicious than being in a very diverse audience," she says.  "It feels great!  And to see, 'How is this group of people in this culture watching that play?'"

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