ORINDA -- Berkeley-based California Shakespeare Theater is blasting holes in theories about running a theater group in an economy that works on nonprofit organizations like pesticides on clover.
Recently announcing best-ever ticket sales and growth in educational programs (including an unprecedented $173,000 raised to support outreach to underserved communities), they were only getting started.
Not satisfied with finishing the 2012 season in the black, they also went green, installing a solar power system supporting 98 percent of the Bruns Amphitheater's needs at their main stage in Orinda.
And the joy continues. An artist learning program was initiated in 2001 and bloomed into a three-pronged experiment called The Triangle Lab. When a partnership initiated with San Francisco-based Intersection for the Arts in 2006 gained unstoppable momentum, it led to a third initiative. Ten artists from a broad array of disciplines have been dubbed "Artist-Investigators" and awarded $3,000 stipends in the debut year of an annual project aimed at inventing and discovering new ways of creating theater.
Exploring, even sleuthing all these options comes as naturally as breathing to Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone, who stands as point man for the growing empire. Paraphrasing Woody Allen, Moscone encapsulated his artistic philosophy in a recent interview, saying, "If you don't keep moving, the shark will get you: that's basically how I've always operated."
He sees the Artist-Investigator Project as a way to increase the "who and how" of participation at Cal Shakes.
"But it's not just an audience development program," he insisted. "It's not based on how much money can we get from this, but strategically, on what will move us forward."
The AIP is rooted in last season's production of "Spunk," when the theater, artists and community members came together to create stories around the theme of "home."
For Moscone, a "Spunk" dance party, where "all shapes, abilities, age and color celebrated their bodies," led to a burgeoning understanding of "change in the social culture." And presenting culturally specific programming was a dramatic, first-time shift during his tenure as artistic director, Moscone said. Interested in reaching beyond "Spunk's" new methodologies, he discovered an urgent desire to add voices from the immigrant community to Cal Shakes' repertoire.
"When did we stop being an immigrant country? Who made that decision?" he asked. "Every foremother and forefather came from that experience. We all crossed borders to become Americans: it's not a new story."
"Califas," an ambitious. story-gathering exploration down Highway 99 from the Bay Area to the Mexican border, was introduced in 2012. Immediately, Moscone and Executive Director Susie Falk realized they needed an artistic manager to bridge the Lab's growing infrastructure.
Triangle Lab Director Rebecca Novick was hired to sculpt the programs into what Moscone called "a not-scary, more real, living, breathing thing."
In an email, Novick highlights "Califas'" reach; "Lost Letters" written in statewide workshops that will be featured in this year's "The River," and video-portraits artist Joan Osato is filming in communities along Highway 99 for a coinciding exhibit.
The 10 Artist-Investigator projects she will mentor and manage cover the gamut -- a QR code/mobile technology interactive play; 131 handcrafted, mixed-media wings publicly installed at Oakland homicide sites; a crowd-sourced balcony scene from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," and more.
Falk said the Lab and the Artist-Investigator Project are flowing bi-directionally; filtering their way not only outward into the community, but inward to the theater's educational programs.
"We're looking at curricula that enables students to have their ideas initiated. We're asking them to be anthropologists about their communities and to have their own voice," she said.
Falk admitted the addition of new programs is both exhausting and invigorating. But she came to the organization with her "eyes wide open" and knew that "it's always the reality that our ambitions outpace our resources." Falk constantly questions the relevancy of new ideas; key to the organization's success, she said, is maintaining an organic connection to its origins and preserving a "main stage is the heart of who we are" mindset.
"Everyone is looking for new models," Falk said. "Being a midsized theater, we have stability, but we're also small enough to be nimble. For us, it's looking at who we're playing with. Whatever it is, it has to be true to the work."
Moscone, momentarily forgetting about the "sharks," said, "We want this investigation to span over years: to put it on the ground and get it running."