In inconceivable crevices of Silicon Valley, wildly successful companies were birthed—whether that be Apple personal computers in Steve Jobs’ garage or Google search engine in Larry Page’s basement; but before those men came Robert Kelley’s TheatreWorks in a public parking complex. Shortly after graduating from Stanford University, Kelley founded TheatreWorks. An arts workshop for teenagers and college students like himself, TheatreWorks was dedicated to the discovery and broadcasting of new voices. In the first three years, the company produced 13 original works. Its first show, Popcorn, detailed disputes amongst generations in our city of Palo Alto and the repercussions of warfare. Drawn by unscathed creativity, the original musical was an instant sell-out. Tackling relevant topics, its program currently serves over 25,000 youths and is award winning.
Just 50 years after the premier of Popcorn, TheatreWorks established itself as a major theatre company and is often the largest winner of San Francisco Bay Area Critics Circle Awards. The company has developed an annual budget of $9 million and a full-time staff of 40. And Kelley has directed an impressive 175 of the company’s 426 productions.
At this year’s 73rd Annual Tony Awards, Kelley accepted the Regional Theatre Award, one of the highest honors in American theatre. There could be no better kick-off to the company’s 50th season.
The beloved Kelley announced he is retirement-bound in 2020, and his retirement marks the end of one of the longest tenures in American theatre. And Kelley guarantees he’ll remain involved in the world of theatre and the lives of those he has touched.
In an interview with American Theatre, Kelley noted, “We had a wonderful production of Ragtime years back that was a landmark for the company, and I’ve decided to produce it again as my final musical at TheatreWorks next year. I kind of feel that a lot of the things we’ve had to say about the world and about America and about the human experience will essentially be summed up in that production and in that show.” Though a new artistic director has yet to be named, he or she certainly has an enormous pair of shoes to fill. This being said, Kelley has expressed great delight in handing off his position to a fresh face and honoring the company’s original intent of enabling young artists to find their voice.