Helmer Taccone expands his ‘Tunnel’ vision

'Bridge' opens on Broadway Jan. 26

SAN FRANCISCO — After 30 years working in legit, Tony Taccone, director of Sarah Jones’ one-woman show “Bridge & Tunnel,” which opens on Broadway Jan. 26, is finding life is still full of surprises.

He never expected to go from the artistic staff of San Francisco’s midsized Eureka Theater to the larger, Tony-winning Berkeley Repertory Theater — but he did, almost 20 years ago, serving for the past nine as artistic director.

“The Eureka was my seminal place of growth as an artist and as a person,” he says of the socially conscious ensemble that was instrumental in the early development of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” (Taccone commissioned and co-directed the premiere of “Angels” at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum.) “Berkeley Rep is such a different animal.”

Nor did he expect to stay at the Rep for more than two years. But he says he has been able to do work there that he probably couldn’t do anywhere else in the country.

Among those projects is his collaboration with Jones. Taccone “flipped out” when he first saw her in 1998’s “Surface Transit” at New York’s P.S. 122. He brought “Transit” to Berkeley Rep in 2003, where it wowed critics and auds.

He then helped Jones develop a new solo show about immigrants in America, structured as an open-mike night in a club, with ethnically diverse characters reading their poetry. He and Jones worked hard to shape the piece’s emotional journey into what in 2004 became “Bridge & Tunnel.” The show enjoyed a seven-month, sold-out run at New York’s Culture Project, with Meryl Streep lending her clout as a producer.

Then Taccone brought Jones to Berkeley Rep to workshop it further. They experimented: eliminating one character, adding another, expanding and then contracting yet another’s backstory. Taccone’s younger son, Asa, composed the music.

Back East, various producers showed interest in bringing the show uptown. One group signed on to do so, but, says Taccone, money, scheduling and “all kinds of things” came into play, and the deal fizzled. Options came and went. At one point, Taccone himself was eliminated from the project.

Finally, producers Michael Alden and Eric Falkenstein offered a limited run at the approximately 590-seat Helen Hayes Theater, which Taccone considers ideal for the intimate performance.

“I didn’t realize I had a fantasy about London until I was at the Barbican, and it was fulfilled,” he observes, referring to his Blighty stint with David Edgar’s “Continental Divide.” Now, he feels the same way about his Broadway directorial debut. “Call it the marquee, call it the amount of people in Times Square, call it the legacy of Broadway,” he says. “There’s a sense of history here, and I’m honored to be part of that.”

Next stop for Taccone: Yale, for the latest incarnation of two one-acts that premiered at Berkeley Rep in November: “Brundibar” and “Comedy on the Bridge,” both written by Kushner and designed by Maurice Sendak. Taccone hopes to capture a more “Sendakian” spirit — an almost surreal sensibility — before the show opens May 1 at New York’s New Victory Theater.

Out West, he has been workshopping Culture Clash’s “Zorro” for a March 21 premiere at Berkeley Rep. It’s the Los Angeles Latino sketch-comedy ensemble’s first formally structured play.

Of his accomplishments at Berkeley Rep, Taccone is particularly pleased with the new theater school and an additional venue, both of which opened in 2001. The new proscenium house (“a larger playpen for the next generation”) is next door to the company’s longtime, downtown thrust stage.

He’s also proud of creating a home there for writers and directors to work on challenging projects. His dreams for the company’s future include endowing a new-play development program, expanding the school and continuing to nurture a partnership with his erstwhile Eureka Theater colleague, Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater, for a joint development program.

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