TDPS alumna makes new work in Bay Area at Impact Theatre

Melissa Hillman

TDPS Alumna Melissa Hillman

There has been a focus on new work for the stage in recent years in the Bay Area. From new artist-driven works to collaborative processes, demand for fresh new voices and stories has never been higher. And TDPS alumna Melissa Hillman is at the center of the movement, letting her passion drive Berkeley-based Impact Theatre to the forefront of American playmaking.

“I see between three and four hundred new unsolicited scripts per year,” Hillman says. “We can only mount a few of those as plays ourselves per year, but we’re really dedicated to seeing those new works performed.”

Melissa got her start as a graduate student at Berkeley’s Department of Dramatic Art (which would later become TDPS), along with other contemporaries John Fisher (now artistic director of Theatre Rhinoceros) and Christopher Herold (now head of ACT’s Summer Training Congress). In 1991 she was contacted by Gary Graves, himself a graduate of the department, who had begun working for Central Works. “I had been Gary’s dramaturg at Berkeley, and he brought me to Central Works as a dramaturgy and literary manager,” explains Hillman. “The focus of Central Works was really to be generating new plays internally, which I found really appealing.” While there, Hillman met Josh Costello, who was working as a stage manager. “Josh was right out of college, “say Hillman. “ but he and I were really excited by the idea of creating theater for younger audiences.” Out of this collaboration, Impact Theatre was born in 1996.

Today, Impact is known for its commitment to new plays. They have been the home for 27 new full-length world premieres (at least one per season), many of which have gone on to see productions around the country. 18 of those world premieres have been by local playwrights. They have worked with acclaimed writers like Frank Wortham and Sheila Callaghan, as well as Lauren Gunderson (whose new play Toil and Trouble is on Impact’s stage now as a world premiere), Enrique Urueta and Lauren Yee.  Robert Hurwitt of the SF Chronicle has called Impact “The R&D wing of American Theater.” And though they still target younger audiences specifically, you’d be surprised to see how many people in the audience are older.

“It sure surprised me,” says Hillman. “Not only did older people come, but they subscribed, they participated in the process, and they were committed to the new work we were doing. Some had been there for Dionysus in ‘69 – they were there for the birth of experimental theater, and they felt like they were coming to Impact to see the continuation of that movement.”

Not only is the theater committed to younger stories, it’s made a sincere commitment to emerging artists as well. “We try to be a place where younger people can see their stories on stage,” says Hillman. “And from a production standpoint, a lot of our work is unpublished. It’s a choice we’ve made, to try to play a role in the theater world by giving a lot of un-established artists a chance to show their work, and also to give them that crucial second production. Those are really hard to get, once you have had your world premiere but the show isn’t necessarily in the public consciousness yet. We see it as part of our role to help those great scripts get into the public eye.”

That relationship to the development of an artist’s voice is visible in their long association with Steve Yockey, for whom they gave a second production to his work Cartoon, in 2007, followed by productions of his Sleepy, Large Animal Games, and Disassembly in 2011. Later this year, they will mount a production of Jon Tracy’s Vs. – his second with the company (his first being This is How We Are in 2009, and in the intervening years has written a number of well-regarded plays, including The Salt Plays last year). Or with Lauren Yee, whose Ching Chong Chinaman they produced in 2009.

When asked whether her experience at Berkeley helped prepare her for her career in the theatre, Hillman enthusiastically responds “oh yes. I learned there that I loved teaching, and that I could get a PhD to do theater and teach at the same time. I also learned how to jump through the hoops you have to jump through to do your job. Preparing for my MA Quals were some of the most useful things I ever did. Now I feel like I can teach anything, on any subject.”

Hillman has certainly had the opportunity to put those skills to use – In addition to running one of the premier venues for new work in the Bay Area (and the country), she has taught at CSU East Bay and in film school; she’s run casting for the Bay Area Children’s Theatre, as well as for music videos.

Impact’s current play, Toil and Trouble, shows through Dec. 8 in the basement of La Vals pizzeria, under the direction of founding Artistic Director Josh Costello (directing at Impact for the first time since 2000). Hillman herself will direct a unique new production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It starting Feb. 21. Find out more at www.impacttheatre.com.