Reformation and transformation are on the mind of Aurora Theatre Company artistic director Josh Costello in early 2023. Swiftly to follow are immediacy, relevancy and stability, as well as alliances leading to Community Partner programs he initiated at the intimate Berkeley-based theater, which was founded by Barbara Oliver and a consortium of professional Bay Area theater artists in 1992.
“I started the partner program just before the pandemic,” says Costello. “Coming out of COVID and returning to regular live performances, we paired the recent Pho production with the AAPI Youth Rising group that is all student-led and introduced our first Affinity Night.”
Colonialism is Terrible, but Pho is Delicious, a play by Dustin Chinn, launched the company’s 31st season and enjoyed an extended run before closing in December of 2022. The play addressed topical issues such as gentrification, cultural appropriation and authenticity. Taken as a representative model of “signature Aurora,” the work placed special emphasis on meticulous attention to language; supremely compelling storytelling; and a rich brew composed of comedy leaning to satire or farce, layered irony and serious drama, and deep, reverberatory political and social commentary.
“We had the kids who run the AAPI organization at a post-show discussion, and instead of actors talking,” says Costello, “we had two of the AAPI founders, Mina and Charlee, on stage with the playwright talking about the play and what it meant to them.”
Aurora was led by Oliver for 12 years before the artistic directorship was assumed in 2004 by Tom Ross, who had been with the company since its inception. Ross introduced a number of innovative programs, most importantly, a new play initiative that led to dozens of commissioned and developed works and offered new and established playwrights a vital platform for building the contemporary theater canon.
Costello succeeded Ross in 2019, stepping up after serving as literary manager and artistic associate since 2012. He subsequently introduced associate artistic director Dawn Monique Williams, who oversees the new Community Partners program.
Building the bridge to re-establish live theater as a vital, essential part of life in the post-shuttered/locked-down era will mean achieving stability. Because of continued uncertainty in the industry and with personnel shifting fluidly as some people leave theater permanently and new faces arrive, Costello says clear expectations for staff, the board, budgets, ticket sales and every facet of the organization are crucial.
“Our society has changed its relationship to work, to the arts and entertainment,” he says, “which means another priority is living up to the value statement we adopted in 2020.”
The statement, like that of many organizations, issues a declaration of commitment to championing racial justice; embodying anti-racist practices; and dismantling racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, xenophobia and religious intolerance. It recognizes Aurora’s location on Chochenyo Ohlone land and promises equity in pay and contract negotiations, excellent productions and plays that “move today’s conversations forward.”
Costello is transparent in his comments about the theater’s history. “We’ve been a theater with white leadership. That goes for staff and patrons in the past, too. Now, we’re doing work to make sure everybody belongs and going deeper in authentic relationships with other organizations,” he says.
“The decision was made that all new board members would be BIPOC,” says Costello. “We sought board members who would provide those diverse voices in terms of gender, race and more. Our percentages had been highly white and male, and we changed that measurably. Similarly, I am white, and because of that, I have implicit bias, and yet I’m the one who chooses the plays.
“I made a commitment that at least half of the plays will be written by BIPOC playwrights. It means I’m reading plays I might not have read before. It’s harder work, but it’s worth it because people want to see themselves reflected onstage. And I want theater to be a part of the community and so relevant that you come because you don’t want to miss out on the conversation,” he says.
The upcoming adaptation by Costello of Cyrano, a treasured classic that nevertheless was written by French poet Edmond Rostand, a white European playwright, and will be directed by Costello, begs the question of how it represents more diverse voices. Certainly, classics belong to everybody, and Cyrano has beautiful language and heart and emotion that’s universal and palpable.
“I will not have an all-white cast,” says Costello. “We use color-conscious casting, and in rehearsals the cast will talk about what it means for whatever ethnicity they are to be playing a person in this play. It’s a fact that many of the people in this play about the 17th century wouldn’t have been white, after all, so it’s actually a return to authenticity to have that multiracial [element] portrayed and visible on stage!”
Costello says the two years during which live performances were forced on hiatus were “soul destroying” for theater artists. Despite appreciation for the collaboration with Flying Moose production company to produce high-quality videos and ongoing metrics that show audiences continue to be interested in viewing from home, rights issues with holders of scripts remain complex, and it’s not always possible to secure the rights.
What has kept Costello’s theater engine burning and the flame bright at Aurora is largely tied to his entry point to theater. “When I was in high school, I fell in love with the art form, with the visceral connection between actor and audience,” he says. “My dream is to continue to make theater-going integral to growing up in the Bay Area; it’s just what you do. Theater is just as viable, culturally relevant and accessible as seeing a movie. Gathering in person to share the imaginative act of storytelling, it makes a community stronger, tangible. To me, theater is home.”