A Few Things I learned from Barbara Oliver

Don’t stop doing the work that makes you happy.

Take an interest in someone, not because it’ll help your career. Just because.

If someone invites you to their hole in the wall show because they’re so damn excited about it- go.

Give people rides. 

b oliver


In 1994 I came back to the Bay Area from college, fancying myself as the Next Great Theatre Director. I promptly sent out resumes to the local Artistic Directors announcing myself as such. Looking back, I see I was guilty of over-marketing myself a bit. I had only directed two shows, one in an emptied swimming pool, the other in a basement. No one replied.

Except for Barbara Oliver, then AD of the Aurora Theatre. She called me and asked me to have coffee with her. We sat in the old Brazilian cafe that used to be there and she kindly sat and listened to my dreams for creating The Next Great American Theatre Co. She smiled, listened, laughed, talked about how she started The Aurora many years ago. She seemed really curious about me. (Why does this lady care? Is this a gag?) She didn’t offer me a job, telling me straight out I wasn’t quite ready for the Aurora-but made it clear she’d keep me in mind, and that as I did shows I should let her know so she could come see.

A few years later I  started The Next Great etc. It was in a cramped loft that itself was stuffed inside a Karate Studio. To get to the shows you had to cross the Karate floor sometimes dodging windmilling arms and legs. Barbara came to the opening of Ghost in the Machine. She came to a staged reading of RUR. She was always happy to come. There might be 12 people in the house. She was enthusiastic. She’d sit next to my mom, and beam almost in the same way. As long as I gave her a ride home. She didn’t drive.

A year later she hired me to direct two staged readings for Aurora at a private club in SF. But the best part was, again, driving her home. Being able to talk with her, hearing stories of how she and her husband ran a community theatre in Fargo North Dakota before moving to Berkeley.

When my Director dreams gave way to other dreams, Barbara still showed an interest. She even came to see The Laramie Project at Berkeley High school, not just because I directed, but because a neighbor’s daughter was in it. Her praise and support were always a tonic, an uplift. Despite being a tirelessly working director and actress, she always found time. If I was doing a reading of a little known Albee play in someones’ living room, she came. If I asked to assist her as she directed Devil’s Disciple- well, she already had an assistant, but I could be the assistant to that assistant. I could still be part of it. “Of course you’re welcome…”

I guess that’s why I’m writing about her here. There was something kind of old-school, something that doesn’t seem to exist too much these days about what she did for me. She made time. She took an interest, she listened to my dreams. It wasn’t networking- she certainly didn’t need me as a contact. But she put me in places I could meet people, people that could give me a boost up. When you introduced someone to her, she smiled as if she were the lucky one to meet such a new interesting person.

She had the smile of a real sprite. A real fairy kind of sprite- like she knew a secret and it was really about to crack her up. And it would crack you up too, if she shared it with you.

I guess that’s the point. She shared. She shared more than I do. I hope to change that.

Thanks Barbara, and see you backstage. Maybe up there we can do some goofy British melodrama together someday. I can picture it.

2 thoughts on “A Few Things I learned from Barbara Oliver

  1. Zambonie…your article about barbara oliver brought me to tears and laughter. i think it also speaks well about you for being able to see those things in her.

  2. A few Things I Learned From Jordan Winer:

    How to Share your Love, your Joy, and your Sadness, and

    If you keep Teaching, I’ll try to keep learning

    Sent from my iPad

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