Home Lifestyle Tanya Berezin, Behind-the-Scenes Off Broadway Force, Dies at 82

Tanya Berezin, Behind-the-Scenes Off Broadway Force, Dies at 82

Tanya Berezin, Behind-the-Scenes Off Broadway Force, Dies at 82


By the mid-1980s, Tanya Berezin had gone far as a New York stage actress. She had collected glowing reviews for her Off Broadway performances over the years, and she had won an Obie Award for her role in Lanford Wilson’s play “The Mound Builders” in 1975.

Even so, she was growing weary of the hustle. “When you’re in your 40s it seems really sort of inappropriate to be waiting for telephone calls from people to ask you to do a job,” she said in a 1993 interview. “It just feels really uncomfortable and childish.”

Her budding career crisis turned out to be an opportunity. In 1986, Ms. Berezin turned her attention from the stage to a highly influential behind-the-scenes role in the theater world: artistic director of the Circle Repertory Company, a storied Off Broadway incubator of talent that she had helped found in 1969.

Ms. Berezin died on Nov. 29 at the home of her daughter, Lila Thirkield, in San Francisco. She was 82. Ms. Thirkield said the cause of her death, which was not widely reported at the time, was lung cancer.

Circle Rep at the time was often associated with the lyric naturalism of playwrights like Mr. Wilson and John Bishop, which centered on the daily struggles of the marginalized and underrepresented. Ms. Berezin declared from the outset that she planned to expand the company’s focus to include more experimental and topical fare.

“Her goal was to bring in more imaginative work — Craig Lucas, Jon Robin Baitz, ” Marshall W. Mason, the company’s founding artistic director, said in a phone interview. “She didn’t go toward the classics at all. Under my tenure we did Chekhov, Shakespeare and Schiller.”

That new direction was not always met with a warm welcome at first. “Certainly everyone was confused last season,” Ms. Berezin said in an interview with The New York Times in 1988. “Our subscribers were confused; the press was confused.”

She was undeterred. “What I’m hoping will happen is that Circle Rep continues to confuse people,” she added. “It will never have one specific personality again. In a sense, we are a brand-new theater that happens to be important.”

Despite the initial skepticism, Circle Rep came to flourish artistically during Ms. Berezin’s eight-year tenure, a period in which the company broke new ground with plays like “The Destiny of Me,” Larry Kramer’s intimate portrayal of a man dealing with AIDS; “Three Hotels,” Mr. Baitz’s razor-sharp look at the capitalist mind-set; and Paula Vogel’s “Baltimore Waltz,” about a schoolteacher’s relationship with her terminally ill brother.

“It was the most astonishing era,” Mr. Lucas, whose critically acclaimed plays “Reckless” and “Prelude to a Kiss” received their premieres at Circle Rep in those years, said in a phone interview. “She invited an entire cohort of writers who were completely unfamiliar to the New York theater audience, people whose plays had been turned down by every theater in New York. She said, ‘I’m excited by what you folks are doing, and I’m going to create a lab where we can hear new plays.’”

But Ms. Berezin’s contributions to Circle Rep went much further back than that. Before taking the helm, she had acted in many of its productions and mentored young actors, including Jeff Daniels, who joined the company in 1976.

Ms. Berezin “was the heart of the Circle Rep,” Mr. Daniels said in a phone interview. Before a performance, he recalled, “she had a way of saying that one thing that became the key thought that you would tape to the inside of your forehead and carry with you through the entire play, and it defined the character.”

In 1977, Ms. Berezin appeared with Mr. Daniels in “Brontosaurus,” a one-act play by Mr. Wilson. “We got creamed,” Mr. Daniels said. “Mel Gussow of The Times called me ‘empty as a balloon,’ if I remember correctly, and he wasn’t wrong. I was just beside myself, crushed, like I had been stamped out like a bug. She listened and listened, and what she said to me was, ‘You’re going to have to learn how to deal with other people’s jealousy.’”

Harriet Fayne Berezin was born on March 25, 1941, in Philadelphia, the only child of Maurice Berezin, an owner of men’s clothing stores, and Bettye (Shifrin) Berezin, who managed the home.

Drawn to the stage from an early age, she was active in theater in high school and went on to study theater at Boston University. A director in a college production nicknamed her Tanya after observing her skill at interpreting Chekhov and others, and the name stuck.

She moved to New York in 1963 to chase her acting dreams and quickly became entrenched in the experimental theater scene flourishing in downtown Manhattan cauldrons of creativity like La MaMa and Caffe Cino.

She became close with Mr. Wilson, Mr. Mason and Rob Thirkield, with whom she formed the Circle Theater Company, as it was originally known, in 1969. She married Mr. Thirkield that year.

In 1974, the company settled in the Sheridan Square Playhouse, located in a former garage in Greenwich Village. That same year, Mr. Gussow of The Times hailed it as “the chief provider of new American plays to the New York commercial theater.”

Ms. Berezin also acted on television and in film into the mid-2000s. She was seen on shows like “St. Elsewhere” and “The Equalizer” and in films including “Awakenings,” with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by a son, Jonathan Thirkield, and two grandchildren. Her husband died in 1986.

Despite its creative triumphs during her years as artistic director, Circle Rep continued to struggle financially. Ms. Berezin left her post in 1994 and for more than two decades worked as an acting coach. The company closed in 1996.

Upon leaving the company, Ms. Berezin told The Times of her plans to appear in a pilot for a series that Montel Williams was trying to get off the ground. Her role? A high school principal in Chicago.

“It’s a lot like running a nonprofit,” she said. “Typecasting, don’t you think?”


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