This year, Laura Sheppard celebrates her twentieth anniversary as events director at MI. Recently, Laura—who’s also the founder of multiple theater companies and an actress specializing in one-woman shows—shared highlights from her prolific event-producing career, as well as her deep appreciation of what she’s learned on the job.
Twenty years is a long time! What’s kept you at MI?
This has been a profound education, every single day. To produce a literary event, you need a depth and breadth of knowledge of the author’s work. The first celebration the Events Department did was for William Saroyan’s 100th birthday in 2008. Maybe I read Saroyan in high school. But delving into his stories again was such a pleasure.
For the 2013 Allen Ginsberg celebration that we produced with City Lights and the Jewish Contemporary Museum, I was reading Ginsberg’s poetry, diving in, dwelling in his work. I was reintroduced to Charles Dickens when I produced a huge Dickens 200th birthday anniversary event in 2012, with scholars from UC Santa Cruz’s Dickens Project, performers from the Dickens Fair, and author Jane Smiley as the keynote speaker.
Did you start at MI as Events director?
The Events Department was created when I came on staff as Events Director. Previously, I had worked as an events producer in New York and festival producer at the JCC East Bay. At MI, I came in and instigated a whole program which had consistency. We had weekly author events. A few months later, we added the regular CinemaLit series, inspired by a board member, to promote our film collection. And then our literary celebrations that became another signature of the department.
What author events stand out in your mind?
I don’t want to play favorites. But I loved presenting Joyce Carol Oates and Joan Didion. Eric Vuillard, the Prix Goncourt winner, with his book about Vichy France. Carey Perloff, with her memoir about starting ACT, and John Lahr with his theater autobiography—both delightful speakers. Dana Gioia, our California poet laureate, who knew all his poems by heart. And our recent tribute to Toni Morrison was particularly inspiring.
Another thing that has been very exciting is all of MI’s collaborations. With our [MI building] tenants, Litquake and Zyzzyva. With our local publishing houses, like City Lights, Heyday Books, and University of California Press, on so many incredible books over the years. With our independent bookstores. With our authors, having these intimate conversations with writers of all backgrounds. It’s been this wonderful exchange, expanding our members’ and audiences’ experience with the literary world, and also vice versa—having authors in the Bay Area become part of our MI community.
Let’s talk a little bit about your life in theater.
I’ve always had a passion for theater, from childhood. I have a BFA in acting from Boston University. For many years, I had a theater company in Boston, Gestural Theater, which involved movement and mime and baroque music. I taught movement for actors. And then I moved to New York, where I was very involved with the Actors Institute.
Back in 2011, I saw the one-woman show where you performed, complete with turn-of-the-century attire, as writer Harriet Levy.
My solo performances have always been involved with some kind of writing. I’m a longtime Gertrude Stein fan, and obsessed with Paris and the writers and artists of that era. Stein’s writing has a musicality; it’s also very abstract and Dadaesque and imagistic. I created “Still Life with Stein,” a Dadaesque theater piece, based on her 1914 work “Tender Buttons.”
Later, Heyday Books publisher Malcolm Margolin sent me 920 O’Farrell Street: A Jewish Girlhood in Old San Francisco, and suggested I do a theater piece on the author, Harriet Lane Levy. Then I found Harriet’s memoir about her life in Paris, which she visited with her friend and neighbor, Alice B. Toklas. And so I developed “Paris Portraits” based on her experiences there between 1908 and 1910. My favorite time period in Paris!
So what are you working on now?
There’s a wonderful book about Jewish women who had literary salons—that’s sparked a lot of ideas for the future.
Also, I’ve started a new theater, the Yiddish Theater Ensemble, in partnership with director Bruce Bierman. We were supposed to be producing God of Vengeance by the famous writer Sholem Asch for September performances. But because we cannot gather due to Covid-19, we’re going to move into some sort of film or video production.
And when you’re not producing events or doing something theatrical?
Recently, I’ve been exploring my neighborhood in Berkeley, with all of its pathways and magical gardens. I was never a walker before. But now that we’re deprived in other ways, the natural world has become this incredible Eden. It’s this rich animation of color and aromas, a blessing in greenery and live oak and redwood.
You tango, I understand.
I’ve always danced—modern, creative, jazz, mime, all kinds of dance. But I started taking tango many years ago with my dear friend and former MI librarian Maria Pinedo. We were thinking about flamenco but then we saw the show Forever Tango. It’s been a lifeline. After engaging and reading and being online all day at work, it’s this wonderful flow of music and sensuality. You don’t need to talk.
Anything else you want people reading this interview to know?
I’ve learned so much from our MI executive directors and our staff and the literary world that surrounds us. I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to learn and to grow.