Chancellor Nicholas Dirks has created a platform for Berkeley to engage with the arts in a unique experience: in conversation.
Beginning Friday, Cal Performances will present Berkeley Talks, a series of lectures and public forums with a variety of renowned artists, intellectuals and writers.
The series, which will take place in Zellerbach Hall, was created by Dirks and executive director of Cal Performances Matias Tarnopolsky.
The events coincide with one of Dirks’ main philosophies: “I’m interested in promoting an arts initiative across campus,” he said in an interview with The Daily Californian.
With Berkeley Talks, Dirks will be introducing, and in some cases interviewing, an array of speakers.
“There’s a wide range of fields represented,” said Dirks. “Public intellectuals, people studying the future of technology, comics who got into trouble and were clamped down on free speech — each in their own way shows how integrally tied-in the arts are into things we do on the university campus, and as people who are engaged in the world.”
The idea for starting Berkeley Talks came from Dirks’ experiences watching “Charlie Rose,” a show that held interviews with a spectrum of interesting figures. It also sprouted from conducting public conversations himself with famous artists and thinkers while working at Columbia University.
“I was struck by how you could have a conversation of a kind that was strangely private in public,” he said. “Because it was an interview, because the format was agreed upon, because you had to have a conversation that lasted a particular amount of time, you could ask questions that were difficult — not necessarily ones you would ask in a living room or around a dining table,” Dirks said.
Both Tarnopolsky and Dirks also referred to Yo-Yo Ma as an inspiration for Berkeley Talks. “He’s an endlessly fascinating musician, and I’ve watched his views develop over the years, and I can’t wait to hear his latest iteration of the role of arts and culture in society,” Tarnopolsky said. “And it’s especially relevant at the heart of a great public university like ours in an urban setting … so I think his speech will have particular resonance.”
Dirks himself was involved in various artistic outlets while growing up. “I did a lot of writing when I was younger,” Dirks said. “I wanted to write novels. I still have a novel in mind in my bottom drawer that I haven’t gotten a lot of traction on lately — I haven’t gotten enough time. It’s a spy novel.” The chancellor also played guitar and saxophone and performed in musical theater groups throughout high school and college.
Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and writer Art Spiegelman will be starting off the series Friday at 8 p.m. with his show “WORDLESS!,” a multimedia presentation on the influence of early 20th-century graphic novels.
Egyptian television satirist and columnist Bassem Youssef, who is known as the “Jon Stewart of Egypt,” will converse with the chancellor Oct. 29 as part of UC Berkeley’s 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement. Other speakers include writer David Sedaris, who is presenting a sold-out show Nov. 15, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who will discuss the role of the arts and sciences in today’s society Dec. 10.
Tickets range from $22 to $48 for the public, and students get half-priced tickets for all Cal Performances. Most Berkeley Talks events will be $10 for students, according to Tarnopolsky. “That’s like getting two iced mochas,” he said.
When asked what he hopes the audience will take away from the Berkeley Talks series, Dirks said he hoped “they take away a sense that they’ve had a chance to participate in a real conversation that’s not staged, that’s spontaneous, that even if they didn’t ask the question that they wanted to have asked, that they feel like they’ve been able to participate.”
Tarnopolsky said he hopes to put on five or six Berkeley Talks events per season, making it into a growing series.
“Art isn’t just about consuming music or art or writing,” Dirks said. “It’s also about engaging with the artistic sensibility with people who are creative in one domain and have interesting things to say about other things.”
Contact Sarah Goldwasser at [email protected].