Bay Area woman raises the curtain on the father she didn’t know, founder of Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Bay Area woman raises the curtain on the father she didn’t know, founder of Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Meighan Leibert and her younger brother once were fixtures at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

They weren’t actors, stagehands, directors or set designers. They were the young children of Michael Leibert, the UC Berkeley graduate student who founded the East Bay’s first resident professional theater in 1968, two years after she was born, that grew from a small storefront neighborhood company into a celebrated Tony award-winning institution known for staging innovative and edgy new work.

“Growing up, we were there all the time when we were with our dad. We were in the theater, we were a part of it,” says Leibert.

All of that went away when her father died at age 44 of alcoholism when she was just 17. But much more than that disappeared years before his death in 1984, which the longtime San Rafael resident details in her memoir, “The Man I Didn’t Know.”

Leibert’s parents divorced when she was just 5 years old and her father disappeared from her life. Researching and writing her book was a way for her to get to know her father as as a man, husband, colleague and friend, and to revisit what she says she “chose to forget.”

She didn’t chose to remember until she was in her 40s and about to become a mother for the first time.

“When I was pregnant with my daughter, it became very clear to me that I wanted to understand where I was from and, in particular with my dad, maybe what we had in common if anything. Losing him so young just kind of hit me hard. A part of me shut down at 17. I didn’t really know how to handle all that grief and confusion,” she says. “Legacy came to mind. What is my family’s legacy? What is my father’s legacy? So of course it brought me to Berkeley Repertory Theatre and to understand what that meant to me and to my children.”

Leibert reached out to numerous theater people who worked with her father, who grew up in Belvedere, attended Tamalpais High School and is buried in San Rafael, and scoured through a box tucked in the attic of the theater. What she discovered was a man who deserved more than just a label — “alcoholic” — attached to his name.

“They helped me put together an understanding of the man that I could call my father. And I was really touched. I was blown away, almost even inspired,” she says. “He was generous, he was talented, one person calls him ‘mercurial’ and he had a wonderful way with people. He was a people person and dynamic and charming and well dressed and very available and present and nurturing, all these qualities I don’t remember experiencing. I was able to juxtapose this picture of this wonderful father to the theater, to his tribe of actors, creators, and how it didn’t seem that he brought that to our family dynamic.”

Losing him so young sent Leibert on a troubling path, including marriage to an abusive, alcoholic man, that seemed doomed to repeat patterns from her past.

So she turned to traditional and equestrian therapies, Al-Anon and shamans to move through her pain of taking her father’s death personally, to accept what happened and to help break the cycle to prevent her own children, now teens, from experiencing that kind of trauma.

Although Leibert learned much about her father through her research, there’s one thing she didn’t discover and will likely never know.

“One of the big questions I had stepping into this was, why did my dad drink? A lot of my Al-Anon brothers and sisters if you will, we learn early on that we don’t ask why. ‘Why?’ isn’t a spiritual question. And yet that is one of the first things I asked when I met with people. I was under the impression that maybe he was struggling with something,” she says.

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Whatever he was struggling with, if he even was struggling with anything at all, remains unknown, she says. “What I did get was that my dad was very private, very secretive.”

None of her discoveries about him will change what happened, she acknowledges. It has just enhanced her understanding of him, of herself.

“I don’t walk away feeling bad. I walk away feeling quite proud,” says Leibert, who is a yoga instructor, life coach and astrologer who also works in her family’s food businesses in San Francisco. “What I’ve learned is that I am very much like my dad. I have a lot of his qualities. I feel really lucky.”

Leibert hopes her memoir will help others who also feel stuck in the traumas of their past.

“Whatever life is delivering you contributes to your evolution. And being open to it and open to receiving it is really where that grows happens,” she says. “My takeaway for other is, whatever’s happening, it’s OK. Welcome it.”

And while she’s no longer a fixture at Berkeley Rep as she once was, she feels a part of it again. Her father’s name is everywhere — there’s a plaque dedicated to him as well as a bar named after him, Michael’s Second Act — and she feels his presence.

“I feel that he’s still a part of the new theater,” she says. “I don’t feel that he’s absent or been forgotten in any way.”


What: Meighan Leibert reads from “The Man I Didn’t Know”

When: 7 p.m. Sept. 11

Where: Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley

Admission: Free

Information: berkeleycityclub.com, meighanleibert.com

More: Join Meighan Leibert’s talk via Zoom at berkeley.zoom.us/j/99503258300