Friday, December 19, 2014

HSU: The Forbidden Stage

"Humboldt Unbound"
Commentaries and reviews of productions by HSU Theatre are conspicuously few on this site. There is a reason. As I’ve written too many times here already, I began my theatre column for the North Coast Journal at pretty much the same time as I began writing publicity for HSU Theatre. Both employers accepted the same condition, which I proposed: that I would not review HSU productions in my Journal column. My agreement with the Journal had an additional component: that the Journal would still cover HSU productions as they did everyone else’s.

 In a better or even what used to be a normal world, I wouldn’t need to write for both employers. One of them would supply a full time job. But this is the North Coast, now. Even together, these two supposedly part time jobs didn’t add up to anything close to a living wage. Situations like this aren’t uncommon here, which is why in some ways this might be the state capital of conflict of interest, if Sacramento and Los Angeles didn’t exist. And they do it bigger there.

 This initial condition was in response to the operating definition of conflict of interest, which is probably not well understood. It doesn’t have much to do with reviewing people you know, including close relatives. You’re better off disclosing the close relationships, but if I had to note everybody I knew or worked with in another capacity, the reviews eventually would have gotten extremely long.

"The School for Scandal" at HSU
And that’s not only because this is a small place, and a small theatre community. All theatre communities, even in New York, are pretty small. But it isn't about that (though maybe it should be.) No, it has to do with who pays you.

 Even then it can be a sometime thing—national political pundits and reporters that work for several competing print, media and online purveyors, while maintaining friendships and business relationships with people they cover, being an obvious case in point, with a whole lot more money involved.

 So I couldn’t review HSU shows in the Journal because HSU had paid me to publicize their existence. And the absence of a financial conflict is presumably why the Journal now publishes reviews of HSU shows by an HSU theatre student. (Because the money goes the other way I suppose.) Or for that matter, of shows in any local theatre by someone who has acted and directed for that theatre, and hopes to in the future.  But at least HSU shows are now reviewed there.
Venus at HSU

 I recognized however that this ban protected me as well as my employers.  The problems arose when the Journal failed to keep their end of the bargain. In my nearly 9 years as columnist, the Journal reviewed exactly one HSU show. If I didn’t get a few paragraphs of preview into a column, there would be nothing. But HSU shows were as much a part of the theatre ecology here as anyone’s.

 Since I wasn’t bound by anything but my conscience in what I wrote for this site, I had my say here about some of the productions, both good and bad. In terms of background, I wrote a lot for the blog site I started for the Theatre, Film & Dance department (HSU Stage & Screen) that I would have written here. So check the index over there (sorry, the “labels”) and see if there are particular plays and playwrights you’d like to read about.  Many do.  The site (like this one) gets visitors from all over the world.

 A retrospective about a decade of North Coast theatre would not be complete without noting such HSU productions as Hater and Humboldt Unbound (both directed by Michael Fields), The School for Scandal (directed by Clint Rebik), Translations (directed by Bernadette Cheyne, with Bob Wells), Brigadoon,  Helen, M. Butterfly ( directed by Michael Thomas), Fat Pig, Shakuntala, Some Assembly Required, The Winter’s Tale, Cloud 9, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Venus, An Evening with Rumi and Relative Captivity (Full disclosure! Written by my partner, Margaret Thomas Kelso) and several I’ve mentioned in earlier retrospective pieces, like Mother Courage, The Homecoming and Salmon Is Everything.

"Helen" at HSU
Many of these shows would not be produced by other North Coast theatres, so in addition to the educational goals they address, they offer audiences a variety, and at their best, either something daringly contemporary or an illuminating classic.  Some were very good, some were partly good, many were interesting, a few were really bad.  Like everybody else.

 Unfortunately, the fortunes of HSU theatre have fallen in recent years. Budget cutbacks threatened the very existence of the department a few years ago, but it still struggles against death by a thousand cuts. The loss of all graduate programs and the shrinking of the theatre faculty with the resulting weaknesses in vital areas have deeply wounded it.

 This diminution is already felt on other local stages. As I’ve argued before, HSU is a generator of talent and a source of support that helps make the relative plenitude of North Coast theatre possible. With the much smaller CR theatre program gone completely, it’s the last post-high school source of education and talent. (As an international school in a specialized area, Dell’Arte School is a special case-- most of its students don’t participate elsewhere and don’t hang around.)
"Shakuntala" at HSU

 The future is far from settled, but there is a vector getting stronger, a high school to community theatre express, often doing the same plays from one to the other (mostly the same musicals.)

 I’ll end this with a column from my first year that’s about the then-vibrant HSU 10 Minute Play Festival. I note the “full disclosure” elements in it, but it is a case in which the personal and the larger picture come together. I came here with Margaret when she was hired to run the dramatic writing program at HSU. It was robust in 1996, and a big part of HSU’s theatrical identity, especially with its national new plays contest.

 Over the years, as the department and the university faced one crisis after another, the writing program started to fade. The new plays contest was weakened. There was a staged reading of The Fire-Bringer in 2008, a different kind of "theatre of place." The last full production of a winning play was Jagun Fly in 2009 which I noted as a North Coast rarity then—a play by a black playwright about black people with an all-black cast.  But after that it lacked the resources to continue.

A program for new writing in the university itself was the 10 Minute Play Festival in the spring. It was a very popular show with audiences, especially student audiences, as well as with participants—many wrote and otherwise worked on the Festival more than once, and I noted in 2010 that one student, who did both undergrad and graduate work at HSU, participated in five of these annual festivals. (Here is the link to the posts I did at HSU Stage on the last 5 Festivals, and another to a blog about a few earlier ones.)
"Jagun Fly" at HSU

 But the festival was the result of a year-long graduate course process, and without graduate students, it wasn’t tenable. Margaret started the Festival, beginning in classrooms, then as a free event until it became a big draw on the regular schedule.  She coordinated all but the last two.

It ended with the 14th Festival in 2012. Few people noticed, which is the way that worlds end here—not with a bang but a whimper. Or the next text message.

 At their best, the festivals showcased energy and new perspectives.  Sometimes there was a gem or two, and sometimes that odd phenomenon of a year in which most of them were sort of amazing.  I still remember one play on one of the good years-- back when they were in the basement black box of Gist Hall-- about life, the future, and Star Wars: The New Hope. It was funny, theatrical, heartfelt and expressed a different perspective from a new generation. Those were 10 minutes worth waiting for.

 Even though the festival was restricted to HSU students, it was the last public forum or mechanism for new plays here, even ten minutes long. (I don’t count the 24 hour play contests, which are fun but mostly a game, a gimmick.) Now there are none.

From Page to Stage: The Ten Minute Year
 April 2006

Margaret Thomas Kelso
As the academic year ends, students at area high schools, Dell'Arte, CR and Humboldt State are presenting the fruits of their learning in theatre, music and dance on public stages. Perhaps the most complete exercise in creating new theatre will be the culmination of a year-long process, when the eighth annual Festival of Ten Minute Plays at HSU begins this weekend.

 I am now honor-bound to say that Margaret Thomas Kelso, the originator and coordinator of this event, and the head of the HSU Dramatic Writing Program, is also my partner. But that's just scratching the surface of journalistic disclosure. We actually met at a theatre conference held in conjunction with the Carnegie Mellon Showcase of New Plays. We both had ten-minute plays produced as members of a playwrights group in Pittsburgh, and Margaret directed a short play I wrote, with two wonderful CMU student actors (including Maduka Steady, who's since had a New York theatre career and a prominent role in the feature film Lorenzo's Oil).

2006 Ten Minute Playwrights
Here's how the process works at HSU: Students in advanced and beginning playwriting courses in the fall term write ten-minute plays, talk about them, and rewrite them several times.

 Around Thanksgiving, faculty members select scripts for the festival (nine this year) and those students continue working on them in the spring term. In the middle of the semester, directors are matched with scripts and actors audition, and writers keep working on scripts through rehearsals.

There is some staging and lighting for performance, but only what's essential to express the material. This playwright-centered process was pioneered at the Eugene O'Neill Center in Connecticut. One of the great experiences of my life was observing how it worked for several weeks one summer, and becoming part of that temporary yet recurrent and close-knit community. Spending hours talking and hanging out with August Wilson, one of the greatest of American playwrights, and Lloyd Richards, a legendary director and the Zen Master of the O'Neill Center, as well as meeting young playwrights who have since become important figures in theatre, television and film, only begins to suggest the privilege of that experience.

 But I definitely learned the value and integrity of a process that's centered on the playwright and the play, but with contributions from everyone. Because plays are not meant to stay on the page. It takes many people with different skills to make the leap: the director, searching for a shape and structure, designers who need to know how it should look and actors who have to be those words and actions.

 At its best, the questions confronting the playwright lead to moments like this: August Wilson had a character, a white Chicago cop, say something the actor playing him didn't think a Chicago cop would say. "What would he say?" August asked him. "Something like, `Look buddy, if you want it in a nutshell... '" Check the printed text of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and that line is there.

At HSU, the festival playwrights go through a similar process. "They have the opportunity to see their plays in three dimensions. They see their characters actually embodied," Kelso said. But the emphasis at all times is on the script: How it works to make the magic. "This is the heart of the process, and why it is so important. These are the essential skills that are needed to keep theatre alive. We need theatre that is still growing and reflecting our lives."

The final step is performance and the response of audiences, who get to participate in the creation of something new, and see what's on the minds of students this year. And if they don't like the one they're watching, they can wait ten minutes for another.

 There's usually a mix of comedy and drama, realism and fantasy, as there appears to be this spring. Even the styles can say something different each year: the festival a few years back featured some dull dramas but exhilarating comedies -- that class had a real feel for comedy in performance as well as writing.

The ten minute play is a fairly new and still evolving form, which at its best "captures a peak moment," Kelso said. "It's usually the moment of change in a story."

"Free" 2007
She uses this form for teaching purposes because all the reexamining and rewriting would be too unwieldy with plays of greater length. "But it's an excellent way for students to really work through the process," Kelso said. "A lot of universities don't teach these skills."

One of this year's writers showed me several drafts of his play, and it's fascinating to see how much can be improved in such a short form. Writers also don't get this kind of respect for their work very often, which is why even established playwrights loved the O'Neill. Margaret is proud of this program at HSU, and so am I.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

On DeMark

Jeff DeMark is a unique presence in the North Coast stage ecology.  He's a storyteller who creates an entire show.  At first, inspired by the likes of Spalding Gray, his shows were mostly stories from his life, punctuated with a little music: Writing My Way Out of Adolescence, Went to Lunch, Never Returned;  Hard As the Diamond, Soft as the Dirt; They Ate Everything But Their Boots. He still does these from time to time.

 In recent years however he's increased the musical component, working with  established bands or a band he organized.  Sometimes there's been a theme, titled That Train Has Sailed, or The Thong Remains the Same.

At times he's put together an evening that I once referred to as tending towards something like a North Coast Home Companion. That came to a kind of fruition this past summer, when he played to a large, enthusiastic crowd in the Big Hammer Tent at Dell'Arte as part of the 2014 Mad River Festival. He hosted various musicians and other storytellers, with a house band and his own stories as well, with the general theme of summer.  They repeated the show at the Arcata Playhouse.

The Jeff DeMark label in the list over there to the right leads to mentions that suggest the range of venues and configurations of these shows over the years.  I was inspired to write at length about memories inspired by one performance of the baseball show at Ferndale Rep.  I mention that the shows are worth seeing more than once since new things jump out of you.  And that did happen when I saw this show again at the Arcata Theatre.  But there's also the pleasure of hearing again a story you really liked the first time.

Plus, as Jeff will tell you, every show is a little different.  Maybe he'll try something new, the musicians involved change things, but often it's the audience, and the interchange with them that makes a difference.  Most often (when I've been there) that's been a big positive, and Jeff has told me of other shows that were even better.  Sometimes it's mixed, as in this case which I wrote about briefly, and Jeff added a comment.

Of a 2008 appearance I wrote:  On a recent Saturday night, Jeff DeMark brought his particular brand of storytelling to an overflow crowd at the Muddy Cup in Arcata. He told some new stories along with selections from his fully-formed shows, accompanied by the UKExperience ukulele band. The combination was often magical.

DeMark’s stories are funny and sometimes poignant, and they seem to touch a chord with the local audience as shared experience and nostalgia. But they also penetrate with a poetic humanity, and this versatile ensemble of two ukes, electric bass and drums added to all these effects, but particularly the warmth. Some of the stories were a little rough in presentation but the final one perfectly summed up the potential of this combination.

 DeMark’s story about giving his mother her first marijuana high (at her request) was hilarious, backed at one point by the marching chords of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Then the images of his mother the day after, relaxed and liberated into a youthful freedom, dancing to her favorite recording of Patsy Cline, got just the right accent from the band playing "I Fall To Pieces" as DeMark remarked that he never saw her happier than on that day. 

Somewhere I wrote about a re-telling of his first show: By turns broadly comedic and then quite serious, Writing My Way Out of Adolescence tells stories of growing up in Racine, Wisconsin, including surreal encounters with a one-eyed nun, stealing a car and sneaking into a nudist camp, and a long psychedelic journey that is filled with humor and some real danger. 

 “When I wrote this show it was like a band making their first album---I packed in every thing I could, all these wild, funny and disturbing events from adolescence and interlaced them with as much passion and humor as I could summon, “ DeMark said. “At the end I realized I was so lucky to grow up in a close family. I might not have survived without that love and I mean that quite literally.” 

At another point I noted: There's really nobody like Jeff anywhere, every show is a new experience, even for his devoted fans who never miss him. There's no doubt however that Jeff is a popular and maybe even legendary figure on the North Coast, and doubtless back on his home grounds of Wisconsin as well.  It's a truism in writing that the more specific you are, the more universal the effect. Unlike a lot of truisms, this is often true.  It's true in Jeff's case.  It's fun to be in an audience that laughs at the humor but also smiles when an experience Jeff describes reminds them of something, perhaps long forgotten, in their own lives. (The music cues help, too.)

Jeff premiered one of his formal solo shows on my reviewing watch, in 2006, before I started writing on this blog.  What follows is a preview and interview, followed by the review afterwards.  It's still hard to describe in a label what his "funny art" is, but one key to the differences might be that his performances evolved not from comedy clubs or open stages but from poetry readings.

It's A Funny Art   Oct. 30, 2006

It’s a funny art, Jeff Demark says. It doesn’t even have a name—is it comedy? Monologue? Storytelling? It’s usually just called a one-person show, although in his upcoming performance, there will be a band (tiny tim) performing live music and sound effects on stage with him.

 But even when he’s the only one up there, other characters appear. By the second half of his first show, Writing My Way Through Adolescence, which he recently performed at the Muddy Cup, audiences can all but see the stage crowded with a dozen people.

 DeMark’s new show, They Ate Everything But Their Boots will debut at a KHSU fundraiser on November 11 at the Bayside Grange. When we talked last week, he was frantically putting together the entire event (his day job is as KHSU Underwriting Coordinator), which meant lining up the food and drink, dealing with the logistics of his show and the appearance of the Delta Nationals to cap the evening, among other things. As well as writing his show.

 Two weeks before its scheduled premiere, the show was about three-quarters written. “To a Dell’Arte person, that’s plenty of time,” Jeff quipped. “To anybody else it’s, are you out of your mind?”

 “I have to write it all down, to get the details I need, the finer images, the sharper colors,” he explained. “I write way too much, and then I have to boil it down to the essentials.”

This new show is about the process of buying a house in Humboldt County and remodeling it. “But it goes beyond that—what is home? What is home to you? I did a lot of drifting before I ended up here.”

 Apart from a lot of jobs in a lot of places (including a stint in the original In-Sink-erator factory in his hometown of Racine, Wisconsin), DeMark’s journey to this show began with poetry readings in Madison in 1974. His poems tended towards the narrative, and the more he told stories, the more comfortable he felt.

 “Telling stories was a natural part of life where I grew up,” he recalled. “Maybe it was the long winters, but people would drink beer and play cards and tell stories. My father was a great storyteller.”

 But it wasn’t until somebody from Dell’Arte heard him at a Jambalaya poetry reading that he got the opportunity to write a whole show. It wasn’t so rushed that time—he had six weeks to write the second half—but when he performed that first show at the 1993 Mad River Festival to a sellout crowd, he knew he found something.

“I’d been kicking around for 19 years—I just wanted to finish something—I wanted to make something I could stand behind and say, this is a completed work. So then I had one. Now, do I have two? Maybe I could do another one.”

 But besides creating, there was performing—and that was another home he had to find. Fortunately, he got some very good advice. “A friend of mine was in the music business—Danny Kahn, he manages Roseanne Cash now. He said, ‘you’ve got to go out there like a band and play. Do everything you can until you’re comfortable, so when someone asks you what you do, you can say, ’I do these shows.’ You don’t say, ‘Well, I’m trying to do them’ or ‘I’m hoping to do them.’ Not that you’re going to be famous or make money, but when you can just say you do them, then you’re there.’”

So he performed in bars, folk clubs, coffee shops and a combination theatre and bowling alley in Minnesota. “I played places no other theatre artist does, because if I waited for a theatre to book me, I would never get enough experience. I had to do 25 shows a year rather than four.”

 Since 1993, DeMark has created and performed five shows to general acclaim in Humboldt, but this will be his first new one since 2002. Like the others, it’s autobiographically-based, which is a tricky form, because it has to have room for invention and craft but it has to be true, at least emotionally.

 Though DeMark has changed some facts and included stories that happened to other people, he knows there’s a line he can’t cross. “If the audience thinks you’re lying up there, you’re done for. If they think you’re just making this up to be cute, then you’re in trouble.”

As for finishing this show, “Fortunately I have a lot of people helping me.” As seems typical for DeMark, that includes a dramatics teacher, Cathy Butler, and his old friend Larry in Madison. Then on show day, another friend told him, “all you have to do is prepare your heart for great joy.” So will Jeff DeMark pull together his show in time? Come out to the Bayside Grange on November 11 and find out, and I’ll meet you back here after.

"Did I Finish It?" November 2006

Orion's Belt seemed bolted atop the dark trees along Jacoby Creek Road on Saturday's clear, crisp night, as an exhausted Jeff DeMark asked me, "Did I finish it?"

That was essentially the question this column ended with last time, as DeMark  was working on his latest one-person show, They Ate Everything But Their Boots, for its first-ever performance at the Bayside Grange Saturday evening.

What helped get it done, he said after the performance, was rehearsing with what he referred to as "the band," which was mostly two guys with ukuleles (Tom Chan and Matt Knight) who nevertheless pulled off a credible version of the Jimi Hendrix psychedelic guitar classic, "The Wind Cried Mary." They also doubled as sound effects technicians.

 Music punctuated the show at the break and at the end (when DeMark joined in on guitar for a bit of Dylan's "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest") and provided an extra dimension to his tale of working construction on Fred Flintstone's house in an Arizona theme park, with a parody of a tune his building crew rewrote from its incessant radio play (America's "A Horse With No Name.")

Afterwards DeMark mentioned the struggle to get the details right, and this -- the song on the radio, the kind of candy bar -- is a key to bringing the stories to life.

 One of DeMark's goals for this show was to tell favorite stories he hadn't told before, and the capacity crowd at the Bayside Grange was with him for every word, not only laughing but shrieking and sighing.

 It helped that his main subject, the process of buying and remodeling a house in Humboldt, was an experience much of the audience seemed to have in common. But by now it's also a personal relationship -- the audience knows him, and was willing to follow him almost anywhere.

Partly that seems to be because, in one way or another, he speaks for them: His stories are variations of their stories. They responded not only to the ruefully comic but to the emotional and even mystical meaning of home.

DeMark moved around and used the stage well (with hanging doors and windows on a set created by artist Michelle McCall-Wallace), though transitions were rough -- clearly this was a first presentation. With its responses, the audience on Saturday suggested areas where it wanted to go, which should help DeMark as he hones this show. Some of the stories he told may not remain in it, so the Grange audience heard what other audiences may not. Which also means that as the show changes even people who were there will be eager to see it again.

Afterword: In fact this show did change. After several more performances, he went back to it in 2010 and told me, “I’ve edited parts of it, I wrote a new ending and generally just tried to find the truth and humor in it. I’ve realized it’s really about things other than the search for a house, though that is certainly in it, and the whole process and madness of rehabilitating a 100-year-old Victorian. It’s about the journey of trying to find a place to fit in, to feel home, and with that comes a lot of feeling of destiny, luck or lack of luck. There are thoughts about synchronicity and how little logic has to do with our lives as compared to chance and fortune.”

Monday, December 15, 2014

All's Wells

Lynne & Bob 2011. Photo by Bob Doran
No North Coast retrospective could be complete without Lynne and Bob Wells.  (That by the way is how the label reads on this site-- "Lynne and Bob Wells." It links to their individual performances as well.)

I've referred to them as the North Coast Lunts (and so had to explain who the Lunts were.)  Dell'Arte honored them in 2011, and I interviewed them on that occasion.

They told me then that they met when they were both cast in a Ferndale Rep production of a Neil Simon play.  In some ways their romance was itself out of a story: the rich girl and the poor boy.  But those circumstances have their unique aspects, and became part of a unique relationship.

It's one of those things that everybody knows but nobody talks about, so I felt a little trepidation in asking them about it.  But I did, and they talked about it easily. There wasn't space in the original column, but that column is structured pretty much as the conversation was, for they kept coming back to the show they were to do when they accepted their award, even when we talked about this.

"He's a poor boy," Lynne said.  "I was very fortunate--I'm a trust fund baby."
"She's a sugar mama," Bob said.
"I'm your sugar mama," Lynne laughed.  "Maybe we should do a bit about that."
"I've never done anything for money," Bob said.  "It has to be something I love.  I worked five years in the Post Office.  But I liked it."
"I never did anything for the money either but I always felt guilty about it," Lynne said, "because it's always come to me.  Always part of me saying, how do I deserve this.  But it's been a great blessing.  It allows me to give, and that's been great."

The family fortune had its roots in, of all times, the 1930s.  "My father started the first car and truck rental business in the United States," Lynne said.  "He started with a taxi, but never got calls for the taxi, just somebody who wanted to rent the car.  He was a man who always said my goal every day is to make a buck and do something for somebody else.  If I do that every day, I feel good."

"We were raised with a very strong work ethic," she said. "But as adults we also came into quite a lot of money when the business was sold.  But it's dwindling."

Once together, Lynne and Bob made an unusual move for actors in plays: a year of study at Dell'Arte.  I also don't know of many Dell'Arte grads who returned to the conventional theatre.  Lynne admitted it took awhile before what she learned there "got incorporated."  Bob remembered being told that it might take five years for what he'd learned to sink in.  "It took me ten."  

"Thinking back on the Dell'Arte experience for me," Lynne said, "we were the oldest ones at the time.  It was a huge accomplishment.  Donald Forrest was our acrobatics teacher, and he was so kind to me--and rough on everybody else.  At the end of an entire year my big accomplishment was that I was able to do a forward roll."  She did it in one show at Ferndale--"and never again."

"Donald Forrest is one of the most excellent actors I've ever met in my life," Lynne added.  "He taught me so much."

They both agreed on their favorite directors: Michael Fields and Rene Grinnell.  Bob added some names from Pacific Arts Center Theatre days: Gordon Townsend, Jeff Peacock.  (They also volunteered their least favorite director, but I'll keep that to myself.)

"I like a director who will come in strong, with a vision and with good direction in the beginning," Lynne said, "but in the last couple of weeks they adore you, they let you go. A director who is picking on you until the last minute, I don't want.  They have to know that they chose somebody for a reason, and at some point they've got to let you go."

in Glorious!
We were talking in the Plaza Grill in the afternoon, and the combination of ambient noise on the recording and my poor notes didn't record what performance Lynne said was "Bob's Hamlet."  But I did hear Bob say that Lynne's Hamlet was Glorious!, the comedy about Florence Foster Jenkins that opened Redwood Curtain's new theatre on Snug Alley.  "Lynne Wells unleashed" was how I described her tour de force performance.

Bob was with her in that production, funny and poignant.  Their most famous performance together apparently was as George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Doing it was an intense experience they definitely did not want to revisit.  "We didn't realize it was a comedy," Bob said. "There were just four of us, rehearsing that play for six weeks.  We were so into it, it seemed intrusive to have people there to see it."

In my time as columnist, I saw them work together in Painting Churches at North Coast Rep, Glorious! and The Language Archive at Redwood Curtain, and in a couple of Christmas shows at the Arcata Playhouse.  In addition to their skills that create credibility and delight, they do have a kind of mystique that is a delight in itself.

I had the additional pleasure of being onstage with Lynne.  In fact, we played husband and wife for a couple of hours, at the anniversary reading of It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis at Dell'Arte. I got to feel a little of that energy exchange that's an essential pleasure of acting on stage, when it's good.

Among my happy memories of Bob was his singing and dancing performance in North Coast Rep's My Fair Lady.  As I wrote then: "From his opening number (“With A Little Bit of Luck”) his performance as Eliza’s father was astonishing. It did better than stop the show—it energized it forward."

But the first thing I noted about Bob Wells was his speaking voice.  I commented on it first in The Ladies of the Camellias. "Nobody could make the two syllables of 'password' funnier than Wells does."  But then I wrote a column with his vocal work as its theme, and instead of the interview column, that's what I will reproduce below.

I do it to honor both Lynne and Bob, for their approach to the art and craft of acting and performance, their respect for the text and for the audience.

Bob Wells' Vocal Magic  February 2010

According to renowned early 20th century Italian actor Tomasso Salvini, the three most potent elements of acting are: “Voice! Voice! Voice!”

 You might expect that sentiment from an old-school actor like Salvini, or even actor and director John Gielgud, who suggested that while attention is often lavished on other aspects of performance, how the words are spoken “can have more effect than anything else.”

 But open almost any book on stage directing or acting, and they proclaim the importance of voice. The purported Stanislavski “Method” may have enshrined mumbling on American stages, but director Robert Lewis quotes Stanislavski writing at length about vocal acting: “Letters, syllables, words—these are the musical notes of speech, out of which to fashion measures, arias, whole symphonies.”

Harold Clurman (another Method-influenced director) writes about it—even Jerzy Grotowski devotes some 30 pages to vocal technique in Towards a Poor Theatre.

 A revelatory object lesson in vocal acting is available this weekend at the Arcata Playhouse, where Bob Wells performs in a short play by Arthur Kopit, directed by Dan Stone.

 First of all, every word Wells says can be heard, and every word can be understood. With these foundations in place, Wells goes on to act with his voice—his intonations, pronunciations, the words he stresses hard, the syllables he lets linger and float away.

 Beginning with his surprising “entrance,” Wells captivates, even when he does almost nothing except create this character with sound. He’s masterful: both poetic and clear. We know who this man is, and we attend to what he has to say.

 The play, called Sing to Me Through Open Windows, is more problematic. Arthur Kopit is a contemporary American playwright with a long career that began with revolutionary absurdist romps like Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, but more recently has included musicals, including Nine, which reached the silver screen this year with Kopit as an executive producer.

 Whether Kopit has copped out or America has caught up to his absurdism is an open question, but this early play is at best an exercise in poetic symbolism that for me remained fairly elusive in this production. There’s the old magician (Wells), the boy who visits him (played by newcomer Zachery Davis with appropriate vulnerability) and a clown whose relationship to the others is difficult to assess (played with appropriate physicality by Craig Klapman.)

 This is the kind of challenging work that Dan Stone often chooses. Figuring out what was happening was more difficult because Bob Wells was the only one who was clearly audible all the time. Even so, a kind of ambiguity is inherent in this play.

The stage imagery, including the music (all created by Dan Stone), worked well. The lighting was especially clarifying, but other choices (like the puppets) less so. The themes of life’s transitions and mythic cycles are there when you think about it, but the impact of aging was absolutely clear as an experience.

That’s the work of Wells, playing a magician who is in the process of himself vanishing. “Fear is like regret,” he concludes, “only with fear, there’s not much time left.”

 Remarkable words to come from a 22 year-old playwright (as Kopit was when he wrote this), but very powerful when spoken by a veteran actor in conscious control of a superior vocal instrument. I particularly urge young actors to experience—and listen to--this performance.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Jean (and John) and the Northcoast Prepsters

set for Light on the Piazza
Jean Heard Bazemore began directing theatre on the North Coast in 1969.  She directed and taught at HSU until the late 1990s.  In my almost-decade of reviewing, I saw two shows she directed for the Humboldt Light Opera: Souvenir, a small-scale production of a play about Florence Foster Jenkins, and a large summer show, Light on the Piazza.  But mostly I saw the shows she directed with high school students of what came to be called the Northcoast Preparatory Academy.  She began that school, and has been its director ever since.

I'm reproducing two of those pieces below. The first is about Strindberg's The Dream Play she directed in 2007.  It was also the play she directed in the same theatre (the Van Duzer) in 1969-- if I recall correctly what she told me, back then she had been drafted to do it on short notice when another production fell through.  This column squares the circle further by telling the story of local musical favorites Joyce Hough and Fred Neighbor, who met when acting in that play.

But mostly this column is a decent introduction to the work she did at Northcoast Prep.  The school's productions were (and are) part of the educational process, and usually involve a long period of study and discussion.  (The actual productions I believe tended to get put together pretty quickly.) The students select the plays they want to do, which in some years meant the plays they wanted to combine, or perhaps do two.  Generally the first and second years did one show, the third and fourth years another.  The shows they did--and the editing Jean did on the scripts--favored participation by as many students as there were that year.

Cyrano
So the student experience came first.  But audiences (even apart from parents and relatives) got the benefit.  For one thing, they saw plays that they could not see elsewhere on the North Coast--plays that not so long ago used to be part of the repertoire for any student of the theatre, casual or serious.

The Northcoast Prep students always brought something special to these plays.  Their commitment, first and foremost, and enthusiasm, but also talent and skills.  Still, these shows depended on Jean Bazemore's taste, talent and skills as a director.  And on the elegant stage designs by Gerald Beck.  They ensured that the audience got clarity, as well as a viewpoint, an illumination.

Sancho Panza and Don Quijote 
So we got Brecht, Shaw, Strindberg, Arthur Miller as well as Shakespeare and Sophocles.  We got a youthful presentation of older heroes to youth:  Don Quijote de la Mancha , Cyrano.  And of an elder tragic hero, in Lear.

Their youth was also an asset in itself: adding verisimilitude to the young women in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, for instance.  But most impressively in Spring Awakening, which concerns adolescent feelings and experience.  That they could also do the adult roles convincingly in these same plays made them all the more compelling.




cast of Spring Awakening
For me the most memorable were The Crucible, Shaw's Joan, the version of several Henry plays from Shakespeare with a strong point of view about war in Mortal Men, Mortal Men.  And Spring Awakening.  The age of the actors relative to the characters and the play added a dimension, but it did not dominate the experience. I'm not even sure how they did it, but in most of these productions they had my complete confidence, and I was absorbed in the play itself.  Since they were different groups of actors, I have to conclude that a lot of it was due to Jean.

I am also appending to this column another (from 2006) that doesn't appear elsewhere on this site. Its only other virtue is that it concerns two directors I admired then, and admire still for the work they've chosen and produced: Jean Bazemore and John Heckel.   The first play I saw on the North Coast was directed by John Heckel--it was the 1996 winner of the national playwriting contest that HSU Theatre Arts department used to run.  Shortly after that, John directed a play by my partner Margaret Thomas Kelso at HSU, to which I contributed two songs.

But beside his good taste in directing several of Margaret's plays, he was responsible for some of the best theatre I've seen here.  His direction of both parts of Angels in America, in the relatively intimate space of Gist Hall Theatre, was mesmerizing.  He did a play by Cree playwright Tomson Highway that was astounding.

The Homecoming at HSU
I wasn't crazy about every move he made in his shows, and sometimes they took me out of the trance.  But his instincts for the mythic could add another dimension, and there were few others willing to take the chance on trying.  In more recent years, he directed some modern classics that nobody else would touch in this neck of the woods, Harold Pinter's The Homecoming at HSU and John Osbourne's Look Back in Anger at Ferndale Rep (which only happened because another show fell through.)

These two directors have very different approaches and get different results, but their choices of plays and playwrights are similarly rewarding, and for the North Coast, unfortunately unique.

The Dream Play  January 2007

The Dream Play by August Strindberg is performed at the Van Duzer Theatre by the Young Actors Guild. These shows from the Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy are unique. They bring together young people devoted to an arts-based education with visionary theatrical veterans (director Jean Heard Bazemore and set designer Gerald Beck) in adaptations of stylistically unconventional and substantive plays that these days just aren’t seen much on the North Coast.

 The play’s not the only thing of interest on the stage. As with performances of other high school, junior high and young people’s group (such as those at Dell’Arte, Ferndale Rep and NCRT) that aren’t reviewed here, the experience of witnessing young people discovering themselves on stage can be inspiring, resonant and educational for the audience as well as the students. The play in turn can itself be infused with more meaning by youthful enthusiasm and sincerity.

 The Dream Play has all of that, plus an efficiently flowing, focused production, and Beck and Bazemore’s magnificent stage pictures: there’s a scene with a trapezoidal door suspended in space, with similarly shaped screens floating above an elegantly composed set of actors that’s breath-taking.

 These are juniors and seniors, some of them in their fourth or fifth play, and some on stage for the first time. The cast also includes exchange students from China, Germany and Ghana. A school production allows large casts, and there are as many as 20 actors on the stage in this one, with a Greek-style chorus that big enough to suggest the power of the people’s voice, whether used for good or ill.

 I saw Saturday’s performance, with Isaiah Cooper deftly expressing the Officer’s changing moods and circumstances (he alternates with Sterling Johnson-Brown), and Tehya Wood, stately, radiant and beautifully costumed as the Daughter of the god Indra (she alternates with Hanna Nielsen and Nicky Vakilova.)

 Bohdan Banducci, blessed with a fine stage voice and presence, plays the impoverished Lawyer whose marriage to the Daughter reveals earthly woes. Fiona Ryder’s aria wowed the crowd, student James Forrest composed the dramatically effective video projections, and all the actors capably brought out the humanity and the humor of the characters and the play.

 This isn’t pure Strindberg—there are musical interpolations and a much different ending, extolling the virtues of relationship and group action rather than the author’s emphasis on the eternal tensions of the human condition. But that’s also fitting for a youthful vision, and I found that seeing this play in action illuminated a further reading of Strindberg’s text.

 Saturday’s audience, which was clearly involved in each stage moment, included a certain couple with an extra interest. Joyce Hough and Fred Neighbor are familiar figures in the North Coast music scene. Jean Bazemore directed an HSU production of A Dream Play in the Van Duzer in 1969. Joyce Hough played the Daughter, and Neighbor was the Lawyer. They met while doing the play, and their nightly 20 minutes alone crouched in a crawlspace waiting for their entrance might have had something to do with an ensuing romance and marriage a year or so later. They were there together Saturday, sitting in front near Gerry Beck, who also designed the 1969 production.

The Accidental Brecht-a-thon  February 2006

Bernadette Cheyne as Mother Courage
B
y sheer coincidence, this week the HSU campus will become the Brecht capital of the world. At least I know of nowhere else that is hosting two productions of Bertolt Brecht plays in the same fortnight, with two nights that both plays are staged simultaneously.

 The HSU Department of Theatre, Film and Dance production of Mother Courage and Her Children begins tonight at Gist Hall Theatre, directed by John Heckel. Next Tuesday (Feb. 28), The Caucasian Chalk Circle opens at the Van Duzer, mounted by the Young Actors Guild of the North Coast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy, directed by Jean Bazemore.

 Although it’s accidental, this local Brecht-a-thon is not eccentric. The unique ways his plays address searing issues that are suddenly central to this moment is a chief reason that Brecht is being revisited on stages from Los Angeles to New York, where a new adaptation of Mother Courage by playwright Tony Kushner will appear this summer, starring Meryl Streep.

 Bertolt Brecht was a central figure in Berlin’s vibrant theatre scene in 1928 when became famous for “The Threepenny Opera,” with music by Kurt Weill. By the time Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Brecht had escaped to Scandinavia, where he wrote Mother Courage and Her Children. Brecht uses plain language and dark humor to tell this story of a woman trying to eke out an existence selling goods from her cart to armies on the road, while protecting her three grown children from the very war that feeds them.

 Commenting on this play, Brecht said: “War is a continuation of business by other means, making the human virtues fatal even to those who exercise them.” For director John Heckel, the core question Mother Courage faces is: “How do you remain soulful, how do you retain a sense of nurturance?” in this situation.

 Brecht himself directed this play’s official premiere in 1949, with his wife, actor/director Helene Weigel, as the first “Brecht girl” to play Mother Courage. HSU actor, director and teacher Bernadette Cheyne plays her here, surrounded by a mostly student cast.

 For the songs in the play, popular North Coast singer-songwriter (and recent HSU grad) Lila Nelson wrote the music to Brecht’s lyrics, and leads the live band during performance.

 While Mother Courage is a kind of tragedy, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a comedy with a happy ending. Brecht escaped to America in 1941, thanks to the support of a large expatriate German colony in Hollywood (including actor Peter Lorre, who’d worked with Brecht in Berlin) and the sponsorship of Luise Rainer, star of The Good Earth, even though they’d never met. But when they did take a walk on the beach together, Rainer suggested he try a story using the “chalk circle”—a kind of King Solomon method for deciding a child’s true mother. Brecht agreed, and eventually wrote this play while living in Santa Monica. (He returned to Germany after the war.)

 Director (and teacher) Jean Bazemore staged it about five years ago, when the Academy was new and only fifteen students were involved. This production, which uses only freshmen and sophomores (juniors and seniors did the fall show, Antigone & St. Joan ), has a cast of more than thirty actors and musicians, with music composed by students Izzy Samuel and Greg Moore.

 Her students respond to this play, Bazemore says, because of its humor and its core message--“that there are good people who take risks and make difficult choices in difficult times. They love it. The opportunity to meet characters who make courageous choices is really appealing to them.”

 Now I need to disclose that writing this column is one of my freelance gigs, and another I started at about the same time is doing publicity for this semester’s HSU-produced shows. That’s why I don’t review those shows here, but it’s still pretty awkward, because it’s impossible to write about North Coast theatre and ignore HSU. So I can only ask you to decide on how many grains of salt you want to apply to my remarks.

 In the nine years I’ve been here I’ve seen most of the plays these two directors have done. I also know them, and I wrote two songs for a play by my partner, Margaret Kelso, that John Heckel directed. (So add more salt and let simmer.) As directors, they have in common a strong visual sense, a feeling for theatrical space and the rhythms of performance, and a sure touch with actors.

 Their shows and choices of plays aren’t to everyone’s taste. But I know of no better directors on the North Coast than John Heckel and Jean Bazemore.

 Schools like HSU and the North Coast Academy are best able to do these plays because they can supply the large casts, live music and other production requirements that further their educational mission.  But since Brecht is a unique playwright not often performed, these are particular opportunities for audiences as well.

 For many years Brecht’s plays have been obscured by theatrical theories (many of them his own) and Cold War politics (due to his Communist sympathies.) But it’s said that the motto he kept above his writing desk was: “Simpler, with more laughter.” This may be the moment his plays can be seen for themselves, without the baggage.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Time's Person of the Year is Ours

Time Magazine has chosen its Person of the Year for 2014: The Ebola Fighters. One of the covers belongs to Ella Watson-Stryker, the Doctors Without Borders worker I referred to without naming in a previous post at Dreaming Up Daily. She's one of our own here in Humboldt--the daughter of HSU professor and long-time friend, Betsy Watson, and a person we've watched and been proud of for a long time.

 According to the magazine's description, Ella didn't even want to spend the ten minutes on having her picture taken, as it was distracting her from her work.

 Her mother, currently traveling, writes that Ella is good health, and very proud of the work they and the US military did in Liberia, where Ebola has been virtually eradicated. But after some time in Europe training other workers and some r&r over Christmas in the states, she's back in the fray in Sierra Leone, where things are dire indeed.

 I didn't mention her name before because of the stigma that was ignorantly attached to these heroes. And even now, Ella has to go out of her way in entering the US to avoid airports where she could be forced to spend her holidays in quarantine.  (She of course has been thoroughly checked as part of Doctors Without Borders procedure, and has been back from Africa for some time.)

 It's hard to have much faith in humanity after something like the wanton torture the US engaged in, as we are being reminded again. Then there's Ella, and Doctors Without Borders. And even Time Magazine, for doing this. A better world is possible.

Coming and Going with Sanctuary Stage

The origin story of Sanctuary Stage, begun in Eureka by Dan Stone and Tinamarie Ivey in 2006, is reproduced below.

Dan Stone learned commedia del'arte in Italy, and that was an early emphasis--for example, in their commedia version of A Christmas Carol I wrote about in 2006. But they were soon exploring other theatrical avenues.

At a certain point, Dan and Tinamarie also took over the management of the Eureka Theatre, that amazing, huge old building from the deco movie palace era. It was there I saw Memories, an experimental production in a year-long look at aging ("Shades of Grey.")  It was Dan Stone's mash-up of two plays by Samuel Beckett and a comedy by Mary Louise Wilson that explored two aspects of memory, both of which are emphasized with age: the reassertion of the past, and forgetfulness in the present.  It was experimental in its approach as well, using elements of commedia and other techniques.

In my fake April Fools column (that only the Arcata Eye would publish) I teased Dan for his combining disparate plays as well as the nature of some of his selections, like the Kopit he directed at Arcata Playhouse: Dan Stone combines elements of plays by Beckett and Eugene O’Neill with Neil Simon and the Firesign Theatre in the Santuary Stage production of Waiting for the Iceman or Someone Like Him, starring Tinamarie Ivey as Tina Fey playing the Virgin Mary, and Bob Wells as Father Time. “It’s even more obscure than usual,” Stone promises.


Dan Stone
But in fact nobody else did the kind of work Dan did here, and nobody is doing it now.  He took chances, tried things, and since he usually had actors up to the task, what he produced was interesting and exciting.

I have Dan and Tinamarie to thank for my only North Coat appearance as a playwright, in their first 24/10 production: a half-dozen or so playwrights are given the topic and about 12 hours to write a ten minute play, then matched with a director and a cast, so the play is performed about 24 hours after the process began.  It was completely insane, utterly exhausting, but it was fun and illuminating.  Of course I wrote extensively about the experience here.  (Apparently Plays in the Park is doing something similar in the summer of 2015.)

But the Eureka Theatre was snatched away from them, and soon they found a livelihood elsewhere, in Oregon.  But Sanctuary Stage didn't die--it just relocated, and focused on a new mission--"community-engaged theatre"- that had begun with Jason in Eureka, which Sanctuary had hosted.  Cornerstone Theatre from LA set up shop at St. Bernard's while they were here, and at a dinner there I met members of the company.

Tinamarie later returned to Humboldt with The Logger Project, as written by Jackie Dandeneau and directed by Ken Gray, an LA playwright who'd spent a year at HSU and who was one of the other playwrights at 24/10.

Tinamarie Ivey
Dan and Tinamarie are still producing theatre. Tinamarie became exec director of the Majestic Theatre in Corvallis, Oregon. Dan's website has illustrations of, among other productions, his direction of Macbeth. The Sanctuary Stage website seems active as well.  Just not here anymore.

The Birth of Sanctuary Stage 2006
It’s an old story but an important one for North Coast arts: theatre artists Dan Stone and Tinamarie Ivey came from southern California to HSU for their MFA degrees and decided to stay so they could raise their children away from L.A. “We’ve been trying to figure out a way to do our art and still stay here,” Stone said.

Stone teaches drama at St. Bernard’s high school, and Ivey is teaching this year at HSU. But they’re combining on a new venture called Sanctuary Stage that involves training actors and producing plays, beginning in October.

 Stone sees this as an opportunity for actors of any age (beginning in the mid-teens) to learn a couple of specific approaches in depth. He will teach the pure Comedia dell ‘arte he learned from Maestro Antonio Fava in Italy, and Ivey will instruct in the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique she learned at the New York Experimental Wing, among other places. (A nephew of the famed playwright, Chekhov studied with Russian acting god, Constantin Stanislavsky.)

 Sanctuary Stage will perform in the St. Bernard Theatre that Stone has been busily refurbishing. Its first production in late October is Love Is a Drug, a classic sixteenth century commedia scenario “developed in rehearsal through improvisation.” Auditions are open, although preference will be given to students enrolled in Sanctuary’s classes.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Arcata Playhouse: Start to Now

The origins of the Arcata Playhouse are described in the 2007 column I also reproduce at the end of this one.  Since then there have indeed been many physical improvements in the theatre, and the Playhouse has been the energetic center of the ongoing revival in the old Creamery district of Arcata.

For awhile, I was going to the Arcata Playhouse regularly to review shows (and indulge in the homemade, still-warm chocolate chip cookies.)  Several notable shows premiered there: the two versions of Crawdaddy, and Tyler Olson's Quake: A Love Story stand out in memory.  Redwood Curtain produced shows there during its exile, and Dan Stone's Signature Stage brought Kopit's Sing To Me Through Open Windows. Jane Hill returned with Getting There.  Shake the Bard company produced a memorable Othello there, which was the basis for a later North Coast Rep production.  While the NCRT production was more polished, I found the production at the Arcata Playhouse to be more exciting as live theatre, possibly because the audience was in the thick of it.

There were also a number of visiting shows: Elizabeth Fuller and Independent Eye,  Cal Pritner's Mark Twain, Ghost Road's Elektra,  Donald Lacy's still relevant Color Struck for example.

Mostly through Four on the Floor Productions, the impressarios of the Arcata Playhouse provided original material: Jackie Dandeneau was a major creative force behind the epic Women of the Northwest, and David Ferney co-wrote and performed a solo show, The Misunderstood Badger. Ferney's brand of humor, in this show and in his part of the first Crawdaddy show, is unique.  There should be more.


 And there are the annual holiday shows, the latest of which played this past weekend.

In the last several years, the Playhouse has concentrated on music acts and family or children's theatre.  This perhaps reflects a dearth of funding for traveling troupes, and the demise of groups like Sanctuary Stage and Shake the Bard, with none replacing them in the theatrical ecology. But it seems to be also a preference for physical theatre (clown, mask, acro.)

It's interesting to note at the end of the article below that at first David and Jackie were hearing from people interested in reviving the kind of productions that Pacific Arts Center Theatre did.  That is not happening.  There was, David said, the opportunity for someone to mount, in his example, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.  No one has taken that opportunity, or anything like it.  The PACT dream has apparently faded from the scene.

In any case, the direction that the Playhouse has gone in the past few years limited my attendance (I don't really know how to review clowns and acrobats.)  So I missed the kind of shows I used to see at the Arcata Playhouse, and I really miss the chocolate chip cookies.

Before I wrote the column below in 2007, I'd written about the first phase of reclaiming this Creamery space for stage: the Star Garden Theatre and its first non-children's theatre production of a play by veteran North Coast news broadcaster Dave Silverbrand.  Here are a couple of relevant passages from my draft of that March 2006 article:

Pacific Arts Center Theatre created challenging theatre on the North Coast for a generation, first in Arcata in the 1970s and then in the early 90s in Manila [This is where I saw its exciting production of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women.] Along the way, it spawned the children’s theatre group, Vagabond Players. After leaving Manila, both groups moved for about a year to the Eagle House, then to a Eureka warehouse space. Then PACT stopped producing completely, and Vagabond reconstituted itself as a program of the Ink People... 

Coming in from the March mist and cold, the space inside the Creamery building now known as the Star Garden Theatre feels immediately welcoming. The very high ceilings add to a sense of spaciousness and possibility, and there’s a warmth in the combination of modest fixtures and the theatre’s elegant wood floor. The homey reception area has a refreshment bar, topped with the large masks from Where the Wild Things Are[Star Garden's first production], and a revolutionary new concept in local community theatre---two (count’em, two!) restrooms, one next to the other.  

New Life for An Arcata Landmark?  February 2007

In big cities and small across the country, new artistic energies have often found focus in abandoned industrial districts, where superior buildings with lots of space offer opportunities for lofts, studios and performance venues, plus the people-oriented businesses that come to surround them.

Now and again the old Creamery in Arcata, in the largely depopulated and marginal area west of K Street, has suggested this potential. It hosts the Arcata Ballet, DanceCenter and New World Youth Ballet, with spaces for rehearsal, classes and performances. Years ago, the legendary Pacific Arts Center Theatre began here.

 Still, it hasn’t reached the critical mass to transform the area into a familiar audience destination. But there are signs that may be changing—specifically, a new sign in front saying “Arcata Playhouse,” and new paint being applied to the foyer last week from a tall ladder to which is affixed a small red teddy bear.

 Though the fresh paint outside and inside is only the first step in the planned transformation, this venue’s potential is being suggested and perhaps tested with a gala opening event this Saturday, featuring local luminaries such as Rudi Galindo, Jeff De Mark, Joyce Hough and Fred Neighbor, and hosted by the couple that comprises one-third of the partnership attempting to create a viable and affordable playhouse for theatre, music and other forms of performance, with a family emphasis and a community reach.

 They are Jackie Dandeneau and David Ferney, whose Four on the Floor Productions is partnering with Shoebox Puppet Company (Corey Stevens, owner of the Muddy Cup) and Vagabond Players, which most recently operated the space as the Stargarden Theatre.

 Pacific Arts Center Theatre had spawned Vagabond, which struggled on after PACT faded away, but, true to its name, it was homeless in 2005 when Carole Wolfe, its volunteer artistic director, called the Creamery looking for storage space. Instead she found Vagabond’s new home, in the same place where PACT had begun some thirty years before.

 Other groups also used the space (including Four on the Floor) but this summer Vagabond had fallen several months behind in the rent. That’s when Dandeneau and Ferney put together the partnership and became the venue’s managers. Now all three enterprises—Four on the Floor, Shoebox Puppets and Vagabond—have a home, and the rent is split three ways.

 Ferney and Dandeneau are Dell’ Arte people. Ferney graduated from its school about 20 years ago, and became a member of the locally famous family comic acrobatic troupe, Los Payasos Mendigos. The troupe also traveled far and wide, which is how he met Dandeneau at the Edmonton Fringe Festival, where she was with a traveling feminist sketch comedy group called Full Figure Theatre.

 “We would hook up in New Zealand, and hang out together in England,” Ferney recalled. “Meanwhile I was living in San Francisco, and she was in Vancouver. Finally we realized we would either have to shack up or call it quits.”

 They chose the former, moved to an island between Vancouver and Victoria, started a small theatre company, and a family. Then Dell’Arte called, and hired them both.

 They recently began branching out to produce shows through Four on the Floor, which brought them to the Stargarden Theatre, and to the managing partnership of the Arcata Playhouse. Noting the couple’s professional experience, Ferney said, “I’m interested in exploring a hybrid of professional and community theatre.”

 Upgrading the space is a major goal. ”Getting a decent lighting and sound system, some decent drapes, figuring out the best seating arrangement,” Ferney said. “Corrie is a great partner because he just took over that cafĂ©, and he’s really interested in getting concessions together, and taking care of all that. So we want to elevate the venue and make it a happening place in Arcata.”

 “I’m excited,” Carole Wolfe professed in the Playhouse lobby, paint roller in hand. “There’s all this new energy—it’s fun again!”

The Playhouse is going forward with a performance later this month by Mookie Cornish (Cirque de Solei clown and Dell’Arte grad) and the Faust Mask Works from Toronto in May. Synapses, which lost its Eureka home, is one of what they hope will be many local groups to perform here.

David and Jackie talked enthusiastically about the possibilities, especially for family-oriented shows and filling community needs, such as a place for young people and seniors to hold performance events.

 But they’re also thinking of adult theatre—the kind the Pacific Arts Center Theatre used to do. “I’ve met a lot of people who are really excited about the rejuvenation of the old PACT space,” Jackie said. “I’d like to do a PACT-style show, with some of the actors who were involved in it.” “You know, pretty much anything is possible, once you’ve got the space,” David observed. “You might be thinking, ‘oh, I’ve always wanted to do Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, so why not?”

Sunday, December 7, 2014

This North Coast Monday: Not Just A Movie House


A staged reading of the first play ever produced at what became Humboldt State University happens one hundred years to the day later, on Monday December 8, at the same place: the Minor Theatre in Arcata, which is using this event to help celebrate its own centennial.  It first opened on December 3, 1914.  The reading is at 7 p.m., and is a benefit for the Emma Center.

The first staged readings this year of Her Own Way were held at HSU in October, and I wrote about that, and researched and wrote about the anniversary, the play and the playwright at HSU Stage.

Though I have nothing to do with this particular event on Monday, I did ascertain the dates that everybody is accepting.  First, there's the date of the Minor opening.  There are at least three dates in various stories that ended up on the Internet, but the most thorough of them (probably derived from the contemporaneous story in the Arcata Union) set the date at December 3.

The date of the production however comes from one source, sort of : a history of the HSU Theatre Arts Department written by its legendary chair, John Pauley.  It has the details about Humboldt State at the time, the show itself and even some information on the many other live stage presentations at the Minor in its first years.

But in the text, it gives the date of that first Her Own Way performance as December 3.  Not once, but twice.  It does however reproduce a facsimile of the poster or handbill that announced the performance, and on it the date is December 8.

The two numerals look alike so a typo is possibly, but which one?  If it's December 3, then the date for the opening of the Minor is wrong.

I concluded that the poster, not the text, was correct.  Sure, it could have been a mistake, but it's less likely, since it is contemporaneous, the kind of document an historian would accept over a later account. But what cinched it for me was that  it included the day: Tuesday, December 8.  And in fact, Dec. 8, 1914 was a Tuesday. The stories that said the Minor itself opened on Dec. 3, said it was Thursday, and that's also correct.

Pauley writes that Her Own Way was the first locally produced theatre event at the Minor.  But opening less than a week after the Minor itself opened for business with its first silent movie, makes it probable that it was the first stage event of any kind there.

As for the event on Monday, if it is the same as the reading in October, it's a kind of hybrid of a staged radio drama and a staged reading (with everybody at music stands) which I found unsatisfying as either.  But the play itself is actually involving.

The original play by the prominent and pioneer Broadway playwright of the time Clyde Fitch, has been cut considerably, and at least for the October readings, its most popular character in its Broadway run in 1903 was cut out entirely.  But she was comic relief in a way that may not translate, and not integral to the story.

The stars are the Stockwells--Danny, Greta and Glenys.  Everybody reads their parts from loose-leaf script binders, except Glenys, who even at the publicity photo shoot had her part memorized.  At the first performance she seemed to know the cues for other performers as well.  Who knows, by now she may be directing the show.