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.

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
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.

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