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TBA Online: News & Features: December 2016

'Tis the Season to Say Who You Are

Wednesday, December 21, 2016   (0 Comments)
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by Sam Hurwitt

A.C.T.s 50th season featured The Hard Problem, a new play

by frequent collaborator, Tom Stoppard. Photo by Kevin Berne.

 

For most theatre companies, season planning is an art in itself, because the group of plays a company presents in any given year speaks volumes about the organization’s values. When the season marks a big anniversary, the stakes are higher, and the question of exactly what this particular season says about that particular theatre is more pressing.


The 2016-17 season marks the 50th anniversaries of an impressive array of local theatres: American Conservatory Theater, Marin Theatre Company, Magic Theatre, even Oakland’s Woodminster Summer Musicals. Berkeley Repertory Theatre is right behind them, celebrating its 50th next year. There are a number of companies celebrating other landmarks. It’s New Conservatory Theatre Center’s 35th season, for example, and the 20th year for Fremont’s Broadway West. In Berkeley, both Aurora Theatre Company and Shotgun Players are celebrating their 25th anniversaries.


I decided to speak to the artistic directors of a few of these companies and ask them what considerations went into plotting their anniversary seasons above and beyond the usual jigsaw puzzle of season planning.


Marin Theatre Company started in 1966 as very much an amateur outfit, and in fact not a theatre company at all. It was originally the Marin Valley Center for the Performing Arts, producing plays alongside all kinds of other cultural events at the self-explanatory Golf Clubhouse. Its evolution to a professional theatre company, and finally to a LORT theatre, was very much a gradual thing.


“It was an organization that was dedicated to artistic expression in Mill Valley, and it was founded at a time when every community in the Bay Area was very interested in having their artistic home represented,” says MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis. “I think each artistic director here was trying to really figure out what that meant for them. Sali Lieberman, the company founder, wanted to give the artists and community of southern Marin a place to express their creativity. Will Marchetti, when he became the artistic director, he really wanted to turn the organization into a professional organization. That was really important to him. Lee Sankowich was really trying to find what the artistic mission of the organization was going to be since it had become a professional organization. He was very interested in finding those lost Tennessee Williams plays and giving them new life. And then when he found Killer Joe, I think he really inspired the board and the donors to look at new American writing as sort of the future of the company, and where the company could really make its mark.”


MTCs 50th season opened with August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, whose play

 Killer Joe sparked the companys commitment to new works. Photo by Kevin Berne.

 

 

The success of that very violent, grimly funny and often shocking Tracy Letts play led to Minadakis coming aboard as the next artistic director and shifting the focus of the organization more toward new work. So MTC is kicking off its 50th anniversary season with another Letts play, the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, with a large cast of local actors, including Marchetti in his first MTC role since the Sankowich era. After that, the season moves on to new work: Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s Pride and Prejudice sequel Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley; Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son; Peerless by Jiehae Park; Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph and The Legend of Georgia McBride by Matthew Lopez.


In planning the season, Minadakis says, “It was really important for us that we really focused on where the company has come and to honor the first 50 years of the organization, and then to look forward to the next 50 years of the organization. The big push of the last 10 years, of course, has been to new American plays. Tracy’s work certainly had a huge impact for Marin Theatre Company. It enabled us to really tip our hat to the past, tip our hat to the people who’ve made this organization, and then use that as a springboard to then move into five new American plays for the remainder of the season. We were really trying to show the range of what the American theatre has to offer and what new playwriting in America is about.”


The story of American Conservatory Theater’s first 50 years is almost the opposite of Marin Theatre Company’s. While MTC very gradually grew into a professional theatre company, A.C.T. landed in the Bay Area in 1967 fully grown as a new Equity company transplanted from Pittsburgh, performing 16 productions in repertory in its first season at the Geary and Marines Memorial theatres. So while other theatres grew into the organizations they would eventually become, A.C.T. had to grow into the large institution it already was at the outset.


“You know, most theatres start small,” says A.C.T. artistic director Carey Perloff. “You look at the history of Steppenwolf, it started with four best friends in a garage making a few one-act plays, and then they moved to a bigger garage, and then they finally were in a storefront, and then they added a manager, and then they built a building, and now they’re Steppenwolf. A.C.T. was the opposite! A.C.T. arrived with 45 actors on permanent contract, a repertoire of about 20 plays, in a thousand-seat theatre! It was absolute madness, with no infrastructure to support it. It truly is a miracle that this theatre is still here. We’ve spent 50 years trying to catch up to Bill Ball’s original idea.”


A.C.T. arrived in a particularly lean period in Bay Area theatre, so its role has changed dramatically as many other theatres have sprouted up around it.


“When A.C.T. came to San Francisco, it partly was chosen by the city elders because the Actors Workshop, which had been a very important theatre, had just imploded,” Perloff says. “There was a real awareness that suddenly San Francisco didn’t have that kind of professional repertory theatre. So at that time I think it served an enormous need and really found a place for that audience to celebrate that art form. Now the Bay Area has a very rich theatrical ecology, and so it’s a wonderful thing to be part of that. It’s much better to be part of a larger ecology than to be the lonely one out there doing it. Obviously, a central role that A.C.T. now plays in the Bay Area ecology is that we train so many young actors. You’d be hard pressed to go to any theatre around the Bay Area and not see somebody who had trained at A.C.T.”


A.C.T.’s 50th anniversary season is impressively ambitious by any standard. It kicks off with Mike Bartlett’s West End and Broadway hit King Charles III, a faux-Shakespearean history play about the imagined future reign of Prince Charles. Then Perloff and frequent collaborator Tom Stoppard reteam for his new play The Hard Problem; A.C.T. unveils the world premiere of Ursula Rani Sarma’s adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel A Thousand Splendid Suns; the company does its first Annie Baker play with the off-Broadway hit John; visionary director Robert Lepage brings Needles and Opium, a story juxtaposing the drug-fueled geniuses Miles Davis and Jean Cocteau; the legendary Peter Brook distills his epic Mahabharata adaptation into a new version titled Battlefield; and the season closes with Here Lies Love, a musical about Imelda Marcos by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. 

(After this article was written, A.C.T. replaced Here Lies Love in its season with the more modest offering A Night with Janis Joplin.)

 


“The first thing I did was go back and reread Bill Ball’s original manifesto for A.C.T.,” says Perloff. “And it’s just so audacious and ambitious and fascinating. And I thought, well, a 50th anniversary should in some way live up to the ambition and audacity of that founding vision. It was about a really challenging, large-scale repertoire, obviously at that point with a permanent company of actors, but also a commitment to training and a really deep commitment to the community. So I thought, let’s really imagine a 50th anniversary not that goes back and tries to do plays that were done during that time, which is not necessarily an interesting endeavor, but that honors the spirit of those original years. Let’s do a season that’s really ambitious, that’s global, that tackles big issues, that’s very actor-centric. I thought about favorite artists that we really wanted to have back, and I thought about what’s happening in the world, and where we could actually make a difference in our dialogue about the world at large.”


In Berkeley two very different theatre companies are both celebrating their 25th anniversaries. Aurora Theatre Company started as an Equity company in the intimate room in the Berkeley City Club that still hosts Central Works and other companies and grew to build its own theatre next to Berkeley Rep. Meanwhile, Shotgun Players started as a tiny company in the basement of La Val’s Pizza (until recently the home of Impact Theatre) and went through a long nomadic period before finding a permanent home at the Ashby Stage.

 “In some ways we have become an institution,” says Aurora artistic director Tom Ross, the former managing director who’s been with the company from the beginning. “When we started the company, the idea of starting this Equity, professional theatre company in a teeny room that ladies had played bridge in, that had never been a performance space, that only sat 67 people, we all thought it was a very risky experiment. I used to think that we were a bridge from the smaller theatres, from a Cutting Ball or Crowded Fire—like it might be a place for you to hone your craft a little and then you’d go to Berkeley Rep—but I don’t feel that anymore. People want to be here, want to act here, want to design here.”


Aurora Theatre Company is kicking off its 25th season with a revival of Dear Master, the show that the late founder Barbara Oliver produced and starred in that led her to start the company.

 

Aurora Theatre Company began its 25th season with a revival of Dear Master,

the show that inspired late founder Barbara Oliver to start the company.

Photo by David Allen.

 

“I also put together the 20th anniversary season for Aurora, and the idea was, you want to honor the past, and you want to look forward to the future, and you want to celebrate those two things,” Ross says. “So when I did the 20th, I started the season with A Delicate Balance, and I wanted to bring back some of the old guard, Kimberly King and Ken Grantham and Charles Dean. For the 25th, I thought why not do Dear Master? It was this play that inspired Barbara to start Aurora Theater Company. I immediately thought of Kimberly King, bringing her back. She was our very first leading lady in Candida.”


The rest of the season is a mixture of old and new. There’s a Stoppard classic, The Real Thing—surprisingly enough, the company’s first foray into his work—and a number of West Coast, US and Bay Area premieres: Keith Josef Adkins’ Safe House, about free people of color in 1843 Kentucky; Sarah Greenman’s Leni, about Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl; Steve Waters’ Temple, about the Occupy movement; and Abi Morgan’s Splendour, which Ross describes as an avant-garde, “cubist” play about women holed up in a palace during an uprising against a dictator.


While the company has grown in prestige, Ross says its mission has remained very similar. “Way back in the day when we started the company, Barbara would say our plays are about language and ideas,” he says. “We were in the City Club and there was very little set there, since it’s a landmark building. We have more ambitious lighting and sound and sets these days, but I think that core value of language and ideas is still really important. The quality of acting is really important to Aurora; you can’t really fake it in that room. Michael Scott Moore had written about the company that it explores liberal assumptions. We’re in Berkeley, we know it’s a liberal enclave, but I don’t want to do plays that pat ourselves on the back for being wonderful and liberal. I like plays that challenge us and our liberal assumptions. I think Temple in particular does that this year.”


Shotgun Players founder and artistic director Patrick Dooley says “I didn’t used to think so much about making a season, or what does it mean to make a season. It was like, what would be a fun play to do? Who could be in it? It was a lot more casual.”


“I think I first started using the season selection as an opportunity to say something about who you were as an organization for our 20th anniversary season, when we did a season of commissions. At the time we’d started doing some, and I felt like, wow, we need to be doing more to support local playwrights. It was a way for us to use the season as a way to say something about what our values are.”

While that season of commissions didn’t lead to a whole pattern of themed seasons, Shotgun definitely started playing a longer game in season planning. The company spread Tom Stoppard’s trilogy The Coast of Utopia over three seasons, and last year it produced an entire season of works by women.

The 2016 season is produced in repertory, with plays opening gradually, as usual, over the course of the season but then joining all the previous plays in rotating rep, using many of the same actors. Complicating matters further, the first show was director Mark Jackson’s production of Hamlet in which any actor might play any character on any given night, finding out their roles for the evening by drawing lots mere minutes before the play begins.

Shotgun Playersbold 25th season includes a production of Hamlet in which any actor

might play any character on any given night. Photo by Pak Han.

 Aside from the not inconsiderable consideration of how challenging this repertory plan would be for the actors, not to mention the stage crew, the fact that these plays would be running not just for a few weeks but on and off for months raised the stakes considerably.

“If you’re doing a season in rep, that means the plays are going to come back again and again and again, so I really wanted to make sure that we were picking plays that there was enough there there. There’s a reason to keep doing this play,” Dooley says. “This is a play that’s got a really complicated architecture and design and there’s a lot going on with it, so you can keep going back to it and keep discovering more. Obviously starting off with Hamlet gives you that, and finishing off with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—I mean, those are two masterworks that you can just keep discovering new things about them. The other plays were less known, but we knew when we read them. Chris Chen’s play Caught keeps making you question what reality is and where you are. And plays that were going to make audiences uncomfortable, and The Village Bike was definitely one of those plays.”

New San Francisco Chronicle theatre critic Lily Janiak’s empty-chair review of The Village Bike really put that strategy to the test, because Shotgun was going to continue performing this play for another seven months afterward. Ticket sales definitely took a hit initially, but Shotgun rallied by taking the controversy as an opportunity for discussion, doing talkbacks with the audience after every performance, which turned out to be an invigorating experience for all concerned. Dooley says it’s inspired him to plan some even more difficult and thorny plays for next year. “We’ve been talking for years about doing Blasted by Sarah Kane, and we’re going to do Blasted next year.”

Shotgun has changed a lot since those early days making theatre on the fly in a pizza parlor basement. “For the first three or four years we weren’t really engaging in the theatre community in any meaningful way,” Dooley says. “We were in the basement of La Val’s, we did our thing, I had a handful of actors that I just kept hiring. I think I was also feeling afraid, like if anybody knew how little experience I had in theatre, they’d say, ‘You can’t be doing this!’”

Now Dooley feels like one of Shotgun’s key roles in the local theatre ecosystem is trying to give the next wave of theatre companies a hand. “I want to leverage the studios we have on University Avenue and the building we have and the experience that we have as an organization the mentor the next small theatre companies,” he says. “The last few years we’ve had three or four small companies that we’ve mentored and done work trades with. The guys at La Val’s told me, ‘If you keep the downstairs clean and you book it when you’re not there, you can have it for next to nothing.’ That was the only way I could have started Shotgun. There are all these companies that are coming up, they can’t afford $25 an hour for rehearsal space, and I want those people to have a way to get a running head start.”

Some of those small theatre companies just starting out now just may wind up still being around to celebrate their 25th or 50th anniversaries someday. You never know.

 

Sam Hurwitt is a theatre critic for the Mercury News, East Bay Times and Marin Independent Journal and an occasional playwright. His theatre blog is at theidiolect.com.