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Guiding Audiences: A Spotlight on Bay Area Theatre Bloggers

Saturday, December 2, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Nina Solomita

From dazzling extravaganzas with huge casts to operating-on-a-shoestring productions in small black-box venues, the San Francisco Bay Area is bursting with theatrical activity. Navigating the various offerings can often be a daunting task for the would-be theatregoer. Luckily, the local scene also boasts a robust roster of theatre blogs in which knowledgeable theatre lovers provide insight into what’s playing and guide audiences to shows that will suit their tastes. 

The four bloggers interviewed for this article have been following Bay Area theatre for years and believe in its power, not only to entertain, but, (in their words) to move, change, thrill, shake up, stagger, and heal hearts and minds. These bloggers are a small sample of the Bay Area’s wide array of online theatre writing. Be sure to check out their blogs for much more. 

 

David Chavez, (bayareaplays.com)  

Photo courtesy of David Chavez

When you go to a play, what do you look for? 

When you get right down to it, the story is what draws people in. Is it something I can connect to, whether it’s personal to my experience or something I’ve never felt before? I’ve seen bad plays that had gorgeous sets and lighting design, and they weren’t very good. A good company and a commitment to telling a good story is what counts. 

Say a bit about your blog.

It’s interesting that the most popular feature on my site is the calendar—there’s so much going on in the area. As for the blog, it’s important to me to get the word out about pieces targeting more marginalized groups. I might write about a friend in a drag show, or about a smaller theatre with an actor who’s not a “name.”  Or if a company’s putting on a Latino play. I love doing pieces for the African American Shakespeare Company. As one of the few critics of color in the Bay Area, I feel a responsibility to help these companies find an audience. 

Do you believe theatre can be healing? Can it change you?

Absolutely. It changes me all the time. I saw a musical in New York called Come from Away about 10,000 people whose planes were rerouted the week after 9/11 and landed in Gander, Newfoundland, population 8,000. It’s an amazing story of coming together as a town just to help people. 

The best way I’ve heard theatre described is: it’s a mirror, and we see everything that we love and hate about ourselves. It allows us that opportunity. I’m a firm believer that theatre can show our great potential. 

 

Alexa Chipman, (imaginationlane.net/reviews 

Photo courtesy of Alexa Chipman 

When you go to a play, what do you look for? 

I love the whole range from traditional musicals to completely modern drama. I look at every aspect of a piece – set design, costuming, lighting design, sound design, the acting and directing. With plays I know well, it’s interesting to see the nuances of the direction. 

One play I’ll never forget was Guards at the Taj at Marin Theatre Company. There’s a legend that after the Taj Mahal was built, to prevent anything that beautiful to be built again, they cut off the hands of all the artists. It’s told from the perspective of the people who carry out the orders. Very powerful. It made me reevaluate how I see victims versus the people who victimize them; there’s trauma on both sides. 

What are some of the theatres in the North Bay whose plays you attend and review?

Mainstage West in Sebastopol puts on excellent, thoughtful work. Left Edge Theatre in Santa Rosa, a smaller theatre, does political plays that are fun and make you think. There’s a new company in Petaluma called Shakespeare by the River. Some other theatres are Ross Valley Players, Novato Theater Company, Sixth Street Players, Raven Theater, and Curtain Theatre. 

What is important for you to express in your blog?

I want to inform people about all that’s going on in the North Bay and bring more awareness to smaller companies. There are various reasons to go to plays. If you’ve had a stressful week and want to relax and laugh, there’s Spamalot. If you want a deeper experience and are open to change and seeing the world in a different way, that’s another reason to go. 

 

Chad Jones, (theaterdogs.net 

Photo by Karen Steffens

Do you think there’s something special about San Francisco and the Bay Area theatre scene? 

Yes. There’s a lot going on here and always has been despite the odds always being against it.  There’s a huge creative urge that’s expressed in many theatrical forms, and audiences that become loyal to companies staying with them as they evolve. I remember when Shotgun Players was in a basement; now they have this beautiful space at Ashby Stage. Several companies, such as Crowded Fire and Golden Thread, are committed to telling stories for groups that aren’t necessarily told in other places.

 

When you go to a play, what do you look for? 

I’m not looking for any one thing; the fewer expectations you have going in, the better the experience. As someone who thrives on theatre, I’m looking for those mind-altering life-changing experiences. 

Recently, I saw An Octoroon at Berkeley [Repertory Theatre]. It mixed history, satire, traditional melodrama and deconstructive ultra-modern theatre and, at the same time was serious on issues of race in this country; it brought all the elements to the center of the stage and let them explode. Eric Ting, the director, created a space for the right tone to come through. The audience was involved moment to moment. 

Another was Black Odyssey, also directed by Eric Ting at the California Shakespeare Theater. It was equally, if not more, extraordinary. Both plays brought you to the heart of the piece, and I was shaken in such an extraordinary way. Theatre, more than any other art form, has the power to do that. It doesn’t happen every time. Going just for entertainment is great too. But, when it all comes together like that, there’s nothing more powerful.

 

Wanda Sabir (wandaspicks.com and blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks)  

Photo courtesy of Wanda Sabir

What do you look for in theatre and plays? 

Voices that are not part of the dominant discourse and are under-represented in the arts, particularly incarcerated women and [prisoners in] solitary confinement. My website is dedicated to black arts and culture. Barbecue is an awesome play [recently at San Francisco Playhouse] about two families, one white, one black, and how the idea of addiction sits when you look at one community versus another. 

What are some theatres and venues that you think are doing good, innovative, or exciting work?

The Eastside Arts Alliance in East Oakland is a collective of artists of all kinds. They have poetry, visual arts, dance, and so much for the community that’s free. They ask, “What voices are not being amplified, and how can we use the arts to further their vision?” They do the Malcolm X Jazz festival every year. Amiri Baraka used to come to town and do his new plays there.

La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley does theatre, film, poetry, and it’s a community. Both Eastside and La Peña commission work, which is really great. 

San Francisco Playhouse commissions work and collaborates with the Strand and ACT. The Magic in San Francisco connects with the community through the Laney College Theatre Department.

There’s also Brava, and TheatreFirst [in] Berkeley that deal with the political and cultural. California Shakespeare Theater, oh my goodness, their production of Black Odyssey was so awesome. 

What do you think is the relationship between theatre and ritual?

Theatre is ritual, and ritual is holy. The arts are a way we heal trauma—by connecting with an audience, sharing our experiences. Sitting in a theatre with other people, watching something play out—like jazz, it’s the synergy between audience and performers that makes it what it is and that heals us. 

Nina Solomita is a freelance writer and playwright.