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TBA Online: News & Features: Top News

Uniquely Bay Area: the Marsh Turns 30

Wednesday, July 3, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Sam Hurwitt

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the Marsh occupies a unique role in the Bay Area theatre ecosystem. Not only is it a hub for solo theatre pieces, but it’s also a training ground and testing ground for aspiring monologists, or anyone with a story to tell, to try their hand at solo performance and hone their craft.

Between its Mission District location and its Marsh Berkeley satellite, the Marsh tends to run many shows at any given time, allowing a show that’s doing well to potentially extend its run as long as the performer is up for it and the audiences keep coming, while other shows run on different stages, different days or different times.

The Marsh began in 1989 as a Monday Night Marsh solo series that Marsh founder and artistic director Stephanie Weisman began with Peggy Howe at the Hotel Utah. Featuring four or five performers delivering short works in progress on any given Monday night, that series continues to this day.

Stephanie Weisman, Marsh founder and artistic director.

Arriving in San Francisco fresh from getting her MA in creative writing from SUNY Buffalo, “I was tired of poetry readings and I wanted to do performance,” Weisman says. She auditioned to perform at Brava but found the competition for slots too fierce.“I said I just want to learn how to do this,” she recalls. Why does this have to be so hard? Why do I have to be up against a hundred people when I’m just trying to get my stuff together to do this and learn how to do it?”

That’s why she started the Marsh, to provide a space for aspiring performers like herself to try out material in front of an audience.

“I have no theatre background, so there was nothing there telling me how to do it,” Weisman says. “So I just made it up as we go along.”

In the early days the Marsh performances moved around a lot, from Morty’s to Café Beano and finally in 1992 to its current home on Valencia Street, in a building that the theatre bought four years later. It was at Café Beano that the Marsh started to develop longer pieces such as Marga Gomez’s “Memory Tricks” and Josh Kornbluth’s “Haiku Tunnel,” going from a once-a-week performance series to seven shows a week.

Charlie Varon in "Rush Limbaugh in Night School."

One of those early performers was Charlie Varon with his first show, “Honest Prophets.”

“I had an idea for a solo show, I did some work-in-progress, and then thankfully Stephanie Weisman came to a work-in-progress showing and she said, ‘Would you like to do a run?’ And she pulled down her calendar and offered me like a six-week run in the fall of 1991,” Varon recalls. “And I was completely unprepared. It was as if she was calling my bluff. After a suitable period of flusterdom, I said sure. That was a pivotal moment in my artistic career, because then I had to finish the show and do the run. And that’s when you really start learning as a performer, and particularly a solo performer, when you’re onstage with an audience. There’s no other way.”

Varon would soon become a Marsh mainstay as a performer, teacher and director, collaborating with next-generation solo artists such as Dan Hoyle.  

When Weisman looks at the Marsh today, no matter how far it’s come, she says, “It’s really the same. It’s always been the same vision. You just get new ideas about it. You have short solo performances, 15 minutes—let’s make it full length! Okay, how do you train people to do it? You have classes. It’s pretty important to get youth involved, so you start a youth program. There’s nothing that doesn’t come from its breeding ground mission. It all just flows out based on what’s needed for development, what’s needed for the community. I’m not an artistic director that has a season and chooses shows to fit the season. It’s all about what’s happening. It’s organic evolvement. It all just has flowed from the initial seed.”

The model of simply extending shows as needed, for instance, started with the runaway success of Charlie Varon’s “Rush Limbaugh in Night School” in 1994.

“So we started to extend, and I called the whole model ‘off-Broadway plus,’” Weisman says. “You keep extending. And the plus thing is, say Charlie got a run at the Wooly Mammoth in Washington DC. I didn’t ever want to stop that from happening. So that ‘plus’ is, it can come and go. We’ll deal with all the problems that it takes to remount something. But I didn’t want to stop shows from having their life.”

“One thing that does feel precious and extraordinary about the Marsh is, the term that the tech people use is extreme adaptivity, the ability to pivot or to do something new quickly,” Varon says. “So much in the world of theatre is just waiting. You’re planning six months, a year, 18 months out. But the world isn’t waiting. There are some shows that need to happen much faster than that, and the Marsh is able to flex and be nimble.”

“I think it’s a theatre where there might be less barriers to involvement,” Weisman says. “Basically there’s a place for almost any level of performance to be supported, which doesn’t mean any level of performance is going to get a run, but they can do a class, and if you do a class you get a Monday Night Marsh. If your Monday Night Marsh gets developed, you can get a Marsh Rising, which is basically an audition for a run. We are a station for solo performance and for getting the abilities to develop those performances with these wonderful resources that are 30 years in the making--David Ford, Charlie Varon, Mark Kenward, the other teachers that teach at the Marsh--in a way that’s pretty darn supportive and lets the show go as far as the artist wants to and can let it go.”

Wayne Harris, performer and Marsh Youth Theater program director. Photo by Doug McKechnie

“I started kind of a poster child for the mission of the Marsh in that I didn’t have much of any theatre experience,” says Wayne Harris, program director of Marsh Youth Theater and performer of solo shows such as “Mother’s Milk.” “I was between 35 and 40 years old, and when my mother became ill, I started going home and journaling, and I had this writing for the first time. And I ended up finding an ad that offered a class with Charlie Varon. If I remember correctly it said, ‘Put your story on stage.’”
That class led to more classes and performances until Harris wrote the first of his six full-length solo shows. “I also teach pageant groups, everything from marching bands to drum and bugle corps,” so when the Marsh needed someone new to take over the Marsh Youth Theater program a few years ago, Harris took the helm.
“I don’t know of another environment or another structure that would help me to come to where I am today as someone who started in theatre fairly late,” Harris says “The thing I love about the Marsh is the fact that we’re able to take those citizen stories--everybody’s got them--and through this structure we’re really able to help people understand the process of storytelling, of sharing those ideas. I don’t know of a place where I could have had that opportunity in the way I did here.”

David Ford, Marsh resident artist.

“In the 30 years we’ve been around, we’ve grown a system of creating work that is very geared to trying things out in front of audiences, trying it out in bite size pieces and then in larger and larger pieces. I think that’s a really important developmental process,” says resident artist David Ford, an acclaimed director and developer of solo work with long collaborations with a countless array of artists such as Brian Copeland, Geoff Hoyle, and both Varon and Harris. “And over the years we’ve also developed a real community of people who support each other. I get much better feedback at the Marsh than I did at the Mark Taper Forum. There’s something about tying the experience of developing the work to what it feels like with an audience that is really, really important.”

One thing Ford stresses is that the Marsh isn’t just unique in the Bay Area; it’s also uniquely Bay Area.

“Something that I wish we would spend a little more time advertising is I feel like we are supporting more Bay Area voices than I think any other theatre in the Bay Area,” Ford says. “So many theatres are sort of franchises for the larger national regional theatre systems, so they’re doing the same plays that are being done in Cincinnati or Philadelphia. And they’re good things, but if you want to come in to the Bay Area and hear from somebody from the Bay Area, you’re probably better off coming to the Marsh. I think there is something to be said for a regional outlook, and frankly I love the Bay Area’s outlook on the world. So I’m very happy to hear what my fellow citizens have to say.”

Sam Hurwitt is a Bay Area arts journalist and playwright. Follow him at twitter.com/shurwitt