Acting on the Edge
On the periphery of the North Bay, seven atypical acting companies are making their own kind of theater on their own artistic terms
Though you wouldn't guess it to look at her, Elizabeth Fuller of the Sebastopol-based Independent Eye theater company has been creating and staging original theater productions with her partner Conrad Bishop all across the United States for nearly--get this--45 years. In all that time, with hundreds of productions now behind them and a successful syndicated monthly radio show (Hitchhiking off the Map) still in production, the Independent Eye has rarely ever done anything that could be labeled mainstream. On the contrary, be it an ultrascary three-person staging of Shakespeare's Macbeth, a politically charged update on Marie Antoinette or the upcoming history-mystery Drake's Drum (), Fuller and Bishop's stage work always ends up landing firmly within that region of the theater world known as "the fringe."
"It's true. We've never been part of the mainstream of anything," laughs Fuller. "But being called 'fringe' is nothing to be ashamed of. In the context of theater, fringe is good. Think of the fringe festivals that take place around the world now. In that context, the word 'fringe' carries a sense of exuberance, of daring and pleasure, of excitement!"
Fuller and the Independent Eye are hardly alone on the Fringe.
In the North Bay, where a kind of theatrical renaissance is taking place, and where a number of companies have set their sights on mainstream success (and look to be achieving it), there is a growing assortment of troupes and groups that are clearly happy to be the artistic fringe dwellers. These are the companies that take chances, setting aside box office concerns to make room for artistic or political or social ideals. This is the theatrical fringe of the North Bay.
Then, of course, there's the geographic fringe to consider, companies or troupes that exist literally on the fringes of the North Bay, making first-class theater in communities that require a sizable commitment of travel time just to get to. These include Monte Rio's Pegasus Theater Company (www.pegasustheater.com), with its charming small theater and gutsy productions (the current season includes Martin Sherman's head-spinning Bent and Peter Cooper's current staging of Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart). The Bodega Theatre Company (www.bodegatheatrecompany.com) is also doing fascinating work in downtown Bodega in a theater that is literally in the back of a bar. Their motto: "If you like the show, have a drink; if you don't like the show, have several drinks."
And there are plenty more.
"The theater environment in the North Bay right now is absolutely vivid with progressive theater companies," proclaims Fuller. "It really feels a whole lot like Chicago did back when the last Chicago renaissance was starting, or like Philadelphia did in the late '70s and early '80s. There was so much amazing, interesting theater being done then, and there is something incredibly exciting going on in the North Bay right now."
Stark Raving Sane
Marin County's recently founded Alternative Theater Ensemble (aka AlterTheater of Marin, www.altertheater.org) is one of the more unusual theater groups in the North Bay. And that's saying a lot.
"'Unusual' is a good way to describe us," laughs executive director Jeanette Harrison. "But 'stark raving mad' might be a better one. We produce stuff that other theater companies don't really have a place for. There are lots of good theater companies, and they are producing lots of good theater. But there are not enough theater companies to produce all the great works that are being written today, and we are committed to doing contemporary new works."
AlterTheater has a quirky view of what constitutes a usable performance space. With no regular home in which to stage its productions, the company sets up in decidedly unexpected venues, such as unoccupied office spaces, art galleries and even rocking chair stores. To make things even weirder, every venue in which they perform must be located somewhere along San Rafael's thriving Fourth Street.
"We are interested in producing theater in places where people are," explains Harrison. "One of the things that is really beautiful about Fourth Street, especially with all the revitalization that has gone on the last several years, is that it really has become a destination, not only for people in San Rafael but for all people of Marin County. Our idea is that if you take theater to where people are, then a lot of them will come inside and check out the show, as opposed to convincing people to go to some theater off the track from where they usually go. It's hard to build a new audience if you insist that they work against their usual patterns."
Since many of AlterTheater's performance spots have huge windows, pedestrians can easily catch a glimpse of theatrical magic as they pass by, and people frequently poke their heads in to see what's going on.
"They can either come inside and watch the rest of the show, or stand on the sidewalk and watch the silent-movie version of the show," says Harrison. As for the content, the ensemble is aggressive in acquiring scripts that are socially challenging. Last season, they performed Sex Parasite by Jessica Goldberg, a play dealing with acquaintance rape at the dawn of the feminist movement. This season, which begins in October, promises even more challenging subjects.
"We believe in producing works that deal with real issues, and deal with those issues in a realistic way," Harrison says. "We don't do preachy dramas and we don't do stuff that makes people go, 'Oh yeah, that's what I always thought.' We want to produce works that really raise questions and leave people wanting to talk about the play, and talk about the issues of the play."
In spite of such potentially heavy material, another signature facet of AlterTheater's work is that the shows are always surprisingly funny.
"Everything we do is very funny," says Harrison. "The more tragic life is, the more you have to laugh at it. Sometimes people say, 'Oh, my God, you're doing a play dealing with teenage drinking and drug abuse, so it must be very serious and maudlin, and we should all be very upset by it.' But, hey, there is a lot of funny stuff that happens in life, because, though life may have a lot of tragedy in store for us, life is also very funny."
Based in St. Helena, Il Teatro Calamari is not an easy company to describe--and that's exactly how founder Tim Guigni likes it.
"One way to describe us is to say that my company tends to use all the bastard art forms, the ones nobody loves anymore," explains the Emmy-winning puppeteer (he won for a television special called The Land of I). "In Il Teatro Calamari, we use things like masks and physical theater and vaudeville--and of course puppetry--and we take them and play with them in really interesting ways."
What makes the work he does fringe, Guigni believes, is that while the troupe does its share of shows for kids and families, they frequently use puppetry in programs designed specifically for adults. That makes them fringe almost by default.
"Children don't think puppets are fringe, and puppetry done for children is not considered to be fringe by adults; puppetry for kids is a pretty mainstream idea," Guigni says. "Puppetry for adults, though--now that's definitely thought to be pretty weird and kind of . . . daring. You tell people, 'No, this is a puppet performance aimed at adults,' and most people will go, 'Really? Hmmm. Well I guess you could do that.' This is in America, of course. Anywhere else in the world, puppets are as commonplace and mainstream as meat performers."
That's how Guigni refers to acting done by flesh-and-blood performers, as opposed to that done by puppets. Guigni believes that puppet theater has the ability to transcend the limitations of the stage, and the limitations of living, breathing, um, meat.
"A lot of people think of puppets as these soft and cuddly things, but throughout history, puppets have often been hard and unattractive, they've been used to challenge the authorities," he says. "Puppets have been the tool of protesters and anarchists, and not just since George Bush was elected. It's a tradition around the world. There are soft and cuddly puppets, yes, but most puppetry is exactly the opposite."
Puppets, of course, can be almost anything.
"One of the definitions of 'puppet' is something that is manipulated with intent," Guigni says. "If that's true, then is a paddleball a puppet? It's something that you are manipulating with intent. It might not be purely artistic, but from a certain perspective, a paddleball is a puppet, so what would happen if you manipulated it as if it were a puppet? What stories could you tell using a paddleball, or any other object?"
To prove the point, Il Teatro Calamari employs a paddleball to stunning effect in a piece called Waiting for a Train (a video of which can be seen at www.teatrocalamari.com), in which a goofy train passenger annoys his fellow station dwellers by doing a number of very odd things with objects like desktop bells, picture frames, handkerchiefs, balloon pumps--and paddleballs.
The company once did a piece called Stories from the Wall, based on items left behind at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Flags, medals, teddy bears, hats, blankets with notes pinned to them and unsmoked wedding cigars were "animated" by Guigni and his troupe, who created for each item the story of the soldier for whom that object was left as an offering.
The impulses that drive the kind of theater Guigni tackles has been changing recently, he says. "I used to be into these really gorgeous, beautifully costumed puppets with beautiful faces. Now I find that I'm not really that into pretty puppets anymore. I'm discovering that the more raw you get, the more easy it is to put a better story into it."
He is currently working to get funding for a project called 1906, an imaginative retelling of the San Francisco earthquake and fire.
"It will basically be a series of structures that each house a performer who will use a combination of puppetry, shadow and dimensional performance, all telling the whole story of the earthquake and the fire that followed it, and true stories of the people who experienced it," Guigni explains. "In the best of all worlds, we'll be able to burn down 30 percent of the buildings, or more.
"I hope we can get the funding for it."
The Uncovered Nerve
The Loading Zone is a five-year-old, ultraspirited collective of actors who gather together to work their magic in a teeny-tiny, ever evolving theater space located upstairs in the Kids Street School building near Railroad Square, in Santa Rosa. Every so often, they put on a show.
"We are an Exploratorium," explains founder David Lear. "We are an enigma. Put simply, we are a group of people who get together and work out our craft, and in the working of our craft, we bring in a lot of different techniques and styles, and then we expand on them. Another way of describing us is to say that we are actors who are always searching for projects that scare us."
The scarier, Lear believes, the better.
"Artistically speaking, if it scares you, it's worth doing. That's kind of our main mission statement."
While the Loading Zone sometimes produces work that is literally frightening, as was last year's staging of Eliot Fintushel's interrogation drama Aleph's Legs, the fear that Lear is referring to is mainly that which challenges actors to go places, in terms of the depth of their performance, that they would normally shy away from.
Currently, Loading Zone is preparing a new piece by Christina O'Reilly. Titled Hooked, it is based on Inuit mythology and will resemble, in Lear's words, "an experiential fairy tale about life and the search for truth." The show opens in October, with Lear directing.
At the same time, Lear is working on an upcoming production of Terrance McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, featuring Corissa Erickson as down-on-her-luck waitress Frankie and Lear as the romantic ex-convict Johnny.
"Doing Johnny, now that scares me," he laughs. It's a challenging role in a play crammed with raw emotion and what Lear calls "uncovered nerves."
"Actually, that's what we strive for at the Loading Zone," he says. "That uncovered nerve can be magic when it comes to theater. What I strive for as a director and as an actor is to find that uncovered nerve in a show and just keep uncovering it and exposing it, because that's when you get electrifying theater that can actually change your life, whether you are in the audience or on the stage making it happen."
The Independent Eye in Sebastopol is not a troupe so much as it Elizabeth Fuller and Conrad Bishop doing what they do best in collaboration with other companies around the country. Bishop and Fuller worked for many years in the world of academic theater, a place, once upon a time, where theater was pretty reliably fringey. The couple pushed the envelope on a regular basis, staging what she calls "oddball, progressive, quirky adaptations and new, untested work."
At that time, in the early '60s, there was not the widespread regional theater movement that there is today, and the work they were doing--adaptations of classics along the lines of Euripides' Hecuba performed as a protest of the Vietnam War--was about as fringe as one could get outside of a political protest in downtown San Francisco.
Today, the Independent Eye works with various troupes and theater groups such as Company One in Boston, Foothill Theater Company in Grass Valley and Sebastopol's Sonoma County Repertory Theater, developing new works that challenge the traditional notion of theater while celebrating the traditions that have brought them to the present. Their shows do not strive to be fun, but to take audiences somewhere transformative and remarkable.
"What we stand for," says Fuller, "is provocation, illumination, energy, excitement and entertainment, none of which are the same thing as 'fun.' We're always thinking, with both the writing and the staging, 'What's going to happen to anyone who sees this?' Our shows used to be fairly grim, but that's been changing over the last 10 years or so. What's been increasingly happening recently, is that we're doing things where there is a sense of celebration. I think that's because we ourselves celebrate more. We're poorer.
And we're more confused and more stressed than we've ever been, but we're also happier than we've ever been before.
"We want to rev people's engines," she continues, "whether it's to fall down laughing, or to fall desperately in love with the characters and go home with their sweetie and hit the sack immediately, or to go out and say, 'Hello, how are you?' to the next person they see who seems isolated. We want to break isolation. There is so much going on around us that is designed, with absolute intention, to isolate, because feeling isolated makes you more inclined to buy things, and it makes you more inclined to join things."
In May, Fuller and Bishop saw a years-long project come to fruition in Grass Valley, where they'd been visiting once a month for two years, working with the actors of the Foothill Theater Company to improvise scenes for a drama called Long Shadow. Based on a true local story from the 1940s, in which a man and his supposed murderer were both killed before there could be a trial, the company's improvisations were adapted into the script by Bishop. The show was a huge success for Foothill and the Independent Eye.
"It wasn't exactly uplifting," says Fuller, "but it was a story told within a context in which people had something to do about it. They talked to each other immediately after the show. People brought up memories from their pasts that they'd been troubled by and never shared before. It was an amazing experience."
Creating amazing experiences, she believes, is the work of Independent Eye, and is what fringe theater groups have the responsibility of doing.
"Human beings have the most remarkable capacity to tell themselves incredible lies and then believe them," she says. "Pulling the wool off is our job, and it's one of the things we do best."
Play and Play Well
In terms of the geographic fringe, one company well worth taking the drive for is the Ukiah Players Theatre (www.ukiahplayerstheatre.org), 90 minutes from Petaluma, and yet a significant theatrical destination. According to the Ukiah Players' artistic director Kate Magruder, more and more theatergoers are making the trek.
"We just got a check in the mail from two people in Sebastopol," she laughs, "who said, 'We've gone to see four shows in Ukiah over the last year, and we absolutely loved everything, and here's a donation of $750!' Sebastopol! We definitely feel like we are on the fringe of the North Bay, and yet people continue to discover us."
The 28-year-old Ukiah Players Theatre is a small 125-seat theater built in 1982 on city land that was essentially donated to the Players for a dollar a year. Though they perform a fair number of mainstream shows and musicals, such as their recent production of the bio-drama Always . . . Patsy Cline, they have developed a reputation for doing some seriously in-your-face pieces. Recent projects include everything from The Vagina Monologues to the original project Unspoken Lives: New Stories from the Female Front to The Good War Project, a theatrical staging of first-person accounts from World War II. The Ukiah Players are not afraid to be political, but Magruder insists they are also determined to have fun at the same time.
"Things are so depressing sometimes when you look at what's happening in the world, so you might as well play, and play well," she says. "It's heartening when you see theater companies responding to the world, not with defeat and conformity, but with exciting, enthralling theater."
Magruder is now working on The Placement Project, a multimedia production incorporating first-person monologues done as digital stories and live performance, plus movement and dance, written by a series of writers from around Ukiah. Funded by a two-year grant by the Irvine Foundation and another grant from the California Council for the Humanities, the show will premiere later this fall.
"Local people have been spending the last several months writing stories about one particular place in this area that has special meaning to them," she explains. "This is the kind of project we, as artists, can just really sink our teeth into."
The exciting thing about fringe theater is the way it can wake people up, and that includes people who have been sleeping through traditional theater productions, or avoiding them all together. Jeanette Harrison of AlterTheater tells a story that can serve as a perfect illustration of this point.
"We had a gentleman come and see one of our plays," she says, "and he admitted that it was the first time he had seen any theater in 15 years. About a month and a half later, our house manager ran into him at Marin Theater Company. Not exactly fringe, but a great theater company doing incredible work. This man had just bought his first ticket to Marin Theater Company, because he'd been inspired by our show to start seeing more theater. That, to us, is success. The more patrons of theater we can create, the better a community we'll have, because live theater, on the fringe or in mainstream, has a unique way of bringing people together into an experience in ways that no other entertainment option really does."
Mainstream companies prepare for autumn
If "fringe" is a relative term, then so is "mainstream." In the North Bay, even the nonfringe theaters--those with a marked enthusiasm for musicals or the classics or even classic musicals--occasionally take their fair share of risks for the sake of their art. As proof, consider the fall schedules of these well-regarded local theater companies.
The Pacific Alliance Stage Company at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park launches its fall season Sept. 22 with the tongue-twisty wordsmithery of playwright David Ives, six of whose offbeat, comedic one-acts (weird-ass shorts like The Philadelphia and The Universal Language) have been pulled together for a program punningly titled The Ives Have It. Rounding out their fall season is Robert Harling's aggressively tear-inducing Steel Magnolias, followed by Arthur Miller's little-seen gut-puncher All My Sons.
The Sixth Street Playhouse fall season continues with Tom Stoppard's gorgeous puzzle-box drama The Real Thing, opening Sept. 23, followed by Neil Simon's Sweet Charity featuring up-and-coming local dancer-actress Allison Marcom, and concludes the year with David Sedaris' truly twisted Santaland Diaries.
Over at the Sonoma County Rep in Sebastopol, which just concluded its annual Shakespeare series, the fall schedule consists of a major world premiere in late September--Bishop and Fuller's Drake's Drum, featuring Queen Elizabeth, Sir Francis Drake and Sir Francis Dougherty locked in a metaphysical conversation about witchcraft, sedition and mutiny. Dickens' Christmas Carol officially concludes the Rep's 2005 season, which will begin again in January with William Inge's classic comedy-drama Bus Stop.
On Sept. 13, Marin Theatre Company sets out with the world premiere of the musical River's End, which follows the mysterious journey and disappearance of Glenn and Bessie Hyde, two newlywed river-rafters who vanished while journeying down the Grand Canyon's Colorado River in 1928. The season moves forward with another world premiere, the racially-charged Splittin' the Raft, in which Frederick Douglass extemporizes on Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.
At Petaluma's eclectic Cinnabar Theater, Frank Loesser's tuneful The Most Happy Fella opens on Sept. 16, followed in October by Tommy Shepherd and Dan Wolf's Beatbox: A Raparetta. In Rio Nido, the amazing Pegasus Theater Company tackles George Bernard Shaw's outlandish, amazing and theatrically daunting Don Juan in Hell on Sept. 23, before moving on to Martin Sherman's sexually explicit Bent in October.
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From the September 7-13, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.