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North Bay Theater 

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Who Loves You, Jimmy Orrio?, a new theater piece on stage at Marin Theatre Company. (center) plays an up-Stacy Ross and Jimmie Orrio played by Chad Fisk

Photograph by Rory MacNamara

Play Time

Original theater sweeps North Bay stages

By Daedalus Howell

"THEATER DIES if there aren't new playwrights," says Danielle Cain, associate artistic director with Actors Theatre in Santa Rosa. "Writers are what keep theater alive and important to society right now.

"What are people responding to right now?" Cain continues. "What are they afraid of? What do they care about? That's what today's playwrights are writing about."

Fair enough. But let the playwrights labor all they want; if they can't find a theater to stage their works, they might as well be scribbling in their diaries.

And finding an outlet for original theater works can be tough. Indeed, repertory is the rule in the North Bay, where some companies have been known to restage the same well-known play two or three years in a row.

But some local companies are beginning to support new plays and playwrights.

Veteran Sonoma County theater impresario Lennie Dean's Studio Be has spent the last nine months retooling her organization with an eye toward new works.

"We're creating an environment where the creation itself, the process, is what is most important," says Dean, who has instituted a three-part program incorporating the disciplines of writing, directing, and acting.

Santa Rosa's Studio Be offers member writers its Center Stage Write program, where three Sundays out of the month, writers bring in scenes, have them read, and receive feedback from their peers.

"The goal is to eventually produce full-length plays by our writers," says Dean, who foresees Studio Be projects graduating through the collective's various labs and workshops to become full-blown productions.

On a somewhat larger scale, Mill Valley's Marin Theatre Company is also taking the plunge into original theater with the inaugural season of its Second Stage Series. Starting in February, MTC will offer two never-before-staged works in its newly refurbished Sali Lieberman Studio Theatre.

The ambitious goal, according to MTC artistic director Lee Sankowich, is to discover new works that could become an important part of American theater.

"The idea isn't to make money. The idea is to put new shows on and find new writers," says Sankowich. "I've always thought that to be a vital, regional theater, you've got to not only do plays that have been around before, but to be in on the forefront of creating new works."

Such works are apparently in abundance: "I can't tell you how many plays arrive in my mailbox," Sankowich says with a laugh.

Likewise, the prospect of wading hip-deep through a pile of unproven scripts has not rattled Actors Theatre's commitment to new theater works. Out of 55 submissions, a committee chose four plays for its third annual New Theatre Works Festival--a series of staged readings that could potentially lead to full productions as part of the Santa Rosa company's Bare Stage Series.

"We say over and over again when we meet in the reading committee, 'Oh my god, these people are so brave,'" says Cain. "And we really mean it. People sat down and put huge chunks of themselves on paper and sent it in. We think it's phenomenal that they're doing it."

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INDEED, in an era when many would-be scribes would just as soon knock out a feature film with a digital video camera, the notion of writing a play seems a little quaint.

Sankowich witnessed a playwright brain drain firsthand when he taught theater at Carnegie Mellon University. Writers he worked with were frequently poached by Hollywood studios to work in film and television.

"That's where the money is," Sankowich laments. "Hollywood does get a hold of a lot of the best writers. But there are some playwrights coming out of the universities who are committed to theater and are very good, as well as some in the Bay Area who are very good."

Among those regional talents is Cheryldee Huddleston, an East Bay playwright whose Who Loves You, Jimmy Orrio? hits the boards at the Marin Theatre Company in February. This will be Huddleston's first major regional production.

"I've tried my hand at screenwriting, prose, and poetry, but for me playwrighting fits the two sides of my personality," Huddleston says. "One part is reclusive and the other part loves company. I adore the time that I'm writing the play by myself, and I adore the time that it's in rehearsal."

Huddleston's play features a swaggering cowboy returning from a prison stint to a Tennessee trailer park and the women who have been waiting for him.

Attending rehearsals of her play helped elucidate themes in Huddleston's work she hadn't recognized.

"It's been an incredibly concentrated process," she says. "Since rehearsals began, the rewrites and tweaking that I have done have been significant. There's something to be said about watching your characters move around. It's part of some kind of final process for clarifying what's going on with them."

Similarly, Richard Switzer, whose Joy Boys was selected for a staged-reading at Actors Theatre, looks forward to his participation in the AT staged-reading series.

"I think it will be good for me to hear real human beings speak the dialogue so that I can weed out the clunky stuff and keep the superior and superb material--of which there is quite a bit, I might add," Switzer says drolly.

Joy Boys explores the complicated conflict between career and sexuality experienced by a group of Roman Catholic seminarians on the eve of being ordained.

"The reading is going to be absolutely terrifying," Switzer says. "I anticipate hiding during most of the reading underneath my seat or pacing the lobby smoking cigarette after cigarette. I don't even smoke cigarettes."

APPREHENSION aside, ultimately playwrights have to relinquish control over their work and trust its fate to those who convey it to an audience.

"You have this sense of your play having its own life, but then it belongs to directors, designers; and then, once it goes up, it belongs to the actors and ultimately the audience," Huddleston says. "The audience is the fourth dimension of it. Otherwise, what's the point?"

This process also provides actors with unique opportunities, as Cain explains.

"Working directly with a playwright is a very different experience for actors than working on a Shakespeare, Stoppard, or a Kushner," Cain says. "The playwright is right there, and you can ask that person, 'What are you talking about?' or 'That's so cool, what made you think of that?' "

Says Switzer, "My play is like a child I've sent off to college and he's joining a fraternity. Isn't that wonderful?"

Who Loves You, Jimmy Orrio? (Feb. 1-25) and Moving Bodies (May 17-June 10) play Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:15 p.m. and Sundays at 7:15 at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $20. 415/388-5200.

Actors Theatre's third annual New Theatre Works Festival features staged readings of Barclay Bates' Giving Up on Feb. 12; Richard Switzer's Joy Boys on Feb. 19; Amy Forlan's A Better Place on Feb. 26; and William Waxman's Timon's Retreat on March 5. All readings are at 7:30 p.m. at Actors Theatre, Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road., Santa Rosa. Tickets are $5. 707/523-4185.

From the February 1-7, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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