AlterTheater opens a can of theatrical `Whup-Ass’

Oct 23

Being a small, ambitious theater company is tough enough in good times.

But in an economy as rough as this one, the challenge is even mightier.

Marin’s Alternative Theater Ensemble, aka AlterTheater, just might have found the formula for survival, and community is a big part of it.

In the wake of the dot-com bust, a small group of active Bay Area theater artists — Jeanette Harrison, Sharmila Devar, Tahzay Mikkael, Ken Sonkin and Michael Ray Wisely – decided two things were important to them: doing risky work that forced them outside of their comfort zones and not having to pay the exorbitant gas bills and bridge tolls that come with working outside of Marin County.

“It really was like guerilla theater,” says Harrison. “We knew we wanted to be a company that paid its artists. With so many companies, most of the money goes to paying for space, so we decided we’d try to get the space donated – landlords have enough money — and give the money to the artists.”

Now in its fourth season, AlterTheater has made this formula work by performing in storefronts all around San Rafael – art galleries, furniture stores, you name it. The current production, Justin Warner’s American Whup-Ass, performs in what used to be a sports club, and before that was the location of San Rafael City Hall.

“In many other companies, the first thing cut is actors and Equity contracts,” Harrison says. “The first thing we cut is the production budget. We do a lot of collaborative partnerships so that we can borrow or get donated most of the things we need for a show. One of our sponsors is Goodwill, which has been a wonderful relationship for us. We’re able to use what’s in their stock and return it at the end of the show. Also, when people donate items to us, we pass them on to Goodwill. In Moscow they have a theater position called `the procurer,’ who basically reads the script, determines what’s going to be toughest to find, then sets out to procure those items. That’s a little like what we do.”

The theater world can be tough on the environment. You build sets and props, use them, then destroy or store them. The Alter model, with the help of Goodwill, is based on use and re-use.

Though budget is always a concern – grants and donations help, of course – Harrison says Alter’s focus is primarily on the work and choosing the kinds of plays that tackle issues important to the community just outside the theater’s door.

Past plays have addressed alcoholism, acquaintance rape and elder care. The fourth season opener is a definite change in tone for Alter. American Whup-Ass, a world premiere by New York writer Warner, is about a once-celebrated Nevada senator attempting to redeem himself through a wrestling match on live TV. (American Whup-Ass is pictured at right with Paul Santiago atop Mick Mize. Photo by Ann Brooks)

“I was starting to feel like we needed to do a play in which nobody dies,” Harrison says. “I think it was something like three consecutive shows where people died. With American Whup-Ass, I love that we can poke fun at everything, laugh at ourselves and still explore serious issues.”

Plays are selected by the Alter ensemble, of which director and writer Ann Brebner is a part. She was not a fan of the American script to start.

“There’s a lot of old-boy humor in it, and I don’t respond to that very well,” says the soft-spoken Brebner. “But I love it now. On stage, with an audience, I have a terrific time watching it. I could see in rehearsals that it was taking on life, but it reaches full maturity with an audience. The audience changes the dimension of the humor, pulls it to another level. When I was reading it, my instinct was that I don’t want to go there. But the audience itself opens the door and you go there. The writer, Justin Warner, really understands that relationship.”

Looking into the future for AlterTheater, Harrison says she’d like to expand the season from two plays to three and envisions that finally happening next year. The group is also commissioning its first play – a major accomplishment for a small company.

“We’re at an interesting point in our growth, and we’re doing some strategic planning,” Harrison says. “We’re examining what we’ve done, where we want to go and what are our core values. We’re finding out what we as a group want our future to be.”

Brebner notes that AlterTheater is accomplishing its goal of becoming a vital part of the community in which it performs.

“We have an opportunity, now that we’re becoming more well known and more recognized, to better identify ourselves as a double fabric,” Brebner says. “We’re creative part of the community but also an innovative business. We’re part of that community in a very unorthodox way.”

AlterTheater’s American Whup-Ass continues through Nov. 9 at 1299 Fourth St. (at C Street), San Rafael. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 415-454-2787 or visit www.altertheater.org.

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