Itamar Moses goes back to high school

Writing about his high school experience proved therapeutic for playwright Itamar Moses, a Berkeley native whose Yellowjackets has its world premiere this week at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

The 30-year-old writer headed back to the year 1994 to dramatically reconstruct his junior year at Berkeley High School, when he was editor of the school newspaper, The Jacket, and racial tensions were dividing the student body.

“High school is a potent time,” Moses says one morning before a rehearsal. “I try to examine why that is on this canvas. I was able to work out specific feelings here, and it’s amazing to me to discover that I did have a different perspective. I had such firm beliefs at the time, but I could actually see a more complex, multiplicity of viewpoints I didn’t have at the time. Things seemed so obvious to me as a student who was feeling threatened or getting messed with. I always hoped I’d see a larger perspective. I’m amazed I actually did.”

Moses, who now lives in Brooklyn’s Park Slope area, says that even though he was re-creating experiences of 14 years ago, he could hear the voices clearly.

“I feel like I still talk like I did in high school,” Moses says and laughs. “The other voices in the play, the ones that aren’t mine, I’ve been hearing for years. As opposed to just crafting dialogue, I tried to hear it. I have voices in there” – he points to his head – “not in a mental health way, but in a historical way.”

Some of those voices belong to African-American and Latino characters, which required Moses to write outside his race.

“Sure, there was an element of fear of fraudulence,” he says. “I did feel an internal hurdle. Am I entitled to do this? Is this OK? Solution was to remind myself that my choices were to do it or not write about Berkeley High at all. Usually that’s how to get yourself to do something difficult: get to the point where there’s no alternative. I guess I have the same feeling about writing female characters. In a weird way, you let go of the idea you’re writing from the outside in. Characters have to come from the inside out or they’ll play that way on stage. Every character is a fragment of your psyche, no matter the race or gender.”

Like most writers who are writing about a specific time in their lives, Moses takes the fictional route. For instance, he says he’s most like Avi, the new editor of the newspaper who is dealing with a faculty boycotting his paper. But he’s also like Trevor, the newspaper staff member who is getting bullied in a pretty serious way.

“I wanted to get both experiences in there,” Moses says. “But neither character is fully me. The question of what’s autobiographical and what’s not is complicated. There are elements of truth in the fiction.”

Moses (in a photo from his high school yearbook at right, not the Jacket T-shirt) joined the school newspaper staff in his freshman year and has been writing since (he was also a humor columnist for the Yale Daily News in his college years). But the writer says he’s still not sure if writing is “his thing.”

“When I was 9 or 10, I read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy. It was an obsession. I thought I’d write that. My initial plan was to be Piers Anthony or Susan Cooper or whoever. I got to Berkeley High, and I don’t know why, but I was attracted to the newspaper. I can’t remember how I made that decision. I liked it a lot. I knew it was my big high school extracurricular activity. Never planned to be a journalist.”

Then, in college, theater became his extracurricular activity, and now he’s a playwright in demand (his biggest hit, Bach at Leipzig, recently had its area premiere at Shakespeare Santa Cruz).

Working on Yellowjackets for the last two years, Moses was approached by a TV network – he says it shall remain nameless – about turning the play into a TV series. Unlike the play, which allows the young actors to play the adults as well as the students, the TV geniuses wanted to focus primarily on the adults.

“To me, the play is interesting because it focuses on the kids,” Moses says. “That’s what makes it a microcosm. For the purposes of TV, they may be right. But on stage, kids playing adults was the obvious choice.”

More than a decade away from his high school experience, Moses says maturity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“If anything, I feel less clarity and less direct passion and less vibrating sense of the electricity of possibility of the world than I did when I was a teenager,” he says. “When I was in graduate school, Tony Kushner spoke to us, and the thing he said that I remember most vividly was that maturity in our culture is defined as the ability not to feel too strongly about anything. If you buy into that, especially as an artist, you’re screwed because it means you’re deadened. As writers, he said, be careful not to be embarrassed by the extremities of feeling. Certainly how much you want that in your life and relationships is a question, but you definitely want in your work. In Yellowjackets, taking the kids seriously, focusing on them was a way to do that…to write about characters whose id is louder than their superego.”

Moses will take part in a free “Page to Stage” talk on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage at 7 p.m. Sept. 22.

Yellowjackets continues through Oct. 12 at the Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit


Eugenie Chan spins into Avant GardARAMA!

Four years ago, Cutting Ball Theater continued its search for the edge that cuts with the first Avant GardARAMA!, a festival of short, experimental plays.

The quest for cutting-edge theater never ends, so Cutting Ball is reviving the festival, which opens Friday, July 18 and continues through Aug. 16 at the EXIT on Taylor. The roster of playwrights includes some heavy hitters such as Suzan-Lori Parks and Gertrude Stein. And there’s also a local name: Eugenie Chan.

Sandwiched in between Parks’ Betting on the Dust Commander and Stein’s Accents in Alsace is Chan’s world-premiere Bone to Pick, a new take on the Ariadne myth.

In the original story (or one of them), Ariadne falls in love with Theseus and helps him slay her brother, the Minotaur, and also helps him conquer the Minotaur’s maze. But then, as so often happens in these stories, Theseus cast Ariadne aside, and she was rescued by Dionysus.

In Chan’s take on the story, developed for a single actress, Ariadne is Ria, a waitress who has been slinging hash for 3,000 years in an island diner at the end of the world. Theseus, called Theo, has abandoned her, and she has done her best to serve all the nations who have visited her diner. But it’s the end of the world as we know it.

“Ria’s diner is demolished, she’s stuck in this wasteland, alone, trying to figure out her life,” Chan explains. “She addresses Theso, her lover boy, and her old boss, Kingman. And she thinks about when she had her lover, had her juice, and she sacrificed a family member. Now she’s at the end of the line, in isolation. She has to confront her role in her own abandonment. She’s a waitress with no more food to serve. She’s kind a sad, kinda mad.”

The idea to do this adaptation came from Cutting Ball artistic director Rob Melrose, with whom Chan worked at Marin Academy.

“Rob has long been fascinated by the idea of the labyrinth – purposeful wandering to somewhere you don’t know,” Chan says. “We talked about the myth, and I was all over the place about it. I have an opinion about Ariadne and Theseus. She was wronged. I know she’s saved in the original story – Dionysus turns her into a star, but I became fixated on that other relationship.”

The solo show concept was based in practicality. Melrose, who is directing all three Avant GardARAMA pieces, wanted a piece that he could take on the road to experimental theater festivals. When the official commission came, Chan says she was thrilled.

“But I didn’t realize how hard it would be,” she says. “It was a lesson in hubris, which is always good. I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with a bunch of other characters, but it turns out multi-character plays are much more natural for me. A solo show is like ice water in the face. But I love the challenge – any writer does. Otherwise you retreat into your old tricks.”

A Bay Area native, Chan is finding her work more in demand around the country. She’s in the midst of a seven-year residency at New Dramatists in New York and she’s working with Seattle-based composer Byron Au Yong on an opera project called Kidnapped Water. He’s basing the piece on the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, and he’s given eight writers eight of the hexagram for which to create mini-libretti.

“I’m not quite clear on the concept,” Chan says. “But it was inspired by bottled water, and it goes up in places all around Seattle this summer.”

Given that her writing career is percolating, why does Chan stay in the Bay Area?

“I get a lot of my creativity just living here,” she says. “My family has a big history here. I feel rooted. And I love the theaters here, especially the smaller, younger theaters like Cutting Ball, Shotgun Players, Crowed Fire and Thick Description. Would that their kind of theater could flourish even more.”

Avant GardARAMA opens July 18 and continues through Aug. 16 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit for information.



The (puppet) theory of (puppet) relativity

Here’s an intriguing subtitle: “A found-object puppetry play inside the mind of Albert Einstein.”

That subtitle is attached to One Stone: Einstein, a work-in-progress from two of the Bay Area’s leading theatrical lights: playwright Trevor Allen and puppeteer Liebe Wetzel (along with her Lunatique Fantastique puppeteers).

The play, which involves found text, found-object puppets and David Sinaiko as Albert Einstein, receives two readings: 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 19 at Stanford University and 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 20 at Traveling Jewish Theatre (470 Florida St., San Francisco). These are free “in the rough” presentations presented by the Playwrights Foundation.

You can RSVP by e-mailing or by calling 415-626-0453, ext. 105.

Play award finalists announced

The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) has named six finalists in its annual playwriting competition, supported by generous funding from the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, which recognizes plays that premiered outside New York City.

The top honoree in the Steinberg /ATCA New Play Awards will receive $25,000 — the largest prize for a national playwriting award. Two additional playwrights will receive $7,500 each.

The winners will be announced at a March 29, 2008 ceremony at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Ky.

The six finalists:

The Crowd You’re in With, by Rebecca Gilman, debuted at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in November. The play examines three couples at a backyard barbecue who reveal vastly different attitudes toward having children in the 21st century.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone, by Sarah Ruhl, bowed at Washington D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in June. The quirky comedy examines the fallout when a lonely woman takes the cell phone from the body of dead man she discovers sitting next to her in a café and begins answering his calls.

End Days, by Deborah Zoe Laufer, premiered in October at Florida Stage in Manalapan. Sometimes comic, sometimes moving, the play studies the challenge of maintaining faith in a world dominated by science and fear. A Jewish family copes with the aftermath of 9/11 as the mother, now a born-again Christian, tries to convert the family before the rapture arrives — on Wednesday.

The English Channel, by Robert Brustein, debuted in September at Suffolk University and then the Vineyard Playhouse on Martha’s Vineyard. The noted critic and founder of the American Repertory Theatre penned a droll comedy centering on creativity, inspiration and plagiarism, in which the young Shakespeare, the ghost of Marlowe and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets collide in a tavern.

Strike-Slip, by Naomi Iizuka, opened last spring at the Humana Festival. The playwright presents a cinematic look at the interconnected nature of seemingly disconnected lives in the diverse, multi-cultural Los Angeles basin. One judge praised it as a 21st Century O. Henry story.

33 Variations, by Moises Kaufman, debuted in September at Washington’s Arena Stage. Kaufman offers a fictional imagining of Beethoven’s creation of 33 brilliant variations on a prosaic waltz. His obsessive pursuit of perfection parallels a modern tale of a terminally-ill musicologist struggling with her own obsession to unearth the source of Beethoven’s.

These finalists were selected from 28 eligible scripts submitted by ATCA
members. As the competition requires, none had productions in New York City in
2007. They were evaluated by a committee of 12 theater critics from around the
U.S. headed by chairman Wm. F. Hirschman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and vice-chair George Hatza of the Reading Eagle.

“The amazing range of work — dramas, fantasies, musicals, farces, melodramas —
was uplifting confirmation that theater remains a vital and evolving art form
that can speak to every generation,” Hirschman said.

Since the inception of ATCA’s New Play Award in 1977, honorees have included
Lanford Wilson, Marsha Norman, August Wilson, Jane Martin, Arthur Miller, Mac
Wellman, Adrienne Kennedy, Donald Margulies, Lee Blessing, Lynn Nottage, Horton
and Craig Lucas. Last year’s winner was San Francisco’s own Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Hunter Gatherers.

The awards are supported by an annual grant of $40,000 from the Harold and Mimi
Steinberg Charitable Trust, created in 1986 by Harold Steinberg on behalf of
himself and his late wife. The primary mission of the Steinberg Charitable Trust
to support the American theater. The trust has provided grants totaling millions
of dollars to support new productions of American plays and educational programs
for those who may not ordinarily experience live theater.

Danny Hoch takes over

It’s been 10 years since Danny Hoch jolted the Bay Area theater scene with Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop, his dynamic solo show at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Since then, he has worked diligently to make hip-hop theater more than just a passing phase. He founded the Hip-Hop Theatre Festival, now in its eighth year of presenting a new generation of theater artists in the Bay Area, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Hoch’s native New York.

While Hoch has gone on to create other solo shows — Pot Melting, Some People — he has also dabbled in movies. You’ve seen his tough-guy mug in American Splendor, Blackhawk Down, War of the Worlds and the recent We Own the Night, among others.

The last year was particularly busy for the 37-year-old theater artist. He directed Representa, written by and starring Paul Flores, as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival. He wrote and directed his first multicharacter play, Til the Break of Dawn, last September, and he’s been developing his latest solo show, Taking Over, now having its world premiere at Berkeley Rep.

“The last few years I’ve been trying to do some different things,” Hoch says from Berkeley on his way to rehearsal. “It’s been a while since I had a new solo show. Had to get talked into it. I did solo shows for such a long time and took them on the road. And it’s just you. It’s lonely, honestly, a lonely experience.”

But now Hoch is back and working with Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone to put the finishing touches on Taking Over, which Hoch workshopped last fall in Minnesota and Washington, D.C.

“The work I’ve done the last few years has been fruitful in many ways,” he says. “Now that I’m back on stage, I’m getting my old chops back.”

The new show has been simmering, he says, for 20 years and is based on Hoch’s Brooklyn neighborhood, which has been undergoing a whole lot of changes. Some would call it gentrification.

Hoch says it’s more akin to colonialization. He has a whole, complex theory about how the rich fleeing cities for the suburbs then clamoring to get back into the cities is akin to a Medieval feudal society.

“Why neighborhoods become more expensive and why people from all over the country flock into cities, not for economic reasons but for luxury reasons and for creative and artistic reasons, is complicated and heavy,” Hoch says. “One of the things I like to say is gentrification is an excuse not to say the word `colonialization.’ People think that once a place has been colonized, it can’t be colonized again. But it can — again and again. That’s what’s happening.”

At readings of the play, whether in Berkeley or in the nation’s capital, audiences are responding and sticking around for the post-show discussion.

“Last March in Berkeley, I couldn’t leave the theater because people kept telling me about this happening in Oakland and San Francisco and parts of Berkeley. There’s a major economic and demographic shift happening, and it’s creating movement and displacement — it affects everybody.”

The topic is so relevant, in fact, that Hoch says he’s only telling part of the story.
“It became clear as I was making the show, which is all true, that there’s so much I may have to do Part 2 and Part 3.”

Here are some random Hoch thoughts on his art and his life.

On directing his multi-character play Till the Break of Dawn: “Since I wasn’t performing in it, I thought it would be less work. Ha! It was 50,000 times the work because I was writing and directing, which was not my intention in the first place. Don’t know if I’ll do that again soon. It was not a mistake, but it was just an incredible amount of work and demand on my mental capacity. Then I thought, `Now I can go do a solo show. That’ll be easy.’ Now I’m finding it’s 50,000 times the amount of work of writing and directing. I have a new appreciation for directors and the alleviation of all the pressure not to have to think about certain things.”

On working with director Tony Taccone: “He’s really, really smart and sharp. We yell at each other. We’re just New Yorkers. Yelling is just conversation. We’re old-school New Yorkers.”

On the final result of Til the Break of Dawn: I think I did OK as a director and pretty good as a playwright. Could have done better in both. I’m really hard on myself. I also think that I achieved something pretty amazing. That was proven by the reaction of the incredible audiences that came to the show. Again, I managed to bring a young, diverse audience into a theater that was completely moved and really inspired by the play.”

On the evolution of hip-hop theater: “Hip-hop is such a loaded word, loaded with the wrong cultural references because of mainstream commercial culture. A lot of times, hip-hop theater is perceived by regional or nonprofit or for-profit theater world as a novelty. Or as music. People expect breakdancers to come out. It’s unfortunate because what’s happening in the meantime is that this entire dialogue, this language and canon from the hip-hop generation is being ignored. My fear is that the stories of the hip-hop generation — forget the breakdancers and rappers — is not going to be popular until 500 years from now. That’s unfortunate because these stories are immediate and urgent and necessary. When the stories are embraced, they’re embraced as a novelty or a one-shot deal, not as a movement, a genre or a generational niche or aesthetic. They fill the color slot for the season. Or this is the show to write the grant to get the young audience in. It’s that black and white. It really is.”

On the necessity of researching a play: “No research. I don’t like to read. I carry around a stack of articles, but I didn’t read all of them. They reinforce what I’m already doing.”

On mounting another solo show 10 years after the highly successful Jails, Hospitals & Hip-hop: “Am I 10 years smarter? I’d like to think so. My effectiveness at distilling monologues is a lot faster. It takes less time for me to think about how to distill the many ideas I have for a character into a monologue, which is a good thing. On the downside, it takes a lot longer to memorize the script. And yeah, it’s physically demanding. I don’t remember it being this physically demanding in rehearsal. I remember it in performance and in an eight-show week. But not before the show opens. I’m exhausted.”

Hoch’s Taking Over continues through Feb. 10 on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33 to $69. Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Here’s Hoch reading his 9/11 poem “Corner Talk” on “Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam” on HBO. Language is R-rated, so watch or don’t at your discretion.

Here’s another “Def Poetry Jam” clip, with Hoch defining what hip-hop is (or isn’t) in the poem PSA.

Stoppard stops by ACT

American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff didn’t mince words when introducing playwright Tom Stoppard Saturday morning at a Koret Visiting Artist Series event. She called him the “greatest writer in the English-speaking language.”

Indeed the 70-year-old Stoppard, outfitted in light-brown slacks and jacket with vibrant red socks, has an extraordinary body of dramatic work, stretching back to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in 1967 to his latest Broadway hit, Rock ‘n’ Roll, which follows closely on the heels of last year’s New York triumph, the Tony-winning, three-part epic The Coast of Utopia.

Much of Saturday’s discussion, in front of a full house, centered on Rock ‘n’ Roll, which takes Stoppard back to his native Czechoslovakia. Here are some highlights.

On writing Rock ‘n’ Roll, which goes from Prague Spring in 1968 to the fall of Communism in 1990: “A play writes itself, but you give it a lot of help. The play tells you what it wants to be about and which way it wants to go. Rock ‘n’ Roll is largely about Czechoslovakia, but threaded through is a love story, which is actually out of sight too long, That’s what it’s really about. I intended to push the plot forward to 1997, but by the time the love story is played out in 1990, the play had no interest in going beyond that.”

On his favorite thing written about Rock ‘n’ Roll during its London run: “A journalist wrote that after the play, she cried all the way home. That’s what you want a play about politics to do.”

On the art of dramatic storytelling: “Almost every story is two stories enfolded. You have the play going on, which is transient, ephemeral. In Rock ‘n’ Roll, when the play begins, it’s 1968 and the Soviet Empire is a fact of life. It looks permanent, but it’s not. Then there’s the other story that has entirely to do with human behavior and the way of being human. That’s why the love story made it impossible for the political story to have any juice left.”

On the writing process: “The older I get, the more I sense that you really have to be brave enough to know less than what you think you need to know to write the play. If you start telling it, you end up with something brittle. I’ve written work like that. I know I have. The difference between a good play and a bad play or a good production and a bad production is that the good ones get better as they age and the not-so-good ones get worse. Plays that are true to themselves are never quite ready, but they get more ready the more you do them.”

On going back to Czechoslovakia after the fall of Communism: “I had never been back to my birthplace. My mother had died five years earlier, and her death released me, gave me permission to go. While she lived she didn’t want to look back. There’s so much I didn’t know about her and her family. It was ignorance I was happy to live in. I didn’t care to invigilate my mother.”

While in Czechoslovakia: “My father was a doctor, and as Hitler was getting closer, the chief doctor got all the Jewish doctors out of the country. We ended up in Singapore, just before Pearl Harbor. Ten years ago, when I was back in Czechoslovakia, I met with the chief doctor’s daughter. When she was five, she put her hand through a glass pane, and apparently all the children asked for my father. He sewed up her cut, and she showed me the scar. The scar on this lady’s hand is the only thing I’d got from my dead father…There’s real life handing me a superb novelistic or dramatic trick.”

On consistent threads through his work: “I now see I identify this mania for cross-reference in a given play. That seems to be something I find deeply attractive dramatically. My plays are full of shuttle-and-loom back and forth.”

Perloff reminded Stoppard that he once answered an ACT MFA student’s question, “What do you most value in an actor?” with “Clarity of utterance.” Stoppard elaborates: “That ought to be a given but seldom is. Actors, on principle, refer to say “if” at the beginning of a sentence. They think they say it, but they never do. If fuzzy logic has its place in the world, I supposed fuzzy dialogue has its place.”
Perloff: “But not in your plays.”
Stoppard: “No.”

On working on an adaptation of Chekhov’s Ivanov: “I love doing it, searching for the utterance – how to say it. It’s an immensely difficult thing. I don’t read Russian and work from a literal translation. I know this work has a deep significance, but I’m not exactly sure why. I sit at my desk (I tend to work at night) putting the literal translation into exactly right English. I go to bed thinking, `That went well. As good as I can get it. Chekhov would be delighted.’ Come back in the morning, and it’s as if the Polish au pair girl had re-written it. I can only do this work for a couple of hours at a stretch or I lose contact with the English language. You’re either too close to it or too far away.

On something strange happening while working on the Chekhov: “I’m interested in the aside. Ten years ago, adapting The Seagull, Dorn (the doctor) is alone on stage talking. I worried about whom he was talking to. Do you look the audience in the eye or just say the speech? I found that breaking the fourth wall doesn’t break the play. The play carries on undeterred, and that goes against logic.”

2007 theater Top 10

I can always tell whether a theater year has been good or not so good when I sit down to hammer out my Top 10 list. If I can summon five or more shows simply from memory, it’s a good year. This year’s entire list came almost entirely from memory (which is a feat in itself as the old noggin’ ain’t what it used to be), so it was a good year indeed.

Here’s the countdown leading to my No. 1 pick of the year.

10. Anna Bella Eema, Crowded Fire Theatre Company — Three fantastic actresses, Cassie Beck, Danielle Levin and Julie Kurtz, brought Lisa D’Amour’s tone poem of a play to thrilling life.

9. First Person Shooter, SF Playhouse and Playground — What a good year for SF Playhouse. This original play by local writer Aaron Loeb brought some powerhouse drama to its examination of violent video games and school violence.

8. Bulrusher, Shotgun Players — Berkeley’s own Eisa Davis’ eloquent play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, turned the Northern California dialect of Boontling into poetic drama as it told the story of an outcast young woman finding her place in the world.

7. Avenue Q, Best of Broadway/SHN — Hilarious and irreverent, this puppet-filled musical by Jeff Marx, Robert Lopez and Jeff Whitty made you believe in friendship, life after college and the joys of puppet sex.

6. Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, SF Playhouse — It took a while for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ intense drama to make it to the Bay Area, but the wait was worth it, if only for Berkeley resident Carl Lumbly in the central role of a murderer who may have seen the error of his ways. And note: This is the second SF Playhouse show on the list.

5. Emma, TheatreWorks _ Paul Gordon’s sumptuous, funny and, of course, romantic adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel came marvelously to life as a musical, with a star-making performance by Pleasanton native Lianne Marie Dobbs.

4. Argonautika, Berkeley Repertory Theatre _ Mary Zimmerman’s athletic retelling of the Jason and the Argonauts myth fused beauty and muscle and impeccable storytelling into a grand evening of theater.

3. Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People, Word for Word — Actually, the second half of Strangers We Know, this stage adaptation of Lorrie Moore’s short story was brilliantly directed by Joel Mullenix and performed by Patricia Silver and Sheila Balter.

2. Man and Superman, California Shakespeare Theater _ This unbelievably vivid version of George Bernard Shaw’s massive existentialist comedy benefited from superior direction by Jonathan Moscone and an impeccable cast headed by Elijah Alexander and Susannah Livingston.

1. The Crowd You’re in With, Magic Theatre _ The team of playwright Rebecca Gilman and director Amy Glazer fused into brilliance with this slice-of-life meditation on why we make the choices we make in our lives. Local luminaries Lorri Holt and Charles Shaw Robinson brought incredible humor and tenderness to their roles, and T. Edward Webster in the lead managed to make ambivalence compelling.

Now it’s your turn. Please post your favorite theater moments of 2007 — no geographical limitations, just good theater.

Campo Santo, Johnson together again

Campo Santo, the small theater company with major literary impact, is not doing a traditional season.

Sean San Jose, Campo Santo founder, and Deborah Cullinan, executive director of Intersection for the Arts, describe this offbeat season as a “search for the most exciting and bold new theatrical constructs.”

The season includes three world-premiere plays by some literary heavyweights, but each premiere lasts a limited time.

First up is Denis Johnson’s Des Moines, which opens Oct. 19 and closes Oct. 21. That’s right, three performances only. And guess what? The shows were sold out before rehearsals even began.

That’s what Johnson’s name can do, and that’s only speaking of him as the playwright of such extraordinary work as The Soul of a Whore, a previous Campo Santo-Intersection collaboration. Never mind that last week Johnson (above) was nominated for a National Book Award for his epic Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke. People around here love Johnson as a playwright (OK, as a novelist, short-story writer and all-around great guy, too).

The tag-line for Des Moines is: “Come to a party…where a play breaks out!” And that’s pretty much what happens. Ticket buyers are given a super-secret location in San Francisco. They show up and take part in a cocktail party — complete with live music and cocktails — and the play sort of unfolds around them. Attendees can expect to meet a cabbie, a devout grandmother, a grieving widow and a cross-dressing priest among others as they randomly collide at a cocktail party in the Mission District and a small house in Des Moines, Iowa.

Jonathan Moscone, artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater, directs a cast that includes Jeri Lynn Cohen, Cully Fredericksen (below), Margo Hall, Max Gordon Moore and Luis Saguar.

If you’re intent on getting into Des Moines (and who could blame you?), you can put your name on the waiting list by e-mailing

But wait, there’s more!

And because one new Johnson play is never as good as two new Johnson plays, Campo Santo and Intersection are premiering another one: Everything Has Been Arranged, a collaboration with Southern Exposure (an artist-run contemporary-arts and arts-education group) based on Johnson’s story “The Small Boys’ Unit,” about civil wars in Liberia, from his book Seek.

San Jose directs the show, which is part of Grounded?, a series of juried projects at Intersection that includes new visual art, public intervention, performance and media in search of physical, personal, social, political and creative ground.

Everything Has Been Arranged is only being performed three times: Dec. 6, 7 and 8 at Intersection. The evenings will also include performances of unpublished interviews on the Sudan civil wars culled from the newest publishing imprint from McSweeney’s, Voice of Witness.

Also part of Grounded? is Vendela Vida’s new theater piece, let the northern lights erase your name, directed by Danny Scheie. The piece is from Vida’s novel of the same name, which one reviewer described as walking “a very fine line between high-camp comedy and lyrical seriousness.”

let the northern lights erase your name will be performed Dec. 13, 14 and 15 at Intersection.

For a complete listing of Grounded? events, call 415-626-3311 or visit

Bock in black

We can claim Adam Bock as a San Francisco playwright, but that’s really not quite accurate.

The talented writer basically used the Bay Area as a way station between his native Canada and the greener pastures of New York. But it must be said, the pastures were pretty green in San Francisco, where Bock made a splash with the man-in-love-with-shark comedy Swimming in the Shallows with Shotgun Players (done in the basement of Theatre Rhinoceros) and most especially with Five Flights, a production of Encore Theatre Company at the Thick House.

Well, let’s all celebrate the fact that “San Francisco” playwright Adam Bock won an Obie Award last Monday for his play The Thugs. (The Obies, in case you don’t know or barely care, are the Village Voice’s awards for off-Broadway shows.)

The Thugs, we have discovered through some diligent Googling, is about temps in a law office who suspect some of the firm’s employees are being murdered or something even more sinister.

The New York Times’ Jason Zinoman described the play as, “a delightfully paranoid little nightmare that is both more chillingly realistic and pointedly absurd than anything John Grisham ever dreamed up. ”

Message to Adam: congratulations. Message to Bay Area theater companies: please produce The Thugs. We hear it’s only an hour.

Kornbluth gets political

About four years ago, I was having a chat with Berkeley monologist Josh Kornbluth.

He was touting his latest show, Love & Taxes, but something he said then occurred to me before I talked to him last week.

Kornbluth was discussing how he didn’t want to invade the privacy of his wife and son by creating a show specifically about them.

“But because I have a family, I’ve been thinking about politics, the future and the wider picture. That has forced my gaze outwards and away from my navel,” Kornbluth said.

Sure enough, that outward gazing has pulled Kornbluth squarely into the realm of politics. His new monologue, Citizen Josh opens May 19 at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre.

Even though he keeps threatening to make his next show about playing the oboe, Kornbluth decided he wanted to concentrate on democracy.

“I’m interested in citizenship and democracy,” Kornbluth says from his home. “I’m particularly interested in people who are just becoming citizens and hearing what they think.”

As he has with many of his shows, Kornbluth hit the road to improv. He made the circuit of Bay Area campuses — UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Cal State East Bay and University of San Francisco among others — and started testing material on “audiences not necessarily comfortable with my references and definitely not from my age group,” as Kornbluth, 48, puts it.

As he talked about the frustration of the 2004 election, his feeling of disconnection from the rest of the country, making the world a better place for children and wondering aloud if democracy is even possible in today’s world, Kornbluth found himself learning.

“I was learning not just about the show but about myself and who I am politically, which feels really helpful. What do I believe in? What kind of `-ist’ am I?”

One improv session proved to be particularly insightful. A theater professor at UC Berkeley invited Kornbluth into a History of Theater class, the first of several visits. He had just seen the documentary “Berkeley in the ’60s” and had its visions of politically agitated students protesting and turning over cars dancing in his head.

But what he saw in the classroom was a bunch of young people surfing the wireless Internet on the laptop computers.

“You know if someone is looking at a computer while you’re talking, chances are they’re shopping at the Gap or doing anything but being present,” Kornbluth says. “I really didn’t connect with them at all.”

He was, in his words, “really bummed,” and didn’t relish the idea of returning to the classroom. “I wondered if I was fooling myself that I had connected better with the students at other schools.”

But Kornbluth did go back. He jumped off the stage and started his presentation on the floor. I told them no one was allowed to eat or be on the computer.

“I told them it had seemed like a slap in the face to them to have this guy start talking about the ’60s. `It seemed irrelevant to you. How did you feel about it?’ ”
Then the students started talking.

“The entire class got totally passionate,” Kornbluth recalls. “All these important, profound issues came up. I left there thinking that finding passion is an important part of what democracy allows, what keeps it going, sustains it. As I was leaving the class, a student said, `I’ve never talked about politics like that.’ I realized a lot of what they were talking about, in terms of life and acting, affected me: fear, anger, worry that stuff won’t work out or that no one will agree with me.”

Re-energized, Kornbluth, working with director David Dower, formerly of San Francisco’s Z Space Studio and now an associate artist at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, immersed himself even more into politics.

“I have a feeling with this piece that I haven’t had with others,” Kornbluth says. “I’m trying to address a profoundly widespread feeling, a shared community feeling, our communal response to the political traumas of our time. In my own little way I’m trying to respond to it all.”
While gainfully employed as the host of KQED-Channel 9’s “The Josh Kornbluth Show,” a chatty, free-form talk show in the typically Kornbluthian mold, Kornbluth managed to find time to work on Citizen Josh at the Sundance Theater Lab in Utah.

While there, he, a loquacious Berkeley liberal, found common ground with the heavily Mormon, red-state folks he was meeting at the mall.

“We need to be in the habit of talking to each other about serious, important things respectfully across the spectrum,” Kornbluth says. “This idea of red states vs. blue states is anathema to me. I hate it. I don’t think it’s true that red states are that different from blue. We take for granted that we can’t talk to each other, we won’t talk to each other and we’re done.”
A professor of theology from Brigham Young University got into a conversation with Kornbluth about the need to get people to talk to each other and participate in government.

“He was passionate about that, too,” Kornbluth says. “We agreed that what’s wrong with American politics is that people only talk with people they agree with. Talking to him was exciting and gratifying. In many ways, we were both the `other’ and yet we were so much on the same side.”

Because Kornbluth says he’s still at the beginning of his political education, he doesn’t know quite where to end his show.

“I’ve said this in rehearsal, and I mean it,” Kornbluth says. “I can’t wait to see how this show ends.”

Citizen Josh continues through June 17 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$45. Call (415) 441-8822 or visit

For all things Josh Kornbluth, visit his Web site at