Enter Stage Left: SF theater history on film

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Robin Williams is interviewed in a scene from the documentary Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco.

Docuemntary film director/producer Austin Forbord (below right) has created a fascinating documentary about the history of San Francisco theater from the post-World War II days up to the present. The movie has its premeire at the Mill Valley Film Festival this week and will likely see wider release soon after.
Austn Forbord
I interviewed Forbord for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can read the story here.

The extraordinary cast of interviewees includes: Robert Woodruff, Chris Hardman, Christina Augello, Robin Williams, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Tony Taccone, David Weissman, Misha Berson, Cynthia Moore, Luis Valdez, Peter Coyote, Herbert Blau, Robert Hurwitt, Jean Schiffman, Anna Halprin, Mort Subotnick, RG Davis, Joan Holden, Oskar Eustis, Richard E.T. White. Larry Eilenberg, Bill Irwin, Jeffery Raz, Kimi Okada, Geoff Hoyle, Joy Carlin, Carey Perloff, Bill Ball, Ed Hastings, Bernard Weiner, Charles “Jimmy” Dean, Robert Ernst, Paul Dresher, John O’Keefe, Leonard Pitt, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Pam Tent, John Fisher, Melissa Hillman, Brad Erickson, Philip Gotanda, John LeFan, Dan Hoyle, Stanley Williams and Krissy Keefer.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

You can keep up to date on the movie’s trajectory at the oficial website (click here).

Puppeteer wakes up the weird to stop bullying

The horrific stories about kids and bullying just keep on coming. Even in the face of something extraordinary like the “It Gets Better” campaign, bullying persists and the damage is deadly. It may take generations to quell the cruelty, so let’s get started.

LeslieWalnut Creek native Leslie Carrara-Rudolph is doing something about bullying in the best way she knows how. If you saw the wonderful Muppet puppet improv show Stuffed and Unstrung at the Curran Theatre last month, you saw what a genius puppeteer Carrara-Rudolph is. Well now she’s returning to her hometown with a children’s show that directly address bullying and self-esteem isues – but in a fun, family-friendly way for ages 6 and up.

The show is Wake Up Your Weird, and it stars a sock puppet named Lolly Lardpop. Take a peek:

Carrara-Rudolph, an Emmy–nominated Sesame Street puppeteer, says she wrote this show “because I thought it was a whimsical way I could address some of the emotional issues young people are dealing with today and give them some creative tools to express themselves. I wanted to show kids how easy it is to access their imaginations. I think of Wake up Your Weird as a LeslieLolly‘show and tell.’ The first act is the ‘show’ and the second act is the ‘tell’ where I tell the audience how to do what they just saw on stage. I love the arts so much and this piece comes straight from my heart and allows me to share that love and connect with communities and reach all ages. Theaters are a hub for humanity.”

Carrara-Rudolph’s one-person, multimedia show addresses bullying and self esteem issues and teaches kids how to navigate life creatively. The first act is a musical short story developed at the Ojai Playwright Conference in 2009 and was further developed at the Eugene O’Neill Puppetry Conference in 2011. It has received a Jim Henson Foundation grant and was awarded an “UNIMA Citation of Excellence” for the version, performed at the 2009 International Puppetry Conference. In 2010, Leslie was a featured artist at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta.

Wake Up Your Weird has its premiere at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek this weekend. Shows are at 7:15pm Friday, Sept. 30; 2:15pm and 7:15pm Saturday, Oct. 1; 2:15pm Sunday, Oct. 2. Tickets are $20. Call 925-943-7469 or visit www.lesherartscenter.org.

TheatreWorks designs with Sense and Sensibility

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Jennifer Le Blanc (left) is Elinor, Stacy Ross (center) is Aunt Jennings and Mark Anderson Phillips is Colonel Brandon in the TheatreWorks production of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Photo by Tracy Martin

In today’s San Francisco Chronicle, I talk with TheatreWorks Artistic Director Robert Kelley, set designer Joe Ragey and costume designer Fumiko Bielefeldt about their work on bringing Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility to the stage.

Here’s a little bit to start:

How appropriate to have a calm, rational discussion about Jane Austen and the theater on a Menlo Park corner that used to house a brothel.

The discussion takes place in a conference room, part of the TheatreWorks rehearsal complex, that is affectionately known as Miss Kitty’s in deference to the madam who purportedly did a different kind of business on this site many years ago.

TheatreWorks Artistic Director Robert Kelley is talking about his affection for Austen and the kinds of sights and sounds he wants to conjure in the production of her “Sense and Sensibility” he’s directing in Mountain View.

Read the entire article.


TheatreWorks’ Sense and Sensibility continues through Sept. 18 at the Mountain View Center for the Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$69. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

`Summer Blockbusters’ at San Jose Rep

Many theater companies take a break during the summer months and send audiences into the great outdoors for some Shakespeare or Mime Troupe action.

But San Jose Repertory Theatre is launching what it calls a “Summer Blockbuster Series.”

The two-show series opens July 7 with Forbidden Broadway — 25th Anniversary Tour. Gerard Allessandrini’s legendary revue that lampoons Broadway includes spoofs of Avenue Q, Wicked, Mamma Mia, La Cage aux Folles and many more. The show runs July 7 through 12.

Next in the series is another legendary show, Chicago’s The Second City, which runs July 14-19. Founded in 1959 Second City has been a training ground for a who’s who of American comedy. The roster of alumni includes Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Joan Rivers, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, John Belushi, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Tickets are $40-$60 and shows are at San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Call 408-367-7236 or visit www.sjrep.com for information.

`Beach Blanket’ awards scholarships

Last week, Jo Schuman Silver, producer of Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon, awarded the annual Scholarships for the Arts from the Steve Silver Foundation and Beach Blanket Babylon, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this season.

From nine high school senior finalists — three in each category of dance, acting and voice — three were selected as recipients of a $10,000 scholarship toward their college education.

The winners:

Dance: Jessica Lester from American High School in Fremont performing “Hernando’s Hideaway” from The Pajama Game.

Acting: Patrick Varner from Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa performing a monologue from Edward Albee’s The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?

Voice: Nikola Prinz from Novato High School in Novato performing “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy and Bess.

Visit the Beach Blanket Babylon site for more information.

Beach Blanket Babylon is currently in the midst of an anniversary celebration that involves 35 special performances, each with a new musical number as well as a special tribute to creator Steve Silver.

Visit www.beachblanketbabylon.com for information.

Beth Wilmurt goes `Boating’ in Berkeley

You’ve heard about monsters being unleashed and wreaking havoc in New York? Well, Beth Wilmurt was just such a monster.

The San Francisco-based actor played a ferocious dragon in the final scenes of Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, the Shotgun Players/Banana Bag & Bodice musical that headed to New York after its award-winning birth in Berkeley.

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Wilmurt replaced Cameron Galloway, who plays a starchy academic for most of the play then, at the end, turns into a dragon for one final battle scene with the warrior Beowulf. This was Wilmurt’s first New York performance experience, and she describes it as “a super-positive experience.”

“It felt like the best possible circumstances to be in New York,” she says. “I was there for about five weeks with one thing to concentrate on, this wonderful artistic experience. I had my days free during the run of the show, and during rehearsal I could go out at night and see shows. I saw a ton of theater and ran into a lot of people missing the Bay Area.”

Once she got home, Wilmurt didn’t have much time to dawdle before she was back in the rehearsal room, this time for the Bay Area premiere of Bob Glaudini’s Jack Goes Boating, a four-person romantic comedy that begins performances this week at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. The play, directed by Joy Carlin, is about two couples, one more established, played by Amanda Duarte and Gabriel Marin, and one just forming, played by Wilmurt and Danny Wolohan.

The 2007 play was originally part of the LAByrinth Theater Company season starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, who will direct the upcoming film version.

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Wilmurt describes her character, Connie, as somewhat troubled. “I think she might even have some sort of diagnosed problem, though it’s never specified,” she says. “She’s dealing with issues, and Danny’s character, Jack, clearly has some, too. Here are two people in their late 30s/early 40s, and they’re facing a long-term relationship for the first time. Why hasn’t that happened thus far? There isn’t a lot of plot in the play, but there are obstacles. The obstacles are simple seeming, but they represent bigger obstacles for the individual.”

The role of Connie is somewhat similar to a role Wilmurt played in a previous Aurora outing, John Guare’s Bosoms and Neglect (seen above, with Wilmurt and Cassidy Brown), which Carlin also directed.

“Joy is an amazing actor, right? So it’s no surprise that she’s a really good director when it comes to getting inside a moment,” Wilmurt says. “She senses when a moment isn’t fully embodied and senses what the rhythm should be. She can get inside these micro-moments and help figure out the timing and depth of them. She can speak from the outside in, and she’s a great comedic actress.”

Wilmurt is no slouch herself. The Bay Area native grew up in Dublin (in the Tri-Valley area, not Ireland) and began her performing career at the Willows Theatre in Concord and has worked consistently since doing musicals, musical revues, plays and productions of her own creation.

With her partner, Mark Jackson, she founded Art Street Theatre in 1995, which produced a show a year for about 10 years. Ask Wilmurt about her favorite theatrical memories –her time in Germany studying, creating and performing in theater and dance gets a shout out, but Art Street is at the top of the list.

“I have a ridiculous amount of great memories from Art Street,” she says. “We worked with a lot of the same people, and everyone had such amazing energy and enthusiasm. I certainly loved doing Io, Princess of Argos. I had an idea and started talking to Mark about combining Greek mythology and cabaret. We got Marcy Karr involved and just started writing it. We wrote the show and 15 songs in about four months. We didn’t preview it or workshop it. We just did it, whatever, flaws and all. Art Street was like our own little school because we were just moving forward and not worrying how things were received.”

Though completely immersed in Jack Goes Boating (and anticipating her next Shotgun show, Marcus Gardley and Molly Holm’s a cappella musical This World in a Woman’s Hands in the fall), Wilmurt is feeling that old Art Street itch to create new works.

“I’m really attracted to brand-new work,” she says. “I like the problem-solving aspect, the figuring out how it’s all going to work. I’ve worked with so many great companies and choreographers and directors, and I like all kinds of performance—musicals, plays, fringe, cabaret, dance – and I’m getting these ideas for plays. Should I be in them? Should I pitch them? Direct them? It’s that Art Street energy: gotta create a show!”


Bob Glaudini’s Jack Goes Boating performs June 12-July 19 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $28-$42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org for information.

Broadway San Jose announces inaugural season

From the ashes of the American Musical Theatre of San Jose rises a whole new series bringing Broadway tours to the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, and it’s called Broadway San Jose.

A Nederlander Presentation, part of the national Nederlander Organization, is the producing agency that will bring in the shows starting in September in association with Team San Jose.

Here’s the inaugural season lineup:

Spamalot, Sept. 15-20
Spring Awakening, Oct. 28-Nov. 1
Riverdance (in its farewell tour), Dec. 29-Jan. 3
Avenue Q, Jan. 12-17
Legally Blonde the Musical, March 16-21

Season subscription packages are available from $108-$429. Call 866-395-2929 or visit www.broadwaysanjose.com for information.

And from the Web site comes information for former AMTSJ subscribers who had tickets for two shows that were canceled: “Broadway San Jose will be offering former 2008-2009 AMTSJ Season Ticket Holders a substantial discount to become a new ‘Priority ‘season ticket holder for the 2009-2010 Season. Former 2008-2009 AMTSJ season ticket holders will have a window of opportunity to utilize your season ticket discount, as well as to purchase priority season ticket seat locations online before the general public.”

Read Karen D’Souza’s story about it in the San Jose Mercury News here.

Come on, man, return the van

Last Saturday night, the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s one and only transport van was stolen. In preparation for this summer’s road tour around the Bay Area, the Troupe had just outfitted the blue 1994 seven-passenger Chevy with new tires. The van was parked in the South Mission/Excelsior area waiting to be loaded up with equipment for the Troupe’s music rehearsal the next morning.

SFMT 50The Troupe, celebrating its 50th Anniversary this summer, did not have theft insurance on the stolen vehicle. They desperately need a van to transport the troupers to and from the parks where they are scheduled to perform their 50th Anniversary production, Too Big to Fail (July 4-September 27). They are making an emergency appeal to the Bay Area community in the hopes that someone can come forward and donate a van (for a tax deduction). If anyone has info about the high-jacked vehicle, or can donate a transport van, please contact San Francisco Mime Troupe general manager Jenee Gill at 415-285-1717.

The Tony Award-winning SFMT opens its song-and-dance satire of monumental proportions, Too Big to Fail, July 4 in San Francisco’s Dolores Park. All performances are free (unless otherwise noted) and open to the public.

Mime Troupe Alumna Wilma Bonet directs Velina Brown, BW Gonzalez, Ed Holmes, Lisa Hori-Garcia, Adrian Mejia and Michael Gene Sullivan, with music and lyrics by Pat Moran.

Visit www.sfmt.org for complete tour information.

Terrence McNally, catch him if you can

I wrote a feature on New Conservatory Theatre Center’s Some Men by Terrence McNally for today’s San Francisco Chronicle.

You can read it here.

Here are a few pieces of my interview with Mr. McNally that didn’t make it into the newspaper.

Terrence McNally

In addition to Some Men opening this week at the NCTC, McNally has a few other irons in the fire:

  • Last month he wrapped a critically lauded revival of Ragtime (he adapted E.L. Doctorow’s book with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens providing the score) at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The cast (which McNally describes as “much younger than the original company) included Christiane Noll as Mother and Manoel Felciano (now in Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo here in San Francisco at American Conservatory Theater) as Tateh. The show was so well received, in fact, that there were meetings about a possible transfer to Broadway. “We’ll see,” McNally says. “That would make a lot of people happy.” The show has a whole different production team, headed by director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, but even more than that, McNally says, the country has gone through a seismic shift since Ragtime opened on Broadway in 1998. “The show has a relevance now it didn’t have with the election of Obama,” McNally says. “You view a show like this differently through the lens of current events. People think we’ve re-written it, but it’s not like it was show that didn’t work the first time.”
    McNally isn’t exactly making plans for opening night on Broadway. “I don’t celebrate anything until I’m seeing the curtain go up,” he says. “So much can go wrong at 11:59, which I’ve learned after many bitter disappointments. I’ve learned not to celebrate just because we had a good meeting…but things look really good. We’ll see.”
  • This summer, McNally is a West Coast kind of guy. This week at the La Jolla Playhouse, McNally opened his play Unusual Acts of Devotion with a cast that includes Doris Roberts (“Everybody Loves Raymond”), Richard Thomas (“The Waltons”) and Tony-winner Harriet Harris (Thoroughly Modern Millie) under the direction of Trip Cullman. The show runs through June 28, and then the writer heads up to Seattle (with a likely stop in San Francisco to see NCTC’s Some Men).
  • Toward the end of July, at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, McNally is part of the creative team behind the Broadway-bound musical Catch Me If You Can (based on the book and movie of the same name). Much of the team behind Hairspray – composer Marc Shaiman, lyricist Scott Wittman, director Jack O’Brien, choreographer Jerry Mitchell – have reunited for this show. McNally is the new kid on the block, but after The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, The Full Monty, A Man of No Importance and The Visit, he’s no stranger to the world of musical.
    Rather than depending solely on the Steven Spielberg movie that starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale, a slippery young con artist, McNally has turned to Abagnale’s original book for inspiration. “I hope I have found an emotional resonance to make audiences care about the characters,” he says. “A stage version cannot compete with the movie and its hairbreadth escapes and chases involving airplanes. Maybe someone could do that in a theater. I don’t know how. So my story is much more about the psychological chase of the FBI agent assigned to bring Frank in. It’s a father-son surrogate story. Frank’s real father let him down, and this motivates much of his action. We have musicalized the story, not put a movie on stage, which can very often be the case when movies are translated to the Broadway stage. I’m very proud of this piece.”
    It has been said that working on a musical out of town can be one of the most trying, aggravating and crazy-making experiences on earth. Not for McNally. This is his seventh time out, and he has yet to see the kind of drama people expect from Hollywood versions of backstage drama along the lines of All About Eve. “There’s this preconceived notion of the leading lady throwing down her mink and stomping out,” McNally says. “That has never been my experience, but I have to say it’s an exciting thing to do. There’s a lot of pressure and high emotion. But I don’t ever anticipate being hysterical. I anticipate being challenged and hope I rise to that challenge with my sense of humor and sanity intact. In the writer’s room or in the rehearsal space, the play is the most important thing, the only thing in the world. But out in the street, in the real world, there’s a more important life beyond that.”
  • Some Men, which ran off Broadway two years ago at the Second Stage Theatre (under Cullman’s direction), celebrates gay history and the relatively swift march toward equality in the form of legalized same-sex marriage, which is a given in the play. McNally and his partner, Tom, were civically united in Vermont. “We thought we were doing a political act,” McNally says. “We’d go to Vermont and give the state another number. But the emotions were so strong. The night before we both got so thoughtful at the profundity of it. Our people are raised on `what you do is illegal and criminal and society hates you.’ But to stand in the country and get married. It was…People staying at the inn watched the ceremony, and by the end there must have been 30 people cheering for two strangers. It was incredibly moving to say to another person: `I am yours to the end, for the long haul.’ The change in this country is just amazing. Gay men and women had half-visible, half-not roles for years. They might have been accepted but were frowned on, not embraced. Now I feel such clarity with my friends. I know they take Tom and me just as seriously as any other married couple.”


Terrence McNally’s Some Men continues through July 12 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$34. Call 415-861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org for information.

New theater company is Hella Fresh

If you want a big, dramatic scene involving John Rosenberg smashing things on his way out the door, you better look elsewhere.

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About three years ago, along with Tore Ingersoll-Thorp and Damian Lanahan Kalish, Rosenberg founded Sleepwalkers Theatre, a group committed to producing new work by new authors. The trio had been in what they considered to be the worst production of Hamlet ever (at an undisclosed location in the East Bay), and after commiserating backstage, joined together to create their own company.

That first season, Sleepwalkers produced one of Rosenberg’s plays, Use Both Hands, about strangers meeting and connecting in the keno lounge of the Circus Circus casino in Reno, Nev. But last year, Rosenberg decided to branch out and do his own thing.

He created his own theater company and decided to call it Hella Fresh Theatre because, well, it’s apparently hella fresh theater.

The parting of ways with old friends Ingersoll-Thorp and Kalish seems to be quite amicable.

“I had an incredible experience with Sleepwalkers,” Rosenberg says. “I loved working with them. As we geared up for the second season, we all realized we wanted to take things in different directions. I wanted to create plays and have control over them. I decided to move in a different direction. It wasn’t like there were screaming fights. I’m in my early 30s. At some point you have to stand up and make your own stuff.”

For their part, the Sleepwalker guys seem OK with the parting. On their Web site they write of Rosenberg’s departure: “John left the group to form another, and more cutting edge theatre will be coming from it soon. If this process were to repeat itself with other members, we couldn’t be happier. We need more exciting small theatre companies, and we think everyone should start one.”

Hella Fresh

Jericho Road Improvement Association, the first production from Hella Fresh Theatre begins performances Thursday, June 4 at San Francisco’s Phoenix Theatre, and it should come as no surprise that the play is written and directed by Rosenberg. (Pictured above: Jericho Road Improvement Association cast members Sam Leichter, left, and Abel Habtegeorgis)

Set in the neighborhood where, in April of 1968, Oakland police clashed with the Black Panthers and ended up killing Little Bobby Hutton, Rosenberg writes about a veteran police officer who was part of that clash 30 years ago attempting to atone for himself and make positive change the neighborhood.

Inspiration for the play came from two places. After attending the University of California, Berkeley “back in the 20th century,” as Rosenberg puts it, he lived in North Oakland near the site of the famous clash.

“That idea, that history has taken place all around you stuck with me,” Rosenberg says.

The second factor came in the form of playwright August Wilson and his famous cycle of plays documenting African American life in each decade of the 20th century.

“Something about his work really touched me,” Rosenberg says. “I’m very interested in race in America, and I became more and more interested in creating a work that reflected a local piece of history, that tackled the problem of race and law enforcement in Oakland and that told a personal story. I think in some ways, since Obama was elected, people thing we’re in a post-racial America, but while I was writing this, BART police killed Oscar Grant on New Year’s Eve and four Oakland police officers were murdered a couple months after that.”

Rosenberg’s day job as a bookkeeper for a Berkeley nonprofit gives him some flexibility to write and produce plays in his spare time, which he does entirely on his own, without the aid of grants or corporate sponsors. His mom, who happens to be a drama teacher, serves as an editor, and the people in his life – his girlfriend, his sister, his friends – all offer opinions and, when he needs it, extra funds. This is theater created on a budget – mostly Rosenberg’s.

“It’s definitely an interesting time to be starting a new company,” Rosenberg says. “But it’s definitely possible to do it. It’s exciting and challenging to do it on your own. I’m not trying to make money off of this. It’s just great to put new work out there. As long as I have my job and people who love me, I think we’ll be OK.”


Hella Fresh Theatre presents Jericho Road Improvement Association by John Rosenberg, through June 27 at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10. Call 510-292-6403 or visit www.hellafreshtheatre.com for information.