Sleepwalking into theater

So, you and two of your buddies are forming a theater company. Of course there are significant artistic considerations — a company needs a mission, right? — but there’s one hugely important thing: the name.

Do you go the stately route like Sophisticated Repertory Theatre? The silly route like Jake the Bunny Players? Or the inscrutable route like X!ZE?

If you happen to be Damian Kalish (above, with a moutful), Tore Ingersoll-Thorp and John Rosenberg, you go about choosing a name methodically.

Each of the founders compiles a list and submits it to the others. Names are discussed and rejected. Before long, you are Sleepwalkers Theatre.

“I thought it was funny because it could mean all sorts of things,” Kalish says on the phone from his Oakland home. “Tore, who is our artistic director, is actually a sleepwalker. I know that because we grew up together and have been roommates before. I thought Sleepwalkers was a cool image you could play with, and it was an inside joke, too.”

The newly formed Sleepwalkers actually got its start about two years ago when its trio of founders — all friends from Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley — produced an evening of one-acts about relationships called Undying Love in San Francisco.

“It didn’t make any money. Not a cent,” Kalish says. “But we ended up breaking even because we got a donation from this older couple who came in and were happy to see fresh, new theater. We did that one on the cheap under the assumption that we were doing it to create something.”

In addition to creating the play itself, they ended up creating a theater company.
“We took our time forming the company because we knew we needed to learn about promotion and not just throw up a show,” Kalish says.

Without a role model — there was no discussion of becoming the Steppenwolf of the Bay Area or even the new Shotgun Players — the trio of founders decided the company would be all about encouraging people to work on new plays.

“We’re simple in the sense that we want to make new, good plays and don’t have any grand model,” Kalish says.

The company’s first production in its three-show inaugural season (a short play, Saints in Strange Places, was part of the recent one-day San Francisco Theater Festival) is Deep Fried Cheese, which begins performances Thursday at the Climate Theater in San Francisco and runs through Aug. 18.

Ingersoll-Thorp wrote the play, a comedy about relationships and competitive eating, and also directs it. Kalish stars as a guy whose penchant for entering eating contests doesn’t sit all that well with his girlfriend, who is going vegan.

“I think Tore wrote this play to torture me,” Kalish says. “I eat a bunch of hot dogs really fast, and spaghetti. I also catch Vienna sausages in my mouth and spray Cheez Whiz into my mouth. I wrap an Oreo in salami. It’s pretty intense. Eating hot dogs fast is disgusting.”
But Kalish is quick to point out that amid the spectacle of all this eating is a romantic comedy with a “strong emotional center.”

“I think what it’s really about is that nobody in a relationship makes a decision based entirely on what they say they’re basing it on,” Kalish says.

Growing up in Santa Cruz, Kalish got involved in theater when his sixth-grade teacher told him he was good at acting. He got involved in junior theater and has been performing as an actor since.

By high school, he had moved to Marin and met Rosenberg, a musician.

“I was in a punk band, and John was a dork. He made a music demo on his computer and I knew I wanted to be friends with him because of his music. That’s when he was 13, and he’s almost 30 now. He knew Tore from before, and we were all involved in theater at Tam High School.”

Rosenberg is the only member of the founding trio not in the Bay Area. All grown up and no longer a dork, he plays with the New York-based Missing Teens (and formerly played for German Cars vs. American Homes).

Even from New York, he remains involved, composing and sending original music for the shows.
The remainder of the season includes Use Both Hands, which bows in the fall at the Phoenix Theatre in San Francisco. The play, by Rosenberg, takes place in the keno lounge of Circus Circus in Reno. Ingersoll-Thorp will direct.

The final play, slated for February, is Lost & Found, a David Ackerman play about barriers people build in intimate relationships.

“For me, this theater company is a long-term commitment,” Kalish says. “We panic sometimes and talk about doing fewer shows next season, but my role in the company is to play the optimist. I figure we’ll find a way to do it, even if it’s small theater. We’ll keep making stuff and keep our name out there. We’ve already put so much into this. We spent a year creating the company before we even began production on a play.

“Everything has happened right so far. We’ll hit snags. You always hit snags. I’m committed to Sleepwalkers going on beyond this season.”

Sleepwalkers Theatre’s “Deep Fried Cheese” runs Aug. 2-18 at the Climate Theater, 285 Ninth St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Tickets are $12. Call (415) 407-1446 or visit

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