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