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Throwback Thursday: Theatre Commute

In early 2009 I commuted for a few weeks in “figure 8s” around the Bay Area from the East Bay into San Francisco and down to San Jose, then back to the East Bay. I compiled a few highlights for LiveJournal on several of the days, and here’s one of them.

I resumed my temporary routine of (total) 125 miles driving and travel from Richmond to San Francisco to San Jose and back today, a geographic figure eight around the Bay Area. Things were pretty smooth today, though here are some episodic highlights:

10:45am: Leave the house. No traffic on 580 East.
11:03am: Pass the Bay Bridge toll. Am surprised by the fact that the metering lights are on and the traffic is backed up after the morning commute.
11:25am: Am detoured from my usual parking spot by today being a “street cleaning” day. Instead I go to a completely different neighborhood where I know parking will be free and non-stickered.
12:00pm: My MUNI trip inbound from Noe Valley is free when the conductor waves passengers past the non-working ticket machine.
12:05pm: During the MUNI trip, I see an intense panoramic view from the top of Dolores Park that I had never seen before.
4:05pm: Near the end of my work shift, I step outside for a few minutes and have an experience out of an action movie. I’ve arranged to give a black suitcase filled with laundry to the show’s costume designer. Instead of stopping, she pulls up to the curb and wordlessly gestures for me to drop the suitcase in the open bed of her truck. I do, and feel like it should have contained lots of money, or we should have been filmed, especially since it is right on Market Street.
4:50pm: During the MUNI trip back to the parking spot, two high schoolers near me decide that they will make the biggest PDA possible while jointly blowing smelly bubble gum.
6:05pm: Arrive at the theatre in San Jose and am pleased that there was no traffic going south on 280.
11:20pm: Leave theatre and begin the trip home on 880.
12:00am: A CHP car suddenly begins to weave across the highway just a few cars ahead of me. Turns out there’s been a minor accident, and that was this officer’s way of alerting the drivers.
12:25am: Arrive home.

Closing Day at Grover’s Corners

Meanwhile back in Berkeley, California, today is the closing performance for the Shotgun Players production of Our Town. I was very pleased to be in the audience for this show on New Year’s Eve, and had meant to write about it here sooner… but it feels appropriate to give it a tip of the hat at the end of its run. Bay Area audiences were receptive to this particular version, as it extended two weeks from its original engagement and reportedly packed the houses throughout the run.

I knew going in to the show that director Susannah Martin (a past colleague) would probably bring her characteristically spare yet precise staging quality to the text. Surprisingly, as a native New Englander, this was my first time seeing the play live onstage. And the “once something comes into your life it reappears very soon” rule seems to be in full effect, as I will see it again in about a month in a high school production that a family member is directing, and am looking forward to comparing the similarities and differences.

with cast member and close friend Molly

with cast member and close friend Molly

This was a perfect play to close out the old year and bring in the new, with its themes of life and death and life events and the simple things that may or may not give way to big impact. It was the centerpiece of my short yet memorable visit back to the Bay Area itself, and I found myself appreciating the chance to take a moment and intellectually engage, in the midst of racing from place to place and attempting to cram as much as possible into a two day span.

The cast offered impressive ensemble work, led by Madeline H.D. Brown as the stage manager. I was initially drawn to seeing the piece after learning that theatre friends Molly, Don and Tim had central roles in the play, and they were supported by a skilled group of fellow performers, with El Beh a particular standout as Emily Webb. Again, like life itself, the play offered little snippets of events coming together (and in some cases falling apart), changes in families, questioning choices, regrets, delights, marriages, births, deaths, new beginnings and a sense of resiliency. Martin’s staging heightened the sense of everyday life, with the actors performing on a mostly bare set and occasionally sitting in or amongst the audience if they were not part of an onstage scene.

I deliberately chose a first row seat when I booked my ticket for the show, but I did not expect the side effect of intense and visceral engagement with the piece, and the art of telling a theatrical story, to come as a result of being right there with the action and the actors. As it was I found the play and the whole theatregoing experience that night to be a potent, inspiring and motivating reminder of what it is that we do as theatre/arts makers and why we do it. I’ll be continuing to remember that as 2015 unfolds.

Theatrical Throwback: the enchantment of Cinnabar and the charms of modern technology

In the fall of 2010 I had one of my most spontaneous theatre experiences ever. This memorable evening took place in the bucolic setting of the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma, CA.

Cinnabar is just like that warm and cozy family member’s house that you wish you could stay longer at. Set high on a hill, with a very narrow driveway and sweeping views down to the Petaluma and greater Sonoma countryside, it invites guests to enjoy a wide array of theatre, opera, musical, dance, and other types of performances.

On this particular evening, the theatre offered a double – bill of one act performances. The first production, “We *Heart* U, Nosferatu!”, stood out more for me in the audience. The elaborate stage set – a husky interior with a random large screen for the benefit of the audience – felt like stepping in to someone’s home.

The uniqueness of the staging, where the primary actor (Keith Baker) was the only one seen onstage, while Allison Baker and Mary Gannon Graham appeared via an offstage and live Skype feed, certainly contributed to the memorable experience. As a backstage theatre person, I was excited by the risk taking and unknown of the production – what would they do if the feed failed? were the two actresses going to appear in the flesh? how did they manage to connect all of that technology?

The show was revived the following year at Main Stage West, using the same cast. I would have liked to have seen that production and am sure it maintained the same commitment to comedy on an even more intimate scale.

A “cruel joke” on a noted Bay Area acting veteran

For my 200th post it feels appropriate to reach back to the Bay Area, where this blog began.

Last night, the American Conservatory Theater hosted a benefit for local actress Joan Mankin, who recently received a “cruel joke” dual diagnosis of frontal temporal dementia and ALS. An unusually personal and detailed San Francisco Chronicle article describes her situation, and it’s referenced in a similar San Francisco Examiner article.

I saw Mankin perform onstage at least twice, but feel like I saw her more times than that, as she has maintained an active and committed profile in the local theatre community. She also gained notice over many years for her clowning work, which included teaching at the SF Clown Conservatory and other area schools.

Needless to say, it is unfortunate that someone of Mankin’s stature and versatility has been slapped with these debilitating challenges. I’m sure that the community has rallied to support her.

Fallen Stars that Still Shine

Behanding group
Opening night of A Behanding in Spokane, Philadelphia, April, 2012.
(l-r) Matt, Reuben, Pearce, Jamel, me, Joe; Amanda, who played the lone female role, is not pictured here.

All this week I have been thinking about how Tuesday 11/12 was the one year anniversary of former theatre colleague Reuben Mitchell dying from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. While I don’t feel I can offer as heartfelt a tribute as his friend wrote here, or as immediate a memory as someone else he knew wrote here, I did want to mention him here on my own blog.

What to say about Reuben, or rather, what not to say?

He was a kind and generous Greenville, North Carolina native who maintained a sense of good humor and congeniality in everything he did. When I mentioned that my mom and my cat and I had visited Greenville in late 2007 and were surprised by some late-night violence happening across the street from our hotel, he laughed it off, saying “oh, that happens every week!” – but he was proud of his Southern heritage.

Reuben lit up the stage for the Martin McDonaugh play we worked on, taking what could have been just a stereotypical part and turning it in to a full individual. He was dedicated to his craft as seen in his extensive professional training, studying in locations such as New Orleans and Toronto among others, followed by moving to Philadelphia to pursue a career. This training was also evident in his daily preparation for our performances, as he was almost always first at the venue (and I was genuinely concerned when he wasn’t), undertaking a rigorous 10-20 minute vocal warmup and brief physical warmup as well – even though he spent 2/3 of the show tied to a wall. He showed a sense of civility and fun in his interactions with everyone on the production team, while clearly understanding that the “play was the thing” and that was our focus. He was an incredible storyteller with a vividness to his tales I’ve rarely heard other people make use of.

Inevitably I look back at that production bittersweetly, with Reuben gone. At the time I was excited to work on a script by a favorite writer, Martin McDonagh, and am grateful to have had the opportunity. But I had to juggle the theatre work and a more 9-5 oriented job alongside commuting from Delaware to Philadelphia, thus limiting my social opportunities with the actors. Eventually I felt a natural ease when I was able to join in on the social time (as seen in the photo above from opening night), but it was not as much as I would have liked. And we can never re-create that same dynamic.

I only saw Reuben once more a month after the production closed; he’d been invited to return to the same theatre company we’d worked with for a fundraiser/festive evening , employing his subtle and uncanny Barack Obama impersonation skills to use in several skits. (Incidentally, the event got some official political humor by featuring Arlen Spector, who died a few months later in 2012, as the opening act.) Reuben jumped me with his characteristic enthusiasm as we waited for the show to begin, and we chatted briefly before he went onstage…

It was very clear (painfully now of course) that Reuben loved his motorcycle. He often appeared at our rehearsals and performances with it. While I’m not a motorcyclist myself, I think he and I shared a love of driving towards the unknown and engaging in some derring-do along the way; I recall energetically describing my favorite road in Marin County (Ridgecrest Boulevard) to him, while he replied with tales of curvaceous roads in the Poconos region of Pennsylvania that he’d gone out to explore one Sunday morning.

I hope Reuben knew how much he impacted others, and they cared about him. I’m sure I will always remember him.

________

One day this week when I thought of Reuben, I also recalled another theatre-impacted tragedy out in the Bay Area. Summer Serafin, whom I never met nor saw onstage, but she did work with several people I knew in the Bay Area theatre scene, died in 2011 after an accidental fall from a fire escape in San Francisco. It is clear from a quick Google search of her name that she also made an impact on many individuals.

I don’t want to read too much into this – and it’s probably just a coincidence – but I noticed that Summer died on Reuben’s 30th birthday, while Reuben died one day before what would have been Summer’s 33rd birthday.