Designed to Inspire
Western Stage’s SpringFEST sizzles with courageous historical content.
Thursday, March 8, 2012
Last summer, Hartnell College’s Western Stage launched the innovative, young and awkwardly named 2x4BASH theater company and lined up a daring, fast and fun run of four plays aimed at a younger-than-usual demographic.
Western Stage and the Hartnell College Theatre Arts Department reach for similarly lively and quickly delivered content with the 12th iteration of its politically ambitious but conventionally named SpringFEST. It was originally slated to begin Feb. 3, with a dozen theater works, one per weekend – staged readings, mostly, some with props but not costumes – through May 4.
“SpringFest is open to new playwrights, directors and actors,” says Melissa Chin-Parker, Western Stage’s Artistic Program Director. “It offers them the space to try something new, projects with different viewpoints.”
And a lot of viewpoints there are, mostly pointing in the same progressive and inclusive direction. (Two of the early performances, though, Voices and Shakespeare’s Wisdom of the Ages, were cancelled.) SpringFEST opened Feb. 24-26 with Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, which has become a staple internationally and locally, paired with International Women’s Day and V-Day, and benefiting the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center. The rest of SpringFEST – all in Western Stage’s smaller, riskier Studio Theater – lives in a similarly political and activist realm.
“Were they chosen because of that?” Chin-Parker muses. “I’m not sure. Some of these [works] came to me, [and] the whole ‘voices’ theme came into being.”
The season is titled Finding Your Voice, and the next piece speaks volumes to that. This weekend, they stage Voices of a People’s History, based on Howard Zinn’s sweeping A People’s History of the United States, which tells the buried stories of the “other” American history of women, indigenous people, people of color, unionists and progressives.
“The themes [include] speaking from one’s conscience, even if it’s against the status quo,” Chin-Parker says. “Racism and war, told [by a] soldier of the American Revolution, poor working conditions and unionizing [from] Harriet Hanson Robinson out of Lowell, Mass., working in a steel mill.”
Women’s suffrage proponent Susan B. Anthony, black revolutionary Malcolm X, Iraq war protester Cindy Sheehan, Shawnee leader and resistance fighter Tecumseh, and others are lent voice in short bursts of 18 monologues. Frederick Douglass’ essay, “The Significance of Emancipation in the West Indies,” will be orated. An actress will recount Yuri Kochiyama’s story of internment during World War II. Another will read a letter by Rachel Corrie, killed in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting the razing of a Palestinian home. It’s primed to be a powerful evening of political theater from the frontlines of human rights.
The next work in the line-up is 2006’s Seven: A Documentary Play (March 16-18), in which seven women playwrights each wrote a monologue about seven women from seven countries fighting for poor and voiceless people. It was conceived out of then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s far-reaching Vital Voices Global Partnership organization, and has been performed on stages around the world, with luminaries like Meryl Streep, Diane von Furstenberg and Kim Cattrall.
The play has a definite mission: to show acts of courage and compassion, and to inspire the same in the viewer.
“I contacted Vital Voices,” Chin-Parker says, “thinking they have the rights to the play. But it’s actually published [elsewhere].”
Next, on March 24 and 25, comes Can I Get a Witness?, the fifth annual program from resident production manager and director Jeff McGrath, made up of personal stories from local actors and students, inspired by Western Stage’s production of The Laramie Project.
The season is not all heavy-duty stuff. Farmboy Mantra (March 30-April 1) contains nine funny and poignant stories about farm life in Texas; Western Stage’s veteran Legacy Players will show their theater experience in a couple of performances in April; and ¡Bocon! and Bugsy Malone Jr. the Musical, scored by the composer of The Muppet Movie, are aimed at kids. The season ends May 4, at the National Steinbeck Center’s 2012 Steinbeck Festival, with Voices & Stories: Daughters, Migrants, Foster Mothers and “Real” Mothers in California, based on Susan Straight’s book Highwire Moon, with a visit by the author planned.
SpringFEST programs are cheaper than usual theater tickets, with many asking donations for the various causes and nonprofits they champion.
“It’s more than entertainment,” Chin-Parker says. “I don’t want it to be a soap box. It’s an open space… so people are transformed in some way.”
It all makes for a Western Stage sequence charged with the zeal of a mission. Don’t miss it.
SpringFEST continues with Voices of a People’s History 7:30pm Saturday and 1:30pm Sunday, March 10 and 11, at Western Stage’s Studio Theater, 411 Central Ave., Salinas. Admission by donation. 755-6816, www.westernstage.com