In whitewater rafting, when the currents get especially savage, the rule is to keep that oar in the water and keep paddling. Because while it may not feel like it, it gives you some control over your fate. That seems to have been the rule for local theater companies, too. This fall, starting with this weekend’s motherlode of theater openings, offers a good example of how they keep plunging into the turbulence and speed of the times, and guiding us all to better waters.
Monterey Peninsula College Theater Department chair Gary Bolen says the recent “crisis in funding” – i.e., the global economic crisis – siphoned first from the arts, and that the arts community won’t reap the rewards from any economic upswing “for some time to come.” It came too late for the 30-year-old Shakespeare Santa Cruz, which announced last week that it was closing because UC Santa Cruz could not support the company financially as it had been. Its last show, running Nov. 15-Dec. 8, will be, ironically, It’s a Wonderful Life.
But MPC Theater is still enjoying afterglow from their brilliant sold-out performances of Les Miserables, which introduced the full capabilities of the school’s two-year, $9 million renovation of its Morgan Stock Stage Theater to delighted audiences.
“[The theater] is unquestionably now the premiere performance venue on the Monterey Peninsula,” Bolen says.
He holds up George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1936 comedy You Can’t Take it With You (October), to be directed by longtime MPC Theatre Arts chair Peter DeBono, as one MPC production to watch for this fall season. It’s a story about an eccentric but essentially wholesome and loving family possibly joining, through marriage, another more conventional family. Sounds pleasant enough. But the show they’re putting on in September in their smaller Studio Theater, which has served as the domain for riskier stuff, mines modern substance: The Guys, an exploration of 9/11 through the story of a New York fire captain who lost eight men in the World Trade Center collapse. The play debuted just two months after 9/11.
One of MPC Theater’s main missions: “We are the primary training ground for the vast majority of actors and technicians on the Peninsula,” Bolen says.
“Literally every theatre company on the Peninsula had either performers or technicians who had, at some point, passed through our program.”
One of them was Kirstin Clapp, the scrappy co-founder and artistic director of Stardust Playhouse in North Monterey. After directing Suburbia and Fat Pig at MPC, then Bug at Paper Wing’s Gallerie Theater, she opened her own independent playhouse in December 2011. From that small space, she staged similarly small and indie plays like Pillowman, House of Yes and Marijuana-Logues. It’s an ethic that positions Stardust, she says, as a counterpoint to revivals like MacBeth and Les Miserables.
This weekend Stardust opens Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, the last piece of a quintet the playwright wrote in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, this one about a woman trying to make a new life in spite of her ex-boyfriend’s advances to rekindle a destructive relationship. For their Halloween show, the playhouse is bringing in Pontypool, an apocalyptic number about zombies, but of the kind, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, that are interested more in brainwashing rather than just brains. After that, opening Nov. 29, comes Boy Gets Girl, about a fleeting internet date that turns into a nightmare of stalking and feeble protection from the justice system.
“Plenty of time for Christmas,” Clapp says. But then confesses, “It’s not a Christmas show.”
That makes three productions packed into as many months. Fool for Love is a one-scene play; Clapp says she’s grateful for its ease and affordability.
“We do nine shows a year to keep the doors open,” she says. “We simply must produce to keep going. It zaps you creatively when you have to pump out so many [shows] a year.”
She says Stardust applied for, but hasn’t yet received, nonprofit status, which would allow them to apply for grants. But on the advice of Paper Wing’s Koly McBride and actor Mike Baker, she applied for STAR Foundation grants, which for 2013-14 will award $78,800 to eight schools and five community theater groups. Clapp, for instance, would like to get cushions for their folding chairs.
Clapp may have learned a thing or two about surviving thriftily and finding a wedge niche through her stint with Paper Wing, where she directed Bug, that company’s first show in their second smaller theater space, called the Galerie Theatre. Bolen may have a lock on being the primary training ground, but Paper Wing Theatre Company is perhaps the most tenacious and adventurous theater company in town.
In the bigger scheme, co-owner and artistic director Koly McBride and company co-owner Lj Brewer see themselves as upholders of the fringe in local theater.
“We leave the big multi-level shows and musicals to the big dogs, [Pacific Repertory Theatre and Monterey Peninsula College Theatre], leaving us free to do smaller shows more frequently,” she says. “And quite well.”
That includes works from local playwrights and unpublished stuff. They are ramping up a play for which the plot begins “After doing a two-year prison stint on a drug rap… ” It opens this weekend, runs through Sept. 28, and is called Motherfucker with the Hat. Yeah, that sounds like Paper Wing. But they also just wrapped MacBeth, so the company is not only digging deeper into their core audience of afficionados of the subversive, but are stretching. Sometimes.
This fall, they’re calling up a reliable holiday tradition of theirs: The Rocky Horror Show. “This time of year belongs to Paper Wing,” McBride says. “Shows at Halloween time are our specialty.”
PaperWing received a STAR Foundation grant, which they spent on improved lighting and sound systems, and they are also increasing their output, from 6-8 shows a year to 10 or more. And while keeping one eye on the online evolution feeding so many people’s entertainment and culture appetites (Netflix as the new HBO), tracking the live-world revolution in the L.A. theater scene, and scoping out a place to sprout a satellite company (Marina is one possible location, McBride says, which could lure CSUMB students), they’re handing the directing reigns of their shows over to more up-and-coming local talents. It’s part of their mission, McBride says.
“Community theater is still the place where, while keeping your day job, you can become a star. [We’re] giving people a much needed place to play pretend.”
As the Artistic Director of Western Stage at Hartnell College, Jon Selover has some realities he faces.
“We’re in Salinas,” he says. Although he says he’s wary of making qualitative comparisons, he notes “There’s a big difference between the Peninsula and Salinas. They’re very different places. There’s a lot more going on over there – there’s theater, art, concerts. There’s more people over here.”
Their productions smartly play to the predisposition of their hometown. They are often politically motivated, socially conscious, proletariat, folksy, Latino, young and, sometimes, mostly on their big Main Stage, just plain fun.
This weekend they launch Luis Valdez’s classic Chicano musical Zoot Suit, which has relevance to, he says, “young people being persecuted and murdered for the clothes they wear. We were supposed to be past that, but we’re not.” That’s in reference to gang colors, but it also fits the lesson of Trayvon Martin.
He says part of the plot is a “rabid media” fanning the flames of prejudice, for which he sees “plenty of contemporary parallels.” And it’s hard not to think of local media coverage of Salinas as one of those parallels.
He’s savoring the providence of bringing this long-pursued work to Western Stage just as Valdez rolls out his new play, The Valley of the Heart, at his home base of Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista.
“I’m going to go see it after we open,” Selover says. “It’s a wonderful synergy of timing.”
In November, Western Stage is also doing, in their smaller second theater (smaller being a relative term – it’s bigger than the main houses of most other local theaters) Dave Budbill’s emotional A Song for My Father. As with MPC Theatre Co. and PacRep, Western Stage’s smaller Studio Theater is where they really get serious or intimate or gutsy. And that’s with the spectre of Shakespeare Santa Cruz and recent budget evaporation.
“Right now, while the [recession] might be technically over, education funding in California is the last to come out of that,” Selover says. “It stopped being cut. We’re not back where we were in 2007. We’re all trickle down from Sacramento.”
Even so, three years ago Western Stage launched the off-shoot 2x4BASH, a young teaching company that’s put on a dozen streamlined productions of fresh theater fare in their short lifespan – “A bunch of 20-somethings taking over the building,” Selover describes it. And site-specific plays have stoked his imagination when looking at old buildings in Salinas. But first, Western Stage will reflect on their past as they celebrate their 40th anniversary next year.
“We come together in a dark room and watch stories that remind us of all we share with everyone else in the room,” he says. “It is our sacred trust.”
Elsa Con, founder of Magic Circle Theatre, runs the 60-seat, high functioning and efficient theater operation. She says what differentiates Magic Circle is that they “never repeat a show that we have done previously unless it has been at least 10 years.” It precludes them from reviving hits quickly (imagine no Rocky Horror at Paper Wing or Buddy Holly at PacRep), but it also keeps their seasons looking fresh each year. Past glories include The Laramie Project (a controversial county premiere at the time), Wit, The Exonerated and The Drawer Boy.
“Each season we try to include play selections that are new, unusual and have something meaningful to say,” Con says. This fall, there is a special focus, it seems, on aging and the elderly. They’re currently performing the Tony-winning I’m Not Rappaport (through Sept. 15), about two old men trying to stay relevant in their own lives. After that, in November, Social Security in which (per the theater’s website blurb) “Unlikely romances develop and older age is redefined with sexuality, humor and grace as the characters find that love is the only true form of ‘social security.’”
Magic Circle also offers one of the most charming locales of any local theater, an idyllic garden courtyard in the heart of Carmel Valley Village. Inside the ivy-covered building, though, it stokes ideas like a furnace.
Like MPC, Pacific Repertory Theatre is also working in the sweet yields of major renovations and technology upgrades, so audiences can expect more multimedia working in tandem with their professional talent. (Not to mention their digital simulcast screenings of worldly cultural shows like Bizet’s Carmen on Sept. 22.) And unlike Magic Circle, they are prone to bring back works that… work. Like the Monty Python musical mischief of Spamalot, coming again this November.
“Spamalot broke all Golden Bough records,” says PacRep Artistic Director Stephen Moorer, “so we had to give those silly Knights another go.”
He lists quality, diversity and surprise as the arsenal they employ to keep audiences coming back. That’s borne out in their fall season, with productions of Peter Pan, now currently running – or flying – in repertory with The Imaginary Invalid, an adaptation of Moliere’s medical profession satire, which opens this week. And look at the foresight the company engages in: They plan to bring back The Full Monty in November… of 2014.
The Forest Theater Guild shares the Outdoor Forest Theater with PacRep (which rents the space from the city of Carmel in the fall), but they are synonymous with the forested amphitheater.
“We’re in development for next year and our next group of shows,” says the Guild’s Artistic Director, Rebecca Barrymore, “which would be focused on bringing our shows to other areas. We kind of want to get more recognition for the theater globally, so it shouldn’t be limited to our stage.”
That translates to Barrymore and her ex-husband, John Barrymore III, shopping the Guild’s Hamlet to producers in New York and London – the power of the Barrymore name. And add to that quality resourcefulness and creativity and it makes Rebecca Barrymore a key figure to watch in the arts scene.
Others of that ilk include Theresa Del Piero, current president of the Monterey County Theater Alliance, a conglomeration of all major presenting theater producers in the county. An actress, art collector and board member of the Monterey Museum of Art, she was influential in the arts scene before this post, and more so now. Ken Cusson was the previous Theater Alliance president, but now his new Saltshaker Theater is reviving the dinner-theater experience with coming productions of undoubtedly wacky Polter-Heist in October and Yule Log Radio Theater in December. Angelo DiGirolamo’s Bruce Ariss Wharf Theater generally hibernates during the fall, but in recent years has lent their quirky theater space to Monterey Peninsula College and the whiz kids of Monterey High School when each of their theaters were undergoing reconstruction. Robert Reese over at the Carl Cherry Center has a bevy of short, punchy pieces coming: Stories on Stage is to be a thematic quarterly series starting in October in which actors read short stories – first up, love stories; actor/writer Lynn Perry returns to deliver more of his fascinating autobiographical monologues in November; and Figuratively Speaking, playing just Thanksgiving weekend, is a monologue about an older woman coming to terms with aging, beauty and art (there is some nudity in this number).
Altogether, they comprise a collage of ideas and characters that, looked at from a distance, form a self-portrait of us all.