Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A Theatre Is Reborn

For many people, the first piece of music they heard by Richard Strauss was the excerpt from Thus Spake Zarathustra that underscored the thrilling "Dawn of Man" sequence in Stanley Kubrick's  landmark film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). If you're into finding links between culturally significant numbers, you should know that Strauss conducted the world premiere of Thus Spake Zarathustra in Frankfurt in 1896; Kubrick's film was released in 1968.


My first exposure to Strauss's music came during a 1968 performance of Elektra at the Metropolitan Opera. That transformative event marked one of the rare times that I had felt a visceral reaction to a piece of music. It was not something I could analyze, nor did it make me laugh or cry. Instead, it hit me in the gut like no other piece of music had ever done before. Later, I purchased recordings of Die Frau Ohne Schatten and Death and Transfiguration, wallowing in the the power of the composer's music and the richness of his orchestrations.


What I've learned over a half century of attending theatre and opera is that it's not the size of the stage or auditorium that matters half so much as what people do with it. Given the right mix of ingredients, magic can fill almost any performance space, taking an audience on a wondrous journey away from the tedium of their daily lives.

Theatres are merely buildings where people congregate to share moments in dramatic time. In an age when rising rents and production costs are putting many small arts nonprofits in financial jeopardy, I'm happy to report a rebirth and reconfiguration of sorts.

For many years, Thick House (a 78-seat black box theatre in the Potrero Hill district of San Francisco) has served as one of the city's off-the-beaten-path showcases for new and/or relatively unknown plays. Tenants have included Theater Rhinoceros, Crowded Fire Theatre, Golden Thread Productions, and PlayGround's "Best of PlayGround" festival (as well as PlayGround's first film festival).

Launched in 1994, PlayGround's mission is to support the development of new local voices for the theatre. Since its inception, this invaluable artistic incubator has nurtured 185 early-career playwrights while developing and staging more than 650 of their original short plays (mostly using the performance facilities at Berkeley Repertory Theatre as its base).

In December of 2015, PlayGround signed a long-term master lease that included an option to lease Thick House until 2026. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Jim Kleinmann (who spearheaded the fundraising drive to raise $250,000 for critical improvements), the organization's initial goals were to install air-conditioning (along with a new ventilation system), provide new signage and seats, upgrade the theatre's lobby and restrooms, and create a specially-designed low-heat LED stage lighting system.

Last July, Crowded Fire Theatre and Golden Thread Productions announced that they would share office and rehearsal space at "The Annex" at 1695 18th Street, taking over areas owned by Art Space Development Corporation (which also owns the Thick House Theatre located in the same building). For Torange Yeghiazarian, the founding artistic director of Golden Thread Productions, the new arrangement is a long-overdue blessing. “This move will help us gain experience in managing our own facility and provide our community with a central gathering location. It is especially exciting that this also brings us closer to Crowded Fire, a company that shares our values and that we deeply respect. This is a huge step towards achieving our strategic goal of securing a long-term artistic home for performance, rehearsal, and administration."

Torange  Yeghiazarian of Golden Thread Productions,

In August of 2016, Theatre Rhinoceros (which had been leading a gypsy existence for the past few years) announced that it would make the Eureka Theatre its permanent home. While PlayGround will continue to stage its small festivals at what is soon to be renamed Potrero Stage: The PlayGround Center for New Plays, in addition to its anchor tenants the renovated theatre will also play host to the New Works Festival staged by 3Girls Theatre Company and a production by the Virago Theatre Company.

To celebrate the grand opening of its refurbished facility, PlayGround (in association with the Potrero Dogpatch Merchants Association and Potrero Hill Archives Project) recently debuted a program of eight short plays commissioned from local playwrights to depict stories about the past, present, and future of San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood.

Artwork for The Potrero Nuevo Project

Using actors familiar to Bay area audiences, these 10-minute plays were arranged chronologically according to historical period. The evening provided a heartfelt effort to showcase local culture and strengthen ties with the new waves of artists and tech people who have moved into both the Potrero Hill and Dogpatch communities. The program also did a superb job of letting the audience discover who were the most talented clowns onstage and which actors could capture and communicate acute moments of personal loss and tragedy in very brief moments of time.

* * * * * * * * *
The fun began with Los Californios (written by Ignacio Zulueta and directed by Katja Rivera). With the Catholic church having driven off most of the native Ohlone Indians who hunted and fished in the Bay area, Padre Abella (JD Scalzo) finds himself in a curious predicament. A Russian artist named Ludovic Choris (also played by Scalzo) has received a handsome commission to paint some Ohlones for a wealthy benefactor.

With no Ohlones left to do the honors, the Padre recruits Mr. Californio (Carlos Aguirre) and his wife, Mrs. Californio (Cathleen Riddley), who argue about whether they should let themselves be exploited. When Ludovic arrives and is eager for a colorful combination of exotic and erotic poses, the couple gives new meaning to the age-old battle between art and commerce.

Cathleen Riddley and Carlos Aguirre in a scene from Los Californios
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Patricia Cotter's play, The Crossing, begins with Kit Carson (Jessica Bates) explaining that s/he has been hired to keep the growing population of immigrants in check. As Ramon De Haro (Jed Parsario), Francisco De Haro (Melvign Badiola), and Jose de los Reyes Berryessa (Carlos Aguirre) row toward San Francisco prior to the Mexican-American War, they harbor the same dreams as most immigrants: a better life, a future, and women who will love them and bear their children. As directed by Jim Kleinmann, their dreams are cut short when Kit Carson is ordered to fire upon any who might be considered to be illegal immigrants.

Jed Parsario, Carlos Aguirre, and Melvign Badiola in a
scene from The Crossing (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Martha Soukup's Tent City focuses on two sets of families facing a similar problem. Directed by Margo Hall, it features Soren Oliver as a multigenerational Archie Bunker stereotype, Jessica Bates as his wife, and Melvign Badiola as the homeless person camping out in their front yard. Soukup, however, has put a unique spin on the situation as Andrew, Janet, and Rudy contrast San Francisco's 1906 earthquake (whose survivors reached out to help other) and today's situation, in which homeowners don't want interlopers deflating their property values.

Jessica Bates and Melvign Badiola in a scene from Tent City
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)

In Garret Jon Groenveld's poignant play, On the Docks (also directed by Katja Rivera), an Irish father in Boston (Jessica Bates) tells his son, Mike (JD Scalzo), that with the rest of his children grown up and out of house, it's time for Mike to head west to seek his fortune. Promising the 12-year-old boy that his uncle in San Francisco (Soren Oliver) will help him find work with the men building ships for World War II, he gives Mike a train ticket and bids his boy farewell.

Upon arriving in the Bay area, Mike finds himself in the middle of tense times between unions and management. After his uncle prevails upon a friend to get Mike a job (because they need someone small enough to do a specific job), the boy starts to make friends and move on to other job positions. By the time he has married, bought a house, and has a child on the way, he is asked to join a picket line. Mike must choose between lending support to his fellow workers or risking the income he needs to support his family.

JD Scalzo and Jessica Bates in a scene from On The Docks
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)

One of the audience's favorite plays was Ruben Grijalva's Full Steam Ahead, which centered on the history of the Anchor Steam Brewery and the role Fritz Maytag played in the birth of the craft brewing movement. Directed by Norman Gee, Grijalva's play outlined the reason so many people were dissatisfied with American beers back in the 1960s and how, after purchasing a failing brewery, Maytag persevered at a trial-and-error method of crafting a better beer.

With Jessica Bates as a bartender, and Soren Oliver doing triple duty as Steese (the brewery's manager), a German guy, and another man, JD Scalzo portrayed Maytag as a young man trying to find a future for himself in a building that stands just a few blocks away from the theatre where Grijalva's play was performed. Cathleen Riddley drew extra laughs while rapidly switching wigs to indicate whether she was an American or a British girl of the 1960s.

Jessica Bates and JD Scalzo in a scene from
Full Steam Ahead (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Although not as strong as some of the other plays, Victoria Chong Der's Graced (also directed by Norman Gee) focuses on a family struggling to make ends meet. Daniel (Melvign Badiola) keeps digging in the garden instead of making any effort to go out and look for a job. His sister, Grace (Karen Offereins), is a nurse who is exhausted from working multiple shifts while trying to care for their aging father. Pa (Jed Parsario) is not about to give up on life until he and Daniel can find the precious legacy left to them by their great grandfather from the Gold Rush days -- a gold spike that was buried somewhere on their ranch. Throughout the evening, Parsario was proving to be a gifted clown but, in this play, his portrayal of a wheezing, coughing elder so hunched over he could barely walk, added an extra level of poignancy to his big moment.

Melvign Badiola and Jed Parsario in a scene from Graced
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Genevieve Jessee's Walls Come Tumbling Down (directed by Margo Hall) dealt with two topics of grave concern to those who have lived in the area of Potrero Hill. One is the violence that has resulted in the deaths of so many young men; the other was the ouster of so many families from the Potrero Annex housing project as part of the Hope San Francisco reconstruction effort.

In this play, Vernice (Cathleen Riddley) and her husband, Henry (Carlos Aguirre), are packing up the last boxes of memories before they move out of the apartment in which they have lived for so many years. When Henry leaves to run an errand, their son, Jaleel (Jed Parsario), enters to chat with his mother. A smart young man who wanted to become a DJ, Jaleel always comes back to visit so that he can make his mother smile. The problem is that Vernice is actually conversing with a hallucination; Jaleel's ghost has been haunting her ever since his untimely death. Once again, Parsario's wit and likability lit up the theatre while Riddley's gift for handling tragedy resonated with many people in the audience.

Cathleen Riddley and Jed Parsario in a scene from
Walls Come Tumbling Down (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

To wrap things up, the evening's closer, Potrarium Unbound, was actually inspired by combining the words "Potrero" and "Aquarium." Set in the future, Maury Zeff's play finds Hunter Cartwright (Soren Oliver) hesitant about selling his family's home to Pez (Jed Parsario), a real estate developer who is offering more money than Hunter could ever imagine for the property. Unfortunately, Hunter can't find a good way to tell his pregnant daughter, Teslina (Karen Offereins), what he is about to do.

In an era in which people rely on seemingly magical rings (instead of smartphones) to perform all kinds of research and communications, Hunter has been experimenting with creating holograms of folks he learned about during his research regarding people who once lived on Potrero Hill. As Vernice (Cathleen Riddley), Two (Melvign Badiola), The Bartender (Jessica Bates), and Padre Abella (JD Scalzo) emerge from the holograms Hunter has created, they urge him to just tell Teslina the truth. Directed by Jim Kleinmann, this play provided a new framework with which to address issues of gentrification and real estate speculation that hit home to many of the people in the audience who can barely afford to live in the city anymore.

Karen Offereins, Soren Oliver, Jessica Bates, Cathleen Riddley and
Melvign Badiola in Potrarium Unbound (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

Enough studies have been done about the impact of the arts on a local economy for people to understand that a theatre can easily become an economic engine which stimulates spending in local restaurants, bars, and retail outlets. The same applies to hospitals and medical centers.

With the addition of two major hospitals (Kaiser and UCSF) in the Mission Bay area, the rebirth of Dogpatch as a popular residential neighborhood and dining destination, and the increased activity from Potrero Hill down toward 16th Street, the refurbished Potrero Stage is a welcome addition to the local landscape. If anything, The Potrero Nuevo Project was a timely piece of community theatre inspired by the community, written for the community, and directed and performed by artists from the Bay area's extensive theatre community.

1 comment:

Abiya Carol said...
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