Real Live Theater

Archive for December, 2008|Monthly archive page

Which type of theater (or theatre) do you attend most often?

In An Invitation for You, Who's watching? on December 24, 2008 at 7:33 pm

With so many different types of live theater to choose from, we realize it can be difficult to decide which ones to spend your time and money on. Of the types of live theater listed below, which type to you attend most often? Please click on the answer that best applies do you on the survey form below, then be sure to click the “Vote” button. (Note: all responses will remain anonymous.)

Thank you for your participation!


Shop ’til You Drop, or Find the Right Prop for Theater (or Theatre)

In Behind the Scenes on December 18, 2008 at 1:27 am

by Phil Gravitt

Holding the Trophy photo by Yuri Arcurs

Holding the Trophy photo by Yuri Arcurs

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – When Stephanie Lisius goes shopping, there is no telling what she’ll come home with — an antique suitcase, a salesman’s sample case, a 1930’s football, a leather basketball.  She shopped for all those things recently in her role as prop master.

Asked to describe what falls under the responsibility of the prop master, Stephanie replied, “Anything that gets picked up and moved around by an actor in the show.   The set designer is responsible for items that remain in one place, like a bed, refrigerator, or piano.”

Previously, Lisius had schedule intense roles like stage manager, with rehearsals four days a week, working late into the night, plus the run of the production.  As a full time social worker, committing to the long hours and specific times was no longer feasible for her.   Becoming a prop master allowed her to stay involved in theater while being fully present as a social worker.  Now she attends a few rehearsals, in case the director adds a prop or two, and weekly or biweekly 6 P.M. production meetings, which last no more than ninety minutes.    “I can do the rest of the prop master responsibilities on my own time,” she says, “instead of being tied to specific times and many meetings.”

Stephanie has what it takes to be prop master.  She is detail oriented, cares about authenticity, and is relentless in finding just the right item without going over budget.    In addition to forays into the property rooms of local theater groups, Lisius scours Craigslist and eBay, where she found the 1930’s football for ten dollars.   Shopping at antique and second hand stores on weekends, Stephanie always mentions the various things she is looking for.  “People are always eager to help and make suggestions when they know it is for a theater production.”

Another great resource is the Sonoma County theater community.  Lisius says, “There are many people with three or four decades of theater experience.   After an unsuccessful search for the leather basketball, a theater veteran suggested “Pick up an inexpensive rubber one, and spray paint it brown.”   An involved local actor and antiques collector generously offered to loan period suitcases.  “I keep many lists,” she says. “Since many props are borrowed, it is important to make sure an item gets back to where it came from, and in the same condition.”

Sometimes not finding the exact prop works out fine.  In one musical comedy, the store scene called for an old cash register.  Not finding one, a child’s plastic register was spray painted to look metallic.    Since the store in the scene wasn’t making any money, having a cheap sounding cash register was realistic.  For a drama, sports pennants were to be carried in one scene, and a megaphone was substituted.

To determine what props are needed for a show, Lisius explains, “I go through the script and notice anytime an item is handled or mentioned—an actor buying a trophy, carrying shoulder pads, asking ‘Where are my stockings?’   Knowing how and when an item will be used on stage, how visible it will be, and if it will be noticeably from the time period the play is set, are also important.  When the prop fits the scene, attention stays on the actor.”

Phil Gravitt is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the Noe Valley Voice & other San Francisco neighborhood newspapers, and the Bay Area Visual Arts Blog

Tatyana Borisovna: theater (or theatre) as a labor of love for Ukrainians and Russians

In Artist Spotlight on December 13, 2008 at 6:24 pm

by Ray Sikorski

Photo courtesy of Regional Academic Ukrainian Musical and Dramatic Theater

Photo courtesy of Regional Academic Ukrainian Musical and Dramatic Theater

RIVINE, UKRAINE – Rivne, Ukraine, is not the sort of city one imagines when one thinks “theater capital.” Bombed in World War II and occupied by the Nazis, this industrial city of 400,000 has plenty of big Soviet-built apartment blocks, but little in the way of charm. In winter, it can seem downright bleak.

Until one visits the sumptuous Regional Academic Ukrainian Musical and Dramatic Theater, that is. Like the Russian-built Zil limousines that once ferried gangsters and high Communist Party cadres around Soviet cities, the theater flaunts its size and stature. It’s five stories tall: the waiting area has marble floors, high ceilings, and crystal chandeliers; and the seats of its 700-seat proscenium stage are plush red velvet.

My experience in Ukraine, spent mostly in Rivne, was one of contradictions. Antique Lada, Volga, and Muskovitch cars puttered along next to brand new BMW and Lexus SUVs, while antique babushkas shared sidewalk space with statuesque girls in tight pants and calf-hugging stiletto boots. So, in a way, Rivne’s fabulous theater made sense – one of the best theaters in Ukraine, plunked down in a district more reminiscent of Cleveland than the West End or Times Square.

Tatyana Borisovna, an 18-year veteran of Rivne’s stage, now works as manager for the theater’s 45 salaried actors. Borisovna says that it all makes perfect sense, because despite appearances, Rivne is a city of theater lovers. The building actually houses two theaters – there’s an intimate 100-seat theater along with the luxurious proscenium – and barely a night goes by without a sellout performance. And this is with shows going on six nights a week.

Are Ukrainians simply mad about theater? Perhaps. However, with tickets going for a ridiculously cheap 10-30 hryvnia per show (about $1.30-$3.80, and cheaper than a movie), it could just be a good excuse to stay warm. Not so, says Borisovna – the theater puts on lavish, first-rate musical and dramatic performances by Ukrainian and Russian playwrights, with up to 13 different shows per season. People come from the entire region, she says, because the shows are top-rate. I asked her if tough times would keep people away; she said during the 1990’s economic crisis, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, people still came. The theater, she explained, is like a drug, for both actors and audience members – and the people of Rivne are hooked.

But where does the money come from? Certainly not many American performances could be made by charging people a dollar. Borisovna explained that the money people pay for tickets goes to the government, and then the government pays the salaries of everyone involved in the production – there’s a 21-member orchestra, too – who are full-time employees of the theater. Basically, it’s a holdover of the old Soviet system, which put a high value on theater. Among the working people of Rivne, it seems that every day is a struggle to survive; but its actors are well-paid, the theater is well-maintained, and productions are first-class.

One might lead to the conclusion that the people who work in Rivne’s theater are just employees doing a job, and don’t share the same passion for theater that American actors have. After all, private theaters need to sell tickets to keep their doors open.  Borisovna says that’s not the case at all. She points to several “legacies” among the actors in the theater, where children – including Borisovna’s own daughter – have taken up the craft after spending countless days after school watching their parents.

“Theater is not just a building,” she says. “It’s a life. Everyone who works in theater loves it; there are no people who don’t. Everyone who works with actors works not just for money.”

(The interview with Tatyana Borisovna was conducted with the translation help of Vova Lypchuk.)

Ray Sikorski wrote and directed his first one-act play in 1988, and his second 20 years later. He is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana, and is currently traveling in Ukraine, wondering if he can find someplace where they sell peanut butter.

How far would you travel specifically to see a live theater (or theatre) production?

In An Invitation for You, Who's watching? on December 13, 2008 at 5:26 pm

Here at Real Live Theater we’ve been having a debate and we’re hoping you will enlighten us.

You are invited to participate in our simple poll to help us discover how far people are willing to travel to see a live theater production. Please click on the answer that best applies to you on the survey form below, then be sure to click the “Vote” button. (Note: all responses will remain anonymous.)

Thank you for your participation!

The Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre

In Places and Spaces on December 12, 2008 at 2:57 am

by Kim Taylor

Historical photo of RVP Barn Theater by Clyde H. Sunderland

Historical photo of RVP Barn Theater by Clyde H. Sunderland

MARIN COUNTY, CA – This may be hard to believe, but there are still theater troupes out there that put their shows on in “the barn.”

Take the Ross Valley Players, the oldest continuously operating community theater organization west of the Rockies, which dates back to 1930 when members of the little hamlet of Ross in Marin County established the theater group as an escape from the realities of the Depression.

The company’s first performances were given at the community room of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Other RVP venues in the 1930s included San Rafael High School and Woodland Theatre, an outdoor theater located in Kent Woodlands. Then in the early 1940s, The Ross Valley Players settled in an old barn where actors shared rehearsal space with cattle and a barn door placed across some stalls formed the stage.

Set on a hill in the beautiful Marin Art & Garden Center complex, the Barn Theatre is a two story wood structure which evolved into a 150-seat theater and the home base of the Ross Valley Players. The lobby features a display of one of the original barn doors, a historical reminder of the RVP’s humble, but earnest beginnings.

The Barn was built in the 1860s as part of the Kittle farm. During the late 1930s the barn served several functions – as shelter for livestock; a garage for the Kittle family; and storage space for Ross Valley Players costumes and props.

It was in 1940 that the barn began its transformation into a theater space with a first play reading of “Life with Father.”

It continued functioning as a working barn until 1945, when Kittle Estate became the Marin Art and Garden Center. Between 1948 and 1954, major interior renovations were made at the barn including the installation of a permanent stage in 1950s. By the 1970s, the building had stage lights, bathrooms and a small kitchen for concessions.

Over the years the Ross Valley Players has successfully completed other significant improvement projects to the Barn Theatre. Future projects include a new heating system; a complete upgrade of restroom facilities; and a reorganization of costume and storage systems that will serve the Ross Valley Players and become a resource for other community organizations.

During its 79-year history the Ross Valley Players has served as a theatrical organization where amateurs can spread their wings and practice their skills. The non-profit theatrical company presents six to eight productions each season.

In 2007, members of the S.F. Bay Area Theatre Critics’ Circle presented a special award to The Ross Valley Players, recognizing the theater company as one of the Bay Area’s oldest theater companies surviving without subsidies, presenting productions featuring community talent and for its “RAW” series featuring readings of new plays by local writers.

A former entertainment calendar editor and features writer at the Marin Independent Journal, Kim Taylor, combined her media experience and appreciation for arts and entertainment and established herself as a successful and award-winning publicist.

Regarding the well-rounded, multi-talented, pinch-hitting people that make theater (or theatre) happen

In Behind the Scenes on December 8, 2008 at 6:20 am

by Phil Gravitt

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – In the world of theater it is often useful to know how to do more than just one thing.

Wearing Multiple Hats photo by Shane Michael

Wearing Multiple Hats photo by Shane Michael

Jeff Basham, a truly multi-talented person and wide-ranging contributor to Sonoma County theater, says, “It helps if the technicians understand the whole picture. A well-rounded technician is able to pinch-hit in any technical spot at a moment’s notice. If the deck crew knows how to run the sound board, and the sound operator gets sick in the middle of a show, that deck crew can run to the booth and take over.”

Basham is a stage manager and sound engineer, but he has also contributed to theater as a rehearsal stage manager and as an assistant stage manager, and in many other ways.

“It is extremely helpful for theater technicians to be well-rounded. If a production manager knows that they can use you in any position they need, rather than just lights or just sound – they will keep your name high on the list.” says Basham.

Although he has spent countless hours on the technical side of theater, Jeff has managed to find time to be an actor too. The difference in the amount of time acting takes versus other theater aspects is somewhat of a balancing act and must be considered carefully when choosing between the two.

Basham explains, “ The main difference is the time commitment involved. An actor or stage manager devotes 80% of their time to the rehearsals, production meetings, press events, etc. A sound engineer or deck crew member is only involved once tech week starts and during the run.”

There are other differences between being the on-stage presence and being a backstage or technical booth presence too.

“As an actor, the audience really identifies you. In other positions such as stage manager, sound engineer, or light board operator, talents come in the form of staying invisible, and your skill is based on how invisible you are during a show.” says Basham.

Besides the obvious technical training needed in order to run the vast array of electronic equipment involved behind the scenes, Basham explains other important skills that are necessary in order to work behind the scenes, “The ability to stay cool, because so many things can and will go wrong each performance. The microphones will mysteriously eat all their remaining battery when the battery was full ten minutes before curtain, the lights will randomly flash all over the stage, the actors will drop a line or a page or two of lines, and the technicians will then scramble to get in sync.”

The technical training necessary to work behind the scenes can come in many forms. For someone interested in theater, but who simply doesn’t know where or how to begin, Jeff recommends, “contacting your local community theater group, and asking how you can volunteer to learn about the area that interests you. Musicals give the most opportunity for the most people to be involved in the greatest number of ways. If you’re interested in breaking into acting, see if your local junior college or theater company offers classes. Many classes are taught by individuals who you may find yourself auditioning for in the future. If you do a good job in class, and show your determination, commitment, and heart, it will be remembered. If you also have the ability to listen and to give an encouraging word, you’ll go far, no matter what you set your mind to do.”

Phil Gravitt is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the Noe Valley Voice & other San Francisco neighborhood newspapers, and the Bay Area Visual Arts Blog