Real Live Theater

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UPWAKE: Natasha Tsakos’ multimedia theatrical adventure

In Found Treasures on August 31, 2009 at 8:05 pm

A Found Treasure from the Editor

INTERNET, TED.COM – Playwright and performer Natasha Tsakos works in a brave new form of theater, where sound, computer-generated images and the performer move in sync to create a dreamlike yet sharply real stage environment. Within this space of total possibility, Tsakos muses on the deepest questions of the human soul.  Tsakos presents part of her one-woman, multimedia show, Upwake. As the character Zero, she blends dream and reality with an inventive virtual world projected around her in 3D animation and electric sound.

A Found Treasure from the Editor shares with you a peak at an item from our collection of favorite pieces we’ve found on the internet. Enjoy!


Carol Mayo Jenkins: creating a life beyond the footlights

In Artist Spotlight on August 20, 2009 at 2:56 pm

by Ray Sikorski

Carol Mayo Jenkins in Collected Stories at Cinnabar Theater, photo by Eric Chazankin

Carol Mayo Jenkins in Collected Stories at Cinnabar Theater, photo by Eric Chazankin

KNOXVILLE, TN – Carol Mayo Jenkins may be most well known for her role as English teacher Elizabeth Sherwood in the popular 80s T.V. series Fame – and that’s perfectly all right with her.

“I moved to Los Angeles with two suitcases to do 12 episodes, and it lasted for six years,” says the London-trained actress. “I was very proud of that television show. And because it was about the school of the performing arts, it was about everything that I love anyway.”

While embracing a mainstream television series might seem inconsistent with a career spent performing Chekhov, Strindberg, Beckett, Pinter, and Albee, to Jenkins it all makes perfect sense. To this grande dame, it’s not just about time spent on the stage or in front of the camera. It is a life, filled with experiences that go well beyond the footlights.

The Tennessee native trained in London at the Central School of Speech and Drama and soon afterwards started a new theater company called Drama Center London. The company did a successful tour of the U.S. and later returned with playwright Harold Pinter for off-Broadway productions of The Dwarfs and A Night Out. Those never made it to opening night, however, when the cast’s visas were denied. Jenkins moved on – first to act on Broadway in Philadelphia, Here I Come!, and later to San Francisco, where she was offered work with the fledgling American Conservatory Theater. It was A.C.T.’s first season in San Francisco, and it was characterized by non-stop work; the company put on 16 plays in 22 weeks, and followed that up the next year with 22 plays in 40 weeks. The all-day, all-night schedule included not only rehearsal and performance, but constant training – voice lessons, singing lessons, Alexander technique, mime, and more.

“It was just incredible,” says Jenkins. “I don’t think there’s been a theater in this country – certainly not before or since – with that kind of scope.”

Working hard was nothing new to her. She credits her training in London with giving her a different sort of perspective on acting.

“”When I went to school in England we were trained not just to be good actors, but to be theater artists, and to want to create and build and do extraordinary things in the theater. If you don’t want to just stand around and hold a spear, build your own company. If you’re unhappy with the roles you’re getting, create your own theater.”

And create she did. In the years that followed, Jenkins defied a traditional logic of gradually taking on bigger and more impressive roles, instead building theaters and theater companies, spending six years in L.A. for Fame, living in Mexico City to film a novella, and working in more than 20 regional theaters throughout the countries.  Once she confounded her agent by taking an understudy role in a production of First Monday in October in Washington, D.C.; he felt it was beneath her and a bad career move, but she wanted to do it anyway. After all, she got to spend time in the Supreme Court to research the part, and ended up becoming great friends with Henry Fonda, the play’s star.

“I mean it was a fabulous lifetime experience, one I will never forget. So, what’s so bad about that? I often think actors get so intent on, ‘I can’t leave New York, I can’t do this, and I can’t do that because I’m building my career,’ that they forget that building your career is living.”

She contends that off-the-stage experiences are just as important as on-stage experiences. “That’s the fabric of one’s life, and that’s one’s material. That’s what you have to draw from.”

Fame to her was not just about the show, it was about learning to act for the camera, learning to live in L.A., and the rewarding feeling she got when she visited performing arts schools that popped up around the country, inspired by the show. Likewise, on a trip to Lithuania and Russia in 1991 for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, her lasting impression was one of international kinship among actors during a tumultuous time.

“And so it’s as much the work that one does as the places that that work takes you,” says Jenkins, who has returned home to Knoxville, Tennessee to perform and teach. “Not only in the world, but in your own mind and heart that are important.”

Carol Mayo Jenkins in Collected Stories at Cinnabar Theater, photo by Eric Chazankin

Carol Mayo Jenkins in Collected Stories at Cinnabar Theater, photo by Eric Chazankin

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.

Additional articles by Ray Sikorski incude:

Sonoma County Repertory Theater

In Places and Spaces on August 19, 2009 at 3:17 pm

By Kim Taylor

Sonoma County Repertory Theater

Sonoma County Repertory Theater

SEBASTOPOL, CA – Traveling down North Main Street in the little hamlet of Sebastopol, California one could easily pass by one of its most valued treasures.

Built in the 1870’s, the storefront location at 104 N. Main Street was originally the town’s general store. Today, this vintage gem is an intimate 80-seat theater venue and home of the Sonoma County Repertory Theater.

Founded in 1993 as the Main Street Theater, its first production, Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Ernest,” set the standard for professional quality theater in Sonoma County.

In 1995, a second theater was opened in Santa Rosa, prompting a name change to Sonoma County Repertory Theater, fondly referred today by locals as “The Rep.” Economic challenges of operating two theaters forced the closing of the Santa Rosa location in 2000.

But, the best things do come in small packages. During the past decade the theater company has garnered respect and accolades with bold play selections and a talented roster of company players.

Without a wing space or fly system, the artistic staff of the Sonoma County Repertory Theater takes a positive approach at its main stage location with creative and inventive staging. Storage is located at an off-site facility, but administration offices and dressing rooms are conveniently located on the second floor, above the theater.

During the summer months the Sonoma County Repertory Theater can spread its wings, its vision and its audiences presenting its annual Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival with outdoor productions at Sebastopol’s Ives Park, also located downtown at 7400 Willow Street.

Featuring beautiful trees surrounding the stage, easy accessibility and a large grass area, the park venue can accommodates over 300 patrons each performance. The Ives Park location offers a family-friendly environment and Sonoma County tourists a fun, cultural destination, making The Rep’s Shakespeare fest a favorite Sebastopol summer tradition.

Sonoma County Repertory Theater has an annual audience of about 10,000 patrons. The theater company presents seven to eight productions per year including its critically acclaimed annual holiday presentation of “A Christmas Carol” and two productions for its annual Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival.

Sonoma County Repertory Theater also serves over 5,000 young people annually through its arts education and outreach programs.

Additional information about Sonoma County Repertory Theater can be found at

Mary Gannon-Graham and Wendel Wilson in Midsummer Night's Dream at Sonoma County Repertory Festival's Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival 2009

Mary Gannon-Graham and Wendel Wilson in Midsummer Night's Dream at Sonoma County Repertory Festival's Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival 2009

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.

Additional articles by Kim Taylor include:

Audrey II: a role you can sink your teeth into

In Behind the Scenes on July 25, 2009 at 3:42 pm

by Phil Gravitt

Teeth photo by abzee

Teeth photo by abzee

MARIN COUNTY, CA – “It can be lonely, being a plant,” says Wendell H. Wilson, the actor/puppeteer who has found a special niche playing Audrey II, the man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors. Wilson has played Audrey II at the Willows Theater, 6th Street Playhouse, and with KD Musical Theater at San Anselmo Playhouse and Marin County Day School.

Audrey II is the mysterious, giant, singing, man-and-woman-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors. In the movie version Audrey II is animated through the use of mechanics and special effects, but in the stage version of the musical, all of the animation must be made to happen though the special skills of a talented actor/puppeteer who is capable of bringing a full-body puppet weighing over 100 pounds to life.

“As Audrey II,” Wilson continued, “there are four major costume changes as the plant grows, so there is no break like other actors. I miss jokes and discussions, or when someone says ‘Did you see that happen?’  You can feel like you are not really involved.  You need to know you are helping move the story along, you are an actor, not a prop or object.  You and your character are part of the ensemble.”

Asked what skills are needed to be a large scale plant puppet in a leading role, Wilson replied, “Most important is the ability to give life to an inanimate object, so it looks and feels like the being it is.”

“It is like mask work,” says Wilson, explaining how he gives life to a puppet costume with no eyes, lips, hands or facial expressions. “Taking what you are behind the mask and putting it in front of the mask. When I mouth the words, ‘Feed me, Seymour,” without having lips to move, I have to become the plant.  If other characters treat Audrey II like a living breathing cast member, instead of a prop, the audience will too.”

“Audrey II is a magical being, immortal, different than human,” says Wilson. “I support all that as a plant. Suspension of disbelief is what acting is all about.  Taking the audience out of where they are to somewhere else, and giving them the feeling they are right there, watching it happen.”

How did Wilson ‘become the plant?’ “I thought about, ‘What is the plant’s intent? What does the plant want out of this?’ The plant has an agenda. It wants to be fed.  People won’t catch that if they think it’s a puppet.”

Wilson also remembered seeing time lapse photography on TV, showing the twisting movement of growing plants and needed to find a way to do that same type of movement with his own body.

Wilson’s role as Audrey II required spinning a heavy 110 pound costume, and holding it. With that in mind, Wilson wore gloves and a torso weightlifting belt, and slept more than normal so his body could repair. “Being a puppet on this scale requires flexibility, emotion, intent, and strength,” says Wilson.  “Plus, with so much twisting, and contact with other actors, there is a risk of pulled muscles and injuries. When performing, I am working out up to 2 hours every day. I lose 10-15 pounds during the run of the show.  It is real important you protect your health.” To prepare, Wilson goes through a regimen of physical and flexibility training.   He also does a lot of stretching and twisting, to get his spine ready for the show.

In addition, Wilson explained to other cast members how to push him safely.” I tell them, ‘If I push you forward, push me back. Be as physical as you want, just in a safe manner.’” That contact gave life to the creature, since audiences aren’t used to seeing people hit puppets. Also, by being able to do almost a front full or side split, the audience sometimes doesn’t know where his legs are in the costume.

“My number one goal is being so physical and alive in the plant that people forget they are looking at a puppet.”

Wilson got his start in improv, which is mostly being something you are not. As an actor, he has always had multiple characters and roles. “This training has been important,” he explains, “as it gave me a sense of being able to shed self quickly and pick up something else.”

“Improv also taught me how to sync with a person quickly,” Wilson adds. “Like with the actor who is the voice of Audrey II. You have to listen, you can’t see, you are blind.  I love the whole aspect of the voice adding that next layer of life to this inanimate object.” Depending on the venue, Audrey’s voice may come from a voice actor in the control booth, or one who can see from behind the set. “Neither of us is initiating or reacting.” Wilson explains. “We are both doing it at same time.”

“I wish there were more shows that incorporated puppets,” Wilson concluded.  “It is not easy and not tapped into like it used to be. It is almost a lost art form. Japan had a huge puppetry movement and many opportunities to use a large puppet instead of another person. Being a puppet is more challenging than being face to face with another actor showing your emotions, because you must have a commitment to every action.”

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

Additional articles by Phil Gravitt include:

Patrick Varner: from Phantom to Babylon to Top Ramen and beyond

In Artist Spotlight on July 16, 2009 at 3:28 pm

by Ray Sikorski

Patrick Varner in The Servant of Two Masters (submitted photo)

Patrick Varner in The Servant of Two Masters (submitted photo)

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – It’s not unusual for a visit to a theater to bring out the performer in a child. Sometimes such a visit can seal the deal of a lifetime. For Patrick Varner, that visit was backstage at Phantom of the Opera in San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, at the tender age of five.

“It was mind-blowing at the time,” says Varner, now 17. “Being a five-year-old kid and standing on the stage of this theater where there’s more than a thousand seats, and seeing the chandelier up close and personal… It had a long-lasting effect on me that has never gone away. That was sort of the end of everything – it was like, ‘All right, this is what I’m supposed to do.’”

Varner has remained true to his word. After arriving back home in Santa Rosa, California, he implored his parents to sign him up for theater classes, and – except for a brief stint where he feared being labeled a “theater nerd” in middle school – he’s been at it ever since.

Varner’s talents were spotted early on at Santa Rosa’s Montgomery High School, where he landed the second male lead as a freshman in the school’s production of Kiss Me Kate. A natural singer, Varner wasn’t so at ease with all the dancing his role in the musical demanded.

“When I got this part, it was like, ‘Aw, crap, what do I do? I was totally a fish out of water. Just completely uncomfortable; I didn’t know what was going on.”

But Varner seems to be a kid who finds his comfort zone, and goes ten steps beyond it. After the success of that performance, he took on more and more roles each year, and not just at school – he could also be found at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse. While he considers comedy his forte, he also embraces emotionally challenging roles, and strives to be a performer who can play anything. Last year, on top of four or five school productions, he entered four categories in Sacramento State University’s Lenaea Festival, including a manic performance in Becky Mode’s Fully Committed – a one-man show featuring 42 different characters.

“It was insanity,” he says of the experience. He won best performance by an actor, and gold in the one-act category.

He followed that up this year with another slew of successes, including winning a $10,000 scholarship in the Steve Silver Foundation/Beach Blanket Babylon competition. He plans to attend Boston University in the fall.

“I’m excited to be challenged,” he says. “I’m excited to be beaten down and built back up again.”

Despite his early successes, Varner harbors no illusions about the life of an actor. During a summer acting program in New York, a teacher who had played successful parts on Broadway surprised him by revealing he had auditioned for a voice-over role for a bank commercial in New Jersey. “He said, ‘You know, you gotta pay the bills somehow,’” Varner recalls. So, while he relishes an acting future in New York City, Varner also has his eyes on the dynamic community that he witnessed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon.

“That’s what I’m really wanting to do right after college,” he says of the Festival, which features new plays as well as fare from the Bard. “But, who knows, after four years, I’m sure that will have changed hundreds of times.

“I think my closer goals right now are just to work, wherever that means I go. … I would love to be a working actor, expressing myself creatively, regardless of financial stability,” he says. “Well, I mean, financial stability is definitely nice, but I am not opposed to living off of Top Ramen.”

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.

Additional articles by Ray Sikorski incude:

Footloose Productions and Shotwell Studios: a model for incubating theater, dance, music and more

In Behind the Scenes on July 15, 2009 at 4:09 pm

by Phil Gravitt

Footloose's Lenora Lee & Sebastian Grubb, photo by Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

Footloose's Lenora Lee & Sebastian Grubb, photo by Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – After 35 years in theater and dance, Mary Alice Fry of Footloose Productions in San Francisco says, “Success has nothing to do with luck.  It’s perseverance, putting one foot in front of the other.”

Fry is the Artistic and Executive Director of Footloose, providing rehearsal, class and performance space to performing arts teachers and artists at Shotwell Studios since 1989.  Shotwell hosts theater, dance, music, spoken word, comedy and multi-media, including Footloose’s own productions and collaborations.

By keeping ticket and studio rental prices reasonable, Footloose gets good box office support for its shows.  Footloose also has several long term studio rental tenants, and support and funding from foundations, SF Hotel Tax Fund Grants for the Arts, individual contributors and corporate sponsors.

Each year, Fry sponsors, aids, supports and encourages four to five performing artists or small groups in a three-tier process to help the artists move their work to the next level professionally.   The process begins with the artist in residence program, called AIM: Artists in Motion. “I’m looking for original work and original voices,” says Fry.  The residencies last from two to four months and culminate in a work in progress showing at Shotwell.

AIM grew out of an earlier program at Venue 9 called Women’s Work from 1996 through 2004 where artists would share the stage one night a week with other women each doing 10 to 15 minutes.  Fry saw that some of them were really good, and with help and more work, could grow into full performances and realized “I think we’ve got something.”   That is when Fry got the idea to do the Women on the Way (WOW) Festival, so the artists could show full-length work and share audiences.  The annual festival at Venue 9 was immediately successful securing its longevity and is gearing up for its tenth anniversary.

The festival is held on three weekends each January.  “Since there are no other festivals in January,” explains Fry, “the performers often get reviews from several media sources. This helps the performers get grants and build their audiences.”

While AIM and the work in progress shows are open to all genders, WOW, as the name implies is for women only, although men are often involved on the production and performing ends and make up a large portion of the audience.

“Since many performance mediums have a narrow audience, at WOW I mix dance, theater, music, clowns, spoken word, and multi-media.   People show up and see something they had no idea was out there,” says Fry.

If a WOW show is well received, Fry will schedule a full theatrical run at Shotwell.    Recently, a musical by the Tietjen sisters, titled ‘A Murmured Tale,” sold out four shows online even before the box office opened.  It was honed and incubated through the AIM program and is being readied for a professional production in the Tenth Annual WOW Festival at ODC Dance Commons in January 2010 and a subsequent full run at a venue to be announced.

AIM and WOW artists are offered free rehearsal space, along with technical and administrative support, mentoring on how to self-produce, and direction on how to gear up for bigger productions. Help and guidance on publicity, marketing, designing and producing post cards, and creating online visibility are also provided.

There are challenges for artists as well as producers like Fry. “Performers sometimes tire of a piece, and quickly move to the next thing,” says Fry.  “To help them, I need them to focus on one project. Or the writer/performer isn’t up to their material, but they won’t let it go. Then I encourage them to find an actor who can handle the part if it’s a good show.  In some cases, like with Amanda Moody and composer Jay Cloidt, they made an album of the music from ‘D’Arc: woman on fire’ which was one of our hit shows and it lives on that way.  Tina D’Elia made a film from her popular show, ‘Groucho’ and many dance artists build their repertory with pieces created here.”

Participants are encouraged to self produce, perform at fringe festivals, or apply for residencies and festivals at bigger venues like the 125-seat Dance Mission Theater, the 110-seat ODC Dance Commons or the ODC Theater currently being renovated, or even  Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

“My dream is to have a traveling circuit for performers, with five to ten cities, and trading artists with international studios,” adds Fry. “Then the performers would get a feel for being on the road.”

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

Additional articles by Phil Gravitt include:

Forest Meadows Amphitheatre

In Places and Spaces on July 3, 2009 at 5:12 am

By Kim Taylor

The Comedy of Errors at Forest Meadows in 1992 (Photo courtesy of Marin Shakespeare Company)

The Comedy of Errors at Forest Meadows in 1992 (Photo courtesy of Marin Shakespeare Company)

MARIN COUNTY, CA – One can swear by the moon, the constant moon as it rises over Forest Meadows Amphitheatre located on the campus of Dominican University of California in San Rafael, where the stage was carefully designed and constructed to showcase a full moon rising directly above the players and audiences during the summer months.

The outdoor amphitheater, located in a meadow filled with trees and a creek, is noted as California’s first purpose built Shakespearean amphitheater. The venue was completed 1967 to provide a new home for Marin Shakespeare Festival, which relocated from the Redwood Amphitheatre at the Marin Art & Garden Center in Ross. Unfortunately, the Marin Shakespeare Festival took its final bow in 1972.

In the summer of 1989 Robert and Lesley Currier received a recruitment call from a small but devoted group of community minded Marin residents hoping to resurrect a summer Shakespeare theater festival at the Forest Meadows Amphitheater location.

By August 1990, the Marin Shakespeare Company was established and presented its first production, “As You Like It.”

During its past twenty seasons at Forest Meadows, the Marin Shakespeare Company has received countless honors including Dean Goodman Choice Awards; San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics’ Circle awards and nominations; the Marin Magazine Editors’ Choice award; the Pacific Sun’s Best of Marin Award; and the Bohemian’s Boho Award.

Today the venue is also used for Dominican University graduation ceremonies and other school graduations and various events. Marin Shakespeare Company also uses the amphitheater space for a limited number of classes each summer.

But, the venue has its challenges. Despite its natural intimacy, noise can travel from Highway 101 and sometimes be heard within the seating area. It’s something the Marin Shakespeare Company would love to correct. More than forty years old, the venue could also benefit from upgraded restrooms, pathways, lighting and seating. And because the venue doesn’t have a lobby the Marin Shakespeare Company builds a new lobby area each season using hay bales and portable buildings.

Despite all its flaws, there’s something special about that man in the moon spotlighting the Forest Meadows stage.

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.

Additional articles by Kim Taylor include:

To wig or not to wig? That is the question.

In Behind the Scenes on June 24, 2009 at 1:39 am

by Phil Gravitt

Wig Dog photo by Photo Euphoria

Wig Dog photo by Photo Euphoria

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – “This summer is a heavier wig season than in the past, due to the shows selected,” says Pamela Johnson, Hair and Makeup Director for Summer Repertory Theater (SRT) in Santa Rosa and costume, hair and makeup designer in the Bay Area since 1986.

The Wedding Singer has lots of impersonators, including Michael Jackson, Boy George, Cindy Lauper and Tina Turner.”

To create each character each of the wigs is altered or restyled for the individual character.  One young girl female actor plays a bridesmaid in The Wedding Singer, then the same actor reappears as a young Jewish boy at a bar mitzvah, a secretary, a nightclub dancer and finally a Nancy Reagan impersonator.

This summer, Johnson has been charged with the distinct task of translating designs to individual hair and makeup details for each of the nearly-thirty actors playing multiple roles in five plays performing at the three venues of Summer Rep.

For Summer Rep, Johnson chose to direct hair and makeup, rather than design and direct the costume construction, so she could work part time. In addition to the costume drawings and research supplied by the designers, Johnson does research using the Internet and her personal library. For example, Johnson researched male tango dancers with mustaches, and came up with a stereotype to be styled for the actors.  With 20 years experience, Johnson says, “Many styles are second nature to me.”

“As hair and makeup coordinator, I’m the improviser,” explains Johnson.  “From the final designs, I set up the hair and makeup design appointments with each character and actor.   I supervise and train the crew. One student is the hair and makeup crew at the shows. Wardrobe people also assist in changing hair.”

The time periods represented in each of the five plays being produced at Summer Rep this summer span many years.   “Not all characters have a wig; actors may have to style their own hair in different ways so it is right when a wig is not worn, and short enough to accommodate a wig when one is required.   I start with a head shot of everyone in the company, look at the parts they are going to play, then the designers decide on a standard haircut that will work,” says Johnson.

Actors must put their makeup on themselves.  Each actor has to supply their own basic makeup kit, as well as facial cleansers, towels, hairspray, brushes.  At the initial meeting with Johnson, the actors review all their character changes, and receive a handout telling them what hair and makeup will be needed, and examples of how to put on their own makeup and style their hair for each character.

The hair and makeup crew maintains the wigs, cleaning or restyling as needed.  They also help put the wigs on actors, and make sure the wigs are pinned on securely.  Finally, the crew confirms hair and makeup look correct for the character and checks where the actor can’t see, like the back of their head.      Johnson adds, “I make a chart, and a running list, so the crew knows how to keep track of the changes, and in what order the actors appear.”

With hair, facial hair and makeup changing several times during a performance, many changes take place in the wings just offstage.  “The crew goes back and forth to the makeup room, helping people change makeup,” explains Johnson. “The crew also makes sure everything gets back to its assigned spot and is labeled, and cleans up the makeup room when everyone leaves at night.”

The challenges can be wide ranging.  “Movement is the biggest concern.  Also, high humidity makes human hair wigs go flat,” Johnson adds, “So we often use synthetic wigs outdoors.   Overall, I prefer human hair wigs, which look more realistic and are easier to style than synthetic wigs.”

“It is rewarding and fun for me when the audience recognizes and appreciates the characters,” Johnson explains.   “It is also rewarding to pass on skills to the students I have. They remain excited as they put in long hours, and look forward to an entire life ahead to become makeup artists.”

Additional information about Summer Repertory Theater (SRT) is available at

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

Additional articles by Phil Gravitt include:

Jeffrey Weissman: embracing comedy as a life’s work

In Artist Spotlight on June 19, 2009 at 2:30 am

by Ray Sikorski

Photo of Jeffrey Weissman (submitted photo)

Photo of Jeffrey Weissman (submitted photo)

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – Those who embrace comedy as their life’s work understand that the line between pleasure and pain is thin, if it even exists at all. Stan Laurel, the skinny half of the classic duo Laurel and Hardy, was as well known for busting out in tears as he was for his trademark ear-to-ear grin. The laughs come by doing a tight-rope walk along that line.

Actor Jeffrey Weissman, 50, has spent a good chunk of his life impersonating Laurel, and the sense one gets is that you don’t just learn how to do that tight-rope walk by studying it – you have to get out on the wire, and nets aren’t allowed. Pathos will quickly lead to bathos.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Weissman had an early hankering for the silver screen, but his parents – who knew first-hand about the tough lives actors lead – tried to dissuade him. Determined, Weissman took on some walk-on roles before heading to San Francisco to study at American Conservatory Theater. It wasn’t long before he was short-listed for the lead in the film War Games, along with Eric Stoltz, Dana Carvery, Sean Penn, and Matthew Broderick – who ultimately landed the role and started a career that has yet to stop. Shortly after that, Broderick, who now had some name recognition, beat Weissman out for the lead in Ladyhawke.

Weissman admits losing out on Ladyhawke was tough. He had worked for several years at Renaissance Faires, and the script resonated with him.

“There was a circle of talent that I was a part of there in the early ’80s, that were up on all these big films, but it was obviously not the right time for me to make that big breakthrough,” he says.

“Fate is a fleeting thing sometimes.”

Weissman did manage to land several small parts, including the role of Teddy Conway in Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, and as an airline passenger in Twilight Zone The Movie. But his biggest coup also turned out to be his biggest personal challenge, when he was asked to recreate Crispin Glover’s George McFly character in the Back to the Future sequels.

It would have been one thing to simply be Jeffrey Weissman playing George McFly. But because of complicated contract deals with Glover, Weissman was forced to become Glover, right down to prosthetic makeup. The producers didn’t want to let on that Glover wasn’t part of the sequels, so Weissman got buried in the back of shots, sometimes appeared out of focus, and he was forbidden from promoting himself as the actor – denying him the fame he desired since childhood. While he admired Glover’s performance in the first movie, the challenge of making himself into a non-entity, both on-screen and off, resulted in a nervous breakdown and a failed marriage.

Twenty years later, Weissman betrays no signs of bitterness. Since then, he’s embraced the role of struggling actor, taking both comedic and serious roles on stage and screen. His list of credits runs the gamut from Shakespeare to auto body commercials. He’s impersonated Stan Laurel, Charlie Chaplin, and Groucho Marx, and started the L.A. Theatersports improv team. He also got remarried, to the girl he fell in love with in high school.

Currently he’s living in Santa Rosa, California, working as the director of 6th Street Improv at 6th Street Playhouse, teaching at the San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking, and working on a laundry list of acting and directing projects. His latest starring film project, Corked, a mockumentary about the wine industry, just showed at Cannes and is looking for a distributor. And he’s starting a film production company called Buzz Filmz.

“I like being alive, so I try to seize it,” he says of his busy schedule.

And, on top of all that, he proudly travels the world as George McFly, making appearances at sci-fi fan conferences and charity fundraisers.

“A lot of the big fans would come and look at me and say, ‘Well, who are you? You’re George?’ And they didn’t realize that there was a difference, because I did my job.” He says the greatest reward is making human connections with fans who see the movies as timeless classics.

“It’s not been easy overcoming the bullshit of getting depressed,” he says. “It’s not been an easy task, but I’m naturally kind of an optimistic guy, and if you wallow in the crap, it turns into more crap. I need to get back into my yoga, just like anyone else, but I’m surrounded, luckily, by a lot of family and friends, and adoring fans. So I keep my sanity that way, and keep seeing what the universe is going to provide.”

On Saturday, June 20, 2009, Jeffrey Weissman will be teaching a seminar on how to keep an acting career going at San Francisco State University. Free for SAG members. On Friday, June 26, 2009, he hosts “The Best of Sonoma County Improv,” featuring five different Sonoma County improv troupes, at the Glaser Center in downtown Santa Rosa.

Additional information about Jeffrey is available at

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.

Additional articles by Ray Sikorski incude:

Long Form Improv: creating a dialog between communities through improvisation

In Behind the Scenes on June 9, 2009 at 3:42 pm

by Phil Gravitt

Camels, photo by Petershort

Camels, photo by Petershort

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – If you only think of humor when you think of improv, you are in for a new experience with the long form improv performance of Arabian Nights, July 10 and 11, 2009 at the Magic Theater, sponsored by Zawaya, an Arab arts organization serving the San Francisco Bay Area.

“While long form improv is presented like a play,” explains Co-producer and director Basel Al-Naffouri, “for Arabian Nights, we will create new stories within the same genre, made up on the spot.  We may turn to the audience to ask for a story title, or something to inspire us.  Sometimes reactions are explored, especially if the audience is enjoying the moment.”

Expanding on audience involvement, Co-producer Mikaela Bennett adds, “There is finite material within Arabian Nights, and the audience gets to participate in new stories within the language of that world.”

Another difference between long form improv and other theater, Al-Naffouri points out,   “There is nothing on the stage.  Improvisers craft a whole world the audience can see with their minds eye, creating a magical experience.”

There is also humor in long form improv.  “We don’t play it for the laughs; we play it for the moment.  The laughs come from being improvised,” says Al-Naffouri.   “There are sweet moments, too, unique because they are improvised.”

To prepare, the ensemble studies the genre deeply to become familiar with all aspects, characters and characteristics, locations of the stories, time periods, and how the stories are told.  “Rehearsal mostly is creating stories that fit within the genre,” explains Al-Naffouri.  The actual performance is the second part of long form improv.   “For the live performance, we have a balance of everything, and take that and run with it, and see what types of stories emerge.”

“There are no stock characters or plots,” Bennett adds.   “You put together any combination to create meaning.   We vary our characters and make sure they don’t repeat.  We access what makes a character different or special.”

This freedom from specific roles makes it exciting for the ensemble as well as the audience.  “We are not limited by our own bodies and physiques,” Al-Naffouri says.  “Each player can take on different body sizes, rhythms, movements, types of speech, the whole human experience.  Each player can be smarter, dumber, bigger, or smaller than they are, with different skin color, origins, nationalities.”

Al-Naffouri is hoping they the Arab community will “come and see something that is part of their culture, and also see improv, where they will feel they are part of the show.”

Bennett and Al-Naffouri would also like to attract a non improv audience, as well as members of the improv community who have not seen arts and culture presented through improv.    The hoped for result would be a dialog between these three communities that would normally not have contact with each other.  “The show is not just about Aladdin,” explains Al-Naffouri.   “It is about getting experience with Arab heritage, to get excited about what is familiar and unfamiliar.”

“We would like to enable improvisers to learn about Arab culture by integrating some of the story lines in their improv,” adds Bennett, resulting in “more diverse stories and different personalities within the improv community.”

The ensemble of players has many years experience, including long form improv in San Francisco.  Classical and Arabic musicians are also taking part, with music made up on the spot, along with improvised singing.   “The musicians must be able to play anything and support the story no matter where it goes,” says Bennett.

Improv shows frequently don’t schedule long runs because improv groups don’t want to do a lot of the same story line.  In keeping with that tradition, this  performance of Arabian Nights will have a short two-day run of July 10 and 11, 2009.  The show is approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes.    “The story ends when it ends, they don’t try to stretch it,” Al-Naffouri says.

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

Additional articles by Phil Gravitt include: