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Eliot Fintushel: squaring Zen with live theater

In Artist Spotlight on January 15, 2009 at 5:52 pm

by Ray Sikorski

Submitted photo of Eliot Fintushel from Flowers of Evil

Submitted photo of Eliot Fintushel in Flowers of Evil

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – So, there’s the pantomime. And the reciting of French poetry. And the weird instruments. And the Zen. This is what Eliot Fintushel embraces in his avant garde solo performances.

But even Fintushel has trouble squaring Zen Buddhism with live theater.

“The fundamental in meditation is that you get rid of all audience,” says Fintushel, 60. “But if you do that as a performer in theater, there’s another name for it. It’s called self-indulgence.”

Perhaps it’s the ying-yang opposition that holds the attraction for Fintushel – and his audiences. His most eyebrow-raising instrument is the Etherwave theremin, a machine that is played without touch. Instead, it reacts to the electromagnetic field projected by the musician. In his one act show, Flowers of Evil, Fintushel intersperses lines from Baudelaire’s poetry with simple, lovely melodies of Debussy, which he plays on the theremin.

“It seems so natural for a mime to play an instrument that you never touch,” he says, explaining that the instrument will respond not only to the movement of his body, but to the movement of bodies all around it.

“Just by how you stand or how you move, you absorb more or fewer electrons, and that changes the resonance and circuitry inside the instrument and makes the notes higher and lower, or louder and softer.

“If I breathe deeply, it will change the pitch. If I eat a big meal before I play, I have to tune it differently. If the audience leans forward all at once, it would change my tuning.”

And so there is this balance. Fintushel is a performer, but he has no background in traditional  theater. He is a musician, but he never comes in contact with the instrument. His show is avant garde, but the audience seems to get it.

It wasn’t always that way. Before moving to his current home of Santa Rosa, California, Fintushel grew up in Rochester, New York.  His father was a baker, then a machinist. His mother was a clerical worker. He had an uncle who taught a baking class at the high school.

“So being a schoolteacher was in my sights, but I could not imagine anything beyond that, and I had to be knocked around and have a lot of crazy misadventures before I began to see what it might mean to do something very different from those things.”

A New Year’s party after a week-long retreat at a Rochester Zen center gave him the epiphany he needed, and he’s devoted the rest of his life to performance and writing. Along with his one-man shows, Fintushel teaches mime, mask, and improvisational theater at the Santa Rosa Junior College, writes science fiction and essays, busks with his theremin in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, and travels to schools giving shows to children. He has given over 4,000 performances, and is currently working with Santa Rosa’s Imaginists Theatre Collective on a new production of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi.

While Fintushel admits that his first one-man show, based on the Book of Revelation, may have alienated some audiences, his Baudelaire show seems to have struck a happy nerve. Audiences delight in the juxtaposition of Baudelaire’s poetry, the theremin music, and Fintushel’s sparse but focused use of props.

And, of course, there’s the performance itself. “It’s a matter of sweat and blood,” he says of the connection between Zen and theater. The passion that’s required to figure out a Zen koan must also be apparent by actors on stage. Emotional energy is the biggest requirement.

“I’m really an introvert, I’m a very shy guy, but on stage I can be anything. I can be a tornado, I can be a lion, I can be the entire population of the northern hemisphere… On stage there’s no holds barred, the sky’s the limit. Not even the sky.”

Information on Eliot Fintushel’s live performances can be found at and

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.


The Great Debate: theater or theatre?

In An Invitation for You, Who's watching? on January 15, 2009 at 5:44 pm

The great debate rages on into the night here at Real Live Theater: how do you spell theater or theatre?

Please take a moment to complete the simple survey below. If you would like to elaborate on why you spell it one way or the other, you have the option to also click on the red ‘comment’ button at the bottom of this article and share your reason with us. We would love to know your opinion.

Thank you for your participation!

Break Some Rules, Take a Risk and Start a Theater (or Theatre) Company

In Behind the Scenes on January 8, 2009 at 8:36 pm

by Phil Gravitt

Breaking Chain photo by fpm

Breaking Chain photo by fpm

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – “Starting a theater company is about fulfilling your artistic soul,” says Chris Ginesi, co-founder of Narrow Way Stage Company.  “It is about that one thing inside you that you need to get out.  It is about breaking some rules and finding a niche, and creating a home with integrity for young artists, a safe place for them to be vulnerable and to throw it out on the stage. Giving people a chance to experience a show they might not see anywhere else.”

Ginesi and co-founder Nick Christensen launched Narrow Way in 2005, and have advice for others aspiring to start their own theater company.

Ginesi recommends, “Even if you [have to] spend several years as a nomad company with no space of your own, starting with good backing in the community helps you succeed as a legitimate theater company. Find people in the community who will help you move forward. It is important to know who your artistic family is — people who believe in you.”

“You also need publicity,” he quickly ads, “Get yourself out there, so people know what you’re doing.  Find new ways to publicize your company, like MySpace.”

To get the word out on the streets about Narrow Way, the company’s actors handed out flyers at the farmers market and acted out scenes at the mall from their version of Julius Caesar, while tossing flyers from the top of the stairs. In addition to producing plays, another way to get people interested and involved in a new theater group is through benefit shows and improv performances. Ginesi suggests, “Word of mouth works.  After a while, when you hold auditions or have shows, you will have name recognition.”

A theater company consisting of all young actors has specific challenges to overcome, and runs the risk, for instance that the community might not take them seriously and have a false sense, as Ginesi says, “that they are [just a bunch] of twenty years olds with money to put on a play. By demonstrating a sincere respect for acting and the stage, and by consistently choosing incredible material and producing high quality work, people will know you are real.”

“Yes,” Christiansen agrees, “It is important to make sure the people you are working with are about the same thing you are. Starting a theater company is bigger than just the roles you want to play. Everyone needs to have the same vision and commitment to success. Collaborating with other theater groups is also mutually beneficial, helping each group reach an audience that neither can get to alone.”

Helpful, too, is to have an organizational structure in place from the get-go, to prevent chaos from ensuing as the company grows. Christiansen matter-of-factly reveals, “Members of the group also need to understand the hierarchy of the company. People need to know who is boss, and what their job is.”

While particular challenges do exist for groups of young actors, the high-level of energy they have to offer is a definite advantage. Christiansen describes the time commitment and dedication of the Narrow Way actors this way, “We gain a lot from working long hard hours.  We come to work to work, sometimes late into the night.   We can do two hours of rehearsal, break for dinner, and then do two to three hours of rehearsal for a different show.”

To anyone contemplating starting a new theater company, Christiansen offers this advice, “Lots of people want to direct. People are always reading new plays and looking at new works.  It is a collaborative effort to make plays come to life.  Do what is challenging and challenge audiences, and fulfill the idea of what theater is for, not [just to] to ‘people please’ the audience.”

As a last bit and perhaps the most important piece of advice of all, Christiansen encourages, “Go for it.  Live your dream. You are taking a risk, but you won’t be hurt in the end if you go for what is true to you.  You have no idea until you go out there and try.”

Information on Narrow Way Stage Company can be found 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

Paul Gilger: bringing industrial light, magic and Showtune to the world

In Artist Spotlight on January 2, 2009 at 6:36 am

by Ray Sikorski

Submitted photo of Takarazuka Revue cast rehearsing Just Go To The Movies

Submitted photo of Takarazuka Revue cast rehearsing Just Go To The Movies

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – Paul Gilger knows his way around theaters. He’s acted in a few, stage managed in a lot, directed, produced, composed music, written scripts, designed sets, even designed theaters. His experience spans from junior high in a small-city Ohio, to productions in New York, London, and Tokyo. He knows how to walk into a theater to find work – and it’s not likely to happen with a script in your hand.

Everyone wants to try out for the big part. Walk in with a script, Gilger says, and that elicits suspicious questions from the troupe. Who are you? Can we use you?

“But if you walk into a theater and pick up a hammer to build a set, it’s, ‘Welcome! We have a job for you here!’”

That’s the way theater is, says Gilger, 54, and that’s the way it’s always worked for him. Growing up in Mansfield, Ohio, Gilger’s junior high art teacher noticed his talent with drawing, and sent him up to the high school to help design sets. Before long he was stage managing every high school production, and soon found his way into the Mansfield Playhouse, the local community theater troupe.

“I was pretty much an outcast in high school, so when I did go to the community theater, it was the first time in my life I was accepted for who I was,” Gilger says. “What got me into theater and what kept me in theater, I think, originally, was that.”

Gilger majored in architecture at the University of Cincinnati, but his minor in technical theater kept him coming back to Mansfield. Along with garnering rave reviews for his acting in comedies, Gilger designed the sets for the Miss Ohio pageant that came to Mansfield, and that led to similar work with the Miss America pageants in Atlantic City. But the turning point in his theatrical career came in 1979, when the Mansfield cast of the musical revue Rogers and Hart – which Gilger was stage managing – ended up snowbound in his apartment.

A musical theater troupe snowbound in an apartment for a weekend? If nothing else, it was a great excuse for a party. Out came the booze, and Gilger played the piano while everyone sang for hours on end.

‘“I just kind of made a comment, kind of off-hand: ‘I could write a better show than Rogers and Hart,’ and somebody said ‘Well, Why don’t you do it?’ It started really as simple as that.”

What “it” is is a musical revue of songs by composer Jerry Herman, known for such legendary shows as Hello, Dolly, Mame, and La Cage aux Folles. Gilger, a huge Herman fan, found he could juxtapose Herman’s songs in such a way that they could respond to each other, and tell a story.  The result was Tune the Grand Up, which opened to rave reviews at San Francisco’s 1177 Club in 1985. The show changed its name to The Best of Times and then to Showtune, and has since played in dozens of locations around the world – including a Japanese-language production performed by members of the Takarazuka Revue Company in Japan.

But to Gilger, the greatest accolade comes from Jerry Herman himself, who has become a close friend of Gilger’s.

“He feels that Showtune is the show that best represents his life’s work,” Gilger says, adding that Herman is so proud of it that he doesn’t pay heed to pitches for new revues of his work. “He says, ‘A musical revue has been done, and if you want to do a revue of my work, just do Showtune.”

Of course, Gilger’s main line of work is architecture, which he practices professionally in Santa Rosa, California, where he’s lived for over 20 years. He doesn’t let being an architect get in the way of his theatrical work, though – in fact, he designed George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic film studio, and transformed an old cannery into Santa Rosa’s Sixth Street Playhouse. He’s currently working on a similar project in Cloverdale, California.

“It all kind of goes together for me,” he says. “There’s a real connectivity for me as far as art and theater and music and architecture and design and beauty and helping people. Just doing things to help people – it goes around.”

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.

Welcome to Real Live Theater (or Theatre)

In An Invitation for You, Editor's Note on January 1, 2009 at 5:18 pm

Editor’s Note

Welcome photo by Frank van den Bergh

Welcome photo by Frank van den Bergh

Here are five frequently asked questions that people ask about Real Live Theater and the answers.

Q: What is http://www.RealLiveTheater.ORG?

A: RealLiveTheater.ORG is the online magazine of Real Live Theater. It includes thoughtful interviews, insightful articles, news, video clips, and links to theater related blogs and websites.

Real Live Theater is dedicated to connecting people to live theater all around the planet.

Real Live Theater is based in Northern California.

(More about Real Live Theater is available here.)

Q: Does Real Live Theater have a mission statement?

A: Yes.

The mission of Real Live Theater is: to bring awareness of real, live theater as a means of communication, entertainment, and human interaction to an audience yearning for living, breathing creative experiences; to stimulate interest in theater as a worthwhile pursuit, an investment worthy of time, energy and resources; to encourage the endeavors of current and future theater artists and audiences of all ages toward keeping real, live theater real and alive.

Q: Who is Real Live Theater for?

Real Live Theater is for everyone who has attended or may ever attend any play, musical, opera, ballet, circus, improv or comedy club show, school skit, backyard puppet show, guerrilla performance on a busy street or in a crowded subway tunnel, or any other live theater performance anywhere, at any time during their lives.

Q: How is Real Live Theater different?

While many excellent theater periodicals exist — American Theater, Theatre Bay Area magazine, DramaBiz magazine and Theatre Design & Technology for example – most are industry publications geared toward a readership that already works inside the theater industry (i.e. directors, actors, designers, technicians, students).

Real Live Theater, on the other hand offers an invitation to the population of the world at large to peek through the windows of live theater to see, hear and understand what goes on inside the world of live theater. We also leave the door wide open with a welcome mat at the door for anyone who might want to come inside to watch a show, take a class, start a new career, apply their craft, audition or volunteer.

(More about getting involved in theater is available here.)

Many national and local newspapers, websites and blogs exist that are wonderful resources for reviews, calendar listings, audition callboards and industry job listings.

Rather than reinventing the wheel trying to post all those listings ourselves when they already exist somewhere else, Real Live Theater instead seeks out the best newspapers, websites and blogs that provide calendar listings, audition call boards and industry job listings. We publish links worth visiting and highlight our favorites in featured articles.

As for reviews, Real Live Theater encourages everyone to get up, go out and experience real, live theater as often as possible and write their own reviews.

“…the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.” – John Steinbeck in East of Eden

Q: How can I support Real Live Theater?

A: The second best way is to tell all of your friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, students and teachers about http://www.RealLiveTheater.ORG, and visit us again and again — each week Real Live Theater features something new. The very best way to support real, live theater is to get up, go out and experience real, live theater at a theater, opera house, circus tent, improv or comedy club, school auditorium, community center, amphitheater, backyard, busy street or subway station near you.

(More about experiencing real, live theater is available here.)

Cheryl Itamura is the Founder and Editor in Chief of Real Live Theater.

The Mountain Play’s Sidney B. Cushing Amphitheatre

In Places and Spaces on January 1, 2009 at 12:13 am

by Kim Taylor

The Sidney B. Cushing Amphitheatre on opening day of the Mountain Play’s 2004 production of “My Fair Lady.”  Photo by Kim Taylor

The Sidney B. Cushing Amphitheatre on opening day of the Mountain Play’s production of “My Fair Lady.” Photo by Kim Taylor

MARIN COUNTY, CA – The Bay Area’s highest theatrical experience can be found at the Sidney B. Cushing Amphitheatre located a top Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley. Home venue for the Mountain Play Association, this beautiful outdoor amphitheater is located approximately 2,500 feet overlooking the Golden Gate and San Francisco skyline.

Since its official opening day on May 4, 1913, thousands have trekked up Mount Tamalpais for an afternoon of theatrical entertainment featuring jaw dropping surprises and special elements and effects including horses, stagecoaches, World War II planes and even the Wicked Witch flying overhead.

The location’s theatrical life began when San Francisco lawyer John C. Catlin, U.C. Berkeley drama professor Garnet Holme and experienced Mt. Tam hiker “Dad” O’Rourke were hiking on Mt. Tam and paused to take in the view.  Holme saw what he said later was “the perfect place for an outdoor theater.”

The three made plans to produce and present a play. Catlin advanced the money, O’Rourke got the support of hiking clubs and Holme recruited a cast from his drama classes for a production of Abraham and Isaac. Twelve hundred people attended the opening performance, some hiking from Mill Valley and others riding the mountain railroad known as the “crookedest railway in the world.”

In 1914, The Mountain Play Association was established and a year later Congressman William Kent deeded the theater to the Mountain Play Association. The Cushing Memorial Theater was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The natural-stone amphitheater seats 3,750 people.

American playwright Dan Totheroh, who performed in Mountain Play productions as early as 1915, wrote Tamalpa which was presented in 1921. Totheroh eventually became director of the Mountain Plays and helped shape the destiny of the organization. Attendance had grown to the point that the 1961 production Robin Hood was presented on two successive Sundays; the first time a show had been performed in the mountain top venue more than once.
The sizable audience attendance was welcome, but it presented parking dilemma. In the 1970s members of the Mountain Play Association decided it was time for major changes for accommodating larger audiences and presenting more professional, profitable productions.

In 1977, Marilyn Smith was named producer. Smith transformed the Mountain Play Association establishing its annual outdoor presentation into a popular tradition by instituting shuttle bus service and presentations of popular and beloved Broadway musicals. In addition, Smith hired James Dunn, head of the College of Marin’s respected Drama Department, as Artistic Director. Production values improved and performances were presented over five week runs in late spring.

As it moves towards its 100th Anniversary, the Mountain Play Association is today an award-winning theater company featuring the Bay Area’s finest talent; dazzling sets, costumes, choreography and dramatic special effects and hosting 10,000 to 20,000 theatergoers each year.

The Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre is a Bay Area landmark where audiences of all ages enjoy memorable outdoor presentations of lavish Broadway shows in a beautiful outdoor setting.

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.