Real Live Theater

Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

Fred Curchack: helping, teaching and entertaining (with spontaneous songs)

In Artist Spotlight on April 15, 2009 at 3:51 pm

by Ray Sikorski

Fred Curchack and Laura Jorgensen in Milarepa (submitted photo)

Fred Curchack and Laura Jorgensen in Milarepa (submitted photo)

DALLAS, TX AND MARIN COUNTY, CA – It’s nice when you know what you want to do with your life.

When other kids were playing kick the can in his native Queens, New York, ninth-grader Fred Curchack was directing Eugene Ionesco’s The Leader. “I’ve had a strong desire to do theater since I was quite young,” says Curchack, now 61.

Performing Arts High School in New York was a natural choice, and then on to theater degrees in college. But really, nothing is quite so simple. At age 19, a close friend of his committed suicide. Curchack, distraught, dropped out of college and retreated to a remote house in the mountains of Pennsylvania. There, he did yoga and meditated, searching for answers. He found solace in the legend The Life of Milarepa, about the Tibetan poet/saint who spent his life trying to undo the consequences of murders he had committed. Milarepa ultimately became enlightened, helping people with his teachings and entertaining them with spontaneous songs.

“I did yoga and meditated naked in zero degrees on the top of this mountain in Pennsylvania, in my own 19-year-old inspired fashion,” Curchack says, citing Milarepa’s story as a great source of consolation and inspiration.

In the years that followed, Curchack embraced a life of creativity and performance, developing dozens of solo and ensemble pieces – comic, cutting edge, weird, insightful – and garnering hosts of awards. These creations have always gone hand-in-hand with a deep searching, both within and without. He’s studied Japanese Noh theater, Indian Kathakali, Balinese Topeng, African drum and ritual, Native American dance… Is there a goal, or some kind of destination?

“If you really try to look carefully at the journey you’re on, you’ll sure discover that there’s no goal,” he says. “I mean, you can say ultimately I want to get to Moscow, like Chekhov’s Three Sisters, but it’s inevitably self-deluding.”

He says he’s tried to stay true to things that are alive to him in the moment, at the time of creating the work. Of course, there are broad topics to which he often returns. Mythology is one of them. While Curchack often returns to myths in many of his pieces, he takes a confrontational approach to them. Rather than be carried along by misunderstood or unexamined myths, Curchack sees them as a starting point.

“And the aim of that isn’t just to be a mischievous monkey, but to liberate oneself in the course of working with the material; to see one’s life reflected in the material, but also to use it as a point of departure rather than a place that you get stuck.”

In a version of A Midsummer’s Night Dream in which Curchack used ventriloquist dummies from the Howdy Doody and Paul Winchell-Jerry Mahoney television shows to act out a huge number of roles, Curchack confronted not only Shakespeare’s use of myth, but also the way myths are traditionally treated in theater… and the way they’re treated by people in their own lives. For Curchack, that meant addressing what was at that time his foundering marriage. The dummies embodied his own childhood fantasies and dreams.

“So I was confronting a kind of infantile attitude towards relationships that I thought was still holding me back in my life,” he says, explaining that he thought the play would be a liberating experience for things that were causing him pain. He says it was a funny performance, and the audiences howled from beginning to end.

“People laughed and laughed, but it was a confrontation with myself. It was hard. Kind of dark material.”

Curchack divides his time between Texas, where he teaches at the University of Texas-Dallas, and Northern California, the home of his partner and frequent collaborator Laura Jorgensen. For over 30 years he’s premiered most of his new works at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater, including a new, musical take on The Life of Milarepa, the epic that inspired and consoled him so many years ago.

“Now it’s over 40 years later, and I have a much different relationship to those texts. I’ve learned a great deal more about what they represent.”

Fred Curchack’ will perform in his play Monkey: Quest to the West on Sunday, May 24 at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County, California. The performance is open to the public, and there is a $10 suggested donation. Call (415) 383-3134 for showtime and directions.

Fred Curchack and Laura Jorgensen in Monkey: Quest to the West (submitted photo)

Fred Curchack and Laura Jorgensen in Monkey: Quest to the West (submitted photo)

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:


Using Video to Develop, Promote and Preserve Theatrical Productions

In Behind the Scenes on April 8, 2009 at 4:12 pm

by Phil Gravitt

Film Studio photo by dpmike

Film Studio photo by dpmike

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – “Theater producers and writers want a document of their work.” explains Jonathan Luskin, co-founder of Flying Moose Pictures.  “Writers don’t usually get a lot of opportunity to work [directly] with actors. If a performance is in development, a video [of the performance] can help the writer determine what needs to be said and not said.”

Aside from producers and writers simply wanting a archival record of their work, there are may other practical benefits that are borne of the marriage between theater and video.

Theaters often benefit by including videos of recent productions along with written grant applications or funding requests, and it is important to note that the quality of the video recording is as important as the quality of the written grant proposal.

Luskin explains, “A professional quality video is important, because granters are sensitive to the quality of video, not just the play or performance in the video.”

The same tape can be used in a multitude of ways that benefit the production as a whole as well as the individual artists involved.

Luskin adds, “The tape can also be sent to TV stations for promoting the play.  And individual performers can use segments as an actor’s reel to post online or send to producers, agents, casting agents and directors, to show examples of their work.”

Purists often criticize the use of video arguing that taping a live performance turns the performance into a completely different type of entertainment entirely — a movie.

“Video taping does not turn the performance into a movie,” suggests Luskin. “Video is just a different tool.  Filmmaking is much more a shot by shot performance, with multiple cameras.  During dress rehearsal, sometimes we reshoot. Most video taping of a play, however, is done live; there is no stopping or going back.  We normally use just one or two cameras, so there is no pretense that this is replacing the performance.”

Of course there are constraints on filming that always need to be worked through concerning licensing rights and the unions.

According to Luskin, “If performers belong to Actors Equity, Equity does not allow taping except under rigid rules.  The video must be just a document, for archival and education purposes only.  The tape must go to The Museum of Performance & Design, and can only be viewed at the museum library.”

There are definite challenges in taping live performances.

“Since there are no retakes, that raises the bar in your preparation.” explains Luskin, “You have to anticipate when an actor will be moving, entering or exiting the stage.  We don’t usually see the show beforehand, or have someone telling us what is coming up. Lighting for theater is much more contrasted and dark, and it is hard to get the same lighting look in the camera.  For audio, the mikes are placed by the stage, so the actors aren’t always nearby. Feature films would have the microphones much closer. The audience and their experience of the performance must also be taken into consideration. We bring in a lot of gear.  We try to be as discreet as possible with the cameras, because it is hard for producers to give up seats for camera placement.”

Many theater groups attempt to do their own amateur video taping with wildly varying results, and have not experienced the difference professional video offers.

“Quality video production is a skill,” Luskin continues, “You can’t just turn on a camera.  We are experts at lighting, and we use professional cameras, which have much better resolution.  We also use professional studio microphones, not camcorder mikes, which never do a good job.”

“Theater groups have small budgets, and we discount our regular fees to individual artists and non profits,” explaines Luskin, “We like serving the theater community. Filming gets me out to see a lot of theater, and keeps me connected.  Sometimes we hire actors and crew to do other filmmaking, adding a lot of synergy between our corporate and theater works.”

“Our point of view is that video taping of performances is complex.” Luskin concludes, “Hiring professionals with experience, knowledge and technology pays itself back with far better quality.  Every group should have some video whether they do it for themselves or not.”

Flying Moose Pictures is a San Francisco film company founded by Jonathan Luskin and Mark Leialoha serving a special niche in the Bay Area, doing professional digital video of live theater, from solo performances to opera. Additional information about Flying Moose Pictures 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

Additional articles by Phil Gravitt include:

James Pelican: bring in the clowns!

In Artist Spotlight on April 5, 2009 at 5:08 pm

by Johanna Lynch

Jester photo by corphoto

Jester photo by corphoto

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – Clowning goes back a long, long way in human history.

The artform, clowning, has traveled far through time from the mists of pre-Christian England, to the courts of kings and queens, along Marco Polo’s trade routes, in covered wagons across the plains of the new world, and the ancient art of clowning survived it all and is alive and well right here in Sonoma County today.

Court jesters were famous in their time. Taillefer, William the Conqueror’s favorite jester was the first man to be killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He rode his horse alone into battle juggling his sword. Native American tribes all had their clowns. The Plains Indians Heyoka (clown) had four types of clowns based on contraries. They often walked backwards. And the sacred clowns of the Hopi were known to be the “tradition keepers.”

The jesters and clowns over the centuries were never stupid people. They were respected for their wit, wisdom and good counseling. They were often asked to advise the kings and queens including Elizabeth I in Shakespeare’s time.

James Pelican is a professional clown; but not that one with the red nose we all remember from a trip to the circus or to a traveling fair whose rusting, giant ferris wheel grunted and heaved us up to giddy heights, to unimaginable wild worlds of seductive, adventurous circus life. No. James Pelican’s clowning has more to do with court jesters, illusionists, elegant trapeze artists, and mostly performers who worked in vaudeville in America and England.

James Pelican’s clowning work is different from that of the funny man with the red nose at the circus. He attributes vaudeville with starting off the amazing troupes that integrated trapeze work into clever skits, and miming acts. He includes the Pickle Family Circus, Cirque du Soleil, and Shields and Arnaud, the famous San Francisco mimes in this illustrious collection of clown acting. He also admires street theater and describes, “It’s total freedom-out of the box theater.”

On a spring day in April 2009, James Pelican walked down to a hillside theater he planned and constructed on site at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC) in Occidental, California. It’s a small, shaded, wooden theater with seating tiered on the gently sloping hillside. A first look at the beloved little theater and its open stage theatergoers might notice a strong resemblance to a Shakespearian theater in the 16th century in England. Pelican didn’t have much time to talk. He was running to Petaluma to make curtain time for Candide at the Cinnabar Theater.

How did this tall, “Sacramento born and bred” lanky man, choose clowning over more traditional choices like acting or dancing?

Pelican sat and talked about his childhood growing up near University of California at Davis that played a big role in his life choices.

“I knew I wanted to be an actor when I was in Kindergarten”, reflected Pelican.

Growing up in northern California, in 1988 he got to participate in the Whole Earth Festival that started up in 1970 at UC Davis. Pelican was in love with those actors, performers, jugglers, trapeze people, and mimes, many of whom loved pageantry, clowning, and  multi-talented programs that echoed vaudeville. Pelican is convinced the magical evolution happened because of what he calls the counter culture, the hippies, artists and musicians, and explains, “They approached theater in an unconventional way.”

He was stagestruck. He says he would have done anything to work in a theater, and he did. He worked on the lights, built sets, worked backstage, whatever needed to be done, just to be near the actors and in their world of theater. From Sacramento, by the time he got into college, where he had performed in many plays and grabbed every chance to perform on stage, he got sidetracked for a while by the sexy sights and sounds of the Grateful Dead and their young nymph-like followers. He was twenty one.

Looking back over the early years Pelican says he was working steadily as a performer the whole time and the wide experiences, and collective wisdom he’s picked up along the way are paying off for him now. At Del Arte located at Blue Lake the young clown learned a lot about the art of clowning.

His annual trips to Ashland to see the Shakespeare plays and “have a wonderful experience” did inspire the theater at OAEC. After working for a contractor and learning other building skills he got the job at OAEC as the Facilities Manager. In 1996 working on a farm in the Central Valley, the woman-owner suggested he take classes in clowning. He signed up for his first clowning course in San Francisco.

Later he took more clowning classes with the clown genius, Moshe Cohen.

“And that’s where I met another student, Lluis Valls”, explains Pelican.

Together James, Lluis and his wife Christine came up with the idea for The Chautauqua Revue. The Chautauqua Series Program at OAEC has roots that go back to the 1880’s. The whole concept is about education and participation. The threesome, one of whom, Christina was a teacher of clowning,  put on a show, Clowns on a Stick, and  later developed 15 Clown Acts and started the Theatre of Yugen.

James Pelican was loving every minute. “I love the nervous sensation before the curtain goes up.”

Three years ago he did an adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Don Quitote . Despite still “feeling green” Pelican showed up for the auditions. He took an acting course with Danielle Cain at the 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa and he acted in Lorca’s The Man From La Mancha.

He’s leaving OAEC to move closer to Petaluma to be near the Cinnabar Theater that he loves because, “They do it all. Opera, musicals, comedy, everything.”
James Pelican sums up what exactly he thinks clowning is about: “To me a clown character is not feeling inside or outside. I feel a clown, intrinsically, has no memory; therefore clowns have no fear. We can watch a clown fall down, but we don’t feel pity for them.”

Johanna Lynch, whose mum was in vaudeville, was born in Australia and is the Publisher and Editor of the Russian River Times in northern California.

Additional Real Live Theater Artist Spotlights include:

Cinnabar Theater

In Places and Spaces on April 2, 2009 at 3:33 pm

by Kim Taylor

Cinnabar Theater photo by Scott Hess Photography

Cinnabar Theater photo by Scott Hess Photography

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – Cinnabar Theater, sometimes referred to as “the charming little theater on the hill”, was originally built in 1908 as a Mission Revival style schoolhouse.

The transformation of the schoolhouse into Sonoma County’s only venue producing opera and musical theater, dramatic theater, chamber series, dance and special festivals sprouted in the imaginative mind of a North Dakota farm boy named Marvin Klebe.

In a 1998 Sonoma County Independent article Klebe said, “In the summertime, you’d go around and around the field on the tractor. So there I was, with the muffler blazing, just singing away.”

Klebe went on to become a successful classically trained baritone, working as an international opera singer who performed with San Francisco Opera and was featured at the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds. The grand opera scene became disenchanting for Klebe who fretted that it offered “too little rehearsal and innovation [and was] too traditional, very regimented with no regard for the needs of a family.”

So, Marvin and his wife Jan bought the little school house on the hill in 1970. With carpentry skills and the help of his four sons, the building was turned into a theater with the goal of creating a performance venue for the local community to collaborate and experiment. Klebe invited like minded artists from other disciplines to join him in that mission. Performing artists, dancers, opera singers and musicians and actors inspired and supported each other to achieve that goal.

Cinnabar Arts Corporation received its nonprofit status in 1974 and nine years later established Cinnabar Young Repertory Theater and remodeled the venue to accommodate Cinnabar’s growing audience. In 1986, Nina Shuman joined Cinnabar Theater as Music Director.

After Klebe’s death in 1999, the Cinnabar Theater continued under the leadership of his friend and protégée Elly Lichenstein, wife Jan and son, Aloysha Klebe, who now serves as Technical Director.

Cinnabar Theater offers an intimate experience in its 99-seat theater with audience pleasing and critically acclaimed performances of opera, theater, Youth Theater, choral ensembles, the Petaluma Summer Music Festival and associate performing artists.

Additional information about Cinnabar Theater is available at

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: