Real Live Theater

Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

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:

6th Street Playhouse

In Places and Spaces on June 1, 2009 at 2:20 pm

By Kim Taylor

6th Street Playhouse architectural drawing (Paul Gilger, Architect)

6th Street Playhouse architectural drawing (Paul Gilger, Architect)

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – A theatrical marriage took place in Santa Rosa in February, 2005 when two established theater companies, The Santa Rosa Players and Actors Theatre, joined forces and moved into the newly renovated 6th Street Playhouse and presented their first joint production. Jerry Herman’s popular and beloved musical Mame was performed to sell out crowds.

In less than five years the newly formed theater company, which adopted the name of the 6th Street Playhouse, has garnered critical acclaim for its productions and West Coast premieres, received preservation awards, theatrical award nominations and noted internationally for revered talent on its main stage.

The 6th Street Playhouse partnership between the Santa Rosa Players and Actors Theatre was formed in 2004. Managed by one board of directors, the 6th Street Playhouse venue emerged from the renovated 107-year old Del Monte cannery. The renovation project received the City of Santa Rosa Award for Cultural Enrichment and the Sonoma County Historical Society Award for Preservation of a Historical Building.

American architect, set designer and playwright Paul Gilger of Sonoma County, orchestrated the conversion turning the large brick structure, located in the historic Railroad Square district, into a 186-seat professional, state-of-the art theater facility theater.

The project included excavation to create the seating terraces and an orchestra pit; the installation of interior walls, new mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems; and new theatrical equipment including sound, lighting and stage rigging. The renovation also included the installation of refurbished seats acquired from a former Santa Rosa movie theater and the tireless job of cleaning old brick.

The theater facility features a lobby, box office, wing space, lighting, rigging, scrims, flies, backdrops, storage, dressing rooms and sound booth. The main theater is an intimate venue with excellent sightlines, acoustics and flexibility. In January 2008, 6th Street Playhouse completed its 99-seat black box Studio Theatre and where it presented the West Coast premiere of Public Exposure, by Robert B. Reich.

Since its debut in 2005, the 6th Street Playhouse has flourished presenting full seasons in both theaters including popular musicals, American classics, comedies, the avant-garde and productions featuring the students of its School of Drama. The 2008 6th Street Playhouse production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman received international attention as it featured noted actor of stage and screen, Daniel Benzali, in the role of Willy Loman.

In 2009, the 6th Street Playhouse received six outstanding award nominations from the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics’ Circle.

Additional information about 6th Street Playhouse can be found at

6th Street Playhouse architectural drawing (Paul Gilger, Architect)

6th Street Playhouse architectural drawing (Paul Gilger, Architect)

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: