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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:


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:

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:

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:

Where do you go when you need a fifty year old baby blue phone?

In Behind the Scenes on May 21, 2009 at 11:08 pm

by Phil Gravitt

Andrew Lewis and his salad prop (submitted photo)

Andrew Lewis and his salad prop (submitted photo)

SAN MATEO COUNTY, CA – Andrew Lewis fell into the prop rental business in the mid 1980’s while helping a neighbor who was working on the TV show “Miami Vice.”   He has owned The Prop House in Brisbane since 2003, although the business has been around for twenty years. With racks filled with props to the 20 foot high ceilings, and another warehouse in Oakland, “Just ask” is good advice at The Prop House.   Signs abound on each isle — “Fences, Carpets, Floors, Doors.”  A bin filled with medical supplies has a sign advising, “Fake blood available – Ask at counter.”  One isle looks like a colorful history of the telephone; in a corner, a small room is filled with hundreds of signs, from roads to hospitals.  Heavy items like saddles and large electronic devices sit on the floor, while the racks above hold lighter things like hats, toys, framed mirrors, lamps, rocking chairs and sporting equipment.

Sometimes volunteers from school or community theaters come in and ask for a prop without knowing much about what they are looking for.  Lewis usually asks them to call the director and find out what year or period the play takes place. “Once I know the year or period,” explains Lewis, “I’ll know or can find out what was popular or vintage for that time.”   As an example, he picked up a 1956 Life magazine, showing an ad of what a “modern” kitchen looked like, and a few record album covers displayed period microphones.

To save time and money, Lewis says, “I like to get community theaters to contact me before they start committing to ideas for props or sets.    I want to know ‘how much does the audience need to know about a prop or set in a scene?’   With a sink and a suspended mirror, we can sell the audience they are looking at a bathroom. You don’t need walls, windows or a floor.”

Often seasoned prop masters will contact Lewis for advice.  Lewis notes, “After twenty six years, what others find hard to figure out comes naturally to me.”  However, Lewis quickly adds, “People have been making and adapting props for centuries. Sometimes I’ll think of a ‘new’ idea, and then read that’s how it was done hundreds of years ago.”

Occasionally, props require construction or adaptation.    Lewis has a box that quickly attaches to a phone to make it ring, and stop ringing when the phone is picked up.  He has made a wagon wheel out of a ships wheel, and a ships wheel out of a wagon wheel.  Using a pair of one liter plastic soda bottles, he made a large hourglass.

A prop needs to be dependable and easy to use by the actors without requiring elaborate setup.  For a recent school play, the prop master needed an oxcart that a student could easily pull and be sturdy enough that it wouldn’t fall apart.    “A real oxcart is heavy and has wooden axels,” Lewis explains. “I helped them build one out of a light wood crate, using a threaded rod for an axel, with bearings so the wheels rolled smoothly and easily.  Then we painted the metal to look like wood.”

During our interview, a member of his staff helped a prop master design a jewelry display out of a fabric covered table, a wood rack filled with angled dowels, which were filled from a box of jewelry.

One scene in a play called for an actor to use a knife to slash another actor’s throat.  “We provided a rubber knife and how to use it,” Lewis says.  “Right before the scene, a piece of yarn was soaked in fake blood, and then stuck on the back edge of the blade.  When the throat was slashed, the red squeezed out of the thread onto the neck. It was simple, and real enough that the audience reacted.”

“A prop like this needs to be 100% safe,” Lewis added.  “The audience needs to be safe as well.   When we use foggers, the fog has to be FDA approved.  And signs and announcements need to be made, so asthmatics are aware of fogger being used.   There is licensing, fire permits and sometimes firearms permits.  We have ‘theatrical fire,’ fans with lights on silk.”

In the past, more chemicals were used to do painting and special effects.  “Now, “ Lewis says, “We have lower toxicity with latex, water based and poster paints.  For a prop, the paint doesn’t have to last forever, sometimes only a few days.   For FX, we have electric spark devices, foggers, and more high tech ways of doing things.”

Movies usually have bigger budgets for props, and lots of technology,” Lewis adds.  “For community theaters, a prop supplier must be more clever and resourceful.    Since there is no money, there is no budget.”

Lewis says, “Finding and creating the right props for community theaters is challenging and fun, because I have the liberty to think outside the box.  I’m looking for a prop based on what the director sees or envisions, not what is really there.”

“A theater prop often doesn’t have to have every detail like it would need for a film or TV show with close-ups.   I know how to do it on a movie budget; for community theaters, I need to figure out how to make it work without the $1000 part. I need to be like McGuiver, making something out of nothing, make do with what we’ve got.”

Additional information about The Prop House 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:

Making theater without a theatre?

In Behind the Scenes on May 1, 2009 at 4:07 pm

by Phil Gravitt

For Rent, photo by joe potato

For Rent, photo by joe potato

MARIN COUNTY, CA – “The challenges of creating a theater out of an empty storefront are what make it fun,” says Jeanette Harrison, Artistic Director and Actor with AlterTheater, a Marin County theater group. Art galleries and retail stores also have been locations for AlterTheater performances. “Our point is to be in places where people walking by on the street will see in, and see theater going on, like on 4th street in San Rafael.”

“Our space designers, technicians and directors must be flexible and interested in the challenge,” explains Harrison.  “For each space, we design the stage and sets, the audience areas.  Often even the dressing rooms must be created, occasionally with stacked boxes in a storeroom.    Sometimes the stage is defined by a piece of tape on the floor; occasionally we create location with a soundscape instead of building a fancy set.   If we are in a retail space, we move the furniture or use it as props.”   The seating may be arranged so the audience surrounds the actors, or form a horseshoe shape around the stage area, or a normal theater configuration.

“We have no fancy stage,” says Harrison. With no formal separation between the actors and the audience, an AlterTheater director once observed, “The advantage and disadvantage of working this way is there is no place to hide.”

Another challenge is finding and analyzing the right space and electrical power in the available area.  Harrison explains, “If there is power, will it have the capacity we need, or will we be limited to just a few lights?”

The idea for AlterTheater came from Marin actors who, in the face of rising bridge tolls, “began looking to work on our own side of the bridge.” Harrison says, “We started using empty storefronts because we would rather pay actors instead of landlords.”  Altertheater also prides itself on being a found-object theater: almost everything you see in their productions is borrowed, found for free, rescued or recycled.

Having a reputation for taking care of the space has helped AlterTheater find locations, which are needed for five weeks, one week longer than the four week run of a performance.   Commercial realtors and building owners have been happy getting publicity for their empty storefronts.  “And art galleries are interested in supporting all arts, not just visual arts,” says Harrison, “while retail store owners are excited to have people who don’t typically come into their stores.”
In an empty storefront, AlterTheater can stay set up for the entire run of the performance.  However, Harrison says, “We usually have a backup location.  Twice the space was rented during our run, and we had to move, even after the postcards and posters were printed.”

While AlterTheater relies on Facebook, mailing lists, calendar listings and publicity in local papers, the best publicity is the storefronts themselves.  “A good percentage of our audience is non-theatergoing people who live and work in neighborhood.” says Harrison. “Sometimes passengers waiting for a bus read our posters in the window. By being in the neighborhood, we bring theater to the people.”

New actors also must be up to the challenge.  “Although we primarily work with a core ensemble of actors, when we bring in new people, reaction varies,” observes Harrison. “I recommend actors see one of our shows first to know what they are getting into.”

Additional information about AlterTheater 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:

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:

From the Big Stage to the Silver Screen: casting theater actors in film, television, voiceover and print projects

In Behind the Scenes on March 23, 2009 at 12:46 am

by Phil Gravitt

Action photo by Graffizone

Action photo by Graffizone

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – Lori Laube and Jen Côte are the co-owners and driving force behind American Eagle Studios. They place everyone from kids to older adults, from untrained to seasoned actors in smaller or local roles for films, commercials, television, print and voiceover jobs.

Some of their actors are self employed or are waiters, and are almost always available, while others support themselves with day jobs and occasionally risk their  jobs to take off for auditions and filming.

Theater actors have an additional challenge explains Jen, “Theater actors are often in shows or rehearsals, and have to be off a shoot by 5:00 PM to be at the theater [for rehearsals or a performance] by 6:30. We try to accommodate them.” She continues, “A few actors we work with are experienced actors living in Marin or Sonoma who have done ‘the big thing’ in film, and want to keep a foot in acting and relax.”

Working with both theater and film actors, Jen has found that, “Some actors are more successful than others at making the transition between stage and film. Training helps you in either medium, teaching you to create character, analyze scripts. In film, the actors don’t have to be big in vocal choices and can be subtle in faces and expressions.”

The films American Eagle works on are often independent, with small budgets, usually involving actors who are not members of the Screen Actors Guild***. Jen explains, “We’re not a glamorous big time casting agency. We won’t make you a star. We are a good place to get exposure and footage for your reel, before moving to the City or LA and joining SAG and a larger agency.”

Actors register through American Eagle’s web site, and send in a head shot, a resume, and their sizes.

“We want as many actors at our disposal as possible,” Jen says. “If we or a client think an actor will fit the need, we will bring them in for an audition.”

When a client calls with a request for actors, Lori and Jen send them to the talent section of their web site.

Jen explains, “Once they review the head shots, they may give us three names they want to audition. When the client tells us they want a certain look, we offer more names from our files of people not on the site. Occasionally we’ll say, ‘This guy is a great actor, and has a good track record,’ and our clients take our word for it without auditioning. When we have auditions to fill a specific request, the client may sit in on an audition we hold.”

What does the future hold?

Jen says, “We believe the North Bay scene has potential to become a mecca for artists and filmmakers. Studios are springing up in Novato and Sausalito, producing and creating. Even in this economy people want to create. We hope they need actors and will call us and our actors will keep working.”

***American Eagle also has a long successful history of casting large independent films and television series as well as commercials. Recent film and television projects include Bottle Shock, Cheaper by the Dozen, Bartleby, and a number of series for The History Channel and Women’s Entertainment TV. Corporate clients include Comcast Spotlight, E.J. Gallo and Sonoma County Turism Bureau among many others. Additional information about American Eagle Studios 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:

The Imaginists Theater Collective: establishing a place where you become a creator

In Behind the Scenes on March 8, 2009 at 4:28 pm

by Phil Gravitt

Brent Lindsay and Amy Pinto in UBU REX, photo by Eric Monrad

Brent Lindsay and Amy Pinto in UBU REX, photo by Eric Monrad

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – After Brent Lindsey and his wife Amy spent several years on the East Coast in traditional theater companies, they had a meeting of the minds in 1993.

“It was up to us to proceed down that path or change directions.”  Deciding on the latter, Brent & Amy formed the ensemble-based Imaginists Theatre Collective in rural Delaware.  Finding like minded colleagues, they did away with the hierarchy of traditional theater.   “Everyone has a fair say in ensemble,” says Brent. “Actors handled sets, lights, performing, everything.  We learned to write and create, and the director became more a facilitator.”

“We don’t audition,” Brent continued.  “Ensemble asks a lot of an actor, and it is up to each actor to find how they are going to mine their artistic voice, and how far are they able to go to give back to the project.”

Discussing the audience attracted to ensemble based theater, Brent says, “We reach a different, younger audience.  After a show builds buzz, the traditional theater audience eventually comes on board.    We do original theater and original adaptation, which is often not as enticing to a standard theater goer.   When the title on the marquee is ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,’ and you see puppetry and other things not typical in theater, your brain is going to have to decide if you like it.  Ensemble is difficult in this culture, when people want things fast, and we are competing with other entertainment forms that are easier to digest”

Brent quickly adds, “We are not interested in entertaining, and we don’t want the audience to be star struck. We want the audience engaged in dialogue and community. We’re all in it together.  It is not audience versus performer.  We get out of makeup and into the audience quickly after the show, to find out what are the questions and mysteries, and what did we all go through together.”

After Delaware, Brent and Amy moved to Truckee, then Healdsburg, where they started an education program in 2002.   Like the ensemble, the education program is far more a ‘creator program’ rather than an ‘actor program.’    In three years, they grew from six kids to sixty, dropping to forty when Imaginists and the current five member ensemble moved to Santa Rosa.

Explaining his training philosophy, Brent says. “We don’t want to put a lot of actors out into a culture that has an overflow of actors.   From kids on up, we are interested in establishing a place where you become a creator.  Where students learn to listen to each other and become generous with ideas.”

“When you go out into the world,” Brent continued, “even if you veer away from the art form itself, instilled in you is confidence, active risk taking, and growing your artistic voice. You can become a parent, a chef in a restaurant, just about anything, and find that artistry and creative voice in you and make the world a better place.”

Asked to describe how someone would go about starting a community theater project, Brent explains, “When we started our ensemble, there was no mentorship, no one there to legitimize what we were going to do.   None of our teachers were there to say, ‘This is how you do it.’  In the beginning, we were making it up as we went along.

“My hope is that actor training programs are beginning to offer education for those wanting to start non profit grass roots companies.   I hope there are more companies like us around, where new companies could write to them and get some help.  We are there for people doing what we do.”

More information about The Imaginists Theater Collective 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:

Developing Abilities in Theater Artists with Developmental Disabilities

In Behind the Scenes on February 23, 2009 at 11:47 pm

by Phil Gravitt

Lots of Bubbles photo by mrPliskin

Lots of Bubbles photo by mrPliskin

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – For four years, local actor Liz Jahren has been the drama instructor for adults at Theatre for Life, a program of Alchemia (al-ke-MEE-a), an arts and vocational day program for Sonoma county residents with developmental disabilities.

Her path to this position started long ago as the daughter of a minister.  “I grew up helping others,” Jahren says, “being of service, feeling the importance of community.  I read the gospel in church with my dad, and even gave children’s sermons.  Being so involved opened my mind to other places I could do that kind of work, to combine social need with theater.”

Jahren was also influenced by Polish Laboratory Theater.  “Being behind the iron curtain in Poland, actors couldn’t say some things,” Jahren explains, “so they found other ways to say what they wanted, like through puppets or humor.”

The North Bay Regional Center has transition programs for the developmentally disabled, to prepare them to live as independently as they are able, and to teach vocational and practical skills, and personal safety.  Social workers at NBRC refer artistically inclined clients to Alchemia.  Reinforcing NBRC programs, Theater for Life puts on “Lil’ Red,” a play about independence, safety, and predator awareness.

Jahren works with adults from age 22 to 65, although most are mid-twenties to mid-thirties.  A few have parents who are or were performers, dancers or actors.  One student learned swing dancing from age five.

Most, however, are acting for the first time. “Special needs students often don’t have access to theater in high school,” Jahren emphasizes.  “If they did, they were fringe players. In Alchemia productions, they are the leads, their own stars.”

Jahren keeps props to a minimum, so the effort can stay focused on the actors.

To develop a play or musical, Liz works with the original play to create a new version with her cast in mind.    “I rewrite it, and then we discuss it and run through an improv version of the play.  Then I transcribe it.”

“We build in safety nets, to feed lines, in case someone forgets.”  Liz quickly adds, “Part of the fun is letting each actor express their creativity, and missed lines are often funny and add to the enjoyment of the play.”

For each play to be performed, while Jahren works with the script, her partner develops songs, and works with the actors musically.  A choreographer has recently been added to create dances.

One type of performance is acting out poetry, as Theater for Life has done at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco.  The ten-minute presentation portrayed a man having a poetic awakening to the world around him, while the actors danced and floated like angels.  A shadow screen, puppets and bubbles were also utilized by the actors, and music students built their own instruments for the piece.

Another performance is their annual rock musical, based on Pinnochio this year.

Jahren finds the actors inspiring.  She helps them find that, “yes, although there are limitations, we can still be what we want and find where that is.  It’s about joy and love of performing.  Our plays and musicals showcase the disabled actors so people can see them in a different way.”

More information about Alchemia 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: