Real Live Theater

Posts Tagged ‘Ray Sikorski’

Carol Mayo Jenkins: creating a life beyond the footlights

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

by Ray Sikorski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ray Sikorski wrote and directed his first one-act play in 1988, and his second 20 years later. He is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana.

Additional articles by Ray Sikorski incude:

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

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

by Ray Sikorski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ray Sikorski wrote and directed his first one-act play in 1988, and his second 20 years later. He is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana.

Additional articles by Ray Sikorski incude:

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 jeffreyweissman.com.

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:

Broad Comedy: a cross between Jon Stewart, Saturday Night Live and the Vagina Monologues

In Artist Spotlight on May 17, 2009 at 4:16 pm

by Ray Sikorski

Broad Comedy Opening Number (submitted photo)

Broad Comedy Opening Number (submitted photo)

BOZEMAN, MT – Like many a performer before her, Katie Goodman has asked the age-old question of her traveling troupe: Will it play in Peoria?

In Goodman’s case, the question takes on a slightly different hue, because she lives in Peoria. Not the Peoria, but Bozeman, Montana, a town appropriate enough for its Middle America sensibilities. If Broad Comedy, the 10-year-old all-female song-and-dance comedy cavalcade she started with her husband, can gets cheers in Bozeman, it’ll fly just about anywhere.

Of course, for her latest show, Goodman was more concerned than usual. Maybe it was the Park Bench Mothers’ close-up demonstration of camel toe. Or the three walking vaginas, the youngest of which is paid a visit by a teenage penile suitor. Or perhaps it was the girl pledging to save her hymen for Jesus. Somehow, the show had turned out far raunchier than she had intended.

“After we got to dress rehearsal, we were like, ‘Oh, my god, what have we done?’” she says.

But despite the initial apprehension, the show garnered nothing but delight from the Bozeman crowd, who once again packed two nights of the 700-seat Emerson Theater to capacity.

“It’s such a good place to try material out and see if it works,” she says.

That’s not to say there haven’t been issues. Along with its ribald take on sexuality and women’s issues, the show’s left-of-center take on politics once started a vigorous, curse-laden shouting match between two female audience members while Goodman was mid-song.

That instance was an aberration, she says, adding that Bozeman is more worldly than people would expect. “But people in L.A. are definitely like, ‘Oh, do you have cowboys coming to your shows?’ We’re like, ‘Sometimes,’” she says, laughing.

What works in Bozeman seems to work everywhere – Broad Comedy has performed to rave reviews for an extended three-month run in Boston, as featured performers at the Ms. Magazine Foundation Fundraiser in New York City three years in a row, and won Best of the Vancouver Fringe Festival in 2005. Future shows are planned for Los Angeles and New Orleans, and the Edinburgh and Melbourne Fringe Festivals may be in the works.

“Somebody once said we’re a cross between Jon Stewart, Saturday Night Live, and the Vagina Monologues,” says Goodman, who just turned 41. Many of the skits are musical; she writes them with her husband, Soren Kisiel, with whom she also co-founded Bozeman’s Equinox Theatre Company.

“He’s like Plot Man. He conceptualizes really well,” she says. “I’ll be like, ‘I have this idea. What do we do with this?’ He’ll brood for five days and be like, ‘I’ve got it!’”

They both have backgrounds in theater, particularly musical theater – Goodman studied classical singing and had opera teachers for six years – but she says that she and Kisiel were heavily influenced by absurdist and experimental theater of the ’80s and ’90s – what she refers to as the “naked performance art era.” So, one might be confronted with a myriad of human-sized vaginas on-stage during any given show, as well as a giant ovum that interviews sperm to see who gets the job of fertilization.

Goodman, who ran the Philadelphia Women’s Theater Festival and started Los Angeles’ National Women’s Theater Festival after graduating from college, points to the feminist take on that skit, which she says is based on an actual theory that says the egg selects its sperm. She says that she often shares ideas for the show with her mother, Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman. “And it’s in the paper four days later, rather than in my show four months later. And it’s like, ‘Dammit, she stole our material!’”

Goodman recently published Improvisation for the Spirit, a self-help book about using the tools of improv comedy in everyday life. She also plans to do more solo work on stage, but she foresees doing Broad Comedy for a long, long time. “When I was 39 I was going, ‘Am I going to be doing the Extreme Right Wing Cheerleading Squad in my 40s? And playing this teenager in the hymen one?’  But once you pass a certain age it doesn’t matter because then it’s such a spoof, as opposed to I’m trying to look 18.”

Since the Broads started ten years ago, various performers have done their time in Bozeman and moved on – now there are 17 or so Broads in other parts of the country, who perform for out-of-town shows. Goodman, always on the lookout for new venues, says she hopes to rehearse new casts in cities throughout the country, so they can perform extended gigs.

“It’s such an open venue for me and Soren,” she says. “We could stop, we could take the material we have and tour that forever. But we love writing new stuff.”

More about Broad Comedy can be found at BroadComedy.com, or on YouTube by typing “Broad Comedy” into the search window.

Broad Comedy logo

Broad Comedy logo

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:

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:

Ledoh: coloring the world-body-space of America with butoh

In Artist Spotlight on February 15, 2009 at 4:21 pm

by Ray Sikorski

Ledoh in Colormeamerica, photo by Katherine Balasingham

Ledoh in Colormeamerica, photo by Katherine Balasingham

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – When put to the task of writing an article about Ledoh, a practitioner of the performing art known as butoh, a question that naturally came up was, “What is butoh?”

“Well, you’re gonna ask ten different butoh performers, and you’re gonna get ten different answers,” Ledoh said.

I knew butoh to be a sort of dance form, although Ledoh disliked the usage of both “dance” and “form” when it came to butoh. He considered it a “movement,” akin to a literary or political movement. I knew it often involved white body makeup and incredibly slow movements… although neither of these are essential. Butoh appeared to be wide open to the performer’s interpretation.

I recalled a Thelonious Monk quote: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” So it is with butoh. To experience it is to know… but even that would only offer insight into Ledoh’s own take on it.

Alas, what we have at our disposal are mere words – words about Ledoh’s journey from a refugee of the Karen hill tribe, who escaped from Burma with his family at age 11. Transplanted in the northeastern United States, Ledoh felt out of place, and had an itch to roam. Throughout his 20s he traveled, notably to Japan. There, he encountered butoh in the land where it was created – and not so long ago, a product of post-WWII dissatisfaction with defeat, occupation, devastation, and humiliation.  Ledoh had never danced before, but something about butoh resonated with him… was it a sense of kinship to the persecution placed upon his own people? Ledoh said it was an emptying of the body, a seeing of himself, for the first time, as a blank slate. And perhaps the two are related.

“My take on art, and my take on butoh, is from the angle or perspective of an indigenous person maneuvering through this world, and doing time in this body, and doing time in this space,” he said.

“It’s not just the movement is slow; it’s something else in it. It’s about participating in, and being interested in the movement. Of course, you have to condition and train our bodies in order to do movement, but once you’re performing and sharing with the audience, I have to be fully honest with myself. And I have to be interested in my movement. I cannot think about what they’re thinking. I cannot see myself from their perspective, seeing this person, me, moving. Because I have to see it from within me, and I cannot use my mind to do that. I have to be present, fully, in order to be interested in it.”

Since learning butoh in Japan, Ledoh, now 47, has taken it back to the United States. He and his Salt Farm Butoh Dance Company have performed throughout the U.S. as well as abroad, most recently in the nation of Georgia in the fall of 2008.

“Even the smallest, silliest gesture – I have to envelop myself in it,” he said. “And I have to fully be interested, of course. And then, there will be interest by the audience.”

Like dancing about the architecture of the Self.

More about Ledoh and his Salt Farm Butoh Dance Company can be found at www.ledoh.org.

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:


Ryan Cassavaugh: humbly toiling in theater for applause

In Artist Spotlight on February 3, 2009 at 2:08 am

by Ray Sikorski

Ryan Cassavaugh's Waiting to be Taken photo by Brian Hayes

Riley Pittenger in Ryan Cassavaugh's "Waiting to be Taken", photo by Brian Hayes

BOZEMAN, MONTANA – Most 15-minute plays are slapdash affairs – spartan sets, shallow characters, simple plots. But playwright Ryan Cassavaugh takes his local one-act festival as an opportunity for vividness, texture, and depth.

“I like to come up with outrageous settings for my plays, because I find it’s more interesting to put real human emotion contradicted against something big and ridiculous,” says the 34-year-old Bozeman, Montana playwright. For example, Cassavaugh’s most recent offering, “Waiting to be Taken,” involves the subtleties of a forbidden gay relationship between a clown and a strongman in a Depression-era circus. “When you then get down to what’s really human about them, it’s more surprising than if you have two people sitting around a coffee shop table talking.”

Cassavaugh’s choice of 15-minute plays was not his to begin with – it’s a dictate of the Bozeman’s Equinox Theatre‘s annual one-act competition. In a city of about 33,000, there aren’t many opportunities for theatrical production, so a writer has to take advantage of any possibility. Along with the one-acts, he has written children’s plays, puppet shows, radio plays, sketch comedy, and full-length farces for the city’s annual Sweet Pea Festival. But the short one-acts is where his talent shines. In the five years of the competition, he has won Best Production, Best Script, Audience Favorite, or a combination of two of those for each of the five plays he’s entered. Cassavaugh has directed most the plays himself, with the help of his costume-designer wife, Sadie.

It’s easy to see why he’s done so well. His authentic-looking costumes and props have a tangible attention to detail. “I love the theatricalness of plays,” he says, hearkening back to the first play he saw as a child, a version of the Arabian Nights. He contrasts his own attention to the stage with that of minimalist one-acts, which may take place on a couch or at a coffee shop.

“They make really good scripts out of them, but that’s not what got me into theater,” he says. “I like being transported to somewhere else. I don’t want to go, ‘Oh, I recognize that couch,’”

But aside from the attention to visual detail, there’s the sheer effort Cassavaugh puts into writing, particularly expressing the human condition. Cassavaugh says he spent 2 ½ years writing “Waiting to be Taken,” stressing over every word. He overwrites, creating a 20-page script, then cutting it down to 12. He researches. He speaks of a strict hierarchy among circus people, in which a non-performer would never fraternize with a headliner – yet that hierarchy is never revealed to the audience.

“There’s a lot of tension there,” Cassavaugh says. “I don’t think people would understand where it comes from, but it helps me to know, and I think it helps make it more real, even if people don’t know why that tension is there.”

Other plays Cassavaugh has submitted to the festival have included “The Trifling Affair of an Ending, or the Ending of a Trifling Affair,” about Elizabethan-era actors on the run from an angry mob because their play had no ending, and “The Last Kings of America,” about two Civil War deserters who declare themselves monarchs.

“By the time I was done I had enough information to write a full-length play about these same characters,” he says of “Last Kings,” adding that he’s currently transforming that one-act into a full-length play.

That project, however, may take a while. After all, there’s no real outlet for it in Bozeman. He maintains a storage shed for his props and costumes in case there’s ever a call for a night of Cassavaugh one-acts, but that idea seems a bit far-fetched, too. He works in a record store, and his wife in a frame shop, to support themselves and their one-year-old daughter.

In a way, Cassavaugh is not unlike one of his characters: a curious sort living in a cold and unforgiving setting, toiling humbly for the sole reward of a hearty round of applause.

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.

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 www.fintushel.com and www.fintushel.com/fintushel.htm.

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.

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.

Tatyana Borisovna: theater (or theatre) as a labor of love for Ukrainians and Russians

In Artist Spotlight on December 13, 2008 at 6:24 pm

by Ray Sikorski

Photo courtesy of Regional Academic Ukrainian Musical and Dramatic Theater

Photo courtesy of Regional Academic Ukrainian Musical and Dramatic Theater

RIVINE, UKRAINE – Rivne, Ukraine, is not the sort of city one imagines when one thinks “theater capital.” Bombed in World War II and occupied by the Nazis, this industrial city of 400,000 has plenty of big Soviet-built apartment blocks, but little in the way of charm. In winter, it can seem downright bleak.

Until one visits the sumptuous Regional Academic Ukrainian Musical and Dramatic Theater, that is. Like the Russian-built Zil limousines that once ferried gangsters and high Communist Party cadres around Soviet cities, the theater flaunts its size and stature. It’s five stories tall: the waiting area has marble floors, high ceilings, and crystal chandeliers; and the seats of its 700-seat proscenium stage are plush red velvet.

My experience in Ukraine, spent mostly in Rivne, was one of contradictions. Antique Lada, Volga, and Muskovitch cars puttered along next to brand new BMW and Lexus SUVs, while antique babushkas shared sidewalk space with statuesque girls in tight pants and calf-hugging stiletto boots. So, in a way, Rivne’s fabulous theater made sense – one of the best theaters in Ukraine, plunked down in a district more reminiscent of Cleveland than the West End or Times Square.

Tatyana Borisovna, an 18-year veteran of Rivne’s stage, now works as manager for the theater’s 45 salaried actors. Borisovna says that it all makes perfect sense, because despite appearances, Rivne is a city of theater lovers. The building actually houses two theaters – there’s an intimate 100-seat theater along with the luxurious proscenium – and barely a night goes by without a sellout performance. And this is with shows going on six nights a week.

Are Ukrainians simply mad about theater? Perhaps. However, with tickets going for a ridiculously cheap 10-30 hryvnia per show (about $1.30-$3.80, and cheaper than a movie), it could just be a good excuse to stay warm. Not so, says Borisovna – the theater puts on lavish, first-rate musical and dramatic performances by Ukrainian and Russian playwrights, with up to 13 different shows per season. People come from the entire region, she says, because the shows are top-rate. I asked her if tough times would keep people away; she said during the 1990’s economic crisis, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, people still came. The theater, she explained, is like a drug, for both actors and audience members – and the people of Rivne are hooked.

But where does the money come from? Certainly not many American performances could be made by charging people a dollar. Borisovna explained that the money people pay for tickets goes to the government, and then the government pays the salaries of everyone involved in the production – there’s a 21-member orchestra, too – who are full-time employees of the theater. Basically, it’s a holdover of the old Soviet system, which put a high value on theater. Among the working people of Rivne, it seems that every day is a struggle to survive; but its actors are well-paid, the theater is well-maintained, and productions are first-class.

One might lead to the conclusion that the people who work in Rivne’s theater are just employees doing a job, and don’t share the same passion for theater that American actors have. After all, private theaters need to sell tickets to keep their doors open.  Borisovna says that’s not the case at all. She points to several “legacies” among the actors in the theater, where children – including Borisovna’s own daughter – have taken up the craft after spending countless days after school watching their parents.

“Theater is not just a building,” she says. “It’s a life. Everyone who works in theater loves it; there are no people who don’t. Everyone who works with actors works not just for money.”

(The interview with Tatyana Borisovna was conducted with the translation help of Vova Lypchuk.)

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, and is currently traveling in Ukraine, wondering if he can find someplace where they sell peanut butter.