Real Live Theater

Posts Tagged ‘theater’

Sonoma County Repertory Theater

In Places and Spaces on August 19, 2009 at 3:17 pm

By Kim Taylor

Sonoma County Repertory Theater

Sonoma County Repertory Theater

SEBASTOPOL, CA – Traveling down North Main Street in the little hamlet of Sebastopol, California one could easily pass by one of its most valued treasures.

Built in the 1870’s, the storefront location at 104 N. Main Street was originally the town’s general store. Today, this vintage gem is an intimate 80-seat theater venue and home of the Sonoma County Repertory Theater.

Founded in 1993 as the Main Street Theater, its first production, Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Ernest,” set the standard for professional quality theater in Sonoma County.

In 1995, a second theater was opened in Santa Rosa, prompting a name change to Sonoma County Repertory Theater, fondly referred today by locals as “The Rep.” Economic challenges of operating two theaters forced the closing of the Santa Rosa location in 2000.

But, the best things do come in small packages. During the past decade the theater company has garnered respect and accolades with bold play selections and a talented roster of company players.

Without a wing space or fly system, the artistic staff of the Sonoma County Repertory Theater takes a positive approach at its main stage location with creative and inventive staging. Storage is located at an off-site facility, but administration offices and dressing rooms are conveniently located on the second floor, above the theater.

During the summer months the Sonoma County Repertory Theater can spread its wings, its vision and its audiences presenting its annual Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival with outdoor productions at Sebastopol’s Ives Park, also located downtown at 7400 Willow Street.

Featuring beautiful trees surrounding the stage, easy accessibility and a large grass area, the park venue can accommodates over 300 patrons each performance. The Ives Park location offers a family-friendly environment and Sonoma County tourists a fun, cultural destination, making The Rep’s Shakespeare fest a favorite Sebastopol summer tradition.

Sonoma County Repertory Theater has an annual audience of about 10,000 patrons. The theater company presents seven to eight productions per year including its critically acclaimed annual holiday presentation of “A Christmas Carol” and two productions for its annual Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival.

Sonoma County Repertory Theater also serves over 5,000 young people annually through its arts education and outreach programs.

Additional information about Sonoma County Repertory Theater can be found at

Mary Gannon-Graham and Wendel Wilson in Midsummer Night's Dream at Sonoma County Repertory Festival's Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival 2009

Mary Gannon-Graham and Wendel Wilson in Midsummer Night's Dream at Sonoma County Repertory Festival's Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival 2009

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:


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:

Forest Meadows Amphitheatre

In Places and Spaces on July 3, 2009 at 5:12 am

By Kim Taylor

The Comedy of Errors at Forest Meadows in 1992 (Photo courtesy of Marin Shakespeare Company)

The Comedy of Errors at Forest Meadows in 1992 (Photo courtesy of Marin Shakespeare Company)

MARIN COUNTY, CA – One can swear by the moon, the constant moon as it rises over Forest Meadows Amphitheatre located on the campus of Dominican University of California in San Rafael, where the stage was carefully designed and constructed to showcase a full moon rising directly above the players and audiences during the summer months.

The outdoor amphitheater, located in a meadow filled with trees and a creek, is noted as California’s first purpose built Shakespearean amphitheater. The venue was completed 1967 to provide a new home for Marin Shakespeare Festival, which relocated from the Redwood Amphitheatre at the Marin Art & Garden Center in Ross. Unfortunately, the Marin Shakespeare Festival took its final bow in 1972.

In the summer of 1989 Robert and Lesley Currier received a recruitment call from a small but devoted group of community minded Marin residents hoping to resurrect a summer Shakespeare theater festival at the Forest Meadows Amphitheater location.

By August 1990, the Marin Shakespeare Company was established and presented its first production, “As You Like It.”

During its past twenty seasons at Forest Meadows, the Marin Shakespeare Company has received countless honors including Dean Goodman Choice Awards; San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics’ Circle awards and nominations; the Marin Magazine Editors’ Choice award; the Pacific Sun’s Best of Marin Award; and the Bohemian’s Boho Award.

Today the venue is also used for Dominican University graduation ceremonies and other school graduations and various events. Marin Shakespeare Company also uses the amphitheater space for a limited number of classes each summer.

But, the venue has its challenges. Despite its natural intimacy, noise can travel from Highway 101 and sometimes be heard within the seating area. It’s something the Marin Shakespeare Company would love to correct. More than forty years old, the venue could also benefit from upgraded restrooms, pathways, lighting and seating. And because the venue doesn’t have a lobby the Marin Shakespeare Company builds a new lobby area each season using hay bales and portable buildings.

Despite all its flaws, there’s something special about that man in the moon spotlighting the Forest Meadows stage.

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:

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:

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:

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, or on YouTube by typing “Broad Comedy” into the search window.

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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:

What is your primary relationship to theater?

In Editor's Note, Who's watching? on May 8, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Editor’s Note

The world of theater is not unlike a circus family. Everyone involved in a circus needs to lend a hand to erect the big top, feed the elephants and be able to fill in for a clown, juggler or lion tamer if needed, but everyone has their specialty. What is your theater specialty? What is your primary relationship to theater?

Thank you for participating.

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

Other articles by Cheryl Itamura include: