Posted on Monday, February 27, 2012 by Jim Norrena
Production stills from CCA's newest "drama queens": Candacy Taylor, Greacian Goeke, Susan Sobeloff, and Jennifer Roberts
"I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being." -- Oscar Wilde
In the last year a growing number of CCA graduates -- each representing a unique program of study -- has tapped into the Bay Area's richly diverse and proliferating performing arts scene to have a full-scale world premiere of their work brought to fruition. Among these impressive alumnae are:
Bay Area Provides Good Seats for Playwrights
From Berkeley to Oakland to San Francisco to Alameda, CCA graduates are mixing it up, planting their roots, and making valuable connections in a region that is already celebrated for its rich opportunities for new playwrights.
In a recent blog post at TheatreBayArea.org Impact Theatre Artistic Director Melissa Hillman commented on the wide appeal the Bay Area generates among playwrights: “There are more than 400 theater companies in the nine-county Bay Area. We do more world premiere plays than almost any other region in the country—last I checked we ranked third.”
More than Just a Good Story
The sheer entertainment value notwithstanding, these artists have constructed works that are not only personal and inspiring, but also have been conceptualized and produced in ways that are intended to reach out to communities to educate about specific social issues: the elderly community, women’s career choices, the consequences of an economic downturn, and even the importance of forgiveness in our lives.
Candacy Taylor's "Counter Culture" Sets Things in Motion
Candacy Taylor’s book, Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress (Cornell University Press, 2009), explores the lives of diner waitresses aged 50 and above, lending a particular validation to these impressive hard-working “older” women who have chosen their fast-paced, demanding careers. The Wall Street Journal called it “One of the most delightful books to cross our desks this summer. …”
The book has generated great buzz since its release -- and even before its release, too: Counter Culture evolved from Taylor’s CCA thesis. MFA Program in Writing faculty member John Laskey, who instructed her via mentored study, recalls working with Taylor: "I always thought Candacy exemplified the interdisciplinary spirit of CCA in an amazing way. She brought the same extraordinary sense of purpose to developing her writing as she brought to her other studies: visual criticism and photography, and in the end drew back the veil on a part of our culture that was right before our eyes."
Even though Taylor has a painting and fine arts background, she was in the first group of Visual Criticism alumni (now the Graduate Program in Visual and Critical Studies). "CCA was instrumental in helping me develop a broader scope of vision, which allowed me greater freedom . . . to do things that are more commercial as well as deeper." And in Taylor's case, as evidenced by Counter Culture, she demonstrated she could also engage in projects that combined a commercial aspect with a more substantive context.
"Protect your vision, but remain open to interpretation," Taylor asserts.
Perhaps no one was more surprised than Taylor herself that her book -- derived from an academic thesis about middle-aged waitresses across the United States – would, through the vision of CCA alumna Greacian Goeke 10 years her senior, be adapted into a play produced by Stagebridge, an Oakland-based theater company of senior actors.
About "Counter Attack"
CLOSES March 4
Buy tickets online »
Directed by Sharon Lockwood, written by playwright Joan Holden (whose adaptation Nickel and Dimed, based on Barbara Ehrenreich’s book about the wage-slavery of the working class, played to exceptional reviews), and produced by Stagebridge, Counter Attack plays at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley and stars Joan Mankin and features dozens of other cast members, many of whom are elder actors trained at Stagebridge. (Coincidentally, the production facilitated a long overdue reunion for Lockwood, Holden, and Mankin, all of whom share ties to the San Francisco Mime Troupe.)
Next Up for Candacy Taylor
Taylor is currently working on another Counter Culture multimedia project -- this time she addresses beauty shop culture. Add to the mix a film documentary about female bull fighters and riders (By the Horns), and it's pretty clear we'll be seeing a lot more of Candacy Taylor's work in the near future -- perhaps even an ABC-TV series based on Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress, which Taylor admits she has sold the option to the book's concept to the network, although she's quick to point out the agreement does not include any of the stories of the waitresses themselves.
Veteran Artist-Educator Greacian Goeke Makes Art that Matters Through Theater
CCA alumna Greacian Goeke has always been drawn toward performance art that connects communities. She entered her MFA program as a Photography major, but shifted her focus to become the first graduate student in performance art, through the Film/Video Program. Since graduating she has worked extensively in the Bay Area public schools and with the Goldman Institute on Aging, Museum of Children’s Art (Oakland), the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Crowden Center for Music in the Community. She’s been an artist in residence at Headlands Center for the Arts, the San Francisco Waste Transfer Station (Recology), and, right after graduation, a teaching-artist apprentice at Leap, Arts in Education.
Today Goeke directs a music and storytelling program at Oakland-based Stagebridge, the nation’s oldest -- and most innovative -- senior theater company. Founded in 1978 as an acting class for five women in their 70s, it’s grown into a nationally recognized performing arts and outreach program that is changing how people experience and view aging.
Besides its performing arts training classes, the company offers theater-based programs that range from empowering vulnerable youth through storytelling to helping seniors with dementia reclaim their dignity with creative expression to using improvisational techniques to help health care professionals better understand their patients.
“Two years ago when we were kicking around ideas of what Stagebridge could do for a new production,” said Artistic Director Josiah Polhemus, “our Storybridge program director, Greacian Goeke, showed me an article about a book that featured stories about waitresses all over the age of 50. When I asked Greacian how she knew about it, she said, ‘We’re both graduates of CCA.’”
The CCA tie-in was key for Goeke, who attributes her career direction to the values she developed while at CCA: "The graduate program guided me to see art-making as tool for communicating out in the world, with diverse populations, children and elders. I arrived at CCAC because I realized that I had to listen to the artist part of me, after years as an arts administrator. I hope my path can be a model for other CCA students and graduates: Take the road that opens before you, keep following what you are drawn toward--you can’t go wrong.”
It turns out Goeke, who originated the idea of a staged version of Taylor’s book, had met Taylor previously through the Institute on Aging in San Francisco. Eager for a book project for their company’s senior actors, Polhemus talked with Taylor following a book-signing event at Pegasus Books, and they agreed a stage adaptation of Counter Culture was a great next step.
Based on the exciting work she's doing, we anticipate revisiting Goeke in the near future! And don't forget, Counter Attack ends March 4 at the Ashby Stage, so buy tickets now!
“Merchants” -- A World-Premiere Play by Susan Sobeloff
Adding to the recent influx of alumni who are getting involved in the Bay Area’s robust theater scene for new playwrights is CCA Undergraduate Director of Exhibitions Susan Sobeloff (MFA Ceramics 2002), whose Merchants, a No Nude Men production, is currently in rehearsal and set for its world premiere March 1 at Exit Theatre (located at 156 Eddy Street in San Francisco).
(Note: Opening night is Saturday, March 3, but for those on a budget, you can take advantage of a special $5 preview rate Thursday and Friday, March 1 and 2. Check Brown Paper Tickets for availability.)
Alumni Connections at Work
Merchants is directed by director, playwright, and producer Stuart Bousel, a fellow undergraduate alum of Sobeloff’s from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, whose scope of work and welcoming nature impressed her. Bousel is a significant player in the Bay Area theater scene who has ties to San Francisco Theater Pub, which offers staged performances at Cafe Royale, organizes the SF Olympians theater festival, and hosts retreats and play readings for theater folks).
Upon her invitation, Bousel attended a developmental reading of Merchants at Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco, a nonprofit dedicated to the development of new playwrights’ works. Bousel followed up with what Sobeloff describes as “an amazing email” in which he solicited the manuscript for production consideration.
Bousel and Bennett Fisher, who was the dramaturg for Merchants, were drawn into the script for its creative interweaving of money, family, and love -- and in particular how members of a family have to deal with their changing roles due to economic necessity. Bousel was interested in Sobeloff’s focus on female characters, and how shifts in economic security can shape their lives.
After two additional readings, Sobeloff worked on lots and lots of restructuring and rewriting based on the valuable feedback from the No Nude Men team, the actors, and various playwrights who supported her in the revision process. Ultimately, Sobeloff credits Bousel and the cast with making the rehearsal process one of true discovery about the script and the characters.
The Plot Twist: From Ceramics to Playwriting
Sobeloff has no problem bridging her background in fine art to her current playwriting: “My background in visual arts has had a huge influence on my writing. The experience of the art critique process lends itself to the [stage] rehearsal process . . . I feel I’ve been trained to be a better listener . . . how to absorb thoughts, and how to take criticism with openness -- as well as praise.” She also credits her time as a visual artist for her attraction to using storytelling to explore contemporary relationships to “contribute to a greater awareness of diverse solutions to challenges and perspectives on the same narrative.”
Sobeloff has for several years been studying playwriting with Central Works Artistic Director Gary Graves, and developing a writing community she trusts and can turn to for support. It was here she learned more about the challenges of manuscript deadlines (and how to stay productive in their absence).
CCA as Supporting Cast
In terms of this new stage in her life, Sobeloff credits Graduate Program in Fine Arts chair Ted Purves, who worked on her thesis committee, with helping her realize a more compelling writing element to her thesis -- something that would ultimately inspire her to experiment with playwriting. She adds: “I was also so lucky to have studied with Larry Sultan. He would talk with such affection, respect, and honesty . . . he’s the one who said, ‘Celebrity is boring.’ Such great humor he has getting at deeper truths.”
Writing and Literature instructor John Wilkins is also at the top of Sobeloff’s list whom she appreciates for their support and good advice on the world of theater. She also acknowledges CCA Exhibitions Program Coordinator Mark Blatnik, who she describes as “a terrific colleague and a model for staying calm under pressure.”
Sobeloff looks forward to seeing the CCA community at Exit Theatre.
About "Merchants": A New Tragicomedy About Making a Living
Opens March 1 through 24
Buy tickets online »
Directed by Stuart Bousel, written by playwright Susan Sobeloff, and produced by No Nude Men, Merchants plays at Exit Theatre in San Francisco and stars Maura Halloran, Ariane Owens, Trish Tillman, and Tony Cirimele.
Jennifer Lynne Roberts Makes a Buzz in the Bay Area
Another alumna-turned-playwright who has planted roots to the Bay Area theater scene is Jennifer Lynne Roberts, who last spring saw her play, Beekeeper, have a world premiere in Alameda thanks to Virago Theatre Company. (Note: Virago Theater Company is a nomadic production company, which changes locations for many of its productions.)
When Roberts entered CCA’s MFA Program in Writing in 2007, she had already decided she wanted to hone her craft of writing personal essays. She liked the fact CCA is an art school because she felt at the time she would like to produce video essays (think Ken Burns.
However, along the way something happened: While she was studying creative nonfiction, Roberts enrolled in a playwriting workshop taught by Ben Yalom, also the artistic director at Foolsfury Theatre Company in San Francisco. Even she was surprised by her ignited passion: “I thought I wanted to do one thing . . . and ended up having that [playwriting] become my career. I realized then that it was something I wanted. CCA was extremely helpful in letting me develop my career focus.”
Roberts enjoys sinking her teeth into complex characters and relationships. She uses drama and the stage to convey messages she believes in. “I think theater artists, including all aspects of theater life -- set designers, directors, house managers, writers, actors -- have a responsibility to write about our world, our time, this moment . . . even when writing about a period piece. Artists in general speak truth. I feel a strong responsibility to write about women: real, tangible characters. It has to be political as well.”
A Play Is Born
What started out as her thesis, part memoir and part playwriting/performance, fused at some point and, after several local readings – one of which was a staged scene reading as part of Yalom’s course that included professional actors working with the scripts -- and many rewritings, Beekeeper took flight and landed in the hands of Virago director Laura Lundy-Payne. The play went into full production in spring 2011 at Rhythmix Cultural Works in Alameda.
“One of the great things about about CCA,” Roberts asserted, “is that even though there’s not a playwriting program, per se, the college helped me by offering mentoring outside the [MFA Writing] program -- including Ben Yalom’s support -- to become inspired and to connect with other playwrights.”
Roberts has learned to embrace the networking role and continues to work its magic. As the president of Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco, where she had one of her Beekeeper readings, and at which Virago representatives were present and took interest in her play, she enthusiastically espouses the benefits of making professional connections. “I always mention PCSF because it helps playwrights gain exposure to local directors, producers, actors, and other writers.”
Next Up for Jennifer Lynne Roberts
What’s next for the playwright? “It’s a play, called The Pennsylvanian," reveals Roberts. “It’s the story about a brother and sister who reunite to stop their father from committing suicide only to end up saving each other instead.” (We’ll look for it in the arts and entertainment section!)
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