by BARRY BLAKE
When they moved into the Ink People's digs in April 1988, Plays in Progress was a small band of erstwhile playwrights and theater people. "We pissed and moaned, as they say, because there weren't enough production opportunities. The idea was to encourage new playwriting and production."
Since then Susan Bigelow-Marsh has nursed and mothered, coaxed and cajoled this little enterprise through mountains of new play scripts and deserts of hard times.
A couple of years ago PIP added to its name. Plays in Progress became known also as the World Premier Theater, a lofty title that acknowledges its primary function as the only theater in the area --one of a small number in the country --existence serves exclusively to produce new work. The theater's history occupied my thoughts when I arrived at Bigelow-Marsh's office to talk about Texaco Star, PIP's new play.
It's raining cold outside so Susan, the always gracious hostess, aims the space heater in my direction as we chat in the tiny theater office above the Lost Coast Brewery in Eureka. I notice that the room feels different. Tidier. Things, memories, tucked here, piled there, scattered about, seem missing in action. The "Gone Fishing" sign has vanished.
Rebecca Floyd joins us. "I was out taking pictures of gas stations," she says as she opens a little Styrofoam box containing a chunk of carrot cake. I begin to feel more at home because on previous visits there was always some little box of leftover eats hanging around, bulging with the ferment of neglect.
The purpose of my visit -- to talk about the production of the new play Texaco Star -- has taken a turn. The two women want to explain Rebecca's presence.
The early days of the theater get replayed. Susan recalls, "When we moved into this building -- which Lost Coast Brewery was using for storage -- we had to bring it up to code. Then we built bathrooms. Then we put in seats. Then we did the things that had to be done to make it a theater."
Texaco Star playwright, Margo Haas
In those days, in those years, Bigelow-Marsh did everything from working on the tech crews to creating the playbills, printing programs, making decisions on grants, to selling refreshments -- everything that added up to seeing the production through from start to finish. And she wrote a play a season. And she reads hundreds of scripts a year, tens of thousands over the years. Only about 8 percent make it to serious consideration. Those she chooses she sends on to the board.
Looking back it's possible to see the small audiences, lapses in judgment, plays that didn't sell, didn't draw or just didn't work. Icarus Variations, and a kind of musical Miracle at Graceland, were among the duds for reasons that she can't quite pin down. Many of the productions have had political or social implications, which, although they may not have drawn well, resonated with patrons on a meaningful level. Starfish Scream, Rose-Colored Glass and Carefree Drive are among the productions Susan counts as particularly successful.
Reconfiguring the administrative roles, Bigelow-Marsh said, will give the theater a better chance to succeed more often. John Heckel, who will be retiring from the theater department at Humboldt State University in a couple of years, has already taken over the artistic director duties.
"As artistic director I think sometimes you know a bit too much about everything so you end up filling in. And I think the joy of seeing a theater growing is that you have other people who want to do it more and can do it better," she says, without sounding the least bit wistful.
"Now I can turn around and do what needs to be done for us to grow and succeed, which is to write the grants, get us handicapped-accessible, which is a big project for us right now (to understand just how big, try climbing the two flights of stairs up to the theater), and to make sure that everyone gets paid and things get taken care of in a competent, professional way. Then I do my creative project each year. Other people take care of the other stuff."
One of those other people is Rebecca Floyd. Floyd's new job will be to coordinate Second Stage productions.
"My goal is to fill in all those dates when we don't have main bills. Sue and I co-produced the Women's Theater Festival in August. That's how it started," Floyd said. "Then we realized it was really silly to have this wonderful theatre space and not use it for more original theater events. But that doesn't mean we are beyond having a rock band in here or `What's That Smell?' (a comedy troupe)."
They have had a swing dance production and coming up is the Fringe Festival award-winning play "Women with Balls" by Donna Rae Davidson, which will open the last week end in March and play into April in honor of Women's History Month.
"Donna Rae is an HSU graduate who has been doing standup comedy for the last seven years. Her playwriting has broken through in the last year, and I believe we will be seeing her work on Broadway. She is very, very talented," says Floyd.
Plans are also in the works for Positive Theater.
"Positive Theater is theater with HIV people," Floyd said. "This is all local people telling and dramatizing their stories of having HIV. Some of these people have had HIV for 18, 19 years. That is booked in for the middle of April, but a couple of emergencies have postponed rehearsals. We'll see."
"We are learning and discovering what kinds of production needs these shows have. Donna Rae's required a computerized slide show, live music, fairly complex equipment. So as we meet these challenges and take care of their technical needs, we will get more shows in here."
Later I get a chance to talk to Margo Haas who, believe it or not, just flew in from Cleveland for the production of her play, Texaco Star.
"I'm a playwright and I also teach writing, fiction and playwriting to kids in grades 4 through 12 in the Cleveland area," Haas said. She sounds buoyant when she talks about her previous work -- four productions in and around Cleveland, the most successful of which is a children's theater piece, The Missing Choir of Soda Springs, which has been produced around the country.
When I asked her how she got hooked up with a little community theater on the North Coast, she said, "Sue has the theater listed in `Writer's Market.' And I sent it off to her and she responded.
"What inspired Texaco Star was that my husband and I had this experience. Our car broke down in St. Elmo, Ill., (a real place) and we ended up spending 14 to 15 hours therein kind of a strange experience. So I thought one day I might write about it. It turns out to be a comedy-drama, probably mostly a comedy.
Haas said she has been part of the creative process with the director here by telephone and e-mail.
"So does it look now that you get to see it ?" I ask.
"Actually, it looks great. I've just met the cast and seen the set. It looks wonderful. I'm looking forward to it."
Barry Blake's review of Texaco Star follows ...
It's a sleeper. Texaco Star has arrived fully formed and deftly realized. This is the best play I have seen in quite a while and features the best single performance I can remember seeing in many years -- Jan Belt's as Liz.
There. I've said it and it's the truth. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.
We are in the present, in the office of a rural gas station, the only one in St. Elmo, Ill., where the bus doesn't stop anymore. We hear the cars pull up outside and roll across one of those thin rubber tubes that go "din-doon" to announce the customer's arrival (plentiful sound cues are wonderful in this show).
Zack goes out and actually fills 'er up and offers to wipe the windshield. We remember when it was this way.
The office is cluttered with quarts of oil, a car jack, hubcaps lying about, a coffee maker, vagrant coffee cups, a little metal table and chairs for while you are waiting on your car, a phone with a double-loud ring, brooms, pictures of triumphant memories, an ancient soda pop machine, a snack-rack with real snacks (in this show Ding-Dongs and other real food is eaten).
The garage is through the door of the office, and the office smells like the garage, not a burrito warming up in the mini-mart's microwave. You remember when it was this way.
Because the play is performed in a kind of theater-in-the-triangle, with the base of the acute triangle upstage and the audience on the two sides, you feel as if you are IN the office with Liz and Phil, whose Volvo has broken down on a long drive to Liz's grandmother's funeral in Dayton.
Like the place, Haas's intention seeps slowly into the audience's awareness through memory and intuition. At first you think, "Whoa, what a contrived situation -- break down in a gas station." And then a memory returns. It happened to me. And to you. It just didn't happen in St. Elmo, Ill.; it happened in some other God-forsaken place like Fallon, Nev., or Porterville. You remember.
Beginning with the total breakdown of the Volvo, that super-sensible, impregnable chariot of the upper-middle class, which Zack calls "a piece of hog shit," (incidentally the only piece of swearing in the whole hilarious show). Haas's play is filled with delicious dramatic irony. Director Tisha Sloan and the stellar cast catch every drop.
While waiting for parts to arrive, Phil, a university English professor, is chided into the garage to "pull a trannie," a foreign experience for him. He shoots some baskets with Zack, and Liz, a piano teacher, answers the phone in the office. They both share in the lives of the locals, in this case Zack and his girlfriend, Vanessa. Isn't it astonishing that we are so willing to share our private lives with complete strangers met on journeys?
Rather than wait for the parts to arrive, Liz decides to call home and get someone in the family to fetch them so they can attend the funeral. She speaks to her mother. Finding someone isn't easy. We later learn Uncle Larry would have been there but "his license was revoked when he ran into a bus shelter." It turns out to be Elana, Liz's estranged older sister, the worst possible choice Liz's mother could have made, and Liz is sure it's intentional.
"Whoa, this sounds a little like my family." We remember.
Elana arrives in the last four seconds of the first act, and the play takes a new turn.
There are other turns, and each one is deftly handled by this talented cast. Just as Margo Haas's play is new, fresh and impertinent, so is the cast and crew of this production. Almost everyone seems to be a recent arrival to Humboldt State University. Stuck in ol' Arcata.
S. Kyle Driggers plays his character Zack wonderfully, with the easygoing, patient charm of an uncomplicated soul. He relishes his high school basketball glory. He accepts what is given. He's adopted.
His girl friend, Vanessa, "a varsity cheerleader with a future," is counterpoint, played over the top by Lynette Borelli. Vanessa's voice sounds like a train straining to stop before plowing into a cow 40 yards down the track. She is either a very kinetic learner or one of those cheerleaders described in the Uncle Bonzai song, "Cheerleaders on Drugs." She can't stand still. She might be three weeks pregnant, but she's afraid to take the pregnancy test Zack bought at the supermarket.
Both Liz and Phil share a love for the droll. Liz is upset by the decisions that led to the car breakdown: "We could be in Dayton right now sitting in the kitchen. Think about it." Phil: "Yeah. Think about it." But Liz sees Phil as a wimp: "Why do you always have to be so fair? It's nauseating." And as Phil becomes Mr. Macho Mechanic, more of their relationship reveals itself.
When Elana (Jill Coffey), Liz's older sister with hair drawn tightly back, wearing a fastidiously embroidered sweater arrives, their relationship reveals a past of wounds never fully scarred over. All the little hints of the first act become unstuck and animated when Elana compels new understandings. Coffey plays Elana sharp and hard like a quick slice.
However, it is Jen Belt's performance that pins the audience to the play. She never ever seems to have to stretch for a reaction, reach for an emotion, even though she moves from bafflement to silent weeping, from hysterical rage to deadpan, a redoubtable comedy. Her timing and changing tones seem so naturally motivated that we don't notice them -- she is one of a kind.
Haas has written a rich comedy, sweet and savory, to remind us that the guilty fears of our own family's "dysfunction" may be universally functional .
Texaco Star plays long weekends through the end of the March.