Live theater, stripped to the basics

Local readers theater programs put on simply staged plays

Special to The TribuneJune 27, 2013 

Live theater thrives on the Central Coast, with an array of musicals, comedies and Shakespeare each season. But there is another dimension to the mainstream theater scene — staged readings called readers theater. These presentations focus on content rather than production values, and often offer thought-provoking pieces we might otherwise never see.

San Luis Obispo Little Theatre’s series, under the umbrella title Ubu’s Other Shoe, marks its 10-year anniversary with “Red” this weekend. In another readers series, the South County Historical Society has launched its summer season of local history-related staged readings with “Vigilantes!”

“After a few years in the area, I began to feel the need for something other than the feel-good theater I was seeing — way too many musicals,” said Michael Siebrass, founder and artistic director of the SLO Little Theatre series, who noted that there were many good plays out there that local audiences were not getting to see.

“I also believed that theater should be meaningful, that it should make people think, that it should give them more than a melody they can hum on the way out of the theater.”

So he created Ubu’s Other Shoe, named after “Ubu Roi,” a play by Alfred Jarry that was banned in 1896. The plays in the SLO Little Theatre series have had various degrees of staging.

“It varies, depending on the play and the director,” Siebrass explained. “Some plays lend themselves to reading stands and are rather static. Others require staging.”

There will be a great deal of staging in “Red,” the current play by John Logan, which is about the artist Mark Rothko and his fictional assistant Ken.

Siebrass and SLO Little Theatre Managing Artistic Director Kevin Harris are the actors. The staging was necessary, Siebrass said, “because we just couldn’t envision a narrator describing the act of painting instead of the actors actually painting.”

Although the play focuses on Rothko and his art, it has a broader theme. “The play is ultimately about a man who is trying to make his life meaningful, and you can’t get much more universal than that,” Siebrass said.

The next season of “Ubu,” starting July 30, will feature plays by some of America’s great playwrights, but not the ones they are most famous for. Siebrass explained that he wanted to look at the arc of American theater from Eugene O’Neill to contemporary playwrights, and to present some lesser-known works by those playwrights.

The South County Historical Society’s summer readers theater focuses on dramatic highlights from local history. The staged readings are free and are presented every Saturday during the summer. Jan Scott, who is the organization’s museum curator, has a career background in theater, and writes, produces and directs the summer series.

The current presentation, “Vigilantes!”, tells the story of a lynching in Arroyo Grande in 1886. Julius Hemmi was hanged after killing a neighbor and trying to kill the neighbor’s wife. Hemmi’s father, Peter, was also hanged.

“The full truth of what happened will never be known,” Scott said, and her staged reading has stirred mixed reactions from descendants of both families. “When you scratch a 120 year-old-scab, blood flows,” she said.

In 1986, there was a 100-year reenactment, and another in 2006. In these dramatizations, Hemmi was the obvious bad guy, and descendants of the Hemmi family protested. One of the points of contention was the hanging of the father, who some thought should not have been held responsible for what his son did. In the current discussion, four people, sitting in chairs, talk to the audience.

“Each one has a different viewpoint,” Scott said. “In my version, the Hemmis have a voice.”

She wrote the piece after researching the event, written about in several books and in chapters in historical books. “I used as many sources as I could find.”

The next staged reading, beginning July 20, is “Goldrush in Oceano? The Story of the Elg.” When the Norwegian freighter Elg ran aground in 1938, the crew threw its cargo of fine milled lumber overboard to free the ship, planning to come back and retrieve it.

“Ten thousand people swarmed the beach,” Scott said. “It was human beings at their worst and at their best.”

She composed her theater piece from reports and newspaper clippings of the time.

“Three women argue onstage that it was the best thing that ever happened, or it was the worst thing that ever happened.”   

IF YOU GO

"Red"
7 p.m. Friday and Saturday
San Luis Obispo Little Theatre, 888 Morro St., San Luis Obispo
$10
786-2440 or www.slolittle theatre.org

"Vigilantes!"
2 p.m. Saturdays through July 13
Odd Fellows Hall, 128 Bridge St., Arroyo Grande
Free
489-8282 or www.south countyhistory.org

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