Whether in wineries, bars or backyards, Espressivo! Chamber Theatre wants to bring live theater to the masses.
“We want to go to the space where people already feel comfortable,” explained Devin Wallace, who co-founded the traveling theater troupe in late 2010. “In wine bars, we’ve had people say, ‘I don’t go to the theater, but the theater came here.’ ”
Based in San Luis Obispo, Espressivo! presents original one-hour plays at intimate venues throughout the county. The company’s latest show, “Lunatics in Love,” is playing at a total of eight locations, including the Pewter Plough Playhouse in Cambria, Poalillo Vineyards in Paso Robles and The Red Barn in Los Osos (the show’s first performance was Wednesday at the STAX Wine Bar in Morro Bay).
“We’re expanding on what already happens in the region,” Wallace explained, while tapping into a tradition that dates back to medieval times. “There’s a lot of music in the wineries, but theater is a rare variation on that.”
According to Wallace, the idea for Espressivo! was born shortly after he moved to the Central Coast.
Switching from songwriting to theater in the 1970s, Wallace helped found two Pacific Northwest theater companies and codirected the Skagit Valley Children’s Theatre in Mount Vernon, Wash., before coming to California in 1997 to pursue a screen-writing career. He moved to Morro Bay three years ago.
Wallace met his future collaborator, David Anthony Hance, via a staged reading of his play “A Washing Place,” held February 2010 at San Luis Obispo Little Theatre.
“That reactivated my theater addiction,” recalled Wallace, program manager for the local chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. “It was like, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to get back to theater.’ ”
Unfortunately, they found, San Luis Obispo County has a limited number of performing arts venues.
“Nobody has an empty theater building with nothing happening in it.Those places don’t exist,” said Hance, an experienced writer, director and performer who’s worked with San Luis Obispo Little Theatre and the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival.
So the two men decided to try a different tack: a traveling theater troupe that could perform
anywhere in the county.
Espressivo! Chamber Theatre debuted in March with “Irish Tunes and Tales,” a St. Patrick’s Daythemed show featuring Wallace’s play “And the Sea Shall Provide.” (The company takes its name from a musical term meaning “to play with great expression.”)
Wallace writes and directs “Lunatics in Love,” which premiered Wednesday at Stax Wine Bar in Morro Bay. The dark comedy also features four original songs by Wallace.
Set during the French Revolution, the play takes place in a luxurious lunatic asylum run by the enterprising Dr. Jacques Belhomme (Hance), who houses aristocrats seeking to escape the Reign of Terror for an exorbitant price. When a government investigator (Charles Hayek) comes to inspect the premises, the inmates—which include actual patient Louisa (Jean Miller) — must convince him that they are truly insane.
Many of the characters are pulled from the history books, including actress Ann Francoise Lange (Amytra), scholar Comte de Volney (Tom Ammon) and Louise Marie Adélaïde de Bourbon, Duchess of Orleans (Maggie Coons). The wealthiest woman in France, the Duchess enjoyed a real-life romance with Jacques-Marie Rouzet (Frank Solo), a former clerk of the National Convention.
Breaking down barriers
Over the next two weeks, Espressivo! will perform “Lunatics in Love” for crowds as small as 35 people on a portable 8-foot-square stage.
“We’re very intimate with the audience,” said Wallace, stressing the importance of breaking down physical and psychological barriers between actors and audience members.
For instance, he said, spectators might be asked to join in a sing-along — accompanied by Wallace on guitar and ukulele and David Baron Stevens on saxophone. (Scott Wright will fill in for Stevens at Friday’s Pewter Plough performance.)
Hance and Wallace, who are currently eyeing a holiday show, have high hopes for the future of Espressivo! Chamber Theatre.
They’d like to present at least two plays a year, eventually expanding their list of venues to include private homes and backyards.
“We got this idea from house parties that musicians are doing” explained Hance, marketing director for Middleton Family Wines. “Theater could do that too.”
Either way, they want to present works that are accessible and appealing to busy audience members.
As an example, Hance pointed to a one-hour lunchtime show he watched at an Ontario theater festival dedicated to the works of George Bernard Shaw.
“It was the hit of the season,” Hance said. “You sat down, you laughed, you enjoyed yourself, and it was over in a flash.”