Theater That Isn't Polished and Perfect: 20 Years of the Marsh

Our pal Emily Wilson is pumped about this weekend:

Twenty years ago Stephanie Weisman started a place for solo performance, The Marsh. From the Hotel Utah, it moved to Morty’s in North Beach, and then to Valencia Street, where it’s been ever since.

To celebrate the anniversary, the Marsh is having a marathon Saturday, June 19 from noon to midnight, featuring about 40 past and present performers, including heavy hitters such as Dan Hoyle, Charlie Varon and Marga Gomez.

After the jump, Emily talks to Weisman and others about the theater’s legacy and the nature of solo performance . . .

Photo by Steve Rhodes.

Stephanie Weisman, founder and artistic director at the Marsh.

Getting ready for the anniversary: I woke up last night and I said to myself, ‘What did I do this evening?’ and I couldn’t remember. That was a first.

On poetry and performance: I was doing a lot of poetry readings. I was in Buffalo and I got a Cal Arts grant for one of my pieces, so I came back to Buffalo to do a goodbye reading, and I put together a performance, and I decided I’ve had it, I don’t want to do poetry readings anymore, I want to do performance

On surviving 20 years: I think it’s because of the way we run. We do what comes to us. We don’t say we’re this kind of theater and we do this kind of thing. We’ve survived because we’re flexible to artists and times.

On doing solo shows. I focus on solo because that’s what I was interested in. I didn’t come from theater. I came from being a poet. The Marsh is sort of how a poet might envision theater.

Her show: It was an opera chorus of 20 women, a dancer, and a chamber ensemble. It was very unMarsh-y.  I’m going to open on Saturday with me and my daughter Audrey singing the first three minutes of it.

Josh Kornbluth, a monologist, who did the first full length show at the Marsh, “Haiku Tunnel,” about his temp job as a legal secretary.

What he’s doing on Saturday: I don’t know. I’ll be emceeing for that hour. At the Marsh I’ve always improvised, so I’m just going to do that, maybe tell some Marsh stories, maybe do a part of a monologue.

On developing work in front of an audience: Before the Marsh, there wasn’t a place for that. There wasn’t a place to develop solo pieces in a theater. It was magical –it was exactly what I needed.

On the Marsh’s audience: It’s a particular kind of audience member who would come to see theater that isn’t polished and perfect. They have to enjoy experiment and accident and it takes a special kind of person to sit there, not drinking and not eating nachos and watch people try something out.

The Marsh’s importance to his career: I can’t imagine I could have developed what I was doing without the Marsh. Really, the Marsh was my creative home, and you need a home, you need support. If you’re just a neurotic solo performer guy that wants to tell stories and isn’t very organized, there’s a lot of scenarios where I wouldn’t have been able to develop a steady career without the Marsh.

On Stephanie: I’ve always really admired Stephanie. There are few people who are devoted to developing other people’s work. It’s very rare, and it takes tremendous dedication to run a place like that and keep it going for 20 years. It has to be someone who loves it; it has to be a labor of love.

Joan Mankin, actor and clown. Her show “Uncharted Waves” was at the Marsh in 1994

Her show: The thing that sparked it was the death of my godfather who was a huge influence in my life. He studied the brain and was incredibly sharp. Then he got a brain tumor and started studying himself. Also a friend who was a clown and a juggler started to get MS. She stopped being able to juggle and to move around. It was about this notion of seeing things ebb away in these people I really cared about.

About Stephanie: She’s incredibly supportive. I can’t imagine where else I could have done it. It kept changing and she was so welcoming and so supportive.  I’ve known her forever and she’s always been like that.

On solo performing: I think it’s good for people to just see the experiences that other people have had and how they translate them. It’s very hard as a solo performer to hide yourself – it’s only you who’s there so no matter what you do, you are opened up. For audiences I think since there’s not room for very much scenery or special effects it’s really a relief sometimes. You go to big shows and there’s so much going on takes your attention away. It’s a relief to just come watch someone with skills tell a story.

Don Reed, a stand up comic. His show, “East 14th,” about leaving his Jehovah’s Witness stepdad’s house to live with his father who was a pimp, has just been extended for the 13th time. It’s at the Marsh in Berkeley.

What he’s performing on Saturday: I’m calling it “East 14th: The Untold Tales.” These are stories that have never been in the show at all.

On Stephanie: I actually think she’s the ultimate hybrid. Some people are artists and some are business people and Stephanie is an exception. She has the business acumen to run the theater in San Francisco and have 400 shows a year and now with Berkeley, they’ll have 700, but she still has artistic vision.

Impact on life: As a comic you change venues a lot. That’s what it’s all about. A solo experience means that that you do by yourself in multiple places. The Marsh allows a chance to breathe and become larger. It’s not by yourself anymore because you have a home.

What’s next:  “The Kipling Hotel” – it’s the story of my life in the 80s when I went to UCLA on a partial scholarship, which I found out, loosely translated, means not enough money. So I got a job as waiter in a retirement hotel on Skid Row.  I lived there for five years and went through many adventures and tried to be a stripper, and I tried to be a gigolo for one day. It did NOT work out . . . but I learned working there that just because someone is older and has a little creamed corn running down their shirt doesn’t mean they’re not a genius.

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