Aisle Seat Review begins a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.
Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)
Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people. Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor.
Eleven years old and going strong, Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions is a standout North Bay theater company founded by Managing Director Barry Martin and Artistic Director Taylor Bartolucci (pictured below.) The company’s co-founders are great friends and lifelong theater veterans. Both perform multiple roles in every aspect of Lucky Penny’s operations. Recent productions include an exemplary “Cabaret,” plus “Bingo the Musical,” “9 to 5 the Musical,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Five Course Love.”
ASR: How did you get started in theater?
Barry M.: I think I was in theatre from the day I was born.
Taylor: I was four years old when I got my first taste of the theatre. My mom enrolled me in a local community theatre production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” where I flew around on the stage as Woodstock. I was immediately hooked.
ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?
Barry M.: I played Perchik in “Fiddler on the Roof” as a sophomore in high school. The first paying gig for me was doing summer stock after my junior year of college.
Taylor: “Charlie Brown” was followed by my first of many productions of “Annie.” I started off as Molly then throughout the years played every single female role you could play—Annie, all of the Orphans, Star to Be, Hannigan, Lily, Boylan Sisters—all of them, except Grace.
ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?
Barry M.: Board member for two, co-founder of one.
Taylor: Oh gosh, way too many to count.
ASR: When was your present company formed?
Taylor: Barry and I founded Lucky Penny Productions in the spring of 2009.
ASR: Did you anticipate that it would become as successful as it has?
Barry M.: I expected we would be successful but didn’t expect to become as large as we have become, nor did I expect to have a physical location.
Taylor: I think from the very beginning we were dreamers, always envisioning grand things, but at the same time we were always busy working for the current show or for the future, so there wasn’t a lot of time to focus on future success, just the success of the project at hand.
It seems to me that every now and then at the end of the day, we would sit back and look at where the company was and go “Wow, that’s pretty darn cool. We are so grateful. OK, now let’s get back to work!”
ASR: Does your company have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc.?
Barry M.: Special focus is on giving people a memorable experience but we do not have a niche.
Taylor: I wouldn’t say we have a focus as much as we feel we have a responsibility to our local community, the Napa Valley, to expose them to all genres of theatre. Being one of the only theatre companies in Napa County, we select a season that reflects a little bit of everything to attract and satisfy the needs of all of our community members. This includes musicals, non-musicals, classics and modern pieces.
… Trust your gut. Be tenacious. Focus on the audience experience.
ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?
Barry M.: If I am any better at it than I was in the olden days, it’s due to Taylor’s example. She has made me want to be a better actor and director.
Taylor: I would say our patrons and volunteers. If it wasn’t for their support and belief in us, we wouldn’t be where we are today. And for all of them, we are incredibly grateful.
ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the coronavirus shutdown?
Barry M.: Conserving cash, and making plans for strategic online activities.
Taylor: We are taking it day by day. We had to make the tough decision to postpone “Sweeney Todd,” the show we were about to open, and we have cancelled our April/May production of “The Quality of Life” and our June production of “The Great American Trailer Park Musical.”
ASR: How has the crisis affected your planning for coming seasons?
Barry M.: No overall change to the approach but we expect to be leaner for at least a season.
Taylor: In all honesty, it hasn’t yet. I feel like we are in a bit of a holding pattern right now until we receive more information—which I assume we will be getting within the next few weeks. Once we know how much longer we will be practicing social distancing and bans on events, we can look into any necessary changes to our upcoming season.
ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community overall?
Barry M.: We will be back with no substantial change in how we do things. In the larger view, the world will always need theatre. The forms it takes may continue to change.
Taylor: Like Barry said—we will be back at it as soon as we can!
ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts underway in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected your theater company’s plans?
Barry M.: AB5 was taking up a lot of my brain until two weeks ago. At some point I will have to focus on it again and resume efforts to get amendments carving out small non-profit theatres like ours. There is no path I can see that has us in compliance with the bill as currently enacted.
ASR: Name three all-time favorites that your company has produced.
Barry M.: “Funny Girl,” “Hands on a Hardbody,” “Bonnie and Clyde.”
Taylor: Oh man…there are so many we have produced that I have been proud of for so many reasons…but if I had to pick three, I’d say:
“Funny Girl” because it was our first large scale musical, a lifelong dream of mine, and the show that really exposed us to a larger audience base.
“Hands on a Hardbody,” because it was such an incredibly beautiful and heart-filled show, and one that brought together different parts of our community to help put together (Soscol Auto Body, Wine Country Crossfit to name a few).
And “Clue: The Musical” because it was a show that was unknown, one that we were able to fully create from scratch, with a team of some of my best friends, and it brought so much joy to our audiences.
ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays? Care to share titles of those you would never produce — or never produce again?
Barry M.: “Grease” is terribly written even though the songs are good. “Urinetown” annoys me.
Taylor: I have to agree with Barry—I have never enjoyed the humor of “Urinetown,” even though lots of people have asked us to produce it. I’m also not a fan of (*gasp*) “In the Heights” or “Cats.” No big shocker there.
ASR: Which play would you most like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?
Barry M.: “The Iceman Cometh.”
ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play?
Barry M.: I think there are only three or four worth doing and all the rest suck except as academic exercises. So for me none are underrated.
Taylor: “Titus Andronicus.” Maybe this comes to mind because we were just preparing to do “Sweeney Todd” at Lucky Penny.
ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?
Barry M.: “As You Like It” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” both a yawn.
ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work — sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes — which would it be and why?
Barry M.: Well, I have done several whole seasons building sets, so there’s that. Other than sets I like doing sound.
Taylor: Props. Definitely props.
ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?
Barry M.: I hate warm-ups of all kinds and have no routine. Just tell me “places” and I’m ready to go. After a show I need at least 90 minutes and a minimum of two drinks to wind down. Not iced tea, either.
Taylor: Depends on the show. Like Barry, I’m not a huge warm-up person. If it’s a musical I will vocalize and make sure I’m warmed up in that capacity, but with non-musicals I don’t have a set regime. I do like to get to the theatre extra early and take my time getting ready. Plus, there is nothing like an empty theatre. It’s such a soothing place for me.
After a show I tend to have too much adrenaline to just go straight home, so I will typically grab a drink and hang out with cast members. If it’s a matinee I may jet home to see my kiddos before bedtime.
ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what things would you tell them are essential?
Barry M.: Trust your gut. Be tenacious. Focus on the audience experience.
Taylor: Be kind—the theatre world may seem big, but it ultimately is pretty darn small, and people will remember their experience with you. Be collaborative—your production and company will be so much better off utilizing the talent and ideas of your artists to the fullest. Be willing to step into any shoes—this means working front of house, making props, being on stage, working backstage, sweeping the floor. Not only does it familiarize you with every job that needs to be done so you know what you are asking of others, but you are the example. Be a great example.
ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?
Barry M.: When you build a theatre from the ground up together and keep it going ten years it’s a good friendship, so my friendship with Taylor Bartolucci means the most to me.
Taylor: My relationship with Barry. It’s not every day you have the chance to dream and work alongside your best friend. We complement each other very well in terms of how we make decisions, how we feel in certain situations and how we like to work.
ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?
Barry M.: In college, the climactic sword fight on opening night between MacBeth and MacDuff started with MacBeth somehow getting his cape tangled in his crown and the audience laughed. Perfect climax to a truly cursed production of “The Scottish Play.”
Taylor: One that happened recently was a production where a very dramatic scene had two people fighting over a baby. When the person who wanted the baby grabbed it, the head popped off and bounced on the floor, while the other person had to keep crying and pretend that the head was still attached. It was truly a great exercise in acting as one of them grabbed it as quickly as possible and both actors kept going like nothing had happened.
ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?
Taylor: Years ago I was at a show at ACT in San Francisco. One of the actors forgot his line. He stopped, said he was going to rewind and start over. I vaguely remember it was the beginning of a monologue. He started again and got stuck, and started again. This happened four times! The audience got pissed and started booing.
ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?
Barry M.: Exiting through our greenroom trying to find the bathroom, startling some actors… or throwing up into their popcorn (yeah) during a scene… or cutting across the stage to leave in the middle of a scene.
Taylor: Oh my goodness. In our theatre—a 97-seat black box—the audience is VERY up close and personal, so we have seen it all! From people in the audience talking back to cast members on stage mid-show, having panic attacks, sleeping—you name it.
ASR: Do you have a “day job?”
Barry M.: Two or three of them.
Taylor: I work for my family winery, Madonna Estate during the day. And we are currently having a special—20% off all wines! Use the code 20OFF and LOCALS at checkout and I will deliver to your doorstep!
ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?
Barry M.: All the news all the time, soccer, wine
Taylor: Family, friends, working out, country music, cooking.
ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you pursue any other arts apart from theater?
Barry M.: I enjoy quality films but don’t care for most of the popular ones. I’m a big fan of classic films—Capra, Ford, Welles, etc.
Taylor: There are lots of things I would love to explore—playing musical instruments, creating visual art (painting, wall art, etc) but with a two-year-old, a one-year-old, the theatre and the winery, I am sadly short on time these days.
ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?
Taylor: Hmmm. OK:
1) Everyone clean up after themselves
2) It’s 5’o clock somewhere at all times
3) You don’t have to sleep but you need to stay in bed during naptime…
Oh wait, these are just my current stay at home rules with my kids. Sigh…
ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?
Barry M.: A timeshare.
ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?
Taylor: Barry already created one! It’s called “Good Talks with Taylor.” Sometimes the content is amusing, sometimes he thrusts the camera into my face when I’m annoyed, Other times I may or may not have had a drink or two. It’s always brought us some good laughs.
ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?
Barry M.: DUI, most likely. Mass murder would be most satisfying.
Taylor: I better not be arrested! Being married to a cop… should have some benefits!
ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?
Taylor: Not sure it’s something I like more than others, but I’ll take a good, useful pair of sunglasses on a sunny day.
ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?
Barry M.: Novel coronavirus. I’d mount up and ride it out of town.
Taylor: Hmmm…can’t say there is anything I’d like to see blown up to a size that could attack me. Call me a wimp!
ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks” — have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?
Barry M.: Nothing involving falling to my death or drowning interests me, for some reason. The risks I have taken in my life were not artificially imposed, they were real-life risks about financial security, family ties, and living the life I wanted to live.
Taylor: No, nothing that could physically harm me has ever been of interest. Give me a good juicy scene where I can cry and scream and be raw and real in front of strangers but ask me to jump out of a plane?! NO WAY!
ASR: Favorite quote?
Taylor: One of my all-time favorite quotes is actually from the song “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5: “It’s not always rainbows and butterflies—it’s compromise that moves us along. My heart is full and my doors always open, you can come anytime you want.”