Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying 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, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.
Among the North Bay’s most prominent and prolific theater artists is Dani Innocenti-Beem, a phenomenal singer and delightful comic actress known for her ability to melt hearts, rattle walls, and provoke uncontrollable laughter with her improvisations. Recipient of innumerable nominations and winner of multiple awards—SFBATCC, TBA, MTJA, and Artys included—Innocenti-Beem in normal times is booked eighteen months out and often performs in one show while rehearsing the next one. The entire North Bay theater community looks forward to a return to normal so that we can enjoy her onstage again.
ASR: How did you get started in theater?
DIB: I was ten years old. My mom and dad took me and my brother Marco to the Belrose Theatre in San Rafael where they had a show called Kids in Vaudeville, a showcase featuring kids 8-18 doing skits, songs, dances etc.
There was a young girl, I’ll never forget her name, Hathaway Pogue, who came out on the stage in her blue Gunne Sax dress, sat on a stool, and sang “Rainbow Connection.” In Act Two she came out in a brown Gunne Sax and sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I tugged on my mom’s arm and said, “I want to do that.” She signed me up for classes the next day.
ASR: What was the first play you performed in for a paying audience?
DIB: It was The Miracle Worker at the Belrose. I played a little blind girl. I remember getting my first note from Margie Belrose. It was a compliment and such a high. I very rarely do plays. Funnily enough, I did this play twice. In a high school production, I played Annie Sullivan.
ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?
DIB: In my adult life, probably 15.
ASR: Did you anticipate that you would become as successful as you have?
DIB: Am I successful? Certainly not in terms of money. In the North Bay, you don’t do this for the money. I have a 9-5 to pay the bills. I never thought about being successful. It’s just become who I am—it’s what brings me joy, what makes me me.
ASR: Do you have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?
DIB: Musical theater, of course! Give me a big broad musical comedy any day!
ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in theater?
DIB: Three people have really had a true impact on my journey. My father Ugo—I get my voice from him. He was in the boys’ choir in Italy growing up. He and my mother insisted on classical training, which gave me the voice I have today.
Second is my singing partner and friend Julie Ekoue-Totu. I am never more myself than when I am on stage singing with her.
The third is Carl Jordan, who was the first director to have faith in me and pushed me out of my comfort zone of comedy when he cast me as Shelby in The Spitfire Grille.
ASR: With the ongoing pandemic, it will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How are you coping with the shutdown?
DIB: In all honesty, it has been a struggle. My joy is gone. Postponed, or canceled. My other family, gone. That intimacy that only those in the theater understand, gone. Those moments that give you life on a daily basis, be it in rehearsal, or memorizing a line, or hitting that note right in the pocket, gone. I would have closed three shows since Covid started. I am struggling.
ASR: How do you envision the future for the theater community overall?
DIB: I would like to say I have an optimistic outlook but some days are harder than others. I have hope that one of these days we’ll get back to what we had, more or less. How many theaters survive will depend on just how long that takes.
ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?
DIB: I spent most of my life being in shows rather than attending them, and those were 99.9% musicals. It is just in these last few years that I have been able to attend more theater and have started to broaden my knowledge.
So, from what little I have seen, my favorite dramas tend more toward the classics, such as Streetcar and Death of A Salesman, although I did very much enjoy the 6th Street Playhouse productions Faceless and The Revolutionists.
Comedies must really make me laugh out loud for me to truly enjoy them. A little chuckle won’t cut it. The Mystery of Irma Vep, Noises Off, and one that teetered between them both, Drumming with Annubis.
Musicals? Oh boy! The list is long for different reasons, from performing in them, to the score only, to being an audience member. Lumping them in the same list, a few would be: Gypsy, Into The Woods, Sunset Boulevard, Sweeney Todd, Hello Dolly!, Little Shop of Horrors, Evita, Man of La Mancha, Urinetown, Mame, Falsettos. I could keep going but this Q&A has to have an end sometime!
ASR: Name some all-time favorites that you have worked in.
DIB: Man of La Mancha—to be able to tell such a wonderful story, with a cast that was brilliantly talented, was tops for me for sure. Hands on a Hardbody—It felt like an honor to bring these real people to life. It spoke to our hearts as a cast.
Great American Trailer Park Musical—We had lightning in a bottle with that show. Everything clicked and it was the most fun I have ever had on a stage. Merman’s Apprentice—stepping into the shoes of Ethel Merman. Need I say more? Nunsense, in 1996—my castmates Julie Ekoue-Totu, Kayla Gold, Diana Bergala, and Gail Gongall, truly became my sisters and lifelong friends. I would not be who am I am in the theater without that show and those women.
…Great American Trailer Park Musical—We had lightning in a bottle with that show…
ASR: What are some of your least favorite productions? Care to share titles of those you would never do or never do again?
DIB: Expiring Minds Want to Know, a horrible little musical. Annie. I love the role of Miss Hannigan and loved my cast when I did it, but the show itself is not a favorite.
ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?
DIB: Triumph of Love is such a gem. The Drowsy Chaperone is another one that is just pure fun and so rarely done.
ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?
DIB: Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yes, you shadows have offended, too many times!
ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?
DIB: I would love to do props and set dressing. Creating the world the actors are playing in. Bringing a vision to life and making sure it keeps with the time period, aesthetic, etc. That would super fun and creative.
ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?
DIB: I sing the show through in my car on the way to the theater. Warm up the voice in the shower of course. But other than that, I just try to relax and remember my lines. I like to get into the theater at least two hours before showtime. Just to be there and settle in. After the show, I enjoy a milkshake at Shari’s or Chinese food at Yet Wah or just hanging out in the lobby with the cast and some friends enjoying each other.
ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?
1. Be on time.
2. Be humble.
3. Be a team player.
ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?
DIB: Julie Ekoue-Totu, my singing sister. I have known her since 1989. She’s been my performing partner and my giggle gal all this time. She taught me how to take chances vocally and helped me tremendously in developing my style. She’s one of the most honest people I know. I trust her more than anyone else on that stage. She has had my back in so many ways over these years and I am forever grateful and will love her and sing her praises until my last note!
ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?
DIB: I was in the audience at Lucky Penny’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when three women got up and walked across the stage—actually through the scene, explaining to the audience why they were leaving (one of them wasn’t feeling well).
ASR: Do you have a “day job?”
DIB: Of course I do. I have to pay the bills and I am extremely lucky to have mine during this horrible time. I am an escrow officer.
ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you actively do any other arts apart from the theater?
DIB: No, not really. I appreciate art and enjoy listening to music but I am not a follower per se. When I am not performing I enjoy being with my family and my fur babies.
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?
DIB: Ahhh, here:
1. No cigarettes or cilantro.
2. Kindness is key.
3. Popular vote wins.
ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?
DIB: A home enema kit.
ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?
DIB: If All the World’s a Stage, I Want My Own Damn Dressing Room, a show about the lives and times of a regional theater group of course!
ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?
DIB: Beaten up someone who was being cruel to animals.
ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?
DIB: Soundtrack? That is tough. I have certain artists or songs from my childhood that will always be on repeat in my heart. Those tunes you go to when you need a lift. Does that count? Narrowing them down to three? Hmmm?
Luciano Pavarotti singing anything. He was my background music as a child.
Helen Reddy—“Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress)”—As a kid, I never knew what it meant but it made me smile (especially the horns) and I would sing it at the top of my lungs.
John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain Christmas.” It just isn’t Christmas without it.
ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?
DIB: I love boots. Nice comfortable boots. Combat, Ugg, Booties, Go-Go, Cowboy, Dress, Rain, All the boots!
ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?
DIB: I love turtles. I would like to see a turtle the size of a horse! Prehistoric and beautiful. I could ride it!
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?
DIB: When I was younger, I liked to climb everything—trees, towers, you name it. The only thing I could climb right now is the walls.
ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?
DIB: “Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.”—The Outsiders