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.
David Templeton is a Bay Area arts journalist and playwright best known locally for his work with the Petaluma Argus-Courier, and for 16 years as a writer and theater critic for the North Bay Bohemian. He also contributes to Strings magazine and others.
As a playwright, he’s won awards for his solo show Wretch Like Me, which has had runs at the San Francisco Fringe Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in Scotland. His other plays include Pinky, Polar Bears, Drumming with Anubis, and Mary Shelley’s Body – the latter adapted from David’s novella of the same name, published in the 2016 anthology Eternal Frankenstein.
His supernatural short story, Questions and Answers, appears in the recent anthology Tales From a Talking Board. His next play is the science-fiction mystery Galatea, which will make its world premiere in 2021 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park.
ASR: How did you get started in theater?
DT: In second grade, in Southern California, I wrote a short play called Grumpy, which was Snow White and the 7 Dwarves told from the perspective of the crankiest dwarf.
I asked my teacher if I could stage it, and we made some attempts at making that happen, but I have no memory of actually performing it, beyond my working hard to learn my lines for weeks. It’s weird because I don’t think I’d previously seen a theater production of any kind beyond my Episcopal church’s annual nativity pageant, in which I appeared as the one-and-only black sheep in the flock of white-costumed kindergarten sheep.
But for some reason, I had that idea for a play, and from Grumpy on, I knew I wanted a life in the theater. I did tons of plays in school, wrote and staged plays and puppet shows at the local library, and then started my own company in high school. It was originally a puppet theater, but we eventually added live action plays, which of course, I wrote and directed.
ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?
DT: That’s a hard one. A lot of those early plays I wrote and directed were done on a pass-the-hat basis but were enough to pay my bills for a year or so after I graduated from high school. If you mean, what was the first play I appeared in for a company that was not: A. a school, B. my own company or C. a troupe performing at the Renaissance Faire (where I did do some performing while operating game booths in the early 1980s), I suppose it would have to be Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) for Santa Rosa Players.
ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?
DT: Another hard one. By the time I did that show with the Santa Rosa Players, I’d long ago moved to Northern California, started working for newspapers on the swing shift, and started a family.
During all that time, I pretty much thought I’d given up on my earlier theatrical ambitions. Instead, I wrote poems and short stories, the occasional bad screenplay, and of course the journalistic writing I was doing more and more of.
In fact, I got the part in Complete Works of William Shakespeare “because” of journalism. I was writing for the North Bay Bohemian (not yet doing theater criticism), and I was assigned a story on local community theater. The idea my editor and I came up with was for me to go to an audition “undercover” as someone auditioning, and then write about all the wacky folks spending their evenings doing local shows.
To my surprise, I was offered one of the three roles, at which point I had to admit that I had not actually been auditioning, but was writing a newspaper story.
As I remember it, the director Carl Hamilton said, “Write what you want, we want you in this show.” I got a scathing review from the Press Democrat but was suddenly being offered parts again.
After a few shows with the Players, I segued back into writing my own plays, beginning with my one-man-show Wretch Like Me, which I wrote with the intention of performing it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I ended up performing it nearly a hundred times including runs all over the North Bay. I went on to write several more plays as you’ve already noted — thank you.
On occasion, over the years, I’ve continued to be occasionally cast in other shows, including playing Judas in Godspell and the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (both with Santa Rosa Players), The Large and Terrible Frog in A Year With Frog and Toad (6th Street Playhouse), Rick Masters in Circus Acts (Actors’ Basement), Bill Sikes in Oliver (Lucky Penny Productions) and Commander Harbison in South Pacific (Spreckels Theatre Company).
ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?
DT: This one’s easy. Though I would arguably never have stepped back into writing plays were it not for Dan Zastrow and Julia Lander, two friends who “strongly” encouraged me to stop “talking” about writing my one-man show and actually write and perform the thing – and went on to produce the first several productions of it (originally directed by David Yen) – it’s been Sheri Lee Miller who has had the largest impact on me professionally – as a playwright, certainly.
She encouraged me to write my follow-up, Pinky, which she directed in its world premiere and also in its encore production. Since then, she’s been a stalwart friend, a constant supporter, champion, and exemplar of generosity, an artistically vibrant source of inspiration, a tireless feedback giver and promoter, and a frequent and ever-valuable collaborator. Every minute spent on a stage with Sheri is a directorial master class. She’s the best.
…I’ve seen two or three bad productions of ‘Macbeth’ for every good one.
ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. What are you doing till then?
DT: I’ve been mostly reading other people’s works, memorizing huge chunks of text just to keep my memorization skills intact. Having Galatea be canceled less than a week before its opening was hard because it was really looking good. It’s a script I’m incredibly proud of, and not getting to share it with the world was hard, but since Spreckels is still planning on producing the play once it is possible to do so, I’ve got that to look forward to.
That said, it kind of took the wind out of my sails, so I haven’t had much desire to write anything new just yet. But in the meanwhile, I’ve learned that a theater school in New York will be doing a Zoom-based production of my play Drumming with Anubis in July, and there’s talk of a production, either live or streaming, of my one-person-show Polar Bears this winter in Idaho.
And I “do” have some ideas for new plays (I’m suddenly having crazy new ideas all the time), and I imagine I will get the bug to start writing one of them sometime fairly soon.
ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas?
DT: Gem of the Ocean, by August Wilson (I’ve seen three productions, and would love to see more). Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel because the story, the language and the poetry of the plotting are breathtaking. The Jungle, by Joe Murphy and Joe Robinson, who collected stories from a real refugee camp in France, and spun them into an interactive, immersive experience that entirely rearranged the way I think about theater.
DT: Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, not normally performed “as” a stage production (usually as an orchestra piece with choruses), but I saw it done as a theatrical piece once, and I’ve never gotten over it. Come From Away, because it’s so uplifting and delightful and deeply moving. Fiddler on the Roof, because every song is gorgeous and memorable and because it’s about surviving prejudice and bigotry and hate.
DT: On the Razzle, by Tom Stoppard, The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde and Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley. These are plays that are weird, funny, and deeply insightful, and are consistently effective, every time I see them or reread them.
ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays?
DT: I really dislike Bye Bye Birdie, a play that – despite introducing a rare instance of interracial love in which no one ends up dead at the end – is so of its time that it just doesn’t work anymore. In fact, it’s kind of embarrassing.
ASR: Which play would you most like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?
DT: Bye Bye Birdie, obviously. Can we make it 30 years?
ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play?
DT: Got to be Cymbeline.
DT: People just don’t seem to understand it, but to me, it’s actually a flat-out blast of a play, with a little of everything in it. It’s got a great female central character (Cymbeline, the king, is barely a presence in it; this show is “all” about Imogen), some fantastic plotting, huge twists and turns and really dark comedy, a fantastically icky villain (several of them actually), an evil stepmother, a headless body, and a fantastic battle with huge emotional impact for everyone involved. I’d love to direct it sometime. I have ideas.
ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?
DT: As opposed to “most performed?” Those would obviously be A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, but they are solidly entertaining plays and good introductions to the Shakespeare canon.
I’d say the most “over-performed” is Macbeth, because it’s actually really hard to pull off, and yet people can’t resist it because it’s spooky and fun and bloody and theater producers think it’s a good one for Halloween. But I’ve seen two or three bad productions of Macbeth for every good one.
ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?
DT: Props. I love making props. It’s like arts-and-crafts but with a bit of costuming and magic involved. When I was in Oliver! I ended up taking the broom-handle I was given as Bill Sikes’ murder stick, and I beat it up and stained it and turned it into a really scary-looking billy club. I still have it, actually.
ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?
DT: Well, I’ve already talked about Sheri Lee Miller as a director, but I do believe it’s a shame she hasn’t been on stage since she played Mary Shelley in Mary Shelley’s Body, a role I really hope she picks up again sometime in the near future.
She’s been awesome in everything I’ve see her in, but beyond that, I’d say that, Bay Area-wide, my other favorites include Margo Hall (exacting and meticulous performer, with a blinding presence and one of the most dazzling stage smiles of all time) and James Carpenter (a chameleon in every way, best death scene I’ve ever witnessed, and not a bad smile himself).
ASR: How do you warm up before a performance?
DT: It depends. There was a time I went through a list of about 20 stretches and vocal things, made a ceremony of transforming into my costume/character, but after Edinburgh, when I literally had ten minutes or less to get into costume and get ready for places, I learned to do all of that in a few intense minutes.
That said, when I’m doing a normal non-fringe solo show, where I’ll be reciting 75 minutes of text but have plenty of time in the theater beforehand, it really takes the fear-factor down if I run every word of the show, with blocking (sped up, or course), an hour or two before the house opens.
ASR: How do you relax after?
DT: I really enjoy talking with people in the lobby after a show. It’s a nice transition back to the world.
ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?
DT: Well, as a playwright mentor, I’d hope anyone I instructed or coached would take away that
1. Failure, while awful to experience, is as important a teacher as is success, and maybe more so, if you are up to staying in the discomfort space long enough to hear the lessons failure has to teach.
2. To get a good idea for a play, or a solution to a problem encountered in writing that play, you generally have to generate hundreds of less good ideas, so we should never fall too much in love with our first thoughts. Use the brainstorming to get a lot of material and then choose the one you think is the juiciest.
3. Listen to actors. You don’t have to take every suggestion they throw at you, but you should definitely avoid “never” listening to them. After several weeks of stepping into a character, they often get to know that person at least as well as you do, and sometimes more so.
ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?
DT: I once watched a production of Camelot, in which a sword escaped one of the knights of the round table, flew across the stage toward the audience, launched into the air and finally landed in the one unoccupied seat in the front row. It was, under the circumstances, hilarious, precisely because it was very nearly … not.
ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?
DT: I don’t know how weird this is, but during one performance of my play Pinky, in which I performed along with Liz Jahren, there was a climactic kiss scene, in which my character takes an excruciating amount of time “getting” that Pinky wants him to kiss her.
At one point, a woman in the back row suddenly yelled, “Just KISS HER … FOOL!” It was hard completing the kiss while both Liz and I were trying not to laugh, and even harder when Pinky, having been kissed by my character, thinking about whether she liked it or not, suddenly grabs him and kisses him back, really energetically.
At that point, another person in the audience, probably loosened up by the first patron’s exclamation, shouted, quite loudly, “Now THAT’S what I’m talkin’ about!!!”
ASR: Do you have a “day job?”
DT: Fortunately, yes. Currently, I’m the Community Editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier newspaper in Petaluma.
ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?
DT: Movies have always been a major enthusiasm for me. A perfect day is one where I see at least three movies in actual theaters, which of course, hasn’t happened in a while. I’ve also recently learned to tie balloon animals. So I’ve been doing a lot of that. I especially like making balloon dogs. They are classic.
ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?
DT: Honestly, I’ve often thought it would be cool to turn my Wretch Like Me play into a television series. Set in the ‘70s, in the beach communities and suburbs of LA, with a nerdy puppet-loving kid who gets ”adopted” by the Jesus Club at his school, and goes to wacky extremes trying to fit in. I see it as being like That 70s Show, but with a slightly cult vibe. And darker. And possibly funnier.
ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?
DT: “Amazing Grace,” because it was once very important to me on numerous levels, and because I learned how to sing it forwards and backward (literally backward). Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Street,” because I once danced to it in a mayonnaise factory during a moment of profound emotional release and freedom.
And the theme song to Rockford Files, which I long ago recognized as an excellent song to which my coffin might one day be carried away from the funeral service, an idea my family is well aware of and which I continue to stick to, at least for the moment.
ASR: Rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?
DT: If randomly given the opportunity to go into space, specifically to the moon, I would go in a heartbeat. I’ve been dreaming of going to the moon since before I was dreaming of writing plays.
ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?
DT: Currently, I’d say one quote I’ve been thinking about a lot happens to be from my own play, Galatea, which I look forward to sharing with the world soon, or soon enough: “Humans. Not a bad species really … just badly programmed.”
Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.