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.
Few performers have backgrounds as deep as Maureen McVerry’s. In 1993 she created Verry McVerry, her ever-evolving cabaret show, one she has performed for 25 years. In San Francisco, she has performed at Oasis, Feinstein’s, the New Conservatory Theatre, the Herbst Theatre, the Plush Room, the Venetian Room, the Gateway Theatre, and the Alcazar. Verry McVerry has also been performed at 88s in NYC and the Gardenia Room in LA and at other venues nationally. The show earned a 2012 SFBATCC nomination for Best Solo Show.
As a stage actress, McVerry has celebrated 39 years in theatre, like the legendary Jack Benny. At ACT she played Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (SFBATCC award), Kitty Packard in Dinner at Eight (SFBATCC award), the Gypsy in Scapin, Carrie in House of Mirth, Mrs. Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol and Sister Gabriella in The Pope and the Witch.
At ACT she also played Mrs. Schlemiel in Schlemiel the First and went on with the show to the ART in Cambridge and the Geffen Playhouse in LA. McVerry was featured as Kay in the SF Shakespeare Festival production of Oh Kay! (SFBATCC award) and in two long-running SF shows, Noises Off (SFBATCC and Dramalogue awards) and Curse of the Werewolf (SFBATCC award). At Marin Theatre Company she has appeared in Side by Side by Sondheim, You’re Going to Love Tomorrow (SFBATCC award), Born Yesterday (SFBATCC award), Room Service, and Me and My Girl.
McVerry has appeared in four different productions of Noises Off and would gladly do that show once or twice weekly to stay in shape. At 42nd St Moon she has appeared in several shows: Pardon My English (SFBATCC award), High Spirits, Wildcat, Very Warm for May, and Student Gypsy. She directed the successful 2011 revival of Oh Kay! and appeared at TheatreWorks as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest, Sylvia in Learned Ladies of Park Avenue, and Jack’s Mother in Into the Woods.
She played Clara in Sex at the Aurora Theatre, and at Center Rep performed in the hit musicals Bingo and Xanadu – her first Shelly nomination as Calliope. In 2014 at SF Playhouse, she reprised her role as Jack’s Mother in Into the Woods, which she plays 24/7 (her son’s name is Jack).
In October of 2014 Maureen’s husband of 32 years, Rick Alber (Dr. Rom on KGO radio) died unexpectedly from an unsuccessful heart operation. After a break, she slowly went back to work.
She did her new solo show Love Will Kick Your Ass at Oasis and at Feinstein’s. She made her drag king debut as Mr. Roper in Three’s Company Live at Oasis. She returned to Center Rep and played Georgette in It Shoulda Been You (Shelly nomination) and to 42nd St Moon, where she played Pauline in No No Nanette. At TheatreWorks she played Marge in The Bridges of Madison County, and at SF Playhouse played the Old Lady in Sunday in the Park With George.
In 2018 she played Linda Porter in the one-woman show, Love Linda at Cinnabar Theatre in Petaluma. She is the winner of seven SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards and two Dramalogue Awards. McVerry’s film credits include Nine Months, The Dead Pool, Big Business, True Believer, Howard the Duck, The Ox and the Eye, and Crackers. On TV: Full House and Divorce Court.
For the last 10 summers, McVerry has hosted the “very” successful Maureen McVerry’s Musical Theatre Camp for children and teens. The camp’s motto is “Where children learn to play on and off the stage.”
Since 2001, she has directed 27 student theatre productions at public schools on the Peninsula. Since Rick’s passing, she directs one middle school musical a year at North Star Academy in Redwood City.
ASR: How did you get started in theater?
MM: Halfway through my junior year of college, I was a little lost, so I dropped out and lived in Europe and the San Juan Islands and had a lot of fun. Not finishing what I had started bugged me though so in 1980 I returned to Cal to graduate (I recommend taking a few gap years to anyone else who might be lost).
Since I had completed almost all of my requirements, I knew I could really explore what the school offered. Amazingly, my father suggested that I “try drama” (What parent suggests that??). I enrolled in Drama 10, my first acting class, and was completely swept away. For the final five quarters at Cal, I appeared in several shows and completed my degree in history.
ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?
MM: The summer before I graduated from Cal, in 1980, I was in The Three Penny Opera at the Goodman Building on Geary with the incredible Jayne Dornacker as Jenny Diver. It ran for the whole summer! I even got paid a small stipend and was in heaven. In the ensemble, I played a beggar and a whore. My mother was thrilled. A few years later I played Polly Peachum at the Eureka Theatre with the late fabulous Sigrid Wurschmidt as Jenny Diver.
ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?
MM: Too many to count, but maybe 50+? In one show in the 80s, I performed in the parking garage of the Oakland Museum. Maureen McVerry, LLC—still going strong since 19-*cough cough.*
ASR: Did you anticipate that you would become as successful as you have?
MM: That’s hilarious since I always tell people that by choosing theatre over film as my favorite pursuit, I took a “vow of poverty.”
However, I joined Equity and SAG back in the 80s and due to my longevity in the business, I can count on a pension from both of my unions. Fight for the union!
I should add that I married someone who was not in the business, which gave me the opportunity to have two children and own a house—really tough for a theatre actor.
ASR: Do you have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?
MM: Happily, I have worked in films (feature and industrial), commercials, bad TV (Divorce Court), a sitcom filmed in front of a live audience (Full House), big expensive shows with fabulous costumes and tiny little shows where you wear your own clothes, weird experimental theatre, comedies, dramas, musicals and most recently, a “clown opera.”
Every few years I also put together a solo cabaret show and that is always a blast. Being in the same room as the audience is without a doubt my favorite way to work.
ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?
MM: My late husband Rick Alber, (who never appeared on stage) had the greatest impact on my life as an actor. In 1982 I met him and he was my opening night date for 32 wonderful years. Rick loved theatre and during the rehearsal and performance process, he was my special advisor and gave me tons of tips to polish my performances.
After he died in 2014, one of my biggest fears was actually that my performances would fall apart without his second set of eyes to notice things and ask questions. However, 32 years of his advice was deeply rooted so even without his presence, I’ve managed to get the job done.
Luckily I have also worked with directors who create great work.
ASR: With the ongoing coronavirus crisis, it will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How are you coping with the shutdown?
MM: I’m heartbroken. Before COVID, my 2020 was really filled with upcoming work. Pajama Game at 42nd St Moon was canceled almost immediately as it was set to go into rehearsal in late March. Following Pajama Game, I was supposed to have three weeks off and then start rehearsals at SF Playhouse for Follies by Stephen Sondheim, scheduled to run all summer.
Last fall and winter I thought that my summer 2020 would be filled with an exhausting eight-shows-a-week schedule. Hopefully, next spring 42nd St Moon will mount Pajama Game (I’m cast as Mabel) and if I’m lucky, SF Playhouse will mount Follies in 2021. In that show, I am cast as Phyllis. Fingers crossed.
…the audience almost vomited with laughter.
ASR: So the crisis has really affected your planning for the coming seasons?
MM: What coming seasons? The theatre world is devastated as the floor just fell out. Everyone is just trying to figure out what is next. And not only what, but when? As a singer, I am especially crushed. It was devastating to read that singing with other people is the worst possible activity to pursue. Wow. My favorite thing to do is the last thing I should be doing— that hurts.
ASR: How do you envision the future for the theater community overall?
MM: Gosh, I wish I had a crystal ball for that question. My vision for everything is filled with hope because I believe hope is contagious. I hope and pray that someone smarter than me can create a vaccine soon and we can return to a world that is different, but hopefully closer to what we had than what we have now. During “normal” times, I am not really sure if anyone noticed their activities. We just called it “life.”
More than anything I miss sitting in the dark and laughing like a hyena and/or crying like a baby, surrounded by strangers having a similar experience. Who’da thunk that would be taken away? Back before this—especially with that guy in the White House—we were worried about a missile from North Korea or Russia invading some country but instead what we got was far worse. 150,000 Americans have died. That fact makes me weep.
Financial problems are already wreaking havoc on theatre companies everywhere and I worry that some won’t make it to the new post-COVID world. Trying to save money as people readjust, shows will probably be scaled back. Elaborate sets and costumes will be gone.
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 in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected you?
MM: Luckily, as a member of an acting union, I am always paid.
ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?
MM: Favorite dramas: Oslo, Uncle Vanya, Angels in America, great productions of plays by Arthur Miller and Tennesee Williams. Center Rep did The Diary of Anne Frank last season and it was brilliant. I saw the filmed version of The Lehman Trilogy—amazing. Sunday in the Park with George makes me cry all the time. I have so many good plays filling my brain now I have to stop listing shows.
Comedies: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Noises Off is my favorite comedy from the 20th century. So far, in four different productions, I have played two of the three roles I am eligible for. Hopefully, another production is in my future.
ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays? Care to share titles of those you would never produce—or never produce again?
MM: Anything by Dario Fo.
ASR: Which rare gem would you like to see revived?
MM: Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw.
ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?
MM: It would have to be costumes. Twenty-some years ago I was recruited to re-mount the middle school musical at my children’s elementary school.
Twenty-two shows later I’m still at it and am still amazed at the joy I experience at costume time. As the director, I have to teach children and parents about how to create a show. I tell my parent volunteers that a costume should do half of the work for the actor. As soon as an actor enters the stage, the audience should have a good idea of who that character is.
Coming up with the perfect costume is so rewarding. Plus, if you do costumes, once the show opens, you can sit out front and watch.
ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?
MM: Dan Hiatt.
ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?
MM: In a musical, I love it when the music director runs a group warm-up. I never miss one. It gives the actors a chance to connect in their street clothes and also share some air together.
Being super superstitious, I have a personal pre-show ritual that I never miss as well.
Afterward, I go home to walk my beloved dogs. Being in a show can be quite exhausting so afterward, I try to take care of myself. To handle the stress of tech weeks and openings which made my eyeballs twitch, I started meditating again (I hadn’t for 25+ years), and ba-bam! my twitch went away.
ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?
MM: For the last twenty years I have taught my hundreds of student actors the three rules my college director Louise Mason taught me:
1. Be on time, ready to work at the start of rehearsal—not running in the door with a cup of coffee, but ready to work.
2. Do not talk when the director is talking.
3. When the director gives you a note, write it down, review the note before the next rehearsal. And never, I repeat, never make a director give you the same note twice.
ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?
MM: Three people in my life fit this category:
In 2005 I was in my first production of Into the Woods at TheatreWorks as Jack’s Mother. The actor playing the Baker was Jackson Davis. During rehearsals, we discovered that we were born on the exact same day (but luckily for me, he’s two hours older). In 2010, we commuted from the Peninsula to SF Playhouse together to do a groovy musical, Coraline. That’s when we truly bonded.
2. The “Arbiter of Taste and Fashion,” my friend Lawrence Helman, is a man about town, publicist, writer, and the most opinionated person I know. Also smart and funny with a razor-sharp memory. If you need to get the word out, call Lawrence.
3. In 1990 I met a director named Rick Simas. He found songs for me, directed my solo shows, and has made think and laugh for 30 years. Way back, after getting a Ph.D. at Cal, he left the Bay Area and taught at SD State for years but hopefully he will move back here soon. Great ideas, plus an encyclopedic memory on shows, songs, and theatre. He directed my solo shows in 2017 and 2019. They were quite entertaining thanks to Rick.
ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?
MM: There were a million screw-ups in runs of Noises Off but one of the best involved me and Dan Hiatt. His character was tugging a phone cord—the bit was the cord would come back without the mouthpiece. One night the cord returned like normal but zinged all over the stage and ended up caught in my hair. So I was actually attached to the phone offstage.
The audience almost vomited with laughter. I could have lost an eye but it was hilarious.
ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?
MM: Once an actor missed an entrance in Noises Off and we stopped the show for the amount of time it took another cast member to run offstage and through the dressing rooms to get the actor off the pot and then into her costume to finally make her entrance and move on with the story.
Luckily I didn’t have to attempt bad improv since my character was “meditating.” Shockingly, my friends at the show didn’t notice the four-minute pause in act two!
ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?
MM: After a matinee of Two Gentlemen of Verona at San Jose Rep, the cast went back out for a post-show discussion. While asking a question, an audience member said the title of the “Scottish Play” out loud. We all reacted with horror since it is supposed to bring such bad luck upon the theatre.
That night during the evening show, an enormous sandbag fell thirty feet to the stage with a huge boom.
ASR: Do you have a “day job?”
MM: My career as a children’s theatre director could be considered my day job.
ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?
MM: Politics, baseball, reading, gardening, tap dancing, boogie boarding, and making the world more fabulous.
ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you actively do any other arts apart from the theater?
MM: I belong to all the museums and try to see as much as possible. For a time I painted portraits of dogs and landscapes but my passion pooped out. Guess I just need to get my paints out.
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?
MM: Say yes. Be kind. No whining.
ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?
MM: Another Trump?
ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?
MM: Soup, a show set in a soup kitchen: the banter and dynamics of the volunteers with an opportunity to share the stories of guests so people learn more about the daily life of people experiencing homelessness. Comedy plus drama—a dramedy!
ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?
MM: Before this gosh darn pandemic I was looking forward to flying to DC and getting arrested with Jane Fonda and others to protest the lack of attention paid to climate change. It would be an honor to wear handcuffs for that. Wish me luck. In March, my son was evacuated from Lesotho after serving in the Peace Corps. He’s been with me but soon he plans to return to DC to live and work. Therefore soon I have another excuse to go to DC besides getting arrested.
ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?
MM: First I’d say, “If I Loved You,” from Carousel. Makes me cry
Then, “All Kinds Of Time, by Fountains of Wayne. It’s a perfect story song. Our family sang it at Rick’s memorial in 2014.
Finally, “Danny Boy.” It also makes me cry. And more importantly, it reminds me of my childhood and how much my parents loved that song.
ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?
ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?
MM: Terrifying thought to have anything that big around. Yikes! A cockapoo the size of a horse? I don’t want anything that big— not even horses!
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?
MM: I go river rafting once a summer and that fulfills my need for thrills.
ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?
MM: “Never give up. Never surrender.” —Galaxy Quest