An Abstract Georgia O’Keefe

TheatreFIRST's new play about the seminal artist doesn't use a single piece of artwork.

So. Imagine you’ve written a play about a seminal American artist, but the artist’s estate won’t let you include a single painting, or even quote from her letters? Such was the quandary in which TheatreFIRST Artistic Director Michael Storm found himself, after deciding to collaborate with another local dramatist, Sharmon Hilfinger, on a play about Georgia O’Keeffe. “The estate has been very protective,” Storm said, acknowledging, however, that he knew about that problem going in. Hilfinger, who runs the BootStrap Theater Foundation, had tossed off two or three other ideas about great women, but when she mentioned O’Keeffe, his eyes lit up. “I said, ‘That sounds totally impossible — let’s do that one.'”

Their solution was to try “abstract theater about abstract art,” in Storm’s words. That meant they’d rely on other elements — live music by composer Joan McMillen, sound effects by the actors, lighting design, movement, and dialogue — to illustrate the story of a female painter who thrived at a time when women were largely excluded from the art world. Jason Margolin, who directs, said he had no qualms about using this rather unorthodox approach. “Everybody really brings in themselves as a full artist,” he said in a promotional video that BootStrap and TheatreFIRST placed on their IndieGoGo fundraising page. (They’ve currently raised $150 of a $5,000 goal.) Margolis added that the play isn’t just a feminist biography: It’s partly about O’Keeffe’s maturation, but it also depicts her fascinating relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, an incredibly savvy promoter and photographer, who helped launch her career.

Storm plays Stieglitz, a suitable follow-up to his last acting role at TheaterFIRST, in the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (he played Guildenstern). His co-star, Paz Pardo, is a Bay Area native who would be pretty well-known around here had she not moved to New York. Hilfinger recruited her to play Georgia after she appeared as the Demiurge in Tell It Slant, BootStrap’s play about Emily Dickinson. Other cast members include Roy Landeverde, who also appeared in TheatreFIRST’s production of The Grapes of Wrath, and four members of The Slanters Ensemble, a group that spawned directly from Tell It Slant.

The Slanters emerged from a slightly different school of acting than most of their peers. Under Hilfinger’s tutelage, they learned how to help develop a script through acting and movement workshops. They produced the Emily Dickinson play collaboratively, using that method. Hilfinger would come in with a draft script, throw some ideas at the actors, and let them play around with them — then she’d go back and rewrite. Storm said he loves the idea of improvisational playwriting, but can’t implement it at TheatreFIRST because of actor equity contracts. That explains why the partnership with BootStrap was so enticing.

By framing Georgia as an ensemble piece, rather than a mere love story, BootStrap and TheatreFIRST make it seem all the more risky. It’s still unclear how eight cast members will animate a whole catalog of two-dimensional paintings, no matter how much “life” bristles on the surface of each canvas. Either way, it should be interesting to watch. Storm says that the show does include one visual representation of O’Keeffe — a portrait on the cover of an art book, which appears in the opening scene. Otherwise, it’s all abstract. Hanging Georgia opens Saturday, October 8, and runs through October 30 at The Thick House (1695 18th St., San Francisco). $15-$30.

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