Inside a sturdy brick structure that once housed a paper factory in San Francisco’s Mission District, nine women are limbering up in a tiny studio theatre, heads lolling on shoulders, unshod feet pattering the bare wood floor. The students are here, in director Amy Mueller’s “Page to Stage” class offered by Brava! For Women in the Arts, to begin the daunting transformation of recollected experiences, dreams and journal entries into solo performances that might connect someday to an audience of strangers.
Freeze. Fall. Roll,” Mueller instructs. “Now I want you to find an action that fulfills a very specific need in the character you’re working on tonight.”
Page to Stage occupies one slot in a dense schedule of classes, workshops, readings, solo performance showcases and infrequent but carefully cultivated full productions mounted by Brava. In a region rich in a tradition of fostering new work, the eight-year-old organization has tooled up one of the most significant and thoughtfully executed play-development processes in the Bay Area of the 1990s. For women writers in northern California, especially women of color, the brick building on Bryant Street is often the most promising place to begin.
Since its founding as a women’s theater and visual arts collective in 1986, Brava has operated with a mission that might seem self-limiting and positively provincial – not a single male writer can be found on the company’s lengthy roster. The writers who do work there regularly, including Cherrie Moraga (Shadow of a Man, Heroes and Saints) and Cherylene Lee (Arthur and Leila), credit the institution’s opinionated artistic director Ellen Gavin and her Brava colleagues with jump starting their careers.
“They take great care in what they do,” says Anne Galjour, a noted solo performer who was launched in Brava’s Taking Shape solo series and is currently collaborating with playwright and director Ellen Sebastian on one of the theatre’s new Incubator Projects. That’s the case across the board, she says, “from the artists the select, to the level of technical support with lighting and props, to the post-performance panel discussions. The money for the Incubator Project is the first I’ve ever gotten that’s process- rather than result-oriented.”
For Gavin, there’s a constant tension between the results of finished productions and the volatile process that can allow a new play or solo piece to realize its greatest potential. Last year, when one of the theatre’s productions seemed to freeze in rehearsal after receiving several awards, the artistic director decided to “reseed” Brava with a fresh series of workshops and classes – one for Chicanas Latinas and Native American women, another for lesbian, gay and bisexual youths – and three Incubator pairings of various artists.
Gavin is justifiably proud of the theatre’s production record, and she’s ambitious enough to envision a fully mounted five-play season. A 40-year-old administrator and playwright who came to theatre by way of political activism and a three-year stint as a San Diego fire fighter, Gavin exhibits no ambivalence at all when it comes to Brava’s role in “giving a voice” to writers not often heard in the theatrical mainstream. Shaking out a thatch of graying, tightly curled hair, she gleefully recalls one program of solo shows that featured a Jewish lesbian, a black single mother and an older Latina performer.
Sometimes it bombs, sometimes it doesn’t,” says Gavin. “There might be five out of 200 artists who come through here who are speaking to a broad enough audience to be produced. And that’s just fine.
We’re interested in the unspoken reality, in work that breaks the paradigm, and that can mean sorting through an awful lot to find something worth developing.” Brava’s artistic director is wary of the “mini-industry” that can trap a play on an endless conveyor belt of readings: She likes to get new work on its feet and feel how it moves onstage.
Gavin has accumulated her share of detractors early on when she seized control of Brava and changed the focus from that of a collective to a more conventional management structure with her own name at the top of the pyramid. She’s variously regarded as a power-grabber, ambitious, opportunist, propagandist and – as a white woman heading a theatre that concentrates on women of color – a banner-waver for political correctness.
I’ve known Ellen for 10 years.” says African-American playwright and director Ellen Sebastian, who staged Gavin’s drama, The Roof’s on Fire, last year. “This isn’t someone who’s doing work by writers because they’re the flavor of the month. Her commitment to women of color is genuine, and it goes way back in her own history.”
Gavin insists she has no interest in diatribes, and her choices tend to bear that out. If there’s any dogma she does claim, it’s an aversion to “middle-class work” and to anything redolent of the status quo.
So much so, she adds with a smile, that she might even contradict Brava’s titular mission by producing something by a man. “I never thought I’d consider it,” Gavin says, “but if you don’t keep challenging your own assumptions, you ought to start asking why.”