About Poor Players
The long-term goal of Poor Players is to continue to grow in its outreach to the Bay Area Community with an original series of new plays dramatizing the issues, lives and problems of senior citizens and celebrating their interaction with younger generations.
Special to the Berkeley Daily Planet Arts & Entertainment Section
August 27, 2009
An “Articulate Enthusiast”
By Ken Bullock
Lifelong Learning” is the slogan, the motto of Berkeley Adult School, which starts up anew with enrollment on Sept. 8. Its teachers can bring an astonishing wealth of life experience to their courses, and not always what their academic or professional background might indicate. Perhaps this is something fundamental to a program aimed at students looking to renew old interests, refresh longtime preoccupations-or discover new pursuits-during or after their own vocational commitments.
I've met a few of these remarkable people in the course of reviewing theater, covering performing arts activities-finding out about their teaching, and something of their own lifetime pursuits.
I met playwright James Keller, who's taught at the North Berkeley Senior Center for Berkeley Adult School about a dozen years, when an actress I'd reviewed contacted me about a very short run of an original play at the Berkeley City Club, too short to get a review in print before the show closed. Would I consider sitting in on a tech or dress rehearsal and writing about it?
I was amused by the little company's name-Poor Players-and impressed by what I saw: a four-person cast, ranging over two or more generations, playing yet another version of that old chestnut of a theme, the Middle American dysfunctional family. I didn't grasp, until more than midway through the rehearsal, the ironic significance of the play's title: Leave of Absence.
It was the story of parents and a son, of the dislocation of relationship. How the wife and mother-and later, the son's wife-try to patch together the frayed wires of communication. And how the aging mother starts, quite literally, to wander, gripped by dementia.
“I wouldn't have been able to embark on my cycle of 12 plays about old age, of which Leave of Absence is one, except for the time I've spent with seniors,” Keller said. “I couldn't have done it without knowing them. It's a wonderful dividend I didn't anticipate.”
So lifelong learning works both ways-and in more ways than one. “I'm a student, too, just a little ways further down the road,” Keller said.
Keller is the author of about 50 plays and adaptations, just under half of them produced-not a bad average for an independent playwright. In the Bay Area, he's best-known for his association with the late stage director, Albert Takazakis during the 1980s and '90s, primarily at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, but often traveling for productions. “I lived out of a suitcase, visited 33 states ... but I was being paid to work with Mozart and Chekhov!”
At The Magic, he read plays under consideration as well, recommending Sharon & Billy, by Alan Bowne, which outran the Sam Shepard plays the theater had become famous for. He also “bluepenciled” Shepard's Lie of the Mind for staging. “Albert didn't care for Shepard. But I insisted, and he directed it very successfully.” Later, he got a call from the famed Arena Theatre in Washington, DC. “They called it a totally different experience than the New York production and asked, 'Can we use your version?'” But there was no compensation budgeted for it. “To this day, I really don't know if they did, in fact, use it or not!”
Keller's adaptations of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and Heinrich von Kleist's great comedy The Broken Jug were staged at Marin Theatre Company; his adaptation of Eduardo de Filippo's Saturday Sunday Monday was put on by ACT. He adapted a play of his as a children's opera for San Francisco Opera; it toured successfully for years.
He recalls a moment during preproduction for his play, Mozart's Journey to Prague, directed by Takazakis at The Magic: “We hadn't been able to cast for Mozart! Then a young actress came in to read for one of the female roles. When she started to speak, Albert and I looked at each other-and cast her as Mozart. She was wonderful. And the love scene with Costanza was particularly good!”
Keller was born in Sydney, Australia, “but taken as an armbaby” out to the country, to the Murray River, the border between Victoria and New South Wales. “I'm totally a border person-and a river person; drenched in the river!” Mark Twain had once been through there by train, awakened in the middle of the night to cross the platform in his nightshirt to change to another train. “There was a rivalry between the two states; the rail gauges didn't match!”