By Charles Brousse
There was a time (not so long ago) when family businesses were common in America. They may not have been the most efficient way to provide goods and services, but they had compensating advantages. People who ran them were invested in what they were doing. Customers enjoyed dealing on a personal level with familiar faces. Neighborhoods benefitted from their participation in civic life. For everyone concerned, it was comforting to know that there was at least a possibility of generational continuity.
Today, most of the larger operations are gone, victims of America’s corporatization and the tendency of families to splinter early on. A few exceptions still exist in the Bay Area, however, and two of the most successful are—perhaps surprisingly—in the field of live theater. The San Francisco Playhouse, founded in 2003 by married couple Bill English and Susi Damilano, later joined by daughter/actress/director Lauren English, has enjoyed remarkable growth. On this side of the Golden Gate, Bob and Lesley Currier, assisted by various family members, have compiled a record with the Marin Shakespeare Company that is nothing short of spectacular.
In 1989, the pair was invited to transfer here from their home in Mendocino County as part of an effort by John and Ann Brebner, former directors of the moribund Marin Shakespeare Festival, to help resurrect that annual summer event. By their own account, they arrived filled with enthusiasm, but with only small change in their pockets. Twenty-seven years later, helped by sons Nate and Jackson, lately daughter-in-law Luisa Frasconi Currier and a multitude of backers who were persuaded to sign on, the renamed Marin Shakespeare Company has an annual budget of more than $1 million, produces three plays each summer and is involved in an extensive list of programs that beneficially affect local prison populations, schools, aspiring actors and seniors.
So—who are the Curriers and how did they do it? We explored the subject in a recent wide-ranging interview. Read on.
Charles Brousse: Since I know that you spent your early years on opposite coasts, how did you find each other?
Bob Currier: Blame it on fate and a love of theater. I grew up in Southern California, Temple City, a little burgh between Pasadena and Arcadia. Went to the local high school and the University of California, Irvine, where I majored in political science. One semester I took a course in Shakespeare because, you know, that’s where all the pretty girls were. One thing led to another and I was cast in student productions of Oh, What a Lovely War! and my first Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That did it—I was hooked! I enrolled in UCI’s graduate program and became the first student to receive an MFA in directing.
Brousse: What did your parents think about all this?
BC: They couldn’t believe it. My mother wanted me to become a big-time lawyer—anything with a high salary.
CB: Did you start a professional career right away?
BC: No, I did what theater people usually do to keep afloat: Construction work, restaurants, part time teaching … Kicked around the country. My first paid directing job was at the Woodstock Opera House in Woodstock, Illinois. Along the way I heard that a little community theater in Ukiah, way up north in California, was looking for an artistic director. It sounded interesting.
CB: We’ll come to that in a minute. Lesley, what about you?
Lesley Currier: My situation was completely different. I grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. My mother was a drama teacher who took me to a lot of plays when I was a teenager. My grandmother worked with David Belasco before she got married and had kids, so it was a pretty culture oriented family. They sent me to Princeton in the early ’80s, where I majored in religious studies because the “powers that be” didn’t offer a degree in theater. After graduation, I came out to San Francisco for an A.C.T. summer training program. When that ended, somebody told me that some little company called the Ukiah Players were planning a “Scenes from Shakespeare” festival. I decided to audition.
CB: Ah. Now we’re getting closer.
LC: (Laughs) Yes. Bob was both the director and an actor. He chose me to work in his scenes, all of which, being romantic, required a lot of “private” rehearsal time.
BC: The power of the director!
LC: We’ve been together ever since.
CB: What was life like in Ukiah?
LC: We lived out in the country in a rustic cabin that Bob built. There was a vegetable garden and you could watch the deer, shout at the stars, write plays and run around naked if you wanted to. Having been with my family and then at Princeton during the West Coast’s hippie days, I thought I had missed out on something important. Now I had a chance to experience that kind of freedom and it felt wonderful.
CB: What made you decide to come here?
BC: It was the late ’80s. To prepare herself for work in the theater, Lesley had enrolled in the graduate program at UC Irvine, but when she heard about the offer from the Brebners to head up their effort to bring Shakespeare back to Marin, she couldn’t resist. We both felt that a project like that would be worth a thousand MFAs. She dropped out, came north and we got started.
CB: How did you raise the necessary funds?
BC: Some old friends from the Festival kicked in $1,000 …
LC: … and Marcia Lucas, George’s ex-wife, sent us a $10,000 check.
BC: After living in a cabin for practically nothing, I couldn’t believe it.
LC: Since then it’s been a long uphill struggle to get the money to build the kind of company we’d like to have.
CB: What about the million-dollar gift from an anonymous donor that you received a couple of years ago?
LC: Yes, well, you’ve already seen some small improvements at Forest Meadows (the amphitheater on the Dominican University campus where Marin Shakes performs) and we can really move now that the University has signed a 25-year lease with us. Improving the sound system is a priority. We’d also like to have permanent facilities for dressing, storage, box office. Structures we wouldn’t have to tear down and rebuild every year. More Equity actors. It’s a long wish list.
CB: How do the two of you divide up the work?
LC: Bob makes most of the artistic decisions—play selection, casting, that kind of thing—but he runs them by me. I do whatever is needed to keep Marin Shakespeare going.
CB: No arguments over choices?
LC: Occasionally. We work it out.
CB: And the kids? How do they fit in?
LC: We haven’t put any pressure on them, but Jackson has been involved in all areas of theater production since he was little. Nate started in a different direction, but now seems to be interested.
CB: You’ve added Luisa and a granddaughter, Lenox.
BC: I love being with both of them.
CB: Seems like you might have a dynasty in the making?
BC: We’ll see. It’ll be a board decision … and hopefully a long way down the road.
CB: What are you most excited about right now?
BC: Right now? The upcoming season …
LC: … especially the fact that our prison programs are expanding so rapidly. For the first time ever—anywhere in the country, as far as I can tell—a former inmate, Dameion Brown, will have a lead role (Othello in our production) on the main stage of a professional theater. It’s going to be a HUGE event!
CB: Yes, it will. Thank you.
THE 2016 MARIN SHAKESPEARE SEASON
The Taming, by Lauren Gunderson (June 24-July 17)
Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare (July 22-August 21)
Othello, by William Shakespeare (August 26-September 25)
All performances staged at Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Dominican University, 890 Belle Ave., San Rafael; marinshakespeare.org.