Theater: Shakespeare Season

Marin Shakespeare Company, going strong, opens 28th season

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Award-winning actors Dameion Brown and Elena Wright star in Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ the opening production of Marin Shakespeare Company’s 28th season. Photo by Steven Underwood.

By Charles Brousse

Within a few days of the publication of this column, Marin Shakespeare Company (MSC) will officially open its 28th season in Dominican University’s Forest Meadows Amphitheatre with a production of one of the Bard’s favorite comedies, Much Ado About Nothing. In a world in which theater companies devoted to Shakespeare come and go, 28 years in itself is an accomplishment, but there is much more to the story. Driven by the energy, persistence and vision of co-founders Lesley and Bob Currier—bolstered by some opportune financial good luck—MSC’s growth has been truly remarkable.

It all began in July of 1989. With the exception of graduation exercises and occasional other special events, Dominican University’s old amphitheatre had been largely unused since the Marin Shakespeare Festival, headed by John and Ann Brebner, declared bankruptcy in 1974. Fearing that the college would abandon it and aware that the Brebners weren’t interested in resuming their former roles, a group of local Shakespeare lovers had been searching for someone to head their effort to resurrect the failed festival. One lead led to another before they finally settled on Bob Currier, then the young artistic director of the Ukiah Players Theatre.

“Out of the blue I got a call asking if I was interested,” Bob says. “When I said ‘yes,’ I was invited down to Marin for an interview with Ann Brebner at her San Rafael house. At the end of the conversation, she gave me the intense look she was famous for and said, ‘I intuit that you will bring back Marin Shakespeare.’ That was it! I was hired. No mention of how I was supposed to do it.”

Lesley left UC Irvine where she was working on an M.F.A. in acting and the pair set about the task of building a company capable of producing high-quality summer shows. That first year they worked without compensation and their commitment might have ended there if Marcia Lucas, George Lucas’ former wife, hadn’t donated $10,000 to keep them afloat. Today, MSC is a substantial organization with an annual budget of more than $1 million, spread over five separate programs:

*Production: Like the Mountain Play, it began with one play a summer, performed by a mix of mostly community performers and an occasional professional (Actors’ Equity) guest actor. Gradually, as resources permitted, a second play was added, and then a third, which is today’s format. A contract with Actors’ Equity has allowed more professionals to participate, and there have been significant improvements to Forest Meadows’ infrastructure.

*Internships: Every year, a group of young apprentices is recruited to be the proverbial
“spear carriers” (aka members of the ensemble) who assist the company in many ways while getting opportunities for valuable performance experience.

*Schools: As strong believers that both students and their theater will benefit from an early exposure to Shakespeare, the Curriers have promoted an extensive network of visits to local Marin schools, as well as well as offering special subsidized performances.

*Prisons: Under the general management of Lesley Currier, this is an area in which MSC has been a pioneer. Starting with San Quentin a few years back, the program sends a director and a trained drama therapist to work with interested inmates on the production of a Shakespeare play. The program has been so successful that California prison authorities have requested that it be expanded to a half dozen other locations.

*514 Fourth Street: From every angle, these accomplishments comprise a formidable record, but possibly the biggest challenge lies just ahead. After receiving $1 million from an anonymous donor in 2013 for improvements to Forest Meadows, that same donor came through with another $2 million in 2015 that allowed the company to purchase the old Heller’s Baby World building at the east end of San Rafael’s Fourth Street. Completion of a year-round combination community performance and training center (plus offices) will require a capital campaign and a myriad of planning approvals. The timetable is three-to-five years to full operation.

Can MSC pull it all off? I’ll be following the progress. One thing is certain, however: I wouldn’t bet against the Curriers.

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