TERRE HAUTE – Premieres at New Conservatory Theatre Center – An interview with its stars – John Hutchinson and Elias Escobedo

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel

TERRE HAUTE, by playwright Edmund White, is described as an “imagination” of the interview between author Gore Vidal and Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh – just before his execution. The characters, renamed as “James” and “Harrison”, exchange intimate details about their lives within guarded confines at the prison. An impenetrable wall separates them physically. In order for James to tell Harrison’s story effectively, he must win his friendship and trust. Harrison does not want his act of terrorism to be misunderstood nor his character polluted with conjecture and lettered falsehoods. James demands Harrison open up to him or his story will suffer. How that comes about is the stuff of White’s imagination.

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Harrison in the midst – ELIAS ESCOBEDO

Beyond imagination were my two separate interviews with the actors who portray these characters. John Hutchinson (as the Gore Vidal character, “James”) and Elias Escobedo (as “Harrison”, the stand-in for McVeigh) are separated in age by more than four decades. John earned his M.A. in Speech and Drama from Stanford University. Elias graduated from UC Davis with a degree in Dramatic Arts. They are committed artists, professional non-union performers, brilliant communicators, and captivating entertainers. As with all San Francisco Bay Area actors striving to build their résumés and advance their academic skills into the professional arenas, John and Elias are well-acquainted with the pitfalls that come with (to be or not to be) union membership and the suffering inflicted upon local performing artists as resident professional theatre companies continue their practice of importing card-carrying union members.

Enter the New Conservatory Theater Center (at 25 Van Ness Avenue) and its Artistic Director, Ed Decker. Within the past several years it has become overwhelmingly obvious that NCTC is nurturing and presenting some of San Francisco’s finest actors, singers, and directors. The plays running in any of its three theatres reflect the diversity of culture and spirituality that The City prides itself in and broadcasts to its visitors. It was my privilege to settle in for a couple of hours and interview the two gentlemen appearing in the gripping drama, TERRE HAUTE, opening last Friday evening and scheduled until May 6th.

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JOHN HUTCHINSON – as James, in Edmund White’s TERRE HAUTE

SEÁN: How did the audition happen for you and what did you do for it?

JOHN: I performed with New Conservatory three years ago in a play called KILT. I’ve gone back since then to do staged readings. There are other Gay-oriented theatres in the Bay Area, but I found New Conservatory so welcoming – especially to a person like myself. It wasn’t until I turned 60 that I said to myself – “I’ve to get serious about this / I’ve got a degree from Stanford / I’ve worked in Hollywood!” That’s back in the Stone Age now. But I quit the family business, retired, and joined Eastenders Repertory Company in Oakland. I was fortunate enough to be cast by Bruce Elsperger [Casting Director at NCTC] and I was able to get to know Ed [Ed Decker, NCTC Artistic Director] who is such a supportive, wonderfully honest and genuine person. So, I found a kind of home there. Although I haven’t performed that much there, I feel very comfortable there. Last September I was just finishing up an engagement doing “Gloucester” in KING LEAR out in Moraga.

S: KING LEAR!

J: I got an e-mail from Ed, “Don’t take any jobs. I’m going to send you a script. I want you to hold onto it, take a look at it and we’ll talk again in January.” He knew I had been busy. I’ve been fortunate to be cast in one play after another.

S: Back up a little bit. When you were preparing the KING LEAR audition what did you use for your Shakespeare monologue?

J: My Shakespeare piece is from MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, Leonato’s speech:
“I pray thee, cease thy counsel,
Which falls into mine ears as profitless
As water in a sieve…[Act 5, Scene 1]

S: How was the experience of doing “Gloucester” and how long did that production run?

J: Hal Gelb was the director. He’s involved with Golden Thread Theatre that works out of Traveling Jewish Theatre. The play was a condensation put together under the sponsorship of St. Mary’s for the student body. We did it for a weekend.

S: Was it a reading?

J: No, it was fully staged.

S: And you got all of two or three performances? Was that enough to justify all the work and memorization?

J: An actor makes a decision based on so many things. In the Bay Area, it’s not what they’re going to pay you – although the New Conservatory is very generous in paying its performers. It’s about the opportunity to work with certain directors and certain people to broaden your experience and theatrical performance.

S: When Ed Decker contacted you, did he give you any indication what the role was?

J: He sent me the script and told me the role was based on the Gore Vidal character. I have always been a Gore Vidal fan. I find his essays quite witty, very cogent, and very appropriate as political commentary. I read the play. It’s all one Act, sixty-plus pages, a lot of talk. I was curious how they would handle what appeared to be a rather static situation. The audition came; Ed greeted me with open arms and said, “Thank you for hanging on.” I read for the director, Christopher Jenkins, and got the role.

S: In my position as a teacher and writer I hear all kinds of things. Only every now and then do we see a real piece of theatre that questions something, does not set out to reach absolute conclusions, allowing the viewers to process the information in their own way. The script of TERRE HAUTE is brilliant. I am amazed to come to the New Conservatory Theatre Center and witness two magnificent performances. So, may I ask how old you are?

J: Seventy. Last September. Behind my back.

S: It just creeps up one day and bites you in the ass. OK, given that, tell me about your memorization process for this two-person / hour-and-twenty-minute play.

J: You’re stepping on my Achilles heel, honey! It was tough, it was challenging. What the author Edmund White has done so successfully is to capture the rhythms of speech of two very different people. “Harrison’s” [McVeigh's] speech is so explosive, machine-gun-like, and uneducated. “James”, as the Vidal character, is smooth and articulate, honeyed, and grand in a way. I was able to capture the essence of the rhythm, the speech patterns White came up with – because, as you know, you don’t just memorize words you memorize the rhythm of a piece and its flow. Once I found that, it became much easier.

Author Edmund White establishes his rhythms, those distinguishing speech components for his “James” at the very beginning of the interview. He cajoles and wheedles information from “Harrison”, employing severe reprimands, detachment and disdain, the control of “a top”, even jealousy. Harrison counters by playing the celebrity card. He says to James that “The Unabomber” occupies the cell next to his. “Oh, really!?” replies James. At that moment, a huge glow comes over Mr. Hutchinson – as if to suggest to Harrison (Elias Escobedo) that a better and more interesting (perhaps, sexier?) interview was in-waiting just a little further down the hall. Hovering above everything else is James making it clear that Harrison must answer the probing personal questions – especially those about his sexual identity and experience. If he refuses, then Harrison’s story may prove an average one, something far less than what Harrison had hoped for or expected. James succeeds in tweaking Harrison’s vanity. The buzzer signals the end of the visiting time. Harrison must return to his cell. What if James does not come back tomorrow? How then will his story be told?

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TERRE HAUTE – By Edmund White, at the New Conservatory Theatre Center

S: Thus, the categories – the “how” of your addressing Harrison – helped in your memorization.

J: Yes, very much so. That gave it the hook – some people would use the expression “trigger” – for getting through that.

S: What was the hardest part?

J: The explosive scene, the “I’m stupefied” speech of Scene 3. It is difficult because the performer can’t give everything away. It is the one scene where Harrison confronts James in such a way as to demolish all of his pretensions and so-called education. It is a fiery outburst that leaves James suddenly exposed as Harrison – in his lack of education can no longer respond, but responds in a vicious [physical] way towards the old guy. My job was to maintain the build, to give something that Harrison can react against – a reason to explode in the way that he does. Edmund White builds that particular scene in four very brief sections. James comes to the realization that he is basically dealing with a naive and uneducated person who has some terrible ideas, and then the realization that he has been duped, seduced, allowed himself to be seduced. And then the realization that he has to somehow defend his being there, that is, James has to defend being in the room with this mass murderer. Then finally, the “coup de grâce” – when he talks about the sacred books of burning lives and all, that you can no longer use the expression of “collateral damage.” This ends, of course, in Harrison’s explosion. Each of those four segments had to be very carefully handled. The difficulty is that in the heat of the moment – as I am coming across like that – it’s really tough to stay grounded because I am getting so excited inside myself, in the character. You know as a performer, you have to distance yourself.

S: When choosing the Timothy McVeigh character, how many actors did you read with and was there a question of “chemistry”?

J: After I was cast they had me come in and read with three young men, one right after the other, in the same series of scenes. After they left, Christopher came over to me and said, “Well? What do you think?” Not that I was casting the part, but how comfortable did I feel with the person. I said, “I don’t remember anybody else – just Elias.” He came off the mark running. He was incredible, blew me away – a tremendous risk-taker, tremendously committed to the role. I don’t mean this in a bad way – he is ambitious. He knows where he is going with his art. It is so exciting to work with someone like that.

S: You have to be ambitious or it’s just not going to work. Whatever his drive, it is in total communication with you and with us. How long did you rehearse?

J: At the end of February we had our first sit-down read-through, rehearsed through the end of March – in all, about 3½ weeks. It was intense.

S: The relationship of the two characters – obviously, with a prison barrier between them – what were the difficulties in communicating “here’s what’s happening on this side of the wall for me and on that side of the wall for you”? The ultimate symbol of it being penetrated being the removal of his shirt and the first real intimacy that happens for Harrison with another human being – someone with a name. Did the two of you go through those proverbial Theatre Exercises? Was there any resistance?

J: There was good communication right off. Elias is a committed performer. He knew what Edmund White wanted and the director was inclined to a subtle approach.

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JAMES and HARRISON – The final moments, Edmund White’s TERRE HAUTE

S: It totally works.

J: My own feeling was that we owe it to the audience to show and do it this way. Not only is this the fantasy that James maintains, it is the reward that Harrison gives him, the generosity of his spirit. It is the very thing that James talks about in the closing monologue. There was a huge discussion during the rehearsal process – is McVeigh / Harrison homosexual or not? Vidal doesn’t believe there are labels. You are just sexual. What you are today is what you are today. The challenge that Elias and I faced was me probing him in such a way and him resisting in such a way that we set up a kind of inexplicable mystery about “Is he or isn’t he?” It is not the hook that the play hangs on, but it is still part of the subtext.

S: It’s not surprising that the moment happens. It’s surprising that it is so authentic. In the simple direction of Elias holding his shoulders this way, he drops his shirt that way and you both count to 10 – it radiates what it radiates and we deal with it.

J: It’s a moment in the play where neither one of us is counting. Somehow it just happens organically.

S: The timing is perfect. If it embarrasses those not expecting it – well, too bad! Theatre provokes. The act pushes a simple button. The audience knows that moment is not going any further because it can’t. Though it may be a gimmick of the author, it is not transparent. It is Theatre. Before the end of the run, do you foresee a performance with an understudy? Is there somebody that will take over if Elias suddenly has a huge attack of hay fever?

J: No! We’re it.

S: Can you envision doing this role somewhere else?

J: Oh, with great love!

S: What’s on your Calendar after this?

J: I’m doing a one-act called FRIENDS that is being booked into retirement communities and other venues. Also, a new play being written about Eleanor Roosevelt, I have been asked to play FDR.

S: Do you have a dream role?

J: I’ve done a lot of dream roles. I remember “Maitlin” in CHALK GARDEN, but many don’t even remember the play. I would love to do ALL MY SONS.

Some of us remember multi-Tony Award winning actor Fritz Weaver who created the role on Broadway and John Mills in the award-winning 1964 film version. As an ideal candidate for the role of “Joe Keller” in Arthur Miller’s ALL MY SONS, John Hutchinson can easily stand beside (while holding his M.A. in Speech and Drama from Stanford University) other interpreters of the role including Ed Begley, James Whitmore, Edward G. Robinson, and Richard Kiley.

Later that day I spoke with Elias Escobedo. As “Harrison”, the Timothy McVeigh character, Elias puts forward a frighteningly real personification of America’s dedicated terrorist.

E: When the lights come up, the first thing you see is an image of the blown-out building and me standing in the middle of it. It’s brought up again at the end. The bombing was 12 years ago. Since then we’ve had 9/11 – almost 3,000 deaths, the Iraq War – more than 3,000 deaths. I was 15 when McVeigh killed 168 people 12 years ago. When I asked my friends to come see this show, they’re saying – “Oh, McVeigh … some kind of train bomb or something?” For me, it’s so important for people to just come off the street and be reminded. For an hour I’m going off about this building, the bomb, how I set it up, how it’s left half-standing. But unless you’ve recently seen it, you may not remember exactly how destructive it was. From an actor’s point of view, when the lights come up – it’s BOOM! That’s what I did. It’s all I need to get me going. Now I have to defend what I did. It sets the bar really high, right off the bat.

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ELIAS ESCOBEDO – as Harrison, in Edmund White’s TERRE HAUTE

S: The play could have been about anybody. What if I didn’t know there was a bombing in Colorado and then an interview with this guy by a particular author. What would my reactions be to the production? I know they would be the same.

E: That’s refreshing to hear. We talked so much about the bombing during the rehearsal process. All these books! I’ve been scanning the TURNER DIARIES and ALL-AMERICAN MONSTER. There is so much literature on this guy.

S: How did you learn about the audition and what did you do for it?

E: I found out about the audition through the casting director, Bruce Elsperger, who I’ve known for about four years. Whenever he thinks I’m right for something at NCTC he shoots me an e-mail and invites me directly to the callbacks. This is my eighth production at NCTC. I’m really familiar with Ed Decker and how he runs it. I really enjoy working there. For a non-union theatre, Ed runs one of the most professional companies. That’s what makes me want to work there. So, Bruce sends me this e-mail and I thought, “Well, that’s cool. That’s different. It caught my eye and got me pumped about the audition. It’s not the traditional kind of story that NCTC would tell. I got the sides [excerpts from the script] and knew it was good. Purely from an actor’s point of view, this is meaty stuff! It’s got so much dynamic, and all these emotions and explosions and how it comes out. The sides were pretty much the most intense moments in the play. At the audition, they must have read at least 15 guys for Harrison. I’m sitting there ready to go in and I just felt good about it. I was very relaxed. When you’re relaxed you can just walk in and do your thing. I read with John. I listened to what he was actually saying in the script and it just got me going.

S: Did you see any of the other auditionees?

E: I did.

S: What was your reaction to them?

E: They all had a similar build to me. The first guy before me was in there for a long time. I think he was the first one of the evening. When you’re waiting to go in and the guy before you is in there for 25 minutes – well, they must love him, reading all these scenes over and over again – and I’m thinking, “I’ve really got to bring my chops here!” Then the guy right before me, he had a shaved head and looked dead-on like Timothy McVeigh. Still, even with those two against me, I’m going to go in there and do my thing. Those are the best auditions. It’s all about being able to stay relaxed.

S: What do you think got you the role?

E: In one word – Intensity. I took a minute – I wouldn’t call myself a Method Actor, I don’t go back into my personal experiences. But I do bring honesty to a character. The sides they were having me read, there was only one way to play them. I remember specifically this one scene – in the actual audition – where the character talks about what I’ve actually done. It’s Scene 3, when James turns on me – I’m just another Socialist wannabe slave and I’m the one who was fooled – and I explode at him because he’s saying, “Oh, think about all the lives you took and life is sacred” and all that. I just listened to what he said about all the dangling bodies and the babies … and my reaction came honest. The next thing I know I’m screaming at him! And I am into it. I just got lost in the text and lost in the character and the next thing you know I’m shouting and crying and not even realizing it. I got home and I told my friend, “That was really weird. I was so in the moment.” I brought intensity and I brought an honesty.

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JOHN HUTCHINSON and ELIAS ESCOBEDO – In Edmund White’s TERRE HAUTE

S: In the aspect of the McVeigh character that is the trained military person – the stoic look, the non-conveyance of any information when standing at attention – did you work on this prior to the audition or is all of this new to you? Because whatever it is you are intending to hide is in fact pouring out of you.

E: I hadn’t really practiced that before the audition. In the rehearsal process we really didn’t talk about his military-like behavior. It came naturally, because what I focused on was the facts, the background of this guy. Yes, he was in the military. But he’s also been in jail the last six years and most of the time he’s been in isolation. In certain areas of Death Row you’re in your cell 23 hours a day. Then all of a sudden you’re in a small room with another guy. What do you do? The first scene especially is just so awkward. Even if he was a sociable guy, after being on Death Row, you’re going to behave in a very monotone way at first. I think that’s where that came from.

S: Good! What’s on the horizon for you?

E: I have a few projects coming up. After this, I’ll be doing SPECIAL FORCES at Theatre Rhino. I think John Fisher is directing.

S: How did that happen for you?

E: Just an audition. I did his generals a year or two ago. I’m a very proactive actor. I do all the general auditions.

S: You have to!

E: You have to. I mail out my headshots. I go North Bay, South Bay, East Bay.

S: Is your goal to stay in the Bay Area?

E: I don’t have a big dream to be a famous actor in LA. I want to work and I want to make money doing stage.

S: My goal is to keep Bay Area actors in the Bay Area and to call it like I see it. There is a mythology that when actors are brought in from somewhere else, i.e., those with New York credits, that a production is somehow going to be better. All that does is to take away employment from the large body of talent that is here in the Bay Area and the level of that talent is incredible.

E: You are absolutely correct. It’s refreshing to hear it from you. I’m an “Equity must-join”. That means I’ve collected a number of EMC (Equity Membership Candidate) points. I have 60. I can work with NCTC because they are a non-union theatre. The next time I work with a union theatre, such as Marin Shakes where I will be working this summer, they will have to offer me an Equity contract. I’m in the middle of all this right now and there are exceptions to the rule. You can write a Letter of Confession to Equity saying, “Can I wait to turn Equity, etc.”. The problem with Equity – as a young actor, in the Bay Area especially – is that it can be a double-edged sword. If you’re in LA or New York – yes, get your Equity card and go. But in the Bay Area there is a handful of theatres that offer Equity contracts such as Berkeley Rep, Cal Shakes, Marin Shakes, A.C.T., Theatre Works – that group. The problem is they only have four or five Equity contracts per show. In the Bay Area there is already a circle of Equity actors they use over and over again.

S: That is true.

E: Then the Leads – the main Leads – they fly-in from New York. What I am trying to do as a San Francisco native and as a Bay Area actor is to break-into that circle. And it’s not easy. Just as you pointed out, it’s not easy in the Bay Area. We only have a handful of Equity companies. So, I’m in this must-join grey area, I’ve got SPECIAL FORCES that I think I can get a waiver on because I don’t have to go Equity with them. Then in the summer I’m doing “The Henry’s” with Marin Shakespeare Company, HENRY IV, Part 1 and HENRY IV, Part 2 – playing “Prince John”. And I have to talk to Equity about that! Prince John is a smaller character. I’m not sure they can afford an Equity contract for that character / they want me to be non-union / I don’t want to give up all my points. It gets really complicated.

S: It’s really crazy! I sailed through 20 years as a professional singer without that union-thing hanging in front of me. And now, as a professional vocal coach of 24 years, I can tell you that the jobs, the roles, the developmental things young performers need to do in order to become the Artist who can pay his bills and have a relatively comfortable life style cannot happen in the San Francisco Bay Area with this Equity-thing hanging over their heads all the time. Thus, it forces a sense of ruthlessness.

In “Harrison”, I think you have the role of a lifetime. Speaking as a singer, you are doing my favorite job – that being, me and somebody else – my accompanist – sharing the stage for an hour and twenty minutes.

E: If I was Equity, I couldn’t have gotten this role.

S: Exactly!

E: My on-line identity, my e-mail is theatredaze. It’s my life. I’m in this daze of Theatre, trying to do my passion – but also make a living. Unfortunately, the only way you can make a living in theatre is to get that weekly paycheck. But, if you turn Equity, you say, “OK! Now I can get a weekly paycheck” – and then all of a sudden these companies don’t hire you because now they have to pay you.

S: Do you have a dream role?

E: I’m a big Shakespeare guy. I would say “Hamlet” is definitely up there. Up at Marin Shakes – Bob [Artistic Director, Robert Currier] knows my work. I don’t have this desire to play “Romeo”. Too easy! I like something darker, a little deeper. I like intelligent roles. Perhaps “Lt. Daniel Kaffee” in A FEW GOOD MEN.

S: Tell me about The Shirt Scene. “Harrison” is going to take his shirt off and be a real human being. He’s going to expose himself. I shouldn’t be that hard of a thing to do, but it’s obviously unnerving to everybody in the audience for one reason or another. It’s everything and it’s nothing. What’s it like for you?

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TERRE HAUTE – Finale, JOHN HUTCHINSON and ELIAS ESCOBEDO
Photos by Lois Tema

E: The moment is a very powerful moment and it should be. It feels intense and it feels powerful. For me, it was never a question of whether the Timothy McVeigh character is, possibly, Gay. I don’t think that’s what the scene is about. As you say, it is possibly the first time he is actually making a human connection. Doing the show for an hour – with all this anger and pain the character has locked inside – there’s something about John’s character I can connect with. The eve before I’m going to be executed I can finally become vulnerable and connect with someone. My character does it for two reasons. One – to actually make this human connection before he dies; and two – to thank James. To thank him and to show, “You know what? You actually listened to me and tried to hear where I’m coming from, unlike all the other tough reporters that have come in saying that I’m just a baby killer. It’s a powerful moment. The play wouldn’t be the play without that moment.

S: I agree totally. John described the timing of the scene as being “organic”. That is, unlike the singer or the dancer in the same moment who has an assigned number of beats and then moves out of it. So, what is going through your head in that moment, while you are standing there giving us your best?

E: I am very in the moment for that last part of the last scene towards the end of the play. I get to be absorbed in the moment, because I am not talking. Finally! I’m just there with John. That last part, where I’m slowly unzipping, slowly getting him to come to the window – I don’t talk. I just breathe. And I’m very much there. I’m wrapped up in my character. Things are going through my mind – it’s hard for him. I can’t forget how hard that must be. To be in this cold, isolated cell and to be going through all those things in your mind – “You are going to be executed tomorrow.” For him to clear his head enough to experience that with the James character is remarkable.

S: During the pressures of the audition, how did you communicate to John that he needed to work with you?

E: To be honest, Christopher runs a very tight audition. You come in and do your scene – he thanks you, and then you leave. There was very little chance to even talk with John. We are in the Decker Theatre, John is already on the stage, Bruce and Christopher are sitting in the seats.
Christopher, you remember Elias. / Hey, how’s it going? / Great. / OK, let’s read.
I don’t even remember a handshake.
This is John. He’ll be reading with you. / Hey, John, how’s it going?
And that’s it! You get into it. You pour your heart out to this guy in three scenes and afterwards it ends just as quickly. It was – OK, that was a good read. / Thank you. / Thank you. We’ll let you know.
I don’t know if those were the exact words. It was a very keenly-run audition.

S: During rehearsals, was there ever a time when there was a struggle for the two of you to connect?

E: Actor to actor or character to character?

S: Actor to actor.

E: Not really. John and I just seemed to connect right off the bat. We are similar in our acting styles. We are both non-union professionals. It was very friendly. We focused on the script. I had no problems looking him in the eye and meaning it, no problems becoming vulnerable. That’s how I knew we were going to be OK. The only thing we had to work on was our lines.

S: So – just for the SAN FRANCISTO SENTINEL – what final thing do you want the readers to know?

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ELIAS ESCOBEDO – Now at NCTC, San Francisco

E: I’m lucky to have this unique opportunity. I’m an actor’s actor – I’m always looking from an actor’s point of view. This role is so unique. I’m trapped inside this box. I move five-feet by five-feet. To see someone try to express themselves when they are so limited – it’s engaging. This role is different. This play is different. Some of the things we talk about in that hour cannot be found on-line on a blog. It’s especially rewarding to see NCTC doing something a little darker and this grounded.

S: It is Quality to begin with.

E: It’s just two guys talking it out. The difference is – one of the guys blew up a building.

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See Seán’s recent articles and reviews:
ALTAR BOYZ – In San Francisco
PASCAL MOLAT, A Stroll Through Eden/Eden
AFTER THE WAR – at A.C.T.
Agnes de Mille’s RODEO – at SAN FRANCISCO BALLET
COLOR ME KUBRICK – starring John Malkovich

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San Francisco Sentinel’s Fine Arts Critic Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Ask him a question on AllExperts.com . If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: seanmartinfield@att.net.

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