MARY GIBBONEY – An Interview with the star of “ABSOLUTELY SAN FRANCISCO”

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Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

ABSOLUTELY SAN FRANCISCO – now playing at the Alcove Theater – is a sharp and clever solo performance piece starring familiar Bay Area talent, Mary Gibboney. Produced by Not Quite Opera Productions, written and directed by Anne Doherty, the musical show centers around a group of “only in San Francisco-types” who are stranded together on a stalled cable car – during a thick foggy night near Nob Hill – and there’s nothing to do but wait until the problem is fixed. Ah, but the problems! And not just with the cable car and it’s about to be retired lady operator, Naima. One of the riders, “Sunshine”, a middle-aged homeless woman who stows her shopping cart under The Arrow on the Embarcadero – has been issued a parking ticket. Does she know anybody powerful enough to fix it? Jeffrey wonders if anything will fix his boyfriend. The fellow in the turban, Narayan, has a lot of money to fix anything – except what bothers him the most. Davo wants to fix a long-lost love affair. Grace sells souvenir junk to the tourists. She’s fixed on her son and the shame of his recent arrest for selling drugs. Sunshine communicates with and gets a lot of fixes from Sutro Tower. Seems that big signal transmitter up on Twin Peaks has a direct line to her brain. Whatever – she manages to get free coffee for everybody while they’re all waiting and confessing. After all, they’ve paid their fare!

Mary Gibboney is a multi-faceted performer with an astonishing contralto voice. She began her professional career with Chicago’s Second City improvisation group and has worked as a stage and commercial actress in Northern California for over 30 years. Some of her recent Bay Area productions include: Cinderella, Oliver, and Narnia at Berkeley Playhouse; Smokey Joe’s Café at Bus Barn Theatre; The Importance of Being Earnest at the California Theatre Center; Stage Struck and Spitfire Grill at the California Conservatory Theatre; Thoroughly Modern Millie at Broadway by the Bay; Cabaret at Shotgun Players, and Copenhagen at Town Hall Theatre. We talked about the inspirations behind her six characters in search of a guaranteed Round Trip.

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MARY GIBBONEY – Absolutely San Francisco

Mary: St. Francis, patron saint of San Francisco, is someone whose family had a lot of money. He gives it all up – and becomes homeless.

Sean: Is this the spiritual foundation behind your performance?

Mary: It’s the intent that I have behind somebody who chooses – who completely chooses – to be homeless, as Francis did.

Sean: Absolutely San Francisco is a solo-show that lasts about ninety minutes with a brief intermission. It’s not exactly like a cabaret with over an hour’s worth of various songs because you are taking on seven totally different characters. That’s a hefty challenge.

Mary: I’m pretty sweaty when it ends. Maybe it’s not the same energy as a professional basketball player, but when it’s over I’m drenched.

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“Sunshine’s” address

Sean: Did you see a performance of the show before you got the script?

Mary: Yes.

Sean: So, you knew what you were getting into and the collection of six different voices and personalities that must channel through you. How did you make that happen?

Mary: Anne Doherty – the writer and composer – is a wonderful director. She walked me through what she wanted it to sound like and look like. She was very open to change and for me to make my own choices. For the turban guy from India, Anne gave me a lot of YouTube references to help me sound like a guru. I also have to do an imitation of coach John Madden. During one of the songs I’m talking about the Bay Bridge having an inferiority complex to the Golden Gate Bridge. The Bay Bridge says – I am great. But just as coach John Madden says – “Always have class and be humble.” I watched YouTubes of him as well as some of his imitators. The imitations are better! So, a lot of my preparation was about using the latest in technology to watch and listen and then incorporating all of that into the rehearsal.

Sean: The street person, “Sunshine”, is the heart of the show. How did you develop her character?

Mary: She’s the hardest character because you want her to be pathetic somehow. She’s not. The thought may be to make her deranged or abused. She’s not – other than the fact she’s abused herself with drugs and alcohol. She’s chosen to be homeless, she wants to be free, and this is the only way she knows how. And you see it at the end. Once again, she’s presented the choice of coupling herself with someone who is extremely wealthy and she denies that. She says, “No.”

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MARY GIBBONEY — in Absolutely San Francisco

Sean: She also denies herself the chance of becoming who she used to be in the sense of “I can choose love and companionship” – or at least what that picture represents – and rejects it.

Mary: In other words – “I am going to be on my own. I’m going to be a social person in that I can get on the cable car and communicate with them.” What does Sunshine actually do on a regular day when she’s not worried about finding someone who can help her through this parking debacle?

Sean: So it’s not about the issues of where to sleep, where to eat, or use a bathroom.

Mary: Right. This is about her having a parking ticket and finding someone who can fix it – or she won’t have a place to sleep. Sunshine pretty much people-watches and socializes. She goes to Glide Memorial for her meals and then does whatever she wants to do. She likes tourists because she loves the City. She loves to talk about the City with all its good and bad points. She also begs. She doesn’t need a whole lot, maybe ten bucks at a time.

Sean: You are a very physical actress and singer. How did you create the men in your cast?

Mary: You just take everything you think about as a man, everything you see as a man – and I apply it. You try to physicalize it as much as possible – with the sound of their voice and, more than anything, with the way they move. My idea with men is that they are not as free with their bodies as women are, they’re stiff. Most of the men in this show are not young but elderly. They’ve got hip problems, they’ve got issues with their previous experiences. The Gay guy has a problem with his partner and it’s made him a little stiff, although he’s much looser than the other guys. The stiffest person is the Indian guy, because he is so determined that making money is the only reason he is here. He has to break out of that. And he does break out of that towards the end when he asks Naima, “Where are you from?” He has never asked anybody that question – because he didn’t care. Now, suddenly, he does care.

Sean: He’s searching for his own Home. Do you see the man in your head? If you were to look into a mirror would he be there?

Mary: Yes. I take BART into the City. I see a lot of my characters on BART.

Sean: Tell me about your Chinese lady, “Grace” .

Mary: Grace is so wonderful. I see her all the time in San Francisco. She’s so busy. She’s about five-feet tall and darts in-between people, usually the tourists. They are so leisurely. Grace is not leisurely. She’s got a place to be and she’s got a purpose. She’s constantly selling.

Sean: Then we see her angry and disappointed side when her son gets thrown into jail.

Mary: We did an improv on it. I’m in the court and my son comes out. What do I say to him? “I so ashamed of you! I can’t stand to look at you anymore!” I was yelling at him. I was so mad at him. In the show, I come clean to the other people on the cable car and saying – I’ll tell you the truth now, because the Indian guy has gone out on a limb and talked about his issues with his kids. So, I’ll tell you about my kid. He went to jail. And I say “I’m so disgusted with him I never want to see him again!” And I wonder if it’s my fault.

Sean: Is there a character more challenging than the others?

Mary: Sunshine. I wanted her to be just a little bit crazier than what she is. I wanted her to be a little bit angrier than what she is. I want her to be more damaged. It’s hard for me to imagine a person choosing to be homeless. It’s really hard.

Sean: There are some magical moments in the show, such as Sunshine’s message-relationship with Sutro Tower. And maybe the fog blindness around Grace Cathedral is a little exaggerated. What is magical for you?

Mary: Sunshine finds a Muni pass! Now she can take the cable car for free. She also kind-of knows how to play the guitar and makes up songs. Sunshine can look into people’s eyes and see to the back of their souls. She can see what’s wrong with the person. She has a perceptibility, she knows what’s troubling people. And I want Sunshine to have a good voice. I don’t think that’s incongruous with her being homeless. She’s got a nice deep rich voice. Not as deep as my Indian character’s or Naima’s voice.

Sean: How about Sunshine’s old boyfriend, “Davo”? The one your song describes as the “brilliant Marxist”.

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MARY GIBBONEY

Mary: It’s been forty years since they’ve seen each other. They’ve weathered through those forty years. And they’ve done a lot of drugs. They don’t even recognize each other until the very end.

Sean: His “Groovy” song is all about hoping the ’60s haven’t gone away.

Mary: He’s still trapped in that era. The “Groovy” song is always a challenge for me.

Sean: Do you have a singer in mind? Maybe a personality like Kris Kristofferson?

Mary: Who I really have in mind is Jerry Brown – the whole way that he speaks. Jerry Brown has a very altruistic side to him and so does “Davo” the philandering philanthropist. He’s also a romantic. He starts to cry when Sunshine turns him down.

Sean: Your performance career has been all about a series of characters in full productions, both musical and dramatic. Now you’re in a one-person show playing everybody. Where do they all come from?

Mary: You look at all the characters you’ve ever done and you pull from those.

Sean: I saw your performance as “Mrs. Meers” in Thoroughly Modern Millie at Broadway By The Bay. That’s a great role – a former actress, pretending to be Chinese. How did that experience inform your character of Grace?

Mary: Mrs. Meers is sinister. Grace is not sinister, but very genuine. With Mrs. Meers I was also going for a genuine Chinese person – but it’s a character within a character. I’ve played some of Shakespeare’s male characters. They are very physical and need to be studied a lot. Walking like a man – is this person going to grab his crotch? – this one throws out his chest – and men are always throwing out their chin. One of the audience members spoke to Anne afterwards. He teaches political science. He suggested that the show would make a great homework assignment for his students, because it’s not just about San Francisco. It could be the story of any city. So, come September, they’re thinking about bringing in the schools.

Sean: Do you think about creating your own Solo show?

Mary: I do! I would love to do that. What I would like to do more than anything is create a cabaret piece where I focus on the songs and one composer.

Sean: Who will be your first choice? “An Evening of… ”

Mary: I want to do some Gershwin. I find that’s there is so much of his work that people don’t know about. Yeah – I would love to do Gershwin.

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Click here to purchase tickets on-line: ABSOLUTELY SAN FRANCISCO

The Alcove Theater is a new 49-patron venue at 414 Mason Street, Suite 502. With its modular, raised platform stage and environmentally friendly LED lighting, The Alcove is an intimate and flexible performance space conveniently located in the Union Square theater district.

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, 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. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post 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: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.


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