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Personal Space

Stephanie Weisman and The Marsh have been helping people go it alone for 30 years.

SLIDESHOW

Kornbluth plays a copy editor who dreams of being a reporter in Pumping Copy.

 

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Sara Felder in Beyond Brooklyn in 1991.

Photo: Irene Young

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Josh Kornbluth in Pumping Copy in 1995.

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Kornbluth in Haiku Tunnel in 1990.

Photo: Courtesy of Josh Kornbluth through Carla Befera PR

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The Marsh Artistic Executive Director and founder Stephanie Weisman.

Photo: Craig Lee

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Charlie Varon in Rush Limbaugh in Night School in 1994.

Photo: Bruce Cook

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Stephanie Weisman thinks being 30 and solo is a cause for celebration. No, it’s not her birthday, but The Marsh, the performance enclave she founded, is celebrating three decades of monologue artistry this year. Weisman didn’t study theater; she earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the State University of New York at Buffalo; she also taught classes and edited an arts journal. “I did a ton of poetry readings in my 20s until I got sick of them,” Weisman says.

On a visit to San Francisco in 1985, she happened to attend the first half of Swimming to Cambodia being performed by Spalding Gray at the New Performance Gallery in the Mission, now the site of the ODC Theater. “I was totally compelled to see the second part,” she says. “I loved the intimacy of the form and how it spoke to me.”

After moving to the Bay Area, Weisman began scouting performing opportunities. An unsuccessful audition with Brava! for Women in the Arts (”They said my piece was too iconoclastic,” she says, laughing. “Can you imagine?”) got her thinking outside the black box—about producing. In 1989, Weisman checked in at The Hotel Utah on Fourth Street with a Monday night solo showcase series named The Marsh (for a creatively productive time, she lived in a house on stilts on an actual Delaware marsh.) The Marsh moved to North Beach for nine months before settling into its eventual Mission home at 1062 Valencia St. in 1992. Weisman launched The Marsh Berkeley Arts Center at 2120 Alston Way in 2006 and, between the two venues, presented more than 600 performances last year.

“Solo performance is storytelling,” says Marga Gomez, who wrote and performed Memory Tricks, the first The Marsh reading, in 1991. “I’m sure ancient people acted out stories a lot like we do onstage.” Last year’s Latin Standards was Gomez’s most recent collaboration with The Marsh. “Stephanie really listens,” Gomez adds. “One time, I was broke and brokenhearted, having just been dumped. She let me tell her my tale of woe and then said, ‘Well, why don’t you write a play about it?’ and gave me some dates. All of a sudden I had a focus, and my play, Lovebirds, came out of it and went to New York, and I was even able to pay my rent.”

For Weisman, themes that might seem too personal or too niche, like recovering from a stroke or coping with OCD, can actually have a broad and powerful impact. “These very personal stories connect with the lives of the audience and open their minds to thinking about the world beyond themselves. It’s a direct relationship in an intimate setting. There’s nothing between you and the performer.”

Dan Hoyle, author and star of The Real Americans and Border People agrees. “It’s a more immediate and arresting experience. The farthest person is only six rows back. My goal is to transport people to another place, and the minimalism of solo performance, particularly in a venue the size of The Marsh, can aid that. It requires you to engage with the collective imagination.” Hoyle had his first Marshian landing attending a play by Charlie Varon called Ralph Nader Is Missing while still in high school. Six years later, the pair was collaborating on Hoyle’s first project there. (They continue to collaborate on all of Hoyle’s shows.) “I start all my shows there now because you don’t have to wait six months from one reading to the next and then maybe get a booking slot in two years.”

Another key component is The Marsh audience base, a mix of different affinity groups. “The Marsh is popular with theatergoers, obviously, but it’s also popular with journalists and travelers and people who are just curious about the world,” says Hoyle. “I feel like I’ve built an audience there that really gets the work and is excited for the next album to drop, so to speak. I’m supergrateful for that.”

Gomez adds kudos for the committed family of fellow artists who keep both of Weisman’s venues running. “A lot of the people who make the house announcements and the coffee are folks with a solo show in their back pocket. They want to be around it because it helps everyone to have that kind of fellowship.”

Looking back, Weisman takes lots of pride in the last three decades and has no real regrets—save one somewhat ironic observation. “The point of The Marsh was for me to develop my own theater pieces,” she says. “I’m kind of on that trajectory now, but it’s taken me a long time to get there.”

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

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