Margo Hall and Bill English talk SF Playhouse

The San Francisco Playhouse has spent a decade building a reputation for presenting staged works that stray from convention, or do they? Currently playing at their new location in San Francisco’s Union Square District is the aggressive and arresting “Motherf**ker with The Hat” from the unrelenting pen of playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis (Jesus Hopped the “A” Train).

“The Hat” is bold, edgy, powerful and callous with a cast up to the task of parlaying the pathos of two couples and a cousin, walking the tightrope of sobriety and seduction at the same time lobbing biting obscenities and curdling insults with rapid fire release. Running just shy of two hours with no intermission, “The Hat” keeps you engaged from the onset all the while inferring the need for a moral tow.

Bay Area theatre darling Margo Hall as Victoria, the seething wife of Ralph (Carl Lumbly), angered by his infidelity and her inability to spurn his knowingly dangerous charm—this guy’s slick and sexy. She is fed up though beguiled by his twisted affection. Ralph is running game on his wife, his best friend and his best friend’s woman, seemingly losing no sleep over any of it. Ralph is calculating; Victoria is vengeful.

I spoke to Margo Hall following a Saturday matinee performance –

Who is this woman?

Hall: Victoria is a woman who at one point in her life was on top of the world. She was a junior trader on Wall Street making $100K a year, she dated an art dealer, but she had a substance abuse problem based on the information I culled from the script. She was attending Alcoholics Anonymous trying to work it all out when she heard Ralph at a meeting and was taken in by his charisma and all the things that he’s very good at as a manipulator. She left her life behind and went to Ralph. One of the things Ralph helped her with was achieving sobriety but unfortunately he didn’t fill any other part of her soul. Even though she’s clean, she’s very unhappy because just like Ralph helped her, it’s his mission to help everyone else. She feels sort of stuck in this relationship because there’s a fear that if she leaves him she may go back to using so he holds that power over her.

Do we pass “Victoria” everyday on the street because she is more common than we think?

Hall: I think so and I also think that there many parts of her. For instance, I definitely know women who were in abusive relationships but because of their self-esteem, because of where they let themselves get to, they didn’t feel they had an out. You get caught in this relationship where you feel you have no self-worth and you have someone who is saying, ‘well, you could be worse, you could still be on drugs.’ I think there’s also a part of her who knows that his (Ralph) mission is to save the world. Somehow she’s envious of him and I do think you can get trapped in a relationship where you are in the shadows and you feel like you can’t get out of the shadows. Oh yeah, I think we see this woman a lot. I think we also see the woman who is very successful with a substance abuse problem trying to deal with life and conquer those battles. Definitely, I think this woman does exist.

The San Francisco Playhouse is known for presenting startling theatrical works; what is your assessment?

Hall: I think the Playhouse is very brave in their choices; I think Bill (English) has a real affinity for what’s happening all around the theatrical world, frequenting New York, checking out what’s on Broadway, and what others are doing. Paying attention to what patrons are going to see and he’s not afraid to bring those works here. I think he has developed good relationships with playwrights who’ve also worked in New York, a big plus when you can form a relationship with the likes of a Stephen Adly Guirgis who in turn says to Bill, “Yeah, I’d love for you to do my shows.”

Another observation is the patronage of this theater company many of them retired and clearly absorbed in these works that you perhaps think they’d have no interest in.

Hall: Of course, it is very interesting to me too. When you think about it, often it is the mature patrons who wait around to tell you, “I loved this play, it’s so real.” It’s quite interesting the appeal this play has. They just see people who are real and hurting and they appreciate them, even with the crazy language; but there is brilliance in the language, there is poetry in the language, and brilliance in the comedy. There’s something about it that they just love. Too, I think because of the work that SF Playhouse does, their subscribers trust them. They know if they’re bringing a production here there’s a reason and it’s not some crazy random play. They have developed a relationship with their subscribers and in turn, they trust whatever is chosen for each season. That is a good place to be with your public and with your subscribers.

I also had a conversation with SF Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English —

Staged plays have been around since the beginning of advanced civilization. How do you define theatre’s placement today in the larger society?

English: Theatre’s purpose is to give us perspective on our position in our lives and to help us knit our community closer together by reminding us of our common bonds. I like to say that the first organizational unit of human kind, whatever that was, had a guy or a woman good at catching wild beast and turning it into food. Someone who was good at finding their way from one place to another, foraging for edibles in the vegetable category, building fire, tending wounds and the other person that they needed was somebody to tell stories. If you take the six essential leadership positions in any human group of ten people, one of them is going to be a very good story teller. There are four things people need to sustain them– they need food and water, they need shelter, they need purposeful activity and they need stories– stories that are done aloud, in a group.

Are your theatrical choices ones that take your subscribers in a certain direction or inform them in any way?

English: I don’t know, I feel like we’re slipping a little bit more into the middle in terms of picking material that will appeal to a broader piece of the community. In other words, I would like to visualize a very wide spectrum of divergent cultural groups in the theatre at the same time, watching the same show. It seems like the farther we reach out into the digital world the more that happens. It’s interesting because people who see us through the digital world don’t identify with any particular cultural entity. I notice as I watch our online sales, I’m just thrilled by the amount of people coming to our theatre from so many different cultural backgrounds.

It would appear that as a larger society we are embracing edgier fare easier than in years past.

English: I think everybody wants to get ‘the edge’ honestly. I think everybody would like to see something that turns them on because we’re all used to what we’re seeing every day; we all want to see something that grabs us and gives us something we didn’t have before we came. A perspective; I like to say that playwrights are like the prophets of our age because in that kind of ‘Jeremiah Ezekiel’ sense, they put their antennae up –they have very sensitive antennae– and they are able to receive and process information about what’s going on around them in a unique and superior way. Then they are able to translate those perceptions into a story which compresses the nature of life or of living life, right now, in our time, into a story that people can gain insight from. That’s how prophecy could be described in that manner.

You offer a new perspective, a divergent view in your analysis…

English: Well, I see theatre as fulfilling. That’s how the Playhouse was founded on the belief that mankind invented theatre to fulfill a spiritual need. I don’t mean denominational as in any particular system of belief about the nature of the universe or the nature of God. But we need to tell these stories to make us feel unified with each other, with the universe. I imagine many of the early stories in theatre are like our myths: why does the rain come and what will happen if it doesn’t come and how can we get it to come since we don’t even understand what it is? Now it’s different, we still have needs. We have the need to feel connected and the theatre is supposed to serve that need.

Thus your choices for Playhouse are consistent with your core beliefs…no matter what?

English: I look for stories that my instincts tell me people want to hear based upon my experience living life and seeing what’s going on around us. When I look back over the 50 or 60 plays we’ve done, I wouldn’t apologize for a single one. Really, when it’s all over, when it’s all said and done, I think they were all great.

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