Brown Bag Theater
SF State simulates the repertory experience
November 30, 2010 5:59 PM
A line of students is ushered into a small, square room within the Creative Arts building at SF State. The Brown Bag Theater is dimly lit, with soft yellow lights bouncing off the pitch black walls. Bodies fill the rows of chairs on either side of the door and anxious audience members begin to whisper excitedly. Three pictures with scenes of New York City, a small couch set diagonally facing the crowd, and a wooden desk with accompanying chair make up the primary set pieces. Sharply at noon, the quiet click of the door can be heard, signaling that it is time to begin. The theater goes black, the old classic tune "Dream A Little Dream of Me" begins to caress the ears of those in attendance and a sudden spotlight is seen illuminating Ian C. Hopps. Hopps is one of the star performers in The Interview, one of many Brown Bag plays produced at SF State this Fall.
For more than twenty years the Brown Bag Theater Company at SF State has offered theater students a unique experience. Taught as a regular class, students are given the opportunity to star in, write, produce, and essentially build plays from the ground up. While participating in Brown Bag is not required, theater arts and drama majors who choose to are given valuable experience which mirrors that of professional theater companies.
"Brown Bag is about simulating the repertory theater experience," says Hopps, a sophomore and theater arts major at SF State. Brown Bag is exposing students such as Hopps to a real world of theater. Originally from Los Angeles, Hopps took part in his first production in fourth grade. He spent his middle and high school years acting solely in musicals, until he signed with a talent agency at the age of fifteen. After shooting numerous commercials and acting as a film extra, Hopps came to SF State knowing that acting was something he wanted to pursue. Now into his second semester with Brown Bag, Hopps loves the well-rounded quality of the company.
"I love doing the hands-on stuff, and seeing what you build become the world you act in," says Hopps. He is referring to how everything that is seen in Brown Bag is student-built and produced. From the writing and directing of each show, the operating of lighting and sound, to the construction and arranging of each set; the students do it all. "I love that everything you see in Brown Bag is done by students," says Hopps. "It's just cool."
The twenty-two to twenty-five student actors and six directors who participate in Brown Bag are auditioned and chosen by professor and supervisor Bill Peters before the start of each new semester. Sophomore Elaina Garrity is one actress who can be seen in Brown Bag productions this Fall. Beginning with dance classes at the age of four, jumping into musicals, and finally landing in plays, Garrity came to college knowing exactly what she wanted. "You fall in love with [theater], and you have to major in it. There's no other choice," says Garrity.
Garrity starred in The Interview alongside Hopps, in which she played the character Laura. Commanding the stage, Garrity marches from one end to the other, the sound of her black high heels clapping furiously on the hard floor as her long, sable hair swings animatedly from left to right. Shouting and soothing alternately, Garrity's Laura attempts to bring Hopps' writer character Michael out of his grief-driven rut. "I really love the collaboration of it," says Garrity, referring to acting in such Brown Bag plays. "It's so open and resourceful. And it's a fun experience that gives you a lot of exposure."
Kenny Toll, a senior at SF State majoring in theater arts, is one of the six student directors who was chosen to join the Brown Bag Theater this semester. Toll has directed The Interview as well as The Nina Variations so far this Fall. Having previously spent two semesters acting in the company, Toll is now enjoying his first semester as a director. "It's great because you're really being taught how to put on a full-scale show," says Toll. "And as a director, you can really take it to whatever level you want."
Coming from a theater background, Toll has always been close to the arts. Growing up, he would run around and play on stage while his mother helped to design costumes and his father built sets for various productions. "Acting is my first love. I've never wanted to be anything else," says Toll, who knew he wanted to be an actor at the age of seven. Now into his third semester of Brown Bag, Toll believes the campus theater company is something special. "There's nothing else like it, or as well done, at other school," says Toll. "It definitely stands out on its own."
Taught as a regularly scheduled class, Brown Bag does have requirements that each student must meet. Actors must work on the technical side of one show, which can include monitoring the lights and audio during a performance. They must house manage one show as well, passing out programs and making sure there are no outside disturbances while a show is being run. For every play they are involved in, students are also required to assemble and disassemble the set; loading and unloading them from the theater every Friday and Saturday as they finish one production and begin preparing for the next. Most importantly, each actor in the company is required to act in three of the twelve to fourteen productions produced per semester, while each director must act in one, and direct two.
With these requirements, on top of the eight to twelve hours of rehearsal actors put in every week when preparing for a performance, it is safe to say that Brown Bag is a huge time commitment that requires some sacrifices. "You have to give up time for other classes," says Hopps. "You've got to make those choices because it's a priority."
"I made sure nothing conflicted with the [Brown Bag] schedule, but have sacrificed my social life," agrees sophomore Casey Robbins.Amanda Denison, a junior at SF State, says she has had to sacrifice spending time with her family, but believes Brown Bag is worth the price you pay.
"I made sure I had time to do it," says Denison. "You feel so rewarded after every show." Denison teaches acting at the Young Rep Theater Company in Walnut Creek when not in school and says she began acting when she was in her mother's womb.
"I feel at home when I'm on stage," says Denison. "You're free to not be yourself for a little bit." For Denison, however, Brown Bag is about the bonds you make with your fellow actors. "It's all about the connections you're making," says Denison. "Brown Bag gives you the chance to feel intimate with all of your cast mates."
Brown Bag shows run each week, Wednesday through Friday from noon to 1p.m. in the Brown Bag Theater. The students in Brown Bag are required to see every play produced at least twice, one of these performances being a special preview that occurs every Tuesday for members of the company only. The actors and directors will receive feedback and constructive criticism about their work, while also sharing the experiences they have throughout the production. "The Tuesday show is the most terrifying part," says Toll, "but also the most rewarding." These previews are one part of Brown Bag that really bring the actors together.
For the students of Brown Bag, the company is not strictly a class-it is a family. "You really bond in acting," says Robbins. "The class really connects." The students will have bonding sessions that include movies or grabbing lunch, according to Hopps, who believes it is important to feel comfortable with your fellow cast mates. And for Garrity, "the best part is just being goofy with a bunch of your friends in the back."
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