11 Bay Area Theater Artists to Watch in 2013

Categories: Theater
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Jessica Palopoli
Nina Ball's canny set design for Period of Adjustment at SF Playhouse went Picasso on the floorplan of a suburban home to maximize both space and aesthetic appeal.

It's time somebody said it. What's really missing from the Bay Area theater scene at this time of year is a set of arbitrary rankings, preferably in the form of a top 10 (or 11) list.

But in all seriousness, if the end of the old year and the beginning of the new invite reflection, then our theater in 2012 offered a healthy crop of artists whose work is worth pondering and following assiduously in 2013. Some of the most fascinating and provocative are featured below

See also:

"A Lie of the Mind": The Boxcar Takes on Sam Shepard's America

"Invasion!" by Crowded Fire: So Abulkasem

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Lisa Keating
Actor Michael Barrett Austin
An underused asset in Bay Area theater, Michael Barrett Austin is such a natural that he made TheatreFIRST's production of John Steinbeck's sweeping epic The Grapes of Wrath feel like an intimate chamber piece. But he also excels as a character actor. His Martin Van Buren in SF Playhouse's production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was a delightful milquetoast -- except, that is, when dancing to Miley Cyrus's "Party in the USA," when his knees alone redefined the term "flamboyance." Catch him next in Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a part-play, part-graphic novel at A.C.T.'s new small venue, the Costume Shop.
Jon Tracy
Scenic Designer Nina Ball
It's hard not to keep an eye on Nina Ball, the omnipresent scenic designer whose work often graces the stages of Shotgun Players, where she's a company member, SF Playhouse, Marin Theatre company, and many others. More often than not, when you see a set that does more than what the stage directions call for, that distills a show's themes into a visual metaphor that's as practical as it is bold and aesthetically pleasing, Ball is responsible. Her sets often evoke cages -- forcing characters to stay on stage when they might not want to, and more than capturing her audiences' attention.
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Julia Heitner
Playwright and Performer Megan Cohen
The self-styled "most frequently produced female playwright in the San Francisco Bay Area" might be prolific, but Megan Cohen is also a ruthless innovator who never falls back on artistic crutches. That said, this frequent contributor to SF Theater Pub, Bay One Acts, the One-Minute Play Festival, PianoFight, and the SF Olympians Festival is consistent in at least one way: in her delight in the absurdity of language, and in absurdity in general. Most recently, her Zeus brilliantly equated myths of the god king's copious ancient impregnations with modern-day seemingly phantom pregnancies. (Zeus still reigns!) Classical themes continue to interest the young writer into 2013, with DIVAfest's The Helen Project, about Helen of Troy, and SF Olympians' Megan Cohen's Totally Epic Odyssey, for which she'll be both writer and solo performer.
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Jordan Matter
Actress Lauren English
The Bay Area doesn't boast many performers from the country's top acting programs, so it's a treat for us that Lauren English, a native, moved back here after earning her MFA from NYU's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts in 2009. Education hasn't tamed her raw power though. As the title character in SF Playhouse's Becky Shaw, she was so fragile that whether she'd make it to each successive moment was a source of genuine suspense. But at the same time that you're emotionally submerged in her performances, you're also appreciating the craft of her choices, even if it's something as deceptively simple as standing up at the perfect time. She'll next be displaying her gifts and skills in the blue-collar screaming matches of Neil LaBute's Reasons to be Pretty, also at SF Playhouse, where she's an artistic associate.
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Sean Michael Rau
Opera Rockstar Kate Kilbane
The undisputed hit of this year's Fringe, Weightless, by Kate Kilbane and the Cellar Doors, was less fringy than gleaming from all its professional polish, forecasting its full production planned for 2014. The show, an adaptation of the Greek myth of Procne and Philomela, is a rock opera -- not quite a rock concert, not quite a musical; performers are at once band mates and actors. Kilbane's original, genre-defying songs are both catchy and musically interesting -- an unfortunate rarity in contemporary theater. Her performance required neither set nor costume nor movement to be counted among the most dramatic shows we've seen all year. In the coming year, Shotgun will feature her original music in Lauren Gunderson's By and By, and she'll be developing her next rock opera -- this one, a site-specific piece.
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I got a comment on this article from Melissa Smith, Conservatory Director at American Conservatory Theater. She writes:

"In '11 Bay Area Theater Artists to Watch in 2013' (blog 01/02/13), Lily Janiak introduces one artist by remarking that “the Bay Area doesn’t boast many performers from the country’s top acting programs.” I beg to differ. Ms. Janiak has overlooked A.C.T.’s MFA program --located right here in San Francisco and consistently ranked as one of the top acting programs in the country by US News and World Report, and by reputation among professionals in the field. A.C.T. graduates are performing on many Bay area stages -- as well as on and off Broadway, on national tours, in regional theaters and on large and small screens. In just the last three years in the Bay though, A.C.T. MFA graduates played leading roles to critical acclaim in productions at the California Shakespeare Festival (Spunk, Candida), the Marin Theater Company (Seven Guitars, In the Red and Brown Water), the Magic Theater (What We’re Up Against), Shakespeare Santa Cruz (Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry IV), Berkeley Rep (The Three Sisters, Chinglish), Shotgun Players (Woyzeck), and the Aurora Theater (Wilder Times, Awake and Sing! ). And that’s just a short list off the top of my head. For a more complete listing of illustrious alumnae and all the places where A.C.T. MFA grads are at work, go to www.act-sf.org, click on Conservatory, then MFA Program, then A.C.T. Alumni. Check it out -- the list is a long one."

My response: 

"Thank you so much for taking the time to write this note. I am duly chastened. You are absolutely right; I was East Coast-centric in my thought process and have neglected a top program whose alums I cover often and thus should have mentioned, instead of making such a cursory assessment. I am very sorry."

Thanks again to her for calling me on my mistake.

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