"The Altruists" Aims to Occupy Your Funny Bone

TheAltruists.jpg
Courtesy of Julia Lienke
Cast of "The Altruists" from left to right: Ronald Walker, Lance Kunze, Sydney Whipple, Ethan Bedillion and Cybil Ingland

The question that's perhaps most frequently asked by the news-junky crowd, with an appreciation for irreverent humor, is "Too soon?"

Is it too soon to poke fun at the Occupy movement? Or how about gay rights? Perhaps the treatment of killer whales at amusement parks?

Well, maybe a more appropriate date to release some of that otherwise inappropriate, pent-up laughter is Thursday, February 20, when the She Wolf Theatre Co. presents its inaugural production of Nicky Silver's offbeat play The Altruists at the Shelton Theater.

It tells the satirical tale of a merry band of passionate yet demented protestors who take on everything and essentially nothing as their group's main causes from AIDS research to school cutbacks, Women Against Drunk Drivers and Swedish rights.

SF Weekly caught up with directors Julia Lienke and Sarah Mosby, producer Paul Dabrowski and actress Grace Ingland to discuss the show's relevance and why San Francisco audiences should learn to laugh at themselves -- just a little. Hehe.

First of all, why this play and why now?

Paul Dabrowski: There's a couple of reason of why specifically now. It's super relevant because it's on the heels of the Occupy protests and it's in the midst of this unrest over inequality.

There's a lot of stuff boiling under the surface here that hasn't really come out yet and I think it's relevant to bring out kind of a lighter side before this all gets too serious. It also asks some very specific and deep questions such as the role of money in a capitalist society and how that influences even protesting and the altruism behind protesting. So there's all these deep questions and themes but meanwhile the entire play is hilarious.

Sarah Mosby: It is thought-provoking but it's also incredibly entertaining and so I hope people will walk away saying 'I was really entertained' or 'Wow, that's so incredibly relevant. I have some things to think about.' I think something also the text does is it forces us to confront our own inconsistencies behind behaviors and actions.

Grace Ingland: All these characters are such caricatures and hypocrites. Without giving anything away, they all end up committing the very travesty that they're actually protesting against.

I don't think Silvers is making a judgment on whether that's good or bad specifically, but just that we need to be aware of it and understand how those inconsistencies affect others.

So then the next question is why this play specifically in San Francisco for Bay Area audiences?

Mosby: Julia and I both live in the East Bay and we thought maybe we could do this somewhere in Berkeley or Oakland but we kept coming back to San Francisco because we feel that there's maybe a larger audience here and we want to give as many people as possible an opportunity to experience this production. There's always been this spirit of opposing injustice here in San Francisco that I think will resonate here.

Julia Lienke: It's been about four or five years ago that I was at an acting class at Santa Monica College and I asked my acting teacher, Aric Martin, for some suggestions on monologues and he said to pick up some Nicky Silver plays. I read The Altruists and The Food Chain and I loved both. But this script in particular is laugh-out-loud funny and I don't even have to see it performed to know that. That's a really good sign to me.

Originally I wanted to pitch this to some director friends because I wanted to act in it because all of these roles are an actor's dream. But then I realized I wanted to instead direct a show that I'm really passionate about. When I go to the theater, personally I want to laugh and have a good time. This script provides that.

What does it mean to be a true altruist?

Ingland: We actually had this conversation about true altruism a few weeks ago. I think that it's kind of built within us, even within our DNA, to help one another but ultimately that helps ourselves. I'm not saying that's not good but I think altruism itself does exist. I just don't know if it's as black and white as people would love to make it seem.

Is the acting of producing this current production an an act of altruism on your behalf? Or how would you characterize this play's contribution to the City?

Ingland: When you look at these characters as a whole, any theatergoer or audience member might be able pick out a character as you would your favorite Beatle and connect.

The biggest aspect of our characters is that they're all really immature. They're protesting great stuff but they're suffering from arrested development and I think there's humanity in that.

Dabrowski: There's got to be a portion of altruism to what we're doing because otherwise the whole team wouldn't put such an effort into it. From a financial perspective, as a producer, there isn't really much to gain. It's a small theater that's supported by patrons who enjoy theater and the people who are doing it really enjoy making it happen. And so to some extent, while it's self-serving, it also benefits others. It's another one of those situations where it's not immediately clear but we're just trying to do our best to bring a great show.

And just imagine if everyone was doing good deeds even if they felt good about it. What's wrong with feeling good about helping others? If everyone does it then they feel good and we feel good. It's the way to go.

The Altruists opens Thursday, February 20 at 8 p.m. and runs through March 8 at the Shelton Theater.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF, Jonathan at @jonramos17, and like us on Facebook.

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