Arts & Theater

Sacramento’s Big Idea company boosts other theaters

Benjamin Ismail consults the script at a rehearsal of “33 Variations,” opening Friday. The play concerns a musicologist researching Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations.”
Benjamin Ismail consults the script at a rehearsal of “33 Variations,” opening Friday. The play concerns a musicologist researching Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations.” bnguyen@sacbee.com

Big Idea Theatre has shown remarkable resiliency in its eight years, thriving on Del Paso Boulevard despite several changes in leadership and an unusually democratic approach to decision-making.

As artistic director Benjamin Ismail prepares to open Moisés Kaufman’s “33 Variations” on Friday, BIT is boosting other area theaters with its talented and reasonably ambitious 17-member company as well:

▪  Shannon Mahoney, co-founder of the community theater, makes her professional directing debut this weekend with her own production of “Rapture, Blister, Burn” at Capital Stage.

▪  Co-founder Kirk Blackinton (Mahoney’s husband) co-directed, with BIT alum Brian Harrower, Sacramento Theater Company’s production of “Julius Caesar,” which opened two weeks ago.

▪  BIT company members such as Jamie Kale, Elizabeth Holzman and the currently inescapable Ryan Snyder are turning up with regularity on professional stages.

▪  Ismail was just hired by Berkeley Rep as an understudy for its upcoming production of Molière’s “Tartuffe,” directed by the internationally celebrated Dominique Serrand.

Ismail, 29, knows well what the high-level experience and exposure can do for him. “It feels like the beginning of the next step for me professionally and personally as an actor,” he said. “It’s pretty crazy because I’m going back and forth between Berkeley and Sacramento sometimes twice in one day.”

Though he isn’t guaranteed any performances, Ismail will be on a moment’s call for every show once previews begin (today) through April 11. At the same time, back in Sacramento he’s positioning BIT as a viable intermediate company between community and professional theaters.

“People who are professionally minded, career-driven can have a place to come and work on shows and collaborate where they don’t feel like they’re dragging their feet,” Ismail said.

Professional director Janis Stevens staged BIT’s last show, Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud Nine,” and also taught workshops.

“Michael Laun (of STC) has been to our theater several times. Cap Stage has been a huge supporter. B Street company members are coming to see our shows,” Ismail added. That has helped the company raise its profile and gain confidence.

The professional theaters tap BIT company members for reasons both artistic and economic: The actors are appropriate for the roles they’re cast in, and not being Equity members, they don’t get paid as much.

Stephanie Gularte, the former Capital Stage producing artistic director, saw the BIT concept when Ismail was her assistant director on “Macbeth” and more recently when he was vital in the Cap Stage “Tribes” ensemble.

“I love the idea, and I think it’s really smart,” Gularte said from St. Petersburg, Fla., where she is the producing artistic director of American Stage. “I think that kind of organization (BIT) is a characteristic of a really healthy arts community. You need multitiered opportunities for artists who are in that early professional, pre-professional phase.”

Gularte sees merit in a company like BIT functioning as a farm team for professional theaters.

“I’m not sure there’s room right now for another Equity company in town, but having that non-union professional area gives them more flexibility, and it really says something about what’s going on in the arts community that that theater company is doing as well as they are and their artists are moving around and moving into the professional theaters,” she said.

Mahoney has particularly shown upward mobility, working in several Capital Stage productions, including noteworthy performances in “Clybourne Park” and “Maple and Vine” with Gularte. She earned her Equity card last fall in the hit B Street Theatre production of “Ladies Foursome.”

“It’s an exciting development in the company, which started a couple of years ago, and it’s evolving,” Mahoney said. “As I started to work more and more in the professional theaters, there seemed to be more and more opportunities.”

There have been opportunities for Blackinton as well, including a moving performance as Tom Joad in STC’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Mahoney and Blackinton took over BIT from Blake Flores in 2008 and moved it from Roseville to the 60-seat space in Sacramento. Blackinton had the idea of a community-theater group with everyone involved having a sense of ownership and involvement in the artistic process.

“It wasn’t important who stood at the head of the table,” Blackinton said.

There is an artistic director, but the company operates as a democratic collective; most things from the selection of the season’s plays to company officers to membership itself is voted on by the group. Company members are expected to volunteer a certain number of hours each season. Members can have creative preferences such as being cast in a particular role, but casting is also achieved through open auditions.

Blackinton knew that eventually he and Mahoney, who have two children together, wouldn’t have the time or energy to run a theater company along with their day jobs. He wanted to create an organization that could sustain itself. He and Mahoney both had extensive formal academic theater training and broad real world experience. They have been able to attract like-minded people to be a part of BIT. The artistic directorship has passed from Blackinton to Brian Harrower and now to Ismail.

Ismail admitted there are times he’d love to get things done faster, but he’s committed to Blackinton’s founding concepts. “It’s a fascinating hands-on way to to do theater, especially from an artist’s standpoint,” he said.

“I want to take that idea into the next level of sustainability, to create an ongoing search for new designers, new talent, and develop those emerging artists through our company. Create this collaborative atmosphere where we’re all working on each other and we’re all working on our art. It’s all about individual development for me.”

Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.

Big Idea Theatre

What: Production of “33 Variations” by Moisés Kaufman, directed by Benjamin Ismail

Where: 1616 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, opens March 13, continues through April 11

Tickets: $14-$20; $10 on Thursdays

Information: (916) 960-3036 or www.bigideatheatre.org

Capital Stage

What: Sacramento premiere of “Rapture, Blister, Burn” by Gina Gionfriddo, directed by Shannon Mahoney

Where: 2215 J St., Sacramento

When: Previews March 12-13, opens March 14, continues 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through April 12.

Tickets: $18-$20 previews; opening $34-$40, remainder of run, $22-$38.

Information: (916) 995-5464, www.capstage.org

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