Arts & Theater

Capital Stage cooks up restaurant drama to start new season

Michael Stevenson
Michael Stevenson Sacramento Bee file

Capital Stage producing artistic director Michael Stevenson soon will really own it.

The company’s 2016-17 six-play season – opening this weekend with the world premiere of Will Snider’s “How To Use A Knife” – was completely chosen by Stevenson. A significant component of the artistic director’s job is picking the work the company presents. It’ll be his plays and his casts and creative teams. Not that he wasn’t invested in the previous season chosen by former artistic director Jonathan Williams, but in his first year on the job Stevenson was just getting acclimated to his surroundings.

“I went from being a free-lancer to being somebody who’s part of an organization,” Stevenson said. “Luckily the people who work in the organization are deeply skilled in what they do and have strong institutional knowledge so I was able to step in and start doing my job with a big support system around me.”

Much of Stevenson’s change has been pulling back his focus. Instead of a specific production he might be directing or acting in, there’s a whole season’s worth of shows to consider.

“That was surprising to me because of that sense of ownership you have when you’re just involved in one play – the decisions you make are just based on that short time frame,” Stevenson said.

“Now I have to look at a longer time frame and what’s the impact across seven shows.”

Stevenson said that while in rehearsals for “Knife,” which he is directing, he realized, “Oh, I’ve chosen all these plays for people to watch and I have a very strong sense of responsibility to our audience that come to see the shows.”

As the public face of the company, Stevenson experienced the range of emotions and reactions those audiences have during the separate runs of all the different shows.

“I had never been in this position before, so it was fascinating to watch a whole season unfold,” Stevenson said. “I was surprised at how strong the response was but that’s also a measure of how we engaged our audience. You are definitely going to hit some home runs and you’re going to strike out.”

Other plays in Stevenson’s first season are Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” (Oct. 19-Nov. 20), Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” (Jan. 25-Feb. 26), Raj Joseph’s “Guards At The Taj ” (March 15-April 16), Aaron Posner’s “Stupid F**king Bird” (May 3-June 4) and Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews” (June 21-July 23).

One of last year’s clear home runs was the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere of Steven Yockey’s wistful one-woman drama “Blackberry Winter,” which featured a bravura performance by Amy Resnick. “How To Use A Knife” also comes from the NNPN, and this will be the play’s first full production.

Stevenson pursued the play after seeing it read at an NNPN showcase last year. Set in the kitchen of a busy New York restaurant, the play explores the cross-section of cultures and sensibilities who work in a contemporary urban environment. The cast includes Adrian Roberts, Harry Harris, Kirk Blackinton and Kelley Ogden.

“It’s very funny, the language is very precise, and it also deals with some surprising themes, surprising complexity,” Stevenson said. “I like to call it kitchen noir, it’s got a hard-boiled working man’s view of the world, but there’s a story inside the story.”

The 29-year-old playwright, Snider, who has been here working on the show with the cast and director, based much of the play on his experiences in kitchens in New York.

“I was fascinated by this work environment that seems to be one of the last American work environments without an HR department,” Snider said.

“It was the closest I’ve come in my adult life to playing competitive team sports. There’s this ability to say anything – the most offensive crazy thing or actually just straight-up curse out a co-worker - and then everyone could just retire to the bar a couple hours later and have a beer and it was all forgotten.”

While the cultural mix struck Snider, the process of how other elements worked in the restaurant also fascinated him. Tasks were fixed by nationality – a kitchen where all the cooks were from the same town in Mexico and the dishwashers were all from Mali in Africa. Whenever someone left, they were replaced by someone from the same town or country. Snider also noticed how work friendships were just that and nothing more.

“You worked really intimately with people but you didn’t really know their life story,” Snider said.

But people do have lives and histories outside of work and Snider wanted that included. “I was interested in the kinds of stories that come out of this environment rather just representing the environment in a docudrama way,” Snider said.

Though Snider has had several readings of the play with different casts during the last two years, this is the first time he’s had actors actually moving around while saying the words.

“Seeing them on their feet doing it has not necessarily changed my view of the play but this is what I always wanted the play to be,” Snider said.

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

How to Use a Knife

What: Capital Stage presents the National New Play Network rolling world premiere of Will Snider’s play, directed by Michael Stevenson. With Adrian Roberts, Harry Harris, Kirk Blackinton and Kelley Ogden.

Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento

When: Sept. 3-Oct. 2. Previews Aug. 31-Sept. 2

Times: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Tickets: $23-45. Student rush half price with ID available one hour of performance; senior tickets $5 off. Military personnel $10 off. For previews, tickets cost $22. For the Sept. 3 opening night and reception starting at 8 p.m., tickets cost $35-45.

Information: 916-995-5464; capstage.org

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