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The theatre that is not a theatre

Atascadero residents put on one hell of a backyard show

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The maxim that good fences make good neighbors is generally sound advice. If you don’t want to know what goes on behind closed doors, don’t ask. In Anet and Charley Carlin’s case most people probably wouldn’t believe it anyway. On a bustling Thursday evening in August no fewer than 20 people rush throughout the couple’s house in Atascadero, each focused upon his or her task. A woman brandishing a curling iron almost insists upon doing my hair, in the courtyard—the heart of the storm—a figure balances on the roof in order to better adjust a towering lighting structure, and enticing scents waft through the rear of the house, mingling fraternally with the French music being piped into the courtyard.

DUEL OF THE PENS :  Freddy (Joe Eister), Germaine (Gailee Walker), Suzanne (Lauren Moore), Gaston (Dwaine Edwards), and Sagot (Michael Siebrass) watch as Picasso (Guy Marziello) and Einstein (Justin Thieleman) struggle to determine whose genius is greater. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • DUEL OF THE PENS : Freddy (Joe Eister), Germaine (Gailee Walker), Suzanne (Lauren Moore), Gaston (Dwaine Edwards), and Sagot (Michael Siebrass) watch as Picasso (Guy Marziello) and Einstein (Justin Thieleman) struggle to determine whose genius is greater.

 This is the fifth year the Carlins have operated a theater from their Atascadero home, one production each year, in their brick courtyard. The resulting performances are decidedly less amateur than many might expect. For one thing, Anet has a resume of theatrical experience longer than Michael Phelps’ arm. She has had a hand in founding nearly 10 local theaters, including PCPA and The Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville. She’s also taught theater at the high school and college level. So when Charley announced that he was going to transform their courtyard into a theater Anet was equal to the task of utilizing it to its fullest potential.

The first show, Anton and Show Business, took place in 2004 in the newly constructed stageless Brickyard Theatre. But eventually the Carlins installed a stage and followed their inaugural production with Wit (2005), Alfred Stieglitz Loves O’Keeffe (2006), and [sic] (2007).

 

“I pick plays that I want to live with, that are fun,” Anet explained. “I try to pick plays that are award-winning. You figure if you’re starting out with something good ;”

The play that Anet elected to live with this year was written by Steve Martin in 1993. She originally read Picasso at the Lapin Agile a decade ago, and saw a production at PCPA several years ago.

“Steve Martin’s a genius,” she said, explaining her love of the play. “Comedians are smart. They have to be really smart, but he also loves art.” The show takes two significant historical figures—Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein—just after the beginning of the 20th century and places them in a fictional scenario: The pair meet, as young men on the brink of unleashing their genius, in a bar in Montmartre. What follows is undoubtedly the most intelligent dialogue ever to take place in a bar in San Luis Obispo County.

In its five-year run the Brickyard Theatre has somehow managed to skirt the casting difficulties that plague many of the professional theaters locally. Anet credits the fact that her lengthy theatrical history has placed her in contact with actors of all ages across the county. In fact, she sometimes has auditions but can generally cast each play without them.

Because all Brickyard movers, shakers, and performers are volunteers, Anet makes it a priority to minimize rehearsal times. She casts early, either in May or June, giving the performers plenty of time to memorize their lines before rehearsals begin. Then it’s a brisk four to five weeks of on-site rehearsals. It’s a collaborative, consuming process for Anet, and one that she finds so enjoyable that she wouldn’t mind hosting multiple shows each year. But the weather in Atascadero isn’t always befitting an outdoor theater experience; September is the only month that staves off both heat and rain.

The set construction, like everything else at the Brickyard Theatre, is an intricate meld of professionalism and volunteerism. The lead set engineer, Joe Brenner, prefers to be called a set engineer rather than set designer because he is a retired engineer, and brings his talent as an engineer to the unique little space. The bar where the fateful meeting takes place is elegant and detailed enough that you could walk onto the stage and mistakenly order a drink. Several non-descript paintings hang unimportantly from the walls, including a pastoral sheep scene, which will have an important role to play as the performance unfolds.

With Charley in the kitchen cooking up delicious meals during each performance, it’s no great feat of mental acrobatics to understand why friends pour into the courtyard each year, willing to volunteer.

“I was reflecting on what this is and I would say this theater is not a theater,” pondered Anet, with a gesture at the evolving stage. “It is an agreement of friends and it’s sort of like a party.”

Each year Anet canvases the neighborhood, warning her neighbors that the annual show is approaching and inviting them to attend. But she says that she never hears any complaints, in part because audience members park near a softball field several blocks from the house and get bused to the theater. And, aside from the occasional rise of laughter, the sights and sounds generated by the production are generally muffled.

One-half of the 12 performances hosted each year benefit local nonprofit organizations, including Hospice of SLO, PathPoint, Inc., and AAUW. The other six performances cover the costs of staging the production. In past years the Carlins were reluctant to advertise openly, fearing that the city’s lawmakers might enforce some unheard-of ordinance preventing people from staging plays in their homes. But in the past five years their performances have entertained city council members and supervisors alike. Their years of advertising solely by handing out fliers on the sidewalk may finally be behind them.

It would certainly be unfortunate for lovers of quality theater to miss out on a gem of a show like Picasso at the Lapin Agile—particularly when such a performance is taking place in their own backyards, literally. Anet insists that, with this particular production, she managed to hit the maximum capacity for humanity on stage. And there is something particularly apt about the term human in relation to this production. As the characters marvel and imagine the events and technologies that will emerge within the century they have just transitioned into, they become a reminder of how small individuals are in relation to history and time.

Yet their eagerness to embrace this new world and its manifest possibilities illustrates the absolute joy and wonder of being a minute speck of humanity. Picasso, played by Guy Marziello, is driven by such joy, by his desire to create and admire things of beauty. And a young Albert Einstein (Justin Thieleman), with nary a strand of white hair, is just a step behind. Despite the fact that their talents drive them in different directions—art and science—they discover, primarily through a melodramatic drawing duel, that their interests are not so very disparate.

The play is chock-full of brilliant, insightful, and irreverent one-liners, and not all from the two genius characters, either. Germaine, the somewhat promiscuous but perceptive bartender’s partner (played by Gailee Walker), quips that “A mirror is like a mind; if you don’t use it, it loses its power to reflect.” And Sagot (Michael Siebrass), the flamboyant art dealer, humorously notes that “You want Jesus watching over you but not while you’re in the missionary position.”

The play’s sharp humor contrasts nicely with the mellow, night sky, studded with stars and—peeking from the corners of the roof—oak trees. Anything is more plausible under the stars, even a meeting between Picasso and Einstein. And while Martin’s writing is reliant upon the characters’ awareness that they are operating within the confines of a play, these periods of self-reflection do nothing to dim the clever stream of banter and thoughtful pronunciations.

The Brickyard Theatre is doubtlessly an entity of which no Homeowner’s Association would approve—irrefutable proof of the soulless nature of such organizations. It may even defy standard theatrical conventions. But I can’t think of a more noble or artful purpose for the courtyard of a private residence.

 

INFOBOX: Picasso in a bar near you

The Brickyard Theatre in Atascadero will be performing Picasso at the Lapin Agile through Sept. 27. Shows take place on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Tickets cost $40 for dinner and the show. For more information, or to reserve tickets, visit www.brickyardtheatre.com or call 462-1894.


Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach once bricked a man into a wall. Call her a Count at aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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