John Sbordone is back.
The theater director who built the Flagler Playhouse before his abrupt end with that stage last February is launching the City Repertory Theatre this evening with a “Poetry Clash” staged at Hollingsworth gallery, at City Market Place, where the theater will have its home this season.
Poetry Clash Tonight,
Saturday, July 23:
- At 7:30 p.m. at Hollingsworth Gallery, at City Marketplace in Palm Coast. The Poetry Clash features Onicas Gaddis, Nina Link, Brian McMillan and Janet Redemann. Directed by John Sbordone. A production of the City Repertory Theatre. A $10 donation is requested. This is a fund-raiser for the theater’s upcoming season. Call 871-9546 for details.
The clash is something new for Palm Coast, where public poetry readings are rare, and clashing poetry evenings even rarer still: tonight’s might well be the first. It will feature four poets and their alternating styles, and in some cases songs or prose, from the delicate emotional impressionism of Brian McMillan (the managing editor of the Palm Coast Observer) to the raw, emotional nail-scratching of Nina Link. They’ll take the stage at 7:30 this evening, a stage that’s not quite a stage in one of the gallery’s storefronts, in the style of the SoHo theaters of the previous century.
[A quick update following the evening at Hollingsworth: it was standing room only. The poets filled the gallery, every seat, and more had to be brought in, for a seated turnout of about 60.]
“In New York, in the 40s, 50s and into the 60s and 70s,” Sbordone says, “New York theater space was so expensive that in storefronts throughout the Village and the environs, and in churches, serious theater groups trying to make serious theater were working in environments like this, and that storefront theater is a tradition. It’s a great tradition. A lot of great theaters like La Mama and St. Clemens all started in places like this.”
It’s a little different at City Marketplace, where more than half the storefronts are empty. The only energy of the beleaguered shopping center has been pulsing from its cultural venues—Hollingsworth Gallery, the Flagler County Art League a few doors down, Mia Bella Dance Academy across the way (and Dominick’s Deli downstairs, where arts lovers go after their cultural fix). The addition of the City Repertory Theatre, even if on borrowed premises for now, should be a natural fit for a Palm Coast’s only meaningful arts hub.
“The bottom line is that John is a passionate son of a gun and he wants to do this and he’s a friend of mine,” says JJ Graham, owner of the Hollingsworth Gallery, “and I think he can do it. So I’m going to support him any way that I can. Kids that are involved are way into it, and they feel the same way about that as some of my kids feel about painting and sculpture, and I think that as long as that emotion or that spirit is involved in it, it’ll do well.”
If it does, it’ll add to a burgeoning stage scene in Palm Coast and Flagler County—between the Flagler Auditorium’s professional and amateur shows, not least those of Flagler Palm Coast’s emerging drama players, the Flagler Playhouse’s continuing commitment to community theater, and now the City Repertory Theatre. Palm Coast may have little business activity to celebrate. But it can celebrate its nascent cultural vigor.
Sbordone intends his venture to be seriously entertaining, artistic and daring. No surprise from a director who likes to test boundaries. The controversy that contributed to his ouster at the Playhouse bubbled out of the glass of wine he liked to have either during rehearsals or on show nights, a glass his board considered inappropriate. This evening, the $10 price of admission includes a glass of wine.
“This is here to introduce people to our theater, who we are, what we are,” Sbordone said, just before his last rehearsal of the poetry clash. “Our theater is about doing things that nobody else will do. We want to do things that are thought provoking, that will foster discussion, that will provide Palm Coast and the environs with an actors’ theater, and we’re trying to find the absolute best actors in the three-county area to do the shows. So far we’ve had magnificent success.”
Look for the likes of Kelly Nelson, who starred in last season’s “Hairspray” at the Playhouse (and FPC’s new drama director), the velvety-voiced Laniece Wilson, Brett Cunningham and Manny DaMata, all of them alumni of Sbordone productions, and Tyrique Harper, who can hold audiences spellbound—as he did in his role as Clorox in the Playhouse’s “The Me Nobody Knows” in April. Harper, who just graduated Matanzas High School, whose theater program is under Sbordone’s direction, would have been part of this evening’s clash, but he’s finishing a college tour.
“We’re tracking wonderful actors and we’re cast through into February,” Sbordone said of the 25-odd actors now in the company. “The whole idea is that we’re an actors’ theater. We have a company. We’re putting everybody who works for us in the company, so they’ll be listed in every program throughout the year.”
Diane Ellertsen, Sbordone’s long-time partner at the Playhouse, where she was the board president–and where she left the day Sbordone did–has been working just as closely with him on the City Repertory Theatre. Look, too, for boundary-breaking theater there, at least for Palm Coast. At the Playhouse, Sbordone tried to slip in one or two works per year that flirted with the edge of the conventional.
There will be nothing conventional at the City Repertory Theatre. It’s a contemporary theater the way Hollingsworth Gallery is a contemporary art gallery: experimentation, abstraction, leaping across boundaries: that’s as much part of the momentum behind the theater as its intentions to be a learning academy for young actors. The year’s lineup reflects it.
Tonight’s poetry clash is a prelude. On Aug. 4, 5 and 6, Sbordone will stage his own “Rockabilliewillie,” an experimental production based on 25 plays by William Shakespeare. The official opening takes place the evening of Sept. 15 with “The Laramie Project,” a play based on the story of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student tortured and murdered near Laramie, Wyo., in October 1998, for being gay.
“It’s an HBO film, it’s so compelling,” Sbordone says of the Original Laramie project. “You’ve got interviews with over 200 people, and those are used as the text of the show to do like what Thornton Wilder did in Our Town, build a town. The town of Laramie is built through these 200 interviews and probably 60 characters that are played by eight people, so it’s really, really fascinating.”
That play, like every stage production, will run for six shows over two weekends. It’ll be followed by “Talking With,” featuring nine women’s monologues about their experiences (there’s a snake handler, a daughter, a cowgirl, an old woman, and so on). Subsequent plays will include “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” Yasmine Reza’s “Art” (a fascinating look at three friends’ take on a work of modern art, which happens to be a white canvas) , and “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the Moon Marigolds,” the Paul Zindel play. That’s not all: there’ll be smaller productions along the way, and into May.
Sure, the stage will be small. The theater will seat fewer than 60 people. Sbordone, a minimalist by nature, will incorporate the seating arrangements into each production’s staging to maximize the use of the space and play on its intimacy with the audience. It may be a storefront. But it’s not any kind of storefront. The walls, covered with art, are already playing their parts.
“We have something in common,” Graham says, “because I like art that challenges people. Some of his plays definitely take people out of their comfort zone, and I think that’s a good thing. We need to look at things from other viewpoints, other lifestyles. What the heck else are we going to do around here? Now we’ve got a gallery, we’ve got a little school going here, let’s get the theater going, let’s kick it, man.”
It begins tonight.