‘Storm Reading’ Revisited
Back in 1988 nobody could have predicted the success or impact of Storm Reading, a theatrical play starring and based on the life experiences of Neil Marcus, a humorist-philosopher who lives with a neurological disorder called Dystonia that dramatically impacts his ability to speak and control movement. That includes Rod Lathim, who as head of Santa Barbara Access Theater Company – the pioneering organization whose “open-door casting” featured artists with physical disabilities, including deaf and blind as well as non-disabled performers – helped to shape Marcus’ writing into a coherent stage show and directed the play.
Marcus played himself during the play’s surprising international six-year run that offered vignettes showcasing his dedication to living life to the fullest, artistically and poetically, sharing the stage with Matthew Ingersoll, who often voices for Neil and portrays a myriad of characters, and American Sign Language interpreter Kathryn Voice, who offers movement as well as hand signals.
The play’s run came to a close in 1996 with a final performance that was videotaped. Now the vintage show returns to life as the next entry in the Marjorie Luke Theatre’s Virtual Concert Series, streaming 24 hours a day starting March 19. We caught up with Lathim, who runs the Luke and spearheads the series, to revisit Storm Reading.
Q. What did you see in this piece when Neil first brought it to you? It was raw material. How did you know you could make it into a piece of theater?
A. All he shared with me was a pile of his writing, literally in no particular order. Some were observations, some prose and poetry, others were stories and experiences, and some philosophical statements. It was a hodgepodge of snapshots of his experiences and his outlook on life, which was boldly refreshing to me. He had a voice that needed to be heard. So I picked pieces that I could see visually happening on stage, like entries in a diary that could be dramatized. We just started literally carving away day after day on how to bring these stories to life.
Watching the video again recently, I’m still struck by how there’s so much more humor and comedy than one might expect about such a serious subject as living with a debilitating disability and suffering from discrimination.
Neil is all about humor, which is one of the things that attracted me to his voice that was both funny and full of wisdom. And that’s important if you want to stage it for a general audience. Nobody would want to watch him just cope with a severe disability for an hour and a half, and that wasn’t who Neil is. Truly I was never so excited to offer the stage to someone with such a unique voice that was so empowering and liberating.
The show is 33 years old, and the video recording was made 25 years ago. What makes it worthwhile to include as part of the Virtual Concert Series, which has been almost exclusively streaming events that were created for and filmed at the Luke?
Simply because it still packs a punch. It still speaks to the unique way of how the world treats people who are different just because they’re different, whether it’s their skin color or their nationality or whatever. Neil is a classic example of someone living their life with absolute authenticity and not allowing themselves to be defined by our culture, by stereotypes, or anything. He is his own man and he has successfully pulled that off for over 60 years.
It helps that the show originated on a Santa Barbara stage before going on to tour the nation and parts of the world for six years. I still can’t come up with any other production that enjoyed that kind of success. But it hasn’t been seen here by all that many people in almost 30 years. And it’s a throwback to the days when Santa Barbara was really creating original theater on a scale that isn’t even really doable anymore. That seemed important, too.
Speaking of success, how surprised were you by how well it was received?
Shocked, really. We were just heading into our 10th year of operation and people knew who we were because we’d had a good run of shows. But when I told people about Neil and the concept for Storm Reading, almost everyone said, “You can’t do this. You can’t put this guy on stage. It’s not going to work. It’s gonna totally bomb. Why would you do that?” But they hadn’t met Neil. They didn’t see what I saw in him. I just decided that we were going to do it. We were scared to death. But on opening day, we had a student matinee show as a preview with kids from about three different high schools in Santa Barbara. And they just loved it. I’ve never seen a group of high school students react to anything the way they did to Neil and the show. I remember we were holding our heads like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone thinking, “Oh my God, it worked!” We sold out two weekends at the Lobero over the next 48 hours just by word of mouth.
Then it started getting rave reviews and people started booking us and it went on for six years. Its success was part of why Access was able to end with leaving behind an endowment, which actually helped fund the Marjorie Luke Theatre itself.
The play seemed to make a difference in shedding light on how the disabled are treated in general, and particularly in theater, raising ideas about what people are capable of. Do you think that impact still exists? Have things changed in the last 20 years?
I think it’s something that humanity is always going to have to work on. Specifically for people who have disabilities in the arts, things have gotten much better. An actress who uses a wheelchair won a Tony (Ali Stroker for Oklahoma! in 2019), Big River, and Spring Awakening had actors with disabilities, and there was a deaf competitor on Dancing with the Stars. So I feel really good about how far we’ve come. But we still have a long way to go. Just the fact that in 2020 and ‘21, there’s still a need for Black Lives Matter. What does that say about our society? We’re very slow to learn. Hopefully we’re getting better.
Just Gilles: Apap Still Fiddling Around
It’s hard to imagine that Gilles Apap, the French classical violinist who enjoys a solid reputation as a soloist with orchestras around the world but still relishes any opportunity to fix his fiddle on folk tunes and gypsy music, will turn 58 later this spring. The impish Apap maintains both a youthful appearance and an ever-curious attitude that has served him well in endeavors that also include surfing whenever the waves, and timing, are right.
Apap won first prize in the contemporary music category at the Yehudi Menuhin Competition in 1985, and in the 1990s served a stint as concertmaster with the Santa Barbara Symphony for a decade, during which he also played small halls, clubs, and homes with the Transylvanian Mountain Boys, and showed up regularly at the Old Time Fiddlers Convention to jam with all comers on the lawn.
So Apap’s appearance with the Santa Barbara Symphony as part of its virtual concert series recorded live at the Granada most assuredly serves as a homecoming of sorts for those who still can recall his brilliant playing in an astonishing array of genres. In a program simply dubbed “Violins Around The World: From Classical to Bluegrass,” the violinist, who now lives in Atascadero, joins orchestra maestro Nir Kabaretti for a globetrotting program that includes a fiddler who 200 years ago might have been Apap’s foil as Joseph Boulogne de Chevalier St-Georges, was a champion fencer as well as a virtuoso violinist and conductor who has the distinction of being the first classical composer of African ancestry. His Symphony No 1 features fast and intricate violin parts, complex music that he wrote to show off his skills, which should show Apap in good light.
Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, “The Turkish,” will also reveal Apap’s versatility as the piece will feature unique interpretations for the instrument, while Apap’s own Arrangements for String Orchestra and Violin features French, Irish, Balkan, Bluegrass and popular music, with segments titled “Fiddlin’ Around,” “Old Dangerfield,” “Java Manoush,” “Dracula Breakdown,” and “Irish Polka.” Apap’s appearance, albeit on video only for the audience, should still be a sight (and sounds) to behold, a highlight of the season so far. The streaming event debuts at 7 pm on March 20, and remains available for 30 days. Visit https://thesymphony.org.
Classical Cornerf: CAMA’s Collins Sound/Stage Cocktail
Tune in at 5 pm on Friday, March 19, for CAMA Women’s Board’s community-oriented preview of Episode 2 of the LA Philharmonic’s new season of Sound/Stage, featuring bi-weekly virtual concerts recorded live at the Hollywood Bowl. Dubbed “A Pan-American Musical Feast,” the performance includes a conversation between Music & Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel and José Andrés, the renowned Spanish-American chef, restaurateur and founder of World Central Kitchen (WCK), a nonprofit devoted to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters, who just appeared for UCSB A&L’s House Calls this past Sunday. Enjoy the many sounds and flavors of the Americas with music by composers Tania León (Fanfarria), Paul Desenne (Sinfonía Burocratica ed’Amazzonica: “Bananera”), and Aaron Copland (Appalachian Spring Suite chamber version). Kick off the concert experience with CAMA’s Deborah Bertling, Women’s Board President and Host of the pre-event, along with David Malvinni, who offers About the Program lectures, and Fun Facts Host Kacey Link. Visit https://camasb.org/get-involved.