photo of weisman smiling and wearing a straw hat
Stephanie Weisman (Photo/Kenny Yun)

Q&A: Building community around solo stage shows

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Name: Stephanie Weisman
Age: 61
City: Oakland
Position: Founder and artistic director of The Marsh

J.: In 1989, you founded the Marsh, now a well-respected theater destination for seeing or developing solo performance shows. With four stages in San Francisco and Berkeley, last year the Marsh produced 605 performances. What was the genesis for this endeavor?

Stephanie Weisman: When I was 10 or 12, growing up in upstate New York, I wrote a piece about racism. My mom gave it to my religious school teacher, and she had me read the piece in front of a packed house at the temple on family night.

And it went well?

We didn’t rehearse and no one told me how a microphone works, so at my first public reading, nobody could hear me. I didn’t know that until afterward, but the positive reaction from that community, combined with the failings in regard to my training, probably fueled the eventual development of the Marsh.

Where did the name come from?

I once lived in a house on a marsh in Delaware, and for me, the name is a metaphor for artistic development in an urban environment.

In the early days, you offered one performance a week at the Hotel Utah. Now the Marsh has performance series for established and developing works, classes, artist-in-residencies and after-school workshops for at-risk youth. How did someone who started out as a poet become a successful businesswoman?

I have learned to be inventive, to do the most with what I have, and that’s how we provide a base for as many performers as possible to have a voice.

they stand together at an outdoor party
Stephanie Weisman with former Mayor Willie Brown in 2016. Brown has done several shows with The Marsh. (Photo/Maggie Wilson)

A lot of performers who have appeared on your stages have made names for themselves across the county, including Josh Kornbluth, Ann Randolph, Brian Copeland, Marga Gomez, Dan and Geoff Hoyle, Echo Brown and Charlie Varon. How has the Marsh contributed to their success?

The Marsh is so organic — it reflects the times. Today, audiences are more invested in what we do than ever. They come to see theater relevant to the day, like Al Letson’s “Summer in Sanctuary” or Maureen Langan’s “Daughter of a Garbageman” or Brian Copeland’s show on suicide and depression [“The Waiting Period”]. That one we do for free, so everyone can come see it.

After 27 years of producing and promoting shows by other performers, in March you got up on stage for the first time and did a 40-minute autobiographical solo musical, “Breed and Rescue,” based on your experience adopting rescue dogs and then fostering and adopting a child. How did that show go?

It was pretty darn amazing. I spent a year writing it, hired a director and spent 30 days working with him. I even wrote four songs for the show, the first songs I had to learn since I was 12, when I peaked and then plummeted as a singer.

Were you nervous?

I was scared! I had to memorize 40 minutes of text and learn how to act it. My biggest fears were that I would faint or fall over or break my leg or look at the audience and lose myself. But I got through it pretty darn well.

You also have written and produced an opera, “Aphrodisia,” and you came up with a model to help performers develop a show and take it on the road. Talk a bit about that.

The Performance Initiative includes classes, guest lectures, workshops on the business of performance, several performances and then taking part in a festival. We’ve done this twice so far, and I would like to turn it into a more concentrated form, maybe a four-week summer program.

On a personal note, you met your husband at a Hanukkah party and married in 2000. Are you involved in Jewish life?

I feel very Jewish, though I am not a member anywhere. But for the past two decades, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I write about what I’ve done over the past year, read what I wrote in past years, and then write about what I want to do next. Last year, I did it on my Facebook page, putting out writing prompts. It had an impact on some people.

The 25th anniversary of the Marsh was in 2014. Are you making plans yet for the 30th?

I’m glad you brought that up — maybe it’s time to think about it. For now, my dream is for us to stay as flexible and organized as possible and at same time, to grow to a place of institutional sustainability.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.