Local playwright brings musical to stage
Two years ago, Wade Gess was recovering from brain surgery at UC San Francisco Medical Center when his doctor told him an MRI showed the infection was back, twice as big as before, and he’d need another surgery—immediately. With no time to process what he’d heard, and a very uncertain outlook, Gess resigned himself and consented.
“Right then, a new doctor came in and said, ‘Oh, by the way, I looked at your MRI. You’re fine. There was a mix up,’” Gess recalled.
For the local actor/playwright/musician, one brain surgery was enough for him to take stock of his life. “When things got better, I had a real moment where I realized I had been really, really ungrateful for a lot of things in my life,” he said.
He spent the next three months relearning how to read and speak (the surgery happened in the language center of his brain). Gess then recommitted himself to a theater project he’d started in 2015, an original musical based on his own life. And tonight (March 12), two years after his ordeal, Stuff-N-Things: A Fair Retail Musical makes it debut at the Blue Room Theatre.
Gess, 31, has been involved in local theater since he was a kid growing up in Oroville, acting in productions at the Birdcage Theatre and dipping his toe in theaters in Chico as well. At some point, he decided being on stage wasn’t for him.
“I wanted to be an actor for a long time, [but it] seemed a little exhausting emotionally to try and go into something like that,” Gess said in recent interview at the Blue Room.
“[But] I still wanted to be involved in theater in some capacity,” he added.
While he figured out his direction, Gess took a job as a program specialist at 7th Street Centre for the Arts in Chico. The position involved doing various arts projects with the center’s clients—adults with developmental disabilities—including putting on plays. Gess had taken a few piano lessons, and he said that was enough for Program Manager Natalie Valencia to make him music director.
“I started slowly writing a little bit of music for the shows,” Gess said. “I had never written music before. It was really fun.”
Gess’ turning point came when Valencia suggested he write a short musical on the subject of hygiene based on the interest of one of 7th Street’s clients, who also had a title ready: Soap, the Mini Musical.
“I spent two weeks doing it. … It turned out to be the best two weeks of my life,” he said. “Once I did that, I was like, ‘I wanna do that for realsies.’ And I went back to school to get my music degree, and that has kind of been leading to this.”
The setting for Stuff-N-Things comes from Gess’ time at Chico State, when he was working in retail to make ends meet while taking composition classes and starting the process of writing the musical.
“When I started to write this, I was working at Rite Aid on Mangrove, and I hated it a lot,” he said. “I was very depressed.”
Gess makes no secret of the fact that the play is deeply personal. It’s set in the fictional Stuff-N-Things department store, and the songs and story deal with that transitional time in his life, during which he also decided: “This is it. I want to take this experience and put it on stage.
“I spent a good six months, before I put real pen to paper, just creating a story—creating a structure, template. I wanted it to be legit. … I didn’t want it to be just me regurgitating onto a page,” he said.
After his surgery, he brought the musical to the Blue Room and work-shopped it again before getting the thumbs up to produce it there with Theater Manager Amber Miller directing, plus a cast of nine and a band of five (including Gess as pianist and music director).
Gess isn’t giving away too many details of the story, but the Blue Room’s promo says the “charming and provocative” musical “uses wry humor and brutal honesty to explore how corporate capitalism can fracture the American Dream, while sympathy with our fellow humans can lead to powerful new beginnings.”
The humor is evident in the lyrics of opening number “Stuff-N-Things”: We got cigarettes and plastic cups/and every kind of creams and make-ups/We have all the stuff you need/and everything you don’t/So, come for the things, stay for the wings!
“Working with the Blue Room has been amazing,” Gess said. “It’s been very surreal. It’s very weird sitting there and watching it and going, ‘Man, I made this happen.’”