Theater for dummies
Local director returns after six-year absence with Essential Self-Defense
If there is such a thing as calm ebullience, Martin Chavira exudes it.
The youthful 43-year-old, whose graying hair looks almost as if it has stage makeup combed through it, sat at a table in the Empire Coffee train car on a recent sunny Saturday morning, bubbling brightly in a soft-spoken voice about the play he’s directing for Rogue Theatre, Essential Self-Defense.
Last year Chavira got a call from Rogue member Betty Burns, who asked if he wanted to become involved with the fledgling company.
“She caught me just at the right time,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do something fun.’ “
Essential Self-Defense was written by Adam Rapp, a playwright-in-residence at New York City’s innovative Edge Theater. The story is about, among other things, the relationship that develops between an antisocial man who works as an attack dummy in a women’s self-defense class in the Midwest and one of the students, an anxiety-attack-prone bookworm named Sadie.
Chavira became interested in the play last year after reading about it in an issue of The New Yorker. When he finally read the actual play, he fell in love with it.
A director with a long history in local theater, Chavira left Chico for the Bay Area in 1995 after obtaining his bachelor’s degree in English from Chico State (and taking numerous theater classes and acting in Blue Room Theatre productions).
He started San Francisco’s Thunderbird Theatre Company in 1998 along with Chico ex-pats Kathy Hicks, Bryce Allemann and Christy (West) Gomez before moving back to town with his wife, Christina, and their son, Jesse, in 2002. They had their second child, Lilia, two years ago, which might have something to do with Chavira’s absence from theater.
Essential Self-Defense is the first full-length show he’s directed in almost six years. Chavira said he’s excited, and happy with the new working relationship with 1078 Gallery as a venue for Rogue productions.
That’s not to say everything has gone smoothly with the production. There was a snag early on when the play’s call for auditions, amazingly, had no takers.
“We had auditions at [local actor Brett Edwards'] house, but no one showed up,” Chavira said. “I had to go find a cast, one by one. But I went from nothing to having a very talented cast.”
The cast includes a number of familiar names, including Edwards, Benjamin Allen and Hugh Brashere.
High on his list was Samantha Perry, the 29-year-old local fave who plays Sadie—and the only actor he had cast before calling for auditions. Chavira had mentioned the play to Perry when the pair were acting in the Rogue production of Pillowman last September. She read the play, and really wanted to be Sadie.
“She just has this very vulnerable desperation that I can relate to,” said Perry, who is being directed by Chavira for the first time.
Perry acts opposite fellow local favorite actor Jeremy Votava, whom she refers to as one of her favorite co-stars. Votava plays Yul, the “attack dummy,” described by Chavira as “a weird loner guy who lives in a basement apartment.”
Chavira says he’s not the first person to refer to Votava and Perry as “the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn of Chico.”
“They can suck you into a scene even at rehearsal,” he said. “And I’m thinking, ‘Now if I can only create a world good enough to do justice to their work.’ “
Perry feels good about the world Chavira has created in Essential Self-Defense, although everyone involved is careful not to give away too much.
“The play has so many different twists and turns,” she says. “The beginning is so different from the end, [but] the play just keeps moving on—it’s such madness!”
But with her usual throaty chuckle, Perry did say what audience members could expect to come away with after an hour and a half with Sadie and Yul.
“It’ll make you feel really good about your own life after you see these people.”