Behind the spotlight

Director Frank Condon prefers to put the play and the actors on center stage and let the controversial plays he chooses do the talking

Frank Condon (center) positions actor Blair Leatherwood (with phone), as actress Jan Ahders and actor Michael Beckett look on. In The American Clock<i>, a family falls from chauffeur-driven affluence to riding the bus, after the stock-market crash of 1929.</i>

Frank Condon (center) positions actor Blair Leatherwood (with phone), as actress Jan Ahders and actor Michael Beckett look on. In The American Clock, a family falls from chauffeur-driven affluence to riding the bus, after the stock-market crash of 1929.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Some directors are flamboyant and, well, dramatic. They’re gabby and opinionated, and they wade into conversations and dominate them. A few, like political filmmaker Michael Moore, turn themselves into characters in their own work.

Frank Condon, who is entering his 10th year as artistic director at Sacramento’s River Stage, is an altogether different sort. He is as deeply interested in politics and history as any director you will find. But he’s not into becoming a mouthpiece, or centerpiece, himself. If you look carefully, you’ll see him at performances, observing intently from a perch in the back row, holding a pad of paper and quietly taking notes. You’ll never see him onstage during a show.

When Condon does get up on the stage to address the audience before a performance, he looks a tad uneasy and often relies on notes to make sure he doesn’t forget something he needs to say, or someone he needs to thank. During radio interviews, Condon tends to start out speaking rather stiffly. He needs to “warm up” in the presence of a microphone before the natural conversation begins to flow.

But don’t let Condon’s personal disdain for the spotlight make you think there’s anything wishy-washy about the way he directs a show. For 10 years, Condon has been staging shows that deal with issues most other local theaters tend to avoid—shows that take a hard look at subjects like racial stereotypes, immigrant life and justice miscarried. Sometimes, it’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning script that larger local theater companies felt was a little too risky. Other times, it’s a brand-new script, getting its premiere. The common thread is that Condon is not afraid to ask his audience to think.

“If a play doesn’t ask some tough questions … what’s the point?” he once said.

And as a director, Condon loves live theater—the kind of experience where you, as a member of the audience, are so close that you can hear the performers breathing, and you feel like you’re present at the scene. “It’s the opposite of a viewing screen,” Condon said. “Nowadays, we spend so much time in front of a screen, whether it’s a computer, or TV, or a film. It’s my sensibility that a theatrical event is much more organic—vital—and it’s dealing with our live senses. You are right there. That performance is affected by the audience, and the audience is affected firsthand by the performance.”

Condon loves American theater and contemporary plays. Most of the shows he’s presented at River Stage have been written by Americans, been set in modern times and dealt with American themes.

The interesting thing—and perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise—is that Condon was not born an American. You’d never guess it talking to him: He speaks and dresses like a Californian who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. There’s no trace of a British accent. But he was born in rural Derbyshire, England, in 1943, while the Nazi bombers were terrorizing Britain’s cities. Pregnant women, like Condon’s mother, were sent to the countryside for safety.

After the war, the family moved to London. Condon’s parents took him out to the sort of performances that children enjoy: the circus and Mary Martin doing Peter Pan.

The family immigrated to the United States when young Frank was 8. They sailed on a passenger liner, tourist class. The family settled in Southern California, where Frank came of age in the early 1960s. After graduating from high school, he joined the Army. It was not a good experience. “I went in as a ‘gung-ho’ young man, and I came out as a disenchanted, angry, more mature young man,” he said.

He became a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he witnessed the Isla Vista riots in the late 1960s. Then-Governor Ronald Reagan sent in the National Guard. “I saw people getting dragged downstairs by their hair. I saw part of the riots, when the Bank of America was burned. The next day, I went and took pictures. I still have them,” Condon said.

Condon intended to major in history, but he switched to the theater department. He became interested in what he calls “guerrilla theater,” shows produced by students in the streets. He went to Delano and saw the political plays presented to farmworkers in the fields by Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino. And he saw the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which still tours with provocative political shows.

Condon also researched commedia dell’arte—a style of popular entertainment that flourished in Italy in the 1600s, featuring masked performers and jugglers. Commedia typically features a comic (and sometimes subversive) conflict between servant types and high-class characters.

And eventually, Condon transitioned from theater history into directing. “And was told I was very good at it,” Condon said.

UC Santa Barbara had Hollywood connections then, as it does now. “I was in Michael Douglas’ first play. Kirk Douglas came to see the show,” he said. But Condon didn’t want to go into movies or TV.

He taught theater at Santa Barbara High School for four years and then moved to San Diego, where he worked on a master’s degree in directing and put together a touring commedia dell’arte troupe that performed outdoors in parks.

He began directing experimental theater in Los Angeles. And in 1979, Condon teamed up with writer and producer Ron Sossi on a show that became a hit, The Chicago Conspiracy Trial. Condon and Sossi put together the script, based on testimony at the famous trial after the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. It ran for 14 months and won the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for directing and playwriting, and other critics’ awards.

The show put Condon in touch with many people who are depicted in the play. “I got to work with Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, Lenny Weinglass, William Kunstler and Bobby Seale. Even Abbie Hoffman came, though under cover. He left a note to verify that he had seen it,” Condon said.

The sheer size of The Chicago Conspiracy Trial eventually caused the show to close. “With 36 people in the cast, it was a nightmare to keep it going. In L.A., people in a play get sucked up into TV.”

Condon followed up with Year One of the Empire, a play set around 1900 depicting historical figures and events like Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, Henry Cabot Lodge and the shooting of former President William McKinley.

Condon’s growing reputation for politically informed theater put him in touch with cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who draws Doonesbury. Condon, Trudeau and others cooked up a show based on Trudeau’s satiric take on then-President Reagan, blending Reagan with the Max Headroom character then popular on TV.

The result was a show called Rap Master Ronnie, and Condon was involved with productions in Los Angeles, Seattle, San Diego, Toronto and San Francisco. Trudeau updated the show frequently, with new scenes and new jokes—for instance, satirizing popular films like Top Gun while criticizing Reagan in comic terms for bombing Libya.

Condon was on the go, keeping up with projects around the country. He met playwrights Mark Medoff (winner of a Tony award for Children of a Lesser God), Doris Baizley and Mark Stein, all of whom became longtime creative associates of his. He became friends with Valdez, while Valdez was riding high on the success of the stage version of Zoot Suit in Los Angeles. Valdez invited Condon to direct a show for El Teatro Campesino. Most of the time, Condon also held down a teaching job—a common practice for a freelance director.

Condon also fell in love with Kim Simons, who had designed the costumes for The Chicago Conspiracy Trial in 1979. They married in 1983 and had a daughter in 1989. Condon settled into a teaching post at UC Santa Barbara, his alma mater.

Condon returned to Los Angeles in 1994, directing a 15th-anniversary revival of The Chicago Conspiracy Trial. But after the Northridge earthquake, Condon wanted to get his family out of Los Angeles.

Condon had heard of a job at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento. He came north, interviewed and got the job.

Photos of Albert Einstein and Thomas Jefferson, posters from past River Stage productions, books on acting, and lots and lots of scripts sit on Frank Condon’s desk in his office at Cosumnes River College.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Moving from a UC campus to a community college might strike some as a step down. But Condon had always wanted to found his own theater (“rather than fixing someone else’s headache”), where he could make the artistic choices, while continuing to teach.

Condon moved to Sacramento in 1994 and began organizing River Stage. He put together his first shows at California Stage, a tiny theater in a converted metal shed alongside the light-rail tracks in Midtown Sacramento.

River Stage moved into its permanent home—a black-box theater with a thrust stage—when the building was finished in 1996. It’s the kind of open, exposed performance space Condon prefers. He doesn’t like the traditional proscenium stage, where the action is framed within an opening between the audience and the actors.

At River Stage, Condon has focused on his specialty: politically and historically informed shows, including The Chicago Conspiracy Trial. (See the sidebar, “Frank’s greatest-hits compilation,” for highlights.) He also initiated an ongoing playwright’s festival that develops new scripts. It’s the only theater in town where a Tony winner like Medoff returns, again and again.

Medoff’s Tommy J and Sally—the title refers to the romance between Thomas Jefferson and a slave he owned, Sally Hemmings—was developed at River Stage and later given a studio production at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

When Medoff and Condon get together to work on a new script, the process is intense and surprisingly speedy. Medoff flies into town with the text in his laptop computer. But, as Condon says, “You don’t really know what you’ve got until you get [the script] up on its legs.”

Last February, Medoff arrived with a new play called The Same Life Over, about the search for a girl who’s disappeared, which grows complicated because the authorities are beginning to believe that the girl’s father, who wants to lead the search, may be their prime suspect in the case.

Over the course of several nights, Condon and a group of actors gave staged readings of the script before a live audience, with Condon and Medoff watching like hawks, taking notes. They were particularly interested in seeing where the audience got wrapped up in the play, and where people’s attention began to drift, as well as hearing people’s comments after the show. Then, Condon and Medoff huddled in the green room, talking quickly, often in fragmentary sentences—observant statements from veteran to veteran, high-speed shoptalk, like hearing a pair of surgeons talk about an operation. As longtime associates, they cut to the quick in terms of which scenes needed more work and which proved to be unnecessary baggage.

After each session, Medoff would retreat to his hotel room and rework his script into the small hours. The next afternoon, he’d be back in the green room at River Stage, with page after page of revised dialogue streaming out of his portable printer. Condon and the actors absorbed the new material and tried it out onstage within an hour. Over a week, some characters in the story were merged, and others eliminated altogether. A few scenes were expanded to enhance their dramatic impact, and others were cut. And the script emerged from the process improved, at least to the playwright’s mind.

Medoff, for his part, likes developing a new script with Condon. “I have enormous respect for Frank as an individual and a man of the theater, and I think what he’s achieved with River Stage is just short of miraculous. The courage of the work he chooses sets him at the apex of what we might call ‘humanitarian theater.’”

Condon also stages classics—but when he does them, he gives them an American spin. A Midsummer Night’s Dream became a rock musical, set on the street in a multicultural urban ghetto, with Puck carrying a boombox. Molière’s The Miser was moved from France to a California hacienda in the days of Mexican rule. Condon stages classics with multiethnic casts. Other directors do this, as well—Peggy Shannon of the Sacramento Theatre Company once cast a black actor as Scrooge—but Condon has been doing it longer, and more often, than anyone else in town.

River Stage also presents plays by African-Americans (August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, among others), Latinos (Valdez’ I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!, with Valdez in the audience on opening night) and Asian-Americans (David Henry Hwang’s F.O.B.—meaning “fresh off the boat”).

A River Stage production typically includes a few actors with professional experience. You’ll also find some advanced students who’ve come up through Condon’s acting classes at the college, as well as veteran community actors in the older roles.

Because River Stage is located at Cosumnes River College, near the border between Sacramento and Elk Grove, Condon initially had to work hard to get audiences—accustomed to attending plays in downtown and Midtown Sacramento—to drive south to the suburbs and give his theater a try. He was frustrated during the mid-1990s by the common assumption that there couldn’t be anything interesting out past Sutterville Road.

But Condon eventually built an audience. And he feels River Stage enjoys some advantages over professional theaters like the Sacramento Theatre Company or the B Street Theatre. “For one thing, we can do the larger-cast plays,” he said. “A group like the Sacramento Theatre Company couldn’t do The Chicago Conspiracy Trial.” Condon likes to do plays that require a cast of 20 or more, and for a theater using union actors, the payroll would be too expensive.

This year’s first River Stage production—The American Clock: A Vaudeville—is the kind of play that Condon likes to stage. The American Clock is a panoramic overview of the Great Depression, written by a major American playwright, Arthur Miller, based partly on Studs Terkel’s book Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. It depicts the stock-market crash of 1929 and the painful, socially chaotic years that followed, when many families fell from affluence into poverty, or even homelessness, and many people wondered if the country had lost its way.

The action includes a bank foreclosing on a Midwestern farm, urban workers losing their jobs, and unemployed people waiting for handouts. These grim scenes alternate with cheerful piano ditties, vaudeville songs and even a bit of soft-shoe dancing—all popular forms of entertainment in that era.

The American Clock seldom is staged—Condon’s is apparently only the second production in California—because it requires a big cast and tackles complex themes. Condon picked it because he thought the theme of disappearing jobs would resonate with today’s audiences, as Americans are seeing more and more jobs outsourced overseas.

River Stage’s February show will be The Waiting Room by Lisa Loomer, which deals with how women have changed their bodies to attain perceived standards of beauty. Characters include an Asian woman whose feet have been bound (causing her toes to rot and drop off), a 19th-century woman whose girdle is drawn so tight that her internal organs are damaged, and a modern woman whose surgical enhancement through breast implants leads to cancer. Condon selected the script, but he will have Maggie Adair Upton direct the show. “This is rather personal for me because my wife is being treated for cancer,” Condon said.

Condon’s penchant for provocative subjects has led some to question his business sense. He was cautioned against staging How I Learned to Drive,a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about an underage girl tempted into a sexual relationship by a middle-aged uncle. Condon was asked, “Are you sure you want to do a show about the abuse of a young girl? Nobody’s going to come.” He heard similar predictions about Disability: A Comedy: “Who wants to see a play about a wheelchair guy locked up in his apartment?” (Realistically, when’s the last time you saw a play about a disabled character of any kind?)

Condon staged both plays anyway. “I responded to these pieces because they’re theatrically alive, highly entertaining, and yet they’re dealing with something that is pithy,” he said. “They deal with an issue that concerns us. People are drawn to them. So, I go with my gut,” he said.

Condon’s gut sense was correct in both instances. How I Learned to Drive and Disability: A Comedy did very well at the box office.

But Condon’s gut isn’t infallible. His production of The Laramie Project earlier this year was praised by reviewers but did not draw well. The play deals with the aftermath of the killing of a gay college student in Laramie, Wyo. Although there was no violence onstage, Condon’s hunch is that some people were scared off by the heavy subject matter.

One of Condon’s best productions, Medoff’s Gunfighter: A Gulf War Chronicle, also met with lackluster response at the box office. Condon staged it in 2002, not long after the 9/11 disaster. He and Medoff had been developing the script since 1999, and the 2002 production was scheduled long before the terrorist hijackings. After 9/11, Condon decided not to scrub the production, but he wonders if it might have drawn bigger crowds if he’d staged it at another time.

And, like any director, Condon has turned out a few duds. He directed a forgettable production of the romantic comedy Same Time, Next Year at the Sacramento Theatre Company in the 1990s. Condon, whose forte is big-cast dramas that deal directly with social and political issues, wasn’t particularly successful in breathing life into the hidden, adulterous romance that is the centerpiece of the script.

Actors and actresses who’ve worked with Condon will tell you that he can be demanding in rehearsal. Many regard him as something of a perfectionist—but they also speak highly of his sense of commitment. David Campfield was a student in one of Condon’s acting classes at Cosumnes in the spring of 2001. He came back for three more semesters and then advanced to leading roles. “As my teacher and later my director, he was wonderfully demanding of his students [and actors], without making us feel intimidated,” Campfield said.

Watching Condon work with student actors is a contrast to the way he works with a veteran playwright like Medoff. Condon will give the students text—for instance, dialogue between a mother and a daughter, after the mother discovers that the girl has been promiscuous with a rather long list of boys. Condon, looking through his ever-present eyeglasses and talking through his thick, salt-and-pepper mustache, helps the student actors locate their characters’ motivations and moods by quietly posing questions: What is the girl feeling when she’s talking to her mother? What can a performer do to show those feelings? It’s a more gradual process of discovery and not a “here’s how you do it” demonstration.

Stephanie Gularte already had done a few roles in professional theater when Condon cast her in a leading role in How I Learned to Drive. “I was given the rare opportunity to portray a character from age 12 to 35,” Gularte said. “From the beginning of the rehearsal process, Frank approached the piece with unwavering fearlessness. His conviction created a safe environment to delve into a difficult subject with the honesty that the piece demanded.”

Director Aram Kouyoumdjian—a former Sacramentan who disbanded his well-regarded Vista Players earlier this year, when he relocated to Los Angeles—has followed Condon’s work closely. “Frank not only stages high-quality productions, but is committed to developing new works at River Stage with playwrights who are reputed nationally,” Kouyoumdjian said. “This is a very wise course because, if these new works meet with national success, then River Stage may become a notable regional force, far more influential than the Equity theaters in town, which seem to be constrained in their artistic endeavors by commercial considerations … or simply by lack of vision.”