Moving on up

Doniel Soto, the actor-playwright-artistic director of Abandon Productions, is staging some of the most adventurous theater in town inside an old metal shed in Midtown called “The Space”

Doniel Soto and the incredibly fit cast of Sorta … . Kids, don’t try this at home.

Doniel Soto and the incredibly fit cast of Sorta … . Kids, don’t try this at home.

Photo by Larry Dalton

From the outside, it looks like an old two-story metal shed, several decades old, on R Street between 25th and 26th. It’s located in an industrial section of Midtown Sacramento, and the Light Rail trains run just a few feet outside the door.

The building has no heat, no air conditioning. There are rows of risers against the west wall, topped by a dozen or so dual pairs of ancient wooden chairs, and a few more rows of newer cushioned seats taken out of some auditorium or movie palace.

Near the entrance, there’s a small stack of folded, woolly blankets to warm the legs and shoulders of audience members who attend on chilly nights.

But the majority of the building is an open expanse of concrete floor, pockmarked but freshly painted—a roomy area for the performers, and a big canvas on which to construct scenes.

It’s the most Spartan theater in Sacramento—known as “The Space.” And it’s where Doniel Soto has put together four original shows over the past year under the banner of Abandon Productions, including the group’s current show, Sorta …

There’s no particularly handy term for the kind of show that Soto does. Some call it “physical theater,” and Soto’s work certainly relies on lots of vigorous movement.

In fact, you have to be in pretty good shape to be a performer with Abandon Productions. The group—which includes 14 people, not all of whom perform in the current show—works out on a weekly basis, a “highly strenuous, vocally challenging” two-hour routine that includes lunges, squats, push-ups, forward and backward running and other activities designed to build up stamina and enhance flexibility. The concrete floor of The Space gets slick from perspiration as the members of the company go back and forth in different patterns, doing exercise after exercise.

“It’s about being able to react in the moment. You feel your body move, you feel the breath, the vibrations in your face when you vocalize. You have to find the calm within all that exertion,” Soto explains. (Baseball stars sometimes use similar words to describe they way they try to concentrate on an incoming fastball.)

Soto leads the routine, wearing a ragged old T-shirt with the words “I can’t! I have to rehearse” printed on the fabric. He reminds people to stop from time to time and take a drink from their water bottle—every member of the group has one.

“It is Spartan,” Soto agrees, looking at the room. “And we revel in it.” The lack of climate control leads to some interesting conditions. “Back in January, people came [to training sessions] dressed in layers. Everyone looked like Nanook of the North. But by the end, it was T-shirts and shorts, and the steam was coming off everybody’s bodies, like an aura.”

“In the summer, it’s just the opposite,” as the long sunny days heat up The Space, and the members of the group dress very lightly for the evening training sessions.

But while there’s a strong, physical element to Soto’s work, he resists relying entirely on the term “physical theater.” Music—in the form of humming, wordless singing, chanting—is very often part of Soto’s work. Spoken words turn up in some shows, though not all.

Soto sees it as an elemental process. “I believe we’re taking theater forward and simultaneously backward to its origin,” he says. “It’s based on telling the story, and it tells the story through sound and movement. Language is the icing on the cake. I feel that way in terms of our development as people as well. Survival was first, but communication was based on emotion. That’s where our words came from. But first, there was music, rhythm, sound. I believe stories were told around campfires through dance first, before verbal language storytelling.”

And that’s how Soto trains. “I think whether it’s dance, voice, acrobatics, whatever—the body is your only tool out here [as a performer]. Your mind, too, obviously. But the body is our instrument, and the more honed it is, the better it will be.”

Soto grew up in Sacramento, of Irish and Mexican heritage. He graduated from Del Campo High School, went on to American River College and CSUS, then got a job teaching at the high-school level.

He caught the eye of a number of people on the local theater scene about 10 years ago, with a production titled Makbeth, an adaptation of the Shakespeare play that drew praise from Peter Haugen, then the theater critic at the Sacramento Bee. “Soto was using young performers—high-school students, really—but it was very stylized and highly disciplined, extremely ambitious,” Haugen recalls from his present home in Wisconsin.

Makbeth also drew the attention of theater sparkplug Dennis Wilkerson, who later originated California Stage, which he created out of an old plumbers shop adjacent to the building that is now The Space. Wilkerson used what is now The Space as his prop shop, crammed with objects seen in many local productions.

Soto sometimes helped Wilkerson “bang the hammer” during the conversion of the old industrial buildings to theater space. But for the most part, Soto was living in Los Angeles, working on his master’s of fine arts at the University of Southern California. He took both Makbeth and a show about Vincent Van Gogh to New York for runs in small theaters Off Broadway, and also performed in Amsterdam.

After USC, Soto stayed in Los Angeles, working as an actor. He found roles, but he wasn’t happy with what he was doing. “I was cast with the pretty guy soap people. I would be sitting there with 20 other dark-haired, green-eyed men.” Soto says you can still see some of his work from that period on cable channels late at night.

“I was making a living in the industry,” he recalls. “I could pay my rent, eat when I wanted to. But I was going for roles that only had to do with making money, as opposed to what was going to fulfill me.

“I wanted to do theater, and in L.A., theater is about showcasing for agents and producers. I’d rather play Quasimodo than a leading hunk any day.”

Soto moved back to Sacramento in 1999, and got a job in the theater department at CSUS. And he got back in touch with Dennis Wilkerson, to ask him about turning the metal shed where Wilkerson stored his gear into a performance space.

Wilkerson, however, was near death from cancer. After Wilkerson passed away, Soto contacted Ray Tatar, who took over administration of California Stage. After some conversations and negotiations, Soto and Tatar reached an agreement.

But conditions inside the building that would become The Space were pretty appalling. “Dennis was an incredible packrat,” Soto says. “There was an enormous pile of old, rotting carpets.” And there were old props of every description, and threading through it all was “a narrow pathway a foot wide. And everything was covered with mook and gook.”

“We went about the process of finding the floor,” Soto says. “And the accumulated crap sitting on top of the overhead beams was three inches thick. The whole ceiling needed to be power-washed. We spent five days hanging off ropes, using rock-climbing gear, blasting the ceiling with one arm while holding the rope with the other.”

Soto was recruiting and training members of Abandon Productions all the while. He opened an original ensemble piece titled Stream of Consciousness in spring of last year to favorable reviews, and started work on another piece, based on the Roman Emperor Caligula. “But by then it was the middle of May, and it was 100 degrees in the shed. Everybody had given it their all, but two weeks before opening, I said, ‘It’s not there, not where it needs to be.’ And we were all tired.” So Abandon took a break from performing for the summer, though training continued.

Come September, Soto started putting together the show that became Sorta … But his plans changed abruptly after the hijackings and airliner crashes on September 11. Within six weeks, Soto and his group developed a show reflecting a broad sweep of American history, called Subject to Change.

“We covered D-Day, the conflict with the Third Reich, slavery, Vietnam,” he says. “It featured a lot of intense movement, and the actors never left the stage”—making the show a phenomenal workout for the cast of six.

Soto’s next show was a solo effort, Scattered Bits and Pieces, in which he played a patient giving a performance at a mental institution. He got back to developing Sorta … —a piece featuring clowns and everyday situations—in mid-February.

The future? “In the fall,” Soto says, “we’re hopefully going to do a Shakespeare-based piece, which will have an incredible amount of music and movement. I want to compact the story to its raw essence, but that won’t necessarily mean cutting all the poetry out. Ambition is going to be one of the larger themes. Once you start down that path, you’re not coming back. And I think Shakespeare tells that pretty well: once you cover one lie, you’ve got to cover the next and the next and the next … ”

Sound a little like a run at Macbeth? Soto doesn’t want to get too specific, since it’s a work in progress, but admits that there could be some similarity.