Arts & Events

Stagebridge Mounts New Play by Joan Holden at Berkeley's Ashby Stage, Opening Feb. 3

By John A. McMullen III
Friday January 20, 2012 - 05:10:00 PM

The year Reagan was elected, I saw my first SF Mime Troupe show, which was written by Joan Holden:Americans, or Last Tango In Huahuatenango, a musical comedy of tropical and topical intrigue. Little did we know what evil would lurk in the next 8 years in Central America.

A decade later—though I saw many more by Joan Holden in between—I saw Back To Normal, in which a mother does not cheer when her son comes home from the two week bombing raid we called the Gulf War. In retrospect that work augured more war evil to come in the decade to follow.

Whether or not she has a touch of the Sybil or can just read the writing on the wall a decade in advance, Joan Holden, whose latest play opens in Berkeley at the Ashby Stage on February 3, has been a force in the theater and, as principal playwright, was a significant reason why the Mime Troupe garnered a Tony for Best Regional Theater. 

Lately, Ms. Holden has focused on domestic injustice and the world of work. 

She adapted a play called “Nickel and Dimed,” based on Barbara Ehrenrich’s book about the wage-slavery of the working class, which played to exceptional reviews. 

Now Holden takes up another book, “Counter Culture” by Candacy Taylor, and makes it personal with a story about a diner waitress of retirement age. 

A significant hook in this new play, titled COUNTER ATTACK, is that it is being produced by Stagebridge, the Oakland-based theater and training ground for senior actors and artists. 

The second hook of COUNTER ATTACK is that Holden joins with lifelong colleagues now in their seniority to shout out against societal ills in a most amusing and convincing theatrical way. 

Sharon Lockwood directs, Joan Mankin plays the lead, Arthur Holden plays a supporting role, and Dan Chumley does the sets. All these veteran professionals were part of the early SF Mime Troupe for whom Joan Holden wrote and who seem to be extended family, e. g., Joan Holden was married to Arthur Holden who is now married to Sharon Lockwood, etc. 

The acting troupe and students at Stagebridge provide the rest of the 12-member ensemble playing over 50 unique characters and customers. 

COUNTER ATTACK will be performed at the Ashby Stage theater, where Shotgun also plays, right across from Ashby BART, Feb 3-Mar 4. Scrumbly Koldewyn has composed a musical underscore for the piece. 

Holden recalled the beginnings of her play writing career with the Mime Troupe:“I was a troupe groupie. Ronnie Davis was hiring writers to adapt classics for a Commedia, and Arthur said, ‘Joan can write,’ so I wrote a take-off on a Goldoni piece that had Peter Coyote in the lead. The first time I saw people doing a scene I had written, and other people laughing, I was hooked and I knew what I wanted to be.” 

She’s a Berkeley local who was born at Alta Bates and went to Berkeley High. She’s had some real-life local waitress experience. “I worked at a café at 5th & Folsom in the early 60’s and was a banquet waitress at the Claremont Hotel. I could call up a lot of nightmare waitress scenes in my memory. And I’ve met some really great waitresses.” 

Holden has been has been honored with awards from the Bay Area Critics' Circle, Dramalogue, and Los Angeles Critics' Circle; playwriting grants from the Rockefeller and Gerbode Foundations; the San Francisco Working Women's Festival Working Woman of the Year award, and, with the Troupe, the San Francisco Media Alliance Golden Gadfly Award. 

In an interview with Holden, we learned that though the Taylor book is a series of monologue-like interviews in the format of “Working” by Studs Terkel; she saw it as a full-on theatrical piece. 

“The characters seemed to me to be all one woman…It takes a certain personality to be a diner waitress. So I made it about two waitresses in conflict. The new one wants to work the counter where there are more tips because of the quick turnover and the older waitress has her regulars.” 

She was in contact with the book’s author through the creation process: “When I was writing the play, it leapt into my mind that it required our heroine play a trick on the rival so I asked Candacy about it and she came up with the trick.” 

From the “artist’s statement” on the Stagebridge website: “ ‘Why another waitress play?’ my waitress daughter asked. If I hadn’t gotten my chance as a writer I would have stayed a waitress myself, and Candacy Taylor’s book shows why. 

“Barbara Ehrenreich honors the women slaving in chain restaurants, whose lives no one would envy; Candacy shows the other side of waitressing. She celebrates the stars of mom-and- pop diners, the waitresses whose blandishments and wisecracks customers line up for, women who love their work and make good money at it. Her book challenges the middle-class assumption that mental work is better work…It shows a blue-collar job that takes more brains and offers more fulfillment, more chance to use one’s whole self, than many higher-status occupations. This play would show why some women, even some with college degrees, would rather run 8 miles around a restaurant floor than sit for 8 hours in a cubicle, or trade slings and arrows with cooks and managers than file reports to Management on a computer. I would hope to influence a few career choices. 

“Finally, this is a chance to write about and for my age group: 65-plus and not dead yet.” 

Read the “artist’s statement” it in its entirety

Counter Attack, by Joan Holden 

Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave, Berkeley 

February 3rd-March 4th (dark on February 15) / (510) 444-4755 x114