When David Wallace drives along the California coast, he isn’t looking at the cold, crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean or craning his neck hoping to see whales on the horizon. He’s looking at the land: the stretches of grassy hills, the jutting rocks, the trees. The local Scottish-Irish playwright of 40 years sees traces of Ireland in the coastal features almost 5,000 miles away.
“The green hills — that’s the old cliché about Ireland,” Wallace said. “The rolling park look as it moves down to the sea just fires that bell in my brain.”
This local imagery inspired Wallace to embrace his Irish heritage through theater. “And the Sea Shall Provide,” written by Wallace, is one of two plays put on by Espressivo! Chamber Theatre and scheduled for next month in honor of Irish culture, coastal life and St. Patrick’s Day.
“The Cat and the Moon” and “And the Sea Shall Provide” are both based on Irish legends. The first, a comedic play which was first written as a poem is about two beggars by the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats in 1926. The beggars — one blind and one lame — are on a pilgrimage to find a supernatural well with healing powers. The question the men face when they reach the well is whether to be healed in the physical world, or to be blessed in the afterlife.
Yeats wrote the play as a comic interlude in between writing serious tragic plays. He was also heavily influenced by Japanese Noh theater and has integrated its standard use of masks in his play.
The second production, “And the Sea Shall Provide” is an original Celtic musical (featuring live music, but not strictly a musical) that expands on a traditional Irish folktale called “Tom Moore and the Silkie Wife.” It focuses on one of Ireland’s legendary creatures, the silkie — a shapeshifting seal that can peel off its skin, assume human form and revert back to a seal by putting the skin back on.
“It’s like the equivalent of a mermaid in our part of the world,” Wallace said.
The play follows a silkie named Fiona and a desirable young man, Tom Moore. Tom’s small coastal village of Windling has reacted to its inter-species relationship. The original folktale, Wallace said, is rather short and he wanted to explore the implications of such a relationship on a little, traditional town.
Fiona the silkie will be played by Amytra (who prefers to go by just her stage name), who said she has fallen in love with her character.
“My favorite thing about her is that she’s supernatural,” Amytra said. “I’m into science fiction and vampires and stuff, so that was right up my alley.”
Any supernatural shifts from seal to human do not happen in the play, though, and no seal costumes are required, since the play picks up in the story after the change.
Amytra can see similarities between this play, the village of Windling and its resonating Catholic principles in her home of San Luis Obispo.
“I think San Luis Obispo has a lot of traditional conservative values that are important to most of the people here — community, stick to your faith,” Amytra said.
Traditional Catholic and Irish values will be accompanied by traditional Irish music in “And the Sea Shall Provide.” A live two-piece band — a violinist and Wallace playing several other instruments — will perform songs originally composed by Wallace along with some traditional Irish songs. The play is directed by David Hance, whose favorite part of the show is the music because it makes it really lively, he said.
Hance is the other co-founder of Espressivo, who first met Wallace during a reading of Wallace’s own play called “The Washing Place” at SLO Little Theater last year. There the two discovered their similar interests in changing the local theater scene and started collaborating on a new type of theater, one that didn’t require walls.
“We perform on a portable stage that’s 8 feet by 8 feet, so that we can set up practically anywhere,” Wallace said. “We wanted something that would focus on writing, acting and musical performance.”
The stage requires no stage lighting, because it uses only natural or existing light and, with short running times (around an hour), is especially suited for small and busy venues such as wineries and restaurants.
While Wallace focused on this new traveling format, Hance was more focused on creating a new company that would appeal to more people.
“I was really interested in shorter theater pieces,” Hance said. “A lot of theater is too long to attract new audiences.”
Coincidentally, Wallace had experience with shorter theatrical pieces, having worked for NPR doing radio plays.
“He had some pieces that were for radio originally, but he thought he could change them over to stage plays,” Hance said.
“And the Sea Shall Provide” first started as one of these radio plays. After some rewriting, reworking and experimentation, Wallace and Hance — who have both owned theater companies before — decided to use this piece, along with Yeats’ play, to launch Espressivo! Chamber Theatre in March.
One of the venues for the 75-minute show is Tolosa Winery. The owners are particularly interested in having wineries host their productions, especially those with active wine clubs because, Hance said, they are always trying to offer fun and different events for members and could provide a stable audience base.
Fortunately for Espressivo, Hance has connections in the local viticulture scene, including the events specialist at Tolosa Winery. He said he had better luck negotiating with wineries already familiar with him.
“When you’re pitching the idea, you don’t have to make them like you first because they already do,” Hance said.
Two of the 10 pitches to wineries were successful.
Tolosa Winery’s marketing administrator, Katie Noonan, who booked the show, was welcome to the idea of having fun, lightheaded and live entertainment for their wine tasters.
“It’s something out of the ordinary,” Noonan said. “When they approached us, we thought it would be a different audience to draw from.”
The two plays will be the first ever live performance at Tolosa.
There are challenges to performing at wineries, restaurants and anywhere else this traveling show performs. With no backstage, curtains or regular set up, the actors must be ready to adapt to each show. Hance said he loves this aspect and is looking forward to seeing how the actors deal with it.
“My experience is that some actors are comfortable with the flexibility and what turns into a sort of playfulness,” Hance said. “It’s just a personality thing; to some, it feels disorganized.”
While Hance anticipates a couple of actors to react negatively to the constant changing, Amytra said she has heard and seen nothing but enthusiasm.
“They’re really excited to be involved,” she said. “It’s really neat and challenging for actors in that it’s never going to be the same. We’ll be in the audience’s eye the whole time. It’s a challenge but it is also exciting.”
An even bigger obstacle for Amytra and the other actors has had nothing to do with the staging at all.
“I think our biggest challenge is the Irish accent,” Amytra said.
Espressivo’s next production will come in the fall, which will become routine for the company. Ideally, the company will have two to three traveling shows a year with the possibility of a holiday show.
Wallace is optimistic about the growth of the company and thinks its portable set up will make finding venues less challenging.
“Our plays can blow in and blow out; they don’t take much space or a lot of time,” Wallace said. “It’s a user-friendly approach to theater that can open a lot more venues and opportunities.”
The founders are also discussing traveling outside of the county’s borders to Northern California and beyond, but Hance admits it is more a dream than a plan.
In addition to expanding the areas to perform, Hance would like to add one or two more people to the core managing members of Espressivo, with a semi-regular pool of actors and always room for fresh faces.
“I like to think about it as a band,” Hance said. “A mix of members and sometimes we bring in extra people.”
But what Wallace is most looking forward to, is the chance to share theater and music with audiences.
“The collaborative work in theater — there’s nothing else like it,” Wallace said. “You form these communities that are very tight and very close. There’s a great connection among people.”
“The Cat and the Moon” and “And The Sea Shall Provide” will run from March 9 to March 20 at various venues around the county.
The performance will start at 6 p.m. on March 9 at STAX Wine Bar in Morro Bay. The $15 cover will include light appetizers and benefits Slow Food of San Luis Obispo County.
The March 12 performance will begin at 6 p.m. at Sustenance Studio in San Luis Obispo. The $25 cover includes dinner.
The performance on March 17 will start at 8 p.m. at the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre; tickets are $15 for general admission and $12 for students and seniors.
Finally, the March 20, performance begins at 1 p.m. at Tolosa Winery, south of San Luis Obispo. Tickets include a glass of wine and are $15 for general admission and $10 for Tolosa Wine Club members.