Aug. 18 2015 06:57 PM

Married duo envision ‘Art from the gut' with a new theater company

Director Lisa Berger, center, listens to Parlour Song co-stars Jessica John and Francis Gercke rehearse a scene.
Photo by Bayani DeCastro / Studio B Productions

Husband-and-wife stage duo Francis Gercke and Jessica John are rehearsing, but not in a theater—in their garage. Gercke, on his feet, clutching a script and reciting intensely, is in his socks. John, sitting on the edge of a couch, poised to respond, is barefoot. Just a few feet away sits their director, Lisa Berger, leaning forward and listening with her dog in her lap. It's only three weeks from opening night when Gercke and John's new nonprofit theater company, Backyard Renaissance, will debut with a production of Jez Butterworth's bittersweet Parlour Song.

Gercke, Backyard Renaissance's artistic director, and John, its executive director, are familiar figures in the San Diego theater scene. Most recently seen in Lamb's Players Theatre's production of Freud's Last Session, Gercke has performed everywhere from ion theatre (in whose Hillcrest space Backyard Renaissance will present Parlour Song) to Cygnet Theatre in Old Town to the North Coast Rep in Solana Beach. The latter is where John last appeared, in the madcap comedy Unnecessary Farce. Her acting resume, too, includes memorable performances on stages including New Village Arts in Carlsbad, ion and Diversionary theaters in Hillcrest, and Old Town's Cygnet, with which she is a company member.

So with all this steady work, why would Gercke and John start a stage company of their own, a chancy proposition even in a region with as many gifted theater professionals as San Diego County? And starting one from the ground up is no simple undertaking. It means filing a federal application for nonprofit status, identifying and negotiating the rights to a first play to produce, finding a performance space, forming a board of directors and an advisory board, spreading the word to the community and much more.

"I'm probably the engine behind it," said John, who's blazed this trail before. For seven years, she and fellow actor Lauren Zimmerman ran a company called Backyard Productions, which produced about a dozen plays until its finale, Laura Cahillís Hysterical Blindness in 2008. But Gercke has start-up experience of his own. With Kristianne Kurner, he co-founded New Village Arts Theatre in 2001. These two are boldly going forward, but not somewhere they haven't been before.

"A lot of the conversation I had with Fran was, 'Let's try to create something that gives us joy,'" said John, who also works as the public relations manager for the Helen Woodward Animal Center. ìWe want to find things we can work on together, and add to the community."

The name Backyard Renaissance is not only homage to John's prior company but to the bygone local Renaissance Theatre Company, which was headed by Gercke's late friend, George Flint. In the plays they choose to produce and in how they're staged, Gercke and John hope to create an honest, emotional experience for audiences.

"The phrase that came up a lot as we were trying to figure out what our style might be was 'Art from the gut,'" recalled Gercke, seated beside his wife at a bakery café a week before rehearsals.

"It's about connection," added John.

"Where else," asked Gercke, "can you sit in the dark with a bunch of strangers and feel something? There's a wonderful anonymity."

Both speak with enthusiasm, too, about "honoring" the audience with Backyard Renaissance's productions.

"So much of theater is the audience," said John. "If that audience is with you, it makes you better. It lifts you up."

"I would love the idea of people walking into a Backyard Renaissance production and feeling like they're walking into Cheers," said Gercke. "Where what is being celebrated is not just the playwright, but the audience."

The choice to launch Backyard Renaissance with the Tony Award-winning drama Parlour Song was in aline with the couple's desire to showcase "gutsy, interesting playwrights," as John called them, in this case the London-born Butterworth. But there was more behind this first important artistic decision.

"We're both going through a change in our ages," said John, who like her husband is in her early 40s. "So many people in town have allowed us to play such beautiful parts that we are now aging out of. Parlour Song is completely focused on three people who are at that point in their lives." (The third character will be played by Mike Sears, who San Diego audiences may have seen in this summer's Kiss Me, Kate at the Old Globe.)

Parlour Song's characters are ones with imperfections and vulnerabilities, and Gercke, who also teaches theater arts at Palomar College, said these human frailties will be staples of Backyard Renaissance's shows.

"We're not putting heroes on stage," he said. "We're putting people in circumstances on stage."

There will be 16 performances of Parlour Song, including an Industry Night when Gercke and John will make discount tickets available to their fellow San Diego theater artists. Next up, in April 2016, will be a North County co-production with Oceanside Theatre Company of The Elephant Man. After that?

"We have a three-year 'gypsy theater' goal," said John. "Right now the main goal is to get as many people to come see us as we can."


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