Listening to History

posted by Elizabeth Brodersen, A.C.T. Publications Editor and a research dramaturg on The Tosca Project

Listen to an excerpt from Carey Perloff and Elizabeth Brodersen’s interview with Tosca Cafe owner Jeannette Etheredge, who describes her decision to buy the bar and honor its rich historical legacy. (5.6 mb)

Listen to an excerpt from Valerie Hart’s interview with Vesuvio Cafe co-owner Janet Clyde, who describes her early memories of Tosca Cafe. (2.2 mb)

On any theatrical production, it is typically the dramaturg’s job to collect research that will help the playwright, director, and performers create, shape, and authentically realize the story that will unfold onstage. Developed organically in a series of improvisatory workshops, based on real people in a real place over a 90-year period, and conceived without a conventional script, The Tosca Project presented a particularly complex challenge. What kind of information would be most helpful to the process? Where could we find it? How could we make it accessible to the cast and creators?

In addition to collecting documentary and visual research into the cultural and social history of 20th-century San Francisco—most of which ended up push-pinned to the rehearsal room walls to help keep the performers immersed in the world of the piece—we decided to go straight to the source. A team of interviewers—including dramaturgy intern Valerie Hart, dramaturg and A.C.T. Artistic Program Consultant Beatrice Basso, cocreator A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff, and myself—sallied forth into North Beach to interview an eclectic cast of local characters to give us firsthand testimony about the bar, the neighborhood, and their extravagant past. Bar owners, tenders, and regulars—from the octogenarian daughters of one of Tosca Cafe’s original founders to “Specs,” feisty owner of 12 Adler Museum Café—shared with us their memories of North Beach, in general, and Tosca, in particular. Meanwhile, Jeannette Etheredge, the current owner of Tosca Cafe and keeper of its legacy, told us profoundly moving stories about her mother, Armenian refugee Armen Baliantz, their mutual love of ballet and ballet dancers, and her experiences in and around the bar.

The audio recordings of these (hours and hours of) oral history then became part of the development process, as the creators and performers listened to them again and again, working out the nuances of movement and character, step by step, story by story. At one point, the audio even became part of the performance piece, played as voiceovers during a workshop presentation in 2007. As the storytelling evolved from the literally personal to the archetypally universal, however, the recordings fell away, but the essence of the stories and the rhythms of the storytellers’ voices remained in the performers’ psyches and bodies. What you now see onstage is the embodiment of almost a century of San Francisco history, caught on tape and released from the memory of the people who lived it.

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