Beehives to Bra Burning: Women and Music in the 1960s

Thursday, June 29, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Janis Joplin, the musician at the center of A Night with Janis Joplin, “belonged to that select group of pop figures who mattered as much for themselves as for their music,” says music journalist Ellen Wills. “Among American rock performers, she was second only to Bob Dylan in importance as a creator–recorder–embodiment of her generation’s mythology.” But how did the female artists who came before Joplin pave the way for her unique, iconoclastic music and image?

The Supremes, 1965. Photo by Jac de Nijs. Courtesy Nationaal Archief.
At the beginning of the 1960s, the airwaves were dominated by the distinctly female pop sound of girl groups. An estimated 1,500-plus groups were formed between 1958 and 1963, largely composed of young women aged 11 to 18. On the surface, it would appear that many of the songs in this genre upheld the traditional feminine values of the previous decade (chastity, modesty, demureness), but upon a closer look, there is a subversive undercurrent. Doo-wop language was often used to cover up references to sex and other “improper” activities. Sometimes even just cleverly disguised lyrics could let these young women and their listeners explore taboo subjects.

Following the arrival of The Beatles in 1964, the style and sound of these girl groups split into two camps. On one side was the sophisticated, feminine front of the Supremes—with their satin dresses and coiffed wigs—and on the other, the rebellious, groovy chick–style of the Shangri-Las. Both groups continued to sing about taboo subjects like dating the bad boy (“Leader of the Pack,” 1965), infidelity (“Stop! In the Name of Love,” 1965), and children born out of wedlock (“Love Child,” 1968).

As the protests of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements gripped the nation in the mid-1960s, female singers saw the power of civil unrest and speaking up for what you believe. They asserted their right to independence and equality in songs such as “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” (1966) and “Respect” (1967). It is in this atmosphere of change that Janis Joplin burst onto the national scene in the summer of 1967.

A Night with Janis Joplin runs through July 16 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about America in the 1960s? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Behind the Scenes at A.C.T.: An Interview with Flyman Colin Wade

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Among all the ropes and wires hanging backstage at the Geary Theater are two cords with rubber stoppers on the end. Their purpose: keep flyman and rock climbing enthusiast Colin Wade in shape. On a maintenance day between productions, we sat down with Wade to get a glimpse into the life of a flyman, the person in charge of raising and lowering (known as "flying") the various elements of the set design (curtains, walls, swings, etc).

Flyman Colin Wade. Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
What’s your favorite thing about being the flyman?
I love being a part of the arts and the whole tech process. It’s nice to have the responsibility of running a crew, calling my own shots, and figuring out the best way to do things. It’s great to watch everything come together and to make it all happen. Flying something in and out is its own kind of art.

One of the things that you fly in and out on a regular basis is the front curtain.
That weighs 800 pounds. And no matter how many times we do it, it’s always a challenge. When you have an audience, there’s a lot of hot air in the house versus the cold air backstage. That can make the curtain blow up.

What has been one of the more complicated shows for you?
A Thousand Splendid Suns (2017) was a little complicated. When you have to time cues with sound—especially really long sound cues—it can be complicated. But it’s also fun because you get to be a little artistic with that kind of thing.

Set model, by scenic designer Andrew Boyce, for
A.C.T.'s 2016 production of The Hard Problem
In terms of complicated load-in [installing a set into a theater space], The Hard Problem (2016) was complicated. The ceiling for that show weighed about 3,000 pounds. We had to hand it in three pieces, two pipes per section. Getting it all balanced and put together was a challenge. We also had to have a bunch of rigging inside the ceiling in order to have walls that would fly out and travel. Getting it all dialed in was the most intense set that I’ve had to deal with.

What is one of the easiest shows for you?
A Christmas Carol is easy because we’ve been doing the same production for so many years. We have so many notes about how we have to breast a pipe [move a pipe] upstage three inches so we don’t hit something else. With every other show, we don’t know that until we do hit something.

What's something that the average theater-goer never gets to see?
See that chair hanging down? Once we have all the lights hung for a show, we need a way to focus the lights. So I bring the chair to the right height and snub [tie] it off so that if it gets added weight it won't go anywhere. Then someone takes a lift up to the chair, clips his or her harness to it, and rolls the chair down the I-Beam, focusing the lights as he or she goes.

The Skivvies Are Back!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

Following their sold-out run this past holiday season with Holiday Roadkill, the Skivvies are bringing their unique brand of sexy and satirical musical performance back to A.C.T.'s Strand Theater for two performances on June 23 and 24. 

The Skivvies—Broadway stars Lauren Molina and Nick Cearley—are an award-winning comedy-pop duo who perform musical mash-ups of all your favorite songs on the ukulele, cello, and an array of quirky instruments . . . while stripped down to their underwear.


For Bay Area audiences looking out for the next generation of musical theater stars, check out the guests who'll be joining the Skivvies on the Strand stage: Broadway up-and-comer Matt Doyle (The Book of Mormon, Spring Awakening), Ray of Light Theatre's Courtney Merrell (The Rocky Horror Show), Marissa Joy Ganz (national tour of High School Musical), and A.C.T. favorite Lauren Hart (The Unfortunates, A Christmas Carol).

“We are thrilled to return to San Francisco,” says Molina. “The best part is that we are all coming together to celebrate Pride.”

Artwork for The Skivvies: Pride Rock.
The Skivvies: Pride Rock runs June 23 and 24 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Strong Women: The Women Who Influenced Janis Joplin Part Two

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

By Allie Moss

During A.C.T.’s 50th-anniversary season, strong women are navigating their way through traditionally male-oriented spaces. In A Night with Janis Joplin, running through July 9 at The Geary Theater, legendary singer Janis Joplin is joined onstage by five women who inspired her iconic voice: Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin. Here is a look at the lives of James and Franklin.

Etta James.
Courtesy Legacy Recordings.
Etta James’s (1938–2012) influence on America’s musical landscape is clear. Artists such as Tina Turner, Gladys Knight, and Janis Joplin all emulated James’s vocal style: rich, earthy, brassy tones that stretch from delicate high notes to bellowing low ones. James's most famous songs include “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “If I Can't Have You,” “At Last,” “Tell Mama,” and “I'd Rather Go Blind.” James won six Grammy Awards, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and was inducted into both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.



Aretha Franklin.
Courtesy Atlantic Records.
Aretha Franklin (b. 1942), the Queen of Soul, found success around the same time as Janis Joplin. In 1966, Franklin released the hits “Respect,” “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Since You've Been Gone.” Her fresh new sound blended gospel, pop, R & B, and soul, and she could sing musical runs that features smoky low notes, nasal middle tones, and a light, high belt all in the span of a few seconds. Franklin has performed at the inaugurations of both President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. In February 2017, she announced her retirement from touring, but not from music.


A Night with Janis Joplin runs through July 9 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about these five incredible women? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series. 

Strong Women: The Women Who Influenced Janis Joplin Part One

Thursday, June 15, 2017

By Allie Moss

During A.C.T.’s 50th-anniversary season, strong women are navigating their way through traditionally male-oriented spaces. In A Night with Janis Joplin, running through July 9 at The Geary Theater, legendary singer Janis Joplin is joined onstage by five women who inspired her iconic voice: Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin. Here is a look at the first three.

Bessie Smith in 1936.
Photo by Carl Van Vechten. 
Courtesy Library of Congress.
Bessie Smith’s (1894–1937) distinctive throaty and full-bodied voice, knack for improvisation, and penchant for unexpected rhythms stand out as a clear precursor to the work of Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and Janis Joplin. Joplin was so inspired by Smith that in 1970, she had a headstone made for Smith’s unmarked grave which reads “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.”






Odetta, 1961.
Photo by Jac de Nijs. 
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 
Janis Joplin first realized she could sing after expertly belting out a song by folk singer Odetta (1930–2008). Odetta studied opera and performed in the touring productions of Finian's Rainbow (1949) and Guys and Dolls (1950) before being introduced to folk music while on tour in San Francisco. She never looked back. Odetta’s most famous songs include “Down on Me,” “I’m On My Way,” and “Oh, Freedom.”

Nina Simone.
Photo by Ron Kroon. 
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Nina Simone (1933–2003) studied at Juilliard before becoming one of the voices of the Civil Rights movement. Her rasping high notes, gravelly low notes, and unstable pitch and timbre challenged industry ideas about how a female pop singer—especially a black female singer—should sound. She is remembered for her song “Mississippi Goddam,” which she wrote in reaction to the assassination of Medgar Evers in 1963 and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing later that year.





A Night with Janis Joplin runs through July 9 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about these five incredible women? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Our Sister Janis: An Interview with Laura and Michael Joplin

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

By Simon Hodgson

Among the thousands flocking to San Francisco for the Summer of Love in 1967 was the Joplin family. They had driven across the US from Port Arthur, Texas to see 24-year-old Janis perform with her new band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. For Janis’s siblings, Laura and Michael, the trip was life-changing.

Kacee Clanton in A Night with Janis Joplin. Photo by Joan Marcus.
As San Francisco kicks off its celebration of the Summer of Love—featuring A Night with Janis Joplin at The Geary Theater—we look back on the events of that summer from those who knew Janis best.

What was it like when your family went to San Francisco in 1967 to visit Janis?
Laura Joplin: That was the first time we’d been out of the state. We weren’t a family that traveled and we hadn’t really been out of Port Arthur, so to travel all the way across the West was incredible. To go to San Francisco and hang out with Janis was special.



What do you remember about the city?
LJ: Everything was so different: the music, the sound, the styles, the city itself. In Port Arthur, we had three or four buildings that were more than two stories high, but San Francisco was huge. At home, it’s hot and flat. San Francisco was cool, with mountains overlooking it. There was a lot of trying to take all that in. It sounds silly, but one thing I really enjoyed in San Francisco was seeing Janis’s dog. It made her so human, and because we also had a dog, it made her the person I grew up with.

Michael Joplin: I remember the Summer of Love. I was 14 years old, a wannabe hippie. We went to the Avalon Ballroom. We’d all heard of Chet [Helms, a major music promoter and the manager of Big Brother and the Holding Company at the time], and we’d met him way back. When we walked up the stairs to the Avalon as a family, Chet was standing at the top of the stairs to greet us. My parents were this white couple, fiftysomething years old, and going into the Avalon Ballroom, they were definitely out of place. But Chet was welcoming and wonderful. My parents said, “Oh my god, what’s going on?” I said, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.” Later on I got to run lights at the Avalon Ballroom. That’s one of the high points of my life. It was freaking awesome.

How did you feel about seeing your sister onstage?
MJ: When she came out, I just saw Janis. But to my parents, the audience’s reaction to her was extremely significant. That was more important than what was happening onstage because my parents were able to see for the first time that Janis was getting recognition for what she was doing. They had been concerned about her, but at the Avalon, they saw that she might be okay.

LJ: The best part for all of us was realizing how happy she was there, how strongly she felt about what she was doing.

A Night with Janis Joplin runs through July 9 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to read more of this interview with Laura and Michael Joplin? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

The Summer of Love and Janis Joplin

Thursday, June 8, 2017

By Shannon Stockwell

The Monterey International Pop Festival was the event that truly kicked off the Summer of Love in 1967 and launched the career of soul singer Janis Joplin, the focus of A Night with Janis Joplin, running through July 9 at The Geary Theater.

Jefferson Airplane playing at a festival in Marin County, California, 1967.
Photo by Bryan Costales. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The festival proved to be a turning point in Joplin’s career, but the organizers struggled to get her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and other San Francisco bands (including Jefferson Airplane) to agree to perform. The groups were infused with the culture of Haight-Ashbury and were against stardom, fame, and profit. They only agreed to play the festival after intense questioning about where the money was going. In the end, the festival was a huge success. A reported 90,000 people enjoyed the music and the perfect weather.

The rest of the summer was one long celebration filled with spontaneous concerts, protests, and public performances. “Every day was a parade, a procession,” says Stanley Mouse, an artist who became renowned for his psychedelic ’60s posters. New arrivals showed up all summer long, lured by the feeling that a revolution was underway and wanting desperately to be a part of it.

Not all of San Francisco was smitten with the hippies. Conservative San Francisco Chronicle editorials painted a dark picture of the new lifestyle, and transport officials, police officers, and government administrators denounced the long-haired migrants. When city officials refused to help manage the sudden population increase, the Haight-Ashbury community created its own social services, such as housing aid, legal assistance, and a free medical clinic that remains in operation today. For a few months in 1967, notions of a free society that may once have been dismissed as idealistic or romantic seemed attainable.

The Who, San Francisco, 1967. Photo by James Vaughan. Courtesy Flickr.
But by the end of the summer, the scene had soured. It had become flooded by young people interested in sexual and psychotropic experimentation but not in the hippies’ spiritual doctrine of love and understanding. The police were cracking down on drug possession, and tourists now took buses through the neighborhood to ogle this foreign subculture as though its members were animals in a zoo. The hippies knew it was time to move on. In October, performance artists held a funeral procession for “Hippie, devoted son of Mass Media,” and many hippies either returned home or moved north to Marin County.

The Summer of Love may have ended, but there was no stopping the cultural revolution from continuing elsewhere. The events of 1967 in Haight-Ashbury brought hippiedom into the mainstream, leading to sexual liberation, increased awareness of environmental issues, and the abolishment of the military draft, among many other changes. Now, 50 years later, A.C.T. celebrates and remembers that summer with the story of the woman whose music formed the soundtrack to it all: Janis Joplin.

A Night with Janis Joplin runs through July 9 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about the hippie movement and Janis Joplin? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

A Revolutionary Rock Star: Janis Joplin

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Janis Joplin—the bluesy singer at the center of A Night with Janis Joplin, which opens June 7 at The Geary Theater—“belonged to that select group of pop figures who mattered as much for themselves as for their music,” says music journalist Ellen Wills. “Among American rock performers, she was second only to Bob Dylan in importance as a creator–recorder–embodiment of her generation’s mythology.”

Big Brother and the Holding Company. Photo by Albert B. Grossman, late '60s.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Janis Joplin rejected the accepted norms of how female musicians were supposed to behave and appear; she wore her hair naturally instead of perfectly coiffed in a beehive, and wore informal clothing instead of tailored, sequined gowns.

And, most importantly, she adopted a sexual persona onstage, acting as a woman who put her own pleasure first. Through songs such as “Get It While You Can,” Joplin became the figurehead of the second-wave feminist movement. In this song, Joplin discusses the prevailing view that women should postpone pleasure (i.e. sex) until they are married, and then should put off professional fulfillment for the sake of their children. Instead, Joplin advocated for women to embrace their sexual needs: “Hey, hey, get it while you can / Don’t you turn your back on love.”

Evanescence performing live at The Wiltern theatre in Los Angeles, California
on Tuesday November 17th, 2015. Photo by Justin Higuchi. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Joplin opened doors for female musicians, and her impact can be seen in the leading female musicians of today. Women are at the forefront of all the major music genres: rock (No Doubt, Evanescence, Joan Jett), pop (Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga), rap and hip-hop (Missy Elliot, Nicki Minaj), and country (Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood). Like Joplin, these artists are upfront about female sexual pleasure, societal double standards, and the power and strength of women.

Joplin’s larger-than-life personality, charismatic sexuality, laidback sense of style, whiskey-laced stage antics, and full-bodied performances may not share exactly the same artistic DNA as contemporary music’s tastemakers and trendsetters, but she was indisputably revolutionary in her time, and she paved the way for many of the female musicians who followed.

A Night with Janis Joplin runs June 7–July 2 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about female musicians in the 1960s? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Behind the Scenes at A.C.T.: An Interview with A.C.T.'s Head of Sound Suzanna Bailey

Thursday, June 1, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Walking backstage to interview Suzanna Bailey, A.C.T.’s Head of Sound, was like entering a living room on Christmas Eve. New microphones had just come in for A Night with Janis Joplin, and Bailey was excited. Janis is an opportunity for Bailey to return to her roots in sound design. While studying theater in college, she ran sound for a punk band that brought her to the Bay Area.

As A.C.T. prepares to rock The Geary like it’s 1967, we caught up with Bailey to talk about running sound for a 1,000-seat theater, collaboration, and sweat-outs.

Is there a typical sound setup or is sound different for every single show?
For many productions, we use our rep system [the layout of a theater’s main microphones and speakers], and supplement it with specials [sound elements which are required to implement the design for a particular production]. The rep system is built around the idea that you need to be efficient with cost and time as you go from one show to the next.

A.C.T.'s 2011 production of Tales of the City. Photo by Kevin Berne.
With musicals, everything is different because it’s linked to the way the designer wants to work. His or her system may completely change my normal rep system, but usually they try to work around your hang and layout [where you already have microphones and speakers placed]. As far as playback goes, that changes from show to show depending on the number of effects and whether the actors are body mic-ed.

What were the most challenging shows to work sound for?
The show where I learned the most was Tales of the City (2011). I was working as an A2 [second audio assistant or engineer]. It’s a hard job but a satisfying one. You’re constantly monitoring microphones and checking placement. You’re there on the front lines before something malfunctions. You’re also a medic: icing people down, making sure they feel comfortable, getting them back onstage. That’s one of the things I like about that position; you’re taking care of the performers, not just putting their mics on them.

During Tales, sweat-outs [when sweat gets into the microphone element and alters the sound or causes it to fail] were constant. It was a constant race to get water out of the mics because it was a heavy song, heavy dance production. There was one performer whose mic sweated out right before a major song that lead into a dance sequence. Everyone thought it was a lost cause; because we didn’t know which element was malfunctioning, we needed to swap his mic and transmitter, and repatch the mic output to the board. As he was coming off to do a quick change, I managed to swap his mic in 26 seconds. In this type of work, the ensemble backstage is as important as the ensemble onstage.

Musician David Coulter in A.C.T.'s 2017 production of
A Thousand Splendid Suns. Photo by Kevin Berne.
What’s the advantage of running sound from the back of the orchestra?
It’s the best way to stay in touch. The connection I have with the actors being that close is something special. I can see them, I can feel their energy, their timing, their rhythm.

There’s nothing like working one on one with musicians and designers to create a living score for a production. With A Thousand Splendid Suns, musician David Coulter and I were not just repeating the same thing every night. I was firing off loops for him based not on a specific cue but on the rhythm of the scene of that performance. It wasn’t about being under the strict call of the stage manager. It was about how we were going to feel it tonight.

Being inside of the play, feeling the rhythm of the actors, the audience, and the musicians is a very special thing. It’s something that I don’t ever take for granted.

A Night with Janis Joplin runs from June 7–July 2 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website
 
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