To hear Jennifer Sampson tell it, this city is in the midst of an artistic renaissance.
"Bakersfield is busting out with new things. I think we are in bloom."
She's not just talking the talk. This week, the director brings "Eleemosynary" to the Bakersfield Museum of Art, her third collaboration with the organization. And rehearsals start soon for an ambitious collaboration with conductor Stilian Kirov and the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra for "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour," which will bring theater and music to Rabobank Theater on Sept. 29.
Other than her guiding vision, the shows couldn't be more different. In addition to its actors, "Every Good Boy ..." features a chamber orchestra, which will rehearse apart from the cast until two final rehearsals before the curtain rises. Meanwhile, "Eleemosynary," part of the museum's Theatre in the Gallery series, features a tight-knit, three-woman cast, including Sampson.
"I would like to stamp this as 'theater in the raw,' she said of the show debuting Thursday. "I'm not focusing on spending money, not focusing on spectacle. We used the materials we have at the museum (for staging) and tell a clear and compelling story."
That tale is one she knows well, having starred in a production directed by Brian Sivesind at The Empty Space in 2008.
"It was great experience and I knew it would be a perfect fit for the gallery."
The play by Lee Blessing is a raw look at the complicated relationships between grandmother, mother and daughter. It stars Jan Hefner as Dorthea, a notable eccentric who pushes granddaughter Echo (played by Mariah Bathe) to overachieve while driving daughter Artie (Sampson) close to mental collapse.
It's tough to learn much more than that from this trio, whose story jumps along time and space.
"The fun thing ... is that you don’t know who to root for. They (playwrights) can devalue the audience by saying 'This is the bad guy, this is the good guy.'"
Allegiances shift in this show, Sampson said, and she likes that. She never wants her audience to completely sit back and relax but instead "lean forward" and prepare for what's going to happen next.
Sampson worked closely with her co-stars to develop the work, which she only green-lit when she got both on board.
"That's the only way I could survive directing and being in it," she said of the collaborative development process.
A major theme of the show — being able to recognize what is helpful and forgiving in others and reflecting that back to them — is something Sampson hopes audiences take away from the show.
Compassion is "a thread out in society that needs to be strengthened."
Thursday night's show is sold out but limited tickets remain for the Friday and Saturday shows, which begin at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6) at the museum. The show is recommended for those 13 and older. Tickets are available at bmoa.org/theatre.
Despite joking she could use a week in Maui, Sampson will have little time to rest before work begins on her next show, which has been a passion project for the BSO conductor for five years.
After the conductor saw a presentation by Sampson at a Rotary meeting, he told her he knew they could bring the show to Bakersfield.
"What do you say to Stilian? Like Tina Fey says, 'Say yes, then you figure it out.'"
Despite the daunting logistics, she felt this was a special opportunity for Bakersfield — and for herself as a director.
"This is the first time the symphony has attempted anything like this. A play with a chamber orchestra is very rarely done."
She found the music, by noted composer Andre Previn, on an LP and bought a record player to listen to it.
Los Angeles-based actor Ross Hellwig, a friend of Sampson and her husband, Jon, will play the lead in the Tom Stoppard play.
"He's one of the best actors I've ever seen on stage," she said.
Hellwig will play Alexander, a dissident imprisoned in a Soviet mental hospital and sharing a cell with a schizophrenic who believes he has a symphony orchestra under his command. Bakersfield performer Karl Wade makes his return to the stage as the conductor.
With the show's first read coming next week, Sampson is ready to hit the ground running.
"I'm thrilled to step into this and fulfill that vision. ... These are unique experiences and we are definitely pushing the envelope for entertainment in this community," she said.
"We have the talent, we have the audience. The need, the desire — it’s all here."
Note: This story as it originally ran contained an incorrect date for the performance of "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour." It was updated online on Aug. 24.