When planning a theatrical season, many factors come into play. Gauging audience or performer interest, finding fresh material for the market or determining what works with existing resources.
Then sometimes something crosses your path that just can't be overlooked, as was the case with "Angels in America," which is opening this weekend at The Empty Space.
Brian Sivesind, the theater's executive director, and Kristina Saldana, who shared directing duties on this project said it's eerie how the show, based in the 1980s, resonates today.
"Considering the present political environment, regardless of which side of the aisle people might identify with, this show is very much a reflection of our current zeitgeist," wrote Brian Sivesind wrote. "I mean, Roy Cohn was Donald Trump's lawyer and mentor! Just a couple weeks ago, Trump asked, 'Where's my Roy Cohn?' You can't write this stuff. Only history can ..."
Cohn, played by Sivesind in the show, is one of many real-life characters in Tony Kushner's tale exploring homosexuality and the rise of AIDS in America in the 1980s.
Twenty-five years later, the show's themes are topical and relevant, Saldana said.
"The things they were worrying about in the '80s are the things we find ourselves unfortunately worrying about still," she wrote in an email. "... Gay men were being denied health care and other services because of who they were. White men are lecturing black men on racism. It's awfully topical and relevant."
Sivesind said the show is also a reminder that we should avoid glossing over the darker periods of U.S. history.
" ... We should never forget the AIDS crisis and how that was mismanaged by our society and government on a massive scale," he wrote. "We did a terrible disservice to the people afflicted by this epidemic, and we can only hope to be better by acknowledging the mistakes we've made. Our political discourse could definitely use a little more of that right about now."
The play centers on interlocking stories of Prior (Justin Salinas) who is stricken with AIDS, and his lover Louis (Justin Lawson Brooks), who is crippled by fear; closeted gay Mormon Joe (Daniel Korth) and agoraphobic wife Harper (Ellie Sivesind); and Cohn, the aggressive, charismatic lawyer.
What makes this production so ambitious for the black box theater is that the two parts — "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika" — are being shown in repertory, meaning audiences can view each part on alternating weekends.
The show was last produced at the theater more than a decade ago, with Hal Friedman directing part one in summer 2004 and part two the following spring. Sivesind and Saldana, who have previously shared directing duties for "Cabaret" and "Spring Awakening," knew they could tackle the project as a team.
Saldana wrote, "I would never have even thought about attempting this feat with out him. Period."
Also helping was a dedicated crew and cast, including Jan Hefner, Tevin Joslen, April Toelle and Julia Stansbury.
"This piece resonates deeply with many of them on an extremely personal level," Saldana wrote. "I think a few might have walked though fire to be involved with this one."
Audience might feel the burn if they opt for marathon day on March 3, the only day that will feature performances of both parts (part one at 1 p.m., part two at 8 p.m.). With each coming in at about three hours (with two, 10-minute intermissions), the day is a major commitment for any attendees.
Saldana said the challenge was too tempting for some and that ticket sales for the marathon are double those of individual shows. She advises a well-planned break for those three hours between shows.
"We recommend the audience go out, get a drink or some dinner, and reflect. This production really does take you on an emotional roller coaster."
While the thought of going through a wringer of emotions might put off some theater-goers, Sivesind said that's a reminder that theater as art can, and should, challenge us.
He wrote, "I hope Bakersfield will give it the chance it deserves, and I hope it will stimulate some thought and conversation."
An artistic history lesson
Looking at work from artist Jennifer Shrader, which is currently on display at the Arts Council of Kern's Access Center Gallery, is like taking a colorful trip into the past.
For her current show, "Remembering Bakersfield," depicts her hometown as it appeared during her Bakersfield High School days in the 1950s.
Shrader came to art later in life. A trained cosmetologist and hair dresser, who spent decades making jewelry, doing handwork and silk-ribbon embroidery, Shrader focused many years on raising her three daughters.
A doodler in her youth, she picked up the paint brush at age 65 and began working in acrylics.
Her work has a realistic look, depicting the signs and memorabilia of her youth. Prior to this show, she organized some of her earlier works for a calendar in 2011, and paid tribute to our local ag community with "Bakersfield Farmers Tractors," an Arts Council of Kern show in 2015 featuring paintings of equipment from 12 local farm families.
The gallery exhibition also features the work of abstract artist Paul Rivas. His collection, "A Destroyed Mind for a Future Generation," features 15 paintings, including one by his daughter, Scarlett.
In his artist statement, Rivas wrote that he wants viewers to question what art is and how it can make people feel.
"In my art, I attempted to capture how abstract our daily life’s can be," he wrote. "My inspiration comes from the stressful challenges that life brings. In my creative process, I painted images to help the eyes see what the mind and body feels."