Thursday, July 23, 2009

Filmmakers aim to put AIDS grove on the map

by Matthew S. Bajko
Published 07/23/2009

The National AIDS Memorial Grove's 7.5 acres of green space has a long history of being forgotten, abandoned, and overlooked.

Nestled into a gulch on the eastern side of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the grove is easy to miss. It came into being in 1989 when volunteers seeking to honor those who had succumbed to AIDS landed on the idea of turning the park's historic deLaveaga Dell into a sanctuary where they could share their grief and remember loved ones.

City parks officials had long ignored upkeep of the dell, which was overrun by blackberry bushes. A team of landscapers, architects, gardeners, and citizens spent countless hours weeding the area and replanting the land.

But over the last two decades it has remained off most tourists' itineraries.

"It is kind of hidden physically; it is down in this valley. It is also in between two major traffic streets and people are often on their way to the park's museums or Conservatory of Flowers or botanical garden. I can't tell you how many people stumble through here on to somewhere else and say, I never knew this was here," said Ray Goodenough, a gay man who has been the grove's designated gardener for the last two years. "It keeps it intimate and not overrun with people, like a lot of places in the park are. It is like a sanctuary."

In 1996 the grove did gain some prominence when Congress and then-President Bill Clinton designated it a national memorial, one of only two in California. Yet Clinton never visited, nor has any president ever stepped foot in the grove while in office. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has visited the grove and was instrumental in seeing it designated a national memorial.

Over time the grove receded once again from the public's view. Except for the yearly World AIDS Day ceremony held at the space each December 1, many people either do not remember the grove exists or have no idea it is meant to be used by the general public.

"There are only 44 national memorials. It is pretty noteworthy," to have one in the Bay Area, said Michael Weiss, a 10-year member of the grove's board of directors. "But the only people who know about it, visit it, and support it are people who are local. In my experience, when people think of a national memorial they think Washington, D.C."

Yet that may soon change. Several years ago Weiss approached Andy Abrahams Wilson, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, about bringing the grove's story to the big screen. Wilson is the founder of Sausalito-based Open Eye Pictures, a nonprofit production company that specializes in educational films.

"It is striking to us how not well known the AIDS grove is outside the Bay Area," said Weiss, who has lost partners and countless friends to the epidemic. "How can a national memorial not be well known? This film will increase tourism to the grove. We can't rely on locals only."

Weiss had seen Wilson's Emmy-nominated HBO special Bubbeh Lee & Me, about a Jewish grandmother and her gay grandson, and five years ago pitched the idea of a grove film to the openly gay movie producer and director. When he first heard from Weiss, Wilson admitted that he, too, was unfamiliar with the memorial.

"I thought the grove was a totem pole, with some incense and eggs, and then I visited it," he recalled. "AIDS was a horror with no respite for the weary. The chaos and carnage were everywhere. It felt like a sacred cathedral; the ghosts were palpable. Our grief grows those wild plants and flowers."

Since then Wilson has been filming in the grove, interviewing its founders, overseers and those people who have spread the ashes of their loved ones inside the dell for the hour-long documentary.

"I sometimes call it a post-AIDS AIDS film. Now that we have gone through the shock and horror of the AIDS epidemic, not that it is over, but how do we deal with our loss? How do we grieve and remember our loss? The AIDS grove allows us to do that. It is a model for how to turn loss into life and grieving into growth," said Wilson.

Wilson recently screened a portion of the film, tentatively titled Forget Me Not, at a fundraiser in San Francisco that raised $20,000 to help finish the project, which is estimated to need another $100,000 in order to complete production. He said part of why the AIDS grove gets overlooked is that many people have "ghettoized" the epidemic as something only akin to the LGBT community.

But as the movie makes clear through interviews with non-LGBT people, the epidemic has impacted countless individuals, both gay and straight alike, who have lost loved ones to AIDS.

"Grief and death is universal. It helps us make connections with others," explained Wilson, who lived in San Francisco in the early 1990s and lost many friends to the epidemic. "It is not just a metaphor of nature but the essence of nature, which includes everything that is true about the AIDS epidemic. The film is trying to bring to the public's consciousness and a greater audience the grove and what the grove stands for."

Out author Armistead Maupin, who often goes to the grove's Circle of Friends, where three people he lost to AIDS have their names inscribed into the flagstone, is using his celebrity to help raise the money needed to complete the film. He spoke at the recent fundraiser about how the grove has impacted his life over the years.

"I have never gotten my hands dirty in that beautiful place," said Maupin, who in 1999 accompanied gay English actor Stephen Fry to the grove for a television segment he was filming to be screened in Britain. "What is lovely about the grove is it is such a communal project. It really is the closest thing I have to a chapel in my life."

He urged people to think of the grove as more than just a place for quiet remembrances or solemn memorials.

"Anything you do in there that brings joy to that place is appropriate. It is beautiful; you want to go picnic there," said Maupin. "It allows us to remember those people in a beautiful way that is not morbid."

Wilson, who hopes to have the film finished within a year, called the grove a perfect subject for a documentary.

"The grove really is a repository for stories. Film is one of the best media to tell those stories," he said.

For more information about the film and how to donate funds to the project, visit

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

O'Neill Center Adds Performance of Tales of the City Musical

By Adam Hetrick
08 Jul 2009

The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center Musical Theater Conference has added an additional staged reading of the new musical adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City.

Public readings of the developing musical based on the Maupin series began July 4 and are scheduled for July 8 and 11 at 8 PM. In order to accommodate ticket demand, the O'Neill Center has added a performance at 2 PM on July 11.

Tony nominee Jason Moore (Shrek, Avenue Q, Steel Magnolias) directs the musical that features a score by Scissor Sisters band members Jason Sellards (lyrics) and John Garden (music), a book by Tony winner Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) and musical direction by Stephen Oremus (Wicked, 9 to 5).

The cast includes Candy Buckley, Mary Birdsong, Jeffrey Carlson, Diane Davis, Christopher J. Hanke, John Jellison, Steve Kazee, Jose Llana, Matt McGrath, Betsy Wolfe and Kristine Zbornik.

Tales of the City, according to press notes, "follows a community of friends, lovers, and others who reside at the mythical address of 28 Barbary Lane in 1976 San Francisco. Mary Ann Singleton, a fresh arrival from Ohio, falls into a diverse band of Bohemians and blue-bloods, as families are created and rediscovered under the watchful eye of mystical landlady Anna Madrigal."

Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City," has also been adapted into several television miniseries featuring performances by Olympia Dukakis, Laura Linney, Chloe Webb, Marcus D'Amico, Donald Moffat, Thomas Gibson, Barbara Garrick, Nina Foch, Paul Gross, Stanley DeSantis and Philip Moon.

Tickets for the O'Neill Conference readings are available by phoning (860) 443-1238 or visit

The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center was founded in 1964 and is based in Waterford, CT. Programs at the Center include the Puppetry Conference, Playwrights Conference, Critics Institute, Music Theater Conference and the National Theater Institute. The Monte Cristo Cottage, O'Neill's childhood home, is also owned and operated by the group.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Fancy Flock

"Language of Birds," a floating installation of 23 illuminated polycarbonate books at the corner of Broadway and Columbus avenues, has just been dubbed one of the best public artworks in America.

It was chosen from among 300 entries at the Americans for the Arts convention in Seattle last June.

Since it was installed last fall by San Francisco artists Brian Goggin with Dorka Keehn, the street corner has become focal point for art lovers and tourists.

The flock of twenty-three white translucent books are suspended from a web of stainless steel aircraft cables, and resemble birds in flight. The books are opened in various positions, which give the books the appearance of flying.

At night LED lights embedded within the books create visual patterns.

Goggin and Keehn worked with scientist David Shearer and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore to provide solar power. The solar panels are mounted on top of the iconic bookstore, located half a block away.

The artists embedded words on the ground under the flock, to create the sensation that words had fallen from the pages. Working with shop owners and residents, the artists chose words from books that reflect the area's literary history, including works by Armistead Maupin, Gary Snyder, William T. Vollman, and Jade Snow Wong.

Goggin has been creating public artworks since 1991. He attracted national attention in 1997 with Defenestration, which features furniture falling from the windows and crawling down the sides of a 5-story South of Market tenement building. Goggin has created sculptures for the Yahoo headquarters in Sunnyvale, the Sacramento International Airport, the Seattle Arts Commission, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Keehn hosts her own online arts and culture talk show, KEEHN ON ART. She is a sculptor, writer, photographer and the Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker OF CIVIL WRONGS AND RIGHTS: The Fred Korematsu Story.

Posted By: Meredith May (Email) | July 07 2009 at 09:01 AM

Friday, July 3, 2009

'Tales Of The City' A New Musical From 'Avenue Q' Creators

By FRANK RIZZO The Hartford Couran
July 3, 2009

WATERFORD - The last time librettist Jeff Whitty and director Jason Moore were at the O'Neill Theater Center's National Music Theater Conference, they were working on a little musical with puppets called "Avenue Q," a show that eventually went on to Broadway, where it won a Tony Award for best musical and will end its 6-year-plus run in September.

Their new project is making a musical from Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City," the collective name for the series of books based on the era of the colorful, comic and culturally significant San Francisco life in the 1970s and beyond.

"Avenue Q" producers Kevin McCollum, Robyn Goodman and Jeffrey Seller are positioned to take the show to the next step after the O'Neill staged readings Saturday, July 4, Sunday, July 5, Wednesday, July 8, and Saturday, July 11, in Waterford.

Moore says "Tales" translates well to the musical stage because "most musicals are essentially about two things: people searching for love and community."

That's certainly the case with "Tales of the City," which concerns the socio-sexual climate of the era as seen through the friends and lovers who live on Barbary Lane.

But what makes "Tales of the City" sing?

Whitty says he was inspired to turn the material into a musical while watching the 1994 TV mini-series on a plane trip to London three years ago. He says the '70s are "such an incredible decade for music and that music is such an essential part of the stories themselves. It just seemed natural. The first thing [leading character] Mary Ann does is tell her mother that she is not going back to Ohio and that she is staying in San Francisco. I thought, 'Oh, that's how musicals start.'"

When he got off the plane he contacted one of the "Avenue Q" producers, inquired about the rights, and when he found they were available, "snapped them up."

He then turned to an East Village pal, Jason Sellards, also known as "Jake Shears" from the band Scissor Sisters, which draws on disco, glam rock and pop.

"I always wanted to do a musical," says Sellards. "Then Jeff wrote me another e-mail and said it was 'Tales of the City' and when I read that my heart started racing. For so many teenagers the books are a right of passage, and I so identify the 'Tales' with my youth. I immediately wrote back: 'Absolutely!'"

He asked bandmate John Garden to join him in the project.

"Jason just came up to me one day," says Garden, "and said, 'Grab a keyboard. ... We're writing a musical.' ... And that was my introduction to the project."

Director Moore says the Scissor Sisters musicians were a great match.

"There's a theatricality to their music,' says Moore, "and the lyrics are quite funny and smart, and some of their songs have characters and tell stories. There's also a theatrical awareness to their shows as well. They are showmen."

Garden wrote the music to the show; Sellards is the lyricist. Sellards is inspired by the rock musicals he grew up on.

"Since I was a kid I was obsessed with 'Rocky Horror,' 'Tommy' and 'Hair.' They've really been a part of why Scissor music sounds the way it does and has that kind of story-telling function."

All About Story
Storytelling is the challenge for Whitty, who has color-coded and tab-indexed his dog-eared edition of "Tales of the City" and its sequel, "More Tales of the City."

The question, is how do you include the characters and stories into a 2-hour-and-40 minute musical?

"A big inspiration, weirdly enough, is 'Les Miz' and the way [its creators] were able to take that huge book and condense the material. One of things that I love about that show, which I think is terrific, is that it feels so pulpy and rich in storytelling, and in a way, it's the musical version of the page-turner. That's what my goal is," says Whitty.

"I've sort of restructured it. For a musical we need to have a clear ending. Armistead is totally on board and has been delightful to work with. He is just really happy with how much we've been able to keep in."

Whitty and Moore are happy to be at the O'Neill.

"The band tours a lot and all of us are in different cities so for us to be focused for two weeks is great," says Whitty. "The show won't be perfect when we end here, though. 'Avenue Q' sure wasn't. We made so many changes after the O'Neill, but you learn so much."

And the future track for the show?

"I am working toward this Saturday," says Whitty. "If I think about it any further I will freeze up. If someone told me last time we were here that the show would go on to Broadway and run for six years we would have never been able to finish it. The pressure would have been too great."

But there are no puppets in "Tales of the City" — right?

"Well," says Whitty, laughing. "Mrs. Madrigal..." .

TALES OF THE CITY will perform as a staged reading Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m., Wednesday at 8 p.m. and July 11 at 8 p.m. at the Rose Barn theater at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck, Waterford. Tickets are $20. Tickets and information: 860-443-5378 and

Copyright © 2009, The Hartford Courant,0,4910987.story

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Scissor Sisters Cut Loose with "Tales of the City"

Frank Rizzo
on July 2, 2009

Jason Sellards (aka "Jake Shears") and John Garden of Scissor Sisters are writing the music for a new musical based on Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" books.

The show is being developed at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, its National Music Theater Conference.readings of the show will be held Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., Wednesday at 8 p.m. and next Saturday (July 11) at 2 p.m. Tickets are $22.

I talked with the two -- as well as director Jason Moore and librettist Jeff Whitty -- for an article that runs in Friday's Courant.

In my conversation with the band members (above, photo by Patrick Raycraft), the two talked about the project at length. For Scissor Sisters/Tales of the City fans a few more details about the project:

"Jeff sent me an e-mail not being specific what the show was," says Sellards.

"I always wanted to do a musical," says Sellards. "I've always been a big fan of them and it was always something I thought I would end up doing some day. So I wrote back and said, 'Yeah, it sounds really cool.'

Their first song they wrote for the show was "Me Plus One," a song in the second act. A more thematic song in the show is one called "Atlantis," about Mrs. Madrigal's belief that San Francisco is a re-incarnated version of Atlantis. "I think that song really sums up the connections between everyone in the city," says Sellard.

'They also talked about going to San Franciso when the band was on a break, meeting Maupin and soaking up the vibe of the city.

"The music [of the era -- the books are mostly set in the '70s] is automatically part of our musical vocabulary so it's automatically going to be there,' says Sellards. "Even though the era is very important, it takes a back seat to these characters."

"It's about the struggle they have in the time they are living,' says Garden. "It just happens to be the '70s."

"The characters are so strong it makes it so much easier to write songs for them," says Sellards.

Both composers have some familiarity with musicals. Garden played a Nazi youth who sings "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" in a student production of "Cabaret," and Sellards was Little John in "West Side Story" and Sky Masterson in "Guys and Dolls" when he was in high school.

"That's where I figured out I could sing,' Sellards says. "It was the first time anyone came up to me and told me I was a singer."

Christopher J. Hanke Is "Mouse" in "Tales of the City"

Frank Rizzo
on July 2, 2009

Here the who's who in the cast of the reading of the new musical version of "Tales of the City" starting this weekend as part of the National Music Theater Conference at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford.

Christopher J. Hanke plays Michael "Mouse" Tolliver. Hanke was the lead in Broadway's "In the Life" and "Cry-Baby."

Candy Buckley plays Mrs. Anna.Madrigal. Buckey was in TheatreWorks' production of "The Little Dog Laughed," Broadway's "After the Fall" and "Ring Round the Moon."

Betsy Wolfe plays Mary Ann Singleton Wolfe was in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of "110 in the Shade."

Mary Birdsong plays Mona Ramsey. Ramsety is in TV's "Reno 911" and Broadway's "Hairspray" and "Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me."

Steve Kazee plays Brian Hawkins. Kazee was also in "110 in the Shade" as Starbuck and Broadway's "To Be or Not to Be."

Jeffrey Carlson plays Beauchamp Day; John Jellison is Edgar Halcyon; Diane Davis is DeDe Halcyon Day and Connie; Matt McGrath is Norman Neal Williams; Josh Breckenridge is Jon Fielding; Kristine Zbornik is Mother Mucca and others; Jose Llama is Lionel, others.

Readings are Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., next Wednesday at 8 p.m. and Saturday, July 11 at 8 p.m.

The show has libretto by Jeff Whitty and direction by Jason Moore, both of "Avenue Q." Music is by Jason Sellards and John Garden of the Scissor Sisters. Music director is Stephen Oremus.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"Avenue Q" To Close; Began at Waterford's O'Neill Center

Frank Rizzo
on July 1, 2009 1:26 PM

"We never dreamed it would go to Broadway, much less run for six years," says Jeff Whitty reacting to the news that the musical in which he was the librettist, "Avenue Q," will be ending its Broadway run in September.

Whitty was speaking yesterday at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford where he is working on a staged reading of a new musical based on Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" books. "Avenue Q" director Jason Moore is also directing the new project which features music by Jason Sellards and John Garden of the band Scissor Sisters.

"There is definitely a wistful feeling," says Moore. "We knew it was coming and when the call came last week, it was like, OK."

"You want to end it with a bang and with a great cast and a full house. Now the show can go on to other things like amateur productions."

Staged readings of "Tales of the City" are Saturday, Sunday, and next Wednesday and Saturday at the O'Neill, where "Avenue Q" had its start when it, too, was part of the National Music Theater Conferece.

Variety reports that Broadway's "Avenue Q" grossed almost $120 million so far, and, according to reps for the show, returned $23.5 million to its investors.

Pictured above: Jason Sellards and John Garden of the Scissor Sisters and Jeff Whitty. Picture by Patrick Raycraftt of The Hartford Courant.