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Interconnections that spark art & audience

Last year, London native Michael French launched Aluminous, a resident theater company at The Flight Deck in Oakland. He moved to the Bay Area after 12 years in New York and in Colorado.

What brought you to the Bay Area?

I’ve been here five years. I came here to start a theater company and to meet like-minded people, which I’d been struggling to do in Colorado.  I said to myself, I have to do this in San Francisco, it couldn’t be Oakland. So, I got here and I refused to look at Oakland. I just had blinkers on. I’d travel into SF (from where he lived Oakland), rent these spaces, and put on theater projects.

Then, one day I remember I was standing by the MacArthur BART station and I was watching all the people go in, and I saw more people of color, more diversity in the 10-15 minutes that I was standing there than I did in the audience I was attracting in San Francisco. And, finally, I thought, what am I doing? It’s here, it supposed to be in Oakland.

How have things changed in the five years you’ve been here?

It’s a complicated issue. I honestly believe there were things in Oakland that had to change. It needed to open. When I first got here, it was in a bubble of its own world. It was a bubble that was stifling. The trade off – gentrification – is a pretty steep one. But I think in the long run… I think it’s going to be for the better. Of course, it depends on what Oakland you’re talking about. I don’t think it will be the best for the African American Oakland.

Were you always in theater?

Always in theater. First as an actor, then as a writer, but always a director underneath it. It just took me a long time to get into myself. Theater directors in England are gods, especially when I was growing up, and there were very few people of color that were directors. Trying to make that association with myself, even though I was drawn to it, was really hard. I was raised with the European canon in both theater and literature.

As much as I enjoyed it, being an actor didn’t feel right. It was finally when I got to New York that I realized, I’m not an actor, I’m a director. And, I don’t know anyone who could be a director without having acted as some point.

The Flight Deck – How did you become a part of it?

It’s one year old. I don’t just use the space, Aluminous (aluminous.org) is of the resident companies there. There are five companies all trying to create a multidisciplinary shared space. For some reason, theater is very territorial, in terms of the various companies. I’ve got my email list, and I’m not going to share that, I’ve got this and I’m not going to share that. I was looking for a space to set my theater company up and I kept seeing the same faces looking for a space of their own. And one of us said, why don’t we look together?

Ragged Wing had their eyes set on this fairly enormous place, which is The Flight Deck, and I don’t know if they were going to take it on no matter what, but having all these people say, of course we should, I’d like to think gave them the impetus to say, let’s do this.

Flight Deck houses five companies, we try as best as we can to be a cooperative, to share what we have, it’s an expensive space. It’s big and in a great location, so there’s a business side to it as well. It’s a bit like paying rent, why am I paying all this money on a place that’s not mine doesn’t reflect who I am in a place that five minutes after I left has gone back to the business of business, instead of joining up with some other artists and creating a space that we believe, in time, is going to feel like a crossroads for artists in Oakland. It was important that it be in Oakland, it would be a home, not just a place to perform. There’s a real social, political side to it. We’re getting to the point where we can reduce the rates on rehearsal rooms and the theater itself, so that more and more people can use it. We want to put the tools in the hands of artists in Oakland.

Talk about the audiences

Theater has to change – it can’t stay at $30 a ticket and think it’s going to survive. I don’t think it will. Or it will only cater to audiences that can afford it. Oakland residents get the cheapest possible ticket, not matter what. People under 18 can come in for free. And we’re talking to a fairly large entity in the hope that they will subsidize the ticket price, namely, that they will pay for 50% of the ticket price so that we can offer a ticket price of $10 and yet we can still have that $20 ticket in order to survive.

Where is the younger audience? Theater’s been asking itself that for I don’t know how long. Flight Deck is only a year old. Come back in five years and hopefully there’ll be a big story to tell.

Aluminous has a specific way of doing what you do, why?

I love cinematic theater, theater that has a soul to it that isn’t to do with naturalism. And so Aluminous is a multimedia theater company. It doesn’t always mean that we use film and music in every production. It just means that we are involved in those elements separately. The idea is to be a company that produces music, film and theater independently AND the production is when you get to see these three things come together.

For example, we had someone write a short story, give the short story to a musician, then to someone who is writing a play based on the same characters. The musician making music from the story hasn’t read the play. For someone who is interested in film, they make the film based on the music they heard, which is based on the story… When you put them all back together again, they all work. It’s the interconnectedness of the art that I’m really interested in.

I was looking at a Roxy Music album “For Your Pleasure” and they had a list of all the people who were on that album and I remember thinking to myself, I don’t know how old I was 12, 15, I wonder what would happen if all these people were to stay together in the same company? I didn’t know it at the time, but that thought was the beginning of Aluminous.

Michael French theater director

What does Aluminous look like in the future?

First we are going to put on the last of the three-part series on religion (Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, Nov 12th – 22nd at The Flight Deck, 1540 Broadway, Oakland) In the future you’ll see original plays – that is the goal, generally, but I’m looking as best I can for the writer that’s willing to write a play for our company. Writers that know that film is going to be used in the plays, I don’t want to squeeze film in there. Want the play to be written with film in mind. And film in mind where you just have music. It’s a multimedia writer that’s what I’m looking for.

Part of doing what we’re doing now, taking pre-written plays, is so they can attract the people that are meant to work together. It’s the same way here. It’s happened. People are becoming attracted to Aluminous, so the writer will show up. I just don’t know when.

Apart from Aluminous, you are directing for ReOrient, the short play festival focused on work about the Middle East.

What do I know about the Middle East? I want to know. As someone who is black, of color, and I have to live under those preconceptions of others, here I am doing exactly the same thing to people I don’t know. So part of ReOrient, is to broaden my own eduction, but also to show audiences that come to ReOrient that there are African Americans involved. Middle Eastern writers that I’ve read so far, it’s a different way of looking at things, of explaining things that I want to understand.

Aluminous started out as a sweet, multidisciplinary group of artists dedicated to exploring the life and death struggles of the two-character play, more commonly known as the “two-hander.” Seamlessly blending music, film, theatre, and anything else we could lay our hands on, each production was a 3-dimensional experience. For three years we saw nothing else worth doing and wanted for nothing more, but we came to understand that the true beauty of being Aluminous was exploring the interconnectedness of the multimedia process.

Michael, Illumined

Michael, Illumined

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