Mad River Union
BLUE LAKE – “John came to see the play twice and he said, ‘You should make a film,’ and it’s now two years into the process,” Michael Fields explained.
Fields is the director of Mary Jane: The Musical currently playing on stage at Dell’Arte through July 5. And John is John Howarth, the director of Mary Jane: A Musical Potumentary.
Howarth lives in London but has been filming on location around Humboldt County. “I’m partially living here,” he said.
He’s a BBC veteran of 25 years and was nominated for an Emmy for The Lost World.
“I was particularly impressed that, as well as celebrating all the positives, the show also acknowledges and explores the darker side,” Howarth wrote on the Potumentary website.
“I think now is the perfect time to bring this story out to a broader audience and Dell’Arte is the group of artists to make it happen.”
At a recent shoot at the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors’ chambers, Howarth was in good spirits and working hard as both director and director of photography.
He had a cast of one actual supervisor (Mark Lovelace), four actors playing the other supervisors (who had declined invitations to participate), three impassioned women demanding that the supes “Regulate Us,” various other characters from the musical, and a whole passel of Arcata Interfaith Gospel Choir members who had been invited to lipsync backup on the song.
Assistant Director Caitlin Volz clapped the scene boards, kept choir members on track, wrangled others into place, and facilitated the flow of the shoot.
“You are the best-behaved group of extras I’ve ever seen,” she told the gospel choir.
“You might want to talk to our [choir] director about that,” joked Halimah Collingwood, one of the choir’s original members.
Another local who had the chance to be in the movie is Kevin Hoover, editor-at-large of the Mad River Union, and formerly editor of the Arcata Eye.
There’s a character called Kev Bissell in the musical who wears a shirt with the Arcata Eye logo on it, glasses and a fedora. For those readers who are too young to remember, both Hoover and Bissell are brand names of vacuum cleaners.
Hoover showed up for his shoot at a sound stage in HSU’s Theatre Arts building “wearing my Kevin Hoover rig – glasses and a fedora, which denotes ‘journalist’ in old movies – and John said, ‘You look perfect’,” reported Hoover.
He may have looked perfect, but Hoover was stressed. “Good actors make it look easy,” he said. “If you’re new to that milieu, it can be grueling. A dozen or more people staring at you and devices trained on you, while you’ve got to deliver nuance. But everyone was so kind and sweet.”
His character plays off Mary Jane, providing tension and a foil for her point of view. (The same character in the musical had three representatives of the Union rolling on the grass with laughter on opening night, June 18.)
Tension and a dose of reality are part of the plan for the Potumentary. “I’m weaving a certain element of documentary into it,” Howarth said. “We’ll have the fire chief talking about [grow] house fires and Fish and Game people talking about the effect on the environment. But the songs are what carry the show.” Howarth has been shooting and directing “principally documentary dramas” for the past 10 years.
The pace is swift and tough on the actors who are performing in the musical at the same time they are in the movie. “There’s a lot of pressure on them, I know,” Howarth said. “But it’s the only way we could have afforded to do it. We have all the actors in place now.”
Howarth hopes to get the film finished in the spring of 2016 “for film festivals.” The main release would be later in the year. “We want to get this out next September,” he explained, “that will be on the leadup to the election in November.”
And it’s happening thanks to “kind and generous” investors. The film project had a successful Kickstarter campaign last fall.
Fields was thrilled with that success. “At first we had no money,” he said. “Then, a couple of people helped us to get started. It was great – we could rent a truck. We could rent a camera. We could have food at the shoots.”
Joan Schirle, Dell'Arte's founding artistic director, plays Mary Jane in both the play and the film. “It’s a different animal, I gotta say. First of all the lines are slightly different and that’s a bit maddening. John has cut and pasted them out of the order that they are in the play,” she said.
“But that’s not so bad. At least in a movie you can stop. The other big difference is the amount of time. First you wait and then you have to do it again and again. You don’t just have a wonderful burst of energy for your moment,” she said. “You have to call it up again and again.”
This is Schirle’s first movie and it’s unusual that she would star in her first effort. Don’t forget she’s the Empress Sativa, the Queen of the Emerald Ball. She can handle it.
The film, of course, can always use more funding and support; at opening night of Mary Jane: The Musical, exiting theatregoers pitched bills into buckets held by cast members. The website, maryjanemusical.com also has information on how to donate. As Mary Jane said from the stage at the end of the opening performance, “If you have any extra cash buried in Mason jars, we could use it.”