Impact Theatre is a small nonprofit theatre company which I founded in Berkeley, California in 1996. I was the Artistic Director until 2000, when I moved to Seattle for grad school. Since then, Melissa Hillman has taken the reigns and has taken the company to the next level.
In 1996 I was fresh out of undergrad and filled with a lot of righteous energy — I wanted to make theatre that would appeal to my own generation. Impact’s mission was and is to fill an unmet need for community, storytelling, and direct experience for young people in the Bay Area. We did a lot of original plays and were blessed with a couple of truly talented young writers.
Starting with no budget, no space, and no reputation, we attracted an audience of students, hipsters, young people, and curious traditional theatregoers with an aesthetic that focused on actor over design, language over spectacle, and immediacy over everything. People took notice. We kept ticket prices absurdly low and worked on the shows and the company for no financial compensation. Company members came and went, we dealt with all kinds of drama, and we kept on putting up about four shows a year. The shows themselves were a supremely mixed bag — sketch comedy, heavy drama, experimental commedia, superheroes, and eventually Shakespeare. Some fell flat, of course, but some of them fulfilled our mission and, frankly, my own dreams. The highest praise I’ve ever received was from a teenager moved to tears by a show, who said she had never imagined that theatre could mean anything to her.
Below you’ll find information on a few Impact Theatre shows. Sweet Self was a world premiere drama by Zay Amsbury, a close friend and collaborator of mine. Zay also wrote The Wake-Up Crew, my final show as Impact’s Artistic Director. One of Impact’s boldest experiments was to create new commedia characters based on present-day archetypes — like the Soccer Mom, the Campus Activist, and the Raver Kid — and put them onstage with lazzi and a story structure but no set script, in People’s Parking: A 90’s Berkeley Commedia and Commedia 2000: Soccer Mom vs. Monster Bud. Impact’s first Shakespeare was a Henry IV Part One cut that I developed with Melissa Hillman; we called it Henry IV: The Impact Remix. Impact’s biggest success was House of Lucky, which premiered at a tiny space in Berkeley, moved to San Francisco for an award-winning twice-extended run at The Marsh, and was eventually picked up by The Magic.
The story centers around a tightly knit group of friends in Santa Cruz, friends that think of each other as family. The head of this family is Eddie, a small-time pot dealer whose East Coast mother and sister need his help. Annie is the youngest member of the group, a sixteen-year-old runaway and budding alcoholic. A pair of incidents give rise to the story: Eddie steals money from his drug contacts to give to his mother, and Annie is raped after blacking out while drunk. Eddie vows to find the rapist, and his violent search threatens to tear the group of friends apart even as the dangerous drug contacts seek revenge for their stolen cash. Confronted by his girlfriend Jo, Eddie admits to sexually abusing his sister as a child — and that he too had blacked out from alcohol the night Annie was raped. Finally, Eddie’s guilt is confirmed, and he makes a choice — he gives the stolen money to Annie and gives himself up to be killed by the drug dealers.
The Impact production had a small budget indeed, and we found a way to make this work to our advantage. Due to the theater space crunch in the Bay Area, we performed in the cafeteria of the North Berkeley Senior Center under flourescent lights. The audience, a few rows deep, formed three sides of a square on the floor. The fourth side was a row of chairs for the actors to sit in when not on stage. That’s all that was needed, as the reviews and audience reactions showed.
“…if there was ever a case for not judging a theater group by its budget, Impact Theatre’s Sweet Self is it… an intense, serious drama… builds methodically towards its troubling emotional climax… a decidedly contemporary play, and its language — unlike some plays that try desperately to portray Gen X life — is honest and real… it succeeds at leaving its audience thoroughly moved… the company has come under the leadership of artistic director Josh Costello, and if Sweet Self is any indication, the company is in good hands.”
-Contra Costa Times
“an ambitious foray into no-frills contemporary drama… authentic, rough language… Costello directs with a sure hand, and before long you forget about the limitations of the minimalist staging…”
-East Bay Express
“…for the last two years, under the leadership of artistic director Josh Costello, Impact has emerged as a focused, productive troupe… Sweet Self is a powerful, well-acted drama about a makeshift family of twentysomethings entangled in the Santa Cruz drug trade. This is no-frills theater at its best… Without all the usual theatrical trappings — like sets or props — the actors and the production team are free to create a world that exists solely in the imagination of the viewers. This bare-bones approach also is bolstered by intensely visceral performances and a tight, well-paced script… The acting ensemble is outstanding. These may not be experienced actors, but they connect with Amsbury’s play and give the naturalistic dialogue an easy, realistic rhythm that hardly ever seems like self-conscious acting… at no time is it condescending or gimmicky.. It remains to be seen whether or not this ambitious company will achieve its mission and get young people into the theater, but with quality work like Sweet Self, they should.”
The Wake-Up Crew is an original play by Zay Amsbury. It’s about a young man who returns to Santa Cruz to make nice with an old friend, only to discover that said friend is trying to take over the world with his newly-discovered super powers. What I love about the script is that it manages to combine an emotional, moving story about friendship and sacrifice with my favorite kind of comic-book craziness. The Impact Theatre production won the SF Bay Guardian Award for Best Fight Choreography of 2000.
“…there’s more punch to this thing than the entire Batman film series put together… there are so many fun things about The Wake-Up Crew that it’s hard to know where to begin…”
“…kicks some serious butt… director Josh Costello has lots of surprises up his sleeve… eloquent… a funny, energetic, and even intelligent show”
Impact Theatre produced People’s Parking: A 90’s Berkeley Commedia in 1997 and followed it up with Commedia 2000: Soccer Mom vs. Monster Bud in 2000. These two shows, which I co-directed with Jaron Hollander — who has spent time as a clown with Cirque Du Soleil — were an attempt to bring the spirit of the commedia dell’arte into the present day. Over an extended rehearsal period, we developed new commedia-style characters based on present day archetypes — finding analogues in our own society for the Italian commedia stock characters. Instead of the miserly masters and mischievous servants, we had the soccer mom, the homeless man, the raverboy, the cheerleader, the campus activist, and more, each with a mask, lazzi, and characteristic physical and vocal stylizations (though the two lovers in People’s Parking were unmasked). Following in the footsteps of the original commedia tradition, the actors improvised all of the dialogue in performance each night, working within a set plot structure.
These shows were raunchy, energetic, and fun. They weren’t high art, but they captured Peter Brook’s “Rough Theatre” like nothing else I’ve seen. Someday I’d like to return to this form and develop it further.
“succeeds in generating abundant laughter… this rollicking, somewhat free-form theatrical exercise is an attempt to recreate the broad, familiar style of 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte in which stock comic characters like Pantalone and Arlecchino are replaced with more contemporary characters from the streets of Berkeley…”
Henry IV Part One has always been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays; Prince Hal reminds me so much of people in my generation. And then there’s Falstaff. And Hotspur. And the battles. I first directed Henry IV with a group of teenagers at Cal Shakes. In cutting the play for that production, it occurred to me that this is a play about a young man without a positive male role model: his father is an overly-ambitious backstabber, and his friends are thieves and drunks. Hal’s choice to join his father in battle is a rejection of Falstaff, but it’s also a commitment to becoming a better king than Henry IV. It’s also a play that’s deeply concerned with the concept of honor — critiquing honor as much as celebrating it.
My cut of the play, which I directed as a staged reading with the Bay Shakespeare Marathon 2000 and which evolved into “The Impact Remix” at Impact Theatre, is focused on Hal’s choices — between his own father and his surrogate father, between honor and friendship, between the tavern and the court. Because I wasn’t concerned with English history, or with holding anything back for Part Two, I changed the ending: the king is mortally wounded in battle, and speaks some lines from Henry IV Part Two to Hal before his death.
These three productions also incorporated modern dress and props and Eastern fighting styles and weapons, as if taking place in a future that has developed a new system of honor based on a combination of chivalry and the Bushido code of the Samurai — the Impact production featured elaborately staged battles with katana.
“Impact delivers a mature, well-conceived, and emotionally searing product while managing to hold onto the blend of boozing, fighting, and sex that has been its trademark…. Smart, fast-paced, and wholly engaging…a stunning, complete-in-itself Henry IV that needs no introduction, sequel, or apology…[with] a much darker, sadder, and to my mind more dramatic and contemporary ending. While it will make those who demand to see Shakespeare delivered exactly as written spin in their seats, it should thrill everyone else.”
-East Bay Express
“Costello and Hillman, who also directs, succeed in revitalizing Shakespeare without compromising his art…. The sword battle…is definitely action-movie Shakespeare, and it works.”