After 41 years with the Urban Theater Department, Frances Evens is wrapping up her final show. Before she came to Urban, Evens describes her life as being “in line with the skill [she] needed for this job… I was in preparation,” she said.
With her mother’s help, she began doing theater in high school. “My mother could sew anything, and she made me beautiful costumes, so the theater department really liked me,” Evens said.
When she discovered she really enjoyed acting, Evens continued her course of study as an undergraduate at the Washington University in St. Louis. She began graduate school at the University of Minnesota, which she left to begin her career. “It was run by all these old, grey-haired, white men,” Evens explained, “and I couldn’t stand it.” From there, she moved to New York City and discovered a community of experimental theater companies.
Evens left New York to follow a boyfriend to Southern California. She laughed reminiscently, warning us to “never make a life choice for the boyfriend or the girlfriend!”
She was initially opposed to California: “I thought California was a stupid place … I just thought of palm trees and people in bathing suits, and I was into New York City. It’s very different there,” Evens said. Nonetheless, she moved to Malibu, “and it was a total disaster,” Evens said. So, she and her boyfriend decided to move to San Francisco in 1976, “because things were definitely happening there.”
She soon met Drama and Circus teacher Wendy Parkman and learned about a company called The Make-A-Circus, which the two of them joined. Another friend was doing a work-study program at the Urban School, “so through my friend, I met some of the other people who were connected with the Urban School, including Grant Ditzler, who I ended up marrying, and who has been my set designer since the 70s.”
She came to Urban answering a job placement for a circus teacher. “At that point, I’d probably been in the circus six months,” she admitted. After an interview with Dan Murphy, who also retired this past year, she started teaching part-time at the Urban School, and the rest is history.
Wendy Parkman, Drama and Circus teacher, first heard of the Urban School through Frances Evens and Grant Ditzler, who were her roommates in the late 1970s. Parkman, who was pursuing a career in circus at the time, got a job as a circus teacher at Urban through her connections.
“My children were under ten at that time, so I didn’t understand teenagers,” Parkman said. However, after teaching the class, she came to appreciate “teaching a circus class with smart, interested, creative, curious kids” who were willing to put in work to create an impressive production.
Parkman taught one or two circus classes a year for about nine years. When one of the theater teachers left Urban, Parkman explained, she “kind of got in the back door and was invited to direct a production.” After that, Parkman’s job expanded to both Drama and Circus teacher.
When asked about which production has been her favorite, Parkman exclaimed, “they’re all my favorite!” One show that Parkman particularly enjoyed was “Conference of Birds”, which “took all of the theater kids on a journey to find the truth and meaning of the play,” said Parkman.
Picking a show has always been difficult. “It’s one thing I’m going to be [happy] not to do,” Parkman said, laughing.
“I have so much appreciation and gratitude for the time I have had in this little corner, this amazing theater space, [as well as] amazing colleagues, and amazing students to be creative with and to make things with, people to people,” Parkman said. She has truly loved witnessing the “hands, bodies, and hearts working together to create something beautiful” in her 30 years at the Urban School.
How Urban Theater Has Changed
In the past 40 years of its 50 years of existence, Urban has changed significantly. Back in the late 70s, the school was about 160 students and only occupied the Gumption building. When asked about the early years, acting teacher Frances Evens said, “it was intimate, it was experimental, it was cutting edge.” Back in those days, Evens said she knew every student and that the teachers were a close knit group. “We were like a tribe: these young, passionate teachers, running around and doing these crazy things, and really enjoying the work.” There was a lot of room to experiment and explore education which carried into the art department. “At that time we prided ourselves in the arts,” said Evens. “The people we had all worked in careers outside Urban, so everyone was a working artist.”
In the theater, she said, “We started out really simple. The productions were tiny. Grant [Evens’ husband and set designer] painted real backdrops on canvas.”
Wendy Parkman joined in 1988 as the circus teacher, and said of the early shows, “the productions were intense, with costumes and lights. We charged money. They ran two or three or four times.”
As the school grew, so did the performing arts department. Parkman began directing and started with exploring the genre of Commedia and the work of playwrights like 17th century French playwright Molière. Soon enough the tradition of an annual musical was added to the program. Though musicals were “not [her] forte,” Parkman sought out musicals that were more than surface level. “There’s nothing wrong with pure entertainment, but I like something with a little more grit,” she said.
With the non-musicals, or “straight” plays, each year Evens would work to create something new and fantastical. In Century of Fog in 1984, she created an earthquake experience. “The [trap] doors would open and all this cornstarch and styrofoam fell down onto the stage. And we put the cast underneath the risers, so they were under there, shaking the risers.” That show also used the full building as a stage, with “scenes all over the school. We had a tour guide who took the audience up to these rooms called ‘the flankers,’ and when we had the goldrush on the steps, we had a vaudeville show, we had some other historical thing, in some room upstairs, and then everyone came to the Gumption,” Evens recalled. “We could basically do whatever we wanted, just dreamt it up every year,” she said.
“It seems like there are so many things going on these days, it feels like everything has gotten a bit smushed, pared down, so more things can fit in, because time doesn’t expand,” Parkman said.
However, with the same two women running the theater for the last three decades, much has stayed the same. “Certain themes I realize run through all these productions, things that come back. It’s just the luxury of working in one consistent space with one designer.” Evens said. Every year, each director works hard to find a new challenge. “I’m always looking for a new artistic challenge, something that would be thrilling to me in the making, whether it be tango or botes de sangre, whatever the elements were, it had to be exciting,” said Evens.
A big aspect of the theater department is the collaborative nature between teachers and students. “Being able to work with students as colleagues is amazing,” said Evens. “I don’t care how old you are. We’re making this thing, and you’re gonna make it with me, and if you’re passionate and I’m passionate about the text it’s gonna be great,” she said.
When asked if it stays fresh, coming back year after year, Even sexplained, “Yeah, because it’s always a new show. Everything’s new, except for the actual atmosphere of the room, the room itself, the chairs – the cast is new, it’s a new chemistry.”
Future of Urban Theater
At the Urban Legend, we are excited to reveal Urban’s next theater teacher-John Warren, who comes to Urban from Envision Academy of Arts and Technology in Oakland. He has nine years of high school teaching experience in both performing arts and history classes, along with experience in activism.
“He can understand all the historical aspects of shows, which is very important,” said Frances Evens. She also praised his work in social justice, and remarked that he is a “lovely, kind person.”
Wendy Parkman also has confidence in Warren’s abilities. “John Warren is going to be amazing,” she said.
Along with changes in faculty in the Theater Department, the theater itself will also see major changes in the coming years. By 2021, Urban’s Performing Arts Center is planned to replace the St. Agnes Gym on Page Street and will include a theater with 300+ seats, an additional classroom, remodeled bathrooms, a tech booth, an expanded fitness room, and an improved passageway between the Salkind Center and the old building. Currently, all productions are held in the Gumption Theater which has a maximum capacity of 120 people.
Regarding designs for the new theater space itself, “there are all kinds of interesting ideas, that would make [the theater setup] moveable, changeable, and open up space,” said Evens. “It will offer some really technically interesting contributions to the theater.”
Still, she thinks that the theater will have too many seats. “It will never be full for more than one or two nights, even if there’s five,” said Evens. While both Evens and Parkman are excited to watch the Urban theater program grow after their retirement, “it’s going to happen without [them],” Evens noted.