feature article by Sam Hurwitt
She may have moved to New York 10 years ago, but the Bay Area will be hearing a lot from Gina Leishman this week.
Lisa Peterson’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage,” with a new score by Leishman, opens Wednesday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. That same night, the California Shakespeare Theater production of “As You Like It” that she scored for director Jonathan Moscone starts previews. (It opens Saturday.)
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Leishman originally composed the “Mother Courage” music for a production that ran this summer at the La Jolla Playhouse, which then became Berkeley Rep’s season opener.
That this “Mother Courage” is a Southern California import may also account for the fact that it uses David Hare’s translation rather than the new one by Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone’s frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, which closed last week in a Public Theater production with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in New York’s Central Park.
In any case, it’s old home week for Leishman, and not just because the Bay Area was her home from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s. The British-born composer has a long history with Brecht and Shakespeare — and with Berkeley Rep, Cal Shakes, and directors Peterson and Moscone.
“For me, the wild thing is the fact that it’s come full circle in some ways,” Leishman says, “because when I first moved here, the very first thing I did was a production of ‘The Threepenny Opera’ at the Eureka, which Tony (Taccone) was part of in those days.”
Leishman’s love affair with Brecht goes back further than that. When she was living in London in the ’70s, she and a friend founded a theater company in an old taxi-meter factory near Paddington Station, which they dedicated to musical performances of Brecht’s works.
“Like all good things, it came and went,” she says. “When I came to the States at the end of the ’70s, basically I ran away both from London and the theater and just became a musician.”
An association with the juggling Flying Karamazov Brothers soon led her back to the stage as a musician and actor in Robert Woodruff’s all-juggler 1983 production of Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” at the Goodman Theater in Chicago and Lincoln Center in New York. Around that time, the Flying K’s were invited to perform their own show on Broadway, where union rules required them to hire musicians whether they would use them or not. They asked Leishman and others to be members of their pit band — which she named the Kamikaze Ground Crew — and they are still together after two decades. The septet just finished an album and will play Nov. 1 at the Great American Music Hall as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival, the first time the band has performed here since moving to New York with Leishman.
Brecht would also continue to pull her back to the stage. After “Threepenny,” her first of many collaborations with director Peterson was as a musician in La Jolla’s 1994 production of “The Good Person of Setzuan.” In 1998, for a Brecht centenary celebration at New York’s PS 122, Leishman created the Mr. Wau Wa Band, an all-Brecht quintet featuring four Kamikazes and performance artist Rinde Eckert, which also still performs on occasion.
But performing Brecht is one thing. Composing for Brecht is another matter entirely.
“The musical vocabulary of his collaborators, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler and Paul Dessau, I realize has permeated my musical thinking,” Leishman says. “So when Lisa Peterson calls up and says, ‘Do you want to write a score for “Mother Courage,” ‘ I go, ‘Oh, God, no. How could I do that?’ ”
At first Leishman suggested Dessau’s music for Brecht’s 1949 Berliner Ensemble production instead, but she quickly realized it would be too difficult and would require an orchestra the Rep didn’t have.
“This was going to be Brecht, poor-theater style,” she says. “One musician originally — now I have two because it’s a co-production.”
One of the actors doubled as a drummer, to which Leishman added a pianist-accordionist and a tuba player to help capture both the military air of the anti-war classic and also a circus element in the design.
“It’s kind of scary, because how do you stand in the shadow of those guys?” Leishman says. “I didn’t consciously try to write a Brechtian score. I just wrote what I heard, and I wrote for the singers in the La Jolla production.”
Leishman eventually gave in to the musical associations she had with Brecht.
“I had to let them in on the conversation,” she says. “If I tried to shut them out, it would just be false. So I let them inform me, and consequently I think what I ended up writing is very much in the pocket of the old style. But also it’s me; it’s the way I write and I hear.”
Shakespeare is one playwright for whom Leishman has been making music for a long time, going back to her first Berkeley Rep production, Sharon Ott’s 1986 “Twelfth Night,” and her first Berkeley Shakespeare Festival (now Cal Shakes) collaboration, Richard E.T. White’s particularly Brechtian take on “Measure for Measure” in 1989. When Moscone became artistic director of Cal Shakes, he brought in Leishman (with whom he’d worked in Dallas and Portland, Maine) to work with Peterson again, on 2000’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” She has come back to score a show almost every year since, while she and Peterson have continued their collaborations from the Vineyard Theatre in New York to the Guthrie in Minneapolis.
“This is what’s so wild about this summer,” Leishman says, “the crossed threads.”
Because “As You Like It” is about exiles in the forest, Leishman started playing with Eastern European Gypsy themes. She had originally planned on using all strings, but an accordion wound up creeping its way in as well. So now she’s working with an accordionist, a Serbian bass player and a violinist who plays a second violin tuned an octave lower.
“I’m in the midst of writing it right now,” she says. “I can’t really nail it down so that it’s in this box or this box, but the influences are Eastern Europe and,” she pauses, finally adding with a laugh, “me.”