Two Berkeley-raised actresses — who attended Berkeley High at the same time — have come back home, and appear in new shows. Maddy Trumble is in Paradise Square, an ambitious new musical at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Anne Yumi Kobori is performing in Every Day Alice, a new play she wrote, through her own company Utopia Theatre Project.
Maddy Trumble in Paradise Square: Old haunts, new musical
The first time Madeline Trumble performed at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, there was only one stage there. The year was 1999 and the actress was 10.
Nevertheless, “it’s still on my resumé — Berkeley Rep is fancy,” Trumble said last week, laughing.
Fast forward two decades from her debut and Trumble is back at her hometown theater, acting in Paradise Square, a new musical that some say could be headed to Broadway.
The play — a whirlwind of dance routines and song — takes place in 1863 in Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood, where Irish immigrants and free black people lived in unprecedented harmony. Much of the story is set in a raucous bar owned by a black woman, Nelly Freeman, who hosts a diverse array of drinkers, including real-life songwriter Stephen Foster, who’s fled his former life. But that unity is put to the test when the pressures of a Civil War draft targeting immigrants and animosity toward former slaves intersect.
Trumble plays Annie O’Brien, a sharp and hilarious Irish woman married to a black reverend.
“She’s everything that I want to be, and not always am in a room full of men,” Trumble remembers saying during her audition when she was asked how she connected to the character.
For Trumble and her colleagues, performing in Paradise Square presented a rare opportunity. The Berkeley Rep run is the world premiere of the musical, directed by Moisés Kaufman. It was written by Marcus Gardley and Craig Lucas, based on a previous iteration by Larry Kirwan.
“This is what we all want to do as actors — create something from the beginning,” Trumble told Berkeleyside, sitting in the courtyard of the Rep just before a recent performance. The two songs Trumble sings solo were written for her after rehearsals began. “I’m literally the first person to sing these songs. As musical theater actors, that’s what we hope for.”
It may be rewarding, but it isn’t easy to rehearse for an elaborate performance with no previous reference point.
“Every day there were new script changes, songs being cut, characters being cut. It was a brutal process,” said Trumble, who also had to perfect her Irish accent.
Add Bill T. Jones, the renowned Spring Awakening choreographer, who Trumble says “taught me what it means to really respect and admire someone.” He asked “brilliant” but “really hard” questions of his dancers, making it a challenging process physically and mentally.
The cast was relieved to go home after rehearsals. For Trumble, that meant heading to her mother’s house just blocks away from the theater and into the twin bed she slept in as a teenager.
Trumble is a graduate of Berkeley public schools — she graduated from Berkeley High in 2007 — and an alumna of countless local stages. She comes from a musical theater-obsessed family, and she and her two siblings had all performed in shows by the time they turned 10.
But the actress traces her love of the dramatic arts all the way back to her earliest years at then-LeConte Elementary, where she was a student of the beloved, late denise brown. (brown did not capitalize her name.)
“She used to write shows for us,” said Trumble, choking up at the memory. “She taught us how to be on stage. I wouldn’t be acting at all without denise brown. It would have been just something we did in the living room.”
Trumble continued acting throughout her childhood, later receiving a degree in musical theater from the University of Michigan. She’s performed on Broadway in Newsies and toured nationally in Wicked, The King and I and Mary Poppins, in which she played the titular character.
Even when she performs on those elite stages, Trumble never neglects to mention Berkeley in her program bio, she said.
Coming back home for Paradise Square has been somewhat disconcerting, however. Trumble was startled to see so many old Berkeley institutions shuttered and, she said, to notice a trend toward the commercial or conventional (“I mean, there’s a SoulCycle on Fourth Street”). But she did get to introduce the rest of the cast to her favorite Berkeley High lunchtime spot, Chaat Café.
And returning to where she got her start on stage, reflecting on her trajectory as an actress, Trumble has developed a new appreciation for the exposure she got to the arts as a child in Berkeley.
“If you’re from here, you get it,” she said.
Paradise Square is playing at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre through Feb. 24. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.
Anne Yumi Kobori tells a personal story in Every Day Alice
The moment most people graduate from college is the moment all the essays they labored over become files never to be opened again. And the moment that all content committed to memory for exams is promptly forgotten.
But for Anne Yumi Kobori, a playwriting assignment at Santa Clara University has, years later, turned into a professional theater production. Every Day Alice, which Berkeley-based Kobori wrote and stars in, introduces viewers to a modern-day, grown-up version of the Alice in Wonderland protagonist. This Alice is a novelist who finds herself in a psychiatric hospital after a breakdown.
Kobori was a college senior when she got the assignment to adapt a favorite childhood story into a play.
“I chose Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. They’re about rediscovering the child within yourself. Both of those writers were really focused on imagination, the power of storytelling, and retaining the ability to play — an integral part of acting,” Kobori said.
She wondered who those curious children would grow into as adults — “how successful and not successful they might be at finding love and having a career.” Those themes were front of mind for Kobori and her senior classmates.
At the time, however, she struggled to finish the play.
“For a long time, I imagined that Alice, with her over-active imagination and low-level mental illness misunderstood by society — and Peter, with his inability to take responsibility and grow up — that somehow they’d be able to have this functional adult relationship together. But it never worked,” she said.
The story became personal for Kobori, who became involved in her own challenging relationships after college.
“I’m a survivor of sexual assault,” she said.
Although Every Day Alice is semi-autobiographical and borne from some of those difficult experiences, the most cathartic aspect of performing it is the “the degree of removal” between the imagined story and Kobori’s own past, she said.
“Alice’s story is not my story. There are elements of my life and experiences. But it’s a totally different world,” Kobori said.
Kobori is joined on stage, at PianoFight in San Francisco, by five other actors. It’s the second season of the Utopia Theatre Project, the company Kobori founded in 2014, that involves professional casts.
For some time, Kobori worked out of Mountain View, where she lived after college, but she recently moved back to Berkeley. She got her start in the performing arts at local theater groups and Berkeley schools as a child.
“My public school education was really fundamental,” Kobori said. She attended the now-defunct Franklin Elementary and Cragmont, where students performed an original play every year. Middle school at Longfellow was “a toughening experience,” and her time in the drama department at Berkeley High was “great.” She graduated from BHS in 2008.
With Utopia, “the original goal was to support emerging artists in new works, with an eye to social justice theater,” Kobori said.
She also works at San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, but has a different vision for her own company.
“While I love nonprofits, and have worked with one for over six years, I actually don’t want to make Utopia a nonprofit because I believe theater should be sustainable as a business model,” she said. She believes that performing artists “should be paid as much as other professionals and that art is a valuable part of our society. People who can pay for art should pay for art, just as they pay for books, clothes and other things.”
Kobori can count on at least some eager audience members. She still has many family members in the area.
Those relatives are “my biggest fans. Japanese families are clans like that,” Kobori said. She is looking forward to the reactions from them and the rest of the Every Day Alice audience.
“It’s really exciting to put out a work that’s so personal and vulnerable and to have people excited to see it,” she said.
Every Day Alice is playing at PianoFight from Feb. 15 through March 9. For information and tickets, visit Utopia Theatre Project online.