Local Theater Legends Shein and Ernst Perform at Exit

by Jean Schiffman

Footloose brings seasoned actors David Schein and Robert Ernst to the stage for a weekend of duets.

David Schein appears, ear to cell phone. “Look, I can’t talk, I’m onstage,” he mutters. He promises the audience he’ll be done in a second, but . . . “Look, hang in there,” he tells his caller. “Can you at least hop? Like to the kitchen so you can rub up against a knife and free your hands? Hang on, I’m getting a call . . .”

The excerpt is from Schein’s solo piece “Distraction,” a comic and interactive riff about the effect of technology on our ability to pay attention. In it, he invites the audience to “please turn on your cell phones” and call or text him—or anyone else. His phone’s digital screen is projected onstage. Some of his incoming calls include semi-scripted bits like a mordant, one-sided conversation with his dead mother.

A West Coast premiere, “Distraction” is one of two solos that Schein is performing during a month-long residency, courtesy of the local arts-presenting organization Footloose and its director, Mary Alice Fry. Fry and Schein go way back; she appeared in one of his signature productions, the opera “Tokens,” in 1985. “Distraction” plays alongside another comic solo in Schein’s repertory, “Out Comes Butch,” in which a construction worker morphs through what Schein calls a “unique cocktail” of sexual identities, searching for the elusive authentic and successful self.

Also during the residency—which includes readings and workshops—Schein teams up with another old theater friend, Bay Area actor and solo performer Robert Ernst (who in fact directed “Tokens”), to stage three “duets”: Ernst’s “Less of Me,” Schein’s “Hotball” and a largely improvisational final piece, “The Jewthuran Beatnik Baby Shower,” the title a reference to “the beatnik Lutheran Iowa farm boy and the commie hitchhiker faculty brat from Vermont.” The farm boy and the commie have been emailing scripts back and forth in preparation for the multidisciplinary duets.

Schein and Ernst first met at the University of Iowa in the late 1960s, when Schein was 18 and Ernst four years older; both participated in creating the Iowa Theater Lab to experiment with new forms of theater. Not long after that, Ernst and actor/playwright John O’Keefe headed for the Bay Area (O’Keefe for a gig at the Magic Theatre) and eventually formed the legendary Blake Street Hawkeyes in Berkeley; Schein joined them, and other pioneers of the local experimental theater scene—Whoopi Goldberg, Leonard Pitt, Ellen Sebastian and others—gravitated to the Hawkeyes too.

Now, Schein is delighted to return to the Bay Area, one of his great artistic homes, where he came of age as an artist. He’d left here in 1987 to perform around the U.S. and the world (defying a specific label, he calls himself a sort of “theater janitor”: “I write, teach, perform, produce, sweep the stage . . .”), ultimately returning to his hometown, Burlington, Vermont. Jamming with Ernst is something that just comes naturally, since both men are actors, writers and musicians with a shared aesthetic that involves poetic text (“that beatnik bebop thing,” says Ernst), storytelling, physical gesture, percussion and improvisation.

“At Blake Street, we were engaged in a kind of improvisation that was not theater games,” explains Schein. “We were working with pretty abstract concepts, like [the music of] John Cage. We all did physical theater . . . choral work . . .” It was, he says, a laboratory of theatrical experimentation. “Bob and I are still in that world . . . aesthetic brothers,” he says. “I’ve written tone poems and choral works into theater. I’ve done choral work with Bob drumming . . .” Agrees Ernst, “We have a similar, percussive style, we’re musically oriented, poetically expressionistic to abstract to a little too concrete, maybe.”

Schein’s second solo to be staged during the residency, “Out Comes Butch,” was created in the Bay Area in 1982. Since then Schein has performed it extensively in Europe and North America, others have produced and performed it and it was published in 1983 in one of a series of anthologies called “West Coast Plays,” edited by San Francisco Chronicle theater critic Robert Hurwitt. “I wanted to be a woman onstage,” explains Schein. “It was the ’80s, all this feminism was going on, I’m a straight guy but I have a lot of gay friends.” But his first attempts at playing a woman came out looking like gay stereotypes, which gave him the idea for “Butch.” It was an era when young people were trying on different identities, which he found great but also hilarious. He assembled wigs, mustaches, beards, bustiers, dresses, tool belts and hard hats and in one day improvised the story of Butch: a tough, macho man trying out various sexual identities, from sexist pig to sensitive male (“If you are sensitive you can get laid a lot more,” advises Butch) to experimenting with homosexuality, to ending up as a transgendered, angry lesbian who can only get work as a carpenter—Butch’s original job. “He’s the same screwed-up person!” chortles Schein. He revised the play in the ’90s for a production in San Diego and is updating it again for this 2015 incarnation to include the latest references. “Times have changed but I don’t know if people have,” he muses. “Everybody’s [still] a whole combination of different flavors.”

Schein and Ernst’s own autobiographical stories of coming to San Francisco are the dominant theme in their weekend of duets. The first two-hander, “Less of Me,” is, says Ernst, a “little soft-shoe vaudeville” that he wrote for himself and Schein in which they trade off narrating and acting, with Ernst directing. It traces their first meeting in Iowa and their first few years here. He expects it to involve the movement-based performance concepts of Polish innovator Jerzy Grotowski and lots of percussion—“patches of song, patches of story: and to represent “everything I believe in.”

Schein’s contribution to the duet program, “Hotball,” is a musical piece, which he himself will direct, about global warming, written with Vermont collaborator Geof Hewitt. He expects Ernst to contribute some writing and music as well. In the final duet, the largely improvisational “Baby Shower,” they will include elements of whatever transpired in the first two duets and make use of an array of percussive instruments. “We’re very concerned with a certain kind of physical gesture,” says Ernst, “and how that morphs in aging. . . . Back in the day, we got very physical, we did very jazzy vocal stuff. I’m interested in reinvestigating that from the perspective of 40-odd years later.” The physical basis of all Ernst’s work since 1973 has been t’ai chi, but now, at age 70, his movement is less muscular, coming more from an internal impulse. And his writing, he says, comes from a more global perspective than it once did.

Both Schein and Ernst relish teaching writing to young people. “Love your work, strive for excellence, don’t be satisfied,” Schein advises them. “Sometimes I’m still scared to go onstage, sometimes not,” he admits. “I hope I’m getting better. Sometimes I am.”

October 9-17

“Distraction” and “Out Comes Butch”

October 23 & 24

“Less of Me,” “Hotball,” “The Jewthuran Beatnik Baby Shower”

Footloose at EXIT

156 Eddy St., San Francisco

(800) 838-3006/