Barbara Selfridge sat limp in a wheelchair, the weight of her body causing her to slump over. Her head hung low, as if a magnet were pulling her nose to her knees.
Then convulsions began. Abrupt jarring motions of her stiff hands and legs started slowly but steadily quickened.
A dozen people watching nearby did not attempt to help or comfort her. The seizure lasted a minute or two. When Selfridge regained control of her body, she sighed deeply, looking up at the staring crowd.
The onlookers clapped. It was the end of the scene.
It was an ordinary Monday evening at The Marsh theater on Valencia Street. Selfridge was on stage acting out a 20-minute scene from her solo play “Zero Tolerance: Sex, Math and Seizures,” billed as a comedy about her family and her sister Margaret, who is disabled.
Selfridge was the first of four performers on the agenda for this night of solo theater pieces written by the actors themselves. Solo plays are windows into a performer’s soul — often biographical works, touching on delicate topics like suicide, sex and race.
For more than two decades, The Marsh has encouraged such experimentation on its stage. Its mission is to develop new performers and performances, many of them solo shows. Actors, directors and staff interact like family members, and the theater has a faithful following. It’s a stage for activism and a place for people to openly express opinions, no matter how taboo.
“The purpose is to give people a voice,” said founder and director Stephanie Weisman. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a solo show or not. Although a singular voice is, after all, the most intimate.”
The Monday Night Marsh Series embodies what the theater is all about. It recalls The Marsh’s humble beginnings in 1989 at the Hotel Utah, a historic performance venue at the corner of Bryant and Fourth streets that was a popular hangout for the Beats.
Tired of poetry readings, Weisman, a poet and creative writer, wanted to perform her poetry, despite her lack of formal theater training. Solo performance was just taking off in San Francisco at the time. Finding a venue was challenging, so Weisman started hosting a Monday night solo performance series at the Hotel Utah, giving performers 15 minutes to present their latest work.
There was only one rule. “You couldn’t read it. You had to perform it,” Weisman said recently, sitting at her desk in her second-floor office at The Marsh.
To name her theater, she looked to the time she spent in Delaware in the summer of 1988. Living in a house on stilts over a saltwater marsh, Weisman experienced a deep communion with nature. It was there that she wrote “Aphrodisia,” a long poem about living on the marsh.
“It was the most amazing place. You were surrounded by nature,” she recalled. “It was a fertile breeding ground for new things.”
The same is true today for The Marsh theater, which evolved out of her desire to create a place to perform “Aphrodisia.” Ironically, she never did it quite as she originally envisioned.
“I started doing something else,” she said. “My art was sculpting this organization.”
In 2004, many years after writing “Aphrodisia,” Weisman reached into a drawer and pulled out the poem, and started to sing the stanzas into a tape recorder. The poem evolved into an opera – her first and so far only composition.
Two years later, “Aphrodisia” the opera had a full run at The Marsh, with Weisman directing other performers to sing her work before hundreds of audience members.
For the theater’s 20th anniversary party, Weisman and her daughter sang the first song of her opera. It was the first time she had ever performed on the stage of the theater. (Her second stage performance was just two weeks ago, singing backup for Wayne Harris and The Intones at The Marsh’s Berkeley venue.)
“It’s kind of funny, but I don’t know if I would be a sustainable performer,” said the 56-year-old Weisman. “I just want to be a singer.”
There’s not much time for rehearsing while running a nonprofit theater with a small staff. Access has always been a big part of The Marsh’s mission. That’s why the theater offers open seating on a sliding scale of $15 to $30. Theatergoers who prefer a reserved seat pay $50.
After the Monday night performance series jumped venues several times from cafes to bars, Weisman in 1994 rented Bajones, a wild and popular jazz club where, rumor had it, patrons could buy a margarita on the rocks at 6 a.m. It contained a 112-seat theater.
Four years later Weisman bought the building, allowing The Marsh to develop the 12,000-square-foot space into two stages, a comedy club and a youth theater. It has since opened a second venue in Berkeley’s arts district.
About 99 percent of Marsh shows are solo performances, according to publicist Diana Rathbone. They are always new works. Some grow in popularity, and several have gone on to off-Broadway theaters – notably, Brian Copeland’s “Not a Genuine Black Man,” which ran for five years at The Marsh.
The Marsh also offers a robust youth theater program, teaching kids everything from auditioning skills to the art of trapeze.
On a recent Monday evening, children gripped swings that hung from the rafters. One by one they ran forward, swinging their feet over their heads and twisting their bodies into different positions as they flew back and forth. Teacher Maica Folch sang a Spanish folk song while the kids attempted the art of aerial dance.
At the other side of the theater, teenagers practiced auditioning. Jesse Boss has attended theater school at The Marsh for nearly a decade. The 16-year-old began on the other side of the building, learning trapeze as a kid.
“I thought it was the coolest thing in the whole world because you got to fly,” said Boss, a bouncy young woman with shiny copper-colored hair, clad in purple skinny jeans and a black leather jacket.
Now the home-schooled student is learning the art of monologue delivery. She has attended other youth theater programs, but keeps coming back to The Marsh, she said, because the people who study and work there are like family.
Drawn to roles that are dark and twisted, Boss rejoices in community theater but doesn’t foresee studying acting in college. Rather, she wants to go into advocacy work, perhaps as a human rights attorney or in politics. For now, theater is a fun outlet, she said.
“When you are on stage, you are right here, right now,” she said. “You are present.”
Theater people often refer to the front of the stage as the “the fourth wall,” one of four imaginary sides of the stage and the one that the audience peers through to view the world of the play. Contrary to conventional theater wisdom, solo performers break the fourth wall, meaning that they directly address and even engage the audience.
During a recent Monday night at The Marsh, one of the performers passed through that wall.
Barbara Anderson, 62, a retired retail consultant, chose to sit in the audience awaiting her turn to perform rather than pacing backstage.
“I’m more of a writer than a performer, so I probably am the most nervous,” she said before the start of the show. “I’m trying to channel my nervousness into the performance.”
Anderson studies theater and writing at The Marsh. She likes playwrights who make the audience think. If it weren’t for venues like The Marsh, Anderson said, she doubts anyone would see her plays.
“You could get our friends together to read it, but here, you’re trying it out,” she said. Plus, she said, having to perform the work you write makes you a better playwright.
When it was Anderson’s turn, she strode easily onto the stage from her seat in the front row and delivered a 20-minute piece from her play “Swimming Under Water,” about women’s challenges with sex, marriage, babies and careers. A half-dozen times she had to call for her line, then picked back up as though no hiccup had ever occurred.
The audience applauded exuberantly at the end and Anderson was all smiles. Asked how she thought her performance went, she asked, “Other than forgetting my lines?”
Anderson still felt the adrenaline two minutes after taking her bows. Swigging from a bottle of water, she said she couldn’t assess her performance for an hour or so.
But she did want to know one thing.
“Did it make you think?”