The woman behind The Marsh 

If you’re at Fort Funston early in the morning and see a dark-haired woman, all alone, singing or perhaps skipping along the rocky path, that would be Stephanie Weisman, founder/producer/jill-of-all-trades at The Marsh.

Officially called The Marsh: A Breeding Ground for New Performance, the 20-year-old theatrical producing/presenting nonprofit has received wide acclaim and garnered awards for some of its world premieres.

The organization is celebrating its anniversary Saturday with a performance marathon featuring many of its popular alumni.  

Over the years it has nurtured lauded local solo performers such as Josh Kornbluth, Charlie Varon, Dan Hoyle, Marga Gomez and others; its variou programs include an active youth component, classes, main-stage solo shows and performances of short works-in-progress.

Singing and long-distance skipping are two of Weisman’s forms of creative expression and decompression, respectively, amid the daily bustle of her Marsh responsibilities, which range from booking shows to teaching to designing flyers.  

Weisman started singing solos in elementary school in upstate New York and remembers that in sixth grade, she was asked to sing Débussy’s “Claire de Lune” for a mothers’ tea, but refused, insisting instead on “Sunrise Sunset” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” “That was my first producing moment,” she recalls, laughing. She didn’t return to singing until many years later.

In between, she got an master’s degree in poetry at SUNY Buffalo, mentored by poet Robert Creeley. “A lot of what I’ve done at The Marsh is based on my training with him,” she says. Creeley taught her that art is not a democracy, that someone must make the choices.

With a poet-in-residence grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, she toured, culminating in a performance of a particularly long poem. “I didn’t know a thing about theater! It was horrifying,” she says. Yet she knew she wanted to segue from poetry to performance.

In the mid-1980s, when a longtime relationship ended, the West Coast beckoned; she had a friend in San Francisco. And here is also where she saw the late monologist Spalding Gray in his iconic “Swimming to Cambodia” and thought, “Wow, this is it!”

But first she went to France, studying voice at the famed Roy Hart Theatre. There, she says, she learned to “get my body behind my ideas,” a practice that eased her way into starting The Marsh.

Back in San Francisco, knowing she wanted to turn her poems into theatre but not sure how, she realized she was depressed, an unusual condition for her: “I’m more a hysterical person than a depressed person.”

Her mood changed when she teamed up with actress Peggy Howe to launch Monday Night Marsh, presenting a series of short pieces by various performers at the Hotel Utah.

The name Marsh was inspired by a brief period living in a house on stilts on a marsh in Delaware and writing a long poem, “Aphrodisia,” about that gloomy, watery interlude. The landscape’s interplay, she later wrote in The Marsh’s biography, was a perfect metaphor for artistic development in the urban environment.

Moving to Valencia Street in the Mission District, The Marsh was soon producing seven to 10 shows a week, starting with Josh Kornbluth’s “Haiku Tunnel.”

The mission: to develop new work, particularly singular theatrical voices.

Early on, the theater was a revolving door of exceptional solo talent, not only Kornbluth but also Pamela Z, Marga Gomez, Sara Felder, Han Ong, Joshua Brody, Merle “Ian Shoales” Kessler.

Despite impediments — being forced to relocate five times in seven years — The Marsh was on a roll. When the building they’d last moved to went on the market, Weisman knew she had to buy it, despite the fact that the organization had, at that time, an annual income of only $165,000.

“It was a little ludicrous,” she admis, “but it was the only choice in my eyes.” Four loans later, The Marsh became one of the few arts nonprofits in the city to be a home owner.

The Marsh has always grown organically, observes Weisman. She compares the process to sculpting clay: “Something happens, and you do something else to it. . . . You start imagining all the trajectories, and based on the environment and the time, that’s where the trajectory goes.”

In a way, it’s as simple — or, more accurately, as intuitive — as that.

Now, with many successful programs flourishing, Weisman is particularly proud of launching the third year of a performance initiative in which she and her two longtime artists in residence –  popular solo performer Varon and director of solo work David Ford – guide a group of emerging performers in a nine-month workshop of artistic and technical development, culminating in a festival of new voices.

“This model is taking into account everything The Marsh has developed over the past 20 years,” exults Weisman. “If I’d had a vision, this would be it!”

She finally saw her own work performed when she collaborated with composer Ellen Hoffman to set her poem “Aphrodisia” – written long ago on that transformative marsh – to music. The Marsh produced it as an opera.

For that experience, Weisman has one word: “Unbelievable!”

“So many people have made this happen,” she says, of The Marsh’s steady rise, “staff, board, funders, Charlie, David, my husband, the press, the performers, interns. It’s been this community, this wonderful thing . . .”

Now she’s working on a second part to her opera, singing into the ocean, singing a fictional character into existence — “praying, hoping no one can hear me.”

Stephanie Weisman

Favorite getaway:
the Trinity Alps
Favorite Mission District restaurant: Aslam’s Rasoi (Indian cuisine)
Favorite music: making up songs; also singing “Spring Awakening” with teen daughter Audrey
Spiritual belief system: Jewish
Met husband: at a Hannukah party
Pets: Two old dogs, a greyhound lab mix (Eloise) and a mini dachshund (Sassy Frassy), “the short and tall of the same thing”
Craziest Marsh show: Thomas Essler’s “Psycho Monkey on Planet Earth”
Most professional fun: Touring around the country on a rock’n’roll bus “just like Kenny G’s” with “Towle’s Hill”
Wildest fantasy for The Marsh: A TV show

The Marsh Performance Marathon

1062 Valencia St., San Francisco
When: Noon to midnight June 19
Tickets: $60 for afternoon or evening pass; $100 for all-day pass
Contact: (800) 838-3006;
Note: All tickets include invitation to 11 p.m. closing party.

About The Author

Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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