The word "nomadic" may sound romantic, but not when you're a troupe of actors without a stage.
"I've rehearsed in some really awful places," says Dale Albright, managing director of theatre Q. One was a construction zone in an apartment complex, with ladders, cement bags, three inches of dust, and paint cans for chairs. "It was probably illegal," he admits.
Then there was the rehearsal in a church — of an orgy scene. And the performances of "Walking the Dead" at the Berkeley City Club, where hotel residents would hear the screaming in the murder scene and come running down the stairs, terrified.
At the moment, though, Albright is in a more comfortable spot: the lobby of the Dragon Theatre, the first place theatre Q has ever called home. The group is in residence at the intimate Palo Alto theater this season, fitting four shows in between Dragon Productions' plays.
Theatre Q's second show this season, Paula Vogel's "And Baby Makes Seven," opens this weekend, and the building has that new-play smell of fresh paint and wood. Oh, and pizza. The actors have just come in to eat their dinner before rehearsal.
The downtown theater is a fine spot, Albright says. Not only is Dragon executive producer Meredith Hagedorn a longtime friend and supporter of theatre Q, but the Peninsula location suits theatre Q's mission of bringing plays about "the evolving images of gays and lesbians" to the Bay Area outside San Francisco.
Albright says there isn't any consistent theater about gays and lesbians outside the city — whereas San Francisco already houses established queer-theater groups, such as the 30-year-old Theatre Rhinoceros.
Theatre Q was started by Jeffrey Hoffman in Chicago in the late '90s; it then moved to the Bay Area, where Albright joined on in 2004. (Albright is now the sole managing director and sometime actor, while Hoffman remains on the board.) The current production is the company's 13th since 2004, following such shows as David Stevens' "The Sum of Us" in Walnut Creek in 2006 and Albright's "Keep the Yuletide Gay" at Dragon in 2006 and 2007.
While the company certainly has its niche, Albright says it's not trying to be political. Rather, he says, "I think of it as telling good stories that come from this perspective." He adds, "There's having a mission and there's having an agenda. I don't think we have an agenda."
Most theatre Q audience members are straight, Albright says, and there are hardly any gay actors.
"We didn't have the first gay actor until our ninth show, except for me and Jeffrey," he says. "Actors just want to go where there's good parts."
He cites the current play, "And Baby Makes Seven," as an example. It's about a lesbian couple, Anna and Ruth, who live with their gay friend Peter in New York City. Anna is pregnant, and the family of three is expecting the child together.
In addition, Anna and Ruth have a vivid fantasy life consisting of three imaginary children; the women frequently talk in the kids' personalities. But with a real-life baby on the way, the trio decide to get rid of the made-up kids.
Sharing the stage with fellow actor Matthew Lowe (Peter), Katie Anderson (Anna) and Annamarie MacLeod (Ruth) get the juicy job of playing a host of roles. The characters may be quirky, but their living situation isn't depicted that way.
"The play shows lesbians and a gay man living together as a family with no justification. This is their life," Albright says.
Inside the theater, where they are preparing to start rehearsal, the actors and director Rebecca Longworth agree.
"It doesn't matter that the family is queer; it's a new family that fits for them," Longworth says of the characters. The play, she says, shows that families can take any form, so long as there's love and respect.
Anderson anticipates a good reaction from audiences. "Palo Alto is ready for it. Palo Alto can handle it," she says.
The most challenging part has been navigating all the moments when Anna and Ruth jump from adult to child to child, Longworth says. They're juggling voices, personas and accents (one make-believe child is a sassy French boy named Henri, played by MacLeod).
"They use their characters to express anxieties and work through psychological issues," Longworth says of Anna and Ruth. "There's a lot of layers of awareness."
And a lot of peanut butter. Creamy Skippy gets plenty of stage time, between the pregnant Anna downing peanut butter with kosher dills ("It's not so bad," Anderson says) and a scene in which Ruth's two imaginary children fight with each other over a PB&J.
Albright calls the scene a hoot and MacLeod "a comedic prize." MacLeod is also clearly fond of the scene — and of the spit plate that waits offstage so she doesn't have to consume a whole sandwich every night.
In her first role with theatre Q, MacLeod was particularly drawn to the show because she's a fan of the playwright. In "And Baby Makes Seven," she says, Vogel "has great breadth: there's slapstick moments and heartfelt moments."
Heading onto the stage, the actors run the opening scene. Anna and Ruth, in full imaginary-kid mode, are in bed under a blanket, whispering with flashlights. Peter comes in and is persuaded to tell them a bedtime story. The actors are clearly comfortable with each other, giving an easy camaraderie to the scene, and the imaginary personas are full and distinct.
This is a new set, and so there are problems. A door sticks. A table needs to be painted. The bed is too low, and Longworth wonders if all the audience will be able to see the women.
But there are several nights left before opening, and Longworth is matter-of-fact. "It wouldn't be a New York apartment without a sticky door or an uneven floor."
After this play closes, next up for theatre Q is Moises Kaufman's "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," a play about Wilde's trial and imprisonment for "gross indecency." Closing the season will be the world premiere of "My Strange Nation, The Music of Susan Werner."
This last show, the first musical for the Dragon stage, is Albright's brainchild: He loves Werner's irreverent folk music and got permission from her to turn it into a musical revue.
"She's opened up her songbook, and sent us stuff she hadn't released yet," Albright said, adding, "I have no idea whether she's a lesbian or not, but we're putting some of the songs in that context."
Albright acknowledges that the show is risky, both because he's never directed a musical before and because Werner's music can be biting. Her most recent album, "The Gospel Truth," questions hypocrisy in religion and the nature of religion itself.
But he accepts the fact that theatre Q may not be for everyone. While he says audiences are typically very supportive, there have been exceptions.
"When we were in Walnut Creek, we had someone storm out of the theater because of a scene where two men kissed," he says, adding incredulously: "In 2008? In California? Really?" Then, resigned, he concludes, "I guess you'll have that anywhere."
Overall, Albright hopes that theatre Q's time at Dragon will allow it to make more of a name for itself. Armed with a degree in arts administration and a business background in retail, he is working to build a larger following and make connections in the community. So far, he says, a few social groups have bought blocks of tickets, including an Asian organization and a walking group.
And while he's always thrilled with a full house and a large theater, Albright has come to recognize the value of small, appreciative audiences.
"It took me a while to realize that you can't just start out at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts or the Lesher Center (where the main theater seats 785)," he said. "I just hope to build an audience base who enjoys it, and comes back."
What: "And Baby Makes Seven," a Paula Vogel play presented by theatre Q.
Where: Dragon Theatre, 535 Alma St., Palo Alto.
When: The show previews tonight and opens Saturday night at 8 p.m., then runs through April 6 (Thursday through Saturday at 8, Sundays at 2).
Cost: Tickets are $10 for the preview and $25 for opening night. Other nights cost $20 general and $15 for seniors, youth, groups and members of Theatre Bay Area.
Info: Go to http://www.theatreq.org or call 415-433-1235.