From classroom to stage
New playwright pays tribute to the local teachers who inspired her
It's not uncommon for English teachers to spark a lifelong love of the theater in students. But not all students repay the favor by writing their educators into a play.
Melanie Salazar Case, an actor and director who grew up in Menlo Park, is poised to publish her first play, "Seventh Grade Freaks." Two of her former English teachers at Menlo-Atherton High School, Joseph Fuchs and Shannon Griscom, pop up in Case's playwright/director note for the play. And the teacher character is a mixture of Griscom and Case herself.
"Seventh Grade Freaks" is about a group of girls whose teacher asks them to write a play about how they would make the world a better place. In the process, the girls learn more about each other, dealing with such issues as homeschooling, getting along with boys, and living with an alcoholic parent. There's plenty of humor as the very different personalities mingle.
Their teacher, the affectionately drawn Ms. Cleese, shares Griscom's penchant for witches. And the intelligent goofiness of the student Amanda seems to hark back to a lesson Case learned from Griscom: not to take things too seriously.
When Case told her former teacher about the play, "She was very excited and seemed honored," Case said.
In turn, the 30-year-old Case, who now lives in San Francisco, is "honored and surprised" that her first play is being published. It's part of the fifth volume of new plays from the Young Conservatory at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where she has been both a student and a teacher.
Fuchs, who was Case's sophomore-year English teacher at M-A, first sparked her interest in theater. He showed the class videos of plays and classic films, and Case says she learned about the power of symbolism from the 1977 Harvey Keitel film "The Duellists."
"Joseph Fuchs ... taught me that theater and film were art forms, and that the power of beautiful writing could be translated to the screen and stage," Case wrote in her note at the beginning of "Seventh Grade Freaks."
As her interest in theater grew, Case started an improv troupe at M-A; it's called The Lunatics and still exists there. She also became a student at A.C.T.'s Young Conservatory.
After earning a bachelor's degree in theater from the University of California at Los Angeles, Case worked as a "starving actor" in New York City. She then moved back to the Bay Area, living in San Francisco and joining the sketch comedy group and film-production company Killing My Lobster, with whom she still works from time to time.
In 2004, Case started teaching improvisation and directing one-act plays at A.C.T. But she had trouble finding scripts that would appeal to today's 10- to 14-year-olds. She decided to write a play based on her students, teachers and teaching experience. Case developed the play with the help of her students, and A.C.T. produced it, with Case directing and playing Ms. Cleese, about three years ago.
Young Conservatory director Craig Slaight decided to include "Seventh Grade Freaks" in the fifth volume of the program's new plays, which is being put out by theater publishers Smith and Kraus, probably in the winter, he said. Case is one of the youngest playwrights to be included in the volumes.
"I tend to pick at least mid-career playwrights; you have to have the finest writing for young people," he said. "But Melanie had proved to me that she had this voice. ... This is a writer that we're going to hear more from."
Slaight called Case's script both intelligent and lively, adding: "She doesn't talk down to the young people. She really preserves their spirit."
Starting to write meant branching out for Case, who thought of herself as primarily an actor for so long. But being a writer has its perks. For one, you feel more in control of your career than when you're one actor in a herd of auditioners.
"They either pick you or they don't," she said. "As a writer, you can write parts that people wouldn't cast you in."
These days, Case is concentrating more on film and has worked on various projects as a producer and director as well as an actor and writer. During an interview, she is gregarious and funny, talking fast and using various accents for effect. Her Colombian one is especially good; her mother is Colombian and Case grew up bilingual. She added Salazar, a family name from her mother's side, to her stage name last year.
Regardless of whether she's on stage or a film set, Case says she approaches her characters in the same "old-school acting way," imagining them beyond what the author has spelled out.
"You think about their life, family, where they grew up. Are they needy? Confident? The script is your foundation, but individual choices dictate how your performance is unique," she said.
Once she's established that background, she tries to let it go from her conscious mind, and just be in the moment — real life is spontaneous.
One of her favorite characters took that spontaneity to the extreme: a "primal ape-woman" she played in the independent film "Evolution: The Musical," which premiered in May at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
The character certainly didn't have a lot of social inhibitions. Case got to bite people, scream and contort her face wildly, which she found both embarrassing and refreshing. At one point, she recounts with a giggle, she planted a piece of beef jerky in a tree so she could pull it off and pretend to be chewing on bark.
While comedy is difficult for many an actor, Case has found it comes to her easily. In the future, she'd love to play more dramatic roles like the one she's creating in a script about a female soldier. In her script, the woman has returned from Iraq and is coping with both post-traumatic stress disorder and a strained relationship with her father.
"I'd love to do a dramatic film, really letting go and telling a story," she says. "It would prove to me that I've come a long way."
Info: For more about Melanie Case, who also teaches acting to children, go to www.radiantkidsschool.com .