FSM celebrated in world premiere of local play

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“Students do have power, and people getting together do have power,” said Lynne Hollander of the Oakland-based production for the new play “FSM.” “I hope that showing people their history will help people to see this, to empower them.”

This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement — the 1964-65 student-lead protests on the UC Berkeley campus that radically altered the relationship between the school’s administration and its students and blasted open new channels of expression for young people across the country. “FSM” the play aims to begin a new chapter in the movement by commemorating and sharing the value of this moment in UC Berkeley’s history.

A Stagebridge Theatre Company production, “FSM” grew out of a collaboration between the company’s former artistic director Josiah Polhemus and Daniel Savio, the son of late FSM leader and UC Berkeley student Mario Savio.

Since it was conceived three years ago, “FSM,” written by playwright Joan Holden, has gone through several different versions before it reaching its current and final form. Perhaps the greatest difference between then and now is that the earliest drafts were without music and without the Free Speech Movement’s leading man, Mario Savio.

The show’s makers originally cast Savio as an unseen political figure behind the fictionalized existences of most of the show’s other characters. Early audiences, however, convinced the play’s creators to give Savio a greater role, particularly so that his internal presence — his thoughts and feelings about what it was like to act as spokesperson for UC Berkeley’s student body — could be shared. According to Hollander, who is one of the show’s producers and Savio’s widow, “spokesman” was a role Savio took with a great deal of ambivalence because it conflicted with the ideals he’d learned in working to develop community leadership in the South.

“We want to convey the leadership role that he stepped into very suddenly, against his better judgement — the way he was thrust into it,” said Brady Morales-Woolery, the actor portraying Mario Savio.

In the story’s final version, which will open on stage later this month, Savio acts as the play’s main character — though he’s still not the dominating force.

“The show is not about Mario,” Daniel Savio said. “The show is about the story of what’s happening politically, told through several characters’ eyes, and so Mario is part of it.”

Set on the UC Berkeley campus, the story primarily follows the events of the fall 1964 semester, beginning with the historic sit-in Oct. 1 and leading to the Dec. 8 resolutions.

The musical aspect of the story — music and lyrics by Bruce Barthol and Daniel Savio — was also implemented during later versions of the show’s creation, though it was planned from the beginning. Unusually, the show is publicized as a “play with music,” rather than as a musical. For Daniel Savio, this classification captures the production, because the nontraditional story combines the serious elements of a play with the “feeling of intensity” that is better conveyed through song.

“Because of the politics and the emotions experienced by the students at the time, it is an eruption,” he said. “Doing it as a straight play, although it would communicate the history, would convey less (of) the emotional content.”

For Hollander, the show’s “hummable” folk and rock tunes best share the exuberance and “spirit of joyousness” of the FSM movement.

Bringing together all the elements of “FSM,” the show’s makers hope that performances will come together as an inspiring experience for audiences, especially UC Berkeley students, who literally follow the paths tread by the FSM’s participants 50 years ago.

“I think people need to know that they’re walking where the FSM walked — that’s a big thing,” Morales-Woolery said. “I’m sure some people don’t even know about it, but that’s their history too.”

“FSM” will play at the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco on Sept. 20 and 21, with additional performances at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre on Sept. 27 and 28.

Contact Anne Ferguson at [email protected].