The Bay Area theater scene is studded with hidden gems. The Marsh, a standout among these, is pushing the boundaries of local theater by hosting a series of political commentaries directed by David Ford in a project called “Times Unseen.”
“It’s what people are saying, it’s what they’re feeling right now, and it keeps changing,” Ford said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “Initially, in the Bay Area, there were a lot of people trying to figure out how other people think, and pretty soon, you find out people in other parts of the country are just as complicated as they are here.”
The project has been ongoing for more than a year, constantly remodeling itself in response to the continuous actions of President Donald Trump. Its first production premiered in January. “My reaction to the last presidential election, I was profoundly terrified by — I was just — it scared me,” Ford hesitated. “What mostly scared me was just trying to understand what Americans felt about politics.”
Ford is using this project as a safe space for artists to voice their own feelings about life and politics. His performers, all connected to The Marsh from past productions, were asked to reach out to individuals of differing socioeconomic backgrounds and lifestyles to find compelling stories of real people in today’s society to then workshop and retell. According to Ford, many people were eager to share their lives with the theater, but getting people to talk about their politics proved tricky.
“If you approach them with the idea of ‘This is politics,’ then people are going to start arguing their point of view, and that doesn’t go anywhere,” Ford said. “What we’re much more interested in is, ‘How do people live their lives, and how does politics affect that?’ ”
While searching for inspiring stories, Ford learned more than he anticipated about his own peers, whom he’d been working with throughout the roughly 30 years he’s been involved with storytelling. He recalled one of his friends “coming out” as Christian, feeling like she needed to hide her identity because of the negative stigma she perceived around Christianity in the Bay Area.
“You quickly find out that the homogeneity that we think we have in the Bay Area about political and social attitudes is a misconception as well,” Ford said. “It’s just been great to have opportunities with people to think about these things in their own lives — how their own lives differ from the narrative presented in the press, the sides-taking that seems so prevalent.”
Ford told another tale of his friend Rebecca Fisher, who performed the story of an openly gay Christian pastor’s experience protesting for the removal of controversial statues in Memphis, Tennessee, one glorifying original Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest.
“There are a lot of Southerners who are standing up against racism and fascism,” Ford said. “It’s not like a completely different world over there — there’s a lot of people trying to sort these things out. It feels pretty good to get a better sense of what the world is really like.”
Ford wanted to connect with his interviewees by asking about their own experiences. The team of artists behind “Times Unseen” opened up conversations surrounding politically charged topics such as health care, child care and the future of the United States with each subject they interviewed. These discussions provided a framework for “Times Unseen,” which hosts different monologues in each performance.
“The mandate of the project is to inspire artists to do their own personal work,” Ford said. “I didn’t want to have any political agenda — I’m uninterested in the horse race of our politics. I was more interested in how it affects people personally.”
On a mission to encourage discourse on politics without taking a side, Ford developed the series into the various storytelling performances at The Marsh Berkeley. The series will come to full fruition this October in a weekendlong festival at The Marsh San Francisco, featuring a variety of performances from roughly 16 performers in hourlong sessions.
“The issues at hand keep changing,” Ford said. “I like the fact that (‘Times Unseen’ is) moving with the times. I like the fact that we’re getting videos of the change. I like the fact that the audiences are super engaged. They really want to hear the material.”
Ford argues that a story is typically only told once it has ended, rather than while it’s still ongoing. The goal of “Times Unseen,” however, is to tell stories of American culture that are as true as possible to the unresolved problems and issues of the world today. The project does not hold back — all perspectives and issues are discussed.
“I think it’s easy for people to get caught up in their own fears and worries,” Ford said. “If you spend any time reading the news, you lose track of what people are really like out there. It’s a chance to remember why we like Americans even if we don’t agree with them. It gives us a chance to hear that and think about it.”
For now, Ford is focused on highlighting what he calls “the American experiment” — the kind of impact America’s politically charged environment has on society today and the kind of Americans it will create for the future.
“It’s a pretty damn good experiment,” Ford said.