Carol Shorentstein Hays overlooking the Curran during its renovation in May, 2016
Interview

Carole’s Singular Vision

Carole Shorenstein Hays talks to THE CURRAN[T]’s Gracie Hays about FUN HOME, ECLIPSED, and the Curran’s exciting next act - which is also her own.

It is likely that I memorized the entire PHANTOM OF THE OPERA cast recording before I could fully recite the alphabet or tie my shoes. With a blanket and bottle in hand, Sundays were spent at matinees atop booster seats next to my parents and big brother.

As an infant, the Curran became such a familiar environment that I often had nap time at the theater, dozing off during particularly cacophonous finales on more than one occasion.

Perhaps to the chagrin of some of my more rambunctious classmates, during elementary school I had at least seven birthday parties in a row at this theater. Like a favorite playground or an oft travelled path, the Curran has framed the landscape of my childhood. How my mom’s life became so absorbed in this world, however, has always been a source of wonder to me, considering that her parents were not especially avid theatergoers.

While many of my mom’s peers have begun to retire, I have watched in awe over the past two years as she has joyfully marched forward in molding the Curran’s future. In conducting this interview, I set out to commemorate this exciting new chapter in my mom's life and to gain a better understanding of how she discovered her lifelong passion in theater. "Curran in Context" is the product of a conversation that took place on stage during the summer of 2015 and explores my mom's profound connection to this theater where she both grew up and later raised a family.

GRACIE HAYS: Do you remember the first time you came here to the Curran?

CAROLE SHORENSTEIN HAYS: We came as a family. I was ten years old. We saw THE MUSIC MAN. I remember walking down the aisle as the orchestra started. I had no idea there were real people playing the instruments and had to be pulled back into my seat because I almost fell into the orchestra pit. I was transfixed.

How often do you think you visited the Curran as a kid?

Well, after that first experience, I came to the Curran just about every Saturday. I would put my party dress on and take the 1-California bus to Union Square and I would walk around Magnin's glove compartment, which was so glamorous. Then I would walk down the block to the Curran. There were lots of people outside and I thought, oh, that’s great, they are waiting for me. Everyone would say, “Oh, you are so adorable!” So there I was, being completely adorable with all of these people who accepted me, and I walked in with them. I was completely welcomed. Oh! And there were bon-bons. I helped stack the bon-bons. And they said, “Oh, thank you. Adorable!" I said, “You’re welcome.” Then I noticed there were people walking upstairs and I thought, I will just walk upstairs too. And I did. I walked to the tippy-top of the theater. I had the time of my life. It’s the first time I learned how to applaud. I heard someone say the word, “Bravo!” I thought that was such a fun word the first time I heard it.

You would just show up without a ticket?

Well, I thought my adorableness was my ticket.

Were there any memorable shows you saw here?

OKLAHOMA!. THE KING AND I. MY FAIR LADY.

Did your other siblings really like the theater as well?

I would have them play parts in my living-room productions of the shows I'd seen when I played the cast albums of the musicals I loved. They obliged but they weren’t quite as fervent as I about it all. When my brother was studying for his Bar Mitzvah, he was having real difficulty with the Hebrew. MY FAIR LADY had just come out. It was such an international hit that it was recorded in lots of languages. One recording of it was in Hebrew. So I got the Hebrew version of MY FAIR LADY and taught him “The Rain in Spain” and other songs from MY FAIR LADY.

“I came to the Curran just about every Saturday. I would put my party dress on and take the #1 California bus to Union Square and I would walk around I. Magnin's glove compartment which was so glamorous. Then I would walk down the block to the Curran. There were lots of people outside and I thought, oh, that’s great, they are waiting for me.”

I think that definitely sets you apart - you were your brother's Hebrew Henry Higgins. What do you think sets the Curran apart?

Architecturally, it is the proximity of the audience to the artists. The acoustics are also perfect. This is a rare cathedral that was built with great dedication and with great simplicity and with elegance.

Yeah, it's really intimate. What impresses you about its history?

It was built by Homer Fellows Curran who came the Bay Area from Nebraska ...

Nope: Missouri.

You're the Curran historian. Okay: Missouri. Homer attended Stanford. He loved the arts. But why don't you talk a bit about the Curran's history.

I think it was really adventurous of Homer Curran to come out here from the Midwest. He came from a really well-to-do family that ran an incredibly successful wheel manufacturing company. From what I can tell, no one else in his family had any interest in the arts, so he kind of developed that passion on his own. But speaking of beginnings, what is it like being back now at the Curran given that you spent so much time here as a kid? Do you find yourself recollecting childhood memories here and getting goose bumps all over again?

I do. It's phenomenal. Here I am talking to you, my daughter. I am sixty-seven year old. But I feel like this is my Fountain of Youth. I understand now how great artists can keep singing and performing because it's very rejuvenating. It washes all the glumness and woes away.

So why did you decide to stay in San Francisco rather than moving to New York and focusing on all of the work that is going on there?

Because San Francisco is my home. The Curran is my home. And I love San Francisco. I love the Curran. It is my joy and my mission to keep it always sacred and alive and welcoming. I am really blessed to live in the greatest city in the world and to work with the most talented people in the city. I never gave any thought to moving any other place. I am a first-generation San Franciscan. I am so proud to call San Francisco and the Curran my home. I am so glad you got me to talk about my childhood, Gracie, because the whole joy of my journey, starting with that childhood, has lead me back here to the Curran. I think if you are lucky enough to lead life in a theatrical and whimsical and curious way that it can lead you back to your very beginnings. My life began here at the Curran in lots of ways. There is no better feeling than being home.

Let’s talk a bit about FUN HOME. You were involved as a producer with moving the musical FUN HOME to Broadway at Circle in the Square and now you’re bringing it here to the Curran in January.

I like being involved with productions that I think are really exceptional and speak to who we are at this point in time in our evolution as people, be that culturally or politically or personally in emotional terms. I was so taken by FUN HOME because it was a project about a family that spoke to all of that. The father was gay at a time when he couldn't really say he was gay. His daughter Alison Bechdel, who wrote the graphic novel on which the show is based, is a lesbian. When I read the script by Lisa Kron and heard her lyrics to the score by Jeanine Tesori I identified with it because, even though my own story is different from this one, I understood both the struggles and the joys of family whether you grow up in Buckingham Palace or a Pennsylvania funeral home, which is where Alison Bechdel grew up since her father was a funeral director. When we moved it to Circle in the Square it had to be re-imagined and restaged for the round and Sam Gold, the director, and David Zinn, its scenic designer, took this challenge on as just another step in their creative journey. And it won the Tony last year for Best Musical, this musical about a family - which is what I keep circling back to in my definition of what producing a show is like for me: creating a family.

Another show you helped transfer from The Public was ECLIPSED which you’re bringing to the Curran after FUN HOME. What drew you to that play?

The performances of all the women in its amazing all-female cast. And again its focus on a family - not a biological one this time but a logical one, an emotional one, one created in order to survive. And I love that the playwright who wrote this devastating play, Danai Gurira, is a young African American woman. And its director is a woman too - Liesl Tommy. So I guess, even though I'm a white woman, there is a kind of solidarity I feel with these female theatre artists. The production deserves a wider audience and I'm glad I can help it find one and help empower these artists while doing it.

A sense of empowerment and the importance of family - would that be a kind of mission for you here at the Curran?

I think we as family, Gracie, in our personal lives have always tried to bring out the best in each other and I want to translate that to my work here at the Curran. I want to do classics here. I want to do new work. I want the Curran always to be active. I want to combine the artistic and technological worlds that are both so important to San Francisco's vitality as a city. I want us through our programming and the way in which we produce it to create a vibrant and magical time for us all. As we give the Curran a new life, I want it to be an important part of the life of San Francisco itself.