Chutzpah is one thing Josh Kornbluth never runs out of. The beloved Berkeley monologuist has made a career out of turning his quirks and confessions into solo shows.
From "Red Diaper Baby" and "Love & Taxes" to "Haiku Tunnel," Kornbluth has shared his life story on stage, seamlessly combining soul-searching and silliness.
Now he's taking audiences along for the ride as the long-standing atheist and political radical discovers the power of religion. In "Sea of Reeds," which makes its world premiere at Berkeley's Shotgun Players from July 2 to Aug. 4, the monologue master subverts expectations by exploring his beliefs about God in a play that also includes other performers (such as veteran actress Amy Resnick). He recently took a few minutes out of rehearsal for an email chat about his spiritual journey, how "Sea of Reeds" came about, and why Shotgun is the perfect place to give birth to new work.
Q What led a lifelong atheist like you to decide to get bar-mitzvahed in Israel at the age of 52?
A Well, why this lifelong atheist decided to do that was, in large part, because of my friendship with Rabbi Menachem Creditor, of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. ... What really opened up Judaism to me was that Menachem's definition of God turned out to be one that I, an "atheist," could basically agree with: "the collective potential of the human imagination." In other words, no big bearded guy in the sky! So I realized that I could continue my studies in Judaism -- even go to services sometimes -- without being a hypocrite (that is, without having to say that I believed in a supernatural God with a consciousness -- which may in fact be who or what God is. I really don't know! It just doesn't make sense to me, based on my experience).
Q You have collaborated with director David Dower a lot over the years. What makes that process work so well?
A My creative collaboration with David is one of the great blessings of my life. He has an amazing sense of how to structure pieces out of the chaos of my improvisations -- a big part of the process, as David is way more than a great director -- he also works with me as a creative partner to put together the text of each piece as well. He is able to collaborate with me in a way that allows me total freedom to experiment, but that also allows me to find the stories' overall shape. He's neither dictator nor pushover -- he's a true collaborator.
Q You are working with other actors in this show, which is very unusual for you. Are you renouncing the solo realm?
A Well, first let's see how this show turns out! But my hope is to continue to create both solo and multiperson shows.
Q Are your monologues like children -- do you have a secret favorite?
A Well, I have only one child, so I've never had to deal with this issue! But I'd say I have a particular fondness for "Ben Franklin: Unplugged." That was the first piece I did with David, and I began working on it when my wife was pregnant with our son (who's 15 now). The show also was not initially that well-received, and we kept working on it, and eventually it became one of my more popular pieces to tour with.
Q What do you like about working at Shotgun?
A The Shotgun folks are what theater artists dream of! They are brilliant, endlessly encouraging, kind, patient and incredibly hardworking -- really, everything you'd hope for in a creative environment. All they want -- really! -- is for people to make and experience great theater. That such wonderful and talented people should choose to work in the hardscrabble world of independent theater is a miracle that no theology could ever explain.
'Sea of Reeds'
Written by and starring Josh Kornbluth
When: July 2-Aug. 4
Where: Shotgun Players, Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
Tickets: $8-$35. 510-841-6500, www.shotgunplayers.org