San Francisco native Jeffrey Bihr is so round-faced and curly-headed and boyish
and positively bursting with passion for theater that you imagine he's about 30.
But when he ticks off his accomplishments, you realize he'd have to be nearly 50 (48, to be exact)
to have packed all this into one lifetime: five years in Montreal as a performer and a scat singer
as well as a musical composer for the Canadian Film Board (his wife is French Canadian, their four-year-old daughter bilingual);
several trips to the mountains of Japan for unique acting training;
seven years as a member of Berkeley Repertory Theatre's core company in the '80s;
musical compositions for plays; work in stage combat and circus techniques;
directing, guitar-playing, and almost always teaching.
And now he's joined colleague/artistic director Peter Meyers to found Vector Theatre,
and assembled a group of professional actors with whom they hope to work on an ongoing basis.
Vector's first production, "Museum," is the local premiere of a witty satire of the modern art world
(a preview fund-raiser will be staged in the Museum of Modern Art; the rest of the performances are at 450 Geary Studio Theatre).
"'Museum' asks for the kind of work we're interested in," explains Bihr--"ensemble, physicality, character."
Written in the '70s, the play is a series of short vignettes, all in one room of the Metropolitan Museum.
"Every scene seems very normal at the start," says Bihr, "but most go to absurd, rather surreal places. It's nonlinear narrative."
Bihr is eager to share with Vector's ensemble the tools he's picked up from a lifelong commitment to theater,
especially from the radical techniques of internationally famous Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki,
and of director Anne Bogart and her movement-based "Viewpoints" system.
Vector, explains Bihr, does not intend to imitate real life. "We're going to leave that to film.
There's been a terrific tendency for American actors to [produce drama about real-life situations.
That's not to say there's not been some very great work that's come out of that.
It's just not a style that interests Peter or myself."
Bihr knew he'd be an actor when he was four, cueing his father in lines from "A Streetcar Named Desire"
--Richard Bihr was a member of San Francisco's fabled Actors Workshop.
Smitten, Bihr fils went on to study acting.
His life changed dramatically ten years ago when he was hired by Suzuki to play the role of the Fool
in a touring version of "King Lear" that's not remotely like any Shakespeare you ever saw.
Accepting the role meant joining an ensemble of international actors to be trained in Suzuki's reputedly rigorous methods.
"Suzuki has given me a whole different set of tools from what I got in the West,"
says Bihr of the master's modern and physically challenging approach to classical, stylized Japanese theatrical forms.
"It's like Marine boot camp, the work is so fiendishly difficult.
Walls get broken down very easily, including star-system walls and ego walls.
I started by playing the Fool as a clown and being funny, and nothing seemed right.
I had to stop doing everything I was used to doing. That was a real battle.
Once I got there, another world opened up to me.
"Here in the United States, actors are trying for gritty realism all the time," he adds.
"Suzuki says acting is lying, and that's so opposite to the way Western actors are taught.
He says the audience knows you're playing someone you're not, saying lines you didn't write,
so the question becomes how effectively can you lie,
and if you follow that, you get to the same place, which is that acting is truth-telling. But the tools are revelatory."
Now Bihr teaches Suzuki's techniques both in classes at American Conservatory Theater and independently.
Equally importantly, he continues to train himself. "It's a discipline that tunes my body, voice, and psychology every day," he says.
Why isn't he in "Museum," since he considers himself first and foremost an actor? "I'm more valuable outside looking in, helping to produce and direct.
Going in would be fun but you lose a lot of perspective.
"What's important is to keep moving," he adds, "whether you like [what you try], love it, hate it, fail, it's not important."
What's important is to continually question the way you work.
In that regard, there's no doubt he intends to give Vector Theatre's actors a run for their money.--Jean Schiffman