The Stages of Mark Kenward -Spring 2009
by: Rosemary Ruley Atkins
photography by: Deanne Fitzmaurice
When Mark Kenward takes the stage at the Nantucket Wine Festival to perform his one-man show, his character will likely feel familiar to islanders.
“It’s about a man who is trying to hold onto his land during a time of change,” says Kenward of the show’s subject, Towle Bundschu. “He was a farmer sitting on a gorgeous Sonoma property that had been a successful vineyard, but at the time people were drinking highballs, not wine. Many other farmers were selling out and Towle was seriously tempted.”
The show, “Towle’s Hill,” was commissioned by Towle’s grandson, Jeff Bundschu, to mark the 150th anniversary of the family-owned Gundlach-Bundschu winery. The winery has a longstanding tradition of marking special moments with elaborate and festive events, and Bundschu says he felt some pressure to live up to the family legacy.
“I wanted to do something to celebrate the past but that would be forward-looking at the same time,” says Bundschu, a sixth-generation vintner who today runs the winery. “There are a lot of pressures on small indie family wineries. We’ve remained intact because we have fun. We make sure the business reflects the spirit of the generation that owns it. This is another way for us to meaningfully engage people with our wine.”
Bundschu had seen a number of one-man shows and was drawn to the personal nature of the form, so he contacted The Marsh, a small San Francisco theater known as a breeding ground for solo performance.
“The Marsh initially hired me as the writer,” says Kenward, who had previously developed three autobiographical one-man shows at the theater. “Then it morphed into me being the performer too.”
Having built his career developing his own work, Kenward admits to having reservations about creating a piece commissioned by a business.
“I was afraid that I’d be shilling somebody’s wine. I was like, ‘What’s next? ‘The Philip Morris Story’?’ ”
But as he and director David Ford began researching the character and the winery’s history in Sonoma County, Kenward began to see that the story of Towle Bundschu was about the broader themes of family businesses, ancestral bonds and the meaning of work.
“Towle was a guy who understood his legacy,” Kenward says. “He was literally surrounded by his family history – old wine crates, lug boxes, all this stuff stamped with the names of his ancestors. Being a farmer on that land was in his blood.”
For Kenward, working on the show represented a new approach to writing. He collaborated not just with Ford, but also with the Bundschu family and some of the winery’s staff. During the six months that Kenward spent writing the piece, he did a number of readings and performances of the work-in-progress, gathering feedback from members of the Bundschu clan, including Towle’s son, Jim Bundschu.
“When we all saw the first 15-minute reading together, it hit us that it was about my dad as much as it was about my grandfather,” says Jeff Bundschu. “There is a lot in there about a father reflecting on his relationship with his son. Everyone who sees it, whether they knew (my grandfather) or not, responds to it emotionally.”
For Kenward, working with the family pushed him as an artist.
“When you share work in artistic workshops, there’s an inferred respect for the creative process,” Kenward says. “But people who are not performers are much more direct. They listened to it with a different ear. And they really worked to tone down anything that made it seem like a puff piece.
It got me thinking differently about the development process. I think it made me more mature, more rigorous.”
The piece also came with a perk that was the realization of one of Kenward’s dreams: a six-week tour took Kenward and a group of supporting staff cross-country on a tricked-out rock ’n’ roll tour bus in the summer of 2008. Kenward’s blog at http://www.markkenward.com recounts some of the more colorful moments of the tour.
“Jeff (Bundschu) and his team did a great job of rounding up audiences,” says Kenward. “We did small venues that were always packed. We’d have a wine reception, then the show, and then Jeff would speak. Then more wine, and I’d get to talk to people about the show. I have to say, people are fanatics about this winery.”
The wine-festival performance at Bennett Hall will be a similar format.
“It’s going to be a personal, intimate event,” says Denis Toner, co-founder of the Nantucket Wine Festival, who has known the Bundschu family for more than 30 years. “We’re really pleased about having the performance. It adds a new dimension to the festival. And the story really gives a history of the California wine business.”
Kenward, who grew up on Nantucket, is likewise looking forward to performing on the island, where he got an early start in the theater.
“My first play was ‘Hansel & Gretel’ at Bennett Hall when I was in fourth grade,” says Kenward, 41. “Dick Cary was the director.”
Kenward stayed involved with island productions through middle school.
“I remember going to Sandy Whitehead’s house out in Sconset,” he says. “We’d write in collaboration with two or three kids at the table hammering out a script. It was great.”
By high school, his involvement with Whaler football and baseball meant that his days in the theater were numbered.
“My mom said I could do sports or arts, but not both,” he says.
He continued to play football at Swarthmore College, where, looking for an easy “A,” he enrolled in a theater class.
“I thought it would be about lying on the floor and imagining a glowing ball of oil on your stomach,” he says. “The funny thing is, I didn’t get a good grade. It was hard work, but I loved it.”
His turning point came when he showed up for his next theater class unprepared.
“I was a slacker. I didn’t have my lines memorized for the first rehearsal and the director dressed me down. That’s when it clicked for me. I remembered back to when I was in ‘Hansel & Gretel’ and my dad worked with me every night to make sure I knew my lines.”
Kenward entered the graduate theater program at Northwestern University where he discovered solo performance. His professor, Frank Galati, had adapted “The Grapes of Wrath” for the stage and assigned his class to adapt any work of literature for a solo performance.
“I looked on my bookshelf, and there was ‘Moby-Dick’ from (Nantucket High School English teacher) Helene Gilbody’s class,” says Kenward, who remembers disappearing into the book to help him get through a family tragedy during high school.
“I was supposed to be reading it but I wasn’t,” says Kenward, who was staying at the home of family friend Chester T. Scott. “Then one day I came home and Scotty was watching ‘Moby-Dick’ on the Dialing for Dollars afternoon movie. I saw some of the movie and then thought it might be worth my while to read the book.”
Kenward nearly finished the book that night, and has re-read it numerous times. For his Northwestern class, he developed a solo performance based on the book’s final chapters, during which Ahab chases down his prey and meets his doom. The project evolved into his master’s thesis and then into his first professional piece, which he performed in 11 cities, as well as for two summers on Nantucket with producer Warren Krebs.
With that theatrical experience under his belt, Kenward decided to move to San Francisco, where he pictured himself living the life of the starving artist. Instead, he met with some success as a writer and performer of autobiographical solo shows. His self-effacing wit and ability to poke holes in expectations result in theater that transcends his personal narrative, provoking the audience to consider the broader themes of his work.
His most recent one-man show, “The Dharma of Dollars,” reflected Kenward’s confusion as he tried to launch a mindful business using money his wife brought into their marriage. The piece made observations about wealth and class in America drawing, in part, upon his experience growing up in a working-class family on Nantucket.
“A lot of us had the experience of judging the summer people,” he says. “Our economy depended upon them, but there was some disdain. Then I found myself married to someone who came from that. I spent a year riding around San Francisco on a bike without a seat. It was a point of pride that I couldn’t afford one. So it (his marriage and relative wealth) was an adjustment.”
Even though he built his early career by bringing the personal to the public, Kenward bristles at the notion of his work as therapeutic.
“If you should be in therapy for it, it’s not ready to be art,” he says. “Therapy is about coming up with answers and art isn’t supposed to come up with answers. Art rests in questions. I try to find a meta story to hook into with my personal stories: American history, spirituality, money. To me, the point is to make people feel comfortable in the bigger questions.”
Today, Kenward lives in the Oakland Hills with his wife, Megan Armstrong, and their young daughter, Rosalie. Together, they own a yoga studio managed by Mark’s sister, Sara Kenward. Most days, Kenward works in his spare office in the basement of their home.
After spending more than a year writing and performing “Towle’s Hill,” Kenward is working on a new performance piece.
“I thought I had semi-retired as a performer,” he says. “But it felt good to get back up on stage in the winery piece. So now I’m working on some Nantucket material to perform.”
The piece will focus on his family’s move from Normal, Illinois to Nantucket when Mark was in second grade.
“My parents visited the island while my dad was on a business trip in Boston,” says Kenward. “The couple they were with wanted to go to the Vineyard, but my mom loved ‘Moby-Dick’ so they came here. A year later they moved there. The thing is, they were pretty square. This was totally out of character. My dad left a desk job and started painting houses with Claire Butler.”
Kenward uses his family’s story as a leaping-off point to explore the greater themes of escape and the peculiarly American notion that our destiny lies across a body of water.
“Islands represent escape and happiness,” Kenward says. “Everyone has this belief that all our problems will be annihilated if we’re surrounded by water.
“Or maybe people move to islands for the hell of it,” he says, shrugging, and tosses out a Melville quote with a confidence that would delight his former English teacher.
“Maybe my parents were ‘tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote’.”
Kenward will perform “Towle’s Hill” during this year’s Nantucket Wine Festival Friday, May 15 at Bennett Hall on Centre Street.
Rosemary Ruley Atkins is a Nantucket native living in San Francisco. She writes often for Nantucket Today.