October 30, 2014

Free Screening of Chekhov and Maria at Topanga Library, February 27

 

PHOTO COURTESY OF TANYA STARCEVICH

Free Screening of <i>Chekhov and Maria</i> at Topanga Library, February 27

John Stark adapted his late wife Jovanka Bach’s play, Chekov and Maria, for the screen.

Lifelong actor, writer, producer and director John Stark, who was born John Starcevich, first met playwright Jovanka Bach when she approached him after a performance of his one-man show, An Evening with Stephen Leacock, at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles.

Bach had read in the program that he was from a Slavic background and asked him why his name was Stark.

“I told her that when I was in school no one could pronounce Starcevich, right? So they’d call me son of a bitch instead. I changed it immediately,” said Stark. Bach laughed at this and explained to him that she had changed her name from Bachevich and also had a Slavic background.

It was this commonality and their mutual love for theater that drew the prolific pair together. It was also the start of a long and fruitful relationship.

“We got married and traveled to Dubrovnik,” said Stark. “It’s a wonderful thing to explore your roots.” .

Bach wrote more than a dozen plays, most of which Stark has produced and directed. They collaborated on many projects before Bach lost her battle with cancer in 2006. Since then, Stark has worked tirelessly to keep her legacy alive.

Most recently, he adapted her play, Chekhov and Maria, into an award-winning film that airs nationally on PBS-TV.

The film will also be screened for free at the Topanga Library on Feb. 27 at 7:30 p.m.. with Eric Till, the acclaimed director in attendance.

PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN STARK

Free Screening of <i>Chekhov and Maria</i> at Topanga Library, February 27

The film Checkhov and Maria will be shown at a free screening at the Topanga Library at 122 N. Topanga Canyon Boulevard on February 27 at 7:30 p.m.

Chekhov and Maria explores the tumultuous relationship between Chekhov and his sister, Maria, as he struggles to finish his play, The Cherry Orchard while ailing from tuberculosis.

Stark adapted the play after the Off-Broadway production received a positive reception from the New York Times and other press. The play caught the attention of Canadian-based director, Eric Till.

He encouraged Stark to adapt Chekhov and Maria into a film as a memorial tribute to Bach. Stark took out a second mortgage on his home and made the film for $200,000. He enlisted Eric Till to direct and shot the film in 11 days.

Stark said Bach, who was a dermatologist and managed a medical practice in Santa Monica, was fascinated with Chekhov, because, like him, she was both a playwright and a physician.

“She was working all day in medicine and then would come home and write until two in the morning,” Stark said. “She was very inspiring.”

Stark and Bach spent most of their lives together in Topanga raising his two daughters, Tanya and Lara Starcevich.

In addition to his career in the arts, Stark managed the Inn of the Seventh Ray for a time and worked as a drama critic for the Messenger in the ‘80s. Tanya now runs a local real estate business and performed in three of Stark’s plays at the Odyssey Theater. Lara received a Ph.D. in theater from Vassar College and currently teaches at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Washington.

When Stark came to California in the late ‘70s, he was instantly charmed by Topanga.

“Topanga was naturalistic and very laid back. Woody Guthrie had lived here and Will Geer…I always sided with people who were anti-materialistic and just wanted to live a pleasant, natural life,” said Stark, who started out in a similar milieu in Rossland, British Colombia.

“I keep telling people I was born in a snow bank,” he said, adding, “No one drove cars in Rossland back then, and walked or rode bicycles instead.”

This included Stark’s mother, Vera Starcevich, who attempted to walk to the hospital after going into labor with him.

“Finally she just lay down in the snow bank, because she was having contractions. Somebody came along and whisked her over to the hospital and I was born in the hallway. I tell people I was born in a snow bank, anyway,” he said, laughing.

This dramatic start heralded his lifelong passion for theater. After co-writing and performing in a comedy show in high school, Stark attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, before transferring to the University of Arizona to major in theater.

While studying in Tucson in the mid-‘50s, he worked as bellhop at the Santa Rita Hotel where he met Canadian actor, Glen Ford, who was shooting 3:10 to Yuma at Old Tucson, a popular film location. He invited Stark, a fellow Canadian actor, to be in the film.

“I got a job in the posse riding a horse and I’d never been on a horse. We were galloping up the stream and I fell off the horse into the creek. And the director said, ‘Cut! Where did we get that guy?’” Stark laughed. “My first film job.”

After college he moved to Vancouver where he produced more than a dozen plays over twelve years with his company, Canadian Art Theatre. He named it after the Moscow Art Theatre, as he felt heavily influenced by Constantin Stanislavski.

While working backstage for his one-man show, “Mark Twain Tonight!”, . Stark met Hal Holbrook who inspired him to write his own one-man show about turn-of-the-century Canadian teacher and humorist Stephen Leacock.

“[Holbrook] said, ‘Stephen Leacock, oh, he’s equivalent to Mark Twain’,” Stark recalled.

Stark first performed An Evening with Stephen Leacock in the early ‘70s touring Canada with his first wife, June, until she succumbed to cancer.

“It’s a devastating disease. I’ve had two wives die in my arms of cancer,” Stark said. “But [June] was a great supporter of me doing the Leacock show.

When she died, she said, ‘John, I want you to continue on doing your show. Whatever you do, don’t stop’,” said Stark.

In 1977, Stark moved to Los Angeles and ventured on with his show at the Coronet Theatre. He eventually rented the Carnegie Recital Hall, now the Weill Recital Hall, in New York and flew out to stage his show.

“Jovanka thought I was crazy,” said Stark with his familiar chuckle and grin.

Since then, he has worked behind the scenes focusing on bringing Bach’s works to the stage and screen.

“Her first great success was the Balkan Trilogy,” said Stark.

The three plays: Name Day, A Thousand Souls and Marko the Prince, chronicle the rise and fall of the former Yugoslavia. Stark produced Name Day and Marko the Prince off-Broadway at the Barrow Group Theatre. A Thousand Souls premiered at the Odyssey in 1999.

Most recently, Stark produced Johnny Canuck, Bach’s one-man musical, which she based on Stark.

“She used to love listening to me play the guitar and sing songs to her,” said Stark. “We staged an opening in Mexico and then toured Canada with it last year.”

Stark also wrote and produced the semi-autobiographical Tom, Dick and Harry Meet Mary, which played at the Odyssey Theater last December.

“This play really summed up my philosophies,” said Stark.

His enduring commitment to his craft is largely fueled by the works of German philosopher Meister Eckhart as well as by “In Search of Lost Time” by French novelist Marcel Proust.

“These philosophies have sustained me,” said Stark. “Really all we’ve got is the eternal present and so all these people who get immersed in the past, it’s very disturbing to me. Because you are the sum total of your past experiences but you can’t live in the past. You got to move on.”

To learn more about Stark’s previous and upcoming productions, please visit johnstarkproductions.com

The screening of Chekhov and Maria, sponsored by the Canyon Sages, takes place Feb. 27 at 7:30 p.m. at the Topanga Library, located at 122 N. Topanga Canyon Boulevard, (310) 455-3480.