Actress Rinabeth Apostol is roaring out of the pandemic-era theater shutdown with not one but three plays.
In 42nd Street Moon’s production of the Lisa Kron/Jeanine Tesori musical based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir “Fun Home,” about her relationship with her father, Apostol plays the adult version of Alison.
In Sam Chanse’s world premiere comedy at the Magic Theater, “Monument, or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play),” she is Constance, the second to the youngest sister in a family of mixed Asian Americans.
And in June, she’ll head to Sacramento to appear in Lydia R. Diamond’s “Smart People” at Capital Stage.
Apostol is first-generation Filipina; born in San Francisco, she grew up in the Sacramento area and also in Hawaii. Her parents were part of a theater group connected to a political organization critiquing US imperialistic practices from the perspective of working-class Filipino Americans. They encouraged her to immerse herself in the arts. At home, everyone played at least one instrument; Apostol played piano and flute.
“We grew up speaking English,” she says, on the phone from her home in Emeryville, which she shares with her wife of almost eight years. “And we were fortunate enough to learn conversational Tagalog, mostly due to doing a lot of community work with my parents and being involved in community productions centered on Filipino culture. We sang songs in Tagalog, in Taglish” (a mixture of Tagalog and English).
Over the years, Apostol has appeared in film, TV and on stage and has worked as an educator and activist. She’s been a dance and theater teaching artist and lecturer; mentored LGBTQ youth and students of color in the performing arts; and advocated for gender equity in theater. Above all, she loves live theater.
But she was a dancer first — knock-kneed as a kid, a doctor advised ballet classes to learn to turn her legs out. “I’m still slightly bow-legged,” she says, “but it prevented me from having to wear leg braces.” She pursued dance — tap, jazz, hip-hop, Filipino folk dances — and from there, it seemed natural to veer into musical theater, with its singing and dancing.
The first plays she remembers seeing are “Les Miz” and “Cats,” but the most memorable was “Big River,” William Hauptmann’s 1984 musical based on “Huckleberry Finn.” “That really changed the way I thought of theater,” she says.
She migrated to the Bay Area and took acting classes with Margo Hall (now the artistic director Lorraine Hansberry Theatre) and was directed by teacher and actor Joel Mullennix. “To see how young adults could work in a collaboration with a director — that’s where I said, ‘Oh, theater doesn’t have to be musical!”
Transferring to San Francisco State, she majored in theater rather than, as originally planned, Asian-American studies; she’d integrate those studies into theater training. “Margo’s acting classes, and a movement class at SF State that taught how to use your body physically in a way that wasn’t just dance — both those classes made a profound impact,” she says.
Later, during six years in Los Angeles, she upped her game, taking many more classes, with The Groundlings’ training program and independent teachers. While there, she danced professionally, did some TV and was temporarily called back to the Bay Area for roles in “The Kite Runner” at San Jose Repertory Theater and in “Red” at TheaterWorks on the Peninsula, and reconsidered the Bay Area as a place to do theater. In general, she found LA very cutthroat, so she was glad to return and, after one of her first auditions, appear at the PlayGround festival. After that, local theaters starting reaching out to her.
One of her most notable roles was in Lloyd Suh’s drama “The Chinese Lady” at the Magic Theatre. Her performance as Afong Moy — the first Chinese woman to enter the United States, where in 1834 she was publicly displayed as an exotic specimen — was exquisitely calibrated.
“I feel very fortunate to have experience taking on different roles with different ethnic backgrounds,” she muses. “My job is to ensure that the role I’m tackling is one I can do justice to.”
Of Alison in “Fun Home,” she says, “Alison is a tough cookie. She’s the only character in musical theater written as a dyke.” Playing real people like Alison is tricky, she notes. When she was at the Humana Festival in Louisville, she played a character based on a living playwright — who was in the room watching rehearsals. “You try not to get too cerebral with it,” she explains. You always know that a real person created this stylized version of herself, and ultimately it’s about moving the story forward.
“In order for an actor to stay mentally healthy,” she continues, “You have to have that delineation of what is real and what is make-believe.” Characters like Alison “invite heavy emotions — sexuality, the death of her father, memory of what it was like to grow up in that family.” But despite always having pre-show jitters, she can let go of a character and then enter it again. “I take a deep breath, step into it, and as soon as I’m offstage, exhale and shake it off.”
As for Constance in “The Sloth Play,” “It’s a really lovely story that focuses on the relationships of the four sisters and what that means in terms of existing as human beings. It’s not just an Asian play.” Apostol has personal reference points to play Constance: She’s close to her one sister, Rebecca, seven years younger, whom she herself got permission to name.
Now, at what seems to be the end of a long hiatus for live theater, she looks back on the past two years: “I experienced uncertainty, and when it became a longterm, huge question, it began to encroach on my mental health. I know I’m not alone in this. Who am I? What am I doing? I was fortunate when theater starting opening. I was one of the first folks back.”
Still, she acknowledges, “It’s bittersweet to celebrate my return to the stage when there are so many friends who have yet to experience that return…”
IF YOU GO:
“Fun Home,” a 42nd Street Moon production
Where: Gateway Theater, 215 Jackson St., SF
When: April 21-May 8
Contact: (415) 255-8207, 42ndstmoon.org
“Monument, or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play)”
Where: Magic Theater, Bldg. D, Fort Mason, SF
When: May 11-29
Contact: (415) 441-8822, magictheatre.org