Showing no fear
Jeffrey Hartgraves survives 'Shark Bites'
by Richard Dodds
The curtain call comes at the start of the show. "Because you can never be sure you're going to make it to the end," says Jeffrey Hartgraves. "Because chaos happens."
Diagnosed two years ago with an incurable form of cancer called multiple myeloma, Hartgraves, after aggressive but debilitating treatment, is now in remission. And what does a theater person do with a window of opportunity? Why, put on a show, of course.
Shark Bites, billed as a "very nearly solo show," opens this week for what is, quite understandably, billed as a limited engagement. "I was actually going to call the show Limited Engagement, because it's kind of a metaphor for life in general, and me in particular. But then I thought if anyone saw that on a marquee, they'd wonder what the title of the show actually was."
As for Shark Bites, it refers to a running theme in the show about how fear can be the motivating factor as people move through their lives. "I had a morbid fear of sharks as a child," Hartgraves said. "It was totally irrational. I was living in Phoenix."
Actually, Hartgraves had been working on an earlier version of Shark Bites before he was diagnosed with cancer. "It was just one of those things I kept putting off, and I had this clever idea about how fear moves people through life, but I never finished it because it didn't resonate that strongly with me."
But earlier this year, when he saw a notice about Theatre Bay Area's grants program for individual artists, he quickly put together a proposal, and soon had $1,500 and the impetus to reshape and finally finish Shark Bites .
Originally conceived as a solo show, Hartgraves has brought aboard a group of theater friends including performers David Bicha, P.A. Cooley, T.J. Lee, David Mahr, and Drew Todd, as well as director Libby O'Connell, to help him tell the story. "It's kind of a weird project," he said, "because it's not what you would call a play. We're calling it a 'show.' And I don't want to use the word 'interactive' because that's scary to some people, but it does demand that you pay attention in a new way. It starts out about fear in general, and then we give you specific information about my life. It ends up with my explaining the meaning of life. All for $15. In 75 minutes. And drinks will be served."
Hartgraves credits a sense of humor, both his own and his friends', with helping him deal with his health ordeals, which have included chemotherapy, a stem-cell transplant, pneumonia, removal of his gall bladder, and collapsed vertebrae that have left him three inches shorter than he was two years ago. Still, the show mostly has a smile on its face. "We make light of pretty much all of it," he said. "There are moments of poignancy because you can't get away from it if you're going to be real. But the show definitely is not night, Mother."
Until he was diagnosed with cancer, Hartgraves was one of the busiest figures in local theater. As a writer, director, and/or actor, he has worked on scores of productions, and had nine assignments on the boards for coming months when he got the bad news. Appropriately, in the human comedy of it all, he first knew something was wrong when he did a pratfall in Theatre Rhino's 2005 revival of Medea – the Musical.
"I knew I was hurt, and it just kept escalating," he said. "I had started this new job, and the day after my insurance kicked in, I went to the emergency room, and I never went back to work."
It was the cancer, the doctors told him, that had caused his vertebrae to fracture. "When I went into the hospital that day, it was apparent that I was not going to be well, so I lost my job, my apartment, everything, so when I came out, two very dear friends adopted me. All my friends just kind of mobilized. One of the social workers at the hospital thought the mayor had died the first night I went in, because so many people had shown up. I especially liked the night Veronica Klaus stayed the night in this little cot half her size."
Hartgraves now has his own apartment near downtown SF, and covers his bills with a combination of disability payments, Medicare, and the assistance of friends. "I havenÕt done a show in two years, so I was frightened about my physical capacity and even whether I could learn lines again. It turns out that I can for the most part, and we have a safety net we're working with just in case."
Trying to make every minute count, Hartgraves says he must fight complacency. "It's just so easy to lapse back into that, even in my condition," he said. "There are major moments in your life that you either do or do not take advantage of. The emotion that comes with the rug being pulled out from under you is first anger, and then this cheated feeling. But then I decided for the next year or so, I'm going to do as many things on this list I've made as possible. There are no more excuses."
Shark Bites will run at the Studio in Theatre Rhino through Oct. 14. Tickets are $15. Call 861-5079 or go to therhino.org.