Theater director approaches 20-year milestone of extravagant productions

Tami McMillan performs with, from left, Nathan Myers, Jacob

Gilroy’s renowned thespian guru doesn’t have a theater degree,
but that hasn’t hindered John Bisceglie from establishing his
headlining legacy as eccentric creator of glitzy, larger-than-life
community productions.
Gilroy’s renowned thespian guru doesn’t have a theater degree, but that hasn’t hindered John Bisceglie from establishing his headlining legacy as eccentric creator of glitzy, larger-than-life community productions.

The San Jose native’s aspirations as a youth, however, were decidedly … earthy.

He wanted to be a farmer, so he attended his hometown’s Abraham Lincoln High School with plans of getting involved in the Future Farmers of America program.

“They put me in musical theater class by mistake,” said Bisceglie.

With things such as jazz, costume design and stage presence completely absent from his radar of interest, the adolescent immediately found himself in a fish-out-of-water scenario, unnaturally coerced into joining what he likens to an over-the-top TV episode of “Glee.”

“My mom tried to call and get me out,” he recalled. “I wanted nothing more to do with it.”

To Bisceglie’s dismay, the theater department really needed guys.

“I stuck with it, but I was kind of a misfit and unmotivated. I couldn’t care less about the show or doing a good job,” he said.

But fate had Bisceglie singled out for showbiz. Being mistakenly enrolled in the wrong class wasn’t the last time uncanny circumstances would the guide future director into the spotlight’s blinding orb.

At the end of Bisceglie’s freshman year, the rabbi in “Fiddler on the Roof” got kicked out of the play for smoking behind the theater.

As the rabbi’s acting career went up in fumes, a career-altering window slid open for Bisceglie, who became the newly vacant lead’s underdog successor.

After that, Bisceglie turned over a new leaf – nay – persona. He got excited. He bought a beard. He bought old-man makeup.

Having the chance to be creative presented the theater in a new light. Bisceglie said it gave him accountability. It made him feel special, and included.

He mentions another scenario involving the Kirk Community Center in San Jose, where he was cast as the Wizard in “Wizard of Oz.”

When a starring actor bailed after being cast in another show, Bisceglie was upgraded to the role of The Tin Man.

“I was on cloud nine,” he said. He hasn’t come down since.

Now 40, Bisceglie is having a field day as founder and director of the Gilroy Children’s Musical Theater. He composes zany, pop-culture-poking parodies such as “Snow White goes Hollywood;” dreams up elaborate productions featuring actors ages 5 to 21; designs costumes with flashy mediums from foam to feathers; and constructs professionally-built sets incorporating structures such as a dough-boy pool, a real Jeep, a live pig … the list goes on.

“If you feel like you’re watching a bad cruise ship show, we’ve succeeded,” he said. “We poke fun at how over-the-top it is.”

He hints at a potential idea for the musical welding of “Glee” with “Grease.”

“Glease,” he giggles.

Folks who’ve worked with the creative think-tank say his all-inclusive approach is what’s kept them coming back for more.

Gilroyan Dia Hoshida, an administrative secretary for the California Student Opportunity and Access Program, said Bisceglie’s productions were an integral element in the lives of her four sons.

“I have four boys, and my oldest is 28, and he started performing with John when he was 10,” she said. “I really believe in what John did for them, regardless if they went on to perform or not.”

She cites virtues such as discipline, confidence, timeliness, teamwork and the ability to take constructive criticism.

Cathy Mirelez, recreation supervisor for the City of Gilroy, started out with Bisceglie 16 years ago as a parent supervisor.

“People come from all over the Bay Area to see his productions,” she said.

With cast counts of 50 to 150 actors, singers and dancers, Mirelez says Bisceglie is mindful of giving everyone their moment in the spotlight.

“It’s a really wonderful self-esteem builder for the kids in his shows,” she said.

More than two decades after Bisceglie’s whimsical farmer-turned-playwright saga began, a number of local youths credit him as the mentor and friend who helped them develop fundamental skills that will come into play long after the final curtain call.

One of Hoshida’s sons, Alan, 22 – who lives in San Francisco and majors in broadcast electronic communication arts with an emphasis in sports at San Francisco State University – says his experience with theater has taught him to roll with the punches. He speaks confidently, exhibiting a solid grasp of life’s tendency to constantly shift dynamics.

“He taught me you need to take those leaps of faith,” Alan Hoshida said. “That’s what life is. It’s not a set path. Just run with everything. Take everything. Be on your toes.”

Hoshida said Bisceglie taught him to roll with the punches – the entertainment industry, understandably, has its share of hiccups.

Such as that one time, when the dog playing Nana in one of Bisceglie’s “Peter Pan” parodies died in the middle of the show.

Naturally, it had to be replaced.

“It was a golden retriever in the first half,” said Bisceglie. “The second half, it was a rat terrier.”

Hoshida said learning to project his voice at a young age influenced his chosen career path.

“One of the news broadcasters told me I project really well,” he said. “Without being in theater I wouldn’t have the voice I have now.”

Alan’s younger brother William Hoshida, who’s 19 and goes by Willie, is a sophomore studying theater at California State University, Fullerton.

“John’s shows are so dance-oriented,” he said. “They gave me a good foundation.”

Like his mentor, Willie initially saw himself doing something else – going to Santa Barbara and becoming a writer, perhaps. But the more he was exposed to theater, and what he describes as “the anxiety that chews at ones’ stomach backstage on opening night,” he developed a hunger to perform and was swayed to the stage.

Emily Dolph, 17, a freshman at San Francisco State University majoring in dance, had never been onstage before meeting Bisceglie. All it took was one performance, she said, and she fell in love.

Josh Fargher, 17, who was five when he saw Bisceglie’s production of “Wizard of NYC,” has assisted Bisceglie with designing and embellishing costumes, and is now attending the Fashion Industry of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco with an emphasis in building window displays.

“John’s given me a lot of the tools I’m already using in school,” he said.

Josh’s mom Holly Fargher, who is Bisceglie’s production assistant, gushes about Bisceglie’s prolific creativity. She mentions something about carving feet out of foam, and making hats out of paper.

“I’ve never met anyone like him,” she said. “His ability to change things into something amazing is indescribable.”

“Big Band Bash” is Bisceglie’s last Gilroy production of the season. He’s taking a break from the spring production to direct a show in San Francisco, and said anyone from Gilroy wishing to participate in the San Francisco production would be eligible for a waived registration. Bisceglie plans to return to Gilroy for a production in fall 2011.

Theater, he said, is a place to apply oneself, and belong. It’s a place for tradition.

“When a 40-year-old plumber I don’t know can come to my show – and he’s laughing and having a good time – it transcends a hokey kid show,” said Bisceglie. “It’s an actual quality entertainment venue. And that’s awesome.”

***

‘Big Band Bash’ shows at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday at Gilroy Wheeler Community Center, 250 W. Sixth St. For details, call (650) 302-5681 or visit www.gilroychildrensmusicaltheater.com.

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