Bringing graceful work and alternately intense and quirky looks to the stage
In September, the San Francisco Fringe Festival offered patrons an off-Beat gem, The Burroughs and Kookie Show. A deftly performed blend of homage and intimate psychic excavation, the play imagines William S. Burroughs (actor-playwright Christopher Kuckenbaker) as talk show host, opposite a deadpan, laconic musician named Loubis the Pubis (Louis Libert), and a missing cohost, "Kookie," symbolized in absentia by a small, empty chair. Tonight's guest? An unsuspecting actor named Chris Baker (Christopher Kuckenbaker again). At once mood-alteringly dreamy and piquant, shrewdly funny and unexpectedly poignant, the show deservedly scampered off with "Best of Fringe" honors.
Kuckenbaker is a sharp, versatile actor who's plied the more vibrant fringes of Bay Area theater since the 1990s. He and his now ex-wife moved away in 2001 to pursue professional careers as actors in Chicago and Boulder, but Kuckenbaker returned in 2007. The timing was auspicious. A month later, he was memorably cast as real mama's monster Grendel in Banana Bag & Bodice's bicoastal hit, Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage. Next up, Kuckenbaker appears at Z Space opposite 2009 Goldie winner Beth Wilmurt in The Companion Piece, directed by Mark Jackson.
Kuckenbacker came to acting while at Santa Barbara City College. This followed a scattered upbringing in California towns like Hollister and Salinas, and far-flung lands like Australia. He credits all the moving around with seeding his actor's outgoing personality. "It maybe forced me to be a little more gregarious than other people," he suggests.
Arriving in San Francisco in 1993, Kuckenbaker received a degree from San Francisco State's prolific theater department in 1997. Since then, his graceful work and alternately intense and quirky looks have made him a unique presence onstage. He's also an astute and generous ensemble player who's worked repeatedly with leading smaller companies like Art Street and the Shotgun Players; been part of a now defunct sketch comedy troupe called Old Man McGinty; and appeared repeatedly in Playground's popular stagings of contest-generated short plays.
His own shift to playwriting, meanwhile, is more than a lark. He and Burroughs go way back. They first met in the Interzone of the imagination around the time Kuckenbaker left Santa Barbara with some Beat-obsessed cohorts for Bellingham, Wash., in the early 1990s. He stayed only a year in the Pacific Northwest rain, but something had happened to him up there, some inter-era nod, some afflatus. A mind-meld with old Bill.
"When I first moved to Bellingham, I'd go to the grocery store and pick up CDs of him reading his own works. That turned me on. There was something about his voice that triggered something in my brain, released some kind of new chemical in my head, and it just made sense."
After gestating for nearly two decades, that initial inspiration has become a Möbius strip seamlessly joining in one actor two complex identities: Burroughs and the actor alter ego called on to process the painful end of a marriage. In giving a compelling dramatic shape to the voices in his head, Kuckenbaker says he's found new definition in a still-unfolding career.
"When I look back, it seems to me I was just going from one show to the next, never really seeing myself any further along than the next show. Now, after giving birth to something in a very personal way, I want with all my power for it to grow and be seen, to spread itself out across the world. I have some big ideas about where I want to take the next iteration of The Burroughs and Kookie Show, making it a much larger and richer piece."