At 69, Gina Bikales is the embodiment of the word “indefatigable”: She’s seemingly incapable of being tired out.
Gina leads Script2Stage2Screen (S2S2S), the theater company which presents staged readings of new works at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rancho Mirage. (Disclosure: I have acted with S2S2S before.)
“We (the Coachella Valley) have theater going on year-round now, (as opposed) to when I came to the desert in 2000,” Bikales says. “(We have) community theaters presenting ‘chestnuts’ (older hit plays that always attract an audience); professional companies doing edgier works; three great full-time companies; and S2S2S taking it a step further, doing only new, unpublished works. We want scripts that speak to current issues.”
Bikales came to her role with S2S2S—running the program as well as casting, directing and occasionally taking a role herself—with a lifetime of connection to the arts. Born in Topeka, Kan., and raised in Kansas City, Gina graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in theater education and language arts.
“I came from an artsy family,” she says. “My mom was a sculptor, and my dad, although a psychiatrist by profession, always designed and made jewelry. They provided an artistic education for all of us (an older brother, and a younger brother and sister). We started piano at 5, and by second-grade, we could choose a second instrument to learn.
“I’ve done theater since I was young. At 12, I signed up to go to the Midwest Music and Art Camp. Once there, I hurt my foot, and there was no way I could dance, so my dad talked to them and got me into the theater group. I was the youngest one, but they took me under their wings, and I fell in love with it.
“When I got to college, I thought I wanted to be a doctor, because I loved science, but I hated math. When I realized how much math was required, I didn’t want to go forward. I now realize part of my feelings about math were associated with it not being a ‘feminine’ thing to be good at. Anyway, my college adviser literally stood in front of his office door and said, ‘You can’t leave until you declare a major,’ so I focused on theater education. After college, I left Kansas City for North Carolina to teach at a prep school.”
Bikales subsequently married and moved to Santa Clara in the Bay Area, and “put my husband through law school.” She later divorced and returned to Kansas City to raise her three sons, all of whom are now professional musicians.
“I worked as a teacher, but the arts were always an important part of my life,” she says. “At 16, my first summer job was teaching at the only performing-arts camp at that time in Kansas City, Camellot Academy. Just after college, they asked me to take over running it, and until about 2005, I went back to Kansas City and ran Camellot every summer.”
Bikales left Kansas City after marrying “a desert guy” and has been in the Coachella Valley since 2000, currently residing in Palm Desert.
“Much to my surprise, I fell in love with the desert and decided to stay after that marriage ended,” she says. “I was basically a retired lady, but one day, I went to a local meeting of the Coachella Valley Alumnae Panhellenic Association. I was seated with Jeanette Lyons and Lynn Talbot, who were doing a show at the Joslyn Center. I got cast, and from then on, I’ve been involved in theater here.
“Acting came easily for me, and I loved it. The first time I did it, I was hooked. I put acting on hold when my kids were young, but began doing community theater once they were old enough to be left at night.
“Once I left Kansas City and came to the desert, I still returned to the Camellot program, but I was ready to work with adults. Ron Celona had been running the theater at Joslyn Senior Center, and when he left, they asked me to take his place. I said, ‘Absolutely!’ Meanwhile, my divorce attorney was saying, ‘You need to get a job.’ His partner was development director with the Visiting Nurse Association, and he hired me as development manager to support the hospice program. You can’t get a better reason to be willing to ask people for money.”
Bikales’ experience as a teacher, actor and manager has influenced her ability to direct.
“When you’re acting, your primary focus is on character, and how that character relates to others on the stage,” she says. “When you direct, you have to pick up lots of other threads and concerns in a script: lighting, costuming and the ability to tie it all together with a bow so it works to communicate what the playwright intended. A show needs to look seamless and effortless to the audience. It’s both a creative and management kind of position.”
S2S2S began as a project to feature the work of gay Coachella Valley playwrights. Bikales began working with the group in its first season. After the two founders retired, she was asked to take over the program.
“We have so much talent here, from retired actors to accountants who’ve always wanted to act,” she says. “We have people who’ve never been onstage before, and some who’ve won awards for performing. Being in an S2S2S production only requires three weeks of evening rehearsals, and it’s fun.”
S2S2S, now in its 10th year, may be the most economical theater experience in the valley, at only $10 a ticket. Usually the playwright is in the audience to gauge reactions, as well as take questions and comments after the production. The number of shows presented each season depends on how many plays are submitted and considered worthy of a first outing. Play-submission information is at the website, www.script2stage2screen.com.
“It’s been my mission for the last few years to push women, especially women of color, into directing. For some reason, it’s difficult to find women who want to direct,” Bikales says.
“Because the plays we put on are new and unpublished, we can work with the playwright, something you can’t do with a published work. We get submissions from all over the country, and there are a lot of local writers who want to get an audience’s reactions to a work in progress. I’m in it from the submission phase to the final curtain call. I’ll do S2S2S as long as it’s a joy to do, and it is!”
S2S2S, under Bikales’ direction, has garnered 17 Desert Theatre League awards. She served as president of the DTL for eight years, and has been on the boards of other local organizations. Despite recent health issues, she directs individual plays, carefully casts local talent, scrounges costumes and props, and occasionally returns to the stage.
Gina Bikales is, indeed, indefatigable.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs Tuesday-Friday from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.