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From Gump’s to Greasepaint : Bitten by acting bug, businesswoman becomes award-winning director.

Theater gets a healthy dose of slide show in Terry Dodd’s “Dusk to Dawn at the Sunset,” opening this weekend at Studio City’s Theatre West.

“It’s one of those family-drama kinds of things,” said director Michelle Truffaut, “but the structure’s real interesting. The story is told in flashback by the two kids, who are now in their late 20s, and they tell it through a lot of photographs. It was like shooting a movie to get all of those photographs, to get all the family history there. On stage you’ll see the live dramatic part. . . . But all of the motivation will be happening through the photography.”

So audiences will have to listen and watch live actors--and watch a slide show at the same time?

“Yeah,” the 42-year-old director said with a chuckle. “Hopefully, it won’t be too confusing. The crux of the story is that these kids, Sharon and Barry, are raised at a real crucial time--in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. The mother, Dottie, is a real victim as far as being stuck in the house, having the responsibility of a family. But the father, Lonnie, is also a victim of that time, in that he needs and wants security, but he likes to run around on his wife.”

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Although the San Francisco-born director grew up in a very different home environment, the era is extremely familiar.

“Sure, I remember the ‘50s,” she said. “I was little, but I was there. And my mother was a working woman. At the same time, the rest of my family--aunts, uncles, everyone else--was very traditional, conventional. And they were all miserable. Although my parents had a good relationship, my father was a wilder kind of guy. He had a gambling tendency. So I think to safeguard the family, my mother figured she’d better contribute as well. As a result of that, she kind of had her own life,” selling real estate.

It never occurred to Truffaut not to have a career, although for many years, it had nothing to do with the theater.

College business courses led her to Gump’s department store in San Francisco, where she worked in merchandising, interior design and buying. “Then one day I realized something was wrong. I wasn’t quite happy. I’d always gone to theater, always gone to the movies. But I couldn’t get up there myself. Honestly, I was so shy. But finally I went to an acting workshop--and after three months of sitting in the back row and listening, I finally got up and started doing things.”

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Bitten by the acting bug, Truffaut apprenticed at a small repertory company outside London, then resettled in New York, where she began doing Off- and Off-Off Broadway work. But it wasn’t until 1972, while visiting the Bay Area over the holidays, that she was asked to direct a friend’s play. “I said, ‘I’ve never directed anything in my life.’ They said, ‘Come on, you can try. Please help us out.’ So I did. And it was the first time I thought, ‘Oh, I really like this.’ ”

Soon after, she formed her own improvisational touring group. In 1976, it became incorporated as the San Francisco Repertory Company--with Truffaut as artistic director. In that capacity, she won Bay Area Critics Circle Awards for her direction of “Mary Stuart” (1982) and “Blood Knot” (1983). In 1986-87, she headed up the San Francisco Summer Shakespeare Festival. “It was really stifling,” she says now. “ Too much. You don’t get to do any individual exploring. You’re too busy trying to figure out the whole picture.”

So when she was accepted to the American Film Institute’s prestigious directors’ program in 1987, Truffaut was ready for the move. Since packing up her dogs and cats and moving to Los Angeles, she’s thrown herself into the film work. After a year of video projects, she’s recently completed directing her first movie, “Ralph’s Arm,” an AFI-sponsored project she co-wrote with friend Bram Druckman.

“It’s a bizarre kind of black comedy,” Truffaut said, smiling. “What’s going on with Ralph is that he’s a concert pianist who’s very, very stiff and will only think in terms of playing classical music. At a concert one night, his left arm rebels and starts screwing up--and leaves.” After hitching a ride with an upwardly mobile couple, the arm finds himself banished to their refrigerator, trying to fend off the attentions of a large dog. Ultimately, of course, Ralph rescues the arm and finally gives in to its yen to play jazz and blues.

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In spite of her new-found enthusiasm for film (she’s planning to move here permanently), Truffaut has no intention of making a complete break from the theater world.

“It’s not that I’d been missing it,” she said. “I wasn’t. And it wasn’t like I sought this out. It was just an interesting project that was brought to me. Now that I’m doing it again--yeah, I do kind of miss it. But it’s so different directing film and stage. In theater, the actors really carry the show. Of course, the director’s important--pulling from the actors the best job he can get. But in film, you have so much more control. The conceptual thing is really sitting in the director’s lap. And I have to admit I like that.”


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