The Real World, Theater Edition: Wolf Chat with Amy Sass and Anthony Clarvoe

Barbara Jwanouskos talks with two local playwrights, Amy Sass and Anthony Clarvoe, about their latest collaboration.

I had a chance to speak with playwrights, Amy Sass and Anthony Clarvoe, about their recent collaboration, REDWOLF, a story inspired by Little Red Riding Hood thatfollows a young woman’s journey from girlhood to wolfhood. The play is being produced by Ragged Wing Ensemble, which I recently joined as their Development Manager. Seeing theater, dance and art built on a constant basis around The Flight Deck (Ragged Wing Ensemble’s new theatrical home) has been an inspiration and a wonder.

I was curious about the collaboration between two playwrights and how that worked and how they approached this classic fairytale with a new twist. In the course of the interview, however, I learned about their approach to writing and their creative process.

BABS: What kinds of plays are you drawn to?

AMY: The poetic and surreal. I’m drawn to work where daily life collides with something that feels mythic or archetypal. I like plays where I can hear a strong element of music or rhythm to the writing; plays where I can taste the words and the spaces between the words… a sort of music to the language that makes me want it in my mouth. I am also drawn to work that has a strong sense of a visual world. I like plays that surprise me.

ANTHONY: Plays where people want things from each other right now and do things to try to get them. I admire language that is nuanced, densely layered and structured to resonate through the whole work. I love theater that demands and displays a high level of virtuosity, intelligence, and emotional availability from performers. But some of the most moving theatrical moments I can think of have been created by collaborations among designers and a director to create an evocative world.

BABS: What do you like to explore in your plays and how do you do so?

AMY: The unexpected. I like to explore the point where seemingly disparate topics or characters are in strong relation to one another. In REDWOLF, combining elements from Red Riding Hood with topics like Trigonometry and the building of a beltway- this unusual weaving together is fun for me. Surprising things happen.

Much of my writing makes use of myth, legend, and folklore. I have been creating female-centered stories for awhile now and I do tend to look at things through the lens of gender and power. This often leads me to writing in ways that challenge some dominant ideas.

ANTHONY: The intractable and irreducible conflicts and contradictions of human existence. Create a constellation of characters with different ways of being in the world, who are nonetheless deeply invested in each other.

BABS: Could you tell me anything about your creative process that has come in handy when writing plays?

AMY: Drawing, painting, cutting or ripping things up to explore the dynamics within the show visually. I’ll make a painting and then scribble stuff on the painting for instance. Creating some visual art related to the show helps me express some things texturally and instinctually and gives me a sense of the world.

Also, I do a lot of uncensored spewing. Some people call it ‘free-writing’. Some raw stuff comes out and that’s pretty fun and unexpected. And because I am a writer/director, at some point fairly early, I will share some raw writings with my ensemble and get the words on their feet. It’s easy then to see what elements ignite the performers and which things I might explore through nonverbal choreography.

ANTHONY: I don’t write in order. I often don’t know at first where a chunk of action will go, or even who will do it. I repurpose things a lot. At key moments I like to print out everything I’ve got, spread it out all over the floor, and walk around on it, spotting patterns and arranging accordingly.

This process started with Amy saying she was thinking about the color red. One of us brought up Little Red Riding Hood. That got us thinking about other stories with girls and wolves and woods. Being who we are, I read a lot of books about the archetype of the wolf and the woods in myth and folklore, and Amy went to the woods and visited a pack of actual wolves.

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BABS: What about the process of making REDWOLF and writing as a team? How was that different than other plays you’ve written in the past and was there anything exciting that came up while working with another person? Perhaps even something that you might try to replicate in the future?

AMY: Co-writing is a totally new experience. It requires a lot of trust and a desire to learn each other’s language. For Anthony and me, it worked best once we discovered what each of our strengths were and created primary roles for one another. Anthony looked after dramaturgical structuring- sort of the architecture of the script. He’s brilliant at that. I looked after the central character’s arc in terms of her growth as a young woman and the ways in which we featured our ensemble of actors & designers. Writing with them in mind was a primary point to the work.

One really cool thing was sharing a project journal. We passed it back and forth and wrote in it and drew things and glued things in there and riffed off the other’s scribblings. It was a very exciting and unique thing to do. We could graffiti and deface and add to each other’s thoughts and prompts and images. This shared journal helped us define a language that was unique to the partnership by interweaving words & images.

ANTHONY: I’ve never co-written a play before. Showing raw material to someone else was a challenge. But I do a lot of teaching of playwriting and working with other playwrights on the dramaturgy of their scripts. Amy is able to write very quickly and freely, and she writes very personally, but with a strong awareness of myths and archetypes. That makes it easy to see strong moments that we could use in a narrative structure.

At some point we realized that Amy essentially should be in charge of writing our protagonist and the scenes Red was driving, and I should focus on the antagonists. And antagonism generally. Essentially, Amy wrote the angry sexy stuff and I wrote the grumpy nerdy stuff.

BABS: How did the REDWOLF collaboration come to be? Any anecdotes about its history that you would like to share?

AMY: Anthony and I met at a panel. We started talking and walking and discussing writing & theater. We have very different backgrounds but a sort of common risk-taking drive. I was wearing a purple furry hat and he stuck it on his hand and made it talk. We both grew up with puppets in our lives as it turned out. And for some reason that seemed important.

The decision to co-write felt like a strange whim. Almost like a weird dare. I don’t think either of us knew how much we’d need to pour into this, but we both wanted to do something totally out of our comfort zones. Shake things up. Which we did.

ANTHONY: Seeing Ragged Wing Ensemble’s work – when we met at that Play Café panel, RWE was performing in the park across the street from my house — and hearing about their process from Amy. In the context of the more mainstream theater companies with which I usually work, I’ve been interested for a long time in creating theater that was more physical and design-driven, and that’s very much the RWE house style. At first I was curious to see what Amy might do with a script of mine as a director. She was curious about my process as a writer. Writing a play together for her to direct wound up being the best way for each of us to learn the most.

BABS: For people that may be considering writing as a team, what advice would you give? Anything that made working together function well between you two?

AMY: You need to be resilient, consistent and honest. Co-writing is not frictionless. Really fantastic successful artistic relationships take time & real energy and you have to be able to weather conflict.

In co-writing, you show all your raw work to another person and your half formed ideas and your inarticulate mumblings and you have to find the common mutual YES in there. And the common mutual NO’s. The reaping of things can be painful. It can feel like dying. But it is also absolutely liberating. So I think it’s good to be ready to really get at the meat of a thing with someone. If there’s blood, use it.

ANTHONY: Establish, as early as possible, how to tell each other which ideas you agree with absolutely, which hold no interest for you, and which are intriguing but not entirely convincing yet. The hardest thing was when one of us would change our mind about something we had more or less agreed to. The best was when we couldn’t remember which of us had thought of or written something.

BABS: What’s your connection with Ragged Wing Ensemble? How did you get involved?

AMY: I’m the Artistic Director and Co-Founder.

ANTHONY: I’ve got a title like Resident Guest Associate Artist or something.

BABS: Is the process of writing and developing a play with Ragged Wing Ensemble different than other productions that you’ve worked on? How so? What special considerations or modes of operating did you need to use?

ANTHONY: I came to understand the writing as a kind of adaptation. But instead of creating a play out of a pre-existing piece of writing or a body of research into a historical event, we were writing a play based on a folktale, characters inspired by the talents of ensemble members, moments of physical action created in improvisation by the ensemble, discussions with the ensemble about the themes we were working on, and of course a bunch of stuff we made up.

AMY: We are very serious about physical training. We try to take things to our physical and emotional edge through this process. We like to see where our edge of daring is and push on it. In the development of a piece, it is important to let things be raw so we can watch and listen to what emerges out of the real time play and physical action. It’s a sweaty humbling thing.

BABS: Did the new space (The Flight Deck) inform any of the decisions you made about the story?

ANTHONY: It made us think about the power of place. A big theme of the play is the contrast between wilderness and mapped space. Demolition and construction, as opposed to organic growth, came up a lot.

AMY: It is amazing to create a design for a place where we get to fully inhabit and call home. We could not have done a design like this without The Flight Deck. We completely fill that space with a wild daring design and that has a great impact on the story since the story was created with opportunities for design spectacle in mind.

BABS: Do you think making theater in the San Francisco Bay Area is different than other places? (How so, how not so, or both?)

AMY: I’ve been here for 17 years making theater and before that I was a kid on the East Coast doing it. This place has access to both the urban and the wild. Somehow those two landscapes seem important to me. My work emerges from my experiences in vast spaces like the coast and more dense spaces like Downtown Oakland with all its wonderful architecture and murals.

ANTHONY: It’s different for me because as a freelance playwright I’ve always created my work in places scattered around the country, a staged reading here, a workshop there, a premiere and subsequent productions elsewhere. It’s very unusual for me to have a script go from first idea through writing multiple drafts through full production, all with one group of artists in a place where we all live.

BABS: How do you stay active as a playwright? (productions, readings, workshops, teaching, etc.)

AMY:I make sure to write and direct a new play every year. Plus having one or more in the slow cooker. With that in mind, I’ve created programming in our company geared toward the development of new works through Fierce Plays, One Acts & Park Festivals. We have an internal culture of developing writer/directors and a unique process of creative development within our ensemble. Also I am a Resident Playwright with PlayGround, a vibrant organization that has lots of opportunities to develop and practice as a playwright and to meet and engage with other playwrights. The relationships I have with artists like Anthony and my ensemble members keeps the spirit going with regards to writing.

ANTHONY: I’m at various stages of three commissions, teaching for four organizations, answering questions from people doing subsequent productions of a couple of my older plays, giving dramaturgical consultations to colleagues and students, and talking about projects for the future.

BABS: What are you working on now? Or, what would you like to work on next? Any fascinations, obsessions, or nagging interests?

AMY: A Whale’s Wake is a piece that was commissioned by PlayGround last season. It’s on its 3rd draft now. It is inspired by the death of my father and the death of a beached baby whale that I witnessed at Stinson Beach.

ANTHONY: Currently I’m writing the first draft of a commission for Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble in Pennsylvania about the moment in American history when the Founding Fathers all turned on each other and the America we live in today was born.

BABS: What is the best and worst advice you’ve been given as a playwright?

AMY: When someone says “you can’t do X”- that’s generally the next thing I’ll try to do. This habit is either foolish or brilliant depending on the outcome.

ANTHONY: Roxanne Rogers, a director (and Sam Shepard’s sister) said: especially when you’re a young playwright, you’ll say yes to anybody who tells you they like your play. But before you do, make sure that you and the director are talking about the same play. Of course, co-writing the script with the director does get a lot of that danger out of the way early on.

BABS: Any words of wisdom for other playwrights trying to develop their craft, get produced and make connections with other theater people?

AMY: The main thing is to reach out. Go see some things. Then arrange a face to face conversation. Being curious rather than judgmental of someone’s work is a good thing. Asking questions and being interested will increase your network and show the way your mind works. That’s when partnerships start to happen leading to a mutual investment in each other’s creative growth and success. That’s an artistic alliance. For me, it’s less about producing your specific piece, and more about being interested in investing in you.

ANTHONY: Read all you can, plays included. See all you can, plays included. Act in plays. Learn how theater is made by watching and helping. Practice the skills of collaboration. Eavesdrop. Be always on the lookout for the dramatic and theatrical.

BABS: Anything else you would like to share, plug or shout-out?

ANTHONY: I’m teaching a course for PlayGround in Berkeley starting in November. I’m teaching courses at Stagebridge (if you’re over 50) in Oakland all the time. I’m teaching a course for the Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco in the spring. I love helping other writers learn what is strongest in their work and how they want to build on it.

AMY: We built an arts center in Downtown Oakland. It’s super cool. The Flight Deck features a rehearsal studio, a 99 seat black box theater and a co-working office space plus a really fantastic community of artistic leaders from various disciplines. Come be a part of it.

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REDWOLF is playing at The Flight Deck (1540 Broadway in Oakland) from now until November 8th with performances on Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, a Saturday matinee at 2 PM and Sunday at 7 PM. Pay-What-You-Can performances are: Friday, October 31 at 8 PM, for anyone in costume. Saturday, November 1 at 2 PM for women, followed by a post-show discussion, “The Wilderness of Sex: The Perilous Journey through Female Adolescence”. Saturday, November 8th at 2 PM for students and educators, followed by a post-show discussion, “Predator and Prey:In Bed with Red Riding Hood”.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a local playwright and contributor. She will have her acting debut on November 1st at 8 PM at the EXIT Theatre for the San Francisco Olympians Festival opening party. She is a part of Just Theater’s New Play Lab 2014-15 class and will be sharing a one-minute play during the One Minute Play Festival hosted by the Playwrights Foundation on December 15 and 16. For more of Barbara, you can follow her on twitter @bjwany.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Horror Vacui

Marissa Skudlarek abhors a vacuum.

This blog just got named one of Theatre Bay Area’s “Blogs We Love” and in response, I am going to write my worst column ever.

When Charles Lewis, our newest columnist (welcome to the blog, Chuck!) interviewed me over the summer about my play Pleiades, he concluded by asking me about my future plans, and I responded by quoting a line from a Claire Rice play: “What a great burden an open and unknown future is.” I’m feeling that sentiment, now more than ever. Pleiades closed eight weeks ago, I finally got my script for my Olympians Festival “Dryads” play in a good place, and I don’t have any artistic projects lined up for the first half of 2015. There are some things bubbling under the surface — I’m not dead, after all — but they’re either things I’ve promised not to talk about, or things I don’t feel ready to talk about, or things I’ve talked about in previous columns.

Plus, I had planned to have a lovely, quiet evening last night in which to write a column — and then the Giants won the World Series and I got stuck downtown as revelers blocked off Market Street and MUNI stopped running. I walked two miles down Market Street, stopped off for a cocktail at the Orbit Room, and finally caught a MUNI train to take me the rest of the way home, whereupon I collapsed into bed. Despite the way it upset my plans, it was a fun night, and it felt good to be out among the cheering, high-fiving crowds. And I feel that taking part in such experiences will probably be good for me as a writer and as a human being, in the long term. But in the short term, it means that I have a deadline and nothing to show for it.

So today, I’m feeling weirdly uninspired. And feeling panicked and anxious and afraid — and not the good, Halloweeny kind of fear. Sometimes, I think that in order to be truly scary, a haunted house shouldn’t feature ghosts or vampires or things that go bump in the night. Instead, maybe all that’s needed is a mirror in which you are forced to confront your own feelings of shame and inadequacy. A mirror which is also a blank page.

I know I should love the blank page, rather than fear it. I am a devotee of the musical Sunday in the Park with George, which concludes with the line “White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities” — and I want to take that lesson to heart. But the thing is, Seurat wasn’t a minimalist. His pointillism was obsessive — covering every square inch of the canvas with tiny dots! Was it love or fear that prompted him to cover over the blank space this way?

I wonder, too, if my writing a biweekly column is harmful to my art, rather than beneficial. Perhaps, if I want to make great art rather than feuilleton chatter, I should let my thoughts live in my head for months and years before committing them to paper — instead of writing and publishing everything as soon as I think it. This summer, I read the justly acclaimed memoir Act One by Moss Hart, where he describes his early experiences in theater, leading up to his first Broadway production at the age of 25. And I’m currently reading another amazing, acclaimed memoir, A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, which recounts a trip he took, on foot, all the way across Europe (Holland to Istanbul) at the age of 18. Both men waited decades to write about these incredible experiences they had in their youth — Hart was in his fifties, and Leigh Fermor in his sixties, when his book was published. And I think that both of these books derive a great deal of their power from the fact that they are a middle-aged man’s recollections of his youthful adventures. The boyish exuberance bubbles off the page, but it’s counter-balanced by the adult’s deeper knowledge of suffering and hardship and the ways in which the world has subsequently changed. Perhaps it is the young person’s duty to live life and the middle-aged person’s duty to write and reflect on previous adventures. But in the twenty-first century, the social media era with its horror vacui, where we must either publish or perish, such a leisurely output seems like an unaffordable luxury.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Her short play The Dryad of Suburbia will have a staged reading on Wednesday November 5 as part of the San Francisco Olympians Festival. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Cowan Palace: Getting Bloody with Ariel Craft

Double your dose of blood today via Theater Pub as AC squared gets a little bloody this week bonding about brides, Lorca, and Halloween!

While I’m counting the days until it’s “acceptable” to admit I’m listening to Christmas music (and honestly, this year I plan to start the jams on November 1) you may be feeling like you’re not quite ready to give up the bloody lifestyle of the Halloween season. Well, fear not, Theater Pub friends (or, um, keep fearing if that’s more fun), because Blood Wedding is opening in November!

What’s Blood Wedding? Did you not obsess over that play in college like I did? Well, to start with, it’s a Spanish tragedy written by Frederico Garcia Lorca. But here to help us uncover its beauty is San Francisco gem herself, Ariel Craft, the director of Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre’s production of Blood Wedding. Since we’re both “AC” (just like AC Slater and air conditioning!), I’ll be the “TP” of this exchange (please think of that as Theater Pub and not toilet paper, thank you).

TP: So to those who don’t know much about Blood Wedding, what would you tell them?

AC: Blood Wedding is a love story set in a place where there is no tolerance for such love. It is a play about people who are too passionate to exist within the confines of their world and, as a result, must try to rip it apart at the seams or risk being ripped apart themselves. It is an exploration of heartbreak. It is also poetry in its own right.

TP: Why did you decide that this would be the perfect time to put on a play that was written in 1932?

AC: I think the beauty of Lorca’s play is that its core is always relevant, because it is rooted in a consistency of the human experience. Regardless of year, people still want things that they aren’t supposed to have and which aren’t good for them. People still find themselves bound by social pressures which they can’t seem to navigate. People still can’t find their footing around loss and want and difficult circumstance. It works anytime because it is something with which we can all identify.

TP: Did you know right away that you wanted to set the play in the modern American south?

AC: Our decision to produce Blood Wedding came hand-in-hand with our overall production concept – rooted in the American south with country music influences – so I guess you could say that we did know right away. This play had been bumping around in my head for years – and I always knew that it was great – but it didn’t become a passion piece for me until we found this entry point. More on this to come…

TP: After spending half the year planning your own wedding, do you think your perspective of wedding celebrations has changed at all? And has any of that knowledge gone into your direction?

AC: Without a doubt, I have a completely different perspective on this play and its central questions now than I would have had a year and a half ago. In one way, I have loads more anecdotal experience to pull from which sometimes comes in handy: remembering the incredibly uncomfortable and unnatural pace at which a bride is supposed to walk down the aisle, for example, informed a moment of the piece. But in a more substantial sense, the sheer act of getting married demands that you ask yourself some profound questions. What does it actually mean to commit to something, or someone, for the rest of your natural life? What is the sanctity of our own promises? These and other such bubblings and introspections have informed my work and my understanding of the play.

Ariel and Max's Calistoga Mountain Wedding

TP: What has been your favorite part of being a real life “The Bride”?

AC: Cake tastings. Seriously: just walk into any bakery, tell them you are getting married, and they give you a platter of tiny, assorted cake slices. It is our society’s greatest untapped resource.

TP: What has been the biggest surprise while rehearsing Blood Wedding?

AC: Unearthing the joy of the piece is always a tremendous discovery. I know it will crop up somewhere but where and how it does is often surprising and delightful. When you do the kind of work that we do, there is a common misconception that you are a tragedy-monger, or that you’re heartlessly blood-thirsty, or that you feed on the depression of your audiences. To the contrary, finding the vibrancy, the liveliness, and the forward momentum of the world and its inhabitants is the greatest reward of our work. Despite the worst circumstances, our characters are always fighting – and often they’re losing – but regardless of the outcome, they push forward with determination and promise.

TP: Why is this production of Blood Wedding different that those that audience members may have seen in the past?

AC: I hope our audiences will find that there is a lot that distinguishes our Blood Wedding from other productions, but the most tangible difference would certainly have to be our musical additions. We’re fortunate enough to have David Aaron Brown, an incredible local composer and music director, as the driving musical force behind our production. David’s written original music and lyrics for the piece, while also setting some of Lorca’s text to music, pulling from a variety of country music inspirations. Some of the music is more honky-tonk, some is more bluegrassy, and then – of course – there is Dolly.

TP: Please tell us more about the show’s original score inspired by Dolly Parton as it seems like such a fun and unique choice!

AC: Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” was the song that started it all: that created the initial connection between this play and the genre, that lead us here to this concept and to this production. Using “Jolene” as an inspirational jumping-off point, David constructed the soundscape of this world. The music informs the action of the play, while often being in tonal opposition to it. It juxtaposes what is happening while also feeding it, and to me it adds a dimension which makes the play feel much more like life as I understand it. It is also worth noting: our production is not a musical in any traditional sense of the word. But to understand what I really mean, you’ll have to come and see the play!

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TP: What scene are you currently most excited to see staged in front of an audience?

AC: Without giving too much away, I can tell you that the play’s climax horrifies me on the daily, and I can’t wait to see how others will react to it.

TP: What do you hope audiences leave the theater thinking about once they’ve seen the show?

AC: I’d like it if we stirred audiences to consider the nature of their own choice-making. What do you do because you feel it is right? What do you do because your gut calls you to? Which part of yourself do you navigate from? And are your choices sustainable? And are you fulfilled? And, if not, how long can you last?

TP: If you could grab a beer with Lorca, or maybe some Sangria since he’s Spanish, what would be the first thing you’d ask him?

AC: I’d like to know what part of him this play, because it is so enormous, was birthed from. I also hope that he’d bring Salvador Dalí along, because then it’d really be a party.

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TP: Give us a sneak peek of what we can look forward to this season with Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Co.

AC: Blood Wedding is the final show of our second season, and our third season kicks off this March with Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad by Arthur Kopit. That one’s being directed by Ben Calabrese, my assistant director on Blood Wedding and the resident madman of our group. It’s just going to be too crazy to miss.

TP: What are you going to be for Halloween?

AC: I keep the costume stock from our company’s past productions at my home so I’ve thought about pulling a distinctive piece from each show and going as the Ghost of BTaB Past.

TP: What’s your favorite Halloween treat?

AC: Anything except candy corn. I reject candy corn in totality.

TP: In tens words or less, why should we come see Blood Wedding?

AC: Because it has everything to do with you. And you. And you.

I’ll be there and I hope you will join me! Come see the poetry unfold at The EXIT Stage Left, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco, playing: Friday, November 7th at 8pm, Saturday, November 8th at 8pm, Friday, November 14th at 8pm, Saturday, November 15th at 5pm, Friday, November 21st at 8pm, and Saturday, November 22nd at 8pm!

Working Title: 30 Ways to Get the Blood Out

Will Leschber on a Wednesday…

Ouch! You stabbed me in the eye…

We are days away from Halloween and obviously what everyone still needs is additional reminders on proper ways to celebrate this all consuming holiday. Grab your pumpkin lattes and get ready to pre-game your Halloween pre-party (before your actual Halloween shenanigans and obligatory hung-over post-Halloween festivities) with some entertainment fit to scare you out of your skin! I know it’s sacrilege to say, but I could leave the pumpkin flavored everything. Sorry lattes, cookies and cakes; I like you but like the Celine Dion song, my heart will go on without you. (That reference was from my dear wife…thanks honey, now every kid in middle school thinks I’m so cool!) Anyway, back to the point… I do love that this time of year reminds me to revisit something usually left on my preferential back burner. You guessed it…The horror, the horror!

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The weekend is not only Halloween but also the closing performances of Awesome Theatre’s Terror Rama! This grindhouse theater mash-up of 90’s serial killer cop dramas and 70’s camp horror hilarity, beckons for late-night teenage sleepover nights spent watching all the terrible movies your parents never wanted you to see.

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Initially, I was going to bound into a HORROR-ible rant about cinematic 70’s horror films and how they tower above the trash released today. While the best examples (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, etc.) are a cut above, generalized assessment serves no one. Sure, plenty could make the case about how the visceral immediacy of 70’s horror films strikes a deeper cultural artery than the less explicit films that came before and some of the lighter slasher fare to hit the marquees decades after. But saying this as a “be all end all” of betterness would be fallacy. Grand generalizations serve only to prop up narrow preferences or willful ignorance. I say this knowing that my horror cannon needs expanding. So it’s easy to only think about the name brand films (Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm St, Night of the Living Dead, etc.) and dismiss the daggers in the rough.

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Similarly, I overheard someone saying recently that it has been a weak year for movies. I hear this every year and I have the same annual reaction: if you care to look, there are plenty of impressive films out there. Most of the time people don’t seek out the best or are unaware that they exist. I say this because it applies to any genre cannon and scare-specifically the horror genre in this case.

Thanks to fellow blogger, Charles Lewis III, a list of the 30 best Indie Horror film was recently brought to my attention. Just in case you needed another list to slice up the season, I’ve provided it here.

So if you haven’t seen it, go catch some horror theatre (Terror-Rama) and check out one of these great horror flicks. I know you haven’t seen them all. Grab your pumpkin popcorn and stab a good time.

Theater Around The Bay: Keep The Ghost Light On

Stuart Bousel, fading in and out of view. In your mirror. At night. When you say his name.

So, I was gonna do this whole collection of personal ghost stories related to the theater for today’s blog… but only two people got back to me and only one got back with a personal experience, so that idea kind of died. I will, however, publish Claire Rice’s contribution, partly because it’s cool, and partly because it really thematically ties in since Claire recently left the San Francisco Theater Pub, so this is kind of like the ghost of Claire speaking to us from another world.

The rehearsal room/dance room at Eastern New Mexico University is haunted. Students used to send each other in there alone in the dark to freak each other out. A full instructional skeleton hung on a pole that could be moved around the room and was often a source of fun and silly frightening games. One night some of us told each other “La Llorona” tales in front of the big mirrors in the dark and then dared each other to really look into their mirrored darkness. The skeleton caught whatever light was left in the room and glowed eerily in the corner back at us. We all focused on it and merrily screamed and ran out of the room. But there were stories of the stereo or the television turning themselves off and on. Of the doors closing suddenly and forcefully by themselves. Of odd drafts whispering in from nowhere in particular. One night, late after rehearsal, I went in to close up the room. I was alone in the building. I turned off the light and, just as I was about to close the door, I saw a prop left in a far corner under the skeleton. I turned the light back on and crossed the room. I picked up the prop and turned back around and saw a reflection of someone else in the mirror near the door where I had just been. I looked at the door and there was no one. I looked back in the mirror and there was no one. I never went into that room alone again.

One of the things that I have always found fascinating is just how superstitious theater people are. We don’t all have the same superstitions, but I’ve never met a theater person who hasn’t, over time, acquired a bunch of rituals and charms, even if they walked in claiming (usually pretty loudly) that such things were nonsense. I can’t say for sure if it’s the live/anything can happen element of theater combined with the unusually high number of Type-A/control freak personalities that tend to do theater, or the part where we generally experience more rejection than acceptance in our line of work, but either would naturally predispose us to a tacit reverence for the weird and a desire for the mystical. Show me an actor or producer or director or writer who doesn’t have a lucky warm up song or opening night underwear or a thing they say to the mirror in their dressing room (or never say) or closing night tradition or whatever and I will show you the phone number of the agency you called to hire that fake actor/producer/writer/director, who will then reveal, because they are an actor/producer/writer/director, all of their superstitions. For better or worse, we have always been a people uniquely sensitive to Luck and the role Luck plays in the world and it’s because we know how quickly awesome can turn to crap- or crap to awesome. And we also know how much we really can and can’t control that.

The complication is that belief in Luck (or really, an awareness of Chance) tends to also indicate both a creative mind and an active imagination. Combine that with the part where we spend our lives convincing ourselves the Audience is Listening and after a while that can absolutely lead to a vague but constant feeling of always being watched. Additionally, we masquerade as other people and thus are acutely aware of how everyone else, theater person or not, is a masquerade to one extent or another, thus leading to a general perspective of “nothing is as it seems” and “everything is a sign/clue”. Lying, embellishment, fantasy weaving, and just being flat out delusional run rampant in the theater community and thank God because it generally makes for much better storytelling but sometimes it can even be hard for US to know where the illusion ends and the truth begins. Assuming there is such a thing as “the Truth”. The older I get, the more I understand why artists tend to be more interested in being “true” than “truthful.” Being true is about fully buying into the world around you both as it is but also as it could be or should be; being truthful is generally boring or disappointing, really only matters in life and death situations, and frequently requires one to be self-righteous in a way that doesn’t allow for much compassion or understanding- which is sort of the antithesis of good storytelling. Sure, we’d probably cut down on the drama if we were more truthful, but it would probably be at the cost of the Drama.

None of which should have anything to do with the long-standing tradition of theaters and rehearsal spaces being haunted, but then again, if this is the general psychology of the people spending their lives there- how could they not be? Particularly if you subscribe to the idea that ghosts are not so much the spirits of the dead, as residual energy left from profound, violent, or devastating occurrences. Aside from hospitals and prisons, it’s hard to think of a building that could match a theater when it comes to the number of arguments, passions, revelations, disappointments, and ecstasies having occurred within its walls, not to mention all the secrets, gossip, thwarted schemes, scandals and triumphs- practically a gothic novel behind each curtain. And while the death and violence of theater is rarely for real, the constant re-enactment of terrible things, and the frequent invocation of terrible people, is bound to be feeding the atmosphere if not the energy of whatever beings or memories become trapped behind the backdrops. As someone who subscribes to the belief that joy can be just as disturbing (and therefore residual) as pain, all the comedies and romances only contribute to the haunting of a theater, something I find comforting as I’d like to believe that love and laughter leave just as much of an impression as violence and fear. Either way, if you’ve never walked around a theater late at night, locking up, checking the bathrooms, I suggest it if only for the creepy/comforting sensation that you are not alone, no matter how much your footsteps echo. In fact, the more they echo the more you become aware of how they shouldn’t, because normally there is so much going on you would never have heard them and it is that sudden and obscene absence of furor that triggers sensations by turn nostalgic, bittersweet, melancholy, and unsettling. The quiet of a theater is not a comforting quiet because it is not natural, and for that matter neither is the darkness of a theater: both are the result of extensive steps to sound and light proof spaces, expressly to focus your attention on what’s happening in the theater. And it’s when nothing is happening that the sensation we call “haunting” tends to hit us most powerfully. Which is why nobody likes to linger in the theater once The Ghost Light is on and everything else is shut off.

And yes, I know the pragmatic reason for the existence of The Ghost Light is to keep people from falling off the stage when wandering in the absolute pitch dark of a vacant theater trying to find the light switches, but come on: we called it “The Ghost Light.” I mean, we could have called it a “The Service Light” or “The Stagehand’s Guide” or “The Blue Light” or any number of unromantic things (apparently at some point there was an attempt to call it “The Equity Light”) but we called it (and continue to call it) a Ghost Light for one reason and one reason only: because we are fundamentally romantic creatures and it tickles us to think we have somewhere to go when we die and it’ll probably be a theater full of our friends putting on all our favorite shows, only this time nobody fucks up their lines, the person you’re secretly sleeping with doesn’t freak out mid-run, and nobody is worried about making rent at the end of the run. Also because secretly we all know that any theater that’s seen at least one generation of theater artists pass through it is saturated in ghosts and if you didn’t leave that light on they would probably burn the place down in your absence- or perhaps in the middle of your show. If they’re actors, it’s definitely going to be the later. Actors know all about the importance of timing.

Luckily, theater ghosts seem to be primarily benign, and are usually fans or artists who haven’t moved on because they love a life in the theater so much. As proof I offer this tidbit sent to me by Christian Simonsen, who emailed it when he heard I was looking for theater ghost stories:

One of the most talked about haunted theaters in the United States is the Bristol Opera House in Bristol, Indiana. Built in 1896, it is currently managed by the Elkhart Civic Theatre Company. Over its century-long history, this building has managed to collect three ghosts, which actors and stage crew have assigned names to. There is a little girl (“Beth”), who has been seen peeking out of the stage left curtain, as if counting the number of filled seats. A handyman (“Percival”) has frequently been spotted by the women’s dressingroom, and has been known to tug on actors’ costumes right when they make an entrance. The third ghost is a middle-aged woman (“Helen”), a “protective presence” that is often simply “felt”. Unlike the other two spirits, it is quite rare for Helen to actually be seen. Apparently, even in the afterlife, theaters are unwilling to give a woman over forty any decent amount of stage time.

At the end of my play PASTORELLA, which just closed on Saturday, there is a little moment when the lead male character, Warren, shares with the female lead, Gwen, his own bit of superstition, and this seems like a good place to end because last night, ducking into the EXIT Theatre, I experienced one of those sensations that is, for me, the quintessential haunting of the theater maker. My play is a slice of life tragicomedy that works best if viewed as a direct look into the backstage ups and downs of a small theater company (as opposed to a traditional backstage comedy, which is usually actually about the onstage ups and downs of a production). The play is unrepentantly nostalgic, bittersweet, melancholy, and unsettling, and that’s appropriate because it’s largely based on my life and experience in the small theater, perhaps the most personal thing I have ever put on stage, and as a result filled with memories and masks and terrible people and events, passions and schemes and delusional episodes, revelations, dopplegangers, missing people and… ghosts. Ghosts everywhere. Ghosts with monologues and ghosts in the props and ghosts in the costumes and ghosts in the transition music and ghosts in the words and ghosts in the blocking and ghosts in the rawness and artifice alike, right down to the part where the play in a play the company is doing is Tom Stoppard’s ARCADIA- a play about ghosts, code, and the inescapable past. Many of the people who loved the show the most were part of the small theater community and it was always wonderful and disturbing to talk to them afterwards and hear them share their own memories, their own versions of the play’s events and characters, all of which seemed familiar- too familiar in some cases. Encountering a ghost usually results in a mix of sorrow and fear: sorrow for what was lost, fear that the past isn’t done with us yet. Warren, actor and director, small theater champion to a fault, sums it up best when he looks at the empty dressing room and says, “This place always freaks me out when it’s this clean” and because it’s a spooky truism of theater that the show you’re working on always seems to permeate your life and turn everything symbolic it makes perfect sense that, while ducking into the theater last night to retrieve a mirror that was used in PASTORELLA, out of the corner of my eye I saw Justin Gillman, the actor who had played Warren, standing in the wings of the stage. Of course, that’s because he’s there rehearsing another show (Bigger Than A Breadbox’s BLOOD WEDDING), but for one whole second I had the terrifying thought that I had somehow forgotten we had a show that night. And then the sad sensation of knowing that the show was gone.

WARREN: Well, here the new life begineth.
GWEN: What?
WARREN: Forster quote. E. M. Forster. You might not know who he is because he never wrote any plays.
GWEN: I know who E.M. Forster is. I read real books too, not just scripts.
WARREN: Well we got that in common. (beat) It’s what I say whenever I stand in a room I need to expel demons from so that tomorrow I can walk into said room as if I hadn’t had my heart broken into a billion pieces there. This room, however, probably needs a full on exorcism. Typical.

Sleep well. Happy Halloween.

Stuart Bousel is a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. You can find out more about him and his work at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Actus Interruptus

Dave Sikula, typing from the trenches.

I write this in a sort of gobsmacked state. As I type these words, I’m painfully aware that, under usual circumstances, I’m doing it at the same moment I would normally be finishing up a performance of “Slaughterhouse Five” at Custom Made Theatre Co. (we close on Sunday the 26th, so there are still tickets). Something happened tonight that’s never happened to me in 42 years of doing theatre: we had to cancel a performance in the middle of the show.

Now, I’ve had performances cancelled – even whole productions. (And don’t get me started on that incident …) I’ve had an actor die (quite literally) in the middle of a run. I’ve worked with actors who were drunk or deathly ill. I’ve performed while being deathly ill myself or even lacking a voice, but the show, as the cliché has it, has always gone on.

Until tonight.

Now, I’m not going to go into the exact circumstances. Not only do I not know exactly what happened, but it’s not my place to violate the medical privacy of the actor in question.

What I will say that, whatever happened occurred during a scene change and I was getting ready to come on, so all I saw was the aftermath and another cast member, Sam Tillis, who was the hero of the evening, taking charge in an extremely admirable way, calling for the show to be stopped and doing all he could to get a cell phone and call the paramedics – who arrived within a matter of minutes and really took charge.

Sam Tillis rocks.

Sam Tillis rocks.

The stage manager came down from the booth, assessed the situation and made the announcement that, basically, there was nothing we could do and we were going to have to cancel the rest of the performance.

After a few minutes, the audience pretty much cleared out, even the friends and family who were there – and for whom I felt especially bad, if only because I know them. We got out of costume, and the cast kind of stood and sat around, trying not only to sort out our feelings, but also what we should do. There was, of course, nothing. The paramedics were taking excellent care of our friend (who has, in the meantime, Facebooked from the ER about how the morphine was working well, so that’s a relief), so there was nothing we could do in that regard. There was nothing to be done in regard to the show or the audience, and we were all sort of dealing with – well, not shock (because that’s far too strong a word), but the sudden unexpectedness of it all. As with anything unexpected, we were all left to deal with whatever the hell had just happened and why we weren’t doing the show we were supposed to be in the middle of.

My approximate reaction to the whole situation.

My approximate reaction to the whole situation.

Even now, two hours later, and at a time when I’d normally be home, I’m still sort of gobsmacked. To tell the truth, I felt a little off at the beginning of the performance. We’d had our usual few days off, so I’m sure that was the reason. It was little things; nothing major, and probably stuff no one else would ever notice, but then one’s perception of one’s own performance is always different from everyone else’s, isn’t it?

Anyway, we’re probably due for some changes in the show Friday. I can’t imagine it’ll be business as usual, but it’ll doubtless be interesting.

“The Magic of Live Theatre,” indeed.

“Let’s go on with the show!”

“Let’s go on with the show!”

Editor’s Note: The following is a statement from Custom Made Artistic Director Brian Katz:

Brian Katz here, Artistic Director of Custom Made. To add to the weirdness of the night, I was over 3,000 miles away when it happened. Texts started coming in flurries at 11:40pm Eastern time, and kept buzzing until 2:30am when everything seemed stable. I want to take a second to shout out to my wonderful staff and actors for handling the emergency as well as I knew they would. We are blessed to have so many wonderful professionals that work with us, and whose support of each other knows no limits.

To update the situation, the performer in question is resting and is feeling better. She plans to go on tonight in a limited capacity. For those of you who have seen Slaughterhouse, you know it is a complex show where everyone is involved in the 50 transitions that occur over 100 minutes, but I know my amazing artists will figure out a solution. Also, we are reaching out to everyone who was in the audience last night, asking if they wish to attend one of our final performances (until Sun.) If they cannot, we will offer tickets to any of the shows left in Custom Made’s 2014/15 season.

A final adage: my mentor in college once told me the only reason people go to the theatre is because someone can die on stage. I truly believe that. This is the difference between our art form and many others; these are real live people up there, and because we are all this mess of atoms and organs and cartilage, anything can happen at any time. It is dangerous; therefore, it is thrilling. What is even more wonderful is that when the unexpected happens we always pull together, and make sure the show does, in fact, go on.

In for a Penny: Introduction – Moment of Claire-ity

Charles Lewis steps up to become our semi-monthly columnist on Thursdays.

“I had an inheritance from my father,
It was the moon and the sun.
And though I roam all over the world,
The spending of it’s never done.”
– Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Claire Rice scares me. Let me explain…

I’ve been considered for a regular Theater Pub column for some time now. As interested as I always was, I often declined as I constantly ran into a few obstacles. For instance, what would be my regular topic of discussion? How do I make sure my write-ups don’t retread well-worn territory? How would I distinguish myself from the unique personalities of the regular writers (the erudite, refined Marissa; the jocular, relatable Allison; the unapologetically acerbic Dave; and… Stuart)? Most importantly: who the hell cares what I have to say about a given topic?

I’m always surprised to find anyone actually paying attention to what I say. Just as another ‘Pub columnist once wrote, I’m acutely aware that I’m the least-educated person in the room – no grad school; no BA; no AA. I don’t have any dorm room memories, I was never assigned a term paper on Proust, and I’m not $200,000 in debt. As such, I’m aware of when my opinions on a topic are dismissed as nothing more than lowbrow attempts at sounding worldly. Frankly I think it’s afforded me a lot of freedom: since no one seems to care what I have to say, I tend to say things that will raise a lot of curious eyebrows or meet a lot of condescending nods.

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That’s why I’m always taken aback when someone not only shows they were listening to what I said, but they have a serious reaction to it. Last year I made a joke to a local playwright, only to find out the next day that said playwright didn’t want to talk to me anymore. Twice this year, my negative comments about Cracked articles have spawned unexpected responses from the writers of said articles. Why just earlier this month I voiced my opinion on a frequently-shared article by a well-known playwright, and once again the author decided to respond to me directly. (To his credit, said playwright was much more even-tempered and cordial than the cry-babies from Cracked. We both responded respectfully and he even offered me tickets to his show. I couldn’t go because I was in PASTORELLA – which I’m still in and which you should all see, ‘cause it’s our closing weekend and everyone loves it.)

And those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Now I stand by each and every word I said in the aforementioned exchanges, but when you Twitter is unexpectedly responded to by writers of one of the most popular sites on the internet and a guy who’s been regularly written up in The New York Times, then it’s a refreshing lessons that what one writes on the internet does not exist in a vacuum. I’m not a troll – never have been, never will be. I don’t say things just to get a reaction, I don’t get off on people squirming at my opinions, and I don’t butt in to other people’s conversations thinking my words are the only ones that matter. I’ve been on the receiving end of that shit plenty of times in my life: people who feel the need to give me their unsolicited opinions on race, on politics, on the economics of theatre, on why my particular opinion of a certain film/play/book/sandwich makes me ignorant, on how my making a slip of the tongue (which I am wont to do) must mean I never knew what I was talking about in the first place.

Hey, if you want to engage me in about a topic I’ve posted or spoken about in public, on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr, or even here – I’m all for it. Those are the appropriate venues for those types of discussions and I wouldn’t have voiced my opinions if I hadn’t expected some sort of response. As I take on this position at this rapidly-growing-in-prominence website, I do so with the understanding that, whether I like it or not, I’m making myself a target. It’s something I’m not used to, nor would I intentionally seek it out, but I know it comes with the job.

Which leads us back to Claire Rice…

She’s twice the artist I’ll ever be.

She’s twice the artist I’ll ever be.

Like most, if not all, ‘Pub-related things, I met Claire in 2010. I can’t quite remember which ‘Pub event it was, but I remember her easy-going demeanor and the way it seemed as if she was instinctually aware what was happening in the room at all times. It didn’t take long for me to grasp that she was one of the people I should get to know – great writer, ever-present actor, on-point producer, and hands-down one of the best indie directors in the Bay Area. In the time since first being introduced to her, I’ve had the pleasure of working with her several times over and she never ceases to impress me.

And yet there’s an aspect of Claire that’s always seemed mysterious to me; probably because I’ve never gotten to know her on the same personal level as I have other theatre colleagues. Oh, I’ve chatted her up at parties and what-have-you. I’ve even heard some of her best anecdotes (I first heard the Princess Leia story after opening night of Why Torture is Wrong (And the People Who Love Them), which she directed), but there’s always been something elusive about her. When Stuart first announced that she and I would be competing against one another in Year 3 of the Olympians Festival, I remember him throwing back his head and cackling like The Joker when he said “She is gonna kick your ass!” Which she did.

And you know what? I was glad to lose to her. I admire Claire. She’s done more in – and for – theatre than I have. I could easily list off how her achievements considerably dwarf mine (I’m the Homer Simpson to her Thomas Edison), but then that would take away time better spent using her as an inspiration as I move further into directing and producing.

For the month of October, Theater Pub is encouraging its writers to share things that scare them. When I say “Claire Rice scares me”, I mean that in the most admirable way possible. She scares me because she isn’t afraid of voicing an opinion that isn’t popular. She scares me because as she has the talent to back up her artistic vision. She scares me because she’s willing to make her art personal if it means it will have greater resonance, yet it will still be entertaining (look no further than her superhero parody “Occupy Man!” for the Jan. 2012 Theater Pub). She scares me because she’s gone off on many prominent people – writers, artistic directors, etc. – the very sort of people who love to say “I will ruin you!”, but they haven’t ruined her. So aware was she of her power that she made it the central theme of her column. It was called “Enemy’s List”, as she later explained on FB, because she knew that she was on someone else’s shit list.

Claire Rice scares me because if I didn’t know better I’d say she’s absolutely fearless. When I did go against Claire in Olympians, I was also required to give her an intro/bio. I will say now what I said then “When people ask me what’s best about Bay Area theatre, I always find a way to work in ‘Let me tell you about Claire Rice…’.”

She’s the kinda gal that brings a spoon to a gunfight.

She’s the kinda gal that brings a spoon to a gunfight.

But what about me, you ask? What the hell can one expect from my regular ramblings in my newly-alotted ‘Pub space? Quite a lot actually. I’ve decided to follow the example of my new ‘Pub colleagues and use my particular perspective (Black American theatre artist in his early-30s moving through the rapidly changing scene of San Francisco, of which he is a native) as a jump-off point. I’ll occasionally rant about things outside of theatre, so long as I can connect them somehow (Why did everyone crowdfund Le Video, but almost none of those people helped Marcus Books – and what does that mean for closing theatres?). I’ll ruminate on the way my opinion of theatre has changed as I’ve been exposed to more of it firsthand (as one playwright wrote: “People in the theatre are cray, but people in the opera are super-cray!”). And I’ll keep you all as up-to-date as possible as I slowly climb up the theatre ladder and find myself in a position to exert greater influence. I might even do a few more interviews and the like.

Most of all, I will practice that most rudimentary of on-stage rules: I will be present. This is the place where I will voice my unapologetic opinion. This is the place where you will respond. I won’t start on a topic I have no interest in engaging, even when it’s commenting on the posts of my fellow ‘Pub columnists. One needn’t make cryptic comments toward me on Twitter; you can comment below and tell me where I’m wrong in front of the entire Bay Area (and more) theatre community. I’m not promising anything groundbreaking, but I’m as curious as you are to see what actually comes of this.

In for a penny, in for a pound.

Charles really does think you should use your pennies to buy a super-cheap ticket to the closing weekend of Pastorella. Said tickets can be purchased here.