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.

Everything Is Already Something Week 44: Thinking Outside The Black Box

Allison Page, letting her imagination run free.

“Listen,” I said to the herd of 25 teenagers forming a semi circle around me, “What you’re doing here – you should really cherish it. Relish it. This giant stage, this beautiful theater, the multitude of sets, costumes, props, sword fights, spiral staircases, and sheer number of human beings on stage – get everything out of it that you can, because if you intend to go on as an actor this very probably isn’t going to be the kind of theater you work in frequently, if at all.”

All for one, and one for really fancy outfits!

All for one, and one for really fancy outfits!

They silently nod, whether they really get it or not. I definitely didn’t get that nugget of information when I was their age. I guess I just thought all theaters were totally enormous. I guess I also pretty much thought all productions were enormous. I remember the first time I read Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf when I was probably 16 and thought “THIS PLAY ONLY HAS FOUR CHARACTERS, WHAT’S GOING ON? THERE AREN’T, LIKE, BUTLERS OR ANYTHING.” It sort of blew my mind at the time. High school theater (and community theater, for the most part) is often a matter of spectacle. How many kids can we fit on the stage? Can we make up a bunch of parts so more people can be involved? We can build a rock-climbing wall, right? Let’s make a big horse for everyone to ride in the background. Guess what! EVERYONE’S GETTING WIGS! AND MATCHING DRESSES! 26 MATCHING DRESSES! Oh, add three balconies – that’ll give it a lil’ somethin’ for that one scene, and then we’ll strike the balconies completely.

A spiral staircase in progress...because, why not?

A spiral staircase in progress…because, why not?

But as an adult theater-maker, my life couldn’t be further from that. I work in black boxes, primarily. Which I’m not complaining about, by the way. I love it. And that’s been the majority of my experiences for the last nearly 7 years. So when I came into this great big prep school theater, it was almost a shock to my system.

The Three Musketeers is a gigantic show. Even if you haven’t read or seen it, I think you know it’s a biggie. Giant cast, giant costumes, giant everything. AND it’s 137 pages long which is sort of…yeah, giant. I mean, Act II opens with a MONTAGE. And in the montage, King Louis is supposed to be wearing a 17TH CENTURY BEEKEEPING OUTFIT and using a 17th century beekeeping device to…keep bees. There aren’t even any lines about it or any lines in that portion of the play at all. Just an absurd montage of sword fighting and overly precious costumes and props.

The last thing I directed before this? A minimalist sketch show with six performers and no props or costumes. I did that on purpose. Because I don’t usually love dealing with all this other stuff. Also – all this other stuff is expensive. But in this case, it’s not a cost I have to worry about, and it’s part of the package. (Thank goodness for the fight choreographer and costumer and tech crew.)

It’s been an adventure. Some days are better than others. It is unquestionably a tough job. I mean, I’m no coal miner or anything but wrangling this many teenagers would be a test of anyone’s patience. All hats off to teachers who do this every day, every year. I can’t imagine that. The kids are great, they really are. And they want to learn, and they want to succeed, but in a show like this, everyone has to be patient. And that’s not easy for any 16 year old. I’m tired. I’m definitely tired. I just spent two hours sitting on the floor looking at photos of people in costumes and trying to remember what worked for whom, what we’re missing, and what we suddenly realized we need and had totally neglected before.

Don't even act like you're not dying to wear a ridiculous ball gown.

Don’t even act like you’re not dying to wear a ridiculous ball gown.

In the end, I think this show is going to be awesome. Like, it will actually inspire awe. Because it’s just so absolutely huge. But when it’s over, I will be happy going back to the cozy theaters I usually call home. Making things that may be small, but remain mighty. Worrying about how we’re going to fit more than one desk in a tiny theater for a play with “DESK” in the title, so we kind of can’t avoid having them. Stretching the limits of what a dollar can buy us in terms of costumes. Oh, look, a perfectly good pair of overalls on the sidewalk! I’ll take it! Doubling up parts because we can only afford 5 actors – and even if we could afford more, we can’t fit them backstage. Using chairs instead of a couch. Having a mask represent a lion – a puppet represent another character. Whatever the thing is, we’ll find a way to pull it off. Black box theater is a world of substitutions. It keeps us on our toes. It forces us to be inventive, and I love it for that.

Exciting, eye-catching, over-the-top adventure plays began my love of theater, and over time I’ve learned to love many different types of plays. I want these kids to get everything they can out of this and every theatrical experience they have, which will shape and inform the types of artists they become, and the types of art they share with other people. That’s a big deal to the future of theater.

And their friends will probably think it’s super cool that they’re sword fighting and swinging across the stage on a rope. I mean, come on. It’s a teenage dream.

Allison Page is a writer/actor/director in San Francisco. THE THREE MUSKETEERS opens Nov. 7th. Tickets here: http://www.shcp.edu/events/three-musketeers-nov-07/

The Five: No, It’s Not My Fucking Hobby

Anthony R. Miller checks in with a response to a question all artists dread being asked.

So this last weekend marked the opening of TERROR-RAMA (perhaps you’ve heard of it). And it’s been going great. But over the first two days I’m inevitably in the fun (for some) situation of meeting people, this and that person’s mom’s friend, a friend’s friend, a friend’s significant other, it’s one of these odd windows of time when I’m someone to talk to (I don’t get it either). Inevitably when you have enough conversations with strangers the now dreaded question arises:

“So is this like a hobby for you?”

I seriously didn’t know what to say, I’ve heard about people getting asked this question. I had had a few beers so I wasn’t at my most eloquent (if that’s a real thing). I stammered, talked about where I made my money. But nothing came out right. I mean, here I was fresh off a hot opening of a show my cast, crew, and I, had been killing ourselves over. Picture a triumphant beer in my hand, and everyone in good spirits, and then this dude compares it all to having a kick-ass collection of baseball memorabilia. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. I mean here was a seemingly nice person who just paid good money to see the show and had a good time; I didn’t want to yell “No! are you fucking crazy?”. OK, maybe I did WAN’T TO, but only for a second. To him, it was probably a reasonable question, because lord knows my living isn’t made in a 36 seat theatre right? But this week’s edition of The Five is my response to his question, more specifically, what I wish I had said.

No, it’s not my fucking hobby.

You call this relaxing?

Hobbies are recreational, something you do for fun, to relax. Camping is a hobby, toy trains are a hobby, fantasy football is a hobby. This, my Khaki wearing friend is work. It’s rewarding work, but making theatre is stressful, intense and time-consuming. My life in theatre is constantly at odds with my relationship with my family, my finances and my general sanity. I don’t do theatre after a long day to unwind, that’s what watching pro-wrestling is for. And I get it, since you don’t see much theatre and really have no idea what goes into it, you can see a reasonably well done production and to you, it looks easy. And just so you know, your kid’s school play that you hated was also a SHITLOAD of work. I have seen people crumble into tears, go into therapy after a show closes, and run on 6 hours of sleep over the course of 3 days for this “Hobby”. So sure, I can see why the untrained eye could see this as something we just throw together in our spare time. No, it’s actually why we have no spare time. When your friends call you to go to the bar to watch the game, or golf, or whatever it is you do and you have to say “I can’t, I have rehearsal”. When you look at pictures of your friends at the beach on Facebook while you’re in hour 7 of a 12 hour cue to cue, is it a hobby then? Studying American Presidents is my hobby. (True) This is my fucking Job.

All my jobs are theatre jobs.

During the day, I work at a theater, selling theatre tickets in large quantities to retirement homes. Would you feel better if I said I was in sales? On a daily basis I perpetuate the patronage of Theatre. I can sell anything, but I choose to sell theatre. My part-time job, is House Managing for another Theater. I work on the front lines, making sure that patrons walk in happy and stay that way. I care enough about theatre that I can find the nobility in simply having the opportunity to participate in someone’s experience seeing a play. But only maybe twice a week, otherwise I’d lose my mind. Now, neither of these jobs are very sexy, but on a daily basis I am surrounded by theatre, every aspect of it. My cubicle neighbor is the Marketing director and also one of the hottest actors in the Bay Area. My water cooler chats are with artistic directors, designers, and technicians. I may be wearing a polo shirt, but I AM LIVING THE MUHFUGGIN DREAM IN THIS POLO SHIRT. (Albeit, in return, I am also screamed at by patrons who can’t seem to read a fucking start time on a fucking ticket and somehow that’s my fault.) And yes, I consider my third job to be a freelance theatrical artist, one day I hope it’s my only job. But Drama teachers who act at night aren’t “acting hobbyists”, they’re actors. More so, they are artists. All day long, they work in theatre. Even the many people with non-theatre day jobs who do theatre at night aren’t hobbyists; they just have two jobs. All my jobs are in theatre, because that’s what I do for a living, that’s my career, I work in theatre. Is it lucrative? Is it a comfortable stable living? Fuck No, but that just brings me to…

I never got into this for the money.

I am fortunate enough to be at a point where in any given month a part of my income comes from freelance theatrical work. But it’s not often huge money. So I never go into a project thinking about making huge money. I’ll be concerned with breaking even. The potential to not lose money is a big factor for me. I like profit as much as anybody, but financial success is a close second to just knowing I got to do it. For instance, the way the financials for TERROR-RAMA work, I will be the last one to get paid- if at all. Before me, everybody will walk away with a little something. Now, if the show is a runaway success, that’s where I might see a financial return on investment. But this show took over a year and a half to make happen, it was rejected by another company and frankly it’s a weird concept, so it’s a risk any way you look at it. But fuck it, I got to do my show, and the feeling I get from that accomplishment is not the same one gets from collecting stamps (I could be wrong, there’s probably some impressive stamp collections out there.) It’s the same feeling you get when you do well at work, or get promoted or close a big sale. I think to myself “See, I knew that would work.” Now if paying my rent and having that feeling cross paths time to time, I’m excited. I also understand that some people just don’t quite grasp the concept of dedicating yourself to something that may yield little to no financial return. If you’re a rocket scientists say, and no one has hired you yet to work full time for a big legal rocket company, and you decide to spend thousands of hours, and dollars, some of which you have crowdsourced, just to build your own rocket. Then you are likely crazy, and on several government’s watch lists. So I get that this does not translate easily to all other career choices. Some people are lucky enough to not have to build portfolio’s on their own dime and time. But take away my art and I don’t know if I’d like myself as much. Which brings me to…

This is what makes me interesting

Take away theatre and my creative endeavors and you’ve got a pretty normal dude, (relatively). Even though I currently have steady jobs in some facet of theatre, I didn’t always, and some of the most talented people I know putting on shows have total non-theatre day jobs, and they’re all artists first. So strip away the writer, director, producer side from me and you get a very boring 36 year old guy who likes pro-wrestling, football , craft beer, his daughter, and his cats. It’s what I’m good at. It’s the thing I’m passionate about. And I can be friends with a lot of different people, the only kinds of people I don’t understand are people who aren’t passionate about anything. It’s not the thing I think makes people think I’m interesting, It’s what makes me interesting to ME. It’s as an integral part of describing me as is calling me tall. So I guess you could say;

This is what makes me, me

A friend and fellow writer once said to me “This shit stopped being a hobby a long time ago, It’s not even something I do, at this point it’s who I am”. Through all the crappy day jobs I’ve ever had, I never considered myself a camera salesman, a liquor store clerk, or a mall store manager. First and foremost I (and many others like me) consider myself an artist. It’s just who I am, for better or for worse, for richer and poorer, putting on shows is what I do. There isn’t some other option for me. With the exception of being a father, the next play I get to write or direct, the next show I get to produce is my motivation to live. I know and work alongside people working just as hard I do (if not more) living just as shitty, because sharks die when they stop swimming. I have sacrificed a great deal in my life to do this, that’s real. Don’t mix up what I do to pay my bills with what I believe in my soul is the only thing I was meant to do. So no, otherwise very nice guy, this isn’t my fucking hobby, it may be a very unstable, frightening and poverty ridden career choice but it’s me. It’s who I am and you can’t put that on sale buddy, oh, and thanks for coming to the show.

Anthony R. Miller is a writer/director/ producer and that guy who won’t stop calling you about your theatre subscription. His show, TERROR-RAMA is open now until Nov 1 at the Exit Theatre.

Theater Around The Bay: Thirteen Questions With Christian Cagigal

In keeping with our Thirteen Questions series for folks putting theater out there this October, guest blogger Nirmala Nataraj brings us this exciting interview with actor/magician Christian Cagigal.

Christian Cagigal is something of a living legend. A Bay Area favorite among magic lovers and haters alike, Christian’s been lauded with accolades galore and plenty of literary-sounding descriptions of his shows, which toe the line between creepy tableaux straight of Poe and mentalist trickery peddled by wandering street performers. It seems almost silly to refer to him as your typical boilerplate magician. A Cagigal show tends to be centered around a recurring motif or narrative and it’s usually audience-participatory (without being cheesy or annoying)—but it’s also inscrutable in the way that only someone who is accustomed to breaking the conventions he’s utilizing can manage.

Christian was kind enough to chat with me about Halloween, the mythos of the magician, the challenge of balancing the various roles required of being a self-producing artist, and the covert psychic powers that drew me into becoming his friend in the first place.

Enchanted.

Enchanted.

NN: What’s your dream Halloween costume?

CC: Running around with friends dressed as Ghostbusters, one friend with a boom box on their shoulder blasting the theme song while I run around with a glowing, smoking trap as we push through busy foot traffic warning people that we have a, “Class 5 Free Roaming Vapor! Class 5 Free Roaming Vapor! Out the way please, we have a Class 5 Free Roaming Vapor!”

NN: What scares you, and does that make it into your shows?

CC: Polka dots. Hell no, they’re scary!

NN: What is it about magicians that freaks people out so much?

CC: Long hair and sequins, or nerds with power. After that it’s the idea that someone has a mysterious power or they can create the illusion of a mysterious power. Either way, there is a mystery we don’t have the secret answer to. We hate not having answers. And we hate nerds in sequins who pretend to have mysterious powers.

NN: Do you ever exploit that to your advantage?

CC: Well I do have a secret sequined shirt collection…

But yes, I’m aware that “mystery” can be off-putting, so I use that to my advantage in my persona and show structure. For example, I love having sets that feel like old living rooms or attic with things that feel familiar, like old furniture, pictures, etc. Then I sprinkle that with weird things like old dolls, animal part (my shows are not vegan…), nothing too overtly weird. Just weird enough. This makes one’s mind ask questions: “Why is that doll placed there? Why does he have a dead frog playing the upright bass? Where they hell did he get these things?” Their minds are finding or creating mysteries out of old junk. Mysteries with no real answers. So even before the show starts, audiences feel both comfortable and off balance.

NN: The aspect of mentalism in your shows tends to be pretty strong. When I saw The Pandora Experiment back in 2006, I was convinced that you were psychic.

CC: I’ve always had mixed feelings about those reactions. During the one or two hours of my shows, I like people to believe that magic exists, in all forms. And I want that feeling to be carried out of the theatre and remain long after the show is over. And yet, I don’t have psychic powers and I don’t want people to believe that I have psychic powers.

NN: What am I thinking right now?

CC: Yellow.

NN: Tell us about your show Obscura, described as “an intimate evening of close-up magic, fairy tales, dark fables, and strange happenings.”

CC: Obscura is different from my other shows in that it’s almost exclusively close-up card magic and it doesn’t have as much audience participation as my other shows. Essentially, it’s a storytelling show with card magic. It’s also much lighter than my other shows. That having been said, I tell stories about death, war, and the Devil. So, ya know…it’s a family show.

NN: You are a man who wears many hats: magician, artist, actor, pinball aficionado. How do you balance all these roles, and how does that figure into your particular brand of entertainment?

CC: Great magicians of yesteryear always wore all of those hats. They were the creator, the performer, promoter, producer. How do I balance? I don’t know that I do…Although for many years I focused on creating work at EXIT Theatre where I’m an artist in residence. But the past couple years, I stepped back from creating more work and mainly focused on producing my shows in other cities in the hope of expanding my visibility, name, and opportunities. So, I guess for now I have my producer hat on. And of course, when it’s show time, I become the performer again.

NN: Do you want people to see your work as “entertainment,” or is that a pejorative label?

CC: I love entertainment. I think entertainment is the perfect place to make change in the world. How? Because more people seek out entertainment than they do art. The thing is, I hate bad or dumb entertainment (no, I don’t think that’s redundant). I love good entertainment because you can sneak new thoughts, ideas and experiences into people’s minds and get them to see things in a new way when they weren’t expecting it. I find that to be the ultimate form of subversion. Get me to like you, laugh with you, clap for you, and just as I’m feeling safe and open, get under my skin and make me see myself or the world differently. I find that quite artistic, indeed. I should say now that I think the difference between art and entertainment is bullshit.

NN: It seems like being a magician requires the ability to think fast on your feet. For example, what happens when one of your devices or tricks doesn’t pan out the way you want it to in a show?

CC: It’s happened…it sucks. I mean, in a regular or more traditional magic show, I can change gears and move on to something better. But when you depend on each effect to help tell the story and they go wrong…oh man… suckage! There’s no way out other than through…

NN: How do you deal with the killjoys—like, hecklers or people who come to a show expecting to be enchanted out of their cynicism?

CC: I don’t. I focus on the others having a good time and let the cynics decide if they want to “come outside and play” with us or not.

NN: Those who love your work tend to be diehards, but I wouldn’t necessarily describe them as magic aficionados. What’s that special ingredient that tends to capture the hearts and imaginations of your fans?

CC: I endeavor to make the experience of magic personal. The focus is not on the effects/tricks and my skill; it’s on the narrative and atmosphere and how that effects you. Whether it’s a grand Cirque du Soliel show or a minimalist piece of theatre, audiences can be transported to any part of the world and see any fantastical thing, as long as the actors truly commit to the play—and I mean the art of playing, being playful, imagining and living the world they are prescribed to perform. This ignites the audiences’ imaginations too and magic is born, magic that the audience is participating in creating. And so the experience of magic is something they own. That’s what I hope to do in every performance. The effects are there to support and make “real” that magic.

NN: So…do you believe in magic?

CC: Yes… ;)

Nirmala Nataraj is a Bay Area journalist, playwright, tarot card reader, and former actress and model. She’s wicked magical herself.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Hearing Voices

Marissa Skudlarek, listening.

At the end of September 2013, when the San Francisco Olympians Festival issued a Request for Proposals for its 2014 season, I proposed writing a short play about “a dryad and a druid.” (2014, Year 5 of the festival, focuses on monsters and other supernatural creatures, including dryads.) My proposal got selected – and then I didn’t write a word of the play. At each Olympians writers’ meeting, I had exactly zero pages to share. Months went by. An entire year went by.

Sure, I had excuses. 2014 was a busy year for me! I spent the first eight months of it self-producing a full-length play, and just when that ended, I had a health crisis! But I also know that when writers feel inspired, they’ll find the time to put some words down on paper, to write a page of dialogue in advance of a writers’ meeting. Even if what they write is the epitome of a shitty first draft, even if they are having a busy year, they can usually write something.

As the 2014 Festival ticked ever closer, I started meeting up with friends for writing sessions in cafés, thinking their company would inspire me. But mostly, I’d tootle around on Facebook, watching my computer’s battery power diminish, and feel guilty and powerless. Meanwhile, my busy-bee friends tap-tap-tapped away at their keyboards. In these café sessions, I did some desultory pre-writing – copying factoids from Wikipedia’s entries on dryads and druids, jotting down stray thoughts about what the characters and plot should be like. But I couldn’t seem to make the leap and actually start writing my play.

The real problem, you see, was that I couldn’t hear my characters’ voices, and that is lethal for a playwright. How should a dryad and a druid, meeting in the mountains of the Balkan Peninsula sometime in the third century B.C., speak? Nothing felt right. I didn’t want them to talk like denizens of the 21st century, but I didn’t want their language to sound affected and faux-archaic, either. I thought their speech should have a certain elevated quality, to reflect the fact that one was a servant of the gods and the other was a divine spirit, but I also wanted the play to be funny and lively. So yes, I could tell you what I wanted and (especially) what I didn’t want. I could take notes and make outlines. But if I couldn’t hear how my characters spoke, if I couldn’t come up with a single line of dialogue that felt right, I couldn’t write this play.

Non-writers may think it sounds odd when writers say “I need to hear my characters’ voices” or “My character just did something that surprised me.” After all, these characters don’t exist outside of my head, so how can I hear their voices as if they were external to me? How can a personage I’ve invented go on to surprise me? I don’t know, but I can tell you that it’s real. In the first full-length play I ever wrote, a character who had hitherto been rather vague and boring (he mainly existed so that other characters would have someone to talk to) suddenly burst out with “I was going to make a new translation of Ovid!” I don’t know where that line came from – at the time, I hadn’t read any Ovid. But as soon as I wrote it – or rather, as soon as I heard the character say it – everything seemed to snap into place. I knew who this character was, now: a frustrated classics scholar. I knew his secret passion, the cherished goal that he had put on hold. He’d told me so himself. And his love of Ovid went on to influence the future direction of his character and of the play.

In modern times, someone who “hears voices” might get diagnosed with schizophrenia or another mental illness; in the olden days, people who “heard voices” were thought to be communicating with ghosts or spirits. This month, when we celebrate all things spooky and mystical, I think it’s worth celebrating those moments when our characters’ voices haunt us. These fictional personages exist only in our imaginations, yet we hear them speaking to us – and it does feel magical.

This past weekend was make-or-break for my Dryads play; I’d promised to send my director a draft by Monday morning. On Sunday afternoon, still not having written a single word of dialogue, I took a long walk from my home in the Inner Sunset all the way to the Mission District. When I have a problem to solve in my writing, walking often helps me work it out, but not this time. I went to the café where Stuart Bousel was diligently working on his own Olympians play and confessed the quandary I was in.

“Why are you so wedded to your original idea?” he said. “Just write what you want.”

I took several deep breaths and started letting my mind wander down other paths. Was there a different dryad-themed play I could write – one that spoke to me more, one whose voices shouted insistently in my head? There was. Five minutes later, I’d opened up a new document on my computer and was writing a title, a cast list, and the first lines of dialogue. I heard the characters’ voices, and the words came easily. They’re a modern-day suburban husband and wife, discussing what to do about their daughter. This little girl has a problem, you see: she thinks she’s a tree spirit. In a way, she hears voices, too.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. See her new, NEW play, The Dryad of Suburbia, on November 5 at EXIT Theatre, as part of the first night of the 2014 San Francisco Olympians Festival.

Cowan Palace: Drowning Kate and Other Halloween Scares with Morgan Ludlow

This week Ashley talks about scary stuff, plays, and candy with playwright, Morgan Ludlow.

The race to Halloween is on, gang! This is the perfect time to embrace all things scary, am I right? Well, this year, Wily West Productions has taken advantage of this spooky season with a suspenseful new play entitled Drowning Kate and you still have three more chances to see it. But before you do, you can learn a little more about the show and its production courtesy of its playwright, Morgan Ludlow, who kindly answered a few of my questions.

Morgan Ludlow

Morgan Ludlow

AC: So tell us where the idea for Drowning Kate originated.

ML: It actually came from a vivid dream I had about twelve years ago. It’s actually a recurring dream for me. I’m often just an observer in dreams. In this one a man’s wife drowns in a lake. He refuses to let her go. He keeps trying to resuscitate her over and over. Night falls, and finally, she awakens! The husband is overjoyed to have his beloved back. But after a few days he realizes she is different. As they go on he realizes his wife’s spirit actually died in the lake and he is now living with another person in his wife’s body. She looks at him and he knows it is someone or something else…

It’s not quite what my script turned out to be but it was the starting point. Dreams are definitely a source of inspiration for me. I have a notepad by the bed. I often only get fragments that are usable. An image. Sometimes there’s a bit of dialogue. A character. But occasionally an entire story of a dream stays with me and I can write a coherent version of it, and every now and then, I use it as the germinal idea to start a play.

AC: A dream come true! What was the process of getting this show up and running? Did it go through any major changes in the writing process from your first draft to the current script?

ML: This is the oldest script of mine that I have had produced. I wrote it about ten years ago when I took a playwriting class from Gary Graves at the Berkeley Rep School. I was reading Frankenstein at the time, which definitely influenced the play. I found Frankenstein more philosophical than scary. The novel made me think of people who push boundaries and break the rules and that helped me shape my main character for the play. DROWNING KATE started as long monologues with a few scenes. I had several readings in my living room. And the play moved more and more into action scenes. City Lights Theatre in San Jose picked it up for their new play reading series. They gave the play a couple of readings and were very interested in it – they wrote a grant trying to get funding for the play but it didn’t come through. I moved on to other plays. It sat for several years waiting. Then in 2012 we needed a full length for Spooky Cabaret and Wesley Cayabyab really connected with the script and had a lot of ideas for it. The reading for Spooky Cabaret had tremendous potential and made me see new possibilities for the script. Quinn, Wes and I realized that the house was key to presenting both Un-Hinged and Drowning Kate in rep. For one play you are inside the house and for the other you are outside the house. So here we are. The monologues are still there but they are trimmed down and Wes decided to make them into video bites presented on stage. Wes also really got into the wolves (which mysteriously appear after Kate is “revived”) – according to Wes the wolves are trying to lead the trapped souls in Kate’s body into the spirit world. This made a lot of sense to me and adds a great deal to the “spook factor” for the production. Wolves are howling, just outside the door, encouraging Kate’s spirit to cross over.

Colleen Egan and Scott Cox in DROWNING KATE.

Colleen Egan and Scott Cox in DROWNING KATE.

AC: Do you believe in ghosts?

ML: Well, just because I wrote a ghost story doesn’t necessarily mean I believe in ghosts. But in all truth I’m like a multiple personality on that question. Totally and furiously split. My logical “you must go to work” side says, “absolutely not.” The other, more spiritual side of myself that believes in the collective human consciousness, Edgar Cayce, and space aliens says, “not everything is known.” But I think it would be wonderful if the atheists were right. That this is the only dance we dance. That all the events that make up our lives is just random coincidence and not “fate.” Lovely. However I was reading that scientists are discovering patterns in our brains at the quantum level. Apparently this pattern could hold even after death. Is this pattern the soul?

AC: While horror movies continue to dominate the box office and generate millions of dollars, the genre isn’t very popular in the theatre world. Any thoughts about why you think that is? And did it push you to write a “scary” play?

ML: Well, we are all drawn to what scares us. Fear is one of those thrilling and immediate emotions – we are never more aware of being alive than when we are afraid. This is as obvious to Hollywood as it is to newspapers and the media that feed our culture’s addiction to fear. It seems like everything we read is based on some element meant to scare the bejesus out of us. But I don’t think it is just cultural. It is human nature to seek out the thrill of fear. To ride along the edge of death. It’s why we love roller coasters and rock climbing and nuclear power plants.

However that was not the driving force for me in writing the play. I’m well aware of the pitfalls of trying to do a ghost story on stage. There is something about live theatre that makes it extremely difficult to scare an audience. To be honest I’m not sure I can quite articulate why this is so. Perhaps it is that theatre is too immediate – and while we can get into the story – attempts at horror just seem “fake” as we know there are inherent limitations to what can happen on stage. Whereas in movies anything can happen, people can transform into bloodsucking monsters and destroy the city, there’s a lot of uncertainty in horror movies, and the uncertainty is part of the fun. Whatever the case it is extremely hard to scare people with a play. In theatre you can surprise, maybe startle people but that’s about it. So, that wasn’t even a goal of mine. I was working toward the mystery of my story. What happened to Kate? Did she drown herself to prove their methods of resuscitation would work? Did Harry do something to Kate? And what is happening to Kate? Is she brain damaged? Is she a zombie or ghost? Who is in her body now? I was more focused on peeling out the story of these two failed scientists than I was in scaring people. I think as a writer what I learned with this play is that I am not required to answer all questions or find explanation for every mystery. In fact it is better in some cases to leave some interpretations to the audience.

DROWNING KATE after the drowning.

DROWNING KATE after the drowning.

AC: Speaking of scary movies, are you a fan? Do you have a favorite Halloween film?

ML: Yes, I do like scary movies. When I was six years old my Dad took me to ALIEN and I loved it. It seemed like for years afterwards I loved seeing things explode out of other things. ALIENS is one my favorite movies. There is something very compelling about motherhood in that film that has always fascinated me. But recently I saw, THE OTHERS, with Nicole Kidman, which I think is one of my all time favorites.

AC: So what was your favorite part about watching this story performed in front of an audience?

ML: I only got to see one performance of the play but the production has the promise to be quite wonderful. Jason Jeremy created some chilling sounds for the show, the sound of ice slowly breaking apart starts the show, and the set designed by Wesley is amazing. There are always surprises for me as the writer because often the actors and director will see my story in an entirely different way than I do. In this case I think everything is aligned. What I love is that everyone is taking risks along with me and giving the show everything they have. Colleen Egan is giving a wonderful performance as Kate – you really feel like there is something eerie going on with her. It’s keeping the suspense up. And Scott Cox and Genevieve Perdue give really heartfelt performances. This gives the play a real emotional punch at the end.

Colleen Egan and Genevieve Perdue in DROWNING KATE

Colleen Egan and Genevieve Perdue in DROWNING KATE

AC: Along with the relationship of a husband and wife, we also get the chance to watch a relationship between two siblings in an extreme situation. Do you have any siblings of your own? And did they inspire any dynamics that made it into the play?

ML: I do have an older brother, Rhys, but I don’t think any of that came through this play. I think a lot of Harry and Shelley are more my parents dynamic actually. They were both ballet dancers in the New York City Ballet – at the top of their field. And they worked together throughout their careers of being teachers and artistic directors of ballet companies all over the U.S. My father was the dreamer, the experimenter, the choreographer and chaos-creator, the one who would come up with crazy ideas and my mother generally accurately assessed the consequences of those ideas – as she often had to implement them. And I also think I was influenced by my father being a professor at the University of Utah for 25 years. He thought he was going to be working with colleagues who understood his work. Instead there was nothing but in-fighting and petty personal agendas. Apparently it is not at all unusual for faculty within a department to have colleagues who despise one another. Much more so than other work places. It’s complex (and of course dependent on the situation) but generally there is something about the set-up in academia that pits professors against each other – the betrayals, lies and back stabbings are ghastly – to the point that many brilliant ideas and successful programs are destroyed because of politics. I think that is where some of Harry’s bitterness comes from – is that his ideas were never fully considered because of political reasons. But isn’t that what every scientist and great creative thinker is up against? Sometimes it is hard to know when to stop.

AC: The play centers around characters who are very committed to their work; did you find that you had a similar type of focus while you were writing?

ML: This play, for me, is about failure, ego and loss. All things I am intimately familiar with in abundance. I’m drawn to success stories but I’m even more fascinated with stories of failure. As Americans failure makes us uncomfortable. We are geared for ways to “fix things” in our lives, to celebrate only the successful stories. But nothing reveals a character or person more than when they are failing. Especially when they try like hell not to fail. Perhaps that’s why I love Chekov so much. Failure has the ability to completely transform us and says so much about who we are at the core. I wanted to explore how the same elements of success can also lead to failure and loss. In this play our main character, Harry, is basically a failed scientist. He took risks and they didn’t pay off. His colleagues, even his own sister, think he has gone too far. His ego is also telling him to keep going and not give up. That he will find an answer. To take even more risks. It’s sort of Harry’s blind spot in a sense. It throws him off balance. He doesn’t see what is happening right in front of him. His ego kind of engines him through the most horrible consequences – things that make the audience cringe. It isn’t until the very end, when he has lost everything, that Harry can let his wife go.

Genevieve Perdue, Colleen Egan, and Scott Cox: working hard.

Genevieve Perdue, Colleen Egan, and Scott Cox: working hard.

AC: What’s your favorite Halloween candy?

ML: Candy corns. By the wee fistful.

AC: What can we look forward to seeing with Wily West Productions in 2015?

ML: We will be having our annual meeting in January so we are still gathering ideas for 2015. We are going to do some “deep theatre exploration” next season – which means we are going to be reaching out to other artists in the community and seeing where we can partner and collaborate with them and what new directions we can take. We have a lot of wonderful plays by local writers in our vaults and we want to do several staged readings and workshops of some of our favorites. We are going to try some more interactive events where the audience has a chance to participate on the outcome of the evening. We are also going to be trading plays by local playwrights from other cities – like Seattle, L.A., Salt Lake and Vancouver. And we will be doing another production of a multi-authored show in the summer possibly in rep with something else. We will keep our audience updated on our website: http://www.wilywestproductions.com

AC: Tell us what’s next for you! And where we can see more of your work.

ML: I’m working on a Holiday show about Edgar Cayce the famous American psychic. I’m also working on a domestic comedy about a man who thinks he’s found his birth mother. And it seems like I’m always working a zillion short one-acts. I’m going to be directing one of my own plays, THE TERRORIST, in Seattle next spring!

AC: And lastly, why should people come see Drowning Kate?

ML: DROWNING KATE is a “horror story with a heart” which only the coldest of hearts wouldn’t find intriguing. Who doesn’t want to see someone try like hell to save his wife from death? And let me tell you: I think we give you that dark ride and we deliver some powerful emotions about loss and grief to boot. Not bad for $9 bucks.

Drowning Kate, starring: Scott Cox, Colleen Egan and Genevieve Perdue and directed by Wesley Cayabyab, plays October 17, 23, and 25.

Drowning Kate, starring: Scott Cox, Colleen Egan and Genevieve Perdue and directed by Wesley Cayabyab, plays October 17, 23, and 25.

Pictures: All pictures provided by Jim Norrena (excluding Morgan’s Halloween inspired headshot)