It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Whose Play Is It, Anyway?

Dave Sikula asks an important question that comes up again and again in the theater community. Can he answer it too?

In our last thrilling installment, I’d been asked at a “Farnsworth” talkback why we hadn’t just added a prologue and/or epilogue debunking Aaron Sorkin’s presentation of the historical record.

As soon as that question was asked, I was immediately reminded of two stories I’d just read involving theatres and directors playing fast and loose with the scripts for their plays.

Now, before I begin this saga, let me state that I don’t think there’s a director working who hasn’t either altered the script s/he’s working with or, at the very least, thought about it. It’s not right and it’s not legal, but we’ve all done it. Most of the time, the changes are minor and banal, done strictly for logistical reasons. A character can’t be told to stand since he’s already standing, or is standing next to a table rather than the chair indicated in the script. It could even be something as simple as an actor’s height or hair color differing from the one in the text.

Me, directing. Looks exciting and glamorous, doesn't it?

Me, directing. Looks exciting and glamorous, doesn’t it?

But to the stories I’d read. The first story concerned a production of “Hands on a Hardbody” that had opened at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars, or TUTS for short. The musical, by Doug Wright, Trey Anastasio, and Amanda Wright, is based on a documentary about a group of people who were trying to win a new pickup truck by keeping their hands on the car. The last person with a hand on the truck would take it home. The show flopped on Broadway (28 previews, 28 performances), but will probably have some sort of life in regional companies.

Doesn't look real enticing to me, but who knows?

Doesn’t look real enticing to me, but who knows?

TUTS was the first of those companies (as far as I know) to present the show. The director, Bruce Lumpkin, invited Wright and Green to opening night, but neglected to tell them he had made changes to the show, mainly involving cutting sections and reassigning lyrics and songs to the characters for whom they were intended.

To quote Howard Sherman’s recap of what happened:

Green described to me her experience in watching the show. “They started the opening number and I noticed that some people were singing solos other than what we’d assigned. As we neared the middle of the opening number, I thought, ‘what happened to the middle section?’” She said that musical material for Norma, the religious woman in the story, “was gone.”

When the second song began, Green recalls being surprised, saying, “I thought, ‘so we did put this number second after all’ before realizing that we hadn’t done that.” As the act continued, Green said, “I kept waiting for ‘If I Had A Truck’ and it didn’t come.” She went on to detail a litany of ways in which the show in Houston differed from the final Broadway show, including reassigning vocal material to different characters within songs, and especially the shifting of songs from one act to another, which had the effect of removing some characters from the story earlier than before…

Describing her post-show conversation with Lumpkin in Houston, Green says, “When it was over, I was flabbergasted. I had been planning to go to the cast party, but I couldn’t. Bruce came over to me and said, ‘I know you’re mad and I know you hate it, but you know it works better’.” Green continued: “He was pressuring me to make a decision and say I liked it. So I left.”

Amanda Green, in happier days ...

Amanda Green, in happier days …

After much back and forth, Samuel French pulled the right for the show and made the company close down the production.

Now, bullying of Amanda Green aside, what Lumpkin did – and he’s apparently well-known for doing things like this with the shows he directs – was both hubristic and stupid. It’s one thing to make wholesale changes and hope you can get away with them. It’s another to do it and invite the creators to see how you’ve “improved their work,” which in Wright’s words, they’d “spent years building and honing … and had very specific character-driven moments. People didn’t just say things.” But it’s in a whole other level to demand that those creators approve changes. As of this writing, Lumpkin still has a job, but I find it hard to believe that any licensor will rent him a show without, at the very least, keeping a close eye on the product in progress, let alone the final production.

As usual, I’ve hit a critical mass of verbiage before coming to a conclusion, so I’ll leave matters here until our next meeting.

Claire Rice’s Enemey’s List: When a Theatre Goes Co-Op

Claire Rice on how Thunderbird Theatre Company becomes a Cooperative Corporation…tell your enemies!

Thunderbird Theatre Company has been producing original comedy in the Bay Area since 1998. We specialize in mash-up style storylines where the good guys are wondering idealists and the bad guys come with a posy of henchman. I say “we” because I have been working with Thunderbird Theatre Company since 2006’s “Release the Kraken”, a take-off on Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” and the 1981 classic “Clash of the Titans”. I played Andromeda, who was from the Ukraine and ends up in the Princess Leia gold bikini at the end of the show.

No, really.  THE gold bikini!

No, really. THE gold bikini!

Over the years Thunderbird Theatre Company has brought together some exceptionally talented people to do some exceptionally silly and entertaining theatre. A long the way we’ve also grown up, bought houses, started careers, gotten married, had children and done all the things that people do as they grow older.

We also came to the realization that if we wanted to keep doing what we loved (namely have as much fun on stage as we could) we would need to re-organize ourselves.

I sat down with long time Thunderbird Christine McClintock to talk about Thunderbird, what it means to be a Cooperative Corporation, lost doubloons, gigglebones and other very adult things.

What is Thunderbird Theatre Company?

Christine: After a yearlong hiatus from production, we have been reorganized as a California Cooperative Corporation named The Bird Empire, doing business as The Thunderbird Theatre Company.

If Thunderbird wasn’t a business before, what was it for 16 years?

Christine: Thunderbird was definitely a business, and everything we did was totally and completely legit… as far as anyone knows. (You’ll never find our doubloons, Marx!)

We were previously a sole proprietorship. This meant that most of the liability for the business fell on one person. Aside from this being incongruous with our operating structure and ideals, it made for some awkward situations, such as the predicament of divulging an individual’s social security number on behalf of the company.

Why a co-op and not a non-profit (or sole proprietorship or llc, etc.)?

Christine: The reasons behind the decision to reform as a Cooperative Corporation are threefold.

Ideologically, we do not fit the parameters of a 501(c)(3) organization. Those requirements being:

“…charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals.”

Making silly plays with your friends, for your other friends to come see is not a legally recognized tax-exempt purpose. Whether or not it should be is a worthy conversation for another time and place. Quite simply, we did not want to be beholden to these requirements set forth by a governmental agency, or contort our activities to fit these stipulations.

Secondly, we wanted to formalize and equitably divide our financial contributions. For the majority of our years as a company, we have operated at a loss. This loss will now be evenly distributed across the company members so that each individual pays their fair share – and only their fair share. It’s our hope that in the future, we will turn a profit on each production, and in turn, those profits will be equally distributed among the company members.

Finally, we felt we wanted our structure to continue to be horizontal. We do embrace the fact that no “leaderless” organization is ever fully so, but our current configuration lets us both play to our individual strengths while leaving space for us to rotate responsibilities, recruit fresh voices, and provide opportunities for newcomers.

We felt the best match for these three primary philosophies is the cooperative model.

The meetings will look like this, but with more cheese and puns.

The meetings will look like this, but with more cheese and puns.

Can you still do fundraising (like Kickstarter or Grants)?

Christine: Yes and no… and maybe… and yes again.

Many grants require a 501(c)(3) status or fiscal sponsorship to determine eligibility, so we would only be able to apply to grants to do not require such a status – like TBA’s CA$H grants. We’re honest with ourselves that we’re not the kind of organization that most grantors are looking to fund at the moment. We’re making art for ourselves, and grantmakers tend to look to size and area of impact. We tend to only impact gigglebones.

Kickstarter and Indiegogo, on the other hand, do not require an organization to be a non-profit in order to launch a campaign. We need to be clear with our donors (Kickers and Go-goers) that contributions made to Thunderbird are not tax deductible.

We are still a corporate entity though, and as such, we are only eligible to receive funds that are related to our business. Donations not directly related to goods or services, therefore may trigger an audit or a revocation of our corporate approval. That being said, the rules governing such things are, (for better or worse), more flexible than they may appear.

How does being a co-op change how you make decisions?

Christine: The great thing about being a cooperative is that our decision-making process hasn’t caused us to change drastically. In fact, it highlights a track record of decision-making that has already been mostly democratic. Writing our bylaws helped us to clean up some of the specifics of administering an arts organization such as what denotes a quorum, how will we decide what will be our next production, etc.

The overarching precept is equality: one member, one vote.

Also, standard shotgun-calling rules apply.

Do you know how this will affect your future?

Christine: Some guy named Commodore briefly mentioned something about our membership growing, creating more content, experimenting online, and sometime in the very, very distant future, we will acquire our own space, perhaps in the East Bay.

Where should people go if they are interested in getting involved?

You can write to any of the current members, respond to this post, or email us here: info@thunderbirdtheatre.com

Right now we’re looking for folks who want to be “Collaborators”. This is a non-voting level of membership that comes with perks and treats (and responsibility). After a year, “Collaborators” may be invited to be full-voting members, though they may elect to indefinitely remain at the “Collaborators” level and hoard their perks and treats.

Thunderbird Theatre Company’s latest comedy “SHOW DOWN!” opens on Friday, August 1, at The EXIT Theatre in San Francisco. Tickets are on sale at Brown Paper Tickets. Please, if you love ThunderbirdTheatre Company tell your friends. And if you don’t…tell your enemies!

Everything Is Already Something Week 38: How To Submit A Submission

Allison Page wants you to submit… to her will.

I’ve been on both sides of the writing submissions game. Either way, it’s kind of a pain in the ass. Here are some things I’ve learned livin’ on both sides of the fence.

HOLY SHIT, LEARN TO READ:
You would think that writers know how to read. I would say it’s assumed. Expected. Necessary. And yet…I find that the simple, straightforward directions laid out in the submission announcement have been largely ignored. Maybe you’re thinking, “But Allison, were they actually simple and straightforward or are you biased?” I’ll let you decide that. I asked for one 3 page sketch in PDF form. What have I received? MP3s, spreadsheets, word docs, pictures – ya know, things that aren’t PDFs.

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Yes, some writers have done it properly, thank goodness, but many haven’t bothered to pay attention to the specifics of the submission requirements, which doesn’t leave a good first impression. In this particular case, I’m looking for people to add to our collaborative writers room, and if you can’t even bother to follow these simple instructions, how can I expect them to adhere to more challenging guidelines?

MAKE IT EASY:
On the other side of the fence, if you’re about to open the floodgates for submissions it’s important to get what you need, but if you overcomplicate the specifics, you might end up alienating writers who might actually be a great fit. I can hear you saying, “Hey, if they’re not willing to jump through all my hoops, I’m not interested!” Fair enough, but just know that along with the lazy people you’re weeding out, you might be weeding out a good candidate. A good idea is to accept submissions in formats that people have heard of and weren’t just invented yesterday and need to be downloaded and installed.

KEEP IT SHORT, YO:
Each submission is different, obviously, but when you include a bio about yourself, maybe don’t make it a novella. Keep it simple. Give me the highlights. I’m already swimming through piles of writing in search of sunken treasure, don’t add too much more to that stack. It’s cool to know things about you, but a life story is kind of unnecessary, and then what will we have left to talk about at the bar after writers meetings?!

SIMPLY THE BEST:
When I read someone’s submission, I assume it’s a piece that they feel shows them in the best possible light. I assume it’s the shiniest, brightest diamond at Kay Jewelers.

Eh, I've seen shinier.

Eh, I’ve seen shinier.

And it should be. Send something that shows off your strengths and showcases your unique perspective and talents. Break out of the pack.

SUCK IT UP AND SEND IT OUT:
I hate submitting things. It feels stressful to me. I don’t like taking the time. I end up spending an hour after I’ve gotten everything together, just staring at it to make sure that I’ve properly followed the instructions and haven’t somehow typed a nonsense word into the body of the email, or attached a photo of my butt. (I don’t actually have photos of my butt all over my laptop, but so paranoid am I about doing something wrong, that I am convinced that it’s possible I’ve taken a picture of my butt without my own knowledge and attached it to an important email.)

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Thankfully, when I finally do submit something, I feel a sense of accomplishment and the feeling that I am, in fact, allowed to be a writer now. Which isn’t to say that you’re not a real writer if you’re not submitting things. That’s totally not accurate. But it does make me feel good on the occasion that I do send something in, even if (as happens most frequently) I don’t ever hear a damn thing.

Submissions can be tough on both sides, but the reality is that it’s an avenue – however flawed – which can lead to your work being performed or published or, at the very least, read. And that’s a good thing for everybody.

Allison Page is a writer/actor/hustler/Co-Creative Director/brunch-eater in San Francisco. You can see her perform in Killing My Lobster Goes Radio Active August 13th-23rd. Tickets available at killingmylobster.com You can also follow her on Twitter @allisonlynnpage

The Five: In Praise of Civilians

Anthony R. Miller returns to say theatre people who need non-theatre people are the luckiest people in the world.

I was at a theatre shin-dig the other night for a play I didn’t like very much and I bumped into a local director who I have long known and admired. After saying hello came the obligatory “How did you like the show?” question, that conversation lasted about 11 seconds. Maybe we both didn’t like the play and even talking about not liking it seemed exhausting, maybe she didn’t mind it but just didn’t feel like talking about it because she has conversations about theatre for a living. It didn’t take long for us to agree that we didn’t feel comfortable at parties and schmoozing was not our strong point. Sometimes talking about theatre, the thing we are most passionate about, feels laborious. I mentioned I had a hard time talking about nothing, from there she mentioned world events were making her feel like talking about theatre was trivial. We then spent the next ten minutes discussing light party subjects like congressional Inaction and the always effervescent topic of Israel/Palestine. Now this could just be a statement on what becomes a preferable topic when there is something you really don’t want to talk about, but it was also the best conversation I had all night. At a certain point I decided theatre was not a hobby, it was something I did, it was work (In a good way), but with that decision came the realization I needed a new hobby. Because Theatre was such a huge part of my life, the need for non-theatre things became apparent. Sometimes, you gotta be able to step away and talk about how rad Guardians of the Galaxy is gonna be or how badass Kim Gordon was singing with Nirvana at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ceremony. In theatre you meet a shitload of people. You get to know people in 6 week increments, at parties, at conferences and then you add them on Facebook until you have Hundreds of people you kind of know. I don’t know if this is true for other people, but the best friends I have in theatre are the ones I can talk about other stuff with. But when those folks are in rehearsal, never to be heard from until closing night, or when I just need to remove myself completely, I find solace with my non-theatre folk. So this week’s list is dedicated those people, the “Civilian”.

Perspective

When talking with other theatre folk, it’s easy to think too little or too much of your accomplishments. You could be talking with people who have accomplished more than and it makes you feel like you’ve done nothing. To others, you come off as successful, which is hard because you don’t necessarily feel that way.

To Civilians, your work in theatre goes two ways, one: they think the fact you’re doing anything is impressive, and it’s what makes you interesting, or two: they think it’s a colossal waste of time. Now let’s assume that like me, you wouldn’t be friends with anyone who thought what you do is dumb. When the inevitable “How’s your play going?” conversation happens, I take comfort in knowing I won’t be judged (at least in my head) on how important or not important my project is. It’s just this thing I’m doing, and for me that’s invaluable. I am able to look at a project not as some great statement at where I am and where I’m going, they remind me the fact I’m doing it at all is kind of impressive. And most of them come to the show, if only to know what it is you were talking about.

You Talk About Other Things

In one way or another, I essentially get to talk about theatre for a living. Whether it’s my day job of selling theatre tickets or putting on theatre at night, it’s my job. Eventually I get tired of talking about that job. When I am knee deep in a project and getting stressed, or writing and really stuck on something, hanging out with people and not talking about theatre is therapeutic. Now, even if they aren’t theatre people, my friends tend to be passionate about something. So our conversations are more about things we are both into, music, movies, comics, football, perfect subjects to find an escape in when I need a break from all things theatre. I find conversations about the new Planet of the Apes film are just as important and stimulating to me as conversations about the role of regional theatre in America today. I need both dammit.

They Get You More Than You Think

Passionate people tend to best understand other passionate people. We all at some point in our lives felt a certain safety within the ranks of other theatre people. Sometimes it’s the only place you feel understood. And yes, your civilian friends understand when you’re busy and exhausted but only theatre people know what you mean when you look at them with your eyes half open and say “It’s Tech Week”. So it’s easy to feel like the only people that get you are the folks that do the same thing as you. But you don’t have to do theatre to know what it is to be heavily involved in a project, or to be overworked, or to be sleep deprived. My civilian friends have actually given me a lot of confidence and helped feel like I belonged a bit more in the world, because I wasn’t really that different, just a little bit more passionate about show tunes than most people. Sometimes I feel more like a normal person when I’m with them.

They Have No Personal Stake in It

As artists, we so often forget that there can, and maybe even should be, a professional distance between you and the people you work with, because while some are friends, they are also your co-workers. In most 9 to 5’s you probably won’t see your manager reach into a coworkers dance thong to try to adjust some out of place tutu concoction gone wrong. We have a familiarity with each other unlike most other professionals in other fields. Because most of my civilian friends will never meet or work with most of the people I do theatre projects with, they make perfect sound boards when I need to vent for five minutes. Because to them this person I’m complaining about isn’t someone who may give them a job, or a mutual friend, or someone to worry about, they are just an annoying co-worker. I also find having to explain my theatre folk drama out loud makes me realize just how silly it is.

Because The Theatre World Can Suck Sometimes

This business gets tough sometimes; you meet people who want to help you succeed and you will meet people who don’t. The Bay Area is a medium sized pond and it feels like there are more fish than ever, and those fish are getting bigger. It can all feel like a big passive aggressive competition where no one wants to admit they’re competing ‘cause that feels dirty. I have been screwed over by people I trusted, I’ve had ideas stolen, projects sabotaged, I‘ve been told off, blacklisted, yelled at, and generally made to feel crappy about myself all by the people I was supposed to be all in it together with . For every proud moment in theatre, I have a very stressful experience or a time my feelings got hurt, or a time I hurt someone’s feelings, it’s not all awesome, but it’s not all terrible either. It’s just, well…dramatic. Sometimes, I just need to get off the ride for a while. And sometimes the best escape is to hang out with a friend, have some beers and spend 3 hours talking about why Star Trek: Enterprise just never caught on with me.

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 opens in October.

Theater Around the Bay: Sing a Song of Seven Sisters

Charles Lewis III is today’s guest blogger, with an extremely thorough interview of Marissa Skudlarek, author of the upcoming world premiere, PLEIADES. We’re super excited about the show, and encourage everyone to go. We’d also like to let Marissa know we have never used the term Box Office Babe ironically. “Babe” is a gender neutral term and we consider anyone willing to work our box office SUPER SEXY.

Poster by Emily C. Martin

Poster by Emily C. Martin

“Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?”
– The Holy Bible, Book of Job: Chapter 38, verse 31 (King James Version)

One of TheaterPub’s greatest strengths has always been its networking prowess. Its productions are unmatched in their ability to bring together such a disparate (some would say “motley”) collection of theatre artists to form lasting connections. It was during one such post-show mingle in the ‘Pub’s first year that I was introduced to an unassuming-yet-unforgettable Vassar gal named Marissa Skudlarek. We were both eager to make names for ourselves in the Bay Area theatre scene, but even as we spoke about a variety of topics (I remember Tristan & Isolde being a major one), I knew she was more likely than I to make a splash.

By the end of that summer, most of us knew her bright smile on sight when she warmly greeted each of us as first-ever box-office manager (aka “The Box-Office Babe”) for The San Francisco Olympians Festival’s opening year. What started as idea during a car ride to an Atmos Theatre production has become an annual must-do for the Bay Area indie theatre scene. Now in its fifth year at The EXIT Theatre, the staged reading festival has commissioned more than 130 new scripts; an equal number of fine art illustrations, mosaics, and needlepoints; two books; and the collaboration of countless actors, directors, and theatre technicians. To say nothing of scripts that have gone on to full productions.

It just so happens that the ‘Pub’s own “Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life” columnist is the latest Olympians alumnus to get a full production. Having gone from the festival’s box office manager to playwright to copyeditor of the two Olympians books (Songs of Hestia and Heavenly Bodies), so too will her original script Pleiades, written for Year 2, graduate to a fully-staged run this August at The Phoenix Theatre. Based on the Greek myth of the seven daughters of Titan god Atlas, the play revolves around the seven Atlee sisters, their activist cousin, and a local Casanova in the affluent Hamptons during the summer of 1971. In the middle of her increasingly busy schedule, I was fortunate enough to pose a few questions to Marissa during the final hours of the Pleiades’ successful IndieGoGo campaign. We discussed how she’s grown as a writer, how the script has evolved since the original reading, and why a production with a largely female cast & crew is so important to modern audiences.

First things first: how did you get involved with the Olympians Festival during its inaugural year?

Almost five years ago now, I submitted a proposal to write the “Artemis” play for the first-ever Olympians Festival… but that was the year that everyone wanted to write about Artemis, so I didn’t get chosen. (This is one reason that an Artemis figure, in the guise of rabble-rousing feminist Diane, shows up in Pleiades.) I still thought that the festival sounded like a really cool idea, though, and I was fairly new in town and hungry to be part of the theater community, so I befriended Stuart Bousel and asked if I could help out with the festival. He mentioned the box-office job, and while it was unpaid, it meant that I could see all 12 Olympians shows for free. And that seemed like a great way to get acquainted with a lot of actors and writers very quickly, so I accepted the gig.

Who came up with the name “Box Office Babe”? Does anyone even remember?!

I feel like Stuart came up with the “box office babe” nickname, but I don’t think that I actually heard it used until Year Two, when Barbara Jwanouskos was box-office manager. I admit I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with that title and don’t tend to use it myself, because there’s something kind of old-fashioned and chauvinistic about the word “babe” (even though I understand that it’s ostensibly being used ironically here. Ah, hipster sexism).

One of the things I most remember from first meeting you in 2010 was that you weren’t all that fond of the term “emerging playwright”. One’s profile definitely raises with the production of their first full-length. How would you say you’ve evolved as a writer in the four years since?

Well, Pleiades is the only full-length I’ve written since leaving college six years ago — I’m not the fastest or most prolific writer, so it’s not like I had a wealth of plays from which to choose. If I didn’t produce Pleiades, it might be another 2 or 3 years before I write another full-length play that I’m proud of… and I wasn’t prepared to wait that long to have a full-length produced in San Francisco. Moreover, I felt that as long as Pleiades went unproduced, it was kind of blocking me from getting started on another full-length. It felt like unfinished business. I needed to see this script to fruition (in the form of a full production) before I could move on.

What was it about this script that you felt it had to be your first proper full-length production?

I wanted to produce Pleiades as a way of actively participating in the conversation about gender parity and feminism in theater that has become so prominent recently. There are all these statistics about how female playwrights and directors and actors are underrepresented, and rather than continuing to talk about how unfair that is and debate possible solutions, I just wanted to produce a new play that has a female writer, female director, eight female actors, and be like “DEAL WITH IT.”

Because I haven’t written another full-length since Pleiades, it’s hard to say how my playwriting has evolved. Maybe I’ve learned to be less afraid of my own voice? Pursuing my crazier whims, rather than trying to make my writing sound like everybody else’s. I definitely think I’ve become more courageous in terms of my nonfiction writing. Three years ago, I’d never have written that piece I wrote for Theater Pub recently, pointing out that ACT hasn’t produced a local playwright in 7 years apart from their own AD. I would have been too afraid of getting on Carey Perloff’s blacklist. But, well, the whole point of the article is that she’s not producing local playwrights, right? So what have I got to lose?

Katja Rivera directed your Theater Pub-produced translation of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée last year. At that point had you already considered her for the director of Pleiades?

At the time of the Orphée reading (April 2013) I wasn’t sure yet that I wanted to self-produce Pleiades. My feeling that I needed to produce the play grew slowly over the course of 2013 until, by the end of the year, it had become overwhelming, and I contacted Katja to see if she wanted to direct it. It’s like that Anaïs Nin quote: “The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Some playwrights think the most daunting thing about self-production is raising the funds, or simply finding the time/energy to embark on such a major project. Those things never fazed me. For me, the most daunting aspect of self-production was always the problem of finding a director.

Did you ever consider directing it yourself?

I have never wanted to direct my own plays — I have no training as a director, no sense of how to block a scene, absolutely no self-confidence in that area. Plus, having a director handle the day-to-day aspects of production (rehearsals and the like) while I handled the big-picture elements (contracts, fundraising, marketing) sounded do-able… handling everything myself sounded like a disaster in the making.

Katja was definitely my first-choice director. I first met her in 2012, when she directed my play “Beer Theory” for Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival. “Beer Theory” is a weird little play that, more than anything else I’ve ever written, tries to illustrate what it’s like to live inside my head, and Katja knew exactly what I was going for… I felt like she “got” me right away. Our collaboration on Orphée was also harmonious. Further points in Katja’s favor were that she liked the Pleiades script and she’s from a different generation than me — I thought it would be good for the director of Pleiades to have been alive in 1971, the year the play takes place. But it was still scary to send that initial email to Katja and ask her if she wanted to direct Pleiades! I was asking her to clear her schedule and devote months of her life to my work, for very little compensation. And I’m not sure what I would’ve done if she’d said no!

Another thing I recall from that first year is that you were fond of the phrase “Plays are never finished; only abandoned.” I remember seeing the original reading of Pleiades in 2011 and I understand it’s been read around the country since then…

Well, it’s only had one other reading since the Olympians one, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend it: the reading happened in Myrtle Beach, SC, on the same weekend in April 2013 that Katja and I were doing tech for Orphée!

What’s changed about the script since the Olympians reading?

The script still has the same basic structure that it had in 2011, but I like to think that it’s stronger. After the Olympians reading, I beefed up the climax to make it more cathartic. I streamlined certain scenes and expanded others. I tried to raise the stakes a little; I tried to deepen the characters and make them more complex. It’s identifiably the same story, with the same characters; but I think it works a little better.

Have you done any rewrites since announcing the start of production?

I did make some changes to the script between announcing my decision to produce the play (in January) and going into rehearsals in June, but they were fairly minor — rewriting half a page of dialogue so it flows better, that kind of thing. Act One now ends with more impact and has a better curtain line. I haven’t handed out any rewrites to my cast since the start of rehearsals, though.

Your story is about a group of women struggling to define themselves during the height of the Second-wave Feminist movement. One of the icons of that movement, Gloria Steinem, recently celebrated her 80th birthday. You’ve never been shy about defining yourself as such, but what is it about the word “Feminism” that seems to rub modern women – many of them high-profile – the wrong way; particularly the ones who claim to profess the very ideals for which the movement stands?

So it seems to be axiomatic among a lot of people that “young women refuse to call themselves feminists nowadays because they think it makes them sound like man-hating lesbians with hairy armpits,” but I don’t actually know how much truth there is to that. Supposedly, women between the ages of 18 and 29 are most likely to self-identify as feminists. If a young female celebrity says “I’m not a feminist because I love men,” as happened with Shailene Woodley recently, the Internet explodes with essays telling her why she’s wrong. Sometimes I feel like every female playwright I know is a feminist. Which is awesome! But it also means that feminism has lost some of its pungency. It used to be that if you said “I’m a female playwright and I want to tell women’s stories,” it made you sound kind of cool and edgy. Now it’s like “Yeah, so what else is new?”

Thanks to the Internet, more people are discussing and debating feminism than ever before, and feminist concepts (like the Bechdel Test) are entering the pop-culture lexicon. However, the Internet also has a way of magnifying people’s outrage; and online, the people who get the most attention are often the loudest, most extreme, angriest people. So a young woman might see this and think that to be a feminist, you need to be snarky, or bitter, or humorless, or antagonistic, or perpetually outraged, when none of those things are actually true. There are humorless feminists and hilarious ones; there are feminists who want to smash the patriarchy and feminists who want to dismantle it gently. It’s a broad movement. (uh, no pun intended.)

One other challenge of being a feminist is that, once you start calling yourself one, you have to examine your own unconscious prejudices and develop your own understanding of what feminism means to you. And each time you detect sexism, you have to decide whether you are going to call it out or whether you are going to let it slide — and both of those things are hard to do, for different reasons. Even if you live in a supportive environment, being a feminist is not always easy. It requires self-reflection and self-questioning, qualities that our culture does not always encourage.

Marissa Skudlarek takes her place amongst the goddesses. Photo by Tracy Held Potter

Marissa Skudlarek takes her place amongst the goddesses. Photo by Tracy Held Potter

You’ve often spoke of your fondness for productions with large casts and Pleiades is unique among contemporary independent theatre (particularly in the Bay Area) as it has a cast of nine that is primarily female. What were the steps you took to make all the voices individual and how did the traditional Greek interpretation of the characters influence the way you wrote them?

The thing about the Pleiades in Greek mythology, at least according to the sources that I’ve found, is that they weren’t very individual as personalities. They are treated like a unit, especially in the most famous story about them, the one that goes “Orion was chasing the Pleiades and Zeus turned them into stars to protect them.” They’re just objects to Orion — he doesn’t see them as individuals. I mean, how do you even chase seven women at the same time? Then I discovered that, maybe the Pleiades don’t have individual personalities, but some of them do have individual stories. The eldest three of them — Maia, Elektra, and Taygete — all had children by Zeus. In fact, Maia and Zeus’s son was Hermes. The youngest, Merope, married a mortal and was punished for it: she’s the dimmest star in the constellation. Artemis turned Taygete into a deer after Zeus raped her — whether this was to protect her or punish her is a matter of debate. I started to see how I could turn these stories into a play.

But you’re right that my most difficult task in writing this play was to figure out who each of these young women was, as an individual. And also to make the story psychologically credible, since it would be taking place in a realistic milieu (the Hamptons in 1971) rather than the stylized world of myth. It’s one thing for a myth to say “Zeus had children with the three eldest Pleiades,” it’s another thing for me to write a believable, serious-minded play about a man who has sex with each of three sisters.

Toward the beginning of the writing process, after I’d figured out the basic plot of the play, I took a day to just outline each character’s personality — listing the adjectives and qualities that define each young woman. I also decided, early on, that it was OK if not all of the roles were equal in size or importance, as long as each character had an individual voice. And, as I started to fill in the backstory for the play, I made a timeline listing the characters’ birth dates, key historical events, etc., and I had fun thinking about which zodiac sign each of my characters might be and matching their astrology to their personality.

In addition to your writing, you’re also quite renowned for your impeccable fashion sense. That having been said, the 1970s aren’t generally regarded as a high-point in 20th century fashion, particularly in the United States…

I actually kind of love ’70s fashion! Especially the early ’70s, which were fascinating. The hippie looks of the late ’60s were still hanging on, and there was also a revival of ’30s and ’40s fashion… it could be pretty glamorous. We have a vintage Seventeen magazine from June of 1971 as one of the props in the play and I’ve had great fun browsing through it for inspiration. It makes me want to grow my hair long and walk through a meadow in a gauzy dress!

What was your and Katja’s philosophy in regards to dressing nine different characters of affluent means in the Hamptons of the early-‘70s?

One thing I’ve insisted on from the start is that I do not want the primary message of the costumes in the play to be “look at the kooky things people wore in the ’70s.” I fear that that would distance the audience from the story. I don’t want people to see this as a “period piece” that has no relevance to life in 2014; I want them to empathize with the characters and relate to them! Obviously I don’t want the characters wearing anything that stands out as anachronistic, but a lot of them will be wearing clothes that could work equally well in 1971 and in 2014.

This fits with my play, too, because my characters are old-money WASPs, which means that many of them favor classic preppy styles instead of wacky trends. And they’re at the beach, so they’re dressed fairly casually. They may be an affluent family and they probably pride themselves on wearing good-quality clothing, but they’re not trying to flaunt their wealth or their individuality through their clothes — in fact they would probably consider that quite gauche.

Earlier this year Allison Page gave five reasons encouraging self-production. In the beginning you seemed to want to do everything about Pleiades yourself. What inspired you decide to co-produce with No Nude Men Productions?

My collaboration with No Nude Men basically means that I can Facebook-message Stuart with all of my silly newbie-producer questions and he’s honor-bound to answer them, because his theater company is nominally producing the show. I also got to use the NNM list of press contacts when sending out my press release. It’s not a financial arrangement (no money has changed hands in either direction) and I still am mostly doing everything myself.

I didn’t approach Stuart asking if NNM would produce Pleiades — he actually suggested it to me, and I took him up on the offer because it seemed to offer some advantages and no significant downsides. Unfortunately, there is still kind of a stigma around self-producing (people wonder where the line is between “self-production” and “vanity production”) and I thought it could only be a good thing if my play was associated with one of SF’s longest-running indie theater companies, rather than being “a Marissa Skudlarek production.”

What’s been the most valuable lesson from the collaboration thus-far?

The biggest challenge I’ve had as a producer was finding a set designer, and after I put out feelers to one designer, I got a rather snarky and aggrieved email in reply. Stuart calmed me down and reminded me that, even though I was desperate to find a set designer, that’s no reason to work with people who seem like they’ll be rude or difficult.

Earlier this year you were in the middle of Bay Area theatre controversy when a playwright took personal issue with your review of his most recent work. And yet as artists we’re meant to be aware that we have very little (if any) control over how our work will be interpreted. Were it up to you, what message would like people to walk away with after seeing Pleiades?

I don’t want to get too spoilery, so forgive me if this sounds overly abstract. But I would say that the message of the play is something like “terrible things can happen, but sisterhood can help you get through it.” The world of the play contains malice, violence, and sexism; it also contains humor, courage, and kindness. As such, while bad things happen in Pleiades, I really hope that people don’t interpret it as one of those bleak, nihilistic, “everything in the world is awful” plays.

As mentioned above, I also want people to see the connections between the era of the play and the present era, and to think about how the lives of young women have or haven’t changed since 1971.

Would you invite the aforementioned playwright to one of the performances?

I’d be fine if he came, as long as the rest of the Bay Area theater community didn’t try to turn it into something sensationalistic. The last thing I want is to have people gossiping about me and this playwright and wondering “Ooh… What’s he gonna say about her play? Is the feud going to continue?” Really, at this point I wish people would just stop talking about this so-called controversy.

With a full production now under your (haute couture, envy-inspiring) belt, what are your plans for the next one? Bigger cast? Musical numbers? Sychronised swimming routine?

I don’t actually know. I still love big-cast plays and will continue to advocate for them, but producing Pleiades has made me understand a little better why producers prefer smaller casts: a big cast means more schedules to juggle, more costumes to find, more stipends to pay out! Sometimes I think that my next play should be, like, a really tightly-structured slamming-door farce; sometimes I think I should go in the opposite direction and write something abstract and lyrical. I know that I don’t want my next play to be too similar to Pleiades; it’ll probably be a while before I write another family drama. And I’d like to try writing something set in the present day — it’d be nice to sit down and write without having to do historical research first! But nothing’s certain yet. As Claire Rice writes in “Europa” (one of the plays that will be published, along with Pleiades, in the forthcoming Heavenly Bodies anthology), “What a great burden an open and unknown future is.”

The Atlee sisters look toward the future. Photo by Serena Morelli

The Atlee sisters look toward the future. Photo by Serena Morelli

Pleiades runs Thursdays through Saturdays, August 7 to 30, at the Phoenix Theatre in San Francisco, August 7 – 30. Tickets are on sale at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/780504. For more information or to get in touch with the Pleiades team, please visit http://PleiadesSF.wordpress.com.

The San Francisco Olympians Festival, for which Pleiades was first commissioned, will have its fifth annual run this November at The EXIT Theatre in San Francisco. The producers of the festival are currently running an IndieGoGo campaign through August 1st in support of this year’s entries. To learn more about the festival – including artwork, cast lists, and synopses of all plays throughout its five-year history – please visit http://www.sfolympians.com.

The official Pleiades poster at the top of this article was illustrated by Emily C. Martin. Emily’s work can be found through her official site: http://www.megamoth.net The official cast photo for Pleiades was part of a set taken by photographer Serena Morelli, whose work can be found on-line at http://www.serenamorelli.com.

Charles Lewis III considers himself privileged to have seen both the original reading of Pleiades and the very first Olympians Festival. He’s even more pleased to see what each has become in the years since.

The Real World, Theater Edition: An Interview with Eric Reid

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews the man behind a new company and a new opportunity for local writers to get work seen and heard.

In a new feature on this column, I’m setting out to interview theater professionals in the Bay Area to learn more about how they involve themselves in the scene. Eric Reid, the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Theater Madcap, was the first of these interviews. We chatted at the Mission Public about his new playwriting series, Staged!, (the lack of) diversity in theater – and the opportunities and challenges that presents, and upcoming projects at Theater Madcap.

Eric Reid, Executive Director of Theater Madcap

Eric Reid, Executive Director of Theater Madcap

BJ: Tell me about Staged! and how it got started.

ER: Staged! is a ten-week staged reading series designed to develop new work that explores diversity. It happens every Tuesday at Inner Mission. It started because as an actor and a person of color looking for work that explores diverse themes is few and far between. A couple years ago, along with Rob Ready, we’d started a similar series for new work with PianoFight called “Shortlived”. The idea was to produce short plays and have the audience vote on their favorite over the course of three months and then from that the winner was given a full-length production. With Staged! I wanted to take that same idea and select 10 plays to be read over 10 weeks and from that, I select one winner for a full-length production. That way, I can promote and support work I want to see that is exploring themes I think are important.

BJ: What was the impetus to start this new series?

ER: The tagline of my theater company is “Deliberately Diverse Theater” because we’re interested in producing theater that’s deliberately exploring diversity as a topic. I’ve been in the Bay Area scene for 13 years and it was hard for me to find roles. And you have to ask yourself questions about why that is. As a city, we pride ourselves on being ethnically diverse, but the reality is in 1980 about 19% of the population was African-American. In 2000, it went down to 12%. Now, it’s down to 6%. In any other scientific field, you’d look at a sizable decrease in population as a crisis leading towards extinction. There were certainly factors that lead a mass exodus of African-Americans out of San Francisco and when the economy recovered, there was no place for them. With this series, I wanted to try and figure out a way that we could live up to the identity of being diverse. For me, that starts with the writing. It’s in the spine of the story for writers to incorporate diversity of all types.

BJ: Where are you at in the current series? How’s it going so far?

ER: This past Tuesday was our fourth week and so far it’s going well! I recognize that it’s a hard topic. I had high aspirations to have a performance about diversity and then a talkback. And it’s easy to feel, but really hard to talk about. There are so many opinions and no one’s really come up with any good format of how to lead a talkback session about diversity. So, I lead with that. I say that it’s going to be uncomfortable, but that’s okay. And for the playwright, they get to see what the audience truly got out of their piece. The great thing about theater is it gives the opportunity to the audience to empathize with another character who might not be like them. A performance will present events that never happened before or after. Even if you see another performance of the same play and same company, it’s always going to be different. So, it links the audience together into something that’s truly magical. It’s hard to criticize when you’ve had such an intimate experience with one another. And this is what sort of lubricates the gears when we talk about diversity afterwards. How it affected them, what they would like to see, etc.

BJ: Have you had any sticking points with any of the talkback sessions so far or by contrast has it actually brought people together?

ER: Not really, I think if anything it’s brought people together. Because people come to sit and listen. And when you’re in a talkback session, your brain is in listening mode. The hardest thing about the talkback sessions is the fear of feedback. This type of performance then talkback model takes judgment off the table. You’re igniting your listening muscles and it creates a unique atmosphere. The thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that one of the main things for minorities, is we just want to be heard. Everyone wants to be heard. This gives people the chance to express their opinions and that’s the beginning of the healing process. It’s an opportunity to speak and express oneself in a positive way.

BJ: What plays and playwrights have you done so far?

ER: The first play we did was Hedge by Robin Lynn Rodriguez. It’s a play about gentrification. It’s set in Oakland and these two well-meaning hipster couples move into a new neighborhood and want to change things for the better, but experience some obstacles with the community. It’s about what happens when pure intentions and the reality of going into a place that is unknown.

Then, we did Don’t Be Evil by Bennett Fisher. In that one a government agency kidnaps a programmer responsible for creating a search engine that implicates the government’s misdeeds. It’s exploring our understanding of technology and the possibilities of its use, since we don’t quite know what all things like the internet can be used for.

The third play was by Garret Groenveld called The Serving Class. And that was about an affluent family planning this extravagant wedding for their daughter and the people they hire to serve their needs for this endeavor. That one’s a comedy that’s about the reckless use of privilege and what people are consumed by.

Then, we had an African-American playwright, Richard Kevin Cartwright’s play, Drapetomania, which was a condition under the eugenics theories manufactured by the medical society to describe slaves who wanted to run or tried to get free. And this was a real thing used to identify and solve those who had this “condition” with testing in very gruesome ways. In addition to going into the history, this play really shows how we can be duped into believing anything.

And this coming Tuesday, is The Subtenant by Daniel Hirsch and it’s about a father who is estranged from his son who finds his old laptop and discovers things he never knew. It’s about the connection we have to our family and the denial of who they are when they act in ways that we don’t want them to, and then the regret for not having a chance at reconciliation.

So, really with all these plays we’re tapping into the human condition and discovering that the conditions we have are universal.

BJ: How can people get involved or submit their plays?

ER: Well, all the plays for the current season have been selected, but I actually ran into a problem that I didn’t expect that I could use some help on.

BJ: What happened?

ER: Well, it was really surprising actually. I ran into it on the last play we did, Drapetomania. I needed two African-American male actors and I was surprised by the lack of actors that were actually available. It’s only one rehearsal and one staged reading, so it’s not a huge time commitment, but you do end up having to work for free. A lot of actors I reached out to were in other shows and I just wasn’t getting responses to the calls I put out. It brought up the question, how do I widen my pool of actors? So, I’m thinking of ways to cultivate that. Perhaps offering acting and directing talent in addition to supporting writers. It’s great to support plays about diversity, but then the idea was to create more roles for actors and directors from a diverse range of backgrounds. Because it wasn’t for lack of trying with putting the word out on Drapetomania. It was like pointing to something else…

BJ: A systemic problem?

ER: Yes, exactly! It goes back to what we were talking about before – that only 6% of the population here is African-American. It’s all connected. Which is why it’s so hard to talk about in those talkbacks. The obstacle course for the night gets kinda tough. And I think it can be easy to choose not to take part in that. But I’m hoping that people have a stronger muscle for this and that we can continue to develop it. Whenever plays are cast with diversity in mind or are about topics relating to diversity, they do really well in the Bay Area. So, how do we do more of that?

BJ: Remind me again, how long does Staged! run?

ER: It’s every Tuesday night starting in July and running until September 2nd.

BJ: And what’s after that?

ER: After that, I’ll be staging Sam Shepard’s True West, but re-imagining the cast to be people of color. We’re not changing the text at all, but we’re hoping that by casting it a certain way, it raises questions and adds some nuance to the story. Then, we have the winner of Staged! in February. This summer has been our inaugural season. And then, that’s it. We’re a small company. We’re only staging three plays.

BJ: How do people connect with you and Theater Madcap?

ER: We’ll have a Kickstarter campaign to fund our season of programs. I really want to keep the Staged! series free for the public. They can also go to the website, our facebook page, and come out to see the next play in the series, this Tuesday, July 29th, 7 PM, at Inner Mission (2050 Bryant Street in San Francisco).

BJ: Any last thoughts/words of wisdom for aspiring artists?

ER: We have a real opportunity to explore diversity in a new way, for actors to gain new understanding of each other and a desire to add more to the tool kit by exploring diverse roles. It leads to greater empathy as human beings. I used to get angry when I heard the term “post-racial” because what does that even mean? At first, I understood it to be a term invented by those in power to stop any kind of discussion about race and ethnicity, but since starting Theater Madcap and the Staged! series, I wondered what if we challenged ourselves collectively to truly define what that term could mean. What if we tried to define what that means? And what could it mean if there was an actual desire to get past it? With a theater company that is trying to explore diversity, I think it’s something I’m interested in as a challenge. To start, I’m looking at San Francisco and trying to figure out ways that theater available matches its perceived identity and that there are more opportunities for minorities on stage. Words of wisdom? Keep exploring more ways to make diversity a real thing in what you do.

MadCap copy

You can see The Subtenant by Daniel Hirsch, the fifth play in the Staged! series by Theater Madcap on Tuesday, July 29th at Inner Mission.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a local playwright and blogger. You can follow her on twitter @bjwany.

Hi-Ho the Glamorous Life: Some Thoughts After a Successful Crowdfunding Campaign

Marissa Skudlarek, running on producer time.

I read Allison Page’s and Anthony Miller’s recent critiques of crowdfunding with interest, because at the time they were posted, I was running a crowdfunding campaign for my show Pleiades, which opens in two weeks.

Now that the campaign’s concluded and we made our goal, I feel compelled to chime in with some additional thoughts about the experience of crowdfunding.

Anthony mentions the idea that “people are more likely to support an all-or-nothing Kickstarter campaign than a you-get-whatever-money-you-raise Indiegogo campaign,” but to me, that feels like it’s largely a rumor. (Perhaps Kickstarter is spreading this myth in order to prevent people from defecting to Indiegogo?)

Instead, in my experience, crowdfunding campaigns often fail when the perks they offer don’t seem appealing enough. Working in theater, we have the opportunity to offer a really great perk that, unlike T-shirts or coffee mugs, doesn’t cost anything to manufacture: a ticket to our play. Thus, when I see theater crowdfunding pleas that don’t offer a ticket as one of the rewards, or offer tickets only to the most high-rolling funders (say, requiring you to donate $100 in order to receive a ticket that normally costs $25), I think that the people running the campaign have been shortsighted. Your most enticing perk should be offered at a level where it seems like a good deal, not outrageously overpriced. For Pleiades, we offered a pair of tickets for a donation of $70, which ended up being our most popular perk (and our average donation was just above that, at $79).

I’m really glad that crowdfunding websites exist. Had Indiegogo or Kickstarter not been invented, I’m not sure if I would have had the confidence to self-produce a play, because I wouldn’t have known how to raise the money. And if I didn’t have the $5,000 from my Indiegogo campaign in the production budget and had to subsist on ticket sales alone, I’d really be panicking right now.

But, like Allison and Anthony and other intelligent people who are feeling a little burnt-out after the onslaught of crowdfunding projects this year, I see some dark sides, some discontents, to this trend as well. Although crowdfunding likes to associate itself with virtues like charity and altruism, I found myself becoming less altruistic while my campaign was running. It made me greedy – I checked my email more compulsively than ever, hoping each time to see an email from Indiegogo saying that there was a new contribution to my campaign.

It also made me think about the fine line between asking your friends to support your dreams, and monetizing your personal relationships. I found myself having evil, mercenary thoughts like “If only I was close friends with this person rather than mere acquaintances, if only I’d been better at keeping in touch with my friends from high school and college, they might donate to my campaign!”

There’s also a problem with the way that crowdfunding taps into the larger societal trend of Instant Gratification, and for all I know, exacerbates it. As I mentioned above, I do choose to support campaigns based on the perks that they offer – and while part of me feels like this is being a smart shopper, part of me feels like it is antithetical to the spirit of giving. I should donate to a campaign because of what it will offer to the world, rather than what it will offer to me. And I realize that I can become easily seduced by a campaign that seems especially shiny or flashy, or that gets media attention. No, I did not donate to that damn potato-salad Kickstarter, but I did donate to Amanda Palmer’s a few years ago, mostly out of curiosity and a desire to be part of the zeitgeist (I was not really familiar with Palmer’s music).

And in an instant-gratification, Instagram world of hipper-than-thou hipsters, the less-flashy crowdfunding campaigns can have a problem. It’s especially acute for campaigns that aren’t one-shot endeavors, but are yearly and recurring. The San Francisco Olympians Festival, for instance. We believe that this festival is an important part of the community; it’s been around for five years and we want it to be around for a dozen more. But for that to happen, the festival will also need steady contributions from regular donors.

Start using phrases like “steady contributions” and “regular donors,” though, and the whole thing starts to sound boring and adult and institutional. Loyalty to a cause used to be a virtue; now I fear that loyalty is seen as synonymous with naivete or dullness. Crowdfunding has made it so that anyone can ask for anything at any time; perhaps now it’s time to remember that we should be careful what we wish for.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Her play Pleiades runs from August 7 to 30; tickets are available here. And if she hasn’t used up her “give me money” karma this year, she also encourages you to donate to the San Francisco Olympians Festival Indiegogo.