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)

Working Title: Time to get Terrified

This week Will Leschber abridged the blog and boils downs some seasonal suggestions.

Alright everyone out there in Theater Pub land, it’s that time of year where everyone has one too many projects to juggle and always more things to be done. SO since I am currently out of town and will madly be entering tech week of a show upon my return, I’ll keep this brief.

It’s nearing Halloween and we are all looking for some entertaining scares to go with our pumpkin lattes. I figured some theatrical and cinematic suggestions wouldn’t be out of turn.

First off, I suggest wishing fellow blogger (and my lovely wife), Ashley Cowan Leschber a wonderful Happy Birthday. If you don’t she gets pretty SCARRRY!

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OK, on with the show…

THEATRE: Horror theatre or scary plays are not the most commonly produced thing. But this time of year is perfect for such things! Terror-Rama is a bloody, grind-house theatrical double feature experience where audiences will get equal parts serial-killer gore and campy horror comedy. This plug is a bit shameless considering that I am part of the production, but I’m confident in saying this night has something scary for everyone: Laughs, scares, scars, blood, tears, dead raccoons. Terror-Rama plays Oct 17- Nov 1st, Fridays and Saturdays (and Thursday the 30th) at the EXIT Theatre.

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FILM: The Historic Castro Theatre is one of the best places in the city to take in old film and nothing says cinematic Halloween quite like classic horror films. On the 23rd of October this great repertory theater is playing a Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi double feature with 1934’s The Black Cat and 1935’s The Raven. Both films were strong staples that cemented Universal as place as the home of classic frights on Halloween movie nights. The films may seem a bit cheesy now but Karloff and Lugosi are pillars of classic scary movies for a reason. At their best they are magnetic and unsettling. Check em out!

HOME ENTERTAINMENT: Sometimes curling up with some Halloween candy and a scary movie is best (if you’ve already seen all the spooky theatre in town;). So in keeping with the double-bill theme this far, here are two recommendations for Streaming Netflix viewing. If you are looking for an unsettling crime story to rattle your nightmares, I SAW THE DEVIL is it. This Korean film is a front runner for best revenge/serial killer film to come out in the last decade…probably longer than that. The scope of this detective cat and mouse tale is expansive and yet it also rummages around in local fears we all have for not being able to protect those closest to us against the darkness in this world. Like no other film out there, I SAW THE DEVIL gives a face to Nietzsche’s aphorism “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” This tale is pitch black and if you wish to look into darkness, look no further than what lies here.

Lastly, if you like your frights a little lighter maybe you should stream TROLL HUNTER instead. This 2010 Swedish film is a favorite amongst found footage film fans. It’s fun! It’s filled full of scares! And it’s delightful! Watch and laugh and scream. You won’t regret it.

If all else fails and none of these choices are your Halloween jam, you can always try and find ERNEST SCARED STUPID. That movie is the shit.

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Theater Around The Bay: Thirteen Questions (And One In-Joke) About Terror-Rama

Today’s guest interviewer is local actor Tony Cirimele, who interviews Anthony Miller, one of our regular columnists (“The Five”) and the mastermind behind this year’s Halloween spectacular, “Terror-Rama.”

TC: “Terror-Rama” is a rare breed of theater; billed as a “Horror Theatre Double Feature”, it is comprised of two one-acts whose sole purpose is to scare. Think “Grindhouse” with a bit of “Friday the 13th” and “M” thrown in for fun. “Terror-Rama” is comprised of two parts; “Camp Evil” by Anthony Miller is a darkly comic look at slasher flicks, while “Creep” by Nick Pappas is a deeply disturbing crime thriller. When Anthony Miller was approached about being interviewed for SF Theater Pub, he requested that his “celebrity” interviewer be yours truly. Besides bonding over having more or less the same name, Anthony and I worked together on several projects during our time at SF State, and one magical summer we were neighbors/drinking buddies. I recently sat down with Anthony (via email) to discuss “Terror-Rama”.

As anyone who saw “Zombie! The Musical!” will know, this isn’t your first theatrical horror piece. What is it about the horror genre that you feel makes it work for theater?

AM: Making it work is half the fun. Horror is very reactive and elicits a reaction from its audience, that lends itself very well to a live performance. But taking concepts from films and turning them into a theatrical concept, to make it theatre, is the exciting part. When it’s done well, it can be fun to watch, exhilarating even.

TC: Your piece, “Camp Evil”, is about a summer camp that may or may not be haunted. What was your camp experience (if any) like in your energetic youth?

AM: I was a Boy Scout so I did a lot of camping trips as a kid. My parents sent me to summer camp for years. I have good and bad experiences, but the bad ones were important because I was very much the weird kid who everyone teased mercilessly. Some of my bad experiences tie in (albeit in more comical ways) to what happens to the characters in “Camp Evil.” I also always loved movies and TV shows about summer camps. I was particularly fond of Salute Your Shorts, and of course, Sleepaway Camp.

TC: What scares you the most? And does that work its way into your writing (horror-genre or otherwise)?

AM: Death, I’m in general terrified of death. I had to deal with it early in my life so it was always something I’ve had to process, more so now because I’m in my mid-thirties and people my age are starting to die. So in every play I’ve written, someone dies and a big part of the plot is how people react to death. More specifically I’m afraid to die suddenly. Being given a time table and die in bed with my loved ones around me doesn’t worry me as much, it’s not seeing it coming or it happening in an impersonal way that scares me. Everything I write tends to deal with that.

TC: Let’s say I’m a total wuss who doesn’t like a lot of blood and guts in his talking pictures, but is willing to give it a go. What horror films do you recommend?

AM: There are lots of great Horror movies that aren’t big on blood and guts, they’re usually called thrillers. Movies like Dementia 13 or Psycho are good. Nightmare on Elm Street is so ridiculous; the violence is more comical than scary. Friday the 13th is pretty tame by today’s standards. Night of the Living Dead is another good one.

TC: Do you have a favorite obscure horror movie that you wish more people knew about? Or a famous horror movie you find inexplicably popular?

AM: Long Island Cannibal Massacre is an unknown masterpiece in my opinion. I also have a deep fondness for Troma Studios; they made the Toxic Avenger films, Basket Case, Monster in the Closet, De-Campetated, and Rockabilly Vampire. There’s a campy, punk rock, DIY feel to those movies that I try to carry over into my work. Lloyd Kauffman (Head of Troma Srudios) is a hero of mine. What I don’t get is torture porn type movies. I think Eli Roth is more talented than the films he makes. He’s got such a great talent for storytelling and his visual style is fantastic. But it seems like these movies are more like gross-out movies or just barrages of horrific imagery for the sake of having barrages of horrific imagery. The Saw films are also a good example, the first one is practically an art film, the dozen sequels don’t even come close. I will always consider the 70’s as a golden age for Horror. I think Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Dawn of The Dead are all brilliant films.

TC: Did you and fellow “Terror-Rama” playwright Nick Pappas collaborate and/or read each other’s pieces during the process? Or is one half of this show completely new to you?

AM: I commissioned him, gave him some parameters and we put both plays through a development process. There were several drafts, two readings and lots of dramaturgical work. So we often gave our opinions back and forth. Part of my job as producer was to shepherd along both plays. So I’m pretty excited to see how far the pieces have come. A neat thing about it is that both plays were commissioned, written, and developed for this show. So this has been a play incubator as well,

TC: What writers/non-writers have had the most influence on your writing style? And conversely, which writer has had the least influence?

AM: Playwrights like Charles Busch, Neil Simon, Arthur Laurents and Christopher Durang are all really influential. They are very much the folks I started off trying to emulate and after a while, find my own voice from. Also, I’ve always liked how David Mamet writes how people talk on the phone, I steal that pretty often. From Film; Quentin Tarantino, John Waters, Robert Rodriguez and Wes Craven are big influences as well. On the other end of that, I’d say my two favorite playwrights are also the ones that have had no real influence on my work. That’s Eugene O’Neil and George Bernard Shaw; I am deeply intimidated by their work. Candida and Long Day’s Journey Into Night are without a doubt my two favorite plays, but I don’t think my work resembles them or those plays at all.

TC: Describe your ideal writing setup. Laptop or longhand? Music or silence? Coffee or “Faulkner’s Little Helper”?

AM: I’m lucky enough to have my own little man-cave at home. So I still use a desktop computer (laptops and I have a strenuous relationship). I don’t do anything long hand, my handwriting is atrocious. I like being able to edit as I go and I don’t really have the romantic obsession with typewriters others do. I listen to a lot of music when writing; sometimes I’ll put together a playlist of songs that kinda resemble the tone I’m going for. “Camp Evil” was written to a lot of Styx, Peter Frampton, Bad Company and various 70’s stoner music. When I edit, it’s usually a quiet, concentrated time. Podcasts or silence is really good for editing. Writing and drinking has never really worked out for me. Coffee, if I’m writing at the beginning of my day.

TC: You have quite an eclectic cast assembled, including a very talented actress I once made out with in a zombie-related show. What kind of actors are you drawn to as a writer/director?

AM: Most of the time, I cast people because I see aspects of that character in the actor. But sometimes you have a person that can play anything. Sometimes, I use people who aren’t primarily actors, but who would do that specific role well. In truth, the kind of people I want/need to work with need to be kind of up for anything. The cast (and crew) we have for Terror-Rama is the best group I’ve ever worked with. Like, ever.

TC: You are serving only as playwright for “Camp Evil”, letting director Colin Johnson take the helm. Are you still active in the rehearsal process? You’re not one of those “back-seat directors”, are you?

AM: As Executive Producer, I was very hands-on at the beginning, I had some specific ideas that I wanted to be the foundation of the show. Like Sindie Chopper, the Horror host, she was a big element I pushed for. But now we’re in rehearsal and I’ve taken a big step back. There’s a quote by Tina Fey that I really like; “Hire brilliant people and get out of their way”. So to me, if I just meddled and micromanaged every aspect of the show, that would be a disservice to the people I hired. Some people can have one grand vision and execute every aspect of it, I’m not one of those people. I have learned that I like it much more when someone else directs my play. I can’t write and direct a play. In the best cases, the director sees something I didn’t and it’s better. I’m too reverent to my characters and writing. Colin has been perfect in this role; from day one he has always “got” the show. I was at the first read-through and then I didn’t go to rehearsals for two weeks. Now that we’re about to go into tech and we’re into run-throughs I’m around a bit more. But by this point, it’s very much their show, and I think this approach has worked out perfect. Don’t get me wrong, I find times to give my opinion. But I feel like Colin was given the space to make it his, and I love what he’s done with the whole show.

TC: You used to house manage at SF Playhouse. Have you ever based a character off of an annoying patron you’ve had to deal with?

AM: Patrons not so much, the most annoying ones aren’t that interesting. It was the people I worked with that were fascinating. Nick Pappas and I always talk about writing a pilot for an American version of Slings and Arrows based on the Playhouse. It is our dream to see Kevin Kline play Bill English.

TC: After reading the Terror-Rama Diaries at AwesomeTheatre’s website, this show seems to have had some difficulty getting off the ground. What motivates you to put on theater?

AM: Masochism mostly. But seriously, I get very frustrated when I hear people declaring theatre dead or dying because I find that to be patently false. Theatre as we know it now is destined to change, but that’s more natural evolution as dictated by what people want and react to. You have to keep it fresh. But the thing I think that will keep theatre around forever is that unlike every other form of entertainment, it requires more than one person to enjoy it. You can listen to music alone, you can look at a painting alone, you can watch TV, sporting events, and movies alone. You never have to interact with the people actually creating it. In theatre, there’s no way around it. Even if you’re the only person in the audience, you’re still in a room with actors and a couple of stage hands. You can’t have a theatrical experience all by yourself; theatre is unique in that sense. I mean, you can watch a play or musical that’s been recorded, but you’re really just watching a movie. I think that’s why I never got into film or TV, there’s an uncontrollable element to live theatre that I find appealing. If you want perfect, make a movie and it’ll be the same every time you watch it. But theatre has the ability to be different every time. Now in the case of Terror-Rama, I did initially pitch it to another group, and the talks went pretty far down the road but ultimately they didn’t really get it. That rings true for a lot of my projects, people don’t get it initially. Then they see it and they say, “oh now I get it”. So a big motivator for me is to take my crazy ideas that people don’t think will work and then prove them wrong. I’m really into converts, so I want to make theatre that attracts people who regularly wouldn’t go to theatre. If we can get those people in, then they can realize they do like theatre, provided they’re being told stories they want to hear. I’m less interested in what Theatre IS and more interested in what Theatre can be. It’s when we make hard definitions of the art form that people start to bemoan the death of theatre. I don’t think it will die, it just evolves. Being part of that evolution is what motivates me. And it’s the only thing I’m good at, so there’s that.

TC: And finally, what pearls of wisdom do you have for anyone trying to get a start as a playwright?

AM: It’s cheesy but, I think it’s important to spend a lot of time finding your voice. Knowing what you want to write and how you write it. So it’s not just writing a lot, it’s also finding out what inspires you and gets you excited about writing. Study the nuts and bolts of what it is that you like about them and what they do. Know what you like and know a lot about what you like. Also, sometimes only you will believe in your idea at first. Own your crazy idea and do it.

TC: My one In-Joke: Remember “Schuster Boys on Schuster Island”?

AM: Of course! Those damn Schuster boys; there was Jethro Scuhster, Mad Dog Schuster and their sister Lulabelle. Ah, wonderful times living in the Sunset.

Performances of “Terror-Rama” run October 17th-November 1st at the Exit Studio Theater in San Francisco. Tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets.