The Real World – Theater Edition: Back to School! An Interview with Rob Handel

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews a former mentor about the rules of playwrighting.

September (and, over time, August too) are, of course, synonymous with heading back to school. With that idea in mind, when thinking of the next playwright to interview, I had to return to one of my mentors from Carnegie Mellon University, Rob Handel, to check up on how he’s viewing theater and playwriting these days.

It’s fitting that this month for Theater Pub ended up being sort of “break the rules” themed, because initially what was on my mind was a conversation Rob and I had back in April about teaching and how strange it was that you often make these initial “rules” or “principles” to guide a newbie student in the right direction, but over time you start to realize that rules are not needed at all in order to make a great play.

Of course, at CMU, when we’d have workshop, invariably we received feedback from Rob that quoted one of The Rules. Some of us politely nodded, others vehemently defended the opposite position and maybe others played devil’s advocate while the rest of us shrank lower in our seats, fearing being asked to take a side. Clearly, they were a hot topic for the students, but over time, I keep on making more sense of them, and at the same time, there are plenty of great plays that are notable exceptions.

So, in this interview, you’ll get to read as I put Rob to task on what his rules are, why they are, and also – what I thought was interesting, is Rob’s response when I asked if I could ask him about The Rules. He said, “Sure, but I’m actually re-thinking the rules…” What??! Well, I had to hear more about that… And now, so can you!

Rob Handel, Head of Dramatic Writing at Carnegie Mellon University

Rob Handel, Head of Dramatic Writing at Carnegie Mellon University

Barbara: So in class occasionally you’d reference your rules for playwriting. What’s on the list?

Rob: Don’t talk to the audience. Don’t withhold information from the audience. Don’t write “blackout” in the middle of a conversation. (Maybe you remember more of my rules? I feel like I’m forgetting something.)

Barbara: I remember one which was not to have your characters talk about more than one off-stage/not seen character per play.

Rob: I think that offstage character rule is such a good rule that I am charging $30,000 tuition for it.

Barbara: Can you explain the reasons why it might be a good idea to follow these rules?

Rob: “Don’t talk to the audience”: This rule comes out of my experience reading hundreds of plays every year (for admissions, selection committees I’m asked to be on, etc.). 99% of the time, a play that starts with a direct address is going to be a bad play. It suggests that the writer knows where the play is going to end up, and this character, the narrator, is going to talk to us again at the end and tell us what we were supposed to learn. I go to plays to see the exploration of a question, a journey into the unknown — not to be lectured at.

“Don’t withhold information from the audience”: 99% of the time, the withholding of information is being used as a substitute for plot. For example, “at the end of act one, we realize that Paul is actually the same person as Peter.” The problem with this is that “we” is not a character in the play. The way storytelling works is that the audience (like it or not) identifies with a character, and we have the same information as that character (or MORE) but not less, so that when they are surprised, we are surprised WITH them. The great example of this is the screenplay for THE SIXTH SENSE. We have the same information as Bruce Willis, not more and not less, throughout the picture.

“Don’t write ‘blackout’ in the middle of a conversation”: If your characters are stuck, stay stuck with them. One of the things theatre is best at, better than any other form, is claustrophobia — what is it like to be trapped in this apartment, this office, this room, with this other person? In a charged, awkward emotional moment, you must resist the temptation to end the scene on a great line if it robs us of finding out how the characters escape that moment. You can learn a lot about someone by watching how they extricate themselves from an argument.

Barbara: But recently, when chatting you blew my mind when you said the rules were made up and that actually you’re having second thoughts about them! Why teach them if made up? And what are you re-thinking?

Rob: “Don’t talk to the audience”: If I made a list of my top 20 favorite plays, at least 10 of them, probably more, would be plays that use direct address. So something is clearly wrong with my theory. Take How I Learned To Drive by Paula Vogel: the direct address is critical to the play because it lets us know that the play is memory, therefore the heroine will survive. Furthermore, she is telling the story, controlling the narrative — and this creates a safe space to tell a highly charged and deeply uncomfortable story. There are lots of ways to use direct address, and they don’t have to be awful.

“Don’t withhold information from the audience”: This is a pretty good rule. Plays that violate this rule tend to be sadistic and/or condescending. If you’re drawn to that kind of play, maybe you really want to be a magician or a maker of haunted houses? (Great professions, by the way. But not the same as playwright.) On the other hand, not all plays tell stories in the same way. Some plays are made of emotional moments and some are made of mysterious video interludes and some plays don’t have characters at all. There is probably a great play out there, or being created right now, that will prove me wrong.

“Don’t write ‘blackout’…” This is a good rule. I think the main reason I’m trying not to say “This is one of my rules” anymore is that I’ve realized that what keeps me alive as an artist (and as a consumer of art) is my idea of what a play is, or what theatre can be, is constantly being challenged and overturned. Some of the most inspiring plays I’ve seen recently could not possibly be written following even the most basic rules that I used to throw at people. (I’m thinking of Savannah Reich’s Six Monsters, the Rude Mechs’ Stop Hitting Yourself, the Debate Society’s Jacuzzi, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, and William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.)

Barbara: What do you think are the things someone can do if they want to write better plays?

Rob: Conveniently, there is exactly one way to write better plays: write more. Write every day. Carry a notebook. If you’ve written a 30 page play, rewrite it as a 60 page play. (Then, keep only the good pages.) If you’ve written a three hour play, rewrite it as a ten hour play. Keep going.

Barbara: To submit a play to an opportunity or to DIY a production? And why?

Rob: Both. As with political change, you want to be in the streets AND in the halls of power.

Barbara: Any thoughts on the current state of theater and playwriting– what does it need? Have too much/not enough of? What are you excited to see? And anything that scares you about the future of theater?

Rob: I am thrilled to be a theatre practitioner at this moment. The heated discussions about diversity and representation are not going to go away. People who run their companies the same way they did 30 years ago are going to keep getting called out. We’re going to keep moving forward with inclusiveness, and that means companies will need to create structures that allow them to give tickets away for free. (I just had the privilege of having my play A Maze produced with such a “radical hospitality” structure by Theatre Battery in Kent, Washington.)

Barbara: I love the term radical hospitality and am curious how it worked!

Rob: Here are some links about Radical Hospitality:

http://howlround.com/radical-hospitality-the-artistic-case
http://howlround.com/the-business-case-for-radical-hospitality-at-mixed-blood-theatre

Barbara: Any advice for those who want to write plays?

Rob: I hear the MFA program at Carnegie Mellon is excellent.

Barbara: Any shows we should catch?

Rob: My new play I Want To Destroy You will be produced by Theatre Vertigo in Portland (Oregon) in January: http://www.theatrevertigo.org/. On the East Coast, I’m looking forward to Gardiner Comfort’s solo piece The Elephant in Every Room I Enter: http://lamama.org/the-elephant-in-every-room-i-enter-2/.

Follow Rob Handel on twitter @sailordoghandel for more.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Male And Female, I Created Them

Marissa Skudlarek as Everybody.

Six years ago, for the first time, I wrote a male character that I felt really, truly proud of. He was the first male character I’d created that I felt like I understood — someone not cobbled together out of bits of other male characters from other works of fiction, but a real person with flaws and virtues. Furthermore, while I can sometimes go too far in thinking that male characters need to be possessed of a certain alpha-male masculinity, this character was not defined by his gender. He was a complex person who happened to be a dude.

The secret might be that, to a large extent, I based this character, Jon, on myself. In my very first plays, I’d started from an assumption that men are not like women; men are inherently different from me. (Hence, perhaps, the predilection for writing alpha-males.) But as I grew older, I came to understand that while there are many men out there who are nothing like me, there are also men who share many of the same qualities I do. It perhaps helped that this was one of my first plays where the conflict didn’t center around romance (I was pretty sure that men didn’t experience romance the same way I did), but around themes of self-actualization and escaping the daily grind.

Jon is frustrated; he feels bored, awkward, and out-of-place in his office. He is defensive and pedantic. He tries to be self-deprecating, but it backfires. He kind of thinks he’s better than everyone else. He’s more grouchy and angry than I tend to be (probably because it’s more socially acceptable for a man to be outspokenly angry than a woman) but, to a large extent, he’s me, with all the flaws I had when I was just out of college, only in a male body.

The play containing the character of Jon is no masterpiece. It will probably never be staged. And I realize that “just base all of your characters, male and female, on yourself” is no way to develop a varied and interesting body of work. But I’m bringing this up today because it’s my way of pushing back against those people who say that men can’t write women, or women can’t write men. This idea, however, seems predicated on an assumption that all men are one way and all women are another way. No man can understand the nature of being female; no woman can understand the nature of being male. But why throw up such walls in the name of ideology, when art is supposed to promote empathy and understanding?

Indeed, criticism these days can be very doctrinaire and ideological. In the new movie Mistress America (written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig), a college freshman, Tracy, writes a short story in which the central character is based upon her new friend Brooke, a 30-year-old New Yorker of limitless ambitions and limited means. Predictably, Brooke eventually lays eyes on the story, and becomes furious at how her teenage protégée Tracy has “betrayed” her by turning her into a character. Brooke’s friends take Tracy to task, too. Not only has she betrayed Brooke’s confidence, but also her story paints all its female characters in an unflattering light. One woman hurls questions like “Do you believe in a woman’s right to choose?” and “How do you feel about female genital mutilation?” at a bewildered Tracy.

This scene is over-the-top satire, but the reason it’s so funny is because it captures something about the way we evaluate art in the 2010s. Brooke’s friends think it’s more important for Tracy’s story to promote a feminist message than for it to be truthful, or interesting, or complex. You can also read this scene as Baumbach and Gerwig having a laugh at themselves, embedding a criticism of their own movie within the screenplay before anyone else can make that same criticism. Although they’ve written a very smart movie with two complex female characters at the center of it, an overly ideological critic could still take them to task for writing about women with messy lives who do some manipulative and underhanded things.

Taking women to task for depicting female characters in supposedly unflattering ways; insinuating that women can’t write male characters because men are too different… it’s all two sides of the same coin, and that coin is “letting ideological considerations become so overwhelming that it’s impossible to write anything at all.”

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Cowan Palace: Ten Times I Broke The Rules And It Ruled!

Ashley’s not always much of a rule breaker but when she is… it’s something!

When we last met as a Theater Pub unit to talk about the rest of the year, the bloggers decided to use September as a way to explore “breaking the rules” in theatre. So, to get things going, here are ten times I broke the rules:

1.) Cat Improv

Closing night of Godspell (the last play I did before leaving New York) I decided it’d be funny if I changed my normal, expected “adlib” line about being too busy to being too busy because I had to wax my cat. (Looking back, I think I was trying to impress some boy I had a crush on who had miraculously traveled all the way out to Queens to see the show after months of my begging.) Sure, some of the cast wanted to kill me because the random weird new line made them break but the audience LOLed and I thought I was a bad ass. As I always say, it’s the cat’s pajamas when you can improv a line about a feline.

2.) The Switch

It was a double show day a few months into Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding (the interactive, Italian wedding show!). We hadn’t brought on many swings or understudies yet and almost of of the cast had been playing the same part each night. After one performance as “the dorky” bridesmaid my castmate, who was scheduled to play “the sexy singer” bridesmaid, mentioned she didn’t feel like wearing her character’s heels for the next show. I tried them on for fun in the ladies dressing room and we started joking about switching parts. (Considering we both had the same dress on anyway, it would only take a few different accessories to become the other character.) But this was at the beginning of the run when we had a pretty strict and regimented production team who absolutely would have said no to the request. We decided to just do it without telling anyone figuring they wouldn’t stop the show and make us switch back. (So sneaky, right?!) The new role I was covering required me to sing four songs and make out with a groomsman without having practiced either activity. Whoa, baby, it was quite the show! And even though we got a stern talking to about our switch, it opened the door to being able to play more of the parts in the show. I then went on to sing many more songs and stage kiss many more groomsmen.

3.) Dating My Co-Star

Not sure if it’s really a rule but it’s certainly not always the best idea. Lucky for me it worked out. And we made a baby. A beautiful theater baby and actual child. Boom. Thanks, fellow actor/blogger Will Leschber!

4.) Getting Too Into Character

It was my first weekend playing Tina (in Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding) and I took the whole “in your face, interactive Italian bride” role pretty seriously. Near the end of the show, Tony and Tina have a big fight where they break up (spoiler alert: they get back together) and I grabbed a glass from someone’s table and threw it at my Tony. The glass shattered and water spilled on a couple attending the show. After the performance I was asked to never do that again by our stage manager. But then a guy who had been at the show (and drank way too much) came up to us and told me I was so fierce that I “must have real balls”. He then spelled “balls” incorrectly and missed a high five. It was rad and totally worth it.

Dear God, It’s Me Ashley

Dear God, It’s Me Ashley

5.) Turning On My Phone

While rehearsing God Satan Beer (part of Theater Pub’s second Pint-Sized Festival) I had the instinct during one rehearsal to play God as a real dick and just start taking selfies of myself during Satan’s smart and poignant monologue. We ended up keeping the bit (after cleaning it up and better defining it) and I got treasured show pictures every night!

A tale of two dresses…

A tale of two dresses…

6.) Sewing A Wedding Dress

When I first got to play Tina in TNT they costumed me in a dress that had long sleeves (though they were too short to fully cover my arms). It was also slightly too wide and too short. And, covered in random sequins and lace. Then our show switched venues and a bunch of our clothes never made it to the new location. Including that dress. (Perhaps it returned to the magical Lisa Frank world from once it came). I knew I couldn’t fit into the dress worn by some of the other Tinas but I didn’t want to tell our production team because I knew they’d take away my chance to play the part. So I found the backup dress that I could almost fit into. Then I stole it from our collection and brought it home (huge no no). Next, I cut it apart and sewed it together to fit me better. Keep in mind, I can barely dress myself sometimes and I really don’t know much about sewing. But somehow after hours of effort, I pulled it off! I had a dress I could wear. When I put it on for my first show back in the role, one of my castmates told me she hoped I could wear that dress in my own wedding because it seemed “made for me”. I did not wear it for my own wedding but that comment still makes me laugh.

7.) An Unconventional Headshot

Before I auditioned for Terrorama, I sent the production team a picture from a film I did in NYC as my headshot and resume. It’s just me screaming in a nightgown. Awesome (Theatre), right?

I know what you’re thinking. Why doesn’t this girl have her own musical/horror/reality show yet?!

I know what you’re thinking. Why doesn’t this girl have her own musical/horror/reality show yet?!

8.) Male Monologues

For two years whenever I was asked to have a monologue ready, I went in with a male Shakespearean selection. For some reason, I always felt free to make bigger choices with them. Now this tactic did not always result in getting into the show but I like to think it helped with playing Viola in Twelfth Night.

9.) Auditioning With A TLC Song

Not a whole lot more to say other than I sang an acapella version of TLC’s “No Scrubs” at an audition that asked us to have a more classically driven song prepared. I did not get cast. But I have no regrets! One step closer to achieving my solo TLC cover band dream.

10.) Drinking On The Job

Now, I’m pretty strict about not drinking during a show. Even when I’ve played characters who were drunk and suppose to be drinking AND the director allowed me to have a real drink, I’ve always asked for the non alcoholic stuff. I have way too many butterflies before and during a show and booze doesn’t lend itself well to that (for me). But during one TNT show, when I was back to playing “the dorky bridesmaid”, a table ordered me and one of the groomsmen a shot and demanded we take it together. We tried to talk our way out of it but they insisted. Plus, the drinks were expensive! So in the nature of the “yes, and” style of the show, we took them. Even though it was just one drink, it felt a little dangerous and reckless (again, for me). Enough to say, alright, I did that but I don’t think I’ll do it again. Even if it’s just my own silly rules, sometimes it’s cool not to break them.

Working Title: I Love the Smell of Crappy Holidays in the Morning

This week Will Leschber talks madness and holidays with Lisa and Nick Gentiles…the holidays…the holidays.

Apocalypse Wow. I’m sure everyone has their own story about trying to wrestle greatness. Was it an occasion where you had a single solitary moment to shine? Where the spotlight was on you and the play has built to this? When the coach called your play? What careful words did you choose as your child had a their first emotional crisis? Was it just surviving the holidays? Was it a season long slog towards a a project that may have been bigger than you? Were your limits tested? Did you emerge fractured or more sane that you ever thought before?

I used to see these moment of grasping towards greatness as single defining tests: the moment you had the lead; the moment you walked across that stage, shook his hand and took your diploma; the moment that culminated after arduous wedding planning; the moment of moving away; the moment you faced Death; the moment they gave you the award; the moment she took her first step. Now I think wrestling greatness may just be closer to an endurance test that a moment of strength.

How long can you rage unphased through the chaos? Some people thrive in havoc. It’s a bit extreme for my taste but to each his own. My god, how many people do you know who just gel when the chips are down, the curtain is up and the final dress is now? I feel like we must be a little mad to want to be constantly part of the process of tumultuous creation and destruction.

cardfrontexact (1) copy 2

One beautiful mad event that pull together variant strings of creation and chaos is the San Francisco Fringe Festival. 150 performances by 34 Indie theater companies. I was lucky enough to bend the ear of two great writers who are returning to the Fringe this year with another set of short plays. Nick and Lisa Gentile are the warped, beautiful minds behind Crappy Holidays. Crappy Holidays is a trio of dark comedies showcasing the cynical side of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Nothing sounds more like a warzone than holidays with Death, your family and a cursing Santa Claus, am I right?!

Since I have an incessant need to know what film pairing would perfectly with their play, I asked them. What film would send you up the thematic river and get you in the perfect unsound mindset to enjoy their play, I asked. Here’s what they had to say:

There are a lot of holiday movies, but we have a different recommendation: Apocalypse Now. We think this movie can be seen as a kind of twisted metaphor for what a lot of us go through during the holiday season.

We feel obligated to enjoy the holidays, as if it’s a mission. But a family gathering can feel like a journey into a heart of darkness. We often end up face to face with someone who’s methods have become … unsound. Sometimes, you eat that green bean casserole at Thanksgiving, or unwrap that Christmas sweater and you can only say “the horror…the horror.”

I can think of nothing that fits better on top of the yule log than a big ol’ helping of the horror…the horror. Makes me want to sing Carol of the Bells immediately. Yeeesh. Apocalypse Now, more like Apocalypse Wow. Am I right?

Crappy Holidays 2 copy

If you are looking to cut through the chaos and get an early serving of holiday fruitcake, go see Crappy Holidays and any number of the other SF Fringe Festival shows. Greatness…and pumpkin pie…await.

The 2015 San Francisco Fringe Festival, 150 performances by 34 Indie theater companies,
September 11 through September 26. For more info visit: www.sffringe.org Apocalypse Now can be found for rent on many of the usual platforms (iTunes, Vudu, ect)

Theater Around The Bay: Announcing “Don’t Fall Asleep!”

You spend a third of your life unconscious and paralyzed. If that doesn’t concern you, you should join us in September for Explore the Trope: Don’t Fall Asleep! a new show by Christine Keating, directed by Sydney Painter.

dontgotosleep-01 copy

Act One, Hag-Ridden, uses folklore-inspired monologues to tell the tales of hags who condemn writers to die if they fall asleep, succubi who control men and impregnate women while they slumber, and witches who take sleeping peasants for joy-rides.

Act Two, Alien Abduction, adapts a classic pulp novel short story into a flashy, old-timey radio play about alien abductions.

Act Three, Sleeping Around, incorporates multi-media elements to tell the story of a person who believes they are sleeping soundly…until their phone records tell a different story.

Why do we sleep?
What happens when we sleep?
What CAN happen?

The show plays four times, only at PianoFight and is FREE (with a five dollar suggested donation).

Monday, September 21, at 8 PM
Tuesday, September 22, at 8 PM
Monday, September 28, at 8 PM
Tuesday, September 29, at 8 PM

Don’t miss it!

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Burnin’ Down the House – Part III

Dave Sikula, keeping promises, making history.

Okay, so after two long digressions, we’re finally (almost) here.

Come with me back to Thursday, December 14, 1978. To appreciate my actions, you have to realize that I’ve been reading Superman comics since I was three. I taught myself to read with them, so when the prospect of a serious big-screen Superman movie presented itself, there was no way I was going to miss it. Now, remember, we’d finally the summer blockbuster era, so I expected long lines. While nowadays, a movie like that would open with a midnight show kicking off opening day, the first show then then was scheduled for something like 8:00 am Friday morning. Anticipating those long lines, I drove up to Hollywood, expecting to sit or stand in line at the Chinese Theatre all night.

Well, imagine my surprise to get to Hollywood and find – no lines. I had three choices: drive back home and come back extra early the next morning, sit on Hollywood Boulevard all night by myself, or pull off to a residential street and spend the night sleeping in my car. Being young and stupid, I chose the last, waking every couple of hours to drive by the theatre and make sure that a line wasn’t forming. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.)

It was about this crowded.

It was about this crowded.

The sun rose around 7 a.m., so I decided enough was enough and drove to the theatre, parked in the lot behind the Max Factor building across the street (soon to play a major part in this narrative), and bought my ticket. Long story short (too late!): I loved the movie then and still do. Sure, it has plot holes and problems a-plenty, but the strengths – and Christopher Reeve’s performance – outweigh the weaknesses.

Fast forward to what must be Sunday, January 7th. My sister is home for the holiday. I’ve caught a cold and don’t feel great, but she decides she wants to see Superman. I don’t feel well enough to drive (and despite what a lousy driver my sister has always been, when you go somewhere with her, she drives), so she gets behind the wheel, I get in the passenger seat, and up the freeway to Hollywood we fly.

Now, my sister being who she was, she decides that the best way to handle not only the drive, but the movie as well, is to smoke a joint on the way there. I, being sick, pass (and never really did like smoking dope; it mainly gave me a sore throat). We get to the theatre, park in the Max Factor lot, buy tickets for the last show of the evening (10 p.m.?), and see the movie. We have a great time, leave the theatre, and head for the car.

This is where the fun starts.

We get to the car, and, in her altered state, she can’t find the keys. We look in the car, and, because of the darkness of the garage, can’t really see inside, but can tell they’re not in the ignition. After a discussion of a few moments, she thinks she might have dropped them on the floor of the theatre. We go back to the Chinese, and find that, in the time it’s taken to walk across Hollywood Blvd. twice and discuss losing the keys, the theatre’s been locked up as tight as a nun’s knees. The staff had disappeared like they’d been abducted by a UFO.

Crickets, tumbleweeds, and us

Crickets, tumbleweeds, and us

We marched back to the car. Still no sign of the keys. Back to the theatre. We started pounding on doors, hoping that, despite the way it looked, someone might be there. No answer.

I got the idea to start prowling around, hopeful that maybe there might be some way inside. In those days, the Chinese was, more or less, a free-standing building, with parking lots on both sides, so the auditorium doors were right out in the open. (In the decades since, those areas have been developed and there are buildings on both sides.) I tried a couple of the exterior doors, and lo and behold, one was ajar and we were able to slip into the lobby.

It was mostly dark inside, but illuminated enough that we could find our way around. The auditorium itself, though, was as black as Dick Cheney’s heart. I wondered if there was any way to turn on the house lights, so poking around behind the concessions stand, I found a circuit breaker box. I started flipping switches, hoping that one of them might illuminate the theatre, but nothing happened. Lobby lights went on and off, and I have no doubt the front of the building lit up like a pinball machine, but nothing in the auditorium. (I ended up figuring the house lights must have been controlled from the projection booth.)

What to do? We knew – or, at least, suspected – that those keys were in the house somewhere. I was suddenly hit with an idea. I knew generally where we’d sat, and would know specifically because there’d been a sticky Coke patch on the floor. Since we hadn’t thought to bring a flashlight, there was only one solution.

Taking my sister’s lighter (remember the joint?), I found a giveaway newspaper in the lobby, trod gingerly into the auditorium, using the poor illumination the lighter provided. When I got to the approximate location of our seats, I rolled up the newspaper and lit it like a torch. Like an angry villager, I waved it around until I found the Coke slick and verified that the keys weren’t there.

Did you look there?

Did you look there?

By this time, the flames were getting pretty close to my hand, so I blew out the torch, dropped it, and stamped it out to the best of my ability. Resignedly, we left the theatre and figured that, since the keys were nowhere else, they had to be in the car.

In the forecourt of the Chinese were payphones, so we called AAA and told them that we were locked out of the car. We were told that a tow truck would be there presently, and, in one of those once-in-a-lifetime miracles, not only was a truck there in less than five minutes, it was followed almost immediately by a second truck.

We explained the situation to the driver, met him across the street at the garage, and with a flick of his wrist and his slim jim, the car door was opened, and, lo and behold, the keys were there on the floor of the driver’s side where my sister had dropped them.

We got in the car, started it, and drove away into the night. The entire trip home, though, I insisted on keeping the radio on KFWB, the all-news station, because I fully expected to hear a breaking news bulletin that the Chinese Theatre was engulfed in flames and that arson was suspected.

Obviously, it didn’t.

But that, at long last, is the story of how I nearly burned down Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

In For a Penny: A Decade in the Making

Charles Lewis III has a ten year check-in.

Paul Addis business card (edited)

“You must learn some of my philosophy.
Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.”
– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I didn’t know who Paul Addis was when I auditioned for him in 2007. I wasn’t at all familiar with his acclaimed body of work, nor his then-recent infamy as “The Burning Man Arsonist” (which sounds redundant when you say it aloud). All I knew was that after two years after returning to acting – following some collegiate disillusionment – I wanted to get back into theatre and accepted invitations from whomever responded back on Craigslist.

The audition was in the back of some former storefront in SoMa. I can’t recall any other auditioners, but a woman escorted me to a back room where he sat on a ratty mattress with his personal effects were scattered about. He was pretty antsy and kept saying he had to “lay low” because “they’re still out to get me.” In hindsight, I might have just left, but I was eager to get on stage again and there was something about the guy that made me keep listening.

He wanted me to do a play about a drug-addled paraplegic vet who falls for a prostitute. I don’t think I read it well, but he said he really wanted me to do it. He gave me his business card and said he’d be in touch really soon. Then… nothing. My messages and phone calls weren’t returned and I put it out of my mind.

It wasn’t until years later that I found out the reasons he never got back to me were 1 – he went to prison for two years; 2 – upon release he staged a brand-new one-man show; and 3 – that he’d killed himself.

2007 was also around the time I happened upon Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl. I was walking through the Comics / Graphic Novels section of a bookstore and found it by happenstance. I nearly finished it in a single sitting.

I really wish I’d had the chance to see Marielle Heller’s stage adaptation, because I couldn’t imagine anyone turning the book’s heartbreaking narrative into something seen live. When I auditioned for a film of the same name in 2013, I figured it was just a coincidence. I knew Marielle’s sister Emily from her stand-up shows, but figured the name “Heller” must also be coincidence. So imagine my surprise when I found myself cast in the book-turned-play-turned-film. That’s how I wound up in Alameda at 1am ad-libbing dialogue about The Catcher in the Rye.

I was invited to the much-talked-about premiere at The Castro, but missed it because I was in tech. I did stop by the after-party. When I finally saw the film myself last week, I could only stare at my name in the credits and wonder “How the hell did this happen?”

My cast & crew t-shirt from the wrap party.

My cast & crew t-shirt from the wrap party.

I have no idea how Paul’s show would have turned out; maybe another clichéd “hooker with a heart of gold” story, maybe something truly moving. But as I look back, it remains one of the more interesting “What ifs?”. He was the sort of “outlaw” I wanted to work with at the time, the way Marielle’s adaptation is the sort of thing I like doing now.
This marks ten years since I decided to give acting another try. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t believe in Destiny (all is predetermined and choice is an illusion), but I do believe in Fate (the right set of circumstances aligning at just the right time). With the Diary film now playing and Burning Man about to start, I found Paul’s card and knew this was the right time to take stock of those ten years.

Given the choices I’ve made, is my career exactly where I want it to be? No. But it’s more accomplished than I’d ever expected.