The Real World – Theater Edition: Setting Intention

Barbara Jwanouskos, last postcard of the summer.

The sun setting in Maui.

The sun setting in Maui.

Over September, I was fortunate enough to accompany my partner on a journey to Maui to learn more about his Hawaiian heritage and culture by learning traditional lomi lomi massage and healing. So, suffice it to say, I’ve been out of the theater scene for a bit. But in that space, I was able to open myself to new modes of looking at the world and find new doors with possibility waiting eagerly on the other side.

I want to just share a little something about the importance of ritual. I’m not talking about anything cultish or so ingrained that it becomes boring and mundane. I am talking about setting the space and intention and inviting something beyond what we can touch, see, feel, hear, taste and know to enter in and help to guide us towards a better understanding of ourselves and the world. This, to me, more than anything is what theater provides.

In the practicing of lomi lomi, we set our intention, chant pule, or prayer, and begin our energetic and physical assessment of the client. We follow, perhaps, a particular routine, but leave enough room to improvise based on the needs of the client. We go from light to deep. We sooth our work. We re-assess and then cut the cord that bound us together, sending them off with love and light.

Our theatrical performances are the same way and can have the same depth of spirit, other-worldliness, and wonder. I’m hoping that coming back is just the beginning of practicing with this new found awareness that I can explore in my writing and creating art with others.

Mahalo for the gifts of time, readers! And I will be back next time with more interviews to provide us with inspiration on the creative process.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a Bay Area based writer and theater artist. Follow her on twitter @bjwany.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: The Practical Magic of Props

Marissa Skudlarek, giving props to props.

Making theater means spending your life creating and re-creating other worlds onstage. Some of the tools we use to create these other worlds are abstract – language, gesture, spatial relationships. But there’s also a whole heap of tangible stuff that becomes part of the world of the play: sets, lighting, costumes, props. These items need to be carefully considered, and obtained, and maintained. October 2015 is Design Month on the Theater Pub blog, so, to kick things off, I asked friends and members of the community to share their favorite stories about props.

Playwrights have vivid imaginations, which means that scripts can sometimes require weirdly specific props. If a prop is mentioned in the stage directions but not the dialogue, you might be able to do without it, but if the characters discuss it, you’re probably on the hook for including it.

The Desk Set requires a plush rabbit that can conceal a bottle of champagne. In the production I was in this summer, we substituted a rabbit hand puppet, but it still caused some problems during a dress rehearsal.

Other shows require people to get more artsy-craftsy. Claudine Jones shared the following story on Facebook: “The plot of Angel Street literally hinges on a brooch that contains hidden jewels. The description in the script is so vivid, it’s almost impossible to fake. I set out to make a brooch that fit all these requirements: small enough to wear as an article of jewelry, easy to open and close, and able to hide “jewels” that are big enough to be recognized as such by the audience. A couple of weeks of trial and error, bizarre prototypes that went straight into the trash, and I finally succeeded. The main component was an old tuna fish can, painted gold, with a pin epoxied on the back and an overlapping series of metal triangles that formed a kind of iris that opened and closed. The “jewels”? 3mm ruby Swarovski crystals that shone like crazy. I think the playwright would have approved.”

 Oh, Tony Kushner and your weirdly specific, metaphorical props. Photo by Dale Ratner.

Oh, Tony Kushner and your weirdly specific, metaphorical props. Photo by Dale Ratner.

The play Slavs requires a Russian-style icon of St. Sergius of Radonezh with the face of Lenin. When Dale Ratner directed this play in graduate school, he commissioned someone to paint the icon on salvaged wood – and still has it in his living room. Alandra Hileman has a similar story from when she directed the short play Overtones, in which the characters discuss an “ugly but expensive” lamp. After searching in vain for a suitable 1910s-era lamp, Alandra “assembled this from a candlestick, a votive holder, and an LED tea light for like $5 total. It’s lived on our mantle since then because my mom thinks it’s adorable.”

Ugly but expensive? More like cute and $5! Photo by Alandra Hileman.

Ugly but expensive? More like cute and $5! Photo by Alandra Hileman.

Dale and Alandra aren’t the only people who’ve been known to take props home and use them as décor. For the last month or two of my freshman year of college, I lived with a stylized wrought-steel horse’s head hanging on the wall, because my roommate had been in a student production of Equus.

Theater is all about provoking emotion, and it can be either cathartic or harrowing to see something destroyed before your eyes. But what a nightmare it must cause for the props master! I’m thinking of plays like Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, where, at a climactic moment, the characters muss and dirty a pristine living room. Or, my friend Catherine Cusick shared the following story: “I did a play where a character pours a full bottle of vodka onto a MacBook laptop that we’ve seen working and being used for two hours onstage. My mom called me up out of nowhere during rehearsals asking if I still needed that. Turns out a neighbor had left a lookalike to the working laptop out on the side of her driveway. My mom walked right by and promptly swiped it.”

Speaking of finding props on the street… When I worked with director Katja Rivera on the production of my play Pleiades in summer 2014, I learned that she has what I call a “magpie superpower” – a preternatural ability to find cool and useful stuff on the sidewalks of Berkeley. This year, a record player that Katja found has starred in three productions in a row: Grey Gardens, at the Custom Made Theatre; The Desk Set, produced by No Nude Men; and The Real Thing, at Masquers Playhouse. You have to admit that’s a pretty snazzy resume – and such versatility too, going from the 1970s in the Hamptons to the 1950s in New York City to the 1980s in London without missing a beat! “Do I have an eye for talent, or what? I literally picked that baby up off the sidewalk, and he’s done three shows this year. Next stop Broadway!” Katja writes.

Katja’s record player got passed around between these three productions thanks to informal bartering and Katja’s generosity in loaning it out to friends. If a theater company maintains a proprietary stock of props and costumes, one can even more frequently see the same items appearing in multiple productions. Stuart Bousel recalls “a dress that appeared in five productions I directed in Tucson: a simple red ankle-length gown with a gathered bodice. It was made for a chorus member in Lysistrata, then used in the Oresteia, where it was worn by Clytemnestra. Then we used it in a comedy sketch about the Oresteia where it was worn by Cassandra, then in a production of Faust Part One, where it once again went back to the chorus, then a production of Salome, where it was worn by the Cappadocian (female in our version). I’m almost certain it was finally retired after that… but maybe not.”

In the first show I ever did in high school, I had a small role as a Russian noblewoman attending an opera, and got to wear a beautiful mink stole. I grew very attached to the stole and, later on in high school, basically insisted on wearing it again when I played Mrs. Luce in Little Shop of Horrors. It’s been over ten years, but in all likelihood, that stole is still being worn by teenage actresses at my high school. Though, if I’m honest with myself, I still think of it as “mine.”

Indeed, if you love a prop or a costume piece enough, you’ll find ways to keep reusing it. Catherine Cusick, again: “I worked with a theater in high school that made a papier-maché cow for a production of Into the Woods, but managed to slip it into any other show that could conceivably involve a cow on wheels.”

Marissa Skudlarek is a playwright, producer, and arts writer. She still wants a mink stole, especially now that it’s October. For more: or Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Cowan Palace: Facebook Is My Favorite Costume

Ashley’s kick starting October’s design theme month with a look into in her favorite costume.

Last week I found myself sobbing in stairwell at work. And my coworker, who happened to be coming out of the bathroom, helped put me back together so I could continue the day. As I cried, she kindly said something about being surprised to find me in such a state because I tend to publicly highlight all the good, positive stuff. I laughed as I tried to manage the snot situation after a pretty ugly cry. “No.” I answered, “That’s just Facebook Ashley.”

Facebook Ashley stars in her own sitcom. It’s a place of laugh tracks and corny music. Even when things seem dark and gray, most of the time there’s a silver lined bow and things wrap up in 22 minute segments. Positivity is pretty makeup she uses. I like Facebook Ashley. She’s the better parts of myself thoughtfully edited and filtered. A better representation of the person I want to be.

Like this. But not at all.

Like this. But not at all.

Don’t get me wrong. She’s not a total sham. I do completely adore my husband. My daughter makes my heart feel like a Lisa Frank binder. And I actually like my job! Better yet, I love my coworkers. I also have a tendency to put myself in situations that lend themselves to great stories. Like taking the 38 bus. That place is full of tales that I have been put on this great earth to share. Plus, I’m still involved in the theater scene. Sure, it’s not what it used to be but at least I’ve been invited to the party and that’s pretty cool.

But there’s so much I don’t say. Partially because I don’t want to admit when I’m having a hard time and I have difficulty asking for help. And, to be terribly truthful, I do need help sometimes. Ah, even more honestly, I need it often but I hardly ever say anything. Instead, I make sure my Facebook costume is falling in all the right places to flatter my figure and try to get through each day without getting it too wrinkled. Who needs a colorful scarf when a well-placed emoticon does the trick, right?

However, at some point, I have to launder my costume. The real you has to take the clothes off and wash them. And last week I pushed my own limits in thinking I could do it all. An annual work conference with twelve hour days? No problem. At the same time as my first show in two years? Sure, I guess that will be fine. While your husband goes out of town and your childcare plans for your daughter fall through? Wait, what’s that now? (Cue breakdown in the stairwell!)

As I mentioned earlier this year, I still want it all! It’s been a couple months since I wrote that piece and there have been some very challenging struggles to attempt the routine along the way. And yet, I still find it so interesting that whenever I run into friendly acquaintances I haven’t seen in a few months or talk to long distance relatives, they always, always bring up what I’ve posted on Facebook followed by how happy I am. It’s never a question. It’s always a statement. An exclamation. And then that’s always the end of the conversation.

Sometimes the key to a great costume is that you forget it’s a costume. (Not always of course, sometimes after a rough show your friend made you see, you gotta be able to compliment something and costumes can be your talking point!) The actor wearing a good costume looks so natural in it that it’s simply just a part of them. Costumes help the audience put together an understanding of the character and how they connect to the rest of the cast. It’s absolutely a key element to the success of a production.

Facebook Ashley is a costume devised of my best wardrobe pieces. She doesn’t like to wear some of those poor fitting pants from the past (why were flares such a hot jean style anyway?) or less attractive turtleneck sweaters, unfit to even be donated. But they’re still there, hiding in the back of a messy closet.

We’ve all got a closet. We all get to pick and chose what we wear and what people see us in. We all get to be the costumer of our own play. But the play is more than what the characters are wearing. More than the surrounding set or time period. So while yes, to everyone I talk to about my many Facebook posts, I am happy. But I’m also so many other feelings, too. And I’d love to talk about them, as well! Until then, I guess I’ll continue to like all your status updates and doing what I do. Sharing feelings one post at a time. Wink face emoticon.


Working Title: Oh NO…Don’t Fall Asleep…Again!

In this week’s second installment Will Leschber talks perfect film pairings with Christine Keating, writer of tonight’s Theater Pub, Don’t Fall Asleep.

If yesterday’s blog wasn’t enough for you, we’re back again gazing at the dark themes on the other side of our eyelids. Do we even need sleep? Sleep is for chumps. Speaking as a new parent, if you can’t function on two hours of sleep, man, then you ain’t really living! Get busy living…or get busy zzzzzzzzzzzzz…WHOOPS, sorry there. I nodded off for a second. What was I talking about? Oh yeah, horror cinema and the sweet paralysis of sleep.

We spoke about the masters of horror genre and touched on the cultural creations that haunt our dreams. But inescapable boogiemen are not the limits of the dangers that we are told lay past our bedtime. Local Bay Area multifaceted theater maker, Christine Keating, in writing Don’t Fall Asleep explores our relationship to sleep and the trappings therein. Keating weaves threads colored in the folklore of yesteryear, cultural touchstones like alien abduction, and modern tales of the alternate life that takes over when we close our eyes.

Keating loved our connection to A Nightmare on Elm Street thematically when discussing Wes Craven but she actually had some unconventional and excellent film recommendations, to seek out if you just can’t get enough stories about the non-fiction, vulnerable nature of sleep. She had this to say:

Devil In The Room

Devil In The Room

“My recommendations are actually for documentaries that are terrifying. One is a short documentary that you can watch all on YouTube called Devil in the Room, and the other is a full length called The Nightmare. Both are documentaries that take a lot of their stylistic choices from horror movies. They are both about sleep paralysis, and they portray the experience pretty clearly, speaking as someone who frequently experiences the kind of sleep paralysis hallucinations they are talking about. I love how Devil in the Room talks about how culture influences these hallucinations, from the bear like Tokolosh to the modern alien abduction stories. Those are stories and origins I tried to represent in the many monologues and scenes of Don’t Fall Asleep!”

The Nightmare

The Nightmare

Man, how am I ever going to go to bed now?! Oh well. It’s only movie, it’s only a movie…it’s only a play, it’s only a play, it’s only a play.

Devil in the Room, again, is available on YouTube. The Nightmare (2015) is available to rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, etc. And Don’t Fall Asleep has it’s final performance tonight at Pianofight. See it before it’s too late!

Working Title: Don’t Fall Asleep

This week Will Leschber remembers Wes Craven, a master passed, and also remembers why you should catch Don’t Fall Asleep before it’s too late!

So I was never much of a horror guy. Sure, I love the classic line from Heart of Darkness/ Apocalypse Now where general Kurtz reaches the end of his exquisite journey into madness and on the very brink of death utters the oh so prescient words…”the horror…the horror.” But that’s not what I mean! I mean the horror genre; Of film or theater for that matter…albeit the latter is much less prevalent. While I loved late night, Elvira showcases of old horror films as a adolescent, or even the endless slasher franchises of sleepless sleepovers growing up, the horror genre seemed to stuffed full of empty, bloody, redundant, cliche, low rent, low quality black holes of cinema more interested in making a sequel and a quick profit rather than anything resembling cinema substance.


Oh course, like most tweenagers, I was wrong. Although horror is still not my preferred genre, I have come around to recognize the pillars of the genre for being quite remarkable with innovation and craft: Hitchcock (Psycho, The Birds, Frenzy) Tod Browning (Freaks), James Whale (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein), Toby Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), David Cronenberg (The Fly, Scanners), Dario Argento (Suspiria), George Romero (Night of the LIving Dead), John Carpenter (The Thing, Halloween)…and of course the late, great Wes Craven, who passed at age 76 on August 30th.

wes-craven B&W

So many of these directors defined the period and genre they worked in. Many transcended the confines of a singular genre to branch into further cinematic influence. Craven wasn’t the first to set and break the mold for this, yet he continued the legacy like great filmmakers before him. Wes Craven not only made his mark in film; he set the lacerating edges and vicious tone of what a period horror film was decade after decade.

In the 70’s the brutal, all too realistic, edge of snuff film quality that defined 70’s horror was cemented by Craven’s directorial debut, The Last House on the Left. (1972)

Watching the punishing film felt like looking at something secret and awful that we should not be privy to. The 80’s ushered in an era of slasher personalities the likes of Jason Voohees, Michael Myers and none other than the the dream-demon himself, Freddy Krueger. In A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), there was no escaping the slumbering boogeyman that lay dormant at the edge of your eye lids. Then again as time flowed forward and the 90’s opened up the meta-horror narrative, Scream (1996) flipped the genre tropes upside down, dissecting them and disemboweling them to the delight and horror of a new generation. We’d moved into a new era of horror and Wes Craven again was at the forefront. Scream proved a intelligent beast able to tear apart what we’d come to expect from a horror film, while finding new ways to terrify. Who better than a master craftsman to reinvent and redefine what it means to be an influential and lasting horror film. Craven knew how to turn the knife.


If all this talk of night terrors and horror sleep-scapes has whet your appetite, you should pair these gruesome film offerings with tonight’s Theater Pub: Explore the Trope: Don’t Fall Asleep.

Wes Craven’s influence spans far and wide and while this theater offering may not be slasher fare, the unsettling nature of life on the other side of slumbering consciousness is cut from the same vein. Freddy Krueger used dream-logic and childhood fears as daggers in his arsenal and Christine Keating, author of Don’t Fall Asleep three part showcase, uses these things with a little extra helping of abduction, witch-ridden folklore, and the paralyzing shadows know only to our sleeping selves.

Don't Fall Asleep

I’ll check in tomorrow with Christine Keating about her frightful film recommendations to pair with her show, Don’t Fall Asleep. Until then come see tonight’s show and if you get too scared, repeat after me …It’s only movie. It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie…It’s only play. It’s only a play. It’s only a play…don’t fall asleep!

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Knowing When to Leave

Dave Sikula, on when to skip out.

My first directing teacher began our first class with his philosophy about the craft: “Directing is nothing more than teaching animals tricks.”

(One of my fellow students took that maxim a bit too literally and would throw M&Ms and other treats at his actors when they performed to his expectations. I have neither sunk – not risen – to that level yet.)

I don’t necessarily subscribe to this theory, though there’s some truth to it in that you’re trying to get people (who are, after all, animals) to do what you want them to.

In actuality, if I see directing as anything other than a collaboration, it’d be raising kids. (And let me hasten to add here that I don’t have kids of my own, so I can only speculate what it’s actually like.) You have a group of humans for whom you have to provide and safe and nurturing environment to ensure they have certain skills before you let them go to prosper or fail on their own.

Part of that process is knowing when to cut the cord and let them go out on their own. In reality, once the show opens, it belongs to the cast and the stage manager. (I used to use my opening night pep talk as an opportunity to verbally turn the show over to the SM. It was a formality, but I liked the ceremony of it.) Everyone has to color inside the lines the director has established, but his or her work is done. At this point, the director is, to quote Chekhov, “an unnecessary luxury … not even a luxury, but more like an unnecessary appendage—a sixth finger.” As an actor, it’s nice to see them, but (to stretch the parenting analogy to the breaking point) it’s like a divorced parent showing up. “Oh, it’s them.” As a director, you’re no longer part of the family, so while you can take part in some of the activities, the company has moved on without you (or in spite of you).

The director after opening night.

The director after opening night.

For some directors, the process is simple. After opening night, they’re gone. You may see them again occasionally during the run or on closing night, but mom or dad has gone out for a pack of cigarettes and isn’t coming back. Others like to see at least part of every performance. (I have to admit, in all honesty, that I’ve fallen asleep at at least a couple of performances of my own shows, but still felt compelled to go). Backstage at my current show tonight (in which I’m acting), one actor mentioned he’d worked with a director who came to every performance, four or five nights a week for four or five weeks. That’s either dedication or desperation or obsession.

If I do go to one of my shows a lot, it’s either because I really like it (it happens) or I’m trying to learn from it (still trying to figure out why something works or doesn’t – though I can’t recall either re-directing something or giving real extensive notes once a show has opened) or I’m trying to figure out how I want to video it.

It took me a long time to get to that point, though. I guess that, having acted so long, I really wanted to stay part of the company even after I’d kicked the kids out of the nest. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I’d miss a performance. Even now, I still feel, if not guilty, then intensely curious as to how things are going. (Even as I admit that the reception will be pretty consistent night after night.)

All of this isn’t to say there’s no role for the director after opening. In open-end runs (as in Broadway), many directors go back every so often to make sure that, despite the best efforts of their stage managers, the shows are what they intended them to be. Even though when my wife and I go to New York, we generally fly non-stop, for some reason one year, our return flight went through Las Vegas. When we got to the terminal at JFK for the trip home, I noticed an old guy (even older than I) typing away furiously at his Blackberry (that’s how long ago this was). I kept watching him and watching him, and finally turned to my wife (who hadn’t noticed him; she’s not as much of a people-watcher as I am) and said, “That guy looks like Hal Prince.” I paused and suddenly realized it was Hal Prince, whom I was now determined to meet.

Between him checking his phone and asking the ground crew about the flight’s status, he was constantly occupied and I didn’t want to interrupt him. He finally took a break and I rushed up and introduced myself and thanked him for his work and told him how it had influenced me. He told me that was a nice way to start the day (it was, like, 8:00 am), we talked a little shop, and then parted. He, being in first class, was seated on the plane before we were, and as we filed past him, he and I exchanged pleasantries. I kept trying to figure out why he was going to Vegas when it hit me that he was probably going to check up on the production of Phantom of the Opera that was running there then. That’s dedication. (Of course, if I were making Phantom-director money, I’d be dedicated, too …)

My buddy, Hal Prince

My buddy, Hal Prince

I mentioned in a previous post that I think a director’s main job is to get out of the way of the writer, but his or her second job is to get out of the way of the actors and realize that, once those lights come up on opening night, it’s time to realize that the kids have grown up and we need to start a new family. The old one will still be there, but they’re busy raising kids of their own.

In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – Can you Macarena?

Charles Lewis III, lining it up.

All men, mostly White – this is the LEAST likely line-up for Olympians auditions.

All men, mostly White – this is the LEAST likely line-up for Olympians auditions.

“Give [the audience] pleasure – the same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.”
– Alfred Hitchcock, Asbury Park NJ Press (13 August 1974)

Home stretch, folks. After nearly a year of plotting, outlining, fundraising, and writers burning pages from our own scripts before we tear out our hair and shout to the heavens in futility, we’re now kicking into gear. This past Monday was the final pre-festival meeting of writers and directors (“The White Council”), so from this point on you can consider the gears officially in motion. The SF Olympians Fest draws nigh.

So what does that mean for you good folks? Well, if you’re patron of the arts, fan of Greek mythos, on the lookout for cheap SF theatre, or just someone with strong opinions about dolphins, Miley Cyrus, the name “Jason”, or pumpkin-spiced… anything, then you’re in for a real treat.

But if you’re an actor, then you’re in for the wildest ride of all. This coming Sunday and Monday will see the return of the hilarious chorus line known as the Olympians auditions.

As one of this year’s writers and directors, I originally followed the above statement with a maniacal laugh. Then I took a moment to think about it and remembered the truth about the Olympians auditions: the actors are the ones with the advantage.

First off, you should all read Ashley’s spot-on Olympians auditions advice column from two years ago. Not only is it a great read, it’ll put a lot of the following into context.

Now that you’ve done that, here are a few things I know from having been on both ends of this festival’s audition process. Many folks think being an auditor is easy because all you have to do is plant your ass in a chair for several hours whilst an endless parade of pretty faces beg for your approval by reciting Neil LaBute and 32 bars from Seussical. That’s true, to an extent, but it’s also true that we can be just as terrified watching as you are of auditioning. I’m terrified that you folks will be so goddamned talented that the work on which I’ve spent a full year will seem mediocre when spoken by someone other than the voices in my head. I’m scared that all of the Bay Area actors of color who constantly seek out opportunities won’t even consider coming to this audition. I’m afraid that I’ll find the absolutely pitch-perfect roster – they look the parts, they read with conviction, all of their schedules sync up perfectly – only to be told I can’t use them because they’ve already said “Yes” to another Olympians piece. (As a rule, actors are allowed to be cast in any number of plays throughout the festival, but not on the same weekend.)

And make no mistake, folks: we will fight over you. Every year there are those actors who bring it so hard in auditions, that you can feel it in the room. As soon as one of them leaves, every writer and director underlines their name and puts stars and hearts around it like a middle school love note. And it’s not as if it’s just a handful, oh no. Olympians auditions are an embarrassment of riches: actors you haven’t seen in years; youngsters fresh out of (or still in) school; adult newbies who always loved performing and are trying this for the first time. All those people whom critics claim don’t exist in the Bay Area theatre scene – they all come out of the shadow.

And we auditors sit dumfounded, asking ourselves “Where have you been all my life?”

So if I had any advice for actors auditioning next week, it would be “You have all the power. Use it.” You don’t need to prepare anything, you don’t need to worry, you don’t need any preconceived notions – just be you. And if you’re curious as to whether we still had spots available, you read the info here and send a query to the e-mail provided. In fact, you can even try getting a walk-up slot, if one’s available. Just bring a headshot, a resume, and a love of performance.

Other than that, there’s a room full indie theatre’s best waiting to hear you totally own your randomly-selected monologue.

Now do it with a Scottish accent.

Charles Lewis III is writing and directing this year’s Poseidon play, which requires a cast of various ethnicities and genders. He can’t wait to see who shows up.