Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Live Nude Feminism

Marissa Skudlarek, walking the talk.

Don’t ever say that I can’t both talk the talk and walk the walk. I spent Saturday evening posting on Twitter and Facebook about casual sexism in local theater, and Sunday evening attending a fundraiser for the feminist theater organization DIVAfest. Saturday was about getting irritated over the persistence of inequality; Sunday was about reminding myself that there are plenty of people trying to find solutions to this problem.

The sexism that I see around typically isn’t outrageous misogyny – it’s subtler than that. It is a worldview that devalues women’s contributions and stories, that refuses to consider their perspectives worth presenting or their money worth having. I’m thinking of things like this glowing review of Maggie’s Riff, at FaultLine Theatre, that nonetheless neglects to mention Nicole Odell, who plays the title role. (Nor does it mention any of the women who worked behind the scenes on the production.) And also of the latest marketing copy for the Speakeasy, as it seeks a final round of funding before it re-opens in North Beach in August. The Speakeasy producers are very pleased to tout the “one-way mirror into the chorus girls’ dressing room” as one of the major highlights of the show, yet they make no equivalent promise of voyeuristic eye candy for those of us who prefer handsome fellas to lovely ladies.

Let’s be clear: I’m not against sexy fun, or scantily clad women. In fact, DIVAfest, the organization I supported on Sunday night, has a strong sideline in naked ladies. It produces a monthly burlesque variety show, Diva or Die, and a larger theater-burlesque fusion show once a year. Indeed, it was DIVAfest’s Hotel Burlesque show this year that finally convinced me of the truth of something I’d often heard said: that neo-burlesque can be a feminist and empowering genre, rather than a misogynistic male-gazey one. In Hotel Burlesque, the cast featured six lovely ladies and one female impersonator, so just about every moment of the plot passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors. It transported me into a sparkly, glamorous, female-led world and showed me that striptease can be about more than just titillation. A female thief reveled in her crimes as she stripped off all her (stolen) clothing. Nudity was used to represent the anguish and vulnerability that an alcoholic feels when faced with the temptation to drink, or a battered woman feels when recalling her abuser.

At the DIVAfest fundraiser party, Amanda Ortmayer introduced a performance by Red Velvet and reminded us that burlesque artists appreciate vocal approval: applause, whooping, cheering, were all encouraged (and plentiful). And, as Red Velvet tap-danced, shimmied, and stripped down to her thong and pasties, the lights in the main room remained on. I liked that; it kept things honest. It eliminated some of the creepy power dynamics that can arise when a woman takes her clothes off for the entertainment of others, because, as we watched Red Velvet, she could also watch us. She could see our faces and discern whether or not we were having a good time, and also hear our joyous and vocal appreciation. And I can’t help, again, contrasting this with the way the Speakeasy is presenting female nudity: spying on “hot chorus girls” from behind the anonymity of a one-way mirror.

A lot has been written lately about the masculinity and “bro” attitudes of start-up culture in the Bay Area. In many ways, the Speakeasy seems to be positioning itself as a theater start-up. It’s thinking big: it wants to disrupt live entertainment in San Francisco and then spread out across the country. It is soliciting money according to a new model called “equity crowdfunding” (I’m a little confused as to how this differs from traditional for-profit, Broadway-style funding, but no matter) and, with a minimum investment of $2000, it’s clearly aiming for high-roller donors rather than the $25-$100 donations that make up the bulk of a typical Indiegogo or Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. In 2014, the Speakeasy’s expensive tickets and lack of discounts meant that the show was very popular with the tech crowd while remaining inaccessible to the kinds of people who are getting priced out of this city. And, yes, the Speakeasy seems very, very male. The three founders are all male. The website copy has a persistently male point of view, and not just in its references to the chorus girls and the one-way mirror. For instance, when giving examples of some of the costumed characters that audience members can pay to play, both of the examples they give are male.

Meanwhile, DIVAfest hosted a traditional nonprofit-theater fundraiser last weekend: finger food, raffle tickets, and performances, in a board member’s fancy house that was donated for the occasion. I hope it was successful, and it was certainly quite glamorous to watch the sunset from a North Beach rooftop deck, eating delicious food among nicely dressed people. But it cannot change the fact that DIVAfest is a small, indie, shoestring operation, run out of a Tenderloin theater that has miraculously weathered all the changes to San Francisco in the last thirty years.

I know there is a place for people like me at DIVAfest, but, as a feminist woman, I have a hard time imagining that there’s really a place for me at the Speakeasy. And, while I’m grateful that organizations like DIVAfest exist, I’m also bothered that they feel like such small, precarious members of the arts ecosystem. The Speakeasy caters to the male gaze and raises $3 million in venture capital funding and becomes the subject of glowing media profiles; DIVAfest provides a counter-narrative and a place for women, and is relegated to the fringes. I said before that sexism in the 2010s tends to be subtle and insidious. Well, here’s another example of it: is it fair that the men get the big dreams and the big bucks and the naked ladies, and we women get to play out our stories on a much smaller stage?

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

Cowan Palace: Find Your Biggest Fan

Ashley encourages you to find your biggest fan and hug them until they force you to stop it.

Katelyn and Ashley... while Ashley’s in a show playing The Maid Of Honor! Weird!

Katelyn and Ashley… while Ashley’s in a show playing The Maid Of Honor! Weird!

My sister is getting married on Saturday so my mind has been running in an endless list and I’ve been staying up late pretending to work on my Matron of Honor speech. There’s just so many things I want to say and know that I can’t possibly articulate about the whole thing so I end up writing a word and then distracting myself with House Hunters reruns. That scripted dialogue about buying a home is oddly soothing sometimes.

But I got to thinking about an old joke my sister and I have; I honestly can’t remember who first titled her as my “biggest fan” but she’s been lovingly teasing me with that title whenever it seems like a funny time. In her college dorm ten years ago, she hung up the new fancy New York City headshot I used all my savings to take and then print, and put on a star on it, declaring herself Ashley Cowan’s biggest fan. It was awesome. I felt like I had made it.

My sister Katelyn has been the best biggest fan. She’s seen me in more shows than anyone else, even ones I may have been less proud of… She’s seen me play all of the female characters in Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding (which, come on, that’s a lot of interactive performance to willingly endure). She’s honest when I need the feedback but terribly kind with it because she knows I’m sensitive. She’s the one who I ask to bounce things off of when I’m encountering a writer’s block and often she makes me go around the block by suggesting a brilliant new path. I’ve even sent her several Theater Pub blog entries before I send them off to Stuart just so I can get an extra pair of eyes on my latest words.

Katelyn’s also the one I text before I buy almost anything just so she can tell me if it’s cool or not. My knowledge of makeup and fashion trends is almost 100% based upon those text exchanges punctuated by various emoticons. But for me, I need my biggest fan to keep up my star identity.

So Katelyn, even though we joke about the term, I thank you for the pushes to keep doing the things that I love; to have the courage to audition, to actually write the ideas that seem silly or stupid in my head; to keep reaching for my place in the stars. I’ll never be able to express enough gratitude for it.

And to everyone else, I say, go find your biggest fan! Thank that person who believes in you, loves you, and makes you better than you are. Give them a hug or like, a winning scratch ticket, they’ve earned it. Sure, we should all strive to be our own fans but finding your very own biggest fan? Well, there’s nothing quite like it. Now excuse me while I pause House Hunters and attempt to write some more words for my sister, my friend, my fan.

Working Title: Loquacious Lucania, How Many Degrees Is He Away From You?

This week Will Leschber speaks to Carl Lucania about all Six Degrees of Separation

As you all know, dear readers, usually we crack this blog open with a fun diatribe about a current event or some personal goings-on, then loosely shoestring-link it to a current SF play and top that sucker off with a perfect film pairing to whet your insatiable appetites. Who doesn’t like structure! It’s fun, right?! Well, blog fans, let’s just forget the formalities this week and jump neck-deep into Custom Made Theatre’s production of Six Degrees of Separation, directed by Stuart Bousel.

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I reached out to Bay Area actor and all-around stellar human being Carl Lucania about a film suggestion, as I’m wont to do. Instead of sending a single, well-crafted sentence and being done with it, Carl had the grace and good humor to send over a comprehensive five paragraphs and eloquently over-achieve. Carl, you are my hero! Since he can turn a phrase better than this little blogger, let’s just let him do the heavy lifting. The loquacious, learned Lucania not only provides a perfect intro to John Guare’s play, but also throws in film pairings AND a few cross-disciplinary recommendations spanning literature to fine art. Whew! Sit down and listen up; class is session! …You best just read on, folks.

Take it away Carl!!!

Happy to help…

Six Degrees of Separation covers a lot of ground. At the face of it, it’s a story of a middle-aged, upper-middle class white couple in early 1990s Manhattan whose world gets turned around when a young black man, pretending to be Sidney Poitier’s son, insinuates himself into their lives. Within that framework there’s a a lot of commentary on class, race, art, and both personal and world politics. And it manages to do all of this in a very succinct, smart, and entertaining 90 minutes.

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One of the main themes we talked about when we started working on it was duality: how a story is perceived is entirely up to the person perceiving it — so there isn’t just one reality or story. As Americans, we’re told that we can be anything we want if we’re smart and work hard. And this story turns that ideal on its head. The central character is very smart and works very hard. But is he just a con man? Or is he living the American dream of bettering himself? And it’s the same duality with art: is Duchamp’s Fountain a brilliant work? Or is it just a porcelain urinal in a museum?

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One movie that comes to mind is Mike Nichols’ 1988 comedy, Working Girl. For one, it puts you in Manhattan right around the same time period and it also explores a similar theme of someone very clever attempting to jump class by pretending to be something she’s not. And they manage to work quite a bit of social commentary about being a woman in a man’s world into a fairly standard rom-com with Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, and Sigourney Weaver. Plus it has Joan Cusack in one of my favorite portrayals of a big-haired, big-mouthed girl from Queens.

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If you want to get cross-disciplinary in your preparation: go stare at a Kandinsky or Hockney at SF MOMA, listen to a recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats or read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. They are all referenced quite a bit in the play. And if you haven’t seen Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner then you’re missing out, because it’s amazing.

My plug: come see the show. I got on board because I love working with Stuart Bousel and I knew this was his favorite play and I wanted to be a part of that. Our three leads (Genevieve Perdue, Khary L. Moye, Matt Weimer) carry a big load and make it look easy. There’s a large supporting cast, thirteen of us in all, and not a slacker in the bunch. It’s been wonderful to watch this crew get up to speed so quickly and expertly deliver the goods. I think this one will stick with you for a while.

xo, Carl

Carl Lucania Six Degrees Production pic copy

Six Degrees of Separation runs May 19 – June 18 Wed 7:30pm; Thurs-Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm. Additional information and tickets can be found here: http://www.custommade.org/sixdegrees.

Theater Around The Bay: STICKY ICKY Character Guide (Part Two)

Excited for Sticky Icky, Theater Pub’s show opening tonight at PianoFight? Well here’s the second part of our character guide to get you acquainted with the heroes and heroines of our story.

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Picking up where we left off last week…

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The Blonde is beautiful, scatter-brained, and typically uninterested in intellectual pursuits. Sheila would fit in perfectly with the popular clique from Never Been Kissed.

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The Drug Dealer archetype can truly run the gamet. From kingpins like Pablo Escobar all the way down to dim-witted dealers selling to high schoolers. Rod lies somewhere between Lance from Pulp Fiction and Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad.

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The Glaucoma Feral and The Dweeb Feral defy archetypal definition. You’ll have to come see the show to find out what they’re all about!

THE GLAUCOMA FERAL copy

THE DWEEB FERAL copy

Sticky Icky opens Monday, May 23 at 8:00pm at PianoFight (144 Taylor St). It runs 5/23, 5/24, 5/30, and 5/31.

In For A Penny: Vices I Admire

Charles Lewis III, on why vice can be nice.

Yes, I own this shirt.

Yes, I own this shirt.

“The cannabis experience has greatly improved my appreciation for art, a subject which I had never much appreciated before. The understanding of the intent of the artist which I can achieve when high sometimes carries over to when I’m down. This is one of many human frontiers which cannabis has helped me traverse. There also have been some art-related insights — I don’t know whether they are true or false, but they were fun to formulate.”
– Carl Sagan, Mr. X (1969)

I never smoked weed until I did theatre. For that matter, I never ate sushi until I did theatre. Yes, I was one of those boring teens who never drank, smoked, or went to parties. (Well, I did try smoking cigarettes several times, but it never caught on.) Part of that was due to just being an awkward teen who never hung with The Cool Kids, but another part was by choice. I studied religion as a kid and took the concept of “pure body, pure mind, pure soul” to heart. And to be honest, I was pretty damn content with myself.

It wasn’t until I was 27 – an age at which I’d put the “pure body, et. al” bullshit behind me – that I’d decided to see what weed was all about. I’d just finished a show with a local theatre company and we were having our closing night celebration. Turns out these folks had a closing night tradition of rechristening the dressing room as “The Green Room” for reasons that should be obvious. After awkwardly making my way in and patiently waiting for the bowl to come around to me, I took my first toke.

Nothing happened, really. It’d be a later incident at 4/20 in Golden Gate Park before I finally actually got high. Still, it worked in as much as being a socially-inclusive gateway to fellow theatre-folk. And even when I was a clean-living teen/upcoming artist, I was always fascinated by the idea of an intoxicating substance enhancing the creative process.

“Write drunk, edit sober” is a phrase we’ve all heard thrown around willy-nilly. (It’s often misattributed to Hemingway when it’s more likely from Peter de Vries.) Both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda were notorious for it. Mary Shelley got smashed on absinthe with her husband and Lord Byron, then wrote her masterpiece Frankenstein. Hell, scientists believe even Shakespeare may have smoked weed between writing sonnets. It all contributes to the idea that when inspiration is out of reach, it can be found within your poison of choice.

I personally wouldn’t know. I rarely drink outside of social gatherings (I’ve been drunk exactly five times my entire life) and do so as a method of decompression rather than inspiration. The only times I smoke weed are when I’m around someone who prefers not to smoke alone, and it’s never made want to start writing. I’ve never had the chance to do mushrooms, though I’m not opposed to the idea. And despite knowing many people who love it, I will never do cocaine. (Before we found out how terrible he was, Bill Cosby had stand-up routine that sums up my thoughts perfectly: “I said to a guy, ‘Tell me, what is it about cocaine that makes it so wonderful,’ and he said, ‘Because it intensifies your personality.’ I said, ‘Yes, but what if you’re an asshole?’”) I’m not on any moral high horse – I like weed, beer, and the friends who share in them with me – but they’ve never worked for me in terms of electrifying my creativity.

But that’s just me. In addition to the aforementioned authors above, I can cite countless works of art created under the influence which I hold dear: the weed-inspired illustrations Salvador Dalí or Mœbius; the coke-fueled ‘70s films of Martin Scorsese; hell, damn-near anything from the Harlem Renaissance. Without those substances, those great works might never have been possible and I might not have been inspired by them to become an artist.

The real problem is when an artist sees a mind-altering substance as their ONLY form of inspiration; when the supply gets low or empty, working with someone having withdrawal can be annoying, if not dangerous. I don’t even drink coffee, so I can’t really imagine what someone’s head must feel like when they’ve suddenly decided to teetotal.

The reason I bring all this up is because this month’s ‘Pub show, of which I’m a part, is an hilariously over-the-top satire about “the dangers of the demon weed”. Each character is based on a classic horror film trope, but with enough humanity to make them relatable. Incidentally, my character is a collegiate weed dealer, someone who uses the substance as the means to an end in order to do the art he truly loves. Yeah.

Before anyone asks: No, we don’t perform the show high. I’m sure that’d be hilarious (I’ve done Beer Theatre before and it was a fuckin’ blast), but I assure you that Colin’s script is plenty funny without the actors being baked. Plus, there’s probably some kinda law or somethin’ ‘bout smokin’ weed indoors with the public, right? I dunno…

But as I sit here with my script by my side and my soon-to-be-used typewriter in the corner, I tried to think of what it is that fuels me to write, act, direct, and explore other avenues of creativity. I’m still not really sure, but I hope I don’t run out of it anytime soon.

Charles Lewis III plays the world’s most lovable weed dealer in Colin Johnson’s “Sticky Icky”, starting this coming Monday at PianoFight. Admission is FREE, donations of $10 or more appreciated.

The Five- 5 Horrible Imaginary Plays I Would Rather Watch Than Hear One More Word About This Godforsaken Election

Anthony R. Miller checks in with crappy imaginary options to crappy reality.

Hey you guys, I used to really get into elections. There was a time in my life where I almost double-majored in Political Science. But there are so many aspects of our current presidential election that have beaten the ability to care right out of me. So for those who share my sentiment and would rather be slapped in the face with a dead trout than hear one more thing about this dumpster fire of an election, here are some theatrical equivalents to trout-based assault. Remarkably, there are five.

White Hamilton

Also known as 1776. (I kid, I kid.) I swear to god, you could recast this show with Macklemore, Snow, Everlast, The Lordz of Brooklyn, Princess Superstar and Artie from Glee and I would rather see that than have one more conversation that invalidates my opinion because I am stupid, or being lied to, or haven’t read this article, or watched this video, or care about people in other countries. I would rather watch the walking corpse of Corey Montieth take over for Lin-Manuel Miranda than see one more article from a totally unaccredited source be shoved in my face and considered true because it validates your worst fears.

The More Similar Than Not Couple

Neil Simon’s comedy reimagined as a 90-minute play where two adults have a quiet respectful conversation. At the end they realize they agree on more than they disagree on. The both enjoy a sandwich and watch Daredevil on Netflix. This would be boring, and refreshing — refreshing in the saddest way possible.

The Last Five Years

No joke here, I just find this show painful to even be near. Yet I would prefer to hear “Yeah, I’m a douchebag, but I’m a douchebag because you didn’t love me enough” than one more conversation between a Bernie supporter digging their heels in the ground about not voting if he isn’t the nominee and a red-faced Hillary supporter screaming “SO YOU’D RATHER HAVE TRUMP?!?!”

Long Days Journey Into Night In Real Time

I would rather watch 15 hours straight of sad, broken people drinking and telling each other how they really feel and talking in insightful drunken monologues than hearing two drunk liberals argue that Bernie Sanders is in fact a unicorn that poops ice cream and Hillary Clinton is the Winter Solider.

Noises Off: Fury Road

Taking Michael Frayn’s backstage comedy and setting it in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world where water is the greatest currency of all sounds better than watching CNN and thinking “Oh crap, the apocalypse might actually happen.” I would rather see Lloyd make Poppy and Brooke his sister-wives than hear one more conversation about super delegates. I would rather imagine Poppy with a really sweet robotic arm, and a set that doesn’t just revolve in between acts, it REVOLVES FOR THE WHOLE SHOW. I would rather see Timothy Allgood play a guitar that shoots fire than spend one more moment watching friends shame each other for their political views. Freddy Fellows, wearing a crimson mask of his own nose blood while having the blood of virgins intravenously transferred in to his veins, is a more preferable image than the one I’ve been seeing for months. An image of people without empathy, loathing compromise, holding on to a “we’re right, you’re wrong, fuck you” attitude and just generally being crappy and condescending to each other. Cut it out, take a breath, please vote, and remember we all need to be friends after this election. Now if anyone needs me, I have a guitar that shoots fire to create.

Anthony R. Miller is a writer and producer and will vote for a Cat Dressed As A Shark Riding A Roomba before he votes for Donald Trump. Keep up with him at www.awesometheatre.org or on twitter at @armiller78.

Theater Around The Bay: STICKY ICKY Character Guide (Part One)

Excited for Sticky Icky, Theater Pub’s show opening next week at PianoFight? Well here’s the first part of our character guide to get you acquainted with the heroes and heroines of our story. Come back next Monday for more, and don’t miss Sticky Icky!

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Sticky Icky, written and directed by Colin Johnson, opens in one week! Mark your calendars, and read on to learn more about the cast of characters.

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The Bartender, usually disagreeable in nature, is a good listener with a rarely-seen soft side. He has a short temper, keeps a tab for all the regulars, and his bar is definitely not up to code. Who else can I compare Stevie to but Moe from The Simpsons.

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In film, The Drunk is usually drunk more often than sober, the comic relief, never pays their bar tab on time, and almost always male. The Drunk in Sticky Icky is played by an intelligent woman named Donelda who drinks for free. She’s not quite Homer, but her relationship with Stevie resembles the relationship between Homer and Moe in The Simpsons.

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The Drifter blows into town on a gust of wind. Eventually, there is a “gloves come off” moment and The Drifter helps the others fight off the Big-Bad-Whatever. For Kay, think of the nameless drifter from the John Carpenter film They Live.

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The Redneck is often a bit dim, racist and/or sexist, and accompanied by a girlfriend or wife. He seems very stereotypically masculine, but can also be (not so) secretly a scaredy cat. Chip is a cross between Owen from Planes Trains & Automobiles and Joe Dirt.

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Sticky Icky opens Monday, May 23 at 8:00pm at PianoFight (144 Taylor St). It runs 5/23, 5/24, 5/30, and 5/31.