The Real World, Theater Edition: Interview with Tracy Held Potter and Julie Jigour

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews some alums from the Higher Education days of her column.

This week I reconnected (well, via email for now at least) with my ole pals from CMU, Tracy Held Potter and Julie Jigour. Both are fabulous playwrights and theater and film makers about town who recently graduated from the program I was a part of last year AND are from the Bay area. I thought it would be nice for this blog series to sort of reflect a little on how far it’s come from starting while I was in school trying to figure shit out to now while I’m out of school trying to figure shit out. So, you see, a lot has changed in the past year.

As Julie and Tracy step out from school into the real world ready to put their training into action, I’m reminded of how I was feeling when graduating this same time last year. I thought it would be lovely to capture this moment, where the future is full of promise and also huge unknowns. Whenever you’re on the precipice of the Next Thing, it can always be a little dizzying, but while I was in school with these two, they showed such strength of character and distinct writing styles, that I thought it would be lovely to hear from them about what this moment in time is like.

For your enjoyment, the interview with Tracy Held Potter and Julie Jigour:

Barbara: What is/was your involvement in Bay Area theater?

Tracy: I had been very active in Bay Area theater before going to grad school. I received an A.A. in Theater Arts with Michael Torres at Laney College, formed my own theater company All Terrain Theater, which had already completed three seasons, ran the playwrights group Play Cafe, co-founded 31 Plays in 31 Days with Rachel Bublitz, was a member of the MondayNight PlayGround Writers Pool, and interned or worked for CalShakes, Marin Theatre Company, and the Playwrights Foundation. I also worked as a writer or director with Masquers Playhouse, Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco, and, of course, Theatre Pub!

Tracy Held Potter. Photo credit: Rob Reeves, wry toast photos

Tracy Held Potter. Photo credit: Rob Reeves, wry toast photos

Julie: When I finished undergrad, some of my fellow classmates and I started a small, do-it-yourself theater company called Cardboard Box Theatre Project. We did productions, staged readings, and workshops over the course of a few years in the South Bay. I also workshopped with the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre and Central Works Writers Workshop.

Julie Jigour

Julie Jigour

Barbara: What’s your style as a writer? What kinds of topics/ideas do you gravitate towards?

Tracy: I’m a mom so a lot of my work deals with feminist issues and parenting. I also love pop culture, science (especially as it relates to the environment), and technology, so those topics feature in a lot of my writing. My goal is always to entertain first and educate second, and when I’m really in the zone I try to present complex situations while advocating for all perspectives. I spend a lot of time trying to understand people who act or think in ways that I disagree with, and I put those scenarios into my work.

Julie: I consider myself a writer of dramas and dark comedies. I’m interested in how people struggle toward intimacy and human connection with the limitations of language and social convention.

Barbara: What was on your mind as you were making the decision to attend a graduate Dramatic Writing program?

Tracy: When I had my first son, I marveled at him and dreamed about what his future would be like. I wanted him to feel like he could do anything that he wanted with his life, and then I knew at the core of my being that I could only help him do this if I pursued my own dreams, too.

I had been jumping around all over the place–both professionally and artistically–and I realized that I was spreading myself too thin and not really mastering anything in particular. Before I took my first acting class, I was researching MBA programs, then I got hooked on theater and suddenly I had identities as an actor, producer, director, and writer. I had a heart to heart with myself and realized that writing had always been a part of my life and if I could become really good at any one thing, that was it.

I love being in school, so grad school was just a thing that I wanted to do at some point. I just needed to choose a focus, and writing seemed like something that I would keep doing and would be easier to pursue with kids than some of my other interests.

Regarding goals, I went to grad school so I could start the path toward mastery of writing and also to make it more possible to work as a writer professionally. I know that lots of people don’t need grad school to accomplish either of these goals. I could probably be one of those people. However, the truth is that I’m a mom, I have a lot of things that I’m responsible for, and I have a lot of disparate interests that compete for my attention. Going to grad school meant that I could stop working and focus just on my kids and my writing. It’s amazing how easy it is to focus on your writing when you’re on the other side of the country and (almost) everyone in your life knows that you can’t take on extra projects or attend certain events so they give you the space to do the work you’re trying to do.

One of the most tangible benefits of grad school is having the piece of paper at the end that says you’re “approved” by some entity. That paper means different things to different people, but at a minimum it shows a commitment to developing the craft, and it also opens a lot of doors to programs or people who only want to work with MFAs or only want to work with certain schools. Through my program, I was handed opportunities to meet with professionals from all areas of theater, film, and television. As you can see from what I was doing before grad school, I don’t have a problem finding opportunities, yet I still sought out this opportunity to join an instant network and I’m really glad I did.

Julie: I wanted to go to grad school for dramatic writing to strengthen my craft and to develop a stronger and more habitual writing practice. I also wanted to be surrounded by like-minded people to help foster my passion.

Barbara: Could you share an anecdote/story about your time at CMU and how it helped you with your writing trajectory?

Tracy: When I signed up for CMU’s Dramatic Writing program, I went in primarily with an interest in sticking with playwriting, but the program is designed to also cover film and television. During my first year of the two-year program, our teacher Rob Handel was working on opera, so he offered us a workshop on writing opera libretti. That turned into writing short commissioned mini-operas for the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh and 20-minute collaborations with composers in the MFA composing program.

Sometime during my first year, I decided to focus my energy on writing for television–something about the possibility of paying my bills through writing seemed very appealing to me–and I also developed a love of writing opera, which is amazing considering that until grad school, the only opera I’d seen was Moby Dick at SF Opera.

"Plastic Nest" by Tracy Held Potter at the CMU School of Drama. Photo credit: Louis Stein

“Plastic Nest” by Tracy Held Potter at the CMU School of Drama. Photo credit: Louis Stein

Julie: I had a fabulous experience rehearsing my New Works play—the final project for graduating writers—this spring. The process was a wonderful reminder of why I decided to pursue a collaborative art form. Everyone in the rehearsal room helped me make the play better over the course of our time together. I took improvisations the director and actors developed and brought them into the script to the absolute benefit of the text, and the production assistant offered valuable dramaturgical insight that influenced my revisions. I loved the teamwork and dedication that made my initial draft something we could all feel proud of influencing.

Barbara: Now that you’ve graduated, what are you looking to do next? Any fears? Any sources of inspiration?

Tracy: Right now, most of my energy is focused on revising work that I started or developed during my program, which includes a couple of full length plays, a spec for “Masters of Sex,” an original TV pilot, and a commissioned piece that’s due next month.

I’m also working on submitting the work that I’ve already completed, including my web series, Merritt Squad, with Colin Johnson, a short film that I self-produced called “Fashion Foes,” and I’m applying to TV writing fellowships, MondayNight PlayGround in LA, and a musical theater writing program in LA.

I don’t know if I’m really afraid of anything career-wise. I’m going head first into an industry that’s difficult to break into, but I have a game plan and am giving myself the time and space to make it happen.

I’m inspired by the fact that people are making a living being writers–maybe there’s not a lot of them, but they exist and I want to be one of them.

Julie: I plan to move to Los Angeles to try to get into TV writing. I think one of my biggest fears is that I won’t be able to keep up a consistent writing practice outside of school, but I believe that having gone to grad school, I’m better equipped than I was before to manage and overcome that fear. I’ve been inspired by my instructors and classmates to make bold choices and see what happens rather than reigning myself in from the start.

"Winnebago" by Julie Jigour at the CMU School of Drama. Photo credit: Louis Stein.

“Winnebago” by Julie Jigour at the CMU School of Drama. Photo credit: Louis Stein.

Barbara: If there’s anything that you wish you could change in theater what would it be?

Tracy: I would make funding a non-issue. If theater-makers could focus on creating the work and not the fundraising, then I think theater would be more accessible for audiences as well as for artists.

Julie: I wish theater were as popular a medium for art and entertainment as film. People from all communities watch TV and film, which are forms that I love. But theater is often attended by a smaller, more affluent, and older audience. With that and with many ticket prices, I think, comes the idea—and in many ways, the reality—that theater is a medium for the privileged. I wish theater were more accessible to everyone and less associated with class and education than I think it is now.

Barbara: Any words of wisdom for those interested in playwriting and for those thinking about graduate programs – whether applying or soon to be attending?

Tracy: Write a lot. Try to get produced, or self-produce your own work. If you still like writing plays, then talk to people you admire and respect and see which programs or opportunities nourished them and see if it makes sense for you. Not everyone thrives in academic environments. If you can’t stand artificial assignments and deadlines, and you don’t like receiving criticism, then grad school’s not an ideal place to be. However, if like the idea of collaborating with lots of different people and you want to hear advice and criticism from people who (hopefully) know what they’re talking about and you want to have that extra reassurance and structure that a program provides, then grad school may be a great option.

Julie: I feel very confident that my decision to go to grad school was the right choice for me. Grad school gave me the time and space to explore writing and gain confidence in both my writing and in my decision to pursue this field. I do think, however, that you can succeed in dramatic writing without going to grad school. It just depends on what suits your needs best.

Barbara: Any upcoming productions/projects of yours for us to look forward to?

Tracy: Yes! I am writing a full length commissioned play for the new Loud and Unladylike Festival with DivaFest at The EXIT Theatre called “A is for Adeline.” I’ll get two readings on June 25th and July 9th. I’m also producing two shows through my theater company, All Terrain Theater; “Women in Solodarity: Waking Up” which goes up in June and “Six Monsters: A Seven-Monster Play” which goes up July 31-August 15 and will open with a short play that I’m writing.

Julie: Nothing right now, but I’ll keep you posted!

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

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Forewarned is Forearmed

Warning: Incoming Marissa Skud-missle.

One of the hot topics du jour is trigger warnings, but many of the arguments I read, both pro and con, strike me as arguments in bad faith. Engage in a discussion of trigger warnings and you’ll find slippery slopes full of straw men. Both sides claim the moral high ground. The pro-trigger-warnings crowd can imply that their sensitivity to social justice issues makes them better, more highly evolved human beings. The anti-trigger-warnings crowd can imply that art should always challenge and disturb us, so it’s immature and imbecilic to want to mentally prepare yourself before experiencing an upsetting work of art.

Let’s acknowledge, right off, that there’s a problem with the way the word “trigger” has gone from having a legitimate medical meaning related to PTSD, to meaning “anything that I find uncomfortable or unpleasant or morally questionable.” It’s the equivalent of someone who says “I’m allergic to gluten” when they mean “I want to eat fewer carbs.” Therefore, perhaps a better term than “trigger warnings” is “warnings about upsetting content.”

Many of the discussions about trigger warnings involve academia, where this issue is especially tricky because of the power dynamics therein: the professor designs a syllabus and the students have to read and engage with the material, or else they could fail the class. This blog isn’t about academia, though, so I’m sticking to the somewhat less fraught issue of trigger warnings for theater. Here, at least, people can freely choose whether they want to buy a ticket and experience a certain story.

To counteract all of the bad-faith arguments that result when talking about trigger warnings, I want to promote a good-faith relationship between theaters and audiences, in which they meet each other halfway. If a theater is producing a potentially disturbing play, they could put a blurb on their website that says something like “This play contains potentially disturbing material and is not appropriate for children. Please email us if you have additional questions.” (Being vague, and asking people to email for more specific information, avoids spoiling the plot of the play for people who don’t require trigger warnings.) I don’t think this represents some horrible capitulation to the Philistine hordes who hate any art that challenges their perceptions. Instead, it allows people to obtain information and decide for themselves what actions to take.

In turn, it’s the responsibility of trigger-sensitive ticket buyers to educate themselves as to what they might be seeing, and contact the theater if they have questions. If the theater offers them the opportunity to do this, and they don’t take advantage of it, they can’t complain if they attend the show and experience a trigger. Human beings are pretty good at finding coping strategies that enable them to turn toward pleasure and turn away from pain; but they should know that the world always offers both pleasure and pain.

Like it or not, we theater artists are in the business of selling tickets and attracting audiences. As such, I think we need to manage our audience members’ expectations fairly, and keep lines of communications open. Some friends of mine recently felt swindled by the marketing for ACT’s Let There Be Love: they went into the theater expecting to see “an intimate and often humorous family drama” (per the blurb), only to discover that it’s a play about assisted suicide. Neither of them were triggered, per se, but they thought they were going to see a cozy and heartwarming show, and weren’t happy when the play took a darker turn. Even if you think that some suggested trigger warnings (“heteronormativity,” really?) are silly, it’s not hard to see that the topic of assisted suicide might be upsetting for many people, and I have to think that there’s some way ACT could have better prepared their audiences for this.

Think about it this way: at the end of every New York Times movie review, they print a blurb about the film’s MPAA rating and potentially disturbing subject matter. Over the years, the critics have made these blurbs into a wry little art form of their own (A.O. Scott’s blurb re: Mad Max: Fury Road’s R rating is simply that it’s “a ruthless critique of everything existing”). It’s fair to say that these blurbs are trigger warnings; yet I don’t see the anti-trigger-warning crowd calling for them to be abolished. As far as I can tell, a fair number of people appreciate that the Times does this, and nobody really finds it pernicious. Without enacting official censorship or a ratings system, is there a way to offer a similar advisory for theater?

I know. Everything I’m saying here sounds boring and sedate and wishy-washy. In this polarized environment, it’s more fun to say “Down with the heteronormative cissexual white patriarchy, trigger warnings for all!” or “You’re a bunch of snowflake crybabies who can’t handle the complexity of the real world, I refuse to coddle you!” And yet, there are other people arguing for the middle ground. As I was drafting this column, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to the article “How to Teach an Ancient Rape Joke,” by Donna Zuckerberg. The rape joke in question occurs in Euripides’ Cyclops – which, in a funny coincidence, is the first play that Theater Pub ever produced.

Zuckerberg writes that when she recently prepared to teach Cyclops, she realized that she needed to acknowledge the rape joke and address it in the context of Greek culture. She felt that there were many valid reasons for Cyclops to be on her syllabus, and that rape shouldn’t be the sole point of her discussion, but neither should it be ignored. She also decided that there are ways to read the scene in Cyclops as critiquing rape culture rather than reinforcing it, which brings up another important point: everyone involved in debating trigger warnings needs to acknowledge that depiction of an unpleasant situation, character, or attitude doesn’t mean that the author (or the professor, or the theater company) endorses this unpleasantness.

Art and fiction allow us to process uncomfortable emotions; indeed, some people would say that that’s their main purpose. Here’s one last, somewhat flippant thought. Greek tragedy is supposed to provoke catharsis – pity and fear. What if “cathartic” is just a synonym for “triggering”?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, producer, and arts writer. She finds bad-faith, slippery-slope arguments triggering. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or find her on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Cowan Palace: I Like Totally Did That Show In College

Ashley returns to an old love from her younger days.

It was our first night out without Scarlett and Will and I decided to see Talley’s Folly at The Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. Ah, Talley’s Folly. Just thinking of the title makes my heart cartwheel a bit. As someone who has a very difficult time picking a favorite anything, this play may indeed be my number one.

Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane and loop around the Cowan cul-de-sac, shall we?

My freshman year of college started with a role in Lanford Wilson’s The Rimers of Eldritch. At 17, I got cast as this 40-something year old woman who was kind of abusive to her mom and who shot a real gun on stage. It was awesome.

Being the Hermione Granger that I am sometimes, I took my winter break to read as many Lanford Wilson plays as I could to try and keep up my theatrical education. I fell in love with Talley’s Folly on my first reading. I then reread the play over and over again and would read Sally’s lines out loud to noone. Practicing the part for no real reason other than just needing to play it if only for myself. I would wait until everyone else in my family was asleep and then I would whisper the words alone in my room. I also later attempted to learn how to smoke a cigarette convincingly because the script mentioned that the two characters briefly smoke together… which went about as poorly as you’d imagine.

I hear you all yelling, “nerd alert”. And I respect that. It’s pretty nerdy. But needless to say when my friend, Jill, decided to do the show for her senior directing project during my junior year, it’s safe to say I would have done almost anything to finally do the role in an actual production with a real audience.

We were a small cast and crew with a limited budget and we only had two shows but we were all so devoted and in love with the whole process that for us, it was the world.

I played one of my dream roles at 20 and it reinforced one of the reasons why I love theatre. You can live an entire lifetime full of high stakes and big gestures in an evening and at the time, I was a nerdy college kid in Rhode Island who dreamed of worldly adventure and intrigue.

PIC ONE

I held that show on a blurry pedestal afforded to any of us who have done high school or college theatre. That magically hazy place where no one is really playing age appropriate roles and yet you can’t possibly imagine doing the play with anyone else. For the most part, everyone working on the show is doing it because they genuinely want to do it. They may grow up to do very different serious adult things but those youthful productions can sometimes be these beautiful, short-lived acts of love that can’t exist anywhere else.

PIC TWO

Since closing our production of Talley’s Folly, I’ve continued to seek out audition opportunities to play the role I loved so much again. I assumed that doing it in a more professional setting would only increase my love for the show.

When I saw that Aurora had put it in their season I made a game plan to pimp myself out like never before! I was going to campaign to audition with the fire to fuel 10,000 suns! Two days later I found out I was pregnant so I just ate pizza everyday for a week instead.

After spending two full months with our own little production, our daughter, taking our first date night was a pretty big deal. And introducing my favorite show to my favorite guy seemed like a great evening. As we sat in the dark theater listening to the love story of Sally Talley and Matt Friedman unfold I couldn’t help but get emotional. Here I am, the actual age of Sally, still holding that college production on its pedestal. While I’m not saying I’ll never go for the part if given the chance now, I’m more grateful than ever to have had the show with my Roger Williams University cast and crew. I was young, doing a play I loved with my best friends. How could anything ever compare?

It can’t. And that’s another reason theatre can be so powerfully heartbreaking and heart lifting all at the same time. It’s both fleeting and fulfilling.

I left Berkeley hand in hand with my husband after texting my director and cast mate that even after seeing a lovely telling of my favorite show that I was more in love with our own production than ever before. Not because it was “better” but because it gave me the chance to recall one of the happiest times in my life and find a peace in allowing that memory to just exist without the need to relive it. Plus, I still have the character of that nerdy college kid and that’s what I’d like to hold onto. So I dried up my thoughtful tears and sweetly demanded we conclude our big date night with a burger in honor of that memory and everything that came after.

PIC THREE

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Sitting in Limbo

Dave Sikula, hanging in space.

An acquaintance of mine (I can’t call her a friend, even if we are Facebook friends) has a CD by this title, featuring the tune of the same name by Jimmy Cliff. The title and the song refer (as might seem pretty obvious) to the gap between the known, the expected, and what’s to come.

Waiting.

Waiting.

I feel particularly “in limbo” right now for a couple of reasons. The more immediate one is the one referred to in our last meeting: David Letterman’s retirement, which not only has now actually occurred, but (as I write this) is airing on the east coast. All day long, I’ve been in communication with my friends who were at the theatre during the taping. (They weren’t in the theatre, but actually stuck in Rupert Jee’s Hello Deli around the corner while security kept them from leaving while the show was being taped. Alec Baldwin’s and Jerry Seinfeld’s trailers were just outside the deli and many, many limos were parked on 53 rd St. while they waited.) From all reports, it’s quite a show, running 20 minutes longer than usual, and is likely to make me as much of an emotional mess as I expected (all day long, I’ve felt as though someone I know died), but I’m in limbo to see the actual results until the show airs here.

More specifically to this page’s usual mission, though, is my other feeling of limbo – and that one is actually a double one. As I’ve mentioned, I’m in the Custom Made Theatre Company production of the musical Grey Gardens. From what I can tell, it’s going to be a superb show. (I almost used the word “amazing,” but that’s a word that’s so overused that it’s really become meaningless.) I pretty much exempt myself from this assessment, in that it refers mainly to the women who play the various incarnations of the Beale women in the story. They are truly phenomenal performances, and not only am I astonished by what these women do every night, I’m honored to be part of a company with them. (And let me hasten to add that the men and girls in the company aren’t too shabby, either.)

Trust me; it's brilliant.

Trust me; it’s brilliant.

All that said, because of the vagaries of the space we’re working in, we’re off tonight (Wednesday), two nights before our first preview. Taking a break at a time like this (tech week) is always odd, in that we’ve added tech and costumes, and are gaining momentum when we suddenly have to hit the pause button and put ourselves in the limbo of taking a hiatus from the work we’ve been doing. I’m delighted for a night off and the chance to rest both mentally and vocally, but feel suspended between the past of the what we’ve done and the future of playing to actual audiences.

Which brings me to my last state of limbo: the gap between the impressions of the past and the present of the rehearsal process and the anticipation of and curiosity about not just the way audiences will receive the show, but the ways in which that reception will make the show grow.

I don’t think there’s ever been a show that I’ve done where there wasn’t at least one sure fire laugh or bit that failed to work and died a horrible death or something that, completely unexpectedly, played like a house on fire. (By the way, if you’re ever doing a show with me and think I’m doing something well, please don’t tell me that until the show’s over; otherwise, I’ll become totally self-conscious about it and it’ll never work that way again.)

The last couple of days of rehearsal for me are always bittersweet. There’s a sense of not being able to wait for an audience to see it – and to play off of – and at the same time, there’s a sense of loss; that it’s not “ours” or “mine” anymore; that something that’s been private until opening night is suddenly in the public domain and open to discussion, critique, and criticism (because I know, as good as this show is, there are going to be people who just plain won’t like it, or – worse – be meh about it).

But it’s all limbo; that state of knowing that not only have we done all we can, but we still have more to do, even if we don’t know what that is.

In For a Penny: It’s a Super Job

Charles Lewis III, working.

Pay no attention to the ninjas on stage.

Pay no attention to the ninjas on stage.

“They played at hearts as other children might play at ball; only, as it was really their two hearts that they flung to and fro, they had to be very, very handy to catch them, each time, without hurting them.”
– Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera

This past weekend had quite a few discussions of Greek Drama pop up on my social media timelines. Yes, they were mainly Olympians-related, with quite a few of our fellow writers either dedicating that time to writing their plays and/or holding developmental readings. But there were quite a few heated discussions about classical Greek plays such as Lysistrata and Medea. The topic of Shakespeare Troilus and Cressida even came up at one point. If you wanted to talk Greek drama, apparently this was the weekend for it.

For my part, I spent Saturday morning at the gates of Troy. I watched as some of the most creative technicians in the Bay Area theatre scene put the finishing touches on the metallic, rusty walls of the city (apparently this version Poseidon was a fan of steam punk). But the real highlight came when I saw the metallurgical effigy that was the Trojan Horse come to life as it moved back and forth on the massive stage of the War Memorial Opera House. My first-ever trip to the opera was in this very opera house in 1989 and my last time on its stage was two years ago as a supernumerary. Although most of my work with them requires me to stand around and do nothing (such as this day, when I was simply a lightwalker), “dull” isn’t the word I’d use to describe my experiences in opera.

For those who don’t know, a “lightwalker” is just a stand-in. They aren’t involved in the actual production, they just stand on stage during rehearsal so that the tech magicians can test the lighting. A “supernumerary” or “super” is the theatrical equivalent to a film extra: you’re meant to be seen, not heard; you get a finely-tailored costume, but not a single line. But when you’re seen it can be quite an experience. When I was a super for the SF Opera’s 2012 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, I was one of the puppeteers who operated the two-headed Technicolor dragon that appears at the top of the show. I had absolutely no puppeteering experience up to that point, but the director said I looked like I had strong shoulders. It took about eight or ten of us to operate that thing and I was one two guys up front. It was cumbersome and unwieldy, but we found a rhythm and the audience loved it, so I can cross that off my bucket list.

That's me second-from-the-right.

That’s me second-from-the-right.

I feel even more accomplished when I consider the fact that The Magic Flute represents everything I personally love and hate about opera. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a beautiful piece of music and a whimsical piece of theatre; but the story itself is problematic, especially in its latter half. That’s when it suddenly comes off as really sexist (the queen is suddenly made the villain seemingly for no other reason than being a queen) and doubles down on the first half’s uncomfortable racism (the sole Black character, often played in blackface, is an irredeemable thief who is whipped by his master and tries twiceto rape the lead damsel). Have I mentioned this opera considered kid-friendly?

But its grand theatrical elements are what I love about opera. It somehow seems apropos that opera be brought up a week after Allison and Anthony’s trip to the Hoodslam wrestling match was recounted. Opera and wrestling are quite a lot alike: they’re both considered separate elements from “regular” theatre; they’re both defined by their over-the-top style and larger-than-life characters; and they both showcase unique talent that takes years – if not decades – to refine, but that performers seemingly pull off with the greatest of ease. Hell, the only real difference between them is the dichotomy of their perceived audiences, with wrestling considered pandering to the unwashed masses and opera considered a flaunting of bourgeoisie excess. But both are unmistakably theatre and your appreciation for them grows once you’ve had the opportunity to take part.

Which is not to say that I wasn’t already appreciative of opera, quite the contrary. I became fascinated with opera in high school, when my love of Shakespeare led me to seek out operas, symphonies, and ballets based on his work. I remember watching PBS and admiring the flawless skill of divas like Maria Callas and Leontyne Price, but feeling unqualified to say how much I disliked something (I remember despising André Previn’s adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, but not knowing how to argue it if asked; thankfully, I was never asked). But my tastes began to refine the more I watched. Whenever someone bemoans funding for the arts or public television, tell them that it isn’t there just for you, it’s there for someone you’ve never even thought about.

It was that affinity for opera that led me to stumble upon an opportunity to be a super for the SF Opera. Having done a lot of film extra work, I was used to the idea of just standing around as the important people did their work. But once the stage managers and ADs start giving general directions to the crowd, it becomes apparent who can really take direction and who can’t. Those of us who can – or who just have good shoulders – wind up doing some of the more important non-speaking roles. This might mean wrangling a dragon, this might mean firing a loaded rifle on stage, or it might mean being a dancing zebra in a bacchanalian orgy.

It happens.

It happens.

None of this really prepares you for was awe-inspiring experience of stepping onto the War Memorial stage for the first time. No matter what you’ve seen from the audience, the sheer scale of that stage never really hits you until you’ve actually been on it. The stage itself is like an Olympic-sized field and looking out at the seats makes you think that they extend out forever. And during an actual show, the backstage is truly intimidating. I’ve been in the booth for countless black box theatre productions, but I was truly taken aback by the high-tech walls of lights, numbers, and monitors on either side of the opera stage. It looks more like the control panel of NASA Mission Control, and it’s carried out with the same level of military precision. Add to that the fact that you get your own desk and station, the colorful commentary by the world’s bawdiest co-stars, and the fact that you can gorge yourself on the free catering (which you shouldn’t, because you still have to fit into your costume) then why wouldn’t you want to be part of this?

And yet, the most memorable experience I’ve had working with the opera is one in which I was reminded why the only difference between opera and “regular” theatre is one of perception. I was a super for the 2012 production of Puccini’s Tosca, an opera I enjoy quite a lot. I was really excited because I had more to do than ever before. I was one of Scarpia’s guards, so I appeared in every scene – I intimidated the parishioners, I manhandled Cavaradossi, and I was part of the firing squad at the end. But what I remember most is different interpretations of the title role. Tosca was alternated between divas Angela Gheorgiu and Patricia Racette – both very nice people for world-renowned superstars. Gheorgiu’s casting was a major selling point and every night she got a huge applause on her first appearance alone. Given her powerful pipes, it’s not hard to see why. But Patricia Racette – whose voice is also pretty damn intimidating – always approached the character from the point-of-view of an actor. She wanted to know the motivation for each of her actions and worked to make each movement organic, rather than just scripted.

I remember watching her from backstage when we had the matinee for middle and high school students. It’s often hard to hear anything over the music and tech cues backstage, but I distinctly remember when Racette’s Tosca made the decision to kill Cavaradossi. She’s surprised when she finds the knife on the table, and when she hid it behind her back, I heard audible gasps from the audience. You could hear the tension rising as Cavaradossi made his way over to her. And when she began stabbing, there were the sort of cheers you only expect from hearing your country just won 50 gold medals.

Now THIS is kid-friendly.

Now THIS is kid-friendly.

It’s one of those moments when I had to take a step back and say “Okay, now I remember why I do theatre.”

And that’s what brings me back time and again. Not just as a super, lightwalker, or even an audience members. Not just for opera, SHN musicals, or even black box productions. Not even for experience, money, or points on my resume. I love doing theatre because I love being a part of something that can genuinely move you. And I love being a part of opera, even as just a super, because it represents everything it could (and should) be. It’s grand in its scope, yet capable of some incredibly intimate moments of truth. In a year when I’m not quite sure when I’ll ever actually be on stage again, spending this past Saturday watching a mechanical Trojan Horse reminded me of some of the best things this art form is capable of.

Plus, I might get to shoot a guy again. You never know.

The Napoleanic look is in this season.

The Napoleanic look is in this season.

Charles is curious as to what the public’s reaction will be to the Trojan Horse, especially coming on the heels of the whale in Moby Dick. To find out more about the SF Opera and volunteer for supernumerary work, visit their homepage at http://www.sfopera.com.

Everything Is Already Something Week 56: Listen to Some Plays

Allison Page is listening.

Often the plays I’m really excited about don’t happen to be playing anywhere near me, so I can’t see them. CLEVER WORKAROUND: Audible. For the last week I’ve been listening to high quality recordings of plays on Audible — often with the original cast I would never have had the chance to see in action. I’m in the middle of writing a new play right now, and I have to say it’s been extra hard somehow and has made me feel a little inadequate. *gasp*

Listening to really well-crafted works has felt like a mini masterclass. I totally recommend it. Here’s some I have listened to and some I intend to listen to:

THE MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT
by Stephen Adly Guirgis

Swooooon.

Swooooon.

This was an extra great listen because I’m obsessed with Bobby Cannavale, and he absolutely kills it in this role. Bonus: Chris Rock. In a play. How often does that happen? There’s a lot to love in this script – it opens so quickly. There’s a brief phone conversation, then a character enters and shit hits the fan within a few minutes, in a really big way. Guirgis doesn’t waste time, and I really appreciate that. It’s a very full play, and none of it feels unimportant. I’m constantly trying to make that happen in my own work, and I only succeed sometimes.

BECKY SHAW
by Gina Gionfriddo

Okay, I was into the characters in this one, but something about the story didn’t quite gel for me when it was over. I’m not sure exactly what I wanted out of the ending but somehow I felt like I wasn’t quite satisfied. I was interested in what was happening, but at some point the story started to feel a little less structured to me in a way that caused me to distract myself a lot with thoughts of “But…what’s happening? Is something about to happen? Or is nothing about to happen?” Performance wise – I really liked the actors. I will freely admit I tend to be a pretty traditional storyteller and so something that doesn’t feel like it’s got a really tightly stitched-up ending is sometimes not my bag. I can be boring that way.

BEST OF SECOND CITY
By…ya know, everybody in Second City

Comedy swooooon.

Comedy swooooon.

I’m about 20 minutes into one of these right now (there are actually 3 volumes, it seems) and mostly it’s pretty delightful if not actually hilarious. I think just listening to scenes often doesn’t result in as many actually laugh-out-loud moments. It’s much more like “Hm, yes, that is funny. I see how that is funny.” But it is a fun recording in that it is chock full of a bunch of top notch funny people: Amy Sedaris, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Marsha Mason and Paul Dinello. So even if it weren’t great it would still be pretty great. And it’s good for listening on commutes because the scenes are short. You can end any time and pick it back up later not having to actually remember what was happening.

LA THEATRE WORKS COLLECTIONS

LA Theatre Works has several collections of plays on Audible: Modern Classics, Pulitzer Play Prize Plays (Volumes 1 and 2) and probably other things I don’t feel like looking for right now, which contain plays like: ‘Night Mother, Anna in The Tropics, Lost in Yonkers, Six Degrees of Separation, Agnes of God, True West, Anna Christie, and others. I haven’t dipped into these yet, but I plan to.

OUR LADY OF 121ST STREET
by Stephen Adly Guirgis

Yes, more Guirgis. I’m going through a phase. GREAT cast (including Laurence Fishburne). It’s much more an ensemble piece than Motherfucker, and thusly feels a lot more like vignettes on common themes and character relationships as opposed to one big story. Everything somehow ties back to a dead nun – though the actual death of the nun is sort of secondary to everything else that’s being talked about. A lot of talk of broken relationships and how traumatic events impact people over time. Fascinating, definitely, and Guirgis’ ability to write AMAZING arguments means I love him to tiny pieces. I dig a good fight.

Other plays to listen to:
The Noel Coward Collection
Pride and Prejudice
This is Our Youth
The Hound of the Baskervilles
The Lion in Winter (with Alfred Molina!)
Abundance
Arcadia
Art
The Rivalry
Three Sisters

Basically, there are a lot of them. I’m getting out and seeing more local productions this year, but having this resource to experience stuff not happening here is pretty cool. I don’t know about you, but reading scripts often makes me sleepy. And since I have a commute to contend with, I’m killing two birds with one stone.

HOORAY!

Allison Page is a writer/actor/co-creative director of Killing My Lobster. You can catch KML’s new show (which she happened to head write) Murder, She Was Murdered this Friday and Saturday at PianoFight. www.killingmylobster.com

Theater Around The Bay: Sara Judge Joins The Theater Pub Team

Anthony Miller and The Five has the day off, so we’re using this opportunity to announce a new addition to our team!

After the success of this year’s ON THE SPOT short play event, we’ve decided to make it an annual part of Theater Pub, a sort of spring sister event to Pint Sized at the end of the summer. As such, we’ve asked Sara Judge, who helped organize and plan this year’s event, to take on leadership of next year’s, which will once again happen in March.

Sara’s been a part of Theater Pub since the very first year, so we couldn’t be more excited to have her come on board in an official capacity. We’re so jubilant about it, and to ensure some healthy rivalry with the Tzarina of Pint Sized, we’ve come up with a truly grand title for the role: no less than Empress of On The Spot.

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Sara Judge is a theater artist and songwriter. She studied theater at
Rutgers University and spent time training at the Walnut Street Theatre, The
Wilma Theater, and EgoPo in Philadelphia and at ACT in SF. She has been an
actor and playwright in several “Guaranteed Overnight Theater” productions at
The Brick Playhouse in Philadelphia. She directed several plays and staged
readings for the Philadelphia Dramatists Center. Her work as an actress and
director has been featured in the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Sara won an
award for “Outstanding Achievement in Acting” as Lila in Ed Shockley’s SUNSET
JOHNSON at the Philadelphia ACT Festival, and first place in an entertainment
slam at the Philadelphia Theater Workshop for performing her song “5 Time
Loser.” In 2008, she drove to San Francisco and never left. She was lucky enough
to find the SF Theater Pub in 2010 where she had the pleasure of directing a
staged reading of Aeschylus’ SEVEN AGAINST THEBES, Ben Fisher’s DEVIL OF A TIME, a folk musical, Sharif Abu-Hamdeh’s CANARY YELLOW for the BOA X festival, composed musical adaptions of Oscar Wilde poems for Theater Pub’s Oscar Wilde Festival and co-wrote OPEN HOUSE for On The Spot 2015. More credits include directing Alison Luterman’s A NIGHT IN JAIL for No Nude Men, Michael Golden’s 90-minute musical ALASKA LEAVIN’ for the SF Fringe Festival, and a solo-performance piece with music for the L.A. based artist Rana Rines. She
co-produced a SOMA Salon, a semi-annual San Francisco theatre and performance
salon where she also developed and directed a staged reading of her original
play. She is a member of the Playwright’s Center of San Francisco. Her play THE
LOSS TEMPLE was produced as part of the PCSF Spring 2015 24hr Play Festival.