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.

FullSizeRender copy

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.

Theater Around The Bay: Colin Johnson Is Creative

Our next show, The Creative Process, opens tonight at Theater Pub! We took a moment to chat with Colin Johnson, the playwright, about the show, making theater, and looking like a chump.

Colin offered no comment, just this cheese ball photo.

Colin offered no comment, just this cheese ball photo.

No, but really, who are you? 100 words or less.

I am Colin. I make theatre and movies and write and produce and act and sell books. I enjoy hiking and chronicling human misfortune in both comedic and horrific ways. I’ve been around the Bay since 2008 and have dabbled in every form of art and storytelling i could possibly taint. I’m currently involved with SF Playground, SF Shotz and SF Olympians, along with co-running my own small production venture, Battle Stache Studios.

And what is this show about? Like really about?

The show is about all the internal and external bullshit that goes into creating anything. The insecurity, the masking of insecurity, the spontaneous inspiration, the yelling, the overwhelming compulsion to be the center of attention and to be validated, the willingness (or refusal) to sell out, the desperation, etc.
We, of course, will wrap these themes into a ridiculous and entertaining format of three short plays, all loosely tied together through character and content. We will also include a live band in our attempt to shove as much art as possible into the experience.

Yeah, but why should I come see it?

First of all, the environment. Pianofight. Where else will you be able to drink, eat, see outrageous comedy and listen to a live band all on the same cabaret stage? Also, anyone who has ever created or produced art will identify with the scenarios we’re exploiting, and will hopefully enjoy the absurd lengths we go to in sketching out the eternal struggle of the artist.

Tell me about your creative process- how do you come up with ideas?

I have trained myself to pull ideas out of any and everything, often to the detriment of my social and romantic life. After conception, my process usually revolves around slight reorganization of my environment, pre-production (I’m big on pen-and-paper prep), and ruthless, energetic optimism. As someone who does a lot of film and theatre production and who recognizes the differences the two formats require, I relish the fact that every project requires a different approach and a different style. Whatever works. Creation isn’t a set menu, it’s a buffet.

And then what?

And then the key is making sure everyone you bring on board is just that: on board. If you surround yourself with amazing people who have faith in the product, the finish line will appear out of even the darkest moments.

What’s your favorite part of the creative process?

Collaboration. I love getting friends and colleagues in the same room and jamming. Creating the perfect creative environment where everyone feels free to experiment and express themselves is the best workplace I could imagine.

What’s the part that makes you want to tear your eyes out?

That’s a multi-tiered answer with a nifty little twist. The final run-up. In independent production, you can be damn sure that Murphy’s Law will rear its ugly head sooner or later. And those obstacles usually show up at the WORST POSSIBLE TIME. Also the occasional bad attitude that sneaks into projects. There’s nothing worse than a morale vaccuum roaming free on set or in rehearsal. Thirdly, the maddening lack of funds and/or production assistance the average independent project has to deal with. These days, there are so many odds stacked against you when you launch a project or a show. The culture is saturated. However, I see this problem as an exciting challenge and an opportunity to forge ahead with new ideas and new presentations. If stress is a motivator for you, if you thrive under the gun, look nowhere else to get your kicks.

How do you know when something is a bust and just isn’t going to happen?

For me, as someone who is enticed by even the smallest projects and has a hard time saying “no”, the realization that something will bust comes early in the process. If the energy isn’t there, if the core idea takes more than 3 minutes to describe, if you find that people in creative roles aren’t condusive to your own process, or, as I’ve just begun to learn, if there’s nothing in it for me, ideally in terms of compensation but more realistically in networking, If I know I’ll not be able to give it all my energy and won’t take something new and valuable from the experience, I’ll move on.Once that perpetual snowball starts rolling, though, I will finish. Even if it becomes something it was never intended to become, even if cast members drop out or the venue catches on fire, once I have concrete work done and have decided to finish something, I will finish it.

How do you know when something is finished?

When I’m content enough to walk away with a modicum of satisfaction. Nothing will ever be perfect or exactly the way you envisioned. The trick is letting it go and moving on. There’s always another opportunity to screw everything up.

Who are the artists who you respect the most and what about their process do you identify with?

I have major respect for artists who can swing back and forth between multiple formats and styles. I’ve been waiting to see what lands on top, theatre or film, for 10 years now and it’s turned into a constant back and forth. My immediate interests at the moment are finding ways to combine the two in organic, innovative ways and enhance certain types of stories. People like Martin McDonaugh, Clive Barker, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Orson Welles, just to name a few, all move seamlessly between multiple forms of expression, from film to theatre to music to books to radio to painting to everything in between. I guess basically I’m trying to say that someday I hope to EGOT. A fella can dream.

Don’t miss The Creative Process, starting tonight at PianoFight at 8

The Real World, Theater Edition: An Interview with Marisela Treviño Orta

Barbara Jwanouskos chats up the playwright behind Shotgun’s Heart Shaped Nebula.

How fortunate to have a chance to interview Marisela before she departs for the Iowa Playwrights Workshop later this summer. I met Marisela at a going away party for Amy Clare Tasker (a wonderful director who is missed!) and was struck by how precisely she captured my feelings about a life in theater. A couple years later and I still feel as though she has that precision of insight that gives a sense of relief when talking about playwriting, inspiration, and navigating the many paths artists have to realize their potential.

Marisela Treviño Orta

Marisela Treviño Orta

Barbara: I’m curious about your playwriting background. How did you get into theater?

Marisela: It was all happenstance. I’m a poet turned playwright. And I’ve only been writing plays for about 10 years now.

I came to San Francisco to study poetry. I was in my first semester for my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of San Francisco (USF) when I found my way to theatre. USF is a Jesuit institution and Jesuits are very big on social justice. My on-campus job’s first assignment was to produce a video on the work students and professors were doing in the community. That’s how I was introduced to El Teatro Jornalero!, a theatre company made up of Latino immigrants devising original work on social justice issues.

I was a poet in search of inspiration. And as an imagist I was drawn to the visuals of the movement exercises the actors would do. So I joined ETJ! as its resident poet. After a year with them I became curious about playwriting. I ended up taking an introductory course in playwriting with playwright Christine Evans—she was a visiting professor/artist one semester.

So my final semester in my MFA program I began writing my first play BRAIDED SORROW. That play is what brought me fully into this genre. It was accepted into the 2005 Bay Area Playwrights Festival and the rest is history—in that, I realized this was the genre I’d been searching for all my life.

Barbara: Perhaps related to that, I know you have a background in poetry as well, does this influence your style as a writer?

Marisela: My poetics are very present in my playwriting.

Poets attend to line breaks (breath), word choice, imagery, lyricism, space on the page. Everything I learned as a poet is applicable to playwriting. I mentioned earlier that I’m an imagist. I’m inspired by images, drawn to them, and use them as a way to construct narratives. When I write, I think about the visual language in the play—symbolism and also what the audience hears. While a sound designer will realize that soundscape, I think playwrights can create a whole world on stage using dialog, images, and sound.

Barbara: How would you describe your voice?

Marisela: I don’t know how to answer that. Maybe it’s because it’s sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees. Perhaps it’s easier for others to articulate what it is we’re doing as artists.

Barbara: What brought you out to the Bay Area? How have you found the theater scene here? Anything that was particularly influential or inspiring (or both)?

Marisela: It was my MFA at USF that brought me out to the Bay Area. I actually never intended to stay after I finished it. But it was theatre that kept me out here. I found the theatre community exciting and welcoming.

I find our theatre scene to be very supportive, as opposed to cut throat. Playwrights share information, go see one another’s shows, recommend one another for opportunities.

Barbara: And I hear you’re headed to Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop – Congrats! How did you make the decision to apply, and then subsequently once you were accepted, attend this program? Any special considerations you were mulling over?

Marisela: For 9 of the 10 years I’ve been a playwright I was adamant that I wasn’t going to get another MFA (one in playwriting). I didn’t want to incur more debt, but I also disliked the idea that you had to go get an MFA in order to tap into the production pipeline. I didn’t want to go get an MFA because it would be “good” for my career.

Instead, I’ve spent the past 10 years developing a network of theatre friends, peers and advocates. I also spent that time writing, improving my craft, and seeing shows. It wasn’t until a year or so ago that I decided I would apply to grad school.

It was my bad back that started it all. I have chronic back issues and the past 3 years it was really bad. I decided to apply to grad school when I was lying on my office floor at my day job. I realized that if I had limited time to sit in front of a computer, I didn’t want to use that time for my day job. I wanted to spend that time writing.

I decided that I wanted to go to grad school so I could have time to just write. Because for the past 10 years, as I’ve perused playwriting, I’ve had a full time job. It’s been a grind. Like having two full time jobs. So grad school is about having time just to write and to improve my craft. Someone recently said it’s like me going on a 3 year writing retreat. And since I didn’t want any more debt I looked at programs like Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop.

When I got the news about my acceptance I then had to grapple with the fact that I had an unexpected development—a world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And OSF production is a game changer. And since most MFA programs only let you go away to work on outside productions for a limited amount of time, I had to ask a lot of questions since I wanted to really be there for the entire rehearsal process.

I knew Iowa was the place for me when their response was to immediately brainstorm ways to help me make the most of my OSF experience and still enroll in the program.

I can’t wait to begin my MFA at Iowa. I can’t wait to see how productive I can be when playwriting is my sole focus. Though…I will have 13 hours of classes. So there will be homework. But I welcome it all with open arms.

Barbara: Many writers and artists have the debate on whether to go to school or not – what influenced your decision?

Marisela: My reasons for going to grad school are personal now. It’s not just “to advance my career.” It took some time for me to realize what I wanted from a grad school experience. That felt empowering in a way.

I applied because I had juggled my playwriting with a day job for a long time and I was not only tired of it, I knew that in order to go from good to great as a playwright you have to really pour a lot of time and energy into your work. I knew the juggling wasn’t just unsustainable—it would hold me back as a playwright.

Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Marilet Martinez and Hugo Carbajal rehearsing a scene from HEART SHAPED NEBULA with Shotgun Players

Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Marilet Martinez and Hugo Carbajal rehearsing a scene from HEART SHAPED NEBULA with Shotgun Players

Barbara: Tell me about creating theater in the Bay Area vs. other regions – is there anything different about it here? What do you wish would change in theater both here and nationally?

Marisela: I don’t actually have a lot of experience in either of these areas. My upcoming production at Shotgun is only my third production.

I have had a few readings in Chicago and really like that scene. The people are very friendly, similar to the Bay Area.

As for changing something in theatre…Obviously we need more diversity and gender parity both on stage and behind the scenes. I think I’d like to see more self-reflection and intention when it comes to addressing these issues. Sure there are people like Valerie Weak (thank goodness) who are gathering stats on productions, but it would be great to see more theatre intentionally put together a season with parity and diversity.

Barbara: Will you miss/not miss anything in particular about the Bay Area while in Iowa? Do you think you’ll come back?

Marisela: What will I miss? EVERYTHING!

But I also know that I’m nostalgic for the Bay Area of 13 years ago when I first moved here. When the fog rolled in like clockwork every three days.

It may sound silly to reminisce, but the changes in the past 4 years have been so dramatic. I don’t know that I could afford to return.

I came into my own as an artist here in the Bay Area. I think of myself as a San Franciscan. I don’t know what I’ll tell people when they ask me where I’m from. Well….originally from Texas. But I’m a San Francisco gal.

Barbara: Any advice that was paramount to your development as a writer and artist? Anything you wish you hadn’t listened to?

Marisela: Join Twitter.

HA!

I’m serious though. And I hated Twitter when it first came on the scene. But Twitter has led to multiple opportunities for me…including that production at OSF.

There’s a vibrant theatre community on Twitter. When I said I’ve spent the past 10 years building a network of peers and advocates—I’ve done most of my networking building nationally on Twitter. So get on it. But don’t just promote yourself. That’s like going to a cocktail party and meeting someone who only talks about themselves the entire time. Listen to the conversations happening online. Share information. Ask questions. Get to know people. It’s so true that theatre is about relationships. And Twitter is a great way of building relationships with people from all over.

Barbara: I’d love to know more about your upcoming productions in the Bay Area – THE RIVER BRIDE will be running until May 16 at Santa Clara University and HEART SHAPED NEBULA is premiering at Shotgun Players May 21. Tell me about the process – what was your involvement? Did anything for you change in either (or both productions) – perhaps your relationship to the play, the script itself, the subject matter?

Marisela: I went down last weekend to see THE RIVER BRIDE at Santa Clara. It was really great to meet the students and faculty. I wasn’t able to be actively involved in their production because its process was concurrent with HEART SHAPED NEBULA.

The production process for HEART SHAPED NEBULA began last fall when I began rewrites. It’s been an intense process, but I wanted to do all the rewrites before we went into rehearsals. All the work paid off as there was only one minor rewrite needed during our rehearsal process. The rest was just edits and adjustments.

As for what’s changed, well one of the characters evolved in a really interesting way. The old draft had two big competing narrative arcs. It was weighing the play down a bit. The rewrites have resolved that issue. I still miss the old version of my character. I’ll have to save her for another play.

Barbara: What are you drawn to exploring next?

Marisela: I’m currently working on finishing my fairy tale cycle. THE RIVER BRIDE was the first of three plays, all fairy tales, inspired by Latino mythology and folklore.

Also in the queue is a play I’ve had on the back burner for years. GHOST LIMB is a riff on the Persephone and Demeter myth. It takes place during the Dirty War in Argentina and focuses on a mother whose son is disappeared by the military dictatorship.

Barbara: May is our month for “Will and Perseverance”. In a lot of ways I feel this an essential component to having a rich life with writing and arts. Is there an anecdote or story from your own journey as a writer/artist that you could share with us where you had to draw upon this trait?

Marisela: Early on I read some advice by playwright Adam Szymkowicz where he said you have to work for at least 10 years at playwriting before things begin to take off. That was helpful to know. It gives you some idea of how long you have to keep working, how long it takes to develop relationships that turn into opportunities.

I’ll also add that I’ve been working on HEART SHAPED NEBULA since 2008. That’s seven years. And in those seven years I’ve grown a lot as a person and an artist—both of which deeply inform the rewrites of the play.

Know that we don’t always see the full journey of a play or production. We only see the tip of the iceberg. Often those journeys can take years.

I think knowing all this can help you persevere. Not that I’m there, but overnight success actually takes years in the making.

Barbara: Any words of wisdom for writers out there that would like to write new plays?

Marisela: I make a point to wait until I’ve gotten a play into several drafts before sharing the script with anyone. I need that time to really get to know what the story so that when people have notes for me I’m able to determine if those notes help me realize the narrative I’m trying to write or if they are going in another direction.

Often in a first draft we’re still trying to figure out what the narrative is. Give yourself some time and space to really get to know your characters and play before inviting feedback.

Also, trust your gut. I find it doesn’t often lie. Even if you can’t articulate why, if something makes you uncomfortable there’s a reason why.

Barbara: Any recommendations to local plays, shows, or events happening around the Bay Area?

Marisela: I’ve been in production for the past few months, so I haven’t seen anything in a while. So I can’t recommend anything.

But there plenty of amazing theatre companies here in the Bay Area. I try to see shows as often as I can because I consider it part of my development as an artist. There’s always something you can learn when you go see a show. I often leave buoyed by the experience. And inspiration is always helpful when you’re a writer.

So get thee to the theatre!

THE RIVER BRIDE is playing at Santa Clara University until May 16. More information is available at http://scupresents.org/performances/mainstage-theatre-river-bride. HEART SHAPED NEBULA is playing with Shotgun Players on The Ashby Stage May 21-June 14. For more information, check out their website at
https://shotgunplayers.org/Online/heartshapednebula. And you can follow Marisela on twitter @MariselaTOrta.