Why I Read Havel

Bennett Fisher, a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub, talks about his upcoming project, which you can catch on Tuesday, May 15th, at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale.

Since Vaclav Havel’s passing in December of last year, I have had a number of people come up to me and say things like “so, you’re into Havel’s writing, right? Why should I read his plays?” It feels odd that– at least in my very limited circle – I am now somewhat of an authority on Havel’s work, but I think it has less to do with any kind of extensive expertise but rather because I seem to be one of the few people to take a serious interest in that particular dimension of Havel’s full and fascinating life.

Indeed, it was this unusual interest that made grant money available and opened doors for me to meet Havel and other Czech theater makers. I was sponsored to attend the Forum 2000 conference in Prague in 2007 because I wanted to learn about Havel the writer, and not Havel the public figure – if I had only been interested in the latter, I would not have received the funds to go. While at the conference, I spoke with a lot of former Czech cabinet members and high-level bureaucrats about their previous lives as directors, actors, stage managers, scenic designers, and so on. When Havel was named president of Czechoslovakia, he had to fill out positions of government with people he knew. Since most people he knew were from the theater or the literary world, well…

Just imagine, for a moment, a government largely composed of theater people. Are you encouraged? Frightened?

It is so improbable to think that someone who was an international sensation as a writer in his prime would have their literary career eclipsed by their accomplishments as a revolutionary and statesman (imagine Athol Fugard turning into Nelson Mandela). In the many obituaries I read, Havel’s playwriting often seemed like a footnote – a diversion before he harkens to his true calling as an activist and politician. Having spent quite a bit of time with his plays, I believe that Havel became a revolutionary not in addition to his work as an artist, but because of his work as an artist.

Havel’s plays explore what happens when people stop listening, when we go about our lives so robotic that we begin to treat others with a kind of off-hand cruelty, when a proposed system of solutions backfires. Havel’s plays are stories about the power of empathy over brutishness, about how no amount of intellectual ability can substitute for action, about how idealism means nothing if it cannot be embodied in our conduct. When I read Havel, I feel invigorated by the possibility of his writing – art as the spark that ignites a conversation, which grows into deeds, which grows into reform. The true power of plays like The Memorandum is the velvet glove of wit, humor, and playful intellectualism that hides a clenched fist ready to deliver an emotional haymaker.

Or, it should, if I don’t screw up the direction.

Don’t miss the Pub’s rendition of Havel’s work this May 15th at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale! Admission is the usual free (or donation at the door) and we recommend you get there early as seating can be limited!

Theater Around The Internet: Ten Questions with Linda-Ruth Cardozo

A few months back, before we jumped on the general promotion band-wagon, Linda-Ruth started a Facebook page devoted to getting the word out about the Bay Area theater scene and all the crazy-wonderful stuff going on here. As a woman after our own hearts, how could we resist the chance to find out more about this local luminary?

So, in a nutshell, who are you and what do you do in the San Francisco Theater Scene?

I am an actor, as yet non-Union (I have some points toward AEA and that Taft Hartley thing but I don’t know how many. I should get on that.) and a drama teacher. I’m a Bay Area native, majored in Theatre/Liberal Studies at SFSU, and studied at ACT in the Certificate Program. I’ve been “doing theatre,” since I was 12. I had an agent for a while, and have done some film and commercial gigs. I just directed my first piece with adult actors since I was last in a directing class at State. It’s cool. I’d do it again.

Do you think we actually have a Theater Scene here?

There are many established theatres and theatre companies that are based here, so, yes, we have a “scene.” The Exit Theatre has the Fringe, there’s the Bay One Acts Festival, the Phoenix Theatre and Stage Werx, among many others. There are also newer companies, and actors that I see again and again.

In what ways are we building, or building up, the Scene and what do you think is working best?

Technology seems to contribute. There are so many changes since I was first taught, for example, how to do headshots. No more waiting weeks for that heavy package from that place in L.A. Now we just send off pic/resume–bling! Lois Tema, photographer extraordinaire (you might want to spell check that) was telling me about the transition she’s had to make. At the foundation of “the Scene” is the Stage. The Magic, Exit Theatres, the Pheonix, Theatre Rhinoceros, (and so on) have been around for a long time. And Stage Werx has gotten a new lease on life at the new space on Valencia. Building up, I think, is largely hard work, and sticking it out, as well as maintaining a sense of being part of a community. Theatre does not happen in a vacuum; we can’t do it unless we do it with other people, and that means appreciating the contributions of everyone involved. It’s teamwork.

Is there anything that isn’t working?

When I attend a show, the audience often seems to consist of, largely, other actors, family and friends. When I encourage “civilians” to see live theatre, they are discouraged by the cost of a ticket, unwilling to dish out the money for a show that’s not “guaranteed” to entertain them. There’s also the whole Equity issue. So many actors who want to stay in the Bay Area choose not to join Equity because they will not be working as much. (See Valerie Weak’s article on Theatre Bay Area website.) This hasn’t changed much from when I was in college and heard that actors in San Francisco generally “work for free.” There are so many talented performers who have to keep those day jobs, and that limits the time and energy they can use for the craft.

What groups or individuals do you think are contributing, and how, to the formation of a San Francisco Bay Area Theater Scene?

Ty McKenzie, owner of Stage Werx is really community minded; the performers and companies who work there represent the diversity of our city. Christina Augello brings us the Fringe Festival every year. The Playwrights’ Foundation and the Playwrights Center of SF are always bringing new, relevant works to the stage. Martin A David’s And-Still a Theatre Company is another group producing new pieces. And, of course, the Magic, Theatre Rhinoceros, Cutting Ball, Impact, and Shotgun, the Marsh, BRAVA and others are firmly established in the Bar Area theatre tradition.

What possessed you to create the Theatre SF Bay page on Facebook?

It was sort of an accident. I was getting confused with FB Friends and Invites and Likes and I had to find a way to organize them. I created a group to distinguish my theatre stuff from everything else; I just labeled it “Theatre.” I would look around, “Like” stuff, and then post it on my own page as reminders to myself. Then I had to categorized things further, so I grouped the local stuff and called it Theatre SF Bay. This way I wouldn’t send notices of my own shows to people in Cape Cod, Colorado and Scotland. Linda Ayers Frederick encouraged the new title by writing “Good idea, Linda-Ruth, more specific” and I realized other people were actually looking at what I posted. It seemed that there was a need for a place where theatre people could post about shows, auditions, ask around for certain props, and so forth. The positive feedback from friends gave me incentive to expand the group. I ran into William Hall and he told me to “keep it up.” So I did and I do.

It seems to be growing all the time- does that mean more or less work for you, and how does that affect your energy and time in regards to your own theater career?

I feel more connected to the theatre community. I’ve come to realize how much stuff is going on around me, and I’ve become involved in projects and made connections through the page. I hope others have as well. I would love members to post more often, since I worry about missing stuff, especially when I’m busy with rehearsals and don’t have as much time for FB.

So many shows are currently being promoted on your page- about what percentage do you personally make it out to see?

About 25%. So much talent, so little time.

Anything you know about that’s coming up you really want to recommend?

BOA for sure.

What are you doing next?

Auditioning.

To find out more about Linda-Ruth, check out http://www.Linda-Ruth-Cardozo.com. And keep your eye on us as we continue to bring you deeper into the Bay Area’s small theater scene. Have a story you want to share, a profile to sketch or a production to promote? Let us know!

Field Notes from a BOA Virgin: Highly Scientific Data — I Haz Dem

Annie Paladino continues her report from the BOA front lines… 

So, BOA 2012 happened.

No, wait, just kidding! It’s STILL happening!

What DID happen was that, in less than a week, two full programs composed of 10 amazing one-act plays were loaded-in, teched, and rehearsed (lather, rinse, repeat). This past Sunday, both programs had their first performances. Since the play I am in, Maybe Baby, is in Program 2, I can only speak from that experience- which was LOVELY!- but seriously: just try to imagine TEN CASTS AND CREWS getting their shit together, tech-wise, in like, 4 days. Oh wait, YOU CAN’T, because IT SOUNDS IMPOSSIBLE. But… it happened! I promise! With little-to-no heartbreak, tears, hair-ripping, etc.!

Let the following facts and figures fill you with awe:

– Number of set changes in Program 2: 4

– Number of times we rehearsed the set changes during dress rehearsal: 3

– Number of actors in Program 2: 23

– Ratio of men to women in Program 2: 6:17 (including two separate plays with a cast of just two women — this is significant and awesome!)

– Sweat-intensity level in the overwhelmingly crowded backstage area: off the charts

– Average number of eggs cracked during each performance of Maybe Baby: 4-6

– Yolky-stage rating for the weekend: low (only one incidence of spillage)

– Number of teapots used in Maybe Baby: 9, plus one teapot-dog-puppet

– Average number of pushups done by the women in Maybe Baby (myself included): 20-25

– Number of splinters in bare feet thus far: ZERO, despite vigorous mash-potato-ing (the dance step — no actual cooking involved, sorry) (knock on wood)

– Number of bathrooms for the cast, crew and audience: 1 (plus one secret bathroom for cast/crew shhhh!)

– Number of minutes I have personally spent waiting in line for the bathroom: 15… so far

– Injury rating from the weekend: I may or may not have given my scene partner a fat lip during fight call before dress rehearsal

– Personal excitement level for seeing Program 1 (which I expect to do this weekend): SKY HIGH

– Number of performances before the cast of Maybe Baby reverted to high school theater and started trading back massages backstage during Act I: …zero

In sum…you don’t want to miss BOA 2012.

Until next week…

A.M.P.

PS. Wednesdays and Thursdays are PAY-WHAT-YOU-CAN: perfect for all you broke-asses!

Annie will be back next Tuesday with more sassy backstage commentary. Meanwhile, if you want to know more about BOA 2012, check out http://www.bayoneacts.org for showtimes, tickets and more! 

Postcard from The Odyssey – Post #1, Rehearsing the Odyssey on Angel Island

Rebecca Longworth takes us on a voyage with the cast and crew of We Players’ Odyssey. Keep your eye on our blog for more updates from this unique production. Want to plug another group, artist or project from the Bay Area’s diverse small theater scene? Write us and let us know!

Hello world!

Welcome to Postcards from The Odyssey. This is the first in a biweekly series taking you behind the scenes of We Players’ current production, The Odyssey on Angel Island, playing May 12 – July 1 at Angel Island State Park.

It seems as though whenever I talk about this show, someone asks if there’s an ampitheatre on the island. Nope – this Odyssey uses the entire island as a stage: we actors get plenty of exercise running amongst the spectacular natural environs, historic buildings, and decommissioned military installations of Angel Island. The audience will follow us hither and yon, on foot or bike – or, for those that need it, there’s a special vehicle on selected days. They’ll also interact with the performers in many scenes, so some of our rehearsals seem to consist of chatting with imaginary friends while we eagerly await the addition of audience members!

As you can imagine, staging a play on a 742-acre island is an enormous undertaking. Members of our production team take trips to the island throughout the week, and our site manager, Dave, actually lives there full time. Each weekend the performers (12 actors and 7 to 10 musicians) join the production team and volunteers on the island for two days of rehearsals. We arrive Saturday morning, rehearse during the day, and spend Saturday night so that we can rehearse Sunday starting in the morning. We take ferries from San Francisco or Tiburon to get to the island, and sleep in bunk beds in a dorm or outside in tents. It’s kind of like summer stock meets summer camp, with spectacular views of San Francisco and geeky mythology references. Luckily, we all like each other a whole lot. But life on the island could be a post in itself… (hint).

Right now, I’m excited to share with you some fabulous shots of a recent rehearsal, taken by our most excellent photographers, Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin. They’re some of the most fun and friendly people I can think of to spend a chilly Saturday with, and they take gorgeous photos! We have a production-photo-shoot this weekend, and I’m totally jealous that I’m not one of the lucky ones donning costume and looking artfully intense for the camera.

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Here we’re rehearsing a scene in the old military hospital near the East Garrison. Julie Douglas, playing Circe, is talking to our director, Ava Roy, about a ritual her character will perform with Telemachus (James Udom, who’s in the tub). Note the fabulous golden bathtub!

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Natty Justiniano looks to be deep in thought in one room of the hospital. Or he could be checking Facebook.

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Director Ava Roy and actor Caroline Parsons watch members of the ensemble rehearse on the hospital’s upper levels.

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Maria Leigh, Libby Kelly and Caroline Parsons – playing sweet-voiced nymphs – rehearse with music director Charlie Gurke in the old Fort MacDowell military chapel. The military used the chapel to offer services of all varieties; we’re creating a shrine to Athena in it.

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Actors visible through a window in the hospital.

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Caroline as Calypso and James as Telemachus frolic on Quarry Beach while Ross Travis as Hermes determines how best to deliver a message from Zeus. It’s always a beach party with Calypso. And Hermes usually has bad news. Couldn’t you just look at that view forever?

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More song rehearsals at Quarry Beach. Here you can barely make out Maria’s arm behind James, and three of Joan Howard’s limbs behind Charlie, who is playing his awesome and very portable melodica. Ava looks like she’s giggling at something; and there’s Claire Slattery and Caroline Parsons laughing as well. In this scene Caroline plays the nymph Calypso, with backup from other Oceanid nymphs, played by the other ladies.

Ticket sales for The Odyssey on Angel Island open TODAY at www.angelislandodyssey.eventbrite.com And please check out www.WePlayers.org, like us on Facebook, and follow @weplayers on Twitter.

–Rebecca Longworth

Rebecca Longworth plays Eurycleia, Hera, and Anticleia – among other roles – in The Odyssey on Angel Island. When not performing, directing, or producing, she creates motion graphics for Truc Designs, Inc. Rebecca recently directedBuried Child for Boxcar Theatre, and occasionally blogs about her goings-on at www.rebeccalongworth.wordpress.comor tweets (more frequently) @directorebeccer.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: An Introduction

Marissa Skudlarek, one of our favorite gals-about-town in the SF Theater scene, kicks off her regular guest spot on the SF Theater Pub blog. 

If you are raised, as I was, on a steady diet of old-fashioned Broadway musicals and Fred & Ginger movies, you will come to believe that the theater is the most glamorous profession in the world.  Producers lavish money on glittering costumes, huge orchestras, and shiny Art Deco scenery. Both onstage and backstage, charismatic performers speak with wit and behave with flair. And you can go out a chorus girl, but come back a star.

Even after I grew up, learned how hard it is to make a living as an artist, and resigned myself to the reality that no one wears gowns or tuxedos to opening nights, the theater still retained a residual glamor. I remember two years ago, when Theater Pub was just starting and I was making my first tentative forays into the San Francisco theater community. I’d meet people like Theater Pub founders Stuart Bousel and Ben Fisher and marvel at how they seemed to know everyone, be everywhere, and work on a million projects at once.  This was, I thought, a real-world kind of glamor: these men were busy, talked-about, in-demand. I wondered whether I would ever be in the same position.

Well, now it’s two years later and I’ve become one of those perpetually overscheduled theater people. In the last week alone, I’ve done the following:

  • Helped organize, and spent an evening at, a fundraiser for the Bay One Acts (BOA) Kickstarter campaign
  • Edited and posted several interviews with BOA playwrights on the BOA blog (bayoneacts.org)
  • Copy-edited the BOA program
  • Copy-edited the final proof of a forthcoming book of plays from the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  • Attended an Olympians writers’ meeting and realized I should completely overhaul the play I am working on
  • Figured out how to use Twitter
  • Got an email from an actor I used to know, asking for my help with French pronunciation for an audition
  • Saw three plays at major Bay Area theaters

And that doesn’t include the non-theater stuff I’ve had to deal with this week (hectic times at my day job; finding a roommate; taxes).  Nor does it include writing this column. Which I am doing at midnight, in my pajamas, after seeing a three-hour Tom Stoppard play about Russian intellectuals. Last night I fell asleep with the light on and woke up with pain in my jaw.

In times like these, the song “The Glamorous Life,” from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, comes to mind. The heroine of the show, Desiree Armfeldt, is a famous actress in turn-of-the-century Sweden.  “Desiree Armfeldt! I just know she’ll wear the most glamorous gowns,” exclaims Anne, a naïve younger character.  Well, Desiree may be soignée, but she’s also a single mother who spends most of her time on tour in the provinces.  In “The Glamorous Life,” Desiree and the chorus wryly comment on the life of a theater professional: “Run for the carriage, la-la-la / Wolf down the sandwich, la-la-la / Which town is this one, la-la-la / Hi-ho, the glamorous life.”

So when Stuart Bousel asked if I would write a twice-monthly column about the San Francisco indie-theater lifestyle for the Theater Pub blog, I knew that I wanted the assignment and that I wanted to title the column “Hi-ho, the Glamorous Life.”

In upcoming columns, I hope to investigate, explain, praise, and critique different aspects of independent theater in the Bay Area.  If you’re a fellow theater artist, I want to find the words to describe our experiences, and if you’re not a theater-maker, I want to acquaint you with my world.

This world can be cash-strapped. It can be competitive. It forces you to spend more time than you’d like in seedy neighborhoods. It requires lots of humdrum behind-the-scenes effort to bring even a small black-box show to life.  But it’s busy and fast-paced and challenging. It values hard work and strong opinions. It has made me happy beyond measure. And yes, it is glamorous.

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

Theater Around The Bay: Robert Estes recaps Boxcar’s Shep In Rep Festival

Seeing the brilliantly realized Shep in Rep at Boxcar brought back memories of both my first time ever seeing a play and of directing my first play.

Late in the summer of 1980, I took a journey from the placid suburbs of Walnut Creek to the then strange locale of Fort Mason (which, I soon figured, out was the suburbs of the city). I can’t understand this now, but at the time it seemed like such a harrowing undertaking that I took my dad along for comfort.  I was already twenty but just going to the city required a guardian. Odd? I guess I grew up slow—very slow.

The purpose of our expedition: to see the world premiere of a new play at the Magic Theatre (a place I obviously had never been to before) called True West. How perfect that just about the only play I’ve ever been to with my dad is by the master of the father/son play: Sam Shepard.

Driving across the Bay Bridge that night, I remember thinking, “I have no idea what this play is about; what if it is really weird?” My dad is solidly conservative but he loved the desert rat, Lee, played by Jim Haynie, and the comedy of the play. We both could see my brother and me in the conflicted brother characters of Austin and Lee, each desperately wanting to be the other.

When I look back now, I wonder, what if I had taken him to a different Shepard play? For instance, Curse of the Starving Class, which I directed at Actors Ensemble of Berkeley in 2010. By most standards, Curse is a weird play.  Unlike True West, it is not about relationships in our family. It is about the other family; the dysfunctional family: the family that the neighbors feel sorry for.

In this other family the brother is mean to his sister- early in the play he pisses on her charts. The daughter dreams of escaping. The son can’t quite measure up to the father.  The mother is sporadically concerned for her daughter but just can’t understand her.

Funny, I’ve never been mean to my brother. My brother never dreams of escaping- he just travels all the time for other reasons. I’ve always measured up to my dad. And my mother has always completely understood me. If you believe one shred of the above, I’ve got a great piece of desert land in Hot Springs to sell to you (just like the worthless plot the father buys) and I’ve got a great way for you to live in denial: just pretend that Curse is not about your family in a very basic way.

In directing Curse, the great discovery was that the “other” family became our family. Yes, the Tate clan might be just a tad more dramatic then your family or mine, but they are as tied together as closely as yours or mine: they know each other as well as yours or mine know each other, they dream of escaping just as every family member does at one time or another, and, not to give away the ending, but you might say that they share the same common fate. The “other” is us.

To Boxcar’s credit, their revelatory productions in Shep in Rep made each of the “other” families in True West, Buried Child, Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind our families as well.

Robert Estes is a local director and dramaturg, theater supporter and fan. He’s now also the latest in our line of guest bloggers sending in their impressions and experiences of making and seeing theater in the Bay Area. Got a story yourself? Let us know!