Writer Stuart Bousel on “Brainkill”, Theater, Celebrity Guests, and His Mental Health

At the end of this month, the Bay One Acts Festival will be premiering a number of new works by local writers and performances groups. San Francisco Theater Pub will be producing one of these works, a new short play, “Brainkill”, by Stuart Bousel, one of the founding artistic directors. We’ve already spoken with “Brainkill” director Sara Staley, so this week we thought we’d check in with the writer but (and now the secret is out), the website interviews have predominantly been conducted by Stuart Bousel, and having him interview himself seemed a little bit ridiculous. Ever resourceful, we asked Megan Cohen, frequent Pub collaborator and fellow BOA writer, to pick the brain behind “Brainkill”. Keep reading to see the results.

Meg: If you could make any three people in the world come to see “Brainkill”, who would they be and why?

Stuart:  Okay… let’s limit this to living people. Because the dead… I mean, there are a lot of dead people I’d love to get feedback from. But as for the living… well, Hal Hartley is the first that comes to mind. He’s my favorite film-maker and in many ways my favorite living American artist. His writing and his films have been very influential on me over the years and his way of making art- his absolute commitment to making his work on his own terms and maintaining his artistic integrity- have been really inspiring to me as a person. I met him years ago at a screening of a movie of his and I was so tongue-tied it was probably very socially awkward. I suspect he probably wondered if I was mentally stable, but he was still a really nice guy to me. And I’d love to have him watch something of mine, even though I don’t know if he’d like it. But I’d love that chance to have five minutes afterwards to ask, “What did you think?” and hear what he had to say, whatever he had to say. The other two are Stephen Sondheim and Sally Potter and the reasons are essentially the same- they’re just artists I have an endless amount of respect for and it would be deeply humbling to have a chance to learn directly from people whose work I have been following and learning from for years.

Meg: You wear almost every conceivable hat in the Bay Area theater scene: writer, artistic director, producer, director, actor, one-man publicity machine, ad-hoc casting director, diplomat, nemesis, cheerleader, and goodness knows what else.  How, if at all, do you think these different perspectives on this art form have informed your work as a writer?

Stuart: I think that the more hats someone has worn in the theater community, the better in general they are at everything and more importantly, the more considerate and aware they are of what it takes to make a play happen. Directors who have been actors have a better understanding of what actors are going through; designers who also direct learn to think more efficiently, etc. Walking in the shoes of another role usually results in learning to work as a team rather than thinking a show is all about you and your vision. As a writer, I think having been an actor has resulted in me always striving to make sure that characters I create are genuinely interesting to play- not just a set of quirks or a stand-in for an archetype or symbol, but rather a personality with something to say and a reason to be there beyond “advances the plot.” Though it’s always important to advance the plot. All the other hats I have worn have taught me to never limit my imagination as a writer. No matter what your crazy vision, the fact is the right director and designers can make it happen. They may have to dance-theater that shit, but there’s always a way. So don’t limit yourself- just also make sure you don’t limit them. Don’t insist your show only be done with real helicopters or life-size elephants or whatever. Your job as the writer is to plant the seed, not tend the leaves, you know? My life as a producer has taught me a lot, but the big thing is to always create with passion. Because we’re definitely not in it for the money or the love of our peers. As a writer, that means write what’s important to you because if your work isn’t important to you, why should it be worth someone else’s time and money?

Meg:What’s the creative history of Brainkill?  Has it had previous stagings or readings, and when did you write it?

Stuart: I wrote it in March of 2011, in about three hours, during a moment of deep frustration and disappointment with… the world. I wrote it by hand in a spiral notebook, while sitting at a table in Caffe Trieste on Market Street. I did some re-drafting over the next couple of weeks, but I’d say it’s about 85% exactly the same as the first draft. I actually only heard it aloud for the first time at the BOA reading this past March. Which was terrifying, because I had no idea how it would come off.

Meg: The dialogue in BRAINKILL is mostly very terse, fast, and streamlined; the world of the play is intense, and pretty much breathless.  What’s your writing process like when you’re crafting such a crisp, curt script?

Stuart: Almost every play I have written has a different process it seems. In this particular case it was just sitting at the table and scratching away till my hand hurt and then scratching away some more because I had something I felt I really needed to say and it was now or never. The breathlessness of the script reflects my own mind at the time, which was just exploding with rage. I was having some chai, and thinking intensely about things, and suddenly I heard Alex and Bobby’s opening dialogue and I thought, “Oh, I need to write this down right now” and I just kept writing… one scene led to another. And then it led to the end. I remember afterwards going to a rehearsal for M. Butterfly and saying to Rik Lopes, “I just wrote a play.” And it was like I had just woken up. Sometimes you get possessed like that and there isn’t much to really say about how it happened. I was inspired and I followed that inspiration until I got out what I needed to say.

Meg: At least one of the roles in the play, Alex, could have been cast with either a male or female actor.  What kind of conversation did you and director Sara Staley have about who to cast, and how much of a factor was gender?

Stuart: Actually, all five roles in the show can be cast with either men or women. The names are intentionally non-gender specific and there are no pronouns in the play. Alex ended up as a woman in this first production because Theresa Miller auditioned for the play and Sara and I both love Theresa and both really love it when Theresa, who is a lovely person, plays evil. And so we had her read the role at auditions and she was just super funny, but she also made all of Alex’s lines really work- on the first read. They were simultaneously very outrageous and totally believable coming out of her mouth. The rest of the casting went from there: Dave Levine had a kind of feckless sweetness that made him a good Bobby, who needs to be easy to dupe but also easy to root for; Kate Jones has a sexiness combined with a certain edge that screamed Darcy; and Travis Howse is one of those actors who is just immediately likable, which is ideal for Elliot, who needs to be trust-worth from his first entrance. The only time gender really entered the decision making process was when we realized that if Alex AND Darcy, were both women, as the less sympathetic characters, we would need a female Carmen to balance out the gender portrayals in the play. Otherwise, it would potentially come off as “Women evil, Men good”, which is not what either of us wanted the play to be construed as. Luckily, a very strong actress named Giovanna Arieta auditioned and seemed like the perfect foil for Theresa, so she rounds out the cast. I’m excited about them all, but I won’t lie, I also look forward to someday seeing a production with, say a female Bobby and a male Darcy. Or where everybody is female, or everybody is male. An all male cast, with only Carmen as female, strikes me as potentially very interesting.

Meg: The characters in BRAINKILL spend a lot of time at and/or near the psychological breaking point.  Stuart, are you okay?

Stuart: Um… no. No I’m not. I’m getting better, but the truth is, I’m exhausted, I’m frustrated, and I’m angry at a world that is too many parts apathy and too many parts unfocused rage. I feel like we’re progressively living in a society that doesn’t value teaching its kids to think for themselves and be creative, be forgiving, be honest, and understand that it’s not all about status or material gains or physical pleasure or being told you’re special all the time. There are people I know who claim to be my friends but really aren’t, and from what I can tell have nobody else’s lives in mind but their own. I often feel like I’m struggling with a local art scene that has a ton of potential but perpetually shoots itself in the foot, or its best people in the face. I love San Francisco, but I also recognize it’s a city that is becoming impossible for people of diverse incomes to live in and it often seems indifferent to cultivating and preserving those things that make a city great- like a great art scene, and a variety of industries and professions. I’m angry at how little we, as individuals, say and how often we’re encouraged to keep our dissenting thoughts to ourselves for fear of saying what isn’t popular or what people don’t want to hear. I’m scared by how, when we finally do say these things, it’s usually in a forum or manner that makes it dismissible or violent or impossible to be argued and reasoned with- either because we’re driven past the point of reason, or because the real goal has been to just lash out rather than reform. The death of critical thinking, the animosity with which intellectual and artistic integrity are met, sometimes within the artistic community itself, really tortures me. The extremes of everything terrifies me. I don’t want to live in a world of flag waving mediocrity and I don’t want to live in a world of chaotic anarchy. But I may have to. And I may have to accept that speaking my mind and telling the truth and living by example will mean losing some friends and half my votes for prom king. Actually, accepting that is pretty much what it’s going to take to be okay. And I’m working on that. Actually, writing this play was the beginning of accepting that.

Meg: How did you and Sara Staley, who is directing the production, find each other as collaborators?

Stuart: Theater Pub, as a group, made a decision to be a producing partner in the Bay One Acts Festival this year, but one of our requests was that we produce a play by someone who had worked at the Pub previously, and that it be directed by someone who had worked at the Pub. Sara Staley had worked on three pub shows and so Jessica matched her up with us. Sara was then free to choose any play she wanted from the writers who had submitted work, though preferably one who had worked with Theater Pub already. She picked me from the pile, which was deeply flattering of her, and that’s how it happened. Though we’ve both done a lot at Theater Pub, this is actually our first time working together.

Meg: As a busy theatermaker, you spend a lot of time in rehearsals, in performance spaces, and at shows.  It’s easy to get lost in the black box and forget about the outside world; what’s a non-theater-related activity that enlivens your work?

Stuart: I read a lot. I go on long walks. My boyfriend and I recently re-watched the entirety of the 1991 revival of Dark Shadows. I have a lot of friends around the country and world I try to keep up. Some aren’t even involved with or like the theater, which can be truly refreshing. I also have a semi-secret hobby of hand-drawing street-maps of cities and floorplans of medieval castles. I’ve been generating a massive fictional world, a la J.R.R. Tolkien since I was in high school. It’s very calming.

Meg: What’s next on the docket for you?

Stuart: I’m directing The Merchant of Venice for Custom Made, which I’m very excited about. It’s my second time working there and I think they’re really emerging as a company so it’s a good time to be there and feel like you’re helping good people better realize their dream of having a diverse and accomplished company. Plus I love that play. After that, there’s a bunch of things, but the big thing is the third installment of the Olympians Festival. You can find out more about that here: http://www.sfolympians.com.

Meg: What are you looking forward to seeing onstage in the coming months, besides the hundred-and-one projects that you’re involved in?

Stuart: There are some other shows in BOA that I’m looking forward to. Namely, yours, actually, and Claire Rice directing Erin Bregman’s play (which I’m also producing). In both instances, the scripts are kind of out of left field and I’m just, frankly, waiting to see how they are realized onstage because I can’t envision them myself, particularly Erin’s. It’s a very clever script and I feel like I “get it”, I’m just also sort of boggled by it on a practical level but those scripts are my favorite to see Claire wrestle with because she’s a super astute director and an innovative thinker. I’m looking forward to the new Sleepwalker’s show, Down To This. I like Tore Ingersoll-Thorpe a lot as a director. Even when I don’t particularly like the plays he’s chosen to direct, I admire his aesthetic and his approach and I like that he chooses challenging work. I actually know very little about the show, I just know I’ll walk out having something to talk about with my boyfriend. I look forward to seeing what Pint Sized looks like this year. We have a ton of submissions, more than ever and many from people I’ve never heard of, and even though I’m part of Theater Pub, Julia Heitner runs that festival, currently, and she brought in a bunch of surprises last year that really elevated the evening. I’m excited to see what she does and to continue to see our pool of writers expanding. Claire Rice’s full length, Waterline, is also slated to be directed by John Caldon over at Geurilla Rep, later this year. I went to a reading of it the other night and it’s a great script. John, like Claire, is a theater artist whose mind I just really admire and so seeing them work together basically gives me hope for the future. Which clearly I need a strong dose of.

Meg: In five words or less, what do you hope you’ll overhear someone in the lobby say after seeing this production of Brainkill?

Stuart: “What did you think?”

For more information about the BOA Festival and all the great shows included in this year’s line up, including “The Bird Trap” by Founding Artstic Director Bennett Fisher, head over to http://www.bayoneacts.org.

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One comment on “Writer Stuart Bousel on “Brainkill”, Theater, Celebrity Guests, and His Mental Health

  1. […] Megan Cohen (author of “Three Little Dumplings Go Bananas”) already did an interview with you about “Brainkill” for the San Francisco Theater Pub website, which covers a lot of the questions that I would have wanted to ask you, so I decided to get […]

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