Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: Like A Wedding

Marissa Skudlarek continues to check in regarding her mad-cap life in the arts, via our lucky, lucky, oh-so-lucky website. If you find yourself thinking, “Well, hey, I could do that too!” let us know! We’re looking for an alternate Thursday columnist to submit every two weeks for the days when Ms. Skudlarek is busy being brilliant elsewhere.

This past weekend, the inaugural Des Voix Festival hit San Francisco. Playwrights Foundation and the French Consulate sponsored this event, which featured staged readings of three plays by contemporary French playwrights, a colloquium on translation, and, as the Friday night kickoff, the “Bal Littéraire.”

A Bal Littéraire is difficult to describe and even to translate (the English-language promotional materials went for “new play nightclub” – better than “literary ball,” I suppose), but easy to enjoy, no matter what language you speak. French playwrights invented this format, and Friday’s Bal was the first to be held on another continent. To create a Bal Littéraire, a group of playwrights meet up and put together a playlist of fun, danceable songs. Then, they use that playlist to structure a work of theater: scenes and songs alternate, and the last line of each scene must be the title of the following song. The playwrights then divide up the work, write the scenes, and figure out how to perform it as a staged reading. At the Bal, the audience is instructed to listen attentively to each scene, then get up and dance like crazy when a song comes on.

As soon as I heard about the Bal Littéraire, I knew I had to attend. Theater, French, and dancing? Sign me up!

The Des Voix Festival’s three French playwrights collaborated with three Americans to create Friday’s Bal, putting together an appealing story about a French tourist in San Francisco. There were ten scenes and ten intervals for dancing – oh yes, we danced. It was a smashing success, and several American audience members expressed interest in hosting more of these. In case you want to experience the Bal Litteraire for yourself – and watch me dancing like a maniac to “Raspberry Beret” – it’s been filmed and archived on New Play TV (newplaytv.info).

At the party (the play?) I overheard someone say, “It’s like a wedding, when everyone gets up to dance.” I understood what she meant. Weddings are one of the few events in our society where everyone, all ages, dances together, as they did at the Bal.

This got me to think: if we want to encourage more fun participatory theater, maybe weddings can teach us something about how to accomplish this. As it happens, I ran into Jessica Holt at the Bal, and last year, Jessica was one of six directors of Taylor Mac’s four-hour extravaganza The Lily’s Revenge, at the Magic Theatre. The Lily’s Revenge is an allegory about marriage (a lily goes on a quest to become human so he can get married) and the play itself borrows structural elements from a wedding. At various points in the play, you eat and drink with your fellow audience members, you dance, you chat. The Lily’s Revenge is one of my all-time favorite theater experiences, partly for its smarts and partly for its immersiveness. And this isn’t the only play that taps into wedding-style aesthetics – on the opposite side of the cultural spectrum, isn’t Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding a long-running hit?

Weddings, like theater, bring people together for a common, celebratory purpose. They arose out of religious ritual, but, in a secular age, now seem more linked to fun and entertainment than to worship. Yet the best weddings and the best plays also evoke transcendent emotions within you.

Additionally, weddings and theater are great means of cross-cultural connection, letting us see past our differences and understand what is universal. If you attend a wedding from another cultural tradition, you may find some of the rituals strange, but you will recognize what lies behind the ritual: love, family, celebration.

Theater, too, is universal, because human behavior is universal. In the lobby after one of the Des Voix festival readings, the French playwrights appraised the American crowd and said that they might not understand everything that we were saying, but they understood our behavior. With their keen playwrights’ eyes, they could see the roles that each of us played in society, the flattery and the jockeying for position that is common to theater people the world over. It’s the same game, they said, “le même enjeu.”

My own moment of feeling a universal connection occurred when I learned that each of the playwrights in the festival comes from a different French city. Nathalie Fillion lives in Paris, while Marion Aubert is from Montpellier and Samuel Gallet is based in Lyon. And yet I had assumed that all of the playwrights were Parisian. There’s a stereotype that all French writers live in Paris – to a great extent, Paris dominates French cultural life, and Parisians tend to consider every other part of France “provincial.” So I had presumed that any aspiring French playwright would need to move to Paris in order to be successful. But here were two French writers from other cities.

Furthermore, I realized, just as there’s a stereotype that all French theater comes from Paris, there’s a stereotype that all American theater comes from New York. As a San Francisco artist, of course I find this New York-centric mentality irritating. I would be quite annoyed if I went to a foreign country and everyone assumed that because I do theater, I “must” be from New York. And Aubert and Gallet probably feel the same way when Americans assume that they “must” live in Paris.

I was ashamed of my ignorance, ashamed to have fallen prey to the oh-so-typical American assumption that France equals Paris. Yet I also felt even more honored to meet Aubert and Gallet when I realized that, like me, they were theater artists who do not live in their country’s largest city.

In my best French, I attempted to explain this to the playwrights, suggesting that maybe the way they feel about Paris is the way I feel about New York. I said that I love making art in San Francisco, and don’t want to leave, but some people would suggest that I should move to New York if I was really serious about my career.

“So, you are a playwright, here, in San Francisco?” Aubert asked me.

“Yes,” I said, suddenly shy. “Very young, still, but…”

“Nous aussi,” said Marion Aubert and Samuel Gallet—“us, too.”

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

Victor Carrion Talks About His Return To Theater Pub

This week we catch up with Victor Carrion and find out more about his return to Theater Pub after a year-long hiatus, plus all the details on HIT TRIP FALL RUN DREAM STICK SLEEP, a new performance piece about the early days of AIDS research that Victor will be premiering at Theater Pub on Tuesday, June 12.

What was your past involvement with Theater Pub?

As a co-founder and producer, I helped get the Pub project started. I wrote for Pint Sized Plays, I contributed some writing to The Odes of March, and directed Short Attention Span Shorts: Theater for the Inattentive.

You’ve been gone for more than a year. What were you up to during your hiatus?

I got appointed to the Mental Health Oversight and Accountability Commission for the State of California by the State Attorney General. This Commission oversees the monies derived from Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act. This Act stipulates that those individuals that have an income greater than $1 million pay 1% taxes towards this fund. This legislation has helped the development of many programs geared towards improving health access, providing housing for homeless individuals and reducing mental health stigma.

Well… that sounds… amazingly impressive. So how does it feel to be back at the Cafe Royale with a bunch of theater kids?

Great! I have always felt that theater makes my life and work better. Theater helps me explore human behavior using a different lens.

Tell us more about this coming project- what’s it like?

Different. For one, the subject, AIDS in the 80s, is very somber for a pub, but therein lies the beauty of Theater Pub. It’s a place to experiment. During this evening we will be examining how messages are conveyed to the audience during a typical play in comparison to, say, the reading of a story. Both story and play tell the same narrative in different style, and from the perspectives of different characters.

What personally drew you to this subject material?

I trained as a doctor during this time. I was also coming out during this time. The experience of learning to express your sexuality in an environment charged with fear of death and fear of self-expression linked specifically to sexuality, along with the pressure of needing to perform professionally, is something I’m still processing today. The writer of the story and the play, James D. Lock, trained during the same time and faced the same issues. He does a wonderful job in describing the conflicts of being a young gay doctor in the 80s. In addition, we see how AIDS had an impact on all trainees regardless of sexual orientation. Themes of homophobia, both internalized and externalized, are present throughout. The audience is invited to assess how far have we come.

What do you hope the audience will get out of it?

The desire to learn more. For example, to learn how societal pressures can have an impact on sexual expression, or how a particular time in history can influence a whole generation.

What are you up to next?

I am enjoying directing, but I also like writing and acting. I want to explore all of these with the time they deserve. I want to continue working with Theater Pub, helping to produce the upcoming shows and perhaps performing and writing for some of them. Soon, I will also be helping to plan for the 2013 season of Theatre in the Woods.

What are you looking forward to in the SF theater scene?

More venues, more pushing of the imaginary limits of theater and more audience!!

Don’t miss HIT TRIP FALL RUN DREAM STICK SLEEP, this Tuesday, June 12th, starting at 8 PM, for one night only. Admission is FREE, with a suggested $5.00 donation at the door!

Don’t Miss Our Next Show On Tuesday, June 12!

Founding Artistic Director Victor Carrion returns to Theater Pub after more than a year long hiatus with HIT TRIP FALL RUN DREAM STICK SLEEP, a new performance piece about the early days of AIDS research in the 1980’s.

Of the piece, Carrion writes, “It’s a dramatic portrayal of coming up in the medical industry during the discovery of AIDS and the impact of
homophobia on the development of young medical students and residents.” Seeing this as a way for Theater Pub to contribute to the general discussion of LGBT history and rights that marks every June in San Francisco, Carrion adds that this moment in past was particularly interesting because “The innocence of medicine at the time combined with the social ignorance of the early 80’s to have a profound effect in the lives of a generation of gay men.”

Written by James D. Lock and directed by Carrion, the evening will employ a number of narrative styles, including screenplay, and will be performed by some of our favorite actors: Nick Dickson, Julia Heitner, Rik Lopes, Brian Markley, Theresa Miller and Nick Trengove. As usual, it’s free to attend, though we recommend a five dollar donation at the door, and get there early as we tend to fill up!

Postcards From The Odyssey #3: Our Partner The Audience

This week’s post is by cast member Julie Douglas, who examines the unique role of the audience in We Players’ production of The Odyssey on Angel Island.

Telemachus (James Udom) journeys with his companions, the audience. Photo by Tracy Martin.

Audience is intrinsic and necessary to theatre. Theatre in its true form is about the direct relationship and dialogue between the story, the storytellers, and the audience.  Mainstream western storytelling has the audience sitting in the dark while the players, set apart upon a stage, spin the story both visually and verbally. Site-specific, experiential theatre changes that dynamic and understanding for both player and audience. The story is both imaginary and tangible, it is all around us and we are all active players in it. In “The Odyssey on Angel Island” not only are we asking the audience to emotionally and energetically follow the story, we are asking them to literally follow our hero and physically go on their own Odyssey in a living location. They are asked to take action, respond directly, and have interactions with the players and story. They are a part of the story, and their engagement helps drive it forward.

Julie Douglas — your fearless reporter — as Circe, engaging an audience member with her wily and “intensely seductive” ways. Photo by Tracy Martin.

In theatre there is always a conversation with each unique audience. Their energy can be felt on stage. It fills the room. Now imagine it filling an island. In this kind of theatre there are spoken conversations and shared experiences between the players and audience, between audience members and with the surroundings.  Shows that engage everyone in this way can change how audiences think of themselves and their influence. It can also help us as performers truly feel the necessity of the audience and inform our relationship to that audience in all forms of theatre. It is a high wire act that requires full commitment because you never know what might be thrown your way. You are looking your audience square in the face and know if they are or are not along for the ride.

Nick Trengove, Lizzie Nichols, Megan Trout, Charlie Gurke and Geof Libby — all We Players friends and collaborators — watch a scene during a dress rehearsal. Photo by Tracy Martin.

In “The Odyssey on Angel Island” there are many miles walked with the audience, many scenes that have improvisation, and nature is an ever changing partner as well. How the show manifests, in many ways is dependent on that unique audience’s personalities and choices. In rehearsing the Odyssey we did our best to stand in for each other’s scenes as audience, to fill in those gaps of experience for both the audience and ourselves that would make up a large chunk of our show. We also made use of happenstance audiences that thought they were just coming to a state park for a picnic.  A family laughed as they got called out as rabblerousing suitors. A man on the beach bonded with Hermes by yelling out his approval. A group of boy scouts were drawn to our happenings, unexpectedly finding themselves a part of a scene. These joys and challenges of performing in a public space began in rehearsal, but something we couldn’t simulate was engaging with and moving an audience of over a hundred people to a point that they want to actively join in the story and enjoy it.

An audience member dances with Penelope (Libby Kelly). Photo by Tracy Martin.

Our opening weekend started with an invited dress, then preview, followed by Saturday and Sunday shows. Our audience doubled each day, which was a great way to learn what these new partners might do as they grow in number. Of course each audience is and will be different and not just in size. This audience talks back, they want to participate in different ways and to different degrees, they challenge your engagement as a performer with unexpected questions and actions.  Making connections with these individuals as well as the group at large is key so that we fulfill our objectives not just with our fellow actors, but also with the audience that doesn’t know the script.  The skills needed to play directly with the audience will grow and change with each show. This is the truly exciting part that keeps the story alive now that the final partner is cast, the audience, and the reason why we do this, the ones with whom we share our gift of communal creation and wonder.

The audience joins in a folk dance on the island of Aolia (Camp Reynolds, Angel Island). Photo by Tracy Martin.

Julie Douglas can be seen running around Angel Island in “The Odyssey” as Athena, Circe, and other ensemble roles. She is a Bay Area actor, theatre-maker, clown, teacher, director and mask maker. Most recently she directed a youth version of…yep, you guessed it…”The Odyssey” and performed with Shotgun Players in “Road to Hades”. JulieDouglas.weebly.com

The Odyssey on Angel Island runs weekends through July 1. For reservations and more information, please visit www.weplayers.org. You can also “like” We Players on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @weplayers for more behind-the-scenes tidbits and the latest news.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Accentuate the Positive?

Marissa Skudlarek continues her mis-adventures in Theaterland. Want to send missives from your corner of the Bay Area Theater Community? We’re looking for Wednesday columns- pitch us one!

In order to succeed as a theater artist, you need to be good at identifying subtext. Playwrights strive to write dialogue laden with subtextual layers; actors and directors spend the rehearsal period investigating the play’s deeper meanings and determining how to highlight them in performance.

And when a show opens and the reviews come out, a sensitivity to subtext can again prove handy.  In order to assess the merit of a review, it helps to know where the critic is coming from: her tastes, her biases, her approach to criticism. For instance, if your production ofSweeney Todd gets a negative review, it’s very different if it comes from a known Sondheim fan than if it comes from someone who is on record as hating all musicals. Reviews should not be taken at face value; you should first evaluate them for their subtext, and only then decide how seriously to take the reviewer’s opinion.

The subtext of a review is not always simple to discern, but sometimes the reviewers make it easy for us.  Lily Janiak, theater critic for SF Weekly, has a fascinating blog called The Split End (lilyjaniak.blogspot.com) where she discusses her writing process and critiques her own criticism. For instance, in a recent post, Janiak interrogated the approach she took to reviewing the Bay One Acts Festival:

“Reviewing an entire festival of plays definitely posed some structural challenges:  Ought I write a detailed review of each of its ten plays? How could I do so without the article feeling list-y? Should I instead just discuss the event’s mission and general vibe? If so, would the article still be a review?

“Instead, I took an in-between route: beginning with some general observations and then discussing the most successful one-acts in detail. I worry, though, that this choice skews the review: If I don’t analyze what I disliked about the other shows, does the article give the false impression that my experience was more uniformly positive than it was?

“In the end, I felt that because these shows were all produced by relatively small companies, lauding those that really deserved it makes more of a difference than picking apart flawed shows. Readers ought to know about playwrights and indie theater companies whose work transcends; trumpeting their achievements is a critic’s most exciting duty.”

This post got at many issues I have been pondering lately as well. In general, I agree with Janiak’s approach to reviewing the one-acts festival. I believe “it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness” — it profits the world more to focus on positive solutions and things that work, rather than complaining about what is broken. Writing about things that you love and want to promote is better for your soul and your karma than writing about things that you despise.  While it can take more work to write a positive review than a negative one (it’s all too easy to turn your Snark-O-Matic on and lambaste away), the challenge almost seems to prove the moral value of the action. As Tony Kushner once said, “It is an ethical obligation to look for hope. It is an ethical obligation not to despair.”

But, as Janiak notes, this approach has its downsides, namely, “giving the false impression that my experience was more uniformly positive than it was.” I understand the impulse to do this. As artists working in San Francisco indie theater, we feel embattled and defensive. Our art form is not at the center of the cultural discourse, so we feel compelled to promote it and talk about how awesome we are all of the time.  But when does a focus on the positive cross the line into mindless boosterism?  Or worse, an intolerance of negative opinions and the feeling that we cannot honestly discuss our work with one another?  Our focus on the positive means that sometimes, when someone does express a negative opinion, it comes off as far harsher and more hateful than intended.

Furthermore, this approach encourages artists to read between the lines. Yes, plays are all about subtext, but should theater criticism be about subtext too? If a review of a one-acts festival focuses only on the plays that the critic liked, you will assume that if she didn’t mention your play, she despised it. And you’ll get annoyed at the critic because of something that she didn’tactually write. Wouldn’t it be better to get annoyed because of something that’s there on the page, rather than your interpretation of the subtext?

I suppose that, even more than I value blind positivity or blunt honesty, I value transparency in the way that we discuss our work and our reactions to the work of others. That’s why a blog like The Split End is so valuable: it shows that a critic’s opinion is not an objective judgment handed down from on high. Instead, it’s just one person’s perspective – and even then, the critic may second-guess herself. Janiak acknowledges what few critics dare to admit: reviews are full of subtext and they cannot possibly cover every noteworthy aspect of a production. She does us a service by bringing the subtext of her reviews to light on her blog: reading her posts, we can better evaluate her approach to criticism, and thus, better evaluate our own work.  What would our theater community be like if more critics embraced Janiak’s metacritical approach and started blogs of their own?

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

Artistic Director Julia Heitner Announces This Year’s Pint-Sized Plays!

I spent a marathon day on Monday getting inspired at the Theatre Bay Area annual conference, gathering information about interactive experience from Burning Man founders and tips from site-specific mavens, Kim Epifano (Epiphany Productions/Trolley Dances) and Lauren Chavez & Ava Roy (We Players.) With this knowledge fresh in my mind, I am so pleased to announce the line-up for our annual bar-specific play festival, The Pint Sized Plays!

We have 10 new plays by 10 fantastic local playwrights. For Pint Sized III I plan to include everything our audiences love about the festival: entertaining theatre, great acting and direction, live music, beer drinking, and of course, our resident llama! For the first time this year, we are also taking the show on tour to other bars around San Francisco. First stop, the fantastic Irish Pub, The Plough and Stars on Clement Street!

The Line-up:

Beeeeeear
by Megan Cohen
Third time Pint-Sized fest playwright, Megan Cohen continues to surprise us with this play about a beer-drinking bear.

Beer Theory by Marissa Skudlarek
Boy meets Girl. Dionysian meets Apollonian.

Celia Sh*ts by William Bivins
What happens when all the mystery is lost from a relationship?

Circles by Seanan Palmero
Watching a Nascar race brings up philosophical questions from the bar patrons. Are we all just going in circles?

Circling by Nancy Cooper Frank
Don’t we all deserve… a parking place right out front?

To Deborah by Leah M. Winery
Friends and family reveal their true feelings about the dearly departed.

Llama by Stuart Bousel
The llama is back!!!

Man vs. Beer
by Sunil Patel
A Teetotaler is peer pressured by a talking beer.

Play it Again, Friend
 by Tim Bauer
Man contemplates life through the music of the bar pianist.

Put it on Vibrate
by Tom Bruett
Pleasure party + Mother-in-Law = Hilariously Uncomfortable

The festival runs July 16,17, 23, 30 & 31, 8pm @ Café Royale, (800 Post St @ Leavenworth in San Francisco) with a special touring performance, July 18, at Plough and the Stars, (188 Clement St. @ 2nd Ave in the Richmond District), SF. Additional dates for the festival TBA.

Field Notes From A BOA Virgin: Strange Bedfellows

Annie Paladino sends us her last blog about BOA 2012.  Feel like telling us about your neck of the Bay Area Theater woods? Let us know! We’re always looking for stories

…and just like that, it was over. BOA 2012 ended its run on Saturday and much hugging, drinking, dancing, congratulating, sleeping, and ripping up of stages ensued (mostly in that order). Followed by more sleeping.

I want to extend my own personal congratulation to everyone involved, and ginormous THANK YOUs to our spectacular audiences (particularly the packed-to-standing-room closing weekend houses!).

But I guess what has really stuck with me, and what I hope continues to be a discussion in the Bay Area small theater scene, is how deeply entrenched we are in our separate art-making spheres. One of the wonderful things about BOA is that it smushes together 10 different producing companies (each with a different style, philosophy, mission, history) almost by brute force: many, if not most, of these companies probably wouldn’t choose to share a billing like this, and have not worked together in the past. In fact, a common topic of conversation among the actors seemed to be, “so what does your company do?” Genuine interest in each other’s work — and an equally genuine ignorance of each other’s very existence — characterized many of the interactions that I observed and/or participated in.

Why don’t we know about each other? It’s somewhat disheartening to realize the extent of our tunnel-vision: how can we expect audiences to find us and know about us if we aren’t even really aware of each other?

I have no idea how to fix it. I suspect that an increase in cross-pollination and artistic polyamory would go a long way, and certainly things like BOA are invaluable to our little community, knitting us together into a lovely, ephemeral, messy patchwork of local small theater. In general, the Bay Area small theater community is amazingly collaborative, active, and supportive. I’m not saying we have to love each other’s work, I did not love every piece in BOA, but really, in the grand scheme of things, we’re all on the same team, right?

WARNING: SELF-IMPORTANT METACOMMENTARY AND PAINFULLY CLICHE METAPHOR AHEAD: maybe THIS VERY BLOG can start poking little air holes in our cozy bubbles.

Lots of love,

A.M.P.