Cowan Palace: Survival’s Chrysalis

When Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote her book On Death and Dying over forty years ago the subject of grief wasn’t something that had been formally investigated with the general public. Sure, death wasn’t a surprise to those living in the seventies, but after working with the terminally ill, Kübler-Ross saw a need to address the subject to the medical community and ultimately opened up her findings to the world.

 She created a model that has come to be known as The Five Stages of Grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are the leading actors in this play and each wait in the wings for their shining moment when someone experiences a life changing devastation. Kübler-Ross believed that death was a distinctive experience to anyone living through it and therefor the stages could be unpredictable and in various orders. Through her research mapping emotional responses, our culture shifted their perceptions surrounding death and the dying process.

This month Theater Pub explores the subject in a new and unique fashion. CHRYSALIS, written and performed by Evangeline Crittenden, balances ideals of hope and loss; the piece originates from Crittenden’s life experiences and uses artistic medians including: puppetry, storytelling, movement, and music to travel the path of grief into understanding. I had the opportunity to learn a bit more about the work by asking Evangeline a few questions regarding her process.

Q: Kübler-Ross outlined what she believed were the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. After experiencing your own understanding of grief, would you say that her stages are accurate and/or relatable to what you felt?

A: One thing I’ve actually worked to avoid in this show is making it too much about my own grieving process. Obviously it is rooted in my own experience, and of course that experience is extremely personal and specific. But the show is not meant to invite audiences into my world of grief as much as it is to open doors to theirs. So, while I used my own experience as a starting point in developing this piece, it is not meant to really be about my story but grief as a whole. 

Q: How do you think the stages were used in developing your piece? Did any particular moments in the grieving process lend them selves easier to the artistic process? 

A: Julia Heitner, who helped me to develop the piece, said it’s almost mask work in its avoidance of direct self-exposure. I use puppetry, song, hyperbole, clowning and comedy as ways to consider different elements of grief, so in the show it’s almost never just me, speaking directly to the audience as myself. That’s my way of addressing the paradox of using a public medium to explore something private. I will say, though, the structure of the piece uses the idea of grieving phases, and each segment of the piece relates to them in some way. The astute audience member may be able to connect the segments of the show with the stages of grief.

Q: Have you adapted the piece since its initial performance?

A: The show has changed a lot since its initial performance. Every performance reveals more nuances or improvements to be made. Sometimes I’ve added or removed entire characters or scenes, sometimes I’ve discovered something in a live performance I decide to repeat and keep. There are several sections that are only loosely scripted, and those I improvise based on the energy of the audience, so they’re a little different each time.

Q: And lastly, what words of wisdom would you give to someone experiencing a loss in their grieving? 

A: If I had words of wisdom about grief, I wouldn’t need to do this show. 

Evolutionary speaking, grief may not be an emotion linked to our immediate survival but rather the result of strengthening our definition of what it is to be human. When our bodies experience loss, stress hormones are released as they resort to primal instincts, reinforcing the importance of relationships and their role in survival. When we are divided from those we trust and love, stress hormones are freed in an attempt to reunite us and return to that sense of protection and safety. And as the separation continues, so do the stress hormones, which overtime, are transformed into something else. The reality is, one must be willing to accept grief as the cost of partaking in a relationship. 

Ashley Cowan is a writer, director, actress, and general theater maker in the Bay Area. She’s got lots of stuff to say, most of it pretty entertaining, so follow her here at https://twitter.com/AshCows.

What’s Inside The Chrysalis: An Interview With Evangeline Reilly

Evangeline Reilly, the creator of this month’s Theater Pub show, tells us all about who she is, what she’s doing and why you can’t miss the show!

Okay, who are you?

No one is ever surprised to discover I am a performer. I use my whole face when I talk. But I value other voices too; listening is just as important as speaking. I have been a barista, camp counselor, artist’s model and, now, I am a professional fairy.

So, what’s this show you’re bringing to theater pub and how did you get hooked up with our November slot?

Chrysalis is a solo tragicomedy at the crossroads of grief and growing up. It’s essentially a one-person variety show that uses puppetry, music, and some other fun performance bits to talk about loss. Julia Heitner, who has been working with Theater Pub for awhile now, helped to develop and direct the show. We know each other from UC Santa Cruz. (Banana slugs haaaaay!)

Tell us more about the show- how did you first come up with it and where has it been before coming to us?

The show is based on my experience of losing my brother when I was a freshman in college. I wanted to explore the complexities of losing someone at that age; college is such an expansive time and grieving is not an expansive experience. It’s just the opposite, in fact. It curls you inward. I wanted to offer my audience the opportunity to experience their own grief from a different perspective, to hold it in a new way.

How has it evolved as you’ve taken it around the country?

When I first performed the show a year ago, it was very sad. I have since realized that the element of sadness is already so intrinsic in the idea of loss that I don’t need to push that angle, and that humor is actually a much more effective way to explore pain. I’ve performed the show in big and small venues, and I’ve even performed excerpts of it on the street. Every time I perform it, I learn something new and refine it just a little bit. Also, the puppet (his official title is The Grief Monster) was such a hit after his first appearance that he is now a very central part of the show.

What do you see as the challenge of bringing it to Theater Pub?

Ooh. Good question. Well, I designed the show to be extremely portable, so every prop I use (aside from the guitar and the chocolate cake) fits in this dainty periwinkle suitcase I found on a sidewalk in Berkeley. So, technically, I’m not too worried. The show definitely has a raucous quality at times, which is no problem in a pub, but there are a few sacred and delicate moments that I hope will carry over to this setting.

What do you see as the potential awesomeness of performing at Theater Pub?

I wanna create a whole world that surprises people. I think the benefit of a venue like Theater Pub is that people don’t expect to be totally transported, they don’t expect to necessarily go on an emotional journey. But if you can do that, it’s even more magical than when that happens in a formal theater setting, because in that case, they’re expecting it. Also, he show begins with a party scene that involves the audience, which will be really fun at Theater Pub.

What’s next for you and Chrysallis?

What’s next for you and Chrysallis? You tell me! After the new York Fringe Festival this summer, I was kind of ready to give it a break for awhile. I may have an opportunity to perform it for some grief counseling professionals in Philadelphia (one of my tour stops this year) and it may travel to some other festivals…we shall see!

What’s got you excited that’s coming up in the San Francisco theater scene?

What’s got you excited that’s coming up in the San Francisco theater scene? Does dance count? My boyfriend is performing in the Jewish Nutcracker at ODC this holiday season and he’s going to be the lead! I have no idea what the Jewish Nutcracker even means, but I love the music from the Nutcracker and it promises to be pretty entertaining.

What’s your favorite beer?

What’s your favorite beer? When I lived in Ireland, I became a fan of the Shandy, which is a mixed drink that’s half beer, half lemonade. Irish people consider it an old people drink, and no bartender I’ve met here has heard of it. But it’s fuggin’ delicious. Don’t judge.

We won’t judge and you shouldn’t miss Chrysallis, a one night only event playing Tuesday, November 13 at the San Francisco Theater Pub, at Cafe Royale! The show starts at 8 PM, and is free with a five dollar suggested donation!

Made In China: The Saga Continues

Nicholas Weinbach continues to chronicle his original musical’s progress towards its first production.

In my last addition to the Made in China guest blog, I talked about arriving at our first read-through with the cast. Well, a lot has changed since then. Due to scheduling conflicts, we’ve replaced our previous director with the very talented Nick Dickson in addition to changing up the cast a little bit. It can be very frustrating to lose multiple members of the team let alone one member, but you have to pick yourself up by the boot straps and push through. That’s definitely the job of a producer. You have to keep searching for talent until you’ve solidified a team that can fully commit to the production. We’ve done that and are excited to move forward.

Tomorrow, the pit orchestra will be having its first rehearsal together, headed by conductor Max Weinbach, my twin brother. Obviously, I’ll need to be at the rehearsal, too. I wrote the music and need to make sure everything sounds the way I intended. However, I’m very confident in brother’s ability to interpret my music appropriately. After all, he did conduct the orchestra for the staged readings / singings of Made in China, and that went very well. We even have more experienced musicians this time around. If I haven’t already mentioned before, the orchestra includes flute, two violins, cello, piano, and percussion. It’s a small ensemble so as not to overpower the relatively small cast, who will perform in a somewhat small space, but still big enough to provide a full and beautiful sound.

Actually, I had originally wrote the score with a harp included, but, when I was trying to find musicians for the staged readings, I had the most trouble finding a harpist who would work for minimal compensation. They’re not very cheap, and there aren’t many of them. In fact, every harpist I asked recommended one another, so I ended up contacting six or seven harpists who all knew each other. It’s a small circle. Lesson learned I suppose: when you’re starting out small, write parts for common instruments. Luckily, I was able to combine the harp and piano parts with moderate ease. Perhaps, a future production of Made in China will include harp. That would be cool and definitely play on the Harvey Schmidt (composer of The Fantasticks) influence.

I hope to have more news on the rehearsal process over the next few months. It’s definitely exciting, but thoughts about the whole production keep me up at night. I can’t stop thinking about this musical. When you’ve put so much work into something, you want it to do well. You want it to succeed. I hope the coming weeks will make me feel more confident about this production. For now, I’m just happy that everything is in motion. Until next time, I’ll see you at the movies. Nah, just kidding.

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: Community Theater vs. Indie Theater

Marissa Skudlarek is back and attempts to tackle that mixture of love-hate, pride-frustration, glory-despair that characterizes a life in the Indie Theater world. By the way, this is our 200th post! Hurray!

At my office, outside of my cubicle, I’ve hung a folder containing postcards that advertise the 2012 San Francisco Olympians Festival, along with a colorful sign that says “Like Theater? Take a postcard and talk to me!”

Last week, one of my co-workers took me up on that offer. “Oh, I see what this is, it’s community theater,” she said.

Indie theater,” I said pointedly.

“You’re like my sister-in-law, she does community theater. She’s going to be in Lend Me a Tenor. Now you, what role are you playing in this?”

I’m used to correcting people who assume that I’m an actor, not a playwright. But I’m not as skilled at explaining how I see a big difference between indie theater and community theater, and therefore I embrace the former term and recoil from the latter. Everything I could think to say sounded dismissive of my co-worker’s sister-in-law and the work that she does.

I try to be a kind, understanding, positive person. I do not want to be an intellectual snob who heaps reflexive scorn upon the community theaters of this world, which, after all, provide millions of Americans with their only exposure to live theater. We must remember that amateurs are thus called because they do what they do out of love (amo, amas, amat), and in the case of community theater, they love both the art and the community. I myself, as a child, spent lots of time at a community theater that did Crazy for You and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and I still value those memories.

But still, the two terms have different associations in my mind, and probably yours as well. Indie theater is Kickstarter campaigns and “devised movement work” and epater les bourgeois; community theater is… well, it’s Lend Me a Tenor. Which is a work of pure farce, intentionally no more than an after-dinner entertainment. It’s old-fashioned and nostalgic: written in the 1980s, in a style that imitates the boulevard farces of the 1930s. Examine it more closely and you’ll see it promotes some problematic racial and sexual attitudes: the two female leads spend the play running around in their underwear, and the entire plot is based on the idea that if two white men are both wearing blackface, it’s impossible to tell them apart.

So maybe it’s all right to scorn Lend Me a Tenor because it’s just not the kind of play that I think needs to be produced all over America. But then how do I do that without scorning the theaters that produce Lend Me a Tenor or the audiences who enjoy it? It’s a form of hating the sin and loving the sinner. Which is itself a problematic attitude.

And maybe, by drawing a distinction between “indie theater” and “community theater,” I’m only fooling myself – maybe we all are. By and large, we indie-theater folks are not getting paid, and we do it out of love. Indie-theater productions can be clumsy and cheap; they can be devoid of intellectual content; they can promote sexist or racist attitudes just as bad as those of Lend Me a Tenor. To an outside observer like my co-worker, any theater made by non-professionals is community theater, and all our protests that we do “indie theater” just make us look like we’re up on an unjustified high horse. We use the term “indie” because it makes us sound cool and alternative and hipster-ish. (And if you’re Stuart Bousel, you spell it “indy” so that it also makes you think of Indiana Jones, the coolest archaeology nerd ever.) In other words, we feel the need to distinguish ourselves from those rubes who parade across the stages of community theaters in small-town America.  But what if we weren’t so concerned with looking cool? What if, instead, we focused more on forging an honest connection with our audiences — dare I say it, with our community?

So I’m working on feeling a kinship to other practitioners of my artform, rather than drawing distinctions between myself and them. Today, Halloween, I wore a costume to work – a suffragette outfit that I pulled together out of vintage finds, craft-store supplies, and my own closet. In the mailroom, I ran into the co-worker with the Lend Me a Tenor sister-in-law, the one who thinks that what I do is community theater.

“Did you get that out of your costume closet?” she asked upon seeing my outfit.

“Well, I had some of the items already, but I had to get the skirt at a thrift store—”

“I thought you would’ve borrowed it from the costume closet at your theater.”

“Well, we don’t really have a costume closet. It’s indie theater. We rent space. We don’t have our own facility.”

“Really. You know my sister-in-law, the one who does community theater? They have a costume closet. Great big one. All kinds of clothes… plus old trunks, suitcases…”

“I’m sure that’s lovely,” I said, and meant it with all my heart. “But we don’t have that luxury.”

And just like that, community theater didn’t sound so bad after all.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. In this community we call the World Wide Web, you can find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @marissaskud.