Theater Conservatory Confidential: It’s The End Of The First Semester As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Eli Diamond closes out our blog for the year with some final thoughts on 2012 and an eye to the future. 

So if you believe in all this stuff, it’s December 21st, 2012, the end of the world. If you don’t believe in it, it’s December 21st 2012, average Friday. To top things off, I’m home with a new set of resolutions for the break and next semester. It’s a strange feeling though, not having seen things such as my grades yet. But, to reflect, there is so much I could have done better. I needed to increase my motivation somehow; to keep myself from missing as many classes as I did last semester. If anything hurts my grades this semester, it was definitely that. I don’t know why I missed as many classes as I did. I think it was a mixture of depression and laziness. I was never the best at doing anything. I could come up with ideas and everything, but recently it’s become so clear to me that intelligence and creativity are nothing without motivation, and self-awareness.

I am now aware that no one is responsible for my happiness except myself. Coming back has made me more aware of that. I’m finally given the chance to breathe after two straight months of increased heart rate. It’s been a nice time home. I’ve been practicing a little bit for next semester, going through some basic voice and speech work, along with some occasional analysis work. My days have been mainly spent with my parents and my girlfriend, and its a nice change; no more nights where my social life feels more like a chore than anything else.

I watched in college as some of my friends made the realization that school wasn’t for them, or drama wasn’t for them, or any sort of thing. And for a while, I questioned that for myself as well. But, now it seems clear that the question isn’t whether or not acting’s my thing, but whether or not I have the energy and motivation to put myself into the work. I feel a little bit guilty for how much time I took off my school, and I hope that next semester, I can change that.

Anyways, enough circular talking, the break has few real plans for me. A few auditions, a few holiday gatherings, a few friends getting together with me, but nothing that stresses me out too much. I’ve been reading a lot more, which has definitely improved my mood (The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño – read it), and I’ve also had the resources to actually do things I want to do, like dinner and movies. The balance is going to be much easier over the break, and hopefully, will be something I will be able to carry into the next semester.

See you next year folks! 

Falling With Style: Deadlines, Avoidance And The Looming Big Three-Oh

Helen Laroche uses her last blog entry of the year to purge some neurotic thoughts.

The end of the year has always been a rough, anxiety-ridden time for me.

Why? For all the familiar reasons: holiday-related family pressure, seasonal depression, {sugar, caffeine, insert-item-here} addiction, and pre-resolution last hurrah-ing (gotta get in as many cookies as possible before I resolve to lose 10 pounds).

But the end of the year — December 31, to be exact — is also my birthday. This year I’ll be 27, which is a completely unremarkable age in every way except for the fact that it is one year closer to 30.

Throughout my 20s, my decision-making process has been governed by one major philosophy: avoidance. Present Helen partied while Future Helen got stuck with the bill. And as the Big Three-Oh deadline looms larger and closer, I am realizing how often I have used the following bargain in my head: “It’s ok if I do [x] now as long as I am doing [y] by the time I’m 30” — a phrase so cliched that it’s referenced in A Chorus Line.

Some of the things I’ve been expecting will happen “by the time I’m 30:”
–I’ll become a mom.
–I’ll make at least $70K at year in the arts.
–I’ll figure out how/if acting fits into the larger lifestyle I want to live.
–My skin will stop breaking out.
–I’ll be a published author.

I am not particularly close to completing any of these things, and on December 31, I’ll have three years left to hack away at them. But there is some hope, because my 26th year contained something that my previous years did not: a practice of chipping away at my goals, and (more importantly) a willingness to forgive myself and get back on the horse when I inevitably fell away from that practice. And I wish I could explain how I did that — wish I could write it down, steep it in hot water and sell that potion — because it’s changed not only my art but my life. But “life is long, so quit being such a jerk to yourself” sounds facetious.

In any case, I have hope that in the upcoming three years I’ll set myself up for some success with my “By 30” list. And I have hope that on December 31, 2015, I’ll have the patience to forgive myself for the things that have not yet come to pass.

Just as long as I’m doing lead roles with 3 kids and a $100K salary by the time I’m 40. That’s still doable, right?

Helen will return next year with more Falling With Style. Meantime… Happy Holidays!

Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: I’m a Feminist, In Case You Didn’t Know

Hi-Ho the Glamorous Life on a Wednesday? We’re finally getting caught up on some back-logged columns before taking a break for the holidays. Enjoy!

‘Tis the season, it seems, for the gender-parity-in-theater discussion to bubble up again, as it does periodically. (As opposed to the gender-parody-in-theater discussion, otherwise known as “Are drag queens misogynistic?”) Here in the Bay Area, a group of female theater-makers called “Yeah, I Said Feminist” is revving up for launch, including developing an award for local theaters that promote gender parity. Meanwhile, Larissa Archer’s hard-hitting Theatre Bay Area article about sexual harassment in theater is causing a stir, and revealing the extent to which theater can still function as a patriarchal boys’ club. And in the UK, the Guardian newspaper is running a series about gender parity in theater, prompted by an all-female production of Julius Caesar that has earned both acclaim and controversy.

Several British theater-makers who have been posting the Guardian articles on Twitter add the caveat, “don’t read the comments section, it’s too depressing.”  It looks like the Guardian moderators have now taken down the most offensive and insulting comments – but many dismissive comments still remain. For instance, one commenter calls Stella Duffy “irrationally angry” because she states that “it hurts, it infuriates to see only men’s names in the list of makers and performers.” (Accusing a woman of being overly emotional? How Victorian.)

Archer, too, has been on the receiving end of criticism for her efforts to investigate sexual harassment in the theater. To begin her inquiry, she conducted an anonymous survey via Theatre Bay Area, and received responses accusing her of having a “schoolteacher mentality” and calling her a “Puritan” who wants to prevent people from talking about sexuality and desire. Perhaps wisely, Archer does not waste energy in trying to argue against these insults; she merely quotes these men, and lets their own words damn them.

But Larissa Archer is an acquaintance of mine, and I’m offended on her behalf. I’m offended that after the feminist movement fought so hard for sexual freedom, the patriarchal assholes in our society are twisting this around and citing sexual freedom as an excuse for their own skeevy behavior. I’m offended that when a woman wants to investigate something like sexual harassment, her motives are seen as suspect. (If a male journalist had written this article, I doubt he would have roused the same ire.) There are comments like this on Duffy’s article, too, to the effect of “you’re just upset your own plays aren’t getting produced, that’s why you’re getting on a high horse about gender parity.”

These people question our motives and insult our work in order to belittle us, and thus to shut us up. But you know what? Why the hell can’t we talk about things that we have a vested interest in? Male journalists have been doing that for centuries! Yes, as a female playwright I may benefit if theaters make more of an effort to produce plays by women; yes, Larissa and I and all women will benefit if sexual harassment becomes a thing of the past. But why should that prevent us from talking about these things?

In a world where women can be subject to such harsh criticism merely for stating their opinions, it can be tempting to hide. Maybe that’s one reason I haven’t discussed feminism or gender parity in my Theater Pub column before this. Although I’ve always been passionate about these topics, perhaps I was afraid of engendering controversy or bringing insults upon myself. It’s also a reason why some female writers are tempted to use male pseudonyms. There’s been idle talk (and even a bit more than talk) among some of my female playwriting friends about whether we wouldn’t be more successful if we submitted our plays under a male name. After all – as Valerie Weak’s “Counting Actors” statistics reveal – only about ¼ of Bay Area theater productions are written by women. Are theaters systematically discriminating against plays with women’s names on them? Would they prefer our work if they thought it was male-authored?

However, though pseudonyms might be a winning strategy in the short term, I’m not sure if it’s good policy in the long run. If I had to take on a male pseudonym to succeed in the theater, I would feel like I was denying or suppressing a fundamental part of myself. Furthermore, I’d feel like I was giving up the fight, admitting defeat — “OK, women can never succeed in this business, so I’ll pretend to be a man.” Great plays and stories have been written about people who conceal or deny their identities in order to find success. But such stories are usually tragedies.

To be sure, one must pick one’s battles. A young female director in the U.K. was quoted as saying that people only took her seriously when she wore jeans and sneakers instead of a dress. I can’t fault her for doing that, and it certainly seems less problematic to change one’s wardrobe than to change one’s name. But at the same time, I believe that a feminism that doesn’t allow women to succeed on their own terms is a hollow kind of feminism. I want to write big, bold, ambitious, opinionated plays. I want them to be produced, with my name — my frilly, feminine name — in large letters on the poster. I want to wear a beautiful dress to opening night, and not have anyone think less of me for it. These sound like reasonable ambitions, don’t they? Too bad we still live in such an unreasonable world.

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

Theater Conservatory Confidential: This Is The Work

Eli Diamond checks in after a few weeks of radio silence.

Once again, I feel an urge to apologize for this being incredibly late, but now I can safely say it: My semester is done. All I have left to do is to send in a paper analyzing A Serious Man through the lens of Schrödinger’s Cat, and I’m done. Kaput.

And, in all honesty, it’s kinda bittersweet.

I know I’ve ranted and railed on how much I want to go home, and see my girlfriend, and get real food and family time, but right now, all I can think of is how much I want to get back in the work.

Final Scene day was remarkable. It was truly interesting to see each student, even some I’d never seen, perform for us. It really helped nail the fact in that this technique works. It’s a universal technique the same way that there’s a universal skill for carpenters or painters. Through this, I’m learning how to truly express myself in the work. And after about 15 hours of rehearsal with my lovely scene partner Brigette, another Bay Area actress, we finally got to show off our scene from Dinner with Friends, and it was so fun. The work we put in escalated us to a point where, for me at least, it didn’t even feel like work. We went on, let the scene happen, left, and when we got back, neither of us remembered what happened onstage we were so in character.

The only bad thing about this, is that now I really, really want to get into 10 minute scenes, like we will next semester. And I really want to expand my voice work, and begin to work on my speech. If the goal this semester was to make me a believer in Practical Aesthetics, then it succeeded. With flying colors. Through all the suffering, hard work, tears, and bloodshed, I discovered a method of acting that allows me to truly express myself as an artist. The biggest difference next semester though, is that our group of 16 people is going to be dismantled, and as much as I hate to say this, it’s for the best. I am ready to meet new people and work with others. And even though I’ll miss most of them, I’m sure we’ll stay in touch and everything.

Now it’s time to go home though. Time to bring all the work home, possibly go on a few audition rounds, and sleep. The only difference is that where once I couldn’t wait to come home, now I can’t wait to go back. Because, as my teacher Hilary Hinckle says, “This is the work”.

And this is a work I can see myself loving.

Ma Vie Boheme

Co-Artistic Director Stuart Bousel talks about RENT, and why this year’s Theater Pub Christmas concert, “Christmas Bells Are Ringing”, is bringing his love-hate relationship with this show full circle.

Maureen, I’m not a RENT person.

No seriously… I liked it for about two weeks when I was a freshman in college, and then I stopped liking it.

I never owned my own copy of the soundtrack. My friend Jessica loaned it to me the first time, over my freshman year Christmas Break, and then I borrowed it from my sister a couple of times in the years that followed. I remember that by the summer after my sophomore year of college I was already dis-enchanted enough to declare in the car to a friend that I thought it was “banal.” I held that opinion for a long time.

My sister really liked RENT. I bought her the behind-the-scenes book for Christmas one year. She sang “Seasons Of Love” at her high school graduation (the speaker at the event charmingly called it “rock music”) and she saw it on Broadway and on tour. I saw… the movie. And I kind of liked it. Which is the surest proof I’m not a RENThead. All those people apparently hate that movie.

So why am I singing a major role in our cover band version of it, specially whipped up for Christmas?

Well, I’m an artistic director of Theater Pub and to some extent I feel an obligation to be in the show and Mark was the better fit of any of the other roles (I mean, I suppose I could have been in the chorus… but fuck that, I’m not running myself into the ground for Theater Pub so I can not cop the occasional lead). I also love working with James Grady and Kat Bushnell, who have spearheaded this project (for the record- I wanted to do Les Mis this year) and fine, okay, on some level some part of me wants to recapture my eighteen year old self that bought into the idea that being bohemian was cool and we could all be bohemian- even if in reality the show implies we can all only be bohemian by being bohemian the same way.

Which is what really rubs me wrong about RENT. I think the irony of its “hey man, don’t sell out!” message is that RENT is like the epitome of the show that sold out. Jonathan Larson’s tragic and untimely death made him the poster child of the bo-ho movement of the late ‘90s, but when you look at his career he was clearly always vying for Broadway, desperately looking to “make it”. Yes, he didn’t sell out and get a job working in an office (he famously kept his waiter job all the way up till RENT’s workshop went into previews), but how is praying every day to get picked up by the theatrical equivalent of Hollywood not selling out? Maybe I’m too much the product of the generation that Kurt Cobain killed himself to stay cool for, but something about Larson and his work (especially his first musical, Tick-Tick-Boom) has always struck me as precious and phony.

Plus, the artists in RENT never seem to make any art (or any good art). Maureen’s protest song, which I think is one of the three truly brilliant moments in RENT (and yes, I do think there are moments of brilliance), is really the only time we see one of these “artists” making art. I mean, sure, there’s Roger’s song but… the less said the better, right? By the time RENT came into my life I’d already discovered Sondheim’s SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, which I still think is the most honest, brutal and accurate portrait of what the artistic process and life is like for many of us. People talk about all the parts of RENT that move them, but nothing in RENT comes close to the choking-back-tears sensation I get every time Dot and George’s final scene in SUNDAY culminates with her finishing the part of the lesson book he can’t read. But ultimately these are such different shows with such different objectives- SUNDAY is about making art; RENT is about being part of a scene.

And yet these two shows are compared all the time. Larson himself references SUNDAY, directly, with a whole song, in Tick-Tick-Boom. It’s probably that show’s best moment (naturally, because it’s Sondheim), and he nods to it again in “La Vie Boheme” in RENT. The nods are nice (Larson is a good boy who thanks his influences, something I admire about him) and yet to me it’s also a painfully obvious reminder of how sincere and brave SUNDAY was compared to how pandering and drama-club fantastic RENT would become. Not that I think Larson intended that, or could have predicted it even if he wanted to, but while SUNDAY remains timeless (artists will always struggle with alienation and frustration over a world ill-equipped to support and understand them), RENT has aged badly: the story is now riddled with clichés, some of which are kind of offensive (like the humor derived from Maureen having left Mark for a woman), and the bo-ho scene that was so edgy in 1996 (with it’s bisexuality, drug use and post-modern irony) now seems passé, twee and, let’s face it my friends- about as charming as when our parents talk about the 1960s and ‘70s and how cool they were. But what is shocking to discover as I’ve learned this material now, at the age of 34, is that what holds RENT back is not its temporal setting (SUNDAY, set in the 1880s was never current, yet feels more fresh) but its lack of depth.

Yeah, I said it: RENT isn’t deep. It’s got a lot of heart. More heart than 525,600 productions of Damn Yankees put together. But that’s not the same as depth. Depth requires self-awareness, including self-celebration and also self-mockery, and RENT has moments of both (it’s when the show shines brightest), but they are eclipsed by a deluge of self-projection and self-proclomation, and like most pop culture phenomena, it’s the naive earnestness that appeals to teenagers, but grates when you grow past that moment in your life (and start actually paying rent). It’s like a number of yearbook messages I have from people I didn’t know all that well in high school, who left very nice sentiments about how this was the best time of our lives and I should never change. At the time it seemed sweet, but now I think, “Really? The best time in our lives? Who hopes they pique at eighteen?” But RENT is all about capturing and defining a moment, not looking to the future. After all, the closest it comes to a defining philosophy is “No Day But Today.”

The problem is, once you capture a scene- who is in it and what they value and what they wear and what they listen to, read, etc.- you have essentially killed it. And yes, I do think RENT helped kill the 1990s. It turned moving downtown, being sexually and politically progressive, and pursuing your artistic dreams, into something trendy. Over the decade RENT was on Broadway it went from being a show staring nobodies, many of whom were not trained singers and actors, but rather aspiring performance artists and rock stars, to being just another Broadway tourist trap, with technically perfect singers coming out of various prestigious musical theater programs, sleepwalking their way through the role to entertain legions of mid-west show choir kids on their first NYC visit. When the movie came out it was lapped up by the same America that RENT was ostensibly rejecting. The songs became showtunes, sung by hopeful kids everywhere whose dream was less bohemia and more being famous on American Idol or worse, Glee. I remember the first time I heard a former friend of mine, now a Bible-thumping Christian who voted against gay marriage in her state, go off about how much she loved RENT, and what a cynic I was not to find Angel’s death from AIDS moving. My response was, “Yeah, I’d find it much more moving if he and Collins could get married.” The problem with RENT is that it made bohemia palatable for the non-bohemians of the world- and then they didn’t have to take it or its people seriously. And yes, the flaw lies within the material. RENT is so busy proclaiming “this is who we are” that it fails to ever say, “and this is why you should care.” It’s all sentiment, but no real ideas, and it mistakes sentiment for passion. I commend the show on not apologizing for itself, but I scowl at its lack of anything to say besides its own name.

So here’s my big confession: despite all of this I am excited that for one night, I get to sing Mark. But unlike many people I know who would love to be in my shoes, or one day will be, it’s not because I like RENT. I still don’t really like RENT, though I do think I appreciate it more (that “Christmas Bells” song is a real piece of craftsmanship). It has a lot of corny lyrics and crappy songs, the majority of which seem to be mine. But for better or worse I have managed to dig up that guy who used to wear three layers of shirts and army boots and in his pretentious teenager way he’s reclaiming RENT for my generation, taking it back from all the post-Spring Awakening Gleeks who don’t know anything about the AIDS crisis and all the fear it created in people, or the clean-up of NYC that displaced legions of homeless, or that being an artist is more than a wardrobe and the desire to be an internet meme. I don’t believe RENT really does justice to any of these issues, but I’m going to sing Mark as the person he thinks he is, not the person I see him as. Now.

Which is easier than it sounds because secretly, deep down, I relate to Mark. Still. He strikes me as the kind of guy who listened to SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE over and over again (as Larson apparently did, and as I used to), hoping against hope that he would grow up to be the next Seurat. Yes, he should have aspired to create the next Island of Le Grande Jatte, but mistaking the trappings for the content is something we do when we’re young.

Our self-proclomation is an incredibly catchy tune.

But since we all have to sing it at some point, let’s at least do it in a bar full of all our self-proclaimed bohemian friends.

Don’t miss “Christmas Bells Are Ringing!” our one night only Christmas concert, tonight at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale in San Francisco. Get there early- it’s going to be packed!

Made In China: The Saga Continues

The last two weeks have been both fruitful and a little difficult due to actors either getting sick or going away to spend time with their families for the holidays. December is always pretty tough that way. Luckily, next week will be completely devoted to choreography rehearsals and working on music. We’ve got most of the major dialogue scenes blocked out, which is good. The show has really become a matter of choreography at this point, and there’s still a lot to be done. We have done a lot, too. Hopefully, by the end of the month, we’ll have only a select couple of songs that still need to be choreographed.

The actors are working hard on their singing. Some of it is pretty tough to nail, but they’re getting there. Some higher notes are a little tricky for a few, but I think, with a bit more practice and rehearsal, they’ll get it.

Tomorrow, we have another orchestra rehearsal. It’ll be the final one before our first sitzprobe – that’s when the actors and musicians all get together, and the actors sing without blocking to the accompaniment of the orchestra. It should be fun. It’s the first time the actors will really get a chance to hear the full orchestra playing ,and it really gives them a sense of what the whole sound of the show is like. I’m excited myself to hear everything played and sung together. For the staged readings of Made in China, I was able to hear all the parts sung and played together, but there have been some pretty significant changes to the score since then, so it’ll be nice to hear how the music has hopefully improved.

We are quickly approaching our opening date with just a little over a month and a half to go until the debut performance of Made in China. I’ve been very nervous, especially the past few days, just thinking about all the things that still need to be done. We still have a good amount of choreography to learn. We’ve definitely put in a lot of time so far into this production, but crunch time is certainly upon us. I just can’t wait until opening night, when we can finally perform this thing and please a crowd with a worthy show. By the next entry for this blog, I hope that we’ll have made some remarkable progress. Until then!

By the way, below is the new logo for Sir Windsorbach Productions, our theater company that is producing Made in China. Enjoy!

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