Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: Hostess with the Mostess

Marissa Skudlarek talks about that moment in every aspiring playwright’s life when they realize the importance of passed appetizers in their journey to fame and fortune. 

Last night, I invited some actors over to my living room so that I could hear how my new translation of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (Theater Pub’s April production!) sounds when read aloud. This is the second living-room reading I’ve hosted in the past few months, so I thought I’d use my column today to offer some advice about how to make your living-room reading a success.

  • If you’re both playwright and host, you are probably feeling understandably nervous about hearing your work read aloud. What if the actors don’t get it or don’t like it? What if they think you’re a loser? (The hilarious What Should We Call Playwrights tumblr features many jokes based on the premise that playwrights always feel nerdy/gawky/uncool next to actors – well, it’s funny ‘cause it’s true.) Therefore, it is imperative to find ways of distracting yourself and channeling your nervous energy in a more productive direction. While you’re waiting for the actors to show up, clean your kitchen, your bathroom, your living room. Then clean them some more. Think so much about cleaning that you don’t have time to worry about hearing your work read aloud for the first time.
  • When people show up, continue to distract yourself with trivia in order to avoid getting anxious and nervous. For me, this usually takes the form of bustling about, ensuring that my guests are comfortable, offering to get them drinks and food, etc. In trying to be the Perfect Hostess, I forget that I am also the Imperfect Playwright.
  • Food, food, glorious food! I cannot stress this enough. Actors are easily bribed by the prospect of getting food for free. You’d be amazed at how many actors you can convince to show up at your house just by promising to feed them dinner – even if they hardly know you or they live far away. And if you are a great cook or live near a popular restaurant or deli, point that out! I serve Arizmendi pizza at my living-room readings, and I shamelessly highlight that fact in my email invites. (Unless my reading is on a day when Arizmendi is closed, in which case I serve frozen spanakopita.)
  • So yes, there’s definite truth to the rumor that actors will do anything for a free meal. But don’t believe the rumors that actors are a bunch of boozer wastrels who’ll pitch a fit if alcohol isn’t available. Well, they’re not like that all the time, anyway. Most actors understand that a living-room reading is ultimately work, not fun, and that it doesn’t profit the playwright if people are tipsy. I never offer alcohol at my living-room readings, and no one seems to mind (though, when it’s over, there’s always a few people who ask if there are any good bars around where they can grab a nightcap before going home…)
  • Force yourself to get rid of your preconceived notions about your writing, and pay attention to what the actors are actually doing with the script as they encounter your words for the first time. You may be tempted to bury your nose in the script out of nervousness or embarrassment, but that’s not the best way to learn whether your play works or not.
  • Ask for feedback as honestly and genuinely as possible, and listen to what your actors have to say; it can be very helpful. I am perhaps guilty of a bit too much self-deprecation when asking for feedback (last night I kept talking about how my translation probably sounded very rough/stilted/awkward — it wasn’t actually that bad), but excessive arrogance is, of course, much worse than self-deprecation. I also often find it helpful to let my director lead the discussion of the script, rather than trying to lead the discussion myself.
  • Little problems may crop up when you’re hosting a living-room reading, but they’re not usually insurmountable. Last night, a wasp was buzzing around my living room, and when I opened my oven, it somehow set off my hair-trigger kitchen fire alarm. Fortunately, I was able to solve both problems by opening a window. And surmounting small crises together can be a kind of bonding experience – I was meeting some of the actors for the first time last night, and apologizing for the wasp/discussing how to shoo him away gave me something to talk about before the reading started. Moreover, I think my favorite line from Orphée is “Look in a mirror and you will see Death at work like bees in a glass hive.” So, by the end of the evening, it felt oddly appropriate that the wasp had decided to join us that night.

We playwrights often comment on how odd our process is: lots of solitary work, followed by a brief but intense period of collaboration with other artists. I think that’s why the living-room reading can feel so fraught: it’s the moment when playwriting goes from solitary to collaborative. You’re coming out of your cave and dealing with real, live human beings, not just characters on a page. But take a deep breath and try to enjoy it. After all, you became a playwright because you love the complexity of human interaction, right? So follow the above tips and your living-room reading will be like one of those plays that begins with a vague uneasiness, but ends with a sense of happiness and hope.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Writing this column has made her realize that she has the same initials as Martha Stewart. For more, find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Theater Around The Bay: Please Continue Your Conversation At Home

Stuart Bousel comes clean about the real reasons he ultimately walked out of Berkeley Rep’s “The Wild Bride”.”

Yesterday afternoon, a friend whom we shall call “Wagner” (all the names in this rant will be changed so I won’t feel bad about whatever it is I’m about to say), dropped me an instant message saying he had an extra ticket to see The Wild Bride at Berkeley Rep that night, and since I’d heard some good stuff about this show (which is in its second incarnation) and I didn’t have anything else to do (which is a lie because I have so much else to do and I’m really enjoying David Wong’s John Dies At The End right now), I jumped on BART after work and headed over to the East Bay for an impromptu man-date, hoping to be blown away by a show the SF Chronicle deemed “The Best Show of the Year!” last year, and several friends of mine had waxed poetic about.

To say I was underwhelmed is putting it lightly – especially as this show was a creation of the British theater group Kneehigh, who were the folks behind the beautiful and moving Brief Encounter, a show that ACT hosted a few years back. Thankfully, I actually didn’t know they were the creators until I was flipping through the program and noticed the director’s bio. I say “thankfully” because I want to believe my opinions on this show are based on what I was watching, not just disappointment due to false expectations and artist loyalty. But what about all those good things I’d already heard from reviews and friends – couldn’t that have raised that bar too high? Honestly, no. One, because I hadn’t followed the reviews of The Wild Bride beyond the critics I regularly read and two, because I have learned to always take local buzz with a grain of salt. Frankly, I’ve been an active creator and appreciator of theater since I got here more than ten years ago (seriously, on day 6 after my move, I went to see – and greatly enjoyed – Shotgun’s Troilus and Cressida), and there is so much I love about this theater scene, but if I had a nickel for every show in the Bay Area that gets undeservedly called “genius” or gets a completely unwarranted standing ovation, I’d have enough money by now to move to New York, where I sometimes feel like the kind of theater I personally enjoy is more prevalent.

I recognize those are fighting words – particularly from someone who is as vocal (and active) in the local theater scene as I am. But what you’re ultimately going to discover is “the point” of this article, is not that I begrudge anyone their taste, but rather that I’m getting a little tired of being a complicit part of what another friend of mine (let’s call him “Valentine”) calls “the Yay-Bay”: basically the idea that as residents of the Bay Area (but particularly the Axis of Smug that is San Francisco, Berkeley and The New Republic of Oaksterdam), not only is our poop gold, but anyone else who shows up and takes a shit in our yard is automatically elevated to Golden Goose status so long as they tell us what we want to hear: namely that we’re edgy, smart, and nowhere near as disconnected from the harsh realities of the world as a great deal of the rest of the world perceives us to be.

From my own perspective, both as a creator and as an audience member with a critical eye, I will admit I have noticed there is a local tendency to respond, sometimes with real anger, to anyone who calls us on this, and to actively turn our attention away from things that would challenge us to be more thoughtful about our own lives, more considerate of perspectives “less enlightened” than our own, and more open to the possible rewards from letting ourselves experience the full range of intellectual and emotional experience- in art, and in our actual lives. My friend “Siebel” likes to say that the Bay Area is a terrible place to get your heart broken, because there’s a resentment of anyone who brings the party down; I know what he’s talking about (though most of my friends are amazing bastions of support in my low periods), and when it comes to the arts I tend to agree: this is not always a great place for self- or socially-reflective art about being in a bad situation, disillusioned, or heartbroken- unless that heartbreak is over Bush winning an election, in which case you’ve just pooped gold. See, we are allowed to be angry here, but preferably about stuff we can all agree upon. And yes, I feel like there is an enormous pressure for us all to agree here, or not speak if we don’t agree. Which is another way of agreeing.

I don’t want to imply that New York is some bastion of integrity in these regards because it’s not – it too suffers from an insular worldview that tends to place itself at the center of the universe and many New Yorkers I know are guilty of looking on the rest of the world as a place where handmaidens come from (any city that isn’t New York) and open space filled with peasants (any other place where people live). And New York theater is notoriously self-referential and a great deal of what is successful there follows the trifold agenda of 1) be about New York 2) reaffirm New York is the center of the universe 3) reflect the vast cultural and social diversity of New York, subtly underlining the idea that no one need ever come from anywhere else because New York, like Noah’s Ark, already has two of everything – and everyone. And I say this as someone whose favorite play, hands down, is John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. But the thing about New York is that for all its solipsism, it is a place where most people have embraced an undercurrent of constant change and aspiration and all the attendant fear and anxiety that comes with following your heart, while the Bay Area has often been pegged as being about attaining and maintaining a level of lifestyle best described as “laid-back, comfortable,” but detractors of the Bay Area see as “lazy and indulgent.” As a young local musician I recently had a drink with told me (we’ll call her “Margaret”), “In New York they ask, ‘What’s your passion?’, in Los Angeles they ask, ‘What’s your dream?’ and in San Francisco they ask, ‘What’s your pleasure?'” Not a bad question to ask, mind you, but if we accept this characterization (and I have to admit, I immediately agreed it was pretty accurate), then it is indicative of the heart of the problem I/we struggle with here: a certain culturally ingrained resistance towards anything that discomforts us or screws with our way of looking at the world.

Which is the real reason I walked out of last night’s performance of The Wild Bride.

The fact is, if anyone ever should have loved this show, it is ME. I am sucker for three things in this world, and the number one thing is mythology or fairy tales of any variety. The second is folk musicals – those shows which incorporate music and singing into their stories while actively avoiding the trappings of mainstream musical theater in an attempt to create something widely appealing and accessible as opposed to glittery or virtuosic (not that there isn’t a time and a place for that). The third thing, however, that I am a sucker for, is human feelings. Put some emotion on your stage, from screaming teenage raw to drawing-room repressed – and even if I hate your story or hate your characters, I’ll probably still find something to like about your show because honestly, I go to the theater to feel, it’s that simple. As much as I like to be intellectually stimulated, if there is no emotional hook I don’t see the point – of anything really. I personally believe it’s our emotions, and not our intelligence, that actually set us apart from the lesser animals. Or rather, what I really believe is that our emotions, and our attempt to understand our emotions, are the signs that we actually are intelligent, and not just the varying degrees of clever that we see demonstrated by birds and snakes and other critters that have learned to bash their food against a rock or play dead when a bigger critter comes along.

For me, The Wild Bride lacked an emotional center that conveyed to me why the story was one this theater troupe felt a need to tell. Throughout the first act, despite the obvious craft and skill on stage, I became progressively aware of the math of the show, of what the artists behind it were doing, and less and less interested in what was going on in the world of the play. By the time the glowing pears showed up, I was thinking things like, “Oh, that’s cool-looking, wish I had thought of that, and hey, that actress looks like she’s having fun trying to get the pear in her mouth” and not, “Awww, the trees are feeding this poor broken woman of their own accord – it’s a miracle!” Which means the show failed for me. Look, I love highly theatrical ideas and design – I get why Kushner wants you to see the strings on the Angel, and as a guy who has been in The Fantasticks three times and still cries at the end, I don’t need or desire realism and I value meta-theater enormously. My own writing is highly satirical – I make fun of everything, particularly myself, and I think irony, surrealism, absurdism, symbolism and all the other isms all have their place. But for heaven’s sake, is it so much to ask that by forty-five minutes in I should care about something or somebody on stage? I don’t have to like them, I don’t have to admire them – but I should feel like I am invested in them. I ALWAYS know I am watching a play when I am watching a play, because I am not delusional (that way). For me, suspension of disbelief begins the moment I sit down in the theater because I am a lifetime theatergoer and I know that’s my part of the game we’re all playing. I have never done acid because I don’t need to – I have an overly active imagination as it is. The one thing I need, and then I’ll do a great deal of the rest of the work myself, is an entry into the story you are telling me – and for me, that entry needs to be human. Not a design element. Not a cool idea. Good design and good ideas are what elevate the experience, but if there’s no humanity there, there is no experience for me – good or bad. And frankly, non-experience is the only thing I feel isn’t worth my time because life is too short to not be engaged. To me, The Wild Bride felt as cold and distant and as if someone was standing center stage reading me the light cues instead of telling me a story that was important to them, about people they felt I should care about.

Maybe it was an off night. I kind of doubt it, because I know what makes a good script and little of that was there, but I also can see how in hybrid theater where the songs and movement are a massive chunk of the script (arguably more important than the dialogue), something can work better on nights when the cast is really selling it. Then again, maybe they were selling it and all they had to sell was a flat story with undeveloped characters and no real stakes. Or maybe it was the best performance of the best show in the world and it just wasn’t my thing. Any of these things could be true but the result is the same: I wasn’t enjoying it. Yes, I politely applauded the end of Act One (which was an astounding example of anti-climax), but when Wagner turned to me and asked if I liked it I said, “No,” then laughed and said, “Honestly, good tech and performances aside, I feel like I’m watching bad college theater. It’s all concept but no content. Or really, it’s more like children’s theater, only with children’s theater it wouldn’t have a second act and we’d know at the end of an hour what the moral of the story was.” My friend piped in with his own opinions, which were not as damning, but equally as strong and less than enthusiastic. And that’s when the woman sitting in the row in front of us felt a need to step into our conversation.

I have come to accept that part of living in the Bay Area is that strangers feel they are allowed to talk to you whenever they want. You have to understand that this is not an easy thing for me to grasp – my parents are from New York, where strangers only talk to you because they are lost tourists or potential muggers, and I spent my formative years in Arizona, where there is a strong culture of “stay the fuck out of my business unless I invite you in.” In the Yay Bay, we have a lovely climate of friendliness and perennial smiles that when I first moved here actually confused the shit out of me because like a lot of newbies, I kept thinking I had made all these friends only to realize “friendly” and “friend” are not the same thing (my dad, as New York as they come, would frequently say, “when are you going to realize that nice people are usually liars?”). It took me two years, more or less, to understand that people here are people just like they are everywhere else, and some are good and some are bad and most are just trying to get through life, but because so many of us are comfortadores here (thanks Joss Wheedon, for coining the term), boldly on the lookout for our next good glass of wine and/or casual sex partner (and I am not saying that’s a bad thing), we have cultivated a culture of “it’s all good” and many have internalized it to mean “there are no boundaries” and that is bullshit. I have boundaries. You should too. One of those boundaries is that if I am not talking to you, and you don’t know me, then you ask to be part of my conversation. You don’t just walk in. I mean, the women in the row behind us were talking about their low blood sugar and how cold the theater was. Did I turn around and tell them there were cookies and possibly more heat in the lobby? No. And maybe I should have. But I didn’t get the impression they were sharing their woes with me and I personally consider it rude to rush in to help unless someone is bleeding on the sidewalk and nobody has called an ambulance.

This woman in front of us, however (we will call her “Martha” because I don’t know her actual name), obviously had no such sense of boundaries. Never mind that our conversation is in a different row – which to me is like a different table at a restaurant, where the idea that each conversation is an island not to be breached is inherent to good service – or that it is intermission and so we’re hardly disturbing the performance. Never mind that we’re talking about the play we’re watching and thus attempting to make the most of our night at a disappointing theatrical experience. Never mind that for all she knows, we’re actual theater critics, or agents, or potential producers, or students, and this is our job or in some other way we’re obligated to have an opinion and to articulate that opinion. Never mind that as normal audience members we have the right and the obligation to respond to the show as honestly as we can, so long as it’s not screaming our thoughts aloud while the actors are on stage. For some reason, Martha feels she has every right to turn and say, “Hey guys, please continue your conversation at home. People can hear you.”

At another point in my life I would have told this woman to go fuck herself and learn that being polite means not listening in on someone just because you can technically hear them. At another point in my life that wasn’t that point, I would have told her that it is our duty to express our opinions of the work as audience members, and doing that in the theater during intermission is perfectly fine as that’s kind of what intermission is for (contrary to popular belief, it’s not to get snacks or pee – in the olden days, people did that all throughout the show) – a moment to process what you’re seeing and to do so socially, as in theory that should heighten your enjoyment of the next act. At still another point in my life, I would have probably apologized to her, certain I had done something wrong, even though I hadn’t. But in the last few years I have started to follow the advice of a friend of mine (let’s call her “Gretchen”), and whenever these moments happen I now hear her voice in my head saying, “Is this your hill to die on?” And 90% of the time now, I say “no.” So, instead I turned to Wagner and said, “On that note, I’m out.”


“Yup. I don’t need to watch the second act, and I definitely don’t need this pretentious Martha’s attitude, and it’s a long BART ride home.”

“Oh, well, I’m not staying by myself.”

And that’s why two men in their early 30’s, perhaps the theater community’s most coveted demographic after two men in their mid 20’s, walked out during the intermission of The Wild Bride.

So here’s the thing… if Martha had turned and said, “You know, I really like this show,” I would have been taken aback (boundaries!), but I also would have probably said, “Well, to each their own… hey, why do you like it?” And maybe she would have responded and maybe we would have had an awkward conversation and maybe we would have ended up having a drink after the show to talk more. But instead, she basically tried to shame me for having an opinion, and for expressing that opinion, and that infuriated me so much I walked out on a show that I was otherwise willing to see through to the bitter end because I have only walked out of three other shows before in my life. My friend “Mephisto,” who is also a theater maker with much stronger and much more vocal opinions than I, likes to talk about how theater is dying predominantly, in his opinion, because people feel it’s a duty to attend and not a joy, that it’s exclusionary and not inclusive, and because you’re not really allowed to react to it but instead expected to act like good little boys and girls. Now I don’t quite agree with all that, or with some of Mephisto’s attempts to solve it (like, say, having vegetables thrown at the actors), but at moments like this I do see his point. I mean, honestly, if I’m not allowed to have and express a dissenting opinion at the show, no matter how much the local literati like something, then there really is no reason for me to bother showing up to a live performance. Because the fact is, the only reason to see something live is to have that “in the moment” response – be it joy, laughter, tears, or anger. Hating something is another way of enjoying the experience of experiencing it. Ironically, what Martha made me realize is that I didn’t hate The Wild Bride, but I was hating the lack of experience that was watching it. I was bored. Which is a legitimate response, and I was processing it in substantive way. But Martha, in full Yay Bay fashion, doesn’t want to hear anything that’s gonna harsh her buzz, and since I can’t prove otherwise, I kind of take it that it’s less that she cares what I think, so much as she objects to me expressing it.

On the BART home, Wagner confesses he has already seen the show once and doesn’t like it – and that it’s a relief to know he’s not alone (note to self: he fears the backlash of the Yay Bay as much as I do). In fact, the whole reason he asked me is that he wanted to see the show again, but also to have someone to talk about it with. Which is precisely the point of this epic rant: we go to the theater, or really any live event, to engage, not exist in a bubble unto ourselves. We have our living rooms and streaming Netflix for that. The thrill of witnessing a performance or even a film is due, in large part, to the energy of the people around us – and our inability to control that energy. I have been in the audience of a show that people hated knowing that I alone was cheering it on – and grateful for that experience. I have also sat in the audience of a show where all of us were taken in by that special magic that sometimes emerges and brings everyone together. Both experiences are valuable. Both experiences are what make going to the theater such a crapshoot, and so exciting.

My dear friend “Helen” has an awesome story about being the only person laughing at a comedy performance she genuinely and heartily adored (these weren’t pity laughs), while a bunch of stone-faced couples sat around her refusing to give the performer anything more than the occasional smile or titter. At the end of the show, the audience, practically silent the whole time, gave a standing ovation that mystified Helen. She had liked the show – a lot – but it was, after all, a light comedy. Afterwards, as the audience was filing out of the theater, a woman near her (“Lilybeth”) turned and said, “I can’t imagine how the performers could concentrate with you laughing like a hyena all night long.” Helen replied, “I think it’s a shame to come see a show and not express your enjoyment of it.” Lilybeth responded, “You are mildly retarded.” Yes, that happened in San Francisco. Yes, we still laugh about it. To this day, Helen refers to herself as “mildly retarded.” She now remembers that part of the evening more than she remembers the show itself. The irony of this is that the woman who probably thought she was defending these poor put-upon performers, has in Helen’s memory, managed to completely upstage them. But then, being called retarded by another adult who doesn’t approve of how you laugh is a pretty hard act to follow.

A few years ago I adapted and directed a stage version of a book of stories by Peter S. Beagle called Giant Bones, a show that, for the record, had reviews that ran the gamut from glowing, to telling me I should never put on a play again. We had a night of the show where literally half of the audience walked out at intermission, and we also had nights when people couldn’t stop gushing to us afterwards. But that’s not why I bring it up, the relevant part is that in Giant Bones there is a city where theater has been banned, and the main character of the play, who is the director of a traveling theater company, talks about how on the surface, everything in the city is good, life is calm and orderly and dignified, and no one seems to really have any objections to the way things are done. It’s an exceptionally comfortable place to live, known for its lovely gardens, its thriving markets, its good food. “But as for what its people really think or feel?” he asks, with a shrug. “Well, that’s what the theater is for” says his lead actress, and the implication is that the theater is not just a place for the artist to tell the truth, but for the audience to do so as well. Both about what’s happening outside the theater, and in the theater itself.

Any theater company worth its audience knows how valuable audience discussion is, and they know it starts in the theater. At Theater Pub, we close every show telling the audience to stick around and talk to us, and I have maintained from the beginning that it is precisely that element of Theater Pub, the part where the audience can so directly congregate afterwards to discuss what they’ve just seen, that has made us a success. I’m sure many theater companies wish they had such a built in salon so readily attached to their productions, but most of them don’t. For most of them, the one moment they really have to foster audience discussion before everyone races out the door, is intermission.

Unless you happen to be sitting behind Martha Yay Bay, in which case… is this your hill to die on?

Stuart Bousel is one of the founding artistic directors of the San Franciso Theater Pub, and a prolific writer and director. His website, http://www.horrorunspeakable.com, will tell you all about it.

Up Next At Theater Pub: The Heart Plays!

May we lay our hearts at your feet?

Maybe your Valentine’s Day was everything you hoped it could be. Maybe you watched “Shakespeare in Love” and fell asleep on the couch clutching a bar of Dove dark chocolate. (Maybe that was everything you hoped Valentine’s Day could be.) In any case, keep those good/bad feelings coming with SF Theater Pub’s February celebration of love, hearts, and non-anesthetized organ removal THE HEART PLAYS.

Eight creative teams of actors and directors interpret, re-interpret, and totally mis-interpret seminal postmodern playwright Heiner Müller’s 10-line play, HEART PLAY. There will be music, there will be dancing, there will be fake guts, and there will be many, many brick hearts. By the end of the night, you’ll know the text so well, you can perform it yourself! (Note: reenactments and dramatic recitations after the show — and after a few drinks — are encouraged.)

Producer Annie Paladino has assembled a kick-ass team of directors, including Maria Calderazzo, Robert Estes, Hannah Gaff, Amy Marie Haven, Kate Heller, Joan Howard, Rebecca Longworth, Carmen Melillo, Dan Mack, and Cecilia Palmtag. As usual, our awesome pop-up restaurant partners, Hide Away Blues, will be there with tasty BBQ and bourbon soaked treats!

One night only, February 18th, 2013 at Cafe Royale in San Francisco (800 Post Street). Show is at 8:00pm, so come early for drinks, stay later for more drinks, but be forewarned — our heart is a brick.

(But it only throbs for you.)

Theater Conservatory Confidential: Second Semester, or What you Will

Eli Diamond heads once more unto the breach!

In two days, I will be flying back to New York, thus beginning the whole adjustment phase again. If there’s one thing that I remember hating the last time I came back, it was readjusting to life over there. When I’m home, I have plenty of food, a really comfy bed, and I don’t have to worry about waking anyone up ever; after all, it’s my room, my rules. But soon that will all change again, as I need to head back to my little room for another 7 weeks before I return for Spring Break.

This isn’t to say I’m not excited for the new semester. I’m excited to jump back into my work, and excited to get back to seeing all the people I met last semester, but the first week back is going to be painful. I’ve had a wonderful break in the city, and, even though it was a little bit too long, I’m going to miss it. I’m going to miss being able to go to my favorite cafés and reading. I’m going to miss picking up milk tea from the random stores around the Sunset. Most of all though, I’m going to miss my parents, friends and girlfriend.

It’s been a hard time getting used to seeing everyone again, and I just wish I could spend a little bit more time with everyone, but that’s kinda how things have to go. I go away, but I will keep in contact with all of them, especially my parents, who I developed a newfound appreciation for. I spent a long time going from person to person this break, making sure I didn’t miss anyone, and of course, I did miss quite a few people. I feel really bad, but I hope they know I’ll see them over the Spring/Summer Breaks.

While I was here though, I was able to apply the technique to a reading I was a part of, and it helped me realize that even though I love where I am with the technique, school’s definitely been missed. I cannot wait to dive headfirst into learning the technique for my second semester. I have a lot to learn, and hopefully a lot I can bring back to San Francisco during the summer.

The first thing I need to do though when I get back: Laundry.

Falling With Style: The ATLAS Program; or, Re-evaluating the Worth of Your Cow

Helen Laroche tells us all about her mis-adventures being an actress in the Bay Area theater scene. 

Last weekend, I attended the first session of this year’s ATLAS 2013 training program. ATLAS (Advanced Training Leading Actors to Success) is a yearly program put on by Theatre Bay Area for approximately 40 actors and 20 directors. The group attends approximately 15 hours of seminars on a number of topics, including:

* grant seeking and writing for individual artists
* goal setting and accountability measures
* accounting advice

As a participant in the actor track, I also was given guaranteed admission to the Theatre Bay Area General Auditions a few weeks ago, and a number of auditors wrote up feedback on my audition. I’ll receive that feedback at one of the upcoming ATLAS sessions — and I expect it’ll be the subject of a future article.

There are a few other perks to being an ATLAS participant, including potential discounts on things like headshot and postcard reproductions, artist business cards, and relevant reading material. There’s even opportunities to win 6-month extensions to one’s TBA membership. But the yummiest perk is the fact that 1) the program forces me to build a career road map using the resources offered up at each session; and 2) with that career road map, I have the opportunity to apply for one of one of four $1000 Titan awards offered exclusively to ATLAS participants.

Between the call to set big theatre goals, the concept of applying for individual funding, and a fellow ATLASsian’s mention of a 12-step group called “Under-Earners Anonymous,” I was keenly struck by a feeling I hadn’t had before: I am good at what I do, and I deserve to get paid for it.

Now, this feeling is equal parts “duh” and “aha.” I have always been shy to ask that my time be compensated, whether it’s as an actor, a voice teacher, or a summer camp counselor. Moreover, I’ve looked with equal parts awe, jealousy and disgust at people who could stand up for themselves and value themselves so highly. (Case in point: my high school voice teacher, who also happened to go on tour with countless pop and rock stars, charged 2 C-notes an hour. And that was before his prices went up.)

But the truth is, continually accepting “work” that has no stipend attached to it is a career-limiting move — and not only because it’s keeping me from accepting paid work. I’m beginning to learn that it affects my confidence, too. When I continually give away the milk for free, I start to think that’s what I’m worth.

So the time has come to take on fewer projects, value myself more, and in doing so, do better, more fulfilling work. Stay tuned — I have another ATLAS session on this upcoming Saturday, which I’ll overview in my next article.

Cowan Palace: Girls Talk

Ashley Cowan takes a moment away from the theatre scene to talk about HBO’s Girls.

As you may know by now, I’m a theatre lover. I like it way more than just a friend. But before we move on with this relationship, there’s probably something you guys should know about me. I have a weakness for television. Bad reality shows are a guilty pleasure and funny, well-written shows showcasing lots of lady talent are a guilt-free indulgence. So when one of my best friends gifted me season one of HBO’s new hit show: Girls, I was intrigued. A program with the reputation of harsh reality portrayals and written, directed, produced, and starring Lena Dunham? Yes! Besides, I too spent my early twenties living in Brooklyn during the aftermath of Sex and the City (shadows of cosmopolitans and fabulous shoes were everywhere) and was curious to see her version of it.

So without knowing a great deal about the show, my sister and I (along with our boyfriends) watched season one in its entirety on New Year’s Day (don’t judge, we were still developing resolutions).  And upon first viewing, I liked it. I guess I was hoping to feel a little more passionate about it instead of some neutral responses but again, I liked it. We all did. We laughed, we cringed, and we grew invested. There was a sense of authenticity and brutal honesty that I appreciated. I had known girls just like the ones portrayed in the show while I lived in New York (and other cities). And while I found the leads to be unsympathetic on occasion that’s often how I react to those types of people in real life as well.

And clearly, I’m not the only one thinking about Girls lately. The show recently picked itself up two coveted Golden Globes earning both praise and heated remarks from the public. After reading through a few articles (and more interestingly, the comments attached to them) there seem to be a lot of thoughts regarding Ms. Dunham’s creation. For starters, many believe the show is racist because of its lack of cast diversity. It seems to be completely dedicated to first world white people problems with whiny personalities.

I understand some of the backlash. I do. It’s unfortunate that in one of the most diverse cities of the world there isn’t much of an opportunity to venture outside the upper middle class white bubble. When asked about it, Lena said it had been “an accident” and something she hoped to work on if the show continued. While I do feel like these “accidents” can be observed as a sad reflection of our time, I also think it’s important to note that this particular story is told through the perspective of a small group who may live in a more closeted space than expected. But the soul of the show comes from a real place. The four leading ladies are all the daughters of well-known established parents. They had the opportunity to grow up in a more privileged setting and first experienced the world in this capacity. It’s my hope that as the show progresses, perhaps that world can expand to explore some additional characters who can cover some of the beautiful diversity of New York City as a natural instinct rather than to correct an accident.  There’s plenty of room to allow the show and her characters to evolve a bit more.

On top of that criticism, there seems to be an even greater amount of talk about the show’s awkward tendencies (like the plethora of long, uncomfortable sex scenes) and Lena’s unapologetic behavior to showcase her very average body. Which for the record, I think is awesome. It’s refreshing. For some reason though, people are very hung up on this deliberate choice to incorporate a “normal” woman’s nude body. And folks can be cruel. Many comments were targeted at bashing her physicality and angrily pointing out her less than perfect frame. I felt like we were all back inside the cruel walls of a middle school cafeteria. But can I just say, had it been an average man who had decided to strip before the camera, we wouldn’t be reacting like this. We would have laughed and moved along. And I’m thankful that Dunham is strong enough to stand up to the waves of harsh words because I’m hopeful it’ll help shift the tides entertainment expectations regarding nudity and humor.

Further concerning gender roles, however, there also seems to be a lot of complaints that Girls constantly depicts and criticizes men who are too weak, too sensitive and too effeminate or porn obsessed douchebags who call the shots. Again, it’s not always a flattering or hopeful interpretation of the male population but I have to admit it’s truthful. Not everyone is like that but sure, there are fellas like that out there and there are ladies who help define them. Again, setting these flaws aside though, this storyline happens to revolve around a particular set of people and within that small select group lives a, at times, brutally honest, image. But it’s important to remember that the show doesn’t represent everyone. It hasn’t taken on that responsibility. And within all the shortcomings, Hannah (played by Lena Dunham) seems to embody a great number of them.

Hannah declares herself the voice of our generation in a drug-inspired rant to her parents who have just decided to cut her off from their financial support during episode one and though Lena later claimed she intended it as a joke, she’s not far from the truth. As a generation, some of us are indeed a little lost, messy, and misguided. Personally, I find the best thing about the show has been talking about it. It’s flawed, sure, but we’re acknowledging it and reacting, processing, and having discussions. For me, that’s where the strength is. I’m thankful that Lena is attempting to explore some boundaries while making me laugh. The pressure to truly be “the voice of a generation” may be a bit unrealistic and unfair for this grittier Sex and the City group but I look forward to seeing how the next season unfolds. In between all the great theatre out there, of course.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your reactions Girls and if you think the show promotes a certain image of our generation. Come join the Girls Talk conversation!

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.

The Night of Pajanuary Has Arrived!

San Francisco Theater Pub presents…

Pa-January! – A Night of Bedtime Stories

The holidays are over but 2013 is now here with a New Year of Theater Pub!

With winter still ahead of us, we’re inviting everyone to cozy up in Café Royale for a Pajama Party and a night of Bedtime Stories. We’re talking grade-A comfort theater, with stories old and new, a lullaby or two, crayons and coloring and of course booze – just like elementary school!

This Theater Pub will be brought to you by the Letter T for Talent, including Stuart Bousel, Megan Cohen, Jeremy Cole, Ashley Cowan, Jaime Lee Currier, Sang S. Kim, Dan Kurtz, William Leschber, Carl Luciana, Brian Markley, Jan Marsh, Karen Offereins, Sunil Patel and Marissa Skudlarek.

Pajamas are optional but whimsy is not. That said, if you come in your pajamas, we’ll totally enter you in a raffle to win a prize!

It all happens on January 21st, 2013 at the Cafe Royale in San Francisco! The show starts at 8, but get there early to support our friends the Hide-Away BBQ, who will be bringing pop-up deliciousness! Admission is, as always, free, with a suggested donation at the door!

Made In China: The Saga Continues

Nicholas Weinbach continues to chronicle his musical as it moves from concept to opening night.

Well, we’re just two weeks away from opening night, and the nerves are definitely with me. We’ve done so much work, but there’s still a lot to do in the next two weeks. Crunch time is certainly upon us. Since my last entry, we had a pretty successful rehearsal with the orchestra and singers. We got through all the songs in about an hour and a half, which was great considering previous orchestra rehearsals took the span of three hours and there were always a few songs we weren’t able to go over by the end of the rehearsal. I’d say the orchestra is in great shape.

The cast is trying its hardest to solidify and perfect all the choreography for this musical. That’s probably the most challenging aspect of this show, but we’re almost there. Things are really starting to look great. I feel like we’ve got a great show on our hands, but I know the next two weeks are going to be arduous for all of us. I can’t wait until we get to opening night and see how much our hard work has payed off. Some cast members are making great leaps for the success of this production. I think a couple are working harder than they ever have before. I want so much for them to be rewarded with a good show and a large embracing audience.

For me, worrying about all my lines, lyrics, and choreography is just one part of the whole picture, large as it may be. Being a producer is the other big puzzle piece and its tough work. It requires a lot of patience and planning, and, after having produced this show, I now have a deeper understanding of what producers do and how important their job is to the success of the show. I respect successful producers because they kind of orchestrate the whole thing. When you’re a producer for an independent production, it’s even more work. My hats off to producers…I wish this could be a toast, or something of the nature, because producers rarely get enough credit, or it seems as if people think they don’t really do anything when in fact they kind of do everything.

Two weeks away and I’m excited and anxious at once. I’ve never worked on something so hard for as long of a duration in my life. Made in China is truly my offspring, and it’s almost time to show it to the world. I want to be proud of it. I want it to succeed. I have a good feeling.

If you haven’t already done so, please buy your tickets to Made in China at madeinchinamusical.wordpress.com/tickets or here. I look forward to seeing you at the show!

One more entry for sure in two weeks, but, perhaps, that will be my last. Until then, get your tickets!

P.S. $5 off general admission promo code offered on our Facebook event page here.

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: The Complications of Comp Tickets

Marissa Skudlarek gets complicated.

No wonder I’m tired all the time: I saw 51 plays and an additional 24 staged readings in 2012. I hope you do not interpret this as a boast, because I kind of see it the opposite way. Like “I have an addiction to theater; please help.” The first step toward recovery is publicly admitting that you have a problem, right?

But I’ve always thought that if you want to make art yourself, it is your duty to see as much of it as possible, and sleep-deprivation and constantly shelling out for tickets are par for the course. All the same, as indicated by my list of non-resolutions from my last column, I do feel ambivalent about my theatergoing habit. I often wonder if I would appreciate theater more if I saw less of it and freed up some gigabytes on my mental hard drive.

Anyway, over the weekend, I posted my 2012 theatergoing list, with its 75 events, on my own blog. Soon after I posted it, a friend tweeted at me, expressing astonishment at the amount of theater I’d seen and commenting “I hope you got comp tickets for most of those.”

Thing is, though, I didn’t. Not that I went broke seeing these shows, either – I take advantage of discounts, and if I were running low on funds, of course I’d cut back on my theatergoing. But I’ve always had a hang-up about asking for comp tickets. I’m fortunate enough to have a stable job that permits me to buy theater tickets at San Francisco prices. And I’m well aware that arts institutions are always cash-strapped and artists never get paid enough. I don’t want to be one of those arrogant youngsters trying to get something for nothing; I want to support the show’s creators. The truly needy and destitute should get the comp tickets, I thought. Not me.

(Yes, this also means that I feel guilty when I buy tickets on Goldstar rather than paying full-price. Perhaps this makes me a hypocrite, but it also makes me consistent in my neuroses.)

People have suggested that because I have a blog where I frequently write about theater, I’d be justified in asking for comp tickets. Nonetheless, that’s always felt like an act of arrogance to me. What gives me the right to demand comp tickets as though I were an accredited member of the press, when any bozo could set up his own blog and do the same thing? I understand that theater companies value the exposure. But I’m hard-pressed to believe that a theater could find 500 words of my prose more valuable than $30 of my money. (Though I hear that that’s about the going rate for freelance arts writers, these days.)

I am hypersensitive to the notion that the arts are in peril due to lack of funding, which means I feel guilty for not spending even more money on art. I bought $10 worth of raffle tickets every night at the Olympians Festival, even though, as a writer, I got in for free. And I feel guilty whenever I go into an independent bookstore and walk out without buying anything. Those news articles about “the death of bookstores” really get to me, so I figure I should make lots of purchases and keep my favorite stores in business. But that’s a dangerous habit, causing me to accumulate books faster than I can read them. Which just leads to more guilt.

And guilt sucks, you know. It impedes productivity, and, I am sure, makes me sound quite insufferable. Agonizing over whether or not to request comp tickets is the very definition of both a humblebrag and a First World Problem. Indeed, doesn’t my attitude hint of sanctimonious do-gooderism? Maybe it’s arrogant to demand comp tickets. But isn’t it also arrogant to think that I can save an indie theater or bookstore singlehandedly, just by spending $20 there every couple of months?

If I am to shake off this guilt, I’ll need to accept my own merits (“I have a well-established blog and can ask for comp tickets”) as well as my own insignificance (“my receiving a comp ticket will not cause this theater to go bankrupt”). Urged by a friend, I made my first attempt to request comp tickets from a theater, and they couldn’t have been nicer about it. And if the theater’s not showing any guilt or hesitation, why should I? I do not take this as a license to expect, or solicit, free tickets to every show I want to see in 2013. But it’s a reminder that it’s OK to relax my self-righteous principles once in a while. And that it never hurts to ask for something, as long as you’re willing to take “no” for an answer.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer,and theater addict. For more, find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Call For Writers!

Fire up your flux capacitors, polish your wands, and rev up your chainsaws—here comes The Pub from Another World! San Francisco Theater Pub presents a night of short sci-fi/fantasy/horror plays. The performances will primarily be staged readings, with some being off-book at the director’s/actors’ discretion. We are now accepting submissions through March 1, 2013. And mark your calendars, the show is May 20, 2013!


  1. Local, Bay Area playwrights only. Exceptions may be made if you are from an alternate universe.
  2. Plays must be no more than 15 minutes long. We would prefer plays in the 10- to 15-minute range, but shorter pieces will be considered.
  3. Plays will be performed in a bar, but they do not have to be set in a bar. Although practical concerns make simple settings easier to stage, we encourage writers to transform the space into a starship bridge, a Balrog-guarded bridge, or an evil killer bridge through dialogue or stage directions, which may be read.
  4. We are looking for all types of plays: comedy, drama, romance, experimental, etc. The only requirement is that they include significant elements of sci-fi/fantasy/horror.

Plays should be submitted electronically as a DOC or PDF with the playwright’s name and contact information to theaterpub@atmostheatre.com with the subject “First Name, Last Name – The Pub from Another World Submission.”

Clarifying questions may also be sent to this address.

Selected plays will be announced in April 2013.

We look forward to reading your submissions!