Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: I Am My Own Director

Marissa Skudlarek is knee deep in an exciting- and stressful- new theatrical role. 

On March 29, I’m having a staged reading of my play The Rose of Youth as part of the EXIT Theatre’s Behind the Curtain festival, and I’m directing it myself — which is a new experience for me. It’s also a fairly stressful one. A one-night-only reading would seem to be low-stakes, as far as these things go — I don’t have to deal with tech or design or blocking — butThe Rose of Youth is the biggest play I’ve ever written. Casting twelve actors and getting them all in the same room to rehearse a few times is challenge enough!

Whenever possible, I’ve shied away from directing my own work. We all know that theater is a collaborative artform, and my feeling is, the more the merrier. I’ve never studied directing, and I lack a director’s eye and instincts. Moreover, as a playwright, I like to be in the room with the director, see how the play is coming together, answer any questions, and make sure that the script is working. But in order to do that, I need to hang back and observe, rather than actively stage and direct the play.

The Behind the Curtain festival came together so quickly, though, that it wasn’t really practical to seek out a director. Besides, I already know that the script works — it was produced five years ago, at my college. Assisting with that production is what gave me the confidence (the brash foolhardiness, more like) to say that I would direct the upcoming staged reading myself.

And now, it’s stressing me out. I’ve already decided that the reading will be very simple — just actors at music stands — which has helped me overcome my concern that I don’t have a good sense for staging and blocking. What really frightens me is that the lack of a director gives me sole responsibility for orchestrating the evening and making sure that it turns out all right. In the other shows I’ve done, I’ve been fortunate to have great directors who’ve made me really happy; nonetheless, in the back of my mind, I’ve always thought “If this turns out badly, I can blame the director.” If you’re a playwright, a director gives you plausible deniability. Then, if an audience member tells you that one scene fell flat? “It was the director’s fault! Totally not my problem!” you say. And then you rush home to re-write the offending scene.

But, with the upcoming reading, I bear all the responsibility for its success — and have no way to make excuses for myself. And that’s scary. Coward that I am, I find myself craving the plausible deniability that a director would afford me. But why, exactly, do I crave this? Why am I so scared of taking accountability for my own work? Shouldn’t I be proud of what I’ve written, grateful for the opportunity to share it with an audience? It’s not very pleasant to admit that I’d rather have someone else to blame if things go wrong. So I am nobly trying to accept the challenge of shouldering all the credit or the censure, whichever it is that I merit.

I also wonder if there’s a gendered component to all of this. Being a director feels like a more public, active (hence, masculine) role than being a playwright. And even though I’m a feminist, maybe I still have an internal discomfort with the idea of taking on a directorial role. I recently came across a quote from Lena Dunham that seems to have a bearing on this: she says that in 2012, she learned that “it’s possible to feel like a creepy, pervy producer even if you are a 26-year-old girl.” I suppose this must be in regards to casting people on her show Girls and asking them to do nudity and sex scenes. While there won’t be any of that in The Rose of Youth (sorry to disappoint you), it still feels weird for me to email men I barely know and ask them to play the romantic lead in my staged reading. I worry that they’ll think I’m coming onto them, because “I want you to play a romantic lead in my show” is exactly the kind of line that creepy casting-couch producers have used on young women for centuries. Plus, I can’t deny that I’m judging these actors on the basis of their appearance and persona, in addition to their acting talent. And it still feels socially unacceptable for a woman to judge, to choose, to solicit a man in this fashion.

But, like it or not, in four weeks’ time, I am directing a staged reading of The Rose of Youth. So I’ve got to stop thinking about cowardice and excuses, and I’ve got to get to work. The Rose of Youth, by the way, is a backstage dramedy about a group of Vassar students and their professors putting on a production of Antony and Cleopatra in 1934. Hey, that’s a good motto for the weeks ahead: less thinking about deniability, more thinking about de Nile.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and sometime director. She graciously invites you all to come see her staged reading of The Rose of Youth, March 29 at 8 PM at the EXIT Theatre. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or follow her on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Everything Is Already Something: Who Are You?

Actress/writer/comedienne Allison Page kicks off her new rotating column on the Theater Pub blog, asking the biggest question of all: is that song about boobs at the Oscars really worth getting so worked up about?”

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Who are you?

Man, that’s a toughie. Just like anyone who likes to think they’re varied and interesting, even if they’re not varied and interesting, I find that question difficult to answer, but the short version is my name is Allison and I’m a writer/actor/comedian/former radio announcer/former hair stylist/formerly engaged twice.

Believe me when I say that deciding which thing to list first was a pain in the ass. But you can’t say all that stuff when you meet a new person and they say, “So what do you do?” because they will definitely think you’re pretentious, and they will probably think you’re a lunatic. So when people ask me what I do, I say I’m a comedian. Here’s my own personal distinction: a comic is a person who does stand up exclusively, and a comedian is a person who deals in all things related to comedy. Sometimes I go months at a time without doing stand up, because I’m in a play, or a sketch show, or I have too much writing to do…but I’m always doing something related to comedy.

Dealing in both theatre and comedy is…kind of strange. Comics have a tendency to think that someone who isn’t doing a set every single night, is, among other things, not paying their dues. Ohhh man, that due-paying business will get you every time. And theatre people (directors, actors, producers – really anyone) think that you’re only good for the ha-has, and the more you try to convince them of your various abilities, the more you’re over-selling yourself – the more it seems they’re right. So I don’t try to convince anyone of anything. That’s my big secret. I really don’t care if someone thinks I’m this or that, I do whatever I feel like doing, and that’s worked pretty well so far. It’s like the theory that if you walk into a place you’re not supposed to be in, but you act like you’re supposed to be there, then you will be accepted as a rightful guest. And here’s another thing you should probably know: nothing feels harder because I’m a woman. I don’t feel oppressed by men or by anyone, and I really don’t sit around worrying about it. I live in a man’s world to the max – my “day job” is that I write dialogue for characters in a video game. I work at a large company with thousands of people and there are only about 7 writers, and only 2 female writers apart from me.

I have a tendency to feel frustrated when things are over-analyzed to find oppression, particularly in comedy. Seth MacFarlane (in case you’ve been dead for 100 years) hosted the Oscars the other night, and sang a song called “We Saw Your Boobs”, which was a list of movies in which different actresses breasts were seen. I laughed (I probably laughed extra because I had been drinking), and thought it was absurd and great. Now apparently there are people who are equating this song with him glorifying rape, and rape culture. All I was thinking when I watched it was, “I remember that! I saw those boobs! Remember Winslet in Titanic, ya’ll?  That one’s weird to watch with your parents…what with the boobs!”.

It crossed my mind that perhaps I don’t find it offensive because I’m a degenerate freak, so I brought it up to some friends last night – let’s call them Meryl Streep and Judy Garland – and Meryl immediately piped up and said “That’s so ridiculous, I can’t believe people are mad about that. When I watched it I thought – Wow, Seth MacFarlane is a talented singer and dancer!”. Judy immediately agreed, “Yeah! This is being blown out of proportion!” and then I felt better, because I’m not a degenerate freak (that’s still up for debate.). And I think it might be that it would be really really difficult for me to feel that I’m being oppressed in any way, even though I’m surrounded by men. I don’t think the song took us all back 100 years and now, suddenly, sexual assault is totally cool and we’re fine with it because of his minute and a half of antics. No way, that’s crazy talk. I’m sure my love for comedy over all things keeps me from immediately harshly judging someone’s joke or bit or material or silly musical number, because I find it impossible to believe that he was trying to relay a crazy message –  I think he just found movies with boobs in them and then arranged them in a way that rhymed. I bet it took 30 minutes. I’m happy to say I would totally do that, and I happen to have my own boobs so…that must mean something, right?

There will always be inequalities and injustices in the world, and those inequalities should and will be brought to light, but if you’re reaching so far that you’ve got to site a silly song that meant nothing and hammer meaning into it…then exactly what are you exposing but your own insecurities?

If you don’t believe me, just ask Meryl. See you in two weeks.

*No Streeps were harmed in the making of this blog.

Theater Around The Bay: Let’s Hear It From You

Stuart Bousel takes a moment to talk about how our blog has been growing steadily upward.

February has proven to be a breakthrough month for the San Francisco Theater Pub blog!

For the first time since the blog was started by one of our founding artistic directors, Bennett Fisher, in March of 2010 (so we’re coming up on our anniversary!), we have shot past 4,000 hits in one month- and a short month at that! Where as once we usually got about 25-50 hits a day and 500-800 hits a month, we now average 150-200 a day and 2,500-3,500 a month. This increase in traffic is, without question, due in large part to having moved to more regular content, and it’s thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cowan, Eli Diamond, Helen Laroche, Marissa Skudlarek and our various guest bloggers (like the cast and crew of The Odyssey on Angel Island, and Nicky Weinbach from Made in China) that we can start to say the Pub’s online presence is delivering the same mission of inclusivity and being a platform for the community, as it does in the flesh at the Cafe Royale each month.Thank you to everyone who has been a part of it: contributor and reader alike. We hope you stick around for more!

Starting tomorrow, we’ll be adding actress/writer Allison Page to the regular writer rotation, alternating weeks with Cowan Palace, and next week we’ll begin a new regular guest blog by actor/writer Evan Johnson as his new play moves towards its premiere production at the New Conservatory. That will be running alternate weeks with Theater Conservatory Confidential, on Fridays. Additionally, we have a new monthly event, being presented in conjunction with the Exit Theater, starting March 23rd, called Saturday Write Fever. Like all other Theater Pub events, it’s free and all about creating collaborations between artists and busting down the wall between the audience and the creators, so please join us!

At the same time that the blog has been gaining momentum and increasing its profile, I personally have found myself having more and more conversations with various theater people about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and what they hope to get from it versus what they actually get from it and just how they feel about that. A lot of those interactions have started with, “I read your posts from a few weeks back and it’s had me thinking…” and I have to say, it’s been wonderful to hear that and even more wonderful to have so many exciting dialogues about this art form and all its social and practical complexity. In the last few weeks my life has been characterized by some of the most honest and inspiring talks I’ve ever had in the ten years of being part of this theater community. It’s been like… final semester of college level of sincere and memorable, but unlike the last semester of college, it doesn’t have to end.

The “Theater Around the Bay” section of the website (basically every Tuesday we don’t have a performance that night- which is most Tuesdays) has always been, and will always remain, an on-going catch-all for whatever news, rants, musings someone wants to contribute and I want to take a moment to remind people that we’re always looking to publish something- the days we don’t it’s literally for lack of content, not because we turned someone down. We shy away from reviews (unless it’s happening in service of a larger thesis) because we want this to be more of a discussion/process/promotion part of the internet (there are plenty of other places to post reviews), but after that caveat almost anything theater related could potentially have a home here. An article about what’s troubling your theater life. Your favorite place to get a burrito before a show. A profile of someone you think is doing great work. A profile of your own work. Upcoming projects or on-going concerns. All these things and more are welcome. Please pitch us if you have an idea! We want to hear from you, and the more voices we can get on here over the course of a year, the better.

On that note, thanks again for reading. And because I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about this lately, if you have moment, leave a comment about what inspires you to keep working and making theater. I feel like every one of these great conversations that I’ve been having lately, that’s the one thing we don’t talk about enough. We talk about what is wrong, sure, and we talk about our work, usually, and we talk about other the tenor the scene and other people, always, but I think it’s just the nature of many artists (or maybe it’s just human nature) to forget to take the time to also focus on what does work, what infuses us with the will to keep on, what makes the baloney worth cutting through and putting up with. So, today, let’s put things back in balance and tell us what you love about the medium, the scene, or yourself. Or all three.

The best thing about the internet is that there’s always room for more.

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.

Our Next Show Begins Performances on March 18!

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It’s Kate vs. the World!

When brilliant but brittle Katherina (Kim Saunders)’s younger sister Bianca (Shay Wisniewski) finds herself being courted by three eligible bachelors (Vince Faso, Brian Martin, Ron Talbot), their opportunistic mother (Jan Marsh) lays down the law that Bianca won’t be allowed to marry until Katherina finds a husband. The suitors select Petruchio (Paul Jennings), a money seeking adventurer who might be Kate’s worst nightmare- or the best thing that ever happened to her.

Also featuring Sam Bertken, Shane Rhodes, Sarah Stewart, and directed by Stuart Bousel, this fast and furious production of the classic play will be one part Shakespeare, one part boxing match, and all parts Theater Pub.

The show plays March 18, 19, 25 and 27, at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale. Tickets are free and no reservations are required, but we encourage you to come early, enjoy the pop-up restaurant of the evening, and donate at the door to keep Theater Pub alive!

Theater Conservatory Confidential: The Art of Sitting Quietly

Eli Diamond finds some quiet time while navigating the second semester of his first year at Theater School.

So, this weekend has opened my eyes to a few things. Mostly that I cannot stand being in the same room with certain people for more than ten minutes. And that I get annoyed when these same people are invited into my room night after night for drinking and video games. I think I’m starting to learn the true purpose of this place. College: Where the cynical Eli becomes even more cynical.

Not to say that there aren’t high points. Going out has led to some interesting encounters with a few of my friends, and no matter what happens, whether it’s good or bad, you can be sure I have a story to tell. Stories that I probably could get arrested for, but stories, nonetheless. I have however figured out a way to tell this story, namely by replacing everything illegal with the word “kittens”.

Ahem. It was my friend/suitemate’s birthday, and so, naturally, he had a few friends over. These friends each decided to bring some kittens. So, me and all the friends stayed huddled over, drinking the kittens. After feeling relatively good, some friends decided they were going out to smoke some kittens. I naturally decided to follow them, and, after we smoked some kittens, I figured out I lost my wallet.

I mean, it’s not a story with a happy ending, but it is a story. And I’m happy to have experienced it at this young age so I know never to do it again. Losing my wallet was a nuisance I lived with for the past few weeks, as I couldn’t get a replacement ATM card, due to lack of ID, and I couldn’t get an ID, due to lack of… well… ID. It’s almost gotten to the point where I’ve decided to invest in a fake, because getting one of those sounds a lot easier than whatever the DMV’s put me through. I have learned my lesson a bit though, as my nights have been spent far more soberly since.

I have been thinking though. I’m not quite sure what has made me think of this. Maybe it’s the doldrums creeping up on me. But I’ve been thinking about transferring or just… going for it. Being in this profession makes me really question the worth of whatever college degree I end up getting. I’ve heard a few people say “Auditors look at your education” and I’ve yet to see if it’s true. Maybe transferring out of NYU after 2 years is a good thing. I’ll have the wonderful education provided for me by the Atlantic Acting School, and I’ll also save 100+ thousand dollars.

These are the things that have been going through my mind. I should probably be focusing on rehearsal though. I’m doing a scene from Shining City, and a scene from Rabbit Hole next, as well as writing a monologue. I’m pretty damn excited for this all. But for now, I’m just gonna sit quietly with my laptop, while those guys outside my door play Smash Bros. for the 5th night in a row.

Falling With Style: How To Use The Radio As A Ouija Board

Helen Laroche is asking some big questions. 

Do you believe in the occult? Non-traditional healing modalities? The existence of God or a higher power?

Ten years ago, as a high school senior about to leave the nest, I was certain in my response. I not only didn’t believe in any of that, but I assumed that nobody of any intelligence could truly believe it either. I was the product of two Caltech grads for parents, and four college graduate grandparents, none of whom attended church with any regularity. The sense I always got was: believing in a higher power was sort of lazy; you should have enough self-empowerment to not only get through life, but actively thrive, without an invisible friend/parent/etc. to help you.

Fast forward ten years. My impressionable, artistic right brain has been coaxed into belief — and my logical left brain has gotten dragged along, kicking and screaming. Although I’m not ready to put my foot down and say, unequivocally, that A is so and B is not, I have opened myself up to the mystery and possibility of almost anything.

It feels as batty as it sounds, and my left brain is constantly judging me for it. But over the past few years, I have had some terribly powerful experiences — with energy healing, with meditation and chakra work, and with the power of coincidence. I have started to treat massive or constant coincidences as a tap on the shoulder by a higher power. Often, the coincidence (e.g. bumping into an old friend, hearing a certain song on the radio, reading a forwarded article) seems to answer a nagging question, or pose a challenge for me, or re-affirm a shaken confidence in myself.

I don’t know whether this is truly a higher power or just my brain hearing what it wants to hear. Am I flying or just falling with style? If the ends justify the means, does it matter? All I know is, it makes me feel like I’m part of something really big, and that’s immensely comforting.

Now, what does this have to do with art and the path I’m currently walking? I am interested in self-producing an album of Broadway/pop-style cabaret songs, and I put out a call last night via Facebook for submissions. The response made me giddy with excitement — already a dozen songs, from friends in various circles, in less than 24 hours. (And there’s still time to submit — hint, hint!) I tried asking the same question in the same manner a year ago, and I got no responses. So what changed? Have I increased the number of composers I know? Did my post simply get more visibility this time around? Was it the “right cosmic time” to ask this question?

I am open to all possibilities.

Cowan Palace: 7 Reasons Why Shakespeare Belongs In A Bar

As we move closer to Theater Pub’s next production of Taming of the a Shrew, I thought it would be fun to get the party started by learning just a little bit more about one of history’s favorite writers. So to kick things off, here are Ashley Cowan’s top 7 Reasons Why Shakespeare Belongs in a Bar!

7 Reasons Why Shakespeare Belongs in a Bar

1.) He puts the “bar” in “Bard”.

2.) We don’t really know how to spell his name.

Just like a drunk Marina brah who writes his number down for a tipsy sorority sister, the mighty Bard also abbreviated his own name and signature. Apparently, there were about 80 different ways Shakespeare’s name was written out during his lifetime – and that’s only counting the cocktail napkins that survived! Some include whacky interpretations like “Shaxberd”! For that one alone, we should all take a drink.

3.) Shakespeare’s daddy was paid to drink beer!

That John Shakespeare tried out a few careers in his day but in 1556 he became a professional drinker. He was an ale taster responsible for reviewing bread and malt liquors. Cheers, John!

4.) Taming of the Shrew begins with a drunk dude!

Before the first act officially begins (in the Induction), a rather sloppy Christopher Sly is kicked out of a bar. He is then becomes the target for a sneaky nobleman who tricks Sly into believing that he too is of notable nobility. Bestowing upon him the honor of a play and officially beginning 10 Things I Hate About You.

5.) Shakespeare put a curse on his grave!

Okay, this may not directly correlate to Shakespeare being performed in a bar but it’s bad-ass! It’s believed that he wrote the epitaph reading: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare, / To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones.” Now, if only he had written something for Richard III…

6.) An anagram for “William Shakespeare” is “A Karma Wheelie Lisps”.

That clearly was made for a bar. Or you could go with the more well-known anagram: “I am a weakfish speller” but how can you resist celebrating when a karma wheelie lisps?

7.) He wrote about beer!

My three text favorites include:

“I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety.”Henry V

I will make it a felony to drink small beer.”Henry VI, Part II

“OLIVIA: What’s a drunken man like, fool?
CLOWN: Like a drowned man, a fool, and a madman: one draught above heat makes him a fool, the second mads him, and a third drowns him.”
– Twelfth Night

Taming of the Shrew opens on March 18 and also plays March 19, 25, and 27 at Cafe Royale. Which gives us plenty of time to add to our list of why Shakespeare belongs in a bar. Part beautiful language, part beer, the production is sure to be worth toasting to!