Higher Education: My One Thing

Barbara Jwanouskos continues her meditation on her first year in a playwrighting graduate program.

Grad school puts you in these really weird situations where you simulate Real World theater experiences by collaborating with others in building new works of theater under particular guidelines. Then, you end up performing your piece before your peers, watching others perform theirs, and critiquing how successful the project ended up being. Then, you get a grade. I suppose it’s like the Real World, but more like the fun house version of it.

In the Real World, we collaborate with our friends, people we know, and people we don’t know. In the Real World, we aren’t ever really assigned guidelines on how to approach a project or what topic to write about, though we may work for a particular theater company that chooses our piece because it aligns with their aesthetic vision. Sometimes, we are commissioned to create a particular type of work. We choose the projects in which we want to be involved. Even if a project seems like it will lead to a bad experience, we still have the choice of whether to participate in it.

So, then, why is it so hard to collaborate with the people we are more or less choosing? Because everyone could seem to be on board from the get-go, but suddenly it comes crashing down into fights that from the outsider’s perspective seem a bit petty. Take out this one word of dialogue? WELL, THAT JUST CHANGES THE WHOLE FREAKING STORY! Use this red gel for the lights instead of an amber one? WHY DON’T WE JUST CANCEL THE SHOW NOW! Cross downstage after saying the line? *FAINTS*. (You get my overly dramatic point…)

Sometimes collaborating with others is kind of like an otter dealing with unstackable blocks. (Cue gif). Because if theater is about making a series of decisions, then each decision matters and each decision ultimately shapes the experience we want to give to those out there in the audience. No two people are going to see or hear the same thing and experience the same thing. Hence, disagreement. Okay, well, who’s right? (Duh, no one.) Fine, then who should we listen to? (Ummmm….)

I’m going to tell you a story about an experience I had in on one of these assigned collaborative projects. In classic SF Theater Pub fashion, I’m totally going to name the director I was working with Jesse Michaels, after the front man of one of my favorite punk bands, Operation Ivy. So, Jesse Michaels is a fantastic director, and I was excited to work with him for the last assignment of the year. It was sort of known that Jesse was the type of director that liked A LOT of re-writes from the playwrights he worked with. “Whatever,” I thought. “Cool. Bring it. I need to get better at re-writing anyway.”

Our last project was to create a ten-minute play incorporating one song (could be a known one or could be made up) and a countdown til an event at the end of the play (for example, a birthday, a rocket launch, the end of the world, etc.) Jesse and I knew our cast beforehand and were really excited to work with them. They were three uber talented actors trained in Musical Theater who each had amazing voices. And omg, we both totally love when people sing.

Jesse dove right in and asked if I wanted to brainstorm some ideas for the project together. I was so down for that because I didn’t really have any good ideas. It being the end of the semester, my inspiration take was past the E mark, and I was running off of fumes, guys. So, we talked about what we wanted to do and what we wanted to avoid. I was interested in writing a comedy (after writing so many dark or dreary pieces). We wanted to create original lyrics, but Jesse suggested using pop songs that the guys probably already knew to cut down on the rehearsal time. He even had chatted with one of the faculty members about arranging the tunes to work for our actors’ ranges.

The brainstorming sesh was going great. We exchanged ideas about what songs to use. We thought of settings and who our characters were. We came up with a story idea that we thought was simple and interesting. It was going to be a story about three guys who are in a polyamorous relationship with one another. They had just married each other in another state on a destination wedding and it was their final boarding call before the plane was set to go back to their hometown. They’re running late because one of the three has disappeared and suddenly reappears only to tell the other two that he can’t go back with them.

We laughed about the ridiculousness of the logistics of a love trio marriage. How would it work? What state was progressive enough to be open to the idea of three people marrying each other? What about polyamorous relationships in general? We speculated that you’d really have to be good at communicating. Heck, it was hard with two people, much less three.

More than anything we knew early on that these three guys really truly loved each other. We felt strongly for them that we wanted them to work out. Unfortunately, one was having second thoughts not for anything that you might expect with three people like an unbalance of love, but because one of them knew that just like we initially laughed at the “absurdity” of three men who fell in love and wanted to marry each other, in their world, they’d be dealing with people like us – who didn’t get it – all the time. And that’s when we knew there was something more to this idea. Why couldn’t three guys be in love and get married to each other?

Quickly the play evolved into a musical that we were both excited to work on. We were thrown a wrench when the play suddenly had to be cut down from ten minutes to five minutes – barely enough time to get the song and the circumstances out, but we rolled with the punches. At five minutes in length, the play was even more streamlined and the song was getting there.

I wrote something up, re-worked it, brought it to workshop, and then handed it over to Jesse, expecting the same great enthusiasm that was in our initial talks. I’d just received positive feedback from the other writers and my advisor, so I’m thinking, “Hey, this crazy idea is actually working!”

Jesse comes back with a bunch of notes and edits to the song. No worries. I defer to others that know more about singing, so I was happy with all the changes he’d made. I kept re-working the play, feeling frustrated at times, but knowing that this is what writing was, that Jesse and I were on the same page ultimately, and that the story was fun. It was something I wanted to have a hand in – a little musical that was at first comedic, but opened up a moment of self-reflection. Now that was a turning point – to start off having people laughing and hopefully move them – dare I say it – to tears. So, I continued to pass more drafts onto Jesse. Each time, he’d respond cryptically. “It’s good,” he’d say, his voice going up as if he was trying to reassure me, but his body language was saying something different. Did he really think that?

I started to dread sharing my latest drafts with him because I was so lost in what was the play missing. How could we get back on the same enthusiastic page again? I know Jesse was frustrated too. He’d say, “I think we could use a joke here” or “Let’s cut this whole section. It’s redundant.” The responses were short and blunt, but also vague. I was a little taken aback. Okay? What’s wrong with it?

Finally, I came to a point where, though not completely satisfied, I felt like the best thing to do next was to just hear it in the rehearsal room. It was the day before we were going to work with our actors for the first time. I was nervous because I felt like if Jesse and I weren’t on the same page when we walked into rehearsal, it was going to be really hard to turn around this experience – that had started out good but now was getting to be a chore.

Our advisor in playwriting had this talk with us about collaboration one day. Let’s call him Brian Eno because it’s fun to name people! Brian Eno said that as playwrights (though I feel like this could extend to any artist) we had one thing (not two, not ten, not twenty million) that we could put our foot down on during the course of the collaboration as something that we could not bend on. And that was the one thing that took all our joy and desire to do the project away. We didn’t want to write the play anymore if we couldn’t do this one thing. But, you had to choose well and wisely because it was one thing and not two, ten or twenty million. (Cue Indiana Jones choosing the Holy Grail).

Well, gosh darn it! I realized I needed to stand up for my one thing!

Guys… I will be the first to admit right now that I thought my one thing was not doing anymore re-writes on the play because it was done. In my defense, the first year was brutal and you do get to a burn-out point where you feel if you write down one more word your head will explode. I told this to Jesse. And, get this, the guy has the nerve to tell me that he hope that I’d still be open to changing things once we got into the rehearsal room tomorrow. WHAT DID YOU SAY? “CHANGE THINGS”? THERE WILL BE NO MORE CHANGING!

I know, guys, I know… Hey! It was frustrating to keep hearing that this play wasn’t quite there. I could point out all the good in it. So, that’s when it all came retching out at Jesse. How I felt like I was being dismissed, how I felt like I wasn’t even a part of the project anymore, how it started out fun and now it was a chore. But, most of all, how I felt lead down a path where he knew what he wanted from me and wasn’t just coming out and saying it. Why couldn’t he just tell me what he thought wasn’t working?

Jesse listened very thoughtfully (and not in that, I’m-waiting-to-shoot-down-everything-you-say kind of way) and nodded. I do actually remember being shocked by this response. I was thinking, “is he taking me seriously?” He was. He said that others had told him similar things before and that one of the things he was working on was how to be more clear and specific with the feedback he gave. Awh, guys, don’t you see? We’re all working on stuff!

When I finally point-blank asked him, “What, for you, doesn’t work about this play?” He was able to be very specific. Oddly enough, the feedback he gave was that he felt like the characters needed more specificity – something that would make us root for them as a trio. I nodded uncomfortably. I wasn’t happy hearing this, but Jesse was absolutely right. I told him I couldn’t think of anything right now, but I was willing to look at it and think more about it both that night and when we were in the rehearsal room the next day.

I thought back to the brainstorming sessions and how Jesse and I really loved this story. What was it about it? I thought back how we thought it was absurd at first, but their love for each other was more real than a lot of people probably ever experience, and how it was so sad that a really beautiful love like that could be infected by what other people thought. DING! That was my one thing. That’s why I wanted to write it.

I remember saying to myself, “This is a love story.” What happens in your classic love story? Well, they fall in love at first sight, of course. What people laugh at is not the absurdity of three men who love each other, but even deeper seated than that. I think they laugh at the idea of love. So, why can’t there be love in the world? What’s so absurd about that?

The line came to me literally about 15 minutes before rehearsal. I was cleaning up the grammar, getting ready to print, waiting for inspiration, but also feeling so incredibly awkward about my “fight” with my director. I was scared that it was going to be painful to be in that room and I certainly expected the worst: that none of us – not me, not Jesse, not the actors, nor even Brian Eno – would find something that could fix the play.

Sure enough (cuz you all know how this goes, you get your inspiration in the eleventh hour – duh!), something did come. The line I added – and then awkwardly shrugged and mouthed “I don’t know,” silently and desperately to my computer before hitting “print” was:

Think about when we met. We walked into the coffee shop and it was love at first sight. The three of us! Do you think anyone believes that we each caught the other’s eye all at once?

Then Jesse comes up the stairs, smiling. So far, not awkward…

“Hey, I added a line. Not sure if it works…” I said.

“Great! Let’s try it!” he said, but it was kind of like, eh, no worries if it doesn’t. We’ll find something.

During that rehearsal I did feel enthusiastic again. It was fun. It was collaborative. The actors had great suggestions and input. Jesse even said, “You guys, Barb has put a lot of hard work into writing this”. Excuse me, I just, got something in my eye, um… I think it’s the pollen in Pittsburgh. Afterwards, I brought my script over and said, “Here’s what I heard that might need changing and some ideas. What do you think?”

“I think that’s absolutely right.”

During the performance, I held my breath and my hands got clammy, because, man, those laughs were pretty big in the beginning of the piece. I was worried that others weren’t going to experience what Jesse and I did when we thought about the story and the characters more and more. But then, there’s this certain point where it’s a pretty big emotional turn, and PIN DROP SILENCE! I kinda smiled then because I feel the play working.

I gave Jesse a hug afterwards and said how I had a really great time working together and I apologized for it getting all awkward the day before. That’s the thing though. Sometimes you need a little bit of friction and things that are clunky and awkward in order to find your one thing. I have to thank Jesse for going on that journey with me.

My one piece of wisdom – Real World-wise or other – is just to keep searching for what that one thing is for you, but also what it is for your collaborators, because perhaps then when we’re able to communicate what it is that really truly matters all the little things fall away and it won’t matter if we’ve got pink and green polka dots on the walls of our set or if we’ve had to redo something til our heads explode. Maybe then we’ll have re-connected to what it is that inspired us to share these experiences in the first place. And that, my friends, is truly powerful theater.

Cowan Palace: Life in the Theater: It’s All Endless Superstitions and Myths

Ashley Cowan talks about why so many theater makers are simply superstitious. 

While I was in rehearsal the other night, one of my cast mates mentioned her upcoming production of Macbeth. And actually uttered the infamous title aloud as we sat onstage! Now, I’m not a conventionally superstitious person when it comes to my theater practices so I wasn’t terribly distressed. But the experience opened the door of conversation to the vast variety of theatrical superstitions and myths. So I thought it would be fun to research some of the more well known beliefs and share them with our Theater Pub community.

Break a Leg!

Have you ever wondered why it’s considered a bad idea to wish someone “good luck” before a performance? Well, the exact origin may not be known but there is a plethora of ideas. One of the most popular beliefs is that by telling someone to do the opposite of something, the sneaky spirits surrounding the space known to cause mischief would be tricked into making the reverse come true. So if you were told to “break a leg” you would actually be blessed with a great performance.

Another reasoning derives from Shakespearean time when the stage was supported on wooden “legs”. If a performance was a true success, it would cause such a commotion that a leg would actually break. Also coming from that time period, the word “break” doubled as “bend”. And if you were to bend your legs repeatedly it was because you were taking bows. One last idea comes from our friends in Ancient Greece, where it is believed that people would stomp in appreciation of a performance rather than clap. By that reasoning, a broken leg would be the result of a truly stupendous performance.

Ghosts! And Lights!

Ghosts are no strangers to the theater. It seems like in almost every space you find there’s a legend or story of it being haunted. A tradition to leave a burning light (onstage or backstage) was born so that the first and last person could safely get in and out of the theater. It’s also for those lurking creatures to find their ways; as the belief goes, if the theater was ever left dark, ghosts would seek out mischief and mayhem. There’s also an alternative superstition that every theater should have one evening during the week that’s an “off” night so that the ghosts can perform. Usually, it’s a Monday night so I like to imagine ghosts everywhere are forming their own Theater Pub rituals.

Colors!

In the olden days, making blue dye was a tricky business. Theater companies who were struggling financially would try to overcompensate by costuming their actors in hues of blue as an attempt to make their audiences believe they were flourishing. But the sad reality is, often they would actually go bankrupt because of the cost! So to counter any misfortune, silver was used with blue as a means to show that the company could actually afford their clothing.

Yellow isn’t often considered lucky either. Sorry, Big Bird. This one may come from religious plays of the past since this mellow color was often worn by whoever was playing the character of the devil.

And just to add one more to think about, you may want to wear green with caution! One cause for this belief is because the infamous Molière died a few hours after performing in his own play, Le Malade Imaginaire and you guessed it, he was wearing green! So perhaps French fans and other theater makers alike started to feel differently about this shade. However, the green room is still the name of the waiting area for actors to use so hopefully it isn’t too cursed.

Mirrors!

Many superstitious people out there believe that breaking a mirror will earn you seven years bad luck. But as usual, the theater superstition is a little different. Not only can having mirrors on stage provide technical issues because of reflecting light but if the mirror in use breaks it will be bring seven years of misfortune to both the person’s soul who was captured in it and to the theater itself.

Whistling!

The seven dwarfs may not have had it right when they sang about whistling when you work. At least in terms of working in the theater as it’s considered to be a pretty unlucky practice. Many years ago, before we used intercoms and other fancy modern tools, the crews working a show most likely had on again off again careers as sailors. Since both ships and the stage shared a similar series of ropes, these workers would communicate complicated cues through whistling. If an actor or someone outside the crew felt inspired to whistle their own tune, it could confuse the system, resulting in potentially dangerous cue mistakes. While the crew may no longer use whistling as a way to monitor the show, it’s still considered unlucky to whistle in a theater and as the superstition goes, if you do, someone in your production will be meet an unfortunate fate.

Peacock Feathers!

Apparently, peacock feathers are a big no-no in the theater world and under no circumstance should they be incorporated into a production in any capacity; be it, as a prop or costume piece, or disaster will consume the production. There are tales of erupting chaos involving fires and collapsing sets all blamed on the use of peacock feathers. It’s believed that the feather embodies an “evil eye” that wrecks havoc on any production by cursing them. Perhaps this one relates back to the Greek myth of Argus, a monster consisting of a hundred eyes, and Hera who had them forever kept in a peacock’s tail. Plus considering what we already learned from using blue and green colors in the theater, this one may just be best to avoid.

The Last Line!

In some theater circles, it is considered bad luck to rehearse the last line of the play until you open for an audience. As the show isn’t really a show until people are present to witness it, it’s thought to be unlucky. I hadn’t honestly heard this one before but hey, whatever floats your set piece boat. Often, the theater will open the final dress rehearsal to a small crowd so that they can perform the play in its entirety before opening night. Final dress rehearsal is often a source of superstition material as many practicing artists live by the “bad dress, great show” logic. Perhaps that one was invented by directors to cheer their cast from a lousy last rehearsal or as a means to excuse a poor performance before opening.

Flowers!

It’s thought to be good luck to give your director and/or leading lady flowers stolen from a graveyard on closing night. The flowers are meant to represent “the death of the show” and allowing it to be put to rest. It’s also a practical idea since stolen graveyard flowers are free! And we all know that a professional life in the theater does not often yield great piles of money.

Macbeth!

And our final point of discussion returns back to the origin of this blog. The mighty Macbeth. “The Scottish Curse” has been blamed for countless catastrophes and misfortunes throughout the years but this is yet another superstition that has a variety of suspected roots. Some believe that chants used by the witches in the story were from real practicing witches who were so disenchanted by the play and their resemblance that they cursed the show forever. While others think that maybe it’s just because the piece is ultimately violent and full of stage combat requirements. Add in a little dim lighting and things are likely to go wrong. If you do make the mistake of uttering “Macbeth” inside of a theater, the offender must leave the space, turn clockwise three times, and then beg to be allowed back in the building. It’s dramatic, but what else would you expect from drama folks?

And with that, I’ll leave you for now and return to memorizing my lines. But how about you? Do you practice any of these theater superstitions? How do you get through a production? As always, we’d love to hear from you.

Theater Around The Bay: Theater Pub Evolution

Co-Founding Artistic Director Stuart Bousel confirms, denies and imparts the future of Theater Pub.

So, by now, you may or may not have heard that San Francisco Theater Pub is about to go through some major changes.

If you’ve been a part of Theater Pub from the beginning, you may know that we’re pretty much always changing, that few constants exist in Theater Pub-land. As the lead line of this recent article about us suggests, One Bourbon One Scotch and One Bard, part of the appeal of Theater Pub has always lain in its unpredictability, and that’s not just on stage. It’s always an adventure to be in one of our shows, or to put one together, just as much or more so than it is to watch one. True, a hapless audience member may have a glass dropped on them (or be pulled onto a pool table for impromptu romance with another audience member), but from day one of Theater Pub (and only myself and co-Founding Artistic Director Brian Markley remain from Day One) there has always been an undercurrent of “this could end at any time”. Truth be told, when myself, Brian, Ben Fisher and Victor Carrion first came together to create Theater Pub, we planned no farther than three months in advance and habitually said, “In six months, when this is all over, we’ll be glad we did it.” The fact that we’ve lasted 43 months is, all things considered, pretty amazing, and entirely unexpected.

And no, Theater Pub is not ending. Let’s just kill that rumor first. But yes, we are leaving the Cafe Royale at the end of July. That is true. Our last performance there will be the closing night of this year’s Pint Sized plays, on Tuesday, July 30.

“But no!” you cry and “Why?!?”

Why we’re leaving the bar is a complex conversation and can probably best be summed up by Brian Markley’s recent statement that “bars have souls” and the soul of this bar, the Cafe Royale, is changing. The soul of any business develops as a combination of who is running that business and what their vision for it is, and who is regularly patronizing it and what their expectations are. We were brought into the Cafe Royale at the invitation of Les Cowan, who had a vision for his bar as a cornerstone of local culture and a fixture in the arts scene, but he left the Cafe Royale in March of last year to pursue other ventures. The new owners took us on but from the beginning made it clear they wanted to make the bar their own and honestly you can’t blame them for that: it’s their bar. To their credit, they recognized that we were an invested entity that was very successful, both financially and in our  ability to attract a robust and loyal audience and press following, but we were never part of their vision when they as a group of friends first got together and made plans to purchase and open a bar. We were inherited with the place, and something they had to adjust their vision for. We agreed to give it a year and it’s a testimony to them and us that we not only got through it and all the changes that came with the new ownership, but that both Theater Pub and the bar continued to succeed together. When the decision was made, earlier this year, to leave the Cafe Royale, it was entirely on mine and Brian’s end, and comes down to the fact that every theater company also has a soul. And our soul feels progressively headed in a different direction than the Cafe Royale.

These things happen. Things change. But in addition to unpredictability, part of Theater Pub’s appeal has also always been its flexibility and adaptability. As Julia Heitner, Artistic Director At Large, aptly demonstrated last year when she took a number of our shows to other locales, and as Sunil Patel recently continued to demonstrate with the Borderlands Bookstore preview of “The Pub From Another World”, Theater Pub doesn’t have to happen in a bar- or the same bar- to be Theater Pub. True, it’s not the same thing seeing, say, Measure For Measure, in the Plough And Stars as opposed to the Cafe Royale, but progressively the Cafe Royale (which is scheduled to be heavily renovated this fall) isn’t going to be “the same” either, and the truth is no matter how good our shows are or how exciting it’s been to have balconies to stage Shakespeare in, the real reason I, at least, have stayed with Theater Pub so long is because of the people we get to work with and the people who come to see us, again and again, and love us so much.

As current Cafe Royale co-owner Will Weston recently said to me in a phone call, “You guys are cool. You’re a thing,” and I agree. We are A Thing. I’d even go so far as to say we’re A Scene or A Movement even. We’re most definitely A Community, and we have every confidence we can continue to serve and foster that Community in a variety of ways for a long time yet to come. The real point of Theater Pub was never to put on monthly shows at the Cafe Royale; the true core of why we existed was to bolster the San Francisco Theater Community by making it more accessible, to audiences and artists, and more fun. The word “Pub” comes from “Public House”, being a place where a community gathers to be a community. Usually with beer. Going forward we plan to be more of a Public House than ever, frequently, but not always, with beer.

In concrete terms we can absolutely tell you what the rest of 2013 looks like, and we hope you’ll support us in this transition by continuing to attend and participate in our events. Saturday Write Fever, our monthly event at the Exit Cafe, will continue as scheduled and we love that so many of our regulars at the Pub have turned up there- we hope to see more of you! Additionally, our November event, which will be produced by previous collaborators Nick and Lisa Gentile, will happen at the Exit Cafe as scheduled. Between now and then we will be returning to the Bay One Acts Festival for a third time this September/October, with Brian Markley producing the event and frequent Pub contributor Rik Lopes directing a piece of their choosing. Kat Bushnell and James Grady, who have been the driving force behind our holiday musical theater concerts of Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent, are already busy planning this December’s show, and seeking a venue. We’re even talking of touring a couple bars this time around.

Which may be the future of Theater Pub in general. After all, from the beginning we’ve basically operated out of a box in the basement of the Cafe Royal: why not move the box from venue to venue, like theater companies of old, putting on a show wherever they let us and people are willing to watch and throw some money in the pot? Though it’s true we’re taking a partial hiatus from regular productions (shows will happen, just much more sporadically), we do hope to return to our monthly format further down the road in 2014, and being nomadic may be the way to go as it certainly has its advantages. That said it’s also really nice to have a home, as the Cafe Royale was for us for over three years, and we’re definitely interested in finding new hosts if they’re out there. So if you know of a bar, or if you run a bar that wants to take on the unique, Award-Winning, Critically Praised, Frequently-Packed-Beyond-Standing-Room San Francisco Theater Pub, don’t hesitate to drop us a line. We’d love to meet with you and see your space and find out how we can be part of your vision. But in the end it will come down, once again, to a soul thing, as Brian and I agree that our soul is far more important, and far richer than putting on a show each month. But of course, we’re theater people and we love a show, so fingers crossed for 2014 and we look forward to being there with our community in whatever capacity presents itself at the time.

Finally, the digital form of Theater Pub, this website, will continue to exist and grow. Since this became “more than just a website” starting in February of 2012, we have literally tripled our output and quadrupled our traffic and the fun is only just beginning. Like the Cafe Royale, we have plans for some major overhaul in the next few months. New look, new writers, new features all intended to continue the conversation we get to have on the website not just with the Bay Area, but the world as a whole.

That conversation is, in the end, what this is all about and what any artistic endeavor should be about. We are truly, madly, deeply invested in making sure that conversation continues, and we’re looking forward to being surprised and delighted by wherever and whenever it pops up next- on the internet, in a bar or a coffee shop, a bookstore, a park. The possibilities are limitless and the truth is, by stepping away from the bar and our obligations there, we can truly explore those possibilities. We’re using this break with the structure of the past as an opportunity to be more flexible in both what we do and what kinds of projects fall under our umbrella so as usual if you have ideas, let us know: maybe there’s a one-off or a site specific production only an e-mail or two away from happening at a bar near you. The future is wide open and that’s scary, and bittersweet, but also very exciting.

Stuart Bousel is a Co-founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. He has a soul and you’re soaking in it. 

Introducing This Year’s Pint-Sized Producer!

The Pint Sized Plays are coming up and will be here before we know it!

This year, the festival is being helmed by Neil Higgins, who is a frequent collaborator at Theater Pub, though this marks his first time stepping in as a producer. Perhaps more daunting than wearing a new hat, however, is that he’s taken up the reins from Julia Heitner, who is often credited with having truly innovated and refined Pint Sized in years past. We can’t imagine all this pressure makes for a good night’s sleep, but we also think if ever there was somebody who could do it- it’s Neil.

This is Neil's "I will not accept defeat!" look.

This is Neil’s “I will not accept defeat!” look.

So you’ve taken over Pint-Sized from Julia… how does it feel to fill those shoes?

It’s a lot of fun and very very daunting.  Julia was an absolute superstar when it came to producing Pint-Sized (among many other things), so I feel that I have some high expectations to meet.  But Julia has been so helpful by sending me all kinds of material to help me plan everything and by providing me with lots of encouragement.

What’s turned out to be the most challenging thing about putting this giant show together?

Between selecting scripts, picking directors and getting cast, it seems that getting all the pieces together seems to be the most challenging part.  Having participated last year, I know that once the ball gets rolling it’s a fun and relatively easy process.  It’s just a matter of finding the ball.

Was anything easier than you thought it would be?

So far it’s been a pretty smooth process.  My directors have been very timely and responsive, which has certainly helped out a lot.

What’s got you excited for the show this year? Any elements of the production or particular pieces you can’t wait to share with the audience?

I’m working with directors I’ve never worked with before (or met until very recently) and I’m really excited about that.  We also have writers that are first-timers for the festival and first-time writers, which is always exciting to see.

It’s becoming common knowledge that Theater Pub is leaving the Cafe Royale after the last night of Pint-Sized. Do you feel that will lend a special air to the festival this year?

It has definitely been on my mind.  The thought of producing a staple of the Theater Pub season, following in Julia’s footsteps and being responsible for the last show at Cafe Royale have all affected the conversations I’ve had with myself about the night (mostly in the vein of “This is so much pressure!  I want people to like it!”  “Get it together, girl!”).  People generally like to avoid negative feelings, but I hope that Pint-Sized is a little bitter-sweet for Theater Pub regulars because it’s such a beautiful, confusing emotion.

Will there be “last show surprises”?

I can neither confirm nor deny that accusation.

What do you hope will be the future of Pint Sized?

I hope Pint-Sized can find a home for next year.  Whether I produce it or not, I want this festival to keep going.  It’s much too fun and too wonderful a way to build and strengthen the theatre community for it to disappear.

Would you ever take this on again?

Most definitely.

If you could have one thing, above all else, happen at this year’s festival, what would it be?

I’d love for someone to get engaged or give birth.  That would be marvelous.  I also (yes, I know, you said “one” thing) want everyone to have a before-undreamed-of amount of fun.

Don’t miss Pint Sized Plays IV, playing five nights this July 15, 16, 22, 29 and 30, always at 8 and always at the Cafe Royale. Admission is free, but get there early- we will be packed every night!

Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: An “Exploration” of Race

Marissa Skudlarek asks fifteen questions. We’d like to know if she enjoyed the play. Is that question sixteen?

Last week, I settled comfortably in my seat at Manhattan Theater Club and prepared for an amusing evening of light entertainment. I was seeing a preview of a new play called The Explorers Club, by Nell Benjamin, a comedy about a Victorian-era society for gentlemen explorers, whose president proposes granting membership to a talented lady explorer. I admired the detailed set, by Donyale Werle, full of polished mahogany, old maps, animal skins, exotic artifacts. I perused the thick, full-color Playbill.

And then the show began, and I realized that I had unwittingly bought tickets to one of the more controversial plays in New York City. For, in the role of “Luigi,” a native of the remote tribe discovered by the lady explorer, was an actor named Carson Elrod.

A few weeks earlier, a blog called “Why I’m Tired of Being an (Asian) Actor” (whitetribalchief.wordpress.com), had made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. In it, the Filipino-American actor Alexis Camins describes auditioning for a role as a “tribal chief” in a new comedy at a New York City theater. He made it through several rounds of auditions and hoped that this role might be his big break… and then was dismayed to learn that the theater had cast a white man in the role instead.

“Why I’m Tired of Being an (Asian) Actor” is a great blog, both thoughtful and outraged. It ends with a series of 16 questions, as Camins struggles with his feelings about the matter and aims to deepen our discussion of race in the theater.

Camins doesn’t name the theater, the play, or the actor who eventually won the role, but the context makes clear that he’s talking about The Explorers Club. Somehow, though, when a New York friend suggested that it might be fun for us to see The Explorers Club, I didn’t make the connection between the play I was buying tickets for, and the play that Camins described. It was only after the show started that I realized what I’d done and got a very uncomfortable feeling in my stomach.

So, I guess, here’s my series of questions, prompted by my experience as an audience member at The Explorers Club:

1. Why didn’t I recognize that this was the play mentioned in Camins’ post? Could I have done any kind of “due diligence” before buying my tickets?

2. Should Camins have explicitly named the play that he’s talking about, or was it better for him just to let us figure it out by the clues he drops? As an out-of-town ticket buyer who can’t keep track of everything that’s playing in New York, I would’ve found it helpful if he named the play.

3. One of the reasons I bought tickets to The Explorers Club is that it was by a female playwright, and I like to support female writers whenever possible. Do I get any credit for that?

4. However, though it’s written by a woman, The Explorers Club has a cast consisting of eight men and one woman. Is this really progress? Nell Benjamin, why didn’t you write more good roles for your fellow ladies?

5. But isn’t the mostly-male cast there to make a point about the forces of (white, male) oppression that the lady explorer must struggle against?

6. Can I get off of this feminist tangent, and back onto the subject of race? (Yes.)

7. In the promotional photos for the show, available online, Carson Elrod has his chest and face painted white with blue stripes. As such, it is pretty easy to tell that he is a white guy. When I saw the show, Elrod was painted entirely blue – which helps to disguise his race, although his facial features still read as Caucasian rather than “ethnic.” Was this the producers’ response to Camins’ blog? When was this decision made?

8. Would there be some twist in the play that would justify the casting of a white guy? All though the second act, I kept hoping that the lady explorer would be revealed as a fraud and “Luigi” would prove to be a white man painted blue. (The play is farcical enough that this could actually work – although this twist would then undermine the play’s feminist message.) Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

9. Would I have been so outraged by the casting of a white man as the tribal chief if I hadn’t read Camins’ post? If not, what does that say about me and my racial sensitivity?

10. What should I have done, when I realized that I’d paid money to see a play where a white actor was cast in a role that should’ve gone to an actor of color? Should I have complained? Walked out?

11. Maybe I should’ve asked for a refund. Yeah, that would have been the gutsy thing to do – ask for a refund. That would’ve shown ‘em. Right?

12. But isn’t it annoying when white people suddenly get up on a high horse about racism? If I’d asked for a refund, wouldn’t it have made a scene? Was I prepared to argue the point with theater staff? How far was I prepared to go?

13. Why was I so outraged by this instance of casting a white man in a non-white role? It’s certainly not the first time I have ever encountered this.

14. So, should I also have asked for a refund when I went to Berkeley Rep last winter, and a mixed-race cast performed the Chinese tale of The White Snake? Should I have asked for a refund when I saw Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them at Custom Made Theatre, and the actor who played suspected terrorist “Zamir” was not Middle Eastern?

15. Raising awareness, and participating in conversations about race and theater, are great — but what are the concrete actions that I can take to make things better?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Her personal blog, marissabidilla.blogspot.com, describes her as “a girl with a question for most things.” No duh.

Everything Is Already Something Week 9: The Post-Production Blues

Allison Page is so sincere we forgive her for all the formatting this blog required. 

I’m sitting backstage with my castmate, Will, during the second act of our last performance of PRELUDE TO A KISS and he whispers to me, “So are you sad that it’s over?” – and I find that hard to answer. I’d say the answer is yes, but it’s really a mixed bag of feelings. I mean, isn’t it always? Particularly if it’s been a great show, or a great cast, or a great director or a great part or a great overall experience or God forbid – ALL OF THOSE THINGS. (Which this has been, for me.) And it got me to thinking – how do I really feel when something is over? And how do other people feel? Are my feelings unique or shared? Am I doing this wrong? So, I decided to ask a bunch of actors how they feel when that final curtain closes (not that there are always curtains. Come on, this is independent theater, sometimes it’s just in a room – but I digress.) Their amazing responses will be sprinkled throughout.

When a show closes, I feel a slump. I always have. Like someone’s carefully lowering an Acme anvil down on top of me, and I’m moving in slow motion to get out of the way. Okay, maybe that’s dramatic, but I am a fucking actor after all. Do you have a post-production slump?

PETER TOWNLEY – “I like post-production slumps, they encourage me to rest.”

Well, that was a really good way to look at that. That’s probably what I should be doing. Maybe I dwell for no reason.

JAN CARTY MARSH – “Nope, life goes on, and I have one (outside of theatre).”

Ohhh, yeah. Life…am I the only one who really slumps?

DAVE SIKULA – “…after doing this for 40 years, it doesn’t get old or routine, but it’s nothing unusual.”

Hm. Okay. It’s possible that I just need a drink or something. I’m probably over-thinking this.

PAUL JENNINGS – “I don’t slump.”

OKAY, I GET IT, I’M A SENTAMENTALIST WEIRDO. Well, I guess I’ll just pack up my stuff and —

This is what happens when you google "sad actor". Legit.

This is what happens when you google “sad actor”. Legit.

ASHLEY COWAN – “Yes, I certainly do feel a slump. I can’t imagine avoiding feeling a void when something you’ve put a lot of love and time into suddenly disappears.”

…oh yeah? Okay, well, maybe –

TONYA NARVAEZ – “Typically I do have a post-production slump of some sort. Sometimes it’s pretty horrible, where I am perfectly content to sit around at home and stare at the ceiling.”

(Setting suitcase down)…I’m listening…

STEPHANIE WOZNIAK – “Every now and then there’s a show that really makes me sad when it ends. Steel Magnolias was hard. I still miss that production and we closed 6 years ago.”

I hear ya. (Allison reminisces in her brain about a production of a radio play she did in college…)

SAM BERTKEN – “If the show and cast were 100% awesome the whole way through, closing is usually rather bittersweet. There’s usually the promise of seeing and working with people again, which is somewhat of a relief. Plus, I usually focus more on the next project to distract myself from my feelings! Hooray!”

Okay – stop. We just hit on two big things there. Two things that run through almost everyone’s responses to my questions at some point: bittersweetness and something else, too…

PETER TOWNLEY – “I really need to throw myself into another creative project.”

XANADU BRUGGERS – “I always kept doing show after show so I wouldn’t have to worry about having that feeling.”

DAVE SIKULA –  “I’m getting ready for the next thing.”

ALISHA EHRLICH – “I have…been able to stave off slump-y feelings longer by going from one production to the next, if possible, and continuously working on new shows/projects.”

STEPHANIE WOZNIAK – “Get yourself into a new gig ASAP so you don’t dwell.”

AH-HA! That’s the ticket. Never stop moving, like a fucking shark. Even before PRELUDE closed last Sunday, apart from having a billion things already lined up, I threw myself into a completely crazy and overly ambitious writing project (more on that another time.) because that’s what keeps me sane. No. Actually, I think a sane person might be okay with having down time. Like, actual down time. Oh man. My poor boyfriend. He never, ever sees me – and he LIVES with me. I’ve already started rehearsals for another show, performed in something last night, get up at 7am to work on that aforementioned nutty writing project every morning before I go to my intense writing job all day and – it’s only Wednesday. It’s been three days since closing and I’ve already done those things and there are just going to be more of them. Why can’t I slow down? Aren’t there roses to smell somewhere?…Where are they? And what’s so great about them? And are they better than the roses you might get from someone who comes to the show?

JAN CARTY MARSH – “When I started acting, I had two kids – 5 and 3 years old, it just meant I had more time with them. Now, it means my dishes get washed, I can ride my bike, and my friends have a chance to remember who I am.”

The second I finished typing that just now, I looked around my apartment…it’s a nightmare. Piles of clothing, empty boxes from deliveries that I haven’t bothered to take out to the recycling bin, empty bottles of Tazo iced tea, dirty dishes – but what’s so great about the dirty dishes, is that in every single case, they were only used to set take-out on top of. I haven’t cooked anything in months. And my friends? I mean…I don’t know. I see them…I think. Do I? I mean…I’ll go to a bar with them after a rehearsal or a performance, but it’s not like I’m going to the park or actually anywhere that I don’t HAVE to be while the sun is up. I’m usually free at about 11pm. If I were free evenings earlier than that, I’d just go do stand up somewhere. None of this is as sad as it sounds, it’s just – I don’t know – my reality.

Shit. I’m a workaholic. Shit.

This is going in a direction I did not predict. Let’s just go back to what other people think for a minute, because I’m not sure what just happened.

I asked them how they dealt with their slumps, if they have them. Here are some answers that are NOT “I do another show!”, just so we know that’s a possibility.

TONYA NARVAEZ – “Starting West Wing is how I got over MERCHANT OF VENICE last year.”

MOLLY BENSON – “Wine, and music jam sessions tend to do the trick. Or watching Game of Thrones or Mad Men, or something to that effect for hours on end.”

Good one. I LOVE drinking and TV! It’s like she knew!

ASHLEY COWAN – “…make plans with castmates immediately so we can try to keep the bond alive.”

PAUL JENNINGS – “…at least in one case, kept myself thoroughly stoned and distracted for like a month.”

SAM BERTKEN – “Chocolate?”

Right?

XANADU BRUGGERS – “I find other artistic endeavors that I have always wanted to explore. Art, music, writing etc…even sports or dance helps me.”

Sports are not my jam, but there’s that damned writing project popping up again…

LORMAREV JONES – “I try to read things I wasn’t able to, catch up on shows I watch, see friends I had to blow off due to the show – go back to ‘business as usual’ in a sense.”

Business as usual…business as usual…what does that mean to me? What is my business as usual? That’s a hell of a question. If I’m being honest, the answer is probably “sandwiches”.

STEPHANIE WOZNIAK – “…one must first obsess about the show for about a week. Look through photos, stalk the FB accounts of castmates, burst into songs or monologues several times a day. Then, cut yourself off.”

I miss my sweet 90s costumes. Did you see that black beaded choker? It was fabulous. I miss the people, they were wonderful. And I miss something weird and stupid that it’s a little hard for me to admit. Or a lot hard, I guess. I miss having pretend parents. My real parents are in Minnesota, where I’m from. I’ve been in San Francisco 5 years and they’ve never come to visit me, and I really don’t think they ever will. My mother hates to travel, and my father will not go anywhere without my mother. They are this wonderful pair of extremely linked people and they’re always together. I see them twice a year (unless it’s only once, at Christmas.) and having two people stand in as my parents was so oddly comforting. Especially because they shared so many characteristics with my real parents: my father is a war veteran who is charismatic, funny, charming, tough and believes in having a cold beer at the end of the day. My mother is SUCH a mother. She’s sweet, nurturing, concerned, wants what’s best for me, and has a tendency to meddle at times. 

If you didn’t see PRELUDE, Rita and Peter get married onstage. Dave Sikula, who played my father, walked me down the aisle. I handed my pretend mother – played by Jan Carty Marsh – my bouquet, then Dave smiled, kissed me on the cheek, and I walked away to greet my groom. It was a lovely thing I’ve never gotten to do in real life. I’ve been engaged twice but never married and…well, who knows. The point is, it was a lovely moment. And even Dave admitted that though he doesn’t have kids, and doesn’t want them, he really enjoyed being parental in that moment.

Okay, calm down, let’s get away from all this sentimental bullshit. I was just sort of curious – do you read reviews of your show? Do you wait ‘til it’s over?

SAM BERTKEN – “I really, really, really, really think it’s a good idea not to read reviews until the show is over…I always end up hearing it from someone, and then the whole intention of not reading the review is moot so I let morbid curiosity take over.”

MOLLY BENSON – “I used to read them during the show, but I’ve stopped that. I feel like whether a review is good or bad, it can alter how you feel about your performance and self worth, in a positive or a negative way, and take the focus away from the performance itself.”

XANADU BRUGGERS – “I try not to read reviews during a show. I think it is bad luck. Also, they can totally get in my head.”

Yeah, but…sometimes you sneak a little peek, right? In your darker moments?

LORMAREV JONES – “I always read reviews. I want to be the person that doesn’t need them, but I’m not that mature yet. Someday, perhaps.”

ALISHA EHRLICH – “I read reviews during the production with one eye closed or hiding behind my fingers.”

Testify!

STEPHANIE WOZNIAK – “I read reviews. All of them. I actively seek them out. I like to know where I stand. And if they are icky, it kind of fuels me and I work harder.”

DAVE SIKULA – “I always read reviews and long ago learned to not take them either seriously or personally.”

KAI MORRISON – “I almost always read reviews during the run, if any exist. It’s about ego-stroking.”

PETER TOWNLEY – “I think reviews are basically useless and approximately zero people should read them.”

But what if they say something really nice about my hair?

PETER TOWNLEY – “If I want to hear another person’s opinion about a show, I will start a conversation with someone who is good at discussion and whose opinion I respect.”

Oh, fine.

Listen, I know this has been a long column for me, but that’s because I find it to be an interesting discussion. Thanks for taking the ride with me. Everyone has their own opinion on these particular matters, but when it comes down to it, I mostly agree with what Will said to me on that backstage couch Sunday night, 30 minutes before our beautiful little show took its final bow, so I’ll leave you with his words:

WILL LESCHBER – “It’s like immediate nostalgia. It’s not like one of those things where you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone – it’s like you know exactly what you’ve got as it’s going.”

You can follow Allison on Twitter @allisonlynnpage or accost her on the street on the way to whatever it is she’s on the way to all the time.

Announcing Pint Sized IV!

Pint Sized plays returns for a fourth fabulous engagement this July!

Produced by the one and only Neil Higgins, this year’s line up of beer-themed short plays features the return of some of our favorite long-time collaborators (some of whom will be wearing new hats for the first time) as well as some fresh faces! In no particular order, the plays are:

Multitasking by Christian Simonsen, directed by Jonathan Carpenter

The Apotheosis of Grandma Shimkin by Sang Kim, directed by TBA

200-Proof Robot by Kirk Shimano, directed by Neil Higgins

Tree by Peter Hsieh, directed by Colin Johnson

All Our Fathers by Carl Lucania, directed by Meghan O’Connor

The Last Beer in the World by Megan Cohen, directed by Tracy Held Potter

Mark +/- by Dan Ng, directed by Adam Sussman

Llama IV by Stuart Bousel, directed by Colin Johnson

The show plays five times: July 15th, 16th, 22nd, 29th, 30th, always at 8 PM, but get there early, because we will be packed to the gills every night! As usual, the show is free with a $5.00 suggested donation at the door.