Stuart Bousel will not be changing names to protect the innocent.
Last night at Theater Pub, the fourth installment of The Pint Sized Plays opened and you should make it a point not to miss this production because it will be our last show at the Cafe Royale.
Also, it’s a very enjoyable evening. After a magical prelude by the Blue Diamond Bellydancers you will be induced to much laughter by volley after volley of razor wit interspersed with life lessons and dramatic moments. At the end of the 80 minutes of drinking themed shorts we bring out the Llama, the un-official (who are we kidding- he’s official- we made t-shirts) mascot of the San Francisco Theater Pub, originally created for the Pub by Elana McKelahan, played for the fourth year in a row by Rob Ready and written, for the second year in a row, by me.
I have often said the Llama is the spirit of the Pub and this year he delivers a bittersweet speech. It’s part ode to Megan Cohen’s dancing bear (played, last year, by Allison Page) and part rumination on the nature of loss, milked as much for laughs as possible but with perhaps a bit more sting than in the past. He concludes the speech (and the evening) valiantly trying to bolster himself (and the audience) with some pop music, before wandering off into the night and the lights go out on the silent, empty space. It’s funny and sad and a fitting end to our time at the Cafe Royale, if perhaps a bit melancholy.
“My bear would never betray the Llama like he does in your play,” Megan Cohen said to me.
“This isn’t about your bear,” I replied, with a wink, “it’s about the idea the llama has attached to the bear.”
Here is my goal in life as a writer and as an artist: to make fun of shit, and to get you to think about and appreciate yourself and the world around you. For years I have been trying to create a new breed of romantic satire where I validate the meaning of it all, even as I validate the likelihood that everything is meaningless. On an individual basis, I want you to laugh, and then I want to rip your heart out and hand it back to you with tears in my eyes and a kiss on my lips, leaving you intact and healing but with a lot to think about. I love you painfully and I want you to know that. Also, I absolutely believe theater is a transformative art (otherwise, why bother), and I want to transform you, if not in the theater than sometime later when you’re sitting by yourself and suddenly it hits you what this was really all about. I have faith that this happens because I have seen it happen, I have had it reported back to me by people it’s happened to, and I have experienced it myself. And I genuinely feel sorry for anyone who hasn’t gone through this at least once in their life. It’s the same sadness I feel for people who tell me they don’t believe in Love. I always think “how gray the world must be for you,” and then I think, “but it will happen some day- and how exciting that will be for you too.” That’s me, putting the romance back into romantic satire. I want you to have your big moment even when you adamantly refuse to accept such a thing could occur. It almost matters more when it happens to people like you.
Speaking of big moments, today is the 16th anniversary of my older brother, Edwin, dying. This is not, generally speaking, something I advertise, but it’s never been something I hide either. I just find that it tends to make people uncomfortable, so I don’t bring it up unless I need to, and it happened so long ago now that many people who currently occupy my life don’t know I ever had a brother named Edwin, let alone that he died, tragically, at the age of 23. When I get asked by new friends, or even older friends who have never asked before, “Do you have any brothers and sisters?” I tend to reply that I do, indeed, have siblings, and leave it at that. Only if asked where they live, or what they do, do I ever mention that one is dead. At which point most people get very crestfallen, tell me how sorry they are, and then suddenly it’s my job to comfort them and let them know that it’s okay: it was a long time ago, and I dealt with it (therapy, an HIV scare, some really colorful drug experimentation) and there is nothing else they need to say or do. He’s gone and it’s sad because I was only 18 and never really got to know him, but it’s also life. Everything ends, including other people. Including you. Including me.
I recently told the cast of my new play, Age of Beauty, that I worship the idea of Light and I do, but it’s partly because I need something to balance a dark world view and aesthetic. And I don’t mean that kind of recent college graduate, post-modern, “I-totally-threw-in-a-rape-scene-following-a-baby-eating-scene-to-shock-you” type of dark. I’m dark like the Bronte Sisters, Arthurian legends and the Shakespeare comedies are all really dark and if you’re intrepid and open to it you can see it, but I also employ lots of little tricks to mitigate my darkness because I’m fundamentally a gentleman and I don’t enjoy awkward silences with people who would rather just glide on the surface. Humor, particularly self-depricating humor, is very present in my work and daily conversation as a way for me to say, “don’t take this too seriously” for fear of you doing so and we all suddenly end up on Intervention together (which I would just find amazingly tasteless). Symbolism is also a very big thing for me: I often say things very openly in my shows but in ways that make sense to virtually nobody else (in the form of, say, a character who constantly cuts black paper into strips, or a certain song that plays behind a monologue spoken by a character who can turn the lights on and off at will) so that the choice can be dismissed as weird instead of the quiet revelation of my inner turmoil that you’re actually seeing. I love the idea of “hidden in plain sight” emotions because I feel that most pain is like that: constantly surrounding us, but we’re blind to it, sometimes accidentally, but often willfully, often because it would just take too much work to understand it, so we’re better off just pretending it’s not there or not significant. Sometimes I revel in being misunderstood as much as I revel in being perceived clearly. Both states have their advantages.
It is no secret that I love the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and there are a number of reasons why but if I had to pick one thing, above all others, that I love, it would have to be his dark aesthetic of loss. The right people know what I’m talking about, how he threads through his encylopedic histories and silly hobbit antics a miasma of sorrow over the slow disintegration of a world that can never be gotten back, only glimpsed from a distance or heard in echoes. The great irony of the War of the Ring, which in Middle Earth marks the end of The Age of The Elves just as the Trojan War marked the end of The Age of Heroes in Greek mythology, is that it will be won by people who will come out of the dust only to find that they have lost the world they fought to preserve. This is because it either no longer exists, or because they have become different people in the course of the war, and even once restored to where they began they no longer fit in with the larger puzzle they were knocked out of. The Lord of the Rings is not so much a fantasy novel as it is an epitaph for Middle Earth and all that Middle Earth stood for in Tolkein’s mind. It is an epic rumination on the excruciating pain of moving from one era of your life into the next, the “painful progress” that Harper, in her final scene in Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, would so eloquently embrace as the only way for her to move on from her disaster marriage. For all it’s adventure and romance and humor and joy, Lord of the Rings remains one of the saddest books I know and yet also one of the most life affirmative because in the end of one age does lie the birth of another and at some point, like Samwise “I’m Back” Gamgee (or Harper Pitt if you prefer), if you’re lucky enough to survive the shit that happens to you there comes a moment you suck it up, shake off the remnants of shadow, say goodbye to the past and embrace where you are now because your only other choice is to lay down and die and that’s not really an option.
Though it is a temptation.
If the Llama is the spirit of the Pub then I think the reason this year’s speech is so bittersweet is because the Llama, like the Pub, has grown from a brash and confident celebrant staking his territory into a tired and battle-worn survivor of a long war who isn’t sure if he either lost or won, only that he has survived to see the end of an age. An age that was, for San Francisco Theater Pub, The First Age, and thus will always be truly significant, no matter what happens next. If my words, through the Llama, seem bittersweet it’s because the process of ending this age is both bitter and sweet, as almost any necessary process is. We have so much to be proud of, and so much to look forward to, and so much to mourn, all at the same time. I tried to capture that with the Llama, couching it in much symbolism and self-deprecating humor to make the pill easier to swallow, but yes, I also hope it sits uneasy in your stomach for some time after. We had something real, a home that was often times as much a curse as it was a gift but always an integral part of what we were doing, and for a while there will be a hole where it used to be, the same kind of hole left by an ended love affair or a lost object. Or a dead person.
Everything ends, including other people. Including you. Including me. Including projects we really care about, sanctuaries we’ve found, experiences we’ve cherished. That’s why it’s important to sing and dance while we can, even as we know it won’t be forever, because we know the singing and dancing must end, if only because both are very tiring activities. Only when we embrace the fundamental brevity and meaninglessness of life and all that life encompasses does it become meaningful and we transcend to something eternal: the recognition that nothing ends, it just changes. My brother was only here for a short time, but he made an impact on me I’ll have until I die, and through whatever I leave behind and the people I impact, he continues to influence the world and so in many ways I have never thought of him as gone even though I hardly ever talk about him now. I’m starting to sort of see the Pub’s time at the Cafe Royale the same way: as something slipping into the chronicle of my life, bound to influence me for many years to come, but also relegated to the past. Like my brother. Like the first theater company I ever ran. Like my youth, frankly. Which I really miss sometimes. But fairly certain I wouldn’t go back to, even if I could. But you can’t. Life only moves forward, and not everyone, or everything, is there for the whole ride. Something worth mourning, the value of which I get because I have a dark aesthetic that recognizes life is all about loss. Amongst other things.
“You had a really good, really impressive run of it,” Les Cowan, without whose patronage Theater Pub never would have existed, said to me last night, the two of us talking about Pub’s time at Cafe Royale like we were at a wake.
I couldn’t agree more, but I replied, “I kind of can’t wait to be done,” because that’s true too and that’s the angle I’m starting to focus on these days. Because I’ve reached the point where I kind of just want to sing one last song and then head off into the night looking for the next thing- knowing that there will be a next thing. Because there is always a next thing. Because having a dark aesthetic often means worshiping the Light, and believing very much that the end of one age is the birth of another.
And because I am a Llama, and that’s true wherever I go.
Stuart Bousel is one of the Founding Artistic Directors of the San Francisco Theater Pub and was recently named by the SF Weekly as “Best Ringmaster” of the San Francisco indie theater scene. His short play, Llamalogue, will be performed by Rob Ready four more times at Pint Sized Plays IV, which plays tonight and July 22, 29, and 30 at the Cafe Royale, always at 8 PM. Don’t miss it!