It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: “Right,” “Wrong,” and All Points In-Between

Dave Sikula pulls a double feature.

A couple of topics this time around.

Recently, I’ve read advice from various people about how actors should approach the audition process and the protocol thereof. At the time, that advice struck me as odd and unnecessary. Were actors really that clueless? I’ve seen (and done) a lot of auditions and the vast majority were perfectly fine. There were occasional odd ducks, but I’ve always seen those folks. I mean, the procedure should be perfectly simple: an actor comes in, says hello, gives their name and the play their piece is from, takes a moment to prepare, and delivers the goods. (As a side note, I almost always try to talk to the people who audition for me. I like to ask them about their monologue or song; their past credits or a director they’ve listed on their resume; where they’re from or went to school; anything to get more of a sense of the person than just listening to them do a monologue for two minutes. I know how nervous the audition process makes some people, and they’re usually more relaxed and “themselves” after they get it over with.)

All of those impressions changed a couple of weeks ago.

I was part of a group of directors who were holding general auditions for a local company. We were scheduled to see about 25 people, but of course four never showed up (I’ve never understood why you’d go to all the trouble of making an audition appointment and just not show, without even a phone call or email. Maybe you’ve gotten another gig in the meantime, but still, don’t leave us hanging. Personally, I wouldn’t hold being a no-show against an actor, but I’m sure there are some directors who would. But I digress …).

Of the folks who did show, the majority were very good. There were, of course, odd ducks: one person didn’t do a monologue so much as tell us a story about an occurrence in their past, and another just stood there and read a speech off a sheet of paper. (I mean, you can’t even be bothered to partially memorize it?)

But, almost to a person, the actors came in, kind of looked at us, walked to center stage, and just launched into their pieces without so much as a “hello.” Granted, they’d been introduced by the person running the audition, and we had their names on a sheet, but it’s a couple of weeks later, and I still have no idea what some of those monologues were.

Is there a reason for this? Nerves? Poor training? Lack of confidence? Something else? I’ve been genuinely baffled. I know I’d rather see a mediocre monologue by someone who has a personality, and who seems friendly and someone I’d like to work with than a brilliant piece by someone who comes in and seems embarrassed by the whole process. (They’ll probably both get callbacks, though, I have to admit.)

My advice? (And remember, this is worth the price you’re paying for it …) Come in, be as friendly as your nerves will allow, introduce yourself and your piece, prepare, deliver it boldly and with your own spin on it (let me see what you can do), don’t look the auditors in the eye (you’d be amazed how many people try to make eye contact), and thank us at the end. Do that and you’ll be way ahead of the game.

Moving on …

The landlord here recently wrote a post on Facebook (and this is my impression of his post) lamenting the way he felt people were overreacting to “No Man’s Land” at Berkeley Rep (and, by the way, to pick up a thread from last time, I did indeed stand at the end of the show – and did so willingly and happily. It was a marvelous experience to see the performance in close-up and really pick up on the nuances in the performances).

A lively discussion ensued – and is probably still going on – and I wanted to throw my two cents in. Personally, I was thrilled when I heard the production was coming to town; not because Stewart and McKellen have been in big budget movies (for example, I haven’t seen any of the “Lord of the Rings” movies and have no desire to), but because they’re world class actors (as are Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley) doing an interesting and difficult play. (Would I have seen the show if it were being done by local actors? Unless I knew them, probably not, so I’ll cop to that.)

But, for me, anyway, it’s not a matter of “ooh, someone I’ve seen in a movie is doing a play!” For example,  John Malkovich – a fine actor who’s starred in some wonderful (and terrible) films – is doing a show in Berkeley next year, and I have no interest in that, but I am looking forward to a number of shows at local companies this fall. It’s the potential combination of actors and script that attract me, not the idea of seeing a “star.” I’ve seen moving and profound performances in postage-stamp sized theatres by actors who will never become “famous” (some of which were in languages I couldn’t even understand – Georges Bigot’s quadruple-header of Richard II, Toby Belch, Orsino, and Prince Hal may be the greatest things I’ve ever seen, and they were all in French) and lousy performances by major names (if I never see performances as bad as Vanessa Redgrave and Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” I’ll consider myself very lucky).

And if people do go to see “No Man’s Land” because of the chance to see Jean-Luc Picard and Magneto, why is that a bad thing? Their exposure to a play that dense may baffle them, but it may also open whole new vistas for them and get them to see something for the “right” reasons, whatever those may be. Why is one experience more pure or legitimate than another? People are going to enjoy – or not enjoy – whatever they want and no amount of telling them they’re seeing a play for the “wrong” reasons is going to convince them otherwise.

Everything Is Already Something Week 14: Allison Hangs Out with an Oscar Nominee

Allison Page eschews her usual ranting and raving to share a recent interview with someone who blew her mind.

Maybe you’ve never heard the name Aggie Rodgers, and if she walked by you on the street you’d think she was a quirky lady with gray, braided pigtails – what you might not realize is that she was the mastermind behind Princess Leia’s slave costume, Beeltejuice’s striped suit, the rigid clothes that aligned with Nurse Ratched’s rigid personality in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest, and absolutely every piece of clothing in The Color Purple (apart from the hats) for which she was nominated for an Oscar, and rightfully so. Aggie Rodgers has probably clothed most of the actors you’ve watched on the big, bright screen and many, many of the movies you’ve seen throughout your life. Aggie and I met on the set of the film Quitters last month. I was playing a small, but delightful role, and Aggie was clothing all the actors with parts both big and small. We sort of hit it off right away; she mentioned something she had done for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , and after I figured out she meant the MOVIE and not some local production of the play 10 years ago, I asked if I could interview her. And then for some reason she let me come to her house to do it. After a healthy amount of time shootin’ the breeze, we got to talking about her career. And, of course, clothes.

Me: When did you start costuming? Is that the first career decision you made or did you do something else first?

Aggie: No, that’s the first thing I did. I tried to do business in college and failed miserably. They threw me out at Fresno State…I’m not capable of a lot of things.

Me: Yeah, me neither.

Aggie: My mom had done millinery – hats – in the theater in Fresno for this one theater group.

Me: I LOVE hats.

Aggie: I know!

Me: I got myself a book thinking I could learn how to do it – it was too complicated. I immediately quit.

Aggie: Oh yeah, you have to have forms and everything…I had a guy in LA who was from the theater, from Berkeley Rep – and he did all my hats for The Color Purple…I used to watch my mother and just think she was crazy – just like my son thinks I’m nuts. So then I went into the theater department there (Fresno)  and  when I graduated form there I moved up to Oakland to my grandmother’s house…I thought “I’ll go to get my masters degree in the theater at SF state.”, so I applied at state and then I entered it and was working away. It was right at a very hot political time and the school itself was demanding that each student sign a pledge of allegiance to the United States. This would have been ’65 probably. And I said “I’m an American citizen, I already am!”, so all the students rebelled and there were huge riots on the campus – and I am Miss Wimp. I mean I’m not now, but I was really supremely wimpy and I called my mother and I said “Mommy, I cannot go to school here. They’re throwing rocks through my windows and I don’t understand what’s going on.” And she said “Well, what will you do?” I said  “There’s some theater group downtown, I’ll try to apply there.” So I went downtown to 450 Sutter and applied for a job in the costume shop. (Note: ACT is the place to which she is referring.) They were barely starting and the person you saw on the set when you came to meet me – me, this person sitting here – is the same person that went into 450 Sutter. I’ve continued to be ding-y and rather light-hearted and I have a slight Joie de vivre. And I got a job there at 55 dollars a week. 55 fuckin’ dollars a week. So I worked there for 2 seasons and I got so much out of it. And I never designed anything really – I wanted to, but I was completely over my head. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. Rightly so, they never gave me a job. So I went back to school. I called all these different state colleges and asked them how much money they dedicated towards a master’s degree costume budget and Long Beach gave $500 at that time so I enrolled there and got my master’s degree in three semesters and I came back and started in on film. Because really, I’m much more mercurial, and that doesn’t work in the theatre. They want and need very specific things that have to do with a long history of character…especially when you’re dealing with Shakespeare. So, it’s just way beyond my head. That’s why I like Valencia street so much. I mean, I don’t mind going to Neiman’s, that’s fine. But you can change what all these characters look like with just a breath by what you put on them. That’s just not the theater that I knew at that time. So I went to work here in San Francisco for a casting agent. I worked there for a couple years just typing out all those little forms that you have to have to be an extra. At that time there were a lot of films shooting here so she provided all the extras and she had a modeling company attached to her and everything. So I worked there and I kept seeing these women come through that were then called stylists, for commercials.

Me: Doesn’t that make it sound so fancy? “Stylists”?

Aggie: Oh, it totally did. I thought “Far out!” But I think I did one commercial when I worked there and I was just terrible at it. I had to rent a whole lot of scuba equipment. I mean – please – but in truth it really was the costume, but I knew nothing about it, I didn’t know how to work a scuba thing. We got to the set and they said “Well, how does this work?” and I thought “Well, I don’t know how this works.” And I did everything wrong on that.

Me: So how did you end up with your first film?

Aggie: They were interviewing for a movie called American Graffiti and it was a union film, and they had interviewed 8 or 9 people before me. And since I had never done anything just had done costumes in college, the union manager asked me if I knew anything about “dragging the main” and of course in Fresno – that was all we did at that time. So because I had grown up in Fresno and I was only a few months older than George Lucas, I got that job. But it had purely nothing to do with whether I had any talent. Somehow they had enough faith in me, this guy, and so did George. I  did many things wrong. I didn’t know I could ask for the actor to come out a day before filming. I just hoped that everything would fit. I would just take measurements from them on the phone. And George was very specific about certain things. Certain shirts on certain characters, and I just tried to fulfill his wishes and it somehow came together. If you think about it, every day on the film set is a piece of theater. Every day when the camera rolls – it’s the theater. The actor is creating a character right in front of you. And in the old days I preferred it much more because we would go to a theater, a screening room, and actually see the dailies that we filmed that day, and the crew members would really become so much more dedicated to the film. Now people stand around looking at a monitor that’s like…this big. (Makes a small hand signal) it’s so unfair to the actor. I think that the actor is going to really lose the crew’s adoration, which I think has always been part of something that’s been important. Like the audience, you want them to come and see your play, it makes you crazy when they don’t. It’s the same thing for an actor, I think, on a set with these stupid little monitors. And they say “Well, you can see the dailies anytime you want.” Yeah, so I’m going to take it home? I stood on the set for 12 hours and I’m going to turn to my computer and watch for three more hours? I don’t think so. So it’s changed for the worse in that way.

Me: Do you read the scripts?

Aggie: Oh, by heart. Totally. We get the script – we have to help them with the budget and everything – because line producers don’t have a clue, really, what’s going to happen, because they don’t know how to break down the script clearly enough anyway. So before it gets going I was able to tell the line producer that there were 66 changes (in Quitters) just based on the way it was written then, and in the end we had 85 changes.

Me: Wow, that’s a lot.

Aggie: Yeah, because these characters, some of them have 13 changes within the character.

Me: That is a lot of clothing.

Aggie: Oh no. It’s nothing. Even Fruitvale Station, you have to figure that every one of those kids that was up on the platform had on at least $110 – $115 worth of clothes by the time we had to do their shoes, because they couldn’t have brand names on them because there were guns involved and a murder, so there were certain restrictions we had to have. Because – the camera would be right there. There’s the shoe, there’s the sock, there’s the pant, there’s the belt, there’s the underwear that shows, there’s the t-shirt, and another t-shirt then there’s a hoodie, then maybe there’s a hat. So these are things that the young producers who have to deal with money have no clue about. So we get it early – we get the script before we even say “yes, no, maybe so” and then we have to break it down. I wrote to a friend of mine who just did the costumes for The Butler…and her feeling was that there was so much clothing and too many changes but as the script goes by – 38 years go by, so you have to have that much clothing to make those years go by. And if you think about The Color Purple – we have just as many years go by. Whoopi (Goldberg, obviously…is there another Whoopi?) had 91 changes.

Me: Wow. That seems like a lot.

Aggie: Sometimes you’re making all those clothes – like for Oprah (Winfrey, obviously…is there another Oprah?) we had to make most of her clothes because she, too, is zaftig. (Note: She says “she, too” because she previously said that’s how I’M shaped. So…this just in, I’m shaped like Oprah!…oh boy.) And Danny Glover was very tall – not heavy – but there weren’t clothes for him so we had to make all of his clothes. So you have all those different things that go on in film – there probably wouldn’t be that many in a theater piece, now that I think about. But they do have changes in the theater. It creates the scene…when you think about Shakespeare, I think you really only get one hit at it and then they wear it all the way through until they’re stabbed.

Me: A lot of those costumes are so gigantic you don’t even have time to put on a second one in the middle of it.

Aggie: At ACT, sometimes the dressers wouldn’t show up and I would have to stay late and help dress and do fast changes. Many times I’d be standing on the wrong side of the stage thinking “I’m not going to make it!”.

Me: I feel bad any time someone has to help me change because it’s just a mess. Recently I was in a show that had tons of quick changes – which were nowhere near the number you have in films – but I had like 15 seconds for each one and I came very close to some hilarious wardrobe malfunctions (NOTE: One night in particular.  Sorry/you’re welcome to the people who were sitting on the right side of the theater that evening!) So I feel like if I don’t ask you about Princess Leia someone will kill me. Though I am probably one of the only people who hasn’t seen Star Wars.

Aggie: Don’t worry about it!

Me: I saw a drawing of her slave costume – did you do that?

Yowza

Yowza

Aggie: We used an illustrator from the art department. He had been on the previous Star Wars movies and really knew. You know, I had never been a Star Wars fan but I had seen them. They were looking for a local person who could do most of the costumes here so George (Lucas) could have more control over them. I think maybe he might not have been that happy with the English designers he had on the previous films. It wasn’t like “Oh, we have to have Aggie do it.”

Me: We must have Aggie!

Aggie: Yes! Oh my God. I pretend that sometimes. If we could have pulled off  25 yards of silk flying through her legs we would have done it, but we couldn’t because she had all those stunts. There were stunt ones made out of this soft leather and gel and there were regular bras that were lined and so forth. It was a lot of fun.

Me: I feel like that would have been a slightly stressful thing to work on. It seems gigantic, right?

Aggie: But you know, you have a lot of people working with you, it’s not like I’m by myself exactly.

Me: I feel like you don’t get stressed out very easily. You seem like such a calm person.

Aggie: Ohhh, I do! And I yell and I’m an asshole. I can do it! But as I’ve gotten older…I feel like I’m better at sizing up the situation. Especially on something like Quitters – just letting shit go. It’s not about the ego, it’s jut about the shot. And it used to be, when I did these larger films, it was about the shot but it was what I could put in it. I don’t know, I’ve been very happy with the films I’ve gotten to do, and honestly a theater person would have been thrilled to have had the same kind of career in the theater that I’ve had in film.

Me: Yeah! And you have – how many Oscar nominations do you have?

Aggie's costuming efforts for The Color Purple were rewarded with an Oscar nomination

Aggie’s costuming efforts for The Color Purple were rewarded with an Oscar nomination

Aggie: Just one!

Me: That’s all you need! You don’t really need another one – you still have that one.

Aggie: I know, it’s totally true! And I’m glad it was for that particular film.

Me: That must have been a really bizarre experience – did you go?

Aggie: Oh, of course! And my husband came.

Me: Did you wear something really magnificent?

Aggie: I wore a Yohji Yamamoto outfit – I was very much into Japanese clothes. I still have it! I’m trying to keep it for my older son’s fiancé. I tried it on her when she was here last and she looked fantastic.

Me: That’s amazing.

Aggie: But, ya know, it’s so political now, to even get nominated. And the Academy is so difficult. There’s such a European presence in the costume department because just like we think in the theater “Oh, I want to go see a Shakespearean play with all those 20 yards of silk and the skirt!” – that’s generally what wins. Big skirted period pieces. I mean, I liked last year, I liked those gowns in Anna Karenina. Just stunning, because she had taken much license and made it like a 50’s Dior gown rather than to the period, where some people will only do just exactly what would have been worn.

Me: Have you done a period piece?

Aggie: No, I’ve done more things that were like American Graffiti. Things you don’t really have a big budget for. The Color Purple and Return of the Jedi were the two biggest budgets I had. I don’t need to do that anymore. I think if I tried to do that now it would be scary, because that department can either make or break those films.

Me: Do you purposely choose smaller stuff now?

Aggie: I do. I don’t want to do anymore studio pictures…I try not to do movies that have guns in them. But even Fruitvale had guns, so I can’t always get away with that. I wanted to do Fruitvale no matter what. I would have cried if I hadn’t gotten that movie. So, I eliminated myself from a lot of shit. I don’t want to see any more “black man holding a gun”. I’m over it. I try to just work on things that I would actually go to.

Me: That’s a pretty good rule…have you ever just quit on anything?

Aggie: No, but I have been fired!

Me: Have you?!

Aggie: Yeah! I’ve been fired twice. It was pretty good. I got fired off of Stuart Little. I prepped for that movie for like three months. They finally gave me Geena Davis on the Monday before the week she’d have to start. She’s over 6 feet tall, you cannot buy anything for her. There are no clothes in any costume department that had just been waiting for her to put on in a little movie. So on Monday we started making her clothes and on Wednesday we had a test and the director didn’t  like how she looked and on Friday I was gone! But I really didn’t care because I had a producer friend who had called me about a Denzel Washington picture called The Hurricane and I had said “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m busy” but I called him up and said “Did you ever get a costume designer for your show?” he said “No”, and I said “Well, I’m available!” so then I went off and did that. Much more my kind of movie, really. I had worked for Norman Jewison before and I was honored to go back and work for him again. And I can’t say that the young man who worked on Stuart Little has done very many successful things.

Me: Ha! So you don’t feel too bad about it?

Aggie: Nope! And one other thing – an Arnold Schwarzenegger picture. I only worked a week on it and then I was gone. I think people realize I’m either going to make it or not. They either like that kind of style or not.

Me: Is there anything you’ve done you wish you could have had more control over?

Aggie: I really would have liked to stay longer on Beetlejuice. But I think it turned out good!

Me: It certainly did! Wherever did you get that striped suit?!

Dear Allison: If You're Reading This, It Means I'm Done Formatting This Article. Finally. Love, Stuart.

Dear Allison: If You’re Reading This, It Means I’m Done Formatting This Article. Finally. Love, Stuart.

Aggie: We made that!

Me: The costumes in that movie are amazing.

Aggie: I thought they were great! But I only had 9 weeks or 7 weeks – it was short. As I was getting ready to leave, like a week before, I mentioned to Tim (Burton) that I was finishing. He said “Well, can’t you stay longer?” I said “Well, they keep telling me I have to leave that day so I took something else!”. I would have liked to have stayed longer on that one. It’s such a great film. I’m not sure I really knew what I was on – does that make sense?

Me: Like you didn’t know it was going to be as awesome as it was?

Aggie: Yeah! At that time they used to just hire you for a certain length of time and you could only work as long as that was. That was your contract deal.

Me: Is it not like that anymore?

Aggie: No.

Me: So…you have done more than one movie with Jack Nicholson, right?

Aggie: Yes!

Me: What’s he like? Is he awesome?!

Aggie: Oh my God! Absolutely! On Cuckoo’s Nest they took a chance on me. I had only done American Graffiti and The Conversation and then I went to work on Streets of San Francisco – cash, money – and then they hired me to do Cuckoo’s Nest. I was down in LA and I was looking at Goodwills to find jeans for Jack (FREAKING NICHOLSON) and I could never find any, and I knew I didn’t want to buy new ones and they told me about this guy, I called him up and I said “I have this actor, I just have to have a couple pairs of pants for him, here are his sizes.” He sent me two pairs of jeans. When Jack came up to Oregon for the fitting, that’s the first thing he said – “Let me see the jeans.” So he put on the jeans, both pairs fit him perfectly and that was fine, so then I was fine. That was a magic film to work on.

Me: I’m sure it was! I watch it…regularly.

Aggie: Especially – I mean, it comes from a theater piece! I had seen it in San Francisco and a year or two later I got to do the film. And then, Witches of Eastwick

Me: I LOVE WITCHES OF EASTWICK!

Aggie: I saw the book in the library the other day and thought maybe I should get that out and read it again. The movie was great. Great director. He made a mistake after – the next film he did after was a film about a boy who had some illness that could be healed by some kind of oil or something – and that was it after that. Witches was a Warner Brothers film and it was very complicated politically. They had cast Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer, and given them their parts and then they cast Cher in Susan Sarandon’s part and gave Susan Sarandon a part she didn’t particularly want, so then Jack (FREAKING NICHOLSON) really clicked into gear and he would have them over to his flat and they’d party and play and have a great time. And the women really got together, really tightly. They knew that Susan had been thrown a bad bone. But Cher really rose to the occasion. They were his (Jack’s) girls.

Me: They were all great in it.

Aggie: They really were. And Jack is the first one who started calling me “Aggs”. I was always either Agnes or Aggie but he started calling me Aggs and that stuck quite a bit.

Me: That would be okay to say! “Ohh, Jack Nicholson just gave me a nickname, no big deal!” (NOTE: I’m a real nut about Jack Nicholson, it seems.)

Aggie: He’s a very relaxed person. He doesn’t have to have one person do all his clothes or anything like that.

Me: So why, if you were doing all these big Hollywood movies, have you always lived in the Bay Area?

Aggie: My husband. He doesn’t like LA.

Me: Me neither.

Aggie: And my grandmother grew up in Oakland – my mother in Walnut Creek. And the films I got started on up here were much more my kind of thing. They were films I would actually have gone to the movie theater to see.

Me: Do you have a favorite?

Aggie: I think The Color Purple.  I just got to do so much stuff – making all those clothes. It’s hard to do now. People do, do it though.

At this point her husband arrives along with a friend of theirs who has a delightfully thick accent that sounds exactly like Sean Connery. They came bearing cookies, so naturally we sat around eating cookies for a while.

I’m about to turn 29, and like everyone else on the planet, I feel like I could be accomplishing more. I mean, it’s not like I’m just taking naps all day and building forts out of couch cushions (not that I don’t do that from time to time) but I think it’s only natural to feel like you’re behind, but for some reason, my afternoon with Aggie reminded me that time may not be this thing that’s always working against me. Sometimes it can be a tool for a long, fantastic life and career. Ya know, like 40 years in filmmaking.

You can find Allison on Twitter @allisonlynnpage and you can check out the rest of Aggie’s amazing list of films at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0345888/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1

Theater Around The Bay: The Year of the Snake

Stuart Bousel meditates on the end of a long season of growth.

2013 has been, for me and many I know, a strange year.

Not a bad year, like last year seems to have been for an overwhelming number of people, but a strange year. “Slippery” as I keep calling it, “hard to pin down”, and one where I keep feeling a sense of two steps forward, one to one-and-a-half steps back, on all fronts: personal, professional, social, artistic, financial, health-wise. Which does mean I think I’m making progress this year, but it’s a fatiguing, draining kind of progress, like I’m in a waltz with my mid-30s where we’re slowly making our way across the dance floor but in this circular fashion that seems to re-tread as much ground as it covers. Again and again it seems, just as I’ve mastered a step and taken a lead, something comes along to pull me back to where I was, and the same conversations, the same self-doubts, the same bad habits, re-emerge to remind me I haven’t learned anything except how to identify, better, what is wrong. An important step towards finding a solution, of course, but at what point do we admit we’re wallowing, or just paralyzed?

I thoroughly believe that the life examined is the only life worth living, but something has to be learned from that examination to make it worthwhile, and we have to demonstrate we’ve learned something by implementing the changes we know we need to make, otherwise the learning itself is of little value. The question is always how and when, and for some reason nobody ever talks about the process of change itself, what it’s like to actually go through the transformation. It’s a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason: as human beings we are enormously pre-occupied with the Before and the After, and tend to gloss over or resent the journey. Which is absurd when you realize the journey is pretty much all there is, and is pretty much happening constantly. When we tell people to “live in the moment” we’re saying, “embrace the journey” but to many that’s like saying, “love the airplane to the Bahamas” and most of us love the sitting on the beach with a margarita way more than we love going through security and keeping our fingers crossed for as few delays as possible.

My recent play, “The Age of Beauty”, was, to a great extent, about all this: the journey, the arrival, the before and after, the processing of all these things and our relationship to the past-to-future continuity of our lives and each other. A series of four conversations, all variations on the same themes, it was a talky, subtle little play that I knew not everyone would get and not everyone would find interesting or enjoyable, but since I don’t make art for you (I make it for me and accept that you are going to have an opinion on it) I decided to put it on anyway. Over the last few years I’ve been focused less and less on my own work and more and more on other people’s work, and while I do find that rewarding I’m finally realizing it needs to be a balance or I start resenting people for what’s really, in the end, my own lack of reciprocity towards myself.

Because I am lucky enough to have a relationship with the Exit Theatre where they could step in as co-producers I was able to produce the show for a song, and because it is an all female cast and there are always more women in this theater scene than opportunities for them, I was able to cast four excellent actors who basically pulled together a difficult show (disguised as a simple one) in three weeks of rehearsal, the first week and a half of which was primarily focused on cutting the script by fifteen minutes and understanding what subtle variations in each conversation made it valuable to have all four and not just one. Because even on a budget of zero I needed to find a way to make the play cost less, I acted as my own tech operator and house manager and box office and thus watched every single performance of my show, something I haven’t gotten to do (or wanted to do) in years and it was enormously edifying. By the end of the short run I knew I wanted to cut another page and a half out of the second scene of the show, and I also knew that I had created a beautiful little gem of a play as I watched it evolve from a good opening, through a couple of awkward, plodding mid-run shows, into a really refined, poignant, highly actable (thank you, actors) character study of why and how smart people who have reached the end of their youth, but are not yet old, process their lives and chose to either engage, dis-engage or wallow just a little bit longer in the past. The final two performances of “The Age of Beauty” were, in my opinion, the best of the run, and became the artistic experience I have been hungering for since the year began: I learned something, I was moved, I believed in what I was watching as an audience member and I was proud of what we’d done as creators and I could have cared less what other people thought about the work (I only ever really care when I’m secretly dissatisfied with it myself) because I had experienced what I needed to experience to make it worth doing.

Two steps forward, baby. Two big steps forward.

Then three days later I made the decision to not take on any directing or producing projects for the next six months (beyond the Olympians Festival, which I am the executive producer for but it’s an annual thing and thus entirely different), and it was like the orchestra suddenly changed and I was waltzing backwards, feeling oddly panicky and unappreciated and ridiculously focused on how, out of 360 tickets available for the run, we only sold 209 (including comps and half-priced tickets), and how we got one mediocre review (never-mind we got numerous solid and ecstatic ones), and how, of course, several of my nightmare audience members had attended what I considered to be “the bad performance” and always seemed to see my shows on “bad nights.” I complained about all this to everyone who would listen and beat myself up for not being… I don’t know… more aggressive on the marketing? A different kind of playwright who would have written an easier, more accessible show? God?… and by Thursday morning I was in a deep enough self-pity hole that I couldn’t go to work and instead lay on my bed staring at the ceiling while workmen tore my apartment apart, finally fixing a water-damaged wall that’s been there as long as I have lived in that apartment (nine years). Around 2 PM that day I got a knock on my door, and it was the guy in charge telling me they were done, ahead of schedule, and that I should wait 24 hours before rehanging all the pictures in our living room. “Why?” I asked. “Oh, we repainted all your walls,” he said, and then sauntered off into the afternoon. I closed the door after him, stepped out into the living room, and was almost blinded by how white the walls were.

Now, in a play or movie or book, the obvious symbolic fresh start here would mark one in me, the main character, but what I think I’ve been learning from this year is that life just does not work that way. You see, I now know that you make a decision to change, and then you spend some time figuring out what that means and just how exactly you’re going to make it happen and since the odds are that whatever plan you come up with isn’t going to go off without a hitch, you then also spend a lot of time revising those plans, abandoning those plans, processing that as well, and then coming up with new ones, and the truth is, the changes tend to kind of happen while you’re not looking, almost as a side result of trying to change. Or to take my newly painted walls as an example: we spent years trying to get the landlords to fix just this one thing and never even realized that by doing so, we’d end up with freshly painted walls the whole house over. In fact, because that was sort of an unexpected result, it was sort of hard to accept, at first, and was even rather overwhelming. I walked around looking at the walls and instead of thinking, “this is great” I actually thought, “God the carpet looks terrible now, we really need to get that redone too,” and “Oh, how annoying that I need to rehang these pictures.” Way to accentuate the positive you know? But that’s human nature. All it takes is the right timing and a bad mood for even the best of us to look at a gift and say, “Eh. I have three already and this one isn’t even in a color I like.”

I would venture and say this summer, now drawing to a close, has been the weirdest part of a weird year, and for a lot of people I know there is an intense desire to finally shake off an uncomfortable skin of one kind or another and emerge whole and new, ready to embrace change: the trouble is, few of us seem to really know how to make that happen, no matter how deeply we wish it. Some people I know are running off to grad schools, others are changing day jobs, changing artistic focuses, changing groups of friends and collaborators, changing lovers. I am taking a break. Or, well, a break by my standards, since I’m still working the Fringe, still running my own theater festival, still writing two plays and trying to finish off another, still doing… well… a  lot of stuff. I had imagined that break being something I eased into but it’s been more like a bellyflop that began this weekend when I blew off not one, not two, but three shows involving friends of mine, all of which I already had tickets to. I only pulled myself out of my apartment because my housemate returned Saturday with an out of town guest in tow and my boyfriend threw a housewarming party/goodbye party for a friend of ours, aptly named “You’re Leaving But I’m Still Here.” And while I knew my theater friends would forgive me missing their shows (especially since most of them hadn’t seen mine- for which they are totally forgiven) I knew my boyfriend would have every right to resent me for missing a party that marked his own recent change of domicile (he upgraded to a real apartment after years of studio living). Half-way through the party (which was back to school themed complete with Capri Suns and bowls of snack sized candy bars) I felt suddenly drowsy and went to lay down “just for a moment” in my boyfriend’s bedroom. I woke up at 11 AM the next day. I had never even said goodbye to our friend who is moving away. The air was heavy with a distinct feeling of “You’re Leaving But I’m Still Here.”

We spent Sunday wandering around the neighborhood, exploring a place we’d been to before, but now that one of us lives there, it suddenly feels like it’s “Our Neighborhood” and that sense of ownership is truly transformative, allowing us to see familiar things in an entirely new way. Eventually, we ended up at a bar where a friend of ours works, and sitting in this place that is decidedly unlike any other place we usually hang out (and noticeably devoid of theater people, our bartending friend aside), we found ourselves looking out the door of the bar at a view of San Francisco we never get to see, soaked in afternoon sunlight, looking magical. “I’m falling in love with this city again,” says my boyfriend, and it’s an important statement because in the last year we have talked constantly of moving, feeling like this city is changing into a place we don’t feel welcome in, and like it will never live up to what we both want in a theater and art scene, an intellectual mecca, a place of opportunities and a community that can be truly supportive while also being challenging and truthful. But tempering those feelings has always been the realization we might just be burnt out or we might just be working on the wrong projects with the wrong people, or we must just need a personal transformation of some kind. But what and how and when to transform always complicates the obvious. It’s great to say, “I need to change,” but hard to finish the sentence after “into…”

If you follow Chinese astrology, that this is the Year of the Snake seems absolutely appropriate, especially if you see snakes the way both the Celts and the Greeks did: as emblems of re-birth, healing, wisdom. Personally, I don’t like snakes. I was incredibly fascinated by them as a child, but one bad run in with a rattlesnake at the age of thirteen (and the gist of the encounter can be summed up with “you don’t realize how loud those fuckers are until you’re about to step on one”) pretty much made me scared of them for life. I’m probably the only person in the world for whom “Snakes on a Plane” was a genuine horror movie, and if it was a choice between snakes and sharks, I’d choose sharks any day. Despite this I do recognize how the snake serves a symbolic purpose in both its shape and ability to coil, and its uncanny and relatively unique ability to shed its skin, appearing to rejuvinate itself in a manner most sentient creatures understandably envy.

Of course, what many of us don’t think about is that the snake doesn’t exactly do this at will, but rather as part of a cycle, and there is a time for it that arrives when it arrives, only after the snake has formed a new skin beneath the old one, changing on the inside long before it changes on the outside. That dramatic moment where it suddenly sheds its skin is the shortest and, in some ways, the least significant part of the process, and again, not really in the snake’s control. All the snake gets to do, consciously, is rub itself against some rocks and squirm out of the husk in an effort to ease along what Time and Nature have already decreed will happen. Which is not to say that Human Will alone can’t instigate change, but from the outside perspective I’m gonna lay it down: most of us are just rubbing some rocks and squirming out of the husk and it’s usually Human Vanity that is dressing it up to look like an epic. Of course, if you’re into Greek mythology (and Celtic mythology) you know that the heroic is that which happens specifically because we are, to some extent, the play things of Time and Nature, and that heroism is a combination of defiance and cooperation with the Powers That Be. Defiance in the sense that we do not accept we have no control over our lives, and cooperation in the sense that we tend to get a lot more by pushing forward than running away.

On Sunday the 18th, around dusk, I felt the seasons change. It’s one of the few mystical things I believe about myself, but I have always felt like I know, exactly, when a seasonal shift has happened. Riding around with a couple friends of mine that following Monday, we watched the lightning flash above the city and one of them remarked that it seemed like a “bad sign” but I disagreed. “It’s good,” I said, “It’s marking the seasonal shift. We’re going to have a long harvest this year. Longer than usual, I think,” and I really do think this. The planting season seems to have been forever ago… like somewhere in late 2011 or early 2012, and it’s been laying under the earth for quite some time, sporadically reminding us of its existence with little bursts of fruitfulness that inspired hope, or disappointing yields that made us think it’s never going to happen. But of course it’s going to happen, and if it takes a while well, that’s maybe because we need to learn to live in the moment a bit more, and enjoy the journey. But live long enough and life is really more a matter of “when” than “if” and it’s the benevolence, not the whim, of Nature that we build a new skin below the old one, before it’s time to shed it . Doesn’t mean we always like that skin, or personally feel it’s ready to go, but when it’s time, it’s Time.

Rub yourself against the rocks, and squirm, squirm, squirm until the husk falls off.

Stuart Bousel is a founding artistic director of the San Francisco Theater Pub and a prolific Bay Area writer, director, producer and theater maker, who is currently taking a six month semi-hiatus. Find out more about him at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.

Director Rik Lopes Talks “Shooter” And SF Theater Pub at BOA 2013.

Rik Lopes, a frequent collaborator with the San Francisco Theater Pub, talks about directing this year’s contribution to the Bay One Acts Festival. A dramatic and challenging piece, “Shooter” looks to be a real unique part of this year’s festival, and just in case you didn’t think it would be a serious piece of art, Rik sent us this amazingly serious headshot.

Rik Lopes: Director, Actor, Writer... CK1 model?

Rik Lopes: Director, Actor, Writer… CK1 model?

Okay, so, tell the world who you are in 100 words or less.

I have been making theatre in some form or other since I was 10 years old. I have been actively involved in the San Francisco theatre community since 2007, having come back to my senses after a goodly long hiatus. I am an actor, director, and playwright, but not necessarily in that order.

This isn’t your first time working with Theater Pub, is it? What have you done with us in the past.

I have appeared in several readings, including Hamlet and Cheese on Post, The Memorandum, and The Shunned House. I was also very fortunate to direct both the pint-sized scene and full production of Brian Markley’s The Nebraskan And Sam.

This is your first time at BOA, correct? What’s that like?

Indeed it is. I have often been regaled by friends with stories of how much fun BOA is and am excited to finally be a part of it. I must say, I am very impressed by the sheer vastness of it all. I went into the project expecting to direct a really cool show and quickly learned that I would also be making friends with theatre companies from all across the city.

We know why producer Brian Markley picked this play, “Shooter” as the TP contribution to BOA, but what drew you to the piece?

I am always drawn to the dark horse pieces. BOA is generally assumed to be a collection of comedic pieces and I was very glad to discover “Shooter”. I was immediately drawn to the serious and dark nature of it. I am also a big fan of tight spaces filled with people who never actually interact with each other physically. It’s a fantastic challenge for a director.

It’s your first time working with Daniel Hirsch, the writer. How involved is he in the process?

I first met Dan at the general auditions and was impressed with him right away. He is very open to my ideas and continued to rework the script until the very end. He’s a super talented guy and I’m very pleased to be partnering with him to bring this show to life.

What’s turning out to be the biggest challenge in directing a piece like this, and in a festival setting?

I have to say that I tend to veer toward the minimal as a director. The less “stuff”, the better. Let the text speak for itself, that is. Part of me wonders if such a pared down show will fit harmoniously with the other pieces, especially if we have an audience expecting a bit more of a belly laugh.

What’s the greatest asset?

If we pull this off, the simple, dressed down concept may very well be our best asset as well. It can really be a standout.

How is this show still a Theater Pub show, despite not being performed in a bar?

One of the greatest things about Theater Pub is the immersive element and the chance to take advantage of unconventional staging and blocking. There’s a remarkably wide angle on the lens, so to speak, and you can really play with that. With “Shooter”, it’s as if we have jumped into the mirror world of Theater Pub. We have three very strong personalities who each inhabit a stiflingly small space but experience it in their own time. The audience sees three different stories unfolding at once.

What else at the festival are you most excited to see?

I’m really looking forward to “Break Of Day”. It’s a solid script with a great cast. I know Bryan Trybom as an actor and have always loved him on stage. I’m excited to see him direct.

“Shooter” will play, along with an assortment of other excellent one-acts in this year’s festival, September 15, 19, 21, 25, 27, 29 and October 3 and 5 at the Tides Theater in San Francisco. To find out more about this show, and all the great shows that will be a part of this cornerstone event for the San Francisco Bay Area Theater scene, check out http://bayoneacts.org/.

Higher Education: First Day of School

Barbara Jwanouskos is going back, back to school…

My pencils are sharpened. My cupboard is full of healthy (and non-healthy, yet convenient) foods. My class schedule is set and I’m ready to go! I think…

I remember being young and every year, even though summer was ending, just brimming with excitement that school was starting again. NERD! I loved it though. The first day of school is all about the realization that something is going to change during the course of the year. It’s recognizing that you will grow.

I think it’s so funny because how often do we look at feedback from others or opportunities for growth and think of it as a negative? I know there are times when we all think, “wow, I’m learning!” I’m talking about generally going in with a beginner’s mind set and maybe being a little nervous, but mostly just being happy that by the end of the year we’ll have made some sort of journey. Maybe we’ll look back on the first day as if it were the first step and remember, “wow, that really was the first day!”

Like I’ve mentioned before, I’ll be teaching for the first time this year. So I’m definitely on the flip side of the coin when it comes to experiencing the first day of school. Well, at least on Tuesday for a couple hours. I wonder what teachers think about on the first day of school too… Like in my mind, there have been no altercations. Everyone is über dedicated and not only does every assignment I’ve given them, but they totally want to do those assignments too, right? Am I right?

I’ve been talking to a couple folks about my syllabus lately. Mostly because I’ve probably been wasting WAY too much time on it. But, guys! Syllabus creation is super fun! There’s something about pre-planning that I LOVE!!! I don’t always get it right in the execution and I may not even finish, but before I press that red button, the plan is immaculate and beautiful in its construction.

One of the things I decided to differently with my syllabus in the last couple of weeks was change my approach to the class. My mind-grapes were blown away a week or two ago after I got a chance to train for not one, but two masters in martial arts (one in tai chi and one in kung fu). And these guys don’t know each other. Heck, their disciplines are seemingly on radically opposite ends of the spectrum, but both concentrate on securing the fundamentals before being able to move any further in the training.

Guys…

Mind. Blown.

Seriously! Yes, it’s kind of a given that you have to know the basics, but from each one of these masters, the basics suddenly became the most advanced material you’ve ever seen. It was such an ah-ha moment that I realized this is what I should be teaching anyone who takes my “Introduction to Screenwriting” class. I asked myself what would I want my students to walk away with more than anything?

  1. The basics of storytelling
  2. The formatting of a screenplay
  3. Walking the path of a writer
  4. How to give and receive feedback

I re-orchestrated my syllabus so that it followed these basics and suddenly it was like I knew every lesson plan. Because the basics aren’t boring if you know how to use them right. The basics are literally the basis for why something works. So, instead of worrying about how they have to read this book or see that classic movie or write this many pages per week, I thought about what I liked the most and what I got the most value out of in treading the path so far. That’s all you can really give anyone, right? Just this disclaimer that “this is what works for me”.

I’m excited for the first day of school. Not just to attend new classes, but to take my first step on a new path of learning and growth. I have my classroom noted. My ideas ready. And, of course, my syllabus in hand.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Confessions of a Copy-Editor

Marissa Skudlarek is an editing tornado. 

“Eagle eyes,” my mother used to call me. This nickname may sound odd, because I’ve worn thick glasses since I was five years old, but she was referring to my talent for observation, and especially for spotting errors. I’d be reading some kids’ book, notice a typo and, frowning, show the error to my mother. “Why don’t you write a nice letter to the publisher, sweetie, and tell them what you found?” she’d say.

With a background like that – observational skills, perfectionism, and a mother who encouraged those traits – I suppose I was bound to become a copy-editor. And while I’ve tried to relax my standards a bit in this Internet age of casual communication (I don’t use capital letters on Gchat), errors in more venerable publications still bother me. Twice, I have witnessed The New Yorker print “vocal chords” instead of “vocal cords,” and each time, this makes me think that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

I have now copy-edited four books in two years: two volumes of the Bay One-Acts anthology, and two volumes of the Olympians Festival anthology. Copy-editing plays, especially anthologies of plays from multiple authors, must be one of the most challenging editorial tasks there is. If you’re copy-editing, say, a nonfiction article or an academic essay, you can generally trust that the piece will be in paragraphs of several sentences each, that the author wants to adhere to standards of English grammar and punctuation, that pretty much every sentence will end with a period, etc. (Well, I don’t envy the person who had to copy-edit David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster – but most essayists are not DFW.)

Plays, though, are descriptivist, rather than prescriptivist – they reflect the way people actually talk, not the way that grammarians tell us we should talk. Before you can correct a grammatical mistake in a play, you have to determine whether it’s the author’s mistake or the character’s. When a playwright forgets the punctuation mark on the end of a line of dialogue, you can’t just assume that she wants a period to go there – what if the line should end in an ellipsis, or a dash, or an exclamation point?

Then, imagine doing that for twelve different playwrights, who all have their own idiosyncrasies and tics. For instance, some playwrights favor en-dashes and some favor the longer em-dash – both are acceptable in American English. And every playwright has her own method of dealing with stage directions (italicized and tabbed, parenthetical, or a mixture of both) and as long as the reader doesn’t get confused, that’s usually OK. But an anthology ought to have internal consistency between the plays. More than half of my job as a copy-editor involves converting parenthetical stage directions into italicized ones, or en-dashes into em-dashes. And don’t get me started on the writers who like to use hyphens instead of dashes…

I feel like copy-editing allows me to develop an incredibly intimate relationship with a writer’s words. Actors, directors, and scholars may all do in-depth analyses of the plays they work on, but do they scrutinize them at the level I do, considering every apostrophe, every comma? I hear the writer’s voice, I discern her personality in the placement of every punctuation mark. I learn which writers favor elaborate stage directions and which are minimalists; which writers sit at their computers and pound out dialogue so fast that they neglect punctuation, and which ones meticulously place every semicolon.

Because of my perfectionism, I also find that I’m a de facto fact checker in addition to being a copy-editor. I love this part of the job, since it lets me make use of some of the random knowledge that clutters up my head. All information is useful for a copy-editor. For the second volume of the Olympians book, I was editing a play where a character said that Election Day 2008 was on November 2. But I remembered that I donated to the Obama campaign in 2008 and, in return, got a T-shirt that said “VOTE NOV 4TH” in big letters. I emailed the playwright and asked him if he wanted me to change the date in the text to “November 4.”

Or you could decry me for wasting time on fashion and pop-culture websites, but if I didn’t pay attention to stuff like that, how would I know that Zooey Deschanel spells her first name in that Salingeresque fashion, rather than the more common “Zoe”? (“Zoe” to “Zooey” is another mistake I can recall correcting in the course of my copy-editing projects.)

I even find that being a copy-editor has made me a better writer. The book designers/layout editors I work with always claim that it’s necessary to strip all formatting (e.g. italics) from a play before they do the layout and make the proof copy. Therefore, one necessary evil of copy-editing is going through the proof copy, comparing it to the playwright’s draft, and replacing the italics that were removed. This exercise has convinced me that playwrights don’t need italics half as often as they think they do. Sure, sometimes the italics provide much-needed clarification by indicating which word the actor should stress. But most of the time, the italics don’t seem to serve any discernable purpose and the line isn’t measurably improved by adding them back.

So, copy-editing my play Pleiades for the Olympians anthology, I’ve elected not to replace some of the italics that got stripped away. The climactic scene of the play is dramatic enough as it is – littering it with italics just makes it looks like I don’t trust the actors to play the scene with the appropriate intensity. Italics, punctuation, formatting, and all of those other details only get you so far. At some point, the words have to stand on their own.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and copy-editor. If you found any spelling or grammatical mistakes in this column, please tell her about them in the comments.

Cowan Palace: Audience Observations, Dedications, and Goodbyes

Ashley Cowan observes, dedicates, and offers a quiet goodbye.

Hi friends. I’ll be honest; this hasn’t been my easiest week. Saying goodbye to a show you’ve invested a lot of heart into has never been a simple process for me but on top of closing Book of Liz, I found out on Monday that my grandmother had passed away at the strong and sassy age of 90 years and 2 days old.

Years ago, when I showed her an article I wrote for my college newspaper about an upcoming university theatrical production had made its way to the front page feature, she smiled quietly and said how much she loved seeing the name “Cowan” in print. So I like to think, wherever she is, she may be enjoying another Cowan Palace installment.

My cast kindly allowed me to dedicate our closing show to her on Sunday after hearing she wasn’t doing very well, and while I sadly couldn’t be by her side in Connecticut, I carried her with me while doing the thing I love most here in San Francisco.

Reflecting upon our last six weeks of performing in front of various crowds and dedicating our shows to different people, I couldn’t help but wonder how many audiences followed similar trends to those we met while being a part of this production. Our run included Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings and Saturday matinees. My personal observations include the following:

Thursday: As the first audience of the week, this group tended to laugh quickly and help push the show along. Their laughter patterns were often loud and fast as if to suggest, “hey, it’s Thirsty Thursday, and we either need to get home soon or get a beer.”

Friday: After a long workweek, the Friday crowd entered with high expectations. They were tired from a stressful few days of bringing home the bacon and appeasing “the man”. They could be unforgiving and critical. And hey, how can you blame them? Once you eased them into it though; convinced them to leave their week behind and embrace the weekend; they would warm up to you until the theater was on fire. With their presence.

Saturday Morning: The coffee crowd rather than the wine lovers. We didn’t even have the hope of boozing them up real good before they entered the theater! This group was certainly one of the quieter audiences. Perhaps from partying too hard the night before, perhaps because they’re secretly vampires trying to hide from the sun. It’s hard to say. In any case, they tended to be a bit more controlled and contained.

Saturday Evening: Thank goodness this group knew how to have a drink. They often came in ready and wanting to get those tipsy giggles out. Sometimes it would take them a little longer to catch a joke but when they did, they enjoyed long and hearty laughs. Often, the shows could run just a hair longer because this was the crowd who could appreciate and encourage the idea of “milking it”.

Sunday Evening: This last audience was a real mixed bag and often surprised me. They’d catch the more obscure and random bits and then be silent at a joke that had received big laughs all week. Personally, they were one of my favorite audiences though because they kept me on my toes and often offered more immediate vocal reactions.

Has anyone else noticed an audience pattern during certain nights of the week? Those were just a few of my experiences while working on a comedic piece. And do you think knowing what to expect is ultimately a good or bad thing when it comes to live theatre? I’d love to know your thoughts.

My grandma was often a matinee viewer; and while she may have been part of a quieter crowd, her presence was always known and appreciated. And it’s for her that I’ll continue trying to get the Cowan name out into the world in whatever way I can manage; for any audience who will grant me the chance. For now, this blog will do just the trick.