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