Everything Is Already Something Week 13: Art and the Great Divide

Allison Page returns from the Frozen North, with new sagas to share. 

Last night, my parents had a conjoined birthday party for my brother and I. His birthday was a couple of weeks ago and mine is next month, but since I only fly home to Minnesota twice a year my mother figured now was as good a time as any.

I’m about to turn 29 (Shut up.) and I’ve been living in San Francisco for over 5 years now – having left because I just didn’t feel like I belonged there, and all of my aspirations were in careers not possible to maintain in northern Minnesota. Sometimes, just like anyone who leaves the place they’re from, I feel homesick. I start to miss my family, my dog (Herbert Hoover, the wire-haired terrier), my friends – and I just want to fly home. And I do love going home, but every time I do that, it doesn’t take long to remember why I didn’t feel like I belonged there in the first place.

I’m shitty at a lot of things, but I’m a good conversationalist. I have that pretty much nailed down – except when it comes to my family.  Last night as the ham, potatoes, melted canola spread (instead of butter) which was poured from a mug with a moose on it, vinegary slaw-substance my Grandma was extremely proud of, BBQ chicken strips and something with radishes in it was being passed around – the chatting began. It was amazingly circular.

Relative: “When did your flight get in?”

Allison: “Sunday at 4.”

Relative: “AM?”

Allison: “PM.”

Relative: “Oh…so…when ya headin’ back?”

Allison: “Wednesday at 4.”

Relative: “AM?”

Allison: “PM.”

Relative: “Ohhhh…so…still working at the same place?”

Allison: “Yup! Sure am! Those games don’t write themselves! I really enjoy it, actually. I’m lucky to have a job that still allows my other careers to thrive – you know me, I’m a workaholic! How are you?”

Relative: “Ohhh….we’re fine…so…Tim, can you pass the moose mug butter substitute?”

And, generally speaking, that’s sort of how it went. I can’t even count how many times the only topic of conversation was what time my flight had gotten in 3 days before, and when my next flight was leaving. I felt like every time I tried to bring up something else, it just didn’t work out. I tried asking about how they were doing, what they were up to…but I didn’t really get very far with that. It’s like we just don’t know what to say to each other. My inquiries got a lot of blanks stares.  And the biggest, weirdest thing to me was that not one person asked me how any of my creative endeavors were going, or what I was doing with them. When I’m in the Bay Area, almost every person I see asks me what I’ve got cooking next. Including the guy who works at the corner store where I buy beer and pizza, and many people who barely even know me. But not my family. Had they asked, I would have said that I’m producing a full length play which I’ve been writing and working on for three years. To me, that’s a pretty big deal. But I didn’t want to just say, “YOU KNOW…I wrote a play. And I’m going to produce it. Look how fancy I am. Isn’t that SOOO COOOOL?”, because, well…I’d just sound like an asshole. And I think they already sort of think that anyway. If there’s anything I know – it’s my audience. I did stand up for 400 Mormons and didn’t offend even one person – but…everything I say to my Midwestern family feels weird. Like if I say “San Francisco has great burritos.” (which is true, obviously) it feels like they think I’m saying, “YOU GUYS ARE TERRIBLE AND I’D RATHER BE EATING BURRITOS IN SAN FRANCISCO THAN EVER LOOKING AT YOUR FACES AGAIN, YOU BIG BUNCH OF UNLIKEABLE MOOSE-MUG HAVERS!” Which, I should mention, is not at all what I mean. I just like burritos.

A few weeks ago, I was in a movie. Like, a movie was being shot, and I was in it. With well-known people. And I had a real, actual part. With lines. It was fun but also a little tiny milestone in my career – noooo one cares. And then I started feeling like a bad person for wanting them to care about that. Like, what fucking difference does it make to them if I’m in a movie? Maybe it’s the part of me that wants them to understand that I left because it was what was best for me and not because I don’t love them or something. I don’t think I’m better than them, I just think I’ve made the choices I needed to make to have the life I want, but on some level I am really worried that they just think I’m a crazy jerk, and that it’s all been for nothing and I’m a selfish, narcissistic weirdo who can’t be satisfied with the things that should satisfy any person. I understand that our priorities are different; I think I’ve always understood that.

And then I remembered a conversation I had with my grandma Louise a few months ago:

Allison: “Well, I’ve always been the black sheep of the family, anyway.”

Grandma: “Whoever said you were the black sheep?”

Allison: “I don’t know…I guess did…”

Baa Baa Allison, Have You Any Wool?

Baa Baa Allison, Have You Any Wool?

And to be honest, maybe that’s it. Maybe I’m the black sheep because I’ve decided I’m the black sheep. Who knows? No, really…who knows? I want to ask the person who knows, because I’m having trouble wrapping my brain around this. It certainly doesn’t help that my family doesn’t exactly embrace “feelings”. I’m only putting “feelings” in quotes because I feel like that’s what they’d want. It just means the feelings are even farther away, when they’re “feelings”. My mother has actually admitted this before, when I was incredibly upset a few years ago and got no reaction because “We just weren’t raised to be emotional.” And so, my freedom with my own emotions has also set me apart. If I’m happy, I’ll act really happy – if I’m sad, I’ll be sad – if I’m disappointed…well, you see where I’m going with this. I feel shit, and I don’t go about trying to pretend that I don’t, whereas overwhelmingly, they like to stay consistently in the middle, where everything is mostly fine. Not really amazing, not really terrible, just…ya know, fine. How they ever bred an actor, I have no idea, because I emote for money. My dad made some comment about a friend of mine whose family situation wasn’t the same as ours – “Don’t any of your friends have normal families?” was his question. My response was “What does normal really mean?” then I pointed out that just last year I found out that my grandmother has a half sister due to my great grandfather’s apparent high school fling which resulted in a child no one heard about until years later. I found this delightfully scandalous, by the way. But I pointed out to him that everyone avoided mentioning it to me for ages, and I thought that was weird. I said outright that I feel like we’re more likely to have secrets and that doesn’t mean that we’re exactly normal, just that we hide the things that make us strange. His response was “Well, we just didn’t think it was important enough to tell you.” We’re not exactly great at communication.

I really like to try to wrap these blogs up in a pretty package, but not everything is like that. I haven’t solved anything. I’m just in the middle of it. Maybe it’s the altitude, because I’m writing this on a plane to Denver to make my connecting flight to San Francisco – which might be the only place where I really feel good about being myself.

Coming from where I’ve come from has made me the person I am, obviously, and has colored my outlook and personality in so many ways. And I’m happy about that. I like who I am (not that I’m quite finished figuring out who that person is), I just wish I knew how to connect with my people better than I do, but my life mostly revolves around the creation of something I’m passionate about, and it just so happens that what I’m passionate about, isn’t what they’re passionate about. Anyone who deals in any part of the arts probably has that issue. But then again…maybe they think we’re connecting perfectly and I’m the only one who feels this way. Just like the black sheep thing – maybe I’m creating this myself.

I don’t know. I love my family. And I love the life I’m creating for myself. And I don’t think those things should have to conflict, but I can’t imagine living without people who share my passion. That’s the thing I love about San Francisco, and the SF theater scene. The passion. I want to jump up and down and get excited about making something happen. I want other people to jump with me. I want us to jump together. I know my family didn’t want me to move away (with the exception of my aunt who couldn’t believe I waited as long as I did before fleeing to California.) and they’re always saying they wish I could stay longer, or that I would just move back – but then when I AM there…they barely talk to me. So what do you want me around for, exactly? I guess they just want me to be there. To just exist in closer proximity to them. Not really to talk to me, but just to have me around. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, is there? That isn’t so bad. That’s a basic human connection – just being there. As I was eating my ma’s peach cobbler last night, I couldn’t help but think “She’s made this for me.” And that made me feel good. She did that because she loves me and she’s happy that I came home to see them. And then my grandpa asked me when my flight was leaving, and I smiled and said “4…PM.”

Maybe it doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.

You can find Allison this Thursday – Saturday at the Exit Studio for closing weekend of The Age of Beauty – she gets really chatty, you’ll like it.

Higher Education: Kicking Self-Doubt’s… Booty

Barbara Jwanouskos is here to kick ass and chew bubble gum. And she’s all out of bubble gum.

Summer’s winding down for me. I head back to Pittsburgh in just under two weeks and classes start just five days after that. I’ve been concentrating on finishing the projects that I’ve committed to finishing and starting to cultivate the former good habits that used to be a part of my every day.

Non-sequitur here! I’ve been thinking a lot about tai chi because once I go back, I will be directing my own practice again. I won’t have regular classes to attend. I won’t have guidance from senior students or my instructor anymore. It’s actually a lot like how I went into summer – only with the writing being the activity upon which I had to be more self-directed.

I’m not exactly nervous that I’ll fail to practice. Even though last year was difficult, tai chi was a great way for me to calm down, get centered and move around a little bit. I think the hang-up comes from some kind of thought that goes a little something like this, (HIT IT!) What if when I’m practicing on my own, I end up letting myself off the hook too much and my practice becomes lazy?

I worry about this with writing too. I worry that even my sometimes minimal attempts to work on my play or do free-writing are not enough. But then I read this blog article, “Yes, Virginia, You Can Totally Force Art” by Chuck Wendig and I had sort of a huh, how ‘bout that? moment because I totally agree with him about the idea that when you have a daily practice goal – length of time, words, pages, etc. – cranking out those last couple of words, minutes, fractions of pages do make a difference in the long run. Even if you do end up throwing out all of it. I feel like more often, I have the same experience that Wendig describes, where you read over the what you wrote, and realize, hey, this isn’t nearly as awful as I thought it was…

I had a thought while teaching tai chi to the cast of Nancy Frank’s Inexpressibly Blue directed by Robert Estes for the Bay Area One-Acts Festival. Robert asked me to go through some tai chi and qi gong postures with the cast since I practice and assistant teach tai chi at 108 Heroes Kung Fu and Tai Chi (over in Chinatown). I went through the beginning section of the Yang Family tai chi form up in a beautiful, sunny park yesterday. It was interesting for me to go through the postures and the philosophy behind tai chi with them because you can really go deep down the rabbit hole.

The cast was mostly fixated on the postures of the form because of the blocking they would need to figure out for the performance of the play. Beyond the choreography and memorization of movements, there’s a whole endless string of other considerations to put into the practice. I think writing has been the same way for me this summer. Whenever I get stuck or frustrated with one piece of the play, I just go to another section I think I know about. Sometimes I try to power through a section I’m working on, and just have faith that something might pop up or that I could throw it away if it really sucks.

Tai chi is the same way. I think any practice is. Ultimately, you do have to have faith in yourself that you can go further than you think you can. You have to have faith that you’ll come up with something if you don’t remember what to do next or if you can’t think of where the story goes to. And, you know, tomorrow is another day. Every sucky thing that happened yesterday when you were writing or tai chi-ing just is a total wash the next time you decide to give it time.

There’s this book I’m reading right now about tai chi energetics called Juice: Radical Taiji Energetics, which probably sounds like fake magic BS to a lot of people, but the thing is, even with a feat that seems impossible, the two things he says that you have to do in order to reach these advanced levels are practice every day and believe that it will happen. There’s something to that. I don’t care if it’s radical or if it’s common sense. They work together too. Maybe you don’t always believe in what you’re doing but, ef it! You’re gonna practice anyway. And maybe you don’t always feel like you have time to practice, but hey, if you don’t, then how will you ever develop?

One of the screenwriting books Save The Cat Strikes Back! says basically the same thing that in order for him to find success with his writing, he had to be disciplined, focused and positive with his work. Those are hard things to remember to do sometimes, but it sure beats kicking your own booty with self-doubt. I’m trying to remember these small ideas that count when I come back to my thesis play to write, as I prepare to teach a whole group of students creative writing for the first time, and as I try to keep my tai chi practice this year. I’m confident something will come out of it if I can just wade through the muck. Did anyone ever regret taking the time to put a few more crappy sentences upon the screen? Probably not… Who knows where they will lead!

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Branding Upon the Brain

Marissa Skudlarek contemplates picking her own brand.

“You can’t write songs if you’re thinking about Where Does This Album Belong In The Universe,” says a character in Rob Handel’s play A Maze. “You’re trying to fit it into, like, our life story as a band before it exists. You’re overthinking.”

This line wrung a wry smile from me when I saw Just Theater’s excellent production of A Maze last week. Because I can fall prey to this kind of overthinking (as well as many other kinds). I can be more concerned with Where Does This Play Fit Into My Oeuvre than with, you know, actually sitting down to write it – more preoccupied with “does this feel like a Marissa Skudlarek play?” than with perfecting the plot or characterization.

But we live in an era of “personal branding,” which makes it easy to get caught up in such thoughts. The market for playwrights is oversaturated, so we think we must develop a unique angle to make our work stand out. Literary managers and producers always say that what attracts them to new writers is “their fresh creative voice,” so we worry that our voices aren’t fresh enough, original enough. Besides, whenever I tell people that I’m a playwright, their first question is “What kind of plays do you write?” So I ought to have a smart, memorable reply.

I used to hedge when asked this question. I’d make excuses. I’d say, with a winsome bright-eyed smile, “Oh, I think I’m still probably finding my voice.” But what’s charming when you’re fresh out of college becomes far less so when you’re a mid-twenties adult who ought to know better. (See Frances Ha for a cinematic depiction of this.)

I’ll be thinking about my personal brand a lot in the coming weeks, as well as other facets of my writing career, because I’ve been selected for Theatre Bay Area’s ATLAS Program for Playwrights. Along with 19 other writers, I will attend classes in setting professional goals and taking my writing to the next level; I will also draw up a career roadmap. As such, I will probably need to come up with real answers to “What kinds of plays do I write?” and “Where do I belong in the universe?”

Some of my fellow ATLAS writers seem to have better-defined personal brands than I do, at least judging by the statements they supplied for their bios. Paul Heller “writes plays to make sense of cultural and political differences and how other people perceive the U.S.” Theo Miller’s work “pays tribute to historical business dealings and economic phenomena” and “credibly dramatizes entrepreneurialism.”

I think I would love to have such a strong sense of purpose; I would love to sense that there is a through-line that connects all of my plays, and sum it up in twenty words. But what would happen if Heller suddenly got the urge to write a sci-fi drama, or Miller got the urge to write a romantic comedy? Would they follow that impulse, or would they say “No, that’s off-brand for me, I shouldn’t write it”?

Indeed, as much as I want to have a recognizable brand and voice as a writer, I also worry about constraining or limiting myself. For instance, I realize that I often explore different historical eras in my writing: several of my full-length plays are set in various decades of the 20th century (The Rose of Youth in 1934, Aphrodite in the early 1940s, Pleiades in 1971). But after writing all of those, I am really looking forward to writing a full-length play that takes place in a contemporary setting! And one reason that I scaled back my involvement with the Olympians Festival this year – I’m writing two ten-minute plays, rather than anything more elaborate – is because I don’t want to become “that girl who always writes plays based on Greek mythology.”

A brand can make you stand out – but that means it can also make you a target. The playwrights who have the most recognizable brands tend to be the most polarizing writers, and the ones who are easiest to stereotype and parody.

And, you know, originally, a brand was what you seared into a cow’s flesh with a hot iron in order to mark your ownership of it. It sounds painful and alarming and not something that any cow would choose for itself. Maybe, therefore, we should let the world brand us, rather than working to brand ourselves. (I’ve never even wanted to get a tattoo!) I’d like the freedom to be full of contradictions and possibilities, rather than limiting myself to a narrow brief. If I write well and honestly enough, I will develop a voice and, therefore, a brand of my own. But, as Rob Handel suggests in the unclassifiable, un-brandable A Maze, it’s not something that I should overthink.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer (is that enough of a brand for you?). Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Cowan Palace: Hives, Tears, and a Lesson in Love

Ashley Cowan recalls her first involvement with Theater Pub and shares her original piece “How To Get Over Someone Who Is Just Not That Into You”.

Last week I attended Theater Pub’s final performance at Cafe Royale and it left me with a lot of feelings. Surprise, surprise, I know, considering my tendency to feel things. Anyway, it caught me for a moment as a watched the evening unfold that I was standing in a similar place three and a half years ago when I first performed with Theater Pub. Or as I’ve come to know it: the event when I read actual excerpts from my personal diary.

At the time, sharing my writing was one of my biggest fears. The idea of anyone hearing my work made me break out into literal hives and immediately start producing authentic human tears. But I so desperately wanted to be a part of the writing scene and when an opportunity came through with Theater Pub, I quickly accepted without really thinking about how potentially terrifying sharing something so intimate and private would be. But leave it to Theater Pub to offer that kind of unique chance in an almost surprisingly welcoming way.

I also thought about the person I developed into after that first performance. I started my Theater Pub involvement sharing my emotional experience in trying to get over someone to ending it with a final viewing sitting next to the love of my life (hi Will!). I thank Theater Pub for giving me the chance to scare myself silly, try something new, and be pushed to new territories.

And it also led me to think about the subject of my first reading, my diary entry. A man who inspired me to start a separate journal in an attempt to actively get over him. I haven’t seen him in years but thanks to some Facebooking, I’ve learned that he went overseas and went through some serious medical complications that may have taken a great deal of his memories away. So the reality is, he may not remember me at all. Which aside from the sadness I feel for him and his situation, breaks my heart a bit to think that the sum of our relationship lives only in my mind. And perhaps with the audience who once heard me voice some of those thoughts.

Rereading it again made me almost as uncomfortable as it did the first time. But I thought I’d share it again in honor of Theater Pub’s last night with Cafe Royale and to embrace the changes we’ve all made throughout the years while still celebrating our beginnings. Ah, so here we go. If you need me, I’ll be breaking out into hives and weeping in the corner.

“How To Get Over Someone Who Is Just Not That Into You”

Our Relationship.

Too often we’re so thankful for what someone has given us. Maybe it was a great advice, a kiss that still gives you butterflies, or an opportunity to become stronger. We assume they’ll be able to give us these great things for a life time. And sometimes the sad reality is, they can’t. They just can’t.

Your face. A poem I haven’t been able to write.

Your touch. A song I’ve only hummed.

November 5th 2008

The air is full of electricity and thick with hope as millions around the country celebrate Obama’s victory on the presidency.

I’m laying in bed. I just Googled you.

Several days have passed since we last texted. Several. And so many days before that since we last spoke.

I’m in a cold, cold room while 98 degrees plays on the radio. I look longingly at my phone as if you could just pop out of it, come lay next to me, and keep me warm.

What’s wrong with me? Why do I keep holding onto you? It’s like I’m charged too.

I just want to be changed.

I’m full of frustration and anger and I can’t seem to get to any other base of it all other than you.

When is this going to stop? When does the mere idea of you become just a fleeting moment in my mind?

November 6th 2008

I got a dog.

And stole pink furniture from the street.

November 7th 2008

I let another boy linger on my lips. Okay, it was a stage kiss, but still. Damn it. I will get over you.

November 8th 2008

I worked all day. I acted my heart out. I pretended to be a pregnant woman with two different boyfriends who had to love me.

I let someone call me pretty.

But I missed you today. A moment of you, really. A memory. A feeling I once had.

If I can feel all of these things for you is it possible you could feel anything for me at some time? I know I should not think about that. But i think you used to like me. At least a little. Who do you like now?

November 9th 2008

Had friends over. Surrounded myself in people who love me.

Read the play that took me about a year to complete. Wept because I found you there in the words. Hidden in letters. Brought to life with each sound. Realized that you are like the ocean… vague. Dominating.

Ruled by the moon?

November 10th 2008

Tried to sleep but awoke to a face who needed me: the dog.

Designed a job that I know you’d be just right for.

Had a terrible audition.

Ate delicious pumpkin ice cream.

Fell asleep to songs I once considered ours.

November 11th 2008

Grew sad remembering the past and researched places I once lived. And how they changed and continued once I left them.

I don’t even know if you live in California these days.

Time. I don’t understand it. And I can’t tell if it’s helping me.

November 12th 2008

I think we’re disappearing. Meaning the idea of the two of us together is disappearing. I’m still here… I think. I have no idea where you are. You feel so far away, so distant. Sometimes I have to ask if “we” existed at all because it just seems like that idea could only live in on a foreign island far away.

I asked myself how long it would take me to accept the idea that I may never see you again. For real never see you again, never talk to you again. I estimated six months.

We’ve gone this long without speaking before but it just makes me so sad. Come on, pal, is this really it? Is this how we end things for good? Why can’t I accept the idea? I guess I don’t want to. I’m working on it though.

Today I had a minor breakdown. I felt so tired. It’s wrong for me to connect my happiness with my lack of contact with you… it’s just unfortunately something that happens.

November 13th 2008

We made it to one month without any communication. I know you’re not counting days like I am but wow, this weighs me. One month of nothing.

And yet I feel everything. It still hurts.

My mother still likes you. She still roots for you. She wants you back in my life more than I do. That makes this process even harder. I need to stop telling her that you still hold thoughts of mine. I told her I deleted your number from my phone and she seemed close to insulted.

Ugh.

I read. I hang out with my dog. I change my hair. I sing. I try to keep distracted.

November 14th 2008

I sang for a crowd today.

A couple called me beautiful. A beautiful singer. It’s all I could wish for.

November 15th 2008

Acted all day. Felt two sides of fictional love. Was left with the eternal question: is it better to be the lover or the beloved?

November 16th 2008

Went to an audition and they laughed at my monologue. It felt nice to be appreciated in that way.

I think I’m getting closer to getting over you. I think I’m ready to let this go. And that idea makes me feel so good. To take those chains off. To remove the final link. To just let things be. I wanted to fuss, I wanted to fight, but deep down I want reciprocated love even more. I need you to love me without all that. Just plain and simple.

For me being me. And you can’t do that.

November 17th 2008

Taught a small class and created a play called “Thanksgiving At Never Never Land”.

Felt so good today because I felt like I was really over it all. I was going to be strong and move on.

Took my dog for a nice long walk.

Went out to Thai food with friends. Which is always helpful. We talked about the best kisses of our lives. Couldn’t quite articulate if you were indeed my best kiss… can the idea of the best kiss be destroyed by anger from the past? I built up our first kiss. It meant a lot to me at one time. I’m not sure what that means now.

November 18th 2008

I went to Marin today. I couldn’t help but wonder if you still lived there. How funny if you did considering it seems like there is nothing but distance between us.

December 2nd 2008

AND THEN IT ALL CHANGED. Not for the better. Not for the worse. And not really at all…

We’re “talking” again. Which only means we’ve exchanged a few text messages.

Worthless and meaningless texts. I don’t think I even like you any more. I’m not interested as much. I don’t even think I want to see you again.

As soon as I stop that slight flicker of interest at one of your messages I know I’ll be fine.

December 10, 2009

May have taken a year. But, yes, indeed. No flicker of interest anymore.

Sadly, or I guess, just honestly, other boys have swept in and new games begin. All seeming to end in similar a pattern. I need to get over boys who have already gotten over me.

Theater Around The Bay: 16 Actors You Should Totally Cast

Stuart Bousel processes a callback that was an embarrassment of riches.

I recently had the awesome experience of sitting through the call-backs for Custom Made’s 2014 production of The Crucible, which I will be directing. I say “awesome” because it’s probably the first time in my career I gotten to watch 50+ actors audition their butts off for five hours and have literally all of them be really, really good. No lie: we honestly could have charged admission to the callbacks, they were that entertaining and engaging. I could have easily cast the show three times over with totally different people each time, and been perfectly happy with each version of the cast, that’s how good this pool of performers was.

Alas, as is often the case, I only had 16 slots available, not even a third of the excellent actors I had to choose from. When it came to decision time, I worked really hard to balance my final choices with familiar faces and new ones, people I loved working with along with people I’ve been wanting to work with, while also factoring in all those different things any director factors in when casting (like if certain actors make for a believable family, etc.), and yet of course at the end of the day I still ended up with a list of un-cast actors I couldn’t help but stare at and think, “Oh, but that person’s fantastic!” while also recognizing there just wasn’t a place for them in this show.

For me, the list of desired collaborations is always longer than the list of people I actually get to collaborate with on any given show, so, with an enormous desire to celebrate just how much talent we really have in this Bay Area theater scene of ours, here are 16 incredible folks from The Crucible callbacks that I didn’t cast this time around, which again still leaves out a whole lot of other great people who I saw that day. Next time, my friends. And in the meantime, to all my fellow directors, snatch these folks up while you can. They’re amongst the best of the best.

Sam Bertken. I’ve gotten to know Sam pretty well over the last year since I first met him at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, and he’s both a delightful person and a delightful actor. His strengths lie in physical comedy and exciting, larger-than-life characters, and so he’s perfect for stylized works, broad comedies and performances pieces. He played Tranio for me when I directed Taming of the Shrew this past year and he’s very easy to work with, very dedicated, and he comes into the room with a lot of ideas to contribute towards building a character. He also takes direction exceptionally well, pulling back and toning down when you need him to, opening up and making a character explode on stage when you let him run loose. He almost stole the show every night of our run and yet he’s undeniably a total team player. He’ll be playing Peter Pan this fall at Custom Made and I kind of can’t wait in an embarrassingly fanboy way.

Kat Bushnell. Kat and I have a long history of working together, ever since I cast her back in 2011 in my production of Giant Bones, the auditions for which were my first introduction to the bundle of warm support and talent that is Kat Bushnell. Funny, smart, friendly- and she can sing!- Kat Bushnell is a triple threat who pulls off one of the best British accents of any actress I’ve seen in the Bay and she works hard in any role you put her in, from minor character to lead: a perfect ensemble member (which was essential in Giant Bones). She’s also a great cold reader- playwrights take note!- and a lot of the work I’ve done with her has been script in hand because Kat’s good at making strong, immediate choices and she has a lovely, melodic speaking voice that makes all your lines sound good, hence making her a staple of the SF Olympians festival since year one.

Ben Calabrese. Never saw this guy before Crucible auditions, I sincerely hope to get a chance to work with him at some point in the future. An able reader and a jovial participant, I kept having him read partly because I enjoyed what he brought out in other actors and he had a really nice, open-to-anything vibe that I found myself enjoying regardless of what role I had him read for. Lots of energy and enthusiasm, my guess is he’s a total team player- you’d have to be to endure five hours of callbacks and still have a smile on your face.

Ashley Cowan. Ashley has played a lead for me twice now and I have to say, she is one dedicated actor and you can be sure, if you cast her, that she will work incredibly hard. She’s also a friendly, pro-team presence backstage, perpetually positive and good at rallying the troops even when you’re marching through that deathly terrible dress rehearsal where nothing goes right. She turns in thoughtful, layered performances with a particular penchant for anti-ingenues, those young women roles characterized by being just outside the normal, run-of-the-mill heroine variety, smarter and quirkier than the girl next door. As Viola in my Twelfth Night she had a heart-breaking reunion scene with her Sebastian that brought tears to the audience’s eyes every single time but she’s probably better known throughout the Bay Area as a comic actress and for very good reasons: she’s genuinely funny and has a dry, deadpan delivery that kills when aimed to do so.

Laura Domingo. A passionate, fiery performer, Laura does hysteria and agony like nobody else, but she’s also got a sexy, seductive side that revealed itself during the Olympians Festival last year when she played a femme fatale in a noire style play by Colin Johnson. In reality, she’s a sweet person who has been game for everything we’ve given her at the Olympians Festival and I love when she turns up again and again for consideration- demonstrating a positive, open attitude that characterizes the best variety of performer. One day, Laura, I just know we’re going to do a kick-ass show together. 

Matt Gunnison. Matt and I have done four full productions together and a play I wrote has, what I think, is the perfect leading role for him (now if only I could find a producer!). Talk about an actor with range, Matt can do funny, Matt can do scary, and Matt can do sympathetic, and in my ideal role for him he gets to do all of that and more in one night. He has an elastic body and an incredibly expressive face that evokes tremendous responses from audiences and he’s both absolutely solid and reliable while also being the sort of performer who can, when asked, surprise the hell out of you. On top of that he’s arguably the nicest guy in the Bay Area theater scene, soft-spoken and gently witty, astute and supportive and 100% there when you need him. He’s a cornerstone actor, the kind of presence that elevates your production both backstage and onstage, and it’s criminal that he’s not hugely famous.

April Green. Seriously, this woman is such a powerhouse and I never saw her or knew her name before these auditions and now I want to see whatever she gets cast in next because I sense she tears it up like few others can. She brought a deeply emotional weight to everything she read for and she has a grace and a kindness to her that I found very moving, especially for a cold read. I worry she’s gonna read this and think I’m a stalker. I swear, I’m not. Just a freshly converted fan to who was, for me, the best new face in this truly epic assortment of actors.

Ryan Hayes. My longest running collaborator in the Bay Area, Ryan was in the very first show I ever directed in the Bay Area (Edward II) and we’ve probably done ten shows together since, not to mention a ton of readings and other theatrical collaborations. An amazingly versatile and dedicated performer, Ryan is one of those people who can play a wide variety of roles, from over-the-top to incredibly subtle, and often times accessing both extremes of his range in the same evening. He loves big characters but he’s excellent at solid and subtle ones too and when he’s in your cast you can rely on him coming through on all fronts, being one of the first to get off book, and ready to lend a hand with any element of the production. He’s a team player and a team leader, and he just gets better and easier to work with as time goes on.

Neil Higgins. Neil can do flamboyant, acidic wit like nobody else and, interestingly enough, his other forte is charmingly insecure everymen. He has exceptionally good comic timing and the unique ability to go from brittle to endearing at the drop of a hat. Backstage he’s a solid addition to the mix, sure to make people laugh in the rehearsal process, always able and willing to buckle down and get work done when the time has come. During the production of Measure for Measure I cast in him (and in which he stole the show every night) he destroyed a bottle of beer mid-performance and totally made it work without missing a beat. It was pretty legendary. 

Sharon Huff Robinson. I only got to know Sharon a little bit through callbacks but she made a very good impression on me, striking me as a smart woman with a great sense of humor about herself and the whole show business thing, combining that with some really truly solid acting skills. What I loved the most about her audition is that she’s so obviously a strong, self-assured woman who wouldn’t put up with all the crap Miller subjects his female characters to in The Crucible. Side note: she kind of looks like mid-1980s Carrie Fisher.

Heather Kellogg. Yet another smart, enthusiastic and courageous actress, Heather always makes super daring choices during auditions that are a nice contrast to her very girl-next-door look and vibe. She can do a thoroughly believable Irish accent, has a good command of stylized language and classical text, and she’s at the perfect place to play a number of different ingénue roles, from flighty and delightful, to the “guarding secrets and plans” variety, to the brave and plucky kind. I kind of want to see her play Anne Shirley in a stage adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, and if you know how much I love Anne of Green Gables, you realize this is no joking matter.

Brian Martin. Of all the actors I have known over an extended period of time, Brian has evolved the most. He was always very watchable, a cute guy with a very natural acting style that makes him an excellent choice for modern theater, but in the last few years I have been using him for classical productions and he’s just as competent and comfortable with verse and poetry. He works hard, he takes himself and the art very seriously, but he’s never a wet blanket about anything and he has no ego at all, making him a great addition to the backstage environment of the show (seriously, is there anyone in the world who doesn’t like Brian?). He’s at the perfect age to play lots of male romantic leads and he’s one of the most non-awkward stage kissers I’ve ever directed. Seriously, he’s made out with somebody in every single play I’ve cast him in, and nobody ever complains about it. 

Theresa Miller. Speaking of inarguably lovable, Theresa Miller is another person I think we can all agree is just, well… utterly likable. Blessed with an inarguably endearing smile and a penchant for feckless comedy, my favorite roles I’ve seen her in are the ones where someone has noticed just how terrifying Theresa is when cast as evil. Evil Theresa is truly scary, because when she says horrible things there’s still an undertone of sweetness to her that somehow makes it just that much more psychotic sounding. She also nails victimized characters, at least partly because you never want to see anything bad happen to Theresa. A few years ago I produced a play she was in called Oily Replies where she played a kind of lost film noire ingénue and moments when the detective would manhandle her you really just wanted to punch him. A truly charming and dedicated actress who generates immediate emotional loyalty from audiences (when not creeping them out), I can’t recommend her more.

Allison Page. This just in: if you don’t know Allison Page, you need to, and now is your chance because I predict she will be beyond big time relatively soon. Everything about her is star quality. She’s funny, she’s smart, she’s sensitive, she’s articulate, she can take direction well and she likes to push herself to do new things and go places she hasn’t gone before. She’s a delight backstage- I thoroughly believe she has been blessed with the remarkable ability to be able to get along with virtually anybody- and audiences fall in love with her approximately 35 seconds after she first walks out on stage. Jennifer Lawrence whatever, Allison is the perfect ingénue for modern theater because she nails quirky without ever being precious or contrived and she’s also got a tough core that lends her characters a nice edge and some gravitas. She’s very beautiful in a throw-back to the Golden Age of Hollywood way, and her ability to knock both indie heroine roles and comedic love interest parts out of the park makes her usable in a variety of shows and contexts.

Jessica Rudholm. Ultra-professional backstage and a thoughtful, invested performer, the most unique and startling thing about Jessica is that she packs, into a small and delicate body, an unbelievable amount of power and strength. She has dancer and movement training that allows her to do physically astounding things on stage and her voice is deep, smoky and resonate. She’s so striking on stage she almost demands exceptional parts of the Queen, Sorceress, God Incarnate variety, and in the past she’s played unusual characters like Feste in Twelfth Night and the Moon in my play Twins because there is an ethereal, mesmerizing quality to her that allows her to pull off those kinds of roles without the tiniest bit of affectation. It’s just Jessica doing what she does best, namely being the most riveting presence in the room.

Paul Stout. I kind of feel like Paul can do almost any kind of character you throw at him, and is the apex of that solid, dependable performer you can use in a wide variety of roles, always knowing that whatever he’s been given he’ll make it a vital part of your production with strong and compelling storytelling. I’ve particularly liked Paul in lovable dickhead roles, though I think my favorite performance of his is still the first one I saw him in, as a drunk, pathetic factory foreman in Audience at Theater Pub. Paul nailed that perfect balance between irritating and impossible to not feel sorry for, and he repeatedly makes difficult characters accessible, show after show.

So there you go. Sixteen actors I won’t be using for my next show but you absolutely should. And you know what? I could list another 16, and still not have listed everyone at these call-backs who was worthy of note (which again, was pretty much everyone). What it really comes down to is this: there are a lot of things we can stand to improve in the Bay Area theater scene, but it’s important to also remember there are a lot of things which are right, which are un-beatable, and there’s nothing like five hours of watching talented, passionate performers perform to remind you that a lot of the good stuff about doing work out here starts with the people you get the chance to work with. Someone you love not on this list? Then by all means, tell us about them! Tell the world! Help open a door for them and by doing so continue to grow our scene into a better, brighter, more exciting place to be.

Stuart Bousel attends an abnormally large number of auditions over the course of any given year and does his best to pay really close attention to all of them. That said, he won’t be casting any shows for quite some time in the forsee-able future. Yes, it’s screwing with his brain. He hopes to one day talk a producer into funding his dream production of Clive Barker’s Colossus, in which he would be able to cast literally everybody who was at the Crucible auditions, and then some. You would want to see this show. It would be amazing.

Announcing Theater Pub’s Collaboration With This Year’s Bay One Acts Festival!

We’re excited to say that we’ll be returning to the Bay One Acts Festival (often referred to as “BOA”) for the third year in a row. This year’s contribution will be the one act play “Shooter” by Pub new-comer, Daniel Hirsch, directed by past-collaborator Rik Lopes. The cast will feature three more folks making their SF Theater Pub debut: Melvin Badiola, Randy J. Blair, and John Lowell.

Billed with the tagline, “Three very different men, one terrible thing in common”, the show is a collage of three different voices, delving into the uncomfortable perspectives of men who have all committed a horrible crime. From different social classes and backgrounds, little unites these men together beyond the implement of their misdeeds: a loaded gun.

“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/.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Understudy Overrthinking

Dave Sikula is learning new tricks.

As I’ve mentioned more than once in this space, I’ve been in the theatre for a long time. I’ve directed nearly 50 plays, and have acted in probably a couple of hundred full-length plays, one-acts, brown-bag theatre pieces, commercials, films, and classroom scenes. In all that time, I’ve never missed a performance.

Not when I had such horrible laryngitis I had to croak my way through “The Sea Gull” (and I was actually pretty good, even if I was about ten years too young for the part).

Not when I had an attack of vertigo while doing a musical (though truthfully, what I laughingly call my “dancing” was probably better).

Not after running through a glass door and getting a few dozen stitches in the ER. (In fact, with that one, the fact that I had to wear a brace on my pinky actually added to the performance by increasing the character’s effeteness.)

Not when I was 75 minutes late for a performance of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” thanks to Friday night Los Angeles traffic. (That’s 75 minutes late for the curtain, not the call.)

Not when my mother was dying (The truth was the distraction was welcome).

Until last week, that is.

When I accepted my part* in my current show (“The Book of Liz” at Custom Made Theatre Co.), I was hesitant because I had tickets to a couple of jazz concerts during the run. “No problem!,” the producers assured me. “We’ll get you an understudy!”

And so, gentle reader, during rehearsals and the first three weeks of production, your humble correspondent had a shadow. He noted my blocking, watched my actions and reactions, memorized my lines, saw where I placed my props and made my costume changes backstage – and made his own plans on ways to replicate – and improve – the performance. On the Wednesday before my absence, I watched him run through the scenes with the rest of the cast, offered him a few notes on some little blocking and prop things he’d missed, saw him do some things I decided to steal, and generally felt like a guest at my own funeral.

I did the usual Thursday and Friday evening performances and the Saturday matinee, all the time joking about how the show would go without me – “better” was my assumption.

So far in the run of the show, we’ve run the gamut of audience reaction, from falling-out-of-their-seats laughter to quiet toleration (including a few walkouts – no easy feat in the Gough Street Playhouse in a show without an intermission; you really have to want to leave).

Saturday evening, I drove over to Oakland and saw the jazz shows (which were fabulous), but all the time, I was looking at my watch, thinking “Well, the show’s just going up;” or trying to figure out just where in the proceedings they might be.

After my own show ended at about 11, I texted the rest of the cast to find out how the show had gone. Came the answer “Well … there are a number of ways to answer that …” In spite of the fact that I had wished them only the best (for real), I was kind of hoping it had gone a little wacky (which is inevitable, if only for the fact that I’m about a foot taller than the other actor), so I wasn’t either surprised or disappointed to hear it was different.

So, Sunday, I headed back to Oakland again for the next jazz show (again, great) and, afterwards, texted to find out the results. Simply put, the reports were of pandemonium. The audience had gone bananas! They’d added five minutes of laughs to the performance! It had never gone better! And while I was happy for my erstwhile cast mates, I found that I was incredibly jealous.

To be honest, that reaction wasn’t totally unexpected. I really feel the understudy is a good actor and probably more suited to the part than I am, so hearing it had gone that well was a likely outcome. But I couldn’t help but feel depressed and marginalized (and let me add that my fellow cast members have been nothing but supportive and I have nothing but respect and gratitude to my understudy). Was it merely a great audience? Was it a result of my lousy performance being replaced and improved-upon? A combination? The thing is, I had almost suggested that the understudy do last week’s matinee, so I could see the performance for myself, but a) that really would have made me feel like a ghost, and b) probably would have accomplished nothing other than to give me more stuff to appropriate for my own performance …

In the intervening days, I’ve gotten over the initial jealousy and am looking forward to getting back to performances this week, but I’m afraid that, in the back of my head, there’s going to be that nagging feeling that, no matter how good I am, would the show be better with you-know-who in the part?

Actually, to tell you the truth, you can see him again on August 17 and judge for yourself. We extended a week, and it’s my wife’s birthday, so I had to have another night off. After 40 years of not missing anything, I have three in one show. Go figure.

My ultimate point, I guess, isn’t to express anything other than my own insecurities. I hold no resentments; just jealousy and wondering about all the “what ifs.”

Ah, a life in the theatre!

(*I nearly called what I’m doing “a role,” but was reminded of one of my favorite anecdotes. The late and great Sylvia Sidney – whom you might know best as either the Slim Whitman-loving grandmother in “Mars Attacks!” or as Juno the afterlife coach in “Beetlejuice” – was cast in the TV revival of “Fantasy Island.” She gave an interview where she was asked what her role was. She stopped the interviewer dead, saying – in her throaty growl – “Juliet is a role. Lady Macbeth is a role. This … is a part.”

Dave Sikula has been acting and directing in Los Angeles and the Bay Area for more than 30 years. He’s worked with such companies as American Conservatory Theatre, South Coast Repertory, the Grove Shakespeare Festival, Dragon Productions, Palo Alto Players, and 42nd Street Moon. As a writer and dramaturg, he’s translated the plays of Anton Chekhov and had work produced by ANTA West.

Falling With Style: All Art Is Equal (But Some Is More Equal Than Others)

Helen Laroche is making art… or is she?

A few years ago, when I quit my job in sales because I was burned out, I set an intention for myself: I’d mentally finger-paint for a while, listen to whatever interests came my way, and build on those until I became an artist. Simple.

At the time, I thought I was going to become a writer. (I still have goals of publishing a book — no particular thoughts on the content.) But in this early period of unemployment, still far too grateful for the free time to be freaking out about money, I didn’t navigate towards writing.

I navigated towards baking bread.

Really. I spent my a month or so testing bread recipes — loaf bread, dinner rolls, pizza dough; white, wheat, cornmeal. With all the free time at my disposal, I could let them leisurely rise for a few hours before punching them back down. I could, for the first time in my life, afford to make little errors in my cooking in the name of experimentation, swapping out one ingredient for another to see what happened. I came from a pretty processed-food kind of home, and in comparison to anything you can get at the store, homemade sandwich bread is the shit.

I was puzzled — or more accurately, troubled — with my change in vocation. Sure, I wanted to be an artist, but that meant performing arts. Always had. That’s what I quit that high-paying, low-rewards job for, right? I felt the grip of guilt close around my throat: I jumped off the cliff so I could follow my bliss. And now I’m not even following through! Isn’t a career in the performing arts what I’ve always wanted? How could I give that up?

Cut to the past few weeks.

I haven’t been auditioning, haven’t been singing much outside of the shower, which the guilt grip continues to give me a little pressure for. But I have been doing a lot of event management for the company I’ve recently started working for. And it’s intense, and it’s stressful, and I love it. And I think I’m good at it, too. It’s definitely a creative outlet. (Today the whole company is recording a music video in Golden Gate Park. Mullet wigs, inflatable guitars, airbrush tattoos — guess who thought that up?) But is it art?

And this is where I start to go cross-eyed: if I sit and admit to myself, yeah, maybe the whole singing-and-dancing thing isn’t for me right now, am I being honest or am I just weaseling out of a life goal? How do I honor the goals and aspirations of my youth (“When I grow up, I’m going to be on Broadway!”) while also recognizing what feels good — not just hedonist-avoidance good, but truly in-my-soul good — right now?

And if I am drawn to what feels good and right in this moment, flitting every which way my bliss takes me, how will I ever achieve success, which I assume is a state that takes years of single-mindedness?

If you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

Helen is a sentient multi-cellular organism with the ability to convey thoughts through mutually-agreed upon symbols, which if you think about it, is pretty bad-ass. She strings together symbols elsewhere at <a href=”http://www.sayshelen.com“>SaysHelen.com</a>.