Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Theater-Goers of the World, Unite!

Marissa Skudlarek takes on the perception of Theatre as a leisure activity for the rich.

My column is called “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life,” but I hope you realize that I’m saying that with tongue firmly planted in cheek. The last thing I want to do is perpetuate the idea that theater is an elitist pursuit.

Yes, theater is a leisure activity, a luxury rather than a necessity. The downtrodden of society require adequate food and housing far more than they require tickets to see a play. But within the realm of leisure activities, theater should be no more elitist than, say, sports. One source I found online says that the average price of a ticket to a Giants game is $30 — and there’s plenty of good theater to be found in the Bay Area for $30 a ticket.

Yet theater is perceived as more elitist than baseball — and what’s worse, there are forces in society that seem to want it that way.

The other night, I took an online survey conducted by the company that makes those glossy playbills for CalShakes and Berkeley Rep and ACT. They wanted to get a sense of the people who attend plays at those theaters, in order to have data to show to their advertisers. And, judging by the questions that they asked, they are under the impression that everyone who goes to these theaters is rolling in dough.

The survey asked “What is the current market value of your primary residence?” and “I don’t know, I rent a room in an apartment” was not an option. (Note, too, the phrase “primary residence” — as though many of the people who take this survey have second homes!) It asked whether I had made use of a cosmetic surgeon, an architect, a landscaper, and/or a personal chef within the last year. It asked whether I had a “financial planner/advisor,” a “CPA,” a “private banker/wealth manager,” and/or a “stockbroker” working for me, when I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the difference is between those four types of financial professionals. It asked whether I’d been on a cruise in the past year, or bought “fine jewelry.”

Toward the end, the survey asked “What is your profession?” And rather than listing the choices in alphabetical order or random order, the survey arranged them in a way that seems to go from most-frequent/most-desirable (among theatergoers) to least-frequent/least-desirable. In order, the choices went “Retired, Homemaker, Management, Business & Finance, Computer & Tech, Architecture & Engineering, Life/Physical/Social Sciences, Community & Social Services; Legal; Education & Library; Arts/Design/Entertainment; Sales; Office & Administrative Support; Farming/Fishing/Forestry; Laborer; Food Preparation & Serving; Personal Care & Service; Military Specific; Owner/Principal.”

I have never seen such a bald-faced description of our class system. Finance and tech on top; restaurant workers, hairdressers, and home health aides on the bottom. And an admission that these big institutional theaters cater mostly to retirees and homemakers!

By this time, I was really pissed off, and thought of putting “Laborer,” out of some romantic Marxist notion that we wage-slaves of the proletariat have to show solidarity with one another. But in truth, I work as a paralegal, so I put “Legal,” though I know that to the makers of this survey, being a paralegal (as opposed to an attorney) probably doesn’t really “count” as being a member of the legal profession.

I understand that advertisers want to target the people with the most disposable income, and thus, the money of an apartment-renting paralegal isn’t worth as much to them as the money of a home-owning CEO. Even if lots of working- and middle-class people attend the theater and complete this survey, the advertisers will probably still chase after rich people’s money, because they have more of it to spend.

But what galls me is that the survey won’t even acknowledge that theatergoers can come from the middle and working classes. That “I rent an apartment” or “I cobble together odd jobs to pay the bills” were not even options. Theaters say that they want to welcome new, young audiences, and then they send us a survey whose subtext is “If you don’t own a million-dollar home, you don’t belong here.” All you really need in order to attend the theater is a free night and $30 or so for your ticket. But this survey makes it seem like, in order to pass through the hallowed doors of this Temple of Culture, you need much more than that: you need money and property and education and a thick, impervious armor of upper-class privilege.

And now I’m thinking about all of the things the survey could have asked, instead of asking how much money I make or what kind of car I drive. (I don’t have a car; that’s why I live in San Francisco!) It could have asked me how often I attend the theater, or what I gain from theatergoing, or why I spend so much time and money on an activity that has all of this snooty, elitist baggage attached to it. Maybe then they would have learned something that’s truly worth hearing.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and wage-earner. She likes to refer to herself as an “Oscar Wilde-style socialist.” Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Cowan Palace: The 5th Annual Halloween Scavenger Hunt

Ashley Cowan shares a Halloween treat.

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Happy Day Before Halloween, Theater Pub-ers! Hope you’ve all got an evening of tricks and treats waiting for you. Each year, my sister and I host a unique alternative to the holiday. It started five years ago when Julia Heitner, Katelyn, and I came together to write The First Annual Halloween Scavenger Hunt and has since become a tradition in the Cowan household. Every Halloween, costumed San Francisco souls meet at our apartment, marvel at my dog, and split into teams. Each group receives the list. They are then released into the night to return again in two hours time. After an incredible adventure all over town, we all regroup over tater tots to tally up the points and declare a winner. Through the years, we’ve hosted many Theater Pub enthusiasts but I thought I’d take advantage of this week’s blog to share our upcoming Scavenger Hunt with all of you. Whether you’re able to join us on our romp around the city tomorrow or just live vicariously though the upcoming pictures, here is the latest list!

5th Annual Halloween Scavenger Hunt

October 31, 2013

RULES:

1. Welcome to the night of your lives! Prepare for a memorable evening. First things first: you must have photographic or tangible proof of all items and stunts. Plus, stuff’s going to get weird and you’re going to want to brag about it later online.

2. All items must be acquired during the actual scavenger hunt. Meaning, none of the goodies can come from any of the participants prior to the start of the night.

3. No cheating! What’s the point? It’s boring! Plus, if you do, you will be the person who cheated on a Halloween Scavenger Hunt.

4. The winning team gets loads of high fives, bragging rights, and round of drinks paid for by the losers. All players are welcome to tater tots and pet cuddles.

LET’S BEGIN!

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No Frills Photography:

1 Point

□ Anyone dressed as a pun. It’s awesome. Good for them.

□ A guy dressed like a chick or a lady dressed like a dude

□ Someone who thought pajamas counted as a costume

□ An animal dressed up (add 1 point if this costumed animal is not a dog)

□ Someone pushing the new “no nudity in public” law to the limit

□ Two people conjoined in one costume

□ A man or woman over the age of 80 getting their trick or treat on

Stunts and Dares

2 Points

□ Dance the Thriller Dance with two zombies

□ Do the Charleston with someone from The Great Gatsby

□ Hold hands with a bumblebee

□ Put on someone else’s wig

□ Get a stranger to draw a pumpkin on your abs

□ Look up a ghost’s sheet

□ Have a stranger write you a poem

□ Hold the wand of a Harry Potter character

□ High five Jesus

□ Get a police officer to handcuff you

□ Swim with a mermaid

□ Jump over a Super Mario Brother’s character (plus 1 if it’s not Mario or Luigi)

□ Get examined by a doctor or nurse

□ Take a picture with your costume doppelganger

□ Recommend a book to Miley Cyrus

□ Have a Disney princess do your hair

□ Have an Orange is the New Black character tell you a secret

3 Points

□ Put on a stranger’s sock or stocking

□ Build a human pyramid with at least 5 people.

□ Draw a mustache on a stranger’s face

□ Play catch with a Giant’s player

□ Give the Wolverine a hand massage

□ Start a game of spin the bottle

□ Get Walter White and Jessie to hug it out; with you in the middle of their meth love-fest

□ Spell out any five letter word (with a minimum of two strangers)

□ Share a scotch with Ron Burgundy

□ Give or receive a piggyback ride to or from a kitty

□ Sing something quirky with Zoey Deschanel

□ Lift a super hero

□ Have a stranger feed you candy. You can’t use your hands. (2 bonus points if they don’t use hands either)

□ Switch shoes with a stranger and swing dance with them

□ Serenade a singer with one of their songs

□ Have that 50 Shades of Grey creep tie you up

□ Write your name on a stranger’s thigh

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4 Points

□ Take a picture with a devil on one side and an angel on the other

□ Get a bite of one of Bob’s burgers

□ Switch shirts with a stranger of the opposite sex

□ Tell Grumpy Cat a joke and get him to smile

□ Acquire and bring back an unbroken egg

□ Get a cooking and/or racism lesson from Paula Deen

□ Eskimo kiss a bunny

□ Get a picture of one of your team members at least 5 feet off the ground

□ Play a game of Red Rover with the Game of Thrones cast

□ Find a pair of actual twins and learn their zodiac sign

□ Feed someone from the Hunger Games

□ Have Waldo or Carmen Sandiego give you directions

□ Let a stranger do your makeup

□ Play catch with a Giant’s player

□ Floss a vampire’s teeth

5 Points

□ Crash a party and take a picture in their bathroom

□ Ride on someone else’s bike

□ Get a hickey from a religious figure

□ Talk to a stranger’s mom on the phone

□ Get someone to moon you

□ Get William and Kate to let you hold their baby, George

□ Get a stranger to chew gum that was in your mouth

□ Tweet a selfie of you and Amanda Bynes

□ Get a text from someone dressed as an emoji

Items of Interest:

1 Point

□ One AA battery

□ A crayon

□ A playing card

□ A fortune cookie

□ A movie ticket stub dated 10/31/13

□ A feather

□ A MUNI transfer dated 10/31/13

2 Points

□ A pumpkin

□ A Starbucks cup labeled “pumpkin spice latte”

□ A book

□ A toy spider

□ A scarf

□ A Christmas decoration

□ An unused candle

□ Dark chocolate Halloween candy

□ Dog food

Have fun, be safe, and have a wonderful holiday!

Theater Around The Bay: Mom at Work (From Poopy Diapers to Producing Plays)

Tracy Held Potter tells us what it’s like to be the Theater Maker who “has it all.”

“The world must be peopled.”
-Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing

As a mom of two very, very active young boys, people sometimes marvel at my ability to work in theater while raising children and ask, “How do you do it?”

Well, I have to.

For one thing, I love my boys like crazy and yet I sometimes feel like I need to be around grown-ups, because I occasionally have to do something else besides getting that urine smell out of my bathroom … and clothes … and carpet.

I get stir-crazy being home and doing the same things all the time—the repetition that is so great for young children is hard on me, because I want to hop around and do different things all the time. I want to be swept up in a story and frantically run around trying to collect teams of people, rewrite pages, and sell tickets to shows. That’s why theater feeds my spirit so well: I get to be around grown-ups who like to play and I get to do something completely different every day.

When my first son Henry was born, I marveled at him and wondered what he would be like and what incredible things he would be doing someday. I asked myself what I could do to help him achieve his dreams. I knew immediately that I couldn’t help him achieve his dreams if I didn’t fight to achieve mine.

I actually wrote my first non-academic play within days of Henry’s birth. My post-partum experience was extremely overwhelming, and I was on bedrest for weeks. I wrote a short play called “Reality Checkout” about a new mom’s nightmare about being emotionally attacked in a baby store, and somehow that play helped me to feel a little less lonely.

Seven months after I wrote the play, and about a year after I completed my Theater Arts classes at Laney College, I gathered some friends and approached the owner of a local baby store about producing the play in her shop.

I fantasized about how great the production would be and how dozens of people would flock to this little baby store, how delighted they would be about the production, and how enthusiastically they would purchase products from this independent, mom-owned store. I was making the world a better place!

Within a couple of weeks, the project expanded to include a total of four short plays in various site-specific locations with a showcase of all of the plays at the end of the summer. I wrote three of the four plays, directed two of them, and produced all of them, while working part-time and caring for and nursing my eight-month-old.

We produced the first play at the baby store, but it was kind of a mess. In addition to losing half of our rehearsal time to events outside of my control, we had audiences of about two or three people at each of the three performances, and children who weren’t part of the show kept running through the stage.

Somehow, I managed to bring Henry to a number of rehearsals, and I got away with nursing him while the actors were running lines or practicing their staging. I also brought him to some of the performances, but that turned out to be extremely stressful for me because I would bristle every time he fussed during a scene, worrying that the audience was getting distracted or annoyed.

Despite all of the things that weren’t working, the production gave me the opportunity to break outside of my comfort level and showed me a world that I really wanted to be a part of, and I discovered that this world was accessible to me.

Since then, I have continued to write, direct, and produce plays through my company All Terrain Theater and I’ve tacked on a number of other projects as well.

I’ve found that any work is accessible to me as a parent if my collaborators are comfortable with my status as a parent. Small things like inviting me to bring my children to meetings, telecommuting, or giving me autonomy to generate my own schedule all make it more possible to work while raising small children.

My friend Rachel Bublitz and I created an international playwrights challenge called 31 Plays in 31 Days while each raising two children under the age of four, and I think we accomplished it because we could have meetings at the playground while our children were playing. We worked our schedules around preschool, naps, and making dinner, and we did a lot of the work online. Working with someone who “gets it” makes it possible to flow with the craziness of parenting without fighting against it.

My children are a great gift to my ability to be productive. Because my personal time is so limited, I have to maximize every moment of it. If I have thirty minutes because my kids happened to fall asleep in the car, then I’m writing or responding to important emails. If I have a script due, then I write it as soon as I can, because I never know when I’m going to need to keep my son home from school because he’s sick, or if it’s going to take three hours to put my kids to bed (which is a lie, because I do know, and it’s every single night).

I’ve talked with a number of women who run theater companies in the Bay Area in collaboration with other women, and it’s exciting to hear them create spaces for their children (or future children) within their theaters so that they can continue to be creative and productive in the arts while still being close to their children.

The more we can incorporate the needs and realities of parents in our creation of theater, the richer our stories will become, because we’ll be representing more of the world around us.

But, more importantly, we need children around to remind us what theater is about: creating a magical experience that transports us into another world.

Tracy Held Potter is a writer, director, and producer currently working as an MFA candidate in the Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University is Rob Handel. She is the Artistic Director of All Terrain Theater (www.allterraintheater.org), Executive Director of Play Cafe (www.playcafe.org), and Co-Founder of the 31 Plays in 31 Days Challenge (http://31plays31days.com). She changes a lot of diapers, dispenses many hugs, and is extremely grateful to her dad for caring for her two incredible boys while she runs off to pursue her dreams.

Theater Pub Presents Crappy Holidays On November 16th!

Deck the halls with irreverence!

San Francisco Theatre Pub is proud to present Crappy Holidays, three short plays about the holidays and their discontents, for one night only on November 16, 2013 at the EXIT Theatre Café at 8:30 PM!

Crappy Holidays, written by Nick Gentile and Lisa Gentile, includes Death is My Bitch, Ma’s Thanksgiving Pie, and Bobby’s Letter to Santa. The trio of dark comedies offers a grim reaper making friends in the wrong places, a quasi-sane mother outwitting her offspring, and a disgruntled holiday icon facing a career change. The cast includes Ashley Cowan, Eden Davis, Stephanie Geerlings, Dan Kurtz, B. Warden Lawlor, William Leschber, and Tavis Kammet.

Says director Nick Gentile: “If you don’t need to see another production of A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker, this show is for you! Oh, and the cast rocks!”

Admission will be free, with a suggested donation, at the door!

The EXIT Theatre Café is located at 156 Eddy Street, San Francisco, CA.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: I’m In an Ill Humour

Dave Sikula is bitching about British Theatre.

The misspelling above is intentional and the smallest of protests against what I see as a creeping Anglophilia in the theatre and, well, in general.

My wife and I saw the broadcast of the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Merrily We Roll Along” tonight, and my dislike of the show and the production aside, it reminded me of something I wanted to discuss after seeing the broadcast of the National Theatre’s production of “Othello” last week; namely, why the hell are the only productions seen in this format direct from London? *

Now, to make things clear from the start, I have nothing against the RSC, the National Theatre, the Chocolate Factory, or any other production company or entity (Okay; there are some companies who have burned me often enough that I’ll steer clear of them, but in general, I wish everyone all the best). I mean, I’ve seen their productions in person on numerous occasions and have obviously paid good (American) money to see the broadcasts. Some of them (John Lithgow in “The Magistrate;” “All’s Well That Ends Well”) I’ve enjoyed immensely; some of them were just dull (Derek Jacobi in “Cyrano” and “Much Ado About Nothing”); and some of them were just puzzling (the recent “Othello”). That said, anything that brings theatre into the consciousness of the mass public is to be welcomed.

But why is it always the Brits? What is it about that accent that turns otherwise-sensible Americans weak at the knees? I was going to say “discerning Americans,” but that would mean leaving out New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who seemingly spends as much time in the West End as he does in Times Square. This self-congratulatory article deals with it. (London’s “theatre scene … is the best in the world”? Yeah, it doesn’t get much better than “Grease 2 in Concert” or “The Mousetrap.”) But now I’m just getting petty. My point is, though, other than London and Broadway, Mr. Brantley doesn’t seem to think any other theatre is worth his time; nothing in Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, or even San Francisco seems worthy of his notice.

I found the production of “Merrily” pretty dull (an opinion in which I seem to be in the minority), but that’s not the point. If the exact same production had been mounted at, say, the St. Louis Muny or the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, only Sondheim buffs would have heard of it, and it certainly wouldn’t have been shown in American cinemas.

Now, I realize a good portion of this lack of American product is due to commercial considerations. Producers on Broadway are trying to sell tickets and make a profit. Road producers (I’m lookin’ at you, SHN!) probably think it would cramp their ticket sales. (Though it seems to me like exposure would increase, rather than diminish, audiences’ interest in seeing live shows.)

I wouldn’t expect to see “The Book of Mormon” or “The Lion King” at my local movie house (although that didn’t seem to be a consideration when the National’s “One Man, Two Guvnors” or “War Horse” were screened in advance of their runs on Broadway. For that matter, the films of “Les Mis” and “Phantom” didn’t seem to daunt their popularity as live attractions). But that doesn’t explain why we don’t see productions from seeming “non-profits” as the Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club, Lincoln Center Theater, or Playwright’s Horizons. Hell, national exposure might actually help these companies’ revenue stream. And those are just companies in New York. That barely scratches the surface of what’s being done in the rest of the country.

As a reader of American Theatre, I’m exposed on a monthly basis to shows I’ll never see in person. I’m not saying that every production across America needs broadcasting, but surely Steppenwolf’s production of Nina Raines’s “Tribes” or the Guthrie’s “Uncle Vanya” or the Magic’s “Buried Child” (to name just three) are as worthy of a national audience as Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art” from the National. But somehow the imprimatur of “London” makes it a must-see for some.

And it’s not just broadcasts of plays. How many times, especially in recent years, have we had to suffer through the lousy “American” accents of British actors? (It was actually a shock for me to see Nicole Holofcener’s “Enough Said” and hear Toni Collette play with her own Australian accent, so used was I to hearing foreigners play characters who were American despite no real reasons in the script.) Sure, there are actors (Collette herself, Hugh Laurie. Alfred Molina) who can do superb dialects, but there are just as many (such as the cast of “Merrily”) whose attempts are cringe-worthy. But they’re British, so the assumption is that they’re better trained and better actors solely because of their nationality.

(I’ve also noticed the creeping use of British English subject/verb agreement. I always find myself making mental corrections when a singular entity, such as a corporation or company is said to do something with a “have,” as in “BART have announced the strike has been settled.” It’s “has,” dammit. Or when someone is said to be “in hospital” or there’s some kind of scandal in “sport.” It just sets my teeth on edge.)

Anyway, my point isn’t that we shouldn’t be exposed to British theatre; what they show us is usually worth seeing.” What I am saying is that I’d like to see American companies, as well; or even Russian, Brazilian, Malaysian, or French (the greatest thing I ever saw on stage was Théâtre du Soleil’s “Richard II.”) Why should audiences be deprived of great theatre just because it didn’t originate in the West End? In Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (the Berkeley Rep production of which I so raved about in this space last time), Vanya has a long rant about what he sees as the debasement of American popular culture (a rant I – and a good portion of the audience – agreed with, by the way). The rant includes this complaint: “The Ed Sullivan Show was before Bishop Sheen, and he had opera singers on, and performers from current Broadway shows. Richard Burton and Julie Andrews would sing songs from Camelot. It was wonderful. It helped theater be a part of the national consciousness, which it isn’t anymore.” As much as we all love the theatre – either as participant or spectator – unless we do something to restore that awareness among the public at large, we’re talking to ourselves – and a dwindling “ourselves” at that. I don’t know if the Americanization of televised theatre would change that awareness, but I’d sure like to see someone try it.

* Okay, there were the broadcast of the production of Sondheim and Furth’s “Company” that starred Neil Patrick Harris, and Christopher Plummer in “Barrymore” and “The Tempest,” but those were rarities.

Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: The Glass Gun

We’re giving Claire Rice a turn at the Thursday slot, and she comes out with guns blazing.

Pretentious theatre is a glass gun.  It is a beautiful and fragile place holder for a truly dangerous and terrifying thing.  It has no potential. It has no use other than to appear to be something it is not. It may look like it is capable of havoc, but only an idiot would wield it with any intention of trying to use it.

If someone says to me “Look it’s a glass gun! Isn’t it a fun bit of kitsch? Isn’t it a lovely piece of craftsmanship? Isn’t it an interesting idea?”  Sure, I could agree to all that.  I can put it on my shelf as a conversation piece and it’ll be fun to bring out at parties.  If someone says to me: “Look at this glass gun! I’m going to shoot it at things I’m angry at! I’m going to change the world with it!” I’ll dare them to shoot me with their pretentious glass gun and laugh when they find their hand to be bleeding.

Pretentious theatre is almost always boring but usually with an inescapable quality. Normally, when I’m bored at the theatre I’ll let my mind go somewhere else.  I don’t really have a meditative “happy place” that will enable me to rise above my present state and transcend whatever unsatisfying plot line is plodding out before me at that moment.  My “somewhere else” usually includes one of the following: 1) Sex. Preferably with one of the actors on stage, that way I can continue to look interested and entertained even as I completely lose track of the action. 2) Death. I’ll think about suicide usually, or something accidental or possibly heroic.  I’ve never thought about murder.  So far I’ve never seen a play that bad. 3) My life choices. There’s nothing like an unhealthy session of self-doubt to keep me awake through third act doldrums. Pretentious theatre won’t let you go away like that.

Like a car accident, you can’t help but watch pretention drift uselessly around the stage. There is no sex fantasy that can overcome the handsome solo performer pretending to shoot heroin into his arm as he mounts himself on a cross.  There is no time to think about death as the doctor holds the doomed child and reveals the moral of the play too late for anyone in the play to hear it.  Obviously, whatever myself doubts may be, at least it wasn’t me who decided when Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane it should come as pale drift wood.  All of this done with an air of great import.

I don’t feel like boredom in and of itself is enough to propel me out of my seat and out of the theatre before the conclusion of the performance. “Walk out” is both a literal description of the action and a pair of words so full of history and unhappy meanings that it can’t help but feel profoundly negative.  You walk out of negotiations.  You walk out in protest.  You walk out on your marriage.  It can be a casually neglectful kind of abandonment, a declaration of general apathy, and a willful disregard of other people’s time and energy. You don’t just leave a theatrical production, you walk out. You abandon your seat. In full view of the performers and the other audience members you stand up and gather your possessions and, in a declarative statement of your priorities, leave the premises. I don’t, in general, walk out on plays.

As a theatre artist, it feels almost like a sin to admit to being anything less than fully supportive of just the act of putting something on stage. The eternal optimist in me says that, at any moment, the action could turn around and I’ll find myself enthralled or at least vaguely amused. And there is a voice in my head constantly telling me that just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean that the boring theatre I’m watching isn’t good.  My personal aesthetic is built out of my history, interests, snobbery, desires, fetishes, hopes, dreams, morals, education, and assumptions. “Good” and “entertaining” are relative.  So I sit and think about sex, death, and life and wonder if the world is still spinning outside the theatre.  Also, boring is a temporary state.  I’ll stick around for “just plain not my style” today and find that it sticks around in the mind and even grows on me like the taste for Brussels sprouts or olives.  Pretentious theatre, on the other hand, is good wine gone vinegar.

Pretentious theatre doesn’t want to entertain me and doesn’t care if I walk out.  It’s even proud when I do.

Theatre like that tells you that this is how real life is, and then it smears dirt on a twenty something actress and tells us she’s homeless. Theatre like that literally masturbates on stage to an original song by its lover played backwards.  Theatre like that pees on stage for real just so the audience can have the sensory experience.  Theatre like that has a rape scene, talks about child molestation, carries a knife around for the fun of it, brings up racism at the weirdest times, then cries in a corner while the lights go out and doesn’t take a bow.  It’s above that kind of shit.  Theatre like that gets headlines and then sometimes a place in history as being the great thing that came before the thing that really changed everything.

I mind the ineffectualness that is a glass gun.  I mind being so bored I can’t be present for the hard work on display in front of me.  I mind feeling like I might be better off if I didn’t come back after intermission.  I mind that whatever I’m seeing is supposed to be good, but I’m just not getting it.  I mind all that.  But I hate ineffectual theatre that thinks it has transcended the form before the show even starts.

I don’t have solutions.  I just want you to know: if I walk out it’s because, whatever you think you are holding in your hand, it isn’t a gun.  And I don’t have to pretend it is.

Everything Is Already Something Week 18: Five Sketches I Wish We’d Stop Writing

Recently I was helping out at a sketch comedy writing class, reading sketches and giving notes and feedback, and I was reminded how many of the same things we all do in the beginning. Well, maybe not all, but certainly a lot. Tons. A noticeable amount. When you first start writing sketches either in a class, for a show, or just huddled in your closet like a weirdo – it’s easy to get really excited because OMG THIS IS JUST LIKE SNL YOU GUYS, and then suddenly feel the crushing weight of “Oh God, I suddenly have no idea what’s funny anymore! What’s happening?! Where am I?! What year is it?!” but as any writer will tell you, the most important thing is just to write, and if it is the suckiest thing in the world, just toss it in the digital trash. At least you wrote something. But it’s also common to fall into something that’s too easy and come in with something that everyone has heard before, and isn’t likely to make it in to rehearsal. Particularly if you work in a large writers room where everyone’s churning out tons of sketches and only the best can survive. Here are some things I’ve seen a hundred times and don’t really need to see again:

THE ONE WHERE EVERYONE’S GAY – This little gem of a sketch usually has a weak premise and then at the end you either find out one character has been gay all along, or that – oh dear – EVERYONE’S GAY! Why people write it: Because it’s got surprise in it. Unexpected turns of event are big in comedy, so let’s lead everything to think the sketch is about something else…and then they’re all gay! That’s surprising! Why I hate it: It feels lazy. It feels like a cop-out. That, and it’s just sort of stupidly offensive. If it were written in 1952 I’m sure it would feel fresh to someone, but now it just seems like you haven’t been living in society, and you’re tossing pointless barbs at an entire group of people. (Particularly if you’re living in San Francisco, that sketch isn’t exactly going to get you a standing ovation, unless they’re also carrying pitchforks.)

THE ONE WHERE EVERYONE’S SITTING AT A DINNER TABLE – This isn’t to say that you can’t write something super awesome with a family sitting around a table, it definitely happens. But a big roadblock for a lot of beginners is that their characters aren’t doing anything. They’re just talking. Which is great for, I don’t know, a podcast, but if this is a live show we’re talking about – people are looking at the actors. Help create an engaging show by having some movement. Why people write it: family conflict is funny! They’re tossing barbs at each other! Why I hate it: I will say I don’t always hate this, but often enough it bores me to tears. It’s not Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? So unless the characters are actually tossing barbs at each other, like physical barbs – it might not make for the best comedic situation. Again, it CAN, but it often doesn’t, especially if you’re new to the game. Give yourself a break and don’t try to be the Fyodor Dostoyevsky of comedy – at least not right away. People want to be entertained. Entertain them. You only have a few minutes, make them count.

They're so happy and I'm so bored.

They’re so happy and I’m so bored.

THE ONE AT THE PEARLY GATES – Oh, look, it’s St. Peter! I guess we’re all dead and it’s hilarious Sketch at the Pearly Gates Time! Everybody wants to know what happens when we die, right? Well I’ve got the answer RIGHT HERE! Why people write it: Because it has the potential to be kooky and the afterlife is mysterious to everyone. Why I hate it: I’ve seen one of these that I actually loved, and easily a dozen that I loathed. It’s a tale as old as time, so making it feel fresh can be really difficult. There has to be something very unexpected in there to keep us all on our toes. If it doesn’t feel extremely original, it’s not likely to make the cut. (See also: the sketch taking place in hell. Same thing.)

I'm here to save you...from this tired old sketch.

I’m here to save you…from this tired old sketch.

THE ONE WHERE ALL THE WOMEN ARE PLAYED BY MEN – Look at this fancy dinner party full of sophisticated women – BUT WAIT – those aren’t women, those are women played by MEN! Look at their flowery blouses and silly wigs! Why people write it: Easy, almost guaranteed laughs. Why I hate it: Hey, Allison, if it gets laughs almost every time, why wouldn’t you like it? It’s just way too easy. It’s not based on anything you’ve written actually being funny, it’s just based on the fact that the actor on stage has a hairy chest and looks funny in a dress. Then there’s the secondary matter of it taking parts away from actual women, who are often underrepresented in sketch comedy already, if they’re not playing straight wives and mothers. I do think a well placed man-in-a-dress can be a funny addition to something, but it’s a one-note joke and if your sketch isn’t funny without that? Then it sounds like you may not have written a very good sketch. I believe Tina Fey touches on this topic in her book, Bossypants.

Just go read it, already

Just go read it, already

THE ONE WHERE EVERYONE IS PLAYING A LITTLE KID – Look at all these little kids at a slumber party! They’re so silly! Waaaiiiit a minute, those aren’t kids, those are kids played by adult actors! Why people write it: Because it’s silly and fun. Why I hate it: This one’s a little sticky for me. It has similarities to the “women played by men” sketch, in that it can be funny for everyone to be a little kid, but you can’t just rely on the actor wearing footie pjs to be so adorable that it carries the whole thing. You’ve still got to have some structure in there. There has to be something funny in it apart from the jammies and pig tails. What’s actually happening to make this a real sketch and not just people being cute? Is there an interesting juxtaposition there? This one can be done well, it just often times isn’t.

None of these sketches have 100% failure rates (Except maybe that first one. Blech.) they can be funny, but only if they’re original first. Comedy is subjective and this is only my opinion, but it’s based on being in the room with these sketches being read aloud, or performing them in front of lots of people. Or watching them get cut. There has to be something new about what you’re creating. Something exciting and different. Clearly people have been writing sketches for a long time, and it can definitely be a struggle to be original. At some point you’ll come up with something brilliant only to find it has absolutely already been done before. I had an idea for something last week, which someone immediately informed me had already been on South Park. It’s okay, that happens, but throwing out some of these more obvious premises might give way to something new and awesome, and is certainly more likely to get something you’ve written onto that damn stage.

Speaking of sketch comedy, Allison is toiling away in the Killing My Lobster writers’ room preparing for KML’s Winter Follies show, performing December 12th – 15th. Details at killingmylobster.com where you can also find out about our writing and acting classes.