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.


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


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.



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


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.

Working Title: Shotgun Dreamscapes or The Waking Neo Futurist Life

Will Leschber looks into The Future.

The Neo Futurists are coming. They are preparing to hit the Bay Area in the near future. But, who are they? And more importantly does their pastiche, mash-up theatre structure serve a purpose? One could also ask this of Waking Life, the unconventional 2001 indie film by Richard Linklater.

Let’s begin at the future.

I was fortunate enough to catch a performance of The Neo Futurists’ “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” in Chicago last week. They are self described on their website (neofuturists.org) as “a collective of wildly prolific writer/director/performers who create: Theater that is a fusion of sport, poetry and living-newspaper.” Although this company is a new revelation to me, they have actually been around for 25 years.  The company name evokes art in transition; Something that flagstones a bridge between theatre today and audiences of tomorrow. Their mission is to create “work that embraces those unreached or unmoved by conventional theater inspiring them to thought, feeling and action.” This postmodern approach to theatre combines improvisation, short-form timed theatre, unconventional entertainment structure, narrative dance/movement and other performance forms as a way to provide a new kind of theatrical experience.


The rundown looks like this: the audience receives an order menu of 30 play titles as they enter. If you are picturing Chinese take out, you are on the right track. When the performers shout “curtain!” throughout the night, anyone in the audience is invited to shout back a number 1 thru 30. The first number a performer hears, that play is up next. The goal is to get through 30 plays in 60 minutes. Each night is different from the last. Nightly the order re-shuffles and new plays are written and swapped in each week. The structure itself and the extensive possibilities are exciting. It is Jack of All Trades Theatre with all the positive and negative connotations. In that, I mean the Neo Futurists provide scatter gun entertainment that hits in the keys of Comedy, Drama and the myriad spaces between.  I do wonder if the parts, in this case, are more than the sum. Of the 60 plays, I can remember a mere handful. Yet, I enjoyed them all. This eclectic theatre satisfies so many tastes in a structured form that doesn’t allow the performance to master any one. Herein lies the purpose and also the frustration. I was not as moved as King Lear nor did I laugh as hard as Noises Off. However, in a third of the time, I laughed and felt empathy for honest connections and was wowed by breakneck athletic theatre. That’s the point:  shotgun entertainment. The target audience will be hit in one way or another. Certain parts struck me. Different part may strike you. I found myself thinking about and talking about the performance days later. This for me is a benchmark of essential art. Something that stays with you. Something that isn’t easily shaken off. While I wasn’t blown out if my chair in awe, I am eager to return and pick up more pieces.

Like the piecemeal form intrinsic to Neo Futurist theatre, Richard Linklater’s 2001 film, Waking Life is told in vignettes. Genre is flipped about and narrative storytelling falls to the brief whimsy of shifting dreams.  Our lead character, played by Wiley Wiggins, travels through a dreamscape in which he alternately interacts with or simply observes others in omniscient third person. Wylie watches psychiatrists discuss the purpose of love. He witnesses the heated rant of an overly political cab driver with a megaphone. He discusses purpose and identity in our waking lives and whether we sleep away our lives to only live truly in our dreams. He is told the last words of Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian  who on his death bed said,  “Sweep me up” and Wylie wonders whether his current sleep is eternal. Will he wake? How linked are we all though common experience and reincarnated dreams? Not only does Linklater play with story structure, he plays with the way the film is visually conveyed.


To further emphasize the unstable dream state of on main character, Linklater filmed live action and then animated over the top of that. This process is called Rotoscoping and although it has been around for almost a century, Richard Linklater is the first director to use digital rotoscoping for an entire feature length film. The characters float through this shifting foreground of vivid dream creatively matching form of storytelling with content within story. Structurally the New Futurists and Waking Life operate in a similar way, separate pieces creating a larger whole. The difference lies in tone. The Neo Futurist production “To Much Light Makes the Baby to Blind” has parts linked by structure but is not unified in tone. Waking Life uses structure to enhance the story and layers on a unifying tone that echoes a searching philosophic tone rounded in uncertain melancholy.

Both are unique in the best way possible. The film and theatre piece attempt to forge an experience with irregular, eclectic building blocks. The chances taken are purposeful and ultimately elevate the smaller parts to a better whole. The goal is to provide an uncommon experience instead of a conventional narrative.  The Neo Futurists offer an intelligent,  interactive, sprinting-fun experience sprinkled with topic musings.  Waking Life offers a meandering and pensive stroll down a dream lane that looks at “life and how we perceive it” (Wiggins). If you are looking for something different, you’ve found it.

Look for the San Francisco debut of the Neo Futurists in the near future. And find Waking Life to for digital rent or purchase on Amazon and Vudu.

Logo-home-header. 2012. Photograph. neofuturist.org, Chicago, IL. Web. 22 Oct 2013.

                Waking Life. 2001. Photograph. Walkerart.orgWeb. 22 Oct 2013. <http://www.walkerart.org/calendar/2011/waking-life>.

                Wiggins, Wiley, perf. Waking Life. Dir. Linklater. Fox Searchlight PIctures, 2001. Film. 22 Oct 2013.

Theater Around The Bay: A Critic Isn’t Batman

Stuart Bousel talks about why he’s nowhere near as worked up about a bad review as some people think he should be… and why nobody probably ever should be.

So, over the weekend, as I was listening to a first reading of the first draft of a new play (my adaptation of Kristin Hersh’s memoir, RAT GIRL), an article on another theater website, HowlRound, was apparently causing some distress amongst my circle of theater associates, largely because the writer, Lily Janiak, had written less than flattering things about both my play and the play of a friend of mine, FANTASY CLUB by Rachel Bublitz Kessinger. To be fair, Rachel (and her director, Tracy Held Potter) got the worse end of the stick, but to be fair to Lily as well, her article was less a review of either of our plays (or a third play, WHAT EVERY GIRL SHOULD KNOW, by Monica Byrne) as it was a meditation on whether or not her ability to critique a show is influenced by her own personal aesthetics, taste, and (since this was a comparison of three plays “about women”) the social-political agenda that she personally, as a woman, wants to see satisfied by a theater experience ostensibly focused on women. As I read her article, she ultimately concludes that yes, of course, all these things factor in, but she still feels she can tell a “good” show from a “lacking” one. In light of all that (and regardless of whether or not I personally feel, based on her work, that Lily has reached the point where she can think outside of her own perspective), I really found her inclusion of my play in her article rather flattering, and my reaction to it directly can be summed up by the following post on Facebook:

Everyone keeps asking if I’m going to have a response to a play of mine being mentioned (somewhat negatively) in a HowlRound article and I have to keep telling people I just don’t really care. Ironically, I may now have to write a blog about how and why I just don’t really care… To me, that is a worthy topic: about how I long ago stopped putting much weight into criticism- even though I absolutely think criticism is valuable and I’m happy, as an artist, that my work gets talked about at all. But that’s just it- the goal here is to stimulate conversation, not like… be loved by everyone. And the truth is, the article isn’t really about my play, and to some extent the writer, who I know personally and think very highly of (even though I frequently disagree with her), is crediting my play with having made her think about what part her own personal taste plays in her review of what she sees. Which I take as a compliment. The whole part where she doesn’t like how some of my female characters talk too much about their ex-boyfriends is like… whatever. The point of the play isn’t about women who can’t get over men, it’s about how all people struggle with their past and what relationship it continues to play in their lives. But even if it had been a play about women who can’t get over men- THERE ARE WOMEN LIKE THAT, and while you may not be interested in that, it doesn’t mean their stories shouldn’t be told. Just means you should go see something else. As a gay man who is frequently sitting at shows where I see disappointing representations of gay life and gay people (frequently created by gay theater artists and gay theater companies, I might add), I long ago realized that my personal taste isn’t everyone else’s, and something isn’t bad or unworthy, just because it isn’t how I want it or would do it/say it. To me, her article is about her coming to realize that and I’m kind of just shrugging and thinking, “Good for you, and thanks for spelling my name right when you credited me as part of that process for you.” Job well done on both our parts, I say.

If you’re interested in reading Lily’s article, you can do so here. If you would like to read a different perspective on my show, you can do so here. It’s worth noting that both reviews are written by critics I know personally (Sam openly states that in his article, but the fact is Lily was in the same festival a year earlier), neither of whom I think has a particular personal bias towards me as an artist, as one thing I have really tried to establish about myself over the years is that I treat everyone the same, whether they’re into my work or not, so long as I feel they are coming at my work from a place of honesty and make a reasonable effort to speak their opinions coherently. Do I feel that Sam “got” this particular play and Lily did not? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean I think Lily’s perspective is wrong so much as it’s just hers and her perspective is one that is seeking an experience that isn’t the same as the experience I sought to create as an artist. Which obviously is disappointing to her, but the suggestion that my characters are not strong portrayals of women or speak like television characters is really just her opinion- and she’s entitled to it. I mean, I put the work out there, and if I’m allowed to do that (and I am, and should be), then she is allowed to have a reaction and articulate that reaction (and as a critic, she’s obligated to do so). The risk we all take, artist and audience, is that one half of that equation might not work for the other half of the equation. That doesn’t make either half wrong, in and of itself, merely unsuited for one another.

But again, talking about Lily’s review specifically, isn’t all that interesting to me, so much as talking about how I got messaged by fifteen or so people, over the course of Saturday and Sunday, asking me, “Did you see this yet?” and then “What do you think?” after I confirmed, yet again, that I had seen it and certainly have the ability to recognize my own name when it pops up. What I began to realize, however, is that what people really couldn’t understand was how I could have read the article and not had a strong reaction to it, and so the assumption was, as more and more time passed without me talking about the article, that I must have been in ignorance of it. A fair assumption, I suppose, especially as Tracy Potter and Rachel Kessinger had been talking about it on their Facebook pages and Tracy had gone so far as to post a response in the comments section on Lily’s article. Around person eleven or so to ask me what I thought, I finally replied, “Do you think I should be angry or upset? ‘Cause I’m not. I just find it all kind of amusing that more people are writing or calling to ask if I’m upset than to congratulate me on the good reviews I got when the show was up and running.” The friend in question (who for the record, is always very supportive) replied, “I think what makes this special is that being mentioned on HowlRound at all is kind of a big deal.” I wrote back, “Yeah, I guess it is. And then again, it sort of isn’t.” And there in lies the twist that, to me, makes for a more amusing blog post than anything I might have argued about this particular critic’s response to this particular play of mine.

Once upon a time, when I was 19 and a junior at Reed College, an early but cornerstone play of mine, THE EXILED, came very close to being made into an independent film. Well, as close as most films get, meaning it died on the table early in the process and nothing in regards to that effort has happened since. If you know anyone working in the film industry, you probably know that the number of never-made movies far outweighs the number of ones that get into the production phase (where many films also die), let alone the number that actually get finished and then released (the day you find out how many finished films sit forever in some studio storage space somewhere, never to be screened, is the day you really truly realize just how small a percentage of aspiring artists ever actually see their efforts presented to an audience on even the most humble level), but a never-made movie is still farther along than a never-considered screenplay and it’s astounding how traumatizing something that never actually happened, can be. And how it can really put into perspective, for the rest of my life, what any critic (professional or amateur) will ever say about my work.

So what exactly did happen? Well, I scrambled to write a screenplay after the boyfriend of an actress who liked the play (and wanted to play the female lead) rashly decided to finance a film of it. This happened in 1998, when making independent films was sort of the raison d’etre for my entire generation (besides going to the music store and spending all night in coffee shops), but what made this particular situation a little different is that the aspiring film producer in question was able to use his connections as a former alternative/extreme sports star (a la Jason Lee) to open a number of doors that led to rooms none of us was really experienced or equipped to walk into, let alone hold our own in. He teamed up with a co-producer who was the son of a prominent entertainment lawyer (and of course, an aspiring actor himself) who in turn pulled his own strings (namely, using his dad’s contacts to bypass agents and get my hastily assembled screenplay directly into the hands of celebrities), and the result was that my work was suddenly being read by some really famous people long before it should have been, and not even remotely in the right context or with the correct layers of agents, organizations and other protections that would have probably stopped, or at least mitigated, the level of direct correspondence that ultimately resulted in me being forwarded (by the co-producer/wanna-be actor) an outrageously nasty email where an actor who had been approached to play the male lead basically said I should be executed and my work should be mulched for toilet paper. I think I’m actually making him sound more polite than he was. Anyway, I was forwarded that email as an explanation for why the co-producer suddenly wanted me to completely re-write the script and then subsequently walked on the project once I refused to do so without some kind of contract promising me some kind of control and ownership of my screenplay and more importantly, my stage-play.

Now, real producers would not have let an actor’s bitchy email bother them, but I wasn’t working with real producers and I definitely was not working with artists: I was working with people who were looking to ride a cultural wave to fast fame and hopeful fortune and the whole thing had never been about me, my work, or film-making as an art form. If they had been interested in any of those things, they would have known that it is hard to make a movie, and that rejection is part of the game, particularly when you are doing something new or different or with people who don’t have enough celebrity clout to get a free pass on their “work” no matter how good or bad it is because everyone just wants to be associated with them. Real producers and real artists know that when the going gets rough, as it’s bound to, that’s when it’s most important to stand by your people and your work. Even at that age, I knew that, and I was prepared to dig my heels into the project and see it through to the end and the only reason I rationally walked away was because my agent at the time, bless her, calmly said to me over the phone, “You are young and this will not be your only opportunity, and you need to realize that if this movie even gets made, and I doubt it will, there is virtually no chance it will be something you want your name attached to because none of these people share your vision and that is the only thing that would make sticking this out worth doing.” I knew she was right and we killed the contract the next day. A year later, EXILED had its first small theater production and was well-received and has been periodically produced in small theaters across the country since. I’m happy every time it happens and almost never think about the debacle that was it’s three months in “pre-production”.

Except, sometimes, when I get a bad review.

I am very lucky, and generally speaking my work receives positive reviews. Even when it doesn’t, it’s rarely trashed (I can only think of one out-right pan I have ever received) and usually the critic appears to have at least taken it seriously, discussing the problems and merits of the piece, demonstrating that at the very least it gave them something to think about and was, thus, worthy of their time. I long ago realized that I do not create mainstream theater and I am okay with that. Actually, I’m proud of that. Sure, sometimes I feel unappreciated, unpopular, or like there is just no point in doing what I do, but I don’t know any artist who doesn’t feel that from time to time, and on the plus side I know that I am my own man, that my work has integrity and reflects my ambitions and beliefs and not someone else’s prescription for success, and on those rare occasions I do score a hit or a critic really gets what I do it’s all the more gratifying because I know they’re not just blowing sycophant smoke up my celebrity asshole. My former agent would frequently remind me that my work was “not-marketable”, “too esoteric”, “too smart”, “not trendy” and “difficult” and all that used to rankle me, but now I realize that all that boils down to her opinion and ability to sell me to people who probabably held similar perspectives. None of whom would do my work well anyway. On one level it does suck that I apparently have small hope of being a famous, oft-performed writer; but if the price of fame and fortune is that I change my art into something that doesn’t reflect my voice, then it comes at much too high a cost, and by the way, the majority is still not everybody and there is no shame in being a niche voice that speaks to a niche community. These days, a strong cult following appeals far more to me than universal acclaim ever did. The universe always finds something new to crow over; cults honor forever.  Similarly, the words of someone who gets my work, matter so much more than the words of someone who doesn’t; even when that someone is famous or is associated with some kind of “big deal”, be it a studio, a theater,  or a publication. Being successful at a business that is at least one third luck and one third who you know, doesn’t actually make you someone worth listening to any more so than someone who hasn’t achieved the same level of “success” but may have put in just as much (or more) work.

So who was that actor who wrote the nasty email proclaiming this was literally the worst thing he’d ever read? Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Let’s just call him “Batman”. The people who know me well know why and the rest of you can have fun thinking about it. Who he is honestly doesn’t matter because in the end all that did matter was that he was kind of a big deal then, and he’s an even bigger deal now, and regardless his opinion means nothing at all beyond being his opinion and the fact that he is famous adds no more weight to his words.

Or maybe it does, but not in the way that most people think.

See, when I got that email, I cried. I mean, seriously, I got to the first derogatory comment and burst into tears. And then I had to get through the rest of the e-mail and it just got worse and worse and worse. Where a simple “no” would have sufficed, Batman felt a need to go the extra mile and really just express over and over how it was basically insulting to him to have even been asked to consider the part he was being offered (which is amazing because honestly, even if a project is not for you, it’s always an honor to be asked and anyone who sees otherwise has a ridiculous ego that will only harm them one day and sure enough, Batman has developed a nasty reputation). The particulars of what he wrote do not matter, all that matters is that at this point in my life, though I had been bringing my writing to workshops for three years now and subjecting it to public viewing and review for just as long, nobody had ever just torn me to shreds so ruthlessly, so explicitly, and so comprehensively, tearing apart not just my work but me as a person, even though he knew nothing about me. In this actor’s defense, he had sent the email to the producer, not me, and maybe would not have been so nasty if he had known I’d end up reading it (maybe) but I was 19 and I just simply lacked the experience to react in any other way than total horror and sadness, taking entirely personally what was, in reality, the ridiculous ranting of an egomaniac actor who has most certainly made far worse films than the one I wrote. Anyway, I ran downstairs to a friend who lived on the floor below (at the time I was living in a dorm) and gushed out my sorrow and despair.

“Batman doesn’t like my work! Batman thinks I should be taken out of the gene pool! Batman couldn’t even finish his morning coffee because he hated it so much!”

Seriously, he’d said that in the e-mail.

My friend, who is herself an accomplished sci-fi/fantasy writer, listened to about five minutes of my wailing and then cut me off with the incredibly insightful, “Stuart… Batman… read your screenplay.”

Which, looking back, is the only part of the entire experience that matters.

I believe we need critics. As a producer, I need reviews to market my own shows and the work of the artists who create under my banner, whose work I believe in enough, be they writer or actor or other type of theater maker, to risk not only my finances but my reputation. As an artist, I like reviews (and I always read them and don’t believe people who say they don’t) because I like knowing my work is being seen and instigating reactions and conversations- whatever those reactions are and wherever those conversations may lead. Also, sometimes, a critic will show me something about myself and my work I didn’t see, and that’s always valuable, whether they illuminate a positive or negative aspect. Sometimes they are also just dead wrong and that’s valuable too as it documents how a work can be mis-perceived or fails to strike the proper chord with someone. I know that something needs to be fixed when I have been watching the show, night after night, silently feeling the same way, and a critic who nails the problem I already know is there is a jewel to be cherished. On the other hand, if I love my show, it kind of doesn’t matter to me what the critic says. And for the record, I have occasionally read really positive reviews of my work that made me roll my eyes because, as much as they liked it, they clearly didn’t “get it.” Being understood is actually, for me, way more important than being liked or loved. It’s certainly more gratifying. But I try not to begrudge any audience member their experience and just be grateful that they were there and had one at all. I’m not making art to be loved, but I am definitely not making it to be ignored.

Ever since I figured that out about myself it’s been much easier to absorb the bad reviews along with the good. Sure, it’s disappointing from time to time and as a producer it can be stressful if I feel like it’ll damage the financial success of a show. When someone I like and respect doesn’t like my work it’s not a happy thing, but it’s also not a requirement of knowing me or being my friend, and I’d rather an honest conversation about what I do than a dishonest one, and I do my best to engage people who I like and respect but don’t like my work because it can be valuable but also because at some point it’ll probably happen at least once with everybody I know since I chose not to surround myself with idiots and paid escorts. Honestly, part of being an artist is accepting that some people are just not going to be my audience, and that includes some of my friends and it definitely includes some critics, most of whom are no more bias free than anyone else who has ever seen more than one play, read more than one novel, heard more than one song. Once I figured all that out it really takes whatever sting was left out of whatever someone has to say, and on the rare occasion a habitual detractor or the perpetually unimpressed colleague does throw me a compliment I’m like, “Oh, thank you, what a pleasant surprise”. What’s nice about that is, since I’m not looking for approval from them, the compliment can be a good thing without becoming something I pin my identity as an artist upon. Far too many people I know, no matter what they say, are living for approval, be it from friends or critics or the audience or the industry, and that is a dangerous thing to base your art on because it’s entirely out of your control and entirely subjective.

The truth is, I’m not looking for approval from anybody except the artists I’m working with on a given project, who must buy into or share my vision for what we’re doing together to truly work. For them and they alone, on a case by case basis, am I still willing to put my ego into such a vulnerable position. Occasionally, I catch myself letting someone’s words get to me without any real validity to what they have to say, but when it comes right down to it, I recognize that I have to have confidence in my work and if I don’t that’s my issue to deal with, not the result of somebody else expressing their opinion. When it comes to your art, other people’s opinions are only as valuable as you let them be, and once you’ve been torn apart by Batman, it’s astounding how many people who are supposedly “a big deal” suddenly aren’t any more. Not because they are or aren’t Batman, but because in every situation, regardless of the critic, I am still me.

And time has proven that not even Batman can stop me.

Stuart Bousel is one of the founding artistic directors of the San Francisco Theatre Pub. You can find out more about him, AGE OF BEAUTY, THE EXILED and more of his work at http://www.stuartbousel.com.

Higher Education: I Used To Sleep

Like Barbara Jwanouskos, I too remember sleep…

Ah… I remember sleep. It used to make me feel so much better about life, humanity, pretty much the world. It’s been a while. I might be cracking up, but the result? LOTS of new plays!

This week marks the mid-semester. I’m not the only one drifting around campus like a zombie. Everyone’s a little frazzled, dreamy, and anxious. It’s that point where you cry over sentimental commercials. Where you yell at someone for touching your shoulder on the bus. Everyone’s a little stressed.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve rewritten my thesis, completed the script for a short radio play, drafted two new ten-minute plays, a one-act, and a treatment for my full-length screenplay. I’ve then re-written the one act and edited my bio, resume, artist’s statement, and the like. I’ve submitted two full-length plays to playwriting development opportunities on a whim. And this doesn’t even factor in the reading, the teaching, the meetings…

I think I’m a little out of juice. And the pillow on my bed is starting to look very enticing. Oh, but there’s so much more to do!

I’ll also say that in the midst of all this academic chaos, I feel like I’ve risen to new challenges as a writer. I’ve had some extremely positive workshop sessions with the folks in my program and I gotta give a shout out to the Dramatic Writers at CMU (and our professors) because they sure know how to give the words that take a good script to an even better script.

I’m working on this one-act, for instance, and the readings have been going extremely well. It is a play that writing original lyrics and takes a love triangle to some extremely awkward moments that make for some really good laughs. It’s the first time I’ve written a one-act in a long time, and I gotta say, it’s a form we all should explore more often. It was so much for to have a short, well-contained story with tremendous stakes and spectacle. I was certainly surprised at what I could do in this particular form.

Surviving the last two weeks has been like getting lost on a road trip and finding something amazing. There were all these stopping points where I picked up something quite incredible. Like the one-act play. Or the stunning realization that I wasn’t as worried about “what I should be writing” as much as I thought I was. I’ve been feeling rather anxious lately and a lot of it is wrapped up in ideas of “what happens after I graduate?” And “how the heck do I playwrite??”

What’s interesting about pushing yourself to the outer most edges of your writing capacity is that you find that you could maybe even do a little more. I gotta be honest and say that most days lately I’ve been pushing myself to at least 90% of my capacity. I like to have a little more wiggle room. And, you know, sleep… But! I am finding that there’s a tremendous satisfaction with having completed even a first shitty draft of multiple different writing projects.

So, sleep no more (haha theater pun…)! Maybe it’s exactly what I need to level up creatively speaking.