It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Thoughts on Garbage and Being Young and Stupid

Dave Sikula, Garbage Aficionado.

One of my many quirks is that I’m a sucker for Garbage Theatre. Pretty much anyone who’s worked with me will know about Garbage Theatre, but I’ll take the liberty of explaining it here.

First some necessary background. In my early 20s, I was part of the company at the Southern California Conservatory Theatre at Cerritos College, down in Norwalk. SCCT (as it was fondly known) began as an experiment in summer theatre and training. The goal was to hire a bunch of young actors, have them attend classes in the morning, rehearse in the afternoon, and perform in the evenings. It seemed workable since we were all young and full of energy (and stupid, probably). While things started off with the best of intentions, young actors being what they are, people started skipping classes to sleep in or screw around, and more time than anticipated was needed to rehearse the shows. The productions turned out pretty well, or at least good enough that the school district ponied up the dough for a second and even a third season, the finale of which was “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Starring in “Fiddler” was Claude File, who was the Tevye of your dreams. Warm, funny, and human, he knocked it out of the park every night. The rest of the show was pretty good, too, in spite of a set that our choreographer (correctly) slammed as “looking like a forest fire” and some bizarre direction. Our director was (and I swear this is his real name) Fred Fate. Fred was brought to the college as a guest director, and through guile, cunning, and his supreme con-man skills, took over the department. He wasn’t a bad director, though; you just had to cut through the bullshit.

Among Fred’s brainstorms was that he wanted “If I Were a Rich Man” to be about Tevye interacting with the whole town, which undercut the purpose of the number. I played Avram, and was blocked to sit on a staircase, reading a newspaper. Well, as Fred saw the number wasn’t working as he’d intended, he cut more and more people from it, until it was down to just Claude performing the number and me sitting there, reading the paper, neither of us reacting to the other. I’m sure the audience was waiting for some payoff – or even some reason – but it never came; to this day, I don’t know why I was in that number. (This also the production that featured Claude substituting a lyric in “Sunrise, Sunset.” In the number, Perchik and Hodel sing the line “Is there a canopy in store for me?” Well, Claude insisted on it being “Is there a can of peas in this store for me?” I was standing way up right on a platform of the forest fire set, and Claude was way down left on the deck, but every night, when we came to that line, we would turn to each other and exchange a knowing, tearful look. (I still sing that lyric today whenever I hear the song.)

The fourth season’s finale was Lerner and Loewe’s “Paint Your Wagon.” In the run-up to that season, Fred Fate (whom I realized I should have described; think of a gymnastic, energetic, and blond Moe Howard) was giving interviews and sending out press releases. One of his selling points was Claude File. Fred said something about the company having brilliant directors, fascinating shows, great designers, and a talented company, including “the actor Claude File.” From that moment, poor Claude was marked. To this day, he is known among our circle as “The Actor Claude File.”

So, we’re beginning rehearsals for “Paint Your Wagon.” The more we got into the nuts and bolts of it, though, the more we realized what a terrible show it was. I’ll admit I’m not the biggest fan of Lerner and Loewe (I think “My Fair Lady” is way overwritten – do we really need all fifteen verses of “Get Me to the Church on Time?” – and at least a half-hour too long; “Camelot” is notoriously unfinished – and it shows; and “Brigadoon” is just a bore), but they’re brand names and “Wagon” is rarely done – for good reasons.

The plot is absurd – and was completely jettisoned for the ill-fated movie version (“I never miss a Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin musical”). It concerns an itinerant gold miner named Ben Rumson. Rumson is a widower with a daughter named Jennifer, and one day, he strikes it rich in the California Gold Rush. He founds a town, and Jennifer soon becomes the only woman in town, a situation that unnerves all 400 of the men who live there. Jennifer falls in love with a Mexican native who is forced to live outside the town because of racial prejudice and plot requirements. Eventually a Mormon with two wives comes into town, and everything devolves into vague plot points about selling wives, native legends, and Rumson being restless and needing to move on. It really is a mess and makes about that much sense.

This was the show, though, that was the ground zero of Garbage Theatre. Garbage Theatre is sort of an offshoot of Coarse Acting. In that summer, many of us were exposed for the first time (by The Actor Claude File, probably) to Michael Green’s book, “The Art of Coarse Acting.” Green describes a coarse actor as “one who can remember his lines, but not the order in which they come … Often the scenery will fall down. Sometimes the (theatre) may fall down. Invariably his tights will fall down. He will usually be playing three parts … His aim is to upstage the rest of the cast. His hope is to be dead by Act II so that he can spend the rest of his time in the bar. His problems? Everyone else connected with the production.” This book became our Bible.

Following Green’s precepts, little bits of business began creeping into rehearsal. This is nothing new; it happens in every show. The wise director will keep the ones that are appropriate and help the show and jettison the ones that do neither. But this show needed all the help it could get, so everything stayed in – and that is Garbage Theatre. As I always explain it, “Garbage Theatre takes its metaphor from Sylvester the cat in “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies.” Sylvester could frequently be found scrounging through alleys with a garbage-can lid in one hand as he rooted through garbage cans with the other hand. As he went through those cans, he’d pick out little bits of food (fish skeletons, etc.) and place them on the lid. The Garbage Actor does much the same thing. As he or she rehearses, they’ll accumulate gags and little bits of business. If they work, you keep them. If they don’t, you keep them because they might work later.”

To call it “Garbage” Theatre makes it sound like a pejorative, but don’t let that fool you. I love garbage and actors who can pull it off are among my heroes. And it’s not even a matter of “Oh they’re bad actors, but they can do funny things;” no, it’s that they’re skilled and good actors who are capable of genius. Most of them are great clowns – Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein, Bert Lahr, Jennifer Coolidge, Martin Short – but there are plenty of “serious” actors – John Barrymore, Kevin Kline, David Dukes – who are masters of it, too. I love Garbage and only aspire to its heights.

So, garbage started to sneak into rehearsals (I think it started with The Actor Claude File giving his character a completely unnecessary and irrelevant stammer), and soon everyone caught the bug. We were just doing bits and gags that had nothing to do with the plot or story, but had everything to do with keeping ourselves amused. Now, please note, we never got away from telling the story as best as we could; it’s just that the story was so badly told initially that our garbage helped it along.

The most egregious incidents I remember are these (I’m sure others will have competing memories): There was a tech rehearsal in the theatre that was really, really full of garbage. Everyone was hitting on all cylinders, and things were getting more and more out of control. My most vivid memory is of one of the actors standing behind the bar of a Gold Rush saloon making real margaritas in a blender. That’s garbage of a high order.

To be continued next time …

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Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: How To Fix Writer’s Block

Claire Rice invites you to read this list out of order. It may either feel like she’s spiraling out of control or into it.

How_To_Fix_Writer's_Block

I am experiencing the most serious writer’s block I’ve ever experienced in my whole life.

There is a large part of me that wants to follow that sentence with a picture of a microphone drop and leave this post just like that. This is because I think that sentence is one of the truest things I’ve written in the last year.

It’s not that I haven’t been actively putting words on pages and forming beginnings, middles and endings. It’s that I’m not sure what I’m writing is true. Or, no, that’s not quite right. I believe that I underneath my writing is a larger hidden truth that is not being said. A confusing and muddled truth that I don’t have the words for yet. Over that truth I’ve written fictions and …

See? I’m doing it again! I’m being purposely vague. Except I’m not, at least I don’t think I am. What is it I’m trying to say? I don’t know. This is the block.

I even started writing “The Enemy’s List” because I wanted to be a truth speaker. I thought to myself “I’m a person who tells it like it is or, at least, I tell it like it is in my mind and I deal with the consequences later.” I imagined “The Enemy’s List” as a truth space. And it is. I don’t think I’ve told lies or said things I didn’t mean or even pandered to anyone. But, still, there is some filter over my writing that feels less than honest. I can feel that there is something underneath the words that is what I should really be saying, but I’m not.

List of Possibilities
In an effort to try and push past this block, I’m going to try and be vulnerable. Honest. Open. Fearless. One of these things might just be the thing I’m trying to say, but I’m not saying.

Enemy’s List
I love it. I love it so much. Also, note, this is not an ongoing list of my enemies. It is an ongoing rant about things that upset me, weird me out, unsettle me, or piss me off. In writing this blog I don’t feel as if I creating my own Nixon style enemies list, but instead adding my own name to other people’s lists. I realize that I might step on toes, upset an apple cart, and may add unwelcome adjectives to my name when I’m spoken about. The thing is, people might say those things about my directing work and my playwriting already. Those things are just as much my truths as the essays I write. I started this because I began to feel as if I was building a reputation as a “shit talker” (well, at the very least rude) or they type of person you go to if you want to bitch about this or that. I’ll lean in and participate. I’ll play devil’s advocate. I’ll nod my head and dig into it with you. I figured I might as well capitalize on it.

I Hate Lists
I love lists. I love Cracked.com and Buzzfeed and AV Club’s Inventory. I hate that it means the only way to write on the internet is through a scan-able, easily digestible, neatly organized list. It makes me feel dumb. It makes me feel like there is no other way to write. It makes me feel like I’m talking down to you. It makes me feel like I’m inviting you to pick and choose from my thoughts like a buffet. That they may be tangentially connected, but that a part could be lifted from them the list will still be intact. Like a mixtape of my thoughts, you can read the first to get the gist and skip to the end to get the most important bit and feel like you’ve taken it all in. I love lists for all the reasons I hate them. I am conflicted as shit about this.

I’m Just Bitter
I look at some of the playwrights and directors who are my age and I see them finding a level of success that seems to be just out of my reach and it galls me. What choices have I made in my life that have lead me to this moment? Who’s fault is it that I am not where I want to be? Could it be the overpriced education failed me? Could it be that I didn’t go to a top tier school? That I didn’t come into this independently wealthy? That I’m a woman? That I’m from San Francisco and not New York? That I’m terrible? That I don’t try hard enough? That I’m not good enough? Maybe success is a green light on the other side of a lake. Maybe it doesn’t matter what I do, what accolades I get. Maybe I’ll never feel like I’ve “arrived” or I’ve “broken through”. Maybe I can’t because I’ve chosen theatre and there is no longer any such thing as success in theatre. Maybe I’m so bitter I’m one of those people that lashes out at everything and I blame everyone else and every “system” that is keeping me down.

Fuck You
Sure. Maybe I’m bitter, but that doesn’t mean the Actor’s Equity website doesn’t suck or that I don’t have a right to my opinions.

I’m Not Bitter
I have no doubt in my mind I would have the opinions I have regardless of how “successful” I was or wasn’t. Also, except for this mental block and the existential crisis about truth or whatever, I feel pretty good about where I am. Sure, not great. But what can you do? I’m conflicted as shit about this.

Ugh, This Sucks
Where is the truth? Am I at it yet? Is this even interesting?

Because I Want to Say It, It is Worth Saying
That is tantamount to: Because I have access to the internet I have the right to act like an asshole on message board because you can’t see me. I also have access to a stage and actors who are willing to participate in saying things for me. There’s a lot of power in all those things. Have I fully realized that power and what it means? Have I take the responsibility for it and honestly weighted the impact of my actions? I don’t know. Worse, I honestly don’t know if you are either. I sat through half a show last night and didn’t know why I was there, why anyone else was there or why the show. Why the show? Why the show? So I left at intermission because I didn’t see any reason anyone should have stayed. I didn’t owe anyone my attention or understanding.

When I Say It, You Need to Listen
It hurts my feelings when people walk out of my shows. I want to call them stupid. I do call them stupid. I blame everyone else. I get angry. I am hurt. I gave these people a gift and if they walk out it is because they didn’t try hard enough. I can’t and shouldn’t spoon feed meaning to every audience member.

I Am Conflicted As Shit
Where is the truth? Am I at it yet?

The Story I Want To Write
The circumstances surrounding my sister’s upcoming wedding may just be the plotline of an independent movie or a “white people dinner party” play. This is a truth. I want to write it. It will make a good and entertaining story, one that I’ve already told several close friends. It will be important to me. It will be my truth. It is also not mine. My character would be bystander to the events. I don’t have the “right” to this story, because the story belongs to the living people whom I love who are living through it as we speak. It will also no longer be true the moment it hits the page. It will be edited and finessed for entertainment. People without clear objectives will be given higher stakes. Character types will emerge. Clichés, stereotypes, and my one subjective world view will supplant the real people. It will be work shopped and judged and walked out on and critiqued and rejected. I will write a true story about me and the people I love and it will be rejected. It will be categorized and filed away. It will be made an example of and it will be ignored. And it will be true and it will be false and it will kill me to write it. It will also make me feel better. It will hurt the people I love. It will not be left in a drawer to rot because that isn’t why I write. I write to be heard. This isn’t a fun hobby. This isn’t an addiction. This isn’t an ego boost. This isn’t therapy. It won’t make me feel better to have written it because it will be “out”, but because it is true. It is my truth, even dressed in all the false layers of fiction or memoir or style or form. This is my truth and I can’t bear to have it in your hands and I can’t bear the thought of not giving it to you.

All the Stories I Want To Write
It isn’t just that one. It’s all of them. That one is just a good example. A fresh example. But it’s also true. In the past year I’ve written things that I thought were good, fun, entertaining or any number of things. They did what I wanted them to do, but where they true? Where they my truth? Where they a truth I was willing to stand behind and defend? Where they worth having been said even if they were true? What is my metric here? How were they false? Why am I unsure? I used to say that when art scares you, that is when you should do it the most. But…really? You know…really? I mean. Maybe it means I shouldn’t write it.

Is This Even Interesting?
I am conflicted as shit about this. My heart is racing. My head is light. I’m hiding in my home. I’m sleeping too much. I may be having a medical emergency or I may be having the weirdest longest anxiety attach of my life. This is a lie. This is an exaggeration. This is closer to the truth then you know. This is a play-by-play of my life. Do you deserve to have that information? Do you want it? Should I care about what you say? Am I starting a conversation or am I yelling on a soapbox? Do I have to pick one?

What This Isn’t About
Don’t talk to me about writer’s block. This is a truth block. This is a wall of self. A crisis of voice and intent. This is a self-examination of the worthiness of what I’m putting out into the world. All the things that I am: Bitter. Angry. Confused. Unsatisfied. Argumentative. Contrary. Poetic. Subjective. Delightful. Funny. Insightful. Empty. Damning. Distant. Unsettled. Uneducated. Over-education. Stupid. Intelligent. Conflicted as shit. Fucked. Condescending. Complicated. Defensive. Offensive. And trying to find the moment when it just exists. This voice. This person. The one who is no longer defending my right to say want I feel, but just says it with the authority that I have granted myself.

I Don’t Know
I really don’t.

I Am Conflicted As Shit
Fact.

If you are feeling the need to give me advice on getting over “writer’s block” I want you to know that I’ve googled several advertisement laden lists that are both wonderfully insightful and disturbingly stupid.

This one is good: http://thefuturebuzz.com/2008/12/03/how-to-overcome-writers-block/

This one is great: http://io9.com/5844988/the-10-types-of-writers-block-and-how-to-overcome-them

This list is mostly the same as any other, but the last tip is a so unbelievably weird it had to be reprinted here. No judgment here. Whatever gets you through the day. Thank you Brian Moreland, I look forward to being more hydrated if nothing else. http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/7-ways-to-overcome-writers-block

“If nothing else works, I resort to my number one, lethal weapon to cure writer’s block: the Glass-of-Water Technique. Before bed, fill up a glass of water. Hold it up and speak an intention into the water. (Example: My intent is to tap into my creative source and write brilliantly tomorrow. I choose to be in the flow of my best writing. I am resolving my story’s issues as I sleep and dream). Drink half the water and then set the half-full glass on your nightstand. Go to sleep. When you wake up the next morning, drink the rest of the water immediately. Then go straight to your computer and write at least an hour without distraction. This may seem a bit out there, but give it a try. It works! Do this technique for three nights straight. It gets me out of my writer’s block every time, often the next morning and definitely within 72 hours.”

Everything is Already Something Week 27: Happy Anniversary, I’m Unemployed!

Allison Page, drinking bleach and taking names.

Holy shit, you guys…I’ve been writing Everything is Already Something for a YEAR! (Well, 1 year tomorrow, but I write every other Wednesday, so you’ll have to settle for today.) And a crazy, crazy year it has been. Actually, it’s been a crazy month. I don’t even want to think about 12 of those back to back. That would be awful.

A little over 3 weeks ago, I got laid off. Isn’t that just soooo adult of me? When I think of layoffs, I think of somebody’s dad losing his job at the ceiling-fan-parts manufacturing plant or something. I don’t think about me. And it had never happened before. But here we are. The reactions from other people have been really interesting. Particularly the contrast between my San Francisco friends and my Minnesota friends and family.

Allison: “I got laid off!”

Mom/Aunt/Dad/Girl I Went to College With: “Ohhhh myyyy Goooood! What are you gonna do? Move home! What are you gonna do?! Ohhhhh myyyy Goooood! You’ll be homeless in a month! YOU’LL BE SELLING YOUR BODY ON THE STREET!”

Allison: “I got laid off!”

SF Friends and Acquaintances: “Hell yeah! You’re gonna make so much art now! Let’s drink hella drinks.”

Unemployed breakfast.

Unemployed breakfast.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere between those two things. Oh, and I’m an aunt now. That just happened a few days ago. I have a tiny nephew named Jacob! It’s…a pretty weird feeling. A combination of feeling very adult and also definitely not adult at all. I’m going through one of those glorious periods of my life where everyone else is having babies and I’m writing a political sex comedy. Deja vu.

I got all pumped up about self producing a play that I’m very passionate about this coming October…and then we had to bump it to 2015. This year is only two months old and it’s already throwing me for a loop in at least 6 different ways. I suppose it’s a good thing that I love change. Generally speaking, I roll with the punches. Mostly because I have the awareness to know that whatever happens, I will most likely be fine. I don’t know if my life could get as chaotic as it used to be even if I tried. Of course, I could be totally wrong about that and end up sleeping on the floors of closets again. I look forward to finding out.

The most surprising and encouraging thing about being unemployed is how bizarrely confident other people seem to be in my potential ability to not need a 9-5 job. As opposed to saying “Oh man, you better apply for this job at a grocery store so you don’t die.” there are people saying things like “Oh! Get a literary agent!” or “Just do more on camera stuff!” or “Write for this magazine or this website!”. I had a conversation with a friend of mine while she gave me a ride home from a reading of a new play the other night, and she expressed happiness about having a feeling that more and more of her theatrical friends and collaborators are transitioning from having to have full time desk jobs to making their real passions their full time endeavors. Like a switch from full time job with art on the side, to full time artist with jobs on the side. That’s a big difference. Often it also comes with a big difference in financial compensation, of course. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a job that pays those damned bills, and doing the passionate stuff after. I mean, I’ve been doing that my entire life, so I definitely feel it’s a valid way to create things in this crazy expensive world. But I think we can all agree that if we had the luxury of being able to dedicate more time to the things we love – that would be pretty great. That’s an overly optimistic expectation, obviously. The odds that you’ll find me at a desk in an office, or selling shampoo, or baking fucking peach pies for cash are pretty high.

Hello, sir! Have you considered switching to...to...I feel nothing. I am a husk.

Hello, sir! Have you considered switching to…to…I feel nothing. I am a husk.

But for now, I’m going to pretend that I’ll never have to do that, and see just how much cool stuff I can generate. (HINT: probably not as much as I wish I could.) It’s like my own personal forced artistic revolution. I would never have left that job of my own accord. I’d have to be an idiot to do that. Great pay, free food – I mean, I’m not an asshole. But the fact that I got laid off is giving me some weird opportunities to spend some time in my brain and figure out just what it’s capable of. Like when a guy who’s totally into cars gets a new car and says something like “Let’s see what this baby can really do!” and drives it as fast as possible. That’s what I’m going to do with my brain-car.

Right after I get caught up on House of Cards.
And West Wing.
And Downton Abbey.
And Bob’s Burgers.
And Murder, She Wrote.
And every movie starring Cary Grant.
And everything on Hulu.
And everything on Netflix.

Priorities are hard.

TELL ME WHAT TO FEEL!

TELL ME WHAT TO FEEL!

See Allison live! Tonight 2/26 in a reading of Stuart Bousel’s EVERYBODY HERE SAYS HELLO! at the Exit Theater at 8pm, OR at PANELMONIUM!, 8pm Friday 2/28 at the Dark Room Theater, OR Monday, March 3rd in a reading of Rachel Bublitz’s UNDER THE GODS GOLDEN CLEATS, 8pm at The Tides Theater. More info for the last two events is readily available on Facebook.

Theater Around The Bay: A Blank Page?

A word of inspiration- and invitation- from one of our founding artistic directors, Stuart Bousel.

Yes, it’s true, for the first time in quite a while, we have nothing to run today.

This is partly my fault. I was supposed to have something written for today, but I’ve been interviewing for jobs, helping a company producing a play I wrote find a replacement director, prepping for the production of The Crucible I will be directing this year, promoting the DIVAfest at the EXIT Theatre, and diving into the pre-production process of RAT GIRL. I really wanted to write something about a recent experience I had at a “young theater professionals” night at a major Bay Area Theatre Company, but I kind of burnt out the subject talking about it on Facebook and amongst my friends and now I don’t care anymore either. Additionally, having done something like fifteen job interviews in the last three weeks, I’m reaching a point where my own voice is somewhat irritating to me. To those who find me an objectionable vocal presence- I am, for this exact moment, not entirely unsympathetic to your perspective.

Between the fatigue that comes from juggling many things and the mid-process place I find myself with most of my projects, I’m just not feeling very inspired to write anything, let alone a blog entry about how artistic directors of companies who hold “young theater professional nights” should make it a point to be there and shake each of our hands and introduce themselves- not just rely on the rather irritating but widely held belief that all “young professionals” need is artisanal appetizers and booze- as much as I like both of those things- to qualify an event as “an event.” Please, please, please, Theater Company, I respect your attempt to get with the new culture of engagement that permeates the youth these days but take a cue from other industries and recognize that it only works when the leadership of an organization is on the front line of that engagement endeavor. A room full of people who make theater companies are not showing up to an event to help you play restaurant for a night- they’re there to network and get involved, and your event should find a way to facilitate that if it wants to truly fill a need and not just be a cheap way to package dinner onto a play (which, granted, I appreciated).

Anyway, regarding the lack of inspiration: I’m not worried about it. One of the best things about being 35 is that I no longer worry that my well will run dry, that I won’t ever get around to writing everything I want to write, that my glory days as a writer are done. This is because I know there is no such thing as glory days, or rather that glory days happen all the time, but they definitely come and go. Having a more mature understanding of my own art and ability allows me to create less fear around the “go” and place more emphasis on the “come” (how is that for an art as spooj double entendre? Another great thing about 35 is embracing being 14 at heart!). Having long accepted that I will die with projects unfinished, no matter how many I knock out between now and then, has also relieved that pressure and guilt I used to feel whenever I wasn’t actively pushing forward or marking things off the list of ideas and titles I’ve carried with me for decades. That list is just too long and it keeps growing, because the well will never run dry so long as life continues to be interesting, and I keep being interested in life.

“White. A blank page of canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities,” is the last line of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday In The Park With George, one of my favorite shows ever, and it brings tears to my eyes whenever I hear it on the recording or in performance, and it resonates very deeply inside of me. In Craig Zadan’s book about Sondheim, Sondheim & Co, the final chapter ends with a quote from the man himself, “Probably one of the most frightening things in the world is staring at a blank sheet of paper wondering how you’re going to fill it… but somehow you do.” He’s exactly right, and the reason why you’re able to do it is because there is no such thing as writer’s block- the lack of inspiration- there is just the fear of getting started. True, that can be a daunting hurdle, but the truth is, anyone who knows how to scribble or babble (and we all know how to do both) will stumble their way into coherency someday, and “give us more to see” (that’s a quote from Sunday too). The moment you understand that, and truly understand it, is the moment you are done with writers block forever. It’s also the moment you learn it’s okay to walk away from the blank page for a bit. Not because you’re afraid of it, but because it’s just not all that interesting today. Outside is beckoning, with all its delicious things and experiences to write about… later.

The reason we took this blog to a new level with regular columnists and an on-going series of guest writers was because there was a recognition of how diverse and unique the community here is. Few other major cities can boast such a wealth of micro-theater, indy artists and theater makers, while also having and admirable number of larger houses and a bona-fide regional theater presence. But the diversity of practices and productions in the Bay Area only makes us great if it is putting itself out there and declaring its presence, and creating platforms for that voice and those people has been SF Theater Pub’s goal from the beginning- first with the stage, and now with the page (including, but not limited to, the Allison Page).

In light of that, and looking at our March calendar with the idea of sparing you more meandering entries like these, I once again invite folks to send in proposals for articles, either one shot, or short series (1-4 articles), detailing their experiences in our theater scene, sharing their advice, or profiling elements, places, people, companies, or work that is interesting to them, teaching them something new, or they feel has been ignored or misunderstood by the larger community.

Please submit your proposals to theaterpub@atmostheatre.com. Not all are approved, but all are read and considered.

Give us more to see.

Theatre Around The Bay: From Stage To Screen

Just in time for the Oscars, guest blogger Kirk Shimano muses on the differences between writing for the stage and screen.

Last year, with the help of PlayGround, I had the opportunity to adapt my short play, “Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos,” into a short film. It’s the story of a downtrodden school librarian who changes her life by entrusting all her decisions to the flips of a coin.

Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos at the 16th Annual Best of Playground Festival, with Lisa Morse, Cathleen Riddley, Roselyn Hallett, Michael Asberry, Lauren English and Maryssa Wanlass.

Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos at the 16th Annual Best of Playground Festival, with Lisa Morse, Cathleen Riddley, Roselyn Hallett, Michael Asberry, Lauren English and Maryssa Wanlass.

I had written short films before (including my student film opus, “Shoe and Rock: The Adventures of Shoe and Rock,” starring a shoe and a rock), but this was my first experience in adapting a short play. It’s been nearly a year since our film was first shown to audiences, but I still find myself mulling over the experience, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to share four of the most memorable lessons I learned along the way.

1. LOCATION. LOCATION? LOCATION!

If you take a look at any screenplay, you’ll find that the pages are filled with “slug lines” that tell you where and when each scene takes place. A page will start with:

EXT. GOLDEN GATE PARK – MORNING

or…

INT. ABANDONED WALMART – EVENING – FIVE MINUTES AFTER THE RAPTURE

I used to think that the prominence of these slug lines was just an organizational tidbit that helps the assistant director keep on track, but it turns out they can have a big influence on all of the writing that follows.

My original script began Miss Finknagle’s journey in her home (on stage, this amounted to a nondescript table and a chair). My earlier drafts kept the same location for the film, but thankfully our intrepid director, Amy Harrison (more on her later), suggested that we instead move the opening to the school library.

Director Amy Harrison and Production Designer Alex Dixon putting far more thought into the library location than I had.

Director Amy Harrison and Production Designer Alex Dixon putting far more thought into the library location than I had.

What I had forgotten was that our movie audience would be seeing more than just a table and a chair. Picking a unique location was the first step to putting the audience in a unique world and got me thinking more about how our characters would interact with the world around them.

2. THINGS SHOULDN’T BE, YOU KNOW, HAND-WAVEY…OR SOMETHING

My stage script opened up with this:

(The stage is divided into two areas. Although MISS FINKNAGLE often enacts the events described by the teens, the two spaces remain distinct throughout the play)

It was intentionally ambiguous, because in the space of ten minutes I didn’t want to spend too much time establishing specific locations.

It turns out, in a movie it’s pretty difficult to keep that level of ambiguity. The actors aren’t walking into a blue-tinged spotlight that represents the outdoors – they’re walking past actual trees and actual cars in actual streets (well, for those of us productions that can’t afford soundstages and green screens, at any rate).

Jessica Hecker and Haley Anderson as BFF's Kaylee & Tiffany in a real life, non hand-wavey cafeteria. Set photos taken by Leo Robertson

Jessica Hecker and Haley Anderson as BFF’s Kaylee & Tiffany in a real life, non hand-wavey cafeteria. Set photos taken by Leo Robertson

The point is that movies have a certain literal quality to them, which provides the immediate you-are-there magic of omigod-I’m-with-Sandy-Bullock-on-a-space-station but also makes it more difficult to leave amorphous images for the audience to decipher on its own.

I found that I had to tool my script to make the relationships between the scenes more concrete. Where we used to have two ambiguously connected locations, we now had the teens definitively driving a narrative that had cutaways to support their descriptions. It did mean sacrificing a bit of the fairy tale feel I had liked about the original script, but it made for a much smoother flowing audience experience that I’m glad we adopted.

3. EVERYONE NEEDS TO SHUT UP

Here’s how the original stageplay started:

KAYLEE
So, like, Miss Finknagle was home alone.

TIFFANY
Well, duh, she’s always alone.

KAYLEE
That’s not the point of the story dork-face.

TIFFANY
Does she even have a home? I heard that when all the kids leave school she just stays in the library and sleeps between the computers and the encyclopedias.

Here’s how the screenplay starts:

KAYLEE
Oh. My God.

Kaylee takes something from her purse and SLAMS it on the table. It is a COSMO-LIKE MAGAZINE.

TIFFANY
Omigod Kaylee –

What used to be a few lines of dialogue became just a few words. I think there are a lot of reasons for this. One is that movies provide the ability to replace character-establishing dialogue with a single reaction shot. Another is that stage dialogue has to carry more of the expositional weight, explaining that the nondescript table on stage is supposed to represent a house. I also suspect that audiences in a theater are more willing to listen to long stretches of conversation, because you’re watching two people talk in front of you instead of light flickering on a screen.

But whatever the explanation, I found that long passages of dialogue that used to sound breezy on stage now seemed leaden on film. Of course, it could just be that those lines were always a drag and everyone was too polite to tell me, but I’m choosing to interpret this as a life lesson to keep movie dialogue short and to the point.

4. IT’S THE DIRECTOR’S MOVIE

As a playwright, I can’t help but notice that plays tend to belong to the playwright (as in John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar) while movies tend to belong to the director (Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street). Of course, any production is the result of a collaboration between many people, but screenwriters seem to have less ownership than playwrights.

I can’t speak for every movie, but ours definitely belongs to our director / producer Amy Harrison.

In a small film like this, the director is called upon to do a host of tasks that would be delegated in a Hollywood studio film – things like negotiating for locations or keeping a constant eye on the budget – but even if you remove all of those additional responsibilities the director’s contribution is by far the one that makes the biggest impact.

On stage, the audience watches the actors bring the script to life, giving them a direct line to experiencing what was originally written on the page. But in a movie, every moment is filtered through a thousand more directorial decisions. Do we watch the person speaking or see a reaction shot instead? Does the music quietly underscore the entire scene? Is the entire world viewed through a warm haze of soft focus?

Camera Op. Tyler Cushing readies the shot as Production Designer Alex Dixon and Design Assistant Roary Racquel set the stage

Camera Op. Tyler Cushing readies the shot as Production Designer Alex Dixon and Design Assistant Roary Racquel set the stage

I was amazed at the difference between our first rough cut and our final version and the script didn’t change at all – just the directorial and editorial decisions. I’ve had the privilege of great relationships with directors in theater who have helped to shape the script and bring the cast and crew together, but in a movie every second of the audience’s experience has been crafted by the director.

Of course, that might be undervaluing the contribution of the editor, the sound designer, the cinematographer, or any number of other people I haven’t thought to mention. So maybe trying to figure out who “owns” a film is the wrong approach altogether. What’s important is to appreciate how many collaborators put their stamp on bringing this story to life. The end product was better than what I had initially tried to put on the page. I’m glad I had the chance to be part of a moviemaking team and would recommend it to any playwright given the opportunity.

Lisa Morse as Miss Finknagle, ready for the camera.

Lisa Morse as Miss Finknagle, ready for the camera.

‘Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos’ will next be screened at the Portland Oregon’s Women Film Fest, March 6-9, 2014. For all the latest information, follow https://www.facebook.com/missfinknagle

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Chestnut Tea with the Other Me

Marissa Skudlarek rebuts Peter Hsieh in a move we shall call, from this moment on, “The Double Skudlarek.”

The Palm Court of the Palace Hotel, downtown San Francisco. Marissa and Other Marissa sit at a table drinking tea. They are wearing beautiful floral-print sundresses and really fantastic hats.

MARISSA: So, Other Marissa. Thanks for joining me.

OTHER MARISSA: My pleasure!

MARISSA: It’s nice to be able to argue with myself out in the open.

OTHER MARISSA: Indeed, because as Tom Stoppard once said—

MARISSA & OTHER MARISSA (simultaneously): “I write plays because dialogue is the most respectable way of contradicting myself.”

MARISSA: Of course we would both know that quote.

OTHER MARISSA: Of course. After all, I’m you.

MARISSA: But, like, the other me.

OTHER MARISSA: Yeah. So, whatcha drinkin’?

MARISSA: Earl Grey – my usual. And yourself?

OTHER MARISSA: Chestnut tea!

MARISSA: Chestnut tea?

OTHER MARISSA: No really you have to try it, it’s amazing.

Marissa takes a sip of Other Marissa’s tea.

MARISSA: It’s good!

OTHER MARISSA: I know, right?

MARISSA: So this means that this is a scene with “two women having tea and talking.”

OTHER MARISSA: OH NO SOMEONE ALERT PETER HSIEH.

MARISSA: But that’s why I invited you here today, Other Marissa. If Peter can have drinks with his doppelganger, why can’t I?

OTHER MARISSA: Why not, indeed?

The_two_Marissas copy

MARISSA: I read Peter’s article on Monday and I thought he made some good points, but they got buried under a lot of, um, how to put this—

OTHER MARISSA: Macho posturing?

MARISSA: You don’t mince words, Other Marissa; I like that about you.

OTHER MARISSA: I do my best.

MARISSA: But, anyway, I liked what Peter had to say about producibility and how much we should – or shouldn’t – take it into account when writing.

OTHER MARISSA: Yeah, I feel like if you and I sat down with Peter and Other Peter, we’d all pretty much agree about that. It’s deadly to theater, as an art form, if every newbie playwright feels like the only thing she can write is short plays with small cast sizes and simple sets. Where’s the fun in that?

MARISSA: Although I’d probably interject that some constraints and limits can actually spur creativity. A blank page can be daunting, and you don’t always have to color outside the lines to make great art.

OTHER MARISSA: Also, Marissa, I’ve noticed that you strive for balance in your craftsmanship – a play of yours might contain one “unproducible” element, but not four or five.

MARISSA: You know me so well. Yes, I did that on purpose in my play Pleiades. I realized that it required a large cast, nine actors – and I wasn’t going to compromise on that. But I could make sure that the technical aspects of it were as simple as possible. There are only two sets, the costumes and lights don’t need to be complicated, there aren’t any crazy special effects… and I still told the story I wanted to tell.

OTHER MARISSA: That’s the play you’re producing this summer, right?

MARISSA: You are such a shill. But yes, I’m producing it this summer. It doesn’t have two women drinking tea, it has eight women drinking tea! And it’s fucking awesome.

OTHER MARISSA: And then a tennis ball bounces onstage and smashes into the tea service.

MARISSA: Yeah – I still don’t know how we’re going to stage that, night after night.

OTHER MARISSA: But didn’t you say that you “kept the technical aspects as simple as possible”…?

MARISSA: Anyway, the reason I keep harping on the “women drinking tea” phrase from Peter’s article is that, when I read it, it felt like a subtly gendered insult. Why women drinking tea? Why couldn’t he have said “people drinking tea”?

OTHER MARISSA: Or “bros drinking brews”! Those kinds of plays can be just as boring.

MARISSA: Right! But they never come in for the same criticism. Guys with beers are “cool”; women with tea are “boring.”

OTHER MARISSA: And that wasn’t the only weird gender issue at play in Peter’s article. For instance, he tried to start a dick-measuring contest with himself—

MARISSA: Which is not something I would ever do with you, Other Marissa—

OTHER MARISSA: —and not just because we don’t have dicks—

MARISSA: Or, how he has the “hot twins” walk into the cafe at the end of the scene – that is such a male fantasy…

OTHER MARISSA: Oh come on, everyone likes hot twins!

MARISSA: Do they?

OTHER MARISSA: Admit it, you wouldn’t mind if the Winklevoss twins walked in here right now.

MARISSA: Yes I would. The Winklevosses are doofuses.

OTHER MARISSA: Don’t you mean “the Winklevii are doofii”?

MARISSA: And then I worry that complaining about Peter’s article makes me seem like a humorless feminist scold.

OTHER MARISSA: I think that we are being rather humorous scolds.

MARISSA: I worry sometimes that I’m uptight and no fun. I worry that Other Peter’s drink of choice, the “Pink Panty Dropper,” is a date-rape reference, and then I worry that I’m being silly and overanalyzing things. I worry that my drinking Earl Grey tea is racist, colonialist, patriarchal, classist, and Anglophilic; and that I ought to be drinking fair-trade shade-grown coffee. I worry that the setting I’ve chosen for this imaginary conversation, the Palace Hotel, marks me as an inveterate elitist. I worry that at this very moment, buildings are burning and people are dying in the streets of Kiev and Caracas, while you and I drink tea and chat about art. I worry—

OTHER MARISSA: Marissa. Marissa. Calm down.

MARISSA: I’m sorry.

OTHER MARISSA: It’s OK.

MARISSA: I can get into these moods of spiraling anxiety—

OTHER MARISSA: I know. I know.

Pause. Marissa takes some deep breaths. Sips her tea.

MARISSA: If I prefer to write from a female perspective, or discuss women’s lives, or whatever—

OTHER MARISSA: —and maybe you do, and that’s fine—

MARISSA: –then why am I annoyed when Peter prefers to write from a masculine perspective? I mean, he’s entitled to write what he wants to write. He said it himself, and I agree.

OTHER MARISSA: Because there has never been an era in Western history that privileged female perspectives over male ones? Because you’re worried that other people, dudes particularly, will find Peter’s style more attractive than yours? Because you know how important it is, in this culture, to be perceived as cool, and you feel like you’ve never been cool?

MARISSA: Yeah, I feel like, if you’re a dude who says that plays about female things turn you off, people say “Oh, that’s fine, that’s understandable,” but if you’re a woman who admits that plays about dudely things turn you off, people are like “You should try to be more open-minded, flamethrowers are awesome!”

OTHER MARISSA: Aren’t they kind of awesome?

MARISSA: See? Proves my point.

OTHER MARISSA: Marissa, I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone. I’m going to tell you the real reason I drink chestnut tea.

MARISSA: OK. Why are you drinking chestnut tea?

OTHER MARISSA: Because great writing requires you to write both from your chest and from your nuts. OK, so the stereotype is that female writers are tender-hearted, compassionate, their pillowy breasts overflowing with the milk of human kindness. And male writers are bold, ballsy, Bukowskian bad boys. But truly great writing will combine those two modes. It will be compassionate but not cloying; courageous but not callous. It will speak truth to power, but it will do so from a place of empathy.

MARISSA: That was… really beautiful, Other Marissa. But I think you forgot something. A good writer doesn’t just need a big chest and big nuts. She also needs a gimlet eye.

OTHER MARISSA: I think I know what that means.

MARISSA: You’re damn right you do.

Marissa and Other Marissa get up and walk from the Palm Court to the Pied Piper Bar. Marissa catches the bartender’s eye.

MARISSA: A gin gimlet, please.

OTHER MARISSA: Make that two.

End of play.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. There aren’t actually two of her, but if there were, she could get a lot more stuff done. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.