Theater Around The Bay: Sometimes A Commission Is A Love Letter

Stuart Bousel lets Will and Ashley linger in the spotlight just a moment longer. 

So, you’ve probably heard that Ashley Cowan and Will Leschber got married.

You may have even heard something about me writing part of their ceremony (which was predominantly written and spoken by Chris Quintos Cathcart).

What you probably haven’t heard is that I sweated bullets over this page and a half like it was my own wedding.

I get asked to write stuff for people all the time: letters of recommendation, reviews and testimonials, the occasional play. The blessing/curse of being articulate and having a decent command of the language is that people often hit you up to make something sound better or put into words what they can’t, but there’s a big difference between, “write us a two person sketch about XXX”, or “list the five reasons I should get into this grad program”, and “try to capture the poetry of our romance.” That’s a lot of pressure. I mean, it’s one thing to be the weak link in an evening of shorts, or one of the myriad of reasons someone doesn’t get into grad school; it’s quite another to potentially ruin someone’s wedding. And like, their parents will be there. Is there anything worse than disappointed mom stare?

On the other hand, it’s deeply flattering to be asked to do something so important for someone, to be so earnestly trusted, and recognize the faith a friend or pair of friends (in this case) has in you to not only not fuck up, but enhance what was already bound to be a special day. It’s not only flattering, but also inspiring, especially if you’ve been going through a bit of a creative slump, as I have been. I hemmed and hawed and complained and procrastinated, but when I finally forced myself to sit down and write something, I ended up walking away a few hours later, immensely proud of what I’d done.

Sometimes, when we are writers, and particularly writers whose work is getting performed and/or published on a regular basis, we forget who we are writing for and why. In the last few years I have really been embracing the creation of art for its own sake, and for my sake, and the sake of “the right people.” I’ve stopped caring about being producible or commercial, I’ve stopped caring about critics, and I’ve stopped caring about whether or not people really get what I’m doing. When asked “what about the audience?” I’ve pretty much adopted the stance of one of my favorite auteurs, Hal Hartley, “What about them?” This has actually been a really liberating place to be, and if I’ve been running a bit dry this year it has less to do with any kind of writer’s block so much as exhaustion: I wrote 4 full length plays last year, a number of essays and articles, and 3 short plays. If it wasn’t for the part where I’m supposed to have a new full length by the end of this year, I’d be fine with giving myself the year off to just read and revise, but there is no rest for the articulate human with something to say. And I always have something to say.

Meanwhile, thanks to Ashley and Will, I’m sort of getting back into the swing of writing again. This was the short sprint I needed to prep for the marathon. And while I’m way past the point of writing for the audience, I hope you enjoy this as much as they did.

Monologue For Ashley and Will

What I want all of you to walk away with, is that without me, none of this would be happening.

I first met Will in the summer of 2002 when he was acting in a play I wrote, “A Random Act of Creation.” It was being produced in Tucson, Arizona, where he was spending the summer being an actor and I was packing my stuff to move to San Francisco that fall. Will played the god Thor and wore super-tight leather pants. That’s pretty much all you need to know about Will’s youth, and the kind of plays I wrote in my early twenties.

I first met Ashley in the spring of 2009 when I was holding auditions for a production of “The Frogs.” Ashley auditioned for one of the frogs, and despite some really excellent Frog Moves, I did not cast her, but remembered her audition and later that summer cast her in another play as a peasant girl who is abducted by a king who wishes to marry her, but she regains her freedom with the help of a talking magic fish. That’s pretty much all you need to know about Ashley, period, and the kind of plays I wrote in my late-twenties.

One of those plays was a larger, expanded version of the magic fish story, which opened here in San Francisco in 2010. This play, called “Giant Bones”, was based on a collection of short stories by a writer named Peter S. Beagle, of whom Will happens to be an ardent fan. On the opening night of the show, Peter’s agent, Connor, was planning to throw the cast and crew a very fancy party in an art gallery over looking Union Square, with Peter in attendance, and audience members who wished to attend could purchase a special ticket that allowed them to do so. Will, fan that he is of both Peter and myself, decided this was something not to be missed, purchased a ticket to the show and a flight to San Francisco, and flew out for the gala of “Giant Bones.” About the same time, as if by fate, Ashley, who was friends with a number of people involved with the show, also purchased a ticket to the gala night of “Giant Bones.”

What I want all of you to walk away with, is that without my “Giant Bones”, none of this would be happening.

Anyway, the party was amazing. It had the three true signifiers of success: 1) an open bar; 2) sushi; and 3) a dude in a tux playing a harp. Everybody who is almost somebody was there, like probably 60 people, and at some point between beer 2 and 15 I notice that there is this tall blonde kid in a suit who keeps smiling at me but to be honest I hadn’t seen Will in 8 years by that point and I didn’t recognize him so I just assumed what I always assume in these situations which is that I must have slept with him. Because of this, at some point, I apparently leaned over and told Ashley, “Hey. Go find out if that guy’s gay.” Turns out the answer is no.

What I want all of you to walk away with, is that we never know when or how or where the most important person in our life is going to make their appearance… but if we’re lucky, it’s through the most whimsical means possible, and within 8 feet of an open bar… or at the very least, in a city by the sea, full of glass and iron towers, and mysterious fog banks and lonely piers, and exsquisite little parks and coffee shops and all the other magical things you can explore like Will and Ashley did, together, the whole rest of his first trip out here.

Like all good stories, there is a mixture of magic and hardship and when two young people who live in different cities and are on different trajectories with their lives meet, the inevitability of the hardship is almost as surefire as the magic. It was not always easy after that first incredibly easy, incredibly magical weekend. As someone friendly with both parties, it was often times as heartbreaking as it was heartwarming to watch Will and Ashley’s relationship grow and deepen, but I have to say what always both impressed and inspired me was their unflagging respect and admiration for each other, and their refusal to stop caring for one another, even when life was pulling them in opposite directions. I think to fully understand the relationship of these two people you have to realize that both Will and Ashley fundamentally believe in love at first sight, and that such a belief is fundamentally courageous, and requires people with both fluid imaginations and huge, open, gaping wounds of hearts. And while I’m not saying that my belief that when two such people meet they should never let go of one another informed my decision to offer Will a role in my 2011 production of “Twelfth Night”, I’m fairly certain that it was Ashley’s belief in such things that gave her the courage to suggest it to me. And it really was a brave thing to do, especially as they weren’t together at the time- and she was playing the lead in the show. And it was a really brave thing for him to say yes, and give up the familiar things of his life, and move to a strange city for a summer, and parade around in a pair of tights, all for a possibility that was only supposed to be vaguely, faintly possible.

But what I want all of you to walk away with, is that because their love is true, and because their love is brave, all this is happening.

The Real World, Theater Edition: There’s a Peacock in the Backyard

Barbara Jwanouskos continues her re-adjustment to citizen life.

I’ve been steadily applying to jobs around the Bay Area since a week before graduation. I’ve tweaked, reassembled, reworded, and rebranded myself in blogs and on resumes so that I’m putting my best foot forward. I’ve strategically hunted down the jobs that I, not only feel I’m qualified to do, but am passionate about and have speculated that I would have a blast doing. I’ve written cover letter after cover letter confidently giving my case on why I would be the best fit for a particular company.

And…

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Needless to say, the lack of response has left me feeling a little disappointed and a lot discouraged. It’s not that I expected to land a job straight away after graduating, but, as I mentioned last week, it’s been a while since I’ve been in the job market. I forgot how easy it is to get wrapped up in the job search day in and day out. Not to mention that the very real feeling of rejection is almost constant.

I came down with a little bit of PLOM syndrome recently. That’s Poor Little Ole Me, in case you’re not one of my Midwestern relatives that uses this term all the time. I went back to a standby explanation for why I don’t have a job. When times get rough and unexplainable, it’s usually the first thing I go to – It must be my fault.

If you think about what “it must be my fault” inherently means, however, it’s that the situation is in your control. It’s the idea that whatever is happening right now is the result of your own failures to act. I guess the idea my brain had was that I certainly can edit my resumes, cover letters, blogs, online presence, etc., so why not something I have completely no control over? Simple!

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Of course, trying to control something you have no influence over becomes even more frustrating and depressing. I see this firsthand when I train in kung fu and tai chi. You spar with someone and he keeps trying a technique that simply does not work, but he does it anyway and focuses even more attention on it so that he’s leaving something else wide open. It becomes easier to take advantage of the fact that they are not paying attention and their attacks have become predictable.

So, here’s me getting frustrated, down on myself, and depressed…

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Then, I encountered a peacock in the backyard.

Yes, a peacock. Apparently, there are wild peacocks in suburban neighborhoods all throughout California.

Call me crazy, but sometimes when I have an encouter with wildlife, I get really hippie dippie and I feel that it must be a sign from the universe to “take note”. So, I do a little google fu and end up back at the spirit animals guide, where it tells me:

The peacock is the closest in description to the mythical Phoenix, which rises, reborn, from the flames and ashes of its funeral pyre. The eyes on the peacock’s feathers represent their ability to see into the past, present and future and can teach those with this power animal how to stir their clairvoyant gifts. The cycle of birth, death and resurrection (rebirth) is a whole. This relates to valuing all aspects of this cycle, and to have faith that we never truly die.

Well, I needed a kick in the pants to come from somewhere and what an inspiration to be about three feet away from a peacock! I remember being a kid and walking by the flock of peacocks outside the zoo. They’ve always seemed so otherworldly, almost mythical. It took everything I had been dealing with and completely turned it upside down. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes to start anew, I felt as though I needed to approach my life with a clean slate.

I named him “Petey”. Then tried to get him to eat some peanuts, but he just sort of bobbled away, out the hole in the fence and down the street, casually walking as if to give someone else a touch of beauty, inspiration and creativity in her otherwise lackluster life.

I’m taking Petey’s emergence as sign to stop, slow down, and be reminded of what’s beautiful in my life. He reminds me why I decided to focus on creative writing to begin with and the mythical nature of an encounter with something so rare in the real world.

Petey

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Women in Tech(nical Theater)

Marissa Skudlarek gets technical. 

When I was in college, all theater majors had to take a half-credit course introducing them to the fundamentals of stagecraft. The course covered such items as terminology, safety, and rigging; and culminated in everyone in the group having to construct a flat.

Our instructor for this course was a gruff old technician and lighting designer a few years from retirement. He had a reputation for being tough as nails, all the more so because he had recently survived falling seven feet into our concrete-floored orchestra pit and breaking half the bones in his body. He proudly told us that he was a member of Local 1 of IATSE, the premiere branch of the international stagehands’ union, though he also told us stories suggesting that IATSE is a nepotistic old boys’ club.

The class was mostly freshmen (though I took it as a sophomore) and, as drama classes at liberal-arts schools are wont to be, mostly female. And our instructor seemed at times to resent that this was where his life had taken him: here he was, a member of IATSE Local 1, teaching the rudiments of stagecraft to a lot of teenage girls who were only taking the course because it was required.

Many of us in the class had never done tech before – so it would’ve been the perfect opportunity for an enthusiastic instructor to show us what we were missing, to get us excited about everything that goes on backstage. But instead of encouraging us, our instructor seemed to judge and dismiss us out of hand. He never said or did anything overtly sexist (you can’t get away with that at a former women’s college), but his actions and attitudes suggested that technical theater is the domain of men, not of women.

I left the course feeling, more than ever, that if I wanted to learn more about scenery or lighting, I’d have to become “one of the boys.” I’d have to be tougher than the average woman. I’d have to work twice as hard to get half as much recognition. None of these things come naturally to me.

Maybe my instructor was giving me a good dose of Realpolitik. It probably isn’t easy to be a woman in technical theater, so perhaps he was right not to coddle us. But one of the reasons to go to a former women’s college in a bucolic setting is to learn new things in a forgiving, supportive environment. And as I produce a play of my own this summer and work closely with designers for the first time in my theater career, my dearest wish is that I knew more about the craft of design.

And I wish I hadn’t been so intimidated, back in college. I wish that I hadn’t let antiquated ideas about masculinity and femininity hold me back from learning and exploring. I wish I’d understood that femininity is not an all-or-nothing proposition: I should be able to wear steel-toed boots and grubby jeans to build sets during the day, and change into a minidress and heels to go to a party at night, and no one should think less of me for either outfit, either activity.

I still feel insecure when dealing with designers, aware that they have specialized knowledge that I lack – and one of the most difficult elements of producing has been surmounting these insecurities. My stagecraft instructor might have treated me like a naïve young girl; I wish I hadn’t let that treatment convince me that I really was a naïve young girl.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, producer, and arts writer. Find more about her play Pleiades, opening this August, at pleiadessf.wordpress.com, and follow her on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Cowan Palace: Our Big, Fat, San Francisco Theatrical Wedding

This week Ashley Cowan (Leschber!) thanks eight special people who helped make a San Francisco wedding even more theatrical.

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I’m sure you’re feeling a little tired of all this “Ashley and Will’s Wedding” content floating around the internet. But forgive us. We promise in two weeks we’ll be on to other topics. Most likely.

As I’m still floating on Cloud Nine’s layer of exhaustion, I was tempted to make this blog a collection of my favorite pet pictures. Instead, I decided to perhaps make better use of it by offering a thank you to some of our theater friends who deserve a bit of recognition. Besides, there’s still plenty of time to post an all pet related post!

As Marissa mentioned in her blog, putting on a production can be a lot of like planning a wedding. And for Will and me, the reverse proved to be true. As you can imagine, planning a wedding in San Francisco comes with its fair share of challenges. When the going got tough, we decided to think outside the wedding box and look to a group we knew we could count on: the theater community. And we were overjoyed with the individuals who helped make this event even more meaningful.

In honor of the eight months we had to plan it, here are eight theater makers who helped make our day:

Chris Quintos Cathcart: Will and I thought long and hard about who may be a good match to officially help us tie the knot. We knew we wanted our officiant to be a San Franciscan who knew us both, who had a way with words, and who could comfortably speak before a group. We brainstormed a few options but nothing seemed quite right. We kept coming back to Chris: the person who Will and I had both separately opened up to during Twelfth Night rehearsals, the woman who offered us fantastic love advice and young adult fiction suggestions over various pieces of cake, and the friend who made us laugh during times of insecurity. Throughout the entire planning process, Chris listened and collaborated with us. Most of the time she magically incorporated the thoughts we tried poorly to articulate with unbelievable ease. After working together on theatrical projects of the past, Chris proved once again to be a master of the stage and we can’t thank her enough for lending her talent to this new union.

Stuart Bousel: As he mentioned in his reading, Stuart is the reason I’m here writing this blog. Along with letting us write for Theater Pub, he’s also played the leading role in our meet cute story. Aside from using his magical theater ways to inspire a romance, Stuart was also the one person we knew we wanted to perform a reading. After surviving an already crazy year of rehearsals and multiple shows, we asked Stuart if he would write something for our ceremony. We were not very helpful with the specifics of what we wanted (sorry, Stuart). But we had faith in his words considering they had, in fact, brought us all together in the first place. Once again, he blew us away with a beautiful, humorous and thoughtful retelling of our story together. My friends and family outside of our theater circle haven’t stopped raving about it and we’re left thanking Stuart for his treasured part in our relationship.

Tonya Narvaez: Will and I have the pleasure of living with Tonya and that poor lady has probably seen more wedding induced sweat and tears than anyone else. She calmed our nerves by suggesting we take a moment to focus on the emotional journey of Felicity instead of our own stress. She made us laugh by creating unique talkative voices for each of the pets. But most of all, she was a friend to us when we simply needed a calm voice telling us that everything was going to be okay. Tonya also saved the day by writing all the text on our various chalkboards (and my goodness, we had a lot of them), helped us to arrange our centerpieces, and incorporated her creative ideas into our overall design. Tonya proved to be so many things to us during this process and we’ll never stop singing her praises. (Literally. We sing A LOT on Treasure Island.)

James Grady and Christi Chew: I got to know James and Christi through Theater Pub’s glimpse into Rent. Not only are they incredibly good looking but they’re also super talented. So when my job at the time needed performers for a summer concert series, they were at the top of my list. And wowza, they hit it out of the park. Will and I crossed our fingers they would be willing to play at our ceremony and cocktail hour. When they said yes, we probably high fived each other at least a thousand times. They were willing to quickly learn the song we envisioned as our “walk down the aisle jam” (Gold from Once, for anyone curious) and they performed it with skill and passion. Once the reception started, James and Christi continued to encourage the party atmosphere we had hoped for by impressing guests of all ages with their dance moves. Fun fact: several of my friends asked me to introduce them to Christi because they believed she was the “inventor of dance”. James and Christi, we love you and thank you for your music.

Ellery Schaar: I was introduced to Ellery thanks to Chris after she heard me moaning about not being able to find a headpiece to wear with my wedding dress. I have a decent sized head and everything I tried on looked just ridiculous. As soon as I met Ellery, I knew I was in good hands. She greeted me with such a positive and creative force that I knew my hopeful vision of a birdcage veil could be brought to life with care and dedication. She somehow managed to match my love of vintage books with a beautifully detailed piece to wear. The veil included a quote from Twelfth Night, the light peach color from the bridesmaids’ dresses, and the bling that every bride can appreciate. Honestly, I anticipate several future evenings of me alone in my room putting the veil on and remembering the wedding day. Ellery is truly a gifted artist and I’m very grateful I had the chance to be a canvas.

Ashley Ramos: Not only does Ashley have a great name but she can do all the artistic things I wish I could do. Earlier this year, I was super impressed with her draft for the Olympians Festival surrounding Allison’s take on Cerberus but she really delighted Will and me by creating our very own large book where guests could take a picture inside it and literally become a part of the story. She crafted this giant beautiful piece and managed to draw a gorgeous image of The Golden Gate Bridge on the book page. Ashley took a crazy idea and helped bring it to life. She was so sweet to work with and we were truly blown away by her design. So much so, that we plan to hang the creation on the wall. Ashley, you’re wonderful and we can’t wait to see your next creation!

Wes Crain: I first met Wes over beers and margaritas (which Tonya and I had combined… obviously) at a “cleavage and mustaches” birthday party for Chris. After I purchased my dress from Glamour Closet, I needed to find someone to slightly alter the straps before it was ready to wear. I investigated a few options and quickly found the price of altering a wedding dress was almost as much as promising your first born child. Yikes! One place said that if I simply wanted to ask an alterations question, I would have to pay them $35. Regardless if I chose them to fix the dress or if they knew the answer. Barf. So when Tonya suggested I ask Wes to take a look at the dress and see if perhaps he could fix it, I was both anxious and hopeful. Not only did he fix my dress within an hour of first seeing it but he also went on to help my bridesmaid, fellow blogger-Allison Page, with altering her dress as well. I’ve since been bragging that the talent behind the San Francisco Ballet accepted my freelance job but in all seriousness, Wes was fantastic. He made me feel comfortable in a situation that would have otherwise made me feel vulnerable and insecure. He did a perfect job with the alterations and I will continue to suggest him to anyone in need of a seasoned costume master!

As you can see, our wedding was made special by the many talents of the San Francisco Theater Community. We’ve found a family here in this city. Will and I are so thankful to know you all and we’re so happy that our big day was a celebration made better by the immense theatrical talent you all possess. Thank you for supporting us and believing that where there’s a Will (and an Ashley), there’s a way.

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Working Title: Can You Handle This Bromance?!

This week Will takes a look at the forging bond that theatre has on male friendship and 22 Jump Street, of course.

We theatre folk are a motley lot. It takes a certain kind to fall into the pseudo social catch-all that is the performing arts. Sure “theatre people” have some common characteristics: loud, expressive, emotive, prone to drama…or so they say. That being said, over the years I’ve worked with a vast eclectic crowd who have enormous varying interests. People from divergent clicks, social standing, races, gender and backgrounds. I’ve played the stage with short order cooks, cheerleaders, software engineers, jocks, military, loners, drama queens, beauty queens, prom queens, class clowns, teachers and day labor field technicians. I’m constantly surprised by the day jobs of actors and theatre creators. From outside observations, I don’t always guess that “he does Shakespeare” or “she performs poetry” or “they are a theatre people”. Yes, yes certain types are more likely to be involved with theatre (upper middle class white men) but first of all this is evolving and second of all that’s beside the point I’m working towards. I’m working toward a description of the uncommon thread that pulls on theatre people and connects through seemingly disparate space. Regardless of the box that we often get put in (or put ourselves in) by our jobs or social labels, the arts allow us to poke a hole in the cardboard, run a string across social spaces and hear one another without limitation. These thoughts strung across my mind for two reasons: First, during my recent wedding (4-days-ago-recent!), I took a look at my groomsmen alongside other close male friends and was struck at how strong the bonds of friendship were with these old companions. We are all very different people but our mutual participation in the grand social art of theatre bridged the gap somewhere along the way. The second thing to tug my mind along the lines of male friendship was, none other than, 22 Jump Street. It’s a bromance! Need I say more?

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I’ll keep this brief for if you know the perils of wedding planning, you’ll know that even after the big day there is still much to do. SO…As for the film, 22 Jump Street, starts Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill (as if you didn’t know) and it excels where many sequels fail. It takes itself seriously as a comedy sequel. Meaning, it seriously takes the piss out of itself. Half of the running joke is that they spent more money for no reason to do the exact same thing as the first movie. This smartly elevates the comedy. And if you laughed at the first, you’ll laugh here too. More importantly, (and getting back to the point) Jump Street takes the time to again investigates the central male friendship. These two unlikely brothers enhance each other (dare I say, complete each other) even though they are very different people. Regardless of the differences within the central friends the bond is the same. Whether are bros, or theatre geeks, or techies, or cops, or “fill in the diversity here” the bond is the same. I first learned this in high school theatre warm-ups somehow it applies now. “Whether the weather be cold / whether the weather be hot / We’ll be together / Whatever the weather / Whether we like it or not.” Warm-up for theatre, Warm-up for life. Yes, this film buddy trope can be cliché but when done right, it reminds me of the very best of my friends.

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Speaking of which… I wanted to take the time to say a few things of the groomsmen. The first two, I’ve known since grade school, Brinton Gaines & Chris Fjell. I discovered high school theatre alongside Chris. We danced the shit out of Guys and Dolls in ’97. Another, Spencer Dooley, I met in said high school theatre. He might have been a year behind me but that didn’t stop him from getting all the bigger parts I wanted. That douche. (love/hate relationships are often intrinsic to bromances…duh) I tried to hold this against him but his hair is just too pretty to stay mad at. It’s like trying to be mad at Derek Zoolander! You just can’t. I fell in with Steve Cruz at Northern Arizona University and without his help I never would have memorized the abundant lines of Prospero for The Tempest or had fresh homemade tacos to eat at 3 in the morning. 😉 Sorry Stevie. They were delicious. Kevin Cowan is my wonderful bride’s brother. I met her through a production helmed by Stuart Bousel, the lone speaker within my wedding ceremony. All this personal rambling is leading to the fact that throwing myself into theatre has forged connections that are the most importantly in my life. And never would I ever give that up.

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Sources:

Wilson, Glen. Still of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in 22 Jump Street (2014). 2014. Photograph. http://www.imdb.com, Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. Web. 24 Jun 2014.

Theater Around The Bay: A Dream of Restaurants

Today’s guest blog is by Sam Tillis, a local actor and director, and it’s a charming bit of fantasia to start your work week with.

I dreamed last night that restaurants were run like theaters…

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To celebrate some momentous occasion– I do not now remember what it was supposed to be– my companion and I decided to spend an evening at the restaurant. We had purchased our tickets weeks in advance, of course, to ensure we would be seated; indeed, the dish we wanted to enjoy, Veal Parmesan at Berkeley Canteen, was already sold out. We could catch a lunchtime matinee there, but such meals are generally underwhelming, so we opted instead to dine at Berkeley Eatery, a much-lauded venue which serves meals that are deservedly more expensive.

After attiring ourselves in the appropriate eveningwear, my companion and I set forth for the restaurant. We arrived early, but many restaurant-goers were already there, milling about outside Berkeley Eatery’s impressive premisses. I have a certain amount of pity for those restaurant companies not yet successful enough to have their own space, but at any rate, the larger operations like Berkeley Eateries have long outgrown such concerns. Eventually, the doors opened, and we were guided to our table. I have always admired the volunteer hosts who selflessly dedicate their time to the restaurant by leading patrons to their tables. We had lucked into cheaper tickets for a table near the center of the floor– I’m told that tickets for a corner booth can be almost double the price.

The dish that evening was Roast Chicken With Mashed Potatoes. I must admit that I generally prefer spicier fare, but I understand that last season’s Chile Relleno, while a critical success, did not sell very well to the restaurant’s predominantly older, white audience. A tragedy, but a minor one: after all, everybody likes chicken.

The cutlery was phenomenal, as it always is at Berkeley Eatery. Each perfectly-spaced utensil positively sparkled in the room’s soft lighting; the ivory-white plates gleamed; the champagne flutes hummed their crystalline song. Berkeley Eatery is renowned for the impeccable folding of its deep crimson napkins, and tonight failed to disappoint. An appreciative murmur traveled through the restaurant as the lights dimmed to signify the start of the meal; fortunately, I had just finished reading the Chef’s and Food Historian’s Notes filling the first and second pages of the menu.

The dish itself was strongly reminiscent of CalFieri’s 1998 triumphant production. As in that production, the chef made the bold, nontraditional choice of adding garlic to the mashed potatoes. The effect was stunning: a burst of flavor in what usually serves as the reliable but bland backbone of such dishes. The chicken could only be described as succulent: a thrilling experience from the first to last bite. The only real disappointment was the grilled vegetables, which seem to have been thrown in as an afterthought to add some color to the dish. They did not seem to serve any purpose and added nothing meaningful to the meal, though they were undoubtedly of the highest quality.

Our enjoyment of the dish was marred only by the rowdiness of some of the other patrons. One couple whispered continually throughout the evening, disrupting the otherwise-respectful silence pervading the room. There was, of course, the almost-mandatory older man who appeared to be sleeping through the entire meal, to the disdain of all those around him. And in a corner, heedless of the distraction she was causing, a teenager seemed to be more interested in her twitter account than in the culinary delight before her. I believe she even took a picture, despite the clear reminder that photography in restaurant is strictly prohibited.

(And may I take a moment to bemoan the drawn-out death of there restaurant scene in this area? With news of San Jose Eatery’s imminent bankruptcy, the landscape is becoming even more barren. Clearly, we must redouble our support for culinary education in schools– children are growing up with no understanding of this ancient and culturally-significant art, thinking that the TV dinners and Lunchables they so voraciously consume are the pinnacle of taste. It certainly doesn’t help that the rise of snack culture has shortened attention spans so considerably that youths of today simply cannot appreciate a hearty three-hour meal.)

After a brief interval (with the usual run on the restrooms– sadly inevitable when several dozen people flock to them in the same ten-minute span), the dessert course was served. It was a Crème Brûlée, and to my taste it overshadowed the meal it followed, though it seemed that a handful of diners had left after the first course and therefore missed this unexpected treat. The meal as a whole inspired a standing ovation from the remaining patrons.

As the applause finally died down, the Chef de Cuisine made an appearance. He accepted our appreciation humbly before reminding us that restaurants only make about 40% of their budgets from ticket sales, the rest must be made up through grants and patrons. Moved by this speech, we gave fifty dollars at the door on our way out. Coupled with the price of the tickets, this made for an expensive evening, but we must all do our part to ensure that this vital culinary form not die out.

All in all, a delightful night at the restaurant. I shall have to remember to go again at least once before the year is out.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: The Farnsworth “Controversy”

Dave Sikula, center of controversy.

Ever since I was a wee small child, I wanted to direct a controversial show.

I don’t mean just a show that some people might like and others would feel non-committal about. (“Yeah, it was okay, I guess …”)

I wanted fistfights. I wanted riots. I wanted a production that was interrupted by shouts and blood and police being called.

Now, I didn’t want extreme bloodshed or extended mayhem; I wanted something like the opening night of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” where the shouting of the two rival factions in the audience drowned out the orchestra, or the opening of Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World,” which caused actual riots and which was dismissed by the head of Sinn Féin – not exactly the most sensitive of groups — as “a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform.” (And who wouldn’t want to seethat show?).

Booooooooo!

Booooooooo!

While I’d prefer not to go to the extent of the Astor Place riot of 1849 (where at least 25 people died because of groups arguing over which of two actors playing “Macbeth” was better), I’d still have settled for the nightly police raid that greeted Cal State Fullerton’s production of “The Beard” in the 70s (mentioned earlier on my own blog).

This was apparently supposed to make people not want to see it.

This was apparently supposed to make people not want to see it.

The problem is, given the nature of the plays I’ve directed at the companies I’ve worked for, that kind of reception is unlikely. Is anyone really going to get that upset over “Run for Your Wife” or “Copenhagen” or “Long Day’s Journey?” People may leave if the show isn’t to their tastes, but they rarely rise to the point of fisticuffs.

Okay, the wigs aren't that good, but we didn't use them in the show, and they're not worth rioting over.

Okay, the wigs aren’t that good, but we didn’t use them in the show, and they’re not worth rioting over.

I always thought it would be hopeless. Until last week.

It finally happened, and who knew it would be Aaron Sorkin’s “The Farnsworth Invention,” of all shows?

 There are a lot of bad theatre publicity photos out there (see above). This isn't one of them.

There are a lot of bad theatre publicity photos out there (see above). This isn’t one of them.

When I was approached to do the show a year ago, I thought it might be problematic for artistic reasons. The script started life as a screenplay, and, as anyone who’s read my Facebook comments about “The Newsroom,” “The West Wing,” or – especially – “Sports Night” knows, I’m not Sorkin’s biggest fan. In fact, I downright loathe his television work. It’s been demonstrated how he repeats dialogue and phrases from show to show and how he has trouble writing for character; everyone on his shows sounds like everyone else. His biggest sin (in my opinion) is how he can’t end things; but lets them drag out long past the point at which they should have been resolved. Long-form is not his forte.

His stage- and screenplays are different animals, though; they’re much tighter and taut, and the character differentiation is clear. I think it’s, like the prospect of hanging, the prospect of knowing he needs to get an audience out in a couple of hours focuses his mind wonderfully.

The plot of “The Farnsworth Invention” deals with Philo T. Farnsworth, a farm kid from Utah and Idaho, who devised the first practical electronic television system. There had been previous successes with mechanical television – which involved a spinning disc that gave a blurry picture at best – but Philo’s system scanned an image electronically, a method that’s still used today, even with high-definition equipment. Philo’s arch-enemy (in the play and in life) was David Sarnoff, the head of both RCA and NBC, who had an obsession with controlling broadcast media, especially television. He wanted control over all the patents involved, and if he didn’t employ the scientists who invented the necessary equipment, he’d either buy out the original inventor, take that inventor to court and either break them financially or wait out the patent’s exclusivity period of 17 years, or just outright steal the invention.

Mechanical television. Yeah, it didn't work well.

Mechanical television. Yeah, it didn’t work well.

When Farnsworth wouldn’t sell his patents, Sarnoff flat out stole the technology. Philo took him to court, and was eventually declared the inventor of television. The problem with the play is that Sorkin has the judge in the case declare Philo the loser.

It took me forever to figure out why Sorkin did this. It’s a clear break from the historical record, and makes little sense in the overall context of the play. When I finally did understand his motivations, I got it, but still questioned his methods. Regardless, even if I were allowed to, I wouldn’t have changed the text. I’d have had to rewrite the last fifteen minutes, which would be illegal, impractical, and (frankly) inept. I can write, but not as well as Sorkin. We actually approached Sorkin and his representatives to try to get an explanation (not a correction, mind you; just his reasons) and were met with silence.

What we (meaning myself and Palo Alto Players, who are producing the play – at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto – tickets still available here …) didn’t realize until just before the play opened was that there’s a group that is dedicated not only to making sure that Philo Farnsworth has wider recognition as the inventor of television, but that theatres don’t do “The Farnsworth Invention” at all – or, at the very least, that they don’t do it without warning the audience as to its historical inaccuracies. (It may seem contradictory that they’d want to suppress the play, given that it gives so much credit to the unfortunately-mostly-unknown Farnsworth, but as near as I can tell, they find the whole thing too fatally flawed.)

I’ll continue this saga of suppression next time — when there’ll actually be new details.