In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – Let the Monster Out

Charles Lewis III lets the monster out!

Artwork by Cody Rishell

Artwork by Cody Rishell

“There should be a place where only the things you want to happen, happen.”
— Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

It all started with a car ride. That’s what I was told. During a 2009 production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs for Atmos Theatre’s Theatre in the Woods, that’s when we’re told Stuart first pitched the idea of a theatre dedicated to the classic works of Greek and Roman playwrights. As everyone learns when they’re around Stuart for long enough: he doesn’t pitch ideas so much as give you a heads-up on his inevitable plans.

Within a year from the original car ride, twelve local playwrights were staging twelve brand new plays – each one dedicated to one of mythical Olympians. Less than a year after that, three of those twelve plays had full productions. A year after that, half of the first year’s plays were collected into the first book, Songs of Hestia. Here we are five years on and the festival has produced two books, commissioned work from nearly 100 playwrights, staged readings of some 103 plays, commissioned an equal number of stunning original illustrations by Bay Area artists, and showcased the talents of countless members of the Bay Area acting community.

Not bad for a quirky li’l staged reading fest that started from a drive through the woods. As the festival itself is such an interesting and evolving beast, it makes sense that the fifth year would be dedicated to the monsters of Greek mythology.

I actually thought that I wouldn’t be involved with the festival this year. I’ve been involved with it in one way or another since the first year, wherein I was an actor. I played Prometheus, which wound up becoming something of a running joke when I wound up playing him three years in a row. Why no one seems to remember Stuart playing an incredibly smug and condescending Judd Apatow, I’ll never know? But I digress. After acting in two plays that first year, I wound up cast in seven the next year. The third year I was only in three plays, but I also moved up to being one of the festival’s playwrights with my one-act about the Titan Atlas. I wasn’t the first Olympians alumnus to make such a leap, but it seems appropriate to mention her as hers was one of the eight plays I directed for the fourth year (in addition to writing one of my own).

So yeah, I’ve been in the festival once or twice. I guess I’ve done enough to where after this year’s auditions, potential actors kept sending me messages asking when casting would be announced. So too did potential writers for next year ask me when those choices would be made. I have no official administrative capacity with the festival, but I told them all the same thing: “Just be patient.”

And yet I honestly didn’t expect to take part this year. None of my writing proposals had been accepted, nor had I been picked to direct this year. I auditioned this year as I had every year, but I was thoroughly convinced I wasn’t going to be cast in anything. I mean, I wasn’t cast last year either, so it wasn’t a big surprise that as casting announcement were made my name never appeared. And I took that as one-of-many signs about where my career has been heading this year. I’ve had to ask myself some serious questions about where said career would, could, and should be heading and exactly how I could get there. I was considering spending my October/November taking a small role for a very prominent local company (I mean, one even non-theatre people know by name) and just trying to see whatever Olympians shows fell on my “off” nights. So imagine my surprise when, early in the run for Pastorella, I got an e-mail offering me a role in the closing night show, “Echidna” by Olympians superstar Neil Higgins. (Like Stuart’s Judd Apatow, Neil’s stage directions “character” was one of the most memorable parts of Year 1.)

Surprise… and relief. Unexpected relief. There’s an almost inexplicable thrill to the festival that one can’t really understand unless you’ve taken an active part in it: the surprise of getting to read for characters and plays that can go from comedic to dramatic at the drop of a hat; the amazement that comes from seeing all the artwork on display; the wicked glee that comes from talking about which play will be “that show” this year (you know the one – the stunning misfire that’s talked about over drinks for years to come); the relationships that are made by two auditioners who share a BART train afterward; and, of course, the very experience of watching some of the most enduring myths of the western world become bold new works for hungry new audiences.

Can you believe I almost passed that up?

That’s when something occurred to me: since so many people have an interest in how they can see, support, or get involved with the festival, why not pull back the curtain every now and then? During last week’s opening party, we got to hear the announcement of the writers for next year’s fest, of which I will be one. So in addition to the other topics I’ll be covering in this column, I’ll also spend the next year making occasional updates on the fun/maddening process of putting together this lovely li’l fest of ours. And having taken part from nearly all angles of it, I can tell you that it’s no easy feat.

Over the next year you will hear stories of concepts praised and mocked, of scripts written in haste just to be torn up moments later, of “dream casting” that becomes a nightmare for everyone involved, of Jeremy Cole tracking you down like an angry cheetah because you didn’t reply to his e-mail, of illustrators who were supposed to have finished work a month ago but only have rough sketches, of writers wanting to tear their hair out because in the end there is nothing more stressful than trying to find the right raffle prize for the night of your reading and seeing that said prize is sold out.

But most of all, you’ll see a lot of love. What started out as a fun idea during a car ride through the woods has evolved into an annual highlight of the entire Bay Area theatre scene. And that’s always been the bottom line of the festival – for its audiences, illustrators, directors, actors, and writers – everyone keeps coming back because none of them can deny just how much fun they’re having. And I can’t believe I almost went a year without it.

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Charles Lewis would love to see Stuart return to his role as Judd Apatow, if for no other reason than to see a two-person show wherein Allison Page plays his Lena Dunham. SF Olympians V: The Monster Ball kicked off last night at the The EXIT Theatre and continues tonight with Megan Cohen’s Centaur, or Horse’s Ass and Annette Roman’s Satyr Night Fever. All shows begin at 8pm, all tickets are $10.oo cash at the door, with raffle tickets $5.oo a piece. For more information, please visit www.SFOlympians.com.

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3 comments on “In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – Let the Monster Out

  1. It’s been great to be a part of the Olympians Festival, as box-office manager the first year and as a writer for the last four years. True, Charles, you may not have been the first Festival participant to make a leap from Actor to Writer, but I wasn’t that person either — because I’ve never been a Festival actor! I believe the person to whom that honor actually belongs is Megan Cohen — she was an unforgettable Pandora in Year One of the Festival (in the same play where you played Prometheus, as I recall), and then she wrote the terrific “Orion, or Joe Ryan” in Year Two.

  2. Reblogged this on The Thinking Man's Idiot and commented:
    My latest column for Theater Pub. Over the next year I’ll be detailing all the work that goes into creating the San Francisco Olympians Festival, an annual highlight of the Bay Area independent theatre scene.

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