Barbara Jwanouskos, helping us catch up, with both Allison and the blog.
Allison Page and I met over lunch to discuss the upcoming DivaFest production of her play, “Hilarity” directed by Claire Rice. Over quesadillas, we discussed the darkness of comedy and addictions and what it’s like to write something that becomes very taxing. I found it extremely interesting how Allison writes and her process of preparation. She has always been a source of inspiration because of her boldness in her convictions and how she approaches work. As I’m looking to hunker down into my own passion projects, I found learning about the background of the creation of “Hilarity” useful in helping to form my own strategies. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.
Babs: Can you tell me a little bit about the premise of “Hilarity”?
Allison: “Hilarity” is about a comedian who happens to be a woman who is also an alcoholic. And it’s completely dependent on her best friend who is also her personal assistant. So basically, that’s the person who’s in her world. The only other people that exist are her agent – who is funny, but kind of a coward and non-confrontational – and her mom who flies in once a year and just acts like an asshole. So, it’s about her sort of… I hesitate to say, “trying to get her shit together” because she only tries to get her shit together when someone forces her to get her shit together, but it’s basically about her and her life, which is starting to fall apart. So, it’s a fun romp!
Babs: How did it come to be? How did it start?
Allison: It’s something that I started thinking about 4 years ago, which is a pretty long time for me because I’m used to things happening much more quickly than that. I’ve always been really fascinated with comedians in general. Then I knew more and more of them. And then I became one myself and then I was engaged to one. So they’ve always just sorta been around and been the people I understand best, even though they’re often times – not always – so very conflicted. And I feel like it’s become this stereotype that comedians have some sort of substance abuse problem. But it’s a real thing that happens a shitload.
You know, people like Marc Maron talking about his previous substance abuse problems and how they affected all his relationships with all these other comedians. Anyone who listens to WTF knows that shit gets really complicated and really fascinating. So, I just started thinking about it and jotting some things down. I had met with one person from another theater company about producing it and sort of faded away so I put it away for a while. But I just kinda couldn’t stop thinking about it – which was unique – because I tend to drop things if they don’t happen. Like, who cares, whatever. I’m not precious about stuff that I do. But this was just the one nagging thing in the back of my head that wouldn’t really go away. And so about a year and a half ago, I sent Claire Rice a facebook message like, “Hey! Want to direct a thing maybe nex year?” And I was really vague about it. At that time I had another play that’s not mine – that’s from the thirties – that I considered putting up instead. Like, “well, maybe I’ll just do this thing because this thing I wrote would be harder…”
And then in the end I ended up choosing my thing. But she was was onboard immediately. I asked her, “Would you want to direct this thing next year?” And she was like, “Yep! Whatever you want!” Or I think she actually said, “Anything for you,” which is an embarrassing thing to admit.
We were just going to produce it ourselves, but Claire thought of bringing it to Diva Fest, and she did. They accepted it. And now, that’s why it’s happening.
Babs: Can you tell me about DIVAfest?
Allison: I know that they’ve been around for 14 years. It started as a festival to produce work of female playwrights. It sorta has expanded since then to produce solo work. They have a burlesque show, Diva or Die, and other miscellaneous stuff. And they had sort of a “season”, I guess you could say, before, but now it’s more that throughout the year they just have sprinkled things that they’re doing. So, it’s not that there’s a Diva festival happening in March and I’m part of that with a bunch of other things. There’s just different points that they do stuff. I know they have some things in development – like there’s a big solo show that’s in development. Claire’s worked with them. I think this is her 4th year.
Babs: Over the last four years, you’ve were developing the script and working with Claire-
Babs: Can you walk me through the steps of development?
Allison: So Claire’s only been onboard for the last year and a half or so. Before that, I would sort of work on it and not work on it and I was really arguing with myself about whether or not I was really going to do it.
Babs: What was the “no” voice saying? What was the difficulty in continuing?
Allison: Well, so… here’s the “Oh no! She almost let a man tell her what to do” situation. So I actually thought of this while I was still with my ex-fiance who’s a comedian.
I remember saying like, “I have this idea for this play and I’m kind of obsessed with it and just thinking about it.” And he was like, “But you can’t write a play…” And I was like, “Why not?” And he said, “Because you don’t write plays.” Okay, fair enough.
But then I did it anyway, but not until three years later. I mean between the time we had that conversation and now with this happening, I’ve written so many more things, which I actually think is good. It kinda prepared me for this a bit more. I don’t think I could have done this right out of the gate at the time. But now, I’ve written tons of stuff – lots of different things that have been able to prepare me.
So that was maybe part of the “no” voice and also, it just feels like… It’s a tough story. Strangely, for whatever reason, a lot of people in the cast have tough times with certain aspects of the script – reading it or watching it, or whatever – because most of us have experiences with people who have drinking problems – friends, relatives, parents who are alcoholics. So, we all have these ties to these people who have these problems and we’ve had to watch it and deal with it and all that stuff. I’m included in that. I’ve been really close to some people with very severe problems. So the complexity of the material is a little scary and that makes it- When I was writing it, it made it hard to work on. I felt like I’ll just go and do something else I was working on that was more fun, that was less draining. So, it would distract me from working on the thing because I was working on something else that was easier.
I certainly am glad I’m doing it. It just took me a long time to feel like I could deal with it all.
Babs: Do you feel comfortable with where it is right now? And is there a sort of future trajectory that you kind of have in mind for it?
Allison: I feel pretty good about where it is now. I think if you had asked me a week and a half ago, I would have been like, “I don’t know, man!”
Doing the re-writes while something is in rehearsal has been incredibly fascinating. I’ve made a lot of changes that I think are good. It’s in a much better place than I think it was a few weeks ago. And I really like it now.
I said that last night after rehearsal when we were done. It’s like ten-something PM and we’re like on this mattress in the middle of the floor – because that’s the set. It’s set on a mattress on the middle of the floor, so I’m just like lying on this mattress and I look up at Claire and I’m like, “Hey, I like this a lot more than I thought I liked it!” So, that’s pretty cool.
And I feel pretty good about where it is. The EXIT Press is publishing it, but I can still make changes after the production. Actually, having a deadline of when they needed to have the script to publish it was really helpful because then I was like, “Now is the time for it be really close to what it’s gonna be.”
I’ve sort of relaxed. I sent the final draft a couple days ago and now I’m like, “Huh, I feel pretty good about that!” I think I feel like I can leave it for now. Maybe I’ll do something to it later, but now I feel like I could leave it.
Babs: Is this the first full-length play that you’ve had produced?
Allison: Yeah, this is the first full-length that I have had produced. You know, exciting and moderately terrifying, I guess. I’m not a person who’s prone to fear, but I really like- And I don’t even know if fear’s the right word, but I’m just feeling a lot of weird stuff. It’s a weird thing that’s happening. And I’m in it. So like, that’s weird. I always have in the back of my head people going, “Oh, she’s in the thing she wrote,” and sort of like rolling their eyes.
Babs: Has that made it challenging – not only as the performer in your own piece – but hearing the other people around you too? Does your “writer brain” go off like, “No, that’s not what I was thinking!”
Allison: No, I don’t really… I’ve really been enjoying disconnecting from it as a writer. It’s been pretty cool. Sam Bertkin, who’s the Assistant Director, was saying after the first few rehearsals, “It’s really interesting to watch you try to interpret your own material.” Because I do feel like I’m doing that. I’m not looking at like “I wrote this.” I’m looking at it like, “what can I do with this? What can I do with that?”
Claire has brought so much to it and I completely trust her drive the direction of what’s going on. I’m also really not precious about the stuff that I’ve written, so if somebody says a line and then says, “I don’t know if that’s exactly how that should be”, I’m like, “Well, what do you think it should be?” You know, I could tell them to fuck off, but they probably are going to be right. But that doesn’t even really happen. There’s been like such minor things.
There’s some really intense fight scenes and I’ve been working on fight choreography. I wrote the fight really specifically in the script, but we’ve messed with it since then. As long as the intent is the same that’s what I care about.
Babs: I feel like I can definitely relate to you on that one. I guess I’m also sort of wondering, though you say you’re not precious about your words and are really interested in being collaborative, are there moments where you were like, “Well, for the sake of where we’re trying to go with this, I have to let go of this part or this scene”. And maybe have an emotional attachment to it that was unexpected? Or if it was something you just thought was funny, but ultimately it didn’t work?
Allison: Not really. Like, I haven’t had to cut a lot stuff I really cared about. There was one thing that I thought I was maybe going to have to cut that I would have been pretty sad about, but I ended up being able to re-arrange it and re-word it and sort of re-think it.
Babs: Do you think it still works in the re-arrangement?
Allison: Yes. It works better now. Before it mostly just, “This is what Allison thinks about this particular topic” and here’s a mild tirade on that completely from Allison’s perspective.” Then I re-worked it and made it fit more with the person who’s saying it and the show as a whole as opposed to it really being me. But that was the only thing.
Because Claire read it and said, “This is the one part where I feel like I don’t know if that should be there.” And then I changed it and she didn’t say that anymore, so either she forgot or it is better now. I think it’s better now. I like it. But that’s just me. It was very specific to comedy. It’s like a comedy tirade.
Babs: Hey, rants are great. I feel like often times when you’re doing playwriting exercises that can be a really good one to sort of jog people and get them going. Like, “have your character go into a rant right now”. Always really interesting…
Allison: It’s a rant about hecklers, which is fun.
Babs:So in writing this, and also in performing in it, I’m making an assumption – partially because I know I do this – that you’re drawing a lot from your own life?
Allison: Yeah, so I always say that Cyd, which is the main character’s name that I’m playing, that she’s like the nightmare version of myself. So, she’s me if I was given the exact wrong opportunities. And I can totally see that I – She’s pretty monstrous, but we all can be that. So she’s the combination of my worst fears about myself and then also my worst fears for the people that I know that have the set of problems she has. I can see how I could have gone down that same road. There’s definitely some real life stuff in there. There’s one male character in the show and some of the things he says, does, the way he is, the fact that he exists at all, is reminiscent of people that I know unfortunately.
Babs: Or even conversations that you’ve had
Babs: I would imagine that that becomes difficult when you’re inhabiting that character. And how do I make this person different from me because I wrote it? It’s coming from my experience.
Allison: There’s a lot things about her that are not like me, thank god. The toughest parts have been when she’s really vulnerable and when she’s really not doing well. The parts where she’s being really crass and mean and obnoxious – I don’t know, those can be hard sometimes depending on who I’m directing them at because it’s hard to be mean to Heather Kellogg, who’s the nicest person in the world.
But Claire says that we are totally different, but it’s got shadows of me and other people. I mean she is such a nightmare person. I really hope people don’t think of me that way, like “is that what’s going on in there?”
Babs: I have hope for you. So, as you’re talking it sounds like this is much more of a drama than a comedy.
Allison: It’s really dark. The other night we did a scene from it for the DivaFest gala fundraiser that’s the lightest friendliest part of the show. But it’s really brutal. I mean there’s tons and tons and tons of jokes in it, but it’s really really sad. Sam’s way of describing it was as a “cruel play”. I honestly don’t know how people are going to react to the tone of it because it’s so bizarre. Because even when it’s dark the people are still joking about things in order to cope. That’s pretty standard in a drama in some ways – that there’s still laughter intermingled. Especially the second act, which I said yesterday was like an acid bath. So, maybe people will laugh or maybe they’ll just be like, “oh god, this is not okay!”
Babs: I think it’s always good writing when you’re having characters in the play that have these jokes or they are saying something that they intend as funny and either people within the scene or the audience are like “cringe!”
Allison: There are so many cringy things about this for sure. Any time that Cyd is left alone in her apartment, it’s like the air just get sucked out. She can’t even bear to be there. So it feels awful. There are many things that will hopefully feel awful – that’s a terrible thing to say! But it’s sort of meant to feel that way. But I hope that they laugh at the jokes too. There’s a million jokes in it because it’s a person who speaks primarily in one-liners. Which is also how I write. I write in single sentence responses and I write a lot of jokes. But there sometimes really sad jokes or mean jokes.
Babs: Do you have a favorite line?
Allison: Oh gosh… Okay, so, “You know what else everybody thought was a great idea? Painting watch faces with radium. Everybody’s happy until Betty’s face starts melting off.
Babs: Shifting gears a little bit, do you have any thoughts or advice, words of wisdom, not only if you’re a playwright and you’re thinking about how to produce your work?
Allison: Get a director that you trust. It would be such a nightmare if I didn’t have a director that I really trusted. I mean I wrote it and handed it to her and then she takes it. I’m still there and if in rehearsal someone asks a question specifically about the writing or has a question for me specifically as a playwright, but I kind of look to Claire first. And 95% of the time, she takes all questions about anything and I only chip in if they really want me to. I just feel like that separation is important. Also, because I’m in it so I don’t want it to feel like, “Well, I wrote this and the only reason someone else is directing it is because I can’t do it myself because that would be three things.” That’s not why she’s directing it. I asked her to direct it because I felt like she was the right person for the job. There was never anyone else I thought was right for the job. Definitely not me. So, I guess that’s my biggest advice – get a director that you believe in that understands what you’re doing.
Babs: Any thoughts about the writing process? Anything that helps you out?
Allison: Mostly I spend my time trying to trick myself into writing. So I set standards like “I’m going to write for 45 minutes”. Then take a break or whatever. But also because the writing was so hard, it was nice to take breaks and write something that was lighter. So, I just had to pace myself because sometimes it was a slog. Or sometimes I can’t write in my apartment, like the walls are closing in on me, so I go some place else or I meet up with other people that are doing the same thing and we write at the same time and sometimes we take really long breaks where we’re talking and drinking coffee.
I’m also fascinated by other people’s processes, I don’t know how others do it – and this is going to sound more impressive than it actually is – but there’s basically seven drafts of this. But to call them full drafts isn’t really genuine because sometimes not a lot has changed. So the first two times- So, I wrote up the whole thing and then side by side, I had another document and typed up the whole thing. So, the first draft to second draft are really different because I was re-typing up the whole thing. That meant anytime I had to type up a word, I had to really think if I wanted that word. That for me was really useful, but obviously a huge pain in the ass because it takes a really long time. I feel like it was worth it though.
Or like in the first one I didn’t worry about the formatting and then fixed that in the second one. I did have some interesting experiences with “locked pages”. Have you ever locked pages when you’re writing something?
Babs: No, what’s that?
Allison: It’s tough. It makes sense when you’re in rehearsal with something. Do you use Final Draft?
Allison: So, there’s several things in Final Draft that I never use that are really useful. Like in rehearsal you don’t want to print off the whole document again because the pages will change, so instead of that, with this feature, it locks the page number and adds an A, B, and so on after the number and you insert that into the existing scripts. But due to some inconsistencies in something, or my computer or whatever, Linda Huang, our amazing Stage Manager, had to spend hours printing pages with my computer. And we made the decision together so we just had to live with the consequences.
It also took me a really long time to write the end because I didn’t want to put a pretty ribbon on it, but it took a while to figure out what that was. Because in the end I want people to get what they want, but that doesn’t happen and sometimes it’s not always best for you.
Babs: Any last thoughts? Plugs?
Allison: It’s been a shock how great the project has been. People have been really supportive, which puts some pressure on. It’s tough to make something. Writing and now all these other people and all these working parts added into it, which creates more possibility that people will disagree. But that really hasn’t happened. I don’t know how. It’s been so harmonious. Claire said, “it’s been going so well it’s kinda freaking me out a little. Like am I going to get to opening night and go – I did everything wrong!” But I kinda don’t think that’s going to happen.
And if it does, I guess I don’t really give a fuck. I got exactly what I wanted. I did it how I wanted to do it with the people I wanted to work with.
Babs: It’s also not necessarily the end because it’s a play and a play lives on.
Allison: Yeah. Will it be? I don’t know. I kinda can’t imagine anyone else wanting to go through that, but you never know. It is fun. But it’s a part that’s a lot. I’d love to see someone else do it though, I’d watch the shit out of that.
For more of Allison Page’s “Hilarity”, check out http://www.theexit.org/divafest/2014/12/15/hilarity/. The show runs from March 5 through 28 at the EXIT Studio. Tickets are available at http://hilarity.bpt.me/. For more of Allison Page, follow her on twitter @AllisonLynnPage or her bi-weekly column on the SF Theater Pub blog, “Everything is Already Something”.
Barbara Jwanouskos is a Bay-Area based writer. Follow her on twitter @bjwany.