Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: ShortLived, but Long in Memory

Marissa Skudlarek, romancing the past.

I didn’t realize how deeply I had romanticized PianoFight Productions’ 2010 edition of ShortLived, their audience-judged playwriting competition, nor how short half a decade can feel, until I learned that PianoFight is bringing ShortLived back this month. Of course I’ll go see at least a couple of the shows, vote for Theater Pub’s contribution (“This Is Why We Broke Up,” playing the weekend of March 13), root for my friends and hopefully be introduced to the work of impressive new writers and actors.

But—and I feel prematurely old saying this—I know it won’t be the way it was. It couldn’t possibly be the way it was.

In 2010, I was a hungry upstart; now, I’m someone who’s been referred to as “an established playwright” in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2010, I had limitless energy and enthusiasm but was a bit lacking in tact; now, I think, the balance has shifted. In 2010, I was a girl; now, I am an adult.

It was only (only?) half a decade ago, but we were all so much younger then.

When ShortLived happened in 2010, I’d been living in San Francisco for a year and a half. My period of post-college instability was over, I had a decent job and great roommates and some friends to do things with, and I was ready to plunge into the local indie theater scene. However, I was also in a low-grade panic over my inability to write a good short play.

This may sound like an odd problem to have, but when I first started writing plays as a teenager, I found it much easier to write long than to write short. I knocked out three full-length plays before I was 21, and two of them won awards; but the short plays I wrote for my high school and college playwriting classes were weak, trivial efforts. Trouble is, after you leave college and are trying to get your plays seen, most of the opportunities for newbie playwrights are for short plays, not full-lengths. I knew that in order to have a fighting chance at this whole playwriting thing, I’d have to learn how to write shorts.

I decided that I found it easier to write long than short simply because, as a teen, I was exposed to more good full-length theater than to good short plays. So, in order to teach myself how to write a one-act, I’d need to expose myself to as many short plays as possible and figure out for myself what worked and what didn’t.

Enter ShortLived: a festival of sixty ten-minute plays by local writers. The tickets were cheap, the audience was vocal, and the voting component made it crystal-clear which plays worked and which plays failed. By the end of the competition, I’d been introduced to the work of playwrights who I’d come to know much better in the intervening years: Ashley Cowan, Megan Cohen, Kirk Shimano (and I’m still miffed that Kirk’s charming play “Inner Dialogue” got robbed in the final round). Best of all, somewhere in there, I figured out how to write short plays that I felt proud of, and that other people seemed to like, too. In May 2010, I wrote a play called “Drinking For Two,” which was accepted into Theater Pub’s first series of Pint-Sized Plays. It was my first production in San Francisco.

The thing is, though, that ShortLived was tied up with everything else that happened to me in the spring of 2010, the springtime of my early twenties. I burned through life like a dynamo. I was working long hours at my day job. I was running all over town, seeing plays like crazy. I was reading books like crazy, writing in my diary like crazy. I was in the throes of a feverish crush that felt like the most important thing in the world at the time but now seems half incomprehensible. After the March 2010 Theater Pub, I vomited from excessive drinking for the first time in my life. I read The Secret History for the first time. I listened to the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs for the first time. It was a second adolescence, a time of limitless possibility, and I don’t know how I managed to absorb it all.

After the ShortLived plays performed, we’d all go drinking at the Tempest, an exceptionally seedy bar whose Shakespearean name nonetheless lent it an air of ragged glamour. The Tempest still allowed people to (illegally) smoke cigarettes indoors in those days, and I remember carefully planning my Tempest outfits, trying both to look hot and to wear clothes that could be thrown in the wash immediately after I got home, reeking of cigarette smoke. I made some major decisions those nights in the Tempest, and briefly regretted them six or twelve months later (why had I thought it a good idea to plot the course of my life in such a seedy bar?). And later my perspective shifted again: from the perspective of five years on, there doesn’t seem to be anything to regret.

One night when we theater folks trouped into the Tempest after a ShortLived show, one of the Tenderloin regulars in the bar took a glance at us and said, “Oh, it’s the yuppies.” We had a good laugh about that. Of course we weren’t yuppies! We were artists and rebels! Though we were, for the most part, young and white and clean-cut, we were not the Establishment, we were upstart kids making theater on a shoestring.

But here we are in 2015, and ShortLived is coming back, taking place in PianoFight’s own purpose-built venue rather than a strange black-box theater in an office building on Fifth and Mission. PianoFight’s new space is gorgeous, sleek and clean. Yet it is also, I must admit, kind of yuppie. (Or “bougie.” Isn’t that what the kids are saying these days?) The people who run PianoFight are still fun, unpretentious guys, but they’re no longer as footloose as they were – they’re landlords now. We all still enjoy a good drink, but we’d prefer to get it from the solicitous PianoFight bartenders rather than the somewhat intimidating guys at the Tempest. Ashley Cowan wrote a play about modern-day dating for ShortLived in 2010 and has written another play about modern-day dating for ShortLived in 2015, but in those five years, she met her husband, got married, and is about to have a child. And, while my external circumstances haven’t changed so drastically, I feel exponentially more settled and stable – which is both a boon and a curse.

Even though I didn’t have a play in ShortLived 2010, I feel like it marked the beginning of my participation in the indie theater community here in San Francisco. I hope that ShortLived 2015 may do the same for some other early-twenties writers and actors and directors who burn with the same eagerness and energy that I once burned with.

I hope it’ll be like that for them. Because I know it won’t be that way for me again.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her on Twitter @MarissaSkud or online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com.

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