Theater Around The Bay: Looking Back/Looking Forward At ON THE SPOT

Sara Judge, Empress of “On the Spot” and Co-creator/Director of November’s “I Like That” recaps her year with Theater Pub, and weighs in on the violence of theater-making.

It was around this time last year that I found out Theater Pub was preparing to rise from the ashes. I jumped at the opportunity to rejoin this group of friends and artists I had come to know so well in the earlier years of TP at Cafe Royale. In a way, I was in the process of rising from the ashes too—isn’t early motherhood one of Dante’s 9 circles of hell? (Well fuck you then.) I was coming out of those critical early months (17 months to be exact) that were a real struggle for me.

As is his generous way, Stuart met my enthusiasm with the gift of opportunity. He invited me to meet with the newly appointed Artistic Director, Meg Trowbridge to talk about the upcoming season. Meg and I worked together on my very first TP project in 2010. Here we were almost five years later, talking Theater Pub, this time with a history as friends and colleagues and a sense of purpose looking forward. Meg gave me a couple projects to run with!

In July, Stuart called a meeting to talk about Theater Pub 2016. By this time I had been given the title, “Empress of On The Spot,” which in my world, is every girl’s dream—to be crowned an “Empress?” Even if only to a handful of people, and mostly online. The meeting lasted a few hours. The first person I saw there was, Marissa, “Pint Sized Tzarina” wearing a classic t-shirt that said, “I am a Llama.” I’ve always admired Marissa for her smarts, her writing on theater in SF, and for her excellent sense of style. I gave Charles Lewis III a big hug. Stuart was cooking bacon, adorable and welcoming. World famous Meg Cohen sat quietly, waiting for the meeting to start. I said hello to her and secretly wanted to sit next to her, but I sat two seats away. (I try to play it cool around my artistic heroes.) A handsome guy I never met came up to me and told me I had taken his seat. (So I got to sit next to Meg after all.) I also finally got to meet the talented comedienne starlet, Allison Page, in person. I introduced myself to her and she shook my hand kindly and said something like, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” in a lovely disarming way that only she (and maybe a few others) can get away with. I fell in love with Sam Bertken because of his amazing sense of humor, good looks, and very apparent talent. There were a lot of other wonderful smart talented folks I didn’t know. Stuart talked—a lot—and by the end of the meeting I wanted to vote for Stuart, for Mayor, Governor, President, and King.

The thing I admire most about Stuart as a Director, and in this case, Executive Director, is his ability to articulate without an obvious burden of what others might think or who he might offend. He says what others are thinking but are afraid to say. And the truth, however painful, always comes out around Stuart. Not the truth like, “Was this play any good?”—you can bet his answer is “Well, first of all…(insert lots of words and opinions here).” But like, when it comes to social dynamics, working relationships, and what is being unsaid between collaborators. I find it unnerving and comforting at the same time.

Stuart led a great meeting. Theater Pub was back on and cohesive, fully staffed, with a great group of people. I felt full of purpose walking back down the Castro hills and stepping down hidden staircases, into my wild city. I felt part of something pretty damn cool.

In September we started production on “I Like That,” a play I co-created with Gabriel Leif Bellman, one of the greatest writers of our time. And I’m not just saying that because he is the father of my child. Gabriel is a genius. And it’s okay to say that in SF because SF is a city full of geniuses. It’s akin to calling someone “hot” in LA. We wrote “I Like That” in 2009 and he told me to put it onstage. I told him he was crazy and the play was a train wreck. I put it in the drawer. I read it a few times over the years and changed some things around, and thought, “meh.” I read it in 2014 and thought, “This play is incredible and it was ahead of its time in 2009. That’s why I didn’t get it.” We workshopped it, Gabriel gave it several treatments, and then, once Theater Pub agreed to take a chance on us, I slipped back into believing it was a train wreck. I had no idea how we would get this play off the page and at the same time have anyone at all interested in watching it. Lots of experience with doubt helped me keep the faith.

Another miracle for “I Like That”—we pulled together some of the best actors I have ever worked with. Each actor was a total pro and fully committed to the project. After our first table read, I felt assured that yes, this was a special text, and this was going to be a transcendent process. And it was. Everyone involved in “I Like That” gave more than they walked into rehearsal with. We were an ensemble. We were connected. And we felt like we were doing something groundbreaking and sacred. And we were. I am not the same person I was before that production. I know more about myself, and I am full of gratitude for the actors, and the opportunity to put on my play.

And this is one of the reasons I love the kind of theater we do. There’s opportunity in the face of so many limitations—no money, no real stage, pillars blocking sightlines, and we’re in a bar full of people. None of that even matters. The only thing that exists to the audience when things go right, is the work, the actors, the text. Our limitations as theater-makers are where we jump beyond what we ever believed we were capable of.

“To be articulate in the face of limitations is where the violence sets in. This act of necessary violence, which at first seems to limit freedom and close down options, in turn opens up many more options and asks for a deeper sense of freedom from the artist.” -Anne Bogart, theater director and found of SITI Company

Another one of my artistic heroes, Anne Bogart, believes every action in creating theater is an act of violence—making a decision, a gesture, moving a chair a little to the left onstage. Giving actors blocking is violence. And she’s so right. Once you make a choice in theater, all other choices suffer a death. You create limitations when you make decisions. But the beauty is in how limitations contain us, and in that containment we are free to meet them, disturb them, and transcend them.

Which brings me to my last topic—As Empress, I’m producing On The Spot 2016, Theater Pub’s version of the 24 hour play festival (but with more rehearsal time and 4 performances)! What I love most about these festivals are the imposed limitations in the theater-making process. Not only do you have to write a short play in a handful of hours, you are randomly paired with a director and a group of actors, and you are given prompts that you haven’t chosen. All of these limitations invite you to explore new territories of your imagination. For OTS 2016 I want to focus on how these limitations can be enhanced. How we can open doors to more freedom in the writer’s mind. I want to work with writers open to using the limitations of the givens (actors, director, and prompts) to propel their creative process. I want to focus on how limitations can enhance the experience of a director who must make choices and let go of other possibilities in a short and condensed rehearsal process. I want actors to revel in the containment of a play written just for them, and commit to finding freedom within that containment. Look for our call for writers, directors and actors next month. Let’s get violent!

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