Follow the Vodka: My Left Shoulder

Our favorite tippler Robert Estes, shouldering his load.

So, gentle reader of the chronicles of Follow the Vodka, I will digress before I begin the piece properly. As your intrepid night columnist, I had planned on writing about the piano bar The Alley on Grand Avenue in Oakland and the octogenarian pianist Rod Dibble, who has been playing there before recorded history. In my many nights reading there at the one table that has a light, I found that words of Samuel Beckett made a great accompanist to hearing the grateful regulars take their turns, well, not quite belting out tunes, but quite joyfully singing the sentimental romantic American Songbook tunes of their youth. At the center of those songs, there is often loneliness, or depression even, with an obsessive or timeless desire, “you’re gonna love me, like nobody’s loved, come rain or come shine…” that fits in with Beckett’s often uncompromised, oddly static characters, who seemingly will be what they are forever, come rain or come shine.

Again, I had planned (god laughed), to spend this past weekend’s midnight hours at The Alley writing my column for your reading pleasure. Then, on Friday, about noon, I began feeling a pain in my left shoulder. By the time of the opening that night of the show I had directed, What Rhymes with America, I had to be careful how I walked, to avoid feeling as if I were self-electrocuting my left arm with pain.

So, my grand plan of the Alley just couldn’t happen with the pain. Still, clichéd as it may be, when you have lemons, make lemonade! The pain in my body kind of gave me access to the pain of producing theater. I really couldn’t fall asleep Friday night and I couldn’t help but let the body pain travel into a little bit of psychic pain.

Just a little background on me: Before I got into theater, I was a devoted audience member. I would guess that I saw easily 50 shows a year, but probably a higher number. I would often go with my good friend Carol and sometimes we would talk to theater people after the show or in some other occasion. We were often taken aback by how angry they could be about the work of others. Carol and I couldn’t help but make inside jokes about the Bitter Theater People.

I got into theater when I was 43 years old by volunteering at the California Shakespeare Theater. I was more than happy at the thought of just running off script copies (my day job was as a paralegal, so I was used to “organizing and preparing documents” as my billing entries to the clients often read), doing historical research for classical scripts or comparing versions of scripts now out of copyright (it was much more fun to collate versions of Arms and the Man than the closing documents for the latest massive, half-scammy business transaction at the firm).

I was very lucky at Cal Shakes because the first director that I worked for was Lillian Groag and she loved historical research when directing her plays. So I went wild on every aspect of Arms and the Man. I was double lucky that Bronwyn Eisenberg was the Resident Dramaturg as she nurtured me by giving me further research projects and opportunities to write for the program.

So, from the one small choice to volunteer at Cal Shakes at 43, my life for the past 13 years has been spent on all kinds of theater projects, now leading to my founding Anton’s Well Theater Company in the East Bay.

Yet now, I have to admit, I might be becoming the Bitter Theater Person. Or maybe just Crotchety Old Bitter Theater Guy.

Let me start with the thing that has an easy solution: paying for tickets. I totally understand if a theater person (or anyone in fact) is scraping by. I’m very happy to offer comps or pay what you can to get in someone who loves theater and wants to see, say, the Bay Area premiere of the work of an upcoming writer like Melissa James Gibson.

But so often, I feel as a theater ticket seller, it’s almost like I’m Exxon Mobil in the mind of the buyer. It almost seems like a moral sin to pay for a full-price ticket. Why? In my case, with $20 General/$17 Student/Seniors, if you buy through Goldstar, you would pay $14, of which only $10 goes to the theater. You’re giving Goldstar $4 to save yourself $6 from the $20 full price. I mean, $6 is a cup and half of coffee, or even less.

And, in the past, it’s been very frustrating to give someone a comp or $5 ticket, and then see on Facebook a week later that they’re having Duck a la Orange at Trendy Dandy Don’s foodie flash restaurant of the week. So, there’s my crotchety old bitter theater guy. I guess I just would hope that we in the small (or indie or however you want to define it) theater scene would value each other’s work by paying full price as often as we can.

And, moving on, I would hope that we could somehow (I admit, I have no solution for this other than to make an observation) value each other’s work other than on the basis of an inflation of praise. It’s not enough nowadays (man, that word makes me sound oooold!) that a show is said to be “amazing,” it has to be “truly amazing.” The phrase “truly amazing” seems to me like the passive aggressive (or maybe just aggressive) way of saying that this show actually is good and the other “amazing” shows are poseurs and are actually bad.

I have no solution to hype inflation. I suppose in the era of competing with on-demand binge watching at home, it could be argued that a show has to be amazing or why go out to see it? Well, because, there’s a lot to be gained from shows that are not even amazing. The might be compelling. They might be intriguing. They might be gloriously flawed.

I’m almost always happy that I made the effort to see a show. Maybe once a year, I think that it would have been better just to stay home. So I guess that’s just subjective me, and I could understand if others have seen so much theater that a show really does have to be amazing, but then I think they’re going to be disappointed because so many shows that are said to be “amazing” really are not. But they’re still worth seeing!

I believe that we have a good show in What Rhymes with America. I think the $20 ticket price is fair based on theater rental, cost of the rights, and giving the actors and crew a decent stipend (they shouldn’t lose money on the deal). I understand that there are other, shall I say, highly regarded shows out there like I Call My Brothers, Colossal, Deal with the Dragon, and there are event theater things like ShortLived, so in the pecking order of theater attendance, we might be a junior partner.

Still, despite any reservations, it’s amazing (oops, I mean great) to be part of the whole enterprise of putting on theater. I guess that is what I’d really like to say: what we do is vital. Sometimes when I’m with groups of theater people, the discussion will go to extended, enthusiastic discussions of the latest cable series rather than theater. Maybe this is puritanical of me, but it kind of hurts. Let’s talk about our local shows! “I found this part extraordinary…I didn’t quite see what was going on here…I would love to see more of…”

Now that I’ve gotten this off my shoulder (I mean my chest), my psychic pain is lessened. I think it’s time for the best painkiller for my shoulder…which just happens to be my favorite cocktail, the Jim’s Manhattan at Wood Tavern! (See, theater pub blog editors, I got in my favorite cocktail in the column, just like I’m supposed to!).

Jims Manhattan copy

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