Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: They Can’t Take That Away From Me

Marissa Skudlarek gives us one more look at the Glamorous Life! 

Nearly seven years ago, on Martin Luther King Day of 2010, I attended a staged reading of Euripides’ Cyclops in a crowded bar on the shady side of Nob Hill, and my life was changed.

I was very young then – young enough that life-changing events could still happen to me. I was a late-blooming 22, a virgin who had never gotten drunk to the point of vomiting. Nor had I ever had one of my plays produced in San Francisco, or acted in a show here, or translated a play from French, or been invited to write regularly for a website, or, or, or… I was shy and nervous, masking my insecurity with arrogance and bravado. I think, sometimes, that I must have been completely insufferable.

But Theater Pub welcomed me in, and, indeed, helped me grow up. Within two months of Theater Pub’s founding, I had drunk too many glasses of Spanish red at the Café Royale, and then thrown them up into my bathroom toilet. Within four months, I had lost my virginity. Within eight, I had had a play produced in the inaugural edition of the Pint-Sized Plays – the first time anyone in San Francisco wanted to produce my work. And then came acting, and producing, and translating from French, and meeting the woman who would direct a full-length play of mine, and writing this column for over four years, and, and, and…

I have always thought of myself as kind of a loner, a skeptical soul with an aloofness at her core. I don’t have a group of “besties” with whom I text incessantly; I know what Groucho Marx meant when he said he wouldn’t be part of any club that would have him as a member. But it is inaccurate to think of myself as such a lone wolf – I am not always so isolated. Under the right circumstances, I can be fanatically, doggedly loyal.

And Theater Pub caught me at just the right moment to provoke my lifelong loyalty. When it started, I had been in San Francisco for 18 months, struggling to make connections in the theater scene, and finding it a lonelier and more difficult endeavor than I’d anticipated. I liked Theater Pub’s goals and gestalt, but I also calculated that this organization was my opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something. In those days, it saddened me when Stuart and the other Theater Pub founders would say “Theater Pub was designed to be everybody’s side project and nobody’s band.” I didn’t have any other projects, you see, and I was desperate for a band of my own.

So – partly for lack of anything better to do, partly for careerist ambitions, but, more and more, for love – I started attending virtually every Theater Pub show. I brought innumerable people to the Pub as they passed through my life, failed dates and former co-workers and out-of-town guests. I experimented with my art, in a way that you can only do when you’re making theater in a bar and no one is getting paid more than $20. I sang rock songs, I wore reindeer antlers, I wrote silly poems and fake commercials. Eventually I became one of the “old guard,” sitting at a corner table and looking sidelong at the new wave of bright-eyed early-twentysomethings joining the organization.

So I saw how Theater Pub grew, and changed, and started a blog, and provoked controversy, and went on hiatus, and rebirthed itself. (We in San Francisco know that no startup can be considered successful until it releases Version 2.0, after all.) Alliances and relationships formed and shifted and disbanded. Though, at this time, let me give due credit to Stuart Bousel, at the helm of this for all seven years, and his partner, Cody Rishell, who diligently created promotional art for every Theater Pub show.

And now? I’ve written before that Theater Pub’s end is not to be seen as heartbreak or defeat. In 2017, there will certainly be moments when we think of Theater Pub with fond regret. But none of us are crying tears of remorse, or wailing “If only we’d fought harder, if only we could have saved it!” We’re all ready to let it go – if you were at our show on Monday, you heard the glee with which Stuart announced “Just 17 songs to go, and then I am no longer the Executive Director of this thing!” We’ve got the seven-year itch. All the cells in our body have renewed themselves, and so has the majority of Theater Pub’s artistic leadership. We all do have other projects we’re working on; Theater Pub is not our only band. It became a side project that demands a disproportionate amount of attention and energy.

As I said, that first Theater Pub show was incredibly crowded, standing-room only. I perched on the edge of the Café Royale pool table until the bar staff yelled at me not to. At the time, I envied the founders’ ability to start a new theater company that would draw such a crowd at its first-ever event. Only later have I come to realize that the difficult part is not creating a splash straight out of the gate: it’s keeping the organization going, keeping the crowds coming, for months and years on end.

Theater Pub’s end isn’t really a full-stop end, it’s more of an ellipsis or a line break. The Pint-Sized Plays will continue in the PianoFight bar; PianoFight itself will still be the artistic home for many of us and the place where the bartenders will always lend a sympathetic ear. We’re not leaving town or quitting the business. We will still be making art, using the skills that Theater Pub allowed us to hone.

Next summer, I will turn 30. And I already know that my thirties are going to be very different from my twenties, not just because of who will be in the White House, but because Theater Pub will no longer be an organizing principle in my life. But I will carry the experiences of the past seven years in me. I am less lonely than I used to be, less resentful, more calmly confident. When I was an awkward child and teenager, the wiser adults in my life looked at me and said “High school won’t be the best years of your life; college won’t be, either; you’re the kind of person who will only find her people in her twenties.” Despite all my skepticism and neuroses, I never doubted this. Despite this world, this decade, this life, a bunch of people got together in the most expensive city in the country and made theater in a bar for seven years.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Now that Theater Pub is over, keep up with her viamarissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

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Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: If Only Angels Could Prevail

Marissa Skudlarek, prevailing. 

This is my last scheduled post as a regular columnist for the Theater Pub blog.

Really great timing, huh?

When Stuart and I were discussing our plan to wind down the blog, and I realized that my final post was scheduled to run two days after the election, I said, “If Trump wins, I might not be able to get you that post on time, FYI.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Stuart, “he’s not gonna win.”

But, while I may have been prescient enough to have at least considered the possibility of a Trump victory, I was not prescient enough to know what my own response would be. Yes, I am sad and numb and hollowed out. Yes, I have chills and I’ve lost my appetite, the way I always do when blindsided by bad news.

But I woke up this morning, the day after the election, and put on a black dress and pulled my hair back and drew on eyeliner and walked outside with my head high. The first battle of the new American era was simply getting out of bed and facing the day with dignity. And I am ready to fight. And if I were to simply wallow in my grief tonight and not write anything, I would feel even worse.

I spent Election Night at PianoFight, the venue where Theater Pub performs, which was hosting a party with a free edition of Killing My Lobster’s election-themed sketch-comedy show. I had thought, “No matter what happens, this is where I want to be, these are the people I want to be among.” But it was loud and crowded and, as the disappointing election returns started to come in, increasingly anxious and panicked. There were lots of hugs and mutual support. There was cautious optimism, defiant singing, political rationalizations. And always, always, there was that damned CNN map on a big screen in the corner. (When I closed my eyes in bed last night, visions of a red and blue patchwork danced before me.) I became so anxious that I started to get lightheaded, and I didn’t much feel like laughing.

So, along with Theater Pub’s Artistic Director Tonya Narvaez, I sneaked into a tech rehearsal in PianoFight’s smaller theater. A group of SF State students were there, practicing a revue of Stephen Sondheim songs. It was cool and quiet, art was being made, and we could check the election results on our phones but not be glued to the TV screen. And, if the world was ending, why not spend it listening to live performances of Sondheim?

I didn’t cry when Prince or Bowie died, but I sure as hell am going to cry when Sondheim dies. And as this shitty year winds down its last shitty weeks, the thought “At least Sondheim is still alive… please God let him hang on till 2017” has popped into my head a few times.

Sondheim has written some dark material, and the students’ selection focused on the more political side of his oeuvre. Several pieces from Assassins and Sweeney Todd. “Pretty Lady” from Pacific Overtures, a deceptively beautiful song about sexual predation. A woman with long red hair sang “Every Day A Little Death” and I couldn’t help thinking of Melania Trump—another trophy wife in a relationship with a blustering man who “talks softly of his wars / and his horses and his whores.”

So Tonya and I, two unmarried Millennials, strong women descended from strong women, with surnames (Spanish and Slavic) that still sound foreign to many ears, escaped into the tech rehearsal in the back room. We held hands, we hugged, we shed a few tears when we realized how things were going. We realized the irony of treating PianoFight’s small theater as a refuge, because the set for Every 28 Hours is still up—posters of the people of color who have been slain by police in recent years, reminding us that even in Obama’s America, it was not safe to be brown or black. We heard the lyric “If only angels could prevail” and thought yes, if only.

I know I live in a liberal, artistic bubble. In the day since the bad news has sunk in, I have seen many people express thoughts about the role of artists under a Trump administration, responses that take one of two forms. Some people say “At least some great art will come out of this, great art always emerges from adversity,” which seems like a pathetic attempt to find a silver lining in the situation. All things considered, most artists would prefer to work under conditions of peace and prosperity, not conditions of adversity. It is difficult to make art if you live in a society that refuses to see you as fully human—perhaps one reason that art by white men dominates the Western canon.

Other people are framing this slightly differently, saying, “This is the time for artists to get to work. We need your stories and your voices now more than ever.” I have mixed feelings about this. While I appreciate being reminded that my voice matters and that art has a larger purpose, I am skeptical of the idea that art is what will get us out of this mess. I’m also not sure that I agree with the implication that the only art we should be making in this troubled time is overtly political, agenda-driven art.

But still, there is a reason I went to the Sondheim show last night, and a reason that I have continued to think about art and literature today. I mentioned that, when faced with a bleak and distressing situation, I lose my physical appetite. I also lose my metaphorical appetite: my compulsion, usually so strong, to immerse myself in works of art. Instead, for a time, I feel like there is no joy in the world and no art that is possibly worth experiencing. I wake up in the morning and think “What can I read on the way to work today? What can I possibly read?”

And then, unbidden, the craving for some work of art will hit me, and it is the first moment I feel like myself again, the first moment I see a path out of despair. Today, someone on Twitter posted the Tolkien quote about how the only people who hate escapism are jailers. I’m not much of a one for Tolkien, but the quote reminded me of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in which the title characters create a comic-book superhero called The Escapist. “I will start rereading Kavalier and Clay when I get home,” I thought, and, for the first time, I felt a little better. It’s a story about a Czech Jewish refugee and his queer Brooklyn cousin fighting fascism with art—the kind of America, and American values, that I want to believe in.

If we wanted, we could darkly joke that Theater Pub was a product of the Obama era and so it is appropriate that it’s ending in December 2016. Just one more casualty of this year, every day a little death. But that might produce the impression that Trump’s victory caused us to quit in defeat, when that isn’t true at all. As I said in an earlier piece about Theater Pub’s impending end, the organization and the blog are going away, but we aren’t going away. I’ve already started to think about other outlets for my writing.

I don’t know what the future holds. It may well be scary and dark. But I know that I want to be prepared to confront it, with all my wits about me. If Hillary Clinton had won the electoral vote, this final column would have been sentimental and nostalgic and maybe even a bit complacent, looking back at the last six years rather than looking ahead at the future. But because Trump has won, I cannot spend time on nostalgia. The last six, or eight, years have shaped me. Theater Pub has shaped me. Art of all kinds has shaped me and made me stronger. Now it is time to test my mettle.

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

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Pet Peeves in Arts Journalism

Marissa Skudlarek pens her penultimate column.

We’re winding down Theater Pub and winding down the blog, so as the longest-serving blog contributor, I thought I would use my next-to-last column to complain about my biggest arts-journalism pet peeves.

(This is not meant as an indictment of anyone who has written for this blog, just of general trends and irksome phrases that bother me.)

“The Bard” — This nickname is just so corny, promotes a false idea of Shakespeare as some kind of Merrie England wandering minstrel, and contributes to the problematic belief that Shakespeare is the greatest genius who ever lived and we mere mortals are unworthy of him. (There’s a reason that overzealous admiration of Shakespeare is called “Bardolatry.”) And yet I feel like the use of this phrase is only becoming more common because “The Bard” is 8 characters while “Shakespeare” is 11. (Thanks, Twitter!) Can’t we just agree to call him “Shax”?

“Penned” — This is a pretentious, cutesy word to use as a synonym for “wrote.” When I hear the word “wrote,” with its grinding r and hard t, I picture someone laboring over a messy notebook with a sputtering pen, forcing the words out. When I hear “penned,” I picture a lady in a negligee, sitting at a dainty writing table with a quill pen poised in her hand. Authoresses pen. Writers write.

“The play’s the thing” — I have seen countless theater-related articles headlined “The Play’s the Thing” and if this was ever clever or funny, it no longer is. As a child, my parents once convinced me to use “The Play’s the Thing” as the title for some book report or essay that I wrote about theater. I am still ashamed of having done that.

“Unbelievable” — In slang, “unbelievable” is a compliment and a synonym for “amazing,” but I always find it ludicrous when it is used in theater reviews as a compliment. The goal of mainstream, realist theater is believability, so when a critic writes something like “John Doe was unbelievable in the role of Willy Loman!” and means it as praise, the critic just ends up sounding like an idiot.

“Kinetic,” “melodic” — Writing about theater really means writing about many different art forms that combine to create a show. A critic reviewing a new musical may find herself evaluating the story, the dialogue, the music, the lyrics, the singing, the acting, the dancing, the direction, the sets, the costumes, and the lighting. It’s hard to write about abstract art forms like dance and music, though, and many theater critics have no special training in those disciplines. (In his book, Sondheim complains that music critics never review Broadway scores and theater critics often know nothing about music.) So in order to say something and sound knowledgeable, critics often fall back on phrases like “kinetic choreography” or “melodic songs.” But do those phrases really tell you anything?

“Stoppard/Sondheim has a heart after all” — This has been a staple of theater criticism since the 1980s. Both of these writers (whom I admire immensely, if it wasn’t obvious) came to prominence in the ’60s with works of clever, glittering wit; then, in the ’80s, critics started to perceive a new emotional depth in their work. You can quibble with this reductive description of their careers, but, more to the point, it’s no longer news to point out that the men who wrote Arcadia or “Not A Day Goes By” are perfectly capable of breaking your heart.

Lack of knowledge of the past — Over the past year, I’ve read articles claiming that “the Schuyler Sisters are the best female musical-theater characters ever” and “Rey from Star Wars is the best movie heroine ever.” I like the Schuyler Sisters and Rey just fine, I am pleased at the increased attention paid to female representation in art, but to claim that these are the “best characters ever” is appallingly shortsighted. Yeah, yeah, the Internet demands hyperbole and most people could afford to be more wide-ranging in the art that they consume, but wanting to write about how much you love a recent work of art is no reason to put down all the art that came before it.

Too much knowledge of the past — At the same time, it really annoys me when older critics spend the bulk of their theater reviews reminiscing about how the original production did it. I feel like this reinforces the belief that theater is for old, rich people who’d rather look to past glories than attempt to push the art form forward. I was fortunate enough to see The Producers in 2001 starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, but when it’s revived in 2036 starring Lin-Manuel Miranda and Justin Bieber, I hope I can take their performances on their own merits.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. If she has ever committed any of these sins in her own writing, please feel free to point it out in the comments.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Comma Comments

Marissa Skudlarek responds unpunctually to Anthony’s words about her punctuation.

After I read the post where Anthony complimented me by saying “she’s insightful, thoughtful and has great grammar,” I told him that it had made me laugh out loud.

“Is it because my compliment of your grammar lacked an Oxford comma?” Anthony responded.

No, I told him, it was more that I found it amusing that the structure of his sentence implied that my grammar is the best thing about my writing. Whereas I feel like I’m much less obsessed with grammar than everyone assumes I am; honestly, I take the Vampire Weekend approach to the Oxford comma.

In the great prescriptivist-versus-descriptivist wars of usage and grammar, I feel like my fellow playwrights and I are combatants on the descriptivist side. We write dialogue that reflects how people actually talk, not the “proper” way to talk. We write sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and other infelicities galore. We punctuate intuitively and creatively. If we want an actor to speak flatly, we may end a question with a period instead of a question mark. If we want to convey that a line should be spoken swiftly, all in one breath, we may leave out the commas that custom would say we should leave in. We recognize that punctuation marks and the English language itself are tools to be wielded as we see fit—not according to a possibly antiquated and stuffy set of rules.

So, no, I’m not one of those people who gets worked up when I read a sentence that doesn’t use the Oxford comma. Yes, I’ve seen those memes that show how lack of an Oxford comma can lead to hilariously misleading sentences (“I admire my parents, Angelina Jolie and Pope Francis”) but I also recognize that most sentences aren’t like that. I do tend to use the Oxford comma in my own writing, but if someone else writes “eggs, milk and bread,” or “insightful, thoughtful and has great grammar,” I hardly notice the lack of the second comma there.

Therefore, I think of myself as a happy-go-lucky, carefree descriptivist, not a stuffy and hidebound prescriptivist. But is my self-perception really accurate? After all, I write posts about what it’s like to be a copy-editor and say that when I spot an error in The New Yorker, I fear the apocalypse is near.

Furthermore, I’m a descriptivist when it comes to how I punctuate the dialogue of my plays, but I am a strict prescriptivist when it comes to expecting actors to respect that punctuation. Lately, at every first table-read of one of my plays, I’ve started giving a little explanation about what I see as the difference between an em-dash and an ellipsis. (An em-dash is an abrupt cutting off; an ellipsis is a trailing off.) It helps avoid confusion later on, and also makes clear to the actors that yes, I do pay close attention to whether they notice the punctuation as well as the words.

Punctuation often represents an absence of sound: think of the different kinds of pauses implied by the period, the comma, the semicolon, the dash, the ellipsis. But in the absence of the playwright, the presence of the punctuation will help convey the meaning of her text.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. See the staged reading of her one-act Macaria, or The Good Life at the San Francisco Olympians Festival on Friday October 14! 

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: What I Did For Love

Marissa Skudlarek shares some thoughts on our impending closure.

By now, you’ve probably heard that Theater Pub will wind down operations after our December show. It’s not a decision that the artistic staff made lightly, but at the same time, it’s a decision they made with no regrets and no sense of heartbreak. Theater Pub is dying a peaceful, natural death; we’re not looking for a miracle to “save” us and, in fact, we might not accept it if it was offered.

Indeed, we really don’t want people to see our closure announcement and spin it into some story about how The Arts Are Dying In The Bay Area Because It’s Too Expensive Here. Maybe that’s true for some arts organizations that have had to shut down, but not for us. Nor do we feel like our passing will leave an un-fillable hole in the local theater scene. Contrary to popular belief, “there are a lot more opportunities and venues in the Bay Area today than there used to be,” as Meg Trowbridge wrote.

When we posted our closure announcement on a Bay Area theater message board, a local theater patron reacted with concern and alarm. He offered to set up a GoFundMe page if that would allow us to “stick around.” As I said, we want to nip this narrative in the bud, so Stuart Bousel gave me the go-ahead to reply to the man. This is what I wrote:

“I’m a longtime Theater Pub attendee/writer/producer/blogger/actor and friend of the Pub’s current leadership, Stuart Bousel, Meg Trowbridge, and Tonya Narvaez. We appreciate your concern and your desire to keep art alive in the Bay Area, but as Stuart and Meg and Tonya wrote in their post, money has very little to do with why we have decided to end Theater Pub. Theater Pub was never going to be a full-time, quit-your-day-job career for any of us. We are indie theater artists juggling a lot of responsibilities (both theater-related and not), and after many years of hard work to produce a new show in a bar every single month — not an easy task! — we want to concentrate on other projects, other ways of making art, other things in our lives. None of us are quitting theater or leaving the Bay Area — on the contrary, I think we’re all busier than ever! So Theater Pub, the institution/organization, is going away, but WE, the artists, are not going away. The friendships and connections we have made, the skills we have learned, are not going away. It may sound strange, in a capitalistic age in a crazy expensive city where nearly every conversation turns to money, but the reason we’re ending Theater Pub isn’t about the money, it’s about the art.”

Meanwhile, this Medium post by Jeff Lewonczyk about why he gave up making indie theater in New York, has been making the rounds. As I said, for the time being, none of the core Theater Pub folks are planning to give up theater the way that Lewonczyk has. But I also think that we all understand his sentiments and don’t blame him in the least. There comes a time to step away from things, thoughtfully but without regrets.

As Stuart, Meg, and Tonya wrote in the title of their joint post, “autumn is a time to say goodbye.” Many of the Theater Pub usual suspects are also involved with the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which begins in just a few weeks and whose theme this year is myths of death and the underworld. But at least for me, looking at death through a Greek-myth framework means seeing it as inevitable, and necessary, and possibly peaceful. (The mythological figure I’m writing about this year is Macaria, Persephone’s daughter and the goddess of peaceful death.) It means thinking about the cyclical nature of things; how Persephone goes to the underworld for half the year, but she is never lost down there forever.

And in the meantime, we’re ending Theater Pub with a show about a ghost (September), a show about a gravedigger (October), King Lear (November), and, finally, a musical celebration/funeral/wake. Because we’re theater people, and we know how to end things.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. See the staged reading of her new play Macaria, or The Good Life at the Olympians Festival on October 14.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: An Interview with Danielle Gray

Marissa Skudlarek speaks with one of the Bay Area’s most exciting multi-hyphenate performers!

I don’t think I’d ever seen the actor-singer-musician-clown-fashionista Danielle Gray at this time last year, and then all of a sudden they burst upon the indie-theater scene. And, while I spend my days in a cubicle at a day job, Danielle always seems to be learning new circus skills, or singing torch songs in secret cabarets, and looking fabulous doing it. Currently, Danielle is acting in the new play Hunting Love in Oakland, which seemed as good an excuse as any to chat with them about their art and aesthetics.

HuntingLove

Nican Robinson as Narciso, Danielle Gray as Echo, Susan-Jane Harrison as Love.

Marissa: Tell me a little bit about Hunting Love and the character you play in it.

Danielle: Hunting Love is a new play by Susan-Jane Harrison. It’s kind of a reunion collaboration between Susan-Jane and director Erin Merritt, who used to work together at all-female Shakespeare company Woman’s Will. Hunting Love is being produced by a new company called Local Dystopia, which has produced shows here and in London, and is going up at the Flight Deck in downtown Oakland. The piece is fairly ambitious in its incorporation of dance/movement and sound/music. We have this amazingly talented three-person Greek chorus/band (Jed Parsario, Mia Pixley, Bruce Bennett) who play original music, provide atmospheric Foley sounds with their instruments, and act as minor characters. I am so impressed by them all the time.

Hunting Love is a new story, loosely using characters from Greek mythology. I play two characters who are inextricably connected in the story – Echo, a lovesick dryad who has willingly been turned into air so that she may follow Narciso (played by Nican Robinson) forever, and I also play Histrionia, daughter of Love (played by Susan-Jane Harrison). Character inspirations for my Echo include ballerinas, kittens who scratch you even when they’re trying to be affectionate, and baby velociraptors. She’s a bit feral, but in a lovable way. Histrionia is in her early twenties, but has had some emotional development setbacks… so she is a fully-grown woman with the emotional capacity and understanding of intimacy of a teenager. The play is about learning what intimacy and love even are — how do we go about this confusing business of loving one another?

Marissa: You’ve said that your audition for the 2015 San Francisco Olympians Festival (after which you were cast in a major role in the staged reading of Allison Page’s Jasons) is the reason you’ve been so busy with work over the last year.

Danielle: This is true! I auditioned on the advice of a friend who did it several years ago, and quickly found myself surrounded by excellent new friends and collaborators.

danielle-Theater Pub

Danielle as a mime in the March Theater Pub show, On the Spot. Photo by Tonya Narvaez.

Marissa: What were some of the artistic highlights of the last year for you?

Danielle: It sounds like I’m pandering, but sincerely, working with Theater Pub has been a major highlight of 2016. [Danielle played the Duke in Theater Pub’s February show Over the Rainbow, had roles in two short plays in our March show On the Spot, and also appeared in our June show Better Than Television –ed.] Theater Pub is the opposite of elitist, and everyone involved is engaged fully in the process of trying new things, both with existing texts and new work. It’s been really refreshing. However, my favorite show I only got because the director and writer saw me at Olympians was The Horse’s Ass & Friends, Megan Cohen’s delicious vaudevillian showcase of short works that played last December. It was a dream cast and crew and experience — everyone involved was a super talented pro and a lovely person, and I still count them all as friends I would recommend to anyone, or work with again in a second.

Marissa: Since so many good things came out of the Olympians Festival for you, it’s appropriate that you’re now acting in another play that is inspired by Greek mythology. What’s your favorite Greek myth or mythological figure?

Danielle: Oh, it is hard to pick. I like Medusa quite a bit, because she’s such an interesting, nuanced character who is often unfairly reduced to a Halloween monster. Her situation is fully unfair and she’s just trying to make the best of things by living up to her bad bitch reputation with no apologies, amirite? I’ve also always been fascinated by Hera, who is clearly the one keeping Mount Olympus running behind the scenes while Zeus is being a swan unconcerned with consent or whatever. I like complicated, imperfect female or non-binary characters in basically any mythology.

Marissa: You are making it as a working artist (sans day job) in the Bay Area, at a time when many people say that that’s no longer possible. What are your tips on how to make this work?

Danielle: So this is a popular rumor, and it’s only sometimes true, but I have been known to pull it off for months at a time. My situation changes frequently. I have anywhere from two to four part-time day jobs going at any given time. Nearly all are at least a little art-related, a rule I made for myself this year.  Right now I am teaching at an outdoor preschool for the summer, and I work at the front desk of a dance studio so I can get class credit, which is like… medium artistic, more about supplementing process expenses and doing research. Other arts work is contract-based and somewhat unpredictable, like cabaret or walk-around character acting for parties.

Tip #1: FOUR JOBS IS TOO MANY, don’t do this, I do this so you can see how crazy it can make a person.

Tip #2: Most artists I know have at least two things they love. My advice, for people who are willing to hustle like they will die tomorrow, is to do both of them. Don’t buy the advice that you have to pick. I love working with kids, so I keep my side job options open in five-and-under education, and luckily I live in the Bay Area, where when parents find out I also do cabaret they just think I am cool. They recognize that adults contain multitudes and are capable of being responsible, caring human beings AND doing weird circus sideshows for cash.

Tip #3: Accept help from trusted sources. It would be disingenuous for me to pretend that as an artist in a city with skyrocketing prices, I never hit a surprise financial wall and let my mom (a former costumer and lifelong artist/arts supporter herself) boost me with grocery money. I figure I’ll pay her back when she’s old and I’m successful by being Dorothy to her Sophia and making sure she gets to go on a vacation whenever she effing wants, just like she does for her mother.

Tip #4: This one is honestly the most important. Don’t work jobs that make you miserable. Don’t do it, it’s not worth it. Hold out if you can for a day job that has a team you love, or perks that are actually worth it (like training you in skills that will benefit your arts career), or a job that just makes you happy. Do not languish in industries you hate because you are afraid you won’t find something better in time to rescue yourself from late rent. You will manage. Believe in your own resourcefulness. Ask your network for help.

Marissa: You’ve also been getting into the cabaret scene as a singer, ukulele player, and clown. I am an amateur ukulele player myself so I have to ask: what are your favorite songs to play on the uke?

Danielle: I have been clowning and doing circus sideshow for a couple of years now, started teaching myself ukulele about four years ago but only started playing publicly last year, and I’ve been singing since I could open my mouth. But now I get paid to do it all in dark cabarets and variety shows, fulfilling my destiny of being Sally Bowles with (slightly) more sense in my head, and hopefully fewer Nazis. Lately I’ve been playing the following to relax: “I Wish I Was the Moon,” by Neko Case, “The Chain,” by Ingrid Michaelson, and “That Was Us,” by Julia Nunes. And I’m learning a duet with my dear friend Adam Magill which we will finish eventually: “To Die For Your Ideas,” Pierre de Gaillande’s English translation of a Georges Brassens song. I play so many broody songs on the ukulele I created a clown character centered around it just to lighten the mood. Triste is a sad, pretty clown, who sings pretty, sad songs.

danielle - fortune teller

Danielle as Gilda the Fortune-Teller. Photo by Ralph Boethling.

Marissa: What are your biggest influences or contributors to your aesthetic sensibility?

Danielle: I read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe as a kid, starting just about as soon as I could read a novel. That probably had a lot to do with what is happening here. I read Grimm’s fairy tales and the Anne of Green Gables series like a hundred times. My favorite book in high school was Lolita, because I am obsessed with Nabokov’s love letters to the English language, and the concept of playing with and manipulating audience sympathies. Lydia from Beetlejuice was a strong influence, though I only started wearing black in my late twenties: I didn’t have a “goth phase,” at least not where wardrobe is concerned, because I grew up in the desert. I also grew up in a very theatrical and musical household, so we watched a lot of TCM as a family and on our own. Old Hollywood films, musicals in particular, have had a huge impact on my aesthetic: Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Carol Burnett, Buster Keaton. Also the fashion of forgotten gems of 1990s cinema. Not the enduringly popular films, but the weird ones like With Honors, or Michael, or Truly, Madly, Deeply. Dad-jeans time capsules. I am enduringly obsessed with vaudeville aesthetics, magic, etc.

Marissa: What’s coming up next for you, and what shows are you most excited to see this summer/fall?

Danielle: So we just opened Hunting Love this past weekend, and it will run through August 21. Click here for tickets. We’ve also begun rehearsals for KML: The Musical, opening in September, which is SO EXCITING because it’s not just my first time working with Killing My Lobster, it’s my first foray into any sketch comedy since my high school cohort’s tragic but heartfelt attempt to form a troupe. I’m thrilled about the team for this show.

I haven’t booked anything at Panic & Give Up (a secret speakeasy cabaret I love) in the near future, but I am always haunting that joint and I’m sure I will turn up on their stage again eventually. It’s a good place to look for me. You can keep in the loop by using the form at www.daniellegray.com/booking, and requesting to be added to my email list. Or follow me on Facebook — I always do a public post when I have a show coming up.

The next show I’m going to see is The Thrush and the Woodpecker at Custom Made, and I’m pretty stoked about the space station they’re building over at PianoFight for Faultline Theater’s The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident.

Marissa: My column is called “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life” and you are a notably glamorous person, so I also have to ask: do you have any pointers (either practical or philosophical) for achieving glamor?

Danielle: Oh goodness, Marissa. Blush. I get asked about fashion advice a lot because I am not subtle about my evolving love affair with my wardrobe, and the best advice I have for anybody is to wear what you actually like. It is that simple. Honestly. If you want to wear a ball gown every day, just do it. I’m not at all exaggerating. If you like to wear yoga clothes, buy the ones you really like and rock them. The only thing stopping you from looking exactly the way you want is your hesitation – find photos that inspire you and replicate the items, scour thrift stores and department stores alike, be real about the colors you enjoy, don’t be snobby about brands (high end or low end). I think of every outfit as a costume, with a particular inspiration. Once a friend told me my outfit was “a pair of fishnets away from Bob Fosse Captain Hook,” which remains one of my most treasured compliments. Some days I’m “Andro Duckie.” Often, I get “80s New Wave/Boy George.” You know what makes you feel good, you know whose style you admire. There’s no reason you can’t do what they do. People like to see other people being unabashedly themselves.

Keep up with Danielle’s adventures at www.daniellegray.com.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Age Cannot Wither Her

Marissa Skudlarek, growing old thoughtfully. 

In the two weeks since I turned 29, I completed a draft of my first new full-length play in five years, and discovered a secret place to pick blackberries.

If I’m being honest with myself, the blackberries sometimes feel like an even better achievement than the play.

I’ve been thinking a lot about time passing lately: cycles, parallels, how the present moment feels like a tiny, dainty pinprick caught between the vastness of the past and future. (The main character of the play I just completed does a lot of thinking along those lines too, as the director of my staged reading pointed out. Well, I put a lot of myself into her.) My birthday is in the summer and I moved to San Francisco in the summer too, nearly eight years ago. People are moving away, or moving on to different projects. The election cycle and the news cycle are all-pervasive. The last year of my twenties has commenced.

This month is also the ten-year anniversary of my first major achievement as a playwright, when I won a national contest for writers 18 and under and was awarded with a staged reading of my play in New York, plus a week of theatergoing and workshops.

I found out that I’d won on my 19th birthday. I still remember it: waking up early on a summer morning, wrapping myself in a blanket, sitting on the end of my bed and calling the New York number of the Young Playwrights organization. (They had left me a vague and maddening voice mail a few days earlier and I hadn’t been able to call them back due to the Fourth of July holiday.) The woman who ran the organization, Sheri Goldhirsch, told me that I’d won.

I wish I could say that that was the moment my life changed.

It was a wonderful experience, don’t get me wrong; but it now feels strange and distant, and I hardly ever think about it. I can’t even remember the exact date of the staged reading. When I do think about that week in New York, it is often with regret that I did not keep in better touch with the professional writers and directors to whom the organization introduced me. I was 19 years old and did not know how to network. I was shy and uncertain (some would say I still am). In my blacker moods, I pray that this contest was not the high-water mark of my playwriting career. I know New York is not the end-all and be-all of a theater career, but I haven’t had any plays in New York since then…

I’m still Facebook friends with the other seven contest winners. Some of them still seem to be involved in arts-related pursuits: theater, writing, filmmaking. One has a baby and is divorcing her husband. Nobody is wildly successful. Nobody is anybody you’ve ever read about in a puff piece touting “the latest hot young playwright.” I would be rabidly jealous if they were. There’s a decent chance that out of all of us, I’ve written the most new works for the stage in the last ten years. But I feel weird about comparing myself to the other contest winners; if I’ve kept writing plays while others have given it up, that isn’t necessarily something to be proud of. Maybe it means I am just more set in my ways and resistant to change.

Sheri Goldhirsch is now deceased.

The man who directed my staged reading went on to direct a little play off-Broadway that became a huge hit, and moved to Broadway, and earned him a Tony nomination for his direction. (Now you can see why I wish I’d kept in better touch with him.)

I also can’t shake a feeling of guilt that whenever I take advantage of an opportunity for “young people,” I’ve gamed the system. I skipped first grade and have a summer birthday, so I’ve always been younger than everyone else, or prematurely advanced for my age, depending on how you want to look at it. When I submitted my play to the Young Playwrights competition, I was 18.5 years old and had already completed three semesters of college. It was perfectly fine for me to submit according to the contest’s rules, but I couldn’t help feeling that I wasn’t the kind of person that the contest was designed for.

Similarly, tonight, a scene from my new play Juana is going to be read at Playwrights Foundation’s Night of New Works, a scene-reading and networking event that the Bay Area Playwrights Festival interns are hosting for theater-makers under 30. Again, when I submitted my work for possible inclusion in this evening, I felt slightly guilty about doing it: I am 29 years old, I am not fresh out of college, I have a long list of indie-theater credits and I write for this blog every two weeks and a lot of people seem to know my name. Is it fair for me to take up a slot in this evening? Am I going to feel like the old lady at the kids’ table?

And furthermore, are these kinds of opportunities for young people fair, or are they blatant age discrimination? What about the people who discover theater and playwriting when they are in their 30s or older? And then, if this is a youth-obsessed industry, shouldn’t I have done even more to try to become a Hot Twentysomething Playwright rather than hanging back?

When I moved to the Bay Area, it felt like my twenties would last forever. The first play I saw here was Yellowjackets, at Berkeley Rep, on one of their half-price tickets for people under 30. The time when I would age out of that benefit seemed a long way off. I was startled to realize last week that I’m now in my last year of eligibility for Berkeley Rep’s half-price tickets. I feel, simultaneously, like I haven’t done enough with my twenties and like they have gone on for an unbelievably long time.

I have a lot of work still to do this summer. Producing the Pint-Sized Plays, revising a play for Custom Made’s new-works development program, completing a new one-act play for the Olympians Festival. But despite it all, I’m going to try to go to the secret blackberry patch at sunset every chance I get. You know that you should never force a blackberry off its stem; if you have to pull too hard on the berry, it isn’t ripe. You need to pick only the berries that have hung in the sun a good long while, the ones that are on the verge of turning jammy and falling apart. I need to remember to let the berries take their time, and not regret the ones that went unplucked.