Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Renaissance Woman

Marissa Skudlarek, on weaving a tale in another time, another place. 

For the past few weeks, I’ve been living with half my head in the 21st century and half of it in the Renaissance. I’ve been hard at work readying my new full-length play Juana, or the Greater Glory for a staged reading on Saturday night as part of the Loud and Unladylike Festival, and therefore I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about mad queens, scheming dukes, and sickly princes.

Juana tells the incredible true story of a young Spanish Habsburg princess in the mid-1550s, who is the only woman ever to become a Jesuit. This is an earlier era of history than I’ve ever really tackled in writing before: I’ve written full-length plays that take place in 20th-century America, and at least one of my short Olympians Festival plays takes place in vaguely defined “classical” times, but never a full-length play that takes place in such a different time and country.

The 1550s in Spain and Portugal are well-documented enough for us to know what happened and who was involved with it (at least when it comes to royal and aristocratic families), but not necessarily enough for us to know the reasons why certain things happened or why people made the decisions they did. Maybe this would be different if I’d improved my ability to read Renaissance Spanish, gone to Madrid, and sought out old documents in obscure archives; but from the perspective of a 21st-century Californian with passable but not expert Spanish, doing most of my research on the Internet, I’ve been able to put together a timeline of the key events of Juana’s life, but not to read her words or understand more than the bare facts about her. But, as a playwright, this is what I love: the historical facts give me a structure, but I get to flesh out my characters’ psychology and motivations, and make them my own. In a way, this is similar to what I’ve done when writing mythology-based plays for the Olympians Festival: Greek myths provide a vivid cast of characters and the outlines of a plot, but not necessarily an explanation for why the gods and mortals behave as they do. Writing mythology-based plays prepared me for writing a play based on a distant, dramatic era of history that (from my perspective) might as well be myth.

I feel like the 1550s setting also forces me to be a stronger writer, since I cannot fall back on appeals to persons, places, or things that the audience will find familiar. Many young writers, having seen too many episodes of The Simpsons or 30 Rock, think that cleverness in writing is merely a matter of making endless pop culture allusions. Writing a play that takes place in the Renaissance strips you of that crutch. You can allude to the Bible, to Greco-Roman mythology and history, to certain folk tales, and that’s about it. I do have to be clever – especially because I am writing about a person and a period of history that are pretty obscure to American audiences – in order to convey the necessary backstory without boring or confusing the audience. But it is not the superficial glittering cleverness of pop culture allusion and snark.

 Portrait of Princess Juana by Sofonisba Anguissola, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Princess Juana by Sofonisba Anguissola, via Wikimedia Commons

While drafting Juana, I motivated myself with thoughts of “What would Shakespeare do?” If you are writing historical drama about medieval or Renaissance-era royalty, it makes sense to look at how Shakespeare did it, and especially, how he wasn’t afraid to combine characters, ignore facts, and invent encounters out of whole cloth, as long as they made for better drama. “What would Shakespeare do?” therefore is my way of justifying my own elisions, inventions, and places where I deliberately ignore the facts. I haven’t done too much of that in Juana: the main examples I can think of are that I’ve aged up a child from about 9 to about 14, for both plot and produceability reasons; and I’m saying that a certain Spanish nobleman was in Spain during this time when really he was in England. But frankly, this is nothing compared to what Shakespeare did. I want to honor Princess Juana’s amazing true story – I’ve really come to love and admire her through writing this play – but I do not feel an obligation to fact-check every line I write.

All the same, I’ve done a lot of research for this project. I’ve read 400 pages of writings by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. I’ve nearly driven myself nuts trying to calculate how long it would take letters to get from Lisbon to Madrid, and Madrid to Rome, circa 1550. I’ve learned the symptoms of juvenile diabetes, the differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, and the rules for what was and wasn’t permitted during Lent in the 1550s. I’ve looked up the names of all of the Catholic kings of Europe at the time and whether they had sons of marriageable age (this information is now in a document on my computer titled “Possible second husbands” and I giggle every time I see it). More than anything else, I’ve tried my best to get into that death-haunted, Catholic, hierarchical worldview that characterizes Renaissance-era Spain. Before the invention of modern medicine, people by necessity thought about death more than we do. That awareness of and conscious preparation for death is present in writers of the period, like Shakespeare, and also in modern pieces of historical fiction and drama. (I joke that I’m going to turn Juana into a rap musical so that she can proclaim “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory” and “See, I never thought I’d live past twenty.”)

Yet there is also the danger of too much research, of writing something that would be better as a novel or nonfiction piece than as a play. Juana, or The Greater Glory covers about two years of Juana’s life (the most eventful and dramatic years, IMO) – and it’s been a bit of a challenge to compress two years of events into a two-hour play. But the problem would have been even more acute if I’d tried to cover an even longer period of time. Juana’s son Sebastian, for instance, who appears in my play only as an infant, grew up to have a short but fascinating life as the King of Portugal. He would be a great subject for a play. Someone else’s play.

See the staged reading of Marissa Skudlarek’s play Juana, or the Greater Glory at PianoFight on Saturday, July 16 at 7:30 PM. (Note the start time!) Tickets here.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: #Glam4Ham: A Review of the Hamiltome

Marissa Skudlarek had some pressing (but glamorous) business yesterday so her column is coming to you on Friday this week!

I used to think that those accounts of how crazed people became over theater in the olden days — you know, stories about how hit plays created new stars, launched trends and fads, had their tickets become the hottest commodity in New York — were overstated, but then Hamilton came along. Hamilton mania is everywhere: Lin-Manuel Miranda is on the cover of Rolling Stone, half of the people I know have a crush on a Hamilton cast member, the show has won nearly every possible award and is about to take its victory lap at the Tony Awards (or, as we must call them, the #Hamiltonys).

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It’s the Hamiltome! Work!

I’m kicking myself for not having bought Hamilton tickets and planned a NYC trip to see it as soon as I felt the beginnings of this mania happening, so in the meantime, like thousands of other Americans, I’ve had to experience the Hamilton craze from afar. First by listening to the cast album, then by teaching myself how to play “You’ll Be Back” on the ukulele (try it, you guys, it is a GREAT ukulele song), then by reading the Hamiltome, the new behind-the-scenes coffee-table book. (Yeah, its official title is Hamilton: The Revolution, but no one is calling it that.)

So let’s discuss the Hamiltome. First of all, know that it’s a beautiful object, with a design inspired by Revolutionary-era pamphlets and typography. Because Lin-Manuel Miranda is a huge nerd, there are even occasional images of the historical documents that formed part of his research. And there is a rich supply of photos from the show itself, depicting just about every scene, unafraid of spoilers. I was absolutely mesmerized by a shot of Eliza (Phillipa Soo) at Philip Hamilton’s deathbed, with a single perfect tear trembling on her lower eyelid. There are handsome black-and-white daguerreotype-style photos of all the lead actors. There’s a candid shot of Daveed Diggs in his underwear (Page 151).

In terms of content, the book features the full text of the show, with annotations in the margins from Lin-Manuel Miranda, interspersed with chapters by Jeremy McCarter describing Hamilton’s creation, collaborators, and the first months of its impact on the world. One of the nicest aspects of this is how much attention the authors pay to Hamilton‘s design elements, praising the contributions of the behind-the-scenes personnel just as effusively as they praise the work of Hamilton’s iconic original Broadway cast. Clearly, the creative team has considered every detail and gesture and prop, and their meticulousness gives us all something to aspire to.

For those of us who downloaded Hamilton‘s cast album and still appreciate physical media, it’s great to have a full copy of the show’s lyrics, instead of having to look them up on Genius.com. Miranda’s annotations are full of enthusiasm, gratitude, and good humor. He’s open about the parts of the show that make him cry, the lines he’s proudest of, the parts that are challenging to perform. Additionally, if you are interested in writing stories based on historical events, the Hamiltome provides a lot of food for thought about how to shape history into a rich and thrilling drama.

Indeed, Hamilton is intimately concerned with historiography and the process by which facts become legends: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” As such, it’s important to look at what the Hamiltome is trying to do, how it is trying to shape the narrative that surrounds this already-legendary show. Really, Hamilton’s reputation doesn’t need any more burnishing, but the Hamiltome tries to do that anyway. It’s a blatant piece of historical myth-making that tips into hagiography. Jeremy McCarter’s chapters try to put Hamilton‘s achievements into a historic context, but sometimes overreach. Describing how Alex Lacamoire listens to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s demo recordings, creates orchestrations, and then discusses what he’s done with Miranda, McCarter writes “It’s a very American pastime, this interpreting and discussing. Our musical culture is built on standards, songs meant to be reworked endlessly, such as ‘Blue Skies’ or ‘Summertime.’ And it’s not just our music: Think of the blood we’ve spilled looking for the best expression of ‘All men are created equal’ or ‘Congress shall make no law…'” Lacamoire is a very skilled orchestrator, but this seems like a ridiculously overblown way of describing what he does in his job.

Lin-Manuel Miranda obviously loves and admires and identifies with Alexander Hamilton, but because he is a talented dramatist, he also knows that 2.5 hours of a show that goes “This historical figure was so awesome!” is really boring to watch. Therefore, he is careful to give Hamilton flaws that balance his virtues; many of the other characters in the show think of Hamilton as an annoying, hot-headed motormouth. Jeremy McCarter’s Hamiltome chapters lack this kind of nuance; they’re the equivalent of a musical that just wants to tell you how awesome its hero is, a Hamilton without flaws. Their hyperbole becomes predictable. I found myself growing less and less interested in them, and more and more interested in the lyrics and Miranda’s annotations.

Act One of Hamilton is about war, Act Two is about politics, and the show explicitly states that “winning is easy, governing is harder.” It wasn’t easy to create Hamilton; it took six years of effort and the contributions of a lot of talented people. (NB: the battles of the Revolutionary War also lasted for six years, 1775-1781. I’m surprised that Jeremy McCarter doesn’t think to make that comparison.) But what will be even more difficult, and complicated, and interesting, is the effect that Hamilton will have on the American theatrical landscape, and how Lin-Manuel Miranda will possibly follow it up, now that “history has its eyes on him.” I wonder how we’ll be talking about Hamilton in twenty years. With King George, I wonder: “What Comes Next?”

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Her favorite Schuyler Sister is Angelica. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Live Nude Feminism

Marissa Skudlarek, walking the talk.

Don’t ever say that I can’t both talk the talk and walk the walk. I spent Saturday evening posting on Twitter and Facebook about casual sexism in local theater, and Sunday evening attending a fundraiser for the feminist theater organization DIVAfest. Saturday was about getting irritated over the persistence of inequality; Sunday was about reminding myself that there are plenty of people trying to find solutions to this problem.

The sexism that I see around typically isn’t outrageous misogyny – it’s subtler than that. It is a worldview that devalues women’s contributions and stories, that refuses to consider their perspectives worth presenting or their money worth having. I’m thinking of things like a glowing review of Maggie’s Riff, at FaultLine Theatre, that initially neglected to mention or credit Nicole Odell, who plays the title role. (Editor’s note: as of midafternoon on 5/26/16, a few hours after our piece went up, the review has been updated to mention Odell.) And also of the latest marketing copy for the Speakeasy, as it seeks a final round of funding before it re-opens in North Beach in August. The Speakeasy producers are very pleased to tout the “one-way mirror into the chorus girls’ dressing room” as one of the major highlights of the show, yet they make no equivalent promise of voyeuristic eye candy for those of us who prefer handsome fellas to lovely ladies.

Let’s be clear: I’m not against sexy fun, or scantily clad women. In fact, DIVAfest, the organization I supported on Sunday night, has a strong sideline in naked ladies. It produces a monthly burlesque variety show, Diva or Die, and a larger theater-burlesque fusion show once a year. Indeed, it was DIVAfest’s Hotel Burlesque show this year that finally convinced me of the truth of something I’d often heard said: that neo-burlesque can be a feminist and empowering genre, rather than a misogynistic male-gazey one. In Hotel Burlesque, the cast featured six lovely ladies and one female impersonator, so just about every moment of the plot passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors. It transported me into a sparkly, glamorous, female-led world and showed me that striptease can be about more than just titillation. A female thief reveled in her crimes as she stripped off all her (stolen) clothing. Nudity was used to represent the anguish and vulnerability that an alcoholic feels when faced with the temptation to drink, or a battered woman feels when recalling her abuser.

At the DIVAfest fundraiser party, Amanda Ortmayer introduced a performance by Red Velvet and reminded us that burlesque artists appreciate vocal approval: applause, whooping, cheering, were all encouraged (and plentiful). And, as Red Velvet tap-danced, shimmied, and stripped down to her thong and pasties, the lights in the main room remained on. I liked that; it kept things honest. It eliminated some of the creepy power dynamics that can arise when a woman takes her clothes off for the entertainment of others, because, as we watched Red Velvet, she could also watch us. She could see our faces and discern whether or not we were having a good time, and also hear our joyous and vocal appreciation. And I can’t help, again, contrasting this with the way the Speakeasy is presenting female nudity: spying on “hot chorus girls” from behind the anonymity of a one-way mirror.

A lot has been written lately about the masculinity and “bro” attitudes of start-up culture in the Bay Area. In many ways, the Speakeasy seems to be positioning itself as a theater start-up. It’s thinking big: it wants to disrupt live entertainment in San Francisco and then spread out across the country. It is soliciting money according to a new model called “equity crowdfunding” (I’m a little confused as to how this differs from traditional for-profit, Broadway-style funding, but no matter) and, with a minimum investment of $2000, it’s clearly aiming for high-roller donors rather than the $25-$100 donations that make up the bulk of a typical Indiegogo or Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. In 2014, the Speakeasy’s expensive tickets and lack of discounts meant that the show was very popular with the tech crowd while remaining inaccessible to the kinds of people who are getting priced out of this city. And, yes, the Speakeasy seems very, very male. The three founders are all male. The website copy has a persistently male point of view, and not just in its references to the chorus girls and the one-way mirror. For instance, when giving examples of some of the costumed characters that audience members can pay to play, both of the examples they give are male.

Meanwhile, DIVAfest hosted a traditional nonprofit-theater fundraiser last weekend: finger food, raffle tickets, and performances, in a board member’s fancy house that was donated for the occasion. I hope it was successful, and it was certainly quite glamorous to watch the sunset from a North Beach rooftop deck, eating delicious food among nicely dressed people. But it cannot change the fact that DIVAfest is a small, indie, shoestring operation, run out of a Tenderloin theater that has miraculously weathered all the changes to San Francisco in the last thirty years.

I know there is a place for people like me at DIVAfest, but, as a feminist woman, I have a hard time imagining that there’s really a place for me at the Speakeasy. And, while I’m grateful that organizations like DIVAfest exist, I’m also bothered that they feel like such small, precarious members of the arts ecosystem. The Speakeasy caters to the male gaze and raises $3 million in venture capital funding and becomes the subject of glowing media profiles; DIVAfest provides a counter-narrative and a place for women, and is relegated to the fringes. I said before that sexism in the 2010s tends to be subtle and insidious. Well, here’s another example of it: is it fair that the men get the big dreams and the big bucks and the naked ladies, and we women get to play out our stories on a much smaller stage?

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

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life (On A Friday): Good Talkback, No Backtalk

Good morning! Please enjoy some displaced Marissa Skudlarek to start your weekend!

On Tuesday night, I attended a developmental reading of my play You’ll Not Feel the Drowning. As one of the four plays that Custom Made Theatre Co. selected for the first year of its new-works development program, it is undergoing a process that includes public readings, talk-backs, written feedback — in short, lots of people whom I may or may not know have the chance to tell me their opinions about my still-in-process script. And considering that the last time I had a talk-back, several years ago, someone publicly accused me of slandering the memory and reputation of a good man… I was feeling a little nervous about the whole endeavor.

By their very nature, even the best-run developmental readings and talk-backs can leave you feeling incredibly vulnerable. Here are some thoughts and tips about how to offset that vulnerability. Note that this isn’t about putting your fingers in your ears and saying “I don’t want to hear your feedback!” Rather, it’s about learning how to accept the feedback from a place of grace and strength, so that you and your script can grow and improve.

First, be sure that you’re in a good head-space before the reading. This is something that I could have done better on Tuesday night. I had hoped to leave work on the dot of 5 PM, which would give me over an hour in which to drink a hot beverage, write in my journal, and examine my anxieties and try to set them aside. But, you know, life and the Day Job have a way of intervening, and I didn’t leave the office till after 6. I felt a bit rushed and un-prepared. I started babbling about random stuff on Twitter, as I do when I’m anxious, and then started worrying that all my Twitter-babbling would make me lose followers. Waiting for the bus would’ve compounded my anxieties, so I took a cab to the reading instead. I hoped that this would make me feel like a fancy glamorous playwright, and it didn’t quite do that, but it was still money well spent.

Plan your outfit carefully. This advice might be more relevant to women than to men: in our society, women have more types of clothing options than men do, and unfortunately, many female outfits that read as “pretty” or “dressed-up” do so by enhancing the wearer’s vulnerability. I’m not saying you can’t look pretty or be comfortable at your own talk-back, but I am saying that those qualities are not of primary importance. What should be your priority is to find an outfit that makes you feel powerful. I have a gray knit dress that I pull out whenever I need psychological armor. It’s flattering and comfortable, yes, but it has become my chain-mail. I wore it to a staged reading in 2014 where I had to stand up onstage in front of the guy who’d dumped me six weeks previously; I wore it in early March, when I was on my first assignment for American Theatre magazine and met producer Carole Shorenstein Hayes; and of course, I wore it on Tuesday night. With high heels and brazen bright-red lipstick, no less. It’s not a frivolous frippery; it’s war paint.

Take notes during the reading: this will focus your attention and give you something to do. Note when the audience laughs; note when they seem lost or distracted. Note the moments where you yourself get lost or bored, and ask yourself honestly: is it the actors’ fault, or is it a flaw in my writing? Remember that, just as your primary purpose is not to be pretty or likable, the actors’ primary purpose is not to be entertaining or virtuosic. Rather, they are there to interpret the script in such a way that you gain a better understanding of its virtues and flaws. Hopefully, your actors (like mine) will be talented and committed people who ask you good questions in rehearsal, but the point is that they are there to serve your work. Listen to your actors, and maybe at the reading, something will click for you, and you’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, that actor was totally right, this monologue is way too long and I need to rewrite it” (or whatever).

As for the talk-back itself, I hope you have a strong moderator who knows how to structure the session and lays out solid ground rules. (Stuart Bousel did a very good job of this on Tuesday night, structuring the talk-back in a focused and precise way that allowed for some give-and-take between me and the audience, but kept everyone’s power in balance.) The moderator should emphasize that while you are interested in hearing thoughts and reactions that may spark your imagination, you are not interested in hearing suggestions along the lines of “This is how I’d rewrite your play.” Continue to take notes during the talk-back, especially when audience members make comments that fire your imagination or reveal a new layer of the play to you. The paper and pen are your shield and sword here.

A word about self-deprecating humor. It’s a defense mechanism, and I use it frequently when I have to speak about my work in front of an audience, but I realize it’s not the strongest armor. Essentially, self-deprecation says “I am pointing out my weaknesses in a humorous way so that you don’t point them out in a vicious way.” Yes, self-deprecation fills awkward silences and can make people think that you are charming, but you’re not there to be charming, you’re there to write a fucking awesome play. I wish I were better at talking about my weaknesses honestly and humbly and without giggling. Or, perhaps, waiting for other people to mention them rather than doing it with my preemptive self-deprecation.

More dangerous than the actual talk-back is the informal discussion about your play that happens afterwards. Maybe someone comes up to you and offers unsolicited feedback, in a format that would never have flown with the talk-back’s moderator. Prefacing everything with “Well, this is just my opinion, but…”, this audience member decides it’s time to tell you everything that’s wrong with your play and how he would have done it better.

Perhaps the best strategy in this case is to say “I don’t want to hear it,” but it can be very hard to tell people to just shut up. An alternative strategy that I try to use is to put up a front. Mantras help: anything from “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” to “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds” – whatever makes you feel powerful. Chant that phrase to yourself as you listen to the criticisms. Smile and nod and say “okay,” like a sweet-natured robot. And let his words go in one ear and out the other, as you put up an invulnerable facade.

If that wasn’t quite effective and some of the criticism got through, niggling at you and sapping your writerly self-confidence, this where esprit de l’escalier comes in handy. Walking home, replay that conversation in your head. Feel the shame and anger. And, after having to listen to that “just my opinion” litany of everything that’s wrong with your play, imagine retorting: “Well, it’s just my opinion, but I think you are a tremendous jerk.”

After all, your words got you into this situation; your words can get you out again.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Around the World with Life and Art

Marissa Skudlarek is tramping around Oxford, sending us missives of wisdom.

I embark on my longest vacation in several years, two full weeks, three wonderful cities: New York and then Paris and then Oxford. I pack light, but I do bring my laptop; despite my best efforts, there are some writing projects I need to finish, some tasks I must carry with me across the ocean.

My New York theater critic friend tells me that for a writer, there is no such thing as a non-working vacation.

Around eleven at night, my fourth day in Paris, I burst into tears due to guilt at time slipping away without me working on my writing, then dry my eyes and go to “Paris’s #1 Philosophical-Café” to sip linden-blossom tea and write for an hour before they close.

I do get some writing done when I’m in New York. I take my laptop to Shakespeare and Company on the Upper East Side (not to be confused with the more famous Parisian bookstore of the same name) and drink an iced tea and immerse myself in my work for two hours. “You’ve been here a long time! Writing the Great American Novel?” a man asks as I get up to leave. “The Great American Play, actually,” I say. He introduces himself as the theater editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “the oldest newspaper in New York. Walt Whitman was our first editor!”

I give the man my card and think about how none of that encounter would ever have happened in San Francisco.

Before I leave for vacation, my friends at PianoFight make a video taking The Bold Italic to task for proclaiming that there are no artists left in San Francisco. I laugh, I love it, I post it on social media. I am deeply invested in the idea that there is wonderful art being made in San Francisco and that this can continue. But sometimes I wonder if I am fooling myself, being blindly optimistic instead of realistic.

I see a beautiful production of La ménagerie de verre, that is, The Glass Menagerie, for fifteen euros. When it’s over, we applaud so much our arms and hands ache; we make the actors take five curtain calls. This is par for the course at French theater productions. The profession of the actor is noble in any society, but it seems so much nobler, so much more respected, in France.

I follow Rue Racine to the Place de l’Odéon, location of one of Paris’s oldest theaters, noting that there are an awful lot of gendarmes in the vicinity, only to discover that the Odéon has been occupied by theater artists and stagehands who are protesting cuts to their unemployment insurance.

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Sara Judge, Empress of On the Spot, comments that we ought to do the same thing in this country. I say “First we would actually need job security in order to protest when they try to remove it.” Touché, says Sara.

I overhear a Quebecois theater director, looking very much the Europhile artist in stylish scarf and overcoat, talking about his career while I have lunch at a French café.

I overhear some French youths loudly discussing art and sex over beers, as French youths, or really all youths, are wont to do. “I’m getting busy with Amandine,” says one. “No, you’re getting busy with your ass!” says the other. My back to them, I listen, I take notes, I swell with delight at understanding their slangy French gossip.

Over Shake Shack burgers in Madison Square Park, an Irish fantasy novelist tells me that in Ireland, writers and artists and musicians don’t have to pay tax on the money they earn from their artistic endeavors unless it’s over 50,000 euros a year.

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Outside Shakespeare and Company on the banks of the Seine, I meet another Irishwoman, a screenwriter, whose government has awarded her a fellowship to study and research for three weeks in Paris.

I meet a bearded Englishman about my own age who’s been happily living the expat life in Paris for the last seven years, writing and editing and running a theater festival.

I mentally review my own family tree and what I know about the immigration laws of various countries. Could I get European citizenship through a distant ancestor?

I think about how it seems like everyone I know in San Francisco has a well-defined escape plan in their back pocket for when they inevitably get evicted by a greedy landlord, and how over the last year or so, I’ve started to feel like an anomaly because I lack such a plan.

I wonder if those vague daydreams of getting European citizenship are actually the beginnings of my own back-pocket escape plan.

I see how many translated books are displayed for sale in the Paris bookshops, and think with envy of all the French people who can thereby earn a living as literary translators.

I stroll up and down the streets of Paris, the wide avenues lined with Haussmann limestone buildings six or seven stories tall, and think about how everyone always freaks out about building taller buildings in San Francisco (“Don’t turn it into Manhattan!”). But what if we could turn it into, not Manhattan, but Paris?

I think about how when I return to San Francisco, I’ll return to my nasty, petty habit of mentally demolishing any one-story building I see and imagining a five-story housing complex built in its place.

I stop and look at listings in the windows of real estate agents. Despite the dollar-to-euro or dollar-to-pounds exchange rate, the prices seem amazingly reasonable – or have I merely been living in the San Francisco real estate bubble for too long? A room in a shared flat for $750 a month. A three-bedroom Oxford house for $2000 a month. A small Paris one-bedroom, yours outright for $325,000.

The brick houses of Oxford are smaller and narrower and cozier than the painted ladies of San Francisco, but most of them have bay windows, too.

Paris Métro trains come, on average, every five minutes, and I nearly always get a seat, even when I take the busiest segment of the busiest line at rush hour.

San Francisco friends message me to say that a horrible breakdown on the N Judah ruined everyone’s commute. They invite me to feel schadenfreude, and I do, but I also start dreading, truly dreading, going back to BART and MUNI.

My friend Sunil Patel, a Twitter demi-celebrity with friends in every corner of the world (it’s because of him that I had that burger with that Irish novelist), “has a nice moment” with Lin-Manuel Miranda at a book signing. I giggle to myself on a late-night, near-empty Métro train when I see Sunil’s and LMM’s tweets about this momentous encounter. I remember that good things happen and people are doing good work in the USA as well.

My friend Lily Janiak is announced as the new lead theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and again, I remember that despite the many difficulties facing the theater business and the journalism business, sometimes we do get nice things.

In a hipster café on the Cowley Road in East Oxford, a young man tells a friend that his band has been invited to play at a BBC Introducing gig.

In an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side, another young man tells some friends about his attempts to make it as an indie rock artist and to recruit a sought-after young drummer for his band.

I try to remember when’s the last time I overheard such a conversation in San Francisco at a venue that wasn’t PianoFight.

A San Francisco friend messages me to say that she overheard two cute French people talking in a Hayes Valley café, but they were discussing how to get venture capital funding for a startup.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Just Call Him Snakespeare

Marissa Skudlarek provides a snake-a-licious dessert course to yesterday’s Harry Potter smorgasbord.

In yesterday’s blog post, Ashley Cowan provided an introduction to the traits of the four Hogwarts houses, and then we Sorted seven of our favorite playwrights. But what about the Big Guy, the man we celebrate every April but especially this April (because as of April 23, the world has been bereft of him for four hundred years), the playwright whose works haunt and taunt every other English-language writer, Mr. William Shakespeare? What Hogwarts house does he belong in?

Ashley’s and my Sorting of playwrights was inspired by this piece in The Toast about Sorting 19th-century British novelists. In the comment section of that piece, someone suggested that Shakespeare was a “Ravenclaw who hung out with Hufflepuffs for inspiration,” which I kind of love, because it makes him sound like a real-life version of his character Prince Hal: a reserved, cerebral type who was often found in the company of earthier, jollier folks.

But upon further reflection, isn’t Prince Hal a Slytherin who hangs out with Hufflepuffs at the pub? (Hal isn’t intellectual enough to be a Ravenclaw, and his “Herein will I imitate the sun” soliloquy is pure Slytherin cunning.) And – strange as it sounds at first – mightn’t Shakespeare be a Slytherin, too?

Don’t be shocked. J.K. Rowling’s novels certainly paint Slytherins in a very sinister light, but it seems kind of illogical for one-quarter of all British wizards to be assigned to a house that represents pure evil. Therefore, many Harry Potter fans take a revisionist line on Slytherin. According to the Sorting Hat, Slytherins are “power-hungry” and “ambitious,” but those qualities need not always be yoked to amorality or corruption. Voldemort is the most famous Slytherin, but not all Slytherins are Voldemort. What Slytherins have in common is ambition, drive, resourcefulness, flexibility, and the cunning (if not necessarily the poison) associated with their mascot, the serpent.

For proof that you can be a Slytherin and still a good guy, as well as a talented and word-drunk playwright, take a look at Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda’s public persona is upbeat, nerdy, earnest, and amiable – pretty much as far from Voldemort as you can get. But he is incredibly driven and accomplished (note the inspirational meme that says “Remember, you have just as many hours in the day as Lin-Manuel Miranda”) and he identifies as a Slytherin.

He's got Professor Snape hair and a shiny green suit that makes him look like a snake. Yep. Definitely a Slytherin. (Photo credit: Sara Krulwich)

He’s got Professor Snape hair and a shiny green suit that makes him look like a snake. Yep. Definitely a Slytherin. (Photo credit: Sara Krulwich)

So, why do I think Shakespeare was a Snake? First, his plays deliver a fantastic rogue’s gallery of Slytherin villains and anti-heroes: Richard III, Prince Hal, Iago, Shylock, Edmund, Macbeth and his Lady. Indeed, Macbeth is basically a treatise on What It’s Like To Be Slytherin. These are incredibly memorable characters that created the template for the self-delighted, crafty, manipulative villains that we still see in movies and TV today. Shakespeare also enjoys playing with the audience’s sympathies, sometimes making us cheer these characters’ wicked deeds: the more evil Richard is, the more we love him. I think that any kind of playwright can write a Slytherin villain, but it takes a Slytherin playwright to make us like or sympathize with that villain.

Even many of Shakespeare’s non-villainous protagonists show the Slytherin traits of cunning, resourcefulness, and a willingness to bide their time till their plans come to fruition. Rosalind, in As You Like It, dressing up as a boy in order to train the man she loves to treat her better? Slytherin. All of Portia’s actions in The Merchant of Venice – mocking her suitors, waiting till the very last moment to save Antonio from the knife, and all that manipulative business with Bassanio’s ring in Act V? Totally Slytherin. And, while it may seem folly to sort as complex a character as Hamlet into a Hogwarts house, his feigning of madness in order to quietly pursue his goals is a very Slytherin move.

Shakespeare understood the dark side of human nature, even if he did not fall prey to it himself. He was an unusually empathetic Slytherin, to be sure, but a Slytherin nonetheless.

Shakespeare didn’t just write Slytherin characters well and frequently. Though much of his life is a mystery, what little we do know is consistent with a Slytherin Sorting. He was an ambitious writer and a shrewd businessman. He went from being a provincial nobody to being a leading shareholder in the king’s own company of players. His plays flattered the monarch and nobility; he enjoyed thinking about power, and he enjoyed being close to power. He clearly valued knowledge, but I think he valued it in a Slytherin way, as a means to the end of writing good plays, rather than valuing knowledge for its own sake, as a Ravenclaw does. It is notoriously difficult to discern Shakespeare’s own personality or political views from reading his plays; he was slippery, like a snake. And, at the end of his life, he had “Cursed be he that moves my bones” chiseled on his tomb, and isn’t that a Slytherin epitaph?

It’s also interesting to contemplate the Slytherin strain in Shakespeare fandom: I am of course speaking of the Oxfordians, who assert that Shakespeare’s plays must have been written by a nobleman rather than a glovemaker’s son from Stratford. In Harry Potter, the Slytherins are the only House obsessed with “blood purity” and aristocracy, and the Oxfordians seem to have a similar obsession.

Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, St. George’s Day, and popular tradition says that he was born on St. George’s Day as well. George, who according to legend slew a dragon or serpent, is the patron saint of England; and England, like Gryffindor, is represented by a red lion. Meanwhile, Shakespeare is almost a secular patron saint of England, but make no mistake: he was no lion. He was the serpent.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and Ravenclaw. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Angels in an American Election Year

Marissa Skudlarek, on politics, history, and Angels In America.

One way you can tell a play is great is by how frequently other things remind you of it. And over the past year, I’ve been reminded of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America numerous times. When the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage is legal across the land, I thought of Prior Walter’s affirmation in the last scene of Angels: “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.” More recently, when I read that Roy Cohn was one of Donald Trump’s political mentors, I knew just why that’s so scary: Cohn was an unrepentant McCarthyite, a power-hungry liar, and, in Angels, one of the great stage villains of modern times. And last Friday, when Hillary Clinton made her gaffe about how the Reagans had “started a national conversation on AIDS,” I thought of Angels’ depiction of AIDS in the ‘80s, and how this play has educated me about an era that I am too young to remember.

This year also marks the silver anniversary of Angels: the world premiere of Millennium Approaches and the first public staged reading of Perestroika took place at San Francisco’s own Eureka Theater in May 1991. So how has the play aged, and what it’s like to perform it in our current political climate? As it happens, Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette is just finishing up an ambitious production of Angels – they produced Millennium Approaches around this time last year, then brought the whole cast back for Perestroika this year. My friend Alan Coyne is playing Joe Pitt in that production, and he, two of his castmates, and director Joel Roster agreed to talk with me by email. They all provided incredibly beautiful and thoughtful responses that I almost feel sad to have had to edit for length – which just goes to testify to the complexity and enduring power of Kushner’s play.

Marissa: What’s it like performing this big, complicated, American play during a contentious election year? Have the past year’s events shaped the way that you approach Perestroika?

Kerri Shawn (Hannah Pitt): The past year’s events have deepened this experience for me and everything about this journey has become even more meaningful and important. I do not usually talk about my political views openly. I listen a lot and pay attention to everything but I do not get into heated discussions or debates about the news. However, I have loved being with this particular group of artists during this time. We have had some wonderful discussions in the dressing room about all of the political issues the play brings up. I have also felt the audience’s reaction to our production has deepened because of current events, especially everything going on with the election.

Alan Coyne (Joe Pitt): The lead-up to the same-sex marriage ruling was a huge part of our lives during Millennium Approaches. I think we were pretty confident it was about to happen, so it made Prior’s assertions of his rights and the general theme of progress seem all the more prophetic. But of course, we still weren’t quite there, and there was some anxiety that it might not get through. Millennium Approaches demonstrates with painful clarity what happens when you deny same-sex couples their human rights: Louis’ secretive behavior with Prior at his grandmother’s funeral; the lack of official sanction for their relationship; Joe and Harper’s terribly damaging relationship, in part due to marriage between a man and a woman being the only available option. So it felt like we were fighting, in a small way, on the right side in that struggle.

Joel Roster (director): The music that permeates our soundtrack for both parts of Angels is from the late 1960s–a contentious, blood-sweat-and-tears time in our nation’s history, smack dab in the heart of civil rights and war. The reason for this (as opposed to using music from the 1980s) is that history does repeat itself for those who fail to acknowledge or learn from it. When a prominent Presidential candidate is fanning racial hatred and prejudice, there’s never been a more important time to learn from our own history. I wouldn’t say that today’s events have shaped our approach to the piece, but we’d be foolish not to acknowledge the startling similarities.

Alan: With Perestroika, Donald Trump has come up a lot in our dressing-room conversations. I first found out his ties to Roy Cohn right before we started rehearsal for Perestroika, from the epic Funny Or Die version of Art of the Deal, starring Johnny Depp. I highly recommend everyone watch it, because it is (horrifyingly) one of the few accurate and detailed accounts of Trump’s rise to power. We’ve made a point of bringing up Trump’s relationship to Cohn at every talkback, because once you know about it, it is terrifyingly obvious.

LaMont Ridgell (Belize): Our marvelous dramaturge Meg Honey helped us put the show and our characters in perspective by revealing to us what was actually happening during the time of the play, politically and historically. I believe the current election proceedings, make the play even more relevant — most, if not all of the themes are still true today. I was very disappointed in Hillary’s comments regarding Nancy Reagan – and while she apologized twice, she said very little about the Reagans and their indirect and sometimes direct responsibility for so many men and women dying of AIDS. They simply did nothing.

Alan: There was definitely a different energy on the night after Hillary Clinton’s comments at Nancy Reagan’s funeral, more anger in our performance. Perhaps it made us feel that what we were doing was more important, that people were starting to forget what it was like in the ‘80s, the silence that cost so many people their lives.

Marissa: Has the audience reaction been different this year, compared to last year?

LaMont: This year’s audience has been with us for the long haul, so after the time they invested in getting to know the characters and their stories, they get a huge payoff with Part 2. And the stories are very real… not wrapped up neatly with a nice, shiny bow. Also, in Part 2, you’re witness to more characters. Belize and Hannah aren’t as prominent in Part 1, but in Part 2, their characters are fleshed out more.

Joel: There’s a lot more laughter. Kushner stated that he framed Millennium Approaches as a tragedy and Perestroika more as a comedy. For a play where AIDS is such a prominent focus, only one character dies: the villain of the piece. I always think of it as one play, as does the cast, but the reaction has mostly been “I liked this even more than Part One.” Part One is mostly tragic exposition and set-up for the explosion that is Part Two, and I think that Part Two is far more hopeful; perhaps that’s why it’s been received even better than Part One has been. Millennium Approaches was the best-reviewed play in Town Hall’s history, but that was shattered this year by the overwhelming critical response to Perestroika.

Alan: I think we’ve had bigger crowds this year. This could be due to a number of factors; it seemed like a couple of people who came to Millennium Approaches last year didn’t know what to expect (I think they thought it was a nice play about angels like It’s a Wonderful Life, which Jerry Motta & I were in at Town Hall the previous December). Also, the first part gets done a lot more often (though that’s not doing the play justice at all!), so perhaps folks have come to see Perestroika because they haven’t had a chance to see it before. Millennium Approaches won a few Shellie Awards, including Best Production, so that could have had an effect. And perhaps the same-sex marriage ruling made more straight people realize that “gay theater” is actually the same thing as, you know, theater.

Kerri: So many audience members came last year and are now returning. Often they tell us that they enjoyed Perestroika in a deeper way and that they’ve loved seeing how the story resolves. Many companies only do Millennium but is clear after this experience that the two need to be done together. Both parts are brilliantly written! It is a very powerful story – and it still needs to be told!

Marissa: Are there any lines in the play that particularly stick out for you as having relevance to our current historical moment?

Alan: Everything Roy Cohn says sounds like Donald Trump, only smarter. His racist provocations, his absurd boastful posturing, his dismissal of “losers,” his gloating at being the “dragon sitting atop the golden horde.” In Perestroika he says “Half the time I just make it up, and it still turns out to be true” and “You feel bad that you beat somebody…everybody could use a good beating.” So it’s no surprise that Cohn was Trump’s mentor; the big surprise is that Kushner literally forgives Cohn. Of course, it’s easier to forgive the dead. But the best lines are the universal ones, because ultimately, Angels in America is a universal story. People frequently write it off as a “play about AIDS,” which is rather like calling Hamlet a “play about 12th-century Danish politics.” It’s hugely important that the ‘80s AIDS crisis is the setting, but this play is about so much more: love, loss, abandonment, hope, theology, progress, forgiveness… you know, Life. At the end of the play, when Prior addresses the audience — “You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life” — it hits. Every single time. But you have to live through it all for the magic to work.

Joel: In Prior’s final monologue, he also says “We will not die secret deaths anymore. We will be citizens. The time has come. The world only spins forward.” That sticks with me a lot, as does Belize’s diatribe about the state of America: “I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing sounds less like freedom to me.” The fact that in Part One Louis says that “Justice is God” and then we learn in Part Two that God has abandoned us, abandoned heaven and the angels… it says a great deal about where we are in America.

LaMont: Prior’s closing monologue and my (Belize’s) “I hate America” monologue, definitely. When I’m asking Louis to bless Roy: “It’s not easy… it doesn’t count if it’s easy. It’s the hardest thing. Forgiveness.” And my line regarding the angel’s visit: “That’s malevolent. Some of us didn’t exactly CHOOSE to migrate! You know what I’m sayin’?” Overall, it’s been kinda weird playing Belize because I’ve been him. More times than not feeling “trapped in a world of white people!” — so to speak.

Kerri: Prior’s speeches in both the Angels Council scene and at Bethesda will stay with me long after the play closes. In the council scene he says: “But still, bless me anyway. I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do… We live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough, so inadequate but… Bless me anyway. I want more life.” I have been acting for over 40 years and have had the privilege of working on the stories of many great playwrights including O’Neill, Williams, Miller, and Shakespeare. This is my first experience with Tony Kushner and I will forever be grateful for this profound experience of being a part of both Millennium and Perestroika. I am a better person for having worked on this project with this group of wonderfully talented artists. I feel so fortunate for the whole of it!

Marissa: This question is specifically for Alan: I know you were born in Ireland and came to this country with your family as a child, and now, you’re playing what seems to be the most stereotypically “All-American” character in a great American play. Do you have any thoughts about what it’s like to act in a quintessentially American play while being an immigrant to this country? Or is being an immigrant the most quintessentially American experience of all — and am I coming off as some kind of awful nativist Trump supporter for even asking you this question?

Alan: Well, as I mentioned, this is not so much an American play as a universal one. It begins with an immigrant, the rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, saying “You do not live in America… no such place exists.” Migration is a significant theme throughout the work; Joe says “I migrated across the breadth of the continent of North America, I ran all this way to get away.” And in Millennium Approaches, I got to play an ancestor of Prior’s from Yorkshire, which is where my father was born, and therefore a dialect I am very comfortable with (more so than Irish, actually). So my immigrant status has been an asset, if anything.

Joe may seem “all-American,” but as a Utah Mormon who has become a lawyer in New York City, he is an alien, an outsider. Roy points it out in their very first scene in Millennium; Louis repeatedly remarks on how strange it is; Prior and Belize gawp at him like he’s an exotic animal. More than that, as a gay Mormon, he’s a secret alien; in Millennium Approaches, he confesses to Roy, “I never stood out, on the outside, but inside, it was hard for me. To pass.” Similarly, my immigrant status is only visible because I insist on it. After living here for nearly 30 years, I don’t have an accent. And because I’m white, Americans only know I’m foreign because I keep telling them so. Unlike Joe, I don’t need to hide it; it’s infinitely easier to be Irish in the Bay Area today than it is to be a gay Mormon in the ‘80s. But perhaps my secret struggle is confronting how American I have actually become.

Marissa: I hope you’re still Irish enough that I can wish you a Happy St. Patrick’s Day today! Thank you so much, Alan, Joel, Kerri and LaMont for sharing your thoughts about the “great work” of performing Angels. Break legs this weekend!

The TBA-recommended production of Angels in America: Perestroika is in its final week of performances at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette. Visit http://www.townhalltheatre.com/main-stage-performances/angels-in-america-perestroika for more information.