Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: No, I Don’t Want to Take Five

Marissa Skudlarek declines the cliche.

On Saturday, I went to see the Custom Made Theatre’s production of Sam and Dede, or My Dinner With André the Giant. During the final scene transition in the show, as we waited in the dark while the stagehands finished their work, the melancholy strains of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1 flowed from the theater speakers.

I first heard this music when I was fourteen years old and acting in a student one-act play festival – it was used as a piece of transition music there, too. Hearing it on Saturday night, I was transported back in time: I was waiting in the wings of my high school auditorium, in the velvety darkness, listening to that poignant piano music, acutely aware of being a sensitive teenage artist with an unspoken crush on somebody else in the show. Then I shook myself out of my reverie and remembered that Satie’s solo piano works are a cliché of theatrical scene-transition music.

This was only reinforced for me when, three nights later, I saw The Nether at San Francisco Playhouse. This complex play takes place half in a future dystopia, half in a virtual realm that resembles the late 1800s. As such, the sound design during the scene transitions mixes cold modern noise with elegant classical music. And within it, my ear definitely caught the strains of Satie’s mega-famous Gymnopédie No. 1.

I’m not immune to the lure of clichéd transition music. I still cringe when I think about how, the very first time I directed a play, I requested that the transition music be “Take Five.” (In my defense: I was fifteen, the characters were in a waiting room, my drama teacher had requested that our transition music not have any lyrics, and I didn’t know what else to pick.) Since then, I feel like I’ve heard “Take Five” in far too many small black-box theaters, all convinced they’d found music that set just the right tone (hip, sophisticated, laid-back-but-upbeat) to keep the audience’s attention during a transition.

Yesterday I polled my Facebook friends to learn which shopworn pieces of transition music bother them the most. Many people cited lite-classical pieces that premiered in the late 1800s and early 1900s – “cultured” but catchy music that influenced the great film composers of the 20th century. Orff’s “O Fortuna” (this might be more of a film cliché than a theater cliché, because the apocalyptic battle scenes it most often accompanies are found more frequently in film than theater). Holst’s The Planets. Ravel’s “Bolero.” Don’t get me wrong: over-familiar as they are, I like these pieces of music! Ravel’s “Bolero” is the absolute best thing to listen to when you are doing data entry or other busy work, and want to vanquish it in triumph. But it took me right out of the play when I went to see Cyrano de Bergerac at the venerable Comédie Française and heard “Bolero” underscoring the battle scene in Act IV.

Other pieces of music are clichés only within a certain context, to evoke a certain mood. The song I think of as “cliché French accordion music” (and don’t even know the real title of) for scenes set in Paris. “White Rabbit” for anything that has to do with the ‘60s counterculture – this gets bonus points because Alice in Wonderland allusions are already kind of a cliché on their own. “How Soon is Now” or “The Safety Dance” for anything to do with being a teenager in the ‘80s.

Believe it or not, just like Gnossienne No. 1 and “Take Five,” “The Safety Dance” also made an appearance at my high-school one-act festival. (A dude in the class above me wrote a play that referenced it and its bizarre music video.) And I guess that’s what it comes down to: it’s forgivable when high-schoolers make clichéd choices, but I kind of expect local professional theaters, or the Comédie Française, to be more inventive. Thinking about clichés in scene-transition music is a useful reminder to all of us not to reach for the easy choice; to keep expanding our knowledge of the art and music of the past and present; to forge new associations rather than relying on preexisting ideas.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Despite her quibbles about their scene-transition music, she very much recommends you see both Sam and Dede and The Nether before they close this weekend.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Emotional Karaoke

Marissa Skudlarek, putting her heart into it.

Two schools of thought as to why people do karaoke even if they have mediocre singing ability. The first is that Americans are obsessed with fame and the idea of becoming a “singing sensation”; mediocre people think they have more talent than they actually do (the Dunning-Kruger effect); they crave attention and glory out of a narcissistic need. This theory is rather cynical for my tastes, though, and doesn’t seem to account for many of the types of people you’ll see at karaoke. I prefer the alternative explanation: as a society, we have only a few acceptable places in which to enact big, possibly overwhelming emotions in public, and one of them is singing karaoke. For hundreds of years, church served as the outlet for most Americans’ singing-in-public needs, but as fewer and fewer of us are religious regulars, we need somewhere else to go.

This theory explains why many people at karaoke sing songs that aren’t particularly famous or even particularly catchy, but obviously have great personal meaning for the singer. (If people were just trying to get applause and attention from doing karaoke, you’d think they’d stick to singing fun ‘greatest hits’ material.) It explains why, especially when you go to karaoke in the off-hours (when the Mint opens at four in the afternoon, say), you can get the feeling of being among people whose emotions run a little closer to the surface of the skin than most people’s do. There can be a desperation to these singers, but it doesn’t seem like a desperate yearning after fame and fortune; more the desperation of heartbreak or disappointment. And, while I’m by no means a karaoke regular, I’ve been known to use it in this fashion, as an emotional outlet; there was a period of time when, as soon as I had an exciting new romantic prospect in my life, I absolutely had to go to karaoke and belt out “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret.

(I’ve also often thought that, if I were a Stephen Sondheim-level songwriting genius, I would write a musical about the regulars at a karaoke bar, with all the songs being pastiches of music from the ’70s through today. Just as Follies tells a story of heartbreak and disappointment through a series of brilliant pastiches of Tin Pan Alley songs, this would do the same for the music of the Top 40 radio era.)

Karaoke lets you take another performer’s words and music and use it to process your own emotions, in a more powerful way than just listening to the song would allow. In the same way, reading a play aloud in a group setting can allow you to have a more powerful emotional reaction to it than you would if you read the script silently, or even attended a performance of it. Taking a playwright’s words into your own mouth — even if you are not a professional actor — can sometimes be more moving than watching even the most talented actor perform them.

On this blog, we’ve probably written some pieces praising the value of holding a living-room reading of a play if you’re a playwright who’s seeking to revise a script (hearing the current draft version of your script read aloud is a great way to discern what works and what doesn’t). But today I also want to emphasize the value of a less frequently mentioned kind of living-room reading: the kind where you gather people together to read a polished, published script, a classic of world literature or an overlooked gem.

Like our new columnist, Robert Estes, I find great comfort in the writings of Anton Chekhov, whose empathy for our funny little human lives is still bracing over one hundred years later. Several years ago, I got together with some friends in a living room to read Chekhov’s Three Sisters. As the youngest woman there, I was asked to play the youngest sister, Irina. Things were going along well — we were sitting on comfortable sofas and drinking wine — until I got to Irina’s Act Three monologue of despair. This is what I read aloud (from the Paul Schmidt translation):

Where is it? Where did it all go? Oh my God, my God! I’ve forgotten everything; my head is all mixed up… I can’t remember the Italian word for window, or ceiling… I keep forgetting things; every day I forget more and more, and life goes by and it won’t ever come back and we’re never going to Moscow, never, never. I can see it all now–we’re never going to get there… Oh, I’m so unhappy… I can’t work anymore, I won’t work anymore, I’m sick of it, I’ve had enough! I worked at the telegraph office, and now I work at the municipal building, and I despise it, I hate everything I have to do there… I’m almost twenty-four, I’ve been working all this time, and my brain has shriveled up; I’ve lost my looks, I’ve gotten old, and nothing, nothing! There’s no satisfaction in any of it, and the time passes and you realize you’ll never have the beautiful life you dreamed of; you just keep digging yourself deeper and deeper into a hole… I’m in despair, I am really in despair! And I don’t understand why I am still alive. I should have killed myself long ago.

At the time, I myself was about to turn twenty-four, I too was feeling bored and burnt-out at work, I too was learning to deal with the disappointment that comes from being a few years out of college and having to lower your expectations as you make your way as an adult in the real world. Reading Irina’s monologue aloud cracked something in me open; I felt an obscure comfort in knowing that a fictional character written over 100 years ago felt the same way that I did. The powerful emotions that I felt when speaking Irina’s words gave me permission to acknowledge that yes, I was unhappy, and I shouldn’t try to just smother or forget my unhappiness.

I therefore highly recommend the practice of getting together with friends to read plays aloud. In a culture that often frowns on the overt expression of negative emotions, the chance to explore different facets of the human condition, through the words of great playwrights and in the supportive company of friends, is a much-needed way to release emotional tension. (This could also work with appropriately dramatic works of fiction; think of the satisfaction that people in the Victorian era used to get by reading Dickens’ serialized novels aloud around the fire with friends and family.) Plays were meant to be spoken and heard. You were meant to feel and process and play out your emotions.

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

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Melo(dy) Drama

Marissa Skudlarek, la-la-la!

Since Theater Pub’s January show consists of short plays inspired by indie-rock artist Morrissey’s songs, I thought I’d flip that idea around and share some indie-rock songs inspired by theater.

“I Was Meant for the Stage” by the Decemberists

A lovely and tender ballad about feeling like you’ve found your home in the theater, though not without some wry touches. “Mother, please be proud / Father, be forgiving / Even though you told me, ‘Son / You’ll never make a living,’” Colin Meloy begs, and the joke is all the funnier because you can hear it coming. The chorus also acknowledges the darker side of finding your calling as an actor: you might start to feel like you’re superior to the hoi polloi. “You will resume your callow ways / But I was meant for the stage!” Meloy sings – and, responding to his pretentiousness, the band finishes off the track with some parodically self-indulgent noodling.

“Promises of Eternity” by the Magnetic Fields

Stephin Merritt, frontman and songwriter of the Magnetic Fields, is known for his odd lyrical conceits, but even by his standards, “Promises of Eternity” is pretty kooky. The premise of the song is that if he and his lover broke up, it would be as awful as if “no show ever happened again,” as if there were never any more theater in the world! Perhaps to match the drama-themed subject matter, Merritt sings this song in a much more melodramatic style than his typical deadpan vocals. My favorite line, both in terms of the wordplay and his vocal delivery: “What if the clowns couldn’t be clooowns / And all those painted smiles gave in to plaintive frowns?” (And is this possibly an allusion to Sondheim’s “Send In the Clowns?”)

“Actor Out of Work” by St. Vincent

The people on Genius.com posit this as a song about a woman who’s learned to see through her boyfriend’s lies, but you can also read it as just what the title says: the internal monologue of an out-of-work actor. There’s plenty of self-loathing – “You’re an actor out of work / You’re a liar and that’s the truth / You’re an extra lost in the scene” – mixed with the kinds of mantras you might say to psych yourself up before an audition: “You’re a boxer in the ring / With brass knuckles underneath.” The music is appropriately anxious and jittery, though when the soaring backing vocals come in, sounding like something from an old Broadway musical, it lends a nice theatrical touch.

“Benediction” by the Weakerthans

Songwriters continue to exploit “all the world’s a stage,” theater-as-a-metaphor-for-life imagery hundreds of years after Shakespeare did it. The lovely middle verse of this song begins “All the actors broke their legs” and goes on to describe a failing stage production, but it isn’t meant to be taken literally — as a whole, the song seems to be about either a breakup or a death. So it’s a song about theater, but you don’t have to be a theater person to relate to it. That slide-guitar, alt-country sound is so early-2000s-indie that it kind of hurts, and “Let the rain be your applause” is a line that Morrissey himself would be proud to have written.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer with a terrible weakness for any pop music that is described as “wry” or “literate.” Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: How to Be a Good-Girl Artist

Marissa Skudlarek seeks new role models for a new year.

Last year I wrote about how theater has gone from being a disreputable profession to a fairly respectable one. (There is still some residual suspicion of anyone who has decided to devote their life to art instead of commerce, but now it is no longer assumed that all theater people are immoral rogues.) But that can lead to new problems. Because while I generally think the professionalization and respectability of theater is a good thing, artists still need some spark of wildness and daring if they are to make great art. Nowadays, when a “nice kid” who was raised to be an obedient people-pleaser decides to become an artist, it can take a great deal of time, effort, and struggle for her to shake off her dutiful habits and become confident and self-actualized.

I thought Gillian Jacobs’ essay published in Lenny Letter yesterday captured something about this very well, and this theme is also treated at length in one of the best books I read last year, the memoir How To Be a Heroine, or What I’ve Learned From Reading Too Much by British playwright Samantha Ellis. I should note that Samantha is a friend of mine; we discovered one another’s blogs several years ago, we correspond occasionally, and I met her in person when I visited London in 2012. I bought her memoir as soon as it came out in the U.S. last year, and took it with me on my February 2015 trip to a literary-themed hotel on the Oregon coast, where I pretended my main goal was to write, but really it was to get my head on straight after a very difficult 2014. I didn’t write anything on that trip except for journaling, but I devoured Samantha’s memoir, and it helped me a lot: to know there are bookish, funny, thoughtful female playwrights out there who’ve gone through some of the same stuff I’ve had to deal with.

reading-for-girls-007

Samantha and some of her inspirations. Photo by Charlie Surbey for The Observer.

How To Be a Heroine is Samantha’s life story through the lens of books, specifically the female characters that she identified with or rebelled against. As the daughter of Iraqi Jewish immigrants to London, growing up in a fairly traditional and conservative community, she had to fight to make her own way in the world, rather than bowing to her parents’ expectations that she marry a “nice Jewish boy.” Literary heroines inspire her as she deals with growing up, health problems, love, work, and art. She also takes a second look at some of her favorite stories, realizing that she may have drawn the wrong lessons from certain books or chosen false idols. (The whole idea for this book came about when she realized she’d have been better off if her favorite Brontë heroine was Jane Eyre, not Cathy Earnshaw.)

I didn’t write a Theater Pub column about How to Be a Heroine at the time, maybe because I was still processing too many things about it and my life, maybe because I didn’t think it was theater-related enough. (Samantha’s focus is heroines of prose fiction, not of theater.) Nonetheless, the story is peppered with anecdotes of her early career as a playwright, and how the heroines of her plays often mirrored what she was going through at the time. I also feel like I’m a semi-autobiographical playwright – again, it was nice to know that I’m not alone!

Although I grew up in a much less conservative environment than Samantha did, I still related to her struggle to find her voice as an artist, to take charge of her writing career and reject some of the deferential good-girl traits that had stuck with her since childhood. In fact, one of the things that cemented Samantha’s and my friendship was when she liked a blog post I wrote about how male playwrights tend to be bad boys and female playwrights tend to be dutiful daughters. (I realize that I think about this problem in gendered terms, but young boys can be obedient people-pleasers too and if so, they must also undergo this kind of struggle. They just seem not to write memoirs about it as often as women do — we are at an odd moment where women are very much encouraged to tell their own stories and take charge of their own narratives, but it still feels odd or shameful for a man to publicly admit to having vulnerabilities and insecurities.)

This theme comes to the fore in Samantha’s chapter about her life in London in her twenties, after she graduated from Cambridge. She describes her early temp jobs and her transition into journalism, which she enjoyed at the time, but now regrets that “I did job after job that took me further away from [play]writing.” She quotes Pauline Kael’s chilling pronouncement that “a good-girl artist is a contradiction in terms.” Eventually, Samantha says, she found inspiration not in fiction but in a real-life heroine: Shelagh Delaney, who wrote the play A Taste of Honey while she was still in her teens. “[Delaney]’s rage and sense of purpose suddenly made me feel like I was doing everything all wrong… I was delving into archives instead of breaking new ground, writing about theater instead of making it.”

Shelagh Smiths

Shelagh Delaney is also one of Morrissey’s favorite artists. Come see Theater Pub’s production of The Morrissey Plays on January 18, 19, 25, and 26.

I felt indicted when I read those words last February. Reading them again, I still feel indicted.

I want to be bolder in 2016, and to continue to struggle against my good-girl, precocious-kid affectations. It won’t be easy, but I know I’m not the first person to have done this. There are heroines — real and fictional — to serve as guides along the way.

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

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Embracing the Mirror, Part Two: Such Great Heights

Marissa Skudlarek follows up Ashley Cowan’s piece from yesterday with her own tall tales.

September, 2000. I am a 13-year-old high school freshman who dreams of theatrical stardom. My local community theater is holding auditions for Annie, seeking girls between the ages of 7 and 13 to play the orphans, and I beg my parents to let me try out.

“Okay,” they say, “but you realize you haven’t got a chance, right? The orphans in Annie need to be cute kids, but you don’t look like a cute kid anymore – you’re too tall.”

At 13, I am about 5’6”, a few inches below my final adult height of 5’8”. I argue that there are plenty of real-life 13-year-old girls who are 5’6”, and it stood to reason that one of them could’ve been in a Depression-era orphanage. There was nothing wrong with that logic, except that casting has its own shorthand. The orphans in Annie have to be cute kids, and the easiest way to convey that a character is young is to cast someone short.

If I’d been cast as a 5’6” orphan in Annie, my idea was to play the role as surly and truculent and resentful – since I’d be playing the oldest orphan, the one who’d been there the longest. Even as a young girl, I guess I’d absorbed the idea that tall women often play the bitch or the villainess. “I feel like unless I ask to read for a certain role, I am going to be handed sides for the ball-buster/ice queen/bitchy lawyer part,” says local actress Erika Bakse, 5’9”. “I don’t generally mind this because they are pretty fun roles — there’s a reason the majority of quotes in the recent New Yorker article about The Real Thing came from Charlotte, who is in only 3 scenes of the play. But it would be fun to get the opportunity to show other sides of myself. Interestingly, the one time I got to be more of an ingénue was in Stop Kiss, with a shorter Callie opposite me. Bisexuals/lesbians can be any height, I guess.”

(Full disclosure: last year, Katja Rivera and I cast Erika as a ball-busting feminist in my play Pleiades. Erika’s character was also supposed to be the oldest of the eight young women onstage, and her height probably helped her read that way to the audience, too.)

On this blog, we often talk about the difficulties facing female actors: too many aspirants and not enough roles. In such an environment, anything that makes a woman “difficult” to cast can turn into a permanent handicap. I therefore wonder how many tall women get dissuaded from acting, if prejudices along the lines of “The leading man always needs to be taller than the leading lady” mean that they’re not cast as frequently as their shorter sisters. By the time I got to college I was pretty sure that the odds were against my making it big as an actress, and I felt like part of that had to do with my height.

At the same time, college was when I came to terms with my height, and started to take pride in it. Instrumental in this was seeing Cate Blanchett play Hedda Gabler, in a production that began with a dumb-show in which Blanchett stalked around the stage for a minute or two. The stage was dimly lit and I was seated in the back row of the balcony, but Blanchett’s stage presence astounded me: her elegance, her dignity, her power, her height. Like me, she is 5’8″. I draw on my memory of her performance whenever I need a jolt of self-confidence about being a tall lady.

Me and the Desk Set ladies on audition night. Even slouching, I'm still taller than everyone.

Me and the Desk Set ladies on audition night. Even slouching, I’m still taller than everyone.

This year, when I played Elsa in the comedy The Desk Set, my four-inch heels and bouffant blonde wig made me the tallest person onstage. And there were several moments where my height became part of the joke: in my stage kiss with Alan Coyne (who commented that the wig and heels made me very intimidating); when I stared down my romantic rival, played by the petite brunette Kitty Torres; when I danced the tango with Andrew Calabrese, my breasts at the level of his eyes. It was fun to use my physicality in this way, though if I think about it too hard, I can start to have qualms: does this mean there’s something inherently ludicrous about tall women? And it seems less likely that I’d be asked to kiss a shorter actor in a scene that was meant to be earnest rather than comical.

Some roles are specifically earmarked for tall actresses. I get annoyed when women of average height play Rosalind in As You Like It, because the reason Rosalind gives for dressing up as a boy is “I am more than common tall.” And the catfight between Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a short-girl vs. tall-girl classic. (After our scene in The Desk Set, Kitty Torres and I are now hoping that someone will cast us as Hermia and Helena. Producers, call us!) Overall, though, in classical theater, there seems to be an unspoken rule that young actresses play ingénues and middle-aged actresses play queens. The difficulty is that we tend to think of ingénues as petite and queens as statuesque.

Local actress Valerie “Three-Time Helena” Weak, who is 5’10”, has these stories and tips:

I don’t think I’ve ever played opposite someone in a romantic onstage relationship who was shorter than me. I’ve definitely dealt with callbacks where we were paired according to height (like when none of the taller Noras got to read with the shorter Torvald) – and that happens even more often when they’re putting together ‘families’ or ‘couples’ for a callback at a commercial.

I’ve learned to make sure I wear flat shoes when I audition for shorter male directors – I’ve definitely had audition situations where a shorter male director is put off by my height in general. I also know to ask costume designers for rehearsal shoes ASAP if I’m going to be wearing a heel in the show – not so much for me to practice walking in them, but for the men who will be working with me to get ready for how much vertical stage space I’m going to take up, rather than that being one more thing for them to adjust to in tech week.

Let’s go back to 13-year-old Marissa. In the middle of writing this article, I procrastinated by rereading some old emails I sent to my high-school acting teacher, and happened upon this amazingly pertinent quote:

I was complaining to my mom about this and she said I should ask you. I read in Vanity Fair that this hot new talent, an 18-year-old actress called Anne Hathaway, had wanted to do Broadway but wasn’t cast because she was too tall. Her height? 5 foot 8. What I wanted to know is if, in your experience with various shapes and sizes of actors, height is a hindrance to actresses if they want to get cast. Because it would absolutely suck if that were the case. So superficial.

Even as a teen, it seems, I was worried about the plight of being a tall actress. My teacher responded with these words of wisdom:

The theater world runs the gamut from directors and agencies that cast specifically for looks, to directors and agencies that cast based on talent, and everywhere in between. Is your cousin dating the casting director? Did you schmooze with the right people? Has so-and-so told what’s-their-name about whozit who mentioned your work to the director? Did you perform remarkably? Was your audition scheduled after the director had a fight with his/her boyfriend/girlfriend? So many factors figure into casting that it is best to just do your best. Let the rejections roll off your back, and the acceptances be wonderful surprises. Height, weight, skin color, gender… there are a few things with which you are born… worry about the elements under your control. Are you well-rehearsed? Have you worked on making your instrument the best it can be? Did you sleep enough last night? Do you have good relations with your family and friends?

Which seems like good advice for anyone, be they old or young, male or female, short or tall.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and sometime actress, who enjoys playing the “Am I The Tallest Person In This Elevator” game whenever she’s at her day job. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Sense and Sensitivity

Marissa Skudlarek, commenting on comments.

There was a piece posted on the theater website Howlround earlier this week that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. In it, Erin Butcher, a young woman who runs a theater company called Maiden Phoenix in the Boston area, talks about the harassment her all-female cast experienced when putting on a Shakespeare play in a public park, and vows never to make the same mistake again.

If you’re a young woman, nothing about Butcher’s piece is particularly surprising — not the fact that an all-female group experienced harassment that a mixed-gender group wouldn’t, nor the long and sometimes antagonistic comment thread that sprung up below the article. But as I said, something about this piece has stuck with me. I was even moved to post a comment on it on the Howlround site — which is not something I usually do.

Maybe it’s because I produced a play last year where the writer (me), the stage manager, and eight of the nine actors were women under the age of 30, and I remember taking that into account when choosing a venue for the production. I rejected a theater on Sixth Street in favor of one near Union Square, and one reason was because that neighborhood is safer. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable asking nine young women to walk down Sixth Street every evening to get to the theater.

It’s because, in a little while, I will leave the café where I am writing and go to the EXIT Theatre for the Olympians Festival, and I know I will need to keep my wits about me and my bitch-face on as I walk down Eddy Street.

It’s because, this summer, when I told a guy that I put my bitch-face on when I walk to the EXIT, he thought I was being kind of funny, and teased me about it in a good-natured way, and only later did he realize that I was entirely serious.

It’s because I resent the idea (inherent in some of the ugly comments on Erin Butcher’s piece) that you have to suck up and deal with whatever unfair shit life throws at you, or else you are a thin-skinned, spoiled Millennial who overreacts to everything.

Certainly, a large part of what is meant by “maturity” is learning how to suck it up and deal with it. A mature person knows how to pick her battles. But that’s not the same thing as saying that mature people never battle or protest. Sometimes the only way to deal with something is to mount a spirited objection to it. The amount of outrage and overreaction in the culture these days can be both fatiguing and depressing — but I don’t think the solution is to suggest that people should stop reacting entirely. Mature people know how to manage their sensitivity, but they do not disown their sensitivity.

Erin Butcher’s essay is certainly a reaction to what happened to her theater company in the park, but (apart from the click-baity headline) I don’t believe it’s an overreaction. She’s not demanding that the men who harassed her be jailed or even punished; her proposed solution is that she will change her behavior and never again produce an all-female outdoor show. She implies that the alternatives proposed in the comments — namely, to hire security, or to suck it up and deal with it — would cost her too much, either in money or in emotional distress.

Above all, the comments implying that women who object to being leered at and harassed by men just need to grow a thicker skin, piss me off because I believe that a world full of thick-skinned, emotionally hardened people is a world without artists. It’s also a world where problems fester and the pace of progress is slow.

Certainly, we do need a skin. Our skin is the boundary between us and the world, and we need boundaries. But if you have strong boundaries, you also have a strong sense of right and wrong; of what you will tolerate, and what you will find intolerable. And I don’t think we should tolerate the idea that every complaint is a sign of hypersensitivity — nor should we tolerate it when women are required to pay extra in order to exist in the world and make art.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She’s involved in two Olympians Festival shows at the EXIT Theatre next week: she’s playing an intense French lady in Delphin, or Christian Teen Dolphin-Sex Beach Party on Wednesday the 18th, and she wrote & directed Tethys, or You’ll Not Feel the Drowning on Friday the 20th.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Ridiculously Easy, Theatrically Inspired Halloween Costumes

Marissa Skudlarek has some costume tips for Halloween procrastinators.

Without quite being able to articulate why, I’ve always thought there was something a little odd about dressing up for Halloween as a character from a play. Maybe it’s because I feel like the people who are most likely to do that are actors themselves, and as such, dressing up as a theatrical character represents a weird blurring of their personal and professional lives. Like, rather than playing this role in a staged production, they’ve decided to play it for Halloween.

Maybe, too, it’s because there are fewer iconic theater costumes than film costumes. Because theater encourages multiple interpretations of classic plays, the iconography associated with what classic characters wear is more diffuse. There’ve been productions of Antigone where she wears a chiton and productions where she wears jeans.

Nevertheless, Halloween is approaching and for anyone who’s still deciding on a costume, I thought I’d offer some suggestions for Ridiculously Easy, Theatrically Inspired Halloween Costumes.

I feel like every dude in S.F. has this outfit. David Tennant as Hamlet (photo by Robbie Jack/Corbis).

I feel like every dude in S.F. has this outfit (sans skull). David Tennant as Hamlet (photo by Robbie Jack/Corbis).

Hamlet. Hamlet may be one of the most challenging roles in theater, but it is seriously the world’s easiest Halloween costume. Here’s how you dress up as Hamlet:

  1. Wear a long-sleeved black shirt and black pants.
  2. Go to a store that sells Halloween decorations and buy a plastic skull.
  3. Carry the skull around and look melancholy.

Is that not the easiest thing in the world? (And if you’re worried about choosing a costume that requires you to look glum and melancholy, remember that Hamlet also “puts an antic disposition on,” which sounds like a good excuse if you want to go crazy on the dance floor.) I will also point out that Hamlet is a unisex costume – women have been playing Hamlet for hundreds of years. And, if you’re used to thinking of Hamlet as a slim fellow and you’re worried you may not have the physique to dress as him, check out this article arguing that Shakespeare may have intended an overweight Hamlet.

The Soothsayer and Caesar (Thomasina Clarke & Raphael Nash Thompson) in the 2006 St. Louis Shakespeare Festival production. Photo by J. David Levy.

The Soothsayer and Caesar (Thomasina Clarke & Raphael Nash Thompson) in the 2006 St. Louis Shakespeare Festival production. Photo by J. David Levy.

Julius Caesar & Soothsayer. You know what’s a ridiculously easy costume? A bedsheet toga. You know how you can jazz up your bedsheet toga so that it doesn’t look like such a lazy cliché? Get a Halloween blood-makeup kit and paint stab wounds on your arms and torso, and you’re Julius Caesar! If you can, go with a friend who accessorizes his/her toga with fortuneteller-style scarves and jewelry, to portray the Soothsayer. This is my idea of a cute couples’ costume, and I’m not sure I want to know what that says about me.

elizabeth-taylors-style-cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof-6

Brick’s blue bathrobe is an easy Halloween costume for a lazy dude, too. Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Stanley Kowalski / Maggie the Cat. If you want a sexy costume this Halloween, no characters from 20th-century theater are hotter than these two. For Stanley: wear Levis and a torn, sweaty undershirt, and stand in the rain yelling “STELLA!” For Maggie: wear a white ‘50s slip (available at any vintage store); carry a tumbler of whiskey; pose in doorways.

Stanley knows how to party. Marlon Brando in

I realize that suggesting you dress up as Stanley Kowalski is tantamount to suggesting that you dress up as a Sexy Rapist, and yet, I’m doing it anyway. Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

The hitch: These costumes are so simple that they really only work if you’re as hot as the young Marlon Brando or Elizabeth Taylor.

Natalie Dessay as Violetta and Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo in

The amazing Natalie Dessay as Violetta and Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo in “La Traviata” at the Met.
Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

The Lady of the Camellias. Maybe this is cheating, because this character originated in a novel, not a play. But I think the play, sometimes known in the English-speaking world as Camille, has become more famous than the novel, so I’m including it. And lest you say “But in order to be Camille, don’t I have to find a hoop skirt and a corset and do my hair in corkscrew curls? That’s not easy!” I will point out that the French title of the play translates as The Lady with the Camellias. That’s all you need. A lady, and (silk) camellias. (And probably some other clothing too; I don’t want these suggestions to get anyone arrested for public indecency.) Traditional productions of Camille and the opera that’s based on it, La Traviata, do require hoop skirts and corsets, but there’ve been modern productions with updated costumes – in the Metropolitan Opera’s current production, the heroine wears a red cocktail dress with a white camellia tucked at her bosom. If you’ve got a sexy red dress in your own closet, go to the craft store, get some faux camellias, put them in your hair or your cleavage, and voila.

Charles Ludlam: the most famous Camille of the late 20th century.

Charles Ludlam: the most famous Camille of the late 20th century.

This can be a unisex costume, too! Charles Ludlam, founder of the “Theater of the Ridiculous,” became famous for playing Camille in a low-cut dress that revealed his hairy chest.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She won’t be dressing up as a theatrical character this Halloween, but she will be wearing the platinum wig that she originally wore in The Desk Set this summer — does that count? For more: visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.