Theater Around the Bay: Marissa Skudlarek and Adam Odsess-Rubin of “Cemetery Gates”

We continue our series of interviews with the folks behind the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays by speaking to writer Marissa Skudlarek and director Adam Odsess-Rubin of “Cemetery Gates”!

Inspired by the classic Smiths song, “Cemetery Gates” is a vignette about two moody, pretentious high-school seniors who have snuck into a bar with fake IDs in order to try overpriced cocktails, quote poetry, and imagine a world in which they could be happy. Sailor Galaviz plays Theo and Amitis Rossoukh plays Flora.

Skudlarek photo

Writer Marissa Skudlarek goes for a moody-rainy-day aesthetic.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized, or, if you’re returning to the festival, why did you come back?

Marissa: I have a long history with Pint-Sized. The first edition of the festival, in 2010, was also the first time any theater in San Francisco had produced my work. I had a play in the 2012 festival as well, and then last year, I came back to serve as Tsarina (producer) of the entire festival, the first time that it was at PianoFight. I can’t resist the lure of an imperial title and a rhinestone tiara, so I signed on as Tsarina again for the 2016 festival. Meanwhile, I had originally written “Cemetery Gates” as a submission for The Morrissey Plays, Theater Pub’s January 2016 show. The producer of The Morrissey Plays, Stuart Bousel, didn’t end up picking my script, but he said “This is a good play, you should produce it in Pint-Sized this year.” And, well, the Tsarina gets to make those decisions for herself. It’s good to be the Queen!

Adam: I had been an actor at PianoFight in The SHIT Show and Oreo Carrot Danger with Faultline Theater, but I really wanted to break into directing. I studied directing at UC Santa Cruz, but no companies in the Bay Area seem to want to hire a 24-year-old to direct. I sent my resume to Theater Pub and I’m so grateful they are taking a chance on me.

What’s the best thing about writing a short play?

Marissa: I feel like I allow myself to indulge my idiosyncrasies more because, hey, it’s only 10 minutes, right? Last night I was talking to Neil Higgins (a frequent Theater Pub collaborator who directed “Beer Culture” in this year’s Pint-Sized Plays), and he pointed out that both “Cemetery Gates” and my 2012 Pint-Sized Play “Beer Theory” are very “Marissa” plays. They are plays that I could show to people and say “This is what it’s like to live inside my head.” Writing a full-length often means seeking to understand the perspectives of people who don’t think or behave like me; writing a short play lets me burrow into my own obsessions.

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Adam: I love creating theater outside of conventional theater spaces. I’ve worked with Israeli and Palestinian teenagers in Yosemite and taken Shakespeare to senior-citizen centers, but never done a play in a bar. PianoFight is my favorite bar in the Bay Area, so I’m thrilled to be creating theater in their cabaret space.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Marissa: Sometimes it can be complying with the length-limit, though that wasn’t a problem with “Cemetery Gates.” Creating vivid and complex characters while only having a limited space to define them.

What’s been most troublesome?

Adam: My script is six pages. Trying to create a full theatrical experience in under 10 minutes is a really creative challenge for a director. You want a full dramatic arc while also fleshing out your characters, which isn’t easy to do in such a short period of time. And yes, scheduling too. The actors in my piece are both very busy with other projects, so our rehearsal time was limited.

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Marissa: Ooh, that’s a daunting question, so I’m going to re-frame it as “What are the biggest artistic influences on ‘Cemetery Gates’?” Well, there’s the Smiths song, obviously, and the fact that I wish I’d discovered it when I was a teenager rather than when I was about 25. There’s my weird obsession with a clutch of Tumblr blogs run by teenage or early-twentysomething girls who post about what they call “The Aesthetic,” which seems to mean pictures of old buildings in moody light, marble statues, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, modern witchcraft, dried flowers, the idea of being this vaguely wistful girl writing in her journal in a coffee shop, etc. And, while I didn’t consciously realize it when I was writing the play, I think it’s probably influenced by one of my favorite recent films, Xavier Dolan’s HeartbeatsHeartbeats is the story of two very pretentious Montreal twentysomethings — a gay guy and a straight girl, like the characters in “Cemetery Gates” — who both fall in love with the same man. The movie is aesthetically lush and painfully funny. Dolan obviously loves his characters while at the same time acknowledging that they are completely ridiculous — which is exactly how I feel about the characters in “Cemetery Gates.”

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

Adam: I’d love to see Harry Styles from One Direction play Theo in Cemetery Gates. What can I say? He’s just so cute and pouty. It’d be great to see him play an alienated gay teen sneaking into a bar to wax poetic about Oscar Wilde. Molly Ringwald would be an excellent Flora — the ultimate angsty teenager who longs for something better in a world full of constant disappointments.

Marissa: Hmm, the trouble here is that both of my characters are 18 and I feel like I don’t know enough about who the good teenage actors are these days. Maybe Kiernan Shipka as the girl? I loved her as Sally Draper on Mad Men.

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Director Adam Odsess-Rubin is also looking very aesthetic here.

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush? That is… what actor would you love a chance to work with?

Adam: I’m very jealous of anyone who has had the opportunity to be on stage with Radhika Rao. She blows me away as an actor and teacher. She’s such a light in the Bay Area theater community, and such a talented artist. Her passion to create change through her art is what every theater artist in the Bay Area should strive for.

What other projects are you working on and/or what’s next for you?

Adam: I’ll be directing three pieces for the SF Olympians Festival this year, which I am so excited about. My parents gave me a picture book of Greek mythology when I was very little, and so I can’t wait to bring some of these tales to life in a new way on stage. Anne Bogart talks about the importance of mythology in theater, and Anne Washburn touches on this in a big way in Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, which I assistant-directed at A.C.T. and the Guthrie Theater under the late, great Mark Rucker. I was so moved by Washburn’s unique argument for theater as this invincible storytelling form.

Beyond that, I’d love to direct a full-length show next year at a theater company in the area. Artistic Directors, you’ll be hearing from me soon.

Marissa: Revising my long one-act play You’ll Not Feel the Drowning for a staged reading on September 13, part of Custom Made Theatre’s Undiscovered Works program. Finishing a one-act play based on the story of Macaria, Hades and Persephone’s daughter, for an Olympians Festival staged reading on October 14. Planning and hosting a celebration of the Romantic era to take place over Labor Day Weekend. Attending a friend’s wedding in Oregon in mid-September. Trying to keep my sanity in the midst of all this (seriously, it’s a lot right now).

What upcoming shows or events in the Bay Area theater scene are you most excited about?

Adam: I saw Eric Ting’s production of We Are Proud to Present… at SoHo Rep in NYC in 2012 and it was the single greatest production I’ve seen, period. I can’t wait to see his production of An Octoroon at Berkeley Rep next season. I love Annie Baker and am looking forward to John at A.C.T. And Hamilton – my God! I’m not original in saying this, but that show is brilliant.  I’m so glad SHN is bringing it to SF. I don’t know what the smaller theaters have planned for next season yet, but Campo Santo and Z Space produce great work. New Conservatory Theatre Center is an artistic home for me. I’ll see anything they produce.

Marissa: The Olympians Festival, of course! The theme this year is myths of death and the underworld, and I’ve been writing a lot of weird death-haunted plays this year (including “Cemetery Gates”) so that fits right in. Also, a bunch of my friends and I read or reread Pride and Prejudice this year, so I want to plan a field trip to see Lauren Gunderson’s P&P sequel play, Miss Bennet, at Marin Theatre Co. this Christmas.

What’s your favorite beer?

Adam: Moscow mule.

Marissa: The Goldrush at PianoFight — bourbon, honey, and lemon, good for what ails ya.

“Cemetery Gates” and the other Pint-Sized Plays have 3 performances remaining: August 22, 23, and 29 at PianoFight! 

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Theater Around the Bay: Gabriel Bellman and Megan Briggs of “Polling Place”

The Pint-Sized Plays open TONIGHT so we’re bringing you another in our series of interviews with the folks behind the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays. Here are writer Gabriel Bellman and director Megan Briggs of “Polling Place”!

“Polling Place” satirizes the current political climate and the heated rhetoric of the 2016 election. In it, a highly strung woman who’s just cast her ballot goes into a bar and confronts a laconic man with the question “Do you think it’s fair to vote for a candidate based on whether they sit down or stand up when they use the washroom?” Caitlin Evenson plays the woman, Claire, and Ron Talbot is the man, Ian.

Gabriel Bellman

Writer Gabriel Bellman has his eyes on you.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized, or, if you’re returning to the festival, why did you come back?

Gabriel: I’m proud to have been in this festival before. I enjoy the challenge of writing something on deadline, so when I saw the call for entries post into the clouds via a proxy-streaming server third-party service that takes encrypted pieces of digital information and converts them into the written language, I decided to write a short play using keystrokes and symbols to make words that were then used as a key to unlock language from digital chunks of electromagnitized green-chip circuit boards.

Megan: I directed a Pint-Sized show several years ago and had such a blast! Pint-Sized is one of my favorite SF Theater Pub events so I’m excited to be a part of it again this year 🙂

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Gabriel: I think it’s to avoid thinking of it as a short play. When you envision a three-inch photograph, for example, you might be thinking of only a corner of a mouth, but (possibly) a better photograph is a three-inch square-size photo of the planet Earth, as cliched and trite as that photo may be at this point (unless of course an alien is in the corner snapping a selfie and it isn’t a blatantly poor Photoshop-job). So if you set out to capture a micro-cosmonaut, then you can still explore heaven and earth, right? A small version of the entire experience of humanity, I guess is the goal, and that’s hard to fit into anything. I feel like I didn’t answer the question. The hardest thing about writing a short play is the constant comparisons to William Shakespeare from strangers on the street.

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Megan: The show I’m directing is absolutely delightful! Gabriel has written thoughtful and intelligent characters whose lives intersect in an unexpected way on Election Day. We had a fabulous time unpacking these characters and discovering the humor that comes when you mix politics with uncertainty. I also adore my cast. Caitlin Evenson and Ron Talbot are two fantastic performers and I’m very excited this show marks the first time they are working together on stage!

What’s the best thing about writing a short play?

Gabriel: Getting to see different human minds, each encapsulated in uniquely shaped skulls, interpreting and engaging in the process of making art in live performance. Writing is such a solitary act that it can be a form of self-flagellation or affliction, but when actors come along, that all changes. Actors are a jovial bunch, on balance, and are attuned to human emotion to such a way that they can call it upon demand with strangers looking at them — it’s pretty amazing. So the best thing is to play in creative space with other artists — it can seem too good to be true.

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush? That is, what actor would you love a chance to work with?

Megan: I think Stacy Ross is an incredible performer! She excels at both comedy and drama and by all accounts she is a dream to work with.

Megan Briggs

Megan Briggs is a frequent Theater Pub performer and now, a Pint-Sized director!

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Gabriel: There are a lot of different ways to answer that. For one, I could say parents, teachers, other artists, I could point to the times we live in, I could recount a midnight screening of Gremlins, or a Bob Dylan concert, or a Shaquille O’Neal dunk, or a Pop-Tart. Let me say something more guided: here are a few writers I felt impressed by as an adult. Denis Johnson, Junot Diaz, Mary Shelley, Seamus Heaney. Allen Ginsburg’s Howl is still the best poem ever written (although not as good as Whitman’s Song of Myself – which is basically a rip-off of William Blake). Is that an answer? My biggest influences are gangsta rap, existentialism, Atari 2600, and Indian food.

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

Megan: I would have to say Emily Blunt because I would really love to see how this play would change if we had a British actress playing the part of Claire. It would bring up a series of entirely new questions about her character and why she is so intrigued by the political process.

Gabriel: Penelope Cruz because I have loved her since I was 19 and saw Belle Epoque. Actually, I wouldn’t want it to be weird, so maybe a better answer is Magic Johnson, since i have loved him since I was 15. Wait, was that a trick question? The answer is Madonna.

What other projects are you working on and/or what’s next for you?

Gabriel: I’m working on a feature play about a historical figure from New York at the turn of the century. I would say who and what it is about, but I’m too excited about it because I don’t think anybody else has done it yet, and it’s a good idea, and when you share those ideas early on, it bursts the bubble. What’s also next for me is a bubble tea. Very, very soon.

Megan: I’m very excited to be performing in Theater Pub’s production of King Lear this fall! I like my Shakespeare to be fast paced with high drama, and I think Theater Pub is the perfect venue for presenting Shakespeare that’s anything but boring and stuffy.

What upcoming shows or events in the Bay Area theater scene are you most excited about?

Megan: I’m excited about seeing the musical Chess for the first time at Custom Made Theatre Company this fall. I’m also super pumped for Hamilton next spring (although I have to be willing to wait for it).

Gabriel: I’m looking forward to the Lit Crawl, I believe I’ll be performing in that, and also seeing Hamilton, and plays that actors and playwrights from Pint-Sized are doing. It’s a talented group, excluding myself, since that sounds weird.

Finally, what’s your favorite beer?

Megan: I’m more of a cider girl myself, and Stella Cidre is my absolute favorite!

Gabriel: For anybody who was raised in the shadows of the Willamette Valley, it’s Black Butte Porter. But honestly, I love a nice Jamaican ginger beer.

See “Polling Place” and the other Pint-Sized Plays at PianoFight on August 15, 16, 22, 23, and 29!

Theater Around the Bay: Jake Arky of “Julie Kopitsky’s Bat Mitzvah”

Next in our series of interviews with the folks behind the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays: writer-director Jake Arky of “Julie Kopitsky’s Bat Mitzvah”!

“Julie Kopitsky’s Bat Mitzvah” is a comedic monologue by a 36-year-old woman who’s finally stopped her hard-partying ways long enough to complete the Jewish rite of passage. Noemi Zeigler Sanchez stars as Julie.

As Jake is the only writer/director pulling double duty this year, he’s answered BOTH our playwright questionnaire and director questionnaire… and sometimes his playwright-self and director-self seem to have differing opinions.

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Jake Arky, he writes AND directs!

Playwright Jake, how did you hear about Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival and what possessed you to send something in?

Playwright Jake: I bumped into Alejandro Torres, who I had acted with in another Theater Pub show, I Like That, on the street and he mentioned he was producing Pint-Sized this year. I asked if I could send him a monologue that I had just been thinking about writing. He said yes, so I guess I was on the hook to write something good and lo and behold, it made the cut.

And, Director Jake, how did you get involved with Pint-Sized?

Director Jake: I wrote a deadly play and when no one else was brave enough to touch it, I bravely stepped up to the plate to wrestle it into the work of art you’ll see on stage.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Playwright Jake: Keeping it a short play.

What’s the best thing about writing a short play?

Playwright Jake: Cut to the action.

What’s been the most exciting part of directing this play?

Director Jake: Rehearsals and just discovering everything the play can turn into.

What’s been most troublesome?

Director Jake: Trusting myself as a director, especially since it’s a new hat I’ve been wearing only in the last year.

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Playwright Jake: TV. Lots of TV.

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush?

Director Jake: They know who they are.

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

Playwright Jake: Louis C.K. and Kate McKinnon, for obvious reasons.

Director Jake: The cast of The Wire. Like, every single person that was ever on that show.

What other writing/directing projects are you working on and/or what’s next for you?

Director Jake: I’m the Drama Director at a high school on the Peninsula and I’ll be directing Assassins in a brand new theater space this fall.

Playwright Jake: A play about helicopter parents who kill their children when they aren’t perfect. It’s a comedy!

What upcoming shows or events in the Bay Area theater scene are you most excited about?

Playwright Jake: All of them.

Director Jake: Anything coming up at PianoFight.

What’s your favorite beer?

Playwright Jake: Stone’s Smoked Porter.

Director Jake: Stone’s Smoked Porter.

See “Julie Kopitsky’s Bat Mitzvah” and the other Pint-Sized Plays at PianoFight on August 15, 16, 22, 23, and 29!

Theater Around the Bay: Shirley Issel & Jamie Harkin of “Angel of Darkness”

From now through the end of August, we’ll be bringing you interviews with the writers and directors of the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays. First up: writer Shirley Issel and director Jamie Harkin of “Angel of Darkness”!

“Angel of Darkness” is a modern mystery play set in a contemporary bar. Death is the barman, and he informs Everyman that as soon as another patron, Fellowship, finishes his beer, Everyman will die… 

Brett Mermer plays Death, James F. Ross plays Fellowship, and Jamie Harkin pulls double duty by playing Everyman as well as directing the show.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized?

Shirley: I am part of a playwriting class at Stagebridge, taught by Anthony Clarvoe. Anthony gave us your Pint-Sized Play Festival call for submission and rules as a weekly assignment. The rules captured my imagination and I really liked the results, so I submitted.

Jamie: My dear friend Alejandro Torres, who is the deputy producer of Pint-Sized this year, knows me and recommended me.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Shirley: Coming up with a good idea.

What’s the best thing about writing a short play?

Shirley: It is clear very quickly if you have something good.

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Jamie: The idea of performing in front of such a huge crowd.

What’s been most troublesome?

Jamie: Finding actors.

Shirley Issel

Shirley Issel, Pint-Sized Playwright.

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Shirley: I am in love with Shakespeare, especially the way one character in each play sets the ball rolling and in doing so calls in his own fate. “Angel of Darkness” takes place on Halloween. When the bartender/Death asks Everyman if he wants a “trick or treat,” Everyman asks for a trick, inviting Death to do his thing.

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

Jamie: Anthony Hopkins, Derek Jacobi, Benedict Cumberbatch or Alan Rickman (if I could bring him back I totally would). Cause, you know, I love me some Brits.

Shirley: I would cast Matthew McConaughey as the bartender. He’s naughty, playful and smart with a killer smile. I can just hear him with his Southern accent asking his customers, “Alright, Alright, Alright! What’ll you have, trick or treat?”

Jamie Harkin

Jamie Harkin, actor AND director!

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush? That is… what actor would you love a chance to work with?

Jamie: Hmm… I’d have to say James Carpenter. I’ve met him a couple times. He’s really really nice.

What other projects are you working on and/or what’s next for you?

Jamie: I’m in the SF Fringe Festival this year as part of Alejandro’s show Projected Voyages, which is being remounted. I was an original cast member back in 2013.

Shirley: I’m sticking with my playwriting class at Stagebridge and I’m curious myself about what will happen next. One thing new I’m eager to pursue is a class on directing.

What upcoming shows or events in the Bay Area theater scene are you most excited about?

Shirley: I’m looking forward to seeing Dear Master come back to the Aurora in September. Joy Carlin is directing and she makes sure good material gets a good production.

Jamie: I really wanna see John Leguizamo’s show at Berkeley Rep.

What’s your favorite beer?

Jamie: Milk!

Shirley: Right now, I like Death and Taxes.

See “Angel of Darkness” and the other Pint-Sized Plays at PianoFight on August 15, 16, 22, 23, and 29!

 

Theater Around the Bay: Announcing the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays

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Theater Pub is thrilled to announce that our Pint-Sized Play Festival returns this August for FIVE performances at PianoFight — August 15, 16, 22, 23, and 29. That’s right, we’ve added a fifth performance by popular demand!

The Pint-Sized Plays – short plays by Bay Area playwrights that take place in a bar and involve characters drinking beer – have been Theater Pub’s flagship event since 2010. This year, producer Marissa Skudlarek and deputy producer Alejandro Emmanuel Torres are pleased to present 11 new plays by a mix of Theater Pub veterans and new faces.

Many of the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays deal with endings and beginnings. A man and woman meet to sign their divorce papers in “No Fault,” by Christian Simonsen. In Marissa Skudlarek’s “Cemetery Gates,” two moody and self-dramatizing teenagers sneak into the bar, while in Shirley Issel’s “Angel of Darkness,” Death himself comes to the bar and targets an unsuspecting patron.

Two one-woman shows depict women on the brink of major life changes: “Julie Kopitsky’s Bat Mitzvah” by Jake Arky features a 36-year-old woman who has finally become an adult according to Judaism, while Caitlin Kenney’s “Why Go With Olivia” is about a woman who’s ready to put her old life behind her and start anew.

National and world politics are on everyone’s mind this summer, so some of this year’s Pint-Sized Plays have a political bent. “Polling Place,” by Gabriel Bellman, satirizes the anxieties and rhetoric of the 2016 election, while in “Don’t I Know You,” by Elizabeth Gjelten, a woman confronts the trauma of her past in a war-torn country.

On the lighter side of things, “Beer Culture” by James Nelson satirizes just how snobby San Francisco millennials can be about microbrews, and “Where There’s a Will” by Tanya Grove pays tribute to Shakespeare in this #Shakespeare400 year by imagining his visit to a modern-day bar. Alan Coyne’s “Bar Spies” presents a dizzying array of false identities and double-crossings in a spy-fiction pastiche

As always, Pint-Sized Plays’ mascot, the drunken llama played by PianoFight’s Rob Ready, will return with a new “Llamalogue,” written by Stuart Bousel.

Full lineup of plays, with a quote from each, is as follows:

“Julie Kopitsky’s Bat Mitzvah,” written and directed by Jake Arky—“After the bar mitzvah…it’s just the bar. Okay, so technically this is a bat mitzvah, but let’s not split hairs, yeah?”

“Polling Place” by Gabriel Bellman, directed by Megan Briggs—“What if I did choose a candidate based solely on whether they share certain characteristics with me or not, does that mean I’m voting for myself? Because I’m terrified of narcissists.”

“Llama VI” by Stuart Bousel, directed by Emma Rose Shelton—“Look, I hate tradition as much as the next person, okay? But one day, probably, I won’t be here—and you’re gonna miss that.”

“Bar Spies” by Alan Coyne, directed by Juliana Lustenader—“You asked for this meeting. I have what you want. Tell me what I need to know, or there’s no deal.”

“Don’t I Know You?” by Elizabeth Gjelten, directed by Jimmy Moore—“Here I am, a long way from home, and I see this one here, and I swear, we shared a beer. Back home. Maybe at Salim’s?”

“Where There’s a Will” by Tanya Grove, directed by Vince Faso—“Thou thinkest thy sisters arranged a meeting but never had intention of coming hither? Forsooth, wherefore this deception?”

“Angel of Darkness” by Shirley Issel, directed by Jamie Harkin—“He’s probably going to finish that beer; and when he does… Are you listening? You’re gonna die. So, what are you drinking?”

“Why Go With Olivia?” by Caitlin Kenney, directed by Vince Faso—“I have accepted a new job and would like to pursue this without you beginning September 1st. This does not mean I want a long-distance relationship. Or much continued contact at all.”

“Beer Culture” by James Nelson, directed by Neil Higgins—“I’m really not cool about what just happened. He was going to drink a Stella! At my table! What would people say?”

“No Fault” by Christian Simonsen, directed by Alejandro Emmanuel Torres—“Look, if you haven’t read it, you shouldn’t sign yet. Nothing’s changed regarding Wendy. Still joint custody.”

“Cemetery Gates” by Marissa Skudlarek, directed by Adam Odsess-Rubin—“Every time you look at someone you love, you know they will never be more beautiful than they are at that moment, because they will never again be so young.”

The Pint-Sized Plays acting company will feature the talents of Layne Austin, Andrew Chung, Lisa Darter, Nick Dickson, Daphne Dorman, Caitlin Evenson, Sailor Galaviz, Jamie Harkin, Colin Hussey, Sarah Leight, Alexander Marr, Kyle McReddie, Brett Mermer, Courtney Merrell, Rob Ready, Paul Rodrigues, James F. Ross, Amitis Rossoukh, Jessica Rudholm, Ron Talbot, and Noemi Zeigler Sanchez. (Additional casting TBA.) Logo designed by Cody Rishell.

The Pint-Sized Plays will perform five times: August 15, 16, 22, 23, and 29 at 8 PM at PianoFight, 144 Taylor St, San Francisco. Admission is FREE to all performances. For more information, please visit www.sftheaterpub.com.

Theater Around The Bay: Video Games and Theater: Separated at Birth

Guest blogger Kirk Shimano explores the connection between video games and theater from all sides of the equation. 

For the last year, I’ve been telling anyone I meet “We’re going to be adapting the video game Portal into a musical!” This led to some delightful conversations about one of my favorite games of all time, as well as some wonderful tangential discussions about the music of Jonathan Coulton (which figures prominently into our show), but I can’t help think that all of these conversations shared the same subtext:

“Making a video game into a musical? That’s weird.”

In all fairness, the track record for video game adaptations isn’t that great.

The thing is, long before promoting our upcoming musical (PROTIP: July 18 – 26. Don’t miss it!), I’d been a huge proponent of musicals in general. It’s been my impression that a lot of people view the musical as a rather limited genre – boy meets girl, couple single sappy love song, potentially while dressed like a cat / opera phantom / lion king – and I think that’s why the combination of video game and musical strikes so many as being so unusual. It’s like, what’s next, video games interpreted as baked goods?

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That was a really bad example for me to pick, because there are literally thousands of photos like this on Pinterest.

This all got me thinking, though. Is it really all that unusual to adapt a video game into a musical?

Adaptation is in the DNA of the Broadway musical. Out of the 71 Tony Award winners for best musical, 58 were adapted from existing source material (give or take a couple, depending on your definition of adaptation). Musicals have looked to non-musical plays, narrative films, documentaries, biographies, novels, graphic novels, newspaper columns, magazine features, TV shows, and other musicals for their inspiration.

The cynical way of looking at this is that musicals are expensive, and before a producer is willing to write a check for an orchestra and a full set of wigs, it helps if there’s some existing momentum behind a property to help build interest.

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By the way, did I mention that our Portal: The Musical is based on the extremely popular video game Portal? Okay, just checking.

One could also observe that taking on the task of creating a musical is basically introducing a whole new dimension in which things can go wrong, so it’s helpful to have the safety net of a story that has already proven itself in another medium.

But I think there’s a brighter, more aspirational reason why so many musicals are adaptations. I love musicals because they are a singular art form in which story, music, dance, and all of the other theatrical arts combine to form more than their already formidable parts. It has the power to create singular, indelible moments. And because the musical form provides such unique insight, I believe it has the power to take an already beloved property and transform it into something new, giving us that rare chance to discover something we love all over again.

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This seems like an appropriate time for me to watch “Ring of Keys” for the sixty-fourth time and sob quietly for a bit.

But, with all this being said, there still isn’t a flood of video game-to-musical adaptations. So is Portal: The Musical an odd duck? I think the answer here is to focus less on the source medium and more on what the source brings to the table. And for that, I think back to my very first time playing Portal.

For those unfamiliar with Portal, it’s a puzzle-oriented video game where the player takes the role of Chell, a mute protagonist endowed with the ability to create space-bending portals. Her adversary in this is a sentient AI named GLaDOS, who begins as a neutral instruction voice and gradually grows into something much more hilariously demented.

I was a huge fan of the way the game encouraged you to bend the rules as much as possible. The puzzles and the story felt fluid and organic. The game clocks in at a streamlined eight hours or so, and while I enjoyed the game’s final confrontation I didn’t feel quite ready to put down the controller yet.

Adaptations_05_Glados copy

And that’s when GLaDOS sings the game’s theme song, “Still Alive.”

If you’d like to hear “Still Alive” sung live in its entirety, I know a great place where you can hear it the nights of July 18, 19, 25, and 26. Just sayin’.

Here was a song that perfectly encapsulated the spirit of a character and the tone of an entire piece. The experience just would not have been complete without it, and it’s what cemented Portal on my list of all time favorite games.

When I think about that, Portal doesn’t seem like an odd choice for a musical at all. Hopefully you’ll be able to join us and see if you feel the same.

On September 10, 2015, Shigeru Miyamoto settled a mystery that was 27 years in the making. Miyamoto is the driving force behind some of the most influential video games of all time, Donkey Kong and The Legend of Zelda among them. But last September he took to Twitter to answer questions about his most famous creation.

“Was Super Mario Bros. 3 all just a performance?” the video interviewer asks?

And Shigeru Miyamoto nods his head: yes.

The evidence for this theory of Mario is explained better in this image than I ever could:

Unfortunately, I was unable to determine the original creator of this image, but thank you Internet sleuth, whoever you are

Unfortunately, I was unable to determine the original creator of this image, but thank you Internet sleuth, whoever you are

So what does this mean? One of the most successful entries in one of the most successful franchises of all time is actually a link between video games and theater – and it’s not alone. Our upcoming production of Portal: The Musical has got me thinking about these connections, and the more you look for them, the more you’ll find.

A personal favorite memory of mine comes from 1994, at the height of the 16-bit Super Nintendo era. Simply put, Final Fantasy VI is your classic swords and sorcery meets steam powered robot adventure, where a band of unlikely allies are tasked with saving the world from destruction. But it’s not all meteors and mechas – halfway through the game, Celes Chere, battle-hardened, genetically-enhanced, disgraced general of the Empire is called upon to perform in an opera.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those that have never seen this image before, and those that have watched all of the orchestral renditions of “The Opera of Maria & Draco” on YouTube

There are two kinds of people in this world: those that have never seen this image before, and those that have watched all of the orchestral renditions of “The Opera of Maria & Draco” on YouTube

Admittedly, the interaction here was fairly primitive – the player chooses a few lines of dialogue and then walks across the stage. But damned if my teenage budding theater-loving self didn’t milk those few steps across the stage for every second they were worth.

The phenomenon of plays within games isn’t something that’s gone away, either. The recently released expansion to The Witcher 3 features a main quest entitled “The Play’s The Thing” where the player is tasked with staging a successful show.

I don’t think this is a coincidence. Video games are based on a foundation of keeping the player engaged with the action of the story; theater provides a similar immediate engagement between performer and audience. If the characters in a video game stopped to make a movie they’d be distancing themselves from the audience they’re interacting with, and it’s no surprise there are few video game novelists who aren’t named Alan Wake.

Even so, it’s hard to argue with the tension of an incredibly dramatically lit typewriter.

Even so, it’s hard to argue with the tension of an incredibly dramatically lit typewriter.

As video games push further into the realms of Virtual Reality, it seems likely that we’ll be seeing even more of these bonds with theater. One of the challenges of VR is designing a space that can be viewed from all angles, where the player’s attention is subtly directed towards a certain point of action without the benefit of a movie camera’s hard edits, and who knows that better than a director who has staged a play in the round?

Other video game endeavors hope to deliver a nonlinear narrative experience where players are able to discover a story at their own pace. Theater has already been dabbling in this area with experiences like Sleep No More.

So what effect does this impending synergy have on our forthcoming Portal: The Musical? I, for one, would love to strap on a VR headset and see a virtual GLaDOS sing and dance her way through our script. But until that’s possible, come check out our show on July 18, 19, 25 and 26 to see the type of intimate performance that will be coming to your video games in the future.

Theater Around The Bay: Announcing PORTAL the MUSICAL!

The award winning 2007 video game becomes a full fledged MUSICAL adventure!

Watch Chell, and her dimension destroying portal gun, brave the tests of GLaDOS, a homicidal artificial intelligence whose infatuation hides a…deeper interest! Featuring an original script by Kirk Shimano, set to the music of Jonathan Coulton (www.jonathancoulton.com) – come and see a one of a kind Theater Pub event!

Directed by Sang S. Kim, with Liz Baker on Music Direction, Renee LeVesque on Voice Direction and Production Design, and Paul Anderson and Spencer Bainbridge as the Band.

Featuring Alan Coyne, Jaime Lee Currier, Dan Kurtz, Courtney Merrell, and Karen Offereins.

See “Portal: The Musical” only at PIANOFIGHT (144 Taylor Street):

Monday, July 18 @ 8:00pm
Tuesday, July 19 @ 8:00pm
Monday, July 25 @ 8:00pm
Tuesday, July 26 @ 8:00pm

As always, admission is FREE, with a $10 donation suggested at the door. No reservations required, but we suggest getting there early to get a good seat and enjoy PianoFight’s full bar and dinner menu!

See you at the Pub!