The Real World- Theater Edition: An Interview With Star Finch

Barbara Jwanouskos brings you the author of H.O.M.E.

I heard the title first, H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually) and I thought, “okay, now, that’s gonna be good…” I see it and it’s this meld of worlds, ideas, curiosities, passions, and most importantly, issues I care about, so I was immediately drawn in. It’s speaking to something mythic and larger than life, but is what our every day is made of. When we think of what the future – or even the present – will be like and wonder who’s going to celebrate in the success and who will be left out? With people being pushed out of their homes and places around the Bay that they grew up, this is palpable and real. And the play opens that door. For me, it was the first time in a long time that I felt connected to something that I can only relate to the word, “spiritual”. It’s the type of theater that captures you and draws you into its share experience and shared space. It lets you be there and lets you listen as the ideas, the words, the characters come to life on stage. Gives you a place where you can share this with others.

Suffice it to say, I was moved deeply.

Campo Santo is currently putting on the production at The Strand Theater by playwright, Star Finch, who was born and raised in San Francisco. I was able to connect with her after seeing the show – thanks to Sean San Jose. I asked her about her process and how H.O.M.E. developed.

Star Finch

Star Finch

Barbara: Tell me about your artistic and writing background. What drew you to theater?

Star: I’ve always used writing as a way to make sense of the world or my experiences within it since I was a teen. It wasn’t until later in life that I found the courage to admit to myself that I wanted to be a writer and should actively pursue it rather than hide it away in notebooks. I found my way to theater specifically in grad school when I randomly took a course with Michelle Carter, despite my focus being in fiction. I immediately fell in love with the plays we went to see, the playwrights she introduced into my world, and the layers of energy that could be folded into great dialogue. Michelle Carter became a mentor and later a great friend who was instrumental in encouraging me to pursue my path.

Barbara: Do you have any influences – shows you saw that you were inspired by, books or essays, teachers, family, friends or mentors, etc. – that show up in your writing?

Star: I’m very much inspired/influenced by the playwrights Caryl Churchill and Suzan-Lori Parks. Everything David Lynch produced made a big impact on my childhood subconscious (why I was allowed to watch his work as a kid is its own mystery). Michelle Carter’s emphasis on the dance of beats and subtext within dialogue stays with me. Kara Walker and Wangechi Mutu’s work speak directly to the ghosts I carry. And lastly D. Scot Miller’s manifesto on AfroSurrealism was a revelation that gathered all the tiny fragments of my lived experiences and named/framed them into a whole.

Barbara: What’s your process like and did anything about it change in writing and developing H.O.M.E.?

Star: My process was always to write late at night after my kids and husband had gone to bed and the house was finally quiet. I would write by hand in notebooks until I felt like I had a solid chunk of scenes and then I’d type them up on my computer to get a view from a different angle. For the most part that remains my process in that I always begin by hand in a notebook. For whatever reason I can’t just jump onto a computer/laptop and take off. What was different with H.OM.E was that it was written within Campo Santo’s informal writing group, Clika. So in this case I was sharing scenes, hearing scenes read by actors, and getting feedback from the very beginning. Prior to that I had only written something all the way through on my own and then asked for feedback on the draft as a whole.

Barbara: I’m curious about your thoughts on how you engage with collaborators, for instance once you’re in the rehearsal room. What was it like to work with Campo Santo?

Star: Campo Santo is an amazing place to call home. Sean San Jose truly feels like a long lost brother. I don’t know if it’s because we’re both SF natives or what, but we just vibe really well and make each other laugh. There is a trust involved that speaks to our commitment to speak truth in matters of injustice, hypocrisy, or oppression within the stories we seek to tell in our work. In the rehearsal room we spent a good two weeks sitting around a table asking questions. Everyone at the table was given a voice to seek whatever answers they needed to best help them embody the text. In a way we were all sitting in the dark with a script and it was important to build the world collectively through conversation.

Barbara: Could you tell me about H.O.M.E. and what inspired or prompted you? Do you have a favorite moment or line in the play? What draws you to it?

Star: The original prompt for this play was a photograph, by Chris Arnade, of two sex workers in the Bronx looking through a telescope. The photo got me to wondering about space travel, access, privilege, and who would be “allowed” to travel to new worlds in the future. It’s difficult to pick a favorite line or moment in the play, but one of my favorite images is the idea of a mythological Tupac Amaru Shakur living as a prophet in a cave on Mars. That thread throughout the piece became even more poignant for me after the death of Afeni Shakur in May. I love the idea of writing the spirit of their names across the solar system.

Star's inspiration for H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually). Photo by Chris Arnade.

Star’s inspiration for H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually). Photo by Chris Arnade.

Barbara: What do you think about where San Francisco and the Bay Area is at now (theater scene or beyond) and where we’re going?

Star: In theater (and beyond) I think San Francisco and the Bay Area talks about wanting diversity and inclusion but it’s for the most part just talk. The word diversity is often a matter of using numbers to secure grants, create a “colored” brochure, or pat oneself on the back for being a progressive city. But true progress requires actively dismantling and rebuilding as an act of restoring normalcy, not feigning nobility. Organizations, neighborhoods, workplaces ought to be diverse because the very nature of Nature itself is diversity in abundance. The gap between the image the Bay Area projects and the reality of who is made to feel welcome here grows wider every day.

Barbara: Is there anything that drives you to write within (or out of) that context? How so?

Star: Yes! Because I know how diverse, vibrant, wild and open this city used to be. I’m always writing from a place that questions the sanity of what we’re conditioned to consider normal, and who benefits from said conditioning.

Barbara: Are there other theaters, writers, performance artists, artists of any media for that matter that you think are doing really something really interesting? Work you enjoy experiencing?

Star: I like how Ubuntu Theater Project and AlterTheater are putting on shows in unexpected spaces. Local artists like Paul Lewin and Lexx Valdez produce imagery that speaks to my soul. Over the last year I’ve been leaning heavily into reading women playwrights such as Naomi Wallace, Kia Corthron, Annie Baker, and Sarah Kane. And of course I have to again mention Michelle Carter and Sean San Jose. For some reason I tend to be most inspired and excited by documentaries about space, nature, creatives, and subcultures–the more wild and far out, the better. Foreign films are another source of inspiration. Is it odd for a writer to find most of her inspiration from visual art forms? LoL! I love all of the exhibits SOMArts puts on and the ways they engage with gentrification and its erasure.

Barbara: What do you love most about San Francisco?

Star: My old answer to the San Francisco question would be its diversity. I grew up around people who looked like me, in addition to having friends/neighbors from a wide variety of different cultural backgrounds, and sadly when I look at my children’s class photos that is no longer the case. My new answer to what I love most about San Francisco now would be the food. Whenever I take a trip out of town I quickly realize how unbelievably spoiled we are here. Not to mention its beauty. The city is gorgeous from every angle.

Barbara: Any words of wisdom or thoughts for people who want to do what you do?

Star: The most important bit of wisdom I can offer is Keep Writing!! (and sending your stuff out.) Even when it might seem pointless or as if no one is interested, press on. You never know when an opportunity might present itself and when it does you’ll want to have your best work on deck and ready to be read. It also helps immensely to be part of a community—so seek that out whether it comes from school, volunteering at a theater, taking acting classes, signing up for a workshop. Making authentic connections with your fellow creatives is a vital part of the process.

Barbara: Any upcoming projects you or friends are working on in the Bay Area?

Star: I have a play called Bondage that will be produced by AlterTheater next January. It’s a play that came about through my year long residency with them in AlterLab 2015. Campo Santo also has a bunch of cool collaborations on the horizon through their residency with Magic Theatre and beyond. First up is Nogales, written by Richard Montoya and directed by Sean San Jose. The best way to keep up with them is via their Facebook page: CampoSantoSF

Image by Lexx Valdez

Image by Lexx Valdez

You can check out H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually) at the Strand Theater through the weekend. Click here for more information.

The Real World – Theater Edition: Interview With Alex Spieth

Barbara Jwanouskos starts your Pride Weekend with an interview with Alex Spieth!

I met Alex Spieth at Carnegie Mellon. She was one of the BFA actors in her senior year and was in a collaborative class in TV Writing/Acting/Directing. Although the class, at the time, was mainly focused on the classic three-camera sitcom format, it was still interesting in that it started to develop a nuanced skill of creating serial work for the camera for students taking the class.

Flash forward, around a year or so ago, Alex and other artists came together to create a web series called [Blank] My Life. It is a low-budget comedy that is self-produced. When I heard that Alex was trying to spread the word, I thought about this space and how we could explore the idea of creating your own work in this interview. After talking initially, she brought up some very good points about theater artists moving to the digital space.

Below is our interview for your enjoyment.

Alex Spieth: The Greatest Unknown Force on the Internet

Alex Spieth: The Greatest Unknown Force on the Internet

BJ: Tell me about your background as a theater artist and how you got where you are now. Is there any aspect of your personality that has helped you get where you are now and into the arts?

AS: One time I was begging my mom for something and she said, “Lexie! You’re so dramatic! You should be an actor!” And I remember it so clearly, because I thought: This is the finest compliment I could ever receive…I must enter…the craft.

So, I started acting in the 6th grade, and would say I became serious about it in high school. I grew up in Nashville, and had the good fortune of getting to work with the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts in Acting, and (through a scholarship through my high school) Interlochen Arts Camp. These three experiences shaped my formative years as an artist so clearly and made me very comfortable taking risks at a young age.

When I approached my senior year of high school, I protested that I did not want a BFA, because ACTING SHOULD BE FOR THE MASSES NOT THE FEW. However, after I was rejected early decision from my top B.A. choice, I was like, Fuck my former principles…and auditioned at all the BFAs minus Juilliard (the reason I told everyone was “There wasn’t enough sunlight in the classrooms!”…but I was just scared of rejection? Much food for thought…). I got into Carnegie Mellon, and made the ultimate decision that this was absolutely where I was gonna go and I’d been ridiculous to want anything else.

Carnegie Mellon University was the best. I loved every inch of the four years: the training, neurosis, panic, return to Christianity, departure from Christianity, fun, scenes, and people. While I am sometimes depressed to not be Super Fucking Famous Already, every opportunity I have had since college has come from the relationships I fostered at CMU. Currently, I work a lot with Tele-Violet and Irondale Ensemble (most recently doing a 5-hour production of the 4 Shakespeare plays written in 1599).

I think the aspects of my personality that have helped me get where I am are that I refuse to not work. I want to be working 24/7, and I’m good at creating work and getting in work. Additionally, I have a sense of humor. My sense of humor has helped me when I felt depressed that I am not Super Fucking Famous Already and, In Fact, Have Not Done Much Regionally Either.

BJ: I know you had vigorous training at CMU’s School of Drama since that’s how we met! Can you give people an idea of what it was like? Is there anything that particularly prepared you?

AS: CMU is the best. It really is a completely comprehensive program that will equip you to work in your field. The thing that is hard is that the process of learning often messes you up for practically being able to ACT. Many of my classmates and, certainly myself, seemed to take a few steps backward in getting better. One time at a Bible Study (sophomore year I reclaimed religion before slowly letting it drift away junior year), I said, “I feel like I’ve lost my ability to act!” Which is very dramatic and not true long-term, but it can feel pretty crippling to have a constant “What do I do with my hands?!?!?” thought running through your head.

Carnegie prepares its students to act, collaborate, and perform incredibly well. They accept a student body that is not only talented, but also smart, giving, vibrant, and largely funny. The only change I would suggest for my time there (reiterate: I left 3 years ago, so times may have changed) is to incorporate crowdfunding/a basic DSLR camera utility session into Business of Acting (taken senior year).

BJ: Tell me about [Blank] My Life. How did it come about?

AS: I started writing the pre-season of [Blank] My Life after I got dropped by my agency the first year out of college. It was the first time that the Adelyne Roth Levine Memorial Scholar (aka me) felt like she had Publicly Failed. The options became: Ugh, god, I guess I could continue to do things that will make me feel even worse about myself (sleeping with Evil Playwrights, trying to trap newly single boys into thinking I was The Love of Their Life, etc.) or I could start writing.

If you watch the first few episodes of the pre-season, they are very rudimentary because it was literally my friends and I getting together for a few hours on Saturdays to film. We started in a guess and check kind of manner: making a video, editing it, sending it to YouTube. By the summer of 2015, we had 9 episodes and had gotten the quality and team to a level that I was proud of. I wrote the proper first season of [Blank] in the summer of 2015, and we started filming in October.

Over the year of 2015-2016, we filmed, edited, and released [Blank] My Life‘s first season on no budget. I’m incredibly proud of the product and think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I am lucky to work a fair amount in the theatre although I am tragically not Already Super Fucking Famous. However, creating and producing my own work has given me back the confidence I felt like I lost when I got dropped.

When I first got out, I spent a lot of time and money doing pay-to-play classes and workshops, and I would advise anyone who feels powerless in their career to NOT DO PAY-TO-PLAY CLASSES and spend the money on a rehearsal room, or a venue, or Final Cut Pro, or a DSLR, or knitting material, or a book on gardening, or anything in the world that will grow who you are as a person and a performer. In my experience, it has made all the difference.

BJ: For those perhaps unfamiliar, tell us about the premise of [Blank] My Life. What’s it about? Were you inspired by or responding to anything in particular?

AS: [Blank] My Life is an insecure comedy that just wants to make a connection that follows Susan, an NYC millennial, on her quest to find love and simultaneously not end her life. It’s like Louie if Louie was written by a young lady, it’s like Girls because it features a young lady with more elements of magical realism. While the series is based off of my thoughts/interactions, it’s also just as really based on nothing. It wasn’t in response to anything other than my need to keep creating work for myself.

Promo Shot from 'Ex-BF. Susan goes on a date with the devil in 'Ex-B

Promo Shot from ‘Ex-BF. Susan goes on a date with the devil in ‘Ex-B

BJ: What has been your process of writing and creating the series?

AS: In the summer of 2015, I got up every morning, and I wrote enough until I felt like I had a season (we axed 6 episodes, so I guess it was more than a season). Before I begin proper, I go through a “culling” period where I talk to People Who May Have Insights. Before the pre-season, I talked to a lot of people about the rudimentary natures of Cameras and What They Do, and before the first season I talked to a lot of web series creators about fundraising, location scouting, and SAG queries. All the time spent acting advice is great and often very useful; however, eventually you must kick yourself into high gear and just do the thing.

This time around, the project has a SAG New Media Agreement but wasn’t funded through anything other than myself and the generous donations of my team to the project. This was intentional as I wanted to created a fully-fleshed product before we started asking for money for the next endeavor.

A shoot would usually be planned 2-3 weeks in advance, we would get everyone there, and DO IT. We only went overtime once and we were only late to release an episode once WHICH IS PRETTY COOL.

BJ: What are some of the exciting discoveries or interesting/unexpected challenges that have come from creating the series?

AS: Exciting Discoveries:
–Interesting Casting Choices are Always the Best
–People Turn Up Every Time
–Actors appear to not know their lines and then magically get on set and WILL KNOW THEM ALL.
–NYC will not give a fuck where you film
–You can ask the NYC Parks Department for a waiver but they will nearly 100% not check it.
–People WILL give you space for Free!
–People WILL act for Free!
–There is literally always a Plan B when things fall through. Plan B will be just fine.

Unexpected Challenges:
–Technology will often die unexpectedly (One day after shooting 7 hours, a camera died and we’d thought we’d lost it all and it was all very Jack and Rose from Titanic)
–How to get 1,000,000 million views (or anything above 6K)

–A personal challenge for me was learning how to be a leader. It’s hard to be a leader and have a stick up your ass (which I CERTAINLY do at many times). It’s easier for yourself and everyone else if you let most things be relaxed, keep the vibe generally chill, and only put your foot down when it really matters.

BJ: How many people are typically involved?

AS: Each episode involved me, a director, a DP, a PA/ Boom Operator, and 2-3 cast members; so per episode it’s about 6-7 people total. Overall we’ve had likely 30-35 people work on the first series.

BJ: And do you ever put money into promoting it on Facebook or YouTube (you know like the sponsored/promoted content?

AS: I have put money into sponsored content and am trying to find the algorithm for the greatest yield! We’ve also submitted to a fair amount of web fests, and I’m trying to see what will stick.

BJ: I’m curious about your thoughts on theater artists inhabiting and playing in the digital space. Tell me what you see.

AS: I think all actors should have web series other than maybe the few, few who are gainfully employed most of the time (I Release and Destroy The Need to be Super Fucking Famous Already!) I do not say this because it will lead to lots of dollars and/or success, but it’s a better and cheaper “Acting for the Camera” class than anyone you can take in NYC! One of your friends likely has an iPhone or Android you could borrow.

The digital space is really exciting because it can cut out the middleman. I’ve def not discovered how to get teenagers on my side (and this is where the power is….the power is in the teens), but if you can figure out how to be a tastemaker you can be your own agent, be your own boss, and LIVE YOUR OWN LIFE.

BJ: How has creating your own work opened up other opportunities for you?

AS: It’s made me more confident. When I walk into a room for an audition, I used to feel painfully alone, but now I have [Blank] with me. Wherever I go, I’m not just Alex-Looking-for-Next-Job-Spieth, I’m Alex-the-Person-Who-didn’t-Take-No-for-an-Answer.

It’s hard because I have no tangible proof that this will necessarily lead to anything, but I feel much better day to day. Which is kind of all that matters.

BJ: What are you looking forward to next within the series?

AS: I want to get as many eyes on this as possible. LITERALLY, SF, if you know anyone interested in the quirky musings of a vague Greta Gerwig, send them to [Blank]! If you know anyone that has a taste for female-driven comedy at a no-budget level, send them to [Blank]! If someone ever again says the phrase, “I am bored”, send them to [Blank]!!!!!

And I’m writing the next season. Let us pray for the future.

BJ: Any words of wisdom you have for people that want to do what you do?

AS: Do it. Do it really badly, because it will get better rapidly.

BJ: Any shout-outs or plugs for other projects or friends’ work (especially in the Bay?)?

AS: Yes!!! This summer, My friends Rodney Earl Jackson Jr. (CMU classmate) and Marcelo Pereira run San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company (Sfbatco) and are collaborating with a young group called YPTMTC (Young People Teen Musical Theater Company) which is an arts education company. They will be creating a new way for youth to get engaged in heightened text in a program called “Not Yo Mama’s Shakespeare”.

Rodney’s one of my great friends, and you should always catch his butt on the Motown tour (for….there….is….no…town…like…Motown…..).

For more on [Blank] My Life, check out Alex Spieth’s website.

The Real World – Theater Edition: Interview with Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song

Barbara Jwanouskos brings us a double interview with one of San Francisco’s most exciting writing teams.

When I heard about Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song’s idea for a play inspired by the god Oceanus, for the San Francisco Olympians Festival, I was very excited because it seemed like this really interesting meld of Greek mythology, technology and environmental issues. So when I heard that Dan and Siyu’s play had been selected for the New Play Development Program and the Undiscovered Works Series by Custom Made Theatre, I was jazzed for the play to get a further life at other Bay Area theaters. I’ve always been fascinated by writing collaboratively and have started to venture to do this myself as well. When I had the chance to ask Dan and Siyu how they came together, I couldn’t pass it up. Below is an interview with Dan and Siyu about their process and what to expect next Tuesday at the Gallery Cafe.

BJ: Could you each tell me about your artistic background/trajectory? How did you get into writing?

DH: I’ve been a theatre nerd since I had the ability to throw a towel around my shoulders and call it a cape— but veered towards prose and journalism in college. It was after I graduated that my longtime interest in writing, specifically nonfiction, and theater came together when I started to write plays. It’s my hope that my dramatic work has a journalistic quality and the journalism has a dramatic flair.

SS: I studied computer science in school and worked for a few animation/visual effects studios. I was always very interested in stories and storytelling but coming from a technical background, I was always intimidated by the “creative” side of storytelling. But, I took an improv class four years ago on a whim and haven’t looked back. With improv, I found ways to break down stories and characters to patterns and logic that was very conducive to my brain and the way I was trained to approach problems. After doing improv for a few years, the desire to tell more specific and nuanced stories led me naturally to want to do more writing.

BJ: Tell me how you came together to work on Oceanus — what was the idea?

DH: Siyu and I have been friends since we took a sketch comedy writing class way back when. And we’re both alums of the SF Olympians — a one of a kind new works festival that I’m sure your readers are familiar with. When a call for pitches for the 2015 “Wine Dark Sea” iteration of Olympians came around, we were talking and somehow decided that working together would be more fun than working alone. In discussing the possible prompt of Oceanus, a primordial sea god that controlled an underground river that circles the earth, we somehow got on the topic of underwater internet fiber optics cables. And we’re like, let’s write a play about that. Let’s write a play about what happens when a line gets cut and is somehow inspired by a Greek god. Is that how you remember it, Siyu?

SS: Yea that’s about right. When we were going through the topics for pitches, Oceanus stuck out to me because earlier that year my work had suffered a similar internet outage when a fiber optic line got cut and our provider had to send a boat out to the middle of the ocean to fix it. I am a classically trained engineer, so for me it was a nice reminder that while we regard the internet and “the cloud” as ephemeral, they are things that exist in the physical world and have tangible manifestations. We ran through many iterations of what the play would be, but the fiber optic line being cut was the central idea that we developed around.

BJ: How have you worked together to create the piece?

SS: We met in person in the beginning while we were figuring out how to build a play around the idea of a disconnect in the internet infrastructure. Those meetings were mostly just us hanging out and talking about things we wanted to write about. Data, relationships, talking sharks. There was a lot of agreeing. Partly because Dan and I are very polite humans but (hopefully?) more because we are very similar people with a lot of the same interests but we approach the world from slightly different perspectives so it’s always interesting for me to get Dan’s take on something.

DH: Also, lots of g-chatting! We’re actually both answering these questions via a Google Doc right now. One funny life imitating art thing about this process has been that while we were writing this play about people trying and failing to connect across great distances I moved a great distance— to Pittsburgh where I’m currently working on an MFA in dramatic writing at Carnegie Mellon. So as we’ve been working together writing scenes about friends trying to see each other on a video chat we too have been trying to video chat.

BJ: Any interesting discoveries along the way?

DH: I’ve learned a lot about collaborating and how you can share authorship with someone. I think we’re still figuring out our process and how we make collective decisions that reflect both people’s sensibilities. And I’m such an overbearing control freak, so that’s hard. Siyu, I hope I haven’t been a total pain in the ass to work with this whole time.

SS: Ha! No it’s great. I think for me when we landed on a sort of anthology piece with lots of vignettes that was when everything clicked. To Dan’s point about sharing authorship- there are threads that feel very much like Dan’s personality and threads that are very much Siyu’s but my feeling after the SF Olympians reading in November was that the ways the threads connected and the structure felt like something we created together.

BJ: Has the piece changed substantially since the SF Olympians reading? And what are you aiming for developmentally?

DH: It’s about 20 minutes longer. We’ve added several additional scenes to really flesh out the cast of characters we have and to make sure each vignette gets something like a full arc. I also think when we first started working on this we really only envisioned it as something that would be a staged reading. Now, as part of Custom Made’s Undiscovered Works series, we’re trying to envision this thing more as an actual play.

dansiyu copy

BJ: What are you hoping to hear at the Custom Made reading next Tuesday?

DH: This play has so many different characters and plotlines, I’m just hoping to see if the audience can follow it all and that each of the vignettes lands in some fundamental way.

SS: We talked a lot about the world we were building to tell all the disparate stories. I’m interested in hearing about what worked for the audience and which characters or scenes didn’t quite sit in the world.

BJ: I’m curious about your creative process and artistic development personally– what do you do (or not do) to keep yourself, or at least feel, a forward momentum?

DH: Spreadsheets. Specifically, I keep a spreadsheet of all the plays I’m working on and where I’ve sent them out, where I’ve been rejected, etc… Accumulation of material feels like momentum.

SS: HA! I’m impressed and mortified at “spreadsheets”. I’m nowhere near that organized (but also not as prolific as Dan) I’m lucky to be an ensemble member with the SF Neo-Futurists, part of that means being in a weekly show for months at a time where we write/direct/perform pieces.

BJ: Tell me about the theater scene either here or more broadly — is there anything you are seeing/not seeing that makes you excited?

DH: All the current dialogue that’s happening about diversity and inclusivity in theatre feels positive. We could see a lot more representation of underrepresented communities out in the world and on our stages, but I’m glad there’s a sense of urgency about getting there.

SS: I echo all of what Dan said. I’m also acutely aware of how difficult it is to be an art maker in San Francisco. Hopefully I’m not setting the bar too low here, but seeing anyone put up original work these days, my reaction is “Yes. Please. More.”

BJ: Any advice that you have for others that would like to do what you do?

DH: Don’t take advice from people who aren’t qualified to give advice? Well, actually, the best piece of advice I heard recently from someone else is: finish things. I think that’s true for writing and life. You don’t know what you’ve got on your hands until you written— figuratively or literally— the words “the end.”

SS: Again, I echo everything Dan says. Just to be different though – I’ll say pursue lots of endeavors and don’t get bogged down in a specific form or medium. Sketch writing isn’t so different from dramatic plays isn’t so different from improv. Trying different forms will expose you to new ideas, new people, and new opportunities.

BJ: Any plugs and shout-outs for other work you have coming down the pike or friends’ work we should check out?

DH: Everyone should keep an eye on the rest of Custom Made’s Undiscovered Works series. On the second Tuesday of every month you can hear new plays by the talented likes of Marissa Skudlarek, Kirk Shimano, and Alina Trowbridge and us (we’re coming back in October with a new draft!). Also, Siyu is one of the members of the totally bad-ass SF Neo Futurists that perform weekly, you should check out their extra special Pride Show, Wednesday, June 15. I’m positive it will be exciting and surprising and very fun.

SS: Dan’s play Subtenant is premiering on June 17th at the Asylum Theater in Las Vegas. I got to see a reading of it a while back and it was so good it made me angry, it was like when Salieri hears Motzart’s symphony and goes into a fugue state. I haven’t tried to poison Dan yet, but it is that good. It will be playing until July 3rd so if you’re in Las Vegas you should definitely make an effort to see it.

DH: Salieri to my Mozart? More like Romy to my Michelle! By the way, rest in peace Peter Shaffer…

You can catch Oceanus this coming Tuesday, June 14th, at the Gallery Cafe at 1200 Mason Street in San Francisco. For more, click here.

The Real World – Theater Edition: Interview with David Molina

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews David Molina, composer and sound designer.

I met David Molina a number of years ago when I’d first moved back to the Bay and had stumbled into doing sound tech after teaching myself how to dj. Yvette Jackson connected me when the production that David was working on needed a substitute tech for rehearsals. It was a paying gig, and I remember being like, “What? You can get money for doing this??” From just stumbling in so haphazardly into sound design, until I met Jackson and Molina, I was unaware of how much work, but how fascinating sound design could truly be. Even as a tech, it was hard not to get drawn into the world because of the sound. Anecdotally, David also had a way of documenting what he needed me to do as a tech with volume, fades, starting/stopping tracks, that was very specific using notation — it was like reading music — and it was extremely helpful in knowing exactly how the sound should be played at the specific moment in the play.

David has had his described as hauntingly beautiful, which I feel is a great description of what it’s like to hear his music, soundscapes, and creations. They are multi-layered, dense environments that draw from a wide variety of instruments, techniques, and collaborators, so that experiencing it feels very immersive.

I’ve kept up with David’s work and have been inspired by the multiple hats he wears and also how creatively productive he keeps himself. Definitely something I also aspire to strive for with my own craft. David has a couple performances coming up at the San Francisco International Arts Festival and I reached out to see if he’d be interested in an interview. I was lucky enough to catch him as he geared up for these next events. Here is the interview for your enjoyment.

David Molina

David Molina

Barbara: Tell me about your background as an artist. What’s your trajectory been like? And how did you get into creating sound and music? What’s your style?

David: I am a composer, multi-instrumentalist, sound artist/designer, recording engineer, music producer, and instrument inventor. I have created music and sound design for the performing arts, film, radio, video, and multimedia installations and productions for 20 years. I have played music since I was a child, and was a classical guitarist since age 12 through my mid to late 20’s. I have always loved music soundtracks and sound design in film. As a kid I dreamed of scoring a feature sci-fi film. While studying music at Sonoma State University I got into experimental music, music of the world, and studio production. In 1996 I ended up working in theater as a complete accident when I met director Roberto Gutierrez Varea. He was teaching theater at SSU. He needed a composer for a production, but didn’t want a student composer. He wanted a pro, but there was no budget. Someone passed off a tape of the music I was making at the time and he loved it. I figured theater would be a great way to learn scoring to a story, and I could transfer my skills to film scoring. Twenty years later I have been Roberto’s main composer and designer for almost every production he directs.

Barbara: I’m curious about the many hats you wear as a composer, performer, collaborator with theater, dance and performance art. How do you approach these various roles?

David: Every gig I do is a learning experience and a chance to do something new. If I really like a project, I am down for anything as long as my schedule allows, or if the compensation is equal to the workload. So yes, time and money is a factor in how many hats I can wear in a production. I think a lot of people, even in theater do not realize how much time and work goes into even making one minute of music, or sound design from scratch. This is particularly relevant with today’s download/instant gratification culture. I have to admit I hate the term, “Sound Design” in theater, and prefer the titles, “Composer” or “Sound Artist”, because often in theater, people think a sound designer is just collecting and editing found music and sound effects. I, and many other composers I know, make everything from scratch. So it’s always a dragged when an audience or especially a cast member says “Cool sound design, whose music did you use?” All hats I wear in production get equal weight. I like my sound design to also have a music quality, or character spirit to them. If I am performing live it is a lot more work, because I have to be a rehearsals a lot more. But I can also change things on the fly and improvise more during a show. Happy accidents happen that can be reused again on another show. In film, dance, performance art, I feel there is a lot more equal value for music, and more room for experimentation. In theater, or at least in traditional text based theater, music ends up in the background and has a lower priority amongst all the theatrical elements. This also depends on the director though. I enjoy working with the ones who like to take risks, and trust in my skills and craft.

Barbara: What are you thinking about when you collaborate with other artists? For instance, performance. How are you thinking of music and sound in this context and what is that you do to make it an active element of the experience?

David: When working with people who know and trust my work, or have a history with me, it is often a free flow of ideas back and forth. With these long time collaborators it feels like we can read each other minds. Working with new directors or artists can be a little nerve wracking, because we don’t know how each other works, what we both like, or don’t like. It’s kind of like going on a blind date, but you’re stuck with them for a month or more. Trust has to be established first. I prefer to work with people who have good music tastes or vocabulary. It helps communicate ideas before going into production. I hear music and sound as the invisible character of a play, or production. It is the heartbeat, emotional/psychological landscape, and the inner spirit of the production.

Barbara: You have a couple shows coming up and I’m hoping you can talk a little about them. What are you looking forward to?

David: I produced two shows for the 100th anniversary of the DADA movement, featured at this year’s SF International Arts Festival, in Gallery 308.

The first one is Dada Explodes: A Cluster of Sound, Light, and the Absurd, on May 28 at 8:30pm. It features:

-my experimental rock band Impuritan and filmmaker Anna Geyer with sonic and visual journey through life, death, love, hate, matter, space, evolution and extinction. Impuritan’s epic compositions blend psychedelic, ambient, punk, noise, shoegaze, and surf/post/space rock. Geyer creates kaleidoscopes of color and surreal landscapes with hand-processed 16mm film loops, mixed on three projectors.

-Sound artist Loach Fillet and video artist Flower Pattern emanate a wall of throbbing sound and visuals.

-Actor/Comedian, Edna Mira Raia, hosts the evening as Hillary’s Radio Show. Audience is encouraged to wear Dada Attire or costumes.

The second show is: Duets in The Key Of DADA, on June 2, at 8pm. It is an evening of improvised duets in the spirit of DADA. Opening will be composer, electronic musician, and trumpet player, Yvette Janine Jackson, with me on electric guitar and effects pedals. Second set features me on Rusting Souls, a modified, electromagnetic hammered dulcimer while Jackson loops and sonically manipulates my performance. Closing will be the Ackamoor/Molina Duo, featuring avant-spiritual jazz saxophonist Idris Ackamoor, founder of the legendary Pyramids. The duo performs ritualistic cleansing ceremonies in the form of music and play multitude of traditional and invented instruments, which are processed with electronics.

I look forward to both shows being mind bending, trance inducing, spiritual experiences. Each in their own unique way.

Barbara: What is it like to work with Idris Ackamoor and Yvette Janine Jackson? As musicians what are you looking for in the collaboration? And then does the performance aspect figure into what develops?

David: Working with Idris is always a deep experience. I am truly humbled to be working with him musically over the past two to three years. We both come from different music backgrounds and histories, but our sets intersect in experimental, ambient, free-jazz, blues, and global ethnic and indigenous music. Audience members say our live sets are “an intense, spiritual, meditative, ritualistic, trance-inducing musical journey”. We both play a multitude of traditional and invented instruments. I loop and process our instruments using the software Abelton Live to create sparse to dense layers, which range from hauntingly beautiful and meditative, to dark and unnerving soundscapes. Ackamoor uses his array of instruments anchored by his signature alto and tenor saxophones emphasizing extended range, explosive multi-phonics, lyrical beauty, and intense “outside” playing. The combination of our vast collection of instruments and technology makes us sound like four piece band, than just a duo. Because we mostly improvise, every show we do is different. Even when we plan a skeletal map, the spontaneity takes us into unknown territory. That’s when the magic happens.

The same is true with Yvette, though we both use more electronics. I have known and performed with her since the late 1990’s. We have played all kinds of music together, especially experimental and electronic music. She has been tearing it up in the music world (see second to the last question).

I am excited, and nervous, about our collaboration as we will literally have only one day to meet before the concert. It will be very Dada improvised, but beautiful as always.

Barbara: Tell me about being an artist in the Bay Area. What makes it unique?

David: It’s tough with this entitled rich techy environment. I find myself working twice as hard now to make ends meet. SF has turned into the playland of the young and rich. It has killed our arts music scene. We have lost many venues, and a lot of great artists I know have been evicted. Fortunately Oakland has it going on, but I hear that gentrification is happening there too.

Fortunately I also do work in other cities in the U.S.

Barbara: Is there any direction that you would like to scene grow into?

David: I would like Bay Area theater to take more risks and not be so word based. Theater is a multi-dimensional beast with many moving parts and creative elements that make a script live and breathe. If one only cares about the words then you snuff out all possibilities. You might as well produce novels if the words only matter to you. I also want to see young folks and people of color in the theater. This may be due to our lack of arts in the public school systems. But theater companies need to reach out and make productions that connect with youth and P.O.C. otherwise. The scene will die with the elderly audience.

Barbara: How about you – what interests you creatively as potential next projects or influences?

David: The majority of my work addresses social justice issues: ranging from racial profiling, police brutality, migration and immigrant rights, border crossing, the U.S. prison complex, the environment, and imperialism. I also love sound as music, music which breaks genres, and stuff that is psychedelic, hits an emotional nerve, or has spiritual element. I love working on productions that blur the line of theater, dance, and film. Immersive multimedia pieces that include video, or are audience interactive are right up my alley. Finally if time and funding allows, I am always thinking of new instruments to invent.

Barbara: I’m really interested in what you said about creating work that addresses social justice issues. Out of curiosity, or maybe just speaking logistically, what are you doing with the music to reflect these issues? I’m really curious about this especially since you are not using words and I’m maybe more familiar with how one could do this with that tool.

David: In the social justice aspect, I mean the productions I work on, or collaborators I work with, address these topics. Sometimes I interview and record people who are experiencing or have experienced some kind of social oppression, and then remix them into the music. I take the interview and edit them down into sound bites, or key statements. These are then triggered on the fly in a live performance on ABLETON LIVE, or used in a sound design with pre-recorded music in QLAB.

Barbara: You also alluded to instruments you’ve created – this is so cool. Can you describe one as an example?

David: Yes, I make instruments that are made all from salvaged and found material. I go to junk yards all around the bay area, and create massive instruments that live in Gallery settings; here is snippet from my bio:

“In 2010 he began inventing instruments from salvaged and discarded materials. These became interactive, multimedia pieces displayed at SF bay area galleries and festivals, including Mcloughlin Gallery (2015); a solo exhibit, Transience: The Work of David Molina; Asterisk Gallery SF (2013); and SOMArts (2012).”

Rusting Souls II  at Gallery 308

Rusting Souls II at Gallery 308

Here are links with photos and video, and descriptions of two of my instruments:
Memory Web: http://drmsound.com/memory-web

The latest is Rusting Sould II, on display at Gallery 308, Fort Mason, right now through June 5th.

Barbara: Any advice you would give to people who want to do what you do?

David: Sadly musicians can’t make a living the way we used to. Everybody wants it for free, and tech companies like Pandora and Spotify are literally stealing any royalties musicians and composers used to see. The only way to make a living is to tour, sell limited unique merch, and license your music to film or TV. I ended up doing live sound engineering, studio production, and sound design as a way to fund my artistic music endeavors. I also teach at Brava and private clients.

You got to hustle to survive in this expensive city. Don’t let anyone keep you down, or say you’re crazy. Most 9 to 5rs don’t get what it is like to be a full time artist. They think it is easy and not real work. They couldn’t handle two weeks of my busy schedule. But you got to be a little crazy to follow your passion, and make a lot of sacrifices. When it comes to theater (unless you are working with a cool director or tech staff) expect music and sound to be low on the totem pole. Any Sound Designer will tell you the same. Most people don’t realize how much work it takes to just produce one minute of music our sound.

Barbara: Any plugs for friends’ work or your own that’s coming up?

David: My band Impuritan is doing its first east coast tour from June 7 to the 18th! More info at www.impuritan.net.

Some of Yvette’s Jackson’s recent projects include: a residency at Stockholm’s Elektronmusikstudion (EMS); the premiere of This is Radio Opera at Audiorama Stockholm; Soldier, a 5-day immersive cinematic installation for the Recombinant Media Lab at Qualcomm Institute’s Calit2; and Invisible People (A Radio Opera). She was selected by the American Composers Orchestra to participate in the third Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute and awarded a reading of her composition Atlantic Crossing by the Naples Philharmonic.

Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids, (with whom I also perform with) have just received worldwide rave reviews for their latest album “We Be All Africans”. I also contributed to the album. Some reviews are in Spin, Rolling Stone Monocle, UnCut, BBC radio, NPR, MTV, The Wire, etc.!

I also co-produced “Cuba Ra” with Idris, for Gilles Peterson’s “Rumba” remix album!

Barbara: Is there a piece or music or sound you’ve created that you’ve created that we could listen to?

David: You can listen or see my work at http://www.drmsound.com. I been so busy that I haven’t had time to update new material. The stuff on my site is about two to three years old.

David is performing this weekend at the San Francisco International Arts Festival and has other projects in the works. For more information, see his website, here.

The Real World- Theater Edition: Interview with Paul S. Flores

Barbara Jwanouskos (on a different day) chats with Paul S. Flores about You’re Gonna Cry.

This week, I was lucky enough to coordinate with Eric Reid and Paul S. Flores to talk about You’re Gonna Cry, the new show that will be opening soon at Theater Madcap. Paul developed a play that sounds incredible and is in response to the gentrification of the Mission, which has lead to the displacement of communities of color. He is an artist that uses his gifts to direct and open conversations about events that have had devastating effects on the communities he cares about.

Paul works with, is influenced by, and grew as a theater artist with some of my mentors and heroes in the theater scene — people I consider to be extremely talented in their way to access parts of the soul and provide such depth and complexity to their art. Paul and I talk about You’re Gonna Cry, creative process, and Paul’s thoughts on theater and the Bay Area.

I hope you will enjoy the interview below and then, of course, experience the show he created that is coming up…

Paul S. Flores. Photo credit: Ramsey El Qare

Paul S. Flores. Photo credit: Ramsey El Qare

Barbara: How did you get interested in theater and especially in creating new work?

Paul: I came out of the Spoken Word scene of the 1990’s in San Francisco’s Mission District. My first group or performance ensemble was Los Delicados, a Latino hybrid of spoken word, song and dance, and AfroCuban drumming—kind of like the Latino version of The Last Poets meets Perez-Prado. I evolved from performance poetry into Hip-Hop Theater in 2001 collaborating with Marc Bamuthi Joseph on the first Hybrid Project at Intersection for the Arts. Then I got my first commissioned play in 2004 from Su Teatro (in Denver) and the National Performance Network; it was called Fear of a Brown Planet. We toured that all over the nation, mostly to Latino theaters. I have written four plays since that have all toured. I have only been interested in creating new original works. Voice is most important to me. I am a writer by training. So I only do original work.

Barbara: What’s your approach? Any particular stylistic tools/techniques you like using in your work? Why?

Paul: I have apprenticed as a theater artist with theater makers and directors like Sean San Jose, Guillermo Gomez Peña, Elia Arce, Danny Hoch, Kamilah Forbes, Michael John Garcés, Brian Freeman. I did not study theater in any institution. I’m a theater outsider. And I’m not loyal to any genre—I use them all. I am committed to experience and healing my community through whatever artistic and organizing methods I can channel. But I love theater for its live ritual. My approach is what I called social practice theater. I focus first to social issues—gang violence, immigrant struggles, racial profiling, male gender stereotypes—and apply interview research methods to development. I partner with social service organizations to base stories on experiences from their constituency. Language authenticity is number one. I’m not an actor in the sense of training. I’m an actor whose purpose is to realize the message in my writing as an immediate visceral experience—what I see and endure so does the audience. I’m not spoon feeding anyone a list of recommendations for social ills. I’m presenting people as they are, how I see them. And creating an opportunity for audiences to recognize the systemic problems around them. And I hope to offer a path to healing through the work I create.

Barbara: Tell me about You’re Gonna Cry. How did it come about? Anything you were responding to?

Paul: Initially I was responding to a call for creating work that addressed the connection of new technology and changing demographics. John Kilacky from the SF Foundation commissioned a short, initial iteration of You’re Gonna Cry in 2009. I lived in the Mission during the 1990s and saw the introduction of the dot-com tech industry tear apart my neighborhood with greed: greedy investors/venture capitalists created greedy landlords which created greedy new residents which altered the culture and community of The Mission District. I attended so many evictions parties then. My friends were forced out of the neighborhood. A vibrant community of collaboration and justice minded artist collectives and ensembles were disintegrated. Many who stuck around turned all our energy to telling the story of systemic oppression expressed in gentrification (begun with Willie Brown’s statement in 1998 “you need to make $80,000 a year to live in San Francisco” to Mayor Lee’s tax breaks for tech companies like Twitter and Zynga). We had to become political artists to survive. We had to tell the story as a record and as a means to organize. Gentrification is violence. Displacement is violence. Poverty is violence. Erasure of cultural memory is violence. Being priced out of your arts practice is violence. Homelessness is violence. Police bring violence. We see the effects of gentrification in the deaths of Alex Nieto and Luis Gongora. So when you think about the effect of gentrification, behind the façade improvements, the increased appearance of cafes and high priced boutiques, the “Urban Safari” truck painted like a zebra driving past Galeria de La Raza on 24th Street, stopping to take pictures of me while I rehearse in the studio, it’s a crying shame, a cause for rage. Painful.

Barbara: How did you and Eric Reid come to work together and what are your future plans?

Paul: Eric reached out to me a couple years ago to participate in a theater activity at his theater Inner Mission that was targeting theater makers and playwrights of color. Eric was recruiting playwrights on Facebook. I went to an event and was inspired by his vision to create space for Bay Area theater artists of color.

Then last year 2015 I had an opportunity to hire a manager, and I needed production support for the tour of my play PLACAS (www.placas.org) starring Ric Salinas of Culture Clash. I hired Eric to be my manager, and to help me produce the California tour of PLACAS. Working together we realized we both wanted SF Theater to represent the community that we are inspired by: the Mission and the Fillmore—both gentrified. In November I performed a one-off of You’re Gonna Cry at the White Privilege Conference at St. Ignatius High School. Eric also did production on that show. He thought bringing the show back for a new version would tie perfectly into the current activism to stop police violence and evictions. We are on the same wavelength. We want theater to advance the causes we believe in.

Barbara: How do you like being an artist in the Bay Area? What are the unique characteristics of living, working, developing art here?

Paul: The Bay Area, especially San Francisco and Oakland, inspires critical thinking, civic engagement and prolific creativity in modes of communication. Liberation not innovation is the primary theme here. I will not waiver on that. I don’t believe tech innovation defines us, not now and definitely not then.

I am a California loyalist. I chose San Francisco instead of New York to ground my art and represent California culture nationally, globally. I am San Francisco. The Bay Area has nurtured me since 1995. We created Los Delicados in The Mission. Around the same time we also created Youth Speaks in the Mission, and I used to teach writing workshops for teenagers at Southern Exposure Gallery when it was part of Project Artaud. My fundamental voice as a writer/performer is informed by the Mission District—culturally rooted, community based performance that connects indigenous, Latino and African diasporic arts traditions. This urban indigenous ecosystem is the foundation of the Mission arts venues that cultivated my work: Galeria de La Raza, Mission Cultural Center, CellSpace, Intersection for The Arts, Youth Speaks, Red Poppy, Brava, Project Artaud…so many. Even when I am integrating technology into my shows it’s always from the perspective of “How does the Latino community relate to it?” I almost always collaborate with Mission-based musicians and visual artists in my work—Marcus Shelby, Rio Yañez, Culture Clash, Greg Landau, Norman Zelaya, Dj Sake-1, Eric Norberg. I also have a lot of love for Oakland, which is grounded in roots culture, community organizing, polyculturalism, and immigrant co-existence. Bamuthi and I both lived together and created plays for a couple years in Oakland. My first docu-theater project was called “Fruitvale Project” directed by Elia Arce, and produced by La Peña. I shadowed a Cambodian immigrant refugee named Kong, who escaped the Khmer Rouge, while he documented damage after the “Raider Riots,” in Oakland’s Fruitvale District. I performed as Kong. At the same time Bamuthi was working on Word Becomes Flesh, and Scourge about Black and Haitian identity through the lense of hip-hop theater. We informed each other in the early years of our growth. So to be an artist in the Bay Area is to be immersed in culture, conflict, tradition and prolific social and political interaction.

Barbara: I want to ask you about gentrification and the Mission — your thoughts and how it’s reflected in the show — what you are exploring?

Paul: You’re Gonna Cry specifically tears the façade off the Mission of the 1990s and lets the audience see inside the homes and lives of Mission natives, immigrants, techies and artists. The piece contextualizes the concept of gentrification—economically motivated culture shift of a neighborhood—by highlighting what is powerful about the culture of the neighborhood. Which also reveals how such a place like the Mission can be vulnerable to gentrification and evictions. We see how violent gentrification really is as new residents from a different economic class use real estate to impose their will on the neighborhood’s already existing social relations which creates massive conflict. When the dot-com industry of the 1990s was introduced, newly monied tech industry workers and venture capitalists from Wisconsin and Michigan fell in love with the physical beauty and vibrant action of the Mission District, but they didn’t try to get to the know the lives of its native population: people who were born and raised in The Mission. Instead internet business people wanted to appropriate what was already thriving, and then change it to fit their needs. It’s like this real estate trend of maintaining original classic external of a building but gutting the inside to make it modern. Gentrification is American post-colonialism. It is late 20th century capitalist culture. In the name of new experiences for the wealthy (lofts, bars, restaurants, doggy hotels, indoor mini-golf), it leaves immigrants and poorer people behind without a care for their well-being.

I play about 12 characters from different generations, genders, races, interests on the block of 24th and York St. The characters reveal the neighborhood. I don’t spell anything out for you. I use music, spoken word, dance, monologue, puppets, video. This is an impressionistic portrait. Nothing is obvious. You must listen and feel what each character says to understand all the connections between them and their stake in the neighborhood.

Barbara: Can you tell me your creative influences, heroes, and things you would love to do but haven’t (yet!)?

Paul: My heroes are Jean-Michel Basquiat, Amy Winehouse, Miguel Piñero, Miles Davis, Suzan-Lori Parks, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Oliver Mayer, Leon Ichaso. My influences are my colleagues and friends Norman Zelaya, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Danny Hoch, Culture Clash, Mayda del Valle, Elia Arce, Saul Williams, Tanya Saracho.

I want to work with Rosalba Rolon from Pregones Theater and musician Yosvanny Terry on a musical theater piece about Cuban emigres of the 1990s. I want to write a story of folks who came to the US during Cuba’s Special Period, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when financial sponsorship of Cuba was halted. I want to write about their story in the US. I am a big fan of Cuban music and of Pregones.

I want to write TV. I want to create a show like The Wire but about the Oakland school district from state take-over to the current push to turn all the schools into charters. Oakland Unified is the American public school system. It is ripe with drama and characters, and I want to write the TV. Make the heroes teachers on TV instead of fucking cops.

Barbara: What are your thoughts on the Bay Area theater scene and anything you would change?

Paul: Bay Area theater is small, exciting and functioning at a certain level. There is good work out here: Michael Torres directed MAS at Laney College, Sean San Jose recently directed Chavez Ravine at UC Berkeley, the Magic did Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters. Ubuntu Theater is very interesting. I am sad we lost Octavio Solis to Oregon Shakes. I’m not happy Campo Santo doesn’t have a home theater. I was excited to see Between Riverside and Crazy at ACT. But I wonder why they didn’t do Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Hudes. Maybe one day Berkeley Rep will invest in new Latino playwrights from the Bay Area… I just came out of a 10 year partnership with the San Francisco International Arts Festival who commissioned two of my plays (PLACAS, and Representa!). It was very fruitful, and I am thankful to Andrew Wood’s support. And I am entering into theater commissions with Loco Bloco and Youth Speaks on two plays about police violence and gentrification—which I just received the Gerbode Playwriting Commission for, and for which Sean San Jose will direct my play Arresting Life. I’ve also been in the Tenderloin rehearsing more, and I wonder what theaters like the Exit, PianoFight and Cutting Ball will do to develop artists from that neighborhood. I don’t think the current state of Equity makes anything any better when no one can afford to own a building. National theater networks are growing. A lot of talk about White Privilege. A lot of talk about making theater more diverse. I don’t really see it though. A lot of smart talk. Very little smart action on the part of regional theaters. They are worried about legacy and job hoarding. I was recently at South Coast Rep. I met the entire “Artistic” creative wing of their massive theater. All of them white. Nice people. But not a single black or brown leader in the artistic division. That is typical to me. So I keep working with non-traditional theaters, or non-traditional partners, making work that matters to the empowerment of our people. I will not beg regional theaters to include me, nor will I conform to their cultural standards of what they think good theater is. Not while theater critics keep describing Latinos as “spicy” or “hot.” I do love the conflict though. It helps create meaning. You find purpose, and can be inspired to be a mentor to other artists. The imbalance of resources in theater forces us to address history. I will work with individuals whose work I admire. Wherever they are.

Barbara: Thoughts/words of wisdom for others out there who want to do what you do?

Paul: Work your networks. Cultivate community. Believe in your friends. Donate time and money to your friends’ work. When the work is hard, you are doing the thing you were meant to be doing. Nothing happens overnight. Take time when creating theater. Do not rush it. Nothing worthwhile should come easy. Take risks: reach out to people you don’t know that well but who you are interested in. Practice compassion. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Find love in all the interactions you have. Try to identify with people who are in pain. Ask them who their family is. Ask: Tell me who loves you? Lead with healing.

Barbara: Plugs for friends’ things or anything else we should check out?

Paul: Check out On The Hill, my next production about the death of Alex Nieto at the hands of the San Francisco Police. I am collaborating with Loco Bloco and Eric Reid. Coming to Brava Theater in October 2016.

"You're Gonna Cry" by Paul S. Flores

You’re Gonna Cry by Paul S. Flores

You’re Gonna Cry by Paul S. Flores and produced by Theater MadCap, is playing May 6-28th at the Phoenix Theater. For more information, go here.

The Real World- Theater Edition: An Interview With Christopher Chen

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews one of San Francisco’s notable playwrights, Christopher Chen.

I was lucky enough to see one of Christopher Chen’s staged readings a couple of years ago and remember thinking, “Whoa, I didn’t know you could do that in plays?!” Christopher has this great style, which he describes as having “a maximalist approach.” He’s definitely another writer who inspires me to explore and play with form and theatricality in my own writing, while still focusing on the topic or issue or idea that the play was responding to in the first place.

I’d been wanting to chat with Christopher for some time about playwriting, his style, and his upcoming projects. And as it turned out, we were able to connect and talk about Home Invasion, which is 6NewPlays’ first production.

What follows is the interview I had with Christopher Chen about his work.

Christopher Chen

Christopher Chen

Barbara: How did you get into writing plays? And tell me about your writing style?

Christopher: Before I landed on playwriting I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I was all over the place in terms of what kind of artist I wanted to be. In elementary school I wrote stories and made puppets; in middle school I was obsessed with movies (Malcolm X was the movie that got me; I watched five movies a week); in high school I got into novels (Virginia Woolf, Paul Bowles) and music (the minimalists, grunge). I entered college as a music major, on the music composition track. But I also wanted to be a film director so I took film classes. And I took English classes because I wanted to be a novelist or poet. Or a sociologist or psychologist. And I also took acting classes and was in Theatre Rice, an Asian American theater group that mainly did/does sketch comedy. But they also had space for drama, and I wrote my first short play with them. I wrote my first play because I wanted something to direct, and I didn’t want to direct somebody else’s work. I think I was using theater directing to scratch my film directing itch. But then I found that playwriting was actually the thing that fulfilled all my creative impulses simultaneously: It combines literature with musicality with visual spectacle. It’s also a discipline tailor-made for my introvert (with extrovert impulses) personality. I love the process… a period of introverted writing followed by organized collaboration where I can still sort of be a wallflower.

In terms of my writing, I’ll cut and paste something I’ve written for grants: “My work as a playwright deals foremost with systems of power: how they are structured, perpetuated and how they wend their way into even the most intimate psychological spaces. My primary interest is the very scope of a system’s complexity, and to capture this, I use an all-cylinders-firing approach to theater making. It is a maximalist approach that combines elements of fable with up-to-the-moment political discourse; absurdist humor with subtle naturalism; and intimate spaces with multi-media spectacle. All of these elements are situated within kaleidoscopic, shifting structures designed to continuously challenge an audience’s expectations. The idea behind these multi-faceted constructions is to reflect the complexity of the system I’m exploring.” That sounds a little pretentious, but that’s fine.

Barbara: Tell me about 6NewPlays and how Home Invasion came to be?

Christopher: 6NewPlays is Erin Bregman, Eugenie Chan, myself, Barry Eitel, Andrea Hart and Brian Thorstenson. We are a producing playwrights’ collective inspired by 13P, the New York playwrights’ collective whose whole thing was putting the production directly into the hands of the playwright. We wanted to do that too, and produce plays of ours that might be a little riskier, might be cast aside by established theater companies. We liked the idea of bypassing the whole institutional machine of theater-making that so often creates DOA products. Our plays are going to be high-quality, formally inventive, and low-cost.

Home Invasion is a surreal murder mystery that is being performed in actual private living rooms around the Bay Area. We decided to have this be our inaugural production because it was something we could pull off relatively easily and because it embodies our scrappy, nimble get-it-done ethos. Most of the budget is going to artist stipends. I was excited to take this on because I’ve been increasingly gravitating towards more subtle character-driven writing, and having actors perform in real living rooms, just feet away from the audience’s faces, allows a level of intimacy and nuance you can’t get outside of movies or TV. It’s like writing for the screen… but it’s live.

Barbara: What has your experience as a SF playwright been like?

Christopher: I’ve lost steam after the first two answers.

Barbara: What’s your take on the current theater scene?

Christopher: There’s a lot of different facets to it.

Barbara: Is there anything you would change or see an opportunity for within the scene?

Christopher: Doing Home Invasion with 6NewPlays was very inspiring for me because it really drilled home a Bay Area truism: where there’s a will there’s a way. It’s not as cut-throat here as it is in New York or Chicago, so there’s no reason NOT to gather really good people together who share your passions and instincts, and then just make theater at relatively low risk. Everyone will be glad to pitch in if everyone likes and respects each other and shares common goals. THEN THEATER WILL HAPPEN. In the group development phase of 6NewPlays we all pitched in. As a group we collaboratively tackled all practical matters: finances, grantwriting, budget-making, etc. etc. These things would be overwhelming if you were doing it all by yourself for the first time. That’s why you need a team. And then, during the artistic phase of Home Invasion, I’m once again experiencing the joys and ease of collaborating with a dedicated, passionate and professional team, all pulling together in a DIY way. Where there’s a will there’s a way. I was able to snag my dream director: Matthew Graham Smith, and my dream cast: Kat Zdan, Lisa Anne Porter, Matthew Hannon. And they’re going to go into private living rooms, big and small, for audience sizes ranging from 15-40, and put on a full-length play. I’m losing sight of the original question, but the bottom line is: In this community there’s room to make your own opportunity.

Barbara: What can we expect from Home Invasion?

Christopher: I was originally inspired by Dial M For Murder. ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES EVER AND IT ONLY TAKES PLACE IN ONE ROOM. (Mostly.) I was also inspired by The Maltese Falcon, Vertigo, and The Twilight Zone. The play goes into some strange places. I was inspired by a mysterious book my story collaborator Hannah Birch Carl found at Urban Ore. This mysterious book was a big inspiration.

Home Invasion, running April 16-30th in various Bay Area living rooms.

Home Invasion, running April 16-30th in various Bay Area living rooms.

Barbara: Any advice for people who would like to do what you do?

Christopher: Gather good people together and just make the work. Don’t listen to too much feedback– double down on your own instincts. In fact, push your instincts to their logical conclusions. Explore many other artistic influences other than theater. If you’re starting out in this community, start by saying yes to everything. Before I gained any traction as a playwright I worked box office and house managed and interned at the Magic Theatre, I acted at Impact Theatre (Horatio) and Shotgun Players (a tiny tiny role in a Marcus Gardley world premiere!), and did all kinds of staged readings and development workshops.

Barbara: Any projects coming up you can talk about?

Christopher: I am working on commissions with A.C.T., Crowded Fire, S.F. Playhouse and O.S.F. (that controversial Play On! translation project— I’m doing Antony and Cleopatra). My play Caught will be at Shotgun Players this Fall, along with productions in Seattle, Chicago and New York.

Barbara: Any plugs for your own work or friends’ work?

Christopher: I wish I’d gotten tickets to Peter Nachtrieb’s House Tour, but it’s all sold out.

For more on Christopher Chen, check out his website at http://www.christopherchen.org. Home Invasion runs April 16-30 at selected living rooms across the Bay Area, including a barebones performance at The Flight Deck in Oakland in collaboration with Just Theater. For more info, go here.

The Real World Theater Edition: Interview With Rob Ready

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews Rob Ready about PianoFight, Theater Pub, Short Lived, and $5,000 in prize money!

I caught up with Rob Ready, the Artistic Director of PianoFight, this week to talk about ShortLived, the short play festival that includes 36 pieces by “indy artists of all stripes”.

The competition brings a $5,000 cash prize on the line as competitors duke it out over six regular season rounds and then one championship road. Each round lasts a week and has four performances. The short plays are scored by audience members and the highest scoring piece of each round clinches a spot in the championship round. We’re currently in week five of ShortLived with the championship round right around the corner. The winner will receive a full-length production in addition to the $5,000 cash prize.

Rob gave me background on ShortLived, how it compares to other new play development programs out there, and some of his favorite moments.

Barbara: What’s your background in theater?

Rob: Performing since I was a kid, school and community theater growing up, BFA from NYU Tisch and artistic directoring PianoFight ever since. I had gigs at ODC in marketing and Z Space in biz dev and producing random shows. Oh and I play a drunk Llama every year for Theater Pub. And THAT’S IT.

Barbara: How did ShortLived come about?

Rob: We were coming to the end of our first year running Studio 250 at Off-Market (our old venue), and were talking to Point Break Live about renting three months. We were stoked because it was our first year and we ran a ton of shows and after nine months we were tired. But then they took a tour of the space, said, “This won’t work.” And they bailed. So we had to come up with something that could fill three months and that we actually wanted to do. So we came up with ShortLived, a show that changed each week, and that audiences had a hand in deciding, and where the prize was legit – a full-length production the following year. It’s definitely a slog, but the experience of putting on new plays every week for three months is one that has shaped me as a performer and producer.

Rob-Ready

Barbara: What is the thing you like most about ShortLived and how have audiences reacted?

Rob: The instant community. You bring together a ton of very different artists, and they compete creatively – basically you don’t get any phoned in performances, because there are only four shows per round and there’s money and resources and bragging rights on the line. Watching your peers work to actively be better every night is a cool thing to see. When everybody else is pushing to be better, you push to be better, and there’s an interesting bond that comes from that.

On the audience side too, the act of scoring elicits real opinions and discussion from audience members who have a natural instinct to compare notes during and after the show. Because folks are directly asked to evaluate pieces critically, the chatter after shows tends to be pretty high level, so strangers who happened to sit next to each other in the show will end up having beers at a table after discussing why they scored one piece higher than another. Again, it’s another cool thing to see.

Barbara: How does it compare to other new play development opportunities/venues? What does it offer that others don’t?

Rob: I’m sure there are other festivals that do similar things to ShortLived, but seems like the main differences are that ShortLived:

– gets all 36 plays off book and on their feet
– provides critical audience feedback for artists
– has no submission fee =)
– is hyper local
– lets audiences decide the winner and which plays advance
– offers a legit grand prize of cash money AND a show

Barbara: Favorite moments – how about three, from ShortLived?

Rob: These are gonna be more personal for me, but here ya go:
– In ShortLived 2 or 3, Duncan Wold, Christy Crowley and I put together a 10-minute musical in one day. It didn’t win, but it did really well – and working that fast was very cool.

– Performing Kirk Shimano’s play Inner Dialogue in ShortLived 4. It took second place in ShortLived 3 in 2011, and because the rules were different, it performed every weekend for 13 weeks. So when we brought back the festival after 144 Taylor St opened, it felt like it was a good call to bring back that piece and enter it into the Wildcard Round. Hadn’t acted on stage with Dan Williams since we’d done the piece originally, so being able to perform with my friend and business partner in our new theater was pretty special.

– Producing Megan Cohen’s first play in ShortLived 1.

Barbara: Anything you’re looking forward to this time around?

Rob: The Finals. They are always amazing. They sell out like crazy, the plays are really strong, the crowds are amped, the performers are jacked too and the whole week is just really fun.

Barbara: Plugs/shout-outs for upcoming performances of friends’ work?

Rob: Adventures in Tech by Stuart Bousel and directed by Allison Page. Also Terro-Rama 2 by Anthony Miller and Claire Rice and directed by Colin Johnson. Maggie’s Riff, written by John Lipsky, adapted by his son Jonah with musical direction by his other son, Adam, directed by Faultline AD Cole Ferraiuolo. And yes – they are all here at PianoFight!

For more on ShortLived at PianoFight, click here!