Theater Around The Bay: Announcing Theater Pub’s Next Show!

Theater Pub’s November show is another classic from the Bard’s folio. We’ve done comedies, we’ve done histories, we’ve done problem plays- and now, with the same love, speed, and healthy irreverence that’s made these productions instant classics in the past, we present William Shakespeare’s LEAR.

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Adapted and directed by Sam Bertken and featuring Valerie Fachman, Carl Lucania, Marlene Yarosh, Genevieve Perdue, Megan Briggs, Matt Weimer, Charlie D. Gray, Sam Heft-Luthy, Vince Faso, Karl Schackne and Kevin Glass, LEAR is the fitting swan song of sadness and silliness that will close the book on Theater Pub.

Catch “LEAR” only at PIANOFIGHT (144 Taylor Street):

Monday, November 21 @ 8:00pm
Tuesday, November 22 @ 8:00pm
Monday, November 28 @ 8:00pm
Tuesday, November 29 @ 8:00pm

As always, admission is FREE, with a $10 donation suggested at the door. No reservations required, but we get there early to get a good seat and enjoy PianoFight’s full bar and delicious dinner menu. Remember to show your appreciation to our hosts

See you at the Pub!

The Real World- Theater Edition: Interview with William H. Bryant Jr. and Skyler Cooper

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews the creative team behind Every 28 Hours.

Every 28 Hours is a piece that was created by linking one-minute plays based on the staggering statistic that every 28 hours, a person of color is murdered by a police officer, vigilante, or security guard. This is a piece that hits deeply into the legacy of white supremacy that our culture has been built upon and asks us if we are willing to look at ourselves to build a way of living and interacting where black lives matter.

I had the opportunity to speak with two of the actors in the Every 28 Hours production here in the Bay Area. Their names are William H. Bryant Jr. (BJ) and Skyler Cooper, and I feel fortunate that we were able to connect to share their experiences working on such an intensely powerful theatrical production.

Every 28 Hours is produced by Faultline Theater and playing at PianoFight until Nov.12.

Skyler Cooper. Photo Credit: Joy Yamada.

Skyler Cooper. Photo Credit: Joy Yamada.

Barbara: Tell me about Every 28 Hours and how you came to be involved. What are you bringing to the table? Where do you see yourself in the piece?

Skyler: Every 28 Hours is a collection of stories influenced by experiences of black and brown men and women at the hands of law enforcement in this country. I wanted to be a part of this because it’s necessary and it’s vitally important to raise awareness and I am all about the creative activism that weaves throughout these stories. In my heart I knew I was being called forth from a deep spiritual place to do something with my artistic voice. I have been using my art to bring awareness to LGBTQ issues in the past, present, and future. But I am not just from that community, I am also black and I am an American and this affects me and my loved ones. I am fortunate that I am able to say “Yes”. I know so many actors would if they could. It felt like a “call to arms” when I was first told about the project. Also I relate to these stories not just because I’m black but also because I’m transgender, as well as two-spirited. I have walked in both black men and women’s shoes in this country and I’m here to tell you it ain’t easy. Currently the path I walk in the world is predominately as male. I’m either seen as a cisgender black male or a black trans male, every now and then (although I identify as a transgender actor), I am still remembered for the characters I’ve done as a cisgender masculine-of-center female. So I could be seen as black butch female. They have it just as bad as males if not worse in some cases.

BJ: First and foremost, thank you, Barbara, for the opportunity to share a bit about myself and the type of work I love doing the most. Every 28 Hours is a project comprised of 72 one-minute plays that are inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and was developed after the news of Michael Brown’s death. The title comes from the often challenged statistic that a person of color is murdered by a police officer, vigilante, or security guard every 28 hours.

I first heard of the plays, actually, from one of my cast mates and friend, Deane, who had already started working on the plays before I came aboard. I ended up joining the rest of the amazing cast late because they needed another actor due to one having to drop out because of a conflict. I couldn’t be more grateful for the open arms that welcomed me, from the cast, to the directors, to the production team. Not only did I see it as an amazing opportunity to speak up for something with life-and-death importance to me, but I saw it as a responsibility to stress how important it is for us to, at the very least, open dialogue and have a conversation about the subject matter of the plays.

I see myself in this piece as part of a group with a story to tell. We all complement each other in ways I feel make us most effective in telling these stories. The bond that we created has been so crucial in working to do the writers of these incredibly moving pieces justice.

Barbara: What has the creative process been like? Has there been anything that surprised you along the way?

Skyler: Doing one-minute plays with five different (amazing) directors is a treat. Yet the creative process is different on so many levels from a traditional three-act structured play. It’s kind of like boot camp for character development. Much of what these plays give are a three-act story structure in one minute. I can find the beginning, middle, and end in most of the pieces on stage. Much of the creative process on all these plays is put into the backstory — what is not seen or said in the play. It has allowed us to bring full characters to the table. It’s necessary when you only get one minute! I’m surprised at how full these plays can be, say so little, and give so much.

BJ: The creative process of working on the pieces has been quite the learning experience. We are very lucky to be working with five of the most ingenious, brilliant, and hardworking directors and production team. This itself has made the creative process for this project so much more effective and real. The directors have put all of their beings into this whole process, instilling life into the pieces and allowing us the freedom to do the same with the characters while keeping in mind that this project isn’t for us; it’s for the victims, their families, and everyone who is blind to the fact that there is a major problem in our society/country.

I was actually surprised by how physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting, the entire process would be. But, the cause itself, the work, and each other are motivation enough that help along the way and keep us aiming to raise the bar after each and every performance.

3rd: William H. Bryant Jr. Photo Credit: Joy Yamada.

3rd: William H. Bryant Jr. Photo Credit: Joy Yamada.

Barbara: Is there anything you do for yourself when investing so much of yourself into a powerful piece like this one? How do you keep going when it goes so deep?

Skyler: What I do to care for myself through this process is exercise my spiritual practice. It keeps me grounded and I include everyone else in my prayers — cast, crew, audiences and the souls that we lost. I rededicate each performance and I try to ground myself in their power, the power of the piece, and the power of the people. When I’m able to do this my cause is unshakable, because the roots are deep with love rather than fear or hate. I try to give love to myself and to the purpose of the piece. It’s all love.

BJ: When investing everything I can into a piece like this I learned that it helps to clear your head by bonding with your cast mates, friends, family, and loved ones. Also, I have guilty pleasures that I go to, like watching cartoons every now and then or watching superhero movies. I’ve learned during this project that we have to continue to go as deep as possible because this play isn’t for us and we have a message to send. So it helps knowing that we’d be selfish if we were to hold ourselves back in any way. So that, and knowing that my castmates, who have become like brothers and sisters to me, and my family and friends always have my back, definitely helps keep me going. I’m extremely lucky and blessed to have the support system I have especially in doing a project like this.

Barbara: Do you have a favorite moment or line of the piece? What is it and why is it your favorite?

Skyler: There are many… but I think my favorite line is the whole point of Every 28 Hours. It’s where two black men, one from the past and the other from the present, say, “I don’t want to fight. I want to be free.”

BJ: It’s tough to point out a specific piece or line and say it is my favorite because there are so many magical, tragic, heartfelt moments that capture the essence of the messages we are trying to send. There is a piece called “The Gray Area,” written by Chisa Hutchinson and performed spectacularly by Adriane Deane and Stephanie Wilborn in our run. It is a play in which a black protester explains to a white protester who is protesting “police brutality against all people,” that her form of protest is a form of racism because of her choice to ignore the fact that police brutality disproportionately targets black people. This is one of my favorite pieces because there are so many people in society who severely undermine the Black Lives Matters movement with the statement, “all lives matter,” when all lives aren’t being taken at the same rate that black lives are because of police brutality.

Barbara: What words of wisdom would you give to others that want to do what you do?

Skyler: Do it. There is only one you. Also, know that training, focus, dedication, courage, humility, and passion, are helpful to any actor who wishes to find their artistic voice. When I was able to find my artistic voice, I was able to chose the plays and characters that helped me to develop my craft beyond my training. Even still I think taking workshop intensives are great. Every instrument needs to be tuned every now and then. The theater is where I started and I highly encourage anyone who wants to be an actor to look to theater at some point preferably at the beginning. It truly is where the actor gets to work their craft the most, your entire body becomes your instrument.

BJ: I would say if they are willing to put everything they have into their craft, especially in doing plays like these, then be sure to take care of yourself mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Really diving into a piece as heavy as this one can take a toll on your body in many different ways.

Barbara: What are you hoping someone watching the piece will take away?

Skyler: To have an unshakeable desire to enact a change in this country. Mindfulness to a degree that allows them to shift unconscious biases held against black and brown people.

BJ: What I am really hoping that people take away from this piece is the urge to act and not just stand by any longer as this continues to go on throughout the country. There are many ways to become active and fight against racism, systematic racism, and police brutality against people of color. I also hope more and more people try to get others to open their minds and understand the struggle instead of staying stagnant, in denial that there is a problem in society.

Skyler Cooper and William H. Bryant Jr. Photo Credit: Joy Yamada

Skyler Cooper and William H. Bryant Jr. Photo Credit: Joy Yamada

To learn more about Skyler Cooper’s work –including several upcoming films — is visit http://www.skylercooper.net/#skyler-cooper and https://www.facebook.com/skyler.cooper.9. For more information on upcoming projects for William H. Bryant Jr., please visit http://www.williambryantjr.com/ and @bjbeege19 on Instagram.

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

Marissa Skudlarek pens her penultimate column.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In For a Penny: Bum-rush the Show!

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“A wise man told me ‘Don’t argue with fools
‘Cause people from a distance can’t tell who is who’ ”
—Jay Z, “The Takeover”, The Blueprint

This past week I went to the Berkeley Rep to catch a preview performance of Jeff Augustin’s Last Tiger in Haiti. The story revolves around a group of “restaveks” (child slaves) and the stories they tell themselves to cope with the horrors of their daily lives. The first act takes place 15 years in the past, the second in present day, with the shadow of the 2010 Haitian earthquake looming large. Incidentally, this show was in production as Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti earlier this month, resulting in a death toll estimated between 1,000-1,300. As such, the curtain call features the actors asking for donations to help with relief efforts.

As I began putting on my coat, an older White man behind me began complaining to his female companion about being asked for donations. “It’s just like being in church: if I don’t put something in the collection plate I look like an asshole,” he said before ranting about how his having attended the performance should be “donation enough”. As I began making a mental list of just what obscenities I’d yell at him, I asked myself what the point would be in doing so. I put on my coat, dropped a fiver in the donation basket, and walked to BART.

I thought of that old man’s casual racism this past Tuesday when I went to The Magic to see Campo Santo’s final preview for Nogales. The play uses the story of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez – a Mexican teen killed on the Mexican side of the border wall by trigger-happy border agent on the Arizona side – as part of a wider examination on US-Mexican immigration. As I settled into my seat before the start of the show, a White couple in their 20s began talking about theatre around the country. The young woman said that she found Chicago “too insular,” but was willing to “tolerate” SF and LA. The young man ranted about how much he hated New York, really loved Cleveland, and lamented that in his short time in SF (he said he’d been here a week) he’d only seen “these kinds of ‘ethnic’ shows.” I didn’t turn around, but I could hear in his voice the way the word “ethnic” left a foul taste in his mouth. In fact, it’s probably for the best I didn’t turn around – I’d have been too tempted to punch him. I sipped my free wine and got ready for the show.

Neither of these incidents were a first for me and I know they won’t be the last. I also know from experience that if I were to engage them, odds are that I’m more likely to be painted as the bad guy. I’ve been in enough arguments at events for Intersection for The Arts and Z Space to know that what I call a debate has been described as “this Black guy just attacked us”. That can make someone a bit gun-shy about wanting to engage in such a debate again, leading to the misconception that he doesn’t have an opinion at all.

In my defense, my not hesitance has less to with how I’m perceived (although I do admit that I think about it) and more with my not wanting to “feed the trolls”. The old man at the Rep and the young couple at the Magic were, to my knowledge, nothing more than theatre patrons (ie. the lifeblood of our industry). They’re allowed to have opinions – passive-aggressively racist though they may be – so long they paid for their tickets; for full-color casts, no less. As much as I’d love to strap them in chairs Clockwork Orange-style as they sit front row for my long-planned production of Jean Genet’s Les Nègres, clownerie (The Blacks: A Clown Show), I take comfort in knowing I’m entitled to speak my opinion as freely as they, but that would be no different than engaging the anonymous randos who send me racist tweets. I haven’t been on Twitter since August, why do it in real life?

Not worth the effort.

Not worth the effort.

If I’m going to spend time and energy voicing an opinion about theatre, both are better spent on actual theatre artists. Granted, this too will occasionally get me in hot water. A few years back I was at the developmental reading of a show by a popular local theatre with whom I’d recently gotten on very good terms. I’ll never forget how offended I felt when the longest sequence in the show was dedicated to one of the few White characters/actors getting a subplot only tangentially connected to the main action and characters. At intermission, I was pissed. Really pissed. I mean go-to-a-corner-away-from-your-colleagues-so-they-can’t-see-the-scowl-on-your-face pissed. They second act was… a bit more tolerable, but still problematic. I sat in my chair thinking “I could just leave now, accept that I saw a shitty reading, and let it end there.”

But I didn’t do that. As the cast (all of whom I knew well) took their seats, the first few “questions” were really just shallow praise for the White writers and directors for telling a story about people of color. One of those praises came from someone higher on the Bay Area theatre food chain than I; someone whose opinion I respected; someone whose opinion of my actually could influence how further I got in this business, so it would have been in my best interests to stay quiet. Instead, my inner Kanye told me “Fuck it” as I raised my hand and (calmly and rationally – there were witnesses) explained everything I found wrong with the two hours of White privilege I’d just witnessed.

My comments immediately divided the room: half agreeing with me; others saying they were out of line; and all the while, the row of actors scowling at me from their seats on the stage. I eventually saw the full production and sure enough there were changes made. Overall it wasn’t a great show, but I felt better about speaking up when I did.

I made that show faaaaamous!

I made that show faaaaamous!

It’s no secret that lots of local theatre companies are struggling just to keep the lights on, but it obviously has a stronger effect on me when I see PoC theatre artists having to struggle even harder. Just as Campo Santo had to leave their longtime home a few years back, so too is Af-Am Shakes raising funds to find a new home and support their upcoming season. The importance and necessity of theatre companies like these becomes all the more apparent when I think of asinine opinions like the ones I mentioned above. In fact, they become apparent whenever some otherwise-progressive White theatre artists asks me why the Bay has “no Black actors/theatre”. In 2016 – the 50th anniversary year of the Black Panther Party (spawned here in the Bay Area) and the final year of the first Black president of the US – we’re still looked at in a “liberal” arts community as if we’re Klingons.

Here’s a hint: it’s not for a lack of trying, it’s because we seem to be easy to ignore. Whenever we do make ourselves visible enough to where we can’t be ignored, we’re told that we’re being over aggressive and threatening. Right… I’ll remember that the next time someone pretentious White theatre artist limply defends their show by telling me “if it offended you, it’s done its job”.

Charles Lewis III’s latest project is directing a script about a bunch of crazy White people.
You can see it tomorrow night at The EXIT Theatre as part of the SF Olympians Festival.

Theater Around the Bay: Dylan Waite on Gravedigger: The Musical

Gravedigger: The Musical opens tonight! Learn more about the show and how the script came to be from the writer Dylan Waite.

Tell us about yourself. What brought you to San Francisco?
I’m originally from Fresno, CA. I went to school in the Bay Area and eventually succumbed to San Francisco’s gravity.

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When and how did “Gravedigger: The Musical” come about?
I had written a musical in college, called The Pelican House, sort of as a joke (it was about a group of male prostitutes) and it ended up going fairly well. Gravedigger was take two on the irreverent musical idea.

How has the show evolved over the years?
It was originally supposed to have some shitpunk music, but Casey Robbins got his hands on it and came up with some stuff that’s actually really good. As a result of Casey’s composition, the collective brow of the piece had to be raised by a couple of notches.

What is this story about? Why is it unique?
It’s about love and how sometimes you can be in love and still be an asshole. It’s mostly also about a bunch of people who really want to do something with a corpse. I guess in musicals there’s this sense that our sympathies are aligned with whoever’s in love and this musical challenges that. Is that unique? Maybe not anymore.

Any shoutouts for stuff going on in the community?
Which community? Probably not.

Any current or future projects we should keep an eye out for?
I perform in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind with the San Francisco Neo-Futurists on the regular. That happens most Fridays and Saturdays at Safe House Arts, whether or not I’m in it. It’s good.

Catch Gravedigger: The Musical only at PIANOFIGHT (144 Taylor Street):

Monday, October 17 @ 8:00pm – TONIGHT
Tuesday, October 18 @ 8:00pm
Monday, October 24 @ 8:00pm
Tuesday, October 25 @ 8:00pm

As always, admission is FREE, with a $10 donation suggested at the door. No reservations required, but we get there early to get a good seat and enjoy PianoFight’s full bar and delicious dinner menu. Remember to show your appreciation to our hosts

See you at the Pub!

The Real World – Theater Edition: Get It Out

Barbara Jwanouskos, putting it out there.

My mind races constantly. From what I’ve gathered, this is pretty normal. It’s filled with so much stuff that I can have trouble focusing on any one thing. I think some would say that they’re good at multi-tasking when they have this quality – I not sure I believe in the concept of multi-tasking. To me, that means spreading your attention over a wide variety of tasks, projects, ideas, and thoughts equally.

No, instead, I think how it works is you work quickly on one thing at a time and, let’s be honest, sometimes you half-ass it. That’s okay. I’m not saying don’t do that. What if you could be less scatter brained and give most gusto? What if you could get some of what’s inside out?

This is about writing and doing and creating theater or any other type of project. This is about how to start. This points to some elements of how to keep going. It’s more observation than advice. It’s not even a real essay with the best structure or syntax. This is an idea that needed to get out.

I hear and I have SO MANY good ideas. Brilliant ones. Things that shatter your mind into a million pieces and make you go, “this changes everything.”

I see less of this actualized. I guess it’s to be expected. It takes a lot of effort to get things going.

I’m just going to point to one thing that may help in this process of turning an idea to a reality – write it out. Get it out. Badly if need be. Repeatedly. Using really bad jargon-y, clunky turns of phrase. With bad grammar or no grammar. *gasp!*

I know, I get it. It’s scary. But at some point the idea needs to get out so we can shape it and mold it. It has to be spoken aloud. Written out. It has to come out, not stay in for a huge change to occur.

I do believe in the power of transformation. It sounds so new age-y, but whatever, my thing is, hey, do you want to keep living the same old life you’ve been living? Or would you be willing to put it out there and maybe have someone scoff, but so what?

The result is a new play.

The result is a new play that moves people.

The result is a new play that changes people’s perception.

The result is a new play that inspires someone to take their own courageous step.

It ripples out.

But it has to start somewhere. This is a small way. Easily overlooked. Easily shooed as a given. Yet it’s so essential. And sometimes putting a little intention into it goes a long way. Keeps things moving forward.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a local writer who writes all kinds of things. She co-wrote a play with Julie Jigour, THANATOS, for the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which will be read this Saturday at EXIT Theatre at 8 PM. For more and to experience her creative writing, go to https://dynamicsofgroove.com/.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Comma Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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