Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: If Only Angels Could Prevail

Marissa Skudlarek, prevailing. 

This is my last scheduled post as a regular columnist for the Theater Pub blog.

Really great timing, huh?

When Stuart and I were discussing our plan to wind down the blog, and I realized that my final post was scheduled to run two days after the election, I said, “If Trump wins, I might not be able to get you that post on time, FYI.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Stuart, “he’s not gonna win.”

But, while I may have been prescient enough to have at least considered the possibility of a Trump victory, I was not prescient enough to know what my own response would be. Yes, I am sad and numb and hollowed out. Yes, I have chills and I’ve lost my appetite, the way I always do when blindsided by bad news.

But I woke up this morning, the day after the election, and put on a black dress and pulled my hair back and drew on eyeliner and walked outside with my head high. The first battle of the new American era was simply getting out of bed and facing the day with dignity. And I am ready to fight. And if I were to simply wallow in my grief tonight and not write anything, I would feel even worse.

I spent Election Night at PianoFight, the venue where Theater Pub performs, which was hosting a party with a free edition of Killing My Lobster’s election-themed sketch-comedy show. I had thought, “No matter what happens, this is where I want to be, these are the people I want to be among.” But it was loud and crowded and, as the disappointing election returns started to come in, increasingly anxious and panicked. There were lots of hugs and mutual support. There was cautious optimism, defiant singing, political rationalizations. And always, always, there was that damned CNN map on a big screen in the corner. (When I closed my eyes in bed last night, visions of a red and blue patchwork danced before me.) I became so anxious that I started to get lightheaded, and I didn’t much feel like laughing.

So, along with Theater Pub’s Artistic Director Tonya Narvaez, I sneaked into a tech rehearsal in PianoFight’s smaller theater. A group of SF State students were there, practicing a revue of Stephen Sondheim songs. It was cool and quiet, art was being made, and we could check the election results on our phones but not be glued to the TV screen. And, if the world was ending, why not spend it listening to live performances of Sondheim?

I didn’t cry when Prince or Bowie died, but I sure as hell am going to cry when Sondheim dies. And as this shitty year winds down its last shitty weeks, the thought “At least Sondheim is still alive… please God let him hang on till 2017” has popped into my head a few times.

Sondheim has written some dark material, and the students’ selection focused on the more political side of his oeuvre. Several pieces from Assassins and Sweeney Todd. “Pretty Lady” from Pacific Overtures, a deceptively beautiful song about sexual predation. A woman with long red hair sang “Every Day A Little Death” and I couldn’t help thinking of Melania Trump—another trophy wife in a relationship with a blustering man who “talks softly of his wars / and his horses and his whores.”

So Tonya and I, two unmarried Millennials, strong women descended from strong women, with surnames (Spanish and Slavic) that still sound foreign to many ears, escaped into the tech rehearsal in the back room. We held hands, we hugged, we shed a few tears when we realized how things were going. We realized the irony of treating PianoFight’s small theater as a refuge, because the set for Every 28 Hours is still up—posters of the people of color who have been slain by police in recent years, reminding us that even in Obama’s America, it was not safe to be brown or black. We heard the lyric “If only angels could prevail” and thought yes, if only.

I know I live in a liberal, artistic bubble. In the day since the bad news has sunk in, I have seen many people express thoughts about the role of artists under a Trump administration, responses that take one of two forms. Some people say “At least some great art will come out of this, great art always emerges from adversity,” which seems like a pathetic attempt to find a silver lining in the situation. All things considered, most artists would prefer to work under conditions of peace and prosperity, not conditions of adversity. It is difficult to make art if you live in a society that refuses to see you as fully human—perhaps one reason that art by white men dominates the Western canon.

Other people are framing this slightly differently, saying, “This is the time for artists to get to work. We need your stories and your voices now more than ever.” I have mixed feelings about this. While I appreciate being reminded that my voice matters and that art has a larger purpose, I am skeptical of the idea that art is what will get us out of this mess. I’m also not sure that I agree with the implication that the only art we should be making in this troubled time is overtly political, agenda-driven art.

But still, there is a reason I went to the Sondheim show last night, and a reason that I have continued to think about art and literature today. I mentioned that, when faced with a bleak and distressing situation, I lose my physical appetite. I also lose my metaphorical appetite: my compulsion, usually so strong, to immerse myself in works of art. Instead, for a time, I feel like there is no joy in the world and no art that is possibly worth experiencing. I wake up in the morning and think “What can I read on the way to work today? What can I possibly read?”

And then, unbidden, the craving for some work of art will hit me, and it is the first moment I feel like myself again, the first moment I see a path out of despair. Today, someone on Twitter posted the Tolkien quote about how the only people who hate escapism are jailers. I’m not much of a one for Tolkien, but the quote reminded me of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in which the title characters create a comic-book superhero called The Escapist. “I will start rereading Kavalier and Clay when I get home,” I thought, and, for the first time, I felt a little better. It’s a story about a Czech Jewish refugee and his queer Brooklyn cousin fighting fascism with art—the kind of America, and American values, that I want to believe in.

If we wanted, we could darkly joke that Theater Pub was a product of the Obama era and so it is appropriate that it’s ending in December 2016. Just one more casualty of this year, every day a little death. But that might produce the impression that Trump’s victory caused us to quit in defeat, when that isn’t true at all. As I said in an earlier piece about Theater Pub’s impending end, the organization and the blog are going away, but we aren’t going away. I’ve already started to think about other outlets for my writing.

I don’t know what the future holds. It may well be scary and dark. But I know that I want to be prepared to confront it, with all my wits about me. If Hillary Clinton had won the electoral vote, this final column would have been sentimental and nostalgic and maybe even a bit complacent, looking back at the last six years rather than looking ahead at the future. But because Trump has won, I cannot spend time on nostalgia. The last six, or eight, years have shaped me. Theater Pub has shaped me. Art of all kinds has shaped me and made me stronger. Now it is time to test my mettle.

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

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The Five: 5 Shows in the 2014/15 Season I can’t wait to see Pt: 1

Anthony R. Miller brings you part 1 of a 2 part series about some incredible shows coming in the 2014/15 season, this week he focuses on formal subscription based seasons:

In spirit of this month’s Theater Pub theme of preparing for the new theatre season, I decided to make a list of shows I was really excited to see. Not soon after beginning my research, I encountered a problem. I found myself with ten shows I was pretty excited about and half of them were part of a formal subscription based season and half were independent productions that were stand-alone events. So once again, I made this a two part series. Part 1 is five shows that are part of a formal subscription based season and in two weeks; Part 2 will cover independent standalone shows in 2014/15. To be clear, this list is written from the perspective of not a critic or prognosticator (Lord knows not as a journalist), but as a fan. Here are 5 shows in the formal 2014/15 that I’m really excited to see.

Slaughterhouse 5-Custom Made Theatre Co.
Sept 16-Oct 12, 2014

In 1996, playwright Eric Simonsen adapted and directed Kurt Vonnegut’s time jumping, dark comedy, absurdist war novel for the stage at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. This play is being performed in the Bay Area for the first time and is being directed by Custom Made’s Artistic Director Brian Katz. As a longtime fan of the book, I have often wondered how this could translate to the stage, and thanks to awesome folks at Custom Made, I shall wonder no longer.

Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life)-Ray of Light Theatre
October 3rd-November 1st, 2014

The last few years, Ray of Light Theatre has been making a name for itself as one of the few companies in the Bay that focus exclusively on musicals. After years of doing well known contemporary classics and some cult faves as well, Ray of Light made a gutsy move and scheduled two shows that were practically unknown. The first was Triassic Parq, the next is; Yeast Nation, a new Musical by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann of Urinetown fame. Now what makes this production super cool is that under the direction of Artistic Director Jason Hoover, the writers themselves have been here work shopping the piece. This is a fantastic opportunity for a local company that is still very much on its way up. And we get to see a brand spanking new show by the guys who wrote everyone’s favorite musical in college.

Our Town-Shotgun Players
December 4-January 11, 2014

Fact: The Ashby Stage is three blocks from my house; it’s ridiculous that I don’t see everything they do. That said, I will definitely be making the treacherous five minute walk from one end of the Ashby Bart to the other to see this show. I can’t entirely explain my fondness for Our Town, its schmaltz, but it’s really well written and often profound schmaltz. And in a time such as now when our lives are a Facebook status roulette of bad news, Our Town is a bastion of simplistic comfort. The Ashby stage is a great place for it and I’m excited to see what Shotgunny twists they put on it. (ie how many mandolins will be used) Consider me already in one of their church pews watching what Award winning Director Susannah Martin and co. does with this even-when-it’s-bad-it’s-still-pretty-good chestnut.

X’s and O’s (A Gridiron Love Story)-Berkeley Rep
January 16–March 1, 2015

For the minority of theatre folk who also love football, we’ve long lamented the lack of plays about Football, because it’d be ridiculous. Now Berkeley Rep brings us, the always lively topic of traumatic head injuries suffered by Football players. For reals though, these stories are heartbreaking. And it’s an amazing examination of the very-men portrayed as god-like gladiators on TV every Sunday. Based on real interviews with players and their families, I’m excited to see these tragic stories brought to light and given a voice. I will probably cry. Playwright K.J. Sanchez just had a huge hit Off-Broadway called ReEntry which focused on the stories of Marines returning from combat. Another completely rad thing about this production is it was commissioned and developed right here in the Bay as part of Berkeley Reps Ground Floor program, which is dedicated the creation and development of New Work.

A Little Night Music -ACT
May 20-June 14, 2015

It would seem we are at a Sondheim saturation point here in the Bay Area. Last year, Ray of Light gave us Into the Woods (following up last year’s production of Sweeney Todd), and this year, SF Playhouse followed up by producing… Into the Woods and for good measure next season they are producing Company. Throw in a big screen adaptation of Into the Woods that nobody has seen but everyone already hates, and you’d gotta be crazy to jump into the Sondheim mosh-pit that is Bay Area theatre, but that’s just what ACT (The Company We Love to Hate) has done. Now let’s make something clear, I love the shit out of this show. It’s the Pitchfork Magazine pick of the Sondheim catalog, not his most commercially successful, but arguably his biggest artistic triumph. It’s sophisticated, dripping with subtext (There’s a 17 minute trio of songs about sex for god’s sake) and easily my favorite of Sondheim’s work. The fact that it is written completely in Waltz beat makes it stand out not only amongst his work but amongst most popular musical theatre. It’s grand and majestic but with remarkably vulnerable characters. Not to mention, “The Quintet” that acts as a brilliant narrative device and actually sings the overture. (Authors Note: this went on for 17 more pages and included a story about how I explained the song “Send in the Clowns” to my Dad, but was omitted for brevity.) ACT has a golden opportunity to do a not-as-famous Sondheim piece and stand out amongst the glut of audience friendly Sondheim shows by knocking this out of the park, let’s see what they do with it.

See you in two weeks with my picks for Standalone/Independent production of the 2014/15 season!

Anthony R. Miller is Writer, Director, Producer and the guy who won’t stop calling you about renewing your theatre subscription. His show, TERROR-RAMA opens in October.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: An Introduction

Marissa Skudlarek, one of our favorite gals-about-town in the SF Theater scene, kicks off her regular guest spot on the SF Theater Pub blog. 

If you are raised, as I was, on a steady diet of old-fashioned Broadway musicals and Fred & Ginger movies, you will come to believe that the theater is the most glamorous profession in the world.  Producers lavish money on glittering costumes, huge orchestras, and shiny Art Deco scenery. Both onstage and backstage, charismatic performers speak with wit and behave with flair. And you can go out a chorus girl, but come back a star.

Even after I grew up, learned how hard it is to make a living as an artist, and resigned myself to the reality that no one wears gowns or tuxedos to opening nights, the theater still retained a residual glamor. I remember two years ago, when Theater Pub was just starting and I was making my first tentative forays into the San Francisco theater community. I’d meet people like Theater Pub founders Stuart Bousel and Ben Fisher and marvel at how they seemed to know everyone, be everywhere, and work on a million projects at once.  This was, I thought, a real-world kind of glamor: these men were busy, talked-about, in-demand. I wondered whether I would ever be in the same position.

Well, now it’s two years later and I’ve become one of those perpetually overscheduled theater people. In the last week alone, I’ve done the following:

  • Helped organize, and spent an evening at, a fundraiser for the Bay One Acts (BOA) Kickstarter campaign
  • Edited and posted several interviews with BOA playwrights on the BOA blog (bayoneacts.org)
  • Copy-edited the BOA program
  • Copy-edited the final proof of a forthcoming book of plays from the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  • Attended an Olympians writers’ meeting and realized I should completely overhaul the play I am working on
  • Figured out how to use Twitter
  • Got an email from an actor I used to know, asking for my help with French pronunciation for an audition
  • Saw three plays at major Bay Area theaters

And that doesn’t include the non-theater stuff I’ve had to deal with this week (hectic times at my day job; finding a roommate; taxes).  Nor does it include writing this column. Which I am doing at midnight, in my pajamas, after seeing a three-hour Tom Stoppard play about Russian intellectuals. Last night I fell asleep with the light on and woke up with pain in my jaw.

In times like these, the song “The Glamorous Life,” from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, comes to mind. The heroine of the show, Desiree Armfeldt, is a famous actress in turn-of-the-century Sweden.  “Desiree Armfeldt! I just know she’ll wear the most glamorous gowns,” exclaims Anne, a naïve younger character.  Well, Desiree may be soignée, but she’s also a single mother who spends most of her time on tour in the provinces.  In “The Glamorous Life,” Desiree and the chorus wryly comment on the life of a theater professional: “Run for the carriage, la-la-la / Wolf down the sandwich, la-la-la / Which town is this one, la-la-la / Hi-ho, the glamorous life.”

So when Stuart Bousel asked if I would write a twice-monthly column about the San Francisco indie-theater lifestyle for the Theater Pub blog, I knew that I wanted the assignment and that I wanted to title the column “Hi-ho, the Glamorous Life.”

In upcoming columns, I hope to investigate, explain, praise, and critique different aspects of independent theater in the Bay Area.  If you’re a fellow theater artist, I want to find the words to describe our experiences, and if you’re not a theater-maker, I want to acquaint you with my world.

This world can be cash-strapped. It can be competitive. It forces you to spend more time than you’d like in seedy neighborhoods. It requires lots of humdrum behind-the-scenes effort to bring even a small black-box show to life.  But it’s busy and fast-paced and challenging. It values hard work and strong opinions. It has made me happy beyond measure. And yes, it is glamorous.

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