The Real World – Theater Edition: Back to School! An Interview with Rob Handel

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews a former mentor about the rules of playwrighting.

September (and, over time, August too) are, of course, synonymous with heading back to school. With that idea in mind, when thinking of the next playwright to interview, I had to return to one of my mentors from Carnegie Mellon University, Rob Handel, to check up on how he’s viewing theater and playwriting these days.

It’s fitting that this month for Theater Pub ended up being sort of “break the rules” themed, because initially what was on my mind was a conversation Rob and I had back in April about teaching and how strange it was that you often make these initial “rules” or “principles” to guide a newbie student in the right direction, but over time you start to realize that rules are not needed at all in order to make a great play.

Of course, at CMU, when we’d have workshop, invariably we received feedback from Rob that quoted one of The Rules. Some of us politely nodded, others vehemently defended the opposite position and maybe others played devil’s advocate while the rest of us shrank lower in our seats, fearing being asked to take a side. Clearly, they were a hot topic for the students, but over time, I keep on making more sense of them, and at the same time, there are plenty of great plays that are notable exceptions.

So, in this interview, you’ll get to read as I put Rob to task on what his rules are, why they are, and also – what I thought was interesting, is Rob’s response when I asked if I could ask him about The Rules. He said, “Sure, but I’m actually re-thinking the rules…” What??! Well, I had to hear more about that… And now, so can you!

Rob Handel, Head of Dramatic Writing at Carnegie Mellon University

Rob Handel, Head of Dramatic Writing at Carnegie Mellon University

Barbara: So in class occasionally you’d reference your rules for playwriting. What’s on the list?

Rob: Don’t talk to the audience. Don’t withhold information from the audience. Don’t write “blackout” in the middle of a conversation. (Maybe you remember more of my rules? I feel like I’m forgetting something.)

Barbara: I remember one which was not to have your characters talk about more than one off-stage/not seen character per play.

Rob: I think that offstage character rule is such a good rule that I am charging $30,000 tuition for it.

Barbara: Can you explain the reasons why it might be a good idea to follow these rules?

Rob: “Don’t talk to the audience”: This rule comes out of my experience reading hundreds of plays every year (for admissions, selection committees I’m asked to be on, etc.). 99% of the time, a play that starts with a direct address is going to be a bad play. It suggests that the writer knows where the play is going to end up, and this character, the narrator, is going to talk to us again at the end and tell us what we were supposed to learn. I go to plays to see the exploration of a question, a journey into the unknown — not to be lectured at.

“Don’t withhold information from the audience”: 99% of the time, the withholding of information is being used as a substitute for plot. For example, “at the end of act one, we realize that Paul is actually the same person as Peter.” The problem with this is that “we” is not a character in the play. The way storytelling works is that the audience (like it or not) identifies with a character, and we have the same information as that character (or MORE) but not less, so that when they are surprised, we are surprised WITH them. The great example of this is the screenplay for THE SIXTH SENSE. We have the same information as Bruce Willis, not more and not less, throughout the picture.

“Don’t write ‘blackout’ in the middle of a conversation”: If your characters are stuck, stay stuck with them. One of the things theatre is best at, better than any other form, is claustrophobia — what is it like to be trapped in this apartment, this office, this room, with this other person? In a charged, awkward emotional moment, you must resist the temptation to end the scene on a great line if it robs us of finding out how the characters escape that moment. You can learn a lot about someone by watching how they extricate themselves from an argument.

Barbara: But recently, when chatting you blew my mind when you said the rules were made up and that actually you’re having second thoughts about them! Why teach them if made up? And what are you re-thinking?

Rob: “Don’t talk to the audience”: If I made a list of my top 20 favorite plays, at least 10 of them, probably more, would be plays that use direct address. So something is clearly wrong with my theory. Take How I Learned To Drive by Paula Vogel: the direct address is critical to the play because it lets us know that the play is memory, therefore the heroine will survive. Furthermore, she is telling the story, controlling the narrative — and this creates a safe space to tell a highly charged and deeply uncomfortable story. There are lots of ways to use direct address, and they don’t have to be awful.

“Don’t withhold information from the audience”: This is a pretty good rule. Plays that violate this rule tend to be sadistic and/or condescending. If you’re drawn to that kind of play, maybe you really want to be a magician or a maker of haunted houses? (Great professions, by the way. But not the same as playwright.) On the other hand, not all plays tell stories in the same way. Some plays are made of emotional moments and some are made of mysterious video interludes and some plays don’t have characters at all. There is probably a great play out there, or being created right now, that will prove me wrong.

“Don’t write ‘blackout’…” This is a good rule. I think the main reason I’m trying not to say “This is one of my rules” anymore is that I’ve realized that what keeps me alive as an artist (and as a consumer of art) is my idea of what a play is, or what theatre can be, is constantly being challenged and overturned. Some of the most inspiring plays I’ve seen recently could not possibly be written following even the most basic rules that I used to throw at people. (I’m thinking of Savannah Reich’s Six Monsters, the Rude Mechs’ Stop Hitting Yourself, the Debate Society’s Jacuzzi, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, and William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.)

Barbara: What do you think are the things someone can do if they want to write better plays?

Rob: Conveniently, there is exactly one way to write better plays: write more. Write every day. Carry a notebook. If you’ve written a 30 page play, rewrite it as a 60 page play. (Then, keep only the good pages.) If you’ve written a three hour play, rewrite it as a ten hour play. Keep going.

Barbara: To submit a play to an opportunity or to DIY a production? And why?

Rob: Both. As with political change, you want to be in the streets AND in the halls of power.

Barbara: Any thoughts on the current state of theater and playwriting– what does it need? Have too much/not enough of? What are you excited to see? And anything that scares you about the future of theater?

Rob: I am thrilled to be a theatre practitioner at this moment. The heated discussions about diversity and representation are not going to go away. People who run their companies the same way they did 30 years ago are going to keep getting called out. We’re going to keep moving forward with inclusiveness, and that means companies will need to create structures that allow them to give tickets away for free. (I just had the privilege of having my play A Maze produced with such a “radical hospitality” structure by Theatre Battery in Kent, Washington.)

Barbara: I love the term radical hospitality and am curious how it worked!

Rob: Here are some links about Radical Hospitality:

http://howlround.com/radical-hospitality-the-artistic-case
http://howlround.com/the-business-case-for-radical-hospitality-at-mixed-blood-theatre

Barbara: Any advice for those who want to write plays?

Rob: I hear the MFA program at Carnegie Mellon is excellent.

Barbara: Any shows we should catch?

Rob: My new play I Want To Destroy You will be produced by Theatre Vertigo in Portland (Oregon) in January: http://www.theatrevertigo.org/. On the East Coast, I’m looking forward to Gardiner Comfort’s solo piece The Elephant in Every Room I Enter: http://lamama.org/the-elephant-in-every-room-i-enter-2/.

Follow Rob Handel on twitter @sailordoghandel for more.

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The Real World, Theater Edition: Interview with Jonathan Spector of Just Theater

Barbara Jwanouskos chats up Jonathan Spector, Artistic Director of Just Theatre and a long-time new work advocate in the Bay Area.

Barbara Jwanouskos: What’s your connection with the Bay Area? How are you involved in its theater scene?

Jonathan Spector: I wear and have worn a lot of hats in the theater scene here – which is one of the things I love about this area, that it allows you to do that. I arrived in the Bay Area thinking of myself very much as a director, and still am, though increasingly my own artistic energies are put towards writing. I’m the co-artistic director of Just Theater, and if I’m actually measuring how I spend my time, the truth is the lion’s share these days is with the artistic directors hat on doing all manner of producing, grant-writing, development, marketing etc. I’m not entirely happy about that, but finding ways to make it work.

My company also runs a New Play Lab, which is developing a new play by, among other people, Barbara Jwanouskos.

For many years I was on staff at Playwrights Foundation, where I was a Literary Manager and dramaturg producer and general playwright advocate, and while I was there I was able to work with an endless stream of amazing writers, which was tremendously exciting and edifying.

Jonathan Spector

Babs: Do you think making theater in the San Francisco Bay Area is different than other places? (How so or how not so or both?)

JS: The only other area I know well is New York, where I lived for five years before coming here. I grew up in the DC area, and am familiar with that scene, but have never really been a part of it.

New York is kind of its own thing in terms of theater – I have the sense making theater in the Bay Area is much more like making theater in DC or Boston or Austin than it is in New York. There’s a whole bunch of complicated reasons why this is the case but the two that I think about the most are 1) that almost everyone I knew who made theater in New York (in the “downtown” theater world) was largely making it for other artists. That’s who they were in conversation with. And then if a show got a good Times review this huge other audience would just kind of materialize out of nowhere (at least this was my impression – I was in my early 20s, so probably missed a lot of what was actually happening). Out here, there’s a much more real and actual sense of having a conversation with an audience. You need to, if you’re going to survive as a theater. I mean the kind of relationship say, Shotgun has with its audience, that’s an amazing and special and real thing and so much more interesting and meaningful than just talking to other artists.

This cuts both ways. The richness of conversation amongst the artists, the sense of wanting to make something that all these other people you admire will think is exciting, because of how big and complex that downtown community is, is a large part of why there’s so much exciting work in NYC. But it’s also easy for that to tip into navel-gazing and solipsism if you don’t ever worry about the average non-artist person enjoying or getting anything out of your work.

The other big point is about opportunity and pressure. In New York, there was always a sense that maybe this thing would lead to that thing would lead to another. And it’s not a total fantasy – look at HAND TO GOD, which started as a little downtown show then got remounted at MCC and now is going to Broadway. It doesn’t happen often, but it can happen. And this sense of possibility contributes to a feeling that everyone is generally bringing their A-game into rehearsal.

Whereas here, there’s nowhere to go. I mean, our last show, A MAZE had just about the very best result one could have from a show – we did it in a lesser known venue, it got a great response, got remounted with a somewhat bigger company, got great reviews, sold out most of its run and then…that’s it. Good show, onto the next one. There’s never a possibility of a next step (although maybe this too is changing, with SF Playhouse starting to bring shows to New York…)

And all that other stuff being said, I’m much much happier being here. It’s just a much more livable place and I find deep satisfaction in being part of this community.

The last thing to say about the Bay Area is that it’s maybe unique in how spread out it is. I mean, we consider San Jose and Marin and Oakland to all be part of one community and in a sense we all are – we share many of the same artists who put many many miles on their cars. BUT, I’m also increasingly feeling like these communities are pretty separate. I’m embarrassed to admit that beyond the occasional TheatreWorks show, I’ve only seen one other South Bay show the whole time I’ve lived here. I’ll certainly make the trip into the city to see something at Crowded Fire or Z Space or Cutting Ball, but if I’m just going to go to a show on the spur of the moment, I’m much more likely to stay in the East Bay. Which is maybe a long-winded way of saying that there’s a way in which we’re actually a bunch of separate but connected communities, rather than one big one. I mean this whole SF Theater Pub community that you guys have is something that’s totally foreign to me because I just don’t venture into SF all that much. It seems like that’s one scene, and then we have an East Bay scene, and of course there’s lots of back and forth, but they’re not exactly all the same thing. And I think that’s true across a lot of different spectrums.

I’m also very curious about how this plays out over the next decade or so as San Francisco becomes completely unaffordable and anyone young and eager and new moves to the area.

Babs: How do you stay active as a playwright (or theater artist in general)?

JS: I think being able to shift off between things – so when the writing is going really terribly, I can just think about producing, or maybe directing or vice versa. And having regular opportunities to get to work on stuff with other people – readings or workshops are crucial since I can only really work effectively when I have a deadline.

Through Just Theater’s New Play Lab has lots of great deadlines, and I’m also a Resident Playwright at Playwrights Foundation, which has some as well. I submit to lots and lots of things, so some small percentage of those turn in to actual things I get to do, which give me more structure and deadlines.

Babs: How do you balance your theater/artistic goals with other life priorities?

JS: Not as well as I should.

Babs: What are you working on now?

JS: At the moment, I’m mostly consumed with producing IN FROM THE COLD, but I have two other plays in various stages. One is called ADULT SWIM and is a kind of magic realism play about teenage lifeguards that takes place at a swimming pool. We did a workshop of it this summer that Jon Tracy directed for PlayGround, and it was a lot of fun. I’d love to find a swimming pool where we could produce it. I’m also working on this piece called FTW, which sort of about female friendship and gentrification, with these three girls who just graduated from college and move into an apartment together and are very enthusiastic and idealistic and horrible. We did a reading of it in the Just Theater Lab, and it’ll have another reading soon.

Then there’s the play I’m supposed to be writing for the Lab this year, but have done absolutely no work on since our last meeting. Also I think I’m supposed to write a one-minute play by tomorrow, so I should get on that.

Two Guys

Babs: How did IN FROM THE COLD come to be?

JS: A couple years ago, I learned that this person who had been maybe the biggest spy in the cold war had lived for many years in secret in these townhouses across the street from my high school in the DC suburbs. He was literally #1 on the KGB hitlist for many years, and there was something very disorienting to me about the combination of this high-stakes life and death stuff overlapping with the kind of ultimate banality of the place I grew up. So that was sort of the jumping off point, and I wrote it over the course of about six months in the Just Theater Lab, and then it had a couple readings, in Aurora’s Global Age Project and at Playwrights Foundation, and then we got a grant for it so we decided to produce with my company.

I was a hesitant about us producing it, because it’s not exactly the kind of work that my company typically produces – it’s a little more of a regular play play, but everybody in the company wanted us to do it, so we did. It’s funny – a couple years ago I was having dinner with Thomas Bradshaw and sheepishly confessed that I had started writing plays. And he was like “so you’re gonna produce your work then, right?” And I said in all sincerity that I didn’t know if we would, since this thing I was writing wasn’t necessarily a typical Just Theater show. To which he said, “You’re a liar. You have a theater company. You’re gonna produce your own plays.” So maybe it was inevitable.

And then of course there is this strange lag time between writing a play and having it produced. This was only the second full length play I’d written, and I finished the first draft about three years ago. I think my writing has evolved a fair bit since then, so it’s very strange to sit in rehearsal and think, “I would never write something like this now”. But you also have to respect the thing that it is, and try to make the best version of that rather than trying to completely rewrite it to be something more like what you would write at this moment if you were starting from scratch, since that’s just an endless hamster wheel you can never get off of.

Babs: What is the best or worst advice you’ve been given as a playwright?

JS: One thing that an agent told me once that I think is very true is that theater is it’s a one to one business. That the way you build a career as a playwright isn’t by having a big hit show that everyone loves, but by one person reading your work and liking it and wanting to advocate for you and then another and then another. It’s a series of one on one relationships that develop over time.

This is great to remember because it takes a lot of the pressure off any individual show or reading being too important, because even if it’s a disaster, in the long run that’s not what matters. On the other hand, it also means that the thing that does matter – other people liking your writing – is almost completely out of your control. All you can do is write the plays and get them out there.

The other thing I think about a lot that I also thing is really true is the notion that writing is basically like exercising – the idea of doing it is horrible, actually doing it is okay, and you feel great once you’ve done it. I find it helpful to remember that for so many of us, including many writers I admire, writing is just this awful, painful, unnatural thing that part of your brain will do anything to avoid.

For instance, I sometimes get together with the other PF Resident Playwrights to ostensibly just sit together and write, but I’d say probably 50% of our time is spent talking about how much we procrastinate and avoid writing. There’s solace in remembering you’re not alone in this.

Babs: Any words of wisdom for other playwrights trying to develop their craft, get produced and make connections with other theater people?

JS: Find the work you like, and find ways to hang with the people making it – volunteer, assist, stuff envelopes, whatever. Read lots of plays and see lots of plays. Send your work out.

Babs: Anything else you would like to share, plug or shout-out?

JS: In From The Cold runs through November 23rd at Live Oak Theater in Berkeley. TBA members can get $15 tix. We have a stellar cast. Julian Lopez-Morillas, Harold Pierce, Sarah Moser, Seton Brown and David Saniako. Christine Young directed. Everybody’s doing terrific work.

The next Just Theater show comes up right after and is this completely jaw-dropping piece called We Are Proud to Present… by Jackie Sibblies Drury. This show is not to be missed. Seriously. It’s one of the best plays of the past ten years, and I think all the bigger theaters in town were kind of scared of it (with good reason – it completely terrifies me), so we ended up getting to do the Bay Area Premiere. We’re partnering with Shotgun on it, and it’ll run Feb – March.

Also in February, Anne Washburn’s play Mr. Burns is at ACT. It’s sheer genius. Go see it. And Peter Nachtrieb’s got a new show that’s about to open at Z Below, which is sure to be hilarious.

In From The Cold

You can find out more about Just Theater’s work on their website, http://www.justtheater.org. Jonathan’s play, IN FROM THE COLD will be at the Live Oak Theater in Berkeley for two more weekends.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a playwright and blogger. She is part of Just Theater’s New Play Lab this season and will be presenting a one-minute play during the 5th Annual One-Minute Play Festival on Dec. 15-16. Follow her on twitter @bjwany.

Higher Education: Win Some Lose Some

This has been an incredible week over in the halls of Purnell. Very affirming, in many ways, but also it feels as if a door (or doors) are opening. Maybe it’s because the snow is melting a bit more (though the corner business has up twinkly x-mas lights again) or maybe a piece of learning is turning into understanding…

Cue the orchestra for me to now express myself in song.

Does Bette Midler ever need a caption? No.

Does Bette Midler ever need a caption? No.

*Ahem*

It can be tiring to try to progress as an artist. Some days it feels like nothing is working. I could totally relate to Claire Rice’s efforts to break through her writer’s block. These whole last couple of weeks has been like pulling teeth with regards to writing. I’m working on three huge projects: a full-length screenplay about hackers, my thesis play exploring violence at a kung fu studio, and a new play that’s a family drama intercepted by a has-been motivational speaker.

All three things have very real deadlines. Time is running out. I can no longer dilly-dally. Every time I sit down to write, I think, “these pages have to matter”.

omg_hamster copy

But you know what? Sometimes the only reason they matter is because you directing your energy into the projects you’re working on.

And it’s hard. I know it’s hard. It’s hard to come up with ideas. It’s hard to execute the ideas well. It’s hard to bring people together to hear your shitty ideas. It’s hard to be told your ideas are shitty. It’s hard to go back to your ideas and incorporate “feedback”. It’s hard to rally the troops once more (for between one and forever years), hear more feedback. Rinse, repeat. And then it’s hard to get people together to make your shitty idea a reality. And to get the money to do so. And for the performance to come out well. And to get people to come see it. And understand it. And hope they actually like it. And by extension you.

And feelings.

My play makes me feel all of this!

My play makes me feel all of this!

It’s like they say, “if it were easy, everyone would do it”. We don’t get paid well a lot of the times. Or at all. Or sometimes we end up paying in order to pursue our artistic passions. A lot. But if we were in it purely for the money, wouldn’t it just be easier to do something that actually gives us more of a “return on our investment”?

Guys! I’m sure you all know, but you will never make the money back that you put in to pursuing a life in the theater. So, that means you do it cuz you love it. And love is a hard thing. Sometimes, you know… love hurts. It’s sort of like art-being-hard is a person continually punching you in the face and after a while you’re thinking, “any time you want to stop would be just peachy”.

I am just as cynical as the next person and that’s why any win I get, I stick to like a needy cat covered in caramel sauce.

Don't ever leave me, wall!

Don’t ever leave me, wall!

This week’s wins all concerned validation. A guest artist from the land of TV, Aurorae Khoo, gave me a great compliment that since last year, my visual writing had dramatically improved (just the kind of improvement you hope for in a Dramatic Writing program…). My instructor, Rob Handel, came as a guest speaker to the Advanced Playwriting class because I had assigned them “A Maze” to read (three more chances to check it out!) and gave us some great advice about focusing on specificity in our writing. And my one-act play, “Sad Karaoke”, was performed in the Theater Lab class today and was so exciting to see on it’s feet (yay to my director, Kyle Wilson, and cast, Cameron Spencer, Veladya Chapman and Erron Crawford!!!).

And as great as all these wins were, there’s still work to do. Compliments don’t win competitions. I’m not trying to compete with anyone else necessarily. It’s more like being in competition with myself. Is this work I can be proud of? Did I spend my day focusing on the things I really needed to focus on? Am I taking active steps towards personal and artistic growth.

Absolutely.

But that is also still the case even when I feel as though I’ve experienced multiple loses. Maybe I got passed up for an opportunity, perhaps I was slighted, perhaps people didn’t understand what my play was about, whatever. At the end of the day, who cares? I guarantee as the person experiencing the loss or win, you feel it more than anyone else. And the sooner we get over our losses AND our wins, the sooner we can get back to work and keep at it.

No one has reached perfection, which can sound depressing, but it’s actually affirming, because if we do it because we love it, that means we can still keep doing it because “it” isn’t done yet. Nothing ever really is.

I firmly believe that you have to be in perpetual motion in order to succeed. It doesn’t matter how much, just that it’s happening.

Good luck to you (and may the odds be ever in your favor).

game_over

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: 2013’s Most Memorable Theater Moments

Marissa Skudlarek jumps on the end of year list bandwagon.

“Nothing is forever in the theater. Whatever it is, it’s here, it flares up, burns hot, and then it’s gone.”

—Karen (Celeste Holm) in All About Eve

Theater is an ephemeral art, so I’m dedicating my last column of the year to celebrating five of my most memorable theatergoing moments in 2013. I don’t quite consider this an official “best of” or “top five” list; it’s more a record of five times in 2013 when theater did what it ought to do: surprised me, jolted me, thrilled me. They are arranged in chronological order.

Act Two of Troublemaker, at Berkeley Rep – I didn’t find Dan LeFranc’s comedy-drama about a troubled middle-school boy 100% effective, but parts of it delighted me beyond measure. As I wrote on my blog at the time: “Act One toggles back and forth between realism and stylization; Act Two goes completely nuts; and Act Three brings it back down to earth to for a more naturalistic, emotional resolution. That second act, though, man… it might be the craziest thing I’ve seen at a Big Theater in a long time. There’s a soup kitchen populated by homeless pirate zombies, the rich kid lounges on a divan as “Goldfinger” plays, our heroes do an unconvincing drag act (leading up to a gay kiss that managed to draw gasps from the liberal-Berkeley audience), Bradley’s smart and mouthy friend Loretta turns into a pint-sized femme fatale… I watched it in disbelief and giddy delight that Berkeley Rep was producing this in such lavish style.”

Finale of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, at Kazino (NYC) – This show is a sung-through, pop-opera adaptation of the section of War and Peace where young Natasha Rostova nearly runs off with a lothario named Anatole. I had seen Dave Malloy’s earlier Russian-themed musical Beardo at Shotgun Players and felt ambivalent about it: it was very clever, but also very arch, and it kept me emotionally distant. The opening scenes of Natasha, Pierre had some of that same winking irony, but by the end, it became heart-on-sleeve sincere. Despite war, scandal, and Russian melancholia, Natasha and Pierre achieve a measure of peace and understanding — symbolized by the passing of the great comet (itself represented by a beautiful chandelier). What began as a boisterous Russian party ended on a note of subtle delicacy. Shotgun, or some other Bay Area company, had better plan to produce this as soon as the rights become available, because I want to see it again.

End of Act One of A Maze, at Just Theater – If a play is titled A Maze, you can’t fault its first act for being puzzling and mysterious. Rob Handel’s script interweaves four different stories, three of them basically realistic and one a strange fairy tale or fable. At the end of Act One, though, all of the stories come together in a way that seems obvious in hindsight, but is completely astonishing (amazing?) in the moment when it occurs. I saw a lot of full-length plays this year, but A Maze was the one where I couldn’t wait for intermission to be over because I had to know what would happen in Act Two. I can’t go into any more detail than that, because it would be a spoiler; but if you want to experience this moment for yourself, Just Theater will be re-mounting its production in February 2014.

Ellen’s Undone, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival – Sam Hurwitt is one of my favorite Bay Area theater critics; his reviews are thoughtful and candid, and my tastes seem to align pretty well with his. But knowing what makes a good play doesn’t guarantee that you can also write a good play. Hurwitt, though, made an impressive playwriting debut with Ellen’s Undone, a contemporary interpretation of the Helen of Troy story. It’s a full-length play with just two characters, one set, and two long scenes – constraints that would challenge even a far more experienced playwright. This 100-minute argument between two smart, stubborn, acidly witty people reminded me of nothing so much as a modern-day Noel Coward comedy (perhaps it helped that Maggie Mason employed her natural English accent to play Ellen). A triumph for Hurwitt and for the San Francisco Olympians Festival as well – which continues to present an impressive variety of new theater every year.

Tinker Bell’s death scene in Peter/Wendy, at Custom Made – J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan depicts a whimsical world, where children can fly by thinking happy thoughts, and even the villains are comically blustering or incompetent. Still, there are darker and more adult undercurrents throughout, which burst to the forefront in the scene where Tink drinks poison to save Peter’s life. Anya Kazimierski (Tink) was honest and raw and terrifying in her death scene, and then there was a long moment as Sam Bertken (Peter) cradled Tink’s body and regarded the audience, seemingly trying to make eye contact with every single person there, stretching out the tension until we could hardly stand it. Finally – and without Sam needing to ask us the famous question – someone in the row behind me piped up “I believe in fairies!” And then another person in another section: “I believe in fairies!” It was a magical moment because the play got a little out of control from what the actors had expected; it was a magical moment because we, as an audience, were all in it together.

These were five of the moments where everything clicked for me, as an audience member watching a performance. But they wouldn’t happen without those moments earlier in the theater-making process where everything clicks for the cast and crew – those miraculous moments in the rehearsal room where you realize that, oh wow, this is actually going to work. So I also want to acknowledge some of my most memorable moments as a playwright: my living-room reading of Orphée last January, when I learned that my translation was playable; the first read-through of Teucer, in which actors Eli Diamond and Carl Lucania were already firing on all cylinders; rehearsing my one-minute play Cultural Baggage and making some subtle cuts so that its three overlapping monologues fit together perfectly. To everyone who made these and all of my theater experiences of 2013 possible, thank you.

Like a great comet, theater flares up, burns hot, and then it’s gone.

And I do believe in fairies.

Marissa Skudlarek wishes you a New Year sprinkled with fairy dust.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Branding Upon the Brain

Marissa Skudlarek contemplates picking her own brand.

“You can’t write songs if you’re thinking about Where Does This Album Belong In The Universe,” says a character in Rob Handel’s play A Maze. “You’re trying to fit it into, like, our life story as a band before it exists. You’re overthinking.”

This line wrung a wry smile from me when I saw Just Theater’s excellent production of A Maze last week. Because I can fall prey to this kind of overthinking (as well as many other kinds). I can be more concerned with Where Does This Play Fit Into My Oeuvre than with, you know, actually sitting down to write it – more preoccupied with “does this feel like a Marissa Skudlarek play?” than with perfecting the plot or characterization.

But we live in an era of “personal branding,” which makes it easy to get caught up in such thoughts. The market for playwrights is oversaturated, so we think we must develop a unique angle to make our work stand out. Literary managers and producers always say that what attracts them to new writers is “their fresh creative voice,” so we worry that our voices aren’t fresh enough, original enough. Besides, whenever I tell people that I’m a playwright, their first question is “What kind of plays do you write?” So I ought to have a smart, memorable reply.

I used to hedge when asked this question. I’d make excuses. I’d say, with a winsome bright-eyed smile, “Oh, I think I’m still probably finding my voice.” But what’s charming when you’re fresh out of college becomes far less so when you’re a mid-twenties adult who ought to know better. (See Frances Ha for a cinematic depiction of this.)

I’ll be thinking about my personal brand a lot in the coming weeks, as well as other facets of my writing career, because I’ve been selected for Theatre Bay Area’s ATLAS Program for Playwrights. Along with 19 other writers, I will attend classes in setting professional goals and taking my writing to the next level; I will also draw up a career roadmap. As such, I will probably need to come up with real answers to “What kinds of plays do I write?” and “Where do I belong in the universe?”

Some of my fellow ATLAS writers seem to have better-defined personal brands than I do, at least judging by the statements they supplied for their bios. Paul Heller “writes plays to make sense of cultural and political differences and how other people perceive the U.S.” Theo Miller’s work “pays tribute to historical business dealings and economic phenomena” and “credibly dramatizes entrepreneurialism.”

I think I would love to have such a strong sense of purpose; I would love to sense that there is a through-line that connects all of my plays, and sum it up in twenty words. But what would happen if Heller suddenly got the urge to write a sci-fi drama, or Miller got the urge to write a romantic comedy? Would they follow that impulse, or would they say “No, that’s off-brand for me, I shouldn’t write it”?

Indeed, as much as I want to have a recognizable brand and voice as a writer, I also worry about constraining or limiting myself. For instance, I realize that I often explore different historical eras in my writing: several of my full-length plays are set in various decades of the 20th century (The Rose of Youth in 1934, Aphrodite in the early 1940s, Pleiades in 1971). But after writing all of those, I am really looking forward to writing a full-length play that takes place in a contemporary setting! And one reason that I scaled back my involvement with the Olympians Festival this year – I’m writing two ten-minute plays, rather than anything more elaborate – is because I don’t want to become “that girl who always writes plays based on Greek mythology.”

A brand can make you stand out – but that means it can also make you a target. The playwrights who have the most recognizable brands tend to be the most polarizing writers, and the ones who are easiest to stereotype and parody.

And, you know, originally, a brand was what you seared into a cow’s flesh with a hot iron in order to mark your ownership of it. It sounds painful and alarming and not something that any cow would choose for itself. Maybe, therefore, we should let the world brand us, rather than working to brand ourselves. (I’ve never even wanted to get a tattoo!) I’d like the freedom to be full of contradictions and possibilities, rather than limiting myself to a narrow brief. If I write well and honestly enough, I will develop a voice and, therefore, a brand of my own. But, as Rob Handel suggests in the unclassifiable, un-brandable A Maze, it’s not something that I should overthink.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer (is that enough of a brand for you?). Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Introducing The Directors Of Pint Sized IV! (Part Two)

Pint Sized Plays IV is more than halfway through it’s run! This year our excellent line up of writers is supported by an equitably awesome line up of directors, so we thought we’d take a moment to introduce some of them and find out more about who they are, what they’re looking forward to, and how they brought so much magic to this year’s festival.

Tell the world who you are in 100 words or less.

Tracy Held Potter: I’m a writer/director/producer who recently discovered that I have to create inspirational mantras that are the exact opposite of the inspirational mantras that I used in high school. I run All Terrain Theater (www.allterraintheater.org) and Play Cafe (www.playcafe.org) and I’m a co-founder of the 31 Plays in 31 Days Project with Rachel Bublitz (http://31plays31days.com). My biggest projects right now are directing The Fantasy Club by Rachel Bublitz and getting ready to move to the East Coast for a fancy-pants MFA Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University.

Jonathan Carpenter: Formerly a biologist and Bostonian, I’m now a San Francisco-based theater director. I love bold, new plays that sometimes have music and sometimes don’t happen in traditional theater spaces at all.

Colin Johnson: I am Colin and I like telling stories and stuff.

Colin Johnson: What A Rebel

Colin Johnson: What A Rebel

How did you get involved with Theater Pub, or if you’re a returning director, why did you come back?

Tracy Held Potter: I saw several Theater Pub shows in the past year and loved them, especially Pint-Sized Plays, and also got to run sound for Pub from Another World, which was extremely fun. “Audrey Scare People Play?” Whaaaaaat!

Jonathan Carpenter: This is my first time directing for Theater Pub! I met Meg O’Connor at an event for the SF Olympians Festival. She mentioned that her friend Neil (Higgins) was looking for directors for the Pint Sized Festival. A few days later, Neil and I were emailing each other about the line-up for this year’s festival, and not too long after I was on board to be part of the Pint Sized directing team. I had always been really interested in Theater Pub, and so when the opportunity arose to get involved, I jumped on it.

Colin Johnson: I got involved through the fearless producer called Neil, whom I’ve worked with during the last two years on the SF Olympians Festival.

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

Jonathan Carpenter: There’s nothing better than being in the rehearsal room and digging into a script with actors, so I would say that my rehearsal time with Jessica (Chisum), Lara (Gold), and Andrew (Chung) was the most exciting part of the process for me. Multitasking (by Christian Simonsen) is a deceptively tricky play. You have to keep asking yourself, “Wait, what the hell is going on here?!” All three actors were really smart about figuring out what makes these characters tick. I had a blast bringing the play to life with them.

Colin Johnson: Analyzing and then over-directing the crap out of a one page script. Sometimes the greatest challenges come in the smallest packages. Oh, and also practicing a musical number with a drunk llama.

Tracy Held Potter: Getting invited to direct for Pint-Sized plays and then finding out that I was going to direct a piece by Megan Cohen were freaking awesome. I still relive moments from watching Megan’s piece from last year, so this really has been a thrill for me. I also loved rehearsing with Charles Lewis III, Caitlin Evenson, and Jessica Rudholm … and I won’t lie that sewing the knight props and costumes in the middle of the night was pretty special as well.

What’s been the most troublesome?

Tracy Held Potter: Keeping things simple with this brief yet epic play. I tend to work on projects with a minimal amount of props and set design, but there’s a part of me that wants to go all out with this one: more rehearsals in the space and more elaborate costuming. I got to work with a great cast and I we pulled out a lot of interesting material from the script in a very short period, so I can’t really complain, though.

Colin Johnson: Troublesome? I don’t know the meaning of the word, I say! But I suppose rehearsing with a drunk llama can have its setbacks.

Jonathan Carpenter: Casting was probably the trickiest piece of the puzzle for me. There are, of course, so many wonderful actors in the Bay Area; the only problem is that they’re so wonderful that they’re always cast in multiple projects! The Theater Pub performance schedule is great because Monday is usually a day off for actors, so it’s possible to do Theater Pub along with other shows. But it doesn’t always work out. I lost a terrific actor that I was really excited to work with because it turned out that she was needed for rehearsals for another project during the final week of Pint Sized performances. And then when I had to find another actress for that role, there were several other wonderful folks that I couldn’t use because we couldn’t find common free times to rehearse! It all worked out beautifully in the end – thanks to Neil’s guidance, persistence, and huge network of actor friends – but there were some moments where I was really banging my head against the wall.

Jonathan Carpenter: Casting Clusterf**k Survivor

Jonathan Carpenter: Casting Clusterf**k Survivor

Would you say putting together a show for Pint Sized is more skin of your teeth or seat of your pants and why?

Tracy Held Potter: I would say “seat of your pants” because I have sensitive teeth and the other metaphor makes them hurt.

Jonathan Carpenter: Pint Sized is definitely a seat of your pants kind of endeavor. You’re making theater that’s going to happen in a bar where anything can happen. Someone could walk through your scene to go to the bathroom. A noisy garbage truck could whiz past Cafe Royale. Who knows, an especially drunk audience member might even try to get in on the action. So, you have to stay adaptable and be ready to fly by the seat of your pants. But that’s also what’s so exciting, right? Live theater!

Colin Johnson: I’d say seat of the pants is a better term. When you perform in public, especially a bar, you must be prepared to adapt and circumvent logistical problems at a moment’s notice. Skin of the teeth makes it seem like we’re barely hanging in there, which is untrue. This production has actually been one of the most tightly coordinated and relaxed projects in a while for me.

What’s next for you?

Colin Johnson: Next, I’m writing a full-length adaptation of Aeneas’s tale for SF Olympians: Trojan Requiem (titled Burden of the Witless) in November. I also have a recently-completed independent short film that will hopefully be making festival rounds this year. And most likely directing a Woody Allen One-Act early next year in Berkeley

Tracy Held Potter: I’m directing and producing a HILARIOUS sex comedy by Rachel Bublitz called The Fantasy Club that we’re premiering at The Alcove Theater near Union Square from Aug 2 – Aug 11 (http://fantasyclub.brownpapertickets.com). It’s about a stay-at-home-mom who faces the man she’s been fantasizing about since high school and has to decide between her marriage and making her fantasies come true. I’ve spent a lot more time on Google researching underwear and logo contraceptives for this show than I have for anything else. In August, we’re also relaunching the 31 Plays in 31 Days Challenge and rehearsing for Babies, the Ultimate Birth Control: Terrifyingly Hilarious Plays about Parenting for SF Fringe (http://www.sffringe.org), which both Rachel and I wrote pieces for. In the midst of all this, I’m going to finish packing up my family to move to Pennsylvania. You know, taking it easy.

Tracy Held Potter: Taking It Easy

Tracy Held Potter: Taking It Easy

Jonathan Carpenter: I’m about to begin rehearsals for the west coast premiere of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon, which Do It Live! Productions will be producing in A.C.T.’s Costume Shop theater in September. And after The Golden Dragon, I’ll be directing readings of Jeremy Cole’s On The Plains of Troy and Madeline Puccioni’s The Walls of Troy for the SF Olympians Festival.

What are you looking forward to in the larger Bay Area theater scene?

Tracy Held Potter: I’m looking forward to “A Maze” by Rob Handel and produced by Just Theater at Live Oak Theatre, which just opened. Rob is the theater teacher for my new grad program and I’ve heard great things from people who’ve already seen it (phew!). There are a lot of shows that I’m really sad to be missing because I’ll be out of the state, but I’ll be catching all of Bay One-Acts and at least a couple of SF Olympians shows towards the end of the festival.

Colin Johnson: BOA is always an amazing fun time! As is the Olympians! They’re both a great conglomeration of all the best the Bay indie theatre scene has to offer! And great folks!

Jonathan Carpenter: Oh my gosh. I’m a huge nerd, and I just can’t wait to see Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart in No Man’s Land at Berkeley Rep. I mean, it’s Gandalf! And Professor X! AND they’re doing No Man’s Land! I have loved Pinter ever since I first dove into his plays a few years ago while working on a production of The Homecoming. They’re so juicy. So I’m really looking forward to that production. I’m also really excited to check out Rob Handel’s A Maze at Just Theater this summer. I read a draft of the play about three years ago, and I was completely enthralled. It read like a comic book, and I was totally fascinated to imagine how you might stage such an intricate play. I’ve heard great things about the production, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Who in the Bay Area theater scene would you just love a chance to work with next?

Jonathan Carpenter: Woah! It’s way too hard to pick just one artist! Can I say “all of them”?!? Well…actor Reggie White is probably at the top of my list. He’s been a friend of mine for a couple of years now, and it seems criminal that we haven’t done a show together yet.

Tracy Held Potter: I can’t count how many actors, directors, stage managers, writers, and other theater people that I got to work with this year who I really admired. I have so many theater crushes here that it’s crazy. With that said, I would fall out of my chair if I got to work with Desdemona Chiang on one of my plays.

Colin Johnson: I would love to have a rematch of my 2012 Olympians knock-out, drag down fight with Jeremy Cole. But most of my Bay Area dream collaborations have been fulfilled, with hopefully more on the horizon.

What’s your favorite thing to order at the Cafe Royale?

Jonathan Carpenter: Whatever stout they have on tap.

Colin Johnson: I’m a fan of the Marin Brewing Company IPA. But if I’m expected to be productive, a Cider or a Pilsner.

Tracy Held Potter: I don’t really drink that much so I like to order soda or tea, but last time the bartender made me a limeade which was pretty good. There are photos of me on the Theater Pub Facebook page drinking that, if anyone’s interested.

Don’t miss the last two performances of Pint Sized Plays IV: July 29 and 30, at 8 PM, only at the Cafe Royale! The show is free and no reservations are necessary, but we encourage you to get there early because we will be full!