Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Embracing the Mirror, Part Two: Such Great Heights

Marissa Skudlarek follows up Ashley Cowan’s piece from yesterday with her own tall tales.

September, 2000. I am a 13-year-old high school freshman who dreams of theatrical stardom. My local community theater is holding auditions for Annie, seeking girls between the ages of 7 and 13 to play the orphans, and I beg my parents to let me try out.

“Okay,” they say, “but you realize you haven’t got a chance, right? The orphans in Annie need to be cute kids, but you don’t look like a cute kid anymore – you’re too tall.”

At 13, I am about 5’6”, a few inches below my final adult height of 5’8”. I argue that there are plenty of real-life 13-year-old girls who are 5’6”, and it stood to reason that one of them could’ve been in a Depression-era orphanage. There was nothing wrong with that logic, except that casting has its own shorthand. The orphans in Annie have to be cute kids, and the easiest way to convey that a character is young is to cast someone short.

If I’d been cast as a 5’6” orphan in Annie, my idea was to play the role as surly and truculent and resentful – since I’d be playing the oldest orphan, the one who’d been there the longest. Even as a young girl, I guess I’d absorbed the idea that tall women often play the bitch or the villainess. “I feel like unless I ask to read for a certain role, I am going to be handed sides for the ball-buster/ice queen/bitchy lawyer part,” says local actress Erika Bakse, 5’9”. “I don’t generally mind this because they are pretty fun roles — there’s a reason the majority of quotes in the recent New Yorker article about The Real Thing came from Charlotte, who is in only 3 scenes of the play. But it would be fun to get the opportunity to show other sides of myself. Interestingly, the one time I got to be more of an ingénue was in Stop Kiss, with a shorter Callie opposite me. Bisexuals/lesbians can be any height, I guess.”

(Full disclosure: last year, Katja Rivera and I cast Erika as a ball-busting feminist in my play Pleiades. Erika’s character was also supposed to be the oldest of the eight young women onstage, and her height probably helped her read that way to the audience, too.)

On this blog, we often talk about the difficulties facing female actors: too many aspirants and not enough roles. In such an environment, anything that makes a woman “difficult” to cast can turn into a permanent handicap. I therefore wonder how many tall women get dissuaded from acting, if prejudices along the lines of “The leading man always needs to be taller than the leading lady” mean that they’re not cast as frequently as their shorter sisters. By the time I got to college I was pretty sure that the odds were against my making it big as an actress, and I felt like part of that had to do with my height.

At the same time, college was when I came to terms with my height, and started to take pride in it. Instrumental in this was seeing Cate Blanchett play Hedda Gabler, in a production that began with a dumb-show in which Blanchett stalked around the stage for a minute or two. The stage was dimly lit and I was seated in the back row of the balcony, but Blanchett’s stage presence astounded me: her elegance, her dignity, her power, her height. Like me, she is 5’8″. I draw on my memory of her performance whenever I need a jolt of self-confidence about being a tall lady.

Me and the Desk Set ladies on audition night. Even slouching, I'm still taller than everyone.

Me and the Desk Set ladies on audition night. Even slouching, I’m still taller than everyone.

This year, when I played Elsa in the comedy The Desk Set, my four-inch heels and bouffant blonde wig made me the tallest person onstage. And there were several moments where my height became part of the joke: in my stage kiss with Alan Coyne (who commented that the wig and heels made me very intimidating); when I stared down my romantic rival, played by the petite brunette Kitty Torres; when I danced the tango with Andrew Calabrese, my breasts at the level of his eyes. It was fun to use my physicality in this way, though if I think about it too hard, I can start to have qualms: does this mean there’s something inherently ludicrous about tall women? And it seems less likely that I’d be asked to kiss a shorter actor in a scene that was meant to be earnest rather than comical.

Some roles are specifically earmarked for tall actresses. I get annoyed when women of average height play Rosalind in As You Like It, because the reason Rosalind gives for dressing up as a boy is “I am more than common tall.” And the catfight between Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a short-girl vs. tall-girl classic. (After our scene in The Desk Set, Kitty Torres and I are now hoping that someone will cast us as Hermia and Helena. Producers, call us!) Overall, though, in classical theater, there seems to be an unspoken rule that young actresses play ingénues and middle-aged actresses play queens. The difficulty is that we tend to think of ingénues as petite and queens as statuesque.

Local actress Valerie “Three-Time Helena” Weak, who is 5’10”, has these stories and tips:

I don’t think I’ve ever played opposite someone in a romantic onstage relationship who was shorter than me. I’ve definitely dealt with callbacks where we were paired according to height (like when none of the taller Noras got to read with the shorter Torvald) – and that happens even more often when they’re putting together ‘families’ or ‘couples’ for a callback at a commercial.

I’ve learned to make sure I wear flat shoes when I audition for shorter male directors – I’ve definitely had audition situations where a shorter male director is put off by my height in general. I also know to ask costume designers for rehearsal shoes ASAP if I’m going to be wearing a heel in the show – not so much for me to practice walking in them, but for the men who will be working with me to get ready for how much vertical stage space I’m going to take up, rather than that being one more thing for them to adjust to in tech week.

Let’s go back to 13-year-old Marissa. In the middle of writing this article, I procrastinated by rereading some old emails I sent to my high-school acting teacher, and happened upon this amazingly pertinent quote:

I was complaining to my mom about this and she said I should ask you. I read in Vanity Fair that this hot new talent, an 18-year-old actress called Anne Hathaway, had wanted to do Broadway but wasn’t cast because she was too tall. Her height? 5 foot 8. What I wanted to know is if, in your experience with various shapes and sizes of actors, height is a hindrance to actresses if they want to get cast. Because it would absolutely suck if that were the case. So superficial.

Even as a teen, it seems, I was worried about the plight of being a tall actress. My teacher responded with these words of wisdom:

The theater world runs the gamut from directors and agencies that cast specifically for looks, to directors and agencies that cast based on talent, and everywhere in between. Is your cousin dating the casting director? Did you schmooze with the right people? Has so-and-so told what’s-their-name about whozit who mentioned your work to the director? Did you perform remarkably? Was your audition scheduled after the director had a fight with his/her boyfriend/girlfriend? So many factors figure into casting that it is best to just do your best. Let the rejections roll off your back, and the acceptances be wonderful surprises. Height, weight, skin color, gender… there are a few things with which you are born… worry about the elements under your control. Are you well-rehearsed? Have you worked on making your instrument the best it can be? Did you sleep enough last night? Do you have good relations with your family and friends?

Which seems like good advice for anyone, be they old or young, male or female, short or tall.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and sometime actress, who enjoys playing the “Am I The Tallest Person In This Elevator” game whenever she’s at her day job. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

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The Producer From Another World

In preparation for this month’s Theater Pub, The Pub From Another World, we interviewed producer Sunil Patel about his vision and process for this show.

Take Me To Your Leader

Take Me To Your Leader

Who are you, in a hundred words or less.

I am a voracious consumer of stories in any medium—television, film, video game, book, comic, music, anecdote—who loves words more than anything. I love to create new stories, but I also love introducing people to stories I love. I’m a pop culture fan, a geek, a nerd, and when I love something, my first instinct is to share it. As of this night, I am a writer/actor/director/producer. By day, I work in drug safety and write about people with explosive diarrhea.

How did you get involved in Theater Pub?

I made my Bay Area theater debut with the Thunderbirds in 2010, and it was my first time onstage in seven years, so I was excited to get back into theater. And lo and behold, Theater Pub was holding auditions for The Theban Chronicles, and they didn’t even need monologues! I had gone to the February Theater Pub (the Valentine’s Day show), and it looked like a fun group to work with. I was in three of the four plays, and I got a death scene, and I’ve become more and more involved since then.

So, where did this idea come from?

At the Theater Pub retreat, we were asked to come up with pitches for the next year of Theater Pub. I was excited to be a producer, as I had previously only produced halftime shows, but I didn’t know what to suggest. I didn’t know any obscure plays I wanted to put on. I’ve had an idea for a murder-mystery Theater Pub for a couple years, but I hadn’t gotten it off the ground and I wasn’t going to pitch it if I didn’t think I could write it in time. We had talked a lot about inclusivity, though, and it suddenly hit me: I could create a space for new work. I’m a genre fan and a theater fan, but I don’t see a lot of genre theater, so why not give genre writers an opportunity to write for theater and playwrights an opportunity to write genre? I had the sense that the plays I wanted to see—whether or not they were being written—were not being produced because people look down on genre, so I was going to stand up say, “I will produce your genre plays! Let your geek flag fly!”

What defines something as “genre” and specific to these genres, what defines something as Horror, Sci-Fi and Fantasy?

I am by no means an expert and trying to define “genre” will result in hours of heated conversation in the company I keep, but I see “genre” work as work that uses or is informed by established tropes—which is sort of saying that genre is genre. In general, however, when someone refers to “genre” work, they usually mean the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genres, which are the genres that least resemble the real world. These works tend to take place in a world that is definitely not our own for one reason or another: hence The Pub from Another World.

Defining each genre is just as tricky as defining “genre.” To me, horror is not just about the obvious elements—ghosts, vampires, serial killers, etc.—but about evoking that visceral, primal fear. And in the best horror, the scary thing isn’t just a scary thing but a manifestation of a real, relatable fear. Similarly, sci-fi is not just about spaceships and time travel and aliens but about taking real science and extrapolating the implications. Some people prefer the term “speculative fiction,” which handily eliminates the need for science and brings in more dystopic fiction. These imagined futures can tell us a lot about our present.

Fantasy may be the easiest genre to identify thanks to its long, long history; today, the stories of Greek mythology can seem like fantasy, what with gods transforming into animals and people being magically brought back to life. Fantasy can be speculative as well, but, unlike science fiction, it has less basis in reality. My goal with this project was to tell unreal stories that have real emotion.

We don’t often think of these genres as applying to the theater, but there are many examples of each. What are your favorites in each category?

The first horror play that springs to mind is Nathan Tucker’s Dionysus, which kicked off the first Olympians festival. It really captured that sense of visceral horror. Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman had one of the most horrifying jump-scares I’ve ever experienced in a theater. And, although they’re a bit more comedic, I love Tim Bauer’s Zombie Town and Kirk Shimano’s Love in the Time of Zombies; both are great examples of the sort of genre theater I’d like to see more of.

I haven’t seen a lot of sci-fi theater, but I read a lot of great sci-fi scripts on the reading committee for Cutting Ball’s RISK IS THIS experimental theater festival a couple years ago. Consider for a second the fact that sci-fi theater is considered “experimental”; could that be why we see so little of it? Two of my favorite scripts—which have received readings but no full productions, to my knowledge—were Garret Groenveld’s The Hummingbirds, a wickedly funny Brazil-esque tale set in a bureaucratic dystopia, and Richard Manley’s This Rough Magic, which uses science fiction ideas to examine basic human truths about how we interact with our families and people in general. I also think Josh Costello’s Little Brother (adapted from the Cory Doctorow novel, produced at Custom Made Theater Company)—one of my favorite plays in recent years—counts as near-future dystopian sci-fi.

I also haven’t seen a lot of fantasy theater, although one of my favorite theater experiences was a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The best example of the sort of fantasy theater I’d like to see was Stuart Bousel’s Giant Bones (adapted from Peter S. Beagle short stories), as it transported the audience to a fantasy world and told stories as compelling as any in the real world.

As the producer, you have a lot of inside knowledge of this event- what are some things you’re really looking forward to sharing with the audience.

Personally, I’m just looking forward to sharing all eight plays with the audience, since they’re all very different and I think there’s something for everyone. I’m also very excited about my cast, since most actors play multiple roles, and I think it will be a real treat for the audience. AJ Davenport, Colleen Egan, Peter Townley, and Olivia Youngers all play three roles, no two alike. But with regards to inside knowledge…in Audrey Scare People Play, the monster, Scare People, is described as being “an octopus monster with wings,” and Meg O’Connor is attempting to make that costume. So I can’t wait to see it myself.

Did the unusual subject matter pose any particular challenges to the process?

See above re: octopus monster with wings. For the most part, however, no one wrote anything too outrageous because they were conscious of the limitations of theater and Cafe Royale specifically. You can do genre theater without a lot of special effects!

This show has a teaser at a bookstore. Tell us more about that and how you made that happen.

I have a good relationship with the people at Borderlands, and my original pitch included the preview reading because people who shop at a genre bookstore are more likely to see a night of genre theater, and vice-versa. It was a way to benefit my favorite bookstore and my favorite theater-in-a-bar. I floated the idea past Alan Beatts, the owner, and he was very receptive. And, to my surprise, he immediately suggested using microphones to broadcast throughout the store and draw people toward the reading and recording the reading as a podcast, which I hadn’t even considered. He wanted to make this the event it deserved to be.

We know you don’t drink, so what’s your favorite thing to order at the Cafe Royale on Theater Pub nights?

Coke. It’s the nectar of the gods. Not the Elder Gods, just the regular gods.

Don’t miss The Pub From Another World, playing one night only on May 20th, at 8 PM, for FREE, at the Cafe Royale!

From Tripple L to M4M: Stuart Bousel Talks About His Life With The Bard

In preparation for our next production, a scaled down version of Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure opening on Tuesday, August 14th, director Stuart Bousel talks about his previous tangles with the world’s most famous dead white male.  

Like many directors, I have a love-hate relationship with Shakespeare.

I love him in that he’s an amazing writer who has left us almost forty plays, many of which are masterpieces and all of which are eminently performable, and because these plays are the magical combination of incredibly universal and public domain, his work is a sort of lyrical playground for any director looking to put on a production where he or she can flaunt their innovative choices while still taking advantage of a several centuries long pedigree. Of course, there in lies the problem: these plays have been around for so long and are so well known that it’s somewhat impossible to just put them on as plays, and when you do so, inevitably, half your audience comes in with expectations that can have little to nothing to do with your production.

The first Shakespeare play I ever directed was his lesser-appreciated romantic comedy, Love’s Labors Lost, or as I like to call it, Tripple L, a play I adore, in part because it’s one of the rare, truly “original” plays Shakespeare wrote (most of them come from historical or mythological sources), and also because there’s something youthful and charming about it that makes me think it was, for Shakespeare, what SubUrbia was for Eric Bogosian or This Is Our Youth was for Kenneth Lonergan: that charming, quasi-autobiographical play you write about being good looking, reckless and having nothing to do but get wasted, flirt and act like you know everything about the world. Hence, when I directed my production in 2006, I re-set the show in a modern San Francisco nightclub, scored it with pop-music and costumed it with trendy clothes and an eye towards contemporary realism, making it about the people I knew. At the time, I figured this would be my one and only Shakespeare foray.

The trouble is, Shakespeare is sort of an addiction, and once you find your gateway play, it’s hard not to be tempted to do another one. And then another one. I did Hamlet next because, well, why the hell not, right? And that’s when I first figured out (as many people do on their first production of Hamlet) that there are some shows you do knowing virtually everyone who sees it is going to have “their version” in mind and that in their head it’s going to be superior to whatever you do. Which means you might as well go hog wild and that’s what I did, setting the show in modern times, once again, having actresses play the men and actors play the women and a terrifying seven foot tall ghost in what could best be described as Japanese horror flick drag. To date, it’s actually one of my favorite shows I’ve directed, being almost entirely wrapped in my own particular brand of experimentalism and cloaked in Bousel-ian touches: abrupt acts of violence, monochromatic color schemes, romantic suicides, homo-erotic undertones and surprise redemptions.

My next two Shakespeare productions were A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, both for Atmostheatre’s Theater in The Woods, an annual summer production staged in a Redwood preserve near Woodside, California. Both shows were exercises in charm and period theater, the first staged as a Regency era bittersweet romantic comedy, the second a more experimental foray into tragicomedy set in the early 18th century Massachusetts Bay Colony. Of the two, I personally think Midsummer was the more successful (you really just can’t beat setting that play in an actual forest) but on some level it’s virtually impossible to mess up that show unless you really try (and that said, I’ve seen it happen) and the fact is I learned more from Twelfth Night, which was a reminder that directors should play with these classics but never lose site of the story they are telling and what that story’s emotional core is for them.

Which set me up for directing Merchant of Venice, a production that, as of this writing, is still playing at the Gough Street Playhouse (home of the Custom Made Theater Company), having just been extended for another two weeks. In some ways a return to form for me, my Merchant is a sprawling commentary about the world of modern business and how its various social dramas of status and exploitation are played out in nightclubs and bars, break rooms and boardrooms. There is a light motif of pop music, drug and alcohol abuse, and retro fashion, setting the play in the 1960’s, 1980’s and contemporary world all at the same time, while preserving many of the antiquities of the text and finding numerous sight gags in the use of current day technology. To me, it’s the best Shakespeare I’ve done yet, using narrative to study the contrasts and comparisons between a time and society we think of as so removed from our own- and yet with which I think we have a lot in common. A lot we probably aren’t terribly proud of.

For the Pub’s Measure for Measure, however, I may be foraying back into the realm of charming, albeit this time with more edge than previously, as Measure packs a dirtier, nastier punch than Midsummer or Twelfth Night. Last year I had the honor of adapting Henry IV and V into The Boar’s Head, in which I also had the honor of playing Ned Poins. Something I loved about the show, directed by Jessica Richards, was how we moved throughout the Bar, which was transformed, through the text alone, into the Boar’s Head tavern from the plays, with only two moments of stepping away from that infamous East cheap locale so that Henry IV could bemoan his vanishing son and later die of unknown causes on the pool table. This time around I knew we shouldn’t do another show set in a pub. There are only so many times that could happen, even in Shakespeare’s vast canon, and the sooner we set a precedent that there were no precedents, the better it would be in the long run if, as it seems we intend to, there was to be an annual Shakespeare play at the Pub. When Measure for Measure was first suggested it seemed like an excellent fit because it would, like all Shakespeare plays, defy expectations even as it created them. Plus, it was an unusual choice, a play not frequently done or particularly well known, and so liberating myself and the cast to do with it what we would. Ironically, it’s going to be the first Shakespeare play I have ever directed that will be costumed in 16th century clothes, but the traditional take ends there.

Something I have discovered while putting together an 80 minute version of this show (that I now affectionately refer to as M4M) is that I’d actually love to do a full production sometime. We cut a lot of material and characters to make this play flow as smoothly and slickly as possible in the bar, and some of that is stuff I’d really like a chance to play with. But I’m also now completely hooked and going through a love phase with Shakespeare, so it may be a while before I allow myself the luxury of directing a second production of any of the shows I’ve done so far, when there are so many left I’d like to sink my teeth into.

In the back of my head, I’ve been considering both King John and Henry VIII for quite some time, and recently it was put into my head by a producer friend of mine to consider Romeo and Juliet. The pre-production phase for a production of The Tempest has been going on for about three years now and some part of me is always fantasizing about Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, Cymbeline. I have no real desire to direct Two Gentlemen of Verona or Much Ado About Nothing and yet if offered the chance, I wouldn’t turn them down because I see how both could be lovely shows and I have ideas. Which is the problem. I have ideas for all the shows. So do most directors.

And once you open that door for us, it can be a really difficult one to close. 

Don’t miss Theater Pub’s Measure for Measure, playing four nights at the Cafe Royale (August 14, 20, 21, 27) and one night at the Plough And Stars (August 22), always at 8 PM, always for free.