Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: It’s Not Locavore Theater if the Recipe’s From New York

Marissa Skudlarek undergoes a rite of passage for any Bay Area theater blogger: writing a “What’s the Matter with ACT” column.

Last Saturday (which also happened to be my birthday), we Theater Pub writers met at Café Flore for our semi-annual Blogger Conclave. We drank mimosas, patted ourselves on the back for having completed another successful half-year of blogging, and expressed gratitude to our readers for being interested in what we have to say.

We also decided that, from now to the end of 2014, the blog will tackle a new theme or subject each month. For July, we were inspired by the Independence Day holiday to think about the organizations and institutions that “govern” the local and national theater scene. Claire‘s and Ashley‘s posts on Theatre Bay Area started us off… you may also see posts about institutions like Actors’ Equity or the Dramatists’ Guild later this month.

American Conservatory Theater (ACT), San Francisco’s wealthy flagship regional theater, may not be a “governing” institution like the aforementioned, but it’s big and it’s powerful and it exerts a disproportionate influence. And like Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the colonists*, I’ve got some grievances about this Big Powerful Thing to get off my chest.

(I should note that ACT began its 2013-14 season with a production of 1776 that proved controversial once people realized that the season contained just one female writer (Marie-Hélène Estienne, co-adaptor of The Suit) and that 1776 is a disproportionately male-heavy musical: ACT’s production featured 24 male and 2 female actors.)

So, at the blogger brunch, as inevitably happens when a bunch of smart and disgruntled indie-theater folks gather over drinks, we got to complaining about ACT. How it feels so inaccessible and cut off from the wider currents of Bay Area theater-making. How it doesn’t seem to acknowledge the depth of acting, writing, and directing talent based here in the Bay. And I realized that I couldn’t even remember the last time ACT produced a play by a local playwright. I posed the question to my friends at brunch, but we were all stumped.

So I went to ACT’s website and reviewed their production history, whereupon I made the astonishing discovery:

The only local playwright that ACT has produced on their mainstage** in the last seven seasons is their artistic director, Carey Perloff, herself.

ACT produced Perloff’s drama, Higher, in 2012. Prior to that, its most recent production by a Bay Area playwright was After the War, by Philip Kan Gotanda, in spring 2007. It has no Bay Area playwrights in its upcoming season; and by my count, only 2 of the 10 artists it has under commission (Gotanda and Sean San José) are Bay Area residents.

To put this in perspective, I have lived in San Francisco for six theater seasons, and, in all this time, my city’s most well-funded theater, the one most known to and attended by people who don’t consider themselves “theater people,” has not produced a single play by a Bay Area resident. Aside from their own Artistic Director, of course.

To be fair, ACT has produced some Bay Area-themed plays in the last six seasons. It premiered an ambitious musical-comedy adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books – but the writers and many of the stars of that show came from New York. It presented the autobiographical one-man show Humor Abuse, in which Lorenzo Pisoni reminisces about growing up in S.F.’s Pickle Family Circus – but Pisoni is now a New York-based actor, and ACT basically imported his show wholesale from NYC. Perloff and local choreographer Val Caniparoli worked together to create The Tosca Project, a dance-theater piece about the history of the Tosca Café in North Beach – but that wasn’t a play in the traditional sense, and besides, it still makes Perloff the only local writer to get her plays produced on ACT’s mainstage. I should also note, in the interests of fairness, that ACT has commissioned local writers like Peter Sinn Nachtrieb to write plays for its MFA acting students.

It’s pretty galling that ACT ignores local playwrights to such an extent. But most galling of all is the way that the company thinks it is connected to the local theater scene, despite such evidence to the contrary. In 2011, after Tales of the City premiered, Perloff wrote an essay for the Huffington Post describing how this production was an example of what she calls “locavore theater,” “creatively embracing that which is grown and nourished in our own backyards.” She made a lot of high-minded, earnest-sounding points — audiences want to see stories that they feel connected to; a theater can succeed only if it is deeply rooted in its community — while importing the show’s writers and stars from across the country.

Perloff concludes her essay by writing, “Perhaps audiences can be encouraged to revel in vigorous and delicious work that is nurtured closer to home. It might be an experiment worth taking.” Yes, Carey, perhaps they could. In fact, many theater companies in the Bay Area meet with success by doing just that. But will you, and your organization, be brave enough to rise to your own challenge?

*Freudian slip: I initially typed “columnists” instead of “colonists.” True story.

**N.B.: Higher is listed on ACT’s website as a mainstage show, but it was not actually included in subscription packages and was performed in the smaller Theater at the Children’s Creativity Museum, not in ACT’s flagship proscenium space. Which either heightens or obscures my point.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Her play Pleiades, featuring nine local actors and a local director, opens at the Phoenix Theater this August. For more, visit pleiadessf.wordpress.com.

Theater Around The Bay: We’ll Fix The Title In Post

Our guest blogger series continues with a piece by John Caldon, who as a child was perpetually in trouble for talking back. Not much has changed.

Talking to an artist about their developing work is like having the opportunity to critique someone raising a toddler. While on more than one occasion I’ve wanted to tell someone their two-year old is an asshole, I know better. But the same doesn’t hold true for commenting on a colleague’s still infant play. I’m allowed to call that an asshole. I’m encouraged to say it’s a little slow, or socially inept, or a missed opportunity to exercise our constitutional rights established under Roe v. Wade.

As a creator and consumer of theater, 10% of my time is spent making plays and 90% is spent talking about them. That being the case, I reveled in Jeremy Cole’s contribution to this blog series about creative vilification. All too often we hear “that sucked” passed off as actual criticism, when really we want to walk out of A.C.T. and say “that was the best middle school pageant I’ve ever seen!” No offense intended to middle schools anywhere. That being said, more often than not I find myself talking to people I respect deeply about their own work. And not just their work, but work of theirs that was mounted with full knowledge it would somehow fail, such as readings and workshops. The most satisfying part of belonging to a motley crew of independent theatre artists in San Francisco is participating in conversations around developing work, which is unveiled for the public in an unfinished state because as we all know, you can’t finish a play unless you show it to people before it’s finished.

But there’s a vast difference between what I might say after watching AMERICAN IDIOT, which I detested, versus hearing the very first draft of Stuart Bousel’s adaptation of RAT GIRL, which was problematic but deliciously promising. That difference is rooted in my desire to assist in the improvement of a developing work versus my desire to knock someone’s artistic hubris down a peg (or three). And this is where things get complicated. Having staged twelve new full-length plays in the last seven years, five of which I also wrote, I’m very accustomed to giving and receiving notes. I also figured out a lot about the art of feedback as a student in the Creative Writing department at SFSU, the year-long online screenwriting class I’m taking through UCLA, and the various talk-backs I’ve participated in over the years, which have left me with low grade PTSD. Why is that? Because though we’ve all developed processes for acting, writing, directing, designing, producing and managing, what most of us lack is a process for giving feedback. I’m talking about constructive feedback. Feedback designed to help, not hinder. Because burning something down is easy. Building it takes finesse.

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In the interest of building things, I’m writing to give away a process for providing feedback I’ve developed over time. I’ve used it when talking to artists and leading talk-backs and find it allows for capturing all types of input while promoting active conversation. Feel free to use it or ignore it. After all, that’s what we do with most things, right? So here are the four questions I address in the order written to help focus my conversations:

1. What worked and how did it make you feel? What images, language, moments, humor or poignancy really stuck with you?
2. How did it make you think? What themes, ideas and concepts did it prompt you to consider?
3. What was left unanswered? Were there questions intentionally left unanswered by the artist? Was anything confusing?
4. What did not work? What could be improved, changed or cut?

In my experience most people tend to do this in the reverse by starting with what didn’t work, followed by what confused them, moving on to what thoughts their confusion prompted, and finishing up with what they liked. The problem with that approach is twofold.

First, the writer must know whether or not their intended message has landed before any other note is relevant. If the answer to the first question is “I loved your romcom twist on Macbeth in which Lady M becomes a manic pixie dream girl and the King is reimagined as the Mayor of Jersey City,” when the writer was trying to create a heady drama about psychological abuse in modern relationships, then it’s clear from the outset the writer’s goal was not accomplished, or the person giving notes is farther from the target audience than Sarah Palin is from Russia. Either way, any note after that is pointless.

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Secondly, while I’m all for artists having a thick skin and think we should be able to take heavy criticism without shutting down or clamming up, it’s not our job to cut our colleagues so they can get used to the knife. They’ll get enough of that from the world, so feel free to treat them kindly without fear you’ll coddle them into being too soft to take a punch. Starting with what worked is a sure fire way to be heard when you’re talking about what didn’t.

Moving on from there to questions two through four allows for exploring themes, asking questions and dropping bombs. The difference in saving the bombs for last is the receiver can place them within the context of what they already know to be working or not. They’re also far likelier to absorb the criticism than to just grin and bear it.

Providing feedback is a skill necessary to an art form as collaborative as theater. We create, criticize, revise and retry in an endless loop. I’ve found this process for feedback has helped me give notes to colleagues and collaborators. For me it’s also replaced the excruciating talk-back scenario of people being invited to ask random questions, which invariably leads to forty-five wasted minutes I’d rather spend eating glass or cutting myself. Next time you have a talk-back try leading your audience through these questions instead, then write me a long email of profuse thanks.

Or you can just keep doing it how you’ve been doing it. I mean, theater has survived this long with no defined process for giving feedback, so perhaps it’s not working all that badly. Plus there’s something incredibly cathartic about calling a two-year old an asshole.

John Caldon is Artistic Director of Guerrilla Rep, a San Francisco based independent theater company. Check out their latest offering, MOMMY QUEEREST, playing at The EXIT Studio from February 28 to March 29 as the overture to this year’s DIVAfest.

Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: Cool Cool Considerate Men

Claire Rice is a firebrand.... and thinks you should be one too.

Not long ago, a small and angry movement among women theatre artists in the San Francisco Theatre community burst into a buzz of activity when American Conservatory Theatre announced part of its 2013-2014 season. The movement, made up partially of members of the group “Yeah, I said Feminist” and some unassociated individuals, wanted to use A.C.T. as an example of a bad producer that had not taken gender equity into account when doing season planning. One of the biggest sore thumbs was 1776, a musical with a whopping thirteen male speaking parts and only two women. As the rest of the season was released it became apparent that no other show presented in the season would balance out the musical historical sausage fest with an equally heavy female cast. Some called for a boycott (well, girl-cott to be precise). Other less confrontational advocates wanted to use the controversy as an opportunity to open a dialogue with ACT and other institutions.

While the long term reaction to the efforts of such groups as “Yeah, I said Feminist” by A.C.T. and other theatrical producing companies can’t be seen yet, the short term reaction felt, to this author anyway, tepid and unconcerned. Most reactions this author was present for were along the lines of: 1) A great deal more goes into season planning then you know. 2) It is important to look at more than one theatrical season. 3) Calling for a boycott will only make companies retreat away from open dialogue, not actively seek it out. It is more than fair to say that all three are true to a degree, though the air of condescending dismissiveness does leave a bad taste in my mouth.

“What we do we do rationally
We never ever go off half-cocked, not we
Why begin till we know that we can win
And if we cannot win why bother to begin?”

– sung by a Cool Cool Considerate Man

Being a few months out from the initial reaction to the season announcement and having gotten little back from most organizations than the above three points, the righteous anger has cooled considerably. 1776 opened with no picket lines, no angry blog posts, and no noisy reaction from a roused rabble. This member of said rabble got a ticket and decided to see what the fuss what all about.

Even from way up in the nosebleed section it was easy to see that 1776 was beautifully dressed and well performed, but it could not overcome the silliness of its nature to ascend to satirical social commentary. For every beautiful moment in “Mamma, Look Sharpe” or “Molasses and Rum” there were stupefying turns like “He Plays the Violin” and “The Egg”. The two women characters were laughably unnecessary. All of their scenes could have been cut with no harm done.

The Declaration of Independence didn’t make an appearance until the second act, but most of that act was like a breath of fresh air. After all the slow moving dialogue and needless subplots, the audience was pleasantly surprised to find out that the creation of the actual document had very high stakes and was thus entirely interesting and entertaining.

Of course, 1776 isn’t so much a picture of the year the declaration was signed, but the year in which the play was created. In the show, powerful white men stand around complaining that it’s too hot and there are too many flies while young men elsewhere die in a war that is not yet a war. These men make jokes about their own ineffectiveness as a governing body even while some outright refuse to participate. In 1969 Nixon was elected, protesters where being put down by the National Guard, and the long war that was raging in Vietnam had not yet reached it’s apex. It isn’t a far stretch to relate those times to our current ones and find the direct line between where we are as a country and why A.C.T. decided to remount a show like 1776.

I say “a show like 1776″ because 1776 was terrible. What greater signpost to the institution’s oddly backwards looking artistic aesthetic could be better than a remounting of the dusty, shamanistic, odd ball little theatrical that is 1776? It is out of date, filled with pointless little absurdities that simultaneously prevent the show from functioning as social commentary and light entertainment.

I’m going to throw out there that A.C.T. will probably never be able to figure out how to fix its ongoing and odd actor/playwright gender imbalance issues because it can’t buy enough Pledge to make their season selections shine as it is. Unfortunately, girl-cotting one of the biggest non-profit rep theaters this side of the Mississippi isn’t going to do anything. In fact, I propose we do the opposite.

Buy tickets to A.C.T. Get your snarky-ass, bitchy friends to buy tickets to A.C.T. Subscribe to the season. See their shows. Then talk. Talk out loud and a lot about what you see. We must save the regular theatre going audience from the next 1776. We need to open our mouths and start talking. Why aren’t we already? Because we are worried if we say something critical we’ll a) have to defend ourselves and/or b) possibly not get hired by A.C.T  and/or c) be seen as a hot head with nothing but ugly opinions.

A) This is always true. If you put something out there you have to defend why you did it. A.C.T. should have to defend itself too, and not just to granting organizations.

B) Do you want to get hired by A.C.T.? You, who have sat in rooms with me and derided their shows, complained about when you did work there as an usher and were treated terribly, or how when you tried to apply you never even got a “thank you for applying” email. You who STILL can’t stop talking about how much you hated War Music. You who can’t wait for the yearly touring show A.C.T. brings in because it is almost always better then anything else you’ve seen there. You who still fondly remember Black Rider and get chills down your spine when you think about that gun going off the final time, and then you remember…that was a touring show. Do You really WANT to get hired by A.C.T.?

C) Critical writing isn’t about being mean or nice. Art is a conversation. Criticism is the other side of it. Being mean or nice is the flair you attach to your honesty. Keep in mind that it isn’t nice to pander and isn’t mean to ask for something better.

This isn’t a case where someone can say “If you don’t like it, don’t go.” We are leaving it up to tourists and people trying to impress their dates to leave the most lasting impression of A.C.T. with their glowing Gold Star reviews. Why? Do they have over-priced degrees in theatre? Do they have years of theatre going and practical experience? They have no choice but to blindly follow each other about. The papers are shutting down and de-funding their theatrical review sections. Major on-line news sources don’t follow current theatre news (no, that one article on how to recognize a drama kid when you see one on BuzzFeed doesn’t count.) We need to start talking.

Start writing. Start critiquing in that beautiful poetic prose that you are known for. Stop waiting for someone else to say it. When A.C.T. announced they were doing 1776, we should have bought tickets as if it was our duty. We should have all gone with hope in our hearts that we were all wrong. And when we weren’t, we should have publicly criticized A.C.T. And then we should have bought tickets to the next show.

If I learned anything from 1776 it is that you and I need to be like John Adams. We can’t sit back with cool reasoned heads and let the people with the most money dictate to the masses what “art” is. What “good” is.

Cooler heads can twiddle their thumbs while the status-quo monopolizes the theatre going audience with their cool cool considerate theatre. Let’s you and me be hot heads. It’ll be more fun.

WORKING TITLE: To Dance Defiant

Will Leschber looks to the One-Man shows when “All is Lost” “Underneath the Lintel”.

What decisions in life remain the most important? How do we measure it all? What significant artifacts do we leave behind? Is anything we leave behind significant? Or is the struggle and the suffering and the joyous dance in spite of all the dark, the only significance we are afforded? What better way to examine what it means to exist than by taking in a one-man show. In the one-man arena, Theatre and Film can be stripped to their essential parts. No flash, no show-stopping set pieces. We are left with acting and the story that actor is telling. When left in the hands of a singular performer for near two hours one would hope they are up to the task. Luckily David Strathairn and Robert Redford are indeed. Strathairn stars in “Underneath the Lintel” at ACT and Redford’s film “All is Lost” recently opened in theatres. Although they are both one-man shows, the ways in which their stories are conveyed are fundamentally different: one is primarily auditory and one primarily is visual.

Written by Glen Berger, “Lintel” tells the story of a Dutch librarian who finds a very overdue book. This book is in fact 113 years overdue. What the librarian discovers inside this long overdue book sends him globetrotting in search of a wandering myth.

This story is relayed directly to the audience as if we had come to see a lecture at the library. Slideshow included. These brief slides aside, the experience is almost purely auditory. The play could be taken in eyes closed. We listen to the deft Strathairn wind us in his long yarn for an hour and a half and we are happy to be entwined. The feat of the theatrical one-man show is this: keeping an audience entertained vocally for the length of a show all the while maintaining constant character traits, dictating pace, and allowing the myriad of high energy character comedy and deeply felt empathy to be expressed with equal skill. Forget your lengthy 2 minute audition monologue. How about an hour and a half monologue? All of the Librarian’s storytelling is leading us to one thing: the Wandering Jew.

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“Underneath the Lintel…lintel not lentil. If you do not understand this, all is lost,” Strathairn says framing his story. Half way through the show the audience begins to hear the myth at the center. But first for anyone who doesn’t know, a lintel is a piece of wood or stone that lies across the top of a door or threshold that bears the weight of the structure above it. The Wandering Jew myth is born of a small decision made underneath a shop lintel and the weight that decision comes to carry. Our Dutch librarian relays the tale about a Jewish shop owner who, under threat of Roman Guard, sends Christ away from his door where the savior was resting on his way to the crucifixion. For this fleeting decision of self preservation, Jesus curses this Jewish shop owner to forever walk without rest until the second coming. Our lovable librarian in search of this myth is transformed into a wanderer himself in the way that we all are searching for significance through the small moments in our lives. How often does a small decision made under a doorway affect our years to come? Maybe I should have held her closer. Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten into that car. Maybe that job was worth taking. Maybe this all would have been different if not for that fleeting momentary decision. “Though we rarely recognize the place, underneath the lintel is where we stand every day, every moment, of our lives.” (Berger).

Thematically the content of “Underneath the Lintel” is similar to the Robert Redford helmed “All is Lost”. Both concern themselves with human endurance, trials through suffering and small decisions, maybe even not our own, that affect our lives in monumental ways. J.C. Chandor wrote and directed this sparse tale of an elderly mariner who’s yacht is hit by a loose piece of drifting freight.

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This singular occurrence leads Redford, credited in the film only as ‘Our Man’, towards monstrous sea storms, shark infested waters, dwindling supplies and possibly an end without salvation. Or is he saved after all? Those wondrous ambiguous endings get you every time! This modern Old Man and the Sea tale is purely visual. This may go without saying being that film is a visual medium, but in this case, I mean that the film would play equally well with all sound removed. The script is near dialogue free and a mere 32 pages long. However the unfolding visual opera plays for 106 minutes. Normally a page of script equals a minute of screen time, so this expansion is a feat of visual storytelling. So much of the film is framed in close medium shots on Redford, so that every storm wave and rain pelt is felt. Every inch of boat rope is gripped and pulled by the audience along side our drifting Man. Although dialogue is drastically minimal, Redford has his performance cut out for him. At 77 years old he is subtle and as good as he ever was.

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Even if each production can be broken down to its bare “Auditory” or “Visual” category, each is enhanced and made whole by its collective parts. Glen Berger in his authors note says,

“Humanity inevitably finds the strength, despite our mistakes and tragedies, to rebuild, to persevere, to proceed until death does us in. In the face of overwhelming existential bewilderment and terrible suffering to respond with a little defiant dancing (in all its myriad forms) is a very human and wondrous thing.”

In the end its all one man can do.

“Underneath the Lintel” has been extended until Nov. 23rd. “All is Lost” is in theatres now.

CN_Allislost.jpg. 2013. Photograph. Thecouchsessions.comWeb. 5 Nov 2013.
All is Lost. 2013. Photograph. Thenumbers.com Web 5 Nov 2013
Berger, Glen. “A Note from the Playwright.” Underneath the Lintel Playbill. n.d. 14-17. Print.
Berne, Kevin . Underneath the Lintel 2 Web. 2013. Photograph. act-sf.org, San Francisco. Web. 5 Nov 2013.

 

Everything Is Already Something Week 14: Allison Hangs Out with an Oscar Nominee

Allison Page eschews her usual ranting and raving to share a recent interview with someone who blew her mind.

Maybe you’ve never heard the name Aggie Rodgers, and if she walked by you on the street you’d think she was a quirky lady with gray, braided pigtails – what you might not realize is that she was the mastermind behind Princess Leia’s slave costume, Beeltejuice’s striped suit, the rigid clothes that aligned with Nurse Ratched’s rigid personality in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest, and absolutely every piece of clothing in The Color Purple (apart from the hats) for which she was nominated for an Oscar, and rightfully so. Aggie Rodgers has probably clothed most of the actors you’ve watched on the big, bright screen and many, many of the movies you’ve seen throughout your life. Aggie and I met on the set of the film Quitters last month. I was playing a small, but delightful role, and Aggie was clothing all the actors with parts both big and small. We sort of hit it off right away; she mentioned something she had done for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , and after I figured out she meant the MOVIE and not some local production of the play 10 years ago, I asked if I could interview her. And then for some reason she let me come to her house to do it. After a healthy amount of time shootin’ the breeze, we got to talking about her career. And, of course, clothes.

Me: When did you start costuming? Is that the first career decision you made or did you do something else first?

Aggie: No, that’s the first thing I did. I tried to do business in college and failed miserably. They threw me out at Fresno State…I’m not capable of a lot of things.

Me: Yeah, me neither.

Aggie: My mom had done millinery – hats – in the theater in Fresno for this one theater group.

Me: I LOVE hats.

Aggie: I know!

Me: I got myself a book thinking I could learn how to do it – it was too complicated. I immediately quit.

Aggie: Oh yeah, you have to have forms and everything…I had a guy in LA who was from the theater, from Berkeley Rep – and he did all my hats for The Color Purple…I used to watch my mother and just think she was crazy – just like my son thinks I’m nuts. So then I went into the theater department there (Fresno)  and  when I graduated form there I moved up to Oakland to my grandmother’s house…I thought “I’ll go to get my masters degree in the theater at SF state.”, so I applied at state and then I entered it and was working away. It was right at a very hot political time and the school itself was demanding that each student sign a pledge of allegiance to the United States. This would have been ’65 probably. And I said “I’m an American citizen, I already am!”, so all the students rebelled and there were huge riots on the campus – and I am Miss Wimp. I mean I’m not now, but I was really supremely wimpy and I called my mother and I said “Mommy, I cannot go to school here. They’re throwing rocks through my windows and I don’t understand what’s going on.” And she said “Well, what will you do?” I said  “There’s some theater group downtown, I’ll try to apply there.” So I went downtown to 450 Sutter and applied for a job in the costume shop. (Note: ACT is the place to which she is referring.) They were barely starting and the person you saw on the set when you came to meet me – me, this person sitting here – is the same person that went into 450 Sutter. I’ve continued to be ding-y and rather light-hearted and I have a slight Joie de vivre. And I got a job there at 55 dollars a week. 55 fuckin’ dollars a week. So I worked there for 2 seasons and I got so much out of it. And I never designed anything really – I wanted to, but I was completely over my head. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. Rightly so, they never gave me a job. So I went back to school. I called all these different state colleges and asked them how much money they dedicated towards a master’s degree costume budget and Long Beach gave $500 at that time so I enrolled there and got my master’s degree in three semesters and I came back and started in on film. Because really, I’m much more mercurial, and that doesn’t work in the theatre. They want and need very specific things that have to do with a long history of character…especially when you’re dealing with Shakespeare. So, it’s just way beyond my head. That’s why I like Valencia street so much. I mean, I don’t mind going to Neiman’s, that’s fine. But you can change what all these characters look like with just a breath by what you put on them. That’s just not the theater that I knew at that time. So I went to work here in San Francisco for a casting agent. I worked there for a couple years just typing out all those little forms that you have to have to be an extra. At that time there were a lot of films shooting here so she provided all the extras and she had a modeling company attached to her and everything. So I worked there and I kept seeing these women come through that were then called stylists, for commercials.

Me: Doesn’t that make it sound so fancy? “Stylists”?

Aggie: Oh, it totally did. I thought “Far out!” But I think I did one commercial when I worked there and I was just terrible at it. I had to rent a whole lot of scuba equipment. I mean – please – but in truth it really was the costume, but I knew nothing about it, I didn’t know how to work a scuba thing. We got to the set and they said “Well, how does this work?” and I thought “Well, I don’t know how this works.” And I did everything wrong on that.

Me: So how did you end up with your first film?

Aggie: They were interviewing for a movie called American Graffiti and it was a union film, and they had interviewed 8 or 9 people before me. And since I had never done anything just had done costumes in college, the union manager asked me if I knew anything about “dragging the main” and of course in Fresno – that was all we did at that time. So because I had grown up in Fresno and I was only a few months older than George Lucas, I got that job. But it had purely nothing to do with whether I had any talent. Somehow they had enough faith in me, this guy, and so did George. I  did many things wrong. I didn’t know I could ask for the actor to come out a day before filming. I just hoped that everything would fit. I would just take measurements from them on the phone. And George was very specific about certain things. Certain shirts on certain characters, and I just tried to fulfill his wishes and it somehow came together. If you think about it, every day on the film set is a piece of theater. Every day when the camera rolls – it’s the theater. The actor is creating a character right in front of you. And in the old days I preferred it much more because we would go to a theater, a screening room, and actually see the dailies that we filmed that day, and the crew members would really become so much more dedicated to the film. Now people stand around looking at a monitor that’s like…this big. (Makes a small hand signal) it’s so unfair to the actor. I think that the actor is going to really lose the crew’s adoration, which I think has always been part of something that’s been important. Like the audience, you want them to come and see your play, it makes you crazy when they don’t. It’s the same thing for an actor, I think, on a set with these stupid little monitors. And they say “Well, you can see the dailies anytime you want.” Yeah, so I’m going to take it home? I stood on the set for 12 hours and I’m going to turn to my computer and watch for three more hours? I don’t think so. So it’s changed for the worse in that way.

Me: Do you read the scripts?

Aggie: Oh, by heart. Totally. We get the script – we have to help them with the budget and everything – because line producers don’t have a clue, really, what’s going to happen, because they don’t know how to break down the script clearly enough anyway. So before it gets going I was able to tell the line producer that there were 66 changes (in Quitters) just based on the way it was written then, and in the end we had 85 changes.

Me: Wow, that’s a lot.

Aggie: Yeah, because these characters, some of them have 13 changes within the character.

Me: That is a lot of clothing.

Aggie: Oh no. It’s nothing. Even Fruitvale Station, you have to figure that every one of those kids that was up on the platform had on at least $110 – $115 worth of clothes by the time we had to do their shoes, because they couldn’t have brand names on them because there were guns involved and a murder, so there were certain restrictions we had to have. Because – the camera would be right there. There’s the shoe, there’s the sock, there’s the pant, there’s the belt, there’s the underwear that shows, there’s the t-shirt, and another t-shirt then there’s a hoodie, then maybe there’s a hat. So these are things that the young producers who have to deal with money have no clue about. So we get it early – we get the script before we even say “yes, no, maybe so” and then we have to break it down. I wrote to a friend of mine who just did the costumes for The Butler…and her feeling was that there was so much clothing and too many changes but as the script goes by – 38 years go by, so you have to have that much clothing to make those years go by. And if you think about The Color Purple – we have just as many years go by. Whoopi (Goldberg, obviously…is there another Whoopi?) had 91 changes.

Me: Wow. That seems like a lot.

Aggie: Sometimes you’re making all those clothes – like for Oprah (Winfrey, obviously…is there another Oprah?) we had to make most of her clothes because she, too, is zaftig. (Note: She says “she, too” because she previously said that’s how I’M shaped. So…this just in, I’m shaped like Oprah!…oh boy.) And Danny Glover was very tall – not heavy – but there weren’t clothes for him so we had to make all of his clothes. So you have all those different things that go on in film – there probably wouldn’t be that many in a theater piece, now that I think about. But they do have changes in the theater. It creates the scene…when you think about Shakespeare, I think you really only get one hit at it and then they wear it all the way through until they’re stabbed.

Me: A lot of those costumes are so gigantic you don’t even have time to put on a second one in the middle of it.

Aggie: At ACT, sometimes the dressers wouldn’t show up and I would have to stay late and help dress and do fast changes. Many times I’d be standing on the wrong side of the stage thinking “I’m not going to make it!”.

Me: I feel bad any time someone has to help me change because it’s just a mess. Recently I was in a show that had tons of quick changes – which were nowhere near the number you have in films – but I had like 15 seconds for each one and I came very close to some hilarious wardrobe malfunctions (NOTE: One night in particular.  Sorry/you’re welcome to the people who were sitting on the right side of the theater that evening!) So I feel like if I don’t ask you about Princess Leia someone will kill me. Though I am probably one of the only people who hasn’t seen Star Wars.

Aggie: Don’t worry about it!

Me: I saw a drawing of her slave costume – did you do that?

Yowza

Yowza

Aggie: We used an illustrator from the art department. He had been on the previous Star Wars movies and really knew. You know, I had never been a Star Wars fan but I had seen them. They were looking for a local person who could do most of the costumes here so George (Lucas) could have more control over them. I think maybe he might not have been that happy with the English designers he had on the previous films. It wasn’t like “Oh, we have to have Aggie do it.”

Me: We must have Aggie!

Aggie: Yes! Oh my God. I pretend that sometimes. If we could have pulled off  25 yards of silk flying through her legs we would have done it, but we couldn’t because she had all those stunts. There were stunt ones made out of this soft leather and gel and there were regular bras that were lined and so forth. It was a lot of fun.

Me: I feel like that would have been a slightly stressful thing to work on. It seems gigantic, right?

Aggie: But you know, you have a lot of people working with you, it’s not like I’m by myself exactly.

Me: I feel like you don’t get stressed out very easily. You seem like such a calm person.

Aggie: Ohhh, I do! And I yell and I’m an asshole. I can do it! But as I’ve gotten older…I feel like I’m better at sizing up the situation. Especially on something like Quitters – just letting shit go. It’s not about the ego, it’s jut about the shot. And it used to be, when I did these larger films, it was about the shot but it was what I could put in it. I don’t know, I’ve been very happy with the films I’ve gotten to do, and honestly a theater person would have been thrilled to have had the same kind of career in the theater that I’ve had in film.

Me: Yeah! And you have – how many Oscar nominations do you have?

Aggie's costuming efforts for The Color Purple were rewarded with an Oscar nomination

Aggie’s costuming efforts for The Color Purple were rewarded with an Oscar nomination

Aggie: Just one!

Me: That’s all you need! You don’t really need another one – you still have that one.

Aggie: I know, it’s totally true! And I’m glad it was for that particular film.

Me: That must have been a really bizarre experience – did you go?

Aggie: Oh, of course! And my husband came.

Me: Did you wear something really magnificent?

Aggie: I wore a Yohji Yamamoto outfit – I was very much into Japanese clothes. I still have it! I’m trying to keep it for my older son’s fiancé. I tried it on her when she was here last and she looked fantastic.

Me: That’s amazing.

Aggie: But, ya know, it’s so political now, to even get nominated. And the Academy is so difficult. There’s such a European presence in the costume department because just like we think in the theater “Oh, I want to go see a Shakespearean play with all those 20 yards of silk and the skirt!” – that’s generally what wins. Big skirted period pieces. I mean, I liked last year, I liked those gowns in Anna Karenina. Just stunning, because she had taken much license and made it like a 50’s Dior gown rather than to the period, where some people will only do just exactly what would have been worn.

Me: Have you done a period piece?

Aggie: No, I’ve done more things that were like American Graffiti. Things you don’t really have a big budget for. The Color Purple and Return of the Jedi were the two biggest budgets I had. I don’t need to do that anymore. I think if I tried to do that now it would be scary, because that department can either make or break those films.

Me: Do you purposely choose smaller stuff now?

Aggie: I do. I don’t want to do anymore studio pictures…I try not to do movies that have guns in them. But even Fruitvale had guns, so I can’t always get away with that. I wanted to do Fruitvale no matter what. I would have cried if I hadn’t gotten that movie. So, I eliminated myself from a lot of shit. I don’t want to see any more “black man holding a gun”. I’m over it. I try to just work on things that I would actually go to.

Me: That’s a pretty good rule…have you ever just quit on anything?

Aggie: No, but I have been fired!

Me: Have you?!

Aggie: Yeah! I’ve been fired twice. It was pretty good. I got fired off of Stuart Little. I prepped for that movie for like three months. They finally gave me Geena Davis on the Monday before the week she’d have to start. She’s over 6 feet tall, you cannot buy anything for her. There are no clothes in any costume department that had just been waiting for her to put on in a little movie. So on Monday we started making her clothes and on Wednesday we had a test and the director didn’t  like how she looked and on Friday I was gone! But I really didn’t care because I had a producer friend who had called me about a Denzel Washington picture called The Hurricane and I had said “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m busy” but I called him up and said “Did you ever get a costume designer for your show?” he said “No”, and I said “Well, I’m available!” so then I went off and did that. Much more my kind of movie, really. I had worked for Norman Jewison before and I was honored to go back and work for him again. And I can’t say that the young man who worked on Stuart Little has done very many successful things.

Me: Ha! So you don’t feel too bad about it?

Aggie: Nope! And one other thing – an Arnold Schwarzenegger picture. I only worked a week on it and then I was gone. I think people realize I’m either going to make it or not. They either like that kind of style or not.

Me: Is there anything you’ve done you wish you could have had more control over?

Aggie: I really would have liked to stay longer on Beetlejuice. But I think it turned out good!

Me: It certainly did! Wherever did you get that striped suit?!

Dear Allison: If You're Reading This, It Means I'm Done Formatting This Article. Finally. Love, Stuart.

Dear Allison: If You’re Reading This, It Means I’m Done Formatting This Article. Finally. Love, Stuart.

Aggie: We made that!

Me: The costumes in that movie are amazing.

Aggie: I thought they were great! But I only had 9 weeks or 7 weeks – it was short. As I was getting ready to leave, like a week before, I mentioned to Tim (Burton) that I was finishing. He said “Well, can’t you stay longer?” I said “Well, they keep telling me I have to leave that day so I took something else!”. I would have liked to have stayed longer on that one. It’s such a great film. I’m not sure I really knew what I was on – does that make sense?

Me: Like you didn’t know it was going to be as awesome as it was?

Aggie: Yeah! At that time they used to just hire you for a certain length of time and you could only work as long as that was. That was your contract deal.

Me: Is it not like that anymore?

Aggie: No.

Me: So…you have done more than one movie with Jack Nicholson, right?

Aggie: Yes!

Me: What’s he like? Is he awesome?!

Aggie: Oh my God! Absolutely! On Cuckoo’s Nest they took a chance on me. I had only done American Graffiti and The Conversation and then I went to work on Streets of San Francisco – cash, money – and then they hired me to do Cuckoo’s Nest. I was down in LA and I was looking at Goodwills to find jeans for Jack (FREAKING NICHOLSON) and I could never find any, and I knew I didn’t want to buy new ones and they told me about this guy, I called him up and I said “I have this actor, I just have to have a couple pairs of pants for him, here are his sizes.” He sent me two pairs of jeans. When Jack came up to Oregon for the fitting, that’s the first thing he said – “Let me see the jeans.” So he put on the jeans, both pairs fit him perfectly and that was fine, so then I was fine. That was a magic film to work on.

Me: I’m sure it was! I watch it…regularly.

Aggie: Especially – I mean, it comes from a theater piece! I had seen it in San Francisco and a year or two later I got to do the film. And then, Witches of Eastwick

Me: I LOVE WITCHES OF EASTWICK!

Aggie: I saw the book in the library the other day and thought maybe I should get that out and read it again. The movie was great. Great director. He made a mistake after – the next film he did after was a film about a boy who had some illness that could be healed by some kind of oil or something – and that was it after that. Witches was a Warner Brothers film and it was very complicated politically. They had cast Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer, and given them their parts and then they cast Cher in Susan Sarandon’s part and gave Susan Sarandon a part she didn’t particularly want, so then Jack (FREAKING NICHOLSON) really clicked into gear and he would have them over to his flat and they’d party and play and have a great time. And the women really got together, really tightly. They knew that Susan had been thrown a bad bone. But Cher really rose to the occasion. They were his (Jack’s) girls.

Me: They were all great in it.

Aggie: They really were. And Jack is the first one who started calling me “Aggs”. I was always either Agnes or Aggie but he started calling me Aggs and that stuck quite a bit.

Me: That would be okay to say! “Ohh, Jack Nicholson just gave me a nickname, no big deal!” (NOTE: I’m a real nut about Jack Nicholson, it seems.)

Aggie: He’s a very relaxed person. He doesn’t have to have one person do all his clothes or anything like that.

Me: So why, if you were doing all these big Hollywood movies, have you always lived in the Bay Area?

Aggie: My husband. He doesn’t like LA.

Me: Me neither.

Aggie: And my grandmother grew up in Oakland – my mother in Walnut Creek. And the films I got started on up here were much more my kind of thing. They were films I would actually have gone to the movie theater to see.

Me: Do you have a favorite?

Aggie: I think The Color Purple.  I just got to do so much stuff – making all those clothes. It’s hard to do now. People do, do it though.

At this point her husband arrives along with a friend of theirs who has a delightfully thick accent that sounds exactly like Sean Connery. They came bearing cookies, so naturally we sat around eating cookies for a while.

I’m about to turn 29, and like everyone else on the planet, I feel like I could be accomplishing more. I mean, it’s not like I’m just taking naps all day and building forts out of couch cushions (not that I don’t do that from time to time) but I think it’s only natural to feel like you’re behind, but for some reason, my afternoon with Aggie reminded me that time may not be this thing that’s always working against me. Sometimes it can be a tool for a long, fantastic life and career. Ya know, like 40 years in filmmaking.

You can find Allison on Twitter @allisonlynnpage and you can check out the rest of Aggie’s amazing list of films at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0345888/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: A Decade of Loving “Arcadia”

Marissa Skudlarek dissects the deepest of all love affairs: that of a fan with the work they love the most.

“Septimus, what is carnal embrace?”

“Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.”

Ten years ago, I read the opening lines of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, and fell in love. This wasn’t merely a playwright’s platonic love for a skillfully written script. No, I was a high school junior at the time, and I developed a massive crush on Septimus Hodge, the character who makes such a witty quip about the meaning of carnal embrace.

Spare me your Heathcliffs and your Mr. Darcys – for me it has always been Septimus and Septimus alone. He’s a ladies’ man, quick-witted, amusing, and rakish. But at the same time, he is capable of profound insights: “When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.”

In the play, Septimus is hired as tutor to the teenaged Lady Thomasina, who turns out to be a math prodigy. I identified with Thomasina, too, the way that I always identify with clever girls in works of fiction (Hermione Granger, say, or Roald Dahl’s Matilda). Being a smart girl, Thomasina naturally develops a crush on wonderful, sexy Septimus. He responds with mixed signals: he kisses her, but refuses to go to bed with her.

Yet, after Thomasina dies in a tragic accident, Septimus withdraws from the world and dedicates his life to investigating her mathematical theories. What greater proof of love could there be? Septimus may tease Thomasina, but deep down, he respects her. And he may sleep with other women, but it’s Thomasina who he loves. He admires her insight, her curiosity, all the essential traits of her personality. He loves her not in spite of her intelligence, but because of it. And when I was a gawky, bookish fifteen-year-old girl, that idea was very, very powerful.

There are many other reasons I love Arcadia: the script is brilliantly constructed, sparkles with epigrams, and expresses a perspective on life that I find both true and moving. But my original obsession was with Septimus and Thomasina. Perhaps I even took my identification with Thomasina a little too far: I made a point of rereading Arcadia on the night before I turned seventeen, because Thomasina dies in a fire on the eve of her seventeenth birthday. Yes, I feared dying in a fire that night, too! (This may make more sense if I explain that the night before my birthday is the Fourth of July, and people were shooting off bottle rockets nearby.)

And I still love Arcadia, though in recent years I’ve come to see it with a more critical eye. Even though it contains some excellent roles for women, it can also be criticized on feminist grounds: it’s a “dead girl play,” one of many in the dramatic canon that derives its emotional power from killing off a young female character. And, as a teenager, I found Thomasina and Septimus’ relationship wildly romantic – but, to my adult eyes, it looks kind of shady. My reaction has shifted from “Get over yourself, Septimus, and go have sex with your 16-year-old student!” to “Septimus, thank God you only went as far as kissing her.”

Yet, in ten years of loving Arcadia, I had never seen it staged. Though it’s a popular play at colleges and community theaters, years went by without my being in the vicinity of a production. Then, too, I didn’t want to be disappointed in the play when I did see it. I refused to attend a recent local production because I deemed the actor playing Septimus too old for the role – to see him would have dashed my girlish romantic dreams.

Then ACT, here in San Francisco, announced that Arcadia would be the closing production of their 2012-13 season. My feelings about this were as mixed as the jam in Thomasina’s rice pudding. Carey Perloff is famed for her productions of Stoppard plays, and ACT’s budget and resources would surely allow them to cast appropriate actors (i.e., they’d be able to find a young, cute Septimus). However, ACT is far from my favorite Bay Area theater company; I’ve seen some good shows there, but also some dreadful ones, such a dire production of Racine’s Phèdre helmed by Perloff herself. My optimism and my burning desire to finally see Arcadia prevailed, though, and I bought tickets to ACT’s production.

I’d always thought of Arcadia as a sprightly, fun script to read, but watching it, it seemed longer and talkier. It’s never dull, but it’s definitely a three-hour play of intricate complexity. However, seeing the play staged made me gain new respect for Stoppard’s dramatic construction. At the start of the play, there are dozens of unanswered questions; by the end of the play, everything has been tied up, to dazzling effect.

Thomasina was played by Rebekah Brockman, a student in ACT’s MFA program. Presumably, Brockman is in her twenties, yet she made an utterly believable thirteen-year-old, fidgeting and tucking her feet up under her as she sat in a chair. Meanwhile, to play Septimus, ACT imported Jack Cutmore-Scott, a New York actor who had understudied the role on Broadway. And yes, he’s cute. But more importantly, he gave a very human portrayal of Septimus. On the page, Septimus can come off as almost too good to be true – that’s why I developed a crush on him. But in Cutmore-Scott’s portrayal, Septimus wasn’t always in control of the situation. Though his quick wit soon enabled him to regain his equilibrium, he also had moments of vulnerability and confusion.

The production wasn’t perfect. Indeed, the night I saw it, there was an understudy in the role of Bernard Nightingale. His English accent was shaky, and he had to shout “Line!” several times. But it didn’t ruin the play.

Tom Stoppard has revealed that at the end of Arcadia – where modern music plays as the characters dance a Regency waltz – he wanted the song to be the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” That’s always been my favorite Stones song, I think because its lyrics acknowledge that life is not some Arcadian idyll and yet the music grooves and swells and exults. Thematically, it makes a perfect match for the final moments of Arcadia.

All right, then: you can’t always get what you want. (Even Stoppard couldn’t get what he wanted: he couldn’t use that song at the end of Arcadia because it’s not a waltz.) The Arcadia production at ACT wasn’t perfect, and Septimus Hodge doesn’t exist in real life. At the same time, I saw Arcadia with my boyfriend, who loves the script as much as I do, and is pretty special in other ways too. I had to wait ten years to see Arcadia; I also had to wait ten years to meet a man who’d love me for my intelligence. It was worth it, both times. If you try sometimes, you get what you need.

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