Cowan Palace: Hi, I Have Anxiety

This week Ashley attempts to wrestle the bear that is anxiety.

Remember that alphabet letter word name association game? The one your summer camp counselors/RAs made you play? You know, you have to say your name and something you’d bring to a picnic starting with the letter of your name? Like I’d say, “Hi, my name is Ashley and I’m bringing “apples” to the picnic!” Well, secretly I’d think, “Hi, my name is Ashley and I’m bringing anxiety to the picnic and I’m worried we won’t have enough food or blankets and that people will hate it… but I’m also glad you guys are bringing some snacks.”

See, I’ve been battling anxiety in its many shapes and sizes my whole life. Since before I even knew what the word meant. And at times it has been difficult to manage. The familiar, heavy pit in my stomach, the racing heart, and the restless nights have become a daily reality. I’ve learned to hide it most of the time and often my only tell is the unfortunate red hives that make themselves at home on my chest when I’m feeling that good ole anxious feeling. I’ve stayed away from medicating myself because my tolerance for things seems to ride both extremes (you should see what one Tylenol PM can do to me and what heavy prescription muscle relaxers can not do to me!) so I’ve had to try and come up with creative solutions to keep those anxiety waves at bay.

Acting proved to be a most effective tool. Getting the chance to escape and focus on the one thing that I was most passionate about helped my balance. When I hated my job or something in my personal life and it was causing me a lot of useless stress, I depended on whatever show I was involved in at the time to be the light at the end of my dark tunnel. Unfortunately, due to other life stuff, I haven’t really been able to use that technique in almost two years. And, there were certainly times it may have helped! But it also made me develop other coping skills and strategies. So, in case you find yourself struggling with some unease, perhaps this can help:

Walk Like Your Anxiety Depends On It

Along with often being anxious, I can also be secretly super competitive. And getting one of those bracelets to track my steps has been awesome. The walking helps me to relax and think things through. I also tend to be more willing to create possible solutions when I’m moving rather than letting myself collapse in bed weeping in despair (though, sometimes that happens and it’s okay). Plus, I love trying to constantly beat yesterday’s personal goal and having a tiny, wearable device assist in that challenge can be pretty fun.

Sing Like Your Anxiety Depends On It

I sing every day. It simply makes me happier. When I feel super overwhelmed and can make myself sing along to something, I instantly feel better. Plus, I don’t need a stage or an audience but can still manage to feel as theatrical as I need to feel.

Pic One

Go Back In Time

Okay, this is a weird one. But try to stay with me. Whenever I can remember to do it, I think of a time in the past where I was really struggling with something and letting my anxiety get the best of me. I then try and send past Ashley some words of encouragement. Now, when I’m feeling emotional, I imagine what future Ashley is saying to me and try to step back. It’s always amusing that something that feels like the world one day can often result in a forgettable issue with a little time. Getting some perspective helps.

Watch Netflix Like Your Anxiety Depends On It

That’s pretty self explanatory. It may seem like a bad escape but sometimes you gotta allow yourself to zone out and just binge watch the crap out of some show. The trick is to not feel guilty about it. Then go do something completely different. Like a walk or something.

Make A Schedule And Actually Stick To It

Structuring my day helps me to feel like I have control over it. The more I can pack into my planner, the better. It’s often my idle, free time that allows my mind to wander to anxious places. Even if it’s simply writing a few things to do with a basic timeline, it can improve my week.

Pic Two

Tell One Person. Or Just Everyone

This isn’t an invitation to write some vague, passive aggressive Facebook post but if you feel better after sharing your feelings, I support it. Sometimes formulating your concerns and voicing it to the right audience can help you move forward. Maybe try honestly opening up to one person before seeking social media guidance or write a Theater Pub blog about it.

Collapse Onto A Messy Bed Like Your Anxiety Depends On It

Some days, I just have to own my feelings in a big way. And sometimes my coping mechanisms just aren’t enough. So if that means weeping for an hour to get them out, I go for it. Truly, I think identifying what you’re feeling is half the battle, taking responsibility for it is the other.

And so I leave you with those seven thoughts. That, and a request to be kind and patient with each other. Like, bring that to the name game picnic and then go have an actual picnic. Until next time!

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Shoulda Taken That Left Turn at Albuquerque

Dave Sikula outlines his own job description.

I'd like to see Bugs's Falstaff.

I’d like to see Bugs’s Falstaff.

As I’ve mentioned once or twice on these pages, I’m a director. In that role, I feel like I have two jobs. The first is to watch the actors, see what they’re doing, and tailor the action to their strengths (within the context of the script, of course). I’ve long found that if I try to get an actor to do something that isn’t organic to them, whatever it is isn’t going to work. If I can match the action to the actor, though, I find they can do anything.

My other job is to get the hell out of the writer’s way. When I read a script, I have to figure out both what it’s about (both on the surface and underneath) and the best way to get that message/story/metaphor/whatever across. Sometimes it’s by being big and bold, sometimes it’s getting tiny and intimate.

Now, this is not to say that there’s only one way to do any play. My Hamlet or Odd Couple or Sweeney Todd is going to be different from any other director’s, since we see different things in those plays that we’ll want to bring out. Even if I do something a second time, I’m going to do it differently from the way I did it the first time; different actors will bring out different values and moments and I’m an older and different person. The Long Day’s Journey I’d do now would be different from the one I did in 1997. (Though it would still be uncut.)

Even saying that, there may certainly be times where I’d want to deconstruct something or deliberately go against what’s on the page in order to make a statement about its values needing to be questioned or criticized. I have ideas about Chekhov that go against the way his plays are usually performed (though, ironically for this example, completely in line with what I think he intended), and in grad school, I devised a Brechtian deconstruction of You Can’t Take It with You (a play I really like) that highlighted and commented on its theatricality, artificiality, and place in the development of situation comedy.

So while there are obvious exceptions, most scripts intended for the commercial theatre—especially from a certain period—are pretty obvious as to what they’re about, and any attempts to screw around with them are foolhardy, pigheaded, and probably doomed to failure.

My own most notable experience here is when I directed The Fantasticks. I originally wanted to shake some of the rust and dust off of it; to lose some of its fussiness and make it more “relevant” to a modern audience. There was, I thought, a stodginess to it that needed to be lost. Anyone who’s directed the show knows that the licensor includes what is virtually an instruction manual the size of a phone book* on how to (more or less) recreate Word Baker’s 1960 production, right down to where to hang prop and costume pieces in the trunk.

Jerry Orbach is not included in the instructions. Dammit.

Jerry Orbach is not included in the instructions. Dammit.

(*Note to younger readers: a “phone book**” was a thick volume that contained addresses and phone numbers for every person and business in a designated are.)

(**Note to even younger readers: a “book” was a bound collection of paper upon which was printed a made-up story or accounting of factual events.)

When I got this manual, my first reaction was to sniff “Well, I’m not going to do it that way! My production will be my own!” But the more I looked at the script in conjunction with the manual, the more I realized that to make massive changes just for the sake of making changes was an exercise in hubris. There’s a reason the show has played so well for more than half a century. There probably really is a right way and a wrong way to do it, and I opted for the “right” way. It told the story in the way the authors intended. (This isn’t to say we didn’t tweak things or fit it to the actors; but we didn’t stray far from what was on the page.) The results were one of my proudest productions and fondest theatrical memories. It was a beautiful and touching production (if I say so myself), and I never regretted not having deconstructed it just because I could.

What brings this up? Well, we recently saw a production at one of the major houses in town of a show that could be considered a modern classic of sorts. (The production shall go nameless to protect the innocent.) From the moment it started, though, I knew we were in trouble. In the apparent name of shaking things up, the director (with a number of impressive credits nationally) had decided to put his or her stamp on it, despite anything intended by the creators. The changes weren’t done in the name of deconstruction or postmodernism or commenting on the text; they seemed done just because this director either knew better how to tell the story than the people who created it or was just tired of the “old” ways of doing it.

Let me hasten to add here (in case I haven’t made it clear) that I don’t expect directors, designers, or actors to do exactly what was done in the original production of something (if it’s, as in this case, a revival). Each company and production should be unique and bring a flavor or their own to the mix, while (as I mentioned last time) “coloring inside the lines.”

But this production was just a series of wrong-headed moves that kept denying or contradicting the script and its plot points, both major and minor; not for the purpose of commenting on them, but seemingly just for the hell of it. That the poor thinking extended to a good portion of the casting, as well, will go mostly uncommented on. (And, of course, that almost the entire cast was imported from out of town was inexcusable. There are literally dozens of local actors who could have played any of the roles with equal, if not greater, dexterity.)

One actor reminded me of no one so much as Jerry Colonna (seen in the video below). (To again offer clarification to younger readers, Colonna was a comedian in the 1940s known mainly for his big eyes and bigger moustache. Subtlety was not his calling card.) This isn’t necessarily a problem. I’m a fan of Colonna and his brand of overplaying, but for this role, it was like casting Elmer Fudd as Cyrano. It was almost as though the director, when faced with a choice of what to do in any moment, opted for the wrong one, just to see what would happen, then didn’t explore the alternative.

Certain of my friends will no doubt comment that “Well, you don’t like anything.” I’ll (as always) deny that, but some of the very friends who would say that shared these opinions of the production, so it wasn’t just me.

But, of course, at the end of the evening, the audience leapt to its feet to provide a seemingly sincere and hearty standing ovation, so what do I know? Ya pays yer money, and ya takes her cherce. Although in cases like this, I’m reminded of the late humorist Robert Benchley’s assessment of the utterly inexplicable popularity of the execrable Abie’s Irish Rose in the ‘20s: “This is why democracy can never be a success.”

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Performance Anxiety

Dave Sikula… is nervous?

Last Saturday, I went to the San Francisco Silent Movie Festival to see The Donovan Affair, a 1929 movie that was both silent and not. “How is this possible?,” I hear you not asking. The answer is simple. The Donovan Affair was the first talking picture directed by Frank Capra (he of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life fame). While the film itself is intact (unlike so many movies from that period), the problem is that, in the 75 years since it was made, the soundtrack has vanished.

Considering it’s a movie about a murder investigation with an incredibly complicated plot (a ne’er-do-well is murdered when the lights are turned out during a birthday party – a stunt that is repeated twice, leading to both a second murder and the apprehension of the murderer), without dialogue, any viewer of the film is going to be stymied. Being that sound was recent to the movies in 1929, Capra and company packed it to the gills with talk, especially during the scenes where the lights are turned out and all the viewer sees is a black screen.

The Donovan Affair

The Donovan Affair

Bruce Goldstein, the legendary programmer at New York’s Film Forum, wanted to show The Donovan Affair as part of a Capra retrospective and hit upon the idea of taking the script and having a cast live-dub the movie in real time. The problem was that, not only has the screenplay also been lost to the mists of time, so has the script to the stage play the movie was based on.

While some of the dialogue could be intuited though lip reading, there are plenty of scenes with off-stage characters, actors with their backs to the camera, and the aforementioned blacked-out scenes. After a long, long search, Goldstein located a transcript in the by-then-defunct New York State Film Censorship Board’s archives that, while incomplete and obviously wrong in some places, was complete enough to allow him to proceed. The film was presented to great acclaim, and Goldstein had repeated the stunt a few times (I saw it at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2013), the most recent being the screening at the Castro, where, once again, a cast of live actors, a sound-effects man, and a pianist did the work.

The whole experience is great fun. The actors are skilled enough to tread the fine line of playing things deadpan while simultaneously being just over the top enough to acknowledge both the absurdity of the plot and the peculiarities of early sound film acting. (There are few things on the planet with less animation to them than Wheeler Oakman in The Lights of New York, the first all-talking feature. Coincidentally, Oakman appears in Donovan.)

That's not a still. That's Oakman's actual performance.

That’s not a still. That’s Oakman’s actual performance.

And that, at long last, brings me to this week’s topic: the ways in which we’re influenced by the performances of actors who have preceded us. Now, as good as Donovan’s modern-day cast was (and they were very good, indeed), they had to approximate – if not outright duplicate — the rhythms, cadences, and acting styles of their 1929 equivalents. If they did anything else – commenting on the performances, mocking them, sending them up – the whole thing would fall apart. The joke would be good for about 15 minutes before it stopped being funny. It’s the commitment of the voice actors to emulating the originals that makes it work at all.

All that said, it can’t help but be a little frustrating for those voice actors. Rather than having the freedom to pause a little here or emphasize or downplay something a little more, if they’re going to be faithful to the lip movements and actions of the original cast, they have to color within the lines, so to speak. There’s a certain creativity that is sparked for me (maybe even a freedom) when being restricted as to what I can do in a case like that. I don’t want to say I like directing with a small budget (because having an impressive physical production is nice), but when I’m forced to come up with a theatrical equivalent for something we just can’t afford, that’s when the creativity really starts.

I’m also reminded of this because of my current show, Grey Gardens, which I’ll mention again that you really should see (and that tickets are almost gone – even for our recently-announced extension). Anyone who is a fan of musical theatre has collected more than a few cast albums and listened to them over and over until the songs – and, more importantly, the performances of those songs – get locked into our brains. While this provides entertainment, it also provides a template that’s hard to break out of. Not that there’s only “one way” to perform a number (any more than there’s only “one way” to perform Hamlet or Hedda Gabler or Oscar Madison), but we get those voices and rhythms in our heads and it’s sometimes tough to break away. That said, anyone doing The Music Man, My Fair Lady, or Sweeney Todd is going to labor in the shadows of Robert Preston, Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, and Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou or George Hearn.

No, I don't have my lines written on my hand.

No, I don’t have my lines written on my hand.

I should note here that this is really a condition that’s more applicable to musicals than plays; the number of original casts of non-musical plays that have been immortalized on record (or even film) and listened to repeated times is miniscule. And the nature of musical theatre, with numbers written to be performed at certain tempos in more or less the same timespan as the originals kind of limits the options for later performers. I’m currently singing more or less the same notes John McMartin did in more or less the same tempos and times. I’m not duplicating what he did, but I’m working in a pretty tight structure.

Yes, we all want– and need – to bring our own unique qualities to the roles we play, but the originals are always lurking in the backs of our heads somewhere. Even if we specifically decide to not do what was done of the original cast album, that very reaction is a response. “I’m not going to sing ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right out of My Hair’ like Mary Martin; I’m just not.” That very denial of the template is an acknowledgment of it. Am I saying it’s impossible to bring fresh takes to old roles? Of course not. If that were the case, all you’d need to do is put a CD player on stage and save the expense of hiring actors. There are scores of brilliant Evitas and Roses and John Adamses every year doing things Patti LuPone and Ethel Merman and William Daniels never thought of. But, even if we’re working on original material, we’re either working within the frameworks that our predecessors have established or from the people and things we’re observed in our lives, and it’s that unique synthesis that brings new life to even the most tired and familiar material.

Everything Is Already Something Week 54: The Most Waiting For Guffman Things That Have Ever Happened To Me

Allison Page is still waiting.

“You’re bastard people. That’s what you are, you’re bastard people!”

Even humans with a passing interest in theatre are probably familiar with the magnificent mockumentary Waiting for Guffman. I saw Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer in conversation with Adam Savage a couple months ago and my brain was squealing with delight the entire time.

97799

In honor of that, and of general shenanigans and absurdity, here are some of the most Waiting for Guffman-esque things that have ever actually happened to me in real life:

1) An actor didn’t show up to a performance because he was playing softball, so I had to go around and tell the audience to go home…luckily I knew all of them. ALL OF THEM. It was dinner theater so they still got to eat some rolls and an iceberg lettuce salad.

2) Overheard from one of the other actors in a Shakespeare play: “I feel like as long as I get the gist of the line, that’s close enough.”

3) An actor got drunk, put an audience member in a head lock, and then fell through a window. HE FELL THROUGH A WINDOW. An actual window. Glass and everything. We kept going. Also he broke that guy’s glasses.

4) I was Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Romeo broke up with me right before opening night and I shouted, in absolute sincerity, “YOU CAN’T BREAK UP WITH ME I’M FUCKING JULIET!” I mean…I was like 19. So. What do you expect?

Like this Juliet except fatter, with brown hair and lots and lots of anger.

Like this Juliet except fatter, with brown hair and lots and lots of anger.

5) An actor couldn’t remember, like, ANY of his lines. And in the middle of the show I had to crawl across the stage and off to look at the script and mouth the lines to him. (I did this maybe a dozen times) And then I crawled back on again, mumbling about my contact lenses.

6) I ate Little Caesar’s Pizza before the show and threw up offstage several times, then got dizzy and sprained my ankle from running back and forth, meaning the other actor in the scene who started the show alone, had to improvise fake phone conversation until I stumbled in.

7) Cast mate chased me with a knife “in character” because I stole her boyfriend. Listen, I know, WE’RE BOTH WRONG HERE.

8) I owed someone a favor and they decided to cash it in by asking me to do lights for Bye, Bye, Birdie. (Birdie couldn’t sing, BTW) Which I did, and then they demanded that I come down FROM THE LIGHT BOOTH at the end of the show so I could bow and wave at the audience. It’s a fairly large theater, so I had to descend a ladder and run from the back of the room onto the stage.

9) The fog machine set off the smoke alarm and a bunch of firemen arrived with axes so we had to evacuate the theater and stand out on the sidewalk for 30 minutes. I was wearing a blue helmet and dystopian future clothes.

10) Nuns wearing eyeliner and lipstick and having nose piercings.

11) Being 150lbs and saying the line “I’m 106lbs!”

12) Actors literally saying “Peas and carrots, peas and carrots” in the background, probably loud enough that people could understand it.

13) My character was being assaulted onstage and my assailants were supposed to be tearing at my clothes. I was wearing a corseted dress with more layers under it so they could rip my costume off. The problem was that one of the two actors who was supposed to be disrobing me was my boyfriend and he was terrified some bit of flesh would pop out, so the other guy would grab a piece of fabric and pull it, and my boyfriend would put it back on.

14) Older men with bad eyes doing their own stage makeup and applying a LOT of eyeliner. And blush. Lots and lots of blush.

15) The costumer REALLY wanted to be on stage. Every time an actor was a couple minutes late to the theater, she’d start asking if she should get ready because she TOTALLY knew the part — she didn’t, but I guess she thought she could make it up.

16) The only Equity actor in the show is the one who doesn’t know their lines. Extra points because this has happened half a dozen times.

17) Lead actress fell down and chipped a tooth mid-show.

18) I saw a production of Little Shop where Seymour was 17 years old and Audrey was 50 years old. And he didn’t know any of the words to the songs. Made ‘em up.

19) An actor casting actual spells backstage on the actors she didn’t like. Ya know, because she’s a witch.

Wicked_witch

20) A bunch of the actors hanging out in the men’s dressing room with a bag of coke. The women had no idea what was going on. But it made a lot of sense when we heard about it later.

21) Two actors went out drinking the previous night and got in a fist fight so one of them wore sunglasses through the entire next performance because he had two black eyes.

22) The bed backstage broke in the middle of the show with a giant CRRRAAAACK! so when the bedroom scene happened, it was just a mattress on the floor. I guess the Capulets were on a budget.

23) Oberon WOULD NOT stop smoking stogies in rehearsal. Indoors. He also had two girlfriends and they stood around kissing each other and giggling while we all just waited for them to not be doing that so we could start rehearsal.

24) I was playing an 8 year old but I lost my voice and then sounded like Brian Doyle Murray for the duration of the run.

25) There was a trapdoor on an elevated flat in Scrooge’s house, so that the ghosts (I was Christmas Present and Christmas Past) could just “appear” in the middle of the room. But the flat was only raised about a foot off the stage, and the opening was in the center of it, so we had to get down on our bellies and slither like snakes to get there, and then miraculously do a 90 degree backbend in order to go through the opening. Visions of it collapsing in on me attacked my brain as I scraped several layers of skin of my back each night. But at least I didn’t fall through the trapdoor during a blackout. Someone else did that. “AahhhTHUD.”

Now, go home and bite your pillow.

Allison Page is a writer/actor/comedian in San Francisco. She’s currently producing a sketch comedy show written by 8 year olds. Learn more and be afraid, at killingmylobster.com

Everything Is Already Something Week 53: Things I Actually Said

Allison Page, daring to look back.

I’ve been writing this blog for two years.

YOWZA.

So I’m saying screw it, and doing my version of a clip show. Here are some of the most and least useful things I’ve ever written here:

On how commercial directors sound to me: “Now do it like your eyelids are on fire and your grandma stole your Chex Mix.”

“It’s okay if you’re tired. You’ll be tired sometimes, but it’s worth it.”

“Do sexy people wear sleeves?”

“I hadn’t been listening. Like, at all. Every one of my lines sounded like I was reading it off of a cue card written in wingdings.”

“When asked, ‘What’s the best role you’ve ever played?’ my impulse is to just respond with whichever was the most grueling.”

“When a show closes, I feel a slump. I always have. Like someone’s carefully lowering an Acme anvil down on top of me, and I’m moving in slow motion to get out of the way.”

“Mensa says you’re a doo-doo head.”

“The grass is always greener on some other asshole’s lawn…take a look at your own damn grass, it’s got things that mine does not and vice versa.”

“Maybe I don’t live on the top of Mt. Crumpit, but I do live on the 11th floor of an apartment building in the tenderloin.”

“Maybe that’s it. Maybe I’m the black sheep because I’ve decided I’m the black sheep.”

“Don’t be an ass.”

“While she was doing the most adult thing ever, making a commitment to a man for the rest of her life — I was doing a drunken interpretive dance to Katy Perry’s Hot ’n Cold.”

“Truthfully, when it comes to acting or writing or a bunch of other shit, the only person you can control is yourself unless you have access to a lot of booby traps.”

Musée des arts et métiers, Paris. Machine à écrire portable Corona, 1920.

“Any writer will tell you, the most important thing is to write, and if it is the suckiest thing in the world, just toss it in the digital trash. At least you wrote something.”

“In a time when the theater is always striving to bring more people in, to get more butts in the seats, the last thing that would ever help that would be to limit the types of stories we think should be told and poo-poo the everywoman.”

“This is my writing beard. Do I look smart yet?”

“If you’re going to not base your worth on someone’s negative opinions, you shouldn’t base them on their positive opinions, either.”

“Swearing is a creative choice.”

“You’re taking a lot into your own hands if you self produce, and hopefully that means you’ve worked really hard on the material, and that you have people behind you who really believe in it…and hopefully those people are smart.”

“I cannot work without an outline.”

“Nobody noticed the characters going to the bathroom too much.”

“The odds that you’ll find me at a desk in an office, or selling shampoo, or baking fucking peach pies for cash are pretty high.”

“It’s fantastic to be a last second replacement. Everybody’s really relieved they got someone on super short notice. They may not be expecting much. I mean, they’ve never heard of me. So that means that if I’m even a little good – I’m a savior!”

“I can’t write it’s cold,
I need a pony to write,
I can’t write it’s hot”

“Oh fuck off, Cathy Rigby. Now you’re just bragging.”

“You can appear to be a great producer, but if you’re stage manager or lighting or sound tech or costume person if a total douchebag — it’s going to reflect poorly on you.”

“I don’t need the rubber chicken. The rubber chicken is within us all.”

“Overall I think it’s a cop-out to say that you can’t write anything unless you’re in the mood or feeling inspired. Maybe I say that so that I can convince myself not to wait for inspiration, knowing that I’m so lazy I might never get around to feeling inspired.”

“When you include a bio about yourself, maybe don’t make it a novella.”

“Everything’s a nightmare.”

“It’s okay to laugh.”

“I’d love to fill a yacht with caramel sauce — who wouldn’t?”

“Be the Lisa Loopner you wish to see in the world.”

Allison Page is a writer/actor/person. You can catch her first produced full length play HILARITY at the EXIT Theatre through March 28th.

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: What? And Quit Show Business?

Dave Sikula, having switched places, last week, with Barbara.

The thing that’s foremost on my mind this week is the 99-seat kerfuffle in Los Angeles. I’m sure many of my constant readers are aware of the situation, but for those who aren’t, here’s a precis (as best I understand it). Back in the ‘80s, a plan was implemented in Los Angeles theatres to allow members of Actor’s Equity to act in theatres with 99 seats or fewer at pay rates below Equity minimum. This usually amounted to token payments (in the low single or double figures) for rehearsals and performances. The most contentious part of this was that Equity had to be forced into the plan because of a court order.

Now, I’ll stipulate that, in a perfect world, anyone involved with a theatrical production – actors, designers, directors, technicians, stage managers, running crew, front-of-house staff – would be paid a living wage, but anyone in this business knows that we don’t live in a perfect world, do we? If we get paid at all, it’s a token amount that pays for gas or BART or Muni fare. And that’s fine. There’s an old saying that you can make a killing in the theatre, but not a living; none of us does this to get rich. It’s all about – or should be about – the creative process and the chance to do interesting work.

When I started auditioning for shows in Los Angeles in the late ‘70s, it was (for the most part) not good. The scene was filled with shows that were intended mainly as showcases for people to get agents to do film and television. There was some quality work – at The Odyssey, The Matrix, South Coast Rep; some other places – but most was middling or bad or featured TV and movie stars who wanted to tread the boards, to mixed results. (The Charlton Heston/Deborah Kerr Long Day’s Journey was particularly gruesome, but Dana Elcar, Donald Moffat, Ralph Waite, and Bruce French did an unforgettable Godot; the second-best I’ve ever seen).

Didi, Gogo, Pozzo

Didi, Gogo, Pozzo

Chuck as Tyrone. Not for the faint of heart.

Chuck as Tyrone. Not for the faint of heart.

After the waiver was implemented, LA theatre bloomed and entered, if not a golden age, then an explosion of creativity. Companies sprang up and thrived as actors, both known and unknown were able (to use a phrase I hate) to “practice their craft,” be creative, take artistic risks, and find their own level of success, unhampered by undue financial concerns.

For the last twenty-some years, this system must have stuck in Equity’s craw, and in recent months, they’ve announced plans to get rid of the waiver and ensure union actors are paid, at the very least, minimum wage. Now in theory, who could object to that? Actors should be able to make at least as much as the kid at McDonald’s who runs the drive-thru (a job that actually requires him or her to act being friendly for at least part of a shift), but doing that will drive up production costs to ruinous levels (I’ve read between 5,000% and 9,000%) that will drive a lot of companies out of business – ironically depriving the very actors whom the union wants to be paid for working. It seems Equity’s position is that actual work at small compensation is preferable to no work at minimum wage.

I was stunned to hear that there are 8,000 Equity members in the Los Angeles area. I don’t think there are 8,000 actors in the Bay Area, let along Equity members. (Of course, it seems like a good portion of the Equity actors working here live in New York … ) Now, obviously, not all of those union actors are working on stage, either fully paid or underpaid, but even if half of them were/are doing waiver shows, that half will soon be deprived of work, because the companies that have allowed them to do something with substance (or even something frivolous) won’t be there anymore.

As might be guessed, this proposal is causing large rifts in the LA theatre community, with plenty of actors – and plenty of them famous, if that makes any difference – pitted against their own union. (And let it be notes, the new plan has plenty of supporters.) While both sides are pretty adamant in their stances, Equity isn’t really playing fair, using phone banks to spread, if not misinformation, then incomplete information and deleting opposing comments from their Facebook and other web pages. And, on top of that, even though Equity members will be voting on whether to institute a new plan, it’s strictly advisory, and the union’s board will be free to dump the old plan and put in a new one. (And let me hasten to add, many of the people against the new plan acknowledge that the current one could stand some changes – just not the proposed one.)

Even Hal Holbrook is in favor of the waiver (hey, that rhymes).

Even Hal Holbrook is in favor of the waiver (hey, that rhymes).

Now, even though I’m a member of two unions (which will go unnamed) myself, not only am I in favor of keeping the waiver in Los Angeles, I wish we here had something similar; not because I don’t want actors to be paid, but because the talent pool available to a lot of directors and theatre companies in the Bay Area would rise dramatically (no pun intended). I haven’t been a member of the LA theatre community for over 20 years, but from what I read and hear about it, it’s vibrant, experimental, bold, and, most important, open. Even though theatre space has always been at a premium in the Bay Area – now (when it seems like any building in mid-Market is being replaced by skyscraping condo projects) more than ever – I’d have to think that a move that allowed actors to work in so many venues and with so any company that met the criteria would be a shot in the arm and kick start the golden age of theatre that San Francisco’s been on the verge of for the last 20 years. #pro99

Everything Is Already Something Week 51: What Collaboration Does For Me

Allison Page, collaborating.

I used to be a loner. Picture a grouchy old bearded man in a sweater, hunkered down in an armchair, scribbling away on a stack of paper, occasionally shaking his fist at the sky. Possibly at some point he throws half a glass of bourbon in the face of his wife. That was me, but not a man with a beard. You know, but bearded on the INSIDE. Often, I think people have this idea of what a writer is and immediately they think of Ernest Hemingway. And that’s how you’re supposed to be a good writer, isn’t it? All the geniuses and masters toil away in their own well-crafted solitary confinement – crouched down in their pillow forts where all the pillows are barbed wire, and we tell ourselves that’s how you get to be a writer. That’s how you get to be an artist. AN ARTISTE. That suffering makes your art better is a long held idea. I admit to buying into that at some point. I think we all have – especially when young and impressionable. Anyone who caught the bug of wanting to write books or plays or poems (DEFINITELY POEMS) or to act or dance or paint or sculpt or…I don’t know, whatever you guys are doing – puppetry? Anyone who had that impulse at a young age probably started identifying their artistic heroes and began to define what they wanted to be by taking note of what created the artists they connected to most. That was a hell of a sentence.

Misery worked pretty well for Alanis. Teenage girls of the 90s, can ya feel me?

Misery worked pretty well for Alanis. Teenage girls of the 90s, can ya feel me?

Let’s take young, pink-haired, angry Allison for example.

I’ve known I wanted to be an actor since I was probably 5 years old. At that age I was mostly inspired by cartoon characters – let’s be real, cartoons are fucking great. Actually, I remained inspired by cartoons for a while. Actually actually, I still am. I was the only little girl I knew who wanted to be The Genie from Aladdin instead of Jasmine. Animaniacs was a big deal in my life. I mean, it still is. It holds up. (Garfield and Friends does not. Don’t bother.) Once we start getting into the real people I looked up to, though, it doesn’t take long to start finding the darkness. (If we’re being honest The Genie isn’t actually that happy a character, he just deflects his sorrow with jokes. So I guess the darkness crept in even earlier than I thought.)

By the time I was 14, I was already very into old movies. Yes, I was very cool and popular (lies). It was at that age that I first watched a little movie called Der Blaue Engel, or The Blue Angel. It’s a little German tragicomedy about a teacher who falls in love with a cabaret performer. IT DOESN’T GO WELL. It ends with Emil Jannings dying while regretfully clutching the desk from which he used to teach before the succubus Marlene Dietrich ruined his life because he loved her so much that it turned him into a literal sad clown. SO FUN. And that’s the actual movie that made me want to be an actor. Isn’t that wild? Sorry, spoilers in case you haven’t had time to catch this movie since it came out in 1930. But really, it’s beautiful and cruel, you should see it. That was sort of a sidebar because I’m really talking about writers, but I was an actor first so there ya go. When I was 16 I decided I finally had a favorite play. It’s still my favorite play. What is it?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Yikes.

Quite a choice for a teenage mind. But just because something is dark, does that necessarily mean it came from a person who is feeling dark? When you look at comedies, they certainly don’t necessarily come from people who are feeling fun and light. I’m meandering a little on the topic at hand. Let’s get back to it.

Here’s a sampling of some writerly heroes of mine:
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Dawn Powell
Dorothy Parker
Raymond Chandler
Dashiell Hammett
Clare Booth Luce
Robert Benchley

Go ahead and google how many of them were lonely writers and avid drinkers. Just as a sample group. Get ready to be sad!

Robert Benchley: absolutely hilarious and definitely died slowly of cirrhosis of the liver because he loved sad/alone drinking. YAYYYY.

Robert Benchley: absolutely hilarious and definitely died slowly of cirrhosis of the liver because he loved sad/alone drinking. YAYYYY.

I’m not saying I’m as gloomy as any of those people or that they were alcoholics because they were writers, but I think writing can breed loneliness or at least nudge it along. You so often do it alone. I mean, in the end you have to do it alone, right? You can’t have 20 fingers typing on your keyboard or writing with your pencil. Well, you could, but it would take forever. As much as I am alone when I write, I try to spend an equal amount of time either writing WITH other people – like, actually collaborating on something, or writing NEAR other people. I think if you’re in the business of writing about people, that it’s good to maintain connections to people as opposed to doing the opposite of that.

When I write sketch comedy, I do that in a super fun writers room scenario. There are something like 10 – 15 of us (some writers, some actors) throwing out ideas, talking about possibilities, and laughing really hard. It is AMAZING. It feels like magic should feel. So much so, that when I’m executing all those ideas, it still feels collaborative even when I’m alone. Weird, right?

Clearly that’s kind of specific to sketch. When you’re writing a novel, or a play, or whatever else you’re writing, you’re not always looking for that level of collaboration. But that doesn’t mean you have to stew alone all the time. I like to be alone together. I can sit and work on what I’m working on, and a friend can sit across from me or next to me at the table to my left, and we work in silence sipping coffee as long as we can, then turn to each other when we kind of can’t bear it for a minute. We’ll gossip about something, or talk about the trouble we’re having with a particular section, or even *gasp* read a bit we’re particularly proud of to the other person. Or if we’re really struggling, just talk about the coffee we’re drinking. Sometimes if I’m working on something particularly draining, chatter about coffee might be the most I’m able to think about. It’s been good for me, this process.

I want to be a good writer. I think I’m an okay one. I want to be good, but not at the expense of my grip on reality and connections to other people. I don’t need to be Fitzgerald or Parker or Powell, I just want to be the best writer I can be while not falling into the gloom. If that means I don’t go down in history, I’m okay with that. Since allowing myself the possibility of collaborating or writing alone together, everything seems like a little bit less of a struggle. I mean, geez, writing is already not so easy. If you can find a way to make it a little bit easier, I don’t see how that can be bad. I still have my grouchy-old-man-in-a-cardigan moments, but I have fewer of them. And there’s a nice space of happiness in between: the comfort of knowing that the person next to you is dealing with the same thing you are. Or, if you’re competitive, the knowledge that you may be kicking their ass in the number-of-pages-typed-in-a-day department.

I’m not going to say collaboration will kick your depression. What am I, a doctor? No. I’m not a doctor. Don’t ever let me tell you otherwise. But what I am saying is that while hell may be other people, it is also probably a lack of other people. We need each other a little bit. Maybe even just for an occasional reality check.

There isn’t one way to be a successful/good/happy writer. Just like there isn’t one way to be nearly anything. Don’t try to fit yourself into a dangerous mould. Make your own mould. Hell, BE the mould.

Me? I get by with a little help from my friends.

Not actually Allison's friends, but let's pretend.

Not actually Allison’s friends, but let’s pretend.

Allison Page is a writer/actor/comedian. Her new play HILARITY, about a comedian struggling with alcoholism and jokes, is being produced by DIVAfest and has its world premiere at The EXIT Theatre in San Francisco. Previews start March 5th. Tickets at hilarity.bpt.me