Theater Around The Bay: The 2016 Stueys

Stuart Bousel wraps us up with a year-end wrap up. 

Well, here we are again.

Another year has passed here in the Bay Area theater scene, and while many are saying 2016 was a cursed year, I personally found it to be a rather relentless year of change, challenge, growth, and ultimately: reward. Which doesn’t mean I’d do it all over again, but I have a hard time just writing it off either. For better or worse, and for the most part it’s been better though maybe not immediately apparent how so, a lot of stuff that kind of needed to happen, happened this year, and I’m grateful. I think I’m a smarter, stronger, more centered person, and a superior artist to who I was. Which isn’t the same thing as happy, but there’s a price for everything, right?

One of the many things that happened this year was that I branched out, or rather, I branched back out, expanding my participation in the form beyond the writer/director status I had more or less relegated myself to (and embraced) to also include acting, once again. The result was being cast in two shows, one of which, the Custom Made Theatre Company production of CHESS, became so time consuming I actually didn’t see a play by anyone else from August through November of this year. Even then I only just managed to catch Rapture Blister Burn at Custom Made, and if I wasn’t a staff member there it is debatable if I would have done so. I missed all but two nights of the SF Olympians Festival, and one of the two I managed to attend… was my own. That 2016 has been a largely successful year for me on the theater front is undeniably true, and no where is it more apparent than now, writing the Stueys, and finding I have a mere 26 shows to consider. That may seem like a lot, but usually it’s more like 40-50. The fact is, I was at the theater just as much if not more so than usual, but in 2016 the show I was most often at was one of my own.

Many things finished their course this year, including Theater Pub and DIVAfest, two organizations that were quite energy and time-consuming for me, and were indeed the equivalent of part-time jobs (though only one of them was I actually paid for). I’ve debated if the STUEYS should do likewise and end their reign of terror, but I rather enjoy publishing a personal Best Of list, if only to remind people, annually, that I do in fact like quite a lot out there. And because if there’s one thing I’ve come to understand about the Bay Area Theatre scene over the years, it’s far more diverse than most of the accepted press is willing or able to agknowledge, and so an additional voice is not only welcome, but necessary. Hence, here we are again, with all the usual caveats that no awards here mean anything beyond my personal admiration for the named artist, and that no rules apply to this process aside from my own personal whimsy when it comes to determining categories and recipients, and my own personal promise to not give myself or anything I creatively worked on an award because my vanity is a mere 7 out of 10.

So without further ado, the Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards 2016, or the SEBATA, or The Stueys.

To all my friends and frenemies in the local rat race we call Art, let’s all do it again next year. But better. And maybe a little more paced out. Cause I am tired and I know I’m not the only one.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness: Jay Yamada
Do I really need to talk about how cool Jay Yamada is? I hope not. But then, if you haven’t worked with him, you might not know. The man is a saint, truly, and even better- he’s an artist, an excellent stage photographer who actually understands how to work with stage lighting and capture moments in shows you could never reproduce as posed shots. The Mohammed Ali of stage photogs, Jay is weaving around your actors at a final dress like a dancer, camera clicking away and sometimes inches from their faces, and yet amazingly unobtrusive. At the end of the night you know you’ll be walking away with at least 40 usable portfolio shots and press photos, and what’s more- your actors and designers will too, because Jay knows to get all that stuff and capture it in use, the way it should be captured. He often does this for dirt cheap or free if you’re a small company, and that’s just cool, providing the level of theater that needs it the most a touch of professionalism and gloss it might not otherwise get.

Best Thing I Saw But Didn’t Actually Like: The Lion (ACT)
I am a white guy who enjoys stories about white guys and acoustic guitar and I do not and will not apologize for it because some of that shit is gold. But man- you know a show is AGGRESSIVELY CAUCASIAN when even I am like, “Wow, this shit is white.” Still, Benjamin Scheuer does for white straight guys who make it through cancer what W;T did for white women who don’t, and if it’s a little Beaches in the mix to boot, all the better. His music is excellent, if utterly innocuous from the sampling in the show (I coined the term “innocurock” after seeing it), and he tells his story well, sincerely and without self-aggrandizement, owning where he comes from with everything from the Trunk Club wardrobe to the Lisa Loeb (™) brand bohemian apartment set, and it all works because the point is- even these guys die. Even these guys face a moment where they will be stripped of dignity and confronted with their insignificance and find out who they really are. When I say I didn’t actually like the show it’s because I found it low-stakes (I mean, we know it turns out okay, he’s sitting there performing it), a little saccharine (nobody in Ben’s life fails to find their place in his heart), and a little too polished (don’t tell us you were scared, Ben, show us, compromise that golden boy image you effortlessly project). But all that said, I found myself thinking, “I like this guy. He’s a good performer and a good spirit. I’m glad he’s okay. I hope he uses all this incredible talent and this second chance at life to make some really good art some day.” The Lion was, for me, all about potential- and realizing you have some. And that you shouldn’t waste it. Cause that clock is ticking, even if you’re a good looking heterosexual white kid whose life has been non-stop options (which, by the way, may actually make it easier to piss away your assets than someone whose daily existence is a reminder not to blow their shot), and I sincerely hope this was the prologue to something bigger in scope, and even better in execution.

The Best Thing I Saw Sans Qualifications: Colossal (SF Playhouse)
Against all odds, I loved this show. I say against all odds because I could care less about football. I don’t even hate it. I just don’t care. It’s like a thing that matters on another planet to people who in turn come from an even farther one from my daily reality and I just don’t get it. But man do I get falling stupidly in love with terrible people, hot gay sex, and the appeal of that which will probably destroy us, and playwright Andrew Hinderaker’s downright nasty, unapologetic, semen and sweat soaked script is one of the edgiest meditations on the mass appeal of self-destruction and its direct link to our urge to fuck one another that I’ve encountered in years. Beautifully directed by Jon Tracy, with some excellent performances (particularly the central character played by both Jason Stojanovski and Thomas Gorrebeeck, each bringing a distinct aspect to their interpretation of the role that highlights the disparity between who we are and who we perceive ourselves to be), the show managed to take some truly commendable risks and for the most part they all paid off in spades (the countdown clock behind the action at all times- brilliant! the relentless football drills- gorgeous!), somehow tricking me into accepting football not only as something people might genuinely want in their lives, but would like… make art about. And really good art at that.

Best Ambitious Failure: Cage (Performers Under Stress)
As usual, I feel like I first need to remind folks that I love very little as much as I love a Good Ambitious Failure. In fact, if pressed, I’d much rather watch a GAF than a Well Made Play any day of the week, because the former is much more likely to surprise me and one of the reasons I head to the theater is to be surprised. I feel like Performers Under Stress sort of specialize in the GAF, and Scott Baker’s continued forays into the realms unexplored and frequently ignored by the general theater community are worthy of a Stuey themselves, but this show in particular is a standout amongst their work that I have seen. Tar Gracesdóttir’s script is witty and interesting, though it borrows so heavily from the Joe Orton comedies that clearly influence it that it runs the risk of predictability and it devolves in to the sort of Facebook Status Update liberalism I’ve grown, as a liberal, to really detest. Still, Baker’s direction kept it moving, and Val Sinckler’s performance in the lead provided the perfect dose of skeptical every person required to make an otherwise alien group of characters at least contextually believable. It’s Valerie Fachman’s humane and sympathetic turn in a supporting role, however, that provided the evening with heart, and made me want to revisit the script again, and think about the production I’d just seen. Was it a perfect night? Far from it. But it got under my skin, and frankly that’s always the harder battle to win with an undeniably jaded audience member like myself.

Best Addition To The SF Theater Scene: Lily Janiak (SF Chronicle Critic)
Those of you wondering if this is me kissing ass in a very public way, rest assured, part of what I love about Lily as a critic is that she knows there are times I think she couldn’t be more spot on, and times I think she is full of pretentious nonsense, and my respect for her is in a large part due to my ability to express, publicly and privately, both of these perspectives at any given time, with the assurance that neither stance will influence her critique of my work, which has ranged from super flattering to just a shade less complimentary than that time the Guardian negatively compared my work to a Star Trek convention. Coming back onto the scene just a few months after she told me she was done with criticism, now bigger and bolder than ever, Lily has been shaking up the local theater scene in ways both admirable and terrifying, and I for one couldn’t be happier about it. Though she’s not my favorite local theater critic, she’s certainly one of my favorite local thinkers, and while some people will claim her importance as a wrench in the way we usually do things around here is the whole being female part, I would claim it’s got a lot more to do with being under 40 and not afraid to ask questions, particular of our very comfortable old guard who could use a little pointed poke in the grey matter now and then. If theater has a future in the Bay Area, it’s time we start getting some next generation (or really, this generation) perspectives and I can’t applaud the Chronicle more for going with someone exciting and fresh and smart and willing to put her mind out there. It’s not about kicking out the old, whose mentorship and legacy are invaluable, but we’re long past the point of making a place at the table for the new and this was an important step in the right direction. How excellent, as a director, to glance at the critic sector of the audience on opening night and see someone stuffing their bike helmet under the chair amidst that sea of venerable, adored, and largely white, gentlemanly heads. I might not always like what she’ll have to say, but then I can’t always predict what that’ll be either, and that, one artist to another, is delicious.

Best Synthesis of Tech and Action/Best Director: Cole Ferraiuolo/Maggie’s Riff (Faultline)
Look, I’ll be honest (cause that’s how I roll these days): I think Jack Kerouac sucks. I think he’s a shitty writer, and from what I’ve read he was a craptastic human being too, and yes I realize I’m basically telling you to revoke my San Francisco citizenship and my Reed College diploma. Jon Lipsky’s play didn’t do a thing to change my opinion, despite excellent performances from Paul Rodrigues, JD Scalzo, Nicole Odell, Rich Lesnik, and if anything it reinforced my assumption that having sex with Kerouac was probably like having sex with a bowling alley only less erudite, but what it did do was foster a new admiration for Cole Ferraiuolo’s abilities as a director, particularly in his ability to synthesize tech aspects of the show with the text aspects of the show to create an aesthetic whole that seemed almost seamless. In particular, the integration of shadow affects, by Alisa Javits, into the narrative highlighted the tension between truth and fiction, perception and reality, legacy and legend that provide the intellectual nut of the show. The piece felt like a fever dream, poetic and important, even if only to the dreamer, and the pacing, which is what kills so many shows for me, was pitch perfect from beginning to end.

Best Five Minutes: Justin Gillman and Cat Luedtke in Middletown (Custom Made Theatre Company)
Will Eno is a mixed bag for me. For everything I like and admire, from the language to the ideas, there’s a thing I’m twiddling my thumbs at, there’s a moment I’m wondering how something so bland can somehow inspire such passionate praise. Middletown epitomizes this for me, and is why if someone asked me “where to begin” with Eno, I would send them here, with the caveat of, “it’ll leave you unsatisfied- which I think is how it’s supposed to leave you- which means I think you’ll have successfully gotten it and him? I don’t know. It’s not really my thing. Even though it kind of is.” That said, my single favorite five minutes of theater this year was in the Brian Katz directed production at Custom Made Theatre Company, and it happened in the second act, when Cat Luedtke’s doctor encounters Justin Gillman’s lunatic and decides to help him out with some birthday drugs she “spills” from the supply of pain killers she apparently just wanders around with. If Brian excels at anything as a director, it’s a kind of stoic naturalism, and in a scene between two such archetypes, it’s his light hand that allows for two excellent actors to soak in the relationship and find the nuances that turn this five minute scene into a stand-alone one-act I’d award Best Short Play to if I could. No where else in the production was that theme of the extra-ordinary ordinariness of things better realized, and the moment was at once sad and funny and romantic and real, like a treasured scene of an early ‘aughts indie film I would have, at another point in my career, played on repeat to actors insisting “that’s how you do that.”

Best Actress In A Thankless Role: Melanie Marshall, Peer Gynt (ArtistsRepSF)
There are a lot of thankless roles out there, male and female, but women more often than not, through sheer numbers, end up in parts that, while not necessarily bad parts, are still just kind of thankless. For every regal queen role, or unrepentant murderess, or inspiring historical figure, or mold-breaking heroine who takes center stage or at least holds her own on the supporting side, there are like three times as many handmaidens, best-friends, random sexies, and blandly supportive mothers or love-interests. Solveig in Peer Gynt falls into the last category, though too his credit Ibsen attempts to give her some personality, he just also sort of forgets about her for 2/3rds of the play after she’s introduced, bringing her back at the end once his hero has learned an important lesson- one she embodies, thus rendering her not just a personified concept, but a kind of reward. That Solveig has a little more grit to her in the Artists’ Rep adaptation of Peer Gynt is no doubt partly due to Oren Steven’s revisioning and direction, but it’s hard to imagine anyone having brought to the role what actress Melanie Marshall was able to bring through a unique combination of earthiness and no bullshit deadpan. Often times Solveig feels beautiful and forgiving, but because she has to be (that’s how she was written to be). Melanie made it clear her Solveig was making it work as a choice- her choice- and that nobody, starting with Peer, should take it for granted. As a long time fan, for all its flaws, of the original work, it was impossible not to be charmed by this fresh take on the character, and even wish that a full spin-off revisioning, WICKED-style, was in the works somewhere, preferably with Melanie at the helm.

Best Surprise, The Big Hot Mess (DIVAfest)
To know Catherine Debon is to know a true San Francisco original, though Parisian in origin (but then, true SF Originals are almost always from somewhere else, right?). A femme fatale come to life, a dancer and performer, a writer and thinker, Catherine has been creating unusual and challenging performance work in the Bay Area for years, but with The Big Hot Mess, directed by Amanda Ortmayer and featuring Kevin Copps in a supporting role, she gave us something unique and unusual even for her. Part film noir, part performance art, this exploration of time and agency, and the relationship between the two, made use of duct tape and wall-clocks, movement and voiceover, one slinky black dress and one fedora to illustrate how our personal sense of control over our lives slips as we age and find ourselves progressively written out by the world around us. As the guy who had done some publicity work on this piece, I knew to expect something heady and stylish, but what I wasn’t expecting was to be utterly and thoroughly delighted by the end product, for it to be by turns elegantly self-aware and comically absurd, yet at its core a heroic journey, a depiction of one woman’s willingness and ability to stand up for what was right. A total inversion not only of the noir genre, but the medium of performance art in general, The Big Hot Mess was anything but, and the only time this year I found myself saying, “Yeah, I know I was paid to tell you to see this- but you really really should see it. It’s so good!”

Best Spirit: Terra Incognita: Through The Waves (DIVAfest/UpLift Physical Theatre)
I feel like it’s already a bit of a legend, how on opening night of this piece, created and performed by Juliana Frick, Hannah Gaff, and Nicholette Routhier, the soundtrack didn’t work and the show went on anyway, with all three women performing in absolute silence to an awestruck theater full of people wondering how you could pull off a movement piece without the music and soundscape it had been created to. As we sat rapt for thirty minutes, watching them tumble and lift and dance and roll with only the patter of their feet and the slap of their skin against the lone piece of scenery, a table, to accompany them, I remember thinking, “This is what it means to be an artist- and to be a small theater artist- this right here.” While a bigger company would have canceled the night, refunded the tickets, and maybe should have, that was not only not an option for these women, but ultimately an asset. When you’re in the business of making art that is raw and real, you know you can’t back down because the tech craps out. When your art gets better because you didn’t back down, that’s when you know you’re the part that’s raw and real.

Best Designer: Carlos Aceves, Scenery For The Awakening (The Breadbox)
The Breadbox’s production of The Awakening, adapted by Oren Stevens and directed by Ariel Craft, earned a tremendous amount of attention this past year, including a truckload of TBA Awards and critical praise, and all of it was, unquestionably, deserved. I could heap more praise myself, but decided that in the spirit of the Stueys, which try to highlight some stuff left off the other Best Of lists, I thought I would call attention to what was one of my favorite aspects: the simple and yet evocative set design that captured beautifully the turn of the century Gulf coast community in which the action was set. One of the more transformative sets I’ve seen in the EXIT Stage Left, Carlos Aceves’ combination of boardwalk and driftwood echoed with Louisiana elegance and bygone nostalgia, evoking not just the sea but the beach, specifically, and the cultures that grew up around The Shore. From the knots in the wood to the knots in the hammock, there was a graininess to it all that practically bled sepia-toned photographs, and sucked you into the world that had to be real before any of the conflicts happening inside of it could truly be understood in context. A precise blend of conceptual and literal, the set accented perfectly everything else the show so adeptly executed.

Image That Will Stay With Me The Most: Mikka Bonel/Amy Sass (A Whale’s Wake, The Flightdeck)
Amy Sass is an admirable theater artist for a number of reasons, but if I had to pick one, it’s this: girlfriend does not compromise her vision. Sometimes this is a wonderful thing, and sometimes it’s a questionable thing, but for what it’s worth, we don’t do art so the audience will be indifferent about it and Amy Sass seems to not only get that, but embody it. There was a lot about her play A Whale’s Wake that I admired, and some I sort of rolled my eyes at, but if I had to pick one moment from any show that I saw this year that best epitomizes this year it’s without doubt from Amy’s personal spin on the domestic drama, and that oldest of tropes in the domestic drama trope bag: the reluctant mother giving birth. In this case, because it’s Amy, she gives birth during a flood, as she’s swept out to sea, and said baby sort of ballet dances away on its umbilical cord, before said cord is severed by a Dude Who Fixes Everything trope. I know this sounds ridiculous, and it was, but somehow, thanks to Amy’s direction, and Mikka Bonel’s icy but graceful performance as the mother, it also worked, and seared itself into my imagination forever. What is life if not the wondrous and terrible moment of seeing your newborn hoisted out of you by forces beyond your control?

And so, there you go. Another year, another list. Hopefully you found it as amusing to read as it was for me to write.

Now, as I sit in the living room of my new apartment (I moved in October of this year, just one of many difficult changes that made me better), tying all this up, I suddenly find myself thinking that while in some ways I flew a little more under the community radar than usual this year (no TBA Award nominations, and I skipped the conference; lower attendance of shows than usual, and more stepping away from administrative roles than times past; and I went to virtually nobody’s parties), I still directed my favorite play, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation at Custom Made, had the honor of having my play Adventures in Tech directed by Allison Page at PianoFight, and ended the year directing the American premiere of Clive Barker’s gorgeous Paradise Street at the EXIT Theatre. A show of mine was done in Chicago, I mounted a collection of short plays about a pop star I idolize, Rob Ready slew another llamalogue I wrote, I had a reading in New York, I built a new works development program, I worked with awesome artists in a variety of ways, and I sang in front of paying customers for a month solid and nobody threw anything at me. Not every moment was perfect but in many ways, it was actually a bumper year as far as me doing what I wanted as an artist, though somewhat ironically, I also felt a little more on the outside of the community, for reasons I really can’t quite explain. At the back of my head, of course, I recognize it’s probably got something to do with having followed my own bliss a bit more whole-heartedly, un-appologetically, and occasionally at the sacrifice of passionate obligations and social politicking that at another point in my career would have called the shots more. I de-friended more of my fellow theater artists this year than ever before (albeit mostly due to the election), while at the same time expanding my collaborative circles exponentially, and though I suspect my approach to my own trajectory has always been complex if not outright paradoxical (can one be as diplomatic as I aspire to be, while also holding their integrity as close to the core as I also aspire to do?), I suppose what’s changed is that I’m no longer fighting that intrinsic tension, but rather embracing it. It’s about recognizing that everything is a mixed bag, including me, including everyone else, and sort of shrugging at the people who can’t accept that (or me) and letting them learn that without feeling the need to personally educate them- or apologize for not living up to their idea of what and who I’m supposed to be. Not everything is going to go according to plan, not everything battle is going to be won, not everything is going to be to your standards, but that’s okay. And also how it kind of has to be. Accept it, celebrate it, or let it go and celebrate that, but don’t let it stop you. If there’s one thing 2016 taught me, it’s that: don’t let it stop you. And don’t wait for people to catch up.

The right people always will.

Editor’s Note: In an effort to get this out before the end of the year, numerous grammatical and spelling mistakes have no doubt been made, and as such, will be edited in the future in an effort to uphold some kind of standard.

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Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Live Nude Feminism

Marissa Skudlarek, walking the talk.

Don’t ever say that I can’t both talk the talk and walk the walk. I spent Saturday evening posting on Twitter and Facebook about casual sexism in local theater, and Sunday evening attending a fundraiser for the feminist theater organization DIVAfest. Saturday was about getting irritated over the persistence of inequality; Sunday was about reminding myself that there are plenty of people trying to find solutions to this problem.

The sexism that I see around typically isn’t outrageous misogyny – it’s subtler than that. It is a worldview that devalues women’s contributions and stories, that refuses to consider their perspectives worth presenting or their money worth having. I’m thinking of things like a glowing review of Maggie’s Riff, at FaultLine Theatre, that initially neglected to mention or credit Nicole Odell, who plays the title role. (Editor’s note: as of midafternoon on 5/26/16, a few hours after our piece went up, the review has been updated to mention Odell.) And also of the latest marketing copy for the Speakeasy, as it seeks a final round of funding before it re-opens in North Beach in August. The Speakeasy producers are very pleased to tout the “one-way mirror into the chorus girls’ dressing room” as one of the major highlights of the show, yet they make no equivalent promise of voyeuristic eye candy for those of us who prefer handsome fellas to lovely ladies.

Let’s be clear: I’m not against sexy fun, or scantily clad women. In fact, DIVAfest, the organization I supported on Sunday night, has a strong sideline in naked ladies. It produces a monthly burlesque variety show, Diva or Die, and a larger theater-burlesque fusion show once a year. Indeed, it was DIVAfest’s Hotel Burlesque show this year that finally convinced me of the truth of something I’d often heard said: that neo-burlesque can be a feminist and empowering genre, rather than a misogynistic male-gazey one. In Hotel Burlesque, the cast featured six lovely ladies and one female impersonator, so just about every moment of the plot passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors. It transported me into a sparkly, glamorous, female-led world and showed me that striptease can be about more than just titillation. A female thief reveled in her crimes as she stripped off all her (stolen) clothing. Nudity was used to represent the anguish and vulnerability that an alcoholic feels when faced with the temptation to drink, or a battered woman feels when recalling her abuser.

At the DIVAfest fundraiser party, Amanda Ortmayer introduced a performance by Red Velvet and reminded us that burlesque artists appreciate vocal approval: applause, whooping, cheering, were all encouraged (and plentiful). And, as Red Velvet tap-danced, shimmied, and stripped down to her thong and pasties, the lights in the main room remained on. I liked that; it kept things honest. It eliminated some of the creepy power dynamics that can arise when a woman takes her clothes off for the entertainment of others, because, as we watched Red Velvet, she could also watch us. She could see our faces and discern whether or not we were having a good time, and also hear our joyous and vocal appreciation. And I can’t help, again, contrasting this with the way the Speakeasy is presenting female nudity: spying on “hot chorus girls” from behind the anonymity of a one-way mirror.

A lot has been written lately about the masculinity and “bro” attitudes of start-up culture in the Bay Area. In many ways, the Speakeasy seems to be positioning itself as a theater start-up. It’s thinking big: it wants to disrupt live entertainment in San Francisco and then spread out across the country. It is soliciting money according to a new model called “equity crowdfunding” (I’m a little confused as to how this differs from traditional for-profit, Broadway-style funding, but no matter) and, with a minimum investment of $2000, it’s clearly aiming for high-roller donors rather than the $25-$100 donations that make up the bulk of a typical Indiegogo or Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. In 2014, the Speakeasy’s expensive tickets and lack of discounts meant that the show was very popular with the tech crowd while remaining inaccessible to the kinds of people who are getting priced out of this city. And, yes, the Speakeasy seems very, very male. The three founders are all male. The website copy has a persistently male point of view, and not just in its references to the chorus girls and the one-way mirror. For instance, when giving examples of some of the costumed characters that audience members can pay to play, both of the examples they give are male.

Meanwhile, DIVAfest hosted a traditional nonprofit-theater fundraiser last weekend: finger food, raffle tickets, and performances, in a board member’s fancy house that was donated for the occasion. I hope it was successful, and it was certainly quite glamorous to watch the sunset from a North Beach rooftop deck, eating delicious food among nicely dressed people. But it cannot change the fact that DIVAfest is a small, indie, shoestring operation, run out of a Tenderloin theater that has miraculously weathered all the changes to San Francisco in the last thirty years.

I know there is a place for people like me at DIVAfest, but, as a feminist woman, I have a hard time imagining that there’s really a place for me at the Speakeasy. And, while I’m grateful that organizations like DIVAfest exist, I’m also bothered that they feel like such small, precarious members of the arts ecosystem. The Speakeasy caters to the male gaze and raises $3 million in venture capital funding and becomes the subject of glowing media profiles; DIVAfest provides a counter-narrative and a place for women, and is relegated to the fringes. I said before that sexism in the 2010s tends to be subtle and insidious. Well, here’s another example of it: is it fair that the men get the big dreams and the big bucks and the naked ladies, and we women get to play out our stories on a much smaller stage?

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

Theater Around The Bay: Listening To You

The Five has the day off, so our Executive Director, Stuart Bousel, is publishing a little follow up to last night’s final performance of the year. Did you know 116 people have come together to make Theater Pub happen this past year? That’s 116 writers, directors, bloggers, actors, artists, musicians, dancers, and crazy creatives coming together for virtually no pay to revive the company that aspires to be our common community theater. Excellent work everybody! Last night was for you!

Today I walked to work singing “Listening to You” and felt like I knew everybody on the street. I smiled at everyone, and they smiled back. I wanted to hug people. That is RARE for me.

The best thing about the annual sing along is that it bring us all together. We’re all nervous. We’re all under-prepared. We’re all hopeful. We’re all suddenly caught up in the magic of it. We’re all hitting balloons around the room and singing to one another, and then we’re all suddenly done and back to every day life. ‪#‎igetthemusic‬

As Marissa Skudlarek wrote on Facebook today: “Last night, as I stood in front of a packed house at PianoFight belting out the final chorus of “Pinball Wizard,” the giant blue balloon “pinball” that the crowd was batting around came my way, and as I hit the last note, I gave the balloon a mighty push and watched it SOAR over the tops of everyone’s heads ALL THE WAY ACROSS THE ROOM, and I think it might’ve been the fucking coolest thing I have ever done in my life.”

It was magic. Real magic. And just like real magic, if you blinked, you might have missed it.

The ephemeralness of theater is a huge part of what makes it so good. “Everything dies. I want to die when you die!” the heroine of my favorite novel (The Last Unicorn) tells her prince when he urges her to accept immortality instead. She gets it because she’s been acting a part for some 100 pages by that point and she doesn’t want to stop. But he knows the finale is coming, and it’s going to be incredible- and then over. ‪#‎igettheheat‬

And then on to the next thing. Keep yours eyes posted for the new 2016 Theater Pub schedule and January events. They’ll be hitting digital pages soon. Meantime, here’s the opening speech Marissa Skudlarek and I wrote together in my bedroom Sunday night, and that I lost at the bar before the show, and had to more or less improv over the roar of the overture. Thanks again to everyone who came out last night and made it such a success. And if you missed it- well I hope you found some magic of your own. ‪#‎iclimbthemountain‬

Clare Prowse, Marissa Skudlarek, Sam Cohen, Juliana Lustenader, and Amanda Ortmayer rehearsing "Sensation" on the co-opted set of "Dead Dog's Bone"

Clare Prowse, Marissa Skudlarek, Sam Cohen, Juliana Lustenader, and Amanda Ortmayer rehearsing “Sensation” on the co-opted set of “Dead Dog’s Bone”

“Welcome to Theater Pub- THE LAST Theater Pub of the year.

Through the years it has become a tradition that, annually, we take off our serious thespian hats and put on our secret musical theater sparkle hats- the ones most of us haven’t worn since we were seventeen and singing along to cast albums in our bedrooms instead of having sex. OR WHILE WE WERE HAVING SEX.

For those of you joining us for the first time, we want to stress that this is not a musical theater production, but rather a bunch of mostly non-musical theater actors, impersonating a rock band, a rock band that only covers musicals. We’ve given you hymnals so you can sing along- especially the songs we’ve printed the lyrics for, especially the sections in bold- but if you know the rest, feel free to join in. This is our version of a holiday mass.

This theme will be coming back later. I’ll be singing it. Perhaps badly.

This year’s holiday selection is a tale of a young man born to a World War 2 widow whose lost husband returns, murders her new boyfriend, and swears the boy to secrecy- instantly striking him blind, deaf, and dumb. What follows is a series of mystical encounters as first the young man is sexually molested by his uncle, then tortured by his cousin, then given LSD by a prostitute. He then miraculously becomes a pinball champion, and a quack doctor identifies a link between his symptoms and the mirror in front of which his father’s crime of passion occurred so many years before. His mother smashes the mirror, setting him free, and he instantly becomes a world celebrity- Just like Jesus.

Eventually, after some wandering, he meets a young woman named Sally, whose innocent questions teach him the true meaning of Christmas. Now, if at any point you’re thinking, “This doesn’t make a lot of sense” I want to remind you that this story was first told by a bunch of people on a whole lot of drugs. Just like the story of Jesus. And what’s more Christmas than adultery, muder, denial, molestation, abuse, drugs, pinball, magic-mirrors that steal your soul, rock star allegories, celebrity melt down, the hero’s journey, forgiveness, true understanding, miracles and unresolved endings?

Nothing. That’s what.

So now is the time to open your hymnals and get ready for the 20th century’s answer to Jesus: the one and only Tommy. Yes… Tommy. The bar remains open the whole time. Please get yourself a festival beverage or six. I’m going to ask Duncan and Charles to join me here at the stage. Our run time is 70 minutes. The bathrooms are over there. Thank you very much for coming out tonight to celebrate with us. And now… Guess Who?”

Photo "Go To The Mirror" taken by Rob Ready, from behind the bar, at last night's show.

Photo “Go To The Mirror” taken by Rob Ready, from behind the bar, at last night’s show.

Want to sing along? Now you can! Just click HERE!

Theater Around The Bay: GUESS WHO!

guesswho-2 copy

Yes, it’s that time of year again- the time when, for one night only, San Francisco Theater Pub brings us all together, to celebrate the Great American Tradition of singing songs about the holidays.

This year’s special selection of carols comes from a song-book renowned for its catchy pop tunes and ability to corrupt the Baby Boomer generation. It’s got everything you want at the holidays: child molestation, murder, insanity, prostitution, disaffected youth, repressed family tragedy, denial, adultery, regret, and hey, did we mention child molestation? Oh, hey, there are some miracles too. And forgiveness. So, it’s like, actually kind of Christmasy. In a really screwed up, pushing the envelope sort of way.

Here’s Looking At You!

Featuring the vocal talents of Samuel Cohen, Juliana Lustenader, Kyle McReddie, Carl Lucania, Duncan Wold, Clare Prowse, Stuart Bousel, Amanda Ortmayer, James Grady, Charles Lewis III, Marissa Skudlarek; and the musical skills of Mark Dietrich, Jessica Igrashi, James Grady, Cory Clar, Colin Williams and Steven Grady.

ONE NIGHT ONLY: December 14, 2015 at PianoFight, 8 PM, Free!

Seating is first come, first served so get there early to ensure a seat. As usual, it’s a five dollar suggested donation. Don’t miss it- and be sure to come early (or stay late) and enjoy PianoFight’s full bar and menu!

Theater Around The Bay: Year End Round Up, Act 4, The Stueys (Again)

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2014 list. Finally. We know it’s long, but read the whole thing. Seriously. If he was Tony Kushner you’d do it.

So if there is anything I learned last week it’s that one can have spent too much time thinking about Into The Woods.

No, but seriously, in the time since I published last week’s avante garde explanation for why I wasn’t going to do the Stueys, ironically, as these things often happen, I rediscovered why I want to do the Stueys. Blame it on a couple of supportive emails I got, a text of a friend reading my blog from inside a security fort and identifying too much, and a chat on a bay-side bench with a young, hopeful playwright, but my heart started to heal from the poison I was bleeding out of it and then one night, quite spontaneously, I just sat down and wrote them. And it just felt dumb not to share them. Before I do though, I wanted to briefly (for me) revisit the three things I wanted to get across in last week’s article. In 2015 it’s my goal to create space both for what I want to say, and what I need to say.

1) I kind of hate the Internet. But seriously, after the last year or so, does anybody not? I mean, I love what it can do but I’m starting to truly hate what it brings out in people, including myself. To be honest, while I am still quick with the quippy comments on Facebook and such, you may have noticed I am much quieter on the debates and controversy front than I once was and this is because I’ve just reached my limit of getting into fights that started out as conversations but then devolved into people just trying to outshout one another. It’s amazing to realize that a silent medium requires a volume dial but it really does, and the truth is, there are days I fear to be anything but funny on the internet, or ubiquitously positive, and so I ironically don’t want to talk in what is supposed to be a forum, not because I fear critique or debate, but because I’m not looking to start any wars. Too bad the Internet is pretty much a 24/7 war zone.

2) I kind of hate awards. I always kind of have, but this became more apparent to me after I won a TBA Award this year and I know that sounds ungrateful but believe me, I am honored and flattered to have received it, and I understand why awards are important, or at least necessary, and I can’t state enough, especially as someone who got to discuss the process and purpose behind the awards extensively with the folks running them, that I do believe the TBA awards are both well intentioned and super inclusive in their attempt to create an even playing field for theater makers coming from a diverse level of resources. What I dislike so strongly about awards is how many people, in the broader sense, use them as shorthand to designate the value of art, artists, and organizations. And no, they’re not supposed to do this, I know, but they do, and we as artists are not supposed to internalize this, I know, but we do. And I became really aware of that standing in a room with my fellow nominees that night, who didn’t win an award, all of whom were good sports about it but I could tell it made them sad. Which made me feel kind of miserable. And now my award lives in the back of my closet because as proud as I am of it, I’m also weirded out about it, and what it might mean to people, the expectations it might create about me or my work. And awards are nice but they can’t be why we’re in this, and I know that sounds kind of bullshit from somebody who has a few but it’s true and we have to remember that.

3) I kind of hate theater. Okay, that is an exaggeration but I am going through a phase of being sort of disenchanted with theater and some of the theater community. I know this is hardly a first for anybody in the community, and I suspect it’s a particularly common feeling when you’re feeling overworked- which I definitely was in 2014. 2015, however, doesn’t promise to be any less work, in fact the opposite, and so that’s got me down. And yes, I know it’s my choice to work as much as I do, but it’s also kind of not. A lot of what I do won’t happen without me and that makes me want to keep working because I believe in it and all the people it serves or creates opportunities for, but my inability to really escape the theater scene for more than a day or two before my inbox fills and my phone rings reached epic proportions in 2014 and lead to some intense moments of resenting the thing I love for needing me so very much while not always feeling like it needs me, Stuart, so much as anybody dumb enough to work this hard for this little pay. Which is a nasty thing to say but sometimes… sometimes it’s also kind of the truth. Feeling taken for granted sucks; feeling enslaved to passion has a dark side. So it goes. It balances out all the times I feel rescued and redeemed by it.

So, hopefully, you can see how all this could make for a mood not suited for creating the Stueys. Considering my general ambivalence/anxiety about awards, but recognizing that some people take the Stueys seriously enough to put them on resumes and websites, I really have been struggling with how ethical, not to mention hypocritical, it is for me, as an artist, to be handing out awards, no matter how playfully, to my fellow artists, when the only thing determining those awards is… me. Who no one should take seriously. But who apparently some people really do. Cue paralysis inducing terror and suddenly I couldn’t remember why I was doing this or what it was all about, but I felt I had to say something because I had all this stuff to say. But it can be hard for me to talk about myself, what I’m personally going through, and even harder for me to advocate for myself. I hate disappointing people. But I hate being insincere more. And I wanted to begin to understand why I was feeling all this dread.

Anyway, without more ado, and much, much later than intended, here they are, 14 awards for the 2014 Stueys.

BEST ADDITION TO THE BAY AREA THEATRE SCENE
The Bay Area Theatre Awards

The best thing about the Bay Area theater scene is that there is a huge diversity in the offerings, and so much on the table to begin with, and when we celebrate that whole community, regardless of budget or house size, Equity relationship or ticket price, we are celebrating our Art, ourselves as Artists, and Artists as contributors to and saviors of the World. Of course, no one organization or person can see it all, and therefore it’s important to share with one another the highlights of our time in the audience seat, if only to create a greater awareness of what and who is out there making stuff. No matter how far we cast our net, there is always more to see and more to explore and we’re fortunate to have it that way, so for a moment, let’s just celebrate what an incredible delight it is to now have an official awards system for our community that appears to be on the same page as that sentiment of inclusivity and casting a wide net, regardless of whatever other kinks may still need to be ironed out. And for those of you who feel the TBA Awards are not enough, or still missing the boat in some regards, you are correct. And you should do something about it, whatever that means to you. To me, it means keeping the SEBATAs going, because in my mind, Heaven is a place where at last we are all recognized for what we bring to the table, and I dream of a Bay Area filled with organizations and individuals proudly recognizing one another at every possible turn, for as many reasons as can be found, as many times as it pleases us to do so. And so I am giving the first Stuey this year to TBA, and specifically Robert Sokol, for having completed a Herculean task that they will now have to complete all over again. And then again. And then again. And again. Good luck everybody!

BEST NEW VENUE
PianoFight

Is there anyone who isn’t excited about all the potential here? Rob Ready and company have been building this space for years now, and walking into it you see why it has taken so long- it is just beautiful. From the mural by Molly Benson to the floors and the furniture, they have been seeking to create not just another black box or just another dive bar, but something truly magnificent, welcoming, inspiring, and everything a venue dedicated to a community art should be. Best thing of all? They’ve asked Theater Pub to perform there, and so we will be performing there, starting in January, at least twice a month going forward. Which makes us excited and scared. Something we’re sure they understand. This whole year looks to be exciting and scary.

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
San Francisco Fringe Festival (EXIT Theatre)

Dear San Francisco: this amazing thing happens right in the middle of you every year and not enough of you know about it and not enough of you make the time to visit it. And like… really visit it, not just duck in to see your friend’s show and then run out. And I understand why you do that because I used to do the same thing but now, having worked there for three years, I have to say, you are robbing yourself of an amazing opportunity to see theater from all over the country and the world, and to meet and talk with the most diverse collection of artists any one event assembles at any given point in the year, and to be a part of something bigger than you and bigger than just this venue or this theater scene for that matter. Do yourself a favor, serious theater goer, serious theater maker, and commit to seeing at least three shows at the Fringe this next year. Pick one by someone you know, one by someone you have heard of, and one by a total stranger. See them all, bring a friend, hang out in the Café and the Green Room between shows (on almost any night of the Fringe you can see 2-3 shows in one visit to the venue, and all the tickets are super cheap), introduce yourself to the staff and artists, tip the Fringe, and see if it doesn’t inspire you to want to see more, know more, do more. If the Bay Area Theatre scene is a garden, this is one of our most vital vegetable beds. Tend this garden, and then come get fed.

BEST SHOW
“Our Town” (Shotgun Players)

Won’t lie… it kind of kills me that this was my favorite show of the year. But it was, so much so that my boyfriend, afterwards, said, “Let’s not see anything else this year- let’s let this be where we stop” and he was right and I agreed, but that’s part of what worries me: for far too many people I think theater starts and stops with “Our Town”, or its equivalent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good theater because it is, and I have long defended Thornton Wilder as being one of the great playwrights whose work is often undermined by having been overdone. This production, directed by Susannah Martin with assistance from Katja Rivera, was anything but overdone, it was subtle and lovely and elegantly realized, from the costumes and lighting, to the music and the performances, and it all came together in a way that, while nostalgic and dramatically safe (which aren’t necessarily bad things, but important to recognize), still felt fresh and sincere, like the gesture of laying down in the rain on the grave of a loved one. There was really nothing I didn’t love. Though if I had to pick favorites I’ll say very little is more entertaining than watching Michelle Talgarow and Don Wood play off each other, even during the intermission raffle. The night I was there they got some very chatty audience feedback and they handled it Grover’s Corners style: graciously and politely and in a way that warmed your heart.

BEST READING
“Hydra” by Tonya Narvaez (SF Olympians Festival)

God, there is very little better in life than a really good reading, and possibly nothing more frustrating than watching people shoot themselves in the foot on what should be the simplest, easiest theatrical event to pull off. And yet… again and again we see it at the SF Olympians Festival, the full range of dramatic readings, from the simple but impafctful, to the overdone and done to death. This year we had a number of excellent readings, but my favorite standout was “Hydra”, written and directed by Tonya Narvaez. A ghost story, a comedy, a conundrum, the piece was elevated to a new level by Tonya shrouding the stage in total darkness except for reading lights for her cast who, illuminated in the stark and eerie glow, were uniformly excellent- not in the least because they were relieved of having to worry about blocking and forced by the light to focus only on the text. Such a simple, elegant choice, but so effective. She won that night of the festival, and wins this Stuey for Best Reading.

BEST SHORT PLAY
“Mars One Project” by Jennifer Roberts (part of “Super Heroes” at Wily West Productions)

Jennifer Robert’s play, about a female astronaut who is denied her chance to go to Mars because she has a daughter and the Powers That Be don’t think the world can stomach or root for a woman who would leave her child, even in an attempt to create a role model for that child, was by far the best piece in this evening of shorts. There was plenty of fine writing, but this is the one that transcended its own subject matter to present that ever elusive thing: an issue play in which both sides of the argument are presented with pathos. The tragedy of the piece is less that “we’re not there yet” and more, “is what it will take to be there always going to require sacrifice on this level”, to me a much more interesting, more human question. In an evening of mostly sketches, it was the one piece that could not only stand on its own, but really stood for something, and it’s a near perfect short play- which as an author of short plays, I assure you, is a near impossibility.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Amanda Ortmayer (EXIT Theatre Technical Director)

Amanda Ortmayer has let me cry on her shoulder so many times this year it’s astounding she doesn’t just keep a towel on hand. Only she probably does, since she’s seemingly prepared for anything, she just probably keeps it out of sight, since she also knows the value of never revealing your bag of tricks, or the exact location of your wishing tree. Something has to keep us in ballgowns and slippers and it’s probably not going to be wishes alone. But Amanda likes to encourage wishes too, and that rare combination of pragmatism and dreaming is why she is just generally… awesome. If you haven’t had a chance to work with her, I hope, one day, you do. It’ll remind you why we’re all in this, or at least, why we should all be in this: for the people.

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Marissa Skudlarek, “Pleiades”

One of my biggest pet peeves is listening to people complain about how there are not enough opportunities, while refusing to ever create those opportunities themselves. For the record I agree, there aren’t enough opportunities, but at some point we need to realize that if we have our health and a clear sense of our dreams, we’ve already been given more than most people get so it’s really just about figuring out how to see your dream materialize. Watching Marissa Skudlarek as she put together her first production as a producer (she wrote the script too, but we’re giving her recognition for the producer hat here), I was blown away by how organized and focused she was, how determined she was to do it as best she could even the first time out. Which is more than I can say for me. Even now, I feel like I mostly just take a deep breath, pick up my sword, and rush into battle blindly, while Marissa strategized and planned, gathered information, raised funds, and was just in general super smart about it all. Was anyone surprised? Not really. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take one more moment to tell her she did an amazing job. Everyone looking to produce a show in 2015- call Marissa. She knows what she’s doing.

BEST CHEMISTRY
Michaela Greeley, Katherine Otis, Terry Bamberger (“Three Tall Women”, Custom Made Theater Company)

It is not easy to play three versions of the same woman but this trio of ladies, under the direction of Custom Made veteran Katjia Rivera, brought so much magic to the stage that the leap of faith required for Act Two of Edward Albee’s classic was not only easy to make, you made it with a song in your heart! This is a lovely show, but one I rarely feel enthusiastic about, energized by, and these three performers, working so well together, in such total tandem with one another, sold me on this show in a way it’s never been sold to me before. Michaela Greeley was uncomfortably good at playing the frailty of her character in Act One and the fierce stubborn vitality in Act Two; while Terry Bamberger was an edgy warmth in Act One that ballooned into an explosion of heat and fire in Act Two; Katherine Otis, in the part with the least to work with in both acts, managed to strike the aloof brittleness required in the first act while still laying the foundations for the insecure idealist the second act tears to pieces. But what I may have loved the most was the way these ladies moved, always circling one another, always creating triangles on the stage, each one so aware of the other, having to fill the space one vacated, or rushing to claim a spot before the other could. It was like a dance, like a motorized portrait of the Three Fates and they wove a spell together that was frightening and enchanting all at once.

BEST RISK
Kat Evasco, “Mommie Queerest” (Guerilla Rep/DIVAfest)

Kat Evasco knows how to work an audience, but the audience at her show might not have been ready to get worked so hard. Bravely darting in and out of us, throwing herself around the stage in gleeful and breathless abandon, Kat unravels a personal story about the struggle to discover not only who she is- but who her mother is. And why she needs her mother to know who she is before she can finally accept herself. Co-written with John Caldon, who also directed, the show avoids the bulk of solo show clichés, feeling more like a play where Kat has just been tasked with playing all the roles to the best of her ability, and the audience isn’t really asked to come along so long as commandeered by her at the beginning and let go only when she sees fit. The piece is courageously risky, not only because of the controversial elements within it, but because Kat leaves no fourth wall standing between herself and the audience, and if they don’t run with her on it, her show is kind of screwed. Both times I saw this though, that wasn’t a problem; it’s hard not to jump in both feet at a time with a performer who is so ready and eager to do it.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
Justin Gillman (“The Pain And The Itch”, Custom Made Theater Company; “Blood Wedding” Bigger Than A Breadbox Theatre Company; “Pastorella” No Nude Men; and like a billion other things)

So… how many plays was Justin Gillman in this past year? It seemed like every time you turned around he was being cast in something, including by me, and every time he was pretty amazing in it. I don’t know how he does it. Like seriously, I don’t know how he memorizes all his lines, let alone doesn’t burn out from the constant rehearsal and yet somehow he shows up every night, fresh and ready to perform. Generous with everyone, onstage and off, it’s rare I don’t find him the highlight of a cast, usually finding a way to balance being a somewhat over-the-top character with a deeply human core that is achingly vulnerable when not just a tiny bit scary. In each of the three roles highlighted above, this was the common thread- men at first dismissable, who at sudden turns revealled their fangs, and then wept as they ripped your throat out. Delicious.

The ladies have gotten a lot of attention on this year’s list, which is great, but we like to keep things balanced here at the Stueys so we’re giving two more nods out: Kenny Toll (“Dracula Inquest”, Central Works) and Sam Tillis (“Slaughterhouse Five”, Custom Made Theater Company). In my opinion, both of these gentlemen were the best thing about these two shows, which were solid enough theatrical productions but elevated by fully committed actors. In both cases, both men also played characters who were… well, committed. As in insane. Though the insanity characterizations couldn’t have been more night and day than the plays were (Toll’s was of the by turns wimpering, by turns screeching Bedlam variety, Tillis was the diamond hard, lethally cold, slow burn sociopath kind), both managed to be believable and unsettling without being melodramatic or over-the-top. Toll even managed to be sympathetic, while Tillis managed to be mesmerizing. Either way, it was endlessly watchable, haunting, and impressive.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Cat Luedtke in Anything

Seriously, once upon a time there was no Cat Leudtke and then one morning we woke up and she was everywhere. I think I might have seen her in like six shows this year and in each case she was the walk away discovery, the revelation performance. The tremendous skill of this woman is matched only by her tremendous range, as every role I saw her in this year was different, though perhaps none so piercing and breathtaking as her role in Custom Made’s “Top Girls” as England’s most done-with-it-but-not-lying-down-about-it mother. I’ve also seen her sing and dance, act Lorca, play the 19th century adventurer, the dutiful wife, and more (probably helps that one of the things I saw her in was a collection of one-acts), bringing to each role a personal touch and a universal power, a sincerity and openness of heart that made you feel like you were watching a real person. She’s very much a “real actress”, whatever we mean by that when we say it. I know that what I tend to mean is somebody so good at throwing themselves into something, they transcend and turn into someone else, each and every time.

There is always an embarrassment of brilliant female performances in the Bay Area, so I feel a few other honorable mentions are in order: Mikka Bonel in “At The White Rabbit Burlesque” (DIVAfest), giving a performance as a rabbit that was unlike any performance of anything I’ve ever seen; Ariel Irula in “Blood Wedding” (Bigger Than A Breadbox), whose deeply passionate performance was matched only by the soul of her singing voice; Jean Forsman in “The Pain And The Itch” (Custom Made Theater Company), nailing well-meaning but vapid liberal mom as only someone like Jean could, walking perfectly that line of endearing and annoying; Stephanie Ann Foster in “Slaughterhouse Five” (Custom Made Theater Company), who played both a woman and a man in the show, and was lovely, heartbreaking, deeply sympathetic in each role.

BEST FUSION THEATER PIECE
Now And At The Hour (Christian Cagigal, H.P. Mendoza)

The fusion of theater and film is a tricky one, and I can only imagine how filming a stage show without destroying the magic of live theater must require an excellent understanding of both mediums. Now make that live theater a magic show too and you are truly setting yourself up to fall flat on your face, but H.P. Mendoza’s film of Christian Cagigal’s “Now And At The Hour” flies, it is magical and touching, the decision to interrupt the narrative of the stage show with the narrative of Christian’s life and the important players in it only adding to the emotional punch of this unique variation on “the artist and his work” formula. Beautifully shot, entertaining, unexpectedly poignant, this is a stellar example of a collaboration between artists and mediums.

BEST SOLO SHOW
Kevin Rolston, “Deal With The Dragon” (SF Fringe Festival)

Remember my earlier bit about the Fringe? Here is a glowing example of why going into something blind at the Fringe can sometimes result in stumbling across something truly excellent. I didn’t know anything about this show. It had a fun premise in the Fringe guide (Man moves in with Dragon) and a bad flier design (sorry, it can’t all be hugs and snuggles here) and while I had no expectations what I wasn’t expecting was to be so thoroughly moved and entertained. It does not hurt that Kevin Rolston is an incredibly talented performer with an ability to switch between his three narrators with glass-like smoothness, or that each of the three stories he tells, each with a different take on the idea of a “dragon”, are all funny and unsettling portraits of our tenous relationship with self-control and those things inside us that scare us. An unsettling fable about how our potential for violence and indulgence can also be our potential for strength and transformation, Rolston’s notes in the program claimed the piece is unfinished, but it could actually already stand as is. Here’s hoping the final product is as good as the draft.

And as for Me…

So Usually I end the awards with something about the show I personally worked on that affected me the most, but in all honesty I got so much out of all of them it would be hard to pick one so I kind of just want to take a final look at last year as a whole so I can both make sense of it and kiss it goodbye.

For me, it was an incredible year, but that doesn’t mean I loved every second of it. Far from it. It was as demanding as it was rewarding and at times it also seemed… endless. Like there was just always one more thing to do, to get through and then… two more. And then nine. I got to work with material by the incredible Kristin Hersh this year and that will forever be a highlight of my life but the production itself was a rough process, and the reception was rough, it all kind of placed too much strain on an important relationship in my life and I walked away feeling very differently than I had when I walked in- which was hopeful and desirous to bring a project that meant a lot to me to people I loved who I thought could benefit from it, but by the end I was wondering if I had ultimately done more harm than good by bringing such tremendous attention to something so natal. Then I directed a stellar production of “The Crucible” that made me acutely aware of how resistant critics and audiences can be to seeing a familiar play in a new way, and also how embracing they can be, but by that point I was having a hard time hearing the love and found it easier to focus on the detrimental views. I worked to let it all go, focused on feeling proud of the work my actors and designers had done, which was stupendous, and then just as I was feeling more balanced again, Wily West’s production of my play “Everybody Here Says Hello!”, after a whirlwind of a production process, opened to unexpectedly and ubiquitously positive reception. Suddenly, I was a guy with a hit show on my hands- technically my third this year since “Rat Girl” and “The Crucible”, despite whatever misgivings critics were having, were also big audience successes. For the first time in my career though my writing was the center of attention (I often feel I am mostly known as a director who writes, though I am actually a writer who directs), partly because Rik Lopes, not I, had directed “EHSH”, and so critics had to speak about our separate contributions separately, and that was wonderful but the moment was short-lived: we ended up having two performances canceled and the show only ran 7 times and it became my play everybody “really wished they had made it out to see.” Me too! Though one should never shake a stick at houses full of strangers. But oh… we do this partly because of the friends we hope to show something personal to, don’t we? And, again, I was having a year where it was hard not to keep adding things up in the negative, no matter how well they were actually going.

Anyway, this was then followed by the Fringe, as rewarding and as demanding as ever, which was then followed by the fast and furious (yet incredibly smooth) rehearsal process for my play “Pastorella”, which was the only piece I both wrote and directed last year, and which was well received, actually pretty much adored by audiences, but played to 2/3rds full houses or less its entire run after opening to an audience of 11- my second smallest audience in the history of my theater life in San Francisco (not my whole life- I once played to an audience of 2 in Tucson). The result was a show that, though very economically produced, still ended in the red, something which shouldn’t affect one personally as much as it does. But if you haven’t gathered yet, I’m being truthful here, even if it makes me seem a little petty. So yeah, my final passion project of the year was probably my personal favorite artistic accomplishment but it also cleaned out my bank account, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that 2014 was the year I went freelance/contractor and believe me- it’s been an adjustment. One I’m still adjusting to. Finally we had the fifth installment of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which was wonderful if perhaps more draining than usual, and fraught with an abnormal amount of backstage drama, from some diva moves on the part of some of our participants, to a failure to meet our fundraising goals (first time ever), and then the pique of which, of course, was having our dressing room robbed on, naturally, the night of my reading, which was successful in that it was well done by my trooper cast, but again, sort of middling attended, and a bit anti-climactic as an artist considering it had taken me all year to write it. And did I mention that some of my favorite actors kind of hated the script? Disappointing, but less so than having a “colleague” tell me that working with me was basically bad for businesses because of my strong opinions and tendency to carve my own way, nonsense that nobody who was actually a friend would have bothered to bring up- especially not when I was in the midst of trying to find a way to help them realize their own plans for the local theater scene. But I have occasionally been told my Achilles heel is caring about the band as much as I care about myself.

And somewhere in there I won a TBA Award for “EHSH”, had two works of mine garner bids for film adaptations, threw a delightful birthday party and another successful Easter brunch, but had to cancel a major social event because I got pink eye. Which is only worth mentioning again because in retrospect, it really is kind of funny. I wanted to get more reading done and much more writing, but it just didn’t happen. Best laid plans of mice and men…

So yes, 2014 was amazing but it was also, definitely, a mixed bag. Rewarding to no end, but unforgiving in many ways, most of all in that I had a hard time forgiving myself for just… well… doing my best but not always getting everything the way I wanted it or hoped for. The problem is, when you’re burnt out, stuff that you’d normally brush off or accept as the breaks of the business or just how life is get harder to be blasé about, and I found myself at the end of 2014 feeling accomplished but bruised, lucky but kind of cursed, exhausted and not excited so much as terrified about the future and yet… hopeful. Cause I am hopeful. And I want to stress that and more or less end there, and tell you it was amazing to have 800+ people applaud me for winning an award (even if it was for a play I always considered a bit of a “minor work” and never guessed would be so defining), and it was incredible to walk up those stairs that night, all alone, and think, even as my thoughts came crashing down around me, “Well, you certainly don’t do anything half-assed, do you Stuart?” (even if that means sometimes I paint myself into an intellectual corner with the same gusto I pull myself out of it). Though I definitely experienced a lot in 2014, I often felt like I wasn’t actually learning so much as surviving, and oh, by the way, I had massive writer’s block, and it was writing all that out last Monday that finally cured it… and got us here. And here is not a bad place to be: hopeful, and weirdly confident that whatever happens next, I can probably handle it. I just kind of wish I had a clearer idea of what “it” was. But then we all wish that, don’t we?

Ah well. C’est la vie.

Deep breath.

Happy New Year.


Stuart Bousel runs the San Francisco Theater Pub blog, and is a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. You can find out more about his work at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.

Theater Around The Bay: Year End Round Up Act 3, The Stueys

Stuart Bousel was supposed to do his annual best of list, the Stuart Excellence in Bay Area Theater Awards. Instead, he’s giving us this experimental, free-flowing one-man show that may or may not have begun as he was walking up all those stairs between the first floor of the Geary Theatre and the very top balcony where he was seated for the TBA Awards, one of which he’d just picked up for his play, EVERYBODY HERE SAYS HELLO. He took the stairs, and not the elevator, for a reason. It’s worth noting, the stairs were empty the entire way up, despite the theater being full. This is always an interesting place to be. The empty place next to a full one. If you can accept that he began this monologue on the stairs of the Geary, then you can probably also accept he finished it sometime in early January. It took him that long to climb the stairs.

So, I was going to have the last 2014 blog entry for SF Theater Pub be the Stuey’s but the day came and went and the story wasn’t… satisfactory… so I skipped it and said I’d finish it on the 1st. Which I didn’t. Despite telling everyone I was going to. Which is how I blackmail myself into finishing things when I don’t want to. But this time I just kind of… blew it off. Which is probably for the best. It’s 2015. What do the winners of 2014 matter now? Talking about the past and all the change, the triumph and failure that you may or may not have actually processed because you didn’t have the time and when you did you didn’t have the energy and neither did anybody else- people, is this anyway to start a new year? Benny just lost his cat. Have you seen the video?

Over the last year in particular, often times when reading something on the internet, particularly Facebook, particularly a debate, particularly about… ANYTHING, I have found myself quietly quoting the Witch from Into The Woods: “No but what really matters is the blame; somebody to blame; fine if that’s the thing you enjoy, placing the blame, if that’s the aim, give me the blame…”. This is, by the way, the most important lyric in “Last Midnight”, not the far more often touted, “I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right.” Please. I get why people are like “Ooooooo” cause it’s a smooth ass bit of verse, but if you walk out of the show thinking the Witch is right you have missed the point of the show and no, it’s not open for debate- if the Witch WAS right, the show wouldn’t end with her coming out and singing a third variation of her big song in which she completely changes her perspective from the previous variations. There’s only one thing the Witch is in fact right about before “Children Will Listen” and it’s that most people, even good people, when faced with the complications of life, would rather put energy into placing the blame and finding fault than celebrate the success or, God forbid, forget the blame and just offer a solution to the problem. Cause you see, that would take work. Like actual work and trial and error and looking bad and getting better and cooperation and genuine pride tempered with genuine modesty and tolerance and forgiveness and everything else we hate to have to do because it can’t be done quickly and angrily while the mob posts “fuck yeah!” on our thread and we can come out looking like we have somehow saved the world again without any sacrifice on our end. See, throwing Jack to the Giant is, in fact, the easy solution because the Witch doesn’t care about Jack and she doesn’t really care about the kingdom. The Giant, to her, is an interesting problem to be solved and once Rapunzel is gone the Giant becomes a tool of the Witch’s rage, a physical manifestation of eye for an eye that does not care about what happens next, just wants to see everyone get theirs like she got hers because the world has crapped on her and the only thing that matters is how it hasn’t crapped on you AS MUCH or AS HARD and BOOM CRUNCH that’s Justice. Which doesn’t make the Witch evil, by the way, or the Giant. But it doesn’t make them good or admirable, either, so don’t lie to yourself about that, or the nature of Justice.

One of the ironies of the Witch calling out everyone else on their blame game is that she’s been doing it- blaming THE ENTIRE WORLD- since… well, since before all the characters we spend time with were born. The Witch’s garden is sown with hate and it grows ladders to destruction and the smugness with which the Witch berates the others is that brand of modern smugness now so prevalent, especially on the internet. Or more likely, probably always prevalent but now with a bigger, higher platform on which to display itself with that utter conviction that turns all conversations into arguments because Captain Justice understands the nuts and bolts of something, the basic math, but none of the nuance (often known as “reality”, “context” and “life”) that defines a blueprint from an actual building. This is usually buoyed on a blazingly obvious bed of deep insecurity and low self-worth, not to mention lack of genuine interest in others as actual human beings with souls and minds of their own and of equitable value, even if in opposition, to the Witch. The Witch may be factually right about some stuff… but she also is desperately trying to win a beauty contest in her head, the prize of which is the questionable love of the girl-woman she has held hostage for over a decade. This doesn’t mean disregard the Witch, but take her with a grain of salt, especially when she says things like, “Fuck you all for not killing the kid like I, with my fucking awesome nectarines, told you to- I’m out!” Anyone who leaves the room because they can’t handle being said no to was probably never there to improve the situation in the first place. They were just there to be right.

Not that I’ve never done that myself. Or called for Justice. As much as it’s a mentality I dislike, I’ve certainly fallen into it, almost everyone does at some point, with the redeeming (but also terrifying) factor being that almost everyone does it out of good intentions. You think you are standing up for yourself, you think you are standing up for someone else, you think your are standing up for A Reason, and maybe you are, but if the reason has made you so tall you can no longer hear or see what you destroy as you rampage on your quest… I mean, you can see where this is going and the point is, I do understand it. It’s a terrible world- princes, humans, wolves. The lot of them. They are all liars and thieves and that’s an opinion based on experience and including the knowledge that I’m not any better. Depending on who you ask I’m a prince, or a wolf, or just some douche bag whose song didn’t even make the film cause fuck that guy, what does he know, he traded his kid for a salad and probably thought he was getting the better end of the bargain. I mean, I firmly believe we all have a soul, and we all have value, and that means we all have the potential to do good, and be Good, but then again, depending on the day, look around, see how some of us are actualizing that potential… and you might see why someone would think that the best thing you can do is find a tower and hide in it. Is it a perfect solution? Well, no, I mean… for one thing you’ll be stuck in a tower, you probably won’t learn or grow very much, better hope there are at least some good books and games, oh and food, but even if a tower protects you for a while it’s only a matter of time before everyone around you in all the neighboring towers will probably blame you for all kinds of shit, including how their tower isn’t as nice as yours and so yours should be taken away from you (the ones who don’t think your tower is an eye-sore, of course, and thus just needs to be removed), or some curious prince/wolf/human will show up with all their desires and complications and breeding potential but hey, at least for a while in your tower you can’t hear it all or see it all and you don’t have to crush anything since you’re not going anywhere, so it’s almost an acceptable way to live. You know, provided you haven’t bothered to look outside your tower- something you’re absolutely not supposed to do, by the way, if you want to keep your tower flying below that collective “Come Fuck With Me” radar as long as possible. That window is for air, you hear me? We’re just keeping you alive so your cage has a purpose and don’t you forget it or we’ll take the cage away and then where will you be? That’s right: out here, getting stepped on by Giants.

My problem has always been that I have always looked outside my tower, all the time, and playing alone for long periods of my life, and getting really good at it, I might add, hasn’t reduced my desire to go out into the world, it has actually magnified it, to the point where, as an adult, I fear loneliness while also desperately craving silence. Like most artists I’ve spent most of my life feeling alienated and different, but also with a powerful, maddening compulsion to put myself out there, to be seen and listened to, to share my personal world with the bigger one, without really understanding what that might entail or how it will be received. I’m smarter than the average human so I do pick up enough pre-game to know that the world is rough and when you adventure into it, you should go disguised- sometimes as something flashier than yourself, sometimes as something duller than who you really are, but neither one telling anyone exactly who I am or even what I want. And because the interactions are not entirely sincere, they are a show, but I, in my madness, want to experience sincerity while using artifice, the part where I end up feeling disappointed by how “the world” still doesn’t seem to really care about me unless I am happy or angry enough to have become an annoyance of some kind… well, that is hardly the world’s fault. I mean, I don’t even know what I want, so why should the world be able to give it to me, or want to? Thank God that I’m so good at looking like I know what I want and even fairly good at going about getting it myself, that generally the world has been relieved of having to bother with a polite inquiry or even admitting I exist and have value and yes… I appreciate that as a token of the world’s appreciation for me never really seeming to need its interest and yet somehow managing to occasionally clean myself up into something it thinks is just the right balance of mainstream and “what is that?”, that I have been sent this lovely man with a slipper. The problem is, I don’t know what to do with this lovely man or this slipper, seeing as I just have the one. Correction: I can use it as a marble jar. Thank you, it’s lovely. The other…

Well, it’s like I got a puppy, you know? I mean, it is fucking bonkers cute and there will be days I just can’t stop snuggling it and it will snuggle me back AND THAT WILL BE TREMENDOUS, and of course, it’s all over the Internet and people I like are just going “yeah!” and people I don’t like are so noticebly quiet or super-satisfyingingly petulant, but… I can already feel that puppy getting less cute. And bigger. And getting bored. I know it’s a good puppy, it has the potential to be a great dog, but that is going to require work, classes probably, and in the meantime I am also going to have to feed it and it is constantly hungry. Which wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s also super finicky about what it will eat and it will only tell you what it will eat AFTER you have bought and cooked the meal, and what am I, a fucking mind-reader here? Like, I’m supposed to be that while I’m wearing this outfit, which by the way is not gold, it’s gold leaves and gold stars, but even if it was gold that does not mean I am made of gold. Also, it’s questionable if this puppy-dog-man really has a discerning pallet to begin with. Also, it’s Canine, apparently, and I speak Human. Human and a little Bird. I mean, I get that a dog is like… a bright toddler… so we should be able to communicate but… well, anyway, you may not realize this, but that dress I wore, am wearing, was technically a hand-me-down (I mean, it literally came from the high parts of a tree, down to me) and possibly made from some leaves I just kind of threw together- I just look THAT FUCKING GOOD in gold- so while I’m flattered you think I belong on this throne I’m not sure I actually want to sit on it or that I was aiming for it and don’t you dare say I asked for it. You have no idea what I want. And even if I did want it… wanting a ball is not wanting a prince. I’m not “asking for it” by showing the fuck up. I mean, I recognize that doing so basically qualifies me for everything but that’s society’s fault, not mine, why am I being put on the pedestal (chopping block?) for it?

Oh, right, because I’m letting you. And because it’s true… I like the view from up there. You can really see the gold stars. And my whole life is pretty much about gold stars and trying to find a really good view from… well, anywhere, really. Except maybe this tower. And maybe this one too. Okay, maybe all of them. I mean, look people, if I wanted to just see it all from someone else’s tower or worse, from the one I was just handed by fate, then I wouldn’t have gone about putting all this work into baking cookies and writing graduate program recs for the people who are helping me build a tower of my own- which will totally have public viewing hours and elevators for patrons in wheelchairs so just calm the fuck down and let me have my Sunday on the Moon Deck with The Muse to myself, okay? Please? I mean, didn’t I earn it? I cleaned all those fucking pots for you and we don’t even have indoor plumbing.

Sitting on the Facebook (which I should never have open while I’m writing but I often do because I LIKE TO MAKE MY LIFE HARDER/GENUINELY CARE ABOUT WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK AND SAY/CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF MY OWN VOICE/D) and reading other people’s responses to the Rob Marshall film version of Into the Woods, and Shotgun’s production of Our Town, (want to break your mind open- compare the two), and thinking on the past responses to my own productions of Hamlet and The Crucible, and the screen adaptations of Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit, and every Shakespeare play ever, and throwing in the case-studies of my three world premieres this past year, Rat Girl, Everybody Here Says Hello, and Pastorella, plus the case-study of the one play I managed to finish this year, Pandemonium, and the general hoopla leading up to and following the Tony Awards and the TBA Awards, all awards in general, and I am having just millions of thoughts about it all, none of which are helping me finish the Stueys, but in the end they all boil down to one: most people, even most very smart people, want what they know, which is a polite way of saying, that most people, even ones with a taste for adventure, just want to be comfortable, experience as little change as possible, and thus they are going to hate you, like truly hate you, when you give them anything that is different, pushes them too hard, or asks for anything too challenging, and then have the audacity to also like… expect them to be interested enough to at least say something thoughtful and sincere, instead of dismissive or grandstanding. But being too cool for school and incredibly self-righteous is what the internet was invented for, it’s the town pub to end all town pubs, and one doesn’t walk in with their “I’m Here To Help” or “I’m Here To Learn” face on because that’s how people get robbed and murdered so believe you me, when you walk in looking like that holding your little heart going “Look I made this!” best have made something they want or be prepared for the knives. And yes, I understand that you might have been confused by all the shouting until they are blue in the face(book) about wanting new visions, new ideas, new blood, real stories, real challenges, more individual voices, more unique perspectives, more this, more that, ALL THE THINGS THAT ARE LACKING etc. but when push comes to shove what most of them really want… you know, like, what they’ll actually pay for and not resent it?… is like… a really well done gourmet mac and cheese. Oh, is that pasta local? Bacon? Very untraditional. A diverse medley of different cheeses? TAKE ALL MY MONEY! INVENTION THY NAME IS MAC AND CHEESE!

And lest you think I am being reductive to be spiteful, I have one of the most diverse palates of anybody I know and I too fucking love mac and cheese. Even when it’s kind of bad, and when it’s good… well, nothing is better than mac and cheese in both its comfort food simplicity and your ability to turn it into gourmet food just by adding stuff. Like virtually ANYTHING. Everyone in the cheese eating world knows this. Which is why it, or its equivalents, are a staple of so many modern restaurants’ menues. Like, even restaurants with super crazy exotic and original menues, take a look- there’s mac and cheese, down in the corner, HOLDING UP THE WORLD LIKE ATLAS, telling you, “Go ahead, try that, see if you like it. If you don’t no worries… you can always send it back and order me, mac and cheese.” I mean, thank God for mac and cheese, and cobb salad, and chocolate chip cookies, and tomato soup, and baked potatoes with sour cream. Without those things, people would go hungry, at least half because they turn their nose up at anything else, and it is important to recognize and celebrate our mac and cheese chefs because if we don’t honor our staples the building will collapse or just sit empty. Which means this restaurant we’re all running would totes probs be closed. And we can not let that happen, we have got to keep these doors open, and sure maybe mac and cheese alone isn’t enough, maybe we also need cobb salad, the Superman of salads, and I’m not seeing a reliable desert here so, good, good, thank you for stepping up Chocolate Chip Cookies and don’t you dare look at me like that, it’s tough out there! And the world needs mac and cheese. I need it, you need it, we all need it, and furthermore some of us are really damn good at it. I HAVE MADE SOME DAMN FINE MAC AND CHEESE IN MY LIFE AND I HAVE THE SLIPPERS TO PROVE IT! And we will make room for your little new cuisine mis-steps but Luna Park had fucking SMORES ON YOUR TABLE and look what happened to them! BOOM SQUISH. #techgentrificationallegory #thatsridiculoustechisnotagiant #butgiantsruinshit #notallgiants #giantscanbegood #socancobbsalad #whycantwehaveboth #becausewefearabundancelikewefearsuccess #wefearsuccess #idodontyou #giantisapejorativeterm #ithasbeenreclaimed #bywho #yesnomaybe #cultureofblame #killingme #withhowfuckingboringitis #onedayihope#becomesembarassinglikeusingthetermmansplainingdid #isthattermembarassing #yes #but #noyousoundlikeasnotbagkiditsthatsimple #checkyourprivledge #checkyours ###

The croquet ball whispers, “silencio”.

Which I have to retype like ten times because fucking Autocorrect doesn’t give a shit about my creative spirit. Autocorrect doesn’t seem to mind being capitalized though. Probably because It knows It is one day going to run the World.

So… I can’t seem to finish writing the Stueys this year because I can’t seem to bring myself to work on them. I mean, I made a list, I checked it like five thousand times, asking myself if I really stood by my choices, suspicious of half of them because I’d started to notice a trend, too many of the same names again, and again, deserving, of course, but also how does it reflect me, the community, etc. and are the Stueys serving the same purpose as when I started them, or is it just becoming one more thing people expect now, am I contributing to a culture that places achievement over process and lives for the prince instead of the ball or am I just being a punk-ass kid who likes to throw stones at giants, and will anyone take any of this seriously or dear God, what if they take it too seriously? And after the year I had, that so many people seem to have had a variation on, is it really honest and meaningful to just throw some more promotion around especially if that promotion seems obsolete, or biased, or half-hearted, or saccharine, or intentionally provocative, or not brave enough, or arbitrary, or…?

The point is there was material there, so… I could probably crank it out if you put a gun to my head, which you probably will one day, possibly because I decided to basically skip the Stueys for the year, until I can figure out what I want them to really be, beyond just another show of support for the artists I support all year, or if I think we really need them in the world, or if it’s just more noise and one more thing to do and deal with, for both of us. I know this definitely won’t get the same amount of traction as the Stueys would so hey, if it’s about less is more, mission accomplished, right? No? I understand. I probably deserve to be shot. If not for this, then something else, I’m sure. I feel guilty all the time and I am totally lying about stuff and occasionally stealing so yeah, go ahead and do it now, please, somebody, anybody? No? No. No? You know what, this is why we can’t have The Stueys: because of gun control. I almost miss the Witch.

Also, I didn’t finish the Stueys because I am afraid. I am afraid of 2015. Which is just ridiculous. I mean, how is that possible? To be afraid of a year? I might as well be afraid of the air. Come to think of it, I kind of am. I mean, depending on the day and where we are, the air we breath is actually more poison than air. Which is not good because… this is the air. It’s pretty much going to be the air, poison or not. So we really need to think about that and do something (not just blame the people who actually do something, but maybe not something we like) because it would not be good to live in poison, even if we technically can do it for like… far too long considering it’s poison. Wait. I got it. This is why we can’t have The Stueys: because of the poison. And so we’re clear, when I say “poison” I don’t mean “unpleasant.” I mean Poison. The kind of shit you can’t actually smell or taste, but secretly worms its way into the air and the water and then your body. And my body. I mean, who knows how much is already there? My fear is not that 2015 will be a bad year. Just that it’ll be a year, like any other, with Fashionable Intentions and Buzzwords in the morning followed by Witches and Partly-Poison Atmosphere with a chance of Giants. And if I don’t take a moment to stop and focus on me, and ask myself why and what I think about all this, from my head to my slippers, and what my role in it is aside from getting caught up in it all and banging a drum of some kind, then I’m going to probably be someone that contributes to all this. Everyone keeps telling me I had an amazing year and they are right but I’m also exhausted and so much changed and I feel like I should think about that instead of telling everyone else about what I think they should be celebrating. Because I agree, last year was amazing but it definitely wasn’t always fun and even if it had been… I’m not sure I can go through that again. Not in my current state at least. I guess I do need to purge last year’s poison. Not that I know for certain that there is any. I don’t think there is. Then again, there is poison everywhere and some of it is definitely in people and I have been to a lot of balls this year. #gayjoke

Girls, look at your nails, look at your clothes… look at your choices. Why do some of you have eyes… and why do some of you… not have eyes? It’s good to have something to look at, it’s nice to go to balls. But what might we do to keep our eyes?

STATIC

Okay, this is ridiculous, you ruined this perfectly innocuous best of list by making it all about you and your year and this is just so long and ranty and not what I was hoping for and just take it down a notch, okay young man? Young lady? Wait? Who are you again? Your meta-narrative has reached Lynchian proportions over the last two years and I am just exhausted from trying to figure it out. Also, am I the world? Is that what you’re saying? And that I don’t get you so now you don’t feel like trying to get me or anyone else for that matter? I try to get you. I try all the time. I mean, I thought you were the gay one in that play you wrote because you’re gay but there’s like three of them, so it  was confusing just what you’re trying to say there and who you’re trying to reach, and while I am fairly certain you’d never write yourself as the hot one, the angry one was way too uncomfortable to watch, but there were some funny parts so I gave you the benefit of the doubt and… wait, no. No. Oh God. You’re not the black one, are you? That’s racist! Right? 

STATIC

CUT TO:

EXT. WOODS. NIGHT.

Nobody knows my actual name. I don’t even know it. I mean, nobody really knows anybody’s actual true name, right, except God who is like… so not sharing. AMIRIGHT? No? You don’t really think about it because He’s dead/your Christian, whatever, it’s cool, if not terribly imaginative and WOW, it is so awkward in here isn’t it? Sorry. Anyway, it’s fine. Like everybody else, I go by this name I have been given. Unlike some people, I guess, I actually like this name. It’s a name for a servant, but also like for a prince, or leader. You know, like how Cinderella is both a scullery maid’s name and the name of a princess. Like, nobody ever mentions that, do they? That she doesn’t change it to “Victoria” or “Sansa” or whatever, she actually stays “Cinderella” like, “Hello, Royal Subjects, I am she of the ashes!” Like Jenny From the Block but… sincere. Anyway, I consider myself lucky to have a name with so much possibility. I can be anything. And I don’t need that slipper. I got a tree in a forest somewhere that makes slippers as an accessory to ballgowns for fuck’s sake, but… thank you. I will accept it and put it somewhere I can’t see it because one slipper looks… lost. Like an accident. I never thought about that when there were no slippers. Now I think about slippers way more than I should. Plus the puppy chews on it, a lot, which is just reinforcing the puppy’s tendency to think the only things that matter are what makes us laugh and feel good and people yelling at us until we figure out how to make them stop. Anyway… looks like you need a new house. I can help with this. I have this tree that grants wishes but also like… has been destroyed. I am clearly still adjusting to that new development as well as a long list of others- by the way has anyone else realized that if the giants come from the sky and it’s right above us that really at any time it could happen again? Oh please don’t comfort me, people are dying out there, I’m just venting and hey… I still got the birds. And those birds are… violent. Which is helpful. Anyway, I don’t have this tree anymore, but I guess I do now have all this wood, so let’s build something from the wreckage of my hopes and dreams and yes… yes, I will help you with your house. There are times I really enjoy cleaning. And like… how ironic, right? I mean, I basically went to the ball just so I could end up back in the kitchen. Technically, this is not even the first time. It’s not even the second. No, please, I’m not upset. These are happy tears. I chose this. I am chosing this. I will always chose this. I just learned something too, something I never knew. Just kidding, why am I here, where is my castle, where is my prince? Just kidding again, I am a bottomless well aren’t I and you are a fucking tough batch of puppies let me tell you, but… it’ll be a nice kitchen. It’ll be warm. It will be welcoming. Mostly. I’m sure we’ll have our bad days. But it’s going to have all this counter space to make cobb salad on. Or whatever. I’m giving up carbs. And you know what? That slipper is just gonna glow by the light of the new fireplace. Just you wait and see. Our fireplace.

For the record, Shotgun’s production of OUR TOWN is this year’s Stuey for BEST OVERALL PRODUCTION. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking show and I saw a lot of great theater in the Bay Area this past year (despite how this post might come across), but this is the only show from then you can actually still see because it’s still playing so head out there if you haven’t.

#raisedtobesincere

Stuart Bousel is what is missing from your life. Unless he’s a presence, in which case it’s certainly possible he’s worn out his welcome. Sucks he’s not going anywhere then.

While he cannot encourage you enough to see OUR TOWN over at Shotgun, he’d also like to announce one more SEBATA, the recipient of this year’s Peter O’Toole Award for General Awesomeness. This is because the intention behind this award is the only one that is truly clear: it is to recognize someone who is often unrecognized, often because they are so prevalent, so constantly contributing that it’s easy to forget them, and all they do, from listening to us, to keeping us in line, to fixing our problems quietly, behind our backs, even though they have more than enough of their own stuff to do. One of these people (and there are so many) is Amanda Ortmayer, the technical director of the EXIT Theatre. She has let me cry on her shoulder so many times this year it’s astounding she doesn’t just keep a towel on hand. Only she probably does, since she’s seemingly prepared for anything, she just probably keeps it out of sight, since she also knows the value of never revealing your bag of tricks, or the exact location of your wishing tree. Something has to keep us in ballgowns and slippers and it’s probably not going to be wishes alone. But Amanda likes to encourage wishes too, and that rare combination of pragmatism and dreaming is why she is just generally… awesome.

Theater Around The Bay: Save the Empire

Stuart Bousel, subbing for Barbara Jwanouskos.

Is it just me or does the week after Labor Day always kind of suck?

It didn’t in school. But that’s because the week after Labor Day was really the week things started to kick into gear, whether you had started classes that Tuesday or had started the week before in August. Labor Day meant new beginnings, a new year, and the countdown to everything I love in life- the start of autumn, Halloween, my birthday, Thanksgiving, the start of winter, Christmas, New Year! Labor Day meant making new friends, catching up with old ones, and taking a bit of a breather after a long summer that, because of its lack of class, was always distinct from the rest of the year. Maybe because I usually hadn’t been working much all summer, Labor Day ironically was like, “Back to work day!” Something I used to love because I used to love the work I was doing (school) and in college that only became a more pronounced and exciting feeling.

As an adult though, progressively, Labor Day has often ended up feeling like a grim reminder that, as the character of Max says in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking And Screaming (one of my favorite movies ever), “What I used to able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life.” It’s not just that it’s become a bit of a mockery of the very people it was supposed to honor and salt in the wound for the many people who are either out of work or struggling to make ends meet with substantially less than they used to have, but for many I think it’s also just a day off thrown in at precisely the right moment to remind you that you didn’t get done a lot of what you wanted to get done, probably never had much of a “real summer” unless you were lucky enough to be able to take a vacation, and ultimately that the year you were convinced was going to be “Your Year” now has a mere four months left to go, and still sort of seems a lot like… well… just another year. Oh, and, of course: you’re not getting any younger either.

The last few weeks seem to have been super tough on a lot of people I know in this theater scene. On this blog alone we’ve had two people lose a dear friend, one lose her gall bladder, one discover a project she’s been working on is a dead end, and another texted me this morning with that “shit is hitting the fan” text that translates to me writing this ad. Me, who blew off his own attempt at taking back Labor Day and hid in his room all weekend because… drum roll… I got pink eye. Yes… pink eye. Something children usually get because there kind of dirty but since I’m a pretty clean guy I can pretty much chalk this one up to some bad decision making somewhere  and/or divine smack down. It’s okay, I’m laughing about it now because it’s mostly gone and I’m no longer contagious but you know what is even more mortifying than calling off your Labor Day event because you’re so hungover you can’t run it? It’s finding out that the reason why your eyes have been hurting and feeling feverish since you woke up that Sunday were because you have Pink Eye.

And this is after what one director friend of mine has dubbbed, “A white knuckle year”. In other words, not a bad year (it certainly hasn’t been a bad year for me) but a year of tremendous shift and change, rarely comfortable, even when good, and so constant one starts to feel less like they are growing so much as holding on for dear life while the roller coaster heads straight for… well, who can say, right? I, for one, have found it to be incredibly up and down, so much so that I become suspicious of things when they start to seem too quiet, (my summer, by the way, had been pretty quiet), and I’ve found it’s also been one of extreme self-scrutiny and re-evaluation, public scrutiny and re-evaluation, new understandings, new ideals, new heights, new lows, new triumphs and new problems. On one level, I can say with sincerity I have felt very alive this year, and like I am moving, generally speaking, in more or less the right direction- certainly compared to last year, and definitely compared to the year before it. But is that momentum not terrifying in its own right? And do I feel like I am in control of it so much as being swept along? And am I actually ready for whatever tomorrow brings, even if it brings flowers and money and wedding bells? These are all entirely different questions. Depending on the day… no, let’s be honest here, depending on the minute… the answer is a resounding and eviscerating “no.” But such is life, so what am I going to do?

I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, actually: for the next two weeks, starting tonight, I’m, going to basically live my non-working hours at the EXIT Theatre, the place that has emerged above all others as my home in this city, in any city, on the planet, really, in this era of my life. It’s the place where I’ve most frequently been allowed to be myself, where the people there before me made room for me too, where I’ve been embraced and challenged and scolded and pushed and rewarded and empowered and it starts with the artistic director (Christina Augello) but the truth is everyone there contributes to that feeling, whether it’s by doing far more than any one person should ever have to do to keep things running (Amanda Ortmayer), or ensuring that someone remans relatively sane (Richard Livingston), or making sure we’re all fed (Donna Fujita), or sitting around the Cafe during off hours gossiping the way we used to hang out in the theater or the humanities buildings at college and just… talk to one another (this list is a long one, but usually includes some combination of Christian Cagigal, Michelle Talgarow, Alexia Staniotes, Mark Weddle, Ariel Craft, Dot Janson, Margery Fairchild, Happy Hyder, Mikka Bonel, Dylan West, and most recently, this year’s Fringe intern, Florian Bdn). Though I love my apartment and I love my friend’s homes, Le Zinc on 24th and the Pilsner on Church, the Sutro Baths for strolling, Jupiter when in Berkeley and the White Horse on Sutter, everything about North Beach and a good deal about the Richmond, I don’t know that anyplace in the Bay Area feels more home to me than sitting in the EXIT Cafe eating Indian Take out or making popcorn in the Green Room microwave.

Earlier this year I made my boyfriend watch “Empire Records“, a movie I loved to hate when it came out because it was an attempt at corporatizing everything I loved… and now I kind of hate to love it, because time has ultimately shown it to be a lasting relic of the fantasy of the mid-90s, and what it lacks in nuance, subtlety, or, to be truthful, quality, it by far makes up for in heart and sincerity, which somehow shine through despite the best efforts of the studio to both destroy the film and then bury it. This amazing article can tell you pretty much everything I would want to say about Empire Records, except this last part, which is unique to me: basically, about halfway through his first viewing, my boyfriend said, “So, if this was a theater instead of a record store, it would basically be the EXIT, wouldn’t it?” and I couldn’t not argue otherwise. And while I’m not saying that my deep desire to create a stage version of “Empire Records” is due to its amazingly similar dynamic and function in our lives, I would say that it’s my continued experience at the EXIT which allows me to fully understand the sentiment screenwriter Carol Heikkinen was attempting to capture in her film when she told the BuzzFeed article linked above that, “I wanted to show how the employees were a family, and how, for some of them, this minimum-wage job would be the best job they ever had.”

This will be my third year running the Hospitality Room at the Fringe and I’ve started looking forward to the Fringe in a way that I once used to look forward to school starting. Just like school, there are people who I never see except at the Fringe- artists, of course, bringing work, but also techs and volunteers, who return year after year, for not much money or no money at all, simply to be a part of this event that is arguably the jewel in the EXIT’s crown and makes indisputable its place at the top of the independent theater scene in San Francisco. For two weeks we form our own little society, gathering around the craft table (did you know there was a craft table?) after hours or during slow times, going on errands together, playing pranks on one another, and of course seeing shows together. And talking about the shows. And talking about shows in general. It’s a ton of work and make no mistake about that, but for two weeks it’s also kind of this crazy vacation in indy theater land, a sort of small town version of theater school and summer camp rolled together and plopped into the Tenderloin for a brief but valiant moment each year when the object of the game is not to compete as artists but to play together, to be a community. And the heart of this is the Hospitality Room, if I say so myself, and this year it’s better than ever, so you should definitely put down whatever that heavy load you’re carrying is and come say hello as we celebrate these last weeks of summer and move into the autumn, a time I’ve personally always found to be more enchanted and generally saner too. There will be snacks, and you can make some crafts, and Clyde the Cyclops is on the walls so the room feels like a hug.

Oh, and, my Pink Eye has totally cleared up. So don’t worry about that.

Come visit Stuart and hang out in the Hospitality Room this Fringe! Make crafts, take photos, eat snacks, and be a part of the community. www.sffringe.org.