Theater Around the Bay: Elizabeth Gjelten and Jimmy Moore of “Don’t I Know You?”

The Pint-Sized Plays have one more performance, on Monday the 29th. We continue our series of interviews with the 2016 Pint-Sized folks by speaking to writer Elizabeth “Liz” Gjelten and director Jimmy Moore of “Don’t I Know You?”

“Don’t I Know You?” takes place in a dive bar frequented by expats from an unnamed, war-torn country. A conversation that begins with the cliched old pick-up line “Don’t I know you?” eventually takes a darker turn as the characters’ past actions come back to haunt them. The play features actors Daphne Dorman, Sarah Leight, and Alexander Marr.

Gjelten

Playwright Liz Gjelten is new to Pint-Sized this year.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized this year? 

Liz: I saw Marissa Skudlarek’s post about it on the “Yeah, I Said Feminist” Facebook group, especially noting that she wanted submissions from women playwrights with interesting roles for women. I’d had this idea knocking around in my head, and the bar setting gave me the impetus to see it out.

Jimmy: I heard about it after directing a short play for Theater Pub’s On the Spot in March, which I was welcomed to by Stuart Bousel! (Aren’t we all?)

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Liz: Creating a full life for the characters in a brief period of time. Also, avoiding the temptation to squeeze too much in.

What’s the best thing about writing a short play?

Liz: The chance to see something through from idea to completion in something less than two years! Also, the chance to play with form and ideas.

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

Jimmy: I love the collaboration between writer, director and actors as we move ink on paper to bodies in space with real stories.

What’s been most troublesome?

Jimmy: Nothing to speak of.

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Liz: The poet Diane di Prima. So many playwrights, but especially Suzan Lori-Parks, Naomi Wallace, Adrienne Kennedy, Erik Ehn, Caryl Churchill.

Jimmy Moore

Jimmy Moore returns to Theater Pub after directing for us in March.

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush? That is… what actor would you love a chance to work with?

Jimmy: Too new to the scene to have one other than…that guy with the eyes.

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

Liz: Sorry, I have a weird mental block about celebrities: They look familiar, but I almost never can remember who they are.

Jimmy: Angelina Jolie cause we have a kickass fight sequence.

What other projects are you working on and/or what’s next for you?

Liz: I’ve got two full-lengths in later stages of drafting: One about the difficulties of cross-cultural marriage and the after-effects of torture on both the former detainee and the whole family, and a dark comedy set in 1967 about a pastor’s wife who kills her husband. Next up: A site-specific piece about people living in supportive housing in the Tenderloin.

Jimmy: I produce and direct a project called Drunk Drag Broadway. We take an entire Broadway musical and give it the “Drunk History” treatment in drag along with live musical performances boiled down to 30-45 minutes. Our next production will be at SF Oasis in December. We have already produced “Wicked-ish” and “Beauty Is a Beast.”

What upcoming shows or events in the Bay Area theater scene are you most excited about?

Liz: Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment at Crowded Fire this coming September. She’s always surprising and brilliant. And I know this is a ways away, but I’m super excited about seeing Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium at ACT next spring. It’s a rare and wonderful occurrence to have a Lepage piece staged in San Francisco.

Jimmy: Disastrous at SF Oasis! D’Arcy Drollinger is brilliant and hilarious.

What’s your favorite beer?

Liz: Any good IPA with fresh ginger juice added (I’ve been known to bring it to bars in a baggie).

Jimmy: The orange ones…. cause I don’t like beer much. 🙂

Remember, you have one more chance to see “Don’t I Know You?” and the rest of the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays! Monday, August 29, at 8 PM at PianoFight.

 

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Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Forewarned is Forearmed

Warning: Incoming Marissa Skud-missle.

One of the hot topics du jour is trigger warnings, but many of the arguments I read, both pro and con, strike me as arguments in bad faith. Engage in a discussion of trigger warnings and you’ll find slippery slopes full of straw men. Both sides claim the moral high ground. The pro-trigger-warnings crowd can imply that their sensitivity to social justice issues makes them better, more highly evolved human beings. The anti-trigger-warnings crowd can imply that art should always challenge and disturb us, so it’s immature and imbecilic to want to mentally prepare yourself before experiencing an upsetting work of art.

Let’s acknowledge, right off, that there’s a problem with the way the word “trigger” has gone from having a legitimate medical meaning related to PTSD, to meaning “anything that I find uncomfortable or unpleasant or morally questionable.” It’s the equivalent of someone who says “I’m allergic to gluten” when they mean “I want to eat fewer carbs.” Therefore, perhaps a better term than “trigger warnings” is “warnings about upsetting content.”

Many of the discussions about trigger warnings involve academia, where this issue is especially tricky because of the power dynamics therein: the professor designs a syllabus and the students have to read and engage with the material, or else they could fail the class. This blog isn’t about academia, though, so I’m sticking to the somewhat less fraught issue of trigger warnings for theater. Here, at least, people can freely choose whether they want to buy a ticket and experience a certain story.

To counteract all of the bad-faith arguments that result when talking about trigger warnings, I want to promote a good-faith relationship between theaters and audiences, in which they meet each other halfway. If a theater is producing a potentially disturbing play, they could put a blurb on their website that says something like “This play contains potentially disturbing material and is not appropriate for children. Please email us if you have additional questions.” (Being vague, and asking people to email for more specific information, avoids spoiling the plot of the play for people who don’t require trigger warnings.) I don’t think this represents some horrible capitulation to the Philistine hordes who hate any art that challenges their perceptions. Instead, it allows people to obtain information and decide for themselves what actions to take.

In turn, it’s the responsibility of trigger-sensitive ticket buyers to educate themselves as to what they might be seeing, and contact the theater if they have questions. If the theater offers them the opportunity to do this, and they don’t take advantage of it, they can’t complain if they attend the show and experience a trigger. Human beings are pretty good at finding coping strategies that enable them to turn toward pleasure and turn away from pain; but they should know that the world always offers both pleasure and pain.

Like it or not, we theater artists are in the business of selling tickets and attracting audiences. As such, I think we need to manage our audience members’ expectations fairly, and keep lines of communications open. Some friends of mine recently felt swindled by the marketing for ACT’s Let There Be Love: they went into the theater expecting to see “an intimate and often humorous family drama” (per the blurb), only to discover that it’s a play about assisted suicide. Neither of them were triggered, per se, but they thought they were going to see a cozy and heartwarming show, and weren’t happy when the play took a darker turn. Even if you think that some suggested trigger warnings (“heteronormativity,” really?) are silly, it’s not hard to see that the topic of assisted suicide might be upsetting for many people, and I have to think that there’s some way ACT could have better prepared their audiences for this.

Think about it this way: at the end of every New York Times movie review, they print a blurb about the film’s MPAA rating and potentially disturbing subject matter. Over the years, the critics have made these blurbs into a wry little art form of their own (A.O. Scott’s blurb re: Mad Max: Fury Road’s R rating is simply that it’s “a ruthless critique of everything existing”). It’s fair to say that these blurbs are trigger warnings; yet I don’t see the anti-trigger-warning crowd calling for them to be abolished. As far as I can tell, a fair number of people appreciate that the Times does this, and nobody really finds it pernicious. Without enacting official censorship or a ratings system, is there a way to offer a similar advisory for theater?

I know. Everything I’m saying here sounds boring and sedate and wishy-washy. In this polarized environment, it’s more fun to say “Down with the heteronormative cissexual white patriarchy, trigger warnings for all!” or “You’re a bunch of snowflake crybabies who can’t handle the complexity of the real world, I refuse to coddle you!” And yet, there are other people arguing for the middle ground. As I was drafting this column, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to the article “How to Teach an Ancient Rape Joke,” by Donna Zuckerberg. The rape joke in question occurs in Euripides’ Cyclops – which, in a funny coincidence, is the first play that Theater Pub ever produced.

Zuckerberg writes that when she recently prepared to teach Cyclops, she realized that she needed to acknowledge the rape joke and address it in the context of Greek culture. She felt that there were many valid reasons for Cyclops to be on her syllabus, and that rape shouldn’t be the sole point of her discussion, but neither should it be ignored. She also decided that there are ways to read the scene in Cyclops as critiquing rape culture rather than reinforcing it, which brings up another important point: everyone involved in debating trigger warnings needs to acknowledge that depiction of an unpleasant situation, character, or attitude doesn’t mean that the author (or the professor, or the theater company) endorses this unpleasantness.

Art and fiction allow us to process uncomfortable emotions; indeed, some people would say that that’s their main purpose. Here’s one last, somewhat flippant thought. Greek tragedy is supposed to provoke catharsis – pity and fear. What if “cathartic” is just a synonym for “triggering”?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, producer, and arts writer. She finds bad-faith, slippery-slope arguments triggering. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or find her on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: 588 if We’re Lucky

Claire Rice has luck on her side.. hopefully.

For whatever sins I have committed, I consider a recent show I sat through punishment enough. The slate is clean and I can start all over again. It feels good.

And, though it may seem contrary, it has made me remember why I love theatre.

In this day and age we are fatted on entertainment all day every day everywhere we go. We have games to while away the hour before the bus comes. We have libraries of books are at our beck and call. Every movie ever made and all the television shows can be watched and shared and commented on. Magazines and news sources are at every click of the mouse. And is it any wonder that we argue so strongly about the stupidest points when we have entertainment news programs yelling at each other 24 hours a day and when every website thrives on user comments as a kind of content. I swear I only read SFGate for the stupid fucking things its ugly minded commenters say. We can stalk our friends and loved ones for fun without the need to tell them we love them and wish them well. Porn can always always always be had. Entertainment is everywhere all the time. No experience dies entirely, it can all be recalled and dulled down to a nub of a memory until it becomes so inconsequential it might as well have not even happened and we must search again for the next entertainment.

But a theatrical performance is a finite and unique experience that can only exist in its form in single moment. It takes effort to participate in. The experience can be relocated, but never truly copied. The seventh viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life will change only because of all the outside forces around it, but that movie will be the same. The seventh viewing of Romeo and Juliet will never be the same as the first even if it is the same production. If you watch a recorded version of that performance, it will no longer be theatre. Not really. And I love that. Nothing can beat that.

I am directing a production of RAT GIRL that will go up in May. If we sell every seat every night, about 588 people will see it. And then it will be over. Gone. That is less than 0.07 of the population of San Francisco. That is an terribly small percentage of humanity. The chances of this show being almost a puff of nothing in the history of the art, of the world, is so high that when asked why I do what I do I am forced to stay that it must be I do it only for myself. And yet, I remember moments (big and small) that have utterly changed who I am as a person and an artist. These seemingly insignificant moments of theatre sent shockwaves through my mind and have brought me here to this moment. It isn’t that I would be happy or lucky if one among 588 feels the impact that I felt. It is that I hope to create a thing that each of those 588 people carry with them as they move out into the world and into their lives and into everything else they do.

Becca Kinskey Brown Bag Theatre

I spent about six years at San Francisco State University as a graduate student and then as an administrator and lecturer. (Yeah, they let me tech people and my mother fucking Oedipus lecture was both a joy to give and totally mother fucking interesting.) And over the years there I’ve seen many things that were both remarkable and beautiful. The Brown Bag Theatre had many of those moments. Brown Bag Theatre is a small black box semester long repertory company that produces hour long shows from 12-1 for free almost all semester. The shows are entirely student produced and range from work-in-progress to ready to tour. But, there was no more foundational moment for me than watching Becca Kinskey in a cameo performance.

Memory is a tricky thing. I’m going to put this up here and someone is going to tell me I got it all wrong and none of it even happened. I don’t remember the show. I don’t remember anything else that happened. But I remember Becca Kinskey. I don’t think she was even a student at the time, but I think she was acting technical director. She was a favorite among the students for her calm and friendly demeanor, her whip smart mind, and her youth. She herself may have only just graduated from the program. How she got talked into do the show I don’t know.

Her performance was a comedy set. Her character was a first time nervous comedian. I don’t remember Becca telling a single joke, but I do remember that she became that character. The comedian was so nervous she began to tell sad and horrible truths about her own life. She cried, wept, as she lived out the nightmare scenario of being up onstage with nothing to say and an audience having all the wrong reactions. But, the odd thing was that we laughed. There were none of the normal cues for laughter, but the audience was played like a harp by the director and by Becca. We were unwitting participants in the sad fragmented story of the woman on stage. We laughed at every motion. Every tear. It was ridiculous. It was horrific. And through it all, Becca was not Becca. She was that frail and broken woman sighing behind the microphone. It was so good.

Frank Wood as Lucky in Waiting for Godot at American Conservatory Theatre

I am a vocal critic of American Conservatory Theatre and I expect I will only get louder. But I do what to put it on record that my heart hasn’t turned absolutely black against A.C.T. There are more than a few memorable moments that I’ve had there that could easily end up on this list.

But Frank Wood as Lucky beats them all by a long shot.

Frank Wood (downstage) as  Lucky, and Steven Anthony Jones as Pozzo.

Frank Wood (downstage) as Lucky, and Steven Anthony Jones as Pozzo.

I love Waiting for Godot. It is a piece of theatre that was integral to my development as an artist. The production at A.C.T. was fine. I remember little about Didi and Gogo. Gregory Wallace was in his usual form, putting his strange voice through a sort of auditory acrobatics that is beautiful in its singular nature, but I can never be sure if I like his acting or find his voice so unique that I think I enjoy his acting. At any rate, I had been waiting to hear Lucky’s monologue. I didn’t think they would cut any of it, but I couldn’t be sure. It is a rambling, stream of consciousness word purge that lasts five or more minutes. It is a plague of nothing and it is a poetry of the working mind; it is a parody of critique and acting and class and anything and everything. It is the thing that comes out of a slave’s mouth when he is demanded to “think” for no other purpose then as a sport. Sports of all kinds. Namely concurrently.

Frank Wood’s performance was naked and dangerous and drooling and violent in the pain he lived on stage. He was a man who is full of things to say, but can only say them when ordered to. He stared directly out into the audience and into nothing as his body shook itself so hard I thought his bones would come loose and he would puddle onto the floor. If I had seen him on the street I would have called an ambulance. I believed him to be in pain because I could see he was in pain. He was delirious and with every word further and further out of control. When I see this performance in my mind, he towers above me and I look up into his red-rimmed eyes and I am overwhelmed.

Next Time on Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List…

“588 if We’re Lucky Part II – One Is The Loneliest Number”

An ode to every production that has had to go on for a single audience member.

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

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

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

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

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

– sung by a Cool Cool Considerate Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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