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.

Advertisements

The Real World, Theater Edition: An Interview with Cecilia Palmtag and Addie Ulrey

Barbara Jwanouskos brings us to Home.

This week I had to interview two theater artists and playwrights, Cecilia Palmtag and Addie Ulrey who are both Core Artists with Ragged Wing Ensemble. Cecilia and Addie both developed pieces for the evening of short plays, “Destination Home”, now playing at The Flight Deck in downtown Oakland.

Both Cecilia and Addie had very interesting thoughts and perspectives on the craft of writing a new theater piece. Not shirking from the sometimes all-consuming frustration that comes with writing, both give their thoughts on sacrifice and perseverance during the times of creation and development. But, let’s get to it, because with two featured writers, this week, we still have a ways to go!

BJ: What drew you to theater and how would you describe your writing interests or voice?

CP: Utter necessity. The medium has a visceral potency that can’t be found anywhere else and can be deeply satisfying in the way that only direct experience can be. I’m interested in the breadth of a Shakespearean audience appeal, and work that is revitalizing to communal and ritual experience. Intellectual, emotional, and culturally significant themes drive my work and I tend to go for really big ideas.

One of my plays, Now! Now? Now. asked the question, “What are the mechanisms by which we prevent ourselves from experiencing the present moment?” There is a significant amount of humor and levity in my work, which is always helpful as the ideas can sometimes be very chewy and the audience needs breaks. Recently I’ve been writing stage poems (not to be confused with Slam poems). My current piece, Mother’s Fever Dream, is physically expressive, textually sparse and dense with meaning.

Cecilia Palmtag

Cecilia Palmtag

AU: I started as an actor. At some point I took a mandatory playwriting class, and realized I was obviously in some ways a writer. My friend Tadd and I were discovering this about ourselves at the same time, and at first we wrote plays together, or at the very least we were each other’s’ editors and first audience. Our writing styles were exactly opposite, so we were good teachers for each other. Tadd always wanted bigger, weirder, crazier. In his plays, Mariah Carey was being worshipped as a god while humans were devolving into animals while life-sized cans of coca cola were having babies. In my plays, someone opened a box of tea bags one by one and read the advice on the paper tabs. I wanted the poetic to be banal, and for not much to happen.

I tend to have a strong autobiographical streak in my writing, which I used to see as an amateur phase, but am now beginning to see as something I’m interested in in a deeper way. I still like the banal, but Tadd taught me to be less afraid of including things I can only imagine, to not be afraid of inventing and possibly getting it wrong. I’m interested in the place of the artist in the world today, and the romanticized idea of the artist. I’m interested in learning to make plays the way you might make a painting: starting with image, starting with materials.

Addie Ulrey

Addie Ulrey

BJ: What is your play about?

CP: A child alone in a car and a mother who in her attempt to heal others sickens herself. The reward of containment. The price of containment. Inheriting our parents’ gifts and burdens. Frogs. The central question which inspired Mother’s Fever Dream is, “How are we going to deal with climate change on a story-making basis?” What stories will we tell ourselves, what is the new myth for this unprecedented era that we can return to as things go from whack to… whack-er.

AU: My play is about quitting and failing. Well, it’s about “homing” obviously, so I guess it’s about where those concepts meet: quitting, failing, and homing. Is home the destination? Is home the place you must leave in order to reach the destination? Clearly home is both. The play follows two pioneers on the road to California from the Midwest during the 1800s, and they– well, am I supposed to spoil it? — they turn home. They go back.

BJ: How did you get involved in “Destination Home”? Had you written in this matter before?

CP: I’ve been writing one acts with Ragged Wing since 2012, and have been a core member since 2011. Proposals were being put forth last year and I submitted the concept of my solo piece early on. The development process is becoming more codified, and more closely resembling a typical drafting, reading and rehearsing process. In the past we called them “Fierce Plays” because we had ten days from first rehearsal to opening night. This time we had nearly three weeks! Pressure creates a lovely necessity, and the Fierce Play process primed me to be open to significant changes right up until opening.

AU: Ragged Wing chooses a season theme every year that in some way speaks to the phase that the company itself is in in that moment – a ten-year-old company that has been growing and changing especially fast in the last few years. I’ve been part of the company at Ragged Wing for four years now, so I’ve written on many of these themes: It’s About Time, Just Ripe, and now, Homing. Right now, I’m also in the process of co-writing a play with the youth ensemble of high school students on the same theme. Which is a totally different process because you’re trying to take their ideas and characters relating to home and help structure them into a story that holds acting opportunities for all the students. It’s more technical and less free-form. It’s a good exercise.

BJ: What was your initial idea and what did it morph into?

CP: It started with Ibsen’s Brand, a woman at the center of the earth sounding a huge drum, and a doctor who seemed to be the only one trying to cope with a mysterious epidemic. Approaching this project I knew I had about 15 minutes of stage time, and about two months to develop it. So after sifting through about 80-100 pages of raw material, Amy Sass’s Awesome Dramaturgy helped me focus on the salient, urgent, and totally relatable crisis of a child trapped in a car. The boxes were a powerful image that became central to the vocabulary, and doctor stuck as well. She encouraged me to follow where the script felt alive.

Cecilia Palmtag in her piece, "Mother's Fever Dream"

Cecilia Palmtag in her piece, “Mother’s Fever Dream”

AU: So I was initially writing a totally different play. Like for about a month. And we got all the way to the point of our second draft reading, which was about a week out from the start of rehearsals and one month out from the opening of the show, and it became clear that the piece I was working on wasn’t going to happen for this show. It was getting too big in scope to fit well into this evening of shorts, and it required fairly specific casting which wasn’t coming together, a lot of things. So we made the decision to table that piece for a future date when a longer development period is possible. Which was kind of a relief, and seemed right. Except that meant I had one week to come up with something altogether new in time for rehearsals to start. So I spent a few days throwing a fit and saying, “no I can’t I won’t”, which morphed into, “okay I will write a play but it’s going to be all about quitting and failing”. The pioneers already existed from the previous piece, so they ended up getting carried over and used as the container for this new idea.

Addie Ulrey's "Making It"

Addie Ulrey’s “Making It”

We do a lot of fast processes at Ragged Wing, which has taught me a lot and made me more fearless I think as an artist. It produces a lot of stress though, and I was feeling so stressed out about the prospect of making a new piece from scratch that I basically decided I would try to make it my task to enjoy the process, even if sometimes that meant closing the computer and going bed, and even if that ultimately meant the piece itself would fail. Or that I would fail to complete it. That I would try not to let it become my sanity versus the piece. So I guess that’s how the piece evolved.

BJ: Was there anything about the process of creating a piece for “Destination Home” that pushed you as an artist or gave you additional insight into the creative process?

CP: The new element was creating and performing a solo show. In the later part of drafting and early part of rehearsing there was a blurred line between the two. I improvised scenes in my writing time and later developed them in the script. When the script felt stuck I improvised, when I had enough material I distilled it into something concise. The structure was Queen in this piece, and it took me almost two months to nail it. When I had the right props the imagery and language unfolded and intertwined in really satisfying ways.

AU: I’m looking at that paragraph I just wrote for the last question, and the phrase, “enjoy the process”. Which is a funny one. Because you don’t enjoy it like you enjoy lemonade, you know. Well at certain times you do. But what it really means is learn to enjoy the tumultuousness, because it needs to be tumultuous; that’s what you sign up for. It’s somewhere between meditative and volcanic. It’s not like knitting a sweater.

So that’s hard.

One thing I’m finally learning is to not be resentful of the massive amount of space a play takes up in my life. Every time I make a play, there is a long list of things I have to ignore in order to make it happen. I don’t exercise, I don’t see my friends. I don’t get to go to the movies and I don’t get to make dinner and I don’t get to say yes to invitations. And if I do make the mistake of saying yes, I probably will have to cancel at the last minute. And it tends to feel really unfair, and I start to hate the play. Especially because it just doesn’t seem like the product is going to be WORTH all this flaking out on people and skipping work and almost losing my job. But I’m starting to learn to see it as seasonal, as an ebb and flow: when the play is over, there is lots of empty space, and these things can flood back into my life again. And when a new project begins, I have to actively make space for it. Because it’s not like knitting a sweater– you can’t just fit it in around everything else. It needs a lot of space. That’s just how making is. It’s not efficient. Art is not efficient!

BJ: Any challenges or considerations that came up? How did you handle them?

CP: My big challenge was doing everything. Years ago I told myself I’d never self-direct again. It’s good advice. Being totally embroiled in all aspects is costly. It was a struggle to approach the material with fresh eyes. Hear the script like an audience member. Watch the performance like a director. Perform the play like an actor. In all stages, but especially now, I’ve had to consciously step away from the piece as a playwright in order to fully commit as an actor. One job at a time is much simpler than everything at once.

AU: What to do with actors in rehearsal when you don’t have any new scenes written for them, and the ones you do have need fixing.

Experiment with string. Figure out how many ways one can walk on an endless expanse and not make any progress. Cry a lot. Crying generally helps move rehearsal forward.

BJ: Any thoughts or advice for others who want to create and develop a play?

CP: Follow the heat of your story, which to me means the personally relevant pay dirt. Have really high standards for where you’re going, and surround yourself with people you trust to be kind and to tell the truth. Then let it go. Cut whatever you have to- pages, scenes, characters. Write more. And then more. Bow to the structure, or the action, or the character, or whatever is the Queen of your play’s kingdom.

AU: Well… it’s a map. I find it so relieving to not think of a play as primarily words, but as primarily occurrences. It takes the pressure of crafting dialogue that is clever without being obvious, is deep without being after-school special. It allows dialogue to be a tool among several, and be used when it’s needed. There’s also poetry, there’s movement, there’s silence, there are objects… and so on. You map what you want to occur. I also find it helpful to constantly go back to embracing the primitive-ness of theater (in this age). What can the primitive do well that the technological cannot?

BJ: Shout-outs or plugs for upcoming theater events, shows or performances?

CP/AU: Ragged Wing’s Destination Home! ☺ April 3 & 4th at 8pm at The Flight Deck (1540 Broadway in downtown Oakland).

The Real World, Theater Edition: Wolf Chat with Amy Sass and Anthony Clarvoe

Barbara Jwanouskos talks with two local playwrights, Amy Sass and Anthony Clarvoe, about their latest collaboration.

I had a chance to speak with playwrights, Amy Sass and Anthony Clarvoe, about their recent collaboration, REDWOLF, a story inspired by Little Red Riding Hood thatfollows a young woman’s journey from girlhood to wolfhood. The play is being produced by Ragged Wing Ensemble, which I recently joined as their Development Manager. Seeing theater, dance and art built on a constant basis around The Flight Deck (Ragged Wing Ensemble’s new theatrical home) has been an inspiration and a wonder.

I was curious about the collaboration between two playwrights and how that worked and how they approached this classic fairytale with a new twist. In the course of the interview, however, I learned about their approach to writing and their creative process.

BABS: What kinds of plays are you drawn to?

AMY: The poetic and surreal. I’m drawn to work where daily life collides with something that feels mythic or archetypal. I like plays where I can hear a strong element of music or rhythm to the writing; plays where I can taste the words and the spaces between the words… a sort of music to the language that makes me want it in my mouth. I am also drawn to work that has a strong sense of a visual world. I like plays that surprise me.

ANTHONY: Plays where people want things from each other right now and do things to try to get them. I admire language that is nuanced, densely layered and structured to resonate through the whole work. I love theater that demands and displays a high level of virtuosity, intelligence, and emotional availability from performers. But some of the most moving theatrical moments I can think of have been created by collaborations among designers and a director to create an evocative world.

BABS: What do you like to explore in your plays and how do you do so?

AMY: The unexpected. I like to explore the point where seemingly disparate topics or characters are in strong relation to one another. In REDWOLF, combining elements from Red Riding Hood with topics like Trigonometry and the building of a beltway- this unusual weaving together is fun for me. Surprising things happen.

Much of my writing makes use of myth, legend, and folklore. I have been creating female-centered stories for awhile now and I do tend to look at things through the lens of gender and power. This often leads me to writing in ways that challenge some dominant ideas.

ANTHONY: The intractable and irreducible conflicts and contradictions of human existence. Create a constellation of characters with different ways of being in the world, who are nonetheless deeply invested in each other.

BABS: Could you tell me anything about your creative process that has come in handy when writing plays?

AMY: Drawing, painting, cutting or ripping things up to explore the dynamics within the show visually. I’ll make a painting and then scribble stuff on the painting for instance. Creating some visual art related to the show helps me express some things texturally and instinctually and gives me a sense of the world.

Also, I do a lot of uncensored spewing. Some people call it ‘free-writing’. Some raw stuff comes out and that’s pretty fun and unexpected. And because I am a writer/director, at some point fairly early, I will share some raw writings with my ensemble and get the words on their feet. It’s easy then to see what elements ignite the performers and which things I might explore through nonverbal choreography.

ANTHONY: I don’t write in order. I often don’t know at first where a chunk of action will go, or even who will do it. I repurpose things a lot. At key moments I like to print out everything I’ve got, spread it out all over the floor, and walk around on it, spotting patterns and arranging accordingly.

This process started with Amy saying she was thinking about the color red. One of us brought up Little Red Riding Hood. That got us thinking about other stories with girls and wolves and woods. Being who we are, I read a lot of books about the archetype of the wolf and the woods in myth and folklore, and Amy went to the woods and visited a pack of actual wolves.

redwolf_girl

BABS: What about the process of making REDWOLF and writing as a team? How was that different than other plays you’ve written in the past and was there anything exciting that came up while working with another person? Perhaps even something that you might try to replicate in the future?

AMY: Co-writing is a totally new experience. It requires a lot of trust and a desire to learn each other’s language. For Anthony and me, it worked best once we discovered what each of our strengths were and created primary roles for one another. Anthony looked after dramaturgical structuring- sort of the architecture of the script. He’s brilliant at that. I looked after the central character’s arc in terms of her growth as a young woman and the ways in which we featured our ensemble of actors & designers. Writing with them in mind was a primary point to the work.

One really cool thing was sharing a project journal. We passed it back and forth and wrote in it and drew things and glued things in there and riffed off the other’s scribblings. It was a very exciting and unique thing to do. We could graffiti and deface and add to each other’s thoughts and prompts and images. This shared journal helped us define a language that was unique to the partnership by interweaving words & images.

ANTHONY: I’ve never co-written a play before. Showing raw material to someone else was a challenge. But I do a lot of teaching of playwriting and working with other playwrights on the dramaturgy of their scripts. Amy is able to write very quickly and freely, and she writes very personally, but with a strong awareness of myths and archetypes. That makes it easy to see strong moments that we could use in a narrative structure.

At some point we realized that Amy essentially should be in charge of writing our protagonist and the scenes Red was driving, and I should focus on the antagonists. And antagonism generally. Essentially, Amy wrote the angry sexy stuff and I wrote the grumpy nerdy stuff.

BABS: How did the REDWOLF collaboration come to be? Any anecdotes about its history that you would like to share?

AMY: Anthony and I met at a panel. We started talking and walking and discussing writing & theater. We have very different backgrounds but a sort of common risk-taking drive. I was wearing a purple furry hat and he stuck it on his hand and made it talk. We both grew up with puppets in our lives as it turned out. And for some reason that seemed important.

The decision to co-write felt like a strange whim. Almost like a weird dare. I don’t think either of us knew how much we’d need to pour into this, but we both wanted to do something totally out of our comfort zones. Shake things up. Which we did.

ANTHONY: Seeing Ragged Wing Ensemble’s work – when we met at that Play Café panel, RWE was performing in the park across the street from my house — and hearing about their process from Amy. In the context of the more mainstream theater companies with which I usually work, I’ve been interested for a long time in creating theater that was more physical and design-driven, and that’s very much the RWE house style. At first I was curious to see what Amy might do with a script of mine as a director. She was curious about my process as a writer. Writing a play together for her to direct wound up being the best way for each of us to learn the most.

BABS: For people that may be considering writing as a team, what advice would you give? Anything that made working together function well between you two?

AMY: You need to be resilient, consistent and honest. Co-writing is not frictionless. Really fantastic successful artistic relationships take time & real energy and you have to be able to weather conflict.

In co-writing, you show all your raw work to another person and your half formed ideas and your inarticulate mumblings and you have to find the common mutual YES in there. And the common mutual NO’s. The reaping of things can be painful. It can feel like dying. But it is also absolutely liberating. So I think it’s good to be ready to really get at the meat of a thing with someone. If there’s blood, use it.

ANTHONY: Establish, as early as possible, how to tell each other which ideas you agree with absolutely, which hold no interest for you, and which are intriguing but not entirely convincing yet. The hardest thing was when one of us would change our mind about something we had more or less agreed to. The best was when we couldn’t remember which of us had thought of or written something.

BABS: What’s your connection with Ragged Wing Ensemble? How did you get involved?

AMY: I’m the Artistic Director and Co-Founder.

ANTHONY: I’ve got a title like Resident Guest Associate Artist or something.

BABS: Is the process of writing and developing a play with Ragged Wing Ensemble different than other productions that you’ve worked on? How so? What special considerations or modes of operating did you need to use?

ANTHONY: I came to understand the writing as a kind of adaptation. But instead of creating a play out of a pre-existing piece of writing or a body of research into a historical event, we were writing a play based on a folktale, characters inspired by the talents of ensemble members, moments of physical action created in improvisation by the ensemble, discussions with the ensemble about the themes we were working on, and of course a bunch of stuff we made up.

AMY: We are very serious about physical training. We try to take things to our physical and emotional edge through this process. We like to see where our edge of daring is and push on it. In the development of a piece, it is important to let things be raw so we can watch and listen to what emerges out of the real time play and physical action. It’s a sweaty humbling thing.

BABS: Did the new space (The Flight Deck) inform any of the decisions you made about the story?

ANTHONY: It made us think about the power of place. A big theme of the play is the contrast between wilderness and mapped space. Demolition and construction, as opposed to organic growth, came up a lot.

AMY: It is amazing to create a design for a place where we get to fully inhabit and call home. We could not have done a design like this without The Flight Deck. We completely fill that space with a wild daring design and that has a great impact on the story since the story was created with opportunities for design spectacle in mind.

BABS: Do you think making theater in the San Francisco Bay Area is different than other places? (How so, how not so, or both?)

AMY: I’ve been here for 17 years making theater and before that I was a kid on the East Coast doing it. This place has access to both the urban and the wild. Somehow those two landscapes seem important to me. My work emerges from my experiences in vast spaces like the coast and more dense spaces like Downtown Oakland with all its wonderful architecture and murals.

ANTHONY: It’s different for me because as a freelance playwright I’ve always created my work in places scattered around the country, a staged reading here, a workshop there, a premiere and subsequent productions elsewhere. It’s very unusual for me to have a script go from first idea through writing multiple drafts through full production, all with one group of artists in a place where we all live.

BABS: How do you stay active as a playwright? (productions, readings, workshops, teaching, etc.)

AMY:I make sure to write and direct a new play every year. Plus having one or more in the slow cooker. With that in mind, I’ve created programming in our company geared toward the development of new works through Fierce Plays, One Acts & Park Festivals. We have an internal culture of developing writer/directors and a unique process of creative development within our ensemble. Also I am a Resident Playwright with PlayGround, a vibrant organization that has lots of opportunities to develop and practice as a playwright and to meet and engage with other playwrights. The relationships I have with artists like Anthony and my ensemble members keeps the spirit going with regards to writing.

ANTHONY: I’m at various stages of three commissions, teaching for four organizations, answering questions from people doing subsequent productions of a couple of my older plays, giving dramaturgical consultations to colleagues and students, and talking about projects for the future.

BABS: What are you working on now? Or, what would you like to work on next? Any fascinations, obsessions, or nagging interests?

AMY: A Whale’s Wake is a piece that was commissioned by PlayGround last season. It’s on its 3rd draft now. It is inspired by the death of my father and the death of a beached baby whale that I witnessed at Stinson Beach.

ANTHONY: Currently I’m writing the first draft of a commission for Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble in Pennsylvania about the moment in American history when the Founding Fathers all turned on each other and the America we live in today was born.

BABS: What is the best and worst advice you’ve been given as a playwright?

AMY: When someone says “you can’t do X”- that’s generally the next thing I’ll try to do. This habit is either foolish or brilliant depending on the outcome.

ANTHONY: Roxanne Rogers, a director (and Sam Shepard’s sister) said: especially when you’re a young playwright, you’ll say yes to anybody who tells you they like your play. But before you do, make sure that you and the director are talking about the same play. Of course, co-writing the script with the director does get a lot of that danger out of the way early on.

BABS: Any words of wisdom for other playwrights trying to develop their craft, get produced and make connections with other theater people?

AMY: The main thing is to reach out. Go see some things. Then arrange a face to face conversation. Being curious rather than judgmental of someone’s work is a good thing. Asking questions and being interested will increase your network and show the way your mind works. That’s when partnerships start to happen leading to a mutual investment in each other’s creative growth and success. That’s an artistic alliance. For me, it’s less about producing your specific piece, and more about being interested in investing in you.

ANTHONY: Read all you can, plays included. See all you can, plays included. Act in plays. Learn how theater is made by watching and helping. Practice the skills of collaboration. Eavesdrop. Be always on the lookout for the dramatic and theatrical.

BABS: Anything else you would like to share, plug or shout-out?

ANTHONY: I’m teaching a course for PlayGround in Berkeley starting in November. I’m teaching courses at Stagebridge (if you’re over 50) in Oakland all the time. I’m teaching a course for the Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco in the spring. I love helping other writers learn what is strongest in their work and how they want to build on it.

AMY: We built an arts center in Downtown Oakland. It’s super cool. The Flight Deck features a rehearsal studio, a 99 seat black box theater and a co-working office space plus a really fantastic community of artistic leaders from various disciplines. Come be a part of it.

redwolf

REDWOLF is playing at The Flight Deck (1540 Broadway in Oakland) from now until November 8th with performances on Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, a Saturday matinee at 2 PM and Sunday at 7 PM. Pay-What-You-Can performances are: Friday, October 31 at 8 PM, for anyone in costume. Saturday, November 1 at 2 PM for women, followed by a post-show discussion, “The Wilderness of Sex: The Perilous Journey through Female Adolescence”. Saturday, November 8th at 2 PM for students and educators, followed by a post-show discussion, “Predator and Prey:In Bed with Red Riding Hood”.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a local playwright and contributor. She will have her acting debut on November 1st at 8 PM at the EXIT Theatre for the San Francisco Olympians Festival opening party. She is a part of Just Theater’s New Play Lab 2014-15 class and will be sharing a one-minute play during the One Minute Play Festival hosted by the Playwrights Foundation on December 15 and 16. For more of Barbara, you can follow her on twitter @bjwany.

Tuesdays With Annie: An Interview With Amy Sass

For her last article, Annie Paladino brings you an interview with Amy Sass, the writer/director of Time Sensitive. It’s meaty, and well worth the read.

Going into our final weekend of performances for Time Sensitive, I’m nursing a growing twinge of panic about leaving this particular group of artists, as well as the larger Bay Area theater community (I pack everything into a U-Haul and drive up to Seattle on May 31st). And so I’m cherishing this interview as a sort of good-bye, a personal dissertation that I can hang on to in a few months when I find myself in an entirely new artistic community (in my soon-to-be-purchased 100 pairs of rainboots, I assume). I wish I could do this for every artist I’ve worked with and been inspired by since I moved to San Francisco nearly 4 years ago.

Shh, Annie. Enough aimless ramblings about feelings I don’t quite understand. Get to the interview.

Okay, Annie. But one last shamelss plug: Time Sensitive has 3 more performances. This Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00pm. Read the interview and come. These performances WILL sell out though, so get your tickets NOW.

Interview commencing in 3…2…1…

When did Time Sensitive first begin?

Amy Sass: The ideas for the script have been percolating for a few years, now, initially inspired by my own struggles with Insomnia, fertility and work load. But then branching out to look at the pace of life that surrounds me from a larger perspective, the melting of the ice caps, and all the toys and gadgets and fast food etc. that increase productivity but create an addiction to access and instantaneousness.

How long was the rehearsal process? What are some advantages to this method of play making?

Amy Sass: About 4 months. It was wonderful. Originally I wanted to have the script finished by the first rehearsal, but that didn’t happen. What did happen then was that I had the opportunity to include my actors in my process. It was a much more rough and raw way of working then I had imagined but it was super fun to bring in hot-off-the-press versions of scenes and put them immediately on their feet. Which led to lots of discussions about theme and character and plot that inspired me as I furiously wrote the next batch. Also a long rehearsal period…if you consider 4 months long…which some people don’t…allows the ensemble to become super strong. Each individual’s skills grow, the connection grows and soon you’ve got this powerhouse of a group on stage making impossible things happen. The collaborative potential sky rockets.

From the writers perspective, when you walked in to first creative development, what did you know? What did you not know? Did you know you would be writing 4 separate story lines?

Amy Sass: I knew I needed to write something that would offer a certain amount of roles. I try to create enough challenges and opportunities to showcase both the individuals and the ensemble work as a whole- physically and vocally. I knew there would be a Clockwork Kid. I knew there would be a Clockmaker. The image of the Ouroborus became important as a concept. I knew there would be Ice. I knew there would be Monks. But beyond that…not much else. Then one day Bill started writing himself. This lone guy at the top of the tallest tower. And so the geography of the city started to become clear…we were dealing with Up and Down. We were dealing with status and verticality. We were also dealing with a city with no perimeter, a landscape of endless urbanization…so once I had Bill, the geography and the value system fell into place. I had the guy at the top. So naturally I had to figure out who lived at the bottom. Hence Roach and Penny.

What were some of the challenges facing you at the start of the process? How did you resolve them?

Amy Sass: This script had to be written very fast. It took me 2 months to write it but it was a writing marathon. Good thing I live with an actor so we can read things immediately after they are written and I know right away what lands and what doesn’t. One thing that helped was that my Dramaturge, Adam Sussman, recommended the book “A Sideways Look At Time” by Jay Griffiths. This book was a tremendous Ah Ha for me. The lexicon of the play was derived from this book. Also we did not have a space for this performance. It took all through December to secure Sanctuary for the Arts. That was a big challenge for me in that I’d prefer to write specifically for a venue. And this venue ended up being very very different from what I had imagined for the script. However, I was blessed with excellent designers and so Erik LaDue (set designer) did an enormous job transforming the space and creating a set that pierced the womblike room so that we could do some very dynamic staging. And clever Linda Baumgardner created lighting magic with very few resources.

Talk a little about the role of the ensemble in creating the story. How much of the final product was script and direction, and how much came from the ensemble?

Amy Sass: I’m a director and a writer and a visual artist. I think in choreography and images. So stage picture is a huge way that I convey story. The writing on the page is based on what I see in my head choreographically. So for me it is all linked. The actors also bring their own skills, which influences the evolution of the piece. The chant of Da Pachem would not be in the show at all if it wasn’t for DiLecia Childress, whose grandfather used to sing it to her as a child. And Liz Wand just happens to have the musical skills to arrange it and teach it. The Ice Monks would not be chanting the history of the eons if it wasn’t for the science minds in the group like actors: Phil Wharten, Soren Santos and Ice Designer, Carter Brooks who helped me figure out which eons and epochs to use. And the audience seating would not be arranged the way it was if it wasn’t for actor, Tony Agresti, who had a vision and the vision worked. Also I should say that any artist (actor, designer, dramaturge etc) working with Ragged Wing finds that everyone is asked to have a directorial eye at some point. In rehearsals I’m going to be asking whoever is sitting around: What does this staging say to you? Which is more effective: up on the plat or down on the floor? Come look at this. What do you see? Why is this not working? If you’ve got a particular skill in our group, you will most likely find yourself becoming a coach of some sort in the process whether its with choreography, singing, contact acrobatics…etc. If you’re a writer, I’m going to say- Take a look at this section. So I bear the responsibility for the script and the direction and the rehearsal culture. But each show is so specific to those that participated in creating it. And when I use the word Ensemble, I also include myself in that word too. We are deeply collaborative and part of that means fostering strong leaders across the board.

You wear many hats in the production. How do you negotiate your writer brain with your directors brain with your artists visual brain? i.e. How do you manage your hats?

Amy Sass: There are lots of hats. The more I do it, the more the hats start to look like one hat. Meaning that I’m getting better at weaving my different brains together. The most challenging part is moving from one mode to the next since it takes me a while to get in the flow for each thing. For instance, even before the script is really done, the poster image has to be in progress. Or the script was finished yesterday and I’m already meeting with designers before I’ve gotten a chance to even really think like a director and prepare. Or I’m casting while I’m still writing. So I wish I had a little bit more time/space in between finishing one thing before moving onto the next. Even so, I do feel like the way things overlap has forced me to trust my gut and make bold decisions based on instinct. Which is scary but in some ways is best.

The stage/audience set-up is unusual — kind of a combo thrust/lane-style seating arrangement. What was the hardest thing about directing for this set-up? What was the most unexpected benefit?

Amy Sass: The most challenging aspect was sight lines. Most things that are tried and true on a proscenium stage or even on a thrust, just didn’t work in terms of sight lines. For instance, two people standing next to each other having a conversation was not possible. Diagonals were not possible. The interesting thing was that things that do not work in a traditional configuration, worked great with this one. For instance one person standing directly behind another person worked really well for 99% of the seats in the house. Because of this configuration, scenes that usually take 20 minutes to block ended up taking a full 2 hours or more. This was difficult in terms of time management. However, the results are really worth it. The set just pierces through the audience creating gorgeously sculptural scenes. The thing became a whole landscape (city street and glacier) and the performers, when positioned properly, gain so much power just by the force of dynamic spatial relationship.

As we’ve mentioned, this was (by most standards) a somewhat extended rehearsal process. Did you learn anything new or surprising about your own script throughout the rehearsal process?

Amy Sass: Oh yes. I’m accustomed to starting official rehearsals with a completed script, so only having it 1/3 complete was a source of stress. However, the way the process rolled forward with the company deeply involved and playing with the writing…this fluidity created character trajectories that I just did not see coming. That playfulness and interaction allowed me to be more brave as a writer. Once the script was a final working draft, it was very interesting to try to figure out how each plot point informed the next one. And the purpose of the choral sections, the clocks, the ice monks became much more clear once we started putting it on its feet. The most challenging part of the work was creating the order of scenes which took 3 full days.

A LOT of this script is extremely musical and rhythmic. Dnd the way you directed us in the text was essentially a process of learning a musical score. Personally I’ve worked this way before, but it’s not very common, I feel. A really big/vague question: why do you write/direct this way? Have you worked other ways and rejected them?

Amy Sass: As a young artist, I grew up as a part of a very intense theater ensemble, working with professional theater artists who valued rhythm, music and the power of the greek chorus. A lot of my early training was steeped in action as rhythm and words as music. We also trained in naturalism and did our fair share of ‘straight plays’… but it was the avant garde work that was especially chilling to me and much of that had strong rhythmic storytelling components and visual design elements. It’s funny, because I’m not a musician, but there is a music to how I write and direct.  I’m very particular about the rhythmic timing of action and visuals on stage. So a certain musicality is inherent in my taste and artistic value system.

Something you said in rehearsal really stood out to me at the time, and I wrote it down. “Theater isn’t about being authentic, theater is about being repeatable.” Can you explain this a little bit, especially in the context of the process for Time Sensitive?

Amy Sass: Our primary goal as theater artists is to communicate. This means knowing your craft inside and out. Know where you are standing and why. Know when you are breathing and why that adds to the delivery of the moment. Know who is behind you on stage and what that sensory connection is. Authenticity is important, sure, but the practice really comes in being able to find it each time and to hit your marks so the delivery is solid, a known factor and not in and out based on your personal emotions that night. For me, it’s about scene partner reliability. Just like in acrobatics, no one wants to do a double flip with a partner who can’t base you dependably, who changes things night to night based on how they feel. Acting is the same. Some people think that if they are ‘feeling it’, then the audience is too. Not always the case. Sometimes, when an actor is feeling it, then he/she does all the work and there’s nothing left for the audience to do. What I’m saying is that the audience is primary. It has to be what works for them and what communicates, since that’s our job. Sometimes that will mean the audience and actor will get to feel it at the same moment, but not always. And truly, it’s easy to change from night to night. It’s more of a challenge to hold the paradox of hitting those marks while still keeping it fresh and connecting to the present moment. That creates dynamic tension and effort which is very compelling. For TS, the work is so musical, so dependent on the large group operating as one mind. Lots of moving parts. You need to have a sense of everyone all the time. Precision is a big element of virtuosity. And lastly, I will say that the most important thing to feel is connection. To your partners, to the audience, to the air and your feet on the ground, to your own body and to the physical sensations in the space. Everything else will flow from that.

Your favorite line in the play?

Amy Sass: Steak. Steak. Heat it up. Steak!

Special thanks to David Stein for several of the first interview questions here.

Annie Paladino is a Bay Area (soon to be Seattle-based!) actor, director, producer, and stage manager. You can find her on Twitter @anniepaladino. She loves you all and has started what seems like an endless string of tearful goodbyes. Be warned, you’re next.

Tuesdays With Annie: Tune In Next Week

Annie Paladino has something to say… next time.

So. here’s the story:

I was writing a new post about making theater in non-theater spaces. As you may or may not know, Time Sensitive performs in a non-theater space, an old church (now Sanctuary for the Arts) in which we built a stage shaped like a guitar. So I felt compelled to talk about it, as well as my other experiences with non-theater spaces (both as artist and audience).

So. I wrote.

And then I hated it.

Topmost reason being: this is the freaking THEATER PUB blog. What the hell am I doing, writing about theater in non-theater spaces (SUCH AS A BAR) as if it’s novel or as if I have some extremely unique experience. Bay Area theater absolutely ADORES non-theater spaces. There was even an excellent article in TBA magazine about it last year!

So. I scrapped it.

And instead, next week I will be bringing you an interview with Amy Sass, the writer and director of Time Sensitive (and Artistic Director of Ragged Wing Ensemble). And it’ll be the bomb diggity, I promise.

So. Until next week.

(And in the meanwhile — only two more weekends to catch Time Sensitive! That’s six more show, folks!)