Theater Around the Bay: Marissa Skudlarek and Adam Odsess-Rubin of “Cemetery Gates”

We continue our series of interviews with the folks behind the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays by speaking to writer Marissa Skudlarek and director Adam Odsess-Rubin of “Cemetery Gates”!

Inspired by the classic Smiths song, “Cemetery Gates” is a vignette about two moody, pretentious high-school seniors who have snuck into a bar with fake IDs in order to try overpriced cocktails, quote poetry, and imagine a world in which they could be happy. Sailor Galaviz plays Theo and Amitis Rossoukh plays Flora.

Skudlarek photo

Writer Marissa Skudlarek goes for a moody-rainy-day aesthetic.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized, or, if you’re returning to the festival, why did you come back?

Marissa: I have a long history with Pint-Sized. The first edition of the festival, in 2010, was also the first time any theater in San Francisco had produced my work. I had a play in the 2012 festival as well, and then last year, I came back to serve as Tsarina (producer) of the entire festival, the first time that it was at PianoFight. I can’t resist the lure of an imperial title and a rhinestone tiara, so I signed on as Tsarina again for the 2016 festival. Meanwhile, I had originally written “Cemetery Gates” as a submission for The Morrissey Plays, Theater Pub’s January 2016 show. The producer of The Morrissey Plays, Stuart Bousel, didn’t end up picking my script, but he said “This is a good play, you should produce it in Pint-Sized this year.” And, well, the Tsarina gets to make those decisions for herself. It’s good to be the Queen!

Adam: I had been an actor at PianoFight in The SHIT Show and Oreo Carrot Danger with Faultline Theater, but I really wanted to break into directing. I studied directing at UC Santa Cruz, but no companies in the Bay Area seem to want to hire a 24-year-old to direct. I sent my resume to Theater Pub and I’m so grateful they are taking a chance on me.

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

Marissa: I feel like I allow myself to indulge my idiosyncrasies more because, hey, it’s only 10 minutes, right? Last night I was talking to Neil Higgins (a frequent Theater Pub collaborator who directed “Beer Culture” in this year’s Pint-Sized Plays), and he pointed out that both “Cemetery Gates” and my 2012 Pint-Sized Play “Beer Theory” are very “Marissa” plays. They are plays that I could show to people and say “This is what it’s like to live inside my head.” Writing a full-length often means seeking to understand the perspectives of people who don’t think or behave like me; writing a short play lets me burrow into my own obsessions.

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

Adam: I love creating theater outside of conventional theater spaces. I’ve worked with Israeli and Palestinian teenagers in Yosemite and taken Shakespeare to senior-citizen centers, but never done a play in a bar. PianoFight is my favorite bar in the Bay Area, so I’m thrilled to be creating theater in their cabaret space.

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

Marissa: Sometimes it can be complying with the length-limit, though that wasn’t a problem with “Cemetery Gates.” Creating vivid and complex characters while only having a limited space to define them.

What’s been most troublesome?

Adam: My script is six pages. Trying to create a full theatrical experience in under 10 minutes is a really creative challenge for a director. You want a full dramatic arc while also fleshing out your characters, which isn’t easy to do in such a short period of time. And yes, scheduling too. The actors in my piece are both very busy with other projects, so our rehearsal time was limited.

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Marissa: Ooh, that’s a daunting question, so I’m going to re-frame it as “What are the biggest artistic influences on ‘Cemetery Gates’?” Well, there’s the Smiths song, obviously, and the fact that I wish I’d discovered it when I was a teenager rather than when I was about 25. There’s my weird obsession with a clutch of Tumblr blogs run by teenage or early-twentysomething girls who post about what they call “The Aesthetic,” which seems to mean pictures of old buildings in moody light, marble statues, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, modern witchcraft, dried flowers, the idea of being this vaguely wistful girl writing in her journal in a coffee shop, etc. And, while I didn’t consciously realize it when I was writing the play, I think it’s probably influenced by one of my favorite recent films, Xavier Dolan’s HeartbeatsHeartbeats is the story of two very pretentious Montreal twentysomethings — a gay guy and a straight girl, like the characters in “Cemetery Gates” — who both fall in love with the same man. The movie is aesthetically lush and painfully funny. Dolan obviously loves his characters while at the same time acknowledging that they are completely ridiculous — which is exactly how I feel about the characters in “Cemetery Gates.”

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

Adam: I’d love to see Harry Styles from One Direction play Theo in Cemetery Gates. What can I say? He’s just so cute and pouty. It’d be great to see him play an alienated gay teen sneaking into a bar to wax poetic about Oscar Wilde. Molly Ringwald would be an excellent Flora — the ultimate angsty teenager who longs for something better in a world full of constant disappointments.

Marissa: Hmm, the trouble here is that both of my characters are 18 and I feel like I don’t know enough about who the good teenage actors are these days. Maybe Kiernan Shipka as the girl? I loved her as Sally Draper on Mad Men.

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Director Adam Odsess-Rubin is also looking very aesthetic here.

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

Adam: I’m very jealous of anyone who has had the opportunity to be on stage with Radhika Rao. She blows me away as an actor and teacher. She’s such a light in the Bay Area theater community, and such a talented artist. Her passion to create change through her art is what every theater artist in the Bay Area should strive for.

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

Adam: I’ll be directing three pieces for the SF Olympians Festival this year, which I am so excited about. My parents gave me a picture book of Greek mythology when I was very little, and so I can’t wait to bring some of these tales to life in a new way on stage. Anne Bogart talks about the importance of mythology in theater, and Anne Washburn touches on this in a big way in Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, which I assistant-directed at A.C.T. and the Guthrie Theater under the late, great Mark Rucker. I was so moved by Washburn’s unique argument for theater as this invincible storytelling form.

Beyond that, I’d love to direct a full-length show next year at a theater company in the area. Artistic Directors, you’ll be hearing from me soon.

Marissa: Revising my long one-act play You’ll Not Feel the Drowning for a staged reading on September 13, part of Custom Made Theatre’s Undiscovered Works program. Finishing a one-act play based on the story of Macaria, Hades and Persephone’s daughter, for an Olympians Festival staged reading on October 14. Planning and hosting a celebration of the Romantic era to take place over Labor Day Weekend. Attending a friend’s wedding in Oregon in mid-September. Trying to keep my sanity in the midst of all this (seriously, it’s a lot right now).

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

Adam: I saw Eric Ting’s production of We Are Proud to Present… at SoHo Rep in NYC in 2012 and it was the single greatest production I’ve seen, period. I can’t wait to see his production of An Octoroon at Berkeley Rep next season. I love Annie Baker and am looking forward to John at A.C.T. And Hamilton – my God! I’m not original in saying this, but that show is brilliant.  I’m so glad SHN is bringing it to SF. I don’t know what the smaller theaters have planned for next season yet, but Campo Santo and Z Space produce great work. New Conservatory Theatre Center is an artistic home for me. I’ll see anything they produce.

Marissa: The Olympians Festival, of course! The theme this year is myths of death and the underworld, and I’ve been writing a lot of weird death-haunted plays this year (including “Cemetery Gates”) so that fits right in. Also, a bunch of my friends and I read or reread Pride and Prejudice this year, so I want to plan a field trip to see Lauren Gunderson’s P&P sequel play, Miss Bennet, at Marin Theatre Co. this Christmas.

What’s your favorite beer?

Adam: Moscow mule.

Marissa: The Goldrush at PianoFight — bourbon, honey, and lemon, good for what ails ya.

“Cemetery Gates” and the other Pint-Sized Plays have 3 performances remaining: August 22, 23, and 29 at PianoFight! 

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The Real World- Theater Edition: An Interview With Star Finch

Barbara Jwanouskos brings you the author of H.O.M.E.

I heard the title first, H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually) and I thought, “okay, now, that’s gonna be good…” I see it and it’s this meld of worlds, ideas, curiosities, passions, and most importantly, issues I care about, so I was immediately drawn in. It’s speaking to something mythic and larger than life, but is what our every day is made of. When we think of what the future – or even the present – will be like and wonder who’s going to celebrate in the success and who will be left out? With people being pushed out of their homes and places around the Bay that they grew up, this is palpable and real. And the play opens that door. For me, it was the first time in a long time that I felt connected to something that I can only relate to the word, “spiritual”. It’s the type of theater that captures you and draws you into its share experience and shared space. It lets you be there and lets you listen as the ideas, the words, the characters come to life on stage. Gives you a place where you can share this with others.

Suffice it to say, I was moved deeply.

Campo Santo is currently putting on the production at The Strand Theater by playwright, Star Finch, who was born and raised in San Francisco. I was able to connect with her after seeing the show – thanks to Sean San Jose. I asked her about her process and how H.O.M.E. developed.

Star Finch

Star Finch

Barbara: Tell me about your artistic and writing background. What drew you to theater?

Star: I’ve always used writing as a way to make sense of the world or my experiences within it since I was a teen. It wasn’t until later in life that I found the courage to admit to myself that I wanted to be a writer and should actively pursue it rather than hide it away in notebooks. I found my way to theater specifically in grad school when I randomly took a course with Michelle Carter, despite my focus being in fiction. I immediately fell in love with the plays we went to see, the playwrights she introduced into my world, and the layers of energy that could be folded into great dialogue. Michelle Carter became a mentor and later a great friend who was instrumental in encouraging me to pursue my path.

Barbara: Do you have any influences – shows you saw that you were inspired by, books or essays, teachers, family, friends or mentors, etc. – that show up in your writing?

Star: I’m very much inspired/influenced by the playwrights Caryl Churchill and Suzan-Lori Parks. Everything David Lynch produced made a big impact on my childhood subconscious (why I was allowed to watch his work as a kid is its own mystery). Michelle Carter’s emphasis on the dance of beats and subtext within dialogue stays with me. Kara Walker and Wangechi Mutu’s work speak directly to the ghosts I carry. And lastly D. Scot Miller’s manifesto on AfroSurrealism was a revelation that gathered all the tiny fragments of my lived experiences and named/framed them into a whole.

Barbara: What’s your process like and did anything about it change in writing and developing H.O.M.E.?

Star: My process was always to write late at night after my kids and husband had gone to bed and the house was finally quiet. I would write by hand in notebooks until I felt like I had a solid chunk of scenes and then I’d type them up on my computer to get a view from a different angle. For the most part that remains my process in that I always begin by hand in a notebook. For whatever reason I can’t just jump onto a computer/laptop and take off. What was different with H.OM.E was that it was written within Campo Santo’s informal writing group, Clika. So in this case I was sharing scenes, hearing scenes read by actors, and getting feedback from the very beginning. Prior to that I had only written something all the way through on my own and then asked for feedback on the draft as a whole.

Barbara: I’m curious about your thoughts on how you engage with collaborators, for instance once you’re in the rehearsal room. What was it like to work with Campo Santo?

Star: Campo Santo is an amazing place to call home. Sean San Jose truly feels like a long lost brother. I don’t know if it’s because we’re both SF natives or what, but we just vibe really well and make each other laugh. There is a trust involved that speaks to our commitment to speak truth in matters of injustice, hypocrisy, or oppression within the stories we seek to tell in our work. In the rehearsal room we spent a good two weeks sitting around a table asking questions. Everyone at the table was given a voice to seek whatever answers they needed to best help them embody the text. In a way we were all sitting in the dark with a script and it was important to build the world collectively through conversation.

Barbara: Could you tell me about H.O.M.E. and what inspired or prompted you? Do you have a favorite moment or line in the play? What draws you to it?

Star: The original prompt for this play was a photograph, by Chris Arnade, of two sex workers in the Bronx looking through a telescope. The photo got me to wondering about space travel, access, privilege, and who would be “allowed” to travel to new worlds in the future. It’s difficult to pick a favorite line or moment in the play, but one of my favorite images is the idea of a mythological Tupac Amaru Shakur living as a prophet in a cave on Mars. That thread throughout the piece became even more poignant for me after the death of Afeni Shakur in May. I love the idea of writing the spirit of their names across the solar system.

Star's inspiration for H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually). Photo by Chris Arnade.

Star’s inspiration for H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually). Photo by Chris Arnade.

Barbara: What do you think about where San Francisco and the Bay Area is at now (theater scene or beyond) and where we’re going?

Star: In theater (and beyond) I think San Francisco and the Bay Area talks about wanting diversity and inclusion but it’s for the most part just talk. The word diversity is often a matter of using numbers to secure grants, create a “colored” brochure, or pat oneself on the back for being a progressive city. But true progress requires actively dismantling and rebuilding as an act of restoring normalcy, not feigning nobility. Organizations, neighborhoods, workplaces ought to be diverse because the very nature of Nature itself is diversity in abundance. The gap between the image the Bay Area projects and the reality of who is made to feel welcome here grows wider every day.

Barbara: Is there anything that drives you to write within (or out of) that context? How so?

Star: Yes! Because I know how diverse, vibrant, wild and open this city used to be. I’m always writing from a place that questions the sanity of what we’re conditioned to consider normal, and who benefits from said conditioning.

Barbara: Are there other theaters, writers, performance artists, artists of any media for that matter that you think are doing really something really interesting? Work you enjoy experiencing?

Star: I like how Ubuntu Theater Project and AlterTheater are putting on shows in unexpected spaces. Local artists like Paul Lewin and Lexx Valdez produce imagery that speaks to my soul. Over the last year I’ve been leaning heavily into reading women playwrights such as Naomi Wallace, Kia Corthron, Annie Baker, and Sarah Kane. And of course I have to again mention Michelle Carter and Sean San Jose. For some reason I tend to be most inspired and excited by documentaries about space, nature, creatives, and subcultures–the more wild and far out, the better. Foreign films are another source of inspiration. Is it odd for a writer to find most of her inspiration from visual art forms? LoL! I love all of the exhibits SOMArts puts on and the ways they engage with gentrification and its erasure.

Barbara: What do you love most about San Francisco?

Star: My old answer to the San Francisco question would be its diversity. I grew up around people who looked like me, in addition to having friends/neighbors from a wide variety of different cultural backgrounds, and sadly when I look at my children’s class photos that is no longer the case. My new answer to what I love most about San Francisco now would be the food. Whenever I take a trip out of town I quickly realize how unbelievably spoiled we are here. Not to mention its beauty. The city is gorgeous from every angle.

Barbara: Any words of wisdom or thoughts for people who want to do what you do?

Star: The most important bit of wisdom I can offer is Keep Writing!! (and sending your stuff out.) Even when it might seem pointless or as if no one is interested, press on. You never know when an opportunity might present itself and when it does you’ll want to have your best work on deck and ready to be read. It also helps immensely to be part of a community—so seek that out whether it comes from school, volunteering at a theater, taking acting classes, signing up for a workshop. Making authentic connections with your fellow creatives is a vital part of the process.

Barbara: Any upcoming projects you or friends are working on in the Bay Area?

Star: I have a play called Bondage that will be produced by AlterTheater next January. It’s a play that came about through my year long residency with them in AlterLab 2015. Campo Santo also has a bunch of cool collaborations on the horizon through their residency with Magic Theatre and beyond. First up is Nogales, written by Richard Montoya and directed by Sean San Jose. The best way to keep up with them is via their Facebook page: CampoSantoSF

Image by Lexx Valdez

Image by Lexx Valdez

You can check out H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually) at the Strand Theater through the weekend. Click here for more information.

The Real World – Theater Edition: The Sound of Silence

Barbara Jwanouskos, sitting in silence.

That sound in between the end of a play before the clapping begins…

It must be one of the sweetest things. The understanding and collective feeling of that moment in the play — the one we all worked for — actors, playwright, director, technicians, stage manager, designers, all. The moment in between anticipation and satisfaction, between understanding and wondering. It’s the moment of silence where regardless of the quality of anything in or outside the world of production something settles and rests. Sometimes this moment feels more profound than others, but I believe that it’s always there. Or, at least it’s potential is there, and to me, while subtle, it’s still enough to be noticed and appreciated.

To me, this moment of silence isn’t really silent at all — just as I find more and more that there are no true moments of silence. Something is always moving and developing whether heard or not.

I have become enamored with silence and how it is used within theater in the past couple of years. Not just at the end of a play – if I’m lucky, maybe I get that kind of response to something I wrote – but within the work as well. I’ve been looking for moments where seemingly “nothing is happening”. I’m in good company, treading on the heels of Annie Baker and Toshiki Okada, among others, playwrights who understand the underlying tension of people inhabiting a room together, but not speaking. Why? The tension is palpable and felt if you have ears to hear and are able to settle in to the initial discomfort that comes from not knowing what’s happening, who is in power, who will speak next.

The Flick by Annie Baker. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Flick by Annie Baker. Photo by Joan Marcus.

I recognize that this feeling is not for everyone. Some find it boring, but I find it anything but. Remember the controversy over THE FLICK, Baker’s play presented at Playwrights Horizons? The play described as having a “glacial” pace enraged members if the audience who were enraged by what they saw before them. How could a theater company be so daft as to produce a play with nothing happening?? But others pointed to the tremendous emotional turns that were supported by these silent moments, only possible if you’re able to settle in, be patient, and truly tune in to watch what was happening– feel what was happening as the players were drawn into moments of uncomfortable, heartbreakingly silent moments of intimacy.

ZERO COST HOUSE, adapted by Pig Iron Theatre Company from Toshiki Okada’s work, had the similar kind of use of silence. I remember seeing it in Pittsburgh at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, at first confused and annoyed at how long it was taking to get to the next thing. Then, I realized, “oh, it’s intentional!” and it hit me — something else WAS happening in those moments that was much more powerful than anything I’d experienced between robust movement or dialogue exchanges. Moments where the characters were waiting for reactions from one another, for ideas to settle in. Perhaps it was something that could maybe only be felt because of the lack of words, sounds, and volley of ideas. Afterwards, chatting with my friends, most of them sat in camp “what the fuck was that?!” where as I was in camp “what the fuck was that!!” And another realization that subtlety is not for everyone. Maybe can’t be for everyone at least initially. Perhaps has to be trained and cultivated and come in the right moment in one’s life when one can truly stop and listen to the orchestra of the unspoken.

A moment from Pig Iron Theatre Company's production of ZERO COST HOUSE.

A moment from Pig Iron Theatre Company’s production of ZERO COST HOUSE.

And now? I can’t not write a moment of unspoken interaction between characters. I sometimes guide the length by perhaps describing the moment in the stage directions in intimate detail. Sometimes it’s a bit more poetic and left for interpretation. But in the movie in my mind, it’s a long, visceral moment where characters yearn for closeness. Or something. It’s like sitting in a meadow and all the sudden something catches your eye. You realize that an animal has started to emerge from the bushes. And that it knows you’re there. Do you rush over and try and grab it? Or do you wait and watch to see what it will do? We’re all different I suppose, but I’ve always been curious about what this little deer or squirrel or rabbit might point me to. Even if it’s just going to just eat some nuts or something, how often do we get this encounter?

Maybe it does point back to something missing or something we crave in our waking world. Perhaps we wouldn’t have such a powerful reaction when we encounter these moments where “nothing happens”. I’ve started to question if that is truth and so have stepped into the place where I can listen to what is about to happen next. I have this idea that if you tune in and just sort of gently wait it out, that you’ll know what happens next. It’s always expected. So then, if the question stops becoming, “what happens next?” and “how does it happen?”, what are the new questions now? And does it mean that whatever preconceived structure we choose – linear, non-linear, whatever – are they still relevant? I don’t know. Until I find the answers I’m happy to quietly watch and notice the world around me.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a Bay Area based playwright who is a part of the Playwrights Foundation’s FlashPlays Festival on Dec. 6 and 7. You can follow her on twitter @bjwany.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Greet Me with Cries of Hate

Marissa Skudlarek ponders the idea that if a bad review is a good sign that good art is going on, does this mean Dan Brown is a genius?

“Melissa Fall has such an interesting perspective on things,” Megan Briggs said to me the other night. (Megan is currently starring in DIVAfest’s production of Melissa’s play You’re Going to Bleed.) “When she was here for the premiere, do you know what she told me? She said, ‘I hope that at least one critic hates this show — really hates it — because that’d mean that the play was effective. We’re trying to do something controversial here, and not everyone should like it.’ Isn’t that an interesting way of looking at things?”

It is, but it’s not a completely unique viewpoint. I’ve heard other artists make that claim; I’ve even thought it myself. In our culture, there’s an idea that great art should shock or unsettle its audiences, rather than appealing to their sense of contentment and complacency. I also think it this has something to do with the idea of the artist being a lonely prophet, a Cassandra, a teller of inconvenient truths. It reminds me of Oscar Wilde saying “Whenever people agree with me, I always feel I must be wrong,” or Groucho Marx saying “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Or Meursault, at the end of The Stranger, wishing for the crowd on the day of his execution to “greet me with cries of hate.” If you started making art because you felt like a misfit or an outcast, and then people actually like and accept what you make, you must not be doing it right. You must’ve betrayed yourself; you must’ve sold out. At least, that’s how the thinking goes.

But one of the problems with the idea that “great art arouses controversy and gets negative reviews” is that badartists can lay claim to this as a convenient excuse to justify their own mediocrity. This week, I heard a BBC radio news item about Dan Brown’s reaction to the bad reviews for Inferno, his latest potboiler novel. “All you’re hoping to do, as a writer, when you put something out, is make people care about it, make people react to it. I kind of believe if there aren’t people angry, then you really haven’t said much. So, you know what, on some level, I guess I need to welcome those sorts of comments,” Brown said in a clip.

But reviewers are angry at Brown precisely because they think that he hasn’t said much; they think that his novels are trashy, the literary equivalent of empty calories or worse. Still, how can Melissa Fall (a writer I respect, and know to have serious ambitions) and Dan Brown (a writer of airport thrillers who finds himself in a place of undeserved cultural prominence) both say the same thing about their art? How can they both claim that a negative review is the greatest proof of the value of their writing?

I’m also tired of the related idea that art that wallows in nihilistic or degrading sentiments — what is traditionally meant by the term “shock value” — is more valuable than art that expresses something more positive or uplifting. (Perhaps Allison Page and I are on the same wavelength here.) To that end, I was fascinated and intrigued to learn that the most controversial play in New York this past season was The Flick, by Annie Baker. From what I gather,The Flick is a quiet, slow-paced, three-hour drama about three disappointed people who work at a small-town movie theater. Sounds innocuous enough, but evidently droves of people walked out of the play, wrote angry letters to Playwrights Horizons (the producer), and threatened to cancel their subscriptions. Playwrights Horizons eventually published an open letter defending their decision to produce The Flick and explaining why they supported Baker’s artistic vision.

So The Flick was controversial, but not for the usual reasons of sex or violence or political content or other forms of shock value. It made people uncomfortable because it was too quiet, too subtle, dare I say, too feminine. I hope that Annie Baker took a perverse pride in the controversy she raised. While I haven’t seen or read The Flick, I have to feel that Baker is doing something right.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. If you wish to give her bad reviews (or good ones) you can see more of her writing at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.