Theater Around The Bay: The Best of the Blog

2013 was a year of change on multiple fronts and our website was no exception. Though Marissa Skudlarek, as our first “official” blogger, began her semi-monthly contributions in 2012, the eight-writer line up that currently composes the blog’s core writing team wasn’t solidified until October of this year, when Claire Rice was brought on to replace Helen Laroche, who, along with Eli Diamond, stepped away as a regular contributor earlier this year. Eli and Helen, along with the current eight and our lengthy list of occasional contributors (most notably Annie Paladino), all get to share in the success of the blog, which steadily and dramatically increased its traffic over this past year. With 45,611 hits in 2013 (compared to 27,998 in 2012, 11,716 in 2011, and 8,435 in 2010), there can be no doubt that the San Francisco Theater Public (as we’ve taken to calling the blog amongst ourselves) is “kind of a thing.” With our current all time total just shy of 100,000 hits, we wanted to use the last blog entry of this year to celebrate the different voices that make our blog unique, while also paying homage to the vast and diverse world of online theater discussion. To everyone who makes our blog a success, including our dedicated readers and Julia Heitner, our Twitter-mistress who brings every installment to the Twitter-sphere, a gigantic thank you for making 2013 the best year so far! Here’s hoping that 2014 is even better!

STUART BOUSEL by William Leschber 

Whether it be Shakespeare, Ancient Greece, Celtic Myth, or the plight of the contemporary 30 something, Stuart Bousel always has something intelligent to say about it, and if you’ve read any of  his blogs over the past year you’ll know he has an ample array of in-depth thoughts about these things and so much more. I’m proud to have known Stuart for a number of years and the plentiful hours of intelligent conversation are invaluable to me, but my favorite 2013 blog entry of his is one that offers both a larger social insight and something very personal as well. The Year of the Snake blog isn’t afraid to be vulnerable, and offers the perfect mix of two brands of self awareness: the satisfaction that comes at being proud of one’s achievements, juxtaposed with the self doubt that comes whenever we embark on something new and challenging. These traits are heightened by a particularly uncertain year for myself and so many others who have had an odd go of it in 2013, the Year of the Snake, and maybe that is why this particular blog resonated so strongly. Although this year is possibly the most challenging some of us have had in recent memory, what Stuart articulates so well here is that sometimes we have to pass through the fire to come out stronger from the forge. The process of wriggling into new skin in due time…aye, there’s the rub: “…the truth is, the changes tend to kind of happen while you’re not looking, almost as a side result of trying to change.”

There's Stuart, emerging from his security blanket just like 2013 emerged from the crap year known as 2012.

There’s Stuart, emerging from his security blanket just like 2013 emerged from the crap year known as 2012.

In other favorites-of-the-year news, I present you the Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith. For those in constant transit and who have an easier time taking in a podcast over reading articles online, this is for you. Now my favorite podcast surrounding film would fall to Filmspotting where new and old films are discussed weekly with humor and insight. But if I had to choose the single best episode  I heard this year it would be Jeff Goldsmith’s interview with writer/director Ed Burns. In the words of the host, the Q&A podcast aims to “bring you in-depth insight into the creative process of storytelling”. He interviews screenwriters specifically (often writer/directors) about how they go about their personal process. Not only are the insights into the writer’s process wonderful to hear but the peeks into their role in the film industry are also fascinating. The Ed Burns episode ranges in topic from 90’s indie films, to his writing process, then on to making micro budget films, and his thought on how the industry is changing and what he’s doing to work in the grain of the dawn of steaming entertainment. It’s great. And here it is: http://www.theqandapodcast.com/2012/12/edward-burns-fitzgerald-familiy.html

ASHLEY COWAN by Claire Rice

Ashley Cowan’s posts often feel like sitting on the couch with your best friend and chatting late into the night with a mug of hot coco.  Every post  is heartfelt and full of a kind of determined enthusiasm that is infectious.  Her post abouttheatre traditions/ superstitions was very funny (if I had known that thing about peacock feathers I might have made different choices with my life.) And her post about her grandmother and goodbyes was touching and beautiful.  But my favorite post would have to be Why Being A Theatre Person with a Day Job is the Best…and the Worst.  She beautifully lays out the complex and heart breaking experience of knowing a “the show must go on” mentality is an imminently transferable job skill, but a skill hard to sell to non-theatre perspective employers.

I read Dear Sugar’s advice column for the first time on September 1, 2013, my thirty second birthday.  The piece I read was Write Like Motherfucker  It was surprising, honest and full of so many of the things I had been thinking and feeling.  It was and is full of all the things I needed to hear. “We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor.  I know it’s hard to write, darling.  But it’s harder not to.”

Ashley Cowan and Dear Sugar - You've just made two new best friends.  You're welcome.

Ashley Cowan and Dear Sugar – You’ve just made two new best friends. You’re welcome.

BARBARA JWANOUSKOS by Stuart Bousel 

Barbara Jwanouskos is the kind of theater person who figured out long ago what many of us take much longer to figure out: namely that one can balance theater with the rest of their life (she’s a pretty amazing martial artist in addition to being a playwright, blogger, grad student, and non-profit development expert), and that nothing happens if you sit and wait for it, you have to go after your dreams actively. Smart, generous, good-natured, Barbara’s writing reflects a serious mind and soul you might not immediately pick up on when you first meet her, though her bad-ass-ness is definitely apparent in her punk rock haircuts and straight forward conversation style. Her “calls it as see sees it” voice is still developing in her blog, but with “Young Beautiful Woman” she had a bit of a breakthrough, giving us a story both personally meaningful to her while also showing us where the issue of pigeon-holing women in theater and films begins: that most double-sided of backyards, the fine arts masters’ program. This blog had the greatest reader impact of all the contributions Barbara has made for us this year, and it’s the kind of thing I want to see more of from her. It’s with incredible eagerness I look forward to her 2014 contributions, knowing she plans to really hit our readers, black belt style, with more ideas like these.

Barbara Jwanouskos is so intense she needs to be photographed in Dutch Angles.

Barbara Jwanouskos is so intense she needs to be photographed in Dutch Angles.

Outside of our humble little blog, I have read a number of interesting theater related articles this year, but this one from HowlRound seems to have stayed with me the longest. Though when I first read this I kind of had a reaction of, “Well, duh, it’s just part of the process- stop whining!”, I also admire that what Morgan is saying is that a life in the arts is pretty always a heartbreaking business, even when you do finally find your niche, your project, your collaborators. And it’s heartbreaking not just because of the lack of opportunities, or the difficulty in making a living, or all the other things we also talk about, but just from the sheer fact that if you’re doing it right you’re ALWAYS putting your heart into it and the nature of the business rarely appreciates or honors that- while, of course, still expecting you to throw your whole heart into it every time! I, and most of the theater people I know, spend a lot of time talking about sustainability in the theater community, funding and payroll, audience demographics and marketability, etc. and sometimes I can’t help but wonder when theater started to quantify and qualify itself the way I expect Wal-Mart too. When did it become about numbers and money and conventional ideas of success as represented through big numbers, and not about coming together with people of vision and making cool stuff because the world really needs that? Morgan’s article is a bittersweet plea to remember we’re all artists here and artists are delicate creatures in many ways, even if it’s probably through their strength that, ultimately, the world will be saved.

WILLIAM LESCHBER by Marissa Skudlarek

It has been a pleasure to read Will Leschber’s “Working Title” column since it debuted in September 2013. Theater can sometimes feel like an insular, inward-looking art; it’s not  a part of the mainstream cultural conversation in the way that movies, music or TV are (though we Theater Pub bloggers are doing our best to change that!) Even worse, theater people sometimes take a perverse pride in their own insularity, looking down on movies and TV as lesser, more commercial art forms. So I love Will’s idea of writing a column that places theater in dialogue with film. He acknowledges the virtues of each art form without belittling either of them and, in so doing, seeks to bring theater into the larger cultural conversation. Nowhere is this more evident than in his piece “To Dance Defiant” about one-man dramas Underneath the Lintel and All is Lost. The play is language-based and the film is image-based, says Will, but both confront stark, essential truths: “What decisions in life remain the most important? How do we measure it all? What significant artifacts do we leave behind? Is anything we leave behind significant? Or is the struggle and the suffering and the joyous dance in spite of all the dark, the only significance we are afforded?” Will’s column is about the importance of the art we make, be it on stage or on film — and therefore, is about the importance of our humanity.

William Leschber, proving saucy minx comes in a wide variety of hats.

William Leschber, proving saucy minx comes in a wide variety of hats.

In one of my earliest Theater Pub columns, I wrote about how much I liked local critic Lily Janiak’s willingness to publicly critique her own criticism and question her own assumptions. So it was great news this year that Lily was selected as one of HowlRound’s inaugural NewCrit critics, bringing her work to a national audience and allowing her to write longer, more in-depth pieces. Even better, Lily has continued to question her assumptions and acknowledge her biases, approaching criticism in a spirit of open-minded inquiry. I particularly liked her piece “Our Own Best Judges: Young Female Characters Onstage” because, if I may admit my own biases, Lily and I are both extremely interested in the depiction of young women in plays. And then we ask ourselves: are we right to be so concerned, or does it mean that we are (wrongly) holding female characters to a higher standard than we hold male ones? “Critics are supposed to be objective, to approach a work with no agenda, but in this case, I have one. […] It’s impossible to separate one’s politics from one’s aesthetics (aesthetics are never pure!), but sometimes I worry that my politics have too much control over my critical criteria,” Lily writes. The whole piece is well worth reading for its thoughtfulness and honesty. That it happened to discuss three plays that I saw myself, got my friends’ names published on a national theater website, and spurred a response from Stuart Bousel on our own blog is just icing on the cake.

Lily Janiak: Because This Picture Is Just Too Good Not To Include

Lily Janiak: Because This Picture Is Just Too Good Not To Include

ALLISON PAGE by Dave Sikula

Let me tell you about Allison Page.

I met her this year when I played her father. I had no idea who she was. I had friended her on Facebook and, looking at her posts, thought we might get along. We had some similar interests, and despite her terrible taste in other things (I mean, seriously, “Ghost Dad,” “Daria,” and Kristen Wiig?), there was enough overlap that I thought we might become friends.

Then we met and she instantly drove me crazy.

I have every reason to hate her. There are things she does and writes about that just annoy the bejeezus out of me – BUT, that’s what I love about her. Her pieces for this here blog combine the miracle of being confessional and personal without being self-indulgent. Obviously, I don’t agree with everything she says (she accuses me of not liking anything, but oh, how wrong she is), but even when she irritates me, it’s in a way that makes me need to defend my own positions – and that’s what the best art does for me. If I had to pick one post of hers that really spoke to me, it was this one on how we need and create nemeses. I find you’ve got to have someone or something to fight against or do better than in order to do your own best work.

But don’t tell her I like anything of hers or she’ll just hold that over me.

Allison Page: because this photo never gets old.

Allison Page: because this photo never gets old.

Moving on to something online that I found of interest was this, Frank Rich’s latest profile of Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim is one of those people my feelings for whom, words like “reverence” are far too mild. I know that if I were ever somehow to get a chance to meet him, I’d fall over in a dead faint, or at the very least, be utterly tongue-tied to the point where I’d sound like an episode of “The Chris Farley Show:” “You know when you did ‘Sweeney Todd?’ That was great.” But any chance to read about what he’s really like is fascinating.

CLAIRE RICE by Barbara Jwanouskos

What I love most about reading Claire Rice’s Enemy List is how Claire seems to pick up on an uncanny wave-length of theater topics that happen to be populating my brain (and others), like why there were so many plays dealing with rape this year. The post I particularly enjoyed was her interview with Dave Lankford, Executive Director of The Shelter and author of the internet famous blog post, “Dear Actor”. Claire’s interview gave a clear insight into Lankford, his background as a theater artist (playwright, actor, director, etc.) and what prompted the writing of the post. More so, her interview demonstrated through Lankford’s response, what it is like today to be a theater artist where so many of us are also using the internet as a means of communication, discourse and criticism about theater in general. For whatever reason, “Dear Actor” seemed to resonate with many people in a way that was surprising, but Claire’s interview presented Lankford at a more more meta level, which was fascinating to consider.

Claire Rice: just who exactly is the enemy?

Claire Rice: just who exactly is the enemy?

I love tracking HowlRound essays by some of my favorite playwrights – especially when they write about things I’m actually dealing with… like teaching playwriting! “Teaching in the 21st Century” by Anne García-Romero and Alice Tuan was a blessing to me sent from the heavenly gods of playwriting. I constantly flip back to this essay when I need to recalibrate my goals as a new teacher. García-Romero and Tuan’s approach mirrors what they had learned from the great Maria Irene Fornes. I appreciate their innovative approaches to get writers of all kinds jazzed about writing plays and how they deviate from strict adhearance to teaching structure versus other traits that good plays have – like voice and liveness.

DAVE SIKULA by Ashley Cowan

I met Dave Sikula earlier this year while working on BOOK OF LIZ at Custom Made Theatre. A project that inspired a blog or two on Cowan Palace and also provided a chance to get to know the guy who is now behind the column, “It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review”. After kindly driving me home after numerous performances and being graced with many Broadway songs on his impressive car sound system, I soon got to know Dave as a incredibly smart, insightful, and experienced theatre enthusiast. I’ve come to enjoy his contributions to the Theater Pub blog for the same reason. One of my personal favorites to read was his last piece, The Ritual Business. Ten years ago when I studied in London, I had the chance to see TWELFTH NIGHT starring Mark Rylance at the Globe and it’s a performance that’s forever stuck by me. I loved reading about Dave’s time in New York and his vivid description as an attentive audience member. I felt like I was there again reliving a magical moment of the theatrical experience of my past while also connecting to his observations and reactions.

Dave Sikula: suggesting you eat this cheesecake instead of reviewing it.

Dave Sikula: suggesting you eat this cheesecake instead of reviewing it.

Aside from Dave’s contributions, it’s been an interesting year for the Internet, huh? I fell for every hoax imaginable and had my spirits crushed when I learned that no, there would not be a new season of Full House or an 8th Harry Potter book to look forward to in 2014. With all that going on, one article that weaseled under my skin came from The Onion, believe it or not, and was entitled: Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life. I found it to be a humorous and honest piece about how many of us (in this artistic community) tend to balance our time. But the thing I truly want to share with you guys is this video, because at the end of the day (or year) sometimes you just need to watch some cute animals do some cute stuff.

MARISSA SKUDLAREK by Allison Page

Marissa Skudlarek and I communicate differently, but we think about a lot of the same things. If I’m a grilled cheese sandwich, she’s duck confit. She has the ability to say things that I know I’m also feeling, but haven’t brought myself to express properly without the use of a lot of F-bombs and references to Murder, She Wrote. Generally speaking, I like to accentuate the positive rather than wallow in a pool of the negative, so when her article “You’re Doing It Wrong, You’re Doing It Wrong” (Technically the second half of a two part article. The first one is also worth reading, but the second really drove it home for me.) The internet, and the world, can be a dark and dismal place. Some days it feels like there’s nothing to be happy about; nothing that’s going right. In a world that seeks to find the worst in everything, Marissa seeks out the subtle nuances of her theatrical experiences, and of the world around her. It’s refreshing and thoughtful, and a big reason I love reading her posts. Not everyone is doing it right wrong. I like to think Marissa is striving to do it right; for women in general and for herself.

Marissa Skudlarek: you bet your sweet ass she'll make that dinosaur chair look classy.

Marissa Skudlarek: you bet your sweet ass she’ll make that dinosaur chair look classy.

Outside of the Theater Pub Blog, there are always a lot of conversations stirring up interest. Every writer, every playwright – hell, every person has a different way they like to work. This last year I’ve been focusing more on writing and I’m always trying to find new ways to keep myself excited about the writing process. That can be hard to do, seeing as you still need to sit down and fuckin’ write at some point. That part is unavoidable. Though this article is actually from the end of 2012, I didn’t read it until this year, so I’m counting it! It’s an interesting collection of the daily routines and writing habits of famous writers. Hemingway wrote standing up? Well, that’s weird.

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!)

(Belated) Tuesdays With Annie: STOP. COLLABORATE AND LISTEN.

Annie is very sorry that this post is not, in fact, appearing on Tuesday — she was too busy washing sunscreen out of her hair.

I got back last week from a whirlwind trip down and back up this looooooong state of California, to work on a solo performance in progress by Joshua Tree artist-in-residence Gedney Barclay. I came back exhausted, invigorated, awe-struck, inspired, existentially-minded, and, most of all, pondering the nature, value, and conditions of collaboration. Like with my last few posts, this week primarily I want to open dialogue and hear from you. So let me start with my own fragmented thoughts from the last few days:

Collaboration, by definition, requires at least two entities. I would also argue that the separate identities of these agents must be more salient than the collective identity of the group in collaboration. But surely this isn’t always true — what are the exceptions?

It’s pretty clear-cut that Gedney and I are separate entities. I am an actor-director-producer-SM based in San Francisco, who tends to work with several different companies; Gedney is a Philadelphia-based director-actor, who works primarily with her own company, No Face Performance Group.

But at the same time, there was a tiny fragment of our collaboration this weekend that felt less like a collaboration and more like a reuniting. Not to get too sappy about it (TOO LATE), but this piece marks our 20th collaboration as theater artists — the first of which was when we were both 9th graders. In the almost 12 years since then, we have had many actor/director collaborations, a few actor/actor collaborations (my Varya notably cockblocked Gedney’s Arya in a 12th grade production of The Cherry Orchard), and various other relationships, from director/dramaturg to actor/stage manager.

I don’t quite know how to explain the difference, but my instinct is that is has something to do with translation. In short, for Gedney and me, there’s no translating needed. Generally, in any artistic collaboration, you’ll spend some amount of time translating. Not that you’re speaking literally different languages (though sometimes that may be the case too!), but rather you have differing (or even contradictory) language to describe an emotion, a mood, an action, a meaning, or a style. Often due to culture, training, idiosyncratic imaginations, generational differences, or something more nebulous (ZEITGEIST??), these disconnects in communication can be agonizing, particularly when one or more parties fail to recognize what is happening. You’ll leave rehearsal in a huff, frustrated that your actors just CAN’T take direction/your director just CAN’T give intelligible directions/your assistant stage manager just CAN’T get that prop on stage at the right time.

And so in many ways, speaking the same language (so to…speak…ah shit) in a collaboration is GLORIOUS. It’s luxurious and feels effortless and is, frankly, just ridiculously efficient. I was able to give Gedney notes like “in this last text you have a tic, I think it’s lifting the left side of your mouth” or “don’t let the foot die,” and she could ask me questions like “is this folding too whiskey dick?” and we both understand each other 100%.

But at the same time, I’ve really come to value and appreciate these little acts of translation in collaborative relationships. Sometimes you have to resolve them almost by brute force, or sometimes you come to an elegant third option that you both understand, but most of the time, in my experience, the result is synergistic, a greater, more surprising, more original and interesting product that either of you would have arrived at alone. I frequently think about a particular scene from Cutting Ball’s production of Pelleas and Melisande (for which I was the Assistant Director), which was singled out by many reviews as a highlight of the show. The director had a very clear idea for the scene, but he handed it over to the choreographer first to work on. Her proposal was very different from his idea, and they each greatly preferred their own version of the scene. The final version, however, was a muddled cocktail of these two singular visions — not a clean synthesis, but almost a patchwork quilt of two very different styles and aesthetics. And it WORKED.

I don’t have any answers here. I don’t know if one collaborative mode is inherently better than another. I don’t even know if I can coherently define “collaboration” without two dozen caveats. And all I’ve done here is ramble (per usual). So as always, I turn it over to you. I don’t even have a clear question in mind, but just want to hear thoughts, experiences, and musings. What is the nature of collaboration to you, in your experience? What value does collaboration offer for you, in your work? And under what conditions does collaboration occur, or what are the necessary conditions for fruitful collaboration?

Rehearsal photo from Via Negativa

Rehearsal photo from Via Negativa

Annie Paladino is an actor, director, producer, and stage manager. You still have time to catch her on stage in Ragged Wing Ensemble’s Time Sensitive, and you can always find her on Twitter @anniepaladino.

Tuesdays With Annie: Too Many Hats

Annie Paladino needs to organize her hat collection.

I’m one of those people that everyone tells you not to be. It says so right at the bottom of this post: “Annie Paladino is an actor, director, producer, and stage manager.” I’m a wearer of many hats—and I refuse to specialize.

Particularly in the small/indie/fringe/DIY/experimental/whatever-you-want-to-call-it theater community, we all try on different hats from time to time. Some fit well but maybe we hate the weird feather sticking out of the top. Some are totally absurd and fall over our eyes and we trip and stub our toes. Sometimes we’ll find one that we love, and we add it to our permanent collection.

Well, I’ve got a large and very poorly compartmentalized permanent collection. I tend to have all hats readily available, so I can swap them out at a moment’s notice. And sometimes they all look the same in the dark, and I’ll later realize I’m wearing a different hat than I thought I had grabbed.

Before this admittedly awful metaphor gets away from me entirely, let’s talk about my current hat-crisis. Which is really just the latest iteration of one of the most reliably recurrent crisis of my career as a theater artist.

Annie wearing her Actor hat (also, an actual hat)

Annie wearing her Actor hat (also, an actual hat)

It concerns my two favorite (and most well-worn) hats: Actor and Stage Manager. As I’ve been telling anyone who will listen this week, it boils down to this: When I’m an actor, I love the rehearsal process. But as soon as it gets to tech week, I instantly wish I were stage managing. And the converse is true too: I don’t really like stage managing throughout a rehearsal process, but as soon as tech week hits, I’m in fucking heaven.

The unfortunate result of this is that as an actor in tech week, I can get…intense. What I absolutely love about stage managing is having control—I want all mistakes to be only my fault, and all solutions to be of my devising. And so I try my best to find little things that I can have some amount of control over. Trying to figure out a prop transition? Done. Need to eat a cupcake onstage in <20 seconds? Awesome—I’ll spend my morning off baking gluten-free, pink, spongy cupcakes. There’s going to be a weird butoh-esque makeup design? I am all OVER that shit. (And there’s another hat…)

Last night in the 30 minutes between our first full run with tech and our first preview, one of my Time Sensitive castmates suggested that what I’m really missing when I’m not stage managing is the thrill of solving unforeseen problems. She’s 100% right—I’d just never realized it so clearly before. I LOVE being presented with a problem, particularly a problem with no apparent solution, and one that must be solved NOW.

I know that there are lots of other hat-hoarders in the Bay Area, and I’ll turn it over to you (you know who you are) in the comments: do you have a hard time choosing between your favorites? Tales of hat-related existential angst? Have at it, dapper folks.

As for me, a little over a year ago, I made a conscious decision to step away from stage managing for awhile. I had been stage managing almost continuously for a couple years, and while I continued to enjoy it, I found myself deeply missing the artistic fulfillment of acting or directing. I am glad I made that decision, but reliably, every time tech week rolls around, you can find me looking longingly at the lightboard, or maybe quietly checking off my own personal preset list back stage (likely to the annoyance of the actual stage manager).

PS. Time Sensitive opens Thursday—check out www.raggedwing.org for tickets and more details.

Annie Paladino is an actor, director, producer, and stage manager. She doesn’t like wearing actual hats. Find her on Twitter @anniepaladino.

Tuesdays With Annie: Let’s Get Physical (Or, Why I Haven’t Gone To The Gym In Two Months)

Annie Paladino continues to have feelings about her last two months in the Bay Area, and continues to need to talk about them.

Let me assuage your fears right off the bat: I’m not going to even TRY to define or even accurately describe “physical theater.” I know what it means to me but trust me when I say, you don’t want me to go there. At the very least, it would cause me to start using words like “phenomenological” and “corporeality” which I suspect would make this blog post slightly problematic. (Uh oh.)

But I would definitely say that the piece I’m currently rehearsing for, Time Sensitive, should be described as “physical theater”. And as I am in the middle of 14 straight days of rehearsals/previews leading up to opening night, the “physical” part of that phrase is rather salient to me right now. So I’m going to talk about it. But because I am, how shall I say, TIRED AS FUCK, it’s going to be in list format.

This will probably be enlightening and/or cause you to think I’m an uncoordinated idiot.

TEN THINGS THAT HAVE HAPPENED DURING REHEARSALS FOR TIME SENSITIVE

1. Multiple hours learning and perfecting a box step/uppercut combo (plus jazz hands). Important imagery to help get the jazz hands positioning right: “HOLD TWO LIMES IN YOUR ARMPITS AND JUICE THEM!”

2. Excitingly rainbow bruise, obtained while attempting a two-person, slow-motion backflip.

3. Three days of complete inability to walk down stairs after a six-hour Saturday rehearsal consisting entirely of crouching and standing rhythmically

4. Among the many physical challenges posed by this process and my character in particular, wearing high heels is at the top of the list.

5. Despite not having been to the gym in at least two months, I am more in shape than I was when rehearsals started.

6. I was punched in the mouth. Or rather, I sprinted into my castmate’s outstretched fist during a moment of intense choreography.

7. On one page of my script, gestures and movements are noted by letter (A, B, C…) with a key on the opposite page – it goes all the way to Z.

8. It’s a regular occurrence for someone to fall off the stage.

9. On a whim, I ordered three jars of Tiger Balm from Amazon last week. It’s already coming in handy.

10. According to my boyfriend, a few nights ago in my sleep I exclaimed, “Use the full crash pad!”

Until next Tuesday, folks. And if you’re wondering about point #10…you’ll just have to come see the show to find out.

Annie Paladino is an actor, director, producer, and stage manager. Time Sensitive opens April 18th, and runs through May 18th — find out all about it at http://raggedwing.org/show/show_detail/28. You can find Annie on Twitter @anniepaladino.

Tuesdays With Annie: Processing Process

Annie Paladino is leaving the Bay Area in two months and her last local theater project is about to open. Unsurprisingly, she’s got a lot of feelings, and she wants to talk about them. 

I want to talk about process. Actually, I want YOU to talk about process. But I’ll get things started, okay?

Let me backtrack: Hi, I’m Annie. You may (not) remember me from last year, when I wrote a lot of nonsense about performing for the first time in the Bay One Acts festival. Well, I’m back. For the month of April, you can find me here every Tuesday. For the next couple weeks, I’ll probably be talking about Time Sensitive, for which I’m currently about to head into tech week. Or, honestly, whatever else I’m thinking about.

Oh and another thing: I’m moving away from the Bay in June. So, the subtext of all this is likely to be: SAYONARA, I SHALL MISS THEE, LET ME LEAVE YOU WITH THESE PARTING WORDS OF WISDOM (AND/OR FOLLY).

Anyway…back to process.

Artistic process is one of those things that, unless you’ve been inside it, is a total and complete unknown. In the theater community, we all have a general sense of what a rehearsal process “looks” like. The timeframe may vary slightly, but things are actually surprisingly standardized. Casting, first read through, table work (an obtuse way of saying “script analysis,” basically), blocking (move there, sit here, jump on the couch over there), then a couple deeply traumatizing “stumble-throughs” (does anyone even attempt “run-throughs” anymore?) before ambling into tech week, at which point all anyone wants to do is tap dance on stage or make lewd jokes over headset (what, you don’t?).

But to anyone outside our community, the process of getting a play ready for performance is nothing short of a mystery. This was made very clear to me recently when I was talking about Time Sensitive to a coworker at my day job. I told her that we had started rehearsals in early January but the show didn’t open until mid-April, adding, “so obviously it’s a very long rehearsal process, which is nice.” She was surprised, and remarked that, for all she knew, that was a totally standard amount of time to rehearse a play. I further described how we started with only a few rehearsals a week, building up to more and more frequent rehearsals each month, with built-in weeks off to rest and recharge. And again, if I hadn’t implied that this was somewhat unusual, she wouldn’t have thought twice about it.

I wondered about this a few weeks ago after going to see Mugwumpin’s The Great Big Also at Z Space, an experimental piece with a longer-than-usual and atypically-structured rehearsal process. As an audience member, I personally knew this going in, and could clearly envision what this process was like. Most of the rest of the audience likely did not have that knowledge. And so the thought occurred to me — are our experiences markedly different?

So here are the questions, for you, dear readers (reader?). Primarily: why do we adopt an atypical rehearsal structure and/or timeline? Is it to produce a deeper and richer end result? Is it for the artists’ sake (and I mean that sincerely, without any condescension)? And secondly: if you are a theater artist, what are your feelings on process? Maybe you had an amazing non-traditional or extended rehearsal process. Maybe you are a director and you have your process down to a science. Maybe you wish you could work on a play for a year; maybe you wish you could start rehearsing a new project every three weeks.

As for the process I’m current in the middle of, we’re nearing the final stretch of what has been somewhat of a marathon. But I’m sitting at home tonight, not in rehearsal. Even though next Sunday is our first day of tech. In fact, I have (almost) this whole week off; it’s the last of those built-in breaks I mentioned. I’m of two minds about it: on the one hand, I’m ecstatic about the sleep (SLEEP, GUYS!!!), but on the other hand, I’m so anxious to keep working and start tech that I can’t truly relax.

So here I sit, spending way too much time having so many FEELINGS about theater. Help a gal out. Hit me in the comments.

Annie Paladino is an actor, director, producer, and stage manager. You can see her on stage (eating a SERIOUS cupcake) in Ragged Wing Ensemble’s Time Sensitive starting April 18th (more info here). You can find her on Twitter @anniepaladino.