Theater Around the Bay: First Time A-Fringin’

Charles Lewis III returns to talk about his first time working behind the scenes at the SF Fringe Festival.

Fringe-official

Fringe-official

“Clowns are the pegs on which a circus is hung.”
– PT Barnum

We’re always told that first impressions count for a lot; that you can’t make them twice; that they will forever define you in the eyes of the other person, whether they admit it to you or not. So naturally I wanted to make the best impression as a new house manager at SF Fringe. I’ve always been one of those folks who believes that I don’t just represent myself, but also the company whose logo adorns my shirt/name tag/pay stub. I mean, they don’t just give this bright yellow shirt and laminated badge to just anyone, do they?

So as I stood in front of an anxious, impatient audience, I can only imagine what they thought of the stammering schmuck in front of them. I’m an actor, I thought. Talking in front of audiences is what I do. I should thank them for coming, right? Now what? Something about “the State of California” and fire exits? Oh, oh – phones! I’ll take out my phone… and I dropped it. It broke apart. “But as you can all clearly see: it’s off.” Oh God, I’m dyin’ here. What next? Why am I holding this bucket again? Oh yeah, we want them to donate! Tell them I’ll be out there when they’re done. Or someone will be out there. Someone with a yellow shirt and a laminated badge. One would hope. Damn, I’m cutting into performance time, aren’t I? Just say “Thanks for coming” and chase your dignity out the door.

I raced out the door now fully aware that the “acting” part of the brain is separate from the “curtain speech” part. I felt like slapping my forehead so hard that it would be heard three states away. Instead I shuffled into the greenroom/hospitality suite and shoved a handful of microwave popcorn into my face. The pictures of Clyde the Cyclops on the wall helped. Thus began my tenure at the 2014 SF Fringe Fest.

But then, Clyde makes all things better

But then, Clyde makes all things better

It’s kinda odd that when I eventually wound up at SF Fringe, it was in this capacity. I was actually supposed to be in a show in (I think) 2007. It meant a lot to me I’d just gotten back into acting two years earlier with film work and this was to be my first theatre experience since school. I didn’t see eye-to-eye with the director and wound up quitting over the phone, something I haven’t done before or since. Even though one of my would-be fellow actors was an actress I’ve gone on to admire, I didn’t bother to see the actual show or anything at the festival that year. I actually haven’t even been to the festival since as I’m always knee-deep into a show at the time. It seems like everyone I know has encouraged me to see certain shows and skip others; some have even offered to cast me. Alas it took about seven years for me to finally get my Fringe on.

And hoo-boy, was I thrown into the deep end on my first day. In fact, I’d say I was blindfolded, handcuffed, and kicked off the plank into shark-infested waters after receiving fresh cuts on my arms and legs. But then, I’m fond of analogies. Nevertheless, as someone who has done front-of-house work at countless theatres, cinemas, and concert venues, not even I was prepared for the onslaught of countless indie theatre patrons clamoring to get into a theatre for which 80% of the tickets are already pre-sold and half of those patrons haven’t arrived 10 min. before curtain. People get angry. They get impatient. They look for an excuse to take their frustrations out on someone and, as house manager, that someone will be you.

Now these folks have my empathy, every single one of them. After a pretty disastrous first day, I quickly got into the swing of things and made it my priority to communicate that above all else, we are trying to help YOU. The final day of this year’s festival I had to deny entry to show to that show’s director. She’d travelled “all the way from Santa Cruz” with her boyfriend and was told by the show’s performer to just give her name at the door. Well the only names we have at the door are on the will call list and this one was packed. The show completely sold out and I told the director how sorry I was. “If anything,” I said, “this should be a testament to how good your show is.” Directors have been shut out of their own films at Sundance. Is it more important that you see your work or that the audience does?

But we do have an arts ‘n crafts section you can use.

But we do have an arts ‘n crafts section you can use.

Thankfully, as the song says, you get by with a little help from your friends that served me well. Stuart has already mentioned Christina and the wonderful folks who keep the EXIT and Fringe gears moving as smooth as a Swiss watch, and bless them for that. When you’re an apple-green newb trying to figure the best way to tell someone the “No Late Seating” rule is in full effect, it really helps to have an even-tempered Ariel Craft standing near to back you up. And what I would have done without Florian on-hand, I don’t know.

And let us thank the Theatre Gods for the aforementioned hospitality room. Not just a place for patrons to chew popcorn, sip lemon water, paint domino masks, and have their photos taken as “Fringe Royalty” (yes really) – the area might be most valuable to Fringe staff. When not in the middle of the mad rush of patrons, the near-silence of green room makes it almost seem like 30-minute day spa. I don’t know of many day spas that play The Cranberries over their speakers, but more should. Taking time out to chat with Stuart, Barbara, Tonya, and Quinn about… whatever, I remembered just how valuable such moments are, and have been for me over the past year. Having spent most of the summer sequestered from both Facebook and most of my regular theatre friends, the time I’ve spent reconnecting, reminiscing, and, yes, gossiping have been invaluable.

What, did you think I was kidding about the throne?

What, did you think I was kidding about the throne?

I arrived really, really late to the Fringe closing party this past Saturday. I’d gone to a friend’s party in Oakland, which was a lot of fun. By the time I caught up with my fellow Fringers at Emperor Norton’s, most of them had already left and the others were on their way out the door. I had a few of the leftover hors d’œuvres before heading out myself. Still, the Fringe has left its mark on me. Though I might not necessarily agree that The EXIT is akin to a used record store, I do agree – and have been saying aloud for years – that it is the true heart of the San Francisco theatre community. The ACT and Berkeley Rep might be akin to fancy hotels, but The EXIT is home. And the SF Fringe Fest is akin to opening one’s home to both regular friends and out-of-town guests. Or at least a decent hostel. There might not be an Olympic-sized swimming pool, but the activities are fun, the guests are… unique, and you’ll definitely tell all your friends when you get back home.

Charles is happy to be a part of Fringe royalty. He shall be calling The EXIT his home for at least the next month as he begins rehearsals for Stuart’s new play Pastorella.

Theater Around The Bay: Save the Empire

Stuart Bousel, subbing for Barbara Jwanouskos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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