In For A Penny: Vices I Admire

Charles Lewis III, on why vice can be nice.

Yes, I own this shirt.

Yes, I own this shirt.

“The cannabis experience has greatly improved my appreciation for art, a subject which I had never much appreciated before. The understanding of the intent of the artist which I can achieve when high sometimes carries over to when I’m down. This is one of many human frontiers which cannabis has helped me traverse. There also have been some art-related insights — I don’t know whether they are true or false, but they were fun to formulate.”
– Carl Sagan, Mr. X (1969)

I never smoked weed until I did theatre. For that matter, I never ate sushi until I did theatre. Yes, I was one of those boring teens who never drank, smoked, or went to parties. (Well, I did try smoking cigarettes several times, but it never caught on.) Part of that was due to just being an awkward teen who never hung with The Cool Kids, but another part was by choice. I studied religion as a kid and took the concept of “pure body, pure mind, pure soul” to heart. And to be honest, I was pretty damn content with myself.

It wasn’t until I was 27 – an age at which I’d put the “pure body, et. al” bullshit behind me – that I’d decided to see what weed was all about. I’d just finished a show with a local theatre company and we were having our closing night celebration. Turns out these folks had a closing night tradition of rechristening the dressing room as “The Green Room” for reasons that should be obvious. After awkwardly making my way in and patiently waiting for the bowl to come around to me, I took my first toke.

Nothing happened, really. It’d be a later incident at 4/20 in Golden Gate Park before I finally actually got high. Still, it worked in as much as being a socially-inclusive gateway to fellow theatre-folk. And even when I was a clean-living teen/upcoming artist, I was always fascinated by the idea of an intoxicating substance enhancing the creative process.

“Write drunk, edit sober” is a phrase we’ve all heard thrown around willy-nilly. (It’s often misattributed to Hemingway when it’s more likely from Peter de Vries.) Both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda were notorious for it. Mary Shelley got smashed on absinthe with her husband and Lord Byron, then wrote her masterpiece Frankenstein. Hell, scientists believe even Shakespeare may have smoked weed between writing sonnets. It all contributes to the idea that when inspiration is out of reach, it can be found within your poison of choice.

I personally wouldn’t know. I rarely drink outside of social gatherings (I’ve been drunk exactly five times my entire life) and do so as a method of decompression rather than inspiration. The only times I smoke weed are when I’m around someone who prefers not to smoke alone, and it’s never made want to start writing. I’ve never had the chance to do mushrooms, though I’m not opposed to the idea. And despite knowing many people who love it, I will never do cocaine. (Before we found out how terrible he was, Bill Cosby had stand-up routine that sums up my thoughts perfectly: “I said to a guy, ‘Tell me, what is it about cocaine that makes it so wonderful,’ and he said, ‘Because it intensifies your personality.’ I said, ‘Yes, but what if you’re an asshole?’”) I’m not on any moral high horse – I like weed, beer, and the friends who share in them with me – but they’ve never worked for me in terms of electrifying my creativity.

But that’s just me. In addition to the aforementioned authors above, I can cite countless works of art created under the influence which I hold dear: the weed-inspired illustrations Salvador Dalí or Mœbius; the coke-fueled ‘70s films of Martin Scorsese; hell, damn-near anything from the Harlem Renaissance. Without those substances, those great works might never have been possible and I might not have been inspired by them to become an artist.

The real problem is when an artist sees a mind-altering substance as their ONLY form of inspiration; when the supply gets low or empty, working with someone having withdrawal can be annoying, if not dangerous. I don’t even drink coffee, so I can’t really imagine what someone’s head must feel like when they’ve suddenly decided to teetotal.

The reason I bring all this up is because this month’s ‘Pub show, of which I’m a part, is an hilariously over-the-top satire about “the dangers of the demon weed”. Each character is based on a classic horror film trope, but with enough humanity to make them relatable. Incidentally, my character is a collegiate weed dealer, someone who uses the substance as the means to an end in order to do the art he truly loves. Yeah.

Before anyone asks: No, we don’t perform the show high. I’m sure that’d be hilarious (I’ve done Beer Theatre before and it was a fuckin’ blast), but I assure you that Colin’s script is plenty funny without the actors being baked. Plus, there’s probably some kinda law or somethin’ ‘bout smokin’ weed indoors with the public, right? I dunno…

But as I sit here with my script by my side and my soon-to-be-used typewriter in the corner, I tried to think of what it is that fuels me to write, act, direct, and explore other avenues of creativity. I’m still not really sure, but I hope I don’t run out of it anytime soon.

Charles Lewis III plays the world’s most lovable weed dealer in Colin Johnson’s “Sticky Icky”, starting this coming Monday at PianoFight. Admission is FREE, donations of $10 or more appreciated.

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The Real World, Theater Edition: An Interview with Ariel Craft

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews local theatre maker, Ariel Craft.

Kicking off the first The Real World, Theater Edition interview for 2015 is Ariel Craft, local theater maker, director, and The Breadbox’s Artistic Director. February is SF Theater Pub’s month exploring passion so it was fitting to connect with Ariel about the process of collaboration. She explores her process of diving into a new project from its first fruitful beginnings into getting your hands dirty.

I met Ariel while volunteering for the SF Fringe Festival last summer. She was a joy to work with and I immediately had this sense that “this girl gets it”, making it easy to talk to her about any number of theater-related projects and collaborations in the mix. I was excited to be re-connected with her through Stuart when I asked “who would be a good person to interview first”.

Ariel’s responses are thoughtful and well-crafted. You can tell she’s thought a lot about her role as an artist and what she wants to have her hands on. Even in the editing process for this post, I was absolutely inspired to see her in action! So, keep tabs on her, folks!

Without further ado…

Barbara: I know you have worked with playwrights on developing new work, but I’m also curious about your process on directing reimaginings of existing work – first off, how do you pick the piece?

Ariel: Like all directors, I suspect, I’ve got an ever-running list of “plays that speak to me” and another list of “shows that I have wild appreciation for” and I can look to these lists at any time for inspiration, to single out a piece that I’d be fortunate and ferociously excited to dig my teeth into. And sometimes a collaborator – a would-be collaborator, a collaborator-to-be, or a previous-collaborator – will propose a piece that resonates in some delightfully unexpected way and calls me to action then and there. And both of these, for me, are frequent and fruitful beginnings.

And then sometimes I get inspired in an almost entirely subconscious way. A play can bumble around with me for years before I realize that it means something to me. I’ll read it and it’ll tuck itself into some crevasse of my psyche, and then – once I think it is gone forever – it’ll demand my renewed attention. This is typically how the reimaginings begin. I’m reminded of a piece (not always classical but usually classic, in some sense) that I’ve known, but not known deeply; I have a fresh impulse to engage with it, gnaw on it, stew in it, and as I move it to the front-burner, the production concept begins revealing itself too.

These early generative stages feel especially exceptional because they introduce themselves with such grace and fluidity, like the back-burner of my brain is an Easy Bake Oven cooking up delicious art-making elements and only letting me in once they’re well-formed enough to take their first practical steps.

Barbara: When you have a particular play in mind, walk me through your process of creation– where do you begin? How do you “find a way in”?

Ariel: Every production, and every entry-point into every production, is unique. But I do find – more and more, and especially while reimaginging a classic and having the freedom to invent and construct liberally – that I enter through music. Knowing what the world sounds like tells me where the production is and when it is. And, once I know the setting, the rest can fill in around it.

But: when in doubt, I always enter through character. Some directors speak in terms of stage pictures or symbols or sweeping messages, but my base-line for communication with the work is emotional experience and character action.

Barbara: There is an ongoing question of authorship in theater. With this in mind, what does the director contribute to this aspect of creating a play? Do you operate under any “best practices”? For instance, in your mind, is there a line you as an artist have made the decision not to cross or is it fair game?

Ariel: There’s definitely a line, but where that line is varies dramatically from production to production, and much depends – for me – on the play’s history.

If I’m workshopping a new play or directing a world premiere, my vision has to be unified with the playwright’s vision. I can’t be running off and chasing my own butterflies. And that doesn’t mean that the production doesn’t have my fingerprints all over it – or that it wouldn’t be entirely different in the hands of another director – but the playwright’s interests have to be my interests too. As the director of a new work, my job is to crack open the text, to create the living-and-breathing environment, to specify and realize relationships, and to pave the way for the story’s arc. I might claim the title of animator, but not author.

A play with a grander and more varied production history allows more and more for a generative and complicating directorial voice, because – fundamentally – the play’s legacy and the playwright’s legacy will not be defined by any individual production. No matter how off-the-wall your Romeo and Juliet is, Shakespeare’s artistic identity remains intact and unchanged, right? And isn’t that liberating? You can author the production, without the weight of the play’s legacy on its shoulders. Your production can spring forth from your very specific relationship to the play. I find that my vision is always related to the playwright’s and is always in conversation with it – otherwise, why am I doing this play? – but there is more room for playfulness, more directorial boldness and experimental choice-making.

Our recent production of Blood Wedding was by no means a ‘traditional’ Blood Wedding and it certainly wasn’t what Lorca envisioned when he wrote the play – and, because of this, the production made some viewers mad. But was our production wrestling with the all of the questions and yearnings at the core of Lorca’s play, despite the differences? I’d say absolutely yes — which, to me, is what matters. And, hey, Lorca’s legacy stands regardless.

BLOOD WEDDING mash-up (rehearsal photo + production still) pictured: the cast of BLOOD WEDDING (and the back of Ariel's head) photo credit: Sara Barton / M. Kate Imaging

BLOOD WEDDING mash-up (rehearsal photo + production still)
pictured: the cast of BLOOD WEDDING (and the back of Ariel’s head)
photo credit: Sara Barton / M. Kate Imaging

Barbara: The name alone, Breadbox, implies that you are working with minimal resources for a production (which I think is awesome btw!), is there anything that becomes essential to wrap into the production costs? If you have an anecdote or story, I’d love to hear it!

Ariel: Minimal resources is right – so right – the rightest. (But, hey, aren’t we all dealing with that?)

And it is difficult – as it is for all of us – and it churns my guts when I can’t pay my collaborators what they deserve to be paid; but, in a lot of meaningful ways, the constraints posed by lack of funds can be stimulating to the imagination. Little else unlocks our creativity like obstacles, right?

If you’re doing a play that calls for a fiery gas-station explosion and a school of dolphins falling from a great height, and you’re in a 50-seat black box with a hundred bucks to make it happen, you have to say to yourself: “well, I don’t have pyrotechnics and I don’t have a fly system and I don’t have life-size dolphin props or the means to construct them… But what do I have?” And you figure something out.

You create a solution where one isn’t obvious.

Will it achieve the same sensation of spectacle as it would with a thousand times the budget? No, probably not. But, if you’re embracing and feeding off your surroundings and its limitations, your solution is almost always going to be more interesting and magical than if you had all the money in the world to throw at the problem.

But, as you say, there are some essentials that can’t be scrimped on and some costs that just are what they are. For Breadbox, something we can’t compromise on or do without is most often expert fight choreography. We’re never willing to economize at the cost of our collaborators’ safety, and there is really nothing like a skillfully staged and executed fight. And the work that we do tends to call for them en masse.

Barbara: Is there anything that defines your approach as a theater artist and where on your creative path you would you like to go that you haven’t been to or that you would like to return to?

Ariel: In content, I am drawn to work that explores actions that are typically deemed unacceptable. I am drawn to protagonists whose lives are marked by void and longing. I root for characters who fight for their wants and needs with abandon, often selfishly and to the detriment of others.

In form, I’m interested in the intersection of comedy and tragedy because, to me, they feel intrinsically linked: sometimes at seeming odds with one another but always in cohabitation, whether you like it or not. So I like to play with tonal variation and juxtaposition. I like an upbeat song underscoring a slaying. To me, it feels very much like life.

My interests will no doubt change as I do, but – in the now – I’m finding all this pretty delicious.

Ariel being a hobbit during BLOOD WEDDING rehearsal  pictured: (left to right) Tim Green, Ariel Craft, Melissa Carter  photo credit: Sara Barton

Ariel being a hobbit during BLOOD WEDDING rehearsal
pictured: (left to right) Tim Green, Ariel Craft, Melissa Carter
photo credit: Sara Barton

Barbara: What is making theater like in the Bay Area for you? Is there anything that defines it?

Ariel: Hmmm. I don’t know that I’ve worked enough outside of the Bay Area to be able to assess what makes us, geographically, unique. But I do find Bay Area audiences – the ones that we encounter, at least – to be mostly curious and agile and at-the-ready for a challenge.

Barbara: Any plugs for upcoming shows you are working on?

Ariel: Up next at The Breadbox is Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad by Arthur Kopit, directed by Ben Calabrese. It is the story of a remarkably-disturbed young man’s struggle to unearth himself from his overbearing mother. It evokes a little Norman Bates. There are piranhas and venus flytraps. It is robust and strange and very human.

Directorially, I’ve got a couple exciting projects coming up quickly but, for news of those, you’ll have to stay tuned!

Barbara: Any advice for artists that want to direct?

Ariel: As a director, you are a problem-solver. And you can’t solve a problem that you don’t understand and you certainly can’t understand a problem that you don’t know is there. You have to, first and foremost, be a good watcher and be able to assess what is actually happening in front of you.

Don’t be afraid of not knowing, and don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know. You can’t be expected to have all the answers in the beginning and, if you think that you do, be cautious of those answers.

Most artists do their best work when they feel nourished, valued, and cared for. Even when you’re tired and over-worked and have had a major shit-storm of a day, stay constructive and generous.

Have fun. Be thoughtful but not precious. Get your hands dirty.

Ariel being a human in the world. pictured: Ariel Craft and Edgar the dog! photo credit: Aurelia D'Amore Photography

Ariel being a human in the world.
pictured: Ariel Craft and Edgar the dog!
photo credit: Aurelia D’Amore Photography

Find out more about Bigger Than A Breadbox and their upcoming productions here!

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.