Theater Around The Bay: Get Ready To Fringe

Stuart Bousel, who moonlights once a year as the San Francisco Fringe Hospitality Coordinator, gives us a sneak peak at this year’s Fringe Festival.

On Saturday, following a picnic with former Theater Pub AD Julia Heitner (who was in town for the weekend) I headed over to the EXIT Theatre for the first event of this year’s Fringe Festival.

In case you don’t know anything about the Fringe or fringe festivals in general (which seems unlikely, if you read this blog), the San Francisco Fringe Festival is the second oldest/longest running fringe festival in the United States (23 years), and is a variation on the world’s most famous fringe festival, which was started in Edinburgh, Scotland, and is widely considered the largest annual arts event on the planet. Though the term fringe theater has come to mean “non-mainstream”, at a good fringe festival you’ll find almost everything represented, from classical works to performance art, to music acts and dance troupes, to world premieres of new plays and musicals. Over the years a number of shows we now think of as mainstream actually had their premieres at a fringe festival, and the number of actors, performers, artists, writers, directors, dancers, musicians, acrobats, clowns, magicians and whatever-else-you-can-think-of who have passed through a fringe festival somewhere, one way or another, is incalculable. I myself performed in a fringe play during my first year in San Francisco- a little musical about a gay baseball player called “The Seventh Game of the World Series” by poet (and avid baseball fan) David Hadbawnik.

One of the best (and worst, depending on your perspective) things about the SF Fringe is that EXIT Theatre artistic director Christina Augello has kept the festival un-curated, and every year would-be participants must submit applications which are then thrown into a hat. At the annual Fringe Lottery, projects are pulled from the hat randomly before a live audience, and once the 35 available slots of the festival are filled the program is set. The beauty of this is an annual theater festival with local, national and international participants, that is entirely uncensored and devoid of theater politics. The downside is that quality control is virtually nonexistent. Then again, since quality really is in the eye of the beholder, of all the evils a festival might have, this one strikes me as the least, and considering all the other ways the SF Fringe sets the bar for fringe festivals (for instance, performers keep all of their box office), I’ve come to not only accept but embrace the less palatable aspects of the theater roulette that is seeing shows at the Fringe. As an environment intended for experimentation and risk, whatever that means to the performer whose work you are seeing, there is bound to be some mistakes, half-baked ideas, or just work that is still finding its way or its audience. That said, sometimes seeing a terrible show at the fringe is also like scoring a jackpot, as every year there is usually at least one show so bad it passes into legend. Depending on who you ask, the show I was in back in 2003 was one of those shows. Last year there were two, and we’re still talking about them.

On Saturday, festival staff, volunteers, performers and long-time patrons/fans assembled at the EXIT for free pizza and a sneak peak of 7 shows that will be playing at this year’s Fringe. I have to say, over all, it looks like there’s some really strong work this year, and nothing seems, at first glance, especially disastrous. Susan Fairbrook over at Play by Play has already done an excellent survey of what’s on the boards this year (including a shout-out to work by former Theater Pub Founding AD Bennett Fisher), but I figured as the Hospitality Coordinator for the Fringe (read: guy running the craft-services lounge/guest services desk) and a long-time Fringe audience member and staffer, I’d pass on my recommendations based on the preview, and also my ever-sharpening ability to call ahead of time what’s going to be especially good (which pales in comparison to the mad skilz of Fringe Tech Director Amanda Ortmayer).

Mandarin Orange by Kate Robards, directed by Jill Vice
There are a lot of one-woman shows at the Fringe (last year I saw four of them and that wasn’t even half) and so it struck me as appropriate to begin there, and this was actually the first preview of the evening as well. Kate Robards’ piece is a memoir of her life as an ex-pat in Shanghai, China and the contrast between that and growing up in small-town Texas, USA. As a guy from the semi-rural portion of Tucson, Arizona, I found Robards’s choice to set the scene with a piece of ridiculous local news (“Man’s Penis Lodged In Vacuum Cleaner!”) pretty spot on, but things got much more interesting during her portrayal of the circle of female ex-pats who take her under their wing upon her arrival in Shanghai. With each woman, Robards demonstrated a keen eye for detail, both in the material and the physicalization/vocalization of who these women were and what had brought them, and kept them, in China. Playing both sides of a conversation is always hard to pull off, and is the Achilles heel of most solo shows, but Robards jumped feet first into a group discussion and her ability to move back and forth between all five participants was expert and elegant. The subject matter of the show doesn’t seem to be particularly new, but Kate’s spin on it certainly seems fresh, and with China becoming more and more of an international presence once again I suspect it will spark some interesting conversations.

My Body Love Story by Dominika Bednarska
Speaking of one-woman shows- here’s another. Dominika Bednarska is a queer disabled femme whose press release boasts “rhinestones, storytelling, dancing and many laughs” but if the snippet on Saturday, double entendre of the title, and remark in the press release about “the body and self trying to get along” aren’t just red herrings, I suspect it will mostly be a show about disabled queer youth trying to get laid. Similar to Kate Robard’s show in that it’s based on the author’s experiences, Bednarska’s approach (from what I saw) seems to be less theatrical and more discursive, with her telling the stories rather than impersonating the participants- something that works beautifully because Bednarska is a delightful storyteller, laughing along with her own absurdities and daring you not to laugh with her. Simultaneously coy and bold in revealing the details of her sex life, she challenges not only conventional ideas about female storytellers and their stories, but conventional ideas about disabled youth, presenting them as horny, insecure, awkward, and basically ordinary young people pre-occupied with the usual woes of who will love me/want me/fuck me when I’m such a mess of problems/fears/on-going inner dialogues. To say it was refreshing doesn’t do it justice; of all the pieces presented on Saturday, it was the one I found most inspiring.

Genie And Audrey’s Dream Show! by Genie Cartier and Audrey Spinazola
Keeping with the female performer theme but moving into the two-hander fusion show, this circus comedy about two friends is a return from last year and won the Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Award in 2013 for “Best Chemistry.” You can read all about that here, and if that doesn’t convince you to see the show this year, I don’t know what will (except maybe this delightful account of how the show came together). For those of you who have already seen the show, it’s been touring around the country and growing and shifting, so seeing it again should be a whole new experience in and of itself as Audrey and Genie’s victory lap will no doubt be older, wiser, and better. Even if it’s exactly the same, though, there’s no other show like it, so you won’t want to miss it and I would definitely recommend getting tickets ahead of time.

An Awkward Sensation by Kurt Bodden and Allison Daniel
Rounding out my recommends is another two hander that combines elements from many different styles of performance. Kurt Bodden also won a SEBATA last year (for “Best Solo Show”) but that is the least of the accolades that have been deservedly showered on him over the years. Performance partner Allison Daniel is held in equitably high esteem for her puppetry skills, but like Genie and Audrey, what makes this show work is the chemistry between them. Also gifted with impeccable timing, their five minutes on Saturday was perhaps the most astonishing to watch as it veered from comedy (Allison as a crime-fighting cat easily distracted by Kurt’s laser pointer) to pathos (Allison turning a coat and hat into a strangely sympathetic puppet that silently asks to be carried by Kurt) and contained within that stretch a wealth of other emotions. Somewhere between sketch and performance art, I’m probably most intrigued by this piece, both by what other surprises it might contain and in what directions these two obviously adept performers would and could go. Plus that puppet bit will make my boyfriend cry, and that’s enough of a reason to go see anything.

Speaking of Cody Rishell, if you didn’t have enough reasons to come down to the Fringe this year, the Green Room (where I and my amazing band of volunteers will be dispensing snacks and information) will once again have his art on display. This year it will be a retrospective on Clyde The Cyclops, who just had his first birthday. Never will those walls have been cuter, so how can you miss out on that?

Stuart Bousel is one of the Founding Artistic Directors of the San Francisco Theater Pub and editor-in-chief of this blog. You can find out more about him at

Theater Around The Bay: Producing Your Own (circus) Show Is Hard, So Be Nice To People Handing You Postcards

Genie Cartier is our latest guest blogger. Anyone who knows her can’t imagine anyone being less than lovely to her, even if she does push the captions of her blog photos to the limit. 

Circus is a tricky, two-faced form. Most people have childhood memories of peanuts and sparkly leotards at Ringling Brothers, and associate it with overstimulation and scary clowns. A smaller group of people have seen one or two Cirque du Soleil shows and may have enjoyed them, but still find the form a bit overwhelming and difficult to judge. An even smaller group of people probably took gymnastics as a kid and therefore have some understanding of how difficult it is to reach a level of fitness that allows you to accomplish the type of feats in Cirque du Soleil, but may or may not go to see circus shows regularly. And an even smaller group has actually seen a circus besides the aforementioned two and both understands and appreciates the nuances of a truly amazing performance. Even avid theater-goers are often bored by the lack of narrative in most circus shows, despite the obvious athletic talent on display. I have come to be a part of a relatively recent and little known form called “circus theater:” the narrative quality of a theater show combined with the athleticism and skill of circus. The following is a true account of the humble beginnings of a circus theater show called Genie and Audrey’s Dream Show! Actually, the show is still in a state of humility, but I couldn’t figure out a way to convey that in the snappy tone I was going for.

To collapse a very long story into as short a paragraph as possible,

This is the internet, so you’ve probably already stopped reading this anyway and gone on to watch a video of a cat in a cheetah costume running on a treadmill to the “Chariots of Fire” soundtrack. If that didn’t exist already, it does now.

This is the internet, so you’ve probably already stopped reading this anyway and gone on to watch a video of a cat in a cheetah costume running on a treadmill to the “Chariots of Fire” soundtrack. If that didn’t exist already, it does now.

I started training at the San Francisco Circus Center when I was 6 years old, and have been performing in circus shows and cabarets ever since. I initially trained basic acrobatics, and eventually developed a love for aerial rope (and a resentment for the much more popular and recognizable apparatus known as aerial tissue). I loved circus, both performing and viewing, but often struggled with my training. My body was not ideal for acrobatics, and I had to work much harder than many of the other kids to be able to do the same things. If only I had inherited my father’s long lean body instead of my mother’s curvy sway-back. As difficult as this slow, agonizing realization was, it led me to another important realization: that circus, unlike gymnastics, is an extremely flexible form. It has two main elements: the athletic and the artistic. What I lacked in athleticism, I could make up for in creativity.

I first met Audrey in the summer of 2010, working at the same Circus Center summer camp that had introduced me to circus when I was a young girl. We quickly became friends. She had attended the Clown Conservatory, and after teaching summer camp, was working at the front desk. I passed by one day, and asked what music I should use for my aerial rope act. “How about live accordion?” she said. We put together an act where she played a waltz on her accordion, and I did my routine on the rope. At one part in the middle of the act, while I was hanging upside-down by one foot, she stopped playing and pretended to notice something on my face, handed me a compact so I could fix it, then continued playing. At some point during rehearsal, she said something like “you know, I bet we have enough skills between the two of us to make our own half-hour show.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a hugely important moment. You mean to tell me that I don’t have to give up my life to train 8 hours a day and get a contract performing with Cirque du Soleil in some gaudy unitard to their choreography and their music? I can just make my own show? It really had never occurred to me.

So we set out to make our own show. It was a totally ideal artistic environment—because it was just the two of us, nobody was telling us what to do except each other. We had complete creative freedom, besides the fact that we had no money, which actually forced us to be more creative. We made up our own little world, which we hoped, was a world the audience wanted to be in. At first we just came up with individual acts, and tested them out in local cabaret shows (and no, we did not get paid for any of them.) I would say to her one day “what if we had our own secret handshake that took ten minutes to do?” and we would get to work coming up with crazier and crazier things that could be included in the handshake. Or she would say “what if you were asleep and I made breakfast on your feet?” and we would spend hours figuring out ways for her to manipulate my body like a doll. I had created an acrobatics routine balancing and doing tricks on a folding chair, so we incorporated that into the show. Audrey had just bought a loop station, and really wanted to use it, so we made up an act around that. At some point, we just sat down and made a list with two columns documenting all of our skills. I had various things I had picked up after years in the circus, and Audrey, in addition to her clown training, could play about 10 instruments. We tried to include all of these things in the show. The problem was, how could we turn all of this into not just a talent show, but a real show with characters and a story? Most circus shows don’t really have either, because they have a high level of athletic talent and a huge cast, so who cares what the plot is, that dude’s hanging from one foot and flipping a tiny girl around!

There are a few circuses that I have seen which very successfully integrate circus skills with narrative, and they have been a huge inspiration to me. Sweet Can Circus, Seven Fingers, and Cirque Eloize all fall into that category. I recommend immediately buying tickets to any of these if they happen to be in town.

There are a few circuses that I have seen which very successfully integrate circus skills with narrative, and they have been a huge inspiration to me. Sweet Can Circus, Seven Fingers, and Cirque Eloize all fall into that category. I recommend immediately buying tickets to any of these if they happen to be in town.

We realized that the only way to put all of the elements we had come up with together was for the show to be a long dream sequence. Suddenly, in dream logic, the show made sense.

The first time we performed Genie and Audrey’s Dream Show! we were huge cowards. We had gotten our boyfriends, both musicians, to play the live soundtrack and sound effects, because we didn’t want the whole show to depend on the two of us. We were terrified that no one would show up if we charged even $10, so we only charged $7, and offered discounts. We made the show at 7:30pm, so people could still go see another show that evening afterwards if they wanted to. We were worried that nobody would get it. That nobody would laugh at the jokes that we thought were hilarious, and that the weird mix of circus and theater would leave the audience confused. We were wrong about all of that. We got about 30 people to come each night, they laughed in mostly the right places, and everyone hung around after the 30 minute performance schmoozing. Many people commented that we could easily have charged more, and that it would be funnier if we did our own sound effects and music. The only disaster was that on the first night, the loop station didn’t work, and we had to skip that part. It turned out that in the haze of nervousness Audrey had forgotten to turn it on. Only one person actually noticed, and it was because he himself often used a loop station on stage.

Our next step was applying for fringe festivals.

If you don’t know what a fringe festival is, it’s—wait, what am I doing? This is the 21st century and we all have the Google machine to tell us these things.

If you don’t know what a fringe festival is, it’s—wait, what am I doing? This is the 21st century and we all have the Google machine to tell us these things.

We applied to San Diego, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco. We somehow got into all of them. We did an indiegogo fundraiser so we didn’t have to pay for all the travel and costs ourselves, and made over our goal amount. The only disaster was the kickoff party for the indiegogo page, held in a brotastic Soma bar, where a fight broke out and Audrey ended up in tears, in two completely unrelated incidents. I’ll let your imagination fill in those blanks.

We re-vamped the show, now a solid 50 minutes, without the aid of musicians. Audrey supplied all of the music for the show, using the loop station when she needed her hands to juggle or dance or do acrobatics. The most meaningful addition to the show for me was an act that Audrey had been doing for years in which a little white cat puppet named Snowball plays the accordion. The addition of this act coincided with the death of my beloved family cat, Legolas. I have always felt like Snowball somehow embodies Legolas’ spirit, and many people have told me that watching the Snowball sequence is emotional for them in some way. I even forget that Snowball is Audrey’s hand inside a puppet when we perform that act. Snowball is my beloved childhood cat who has come back to sing me a song about dreams.

Audrey’s sister let us borrow her car to drive down to San Diego for the festival, which saved us an enormous amount of money on renting a car, especially since we were both under 25 at the time. The problem was that her car was a Wolkswagon Bug, and it had to hold Audrey and I, Audrey’s sister, and my sister who was coming along to be our stage manager. And all of our equipment and luggage. When we finally all piled in, it was literally a clown car. The ride down was very cramped and awkward.

San Diego Fringe was a consistent mixture of intense anxiety and total elation. We had no idea how to advertise our show, especially considering the unfamiliar mixed genre. Audrey and I are both naturally shy and awkward at parties and hated having to try to explain what our show was to people who had heard rehearsed tag lines for 30 other shows the same night. Luckily, not only was there a reassuring solidarity between all the performers, but the fringe had organized a seminar on marketing to clue us in. At the poorly-attended seminar, we made friends with the director of the SD Fringe, as well as the director of the Orlando Fringe, who was there advising, since SD Fringe was in its first year. We took their advice to heart, and managed to generate fairly substantial audiences for our show, mostly by flyering outside of other shows and making my sister walk around downtown San Diego with a big sparkly sign while Audrey and I meekly handed out postcards to passersby. This was the torturous part.

But there were ecstatic moments. I have always been an applause-junky, but when people compliment me on my athletic ability, I secretly roll my eyes because flexibility and strength are simply a function of training. Anyone can do it if they train enough. Hearing an audience clap and cheer for something truly original that you created is entirely different. At the end of the festival, we were awarded the “Fringe Crush” award, which is a bit like a “Miss Congeniality” award. Audrey and I were excited that we could now put “award-winning” on all our postcards.

The luck we had in San Diego ran out by the time we got to Santa Cruz Fringe, which was a week later. We were still exhausted from San Diego. SC Fringe did not have the same kind of community feeling, and it was much harder to advertise. People scoffed in our faces when we tried to hand them flyers, or complained that they had to pay a whole $10 to see it.

A quick word about this—advertising your own show with a budget of basically nothing is extremely hard. You are constantly in the position of having to beg people to please please please come and see my show instead of the other 30 shows playing right now and please pay the extremely low ticket price of $10 so I can at least break even on the $500 fee I had to pay to be in the Fringe— all the information is on this postcard which it cost me money I don’t have to print and which you will probably crumple up and throw in the gutter! Be nice to the people handing you flyers for their show.

A quick word about this—advertising your own show with a budget of basically nothing is extremely hard. You are constantly in the position of having to beg people to please please please come and see my show instead of the other 30 shows playing right now and please pay the extremely low ticket price of $10 so I can at least break even on the $500 fee I had to pay to be in the Fringe— all the information is on this postcard which it cost me money I don’t have to print and which you will probably crumple up and throw in the gutter! Be nice to the people handing you flyers for their show.

They put us in a huge 300-seat auditorium that we would never be able to fill, even half-way. We didn’t know anyone in Santa Cruz, so we had no audience besides those we could hustle into the seats, and, thank god, my and Audrey’s families who drove respectively from San Francisco and Boise to see the show. One night my sister and I went out to a bar and a guy flirted with me, so I convinced him to come see the show. My boyfriend wasn’t too happy about that. But hey, it was another $10 for us! It was especially humiliating that the other two shows in our venue were wildly popular. Audrey and I would come out of the theater after a show that 6 people had attended, only to have to elbow through a crowd of a hundred people lining up for the next show. On top of all of this, I was allergic to the theater. During one of the shows I had to wipe snot on the paper from which I read a poem as I turned around so no one would see it dripping from my nose. The epitome of our experience was a 12:30pm matinee attended by 4 people (two of which were Audrey’s boyfriend and his friend), during which the director of the festival came in half an hour late. We had another show that evening, and neither of us even wanted to do it. It was only after a sentimental pep talk from my sister that we lifted ourselves up by our bootstraps and did the best show of our Santa Cruz run.

There were two positives about Santa Cruz. The first one was that the theater had a fog machine, and we got to use it. The second one was this video, made by the Santa Cruz Muse after our last show, of which Audrey and I are glowingly proud (really could have used it after the first show, but who am I to complain):

Oh wait! There was another good thing that happened! The night after the 4-person-matinee-audience, my sister and I ran into one of the people who had been in the audience that day. She recognized me and told us she loved the show. Her friend asked her what the show was like, and she turned to him and said: “It was wonderful! It’s about these two girls who want to make a circus show, but realize that there’s no orchestra or back-up dancers, so they go to sleep and dream about doing a circus show. And one of them is really flexible and one is really musical, and they do these funny little routines and then sometimes it turns into kind of a nightmare, but it always end up ok.” Or something like that. The point is that she got it! We had reached one person! Plus, we had done a show for 4 people and survived. So it wasn’t the end of the world! Alright, math majors, I guess there were four positives.

After the Santa Cruz fiasco, we had about two months before San Francisco Fringe to tighten up the show. We really wanted it to be as good as it could be when we performed it again in our home base. We worked with Audrey’s roommate, Nikolas Strubbe—a local actor/director—who gave us extremely helpful directorial notes on how to better shape the show. We performed at the Fringe’s preview night and the audience seemed like they were with us. In San Diego, and especially Santa Cruz, I had felt like there was always a certain degree of confusion because of our unconventional take on clowning and circus. Among San Francisco’s many virtues is its ability to appreciate quirkiness and thinking outside the box.

Then, an old circus friend of mine who happened to work at SF Weekly, saw our press release, and wrote a tiny little 1/8th of a page article about our show. I was on the bus, and Audrey texted me saying that we were in the paper. I got off the bus the second I saw a newsstand and grabbed a copy of SF Weekly, scanning the pages. The first time I flipped through, I missed the tiny article. Disappointed, I looked through it again, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw our picture. I started to cry behind my sunglasses on the corner of Haight and Stanyan. I walked down Haight Street holding up the paper, proudly smiling and crying at the same time telling random street kids “I’m in the paper!” As it turned out, this tiny article afforded us a minute level of celebrity; in other words a few people that weren’t related to me and that I had never met before told me they had seen me in SF Weekly. But I’m convinced that it helped us enormously.

Backstage, our first night performing in SF Fringe, we asked our tech person—a cheery, sweet woman named Teresa—if there were people in the audience. She shrugged and said “yeah. It’s a full house.” Audrey and I looked at each other with a mixture of nerves and excitement. All these people came to see our show without us badgering them until they gave in? The best show we did was on a Tuesday night, with many of our friends in attendance.

Some of said friends sat stoned out of their minds in the front row, and told me it was a fantastic experience. Just an FYI, if you ever see the show.

Some of said friends sat stoned out of their minds in the front row, and told me it was a fantastic experience. Just an FYI, if you ever see the show.

From the very start of the pre-show, where Audrey and I go around blowing bubbles and getting people to pop them, everyone was laughing. People exploded into applause when Snowball played the accordion. At the end, the audience cheered for so long that Audrey and I started to feel awkward and tried to quiet them down. “Santa Cruz can suck it!” I said after the show as we were peeling our sweaty costumes off our wet skin.

To me, the most wonderful thing that happened at the San Francisco Fringe was that we gained the respect of the Fringe staff. I know that these people see a lot of shows, and the feedback we got from them was so positive that sometimes I thought they were putting me on. But at the end of the festival, they gave us the “Techie’s Choice Award,” so I chose to believe it was all real.

Somehow our weird little show with neither a straightforward narrative nor a high level of athleticism has survived, and is still going strong. Audrey and I are continuing to apply to Fringe Festivals. Audrey has been trying to figure out a way for us to bring the show to her hometown of Boise, Idaho. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to perform the show for children at my old high school, so that all my teachers will think I’m successful now despite my bad SAT scores. We’ve learned a lot about producing our own show. Mainly that it sucks and if we had the money to pay someone to promote for us so we could just do the creative stuff, we would. But it can also be extremely satisfying, when all of your hard work leads to cheering audiences.

This is probably where I should make a grand conclusion about the power of believing in yourself and use a terrible pun about dreams. (Get it? Because it’s Genie and Audrey’s DREAM Show!) I’m not going to because I hate reading articles that end like that, so I’m just going to let you make your own conclusions about whether based on our experience it’s worth it to produce your own show (it’s not, money-wise, at least in the beginning— we’ve barely broken even), whether you should give circus another chance (you should) and whether I’m doing anyone a service by telling you this whole story or just being a wild egomaniac who wants to brag about getting an eighth of a page article written about her show in SF Weekly. But please please please come and see my next show and pay the modest price for it—the information is on the back of this expensive postcard!

Genie Cartier is a local circus performer and creator. Find out more about her and Audrey at

The Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards for 2013

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2013 list. 

Three years ago I decided that I wanted to start my own Bay Area Theater Awards, because my opinions are just as legitimate as anyone else’s, the awards I give out are as valuable as any other critical awards, (recipients of the SEBATA, or the Stuey, if you prefer, get nothing but my admiration and some free publicity), and also because there’s a fairly good chance that I’ve seen a lot of theater the usual award givers haven’t seen. The best thing about the Bay Area theater scene is that there is a huge diversity in the offerings, and so much on the table to begin with. No one person can see it all, and therefore it’s important to share with one another the highlights of our time in the audience seat, if only to create a greater awareness of what and who is out there making stuff.

Also, there are some people who think I don’t like anything, and I feel a need to not only prove them wrong, but to do so by expressing how much of the local color I do love and admire, as opposed to just pointing out that the reason they think I don’t like anything is because I generally don’t like *their* work (oh… I guess I did just point that out, didn’t I?). Normally I post these “awards” on my Facebook page, but this year I decided to bring them to the blog because the mission statement of the SEBATA is pretty in-line with the mission statement of Theater Pub, and having come to the close of an amazing year of growth for the blog, it now has a much farther reach than my Facebook page could ever hope to have. Congratulations SF Theater Pub Blog- you just won a Stuey.

Anyway, because I am a product of the generation that grew up with the MTV Movie Awards- and, because I’m the only person on the voting committee and thus can do what I like- I have decided that my categories are purely arbitrary and can be stretched to allow me to write about anyone I feel like. The two limits are 1) I can’t give myself an award (though I can have been involved in the show on a limited level) and 2) I won’t go over thirteen (though there may be ties for some awards). Because seriously, how (more) self indulgent would this be without either of those rules? Oh, 3) I won’t give out awards for how bad something was. I’m here to be positive. And chances are those people were punished enough.

To all my friends and frenemies in the Bay Area Theater Scene… it’s been a great year. Let’s you and me do it again sometime. Well… most of you.

And now, presenting the Fourth Annual Stuey Awards…

“Pint Sized IV” (San Francisco Theater Pub)
Pint Sized Plays gets better each year, and it’s honestly one of two things I actually miss about working at the Cafe Royale (the other is the uniqueness of doing Shakespeare there, which for some reason works in a completely magical way I wish it worked more often on traditional stages). This year the festival was put together by Neil Higgins, who did an amazing job, and I think we had some of the best material yet. The evening as a whole felt incredibly cohesive, with a theme of forgiveness and letting go, archly reflective of our decision to leave the Cafe Royale, and I think incredibly relevant to a lot of our audience. We knew Pint Sized could be very funny, and very socially pointed, but I’m not sure we had ever conceived of it as moving and this year it was, thanks in no small part to our writers (Megan Cohen, Peter Hsieh, Sang S. Kim, Carl Lucania, Daniel Ng, Kirk Shimano and Christian Simonsen), directors (Jonathan Carpenter, Colin Johnson, Tracy Held Potter, Neil Higgins, Charles Lewis III, Meghan O’Connor, Adam L. Sussman) and actors (Annika Bergman, Jessica Chisum, Andrew Chung, AJ Davenport, Eli Diamond, Caitlin Evenson, Lara Gold, Matt Gunnison, Melissa Keith, Charles Lewis III, Brian Quakenbush, Rob Ready, Casey Robbins, Paul Rodrigues, Jessica Rudholm). The evening would start off with a magical performance by the Blue Diamond Bellydancers, whose combination of skill and spectacle got our audiences excited for what was to come. As we moved through the pieces, each by turns funny and poignant, each in some way or another about finding something, losing it, letting it go, and then coming back stronger, you could feel the audience grow warmer and closer each night. By the time Rob Ready gave the closing monologue, fixing each audience member in turn with a smile, you could feel everyone really listening and you could hear a pin drop in the room, and that’s saying something for the noisy by nature Cafe Royale. I think a lot of love went into the festival this year, and not just because it might be the last, and the product of that love was real magic and like the best theater- you had to be there. And if you weren’t, you really missed out.

“The Motherf**ker With The Hat” (San Francisco Playhouse)
I saw a lot of decent, solid, well done theater this year but I had a hard time connecting to a lot of it, which was rarely a flaw with the show and probably had more to do with where I was/am as a person (lots of change this year). Then again, something about really good theater is that it can get you out of your own head and into some other world, for a while. Towards the end of the year, I saw three shows I really really liked: “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake” at Bigger Than A Bread Box Theater Company, “Peter/Wendy” at Custom Made Theater Company, and “First” at Stage Werx, produced by Altair Productions/The Aluminous Collective and Playground. Still, San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The Motherf**ker With The Hat”, directed by Bill English, was probably my favorite show of the year. Who knows why it has an edge on the others? Maybe because as someone who spent most of their childhood weekends in New York it seemed oddly familiar, or maybe it was the deft handling by the universally excellent cast (Carl Lumbly, Gabriel Marin, Rudy Guerrero, Margo Hall, Isabelle Ortega) of the complex relationships and dialogue that Guirgis does so well, or maybe it was just refreshing to see such a simple, honest play in what, for me, was a year characterized by a lot of stylistically interesting but emotionally cold theater. There is something very passionate, scathing, bombastic and yet also humble and forgiving about Guirgis’ work that I think makes him such an important voice in modern American drama and English’s production brought all that out with an easy grace. The show really worked, and got me out of my head, and when I went back to my life I felt much better for the journey. What more can you ask of a theater experience?

“Paris/Hector” (San Francisco Olympians Festival)
I attend a lot of readings every year, and run a reading festival myself, so I’ve come to greatly value a really well done reading. This year, the award goes to director Katja Rivera and writers Kirk Shimano and Bridgette Dutta Portman, whose pair of one acts about the pair of Trojan princes Paris and Hector made for one of the best nights of this past year’s San Francisco Olympians Festival. Part of what I loved about it was that in one evening we saw the amazing variety the festival can offer: Kirk’s play was a comedy with a poignant moment or two, while Bridgette’s was a faux-classical drama- written in verse no less. Though the writers are the center of attention at the festival, credit really has to be given to Katja Rivera, who as the director of both pieces, made many simple but effective choices to highlight the best elements of both works and utilize the talents of her excellent cast: Yael Aranoff, Molly Benson, Jeremy Cole, Mackenszie Drae, Allison Fenner, Dana Goldberg, John Lennon Harrison, Michelle Talgarow, Alaric Toy. With the combined excellent story-telling of the performers (including beautiful and surprising singing from Yael, Molly and Dana), the thoughtfulness of the scripts, and the cohesiveness of the whole, this night of the festival stood out best in what was a consistently strong year at the Olympians.

“My Year” by Megan Cohen (Bay One Acts Festival)
Megan Cohen’s “My Year” is the kind of thing I wish more short plays would be: dynamic, personal, and complete. In a sea of short plays that are really fragments, or meet-cute plays, it’s always lovely to see something with a beginning, a middle, and end, and full-formed characters having actual interactions and not just feeling like Girl A and Guy B, thrown together by the whimsy of the playwright to make a point (though of course, the right playwright can pull that off- which is why so many people try to ape it). A friend of mine described “My Year” as “A fun little 90s indie film on stage” and my reaction when watching it was “Oh, Dear God, convince Meg to let me write a companion piece to this!” because let’s face it: at least a third of what I write is a 90s film on stage. My own vanity aside, what I loved about this play (directed by Siobhan Doherty, starring Emma Rose Shelton, Theresa Miller, Nkechi Live, Allene Hebert, Jaime Lee Currier, and Luna Malbroux) was that it felt constantly on the move, while still being mostly composed of intimate moments between a group of women at a birthday party. Like a lot of the theater that I really loved this year, it also just struck a personal chord, watching this young woman (Emma Rose Shelton) trying to enjoy the party her friends have thrown for her (though she doesn’t like surprise parties) despite there being no food and a random stranger (Theresa Miller) who worms her way in only to turn out to be the troublemaker she’s originally pegged for. Megan’s writing had its usual combination of smart and sentimental, but whereas a lot of her other work heads into absurdity and/or extreme quirkiness (not that this is bad), “My Year” stayed very grounded and found its meaning in that effort to stay grounded, making what might be a quiet little play in anyone else’s oeuvre, a nice change of pace in Cohen’s. The final moment, where the characters howl at the moon because what else are you going to do after a shitty birthday, felt like a communal sigh even the audience was in on, probably because we could all relate to Shelton’s character, and while having always loved and admired Meg’s work, this is probably the first time I related to it so wholeheartedly.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Linda Huang (Stage Manager, Tech, Box Office, Everything)
You know how the Oscars and Tonys give out Lifetime Achievement Awards for people whose contribution is so massive that it would kind of be criminal to pick one work or contribution so instead they just get an award for basically being themselves? You know, like how Peter O’Toole got that award because at some point somebody realized that he was pervasively brilliant and always in fashion and therefore easily forgotten because things like “Oh, well, he’ll win next year” often times factors in to who we recognize, meaning things like reliability and consistency do not? Well, for the first time ever in the history of the SEBATAs, I’m creating The Peter O’Toole Award for General Awesomeness and giving it to Linda Huang, without whom, in all seriousness, I believe that small theater in San Francisco would probably grind to a halt. Earlier this year, I got recognized by the Weekly as a “Ringmaster” of the theater scene, but frankly I (and people like me) could not do what we do without having Linda (and people like her) constantly coming to our aid despite being paid a fraction of what they’re worth and half the time being forgotten because what they do isn’t in the immediate eye of the audience. Linda is a total gem of the theater scene. She wears many hats, though she’s probably best known for running light boards, and one of my favorite things when attending the theater is running into her, usually working in some capacity I previously was unaware she was qualified to do (note: Linda is qualified to do everything). What I love best about Linda (aside from her cutting sense of humor and tell-it-like-it-is demeanor) is her incredible generosity: she does so much for local theater and rarely gets paid, and even when she does get paid she often says, “Pay me last.” A true team player, and one we don’t thank enough, especially as she’s the only person who seems to know how to get the air conditioning in the Exit Theatre to work.

Atticus Rex, Open Mic Night In Support of the Lemonade Fund (SF Theater Pub/Theater Bay Area Individual Services Committee)
I never expected to include a note about someone who performed at an open mic/variety show, but I wanted to shout out to Atticus Rex, a young performer who literally made his performance debut at the San Francisco Theater Pub/ISC fundraiser for the Lemonade Fund this year. A last minute replacement, Atticus and a friend performed some original hip-hop for our audience of mostly performance professionals and their friends, and despite the formidable crowd and the first time nerves, he basically killed it. Even when he made a mistake it worked: he’d call himself out, apologize, and start again, somehow without ever missing a beat. His lyrics are very tight and poetic, and the contrast between the power in his words and his humbleness at approaching and leaving the stage works so well you’d almost think it was an act- except he later confessed he’d never performed live before, and it couldn’t have been more sincere. With genuine hope he never loses his sincerity, while also continuing to grow his confidence and experience, I wanted to take a moment to say congratulations once again, and thank you for reminding us all what it looks like to really take a risk onstage.

Genie Cartier and Audrey Spinazola (Genie and Audrey’s Dream Show, SF Fringe Festival)
What’s potentially cuter than “Clyde the Cyclops?” Very little, but these two ladies and their breathless, funny, and surreal little clown show come dangerously close to giving Clyde a run for his money, and it’s the only show I saw at the Fringe this year that I wished my boyfriend had also seen. Bravely straddling the bridge between performance artists and acrobats, this collage of monologues, poems, jokes, mime, clowning, puppetry, stunts, music, and children’s games, is like watching two hyper-articulate kids on pixie sticks go nuts in a club house, but only if those kids had an incredible sense of timing and arch senses of humor (not to mention very flexible bodies). I’ve never been a huge fan of circus stuff (I like it as an accent, sometimes, but as entertainment on its own it doesn’t tend to hold my interest long), but I think I’d be a fan of anything that had these two women in it. Their ability to play off each other is the key to making their show work, and when you watch it you have that sense of being let into the private make-believe world of people who have found kindred spirits in one another. It’s an utterly magic combination and from what I know of other people who saw it, it basically charmed the pants off everyone. Or at least, everyone who has a soul.

Ben Calabrese (Apartment in “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”)
I saw a lot of great performances by men this year (Sam Bertken in “Peter/Wendy”, Tim Green and Gregory Knotts in “First”, Paul Rodrigues “Pint Sized Plays IV”, Will Hand “Dark Play”, Casey Robbins “Oh Best Beloved!”), but this one really took my breath away (though since Sam Bertken actually got me to sincerely clap for fairies in Peter/Wendy, he gets a second shout out). Ben’s role, which is to literally embody the voice of a neglected apartment, is the kind of role that could either be the best thing about the show, or the worst. Luckily for Bigger Than A Breadbox’s production of “Crumble, or Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake (written by Sheila Callaghan), Ben rocked it. Bouncing around the stage, dive bombing the furniture, all the while spouting, eloquently, Callaghan’s beautiful and complex monologues, Ben was so utterly watchable it was impossible not to buy the conceit of the role, and so moments when he has an orgasm from having the radiator turned on, or turns his fingers into loose electrical wires, don’t seem ridiculous, but made immediate and total sense. It’s usually not a compliment to tell an actor they did a tremendous job being an inanimate object, but what Ben did so well was illustrate that a home, while not “alive”, does indeed have a life to it. And if that life occasionally fixes the audience with Ben’s particular brand of “scary actor stare” why… all the better.

Brandice Marie Thompson (Georgia Potts in “First”)
Oh, this was a tough one. As usual, the actresses of the Bay Area are kicking ass and taking names no matter what their role, and my decision to pick Brandice above the rest is because I think she best exemplified that thing which so many actresses have to do, which is take a relatively underwritten role in a play about men and turn it into a rich, believable character who somehow manages to steal the show. Evelyn Jean Pine, who wrote “First”, is a fantastic writer and she writes women and men equitably well, and due credit must go to her for the creation and inclusion of this character in a story mostly about male egos, but in a lesser capable actresses hands, this role could have been annoying, or forgettable, or purely comical, and Brandice avoided all of these traps while making the character utterly charming at the same time. The truth is, her arc became much more interesting to me than that of the main character, and I think a strong argument could be made that “First” was just as much about Georgia as it was about Bill Gates. Director Michael French no doubt had a hand in this too, but in the end it’s a performer who makes or breaks a role and Brandice’s ability to combine mousy with spunky with unexpected and yet thoroughly authentic character turns was deeply satisfying to watch. Georgia kicked ass and took names, because Brandice does. Runners up: Melissa Carter (“Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”, Bigger Than A Breadbox), Allison Jean White (“Abigail’s Party”, SF Playhouse), Sam Jackson (“Oh Best Beloved!”, SF Fringe Festival), Courtney Merril (“Into the Woods”, Ray of Light), Elissa Beth Stebbins (“Peter/Wendy”, Custom Made Theatre Company).

“Nightingale” (Davis Shakespeare Ensemble/SF Fringe Festival)
This little gem at this year’s fringe festival was adapted from the myth of Philomel by Gia Battista, with music by Richard Chowenhill, directed by Rob Sals (with Battista), and staring Gabby Battista, April Fritz and Tracy Hazas as three remarkably similar looking women who each take a turn playing the heroine of a bizarre fairy tale (all the other characters in the story are played by them as well). Dance, pantomime, narration, song and traditional theater techniques all came together in a way that was astonishingly clean and charming in its simplicity. The black and white aesthetic used to unify the look of the show and performers gave the whole thing a quality both modern and timeless, and in its gentle, dreamy tone the sharp elements of social commentary and satire often seemed more brutal and impactful. Of everything I saw at the Fringe this past year, which included a number of excellent works, this piece has stayed with me the longest.

“Steve Seabrook: Better Than You” by Kurt Bodden (The Marsh)
I saw a lot more solo performance than usual this year (including works by Annette Roman, Laura Austin Wiley, Alexa Fitzpatrick, Jenny Newbry Waters, Rene Pena), and realizing how good it can be is, in and of itself, kind of a miracle because I used to say things like, “Theater begins with two people” and “If Aeschylus had wanted to write sermons he wouldn’t have added Electra”. Kurt’s show was not created this past year, it has a long history, but I only saw it in its most recent Marsh incarnation and I’m hoping he’s been able to find ways to keep it going (his Facebook feeds indicate this is so). A satire of motivational speakers and the cult of self-improvement, “Steve Seabrook” manages to be so much more by combining satirical fiction with moments of the kind of personal monologue (still fiction) that permeates solo shows. The result is a sense of development, of a story (Steve’s) unfolding in real time while another story, (Steve’s Seminar) plays itself out over the course of a weekend. Playing off the convention of a backstage comedy (we see the seminar, then we see Steve when he’s not “on”), Kurt’s brilliance as a performer is evident in the seamless transition from one to the other, again and again, carrying a throughline that shows us not only why Steve buys into his mantras, but why any of us buy into anything we’ve come up with (or adopted from someone else) to keep us moving through life’s ups and downs. At once very funny and cutting, while also moving and real (and yes, fuck it, kind of inspirational), Kurt’s show also gets a nod for its fantastic takeaway schwag: a keychain light with Steve’s name on it, with which every audience member is encouraged to shine their light in a dark world.

Rebecca Longworth and Joan Howard, “Oh Best Beloved” (SF Fringe Festival)
“Oh Best Beloved” got a lot of attention and deservedly so- well acted, well designed, it was a genuinely fun piece of theater. Perhaps most deserving of being singled out in the project, however, are director Rebecca Longworth and partner Joan Howard, who share credit for conceptualizing the show (in which Joan also played a part and had, in my opinion, the single best moment in the show), and who lead the rest of the company in adapting the material from Ruyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories”. Anyone who saw the show could easily see that it had about a million moving parts, and Longworth and Howard’s ability to keep all those plates spinning on a small budget and under the strict conditions of the San Francisco Fringe Festival (they literally put up and pulled down a full set with each performance) is worthy of award in and of itself, but the level of commitment and craft they were able to pull from their design team and performers was equally as impressive. Everything about the show, even the parts that didn’t work as well as others, felt thought through and done with panache, making this ambitious and unique experience a delightful jewel in the SF Fringe Festival’s crown.

Bill English, “Abigail’s Party” (SF Playhouse)
Scenery in general doesn’t do much for me. I enjoy good scenery, but the best scenery should kind of vanish into the background, in my opinion, and be something you barely pay attention to. As a result, I’m often just as happy with a blank stage, or really well thought out minimal set, as I am with a full one, so long as the play I’m watching is good. That said, every now and then I will see a set I just adore, and this year it was Bill English’s set for SF Playhouse’s “Abigail’s Party”, by Mike Leigh, directed by Amy Glazer. Basically a living room/dining room/kitchenet combo, this fully realized “home” was very well crafted as a place, but more importantly, it really worked as a place where people lived. The 70s style was at once present without being overwhelming, evoking the time period without looking like it was a homage to the time period, or a museum dedicated to 70s kitch. I mean, it honestly reminded me of numerous homes I’d played in as a child (I was born in 1978) and all the wallpaper looked like wallpaper in my parents’ home before my mother completely re-did the house in 1990 because “we can admit this is ugly… now”. The amazing thing about English’s set is that it didn’t seem ugly, in spite of being made up entirely of patterns and colors we now find appalling. He made it all work together, the way people once did, and the final result was simultaneously comfortable and dazzling. I remember thinking, waiting for the play to begin, “I could live here.”

And last, but not least, every year I pick…

“The Age of Beauty” (No Nude Men Productions/The Exit Theatre)
I had taken a break from directing my own work, but with this nine performance workshop I allowed myself to re-discover that, as much as I like directing plays by others, there is nothing quite as satisfying as feeling like I’m telling a very personal story of my own and having the final say on how that happens. Of course, such experiences are only rewarding when you get to work with great actors, and I was lucky to have four amazing women (Megan Briggs, Emma Rose Shelton, Allison Page, Sylvia Hathaway) who were willing to go on this adventure with me, always keeping stride as I made cuts and changed lines, memorizing a mountain of material in Emma and Sylvia’s case, and crafting subtle characters who had to be both different from each other and relatively interchangeable at the same time. When I had a hard time articulating what I was going for, they would nod and smile and then show me what I meant by doing it better than I could describe it. When the show opened by the skin of its teeth it had one of those minor miracle opening nights, where even though you’re just a tiny bit unprepared (all my fault, I kept changing the script), it somehow all comes together and really works. Over the course of the show, as their performances grew and refined (our final two nights were simply perfect), I was able to see what flaws still remained in the script (two pages, middle of scene of scene two were cut the day after we closed), and any writer of new work will tell you that’s the best experience you can hope for on a first production. Shout outs to my awesome design team Cody Rishell, Jim Lively and Wil Turner IV! “The Age of Beauty” helped restore some of my lagging faith in the theater process, and made me commit to doing more of my own work in the coming year.

Stuart Bousel runs the San Francisco Theater Pub blog, and is a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. You can find out more about his work at