Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: If Only Angels Could Prevail

Marissa Skudlarek, prevailing. 

This is my last scheduled post as a regular columnist for the Theater Pub blog.

Really great timing, huh?

When Stuart and I were discussing our plan to wind down the blog, and I realized that my final post was scheduled to run two days after the election, I said, “If Trump wins, I might not be able to get you that post on time, FYI.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Stuart, “he’s not gonna win.”

But, while I may have been prescient enough to have at least considered the possibility of a Trump victory, I was not prescient enough to know what my own response would be. Yes, I am sad and numb and hollowed out. Yes, I have chills and I’ve lost my appetite, the way I always do when blindsided by bad news.

But I woke up this morning, the day after the election, and put on a black dress and pulled my hair back and drew on eyeliner and walked outside with my head high. The first battle of the new American era was simply getting out of bed and facing the day with dignity. And I am ready to fight. And if I were to simply wallow in my grief tonight and not write anything, I would feel even worse.

I spent Election Night at PianoFight, the venue where Theater Pub performs, which was hosting a party with a free edition of Killing My Lobster’s election-themed sketch-comedy show. I had thought, “No matter what happens, this is where I want to be, these are the people I want to be among.” But it was loud and crowded and, as the disappointing election returns started to come in, increasingly anxious and panicked. There were lots of hugs and mutual support. There was cautious optimism, defiant singing, political rationalizations. And always, always, there was that damned CNN map on a big screen in the corner. (When I closed my eyes in bed last night, visions of a red and blue patchwork danced before me.) I became so anxious that I started to get lightheaded, and I didn’t much feel like laughing.

So, along with Theater Pub’s Artistic Director Tonya Narvaez, I sneaked into a tech rehearsal in PianoFight’s smaller theater. A group of SF State students were there, practicing a revue of Stephen Sondheim songs. It was cool and quiet, art was being made, and we could check the election results on our phones but not be glued to the TV screen. And, if the world was ending, why not spend it listening to live performances of Sondheim?

I didn’t cry when Prince or Bowie died, but I sure as hell am going to cry when Sondheim dies. And as this shitty year winds down its last shitty weeks, the thought “At least Sondheim is still alive… please God let him hang on till 2017” has popped into my head a few times.

Sondheim has written some dark material, and the students’ selection focused on the more political side of his oeuvre. Several pieces from Assassins and Sweeney Todd. “Pretty Lady” from Pacific Overtures, a deceptively beautiful song about sexual predation. A woman with long red hair sang “Every Day A Little Death” and I couldn’t help thinking of Melania Trump—another trophy wife in a relationship with a blustering man who “talks softly of his wars / and his horses and his whores.”

So Tonya and I, two unmarried Millennials, strong women descended from strong women, with surnames (Spanish and Slavic) that still sound foreign to many ears, escaped into the tech rehearsal in the back room. We held hands, we hugged, we shed a few tears when we realized how things were going. We realized the irony of treating PianoFight’s small theater as a refuge, because the set for Every 28 Hours is still up—posters of the people of color who have been slain by police in recent years, reminding us that even in Obama’s America, it was not safe to be brown or black. We heard the lyric “If only angels could prevail” and thought yes, if only.

I know I live in a liberal, artistic bubble. In the day since the bad news has sunk in, I have seen many people express thoughts about the role of artists under a Trump administration, responses that take one of two forms. Some people say “At least some great art will come out of this, great art always emerges from adversity,” which seems like a pathetic attempt to find a silver lining in the situation. All things considered, most artists would prefer to work under conditions of peace and prosperity, not conditions of adversity. It is difficult to make art if you live in a society that refuses to see you as fully human—perhaps one reason that art by white men dominates the Western canon.

Other people are framing this slightly differently, saying, “This is the time for artists to get to work. We need your stories and your voices now more than ever.” I have mixed feelings about this. While I appreciate being reminded that my voice matters and that art has a larger purpose, I am skeptical of the idea that art is what will get us out of this mess. I’m also not sure that I agree with the implication that the only art we should be making in this troubled time is overtly political, agenda-driven art.

But still, there is a reason I went to the Sondheim show last night, and a reason that I have continued to think about art and literature today. I mentioned that, when faced with a bleak and distressing situation, I lose my physical appetite. I also lose my metaphorical appetite: my compulsion, usually so strong, to immerse myself in works of art. Instead, for a time, I feel like there is no joy in the world and no art that is possibly worth experiencing. I wake up in the morning and think “What can I read on the way to work today? What can I possibly read?”

And then, unbidden, the craving for some work of art will hit me, and it is the first moment I feel like myself again, the first moment I see a path out of despair. Today, someone on Twitter posted the Tolkien quote about how the only people who hate escapism are jailers. I’m not much of a one for Tolkien, but the quote reminded me of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in which the title characters create a comic-book superhero called The Escapist. “I will start rereading Kavalier and Clay when I get home,” I thought, and, for the first time, I felt a little better. It’s a story about a Czech Jewish refugee and his queer Brooklyn cousin fighting fascism with art—the kind of America, and American values, that I want to believe in.

If we wanted, we could darkly joke that Theater Pub was a product of the Obama era and so it is appropriate that it’s ending in December 2016. Just one more casualty of this year, every day a little death. But that might produce the impression that Trump’s victory caused us to quit in defeat, when that isn’t true at all. As I said in an earlier piece about Theater Pub’s impending end, the organization and the blog are going away, but we aren’t going away. I’ve already started to think about other outlets for my writing.

I don’t know what the future holds. It may well be scary and dark. But I know that I want to be prepared to confront it, with all my wits about me. If Hillary Clinton had won the electoral vote, this final column would have been sentimental and nostalgic and maybe even a bit complacent, looking back at the last six years rather than looking ahead at the future. But because Trump has won, I cannot spend time on nostalgia. The last six, or eight, years have shaped me. Theater Pub has shaped me. Art of all kinds has shaped me and made me stronger. Now it is time to test my mettle.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her on Twitter @MarissaSkud or at marissabidilla.blogspot.com.

In For a Penny: You Won’t be Namin’ no Buildings after Me

Charles Lewis casts his vote from the front row.

US presidents don't have the best history with theatre.

US presidents don’t have the best history with theatre.

“To live means to finesse the processes to which one is subjugated.”
– Bertolt Brecht, On Politics and Society (1941)

I needed a distraction.

It wasn’t just my incessant hunt for a “real people” job, it wasn’t just my putting serious attention towards my Olympians script, it wasn’t just my anger over Alton Sterling and Philando Castile winding up the latest casualties of racist White cops when their only “crime” was being Black in public. It wasn’t just any of those things, it was all of that and more.

I needed something to clear my head yesterday, so my attempt to escape politics lead me to the Playbill site. Incidentally, my eye was caught by a quick mention of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton attending her second performance of the now-Pulitzer-and-Tony-winning musical Hamilton. I’ve still neither seen nor heard the musical and glancing over piece just made me shrug and think “That’s a nice way to earn ‘cool’ points, but her constituency can’t even afford to see the goddamn show.”

Then I started thinking about the history of presidents attending theatre and what it did or didn’t say about them. As is often the case, so much preferential attention is placed on a politician’s film choices (Woodrow Wilson watching Birth of a Nation, Reagan laughing through Back to the Future, Bill Clinton hosting a screening of Three Kings) that their theatre selections often risk being lost to history. The only US presidential theatre trip everyone knows is the one where President Lincoln didn’t come back. (That, and fact that he was killed by an actor, of all things.)

Still, my mind had something on which to focus and began researching.

Unable to procure a copy of Thomas Bogar’s American Presidents Attend Theatre on such short notice (plus the police activity yesterday made travelling into The City next-to-impossible), I still perused the preview pages on Amazon. It was interesting to see that George Washington had a life-changing moment after watching George Lillo’s The London Merchant and then drew great inspiration from Joseph Addison’s Cato about a man who stands up against the tyranny of Julius Caesar. Neither the playwrights, actors, or fellow audience members knew they were inspiring one of the most powerful political revolutions of all time, but every artist dreams of having such a lasting impact.

Just as I’ve never experienced Hamilton – other than knowing of its ubiquitous popularity – so too have I never experienced a play once just as popular: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. At the risk of turning in my lifetime membership to Theatre Geeks United, my only knowledge of the TS Eliot-based musical is just that people hate it. I’ve never even heard “Memory” past the lyrics “…all alone in the moonlight,” so I couldn’t tell you if it’s worthy of Jack Black and Kevin Smith’s scorn (the latter of whom called the musical “the second-worst thing to ever happen to New York”) or if it’s actually a moving piece of musical theatre that’s remained just in my periphery. I know that Cats’ smashing success is attributed to pandering to the populace without actually challenging them intellectually.

I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that Cats was also the favorite musical of George W. Bush, also known for pandering rather than raising the intellectual bar. (His favorite film was said to be Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Make of that what you will.)

Every choice paints an interesting – if only partial – portrait of who each politician is as a person. Although the Kennedy Center galas get live press coverage, there’s something about the artistic choices a president makes out of pure leisure that gives us just a glimpse into the gears that move in their minds. Neither of the aforementioned theatrical excursions will be remembered as much as Lincoln’s infamous trip to Ford’s or Marilyn Monroe singing to JFK in Madison Square Garden, but they give enough of a glimpse to create a picture of how each will be perceived in the years to come. In other words: they give artists something to work with.

Pondering this got me thinkin’ about the guy currently sitting in the Oval Office.

He's the one on the right.

He’s the one on the right.

Before the Clintons saw Hamilton, President Barack Obama and his family caught the show during previews in July of 2015. He then famously hosted the entire cast at the White House earlier this year. The first bi-racial President of the United States hosted the multi-racial cast of a play dramatizing the Founding Fathers. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d ever write.

I can only wonder what said Founders would have thought of the musical, had they seen it. With all the advances in technology and evolution in musical tastes, I dare say the fact that it’s a theatrical production is probably the one element to which they’d directly relate.

So it begs the question as to what sort of plays we’ll see about Barack Obama one day? There’s been at least one major attempt in Germany, but no such high-profile productions in the US. As I began pondering what I expected to see in a play about Barack Obama, I suddenly remember that I’m a playwright and started wondering how I’d write a play about Barack Obama.

It would most likely be about how everyone considers him “not quite” or “not at all”. He’s the first Black man to take office, but his father wasn’t descended from the slaves who spawned the rest of us. Despite conspiracy theories, he was born in the United States, but he’s the first to not be born on the mainland. He was given the Nobel Peace Prize soon after he took office, but also oversaw some of the bloodiest US attacks on foreign citizens. He’s Commander-in-Chief of all US armed forces and law enforcement, but he’s also the first president who could speak first-hand about being the victim of racial profiling and police harassment. Electing him was one of the most progressive acts ever carried out by a first-world nation, yet racial tensions in the US are as high as they’ve been in decades. He passed bold legislative changes despite facing a level of opposition not shown to a sitting president in most of our lifetimes.

Barack: You Can’t Please… well, Anyone, a play by Charles Lewis III. Coming as soon as I finish my Terence adaptations (that part’s actually true).

As I settled my mind down from running in several opposite directions, I thought less about how our presidents are perceived in plays and more about how they feel giving their citizens access to those plays. Obama’s hosting of the cast of Hamilton was to emphasize the importance of arts in America; the paradox being – as my Thursday column predecessor frequently pointed out – that funding for those arts is harder and harder to come by. The way a nation treats the arts is often a reflection of what they think of their citizens: if arts are funded well, it suggests the people have a voice and are encouraged to use it; if the arts are underfunded, it suggests the people are merely cogs in the machine.

That’s what I’d like to see more than anything. No matter what’s eventually about a president in book, film, or even a play, I’d like to know they worked their hardest to ensure future artists had the means and the venues with which to perfect their craft. I’d like to see fewer politicians and dignitaries attending shows they know the public can’t afford and more of them attempting to venture out into the mysterious land of black boxes (we’ll make room for the Secret Service, we promise). I’d like to see them go beyond mere campaign promises and actually prove that art matters.

The catch is that art, like politics, can just as easily split people down the middle as it can bring them together. But hey, “I’d rather be divisive than indecisive,” right?

That’s from a musical, isn’t it?

Charles Lewis III thinks that if you care about art and politics, you should donate to this year’s SF Olympians Fest IndieGoGo. Why? ‘Cause the Greeks invented democracy, Olympians is one of the best theatre fests in Northern Cali, and the plays frequently inspire heated debate.