Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: What I Did For Love

Marissa Skudlarek shares some thoughts on our impending closure.

By now, you’ve probably heard that Theater Pub will wind down operations after our December show. It’s not a decision that the artistic staff made lightly, but at the same time, it’s a decision they made with no regrets and no sense of heartbreak. Theater Pub is dying a peaceful, natural death; we’re not looking for a miracle to “save” us and, in fact, we might not accept it if it was offered.

Indeed, we really don’t want people to see our closure announcement and spin it into some story about how The Arts Are Dying In The Bay Area Because It’s Too Expensive Here. Maybe that’s true for some arts organizations that have had to shut down, but not for us. Nor do we feel like our passing will leave an un-fillable hole in the local theater scene. Contrary to popular belief, “there are a lot more opportunities and venues in the Bay Area today than there used to be,” as Meg Trowbridge wrote.

When we posted our closure announcement on a Bay Area theater message board, a local theater patron reacted with concern and alarm. He offered to set up a GoFundMe page if that would allow us to “stick around.” As I said, we want to nip this narrative in the bud, so Stuart Bousel gave me the go-ahead to reply to the man. This is what I wrote:

“I’m a longtime Theater Pub attendee/writer/producer/blogger/actor and friend of the Pub’s current leadership, Stuart Bousel, Meg Trowbridge, and Tonya Narvaez. We appreciate your concern and your desire to keep art alive in the Bay Area, but as Stuart and Meg and Tonya wrote in their post, money has very little to do with why we have decided to end Theater Pub. Theater Pub was never going to be a full-time, quit-your-day-job career for any of us. We are indie theater artists juggling a lot of responsibilities (both theater-related and not), and after many years of hard work to produce a new show in a bar every single month — not an easy task! — we want to concentrate on other projects, other ways of making art, other things in our lives. None of us are quitting theater or leaving the Bay Area — on the contrary, I think we’re all busier than ever! So Theater Pub, the institution/organization, is going away, but WE, the artists, are not going away. The friendships and connections we have made, the skills we have learned, are not going away. It may sound strange, in a capitalistic age in a crazy expensive city where nearly every conversation turns to money, but the reason we’re ending Theater Pub isn’t about the money, it’s about the art.”

Meanwhile, this Medium post by Jeff Lewonczyk about why he gave up making indie theater in New York, has been making the rounds. As I said, for the time being, none of the core Theater Pub folks are planning to give up theater the way that Lewonczyk has. But I also think that we all understand his sentiments and don’t blame him in the least. There comes a time to step away from things, thoughtfully but without regrets.

As Stuart, Meg, and Tonya wrote in the title of their joint post, “autumn is a time to say goodbye.” Many of the Theater Pub usual suspects are also involved with the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which begins in just a few weeks and whose theme this year is myths of death and the underworld. But at least for me, looking at death through a Greek-myth framework means seeing it as inevitable, and necessary, and possibly peaceful. (The mythological figure I’m writing about this year is Macaria, Persephone’s daughter and the goddess of peaceful death.) It means thinking about the cyclical nature of things; how Persephone goes to the underworld for half the year, but she is never lost down there forever.

And in the meantime, we’re ending Theater Pub with a show about a ghost (September), a show about a gravedigger (October), King Lear (November), and, finally, a musical celebration/funeral/wake. Because we’re theater people, and we know how to end things.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. See the staged reading of her new play Macaria, or The Good Life at the Olympians Festival on October 14.

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The Real World- Theater Edition: Interview with Paul S. Flores

Barbara Jwanouskos (on a different day) chats with Paul S. Flores about You’re Gonna Cry.

This week, I was lucky enough to coordinate with Eric Reid and Paul S. Flores to talk about You’re Gonna Cry, the new show that will be opening soon at Theater Madcap. Paul developed a play that sounds incredible and is in response to the gentrification of the Mission, which has lead to the displacement of communities of color. He is an artist that uses his gifts to direct and open conversations about events that have had devastating effects on the communities he cares about.

Paul works with, is influenced by, and grew as a theater artist with some of my mentors and heroes in the theater scene — people I consider to be extremely talented in their way to access parts of the soul and provide such depth and complexity to their art. Paul and I talk about You’re Gonna Cry, creative process, and Paul’s thoughts on theater and the Bay Area.

I hope you will enjoy the interview below and then, of course, experience the show he created that is coming up…

Paul S. Flores. Photo credit: Ramsey El Qare

Paul S. Flores. Photo credit: Ramsey El Qare

Barbara: How did you get interested in theater and especially in creating new work?

Paul: I came out of the Spoken Word scene of the 1990’s in San Francisco’s Mission District. My first group or performance ensemble was Los Delicados, a Latino hybrid of spoken word, song and dance, and AfroCuban drumming—kind of like the Latino version of The Last Poets meets Perez-Prado. I evolved from performance poetry into Hip-Hop Theater in 2001 collaborating with Marc Bamuthi Joseph on the first Hybrid Project at Intersection for the Arts. Then I got my first commissioned play in 2004 from Su Teatro (in Denver) and the National Performance Network; it was called Fear of a Brown Planet. We toured that all over the nation, mostly to Latino theaters. I have written four plays since that have all toured. I have only been interested in creating new original works. Voice is most important to me. I am a writer by training. So I only do original work.

Barbara: What’s your approach? Any particular stylistic tools/techniques you like using in your work? Why?

Paul: I have apprenticed as a theater artist with theater makers and directors like Sean San Jose, Guillermo Gomez Peña, Elia Arce, Danny Hoch, Kamilah Forbes, Michael John Garcés, Brian Freeman. I did not study theater in any institution. I’m a theater outsider. And I’m not loyal to any genre—I use them all. I am committed to experience and healing my community through whatever artistic and organizing methods I can channel. But I love theater for its live ritual. My approach is what I called social practice theater. I focus first to social issues—gang violence, immigrant struggles, racial profiling, male gender stereotypes—and apply interview research methods to development. I partner with social service organizations to base stories on experiences from their constituency. Language authenticity is number one. I’m not an actor in the sense of training. I’m an actor whose purpose is to realize the message in my writing as an immediate visceral experience—what I see and endure so does the audience. I’m not spoon feeding anyone a list of recommendations for social ills. I’m presenting people as they are, how I see them. And creating an opportunity for audiences to recognize the systemic problems around them. And I hope to offer a path to healing through the work I create.

Barbara: Tell me about You’re Gonna Cry. How did it come about? Anything you were responding to?

Paul: Initially I was responding to a call for creating work that addressed the connection of new technology and changing demographics. John Kilacky from the SF Foundation commissioned a short, initial iteration of You’re Gonna Cry in 2009. I lived in the Mission during the 1990s and saw the introduction of the dot-com tech industry tear apart my neighborhood with greed: greedy investors/venture capitalists created greedy landlords which created greedy new residents which altered the culture and community of The Mission District. I attended so many evictions parties then. My friends were forced out of the neighborhood. A vibrant community of collaboration and justice minded artist collectives and ensembles were disintegrated. Many who stuck around turned all our energy to telling the story of systemic oppression expressed in gentrification (begun with Willie Brown’s statement in 1998 “you need to make $80,000 a year to live in San Francisco” to Mayor Lee’s tax breaks for tech companies like Twitter and Zynga). We had to become political artists to survive. We had to tell the story as a record and as a means to organize. Gentrification is violence. Displacement is violence. Poverty is violence. Erasure of cultural memory is violence. Being priced out of your arts practice is violence. Homelessness is violence. Police bring violence. We see the effects of gentrification in the deaths of Alex Nieto and Luis Gongora. So when you think about the effect of gentrification, behind the façade improvements, the increased appearance of cafes and high priced boutiques, the “Urban Safari” truck painted like a zebra driving past Galeria de La Raza on 24th Street, stopping to take pictures of me while I rehearse in the studio, it’s a crying shame, a cause for rage. Painful.

Barbara: How did you and Eric Reid come to work together and what are your future plans?

Paul: Eric reached out to me a couple years ago to participate in a theater activity at his theater Inner Mission that was targeting theater makers and playwrights of color. Eric was recruiting playwrights on Facebook. I went to an event and was inspired by his vision to create space for Bay Area theater artists of color.

Then last year 2015 I had an opportunity to hire a manager, and I needed production support for the tour of my play PLACAS (www.placas.org) starring Ric Salinas of Culture Clash. I hired Eric to be my manager, and to help me produce the California tour of PLACAS. Working together we realized we both wanted SF Theater to represent the community that we are inspired by: the Mission and the Fillmore—both gentrified. In November I performed a one-off of You’re Gonna Cry at the White Privilege Conference at St. Ignatius High School. Eric also did production on that show. He thought bringing the show back for a new version would tie perfectly into the current activism to stop police violence and evictions. We are on the same wavelength. We want theater to advance the causes we believe in.

Barbara: How do you like being an artist in the Bay Area? What are the unique characteristics of living, working, developing art here?

Paul: The Bay Area, especially San Francisco and Oakland, inspires critical thinking, civic engagement and prolific creativity in modes of communication. Liberation not innovation is the primary theme here. I will not waiver on that. I don’t believe tech innovation defines us, not now and definitely not then.

I am a California loyalist. I chose San Francisco instead of New York to ground my art and represent California culture nationally, globally. I am San Francisco. The Bay Area has nurtured me since 1995. We created Los Delicados in The Mission. Around the same time we also created Youth Speaks in the Mission, and I used to teach writing workshops for teenagers at Southern Exposure Gallery when it was part of Project Artaud. My fundamental voice as a writer/performer is informed by the Mission District—culturally rooted, community based performance that connects indigenous, Latino and African diasporic arts traditions. This urban indigenous ecosystem is the foundation of the Mission arts venues that cultivated my work: Galeria de La Raza, Mission Cultural Center, CellSpace, Intersection for The Arts, Youth Speaks, Red Poppy, Brava, Project Artaud…so many. Even when I am integrating technology into my shows it’s always from the perspective of “How does the Latino community relate to it?” I almost always collaborate with Mission-based musicians and visual artists in my work—Marcus Shelby, Rio Yañez, Culture Clash, Greg Landau, Norman Zelaya, Dj Sake-1, Eric Norberg. I also have a lot of love for Oakland, which is grounded in roots culture, community organizing, polyculturalism, and immigrant co-existence. Bamuthi and I both lived together and created plays for a couple years in Oakland. My first docu-theater project was called “Fruitvale Project” directed by Elia Arce, and produced by La Peña. I shadowed a Cambodian immigrant refugee named Kong, who escaped the Khmer Rouge, while he documented damage after the “Raider Riots,” in Oakland’s Fruitvale District. I performed as Kong. At the same time Bamuthi was working on Word Becomes Flesh, and Scourge about Black and Haitian identity through the lense of hip-hop theater. We informed each other in the early years of our growth. So to be an artist in the Bay Area is to be immersed in culture, conflict, tradition and prolific social and political interaction.

Barbara: I want to ask you about gentrification and the Mission — your thoughts and how it’s reflected in the show — what you are exploring?

Paul: You’re Gonna Cry specifically tears the façade off the Mission of the 1990s and lets the audience see inside the homes and lives of Mission natives, immigrants, techies and artists. The piece contextualizes the concept of gentrification—economically motivated culture shift of a neighborhood—by highlighting what is powerful about the culture of the neighborhood. Which also reveals how such a place like the Mission can be vulnerable to gentrification and evictions. We see how violent gentrification really is as new residents from a different economic class use real estate to impose their will on the neighborhood’s already existing social relations which creates massive conflict. When the dot-com industry of the 1990s was introduced, newly monied tech industry workers and venture capitalists from Wisconsin and Michigan fell in love with the physical beauty and vibrant action of the Mission District, but they didn’t try to get to the know the lives of its native population: people who were born and raised in The Mission. Instead internet business people wanted to appropriate what was already thriving, and then change it to fit their needs. It’s like this real estate trend of maintaining original classic external of a building but gutting the inside to make it modern. Gentrification is American post-colonialism. It is late 20th century capitalist culture. In the name of new experiences for the wealthy (lofts, bars, restaurants, doggy hotels, indoor mini-golf), it leaves immigrants and poorer people behind without a care for their well-being.

I play about 12 characters from different generations, genders, races, interests on the block of 24th and York St. The characters reveal the neighborhood. I don’t spell anything out for you. I use music, spoken word, dance, monologue, puppets, video. This is an impressionistic portrait. Nothing is obvious. You must listen and feel what each character says to understand all the connections between them and their stake in the neighborhood.

Barbara: Can you tell me your creative influences, heroes, and things you would love to do but haven’t (yet!)?

Paul: My heroes are Jean-Michel Basquiat, Amy Winehouse, Miguel Piñero, Miles Davis, Suzan-Lori Parks, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Oliver Mayer, Leon Ichaso. My influences are my colleagues and friends Norman Zelaya, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Danny Hoch, Culture Clash, Mayda del Valle, Elia Arce, Saul Williams, Tanya Saracho.

I want to work with Rosalba Rolon from Pregones Theater and musician Yosvanny Terry on a musical theater piece about Cuban emigres of the 1990s. I want to write a story of folks who came to the US during Cuba’s Special Period, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when financial sponsorship of Cuba was halted. I want to write about their story in the US. I am a big fan of Cuban music and of Pregones.

I want to write TV. I want to create a show like The Wire but about the Oakland school district from state take-over to the current push to turn all the schools into charters. Oakland Unified is the American public school system. It is ripe with drama and characters, and I want to write the TV. Make the heroes teachers on TV instead of fucking cops.

Barbara: What are your thoughts on the Bay Area theater scene and anything you would change?

Paul: Bay Area theater is small, exciting and functioning at a certain level. There is good work out here: Michael Torres directed MAS at Laney College, Sean San Jose recently directed Chavez Ravine at UC Berkeley, the Magic did Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters. Ubuntu Theater is very interesting. I am sad we lost Octavio Solis to Oregon Shakes. I’m not happy Campo Santo doesn’t have a home theater. I was excited to see Between Riverside and Crazy at ACT. But I wonder why they didn’t do Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Hudes. Maybe one day Berkeley Rep will invest in new Latino playwrights from the Bay Area… I just came out of a 10 year partnership with the San Francisco International Arts Festival who commissioned two of my plays (PLACAS, and Representa!). It was very fruitful, and I am thankful to Andrew Wood’s support. And I am entering into theater commissions with Loco Bloco and Youth Speaks on two plays about police violence and gentrification—which I just received the Gerbode Playwriting Commission for, and for which Sean San Jose will direct my play Arresting Life. I’ve also been in the Tenderloin rehearsing more, and I wonder what theaters like the Exit, PianoFight and Cutting Ball will do to develop artists from that neighborhood. I don’t think the current state of Equity makes anything any better when no one can afford to own a building. National theater networks are growing. A lot of talk about White Privilege. A lot of talk about making theater more diverse. I don’t really see it though. A lot of smart talk. Very little smart action on the part of regional theaters. They are worried about legacy and job hoarding. I was recently at South Coast Rep. I met the entire “Artistic” creative wing of their massive theater. All of them white. Nice people. But not a single black or brown leader in the artistic division. That is typical to me. So I keep working with non-traditional theaters, or non-traditional partners, making work that matters to the empowerment of our people. I will not beg regional theaters to include me, nor will I conform to their cultural standards of what they think good theater is. Not while theater critics keep describing Latinos as “spicy” or “hot.” I do love the conflict though. It helps create meaning. You find purpose, and can be inspired to be a mentor to other artists. The imbalance of resources in theater forces us to address history. I will work with individuals whose work I admire. Wherever they are.

Barbara: Thoughts/words of wisdom for others out there who want to do what you do?

Paul: Work your networks. Cultivate community. Believe in your friends. Donate time and money to your friends’ work. When the work is hard, you are doing the thing you were meant to be doing. Nothing happens overnight. Take time when creating theater. Do not rush it. Nothing worthwhile should come easy. Take risks: reach out to people you don’t know that well but who you are interested in. Practice compassion. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Find love in all the interactions you have. Try to identify with people who are in pain. Ask them who their family is. Ask: Tell me who loves you? Lead with healing.

Barbara: Plugs for friends’ things or anything else we should check out?

Paul: Check out On The Hill, my next production about the death of Alex Nieto at the hands of the San Francisco Police. I am collaborating with Loco Bloco and Eric Reid. Coming to Brava Theater in October 2016.

"You're Gonna Cry" by Paul S. Flores

You’re Gonna Cry by Paul S. Flores

You’re Gonna Cry by Paul S. Flores and produced by Theater MadCap, is playing May 6-28th at the Phoenix Theater. For more information, go here.

In For a Penny: A little “Bitter”

“The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.”
– Confucius, The Analects

I read quite a few articles the past two weeks that have left some strong impressions on me. Three in particular.

One was a sort of “retirement letter” by Kenneth Baker, SF Chronicle art critic from 1985-2015. He reminisces about spending that time both witnessing and actively taking part in the changing face of San Francisco’s art scene and cultural make-up. As an SF native, it brought back a lot of strong and sad memories connected with my hometown (the Quake of ’89, the redesigns of the art museums, etc.). He mentions that the influx of residents, particularly over the past decade, has brought with it a lot of people with no interest in or connection to art. What’s worse, they seem to have little knowledge or appreciation of this city’s contributions to art or the fact that it is a work of art. He ends his piece with no regrets, but rather with a great deal of gratitude to have experienced so much within the span of 30 great years.

The second was a LongReads essay by Nathan Rabin. Rabin has long been my favorite pop culture writer (he’s the one who coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” after watching Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown) and a helluva raconteur. But despite having spent the past decade-and-a-half getting paid to write on the internet – a medium with nowhere near as bleak a forecast as the newspaper – he recently found himself let go from his regular job of writing for the website The Dissolve. He goes into painful detail about the indignity of being a man in his mid-30s forced to move with his wife and newborn child into the wife’s parents’ basement. As he elaborates, pop culture does not highly regard people who write on the internet from their parents’ basements. Like Baker, he ends his piece with a lack of assurance about the future, but all the more determined to have no regrets about what his former life has brought him.

And then there was the theatre article (yes, this does have to do with theatre). Now, I’m of mixed feelings about the LA-based theatre website Bitter Lemons. They’ve written pieces I quite enjoy (“I don’t want to ‘Support’ Your Show, I want to ‘Enjoy’ It”) and several I don’t (too many to name). I imagine the way I feel about them is the way most people feel about them. Or HowlRound. Or – as I can personally attest – us here at Theater Pub. But what caught my attention recently was their announcement of the so-call “Bitter Lemons Imperative”, in which any company that wants their show reviewed on their website will have to pay $150.oo for the privilege.

Um… okay? 

Now I know that several folks have written about this already, so I’ll try my best not to just parrot what they’ve already said. Having said that, I do agree with their assessment that this is a bad idea. A really bad idea.

My knowledge of the LA theatre scene isn’t as intimate of my knowledge of the Bay Area scene, so I’m forced to ask: is Bitter Lemons so vital to the stability of the scene that it can make such demands? Seriously, I’m asking? If so, then bravo, BL, for being so valuable in a world that – as shown in the essays above – continues to put less and less value on artistic critique. Hell, earlier this year Theatre Bay Area had to cease production on its print incarnation and become entirely digital. Nearly every art zine and alt-press publication I knew growing up has vanished forever. So on the one hand, as a fellow arts writer, I tip my cap to BL if they’ve found a sustainable way to stay financially afloat in this business. Mind you, if.

On the other hand, whether the idea is profitable or not, it still has the problem of being both pretentious and elitist. Pretentious in the way BL appears to be lording their opinion over the theatre community (I know they say their motivation is just to stay afloat, but still…) and elitist because, let’s face it, what indie theatre company is going to put aside a single dime just for a review? With all the money spent sending out postcards and buying a single poster to put outside the theatre, we’re now expected to pay money out of our own pockets what some ‘Red Velvet’ Goldstar member with poor grammar and a stuck CAPS LOCK button gives us for free? Surely, you jest. Granted, I’m guessing the BL folks would bring considerably more knowledge than a potential Goldstar reviewer – both of the craft of theatre and of the local scene – but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still trying to (as the old term goes) sell ice water to eskimos.

And there’s still the inescapable fact that a company with more money could potential buy positive reviews. Think of it this way: movies are often screened a week or so before their public opening for critics. The critics are by no means required to positively review the film, but the studio is hoping for a blurb to put on posters. If a critic gives enough negative reviews to films from one particular studio, it’s not unheard of for that critic to be uninvited to future screenings by said studio (Roger Ebert spoke of this quite often).

Now what’s to stop this from happening at BL? What’s stop a touring Broadway show from, say, paying above the asking price in the hopes the BL will put a great deal of emphasis on the productions positive qualities? What’s to stop them from paying enough to wear a truly brilliant indie show doesn’t get mentioned at all while the touring show gets prime real estate on the homepage? What’s to stop BL from creating their own David Manning who does nothing but spout off positive notices for one company, but negative ones for their competition?

There’s getting paid for what you love and then there’s flat out prostitution. There’s a reason they say “No Press is Bad Press” and it’s because reviews are adverstising. Positive reviews are even better advertising. But if you’re going to say that you’re holding a standard of artistic critique, when does that standard lower for the sake of advertising revenue? 

I started off this piece by sharing the Baker and Rabin testimonials because I truly get where both they and the BL folks are coming from. When people seems less and less eager to pay for art (let alone art critique), it’s easy for a sense of desperation to set in. Compromises are made. Boundaries are crossed. Things once thought impossible become par for the course. But there has to always be a line. I probably wouldn’t have a problem with the Bitter Lemons Imperative if the price were directed at, say, other art critique outlets and media. If they were charging the New York Times to reprint one of their reviews, I’d think the price was high, but I’d be willing to hi-five them for getting that kinda cash from the biggest newspaper in the US. If they were doing this for American Theatre or one of the publications that’s still in print, I’d feel different.

But they aren’t. They’re asking the artists to put up this money for potentially dubious reasons, and that’s something I find morally objectionable. I don’t know what the long-term solution is staying afloat as an art critic these days. But if this is what it takes, you can count me out.

I dunno… maybe Patreon?

Charles Lewis III will gladly critique your work for free. That’s why he writes on the internet, because his opinion is worth bupkes. To read more of his meaningless words, follow him on Twitter (@SimonPatt) and Tumblr (CharlesandhisTypewriter).

The Real World, Theater Edition: An Interview with Marisela Treviño Orta

Barbara Jwanouskos chats up the playwright behind Shotgun’s Heart Shaped Nebula.

How fortunate to have a chance to interview Marisela before she departs for the Iowa Playwrights Workshop later this summer. I met Marisela at a going away party for Amy Clare Tasker (a wonderful director who is missed!) and was struck by how precisely she captured my feelings about a life in theater. A couple years later and I still feel as though she has that precision of insight that gives a sense of relief when talking about playwriting, inspiration, and navigating the many paths artists have to realize their potential.

Marisela Treviño Orta

Marisela Treviño Orta

Barbara: I’m curious about your playwriting background. How did you get into theater?

Marisela: It was all happenstance. I’m a poet turned playwright. And I’ve only been writing plays for about 10 years now.

I came to San Francisco to study poetry. I was in my first semester for my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of San Francisco (USF) when I found my way to theatre. USF is a Jesuit institution and Jesuits are very big on social justice. My on-campus job’s first assignment was to produce a video on the work students and professors were doing in the community. That’s how I was introduced to El Teatro Jornalero!, a theatre company made up of Latino immigrants devising original work on social justice issues.

I was a poet in search of inspiration. And as an imagist I was drawn to the visuals of the movement exercises the actors would do. So I joined ETJ! as its resident poet. After a year with them I became curious about playwriting. I ended up taking an introductory course in playwriting with playwright Christine Evans—she was a visiting professor/artist one semester.

So my final semester in my MFA program I began writing my first play BRAIDED SORROW. That play is what brought me fully into this genre. It was accepted into the 2005 Bay Area Playwrights Festival and the rest is history—in that, I realized this was the genre I’d been searching for all my life.

Barbara: Perhaps related to that, I know you have a background in poetry as well, does this influence your style as a writer?

Marisela: My poetics are very present in my playwriting.

Poets attend to line breaks (breath), word choice, imagery, lyricism, space on the page. Everything I learned as a poet is applicable to playwriting. I mentioned earlier that I’m an imagist. I’m inspired by images, drawn to them, and use them as a way to construct narratives. When I write, I think about the visual language in the play—symbolism and also what the audience hears. While a sound designer will realize that soundscape, I think playwrights can create a whole world on stage using dialog, images, and sound.

Barbara: How would you describe your voice?

Marisela: I don’t know how to answer that. Maybe it’s because it’s sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees. Perhaps it’s easier for others to articulate what it is we’re doing as artists.

Barbara: What brought you out to the Bay Area? How have you found the theater scene here? Anything that was particularly influential or inspiring (or both)?

Marisela: It was my MFA at USF that brought me out to the Bay Area. I actually never intended to stay after I finished it. But it was theatre that kept me out here. I found the theatre community exciting and welcoming.

I find our theatre scene to be very supportive, as opposed to cut throat. Playwrights share information, go see one another’s shows, recommend one another for opportunities.

Barbara: And I hear you’re headed to Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop – Congrats! How did you make the decision to apply, and then subsequently once you were accepted, attend this program? Any special considerations you were mulling over?

Marisela: For 9 of the 10 years I’ve been a playwright I was adamant that I wasn’t going to get another MFA (one in playwriting). I didn’t want to incur more debt, but I also disliked the idea that you had to go get an MFA in order to tap into the production pipeline. I didn’t want to go get an MFA because it would be “good” for my career.

Instead, I’ve spent the past 10 years developing a network of theatre friends, peers and advocates. I also spent that time writing, improving my craft, and seeing shows. It wasn’t until a year or so ago that I decided I would apply to grad school.

It was my bad back that started it all. I have chronic back issues and the past 3 years it was really bad. I decided to apply to grad school when I was lying on my office floor at my day job. I realized that if I had limited time to sit in front of a computer, I didn’t want to use that time for my day job. I wanted to spend that time writing.

I decided that I wanted to go to grad school so I could have time to just write. Because for the past 10 years, as I’ve perused playwriting, I’ve had a full time job. It’s been a grind. Like having two full time jobs. So grad school is about having time just to write and to improve my craft. Someone recently said it’s like me going on a 3 year writing retreat. And since I didn’t want any more debt I looked at programs like Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop.

When I got the news about my acceptance I then had to grapple with the fact that I had an unexpected development—a world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And OSF production is a game changer. And since most MFA programs only let you go away to work on outside productions for a limited amount of time, I had to ask a lot of questions since I wanted to really be there for the entire rehearsal process.

I knew Iowa was the place for me when their response was to immediately brainstorm ways to help me make the most of my OSF experience and still enroll in the program.

I can’t wait to begin my MFA at Iowa. I can’t wait to see how productive I can be when playwriting is my sole focus. Though…I will have 13 hours of classes. So there will be homework. But I welcome it all with open arms.

Barbara: Many writers and artists have the debate on whether to go to school or not – what influenced your decision?

Marisela: My reasons for going to grad school are personal now. It’s not just “to advance my career.” It took some time for me to realize what I wanted from a grad school experience. That felt empowering in a way.

I applied because I had juggled my playwriting with a day job for a long time and I was not only tired of it, I knew that in order to go from good to great as a playwright you have to really pour a lot of time and energy into your work. I knew the juggling wasn’t just unsustainable—it would hold me back as a playwright.

Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Marilet Martinez and Hugo Carbajal rehearsing a scene from HEART SHAPED NEBULA with Shotgun Players

Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Marilet Martinez and Hugo Carbajal rehearsing a scene from HEART SHAPED NEBULA with Shotgun Players

Barbara: Tell me about creating theater in the Bay Area vs. other regions – is there anything different about it here? What do you wish would change in theater both here and nationally?

Marisela: I don’t actually have a lot of experience in either of these areas. My upcoming production at Shotgun is only my third production.

I have had a few readings in Chicago and really like that scene. The people are very friendly, similar to the Bay Area.

As for changing something in theatre…Obviously we need more diversity and gender parity both on stage and behind the scenes. I think I’d like to see more self-reflection and intention when it comes to addressing these issues. Sure there are people like Valerie Weak (thank goodness) who are gathering stats on productions, but it would be great to see more theatre intentionally put together a season with parity and diversity.

Barbara: Will you miss/not miss anything in particular about the Bay Area while in Iowa? Do you think you’ll come back?

Marisela: What will I miss? EVERYTHING!

But I also know that I’m nostalgic for the Bay Area of 13 years ago when I first moved here. When the fog rolled in like clockwork every three days.

It may sound silly to reminisce, but the changes in the past 4 years have been so dramatic. I don’t know that I could afford to return.

I came into my own as an artist here in the Bay Area. I think of myself as a San Franciscan. I don’t know what I’ll tell people when they ask me where I’m from. Well….originally from Texas. But I’m a San Francisco gal.

Barbara: Any advice that was paramount to your development as a writer and artist? Anything you wish you hadn’t listened to?

Marisela: Join Twitter.

HA!

I’m serious though. And I hated Twitter when it first came on the scene. But Twitter has led to multiple opportunities for me…including that production at OSF.

There’s a vibrant theatre community on Twitter. When I said I’ve spent the past 10 years building a network of peers and advocates—I’ve done most of my networking building nationally on Twitter. So get on it. But don’t just promote yourself. That’s like going to a cocktail party and meeting someone who only talks about themselves the entire time. Listen to the conversations happening online. Share information. Ask questions. Get to know people. It’s so true that theatre is about relationships. And Twitter is a great way of building relationships with people from all over.

Barbara: I’d love to know more about your upcoming productions in the Bay Area – THE RIVER BRIDE will be running until May 16 at Santa Clara University and HEART SHAPED NEBULA is premiering at Shotgun Players May 21. Tell me about the process – what was your involvement? Did anything for you change in either (or both productions) – perhaps your relationship to the play, the script itself, the subject matter?

Marisela: I went down last weekend to see THE RIVER BRIDE at Santa Clara. It was really great to meet the students and faculty. I wasn’t able to be actively involved in their production because its process was concurrent with HEART SHAPED NEBULA.

The production process for HEART SHAPED NEBULA began last fall when I began rewrites. It’s been an intense process, but I wanted to do all the rewrites before we went into rehearsals. All the work paid off as there was only one minor rewrite needed during our rehearsal process. The rest was just edits and adjustments.

As for what’s changed, well one of the characters evolved in a really interesting way. The old draft had two big competing narrative arcs. It was weighing the play down a bit. The rewrites have resolved that issue. I still miss the old version of my character. I’ll have to save her for another play.

Barbara: What are you drawn to exploring next?

Marisela: I’m currently working on finishing my fairy tale cycle. THE RIVER BRIDE was the first of three plays, all fairy tales, inspired by Latino mythology and folklore.

Also in the queue is a play I’ve had on the back burner for years. GHOST LIMB is a riff on the Persephone and Demeter myth. It takes place during the Dirty War in Argentina and focuses on a mother whose son is disappeared by the military dictatorship.

Barbara: May is our month for “Will and Perseverance”. In a lot of ways I feel this an essential component to having a rich life with writing and arts. Is there an anecdote or story from your own journey as a writer/artist that you could share with us where you had to draw upon this trait?

Marisela: Early on I read some advice by playwright Adam Szymkowicz where he said you have to work for at least 10 years at playwriting before things begin to take off. That was helpful to know. It gives you some idea of how long you have to keep working, how long it takes to develop relationships that turn into opportunities.

I’ll also add that I’ve been working on HEART SHAPED NEBULA since 2008. That’s seven years. And in those seven years I’ve grown a lot as a person and an artist—both of which deeply inform the rewrites of the play.

Know that we don’t always see the full journey of a play or production. We only see the tip of the iceberg. Often those journeys can take years.

I think knowing all this can help you persevere. Not that I’m there, but overnight success actually takes years in the making.

Barbara: Any words of wisdom for writers out there that would like to write new plays?

Marisela: I make a point to wait until I’ve gotten a play into several drafts before sharing the script with anyone. I need that time to really get to know what the story so that when people have notes for me I’m able to determine if those notes help me realize the narrative I’m trying to write or if they are going in another direction.

Often in a first draft we’re still trying to figure out what the narrative is. Give yourself some time and space to really get to know your characters and play before inviting feedback.

Also, trust your gut. I find it doesn’t often lie. Even if you can’t articulate why, if something makes you uncomfortable there’s a reason why.

Barbara: Any recommendations to local plays, shows, or events happening around the Bay Area?

Marisela: I’ve been in production for the past few months, so I haven’t seen anything in a while. So I can’t recommend anything.

But there plenty of amazing theatre companies here in the Bay Area. I try to see shows as often as I can because I consider it part of my development as an artist. There’s always something you can learn when you go see a show. I often leave buoyed by the experience. And inspiration is always helpful when you’re a writer.

So get thee to the theatre!

THE RIVER BRIDE is playing at Santa Clara University until May 16. More information is available at http://scupresents.org/performances/mainstage-theatre-river-bride. HEART SHAPED NEBULA is playing with Shotgun Players on The Ashby Stage May 21-June 14. For more information, check out their website at
https://shotgunplayers.org/Online/heartshapednebula. And you can follow Marisela on twitter @MariselaTOrta.

The Real World, Theater Edition: Interview with Jonathan Spector of Just Theater

Barbara Jwanouskos chats up Jonathan Spector, Artistic Director of Just Theatre and a long-time new work advocate in the Bay Area.

Barbara Jwanouskos: What’s your connection with the Bay Area? How are you involved in its theater scene?

Jonathan Spector: I wear and have worn a lot of hats in the theater scene here – which is one of the things I love about this area, that it allows you to do that. I arrived in the Bay Area thinking of myself very much as a director, and still am, though increasingly my own artistic energies are put towards writing. I’m the co-artistic director of Just Theater, and if I’m actually measuring how I spend my time, the truth is the lion’s share these days is with the artistic directors hat on doing all manner of producing, grant-writing, development, marketing etc. I’m not entirely happy about that, but finding ways to make it work.

My company also runs a New Play Lab, which is developing a new play by, among other people, Barbara Jwanouskos.

For many years I was on staff at Playwrights Foundation, where I was a Literary Manager and dramaturg producer and general playwright advocate, and while I was there I was able to work with an endless stream of amazing writers, which was tremendously exciting and edifying.

Jonathan Spector

Babs: Do you think making theater in the San Francisco Bay Area is different than other places? (How so or how not so or both?)

JS: The only other area I know well is New York, where I lived for five years before coming here. I grew up in the DC area, and am familiar with that scene, but have never really been a part of it.

New York is kind of its own thing in terms of theater – I have the sense making theater in the Bay Area is much more like making theater in DC or Boston or Austin than it is in New York. There’s a whole bunch of complicated reasons why this is the case but the two that I think about the most are 1) that almost everyone I knew who made theater in New York (in the “downtown” theater world) was largely making it for other artists. That’s who they were in conversation with. And then if a show got a good Times review this huge other audience would just kind of materialize out of nowhere (at least this was my impression – I was in my early 20s, so probably missed a lot of what was actually happening). Out here, there’s a much more real and actual sense of having a conversation with an audience. You need to, if you’re going to survive as a theater. I mean the kind of relationship say, Shotgun has with its audience, that’s an amazing and special and real thing and so much more interesting and meaningful than just talking to other artists.

This cuts both ways. The richness of conversation amongst the artists, the sense of wanting to make something that all these other people you admire will think is exciting, because of how big and complex that downtown community is, is a large part of why there’s so much exciting work in NYC. But it’s also easy for that to tip into navel-gazing and solipsism if you don’t ever worry about the average non-artist person enjoying or getting anything out of your work.

The other big point is about opportunity and pressure. In New York, there was always a sense that maybe this thing would lead to that thing would lead to another. And it’s not a total fantasy – look at HAND TO GOD, which started as a little downtown show then got remounted at MCC and now is going to Broadway. It doesn’t happen often, but it can happen. And this sense of possibility contributes to a feeling that everyone is generally bringing their A-game into rehearsal.

Whereas here, there’s nowhere to go. I mean, our last show, A MAZE had just about the very best result one could have from a show – we did it in a lesser known venue, it got a great response, got remounted with a somewhat bigger company, got great reviews, sold out most of its run and then…that’s it. Good show, onto the next one. There’s never a possibility of a next step (although maybe this too is changing, with SF Playhouse starting to bring shows to New York…)

And all that other stuff being said, I’m much much happier being here. It’s just a much more livable place and I find deep satisfaction in being part of this community.

The last thing to say about the Bay Area is that it’s maybe unique in how spread out it is. I mean, we consider San Jose and Marin and Oakland to all be part of one community and in a sense we all are – we share many of the same artists who put many many miles on their cars. BUT, I’m also increasingly feeling like these communities are pretty separate. I’m embarrassed to admit that beyond the occasional TheatreWorks show, I’ve only seen one other South Bay show the whole time I’ve lived here. I’ll certainly make the trip into the city to see something at Crowded Fire or Z Space or Cutting Ball, but if I’m just going to go to a show on the spur of the moment, I’m much more likely to stay in the East Bay. Which is maybe a long-winded way of saying that there’s a way in which we’re actually a bunch of separate but connected communities, rather than one big one. I mean this whole SF Theater Pub community that you guys have is something that’s totally foreign to me because I just don’t venture into SF all that much. It seems like that’s one scene, and then we have an East Bay scene, and of course there’s lots of back and forth, but they’re not exactly all the same thing. And I think that’s true across a lot of different spectrums.

I’m also very curious about how this plays out over the next decade or so as San Francisco becomes completely unaffordable and anyone young and eager and new moves to the area.

Babs: How do you stay active as a playwright (or theater artist in general)?

JS: I think being able to shift off between things – so when the writing is going really terribly, I can just think about producing, or maybe directing or vice versa. And having regular opportunities to get to work on stuff with other people – readings or workshops are crucial since I can only really work effectively when I have a deadline.

Through Just Theater’s New Play Lab has lots of great deadlines, and I’m also a Resident Playwright at Playwrights Foundation, which has some as well. I submit to lots and lots of things, so some small percentage of those turn in to actual things I get to do, which give me more structure and deadlines.

Babs: How do you balance your theater/artistic goals with other life priorities?

JS: Not as well as I should.

Babs: What are you working on now?

JS: At the moment, I’m mostly consumed with producing IN FROM THE COLD, but I have two other plays in various stages. One is called ADULT SWIM and is a kind of magic realism play about teenage lifeguards that takes place at a swimming pool. We did a workshop of it this summer that Jon Tracy directed for PlayGround, and it was a lot of fun. I’d love to find a swimming pool where we could produce it. I’m also working on this piece called FTW, which sort of about female friendship and gentrification, with these three girls who just graduated from college and move into an apartment together and are very enthusiastic and idealistic and horrible. We did a reading of it in the Just Theater Lab, and it’ll have another reading soon.

Then there’s the play I’m supposed to be writing for the Lab this year, but have done absolutely no work on since our last meeting. Also I think I’m supposed to write a one-minute play by tomorrow, so I should get on that.

Two Guys

Babs: How did IN FROM THE COLD come to be?

JS: A couple years ago, I learned that this person who had been maybe the biggest spy in the cold war had lived for many years in secret in these townhouses across the street from my high school in the DC suburbs. He was literally #1 on the KGB hitlist for many years, and there was something very disorienting to me about the combination of this high-stakes life and death stuff overlapping with the kind of ultimate banality of the place I grew up. So that was sort of the jumping off point, and I wrote it over the course of about six months in the Just Theater Lab, and then it had a couple readings, in Aurora’s Global Age Project and at Playwrights Foundation, and then we got a grant for it so we decided to produce with my company.

I was a hesitant about us producing it, because it’s not exactly the kind of work that my company typically produces – it’s a little more of a regular play play, but everybody in the company wanted us to do it, so we did. It’s funny – a couple years ago I was having dinner with Thomas Bradshaw and sheepishly confessed that I had started writing plays. And he was like “so you’re gonna produce your work then, right?” And I said in all sincerity that I didn’t know if we would, since this thing I was writing wasn’t necessarily a typical Just Theater show. To which he said, “You’re a liar. You have a theater company. You’re gonna produce your own plays.” So maybe it was inevitable.

And then of course there is this strange lag time between writing a play and having it produced. This was only the second full length play I’d written, and I finished the first draft about three years ago. I think my writing has evolved a fair bit since then, so it’s very strange to sit in rehearsal and think, “I would never write something like this now”. But you also have to respect the thing that it is, and try to make the best version of that rather than trying to completely rewrite it to be something more like what you would write at this moment if you were starting from scratch, since that’s just an endless hamster wheel you can never get off of.

Babs: What is the best or worst advice you’ve been given as a playwright?

JS: One thing that an agent told me once that I think is very true is that theater is it’s a one to one business. That the way you build a career as a playwright isn’t by having a big hit show that everyone loves, but by one person reading your work and liking it and wanting to advocate for you and then another and then another. It’s a series of one on one relationships that develop over time.

This is great to remember because it takes a lot of the pressure off any individual show or reading being too important, because even if it’s a disaster, in the long run that’s not what matters. On the other hand, it also means that the thing that does matter – other people liking your writing – is almost completely out of your control. All you can do is write the plays and get them out there.

The other thing I think about a lot that I also thing is really true is the notion that writing is basically like exercising – the idea of doing it is horrible, actually doing it is okay, and you feel great once you’ve done it. I find it helpful to remember that for so many of us, including many writers I admire, writing is just this awful, painful, unnatural thing that part of your brain will do anything to avoid.

For instance, I sometimes get together with the other PF Resident Playwrights to ostensibly just sit together and write, but I’d say probably 50% of our time is spent talking about how much we procrastinate and avoid writing. There’s solace in remembering you’re not alone in this.

Babs: Any words of wisdom for other playwrights trying to develop their craft, get produced and make connections with other theater people?

JS: Find the work you like, and find ways to hang with the people making it – volunteer, assist, stuff envelopes, whatever. Read lots of plays and see lots of plays. Send your work out.

Babs: Anything else you would like to share, plug or shout-out?

JS: In From The Cold runs through November 23rd at Live Oak Theater in Berkeley. TBA members can get $15 tix. We have a stellar cast. Julian Lopez-Morillas, Harold Pierce, Sarah Moser, Seton Brown and David Saniako. Christine Young directed. Everybody’s doing terrific work.

The next Just Theater show comes up right after and is this completely jaw-dropping piece called We Are Proud to Present… by Jackie Sibblies Drury. This show is not to be missed. Seriously. It’s one of the best plays of the past ten years, and I think all the bigger theaters in town were kind of scared of it (with good reason – it completely terrifies me), so we ended up getting to do the Bay Area Premiere. We’re partnering with Shotgun on it, and it’ll run Feb – March.

Also in February, Anne Washburn’s play Mr. Burns is at ACT. It’s sheer genius. Go see it. And Peter Nachtrieb’s got a new show that’s about to open at Z Below, which is sure to be hilarious.

In From The Cold

You can find out more about Just Theater’s work on their website, http://www.justtheater.org. Jonathan’s play, IN FROM THE COLD will be at the Live Oak Theater in Berkeley for two more weekends.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a playwright and blogger. She is part of Just Theater’s New Play Lab this season and will be presenting a one-minute play during the 5th Annual One-Minute Play Festival on Dec. 15-16. Follow her on twitter @bjwany.

Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: The Adding Machine

Last week Claire talked about all the shows happening on a particular day in September. This week she’s going to make wild assumptions based on guesses, wishful thinking, and poor research.

When we say there are over fifty shows playing on a given night (my rough count is 54), what does that mean people wise?

This shouldn't be too complicated...right?

This shouldn’t be too complicated…right?

I estimate that on the night of September 19th there are over 450 actors performing in the Bay Area. For the sake of argument, let’s say there are as many shows in rehearsal as there are in performance. Continuing that argument, let’s say there are at least as many actors in rehearsal as there are performing. Yes, I understand that many actors might be in rehearsal and in performance at the same time. I also get that shows like Beach Blanket Babylon and Foodies! The Musical aren’t going anywhere anytime soon and those performers aren’t necessarily going anywhere either. So, we can put an estimate on over 1000 actors working (or enjoying a well earned night off) on the night of September 19th.

The estimates above are based on published cast lists and play descriptions. It’s a rough estimation, but the number is close. A harder estimation to make is the numbers of directors, writers, artisans, designers, crew members, house staff, and administrators are also being employed on a single evening. Some of the directors, and many of the designers, double up on shows. Some theatre companies need a very large crew of ushers to handle the large numbers of audience. Some theatre companies are able to work with a single stage manager who also acts as box office manager because there is no one else to do it. We’ll imagine, for this exercise, that it averages out to five on site crew members for each performance that evening. That’s 270 people working shows that night. Yes. I agree. I also think that number is too small. But let’s keep going. If we say that there are as many shows in rehearsal as performing then we’ll also say that there are an average of three crew working each of those rehearsals (I’m counting the directors in this number). So that’s 162. So, that’s 432 total.

1432 actors, directors, artisans, crew, administrators and assorted ner-do-wells working on the evening of the 19th.

But Claire, you say, you just made up all those numbers. Correct, smarty-pants-math-person. But, let’s keep playing pretend for now because I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts my number is off because it is too low.

Let me say that again. 1432 is a low end, non-scientific estimate of how many theatre artists are actively engaged in their art on the night of September 19th.

1,432 artists.

If Bay Area Theatre were a single employer, then they would be almost on par with Twitter, who employes 1,500 people in San Francisco. Twitter is, by the way, the third largest tech employer in San Francisco.

So that’s something to make you feel good. Sure, it’s a little superficial , but even so it’s the kind tag line that could get you through the day if you need to feel good about your life choices.

Next time we’ll go back to that 432 number and see how many of those roles are actually available to Bay Area actors, take wild guesses on who in that number is getting paid, and check out hot button topics like gender and ethnic parity.

Theater Around The Bay: The Fantasy And The Reality of a Non-Profit Office

An undisclosed intern talks about her first few weeks working at a major Bay Area theater company.

About a month ago, I started working for one of the Bay Area’s LORT theaters. My hope was that I’d be able to marry my previous 4 years’ experience in corporate America with my love for theater. I took the job with the hope that it would illuminate for me the Next Big Step in my career; that I would walk into the administrative offices of this theater company and find a pastoral scene of happy, passionate, like-minded people, ready to talk at the drop of a hat about their favorite experience in the theater; that I would feel the click of a puzzle piece finally set into place.

But would I be writing this article if that’s what I found?

Instead, my experience has been much more like Gisele entering Manhattan a la Enchanted. Things that I have long taken for granted are not in place here: we have a shared server but not collaborative editing functionality, so people are forever saving over one another’s edits or referring to outdated files. My department’s database of core information is questionably reliable and difficult to pull information from, putting a fog over everything we do. My biggest project at the moment is to move our department over to a digital filing system — we are still using paper files. There is quite literally a ton of paper to shed.

All that is like moving through molasses, but it’s potentially fixable over time. The thing that really shocked me, really burst my bubble, was the energy of the people around me.

I erroneously assumed that the offices of a non-profit — and in particular of a theater company — would be humming with the energy of doing something lasting and great. (Blame it on The West Wing.) Those people exist in pockets here, and some departments are more humming than others, but mine feels disappointingly like any other company. There is bickering, there is discord, there is apathy. I don’t know if I’m naive or courageous for expecting more.

But despite the initial disappointments, I’m grateful for the chance to see this reality. And I’m grateful for my time at a well-run Internet company, even if it wasn’t my ultimate passion, because it gave me something to compare to. I’m thrilled to sit at my desk here, listening to snippets of the Artistic Director’s jovially curse-laden conversation. I get to hear the Casting Director brainstorm with her team about which men to bring in for next winter’s piece.

And perhaps most thrilling of all, when I watch the directors of my own department, I feel very strongly the sense that I could do that. I could have that job, and be great at it. To someone who has been walking in the dark towards God-knows-what for almost 6 years, barely seeing 3 feet in front of her, it’s terribly comforting to feel like there’s some light, somewhere, out in front of me.