In For a Penny: Only if You Mean It

Charles Lewis III checks in one last time.

My first time at the ‘Pub, Feb. 2010

My first time at the ‘Pub, Feb. 2010

“Livin’ here in this brand new world might be a fantasy
But its taught me to love
So it’s real to me
And I’ve learned that we must look inside our hearts to find
A world full of love
Like yours, like mine, like…”
– “Home” from The Wiz, Charlie Smalls, et al.

I’ve been drafting this final dispatch from the magical ‘Pub HQ since mid-September. I assumed it would be my final entry in December. Then in October, I got the e-mail saying we’d be wrapping up the regular columns by mid-November. With that in mind, I also decided to revisit the “SF Theater Pub – By the Numbers” spreadsheet I mentioned in my last entry. Like my fellow columnists, I’d planned for this to be a nostalgic look back at the last almost-seven-years as a maudlin playlist of break-up songs played in the background. But, as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Also, “I am the Walrus,” but that’s neither here nor there.

I’m really glad I haven’t been on Facebook in over a year. I can only imagine how depressing it was last week. Admittedly, on Tuesday night I thought of logging onto Twitter – which I haven’t been on since August – and typing “Somebody just flipped/ My ‘Angry Nigga’ switch/ And the knob’s broken/ Stuck like that for four years, bitch!” But I didn’t do that, nor did I shed any tears. Part of me felt vindicated for this unfortunate proof that there is no “post-racial America,” but I was also disappointed. After finishing up at the SF Opera, I decided to head down to PianoFight.

Amidst the standing-room-only dour faces, I drank a Molson – yes, a Canadian beer – and looked at my phone to check Tumblr, the one social network I didn’t abandon this year. Most of the posts in my feed were what you’d expect, but I particularly took note of those attempting to reassure the worried that there are safe spaces from the dangers, real or imagined, that were trumpeted throughout this election cycle; that no matter what the next four years bring, there are places full of people supporting them and telling their stories; that there are sanctuaries where they could express themselves freely and be exposed to ideas from people who think the same. Kinda reminded me of a theatre company I’ve known for the past half-decade.

When the ‘Pub left the Café Royale in 2013, we were all quick to eulogize it. Leave it to Stuart see the bigger picture and point out that the ‘Pub wasn’t dying but evolving. He acknowledged how much the ‘Pub would be missed, but left us optimistic for what the future held. We’d already followed it “on tour” to the Plough and Stars bar, Borderlands Books, and the Bay Area One-Acts Fest; when it finally landed at PianoFight (and The Hall for a brief time), it was less a resurrection and more of a reawakening. This time is different.

We eulogized it then the same reason we do now: because it meant – nay, means – something to us all. As both San Francisco and its artistic communities changed before our eyes, “Theater Pub on Monday” remained a reliable constant for local artists struggling with forces beyond their control. It’s a company for which we have strong feelings and no shortage of memories. In February 2010 I went to the Café Royale to see a friend perform. By that December I’d appeared in shows about Oedipus, Oscar Wilde, HP Lovecraft, and was both co-writing and appearing in the first Xmas show.

When I asked myself what Theater Pub means, I couldn’t settle on any one thing. Hell, I couldn’t settle on 100 things. But it definitely included the following things. So before I look ahead, I hope you’ll indulge me in looking back over the past almost-seven years and picking a few things (some of which are viewable on the ‘Pub’s official YouTube channel) that illustrate just what I think Theater Pub means.

Theater Pub means arriving to see “an anti-Valentine’s Day show in a bar” (the ‘Pub’s second ever) and being greeted by Cody Rishell. He held a glass of wine in one hand and gracefully handed me the above program (featuring the logo he’d created) with his other hand. Classy as fuck, this ‘Pub thing. Were I forced at gunpoint to pick my favorite Cody piece of ‘Pub art, it would probably have to be…

Cthulu shan’t be denied his hors d’œuvres.

Cthulu shan’t be denied his hors d’œuvres.

Theater Pub means I was in the company’s very first musical, a Faustian parable called Devil of a Time. I sang and played a kazoo. Footage of the show got me cast in a different musical by fellow ‘Pub veteran Evangeline Reilly. One of my three ‘Pub regrets is that we never went through with our plan to record the Devil of a Time cast album. I still have the songbook from the show and have used it in auditions. I also have the kazoo.

Theater Pub means there’s one company where I’ve acted in more shows than anyone else. I’ve actively tried to disprove this fact over and over again – hell, I figured Andrew Chung must have done more than me by now. I put together the “By the Numbers” spreadsheet in part to show that I couldn’t have done the most. The results conclude that… yeah, I’ve acted in the more shows than anyone else. I’ll be damned.

Theater Pub means watching a version of 2001: A Space Odyssey that includes the one thing Kubrick’s masterpiece truly lacked: the phrase “Fuck! This! SHIIIIIIIITT!!!!” shouted at full volume. The looks on the faces of the brunch crowd at The Hall were priceless.

Theater Pub means me losing my mind singing along to Jesus Christ Superstar, standing silent as everyone around me sings Rent, and leading the audience through songs from Tommy. Nobody does Xmas the way ‘Pub does Xmas.

Theater Pub means a four-year-old writer got to debut her first work for our edification. It had Megan Trowbridge applying several band-aids. We are all richer for the experience.

Theater Pub means showing up in a toga to be greeted by a lot of bearded ladies.

Theater Pub means me directing the company’s first and only entry into ShortLived!, Ashley Cowan’s This is Why We Broke Up. Knowing it was an Ashley piece, I made it a point to incorporate at least one ‘90s jam into the production. As such, the play ended with Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You”. Good times.

Theater Pub means cuddling up with my then-girlfriend as we watch the aforementioned 2001 show. That same year I’d watch her perform (amazingly) in two ‘Pub shows, one of which was recorded. Maybe someday I’ll be able to watch that video without developing a pain in my chest.

Theater Pub means me directing for Pint Sized and the writer of my piece glaring at the actors like a stern principal. He claims that he loved it.

Theater Pub means that at one point the logo was on a pint glass. My second-of-three ‘Pub regrets is not buying one when I had the chance.

Regrets, I’ve had a few…

Regrets, I’ve had a few…

Theater Pub means knowing why there was a “don’t hold your drinks over the balcony” rule at the Café Royale.

Theater Pub means me as a horse. Of course, of course. It was Jean Cocteau. Ya had to be there.

Theater Pub means Andrew dousing himself with Axe Body Spray in a Pint Sized piece. There are three stages to this experience: 1 – watching Andrew douse himself; 2 – watching the people behind him cover their noses and mouths; and 3 – hearing the people in the Café Royale balcony groan as the smell wafts up to them. Beautiful.

Theater Pub means hearing lines like “I am reading Moby Dick!”, “Stop unnecessary circumcisions!”, and “Eat a bag of dicks, Voldemort!” (as written by Tonya Narvaez, Claire Rice, and Ashley Cowan, respectively).

Theater Pub means Marissa calling out another writer’s sexism, leading to a fiery discussion that blew up the comments section of her column.

Theater Pub means my column posts occasionally being held up as Stuart and I exchange a series of angry messages at one another via e-mail or FB Messaging. He’d say something that made me want to toss my laptop out the window, I’d say something that made him want to get a new columnist. All for a column regularly read by, at most, four people. Still, I only missed two deadlines in my time running this column – one as a result of said conversations, the other due to my just having forgot it was my day.

Theater Pub means this column almost got me a job writing for The San Francisco Chronicle. Yes, really.

Theater Pub means I got to be Huey P. Newton twice in one night. The first was when I read his (in)famous pro-Feminism/LGBTQ+ speech as part of Occupy: Theater Pub! (Jan. 2012). The second was when I was walking home from that show and was stopped by the police. It was neither my first nor last time being harassed cops for the oh-so-dangerous crime of walking down the street, minding my own business as a Black man. It pissed me off and it didn’t help matters that I had a weapon on me (a wooden baton that we’d used in the show). With nothing to hold me for, they let me go and I was able to briefly avoid becoming just another hashtag.

Theater Pub means that great Neil Higgins moment. I know I mentioned it at the end of my last entry, but it was really cool to witness first-hand.

Theater Pub means making snarky comments from the balcony at the TBA Awards.

Theater Pub means I had the time, place, and opportunity to put on Molière’s The Misanthrope, as well as my own adaptations of The Girl from Andros, Jekyll & Hyde, and an original murder-mystery on which I was collaborating with another writer. My third and final ‘Pub regret is that with all the chances I had, I never put on a single one.

That’s just a fraction of what I remember from the safe space that was Theater Pub. In fact, I can’t help but wonder if I thought of it as so safe that it held me back? Stay with me here…

If you’ve read this far then it should go without saying I love Theater Pub with the biggest, reddest heart emoticon there is. But I also wonder if the safety it provided lead to a complacency; that perhaps I couldn’t venture outward without a little push? I look at those shows I didn’t produce and recall that every time I’d think of one of them I’d also think “Oh, I can put that one off for a little longer.” I’d gotten so used to saying “someday” that eventually those days ran out. (When this year’s “November Classic” spot opened up, I wanted to do either Andros or Misanthrope. By the time I decided which one, the slot had been filled.)

Now I have to make those shows without the safety net the ‘Pub would provide… and that’s an exciting idea. Those who attended Olympians this year know from my pre-show bio that I’m moving ahead with both Andros and Misanthrope, and that’s just the beginning. Shows I’d imagined and written around our favorite bar will now have to be done in proper theatres. Hell, earlier this year an artistic director broached the idea of me directing for his company; last week I sent him an e-mail to catch up. And I’m equally dedicated to acting: I’m currently understudying at one the Bay Area’s most renowned theatres and will absolutely be collecting my optional EMC points from the show.

Will a show I direct ever be written up in the Chronicle? Will I soon be able to put “actor/writer/director” on my tax returns? I have no damn idea. But week after week I’d read Allison, Marissa, and Anthony’s posts about producing Hilarity, Pleiades, and Terror-Rama (respectively) as we all continued to work with this upstart theatre company that operated without NEA grants. I guess you can say it lit a fire in my belly.

I named this column “In For a Penny” because I told myself that making a small commitment to art is making a full commitment. I intend to fulfill that commitment.

Hmm? Ah, I see. Thank you.

My Hyrule fearie personal assistant tells me that my griffin-pulled chariot has arrived, so I should probably wrap this up. ‘Course, there’s nothing left to say, but… thank you.

Thank you to Stuart, Ben, Victor, and Brian for letting me take part in your theatre company that put on classics for common folk.

Thank you to Meg and Tonya for listening to me ramble on before and after shows, occasionally singing Rodgers & Hammerstein with me, and listening to me kvetch about romance.

Thank you, Marissa, for the Pleiades interview, which eventually lead to me creating this column.

Thank you to everyone whose name I can’t fit in this already-too-long entry, and everyone who saw a show I was involved in, walked up to me afterward, and asked “So what was that all about?”

Thank you again, Stuart – indisputably the keystone of the Theater Pub arch. Thank you for letting me ramble on your website every other week, letting me write and direct with some of the Bay Area’s best talent, and letting me sing “Pinball Wizard”.

And thank you, San Francisco Theater Pub for always making my Monday.

So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

So long. Farewell Au revoir. Auf Wiedersehen

So long. Farewell Au revoir. Auf Wiedersehen

Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born writer, actor, and director.
When not avoiding social media, you can follow his ongoing adventures on Medium, Twitter, Tumblr, and sites found at the bottom of his official blog, The Thinking Man’s Idiot. Life is a Cabaret, old chums.

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In For a Penny: (T)BAcon Bits

Charles Lewis III, involved.

So official…

So official…

“My royal lord, you do not give the cheer: the feast is sold
That is not often vouch’d, while ‘tis a-making,
‘Tis given with welcome: to feed were best at home;
From thence the sauce to meat is ceremony;
Meeting were bare without it.”
– Macbeth, Act 3, sc. IV

Like many members of our local theatre tribe, I often wonder how I, too, can be more involved. In spite of the fact that I’ve personally seen the local theatre scene from nearly every conceivable angle, these days it’s very rare to see me as part of a closed-door meeting deciding the future of a company’s artistic direction. I’m not likely to appear in a room full of investors in an attempt to have them empty their coffers for an additional year. And my opinion about a play isn’t likely to have any bearing on the next year’s major theatre awards ceremonies.

So although I have an active role in the Bay Area theatre community, I still feel uninvolved in regard to the unseen goings-on that take place and shape what I see on each of these stages. This lack of involvement is both hierarchal and – as with most things – financial: I usually just can’t afford to attend events in which these things take place, and on the rare occasion I can, there’s usually a scheduling conflict.

So when Dale Albright of Theatre Bay Area offered me the opportunity to lead a session at this year’s annual TBA Conference, I gladly accepted. Not only would I be rubbing elbows with some of the biggest movers and shakers of the most important theatre scene on the West Coast, but I’d be getting in for free – a price I can always afford!

Here are things that happened over the course of the day:

9am-ish: Despite BART coming dangerously close to make me late, I showed up to the Berkeley Rep in time for the registration and to get my nametag (above). Sure, my doesn’t have any special titles, but it’s the same name that appears inside the program for my session, so I ain’t complainin’. I see lots of familiar faces, some I’ve never seen before, and – most importantly – free bagels and orange juice. I avail myself of the latter before heading into the theatre.

9:30am: I find a seat up front (I tend to sit in the “splash zone”), which happens to be right in front of the cool kids from The Breadbox Theatre. After a few words from Brad Erickson, we get our keynote speech from Diane Rodriguez of Center Theatre Group. For the most part, it’s a touching speech about evolving theatre that goes over pretty well… until she rails against theatres that still put on Shakespeare. Hoo-boy, did she pick the wrong room. This sentiment is still in the air when the first Q&A question isn’t a question at all – the artistic director of Marin Shakes voices her disapproval at the comment. “Don’t make Shakespeare the enemy!” she says to a thunderous applause.

It’s just after 10:30 and things have already gotten heated.

11am: After wandering around aimlessly – both because it took me a moment to figure out the map and I was deciding which panel to attend – I found myself in the filled-to-the-brim Berkeley Rep SOT “Bakery” for the panel Inclusivity: Breaking it Down. A wonderfully diverse panel of local theatre artists discussed how to make our local scene (and beyond) more inclusive. As before, the panelists all told wonderful stories, but the best stuff came from the audience. The comment that stood out most to me was when Sherri Young, Founder and Exec. Dir. of Af-Am Shakes, told the room “You’re preaching to the choir [..] how do we reach the people who are NOT in this room?” I hate to leave a few minutes before it ends, but official business calls…

Don’t Panic!

Don’t Panic!

12:15pm: Before I’d attended the last panel, I’d gone upstairs to the loft to see where I’d be working. Now it was time for the Speed Dating session, in which I’d be linking some of the Bay’s brightest tech folk with local producers and artistic directors. In the end, we wound up with only five tech folks and 20 producers/artistic directors. After screaming internally at this wild imbalance, I rolled with the punches and kept the session moving. It wasn’t perfect, but every producer got to see every tech. Were I to do it again, there are MANY things I’d do differently, but I learned from it and everyone left satisfied. As the old saying goes “No one died, so I consider it a success.”

1:15pm: Lunch. After cleaning the room, I walk around the block to a little sandwich place and chat with one of the ladies of PianoFight’s Chardonnay Comedy. My official responsibilities are over, now I’m just here to observe.

2:15pm: Leading with Trust to Build an Audience: Cultivating Patron Relationships longer than a One-Night Stand. That mouthful of a title was my next panel. The goal was to figure out how to get “normal people” to see more theatre. In the panelists’ research, they found that most people have usually seen just one play, didn’t like it, then never attended theatre again. Why does that seem unique to theatre when people will see hundreds of bad films or continue to support sports teams after they lose? Although I wasn’t a fan of some of their suggestions (I’m still VERY anti-Tweet seats), the idea of engaging with high schools and colleges intrigued me.

3:30pm: We’re back in the main theatre for one final panel/Q&A about inclusivity, incidentally featuring many of the speakers from the earlier panel on that very subject. After that, a scene is acted out from Lauren Yee’s in a word, right before Yee herself receives this year’s Will Glickman Award for the play. This is followed by a moving tribute to SF Chronicle theatre critic Rob Hurwitt, who will be retiring this year after 40+ years of service. Then we make it back to the lobby chat, drink, and stuff our faces.

Why we do theatre.

Why we do theatre.

So that was my first TBAcon. I met a lot of people, heard lots of interesting stories, and remembered what I do and don’t like about theatre. I’m glad I accepted Dale’s offer to help out; I’d most likely do it again, integrating the knowledge I didn’t have before to make for a more effective session. Most of all, I now know that the purpose of these gatherings is to find out why folks like me aren’t part of them to begin with. Both sides have the same goal, yet find it just out of reach.

I don’t know the definitive answer to that question, but I appreciate being part of the conversation.

Charles Lewis III is a writer, director, actor, and all-around theatre artist whose name tag was pretty bare because there was too much to add.

In For a Penny: Whose Job are You?

Charles Lewis III, finding his place.

empty theatre

“No man likes to acknowledge that he has made a mistake in his choice of profession, and every man, worthy of the name, will row long against wind and tide before he allows himself to cry out ‘I am baffled!’ and submits to be floated passively back to land.”
– Charlotte Brontë, The Professor

I had a job interview last week. It was your usual fare: questions about past experience; asking what I’d bring to the position; explanation of where the company is headed – I’m sure you’ve all been through it. What was different for me was that it was the first interview in which my theatre work was brought into focus. Usually when I mention it, it’s in response to questions about what I do outside of work. Saying that I do theatre often results in blank stares, condescending raised eyebrows, and the occasional question of “Have you ever done any real acting?”

My theatre experience wasn’t just a random topic of last week’s interview, it was central. It was the subject on which we spoke for the entirety of my time in the building. It was the first time in my life in which I had the opportunity to possibly do the one thing that I’ve often thought wasn’t possible: turn my love of theatre into a full-time job.

There’d just be one catch: I wouldn’t be as active in theatre as I am now.

It wasn’t just a question of time consumption – although that would have played a role – but it was the fact that I wouldn’t have been able to see the Bay Area theatre scene from the inside-out anymore. I’d be in a position that would have fundamentally changed my role in the “ecosystem” of the local theatre community. I’ve seen that community from almost every possible angle – actor, writer, director, stage manager, tech, box office manager, company member, auditor, set construction – and that includes the past work I’ve done that directly related to the new position. The difference is that this would permanently place me into a role I’d probably enjoy, but make it nearly impossible to do the theatre work I’ve come to love.

I walked out of the interview the same way I walked in: knowing that there are certain opportunities that only present themselves once, if ever. What makes those opportunities so unique isn’t just what you hope to gain from them, but also what you’d have to give up in order to do so. “Nothing important is ever easy,” as they say. When I finally got home after the interview – and an evening rehearsal – I came to the decision that if this opportunity was mine for the taking, then I’d go after it head-on and have no regrets about doing so.

Of course, the point of someone interviewing for a job is that the decision isn’t in their hands to begin with.

On Monday I got an e-mail from my interviewer. I didn’t get the position. I replied telling him how grateful I was to have interviewed that I hoped he’d contact me immediately if anything changed. I was disappointed that I wasn’t hired for a great job, but I was also relieved that I wouldn’t have to make such a major change in my theatre life. I’ve spent the majority of entries in this column pondering my position in the world of theatre, both in the Bay Area and beyond. I do this because each day I’m more certain of it than I was the day before.

The evening after I received that e-mail, I went to rehearsal for the full production for which I’m rehearsing. The day before, I’d rehearsed my role in a play for this week’s ShortLived (a play written by fellow ‘Pub columnist Anthony Miller and directed Colin Johnson, who’s writing and directing the ‘Pub show for May). The day before that, I saw the earlier round of ShortLived. I have a few auditions coming up and I’m making a schedule to finally start writing plays I’ve had on the back burner for quite some time now. That’s my place in our theatre “ecosystem,” and I kinda like it here.

I first named this column “In For a Penny” because I’m someone who will fully dedicate himself to something once he’s committed. Right now, that’s being an active theatre artist. Soon it might be taking a different role. Whatever it is, you can’t say I didn’t give it my all.

To observe Charles Lewis III in the aforementioned “ecosystem,” see him tonight and all this weekend in Round 4 of ShortLived at PianoFight. It also stars fellow ‘Pub members Sam Bertken & Andrew Chung and is biting commentary of contemporary SF. Give us the votes! All the votes!!!