Theater Around the Bay: Marissa Skudlarek and Adam Odsess-Rubin of “Cemetery Gates”

We continue our series of interviews with the folks behind the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays by speaking to writer Marissa Skudlarek and director Adam Odsess-Rubin of “Cemetery Gates”!

Inspired by the classic Smiths song, “Cemetery Gates” is a vignette about two moody, pretentious high-school seniors who have snuck into a bar with fake IDs in order to try overpriced cocktails, quote poetry, and imagine a world in which they could be happy. Sailor Galaviz plays Theo and Amitis Rossoukh plays Flora.

Skudlarek photo

Writer Marissa Skudlarek goes for a moody-rainy-day aesthetic.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized, or, if you’re returning to the festival, why did you come back?

Marissa: I have a long history with Pint-Sized. The first edition of the festival, in 2010, was also the first time any theater in San Francisco had produced my work. I had a play in the 2012 festival as well, and then last year, I came back to serve as Tsarina (producer) of the entire festival, the first time that it was at PianoFight. I can’t resist the lure of an imperial title and a rhinestone tiara, so I signed on as Tsarina again for the 2016 festival. Meanwhile, I had originally written “Cemetery Gates” as a submission for The Morrissey Plays, Theater Pub’s January 2016 show. The producer of The Morrissey Plays, Stuart Bousel, didn’t end up picking my script, but he said “This is a good play, you should produce it in Pint-Sized this year.” And, well, the Tsarina gets to make those decisions for herself. It’s good to be the Queen!

Adam: I had been an actor at PianoFight in The SHIT Show and Oreo Carrot Danger with Faultline Theater, but I really wanted to break into directing. I studied directing at UC Santa Cruz, but no companies in the Bay Area seem to want to hire a 24-year-old to direct. I sent my resume to Theater Pub and I’m so grateful they are taking a chance on me.

What’s the best thing about writing a short play?

Marissa: I feel like I allow myself to indulge my idiosyncrasies more because, hey, it’s only 10 minutes, right? Last night I was talking to Neil Higgins (a frequent Theater Pub collaborator who directed “Beer Culture” in this year’s Pint-Sized Plays), and he pointed out that both “Cemetery Gates” and my 2012 Pint-Sized Play “Beer Theory” are very “Marissa” plays. They are plays that I could show to people and say “This is what it’s like to live inside my head.” Writing a full-length often means seeking to understand the perspectives of people who don’t think or behave like me; writing a short play lets me burrow into my own obsessions.

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Adam: I love creating theater outside of conventional theater spaces. I’ve worked with Israeli and Palestinian teenagers in Yosemite and taken Shakespeare to senior-citizen centers, but never done a play in a bar. PianoFight is my favorite bar in the Bay Area, so I’m thrilled to be creating theater in their cabaret space.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Marissa: Sometimes it can be complying with the length-limit, though that wasn’t a problem with “Cemetery Gates.” Creating vivid and complex characters while only having a limited space to define them.

What’s been most troublesome?

Adam: My script is six pages. Trying to create a full theatrical experience in under 10 minutes is a really creative challenge for a director. You want a full dramatic arc while also fleshing out your characters, which isn’t easy to do in such a short period of time. And yes, scheduling too. The actors in my piece are both very busy with other projects, so our rehearsal time was limited.

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Marissa: Ooh, that’s a daunting question, so I’m going to re-frame it as “What are the biggest artistic influences on ‘Cemetery Gates’?” Well, there’s the Smiths song, obviously, and the fact that I wish I’d discovered it when I was a teenager rather than when I was about 25. There’s my weird obsession with a clutch of Tumblr blogs run by teenage or early-twentysomething girls who post about what they call “The Aesthetic,” which seems to mean pictures of old buildings in moody light, marble statues, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, modern witchcraft, dried flowers, the idea of being this vaguely wistful girl writing in her journal in a coffee shop, etc. And, while I didn’t consciously realize it when I was writing the play, I think it’s probably influenced by one of my favorite recent films, Xavier Dolan’s HeartbeatsHeartbeats is the story of two very pretentious Montreal twentysomethings — a gay guy and a straight girl, like the characters in “Cemetery Gates” — who both fall in love with the same man. The movie is aesthetically lush and painfully funny. Dolan obviously loves his characters while at the same time acknowledging that they are completely ridiculous — which is exactly how I feel about the characters in “Cemetery Gates.”

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

Adam: I’d love to see Harry Styles from One Direction play Theo in Cemetery Gates. What can I say? He’s just so cute and pouty. It’d be great to see him play an alienated gay teen sneaking into a bar to wax poetic about Oscar Wilde. Molly Ringwald would be an excellent Flora — the ultimate angsty teenager who longs for something better in a world full of constant disappointments.

Marissa: Hmm, the trouble here is that both of my characters are 18 and I feel like I don’t know enough about who the good teenage actors are these days. Maybe Kiernan Shipka as the girl? I loved her as Sally Draper on Mad Men.

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Director Adam Odsess-Rubin is also looking very aesthetic here.

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush? That is… what actor would you love a chance to work with?

Adam: I’m very jealous of anyone who has had the opportunity to be on stage with Radhika Rao. She blows me away as an actor and teacher. She’s such a light in the Bay Area theater community, and such a talented artist. Her passion to create change through her art is what every theater artist in the Bay Area should strive for.

What other projects are you working on and/or what’s next for you?

Adam: I’ll be directing three pieces for the SF Olympians Festival this year, which I am so excited about. My parents gave me a picture book of Greek mythology when I was very little, and so I can’t wait to bring some of these tales to life in a new way on stage. Anne Bogart talks about the importance of mythology in theater, and Anne Washburn touches on this in a big way in Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, which I assistant-directed at A.C.T. and the Guthrie Theater under the late, great Mark Rucker. I was so moved by Washburn’s unique argument for theater as this invincible storytelling form.

Beyond that, I’d love to direct a full-length show next year at a theater company in the area. Artistic Directors, you’ll be hearing from me soon.

Marissa: Revising my long one-act play You’ll Not Feel the Drowning for a staged reading on September 13, part of Custom Made Theatre’s Undiscovered Works program. Finishing a one-act play based on the story of Macaria, Hades and Persephone’s daughter, for an Olympians Festival staged reading on October 14. Planning and hosting a celebration of the Romantic era to take place over Labor Day Weekend. Attending a friend’s wedding in Oregon in mid-September. Trying to keep my sanity in the midst of all this (seriously, it’s a lot right now).

What upcoming shows or events in the Bay Area theater scene are you most excited about?

Adam: I saw Eric Ting’s production of We Are Proud to Present… at SoHo Rep in NYC in 2012 and it was the single greatest production I’ve seen, period. I can’t wait to see his production of An Octoroon at Berkeley Rep next season. I love Annie Baker and am looking forward to John at A.C.T. And Hamilton – my God! I’m not original in saying this, but that show is brilliant.  I’m so glad SHN is bringing it to SF. I don’t know what the smaller theaters have planned for next season yet, but Campo Santo and Z Space produce great work. New Conservatory Theatre Center is an artistic home for me. I’ll see anything they produce.

Marissa: The Olympians Festival, of course! The theme this year is myths of death and the underworld, and I’ve been writing a lot of weird death-haunted plays this year (including “Cemetery Gates”) so that fits right in. Also, a bunch of my friends and I read or reread Pride and Prejudice this year, so I want to plan a field trip to see Lauren Gunderson’s P&P sequel play, Miss Bennet, at Marin Theatre Co. this Christmas.

What’s your favorite beer?

Adam: Moscow mule.

Marissa: The Goldrush at PianoFight — bourbon, honey, and lemon, good for what ails ya.

“Cemetery Gates” and the other Pint-Sized Plays have 3 performances remaining: August 22, 23, and 29 at PianoFight! 

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Katja Rivera: Reigning Orpheus Interpreter Of The Bay Area

We’re doing a double post today because Orpheus is part of a pair and so is our director du jour, Katja Rivera! She’s not only directed tonight’s Theater Pub, but also directed the recently opened EURYDICE at Custom Made Theater Company. We wanted to know what it’s like to have the same story so much on the brain and with a headshot this charming we think you’ll agree there’s always room for quality time with Katja.

Seriously. How can you not live this smile?

Seriously. How can you not love this smile?

So, how did you end up with your hands full of Orpheus and Eurydice?

Ah, synchronicity. Marissa Skudlarek had been working on her translation of Orphee at the same time I was working on Eurydice at Custom Made, so she thought it would be fun to have me do both.

And how did you get involved with this reading?

Lovely Marissa asked me. I had directed a play of hers at last year’s Pint Sized Festival (“Beer Theory”), and she felt I’d be a particularly good match. How could I say no?

What do you consider the major differences between Sarah Ruhl’s version of the story and Cocteau’s?

Ruhl uses the myth to explore the grief she’s experienced since her father’s death, and really, to get a chance to spend some more time with her pops. It’s poetic, visceral. It reminds me of of Alice in Wonderland. Cocteau’s version explores the myth surrealistically, and focuses more on the relationship between Eurydice and Orphee. And it has a happier ending.

Is there anything that stands out to you as a real strength of Coctaeu’s vision?

The element of magic and carnival, which in a full production would be a blast to explore.

What are some of the differences between directing a reading and directing a show?

Oh my goodness. Readings are instant magic. You throw your instincts at the piece and–go! A show you’ve got a longer period to let the collaboration stew and get rich. I’ve loved watching how Jessica Rudholm’s performance in Eurydice has become more and more nuanced.

We noticed you are using some of your custom made cast (Jessica, Jeremy Parkin, Stefin Collins) in this reading- any particular reasons behind that?

They are good, reliable actors who fit the roles. And I loved hearing echoes of lines from Eurydice as we rehearsed Orphee. My own private joke.

What’s next for you? Any more trips to the underworld in your future?

Next, I am directing at Playgrounds Best Of Festival opening on May 11. And the I am going to Washington DC to see my daughter graduate from law school!

When enjoying a dramatic reading at the Cafe Royale, what’s your favorite thing to get from the bar?

Ginger Beer!

Don’t miss Orphee, for one night only, tonight at Cafe Royale at 8 PM! And dont’ miss Eurydice, playing all month at Custom Made Theater Company!

An Interview With Marissa Skudlarek

We’re one week away from the staged reading of Marissa Skudlarek’s new translation of Jean Cocteau’s Orphee. A well-known local writer, actress, blogger and (most recently) director, Marissa has been part of many Theater Pub nights, but this is her first time taking the reins for an entire show.

So, you’ve been a part of Theater Pub from the early days. Want to tell us how it all began and what you’ve been involved with?

I vividly remember being present at the first Theater Pub show, Cyclops, in January 2010! I was friends with co-founder Bennett Fisher at the time, and seeking to become more involved in San Francisco theater, so he suggested that I should support his new theater-in-a-bar venture. My first real involvement with Theater Pub — also the first time one of my plays was produced in San Francisco — came when my play “Drinking for Two” was selected for the inaugural Pint-Sized Plays festival in August 2010. Since then, I’ve had another play produced in Pint-Sized (“Beer Theory,” 2012), and written poetry in praise of props masters and costume designers for the Odes of March show. I’ve also appeared onstage at Theater Pub several times in several silly costumes: a fake beard and toga for Congresswomen, reindeer antlers and smudged mascara for Code Red, pajamas and a dressing gown for Pajanuary. Additionally, for the last year, I’ve been writing a biweekly column about Bay Area indie theater, “Hi-Ho the Glamorous Life,” for Theater Pub’s blog.

What made you first want to translate Orphée?

At college, I double-majored in Drama and French, which led to a lot of people saying “Oh, are you going to write plays in French?” (To which I would reply “Who do you think I am — Samuel Beckett?”) Then, the summer I was 19, I won a national youth playwriting competition, which flew me to New York City for a whirlwind two weeks of theater-making and theater-creating. When the competition’s Literary Manager, a guy called Lucas Hnath, found out that I was a Drama-French double major, he asked me if I had ever read Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. “I haven’t read it,” Lucas told me, “but a friend of mine says that the script is based around an untranslatable French pun, so that made me curious, and I wondered if you’d read it.” Well, when someone tells me a script contains an untranslatable French pun, I become curious, too — though I didn’t actually get around to reading Orphée until the spring of 2010. And, indeed, there’s a pun that’s deeply woven into the fabric of the script and poses problems for the translator. Carl Wildman’s translation makes a decent effort at dealing with it, but is less than satisfactory; John Savacool’s translation doesn’t even try. I looked up what the phrase is in the original French, and was turning it over in my head one day, when I came up with, dare I say, a brilliant solution to the problem. I don’t want to give too much away, but let me just say that the pun involves a curse word, which makes it all the more fun. My solution was so brilliant that I decided I might as well translate the whole play — to place this jewel in an appropriate setting, as it were. Also, I have the same birthday as Jean Cocteau (July 5). As far as I know, he’s the only playwright born on this day, so I’ve always been interested in his art for this, somewhat selfish, reason.

Marissa Skudlarek: Cocteau Incarnate?

Marissa Skudlarek: Cocteau Incarnate?


There are a lot of different versions of the Orpheus myth- what makes this one unique?

Cocteau’s take on the Orpheus myth is pretty wild — it’s like no other version I’ve seen. It all takes place in Orphée’s living room, so you don’t actually get to witness Orphée’s trip to the Underworld or how he pleads to get Eurydice back. Death appears as a beautiful young woman, attended by two servants named Azrael and Raphael (which are names of angels in Christian theology), rather than as the Greek god Hades. Moreover, Orphée himself has a guardian angel, a character called Heurtebise. Yet, although the play takes place all in one room, a lot of crazy and quasi-surreal stuff goes on — we’re going to have someone reading the stage directions because there’s no way we could possibly stage everything at the Cafe Royale! Cocteau also pays a lot of attention to Orphée’s death: the myths tell us that Orpheus was torn apart by the Bacchantes (Dionysus’ followers), but most adaptations ignore this part of the story. However, this sacrificial death is central to Cocteau’s vision, which focuses much more on Orpheus as a poet than on Orpheus as a lover.

What’s your favorite version (aside from this one)?

I can’t pick just one, so I’m going to provide a sampler of Orpheus-related goodies. The aria “Che faro senza Eurydice?” (What shall I do without Eurydice?) from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice is simple but absolutely heartbreaking. Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld contains the most famous cancan music ever written as well as the hilarious “Fly Duet” (look up the YouTube video of Natalie Dessay and Laurent Naouri singing this — it is NSFW and very, very funny). The movie Black Orpheus has a bad rap nowadays because it’s problematic for a white writer-director to make a movie about black people in a Brazilian shantytown, but I really like some of the tricks it uses to translate the Orpheus story to the modern era. (It was also one of my grandfather’s favorite films, evidently.) Moulin Rouge was my favorite movie when I was a teenager and Baz Luhrmann is on record as saying that Christian’s attempt to rescue Satine from the “underworld” is inspired by the Orpheus legend. Finally, Cocteau’s 1950 film version of Orpheus is fascinating to compare to Orphée (which he wrote in 1925). There are some similarities between the two works and even some passages of dialogue that are the same, but also some really intriguing differences.

Assuming you’ve seen the current production of Eurydice at Custom Made Theater Company, how do you think Sarah Ruhl’s and Cocteau’s visions match up?

To my chagrin, I haven’t gotten around to seeing Katja’s production of Eurydice! In my defense, I’ve been really busy this month and, as soon as I complete these interview questions, I’m going to figure out when to go see Eurydice. But I’ve read Ruhl’s script, so I’ll take a stab at answering this question anyway. One major difference between Ruhl and Cocteau is that Ruhl is a feminist and I really don’t think that Cocteau was. (He depicts Orphée’s nemeses, the Bacchantes, as a mob of crazy lesbian bluestockings.) However, both of these playwrights are really drawn to magical realism, impossible stage directions, and breaking the laws of physics onstage. Moreover, both of them have found an intensely personal perspective on this ancient legend. Ruhl has said that she was inspired to write Eurydice because her father died when she was a young woman (hence the scenes of Eurydice meeting up with her father in the Underworld), while Cocteau used the Orpheus myth to showcase his ideas about the role of the poet/artist in society.

Well, one thing your Orphee and Custom Made’s Eurydice have in common is director Katja Rivera. What made you want to bring her in to direct this first reading?

I loved working with Katja when she directed my play “Beer Theory” for last summer’s Pint-Sized Play Festival. “Beer Theory” is an odd little script that is very close to my heart, and I was so happy to be paired up with Katja, who instinctively understood what the play was about and what I was going for when I wrote it. Then, as I thought about producing Orphée at Theater Pub, I knew I’d want to bring a director on board, because I don’t have confidence in my own directorial abilities. I roped Katja in by saying, basically, “I know you’re directing Eurydice in the spring — want to direct Orphée as well?” I figured she’d have a pretty hard time saying no to that…

Why bring Orphée to Theater Pub?

Thanks to the sensibilities of the folks who founded it, Theater Pub has always been interested in Greek mythology (producing Greek plays like The Theban Chronicles and Helen), and also in experimental European theater (with productions like Vaclav Havel’s The Memorandum and Evgeny Shvarts’ The Dragon). Cocteau’s Orphée is the perfect combination of these two sensibilities. Also, the script is approximately an hour long, it all takes place in one room, and it’s a “tragedy in one act, with an intermission” — so it fits Theater Pub’s time and space constraints pretty well, too.

Any plans for it in the future?

I don’t have any plans for Orphée in the future. However, I think my translation is better than either of the two published English translations that I have read, so it would be great to do something else with it… I’ll keep you informed.

And what’s next for you?

My short play “Horny” is going to be in the May Theater Pub show, The Pub From Another World. It’s about sex. And unicorns.

As a long time patron of Cafe Royale, what’s your favorite thing to order at the bar?

Red wine if I want to be sophisticated and bohemian, hard cider if I want to fool people into thinking that I’m drinking beer.

Don’t miss Marissa Skudlarek’s work this Monday, April 15, at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale. Like all Theater Pub events, it’s a free show and no reservations are necessary, but we encourage you to get there early to ensure a seat. Also, our pop-up restaurant friends, Hyde Away Blues BBQ will be there!

Pint Sized Plays Interviews 3: Marissa Skudlarek and Nancy Cooper Frank

We thought we’d start your weekend off right with a pair of interviews from two returning Pint-Sized playwrights. Marissa Skudlarek was part of Pint Sized 1 and Nancy Cooper Frank was part of Pint Sized 2. Now they’re both back for more!

How did you hear about Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival and what possessed you to send something in?

Marissa Skudlarek: I’m a longtime friend of Theater Pub and had a play, Drinking for Two, in the inaugural Pint-Sized Play Festival in August 2010. (Otherwise known as “the play about the pregnant lady.”) This year, as the submission deadline for Pint-Sized approached, I had a cluster of ideas in my head that seemed to want to coalesce into a short play, and I realized that this play could easily take place in a bar. So I sat down and wrote Beer Theory.

Nancy Cooper Frank: This is my third collaboration with Theater Pub. The first was way back in 2010, so I can’t remember how I first heard of this creative bunch of people. I’m tickled by the way the action in a Theater Pub production can move from table to table, through the audience, across the pool table, along the bar, up to the balcony.

Nancy Cooper Frank

What is the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Nancy Cooper Frank: You can’t waste time setting things up. You have to dive right in.

Marissa Skudlarek: Because short plays have to be so concise, so precise, they live or die by their initial concept. Even more than a full-length play, a short play needs a zesty or sparky or intriguing idea behind it. I have written so many bad short plays for school assignments — plays that were doomed from birth with no hope of salvage, because the ideas behind them were so weak. (Which is why I doubt that the best way to teach someone playwriting is to make her write a lot of short plays… but that’s another story.)

What is the best thing about writing a short play?

Marissa Skudlarek: The freedom to experiment and to be as weird as you want to be. For instance, I could never see how to make direct-address monologues work in my plays, and thus hated and feared direct address. But in “Beer Theory,” my characters talk to the audience and I’m OK with it! Moreover, the whole time I was writing this play, I was thinking “This is weird, it’s bizarre, it probably won’t make sense to anyone but me.” But I was willing to take the risk and write it because, hey, it’s a short play, it’s not a full-length.

Nancy Cooper Frank:
See answer to question 2.

Who do you think is a major influence on your work?

Marissa Skudlarek:
The answer to this question might be more apparent after you see “Beer Theory,” which is in a sense my attempt to articulate my artistic credo in the form of a seven-minute quasi-romantic comedy… so I’ll just say, I have always felt far more affinity with Apollonian modes of art than with Dionysian. In particular, this year I have been paying special attention to the dictum “content dictates form,” recently popularized (though not coined) by my hero Stephen Sondheim.

Nancy Cooper Frank: My Uncle Albert, whose stash of ’60s era Mad magazines I discovered as a six year old. It’s pretty much my first memory of myself reading. Of course, it meant I was reading parodies of books and movies I’d never read or seen, or even heard of.

If you could pick one celebrity to be cast in your show, who would it be and why?

Marissa Skudlarek: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I think he would be a good fit as the male character in my play, a guy in his late 20s who loves indie rock but hates going to concerts. And, more to the point, I’ve had a crush on him ever since I saw that insanely charming YouTube video of him singing in French.

Nancy Cooper Frank: Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench. Because they’re great and if they were cast in my show, I would not be the Oldest Living Collaborator with Theater Pub. (Oh, you said pick one.)

Marissa Skudlarek

What is a writing project you are currently working on?

Marissa Skudlarek: This is going to be a busy and Olympians-focused summer for me. I will be revising my 2011 Olympians play, Pleiades, for publication in the upcoming anthology. Plus, I will be writing my 2012 Olympians contribution, The Love Goddess, based on the Aphrodite myth — it will be my first screenplay!

Nancy Cooper Frank: I’m revising my Daniil Kharms: A Life in One Act and Several Dozen Eggs. (based on the life and work of the Russian experimental writer) and also working on a longer play with fairy tale elements set in Russia.

What’s next for you?

Nancy Cooper Frank: I guess I’ll just keep on writing and reading plays and going to plays.

Marissa Skudlarek: Other than “Pleiades” and “The Love Goddess”? Well, I’ll also continue to write my “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life” column for the San Francisco Theater Pub blog every two weeks… watch this space!

What upcoming shows or events are you most excited about in the Bay Area theater scene?

Marissa Skudlarek: I’m looking forward to Shotgun Players’ next two shows. They reliably do strong and interesting work, and this summer they are offering Truffaldino Says No, a world premiere by witty local playwright Ken Slattery, and Precious Little, a script that I have heard amazing things about (it’s had some productions on the East Coast) but didn’t know if I would ever get to see staged.

Nancy Cooper Frank: Circle Mirror Transformation at Marin. Custom Made Theater’s Merchant of Venice.

What’s your favorite beer?

Nancy Cooper Frank: Any decent Pilsner. Love those hops.

Marissa Skudlarek: I don’t drink beer — that’s why they kicked me out of Portland, Oregon when I turned 21. OK, I do love Belgian fruit beer (Lindemans Framboise) but that doesn’t really count as beer, does it? I stick to wine when I’m at the Cafe Royale… and cocktails or cider at other bars.

Don’t miss the Pint Sized plays, opening July 16 and playing July 17, 23, 30 and 31 with a special performance at the Plough and the Stars on July 18. All the rest are at our usual stomping grounds, Cafe Royale, located at the corner of Post and Leavenworth in San Francisco’s lovely Tendernob neighborhood. Performances are free, no reservations necessary, but show up early and stay late- we’re bound to be sold out and the crowd is always the best part of Theater Pub!