In For a Penny: Flex Time

Charles Lewis III, not over yet.

Harry Potter - Fat Lady copy

“Quien canta, sus males espanta. (He who sings frightens away his ills.)”
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

I was recently cast in a musical. This surprised me more than anyone else.

Not because I have anything against musicals – quite the contrary, I love them. That’s why I audition for them so often. But since there isn’t a great demand for baritones, I’m the least likely to be cast – especially not in a lead. (Someday, Sweeney. Someday…) No, this is a world that values an off-key, near-castrato Timberlake over a deeply resonant Vandross.

But that hasn’t stopped me from trying. In fact, I was nearly cast in one several years ago, but I declined the role. The last time I performed in a proper musical was, incidentally, the first-ever Theater Pub musical: 2011’s Devil of a Time. Earlier that same year I was in a staged reading/singing for Cutting Ball Theatre. Other than that, it’s just been far-too-few karaoke sessions and a compliment from an opera singer that just made my day: as a supernumerary, one of the tenors sang a note to me. Without thinking, I sang the note back in my natural baritone. He was taken aback, complimenting me and wondering why I was just a super instead of a chorus member.

As such, when the folks behind Philia said they needed to find a replacement baritone for their soon-to-begin rehearsals, I went to the audition expecting nothing more than a courteous “Thanks for coming in” and to never hear anything more until the show opened. Next thing I knew, I was signing a contract for a month-long run and rescheduling auditions and directing jobs around my new rehearsals. After countless auditions for everything from rock operas to remounts, I find myself once again taking to the stage on the basis of a muscle I rarely use.

And that’s when the worry sets in.

As much as I love musical theatre, I’m not at all surprised when people say they hate it. In fact, the reasons they hate it are often the very reasons I love it. It’s true that most people aren’t likely to break into song during the crucial moments in their lives, but as theatre folk we spend our entire lives playing Make Believe – verisimilitude is our stock and trade. To me, words spoken in harmony are no less believable than those spoken in common prose. Or in verse, for that matter.

But perhaps the feeling comes less from an inability to believe the story turns and more from an inability to properly recreate those skills on their own? Any ham in a torn t-shirt can recreate Stanley Kowalski screaming on the stairs; it’s not a simple to hit the right notes for the song “Maria”. Anyone can fake a Southern accent and plead sex from their closeted-gay-husband-with-the-broken-leg; not as many can pull off “On My Own” in a way that leaves everyone around them in tears. I’m willing to bet a lot of us got into theatre after watching a musical at a young and impressionable age, but swore off musicals forever upon finding out singing is a skill all its own.

Admittedly, this anxiety grips me every time I audition for a musical, let alone be cast in one. Just as I lack a university degree, I also lack proper training as a vocalist. My experience in that area is entirely from mimicry and informal “lessons” by trained musicians. I’d like to think that I’m good enough to hold my own – I must be if I’ve gotten this far – but I have no illusions about how my skills compare to those honed by my co-stars. I imagine the audience leaving the theatre praising the show, humming the songs, and lauding all of the performers, “except for that one guy.”

“Presented without comment.”

“Presented without comment.”

Still, I found it a real confidence-booster to be cast in a musical. Sure, I don’t have proper training in it, but I have very little proper training in… well, anything. As I said, I don’t have a university degree, so I don’t have the professional theatre training of my peers. But the thing about training is that anyone in the world can do it; all it takes is practice. That’s what machines are for. The ability to bring something beyond the rote training means you’ve moved toward, dare I say it, talent. And I may engage in a brief self-indulgence (in place of my usual self-deprecation): it’s quite possible that I’ve been getting by on talent, something I would be the very last person to admit.

And I have been training my voice for this role, primarily with the show’s composer/musical director. I’ve mentioned before how importantly I regard exercise, and vocal exercise is no different. Even when I’m not in a musical, I’ll go through as many pre-show physical and vocal warm-ups as I can in the time allotted. The voice is as much a muscle as any other part of the body. I might not be Paul Robeson in either regard, but I don’t have to be. It was Paul Robeson’s job to be Paul Robeson. How I compare is a decision I leave to you.

Maybe it’s the fact that it’s been so long since I’ve properly flexed this particular muscle that I felt such trepidation about working it again. Eagerness yes, but also trepidation. My voice has always been one of my defining traits in theatre. I was always cast as an orator or some authority figure whose voice was meant to be heard in the back rows. Hell, my role in Pastorella this past Autumn featured a crucial scene in why my character’s voice goes from a mouse’s whisper to a lion’s roar in the space of a single monologue. This role might not be the vocal equivalent of me winning Mr. Olympia, but it’s proven that I’m still in damn-fine shape for someone with a voice like mine.

But seriously, we need more musicals for baritones. I’m dyin’ here, people.

If you’d like to hear Charles Lewis’s voice (amongst many other lovely voices) and see his wicked kazoo skills, watch Devil of a Time on the official Theater Pub YouTube Channel.

Founding Artistic Director Brian Markley On Theater Pub at BOA 2013

The summer is almost over and we’re getting ready for our third collaboration with BOA, the Bay One Acts festival. This year’s project, Shooter, is being helmed by founding artistic director Brian Markley, who answers some questions for us today on the blog. Check back every Monday for the next month or so to find out more about the play, the festival, and the people behind this important annual SF Theater scene event.

First off, for those who don’t know, what is BOA?

BOA is one of the best indy theater collaboration in the Bay Area, and it’s entering its 12th year putting on a two week program of new local plays, all produced by small local theater companies.

How did Theater Pub get involved with BOA?

This will be our third year since (former Founding Artistic Director) Ben Fisher got us involved back in 2010. As a fellow community-minded theater company interested in widening our circle further and also bringing in fresh talent to Theater Pub, it’s an obvious partnership.

What drew you to pick “Shooter” as this year’s contribution by Theater Pub?

Both the director, Rik Lopes, and I were drawn to this piece immediately. It’s emotionally true, really insightful, and feels ripped from today’s news (without being just an “issue” piece). Also, I wanted to meet Daniel Hirsch (the author) after seeing he’s bound to become a successful playwright.

When and how did Rik Lopes come into the process?

I’d worked with Rik before, first as a fellow actor in an AtmosTheatre production of Alice in Wonderland, where aside from his amazing performance as the Mad Hatter, I was super impressed with his insight, maturity and communication style during rehearsals, helping the entire production and building more community among the actors. When I wrote a short piece for Theater Pub’s Pint Sized festival in 2011, I immediately asked Rik to direct. He’s sensitive and badass at the same time, and I think that kind of describes “Shooter” too.

What’s your involvement as the producer?

Not that much really. I’m procuring rehearsal space, tracking the budget, attending production meetings to be sure we’re turning things in on time. It’s the least artistic connection I’ve had to a project, but I’m happy to see such a good product coming together with Rik and Daniel and the cast.

What’s got you excited about bringing this piece to an audience?

I think it’s important, besides being a well-paced, explosive piece of theater. I hope people talk about it in the lobby or at the bar afterwards. I talked to my girlfriend about it for an hour after reading it for the first time.

What else at this year’s festival are you excited to see?

Without checking back on all the great pieces I’ve read, off the top of my head I’d say: Ben Fisher’s piece, because I’m following his whole career as a lesson, and Tracy Held Potter’s piece, because it’s hilarious on paper and I can’t wait to see it with costumes.

What the best thing about working in a festival environment? 

Feeling the family vibe. Among other examples, Quinn (Whitaker) at Wily West is stepping up to provide all the furniture for the run, and Tides Theater (whom I hadn’t met until our first production meeting) stepped in quickly to provide an awesome venue when plans changed for the initial choice. It’s fun to sit around a table where every company wants the same project to succeed, instead of competing for eyeballs and publicity.

How is a Theater Pub show still a Theater Pub show, no matter where it’s done?

Our shows have always appealed to more than the standard ‘professional’ theater-going crowd and this is no exception. Also, I expect our shows will always be followed by discussions over beers and our widening (thanks to BOA) circle of friends

“Shooter” will play, along with an assortment of other excellent one-acts in this year’s festival, September 15, 19, 21, 25, 27, 29 and October 3 and 5 at the Tides Theater in San Francisco. To find out more about this show, and all the great shows that will be a part of this cornerstone event for the San Francisco Bay Area Theater scene, check out http://bayoneacts.org/.

Theater Around The Bay: Theater Pub Evolution

Co-Founding Artistic Director Stuart Bousel confirms, denies and imparts the future of Theater Pub.

So, by now, you may or may not have heard that San Francisco Theater Pub is about to go through some major changes.

If you’ve been a part of Theater Pub from the beginning, you may know that we’re pretty much always changing, that few constants exist in Theater Pub-land. As the lead line of this recent article about us suggests, One Bourbon One Scotch and One Bard, part of the appeal of Theater Pub has always lain in its unpredictability, and that’s not just on stage. It’s always an adventure to be in one of our shows, or to put one together, just as much or more so than it is to watch one. True, a hapless audience member may have a glass dropped on them (or be pulled onto a pool table for impromptu romance with another audience member), but from day one of Theater Pub (and only myself and co-Founding Artistic Director Brian Markley remain from Day One) there has always been an undercurrent of “this could end at any time”. Truth be told, when myself, Brian, Ben Fisher and Victor Carrion first came together to create Theater Pub, we planned no farther than three months in advance and habitually said, “In six months, when this is all over, we’ll be glad we did it.” The fact that we’ve lasted 43 months is, all things considered, pretty amazing, and entirely unexpected.

And no, Theater Pub is not ending. Let’s just kill that rumor first. But yes, we are leaving the Cafe Royale at the end of July. That is true. Our last performance there will be the closing night of this year’s Pint Sized plays, on Tuesday, July 30.

“But no!” you cry and “Why?!?”

Why we’re leaving the bar is a complex conversation and can probably best be summed up by Brian Markley’s recent statement that “bars have souls” and the soul of this bar, the Cafe Royale, is changing. The soul of any business develops as a combination of who is running that business and what their vision for it is, and who is regularly patronizing it and what their expectations are. We were brought into the Cafe Royale at the invitation of Les Cowan, who had a vision for his bar as a cornerstone of local culture and a fixture in the arts scene, but he left the Cafe Royale in March of last year to pursue other ventures. The new owners took us on but from the beginning made it clear they wanted to make the bar their own and honestly you can’t blame them for that: it’s their bar. To their credit, they recognized that we were an invested entity that was very successful, both financially and in our  ability to attract a robust and loyal audience and press following, but we were never part of their vision when they as a group of friends first got together and made plans to purchase and open a bar. We were inherited with the place, and something they had to adjust their vision for. We agreed to give it a year and it’s a testimony to them and us that we not only got through it and all the changes that came with the new ownership, but that both Theater Pub and the bar continued to succeed together. When the decision was made, earlier this year, to leave the Cafe Royale, it was entirely on mine and Brian’s end, and comes down to the fact that every theater company also has a soul. And our soul feels progressively headed in a different direction than the Cafe Royale.

These things happen. Things change. But in addition to unpredictability, part of Theater Pub’s appeal has also always been its flexibility and adaptability. As Julia Heitner, Artistic Director At Large, aptly demonstrated last year when she took a number of our shows to other locales, and as Sunil Patel recently continued to demonstrate with the Borderlands Bookstore preview of “The Pub From Another World”, Theater Pub doesn’t have to happen in a bar- or the same bar- to be Theater Pub. True, it’s not the same thing seeing, say, Measure For Measure, in the Plough And Stars as opposed to the Cafe Royale, but progressively the Cafe Royale (which is scheduled to be heavily renovated this fall) isn’t going to be “the same” either, and the truth is no matter how good our shows are or how exciting it’s been to have balconies to stage Shakespeare in, the real reason I, at least, have stayed with Theater Pub so long is because of the people we get to work with and the people who come to see us, again and again, and love us so much.

As current Cafe Royale co-owner Will Weston recently said to me in a phone call, “You guys are cool. You’re a thing,” and I agree. We are A Thing. I’d even go so far as to say we’re A Scene or A Movement even. We’re most definitely A Community, and we have every confidence we can continue to serve and foster that Community in a variety of ways for a long time yet to come. The real point of Theater Pub was never to put on monthly shows at the Cafe Royale; the true core of why we existed was to bolster the San Francisco Theater Community by making it more accessible, to audiences and artists, and more fun. The word “Pub” comes from “Public House”, being a place where a community gathers to be a community. Usually with beer. Going forward we plan to be more of a Public House than ever, frequently, but not always, with beer.

In concrete terms we can absolutely tell you what the rest of 2013 looks like, and we hope you’ll support us in this transition by continuing to attend and participate in our events. Saturday Write Fever, our monthly event at the Exit Cafe, will continue as scheduled and we love that so many of our regulars at the Pub have turned up there- we hope to see more of you! Additionally, our November event, which will be produced by previous collaborators Nick and Lisa Gentile, will happen at the Exit Cafe as scheduled. Between now and then we will be returning to the Bay One Acts Festival for a third time this September/October, with Brian Markley producing the event and frequent Pub contributor Rik Lopes directing a piece of their choosing. Kat Bushnell and James Grady, who have been the driving force behind our holiday musical theater concerts of Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent, are already busy planning this December’s show, and seeking a venue. We’re even talking of touring a couple bars this time around.

Which may be the future of Theater Pub in general. After all, from the beginning we’ve basically operated out of a box in the basement of the Cafe Royal: why not move the box from venue to venue, like theater companies of old, putting on a show wherever they let us and people are willing to watch and throw some money in the pot? Though it’s true we’re taking a partial hiatus from regular productions (shows will happen, just much more sporadically), we do hope to return to our monthly format further down the road in 2014, and being nomadic may be the way to go as it certainly has its advantages. That said it’s also really nice to have a home, as the Cafe Royale was for us for over three years, and we’re definitely interested in finding new hosts if they’re out there. So if you know of a bar, or if you run a bar that wants to take on the unique, Award-Winning, Critically Praised, Frequently-Packed-Beyond-Standing-Room San Francisco Theater Pub, don’t hesitate to drop us a line. We’d love to meet with you and see your space and find out how we can be part of your vision. But in the end it will come down, once again, to a soul thing, as Brian and I agree that our soul is far more important, and far richer than putting on a show each month. But of course, we’re theater people and we love a show, so fingers crossed for 2014 and we look forward to being there with our community in whatever capacity presents itself at the time.

Finally, the digital form of Theater Pub, this website, will continue to exist and grow. Since this became “more than just a website” starting in February of 2012, we have literally tripled our output and quadrupled our traffic and the fun is only just beginning. Like the Cafe Royale, we have plans for some major overhaul in the next few months. New look, new writers, new features all intended to continue the conversation we get to have on the website not just with the Bay Area, but the world as a whole.

That conversation is, in the end, what this is all about and what any artistic endeavor should be about. We are truly, madly, deeply invested in making sure that conversation continues, and we’re looking forward to being surprised and delighted by wherever and whenever it pops up next- on the internet, in a bar or a coffee shop, a bookstore, a park. The possibilities are limitless and the truth is, by stepping away from the bar and our obligations there, we can truly explore those possibilities. We’re using this break with the structure of the past as an opportunity to be more flexible in both what we do and what kinds of projects fall under our umbrella so as usual if you have ideas, let us know: maybe there’s a one-off or a site specific production only an e-mail or two away from happening at a bar near you. The future is wide open and that’s scary, and bittersweet, but also very exciting.

Stuart Bousel is a Co-founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. He has a soul and you’re soaking in it.