Theater Around The Bay: PianoFight expands ​Pint Size​d Plays, San Francisco’s only theater-in-a-bar festival, to five new shows in 2017!

A special announcement, just in time for the holidays! 

rob-ready-llama

PianoFight and San Francisco Theater Pub are proud to announce the latter’s marquee production, the venerable Pint Sized Plays, will return in 2017 with five all-new installments running throughout the year. Pint Sized Plays is made up of short plays set in a bar, written by locals. The only rule is that each play can’t run longer than it takes one of its characters to finish a beer. Pint Sized will happen in the PianoFight bar on Mondays at 7:30 PM in March, May, August, October and December, 2017. Tickets range from free to $30 donation, and can be reserved at www.pianofight.com.

As SF Theater Pub closes its doors this December, PianoFight will take over production and expand Pint Sized while keeping a few key ingredients of continuity. Meghan Trowbridge, who is currently the co-Artistic Director of Theater Pub, will continue with the new incarnation of Pint Sized as its Literary Director. “We’re accepting submissions right now and throughout the year,” says Trowbridge, who expects to see many of the voices that shaped Pint Sized return, but is also excited to find new talent. “This is a great opportunity for seasoned writers and brand-new voices. All are welcome and encouraged to submit!”

“Over the years, PianoFight Creative Company members, myself included, have been involved in past Pint Sized productions as actors, writers, directors, and musicians,” says PianoFight Artistic Director, Rob Ready. “On top of that, accessibility is important to us, and free theater in a bar is the single most accessible way you can see a play. SF Theater Pub’s tagline was, ‘Make it Good. Keep it Casual. Have a Beer.’ And we intend to keep that idea alive and flourishing.”

The first annual Pint Sized Plays took place at the Café Royale in August of 2010, and included short plays by numerous well-known folks in the Bay Area theater scene, including Stuart Bousel, Bennett Fisher, Jeremy Cole, Molly Benson, Karen Offereins, Marissa Skudlarek, and Megan Cohen. It also marked the first appearance of the Llama character, created by Elena McKernan and played by Rob Ready, who holds the distinction of being the only cast member to have appeared in all six installments.

Pint Sized’s expanded production schedule represents more opportunities for Bay Area residents to get involved in the arts in a fun, low-stakes environment. “The five installments could need around 40 different writers and directors, and will likely involve over a hundred actors,” says Ready. “We hope to fill these roles with voices who are new to the PianoFight community, and new to the Bay Area theater community.”

In years to come, PianoFight hopes to expand Pint Sized further to have an all new lineup run each month in the bar. “Pint Sized was one of the Theater Pub shows that toured to other bars, and it always did well in different settings,” says Ready, “so in the next few years, ideally, there is a new lineup every month at PianoFight, while different renditions of the show play other bars in the Bay Area.”

For now, Pint Sized Plays will return in 2017 with all-new installments happening in the bar at PianoFight, 144 Taylor St in San Francisco, every Monday at 7:30 PM in March, May, August, October and December. Tickets are free to $30 and can be reserved at www.pianofight.com. Bay Area writers wishing to submit a script to Pint Sized should refer to the full guidelines on PianoFight’s site.

Theater Around The Bay: Get Ready To Fringe

Stuart Bousel, who moonlights once a year as the San Francisco Fringe Hospitality Coordinator, gives us a sneak peak at this year’s Fringe Festival.

On Saturday, following a picnic with former Theater Pub AD Julia Heitner (who was in town for the weekend) I headed over to the EXIT Theatre for the first event of this year’s Fringe Festival.

In case you don’t know anything about the Fringe or fringe festivals in general (which seems unlikely, if you read this blog), the San Francisco Fringe Festival is the second oldest/longest running fringe festival in the United States (23 years), and is a variation on the world’s most famous fringe festival, which was started in Edinburgh, Scotland, and is widely considered the largest annual arts event on the planet. Though the term fringe theater has come to mean “non-mainstream”, at a good fringe festival you’ll find almost everything represented, from classical works to performance art, to music acts and dance troupes, to world premieres of new plays and musicals. Over the years a number of shows we now think of as mainstream actually had their premieres at a fringe festival, and the number of actors, performers, artists, writers, directors, dancers, musicians, acrobats, clowns, magicians and whatever-else-you-can-think-of who have passed through a fringe festival somewhere, one way or another, is incalculable. I myself performed in a fringe play during my first year in San Francisco- a little musical about a gay baseball player called “The Seventh Game of the World Series” by poet (and avid baseball fan) David Hadbawnik.

One of the best (and worst, depending on your perspective) things about the SF Fringe is that EXIT Theatre artistic director Christina Augello has kept the festival un-curated, and every year would-be participants must submit applications which are then thrown into a hat. At the annual Fringe Lottery, projects are pulled from the hat randomly before a live audience, and once the 35 available slots of the festival are filled the program is set. The beauty of this is an annual theater festival with local, national and international participants, that is entirely uncensored and devoid of theater politics. The downside is that quality control is virtually nonexistent. Then again, since quality really is in the eye of the beholder, of all the evils a festival might have, this one strikes me as the least, and considering all the other ways the SF Fringe sets the bar for fringe festivals (for instance, performers keep all of their box office), I’ve come to not only accept but embrace the less palatable aspects of the theater roulette that is seeing shows at the Fringe. As an environment intended for experimentation and risk, whatever that means to the performer whose work you are seeing, there is bound to be some mistakes, half-baked ideas, or just work that is still finding its way or its audience. That said, sometimes seeing a terrible show at the fringe is also like scoring a jackpot, as every year there is usually at least one show so bad it passes into legend. Depending on who you ask, the show I was in back in 2003 was one of those shows. Last year there were two, and we’re still talking about them.

On Saturday, festival staff, volunteers, performers and long-time patrons/fans assembled at the EXIT for free pizza and a sneak peak of 7 shows that will be playing at this year’s Fringe. I have to say, over all, it looks like there’s some really strong work this year, and nothing seems, at first glance, especially disastrous. Susan Fairbrook over at Play by Play has already done an excellent survey of what’s on the boards this year (including a shout-out to work by former Theater Pub Founding AD Bennett Fisher), but I figured as the Hospitality Coordinator for the Fringe (read: guy running the craft-services lounge/guest services desk) and a long-time Fringe audience member and staffer, I’d pass on my recommendations based on the preview, and also my ever-sharpening ability to call ahead of time what’s going to be especially good (which pales in comparison to the mad skilz of Fringe Tech Director Amanda Ortmayer).

Mandarin Orange by Kate Robards, directed by Jill Vice
There are a lot of one-woman shows at the Fringe (last year I saw four of them and that wasn’t even half) and so it struck me as appropriate to begin there, and this was actually the first preview of the evening as well. Kate Robards’ piece is a memoir of her life as an ex-pat in Shanghai, China and the contrast between that and growing up in small-town Texas, USA. As a guy from the semi-rural portion of Tucson, Arizona, I found Robards’s choice to set the scene with a piece of ridiculous local news (“Man’s Penis Lodged In Vacuum Cleaner!”) pretty spot on, but things got much more interesting during her portrayal of the circle of female ex-pats who take her under their wing upon her arrival in Shanghai. With each woman, Robards demonstrated a keen eye for detail, both in the material and the physicalization/vocalization of who these women were and what had brought them, and kept them, in China. Playing both sides of a conversation is always hard to pull off, and is the Achilles heel of most solo shows, but Robards jumped feet first into a group discussion and her ability to move back and forth between all five participants was expert and elegant. The subject matter of the show doesn’t seem to be particularly new, but Kate’s spin on it certainly seems fresh, and with China becoming more and more of an international presence once again I suspect it will spark some interesting conversations.

My Body Love Story by Dominika Bednarska
Speaking of one-woman shows- here’s another. Dominika Bednarska is a queer disabled femme whose press release boasts “rhinestones, storytelling, dancing and many laughs” but if the snippet on Saturday, double entendre of the title, and remark in the press release about “the body and self trying to get along” aren’t just red herrings, I suspect it will mostly be a show about disabled queer youth trying to get laid. Similar to Kate Robard’s show in that it’s based on the author’s experiences, Bednarska’s approach (from what I saw) seems to be less theatrical and more discursive, with her telling the stories rather than impersonating the participants- something that works beautifully because Bednarska is a delightful storyteller, laughing along with her own absurdities and daring you not to laugh with her. Simultaneously coy and bold in revealing the details of her sex life, she challenges not only conventional ideas about female storytellers and their stories, but conventional ideas about disabled youth, presenting them as horny, insecure, awkward, and basically ordinary young people pre-occupied with the usual woes of who will love me/want me/fuck me when I’m such a mess of problems/fears/on-going inner dialogues. To say it was refreshing doesn’t do it justice; of all the pieces presented on Saturday, it was the one I found most inspiring.

Genie And Audrey’s Dream Show! by Genie Cartier and Audrey Spinazola
Keeping with the female performer theme but moving into the two-hander fusion show, this circus comedy about two friends is a return from last year and won the Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Award in 2013 for “Best Chemistry.” You can read all about that here, and if that doesn’t convince you to see the show this year, I don’t know what will (except maybe this delightful account of how the show came together). For those of you who have already seen the show, it’s been touring around the country and growing and shifting, so seeing it again should be a whole new experience in and of itself as Audrey and Genie’s victory lap will no doubt be older, wiser, and better. Even if it’s exactly the same, though, there’s no other show like it, so you won’t want to miss it and I would definitely recommend getting tickets ahead of time.

An Awkward Sensation by Kurt Bodden and Allison Daniel
Rounding out my recommends is another two hander that combines elements from many different styles of performance. Kurt Bodden also won a SEBATA last year (for “Best Solo Show”) but that is the least of the accolades that have been deservedly showered on him over the years. Performance partner Allison Daniel is held in equitably high esteem for her puppetry skills, but like Genie and Audrey, what makes this show work is the chemistry between them. Also gifted with impeccable timing, their five minutes on Saturday was perhaps the most astonishing to watch as it veered from comedy (Allison as a crime-fighting cat easily distracted by Kurt’s laser pointer) to pathos (Allison turning a coat and hat into a strangely sympathetic puppet that silently asks to be carried by Kurt) and contained within that stretch a wealth of other emotions. Somewhere between sketch and performance art, I’m probably most intrigued by this piece, both by what other surprises it might contain and in what directions these two obviously adept performers would and could go. Plus that puppet bit will make my boyfriend cry, and that’s enough of a reason to go see anything.

Speaking of Cody Rishell, if you didn’t have enough reasons to come down to the Fringe this year, the Green Room (where I and my amazing band of volunteers will be dispensing snacks and information) will once again have his art on display. This year it will be a retrospective on Clyde The Cyclops, who just had his first birthday. Never will those walls have been cuter, so how can you miss out on that?

Stuart Bousel is one of the Founding Artistic Directors of the San Francisco Theater Pub and editor-in-chief of this blog. You can find out more about him at www.horrorunspeakable.com.

The San Francisco Theater Pub(lic) Blog Reaches Another Milestone!

“Working Title” has gotten the week off so we can bring you something fun in honor of a big milestone for all of us here at The San Francisco Theater Pub blog (or the San Francisco Theater Public, as we’ve taken to calling it.) You can catch Will’s next column on April 1st.

Today’s post marks our 500th post on this blog!

Amazing, huh?

Considering we started this four years ago in the month of March (thanks to initiative taken by Bennett Fisher), this is kind of an amazing milestone, not only for reminding us how long we’ve been around, but how much work we’ve done in the last two years since first making the commitment to move to more frequent and diverse content. In honor of this momentous occasion, all the hard work we’ve been doing, our own ridiculous egos, and social media’s current fascination with personality quizzes, we have come up with nothing less than a WHICH THEATER PUB BLOGGER ARE YOU personality quiz!

Bravo! Bravo!

Bravo! Bravo!

Special thanks to Ashley Cowan for the idea, and Allison Page, who did all the leg work to make it happen, including writing all the copy for the results. We hope you all enjoy this bit of fun, and have a laugh with us. The eight possible answers are the eight current staff bloggers (Stuart Bousel, Ashley Cowan, Barbara Jwanouskos, Will Leschber, Allison Page, Claire Rice, Dave Sikula, Marisa Skudlarek), but as always, we couldn’t have made it this far without the rest of the Theater Pub crew: Victor Carrion, Julia Heitner, Brian Markley, Cody Rishell, and all our past staff writers and contributors. Thanks, guys, this one’s for you!

Encore! Encore!

Encore! Encore!

Please feel free to share your results in the comments below! And, if you aren’t happy with your results (even though we’re all so lovable) and want to take the quiz again, you can do so if you clear your cookies first. You can also take it as many times as you want if you are a member of the company we built this quiz with, but disabling/clearing cookies will also do the trick.

Have fun! And thank you for reading the San Francisco Theater Pub(lic)!

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!

Theater Around The Bay: Let’s Hear It From You

Stuart Bousel takes a moment to talk about how our blog has been growing steadily upward.

February has proven to be a breakthrough month for the San Francisco Theater Pub blog!

For the first time since the blog was started by one of our founding artistic directors, Bennett Fisher, in March of 2010 (so we’re coming up on our anniversary!), we have shot past 4,000 hits in one month- and a short month at that! Where as once we usually got about 25-50 hits a day and 500-800 hits a month, we now average 150-200 a day and 2,500-3,500 a month. This increase in traffic is, without question, due in large part to having moved to more regular content, and it’s thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cowan, Eli Diamond, Helen Laroche, Marissa Skudlarek and our various guest bloggers (like the cast and crew of The Odyssey on Angel Island, and Nicky Weinbach from Made in China) that we can start to say the Pub’s online presence is delivering the same mission of inclusivity and being a platform for the community, as it does in the flesh at the Cafe Royale each month.Thank you to everyone who has been a part of it: contributor and reader alike. We hope you stick around for more!

Starting tomorrow, we’ll be adding actress/writer Allison Page to the regular writer rotation, alternating weeks with Cowan Palace, and next week we’ll begin a new regular guest blog by actor/writer Evan Johnson as his new play moves towards its premiere production at the New Conservatory. That will be running alternate weeks with Theater Conservatory Confidential, on Fridays. Additionally, we have a new monthly event, being presented in conjunction with the Exit Theater, starting March 23rd, called Saturday Write Fever. Like all other Theater Pub events, it’s free and all about creating collaborations between artists and busting down the wall between the audience and the creators, so please join us!

At the same time that the blog has been gaining momentum and increasing its profile, I personally have found myself having more and more conversations with various theater people about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and what they hope to get from it versus what they actually get from it and just how they feel about that. A lot of those interactions have started with, “I read your posts from a few weeks back and it’s had me thinking…” and I have to say, it’s been wonderful to hear that and even more wonderful to have so many exciting dialogues about this art form and all its social and practical complexity. In the last few weeks my life has been characterized by some of the most honest and inspiring talks I’ve ever had in the ten years of being part of this theater community. It’s been like… final semester of college level of sincere and memorable, but unlike the last semester of college, it doesn’t have to end.

The “Theater Around the Bay” section of the website (basically every Tuesday we don’t have a performance that night- which is most Tuesdays) has always been, and will always remain, an on-going catch-all for whatever news, rants, musings someone wants to contribute and I want to take a moment to remind people that we’re always looking to publish something- the days we don’t it’s literally for lack of content, not because we turned someone down. We shy away from reviews (unless it’s happening in service of a larger thesis) because we want this to be more of a discussion/process/promotion part of the internet (there are plenty of other places to post reviews), but after that caveat almost anything theater related could potentially have a home here. An article about what’s troubling your theater life. Your favorite place to get a burrito before a show. A profile of someone you think is doing great work. A profile of your own work. Upcoming projects or on-going concerns. All these things and more are welcome. Please pitch us if you have an idea! We want to hear from you, and the more voices we can get on here over the course of a year, the better.

On that note, thanks again for reading. And because I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about this lately, if you have moment, leave a comment about what inspires you to keep working and making theater. I feel like every one of these great conversations that I’ve been having lately, that’s the one thing we don’t talk about enough. We talk about what is wrong, sure, and we talk about our work, usually, and we talk about other the tenor the scene and other people, always, but I think it’s just the nature of many artists (or maybe it’s just human nature) to forget to take the time to also focus on what does work, what infuses us with the will to keep on, what makes the baloney worth cutting through and putting up with. So, today, let’s put things back in balance and tell us what you love about the medium, the scene, or yourself. Or all three.

The best thing about the internet is that there’s always room for more.

Stuart Bousel is one of the founding artistic directors of the San Franciso Theater Pub, and a prolific writer and director. His website, http://www.horrorunspeakable.com, will tell you all about it.

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: Why “Songs of Hestia” Should Be on Your Summer-Reading List

Marissa Skudlarek, en route to her own vacation, imparts some advice for summer reading.

Songs of Hestia, the first book of plays from the San Francisco Olympians Festival, has just been released! Our friends at the EXIT Theater (whose publishing arm, EXIT Press, produced the book) threw us a lovely book-release party on Thursday night, where we drank champagne cocktails in honor of the five playwrights whose work is featured in the book. Find it on Amazon.com or at local bookstores.

All right, full disclosure: I copy-edited Songs of Hestia and also wrote the introduction. So if you pick up a copy, you’ll see an essay in which I attempt to say various erudite and analytical things about the plays in the book. But, I realized, my introduction may not fully convey just how fun these plays are. So consider this blog post a less formal introduction to Songs of Hestia. Even if you don’t normally read plays, you’re likely to find that this book has something for you. If you fit into any of the following categories, Songs of Hestia should definitely go on your summer-reading list.

Do you love reality TV and Hollywood gossip? Does “beach reading,” to you, mean a sexy Hollywood novel or the latest Us Weekly? Did you start watching reality television when Survivor aired twelve years ago, and never looked back? Are you (perhaps guiltily) fascinated with the lives of the men and women who appear on reality shows? If so, you’ll love Nirmala Nataraj’s Aphrodite: A Romance in Infomercials. This play tells the story of Psyche Pendleton, former reality-TV sweetheart and current infomercial star. There’s quippy dialogue and a “Dr. McDreamy” love interest, but also a thoughtful exploration of Psyche’s, well, psyche. This far into the reality-TV era, we’re wised-up enough to know that what we’re watching isn’t really “real” – it’s been manipulated and massaged by producers. So how does that affect the stars of these shows? Psyche may be a fictional character. But there’s truth – there’s reality – behind her story.

Are you a current-events maven? Maybe you’re the kind of person who prefers to read nonfiction dealing with current events, especially foreign affairs, business, or finance. You always have a copy of The Economist stuffed in your briefcase or purse. But it may be harder to get you to read fiction or drama, because you find the real world so fascinating and complex that you don’t want to spend time reading a made-up story. Well, I urge you to make an exception in the case of Bennett Fisher’s Hermes. While all of the characters in the play are fictitious – and the cast list includes the gods Hermes and Hestia – this play is tied to current events in a way that theater rarely is. It’s based on the origins of the Greek debt crisis in early 2010, and, as Fisher notes, “any similarity to real persons or events is entirely intentional.” Oh, and there’s also “bro” humor in the play. Lots of it. Somehow I don’t think you’ll find that in The Economist.

Are you eagerly awaiting Series 3 of Downton Abbey? Are you an Anglophile who loves fiction by the likes of Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy? Do you adore Downton Abbey for its upstairs-downstairs plotlines and its willingness to mention what the Victorians never did, like secret homosexual liaisons? If so, you will love Hera, or Juno en Victoria, by Stuart Eugene Bousel. The Hera of this play, like Countess Cora, is a loving mother to a marriageable young daughter. She also has a tart-tongued spinster sister, Hestia, who could give Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess a run for her money when it comes to acidly quotable lines. Add in two handsome young men – one rich, one poor – and a housemaid as capable and intelligent as Downton Abbey’s Anna, and you have the perfect recipe for Victorian country-house intrigue, with a modern twist. (Would Charlotte Bronte ever have dared write, “It’s all right, Hebe. I know what sex is. And your aunt has read about it”?)

Do you love female-centric historical fiction? These days, women are buying and reading more literary fiction than men are, so it’s no surprise that books that look at different historical eras from a woman’s point of view often become bestsellers. Maybe you are one of the readers responsible for the popularity of novels like Kathryn Stockett’s The Help or Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. Shift your focus to the late 1940s with Claire Rice’s Demeter’s Daughter, set in Greece after their bloody civil war. Its all-female cast includes Louisa, a young widow who seeks solace and compassion, and the three goddesses she encounters: Hera, Hestia, and Demeter. The play explores many facets of womanhood: what it means to be a wife, a mother, a survivor left behind after men die in battle. It is a deeply moving story; certain lines brought tears to my eyes as I copy-edited the play. That doesn’t usually happen to editors.

Are you a science-fiction buff? It’s cool these days to be a nerd or a geek, and if you are, you have lots of sci-fi movies and books to choose from. You also know that science fiction isn’t just an escapist fantasy – instead, it uses speculative tropes to explore meaningful themes. So why aren’t there more sci-fi plays? Well, Evelyn Jean Pine is attempting to remedy that. In Hephaestus and the Three Golden Robots (see? Robots!), Hephaestus has created three beautiful androids to help him with his work in the gods’ smithy. Meanwhile, the titan Prometheus has discovered the secret to making artificial life – and created the human race in the process. Thus the stage is set for an exploration of what it means to be human, as opposed to an immortal or a robot. And hey, my sources tell me that a little movie came out last weekend that has an android in it and speculates about the origins of human life. What’s it called, again? Oh yeah – Prometheus.

Marissa Skudlarek copy-edited and wrote the introduction to Songs of Hestia. Also a playwright and arts writer, she can be found at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Rehearsal Notes

Director Bennett Fisher shares some thoughts about putting together “The Memorandum” for May 15th’s Theater Pub. Make sure you join us for the show! It starts at 8 PM but we fill up quick, so get there early!

Rehearsing the piece this week, the actors and I have been struck by the fact that, for a very heady play, The Memorandum has quite a bit of heart. At the core of Havel’s play is the question that troubles everyone who has had a bad week at work: am I wasting my life doing something I hate? Admittedly, Josef Gross’ bad week in The Memorandum is quite a bit worse than the ones most of us might experience, but the story we are presented with onstage is unsettling not because it is grotesque, but because it is familiar.

In the course of the rehearsal process, many of the actors and I have shared anecdotes about the little office cruelties we’ve suffered in the workplace. The more we dig into The Memorandum, the more I can appreciate that the full range of these conflicts – from the mildly irritating to the utterly unbearable – are present in the play. A number of the actors have remarked on the character’s ridiculous fixation on what’s served for lunch and the obsession with snack bars and party planning. Food is discussed, often at length, in almost every scene of the play, while specific work projects and deadlines are never mentioned. The more I reread the play, the more I appreciate what Havel is trying to say about what happens to our brain when we show up at the office every day. For the characters in The Memorandum, it’s not about the work, but about surviving until it’s quitting time. For some characters, that survival involves a high stakes power struggle for the supreme position in a Byzantine bureaucracy. For others, that survival hinges on their ability to get another meal voucher. Since Havel never mentions what the employees of the organization actually do, it’s hard to judge what’s a better use of their time.

Reading the play on the page, I feel you miss a lot of the human warmth and wonderful, sophomoric humor that encases the deep, existential question at the play’s heart. The more I work with the actors, the more I appreciate that this truly is a play to be heard aloud. I hope you can come join us for it.