Czechs and Tech

Bennett Fisher talks about his upcoming Theater Pub show, “The Memorandum.” Be sure to join us on Tuesday, May 15th at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale for this one night only event! 

I’m intrigued by difference in the sort of plays that become popular in each culture. In the states, we seem to have collectively come to the conclusion that the domestic, family drama is the quintessential form for the great American plays, but even if we can identify those recurring patterns between Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman, Curse of the Starving Class, A Raisin in the Sun, and The Glass Menagerie, it’s hard for us to pin down what makes them specifically American. Having spent a lot of time with Czech plays, I have begun to identify a kind of pattern there as well – plays that revolve around what happens when innovation backfires.

The most celebrated and widely referenced play from Czech theater history is Karel Capek’s Rossums Universal Robots, better known as R.U.R. Capek coined the term “robot” in R.U.R. to describe an android, servant class. Terminator, The Matrix, Blade Runner – pretty much every film where the machines decide to stop obeying humans – are all derivative from Capek’s play: R.U.R.’s plot revolves around the robots gaining a deeper consciousness, revolting against their human masters, and building a new society. There are far fewer explosions in R.U.R. compared to The Matrix, but the play is the first piece of literature to really probe the difference between man and machine and ask whether something artificial can possess human qualities. Moreover, it is a story of progress misguided. The designers build the robots with the purest intentions and, almost unintentionally, become slaveholders. Instead of empowering humanity, the robots rebel against their creators. Each new solution only seeks to exasperate the problem, and we leave the play deeply skeptical about our own capacity to predict what will lead to progress or disaster.

In the same way that Arthur Miller follows in the wake of Eugene O’Neill, picking up the mantle of the family drama and examining it with his own, distinct literary lens, so too does Havel follow Capek’s lead with his work. Like R.U.R., the conflict in The Memorandum is fueled by the character’s desire to create a new, better system. The more fervently the perceived solution is pursued, the more entrenched and unsolvable the problems become.

I like that the play feels so rooted in the Czech dramatic aesthetic, but, just like Miller and O’Neill, the aspects of the play that really resonate are not the things that tie it to an individual culture or specific time, but to all cultures and all times. In an era when text messaging and Facebook seem to contribute to our sense of isolation more than they make us feel connected, Havel’s scathing rejection of progress for progress’ sake seems especially relevant. All the monotony and inefficiency of working in an office are rendered spot on. There are the mounds of meaningless paperwork, meetings where nothing of importance is discussed, joyless workplace birthday parties, obsessive conversations over what and where to eat, and, of course, all the unbearable types of coworkers – the backstabbing subordinate who wants the promotion, the overly-chipper manager, the insufferable self-styled intellectual, the horndog, the assistant who can’t be bothered to assist, the weird quiet guy, and, of course, the one person who seems genuinely good and likable, but who is certainly doomed.

Fair warning, if you come Tuesday night, you might be inclined to call in sick on Wednesday. And perhaps not just because you had more beers than you might on a weeknight.

Don’t miss “The Memorandum” in a one night only staged reading on Tuesday, May 15th at 8 PM. The show is free, with a suggested donation at the door. Get there early because we tend to fill up!

Why I Read Havel

Bennett Fisher, a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub, talks about his upcoming project, which you can catch on Tuesday, May 15th, at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale.

Since Vaclav Havel’s passing in December of last year, I have had a number of people come up to me and say things like “so, you’re into Havel’s writing, right? Why should I read his plays?” It feels odd that– at least in my very limited circle – I am now somewhat of an authority on Havel’s work, but I think it has less to do with any kind of extensive expertise but rather because I seem to be one of the few people to take a serious interest in that particular dimension of Havel’s full and fascinating life.

Indeed, it was this unusual interest that made grant money available and opened doors for me to meet Havel and other Czech theater makers. I was sponsored to attend the Forum 2000 conference in Prague in 2007 because I wanted to learn about Havel the writer, and not Havel the public figure – if I had only been interested in the latter, I would not have received the funds to go. While at the conference, I spoke with a lot of former Czech cabinet members and high-level bureaucrats about their previous lives as directors, actors, stage managers, scenic designers, and so on. When Havel was named president of Czechoslovakia, he had to fill out positions of government with people he knew. Since most people he knew were from the theater or the literary world, well…

Just imagine, for a moment, a government largely composed of theater people. Are you encouraged? Frightened?

It is so improbable to think that someone who was an international sensation as a writer in his prime would have their literary career eclipsed by their accomplishments as a revolutionary and statesman (imagine Athol Fugard turning into Nelson Mandela). In the many obituaries I read, Havel’s playwriting often seemed like a footnote – a diversion before he harkens to his true calling as an activist and politician. Having spent quite a bit of time with his plays, I believe that Havel became a revolutionary not in addition to his work as an artist, but because of his work as an artist.

Havel’s plays explore what happens when people stop listening, when we go about our lives so robotic that we begin to treat others with a kind of off-hand cruelty, when a proposed system of solutions backfires. Havel’s plays are stories about the power of empathy over brutishness, about how no amount of intellectual ability can substitute for action, about how idealism means nothing if it cannot be embodied in our conduct. When I read Havel, I feel invigorated by the possibility of his writing – art as the spark that ignites a conversation, which grows into deeds, which grows into reform. The true power of plays like The Memorandum is the velvet glove of wit, humor, and playful intellectualism that hides a clenched fist ready to deliver an emotional haymaker.

Or, it should, if I don’t screw up the direction.

Don’t miss the Pub’s rendition of Havel’s work this May 15th at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale! Admission is the usual free (or donation at the door) and we recommend you get there early as seating can be limited!

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: An Introduction

Marissa Skudlarek, one of our favorite gals-about-town in the SF Theater scene, kicks off her regular guest spot on the SF Theater Pub blog. 

If you are raised, as I was, on a steady diet of old-fashioned Broadway musicals and Fred & Ginger movies, you will come to believe that the theater is the most glamorous profession in the world.  Producers lavish money on glittering costumes, huge orchestras, and shiny Art Deco scenery. Both onstage and backstage, charismatic performers speak with wit and behave with flair. And you can go out a chorus girl, but come back a star.

Even after I grew up, learned how hard it is to make a living as an artist, and resigned myself to the reality that no one wears gowns or tuxedos to opening nights, the theater still retained a residual glamor. I remember two years ago, when Theater Pub was just starting and I was making my first tentative forays into the San Francisco theater community. I’d meet people like Theater Pub founders Stuart Bousel and Ben Fisher and marvel at how they seemed to know everyone, be everywhere, and work on a million projects at once.  This was, I thought, a real-world kind of glamor: these men were busy, talked-about, in-demand. I wondered whether I would ever be in the same position.

Well, now it’s two years later and I’ve become one of those perpetually overscheduled theater people. In the last week alone, I’ve done the following:

  • Helped organize, and spent an evening at, a fundraiser for the Bay One Acts (BOA) Kickstarter campaign
  • Edited and posted several interviews with BOA playwrights on the BOA blog (bayoneacts.org)
  • Copy-edited the BOA program
  • Copy-edited the final proof of a forthcoming book of plays from the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  • Attended an Olympians writers’ meeting and realized I should completely overhaul the play I am working on
  • Figured out how to use Twitter
  • Got an email from an actor I used to know, asking for my help with French pronunciation for an audition
  • Saw three plays at major Bay Area theaters

And that doesn’t include the non-theater stuff I’ve had to deal with this week (hectic times at my day job; finding a roommate; taxes).  Nor does it include writing this column. Which I am doing at midnight, in my pajamas, after seeing a three-hour Tom Stoppard play about Russian intellectuals. Last night I fell asleep with the light on and woke up with pain in my jaw.

In times like these, the song “The Glamorous Life,” from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, comes to mind. The heroine of the show, Desiree Armfeldt, is a famous actress in turn-of-the-century Sweden.  “Desiree Armfeldt! I just know she’ll wear the most glamorous gowns,” exclaims Anne, a naïve younger character.  Well, Desiree may be soignée, but she’s also a single mother who spends most of her time on tour in the provinces.  In “The Glamorous Life,” Desiree and the chorus wryly comment on the life of a theater professional: “Run for the carriage, la-la-la / Wolf down the sandwich, la-la-la / Which town is this one, la-la-la / Hi-ho, the glamorous life.”

So when Stuart Bousel asked if I would write a twice-monthly column about the San Francisco indie-theater lifestyle for the Theater Pub blog, I knew that I wanted the assignment and that I wanted to title the column “Hi-ho, the Glamorous Life.”

In upcoming columns, I hope to investigate, explain, praise, and critique different aspects of independent theater in the Bay Area.  If you’re a fellow theater artist, I want to find the words to describe our experiences, and if you’re not a theater-maker, I want to acquaint you with my world.

This world can be cash-strapped. It can be competitive. It forces you to spend more time than you’d like in seedy neighborhoods. It requires lots of humdrum behind-the-scenes effort to bring even a small black-box show to life.  But it’s busy and fast-paced and challenging. It values hard work and strong opinions. It has made me happy beyond measure. And yes, it is glamorous.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, dramaturg, and arts writer. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com and on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

San Francisco Theater Pub Launches into the Blogosphere!

On January 18, 2010, the crowd inside the Café Royale on Post and Leavenworth extended out the door. Inside, a standing room listened as Skye Alexander sang “Wayfaring Stranger” from the upper balcony. As the song came to a close, an actor stepped in front of red curtain emblazoned with the Café Royale emblem, stood for a moment, then shouted “Dionysus! Dionysus my master, you son of a bitch!” The first lines of the first performance of the San Francisco Theater Pub.

The San Francisco Theater Pub was founded in late 2009 by Stuart Bousel, Victor Carrion, Bennett Fisher, and Brian Markley, with the support of Les and Dan Cowan and their bar, the Café Royale. For the inaugural event in January, co-founder Bennett Fisher directed a staged reading his new translation of the satyr play Cyclops by Euripides – a ribald retelling of the famous story from the Odyssey and the oldest, as far as we know, play about drinking – accompanied by live music and flowing drinks from two very overworked bartenders.

You can read an interview with Fisher about Cyclops on Tim Bauer’s blog here and watch video of the production from UnfocusedSF here.

Since the first night, the San Francisco Theater Pub has hosted two more events, also playing to standing room only crowds.

In February, the day after Valentine’s day, co-founder Stuart Bousel directed A Valentine’s Day Post Mortem – a collection of original writing and songs from local artists offering all manner of perspectives on the subject of love and what (if anything) it has to do with the holiday.

Last Monday, co-founder Brian Markley presented How To Ride a Bus in San Francisco – a series of short scenes, songs, poems, and meditations on the perils and pitfalls of that infamous San Francisco Transit System.

And more is coming…

In April, Fisher returns to direct the first full production for the San Francisco Theater Pub – Vacláv Havel’s comic one act Audience. The event runs for five performances on Mondays and Tuesdays – April 13, 19, 20 and May 3 and 4 – 8pm each night and (as always) free admission. Reserved seating is limited, so be sure to make a reservation early if you do not want to stand.

The local community has responded enthusiastically. Even in these first few events we, the founders, have found a considerable thirst for a different type of theatrical event performed on nights – Mondays and Tuesdays – when cultural events of all sorts are scarce. We hope that the San Francisco Theater Pub will continue to serve as an inviting and inclusive nexus for artists and audiences – offering pieces that are short, lively, and engaging and in a relaxed bar environment with plenty of good beer on tap.

We’ll keep this blog updated with the latest in all things San Francisco Theater Pub, upcoming projects, behind the scenes perspective into the process, and ways for all those to get involved. To learn more, become fans of us on Facebook, email theaterpub@atmostheatre.com, and swing by on performance nights to talk with the team.

We look forward to seeing you there.

-Stuart Bousel, Victor Carrion, Bennett Fisher, and Brian Markley.