In For a Penny: Bum-rush the Show!

eggs-i-dont-care

“A wise man told me ‘Don’t argue with fools
‘Cause people from a distance can’t tell who is who’ ”
—Jay Z, “The Takeover”, The Blueprint

This past week I went to the Berkeley Rep to catch a preview performance of Jeff Augustin’s Last Tiger in Haiti. The story revolves around a group of “restaveks” (child slaves) and the stories they tell themselves to cope with the horrors of their daily lives. The first act takes place 15 years in the past, the second in present day, with the shadow of the 2010 Haitian earthquake looming large. Incidentally, this show was in production as Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti earlier this month, resulting in a death toll estimated between 1,000-1,300. As such, the curtain call features the actors asking for donations to help with relief efforts.

As I began putting on my coat, an older White man behind me began complaining to his female companion about being asked for donations. “It’s just like being in church: if I don’t put something in the collection plate I look like an asshole,” he said before ranting about how his having attended the performance should be “donation enough”. As I began making a mental list of just what obscenities I’d yell at him, I asked myself what the point would be in doing so. I put on my coat, dropped a fiver in the donation basket, and walked to BART.

I thought of that old man’s casual racism this past Tuesday when I went to The Magic to see Campo Santo’s final preview for Nogales. The play uses the story of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez – a Mexican teen killed on the Mexican side of the border wall by trigger-happy border agent on the Arizona side – as part of a wider examination on US-Mexican immigration. As I settled into my seat before the start of the show, a White couple in their 20s began talking about theatre around the country. The young woman said that she found Chicago “too insular,” but was willing to “tolerate” SF and LA. The young man ranted about how much he hated New York, really loved Cleveland, and lamented that in his short time in SF (he said he’d been here a week) he’d only seen “these kinds of ‘ethnic’ shows.” I didn’t turn around, but I could hear in his voice the way the word “ethnic” left a foul taste in his mouth. In fact, it’s probably for the best I didn’t turn around – I’d have been too tempted to punch him. I sipped my free wine and got ready for the show.

Neither of these incidents were a first for me and I know they won’t be the last. I also know from experience that if I were to engage them, odds are that I’m more likely to be painted as the bad guy. I’ve been in enough arguments at events for Intersection for The Arts and Z Space to know that what I call a debate has been described as “this Black guy just attacked us”. That can make someone a bit gun-shy about wanting to engage in such a debate again, leading to the misconception that he doesn’t have an opinion at all.

In my defense, my not hesitance has less to with how I’m perceived (although I do admit that I think about it) and more with my not wanting to “feed the trolls”. The old man at the Rep and the young couple at the Magic were, to my knowledge, nothing more than theatre patrons (ie. the lifeblood of our industry). They’re allowed to have opinions – passive-aggressively racist though they may be – so long they paid for their tickets; for full-color casts, no less. As much as I’d love to strap them in chairs Clockwork Orange-style as they sit front row for my long-planned production of Jean Genet’s Les Nègres, clownerie (The Blacks: A Clown Show), I take comfort in knowing I’m entitled to speak my opinion as freely as they, but that would be no different than engaging the anonymous randos who send me racist tweets. I haven’t been on Twitter since August, why do it in real life?

Not worth the effort.

Not worth the effort.

If I’m going to spend time and energy voicing an opinion about theatre, both are better spent on actual theatre artists. Granted, this too will occasionally get me in hot water. A few years back I was at the developmental reading of a show by a popular local theatre with whom I’d recently gotten on very good terms. I’ll never forget how offended I felt when the longest sequence in the show was dedicated to one of the few White characters/actors getting a subplot only tangentially connected to the main action and characters. At intermission, I was pissed. Really pissed. I mean go-to-a-corner-away-from-your-colleagues-so-they-can’t-see-the-scowl-on-your-face pissed. They second act was… a bit more tolerable, but still problematic. I sat in my chair thinking “I could just leave now, accept that I saw a shitty reading, and let it end there.”

But I didn’t do that. As the cast (all of whom I knew well) took their seats, the first few “questions” were really just shallow praise for the White writers and directors for telling a story about people of color. One of those praises came from someone higher on the Bay Area theatre food chain than I; someone whose opinion I respected; someone whose opinion of my actually could influence how further I got in this business, so it would have been in my best interests to stay quiet. Instead, my inner Kanye told me “Fuck it” as I raised my hand and (calmly and rationally – there were witnesses) explained everything I found wrong with the two hours of White privilege I’d just witnessed.

My comments immediately divided the room: half agreeing with me; others saying they were out of line; and all the while, the row of actors scowling at me from their seats on the stage. I eventually saw the full production and sure enough there were changes made. Overall it wasn’t a great show, but I felt better about speaking up when I did.

I made that show faaaaamous!

I made that show faaaaamous!

It’s no secret that lots of local theatre companies are struggling just to keep the lights on, but it obviously has a stronger effect on me when I see PoC theatre artists having to struggle even harder. Just as Campo Santo had to leave their longtime home a few years back, so too is Af-Am Shakes raising funds to find a new home and support their upcoming season. The importance and necessity of theatre companies like these becomes all the more apparent when I think of asinine opinions like the ones I mentioned above. In fact, they become apparent whenever some otherwise-progressive White theatre artists asks me why the Bay has “no Black actors/theatre”. In 2016 – the 50th anniversary year of the Black Panther Party (spawned here in the Bay Area) and the final year of the first Black president of the US – we’re still looked at in a “liberal” arts community as if we’re Klingons.

Here’s a hint: it’s not for a lack of trying, it’s because we seem to be easy to ignore. Whenever we do make ourselves visible enough to where we can’t be ignored, we’re told that we’re being over aggressive and threatening. Right… I’ll remember that the next time someone pretentious White theatre artist limply defends their show by telling me “if it offended you, it’s done its job”.

Charles Lewis III’s latest project is directing a script about a bunch of crazy White people.
You can see it tomorrow night at The EXIT Theatre as part of the SF Olympians Festival.

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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! 

Theater Around the Bay: Shirley Issel & Jamie Harkin of “Angel of Darkness”

From now through the end of August, we’ll be bringing you interviews with the writers and directors of the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays. First up: writer Shirley Issel and director Jamie Harkin of “Angel of Darkness”!

“Angel of Darkness” is a modern mystery play set in a contemporary bar. Death is the barman, and he informs Everyman that as soon as another patron, Fellowship, finishes his beer, Everyman will die… 

Brett Mermer plays Death, James F. Ross plays Fellowship, and Jamie Harkin pulls double duty by playing Everyman as well as directing the show.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized?

Shirley: I am part of a playwriting class at Stagebridge, taught by Anthony Clarvoe. Anthony gave us your Pint-Sized Play Festival call for submission and rules as a weekly assignment. The rules captured my imagination and I really liked the results, so I submitted.

Jamie: My dear friend Alejandro Torres, who is the deputy producer of Pint-Sized this year, knows me and recommended me.

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

Shirley: Coming up with a good idea.

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

Shirley: It is clear very quickly if you have something good.

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

Jamie: The idea of performing in front of such a huge crowd.

What’s been most troublesome?

Jamie: Finding actors.

Shirley Issel

Shirley Issel, Pint-Sized Playwright.

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Shirley: I am in love with Shakespeare, especially the way one character in each play sets the ball rolling and in doing so calls in his own fate. “Angel of Darkness” takes place on Halloween. When the bartender/Death asks Everyman if he wants a “trick or treat,” Everyman asks for a trick, inviting Death to do his thing.

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

Jamie: Anthony Hopkins, Derek Jacobi, Benedict Cumberbatch or Alan Rickman (if I could bring him back I totally would). Cause, you know, I love me some Brits.

Shirley: I would cast Matthew McConaughey as the bartender. He’s naughty, playful and smart with a killer smile. I can just hear him with his Southern accent asking his customers, “Alright, Alright, Alright! What’ll you have, trick or treat?”

Jamie Harkin

Jamie Harkin, actor AND director!

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

Jamie: Hmm… I’d have to say James Carpenter. I’ve met him a couple times. He’s really really nice.

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

Jamie: I’m in the SF Fringe Festival this year as part of Alejandro’s show Projected Voyages, which is being remounted. I was an original cast member back in 2013.

Shirley: I’m sticking with my playwriting class at Stagebridge and I’m curious myself about what will happen next. One thing new I’m eager to pursue is a class on directing.

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

Shirley: I’m looking forward to seeing Dear Master come back to the Aurora in September. Joy Carlin is directing and she makes sure good material gets a good production.

Jamie: I really wanna see John Leguizamo’s show at Berkeley Rep.

What’s your favorite beer?

Jamie: Milk!

Shirley: Right now, I like Death and Taxes.

See “Angel of Darkness” and the other Pint-Sized Plays at PianoFight on August 15, 16, 22, 23, and 29!

 

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Age Cannot Wither Her

Marissa Skudlarek, growing old thoughtfully. 

In the two weeks since I turned 29, I completed a draft of my first new full-length play in five years, and discovered a secret place to pick blackberries.

If I’m being honest with myself, the blackberries sometimes feel like an even better achievement than the play.

I’ve been thinking a lot about time passing lately: cycles, parallels, how the present moment feels like a tiny, dainty pinprick caught between the vastness of the past and future. (The main character of the play I just completed does a lot of thinking along those lines too, as the director of my staged reading pointed out. Well, I put a lot of myself into her.) My birthday is in the summer and I moved to San Francisco in the summer too, nearly eight years ago. People are moving away, or moving on to different projects. The election cycle and the news cycle are all-pervasive. The last year of my twenties has commenced.

This month is also the ten-year anniversary of my first major achievement as a playwright, when I won a national contest for writers 18 and under and was awarded with a staged reading of my play in New York, plus a week of theatergoing and workshops.

I found out that I’d won on my 19th birthday. I still remember it: waking up early on a summer morning, wrapping myself in a blanket, sitting on the end of my bed and calling the New York number of the Young Playwrights organization. (They had left me a vague and maddening voice mail a few days earlier and I hadn’t been able to call them back due to the Fourth of July holiday.) The woman who ran the organization, Sheri Goldhirsch, told me that I’d won.

I wish I could say that that was the moment my life changed.

It was a wonderful experience, don’t get me wrong; but it now feels strange and distant, and I hardly ever think about it. I can’t even remember the exact date of the staged reading. When I do think about that week in New York, it is often with regret that I did not keep in better touch with the professional writers and directors to whom the organization introduced me. I was 19 years old and did not know how to network. I was shy and uncertain (some would say I still am). In my blacker moods, I pray that this contest was not the high-water mark of my playwriting career. I know New York is not the end-all and be-all of a theater career, but I haven’t had any plays in New York since then…

I’m still Facebook friends with the other seven contest winners. Some of them still seem to be involved in arts-related pursuits: theater, writing, filmmaking. One has a baby and is divorcing her husband. Nobody is wildly successful. Nobody is anybody you’ve ever read about in a puff piece touting “the latest hot young playwright.” I would be rabidly jealous if they were. There’s a decent chance that out of all of us, I’ve written the most new works for the stage in the last ten years. But I feel weird about comparing myself to the other contest winners; if I’ve kept writing plays while others have given it up, that isn’t necessarily something to be proud of. Maybe it means I am just more set in my ways and resistant to change.

Sheri Goldhirsch is now deceased.

The man who directed my staged reading went on to direct a little play off-Broadway that became a huge hit, and moved to Broadway, and earned him a Tony nomination for his direction. (Now you can see why I wish I’d kept in better touch with him.)

I also can’t shake a feeling of guilt that whenever I take advantage of an opportunity for “young people,” I’ve gamed the system. I skipped first grade and have a summer birthday, so I’ve always been younger than everyone else, or prematurely advanced for my age, depending on how you want to look at it. When I submitted my play to the Young Playwrights competition, I was 18.5 years old and had already completed three semesters of college. It was perfectly fine for me to submit according to the contest’s rules, but I couldn’t help feeling that I wasn’t the kind of person that the contest was designed for.

Similarly, tonight, a scene from my new play Juana is going to be read at Playwrights Foundation’s Night of New Works, a scene-reading and networking event that the Bay Area Playwrights Festival interns are hosting for theater-makers under 30. Again, when I submitted my work for possible inclusion in this evening, I felt slightly guilty about doing it: I am 29 years old, I am not fresh out of college, I have a long list of indie-theater credits and I write for this blog every two weeks and a lot of people seem to know my name. Is it fair for me to take up a slot in this evening? Am I going to feel like the old lady at the kids’ table?

And furthermore, are these kinds of opportunities for young people fair, or are they blatant age discrimination? What about the people who discover theater and playwriting when they are in their 30s or older? And then, if this is a youth-obsessed industry, shouldn’t I have done even more to try to become a Hot Twentysomething Playwright rather than hanging back?

When I moved to the Bay Area, it felt like my twenties would last forever. The first play I saw here was Yellowjackets, at Berkeley Rep, on one of their half-price tickets for people under 30. The time when I would age out of that benefit seemed a long way off. I was startled to realize last week that I’m now in my last year of eligibility for Berkeley Rep’s half-price tickets. I feel, simultaneously, like I haven’t done enough with my twenties and like they have gone on for an unbelievably long time.

I have a lot of work still to do this summer. Producing the Pint-Sized Plays, revising a play for Custom Made’s new-works development program, completing a new one-act play for the Olympians Festival. But despite it all, I’m going to try to go to the secret blackberry patch at sunset every chance I get. You know that you should never force a blackberry off its stem; if you have to pull too hard on the berry, it isn’t ripe. You need to pick only the berries that have hung in the sun a good long while, the ones that are on the verge of turning jammy and falling apart. I need to remember to let the berries take their time, and not regret the ones that went unplucked.

Working Title: The Move, The Packing, The Thrush and The Woodpecker

This week Will Leschber barely makes it out of his moving truck to speak to Custom Made Theatre about The Thrush & The Woodpecker.

Hello there dear readers! You all are a dedicated bunch. I gotta give you props. Not only are you here now reading away, but we even tried to trick you all by saying that the last Working Title blog entry was a goodbye blog! Well, as you may know, it was a farewell Bay Area blog but it is not the last Working Title blog, no siree bob blog… we can’t trick you! Tricks are for kids. Let’s keep this party going from across the country!

So I can’t tear myself away. Even after the 3500-mile journey from San Francisco to Phoenix to Austin then Kansas and on to Connecticut in a 26’ box truck towing a car, even after unloading a ridiculous amount of moving boxes, even after getting my bearings and loosing sleep and battling landlords and praising new daycare workers and thanking in-laws and parents…even after all that, I can’t tear myself away from San Francisco indie theater. You guys deserve the best. So I have a few more suggestions to help wet your whistles and prep your brains as you dive into the new offerings from Bay Area theater.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Brian Katz, Artistic Director at Custom Made Theater about The Thrush & the Woodpecker, a new play by Steve Yockey that has its rolling world premiere beginning in a few short weeks. If you think that driving cross-country with a dog and a dad sounds dramatic and surprising, that has nothing on this revenge play. Starring local legend Stacy Ross, Shotgun Players Company Member Fontana Butterfield, and hot up-and-coming actor Adam Magill (Berkeley Rep’s Macbeth, SF Playhouse’s Stupid Fucking Bird), The Thrush and the Woodpecker tells the engaging story of a mysterious stranger who arrives to turn the world upside down for Brenda Hendricks and her son Noah, who’s recently returned from college unexpectedly. What avian secrets lie in wait?! We’ll see…

The Thrush and the Woodpecker copy

I asked Brian Katz the best film to pair with the new and unusual Thrush/Woodpecker and like a good Artistic Director, he offered up the question to his wonderful production team to get a myriad of opinions. Here’s a sampling of recommendations:

Kitty Torres (costumer) suggests: Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Since the play and the film definitely share the same levels of obsession and deceit.

Liz Ryder (sound) concisely recommends: The Birds!

Leah Abrams (Custom Made Theater Company’s Executive Director) offers up: The 2006 thriller Notes on a Scandal because its two female characters strike me in a similar way, a mix of perfectly normal/really off-kilter in their own way. AND Hitchcock’s The Birds. I think it’s the film that terrifies me most – there’s the obvious havoc wreaked by said birds, and also just that sense of the supernatural invading seemingly normal people in the real world.

The Birds copy

With the uncanny, supernatural, deceitful, unnerving recommendations Thrush/Woodpecker sounds to be quite an intriguing experience. The play opens August 4th and runs until August 20th. More info can be found at www.custommade.org.

Theater Around The Bay: Get Ready For Better Than Television!

Our next show, Better Than Television, is going to turn your world upside down! Before the adventure begins, we figured it was time to check in with regular TP contributor, Megan Cohen, who is the brains behind this crazy new show!

TP: Megan Cohen- you’re back again! What keeps you coming back to Theater Pub?

MC: Every mad scientist needs a lab.

TP: Every show you do is different, but how is this show particularly unique?

MC: As a swirling “live channel” programmed with serial shows and commercials, Better Than Television is bigger AND smaller than anything I’ve done at Pub. The plays are tiny; micro-episodes of just a few minutes each, for short attention spans. The evening is huge, with lots of characters, genres, theme songs, commercials. I’ve got about 25 artists on the team: writers, actors, musicians. That’s a lot of talent for a free show in a bar.

TP: Explain your process behind this one- there was some kind of writing party?

MC: Over a weekend, 17 writers came to my house. We drank 2 flats of Diet Coke, I made 16 pizzas, and between us all, on that Saturday and Sunday we wrote 59 brand new micro-plays. We created the soap opera All My Feels, the sci-fi adventure Space Bitch, and everything else you’ll see onstage.

Megan Cohen is sort of like what would happen if Orson Welles had a better childhood.

Megan Cohen is sort of like what would happen if Orson Welles had a better childhood.

I love to do things myself; I’ll write a whole show and mix the soundtrack and make the props with a glue gun; heck, as a performance artist, I’m working on a 12-hour durational solo show right now. I love doing things myself, but I wanted Better Than Television to be about teamwork, friendship, and celebrating the incredible wealth of talent in our community. I built a structure, gave some prompts, gave a format, and then the crew of writers really made the episodes and commercials their own! A fabulous array of voices. I am surprised, thrilled, delighted, and definitely entertained by what people wrote in this format, and I hope you will be too.

TP: What is it about television that makes it a suitable topic for its perceived nemesis- The Theater?

MC: I’m part of The Broadcast Television Generation. The generation before me didn’t have TV on all the time in the house growing up, and the generation after me has everything online and on-demand, where they can curate it themselves. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, tuning in for “Nick at Night” and “TGIF,” at the blissful mercy of a machine that fed me dreams on its own schedule. Going to theater is not so different from trusting a Broadcast Network. You show up, and it takes you somewhere you didn’t know you wanted to go. You just stay tuned. I think we all need that. We all make a lot of decisions every day, and sometimes you want to relax and let someone you trust take the reins. That’s what I’m planning for these shows to do. People want to be entertained, and I think they want to be a bit surprised.

TP: So, ideally someone comes to all four nights of this, yes?

MC: Better Than Television is a different show each night! New episodes of each micro-serial, a rotating cast of actors, twists and turns all the time; I hope that if you come once, you’ll get hooked, and will want to come back and see what happens next. If you get addicted to the channel and binge-watch the whole 4-night series, you’ll have a lot of fun. More fun than a cat in a banana.

This is the second-most-fun thing in the world.

This is the second-most-fun thing in the world.

TP: And what if someone can only come one night? How does it change their experience?

MC: Each night stands alone. If you tune in with us at Theater Pub for one night, you won’t see the complete run of any series, but you will see enough episodes of each micro-show to get the gist, so you can fall in love briefly with the characters and the story. Especially Space Bitch. Everyone loves Space Bitch.

TP: If you could work on any real-life TV show, what it would be and what would you bring to the table?

MC: Any TV show ever? Deadwood. Any current TV show? Orphan Black. What would I bring to the table? Wit, courage, small pores, and the chops I’ve built in an energetic and dedicated writing career where, at age 32, I’ve shared almost 100 of my scripts with audiences around the world.

TP: What if a network approached you and said, “Anything you want?” What does your ideal TV show look like?

MC: It’s kind of a Deadwood-meets-Orphan-Black mashup in a comic vein with a supernatural slant, where everyone in a small frontier town is played by the ghost of Madeline Khan.

(For real, though, if anyone wants to rep me, I can send you an hour-long TV pilot that’s not that.)

TP: Any shout outs for other stuff going on in the community?

MC: Along with Theater Pub, KML and Faultline are 2 resident companies at PianoFight that are having strong seasons this year, with lots of good artists involved. See them, see everything, see Theater Pub every month. See anything by any of the artists who are part of making Better Than Television: Paul Anderson, Scott Baker, Sam Bertken, Stuart Bousel, Jeremy Cole, Barry Eitel, Valerie Fachman, Fenner Fenner, Danielle Gray, Kenneth Heaton, Paul Jennings, Colin Johnson, Dan Kurtz, Rebecca Longworth, Carl Lucania, Becky Raeta, Samantha Ricci, Cassie Rosenbrock, Heather Shaw, Jeunee Simon, Marissa Skudlarek, Peter Townley, Steven Westdahl, Indiia Wilmott, Marlene Yarosh, wow that’s a mouthful. Keep an eye on those people. Also, of course you should see everything that I personally am doing everywhere always.

TP: What’s next for you?

MC: On the closing day of this show, I’m heading for the “Ground Floor” new works program at Berkeley Rep. We’re doing some development there on my new full-length play Truest. It’s about a pair of sisters who love and fight each other, kind of a Thelma-and-Louise-meets-Sam-Shepard vibe. For news on that and other projects, keep in touch with me on Twitter: @WayBetterThanTV or on my website www.MeganCohen.com.

Better than Television starts on June 20 and plays through June 28, only at San Francisco Theater Pub! 

Follow the Vodka: Everyday Theatricality!

Robert Estes, theater’s super-tailgater.

White Chapel copy

Ah, the dedication of the night columnist! Late on a Monday night, I’m still diligently laboring at the newest gin joint in the city, White Chapel (600 Polk Street). This place is a fantastical recreation of an abandoned tube station in London; well, except that the station in question, White Chapel is actually still operating. Here, though, the imaginary abandoned station has become a lovingly rendered 1890s gin palace.

When I first looked at White Chapel’s extensive drink menu, I fell in love with the two page listing of twenty-two drinks under the heading “The Martini Family.” Who knows if the dates and descriptions given to all the drinks are academically accurate; I’m not interested in fact-checking the menu, only drink-checking it. So, tonight I began my ginventure by having the first drink on the list, the Pink Gin (dated 1840s), composed of Plymouth Gin and angostura bitters.

I love that the early reviews for this place kept mentioning all the “fake” things about the recreation, such as fake water damage. My theater self couldn’t help but say, it’s not fake, it’s distressed, it’s Theater!

Indeed, it’s fascinating to realize how many bars in the city have become insanely popular by creating an immersive theatrical experience for their drinkers, I mean patrons. An entity called Future Bars now owns nine different local bars, all theatrically presented, ranging from the just opened Pagan Idol tiki bar to the old-standby Bourbon and Branch speakeasy.

It makes me think that so often in theater we wonder how to attract an audience, yet somehow people outside of us, use our rough magic to create very popular events. Even real estate agents know in their bones how important it is to the sale price of a property for it to be properly “staged” at the open house.

On a much greater scale, the mass popularity of sports rests on a ham-handed strict adherence to the principle of dramatic conflict. The “classic matchup” between this team and that one or this player and that one sells all! And franchises encourage theatricality on the part of their fans. One of the joys of going to a sporting event in person is to experience the unconscious theatricality of everyday people as they come to cheer on their team.

I always laugh to myself when I happen to be on a Sunday morning BART train on the day of a Oakland Raiders home game. Raiders fans are legendary for their elaborate costumes, intricate makeup, and outlandish accessories! I would love to compliment them on their detailed and beautiful theatricality, but I also wish to retain my front teeth, so I just smile to myself. But if you ever get the chance, I highly recommend surreptitiously checking out the character-specific costuming choices of the rebel/pirate/Star Wars/Hells’s Angel’s Raider Nation.

And on a smaller, humbler, yet just as faithful way, please notice the down-scale yet touching outfits of the long-suffering A’s fan. They still wear player jerseys from the 1970s. Being the team of my single-digit -year days (oh the love of an 8 -and-a-half-year-old for his team), I still am, on the inside, a fan wearing my Dad’s San Francisco Giants cap inside-out in shame in the bleachers in 1969, when that area was known as Reggie’s Regiment. It was a cold night and my dad would not let me go bare-headed.

Just the other day, after spending the last ten months indoors in rehearsal and performance for five consecutive shows, I happily returned to the Coliseum for a day game. Once again, I couldn’t help but feel the connection in so many ways between baseball and theater. Both are places of memories. There are ghosts on the playing field just as on the playing stage. Looking out at the infield where the shortstop plays, I see Campy Campaneris, Rob Picciolo, Alfredo Griffin, Walt Weiss, just as when I look at various Bay Area stages, I see Tony Amedola, Lorri Holt, John Bellucci, Michelle Morain, Sarah Moser.

I still remember the first that I saw James Carpenter. He was a young man in Otherwise Engaged at the Berkeley Rep in 1984. Like most theatergoers, I’ve seen him so many times since then, all the way from his nervous comic performance in Paint it Red at the Rep to a slithery Stanley in The Birthday Party at the Aurora. It was kind of a shock when he started playing the older, patriarchal “ravenous Earls” in Shakespeare. (Maybe we’ve both gotten older!) Still, it’s been fun to follow his career. Just like it’s been fun to follow my favorite baseball players as a fan.

kind of wish that theater had more of the “true fans” just like baseball. The true fan attends the game even if their team isn’t doing very well. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a devoted group of people who rooted for us! Let’s go, PianoFight! Three-peat! Well, maybe PF does have those fans! Seriously, though, as my previous night column touched on, it would be great if we could support theater without it always having to be (allegedly) amazing.

Yet we’re kind of lucky in theater when compared to athletes, because everything we do is subjective. Pity the poor baseball player who’s having a bad year! Could you see your worst review being highlighted every day by the theater company where you perform? In baseball, every team shows the player’s statistics before every at-bat. “Now standing at the plate to deliver To Be or Not to Be, the actor with the .198 batting average for the season!” Shudder.

Perhaps perversely, I admit that I actually enjoy going to baseball games when my team isn’t doing as well. It’s almost like going to an audition as the marginal players engage in a Darwinian struggle to remain alive in the show (major leagues). I remember one actor saying that he thought certain audience members deliberately chose to attend the first preview of every show because they wanted to see a trainwreck. Of course, life-long humiliation is one of darker sides to sports…who will ever forget the name of the Boston Red Sox’s first baseman who let the ground ball go through his legs in a World Series game thirty years ago?

In the make-believe of theater, where every corpse arises for a joyful linking of hands for the curtain call, we all live for another day, I hope without humiliation. Still, it takes bravery for actors to be absolutely vulnerable in front of so many people. The nerves of the athlete under pressure must surely be like the nerves of the actor. And for the fans, it is their personal nerves in watching that bind them to the emotional event of the game or the play.

Personally, baseball has influenced my work in theater. Last summer, I directed an adapted version of Henry IV parts 1 and 2 called Falstaff! in which the great rogue was played by six different women. The women would also play other roles and the men changed roles as well, so Prince Hal could be Poins and vice versa. The first performance or two was kind of confusing as we worked out the switches, but as the production moved forward, I was pleased that the show developed a great feeling of generosity as everyone had an equal part in carrying the whole play. By the end it was actually like a baseball game where everyone gets their turn at the plate. And for the audience, it was exciting because they weren’t quite sure who they would see playing what role next.

I’ve often thought that the advantage of sports over theater is that we don’t know what will happen in sports. Why couldn’t we, just one time, with no announcement, alter the ending to one of Shakespeare’s plays? Wouldn’t it be great if Emilia said, “Hey, wait a minute, I gave that handkerchief to my husband”? Could you imagine the gasps from the audience at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival if they did that? There could be riots!

Perhaps the appeal of the Shotgun Players’ current Hamlet (running for the next year!), where everyone in the cast learned the entire show and each actor is assigned their part for a particular performance only 5 minutes before show time, comes from each show being part theater and part sports. You really don’t know what will happen each night. And, being honest, there’s a higher chance of a trainwreck on stage each night, which again, is part of the appeal of sports. I wonder if each show seems to the actors like an athletic game, where nightly success or failure is a more open question than in a conventional production.

But then in baseball, we see success and failure in every game. We also see practice. Yes, go the park two hours before game time and you can see batting practice. I wonder if it would be possible to open our theater houses early and let our fans (oh again, how I would love to have fans) see the vocal warm-ups or fight call. For the true fans that would really make attending theater like attending a baseball game!

Well, how much of all of this found synchronicity between baseball and theater is just fine Plymouth gin speaking? This 1840s-era drink is fiery and it’s numbing my tongue! Now as the bar closes and my rambling thoughts on the connections between baseball and theater grow ever more tenuous, I’ll just say Play Theater!