Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Uncomfortable Thoughts

Marissa Skudlarek, questioning.

The other week, British theater director Vicky Featherstone caused a stir when she claimed that plays with complex, flawed heroines make audience members uncomfortable. This led to a lot of online discussion, which I am not really interested in rehashing – except to respond to a comment that I saw several times. People suggested that Featherstone was ridiculous to complain about audience members reacting to plays with discomfort, because “the point of theater is to make people uncomfortable.”

People asserted this like a self-evident truth or an article of faith, yet to me it’s not self-evident and is in fact deeply problematic.

Let me be clear: I think there’s a place for theater that makes people uncomfortable, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing when an audience reacts with discomfort. However, I take issue with claiming that the purpose of theater is to make people uncomfortable – which implies that discomfort is the best emotion that theater can provoke, and that sowing discomfort should always be theatermakers’ goal. I take it on faith that theater ought to inspire emotion(s) in the audience, but why privilege one specific emotion, discomfort, over the whole broad palette of emotions that humans can experience?

Perhaps people who say that theater should be uncomfortable are operating from the assumption that we live in such a fucked-up, unjust world that discomfort is the only valid emotion. Down with joy, down with uplift, down with cheap and sentimental tears! Up with theater that jolts us out of our bourgeois complacency! It’s been a while since I read my Brecht, but this seems like a very Brechtian conception of theater. And, again, Brechtian drama has its place. But I would find it very difficult to go on living – and extremely difficult to go on creating art – if every single play tried to make me feel uncomfortable about my role in Western global capitalism.

Another problem with saying “the point of theater is to make people uncomfortable” is that often, it really seems to mean “the point of theater is to make wrongthinking people uncomfortable.” Vicky Featherstone said that feminist plays made sexist audience members uncomfortable, and lots of people responded by saying “Well, good, they damn well should!” But would those people react with equal enthusiasm (“Good, theater is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable!”) if a theater produced a misogynistic play that made feminist audience members uncomfortable?

Again, I am not arguing that all theater should be insipid pabulum. But I believe that art can be challenging without necessarily being uncomfortable. Challenges can take many forms – intellectual, emotional, philosophical – and they can be a lot of fun. Indeed, it’s pretty easy to get people to do something they think will challenge them, but it’s very hard to get them to do something they think will be uncomfortable. Crossword puzzles are challenging. Video games are challenging. Getting a root canal is uncomfortable.

I would love it if 100% of the plays I saw challenged me in some way (currently, I feel like I don’t see enough challenging theater). But if 100% of the plays I saw attempted to make me uncomfortable, I would probably stop going to the theater.

True, it’s not always easy to negotiate the line between “challenging” and “uncomfortable,” because it differs for every audience member. But my general rule would be: strive to create challenging art, but know that some people may react to your challenge with discomfort. This is very different from creating art that deliberately seeks to make people uncomfortable.

For an example of what I’m talking about, take Hamilton. (Did you know that it’s illegal to write about theater in Fall 2015 without mentioning Hamilton?) Its allusion-filled, fast-paced lyrics are challenging on an intellectual level. And in casting people of color as the Founding Fathers, it challenges our ideas about American history and who has the “right” to tell this story. But, by and large, Hamilton is not making people feel uneasy and uncomfortable – that’s not how a show becomes a massive hit. Instead, people are rocking out to the cast album on road trips and sharing their favorite lyrics on social media. Some people say that Hamilton makes them feel inspired or patriotic (a friend of mine tweeted that listening to the cast album motivated her to update her voter registration); other people say that they can’t listen to Act Two without weeping. I bring this up in order to point out that there’s a difference between shows that make you cry and shows that make you feel uncomfortable. Crying is an emotional release, and therefore there’s something reassuring about it; discomfort allows for no emotional release, which is why it’s so, well, uncomfortable.

Probably, some bigoted people feel uncomfortable with the idea of African-American rappers playing George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But it also seems pretty clear that Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t write Hamilton in order to piss off the bigots; he wrote it for the people who find it cool and inspiring to see actors of color play Revolutionary War heroes. His use of hip-hop isn’t intended to unsettle people, it’s intended to make them feel more at ease, to “eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story.” In that interview, Miranda also says “My only responsibility as a playwright and a storyteller is to give you the time of your life in the theater,” and talks about artistic creation as an act of love.

In other words, Hamilton may well make bigots uncomfortable, but that’s a side effect. The point of Hamilton – the most praised and talked-about show of the decade – has nothing to do with making people uncomfortable. Audiences hunger for emotions, for connections, for challenges, for community. What will keep theater alive is its ability to create those things – not its ability to create discomfort.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. The staged reading of her new one-act play Tethys is happening Friday, November 20, at EXIT Theatre as part of the San Francisco Olympians Festival. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: The Shows I Didn’t Walk Out On — But Should Have (Part I)

Dave Sikula, full of regrets.

There have been three shows (among the hundred I’ve seen) that I nearly walked out on. There are probably dozens of others that could have made this list, but three were three that drove me close to the brink.

It’s at this point that I mention something I’ve mentioned previously; a show I liked a lot, but probably shouldn’t have: the production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” in Berkeley. It was done by the Berliner Ensemble – Brecht’s own company – in what was then its farewell tour (they’ve since reconstituted). The chance to see one of my favorite Brecht plays performed by his own company was irresistible, so we went.
The play, for those who don’t know it, is an allegory about Hitler’s rise to power, seen through the filter of the Chicago mob: Hitler as Al Capone. The play was written in 1941 (when Hitler was still a threat), and according to our friends at Wikipedia (in an entry I have to rewrite because it’s so badly done – the annoying use of “whilst” for “while” leads me to believe it’s a Brit) – and, as always with Wikipedia, consider the source – it was written in Helsinki while Brecht was waiting for his American visa. It wasn’t produced at all until 1958 and not in English until 1961, even though Brecht intended it to be produced in America.

Yeah, it's a wee but obvious, but it's Brecht, after all.

Yeah, it’s a wee but obvious, but it’s Brecht, after all.

The production, while good overall, had its … unique moments, such the opening, which had the actor playing Ui on all fours, acting like a dog (including barking and growling) while the song “The Night Chicago Died” played for about three minutes. That could strain any audience’s patience, but it was a good prologue for what followed; if you could tolerate that, you could tolerate anything else they were going to do.

Some time after intermission, then, it came as a surprise to us when another patron, who’d obviously had enough, rose noisily from his seat, loudly slammed the lobby doors open, and yelled “This is a nightmare!” While I don’t blame the guy for not liking the production – it was not to everyone’s tastes – but I’ll never understand why he stayed until after intermission to express his distress. If you find it that bad, just leave when there’s a break.

Imagine three minutes of this.

Imagine three minutes of this.

But I’ve digressed yet again.

Let me deal with the three plays that came closest to driving me to a similar scene.

First is the 1985 production of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” at the Los
Angeles Theatre Center. LATC was a failed early experiment to revive downtown Los Angeles. Even though it’s active in a new incarnation, it was originally an offshoot of LA Actors’ Theatre, a group which was founded by a number of TV and movie actors who wanted to do challenging theatrical fare. (I particularly remember a very good “Waiting for Godot” with Donald Moffat, Dana Elcar, Ralph Waite, and Bruce French.) LAAT worked in a very small space in Hollywood off Santa Monica, but their success there, and the city fathers’ wishes to revitalize downtown, led to them establishing an outpost in downtown LA.

We're waiting, we're waiting ...

We’re waiting, we’re waiting …

A small digression here (really, from me?) Even though it was hard to believe in those days of the mid-80s, downtown LA used to be chock-a-block with people. The movie palace district – the only one in the country, I believe – is a marvel of architecture and gives one a sense of what the movie-going experience used to be like. Nowadays, it’s filled again with restaurants and clubs.

The lobby of the Theatre Center.

The lobby of the Theatre Center.

Anyway, LAAT was given a former bank building downtown to turn into a theatre space. In those days, there were three theatres in the complex. I saw a number of shows there, some good (“The Petrified Forest” with Philip Baker Hall in the Bogart role and Rene Auberjonois in the Leslie Howard part; a few things by Spalding Grey) and some, like “The Three Sisters,” were so staggeringly bad as to make one wonder if it was intentional. The director was Stein Winge, a Norwegian who apparently had little command of either English or Chekhov. (I saw an early preview and got a glance at his notes, which were in Norwegian and seemed to be obsessed with the clock in the set’s drawing room.)

t was an interesting cast. Some appropriate actors – Stephen Tobolowsky as Baron Tuzenbach, Cliff DeYoung as Vershinin, Caitlin O’Heaney as Natasha, and Gerald Hiken as Dr. Chebutykin – and some wildly inappropriate actors – Meg Foster as Olga, Ann Hearn as Irina, and (the most bizarre of all) Kim Cattrall as Masha.

Regardless of the casting, a good and sensitive director could have made it all work. But Winge was anything but good or sensitive. Dan Sullivan (the fine then-critic for the LA Times) noted in his review that the evening began with Olga’s “first speech about its being a year since Father died (being) delivered from the floor, she having taken a spill.” It was all downhill from there, with self-indulgent performances and lame attempts at slapstick and physical comedy (that didn’t even qualify as garbage) prevailing. I particularly remember, 30 years later, Cattrall’s reaction to Vershinin leaving. She bawled her head off, sounding like an air-raid siren, and grabbed DeYoung around the neck, then slowly worked her way down his body, ending up clutching one leg as he tried to limp his way off-stage. It went from WTF? to “really?” to funny to embarrassing over the course of what seemed like two minutes. (Doesn’t seem that long? Count it off.)

There was every reason to leave, but it was hypnotic, like a slow-motion car crash. At every occasion where an interpretive choice could be made, they’d make the wrong one, and it was fascinating to wonder and watch just how they’d go wrong next.

It remains of my great evenings of theatre-going, but for all the wrong reasons.

Sullivan notes in his review that it ran 3 and a ½ hours, but I know better than that. As I said, I saw an early preview and, even though I couldn’t bear to go back, I knew one of the actresses (who will go unnamed). I was driving home from Hollywood one Saturday night, and, seeing that it was nearly 11:30, thought I’d stop in and say hello to her; maybe go for a drink. I drove to the theatre, parked, and went to the lobby – only to find out that the show was still performing. Over the course of the run – and this was only about three weeks later – they’d been so over-indulgent that they’d added 20 minutes to the running time. I love Chekhov, but not that much.

As it turned out, LAAT soon went bust (even though, as I mentioned, someone else has since taken over the building), mainly because the neighborhood was so dicey. There was one night when, after the shows let out, the audiences had to be held in the lobby because some kind of gang war had broken out in the nearby streets.

Either that, or they were theatre-lovers who’d just had enough.

Coming next time: The World’s Worst King Lear.

Theater Around The Bay: The Kurt Weill Project

Happy Friday the Thirteenth Everyone!

Today seemed like a good day (a lucky day!) for us to launch our new project- which is essentially a digital form of the Pub where we give you another look into the diverse and exciting theater scene that defines the Bay Area performance community. Like all Pub projects, this is an experiment and we’ll see how it goes, but the goal is to create an online stomping ground for the small theater scene, eventually bringing you a blog a day, profiling a group here, an actor there, a project or perspective to generate a collage of what’s going on, who is doing it, and what it’s like to make this theater scene happen. Think of it as a lifestyle mag for the black box, storefront, rear-bar crew- which can include you! Have a story to tell? Let us know. We’ll be constantly on the lookout for new material and just like the live portion of Theater Pub, the best way to get involved is to drop us a line and tell us what you want to do.

In the meantime, check-out this profile of The Kurt Weill Project, brought to you by Theater Pub veteran (and Kurt Weill diva) Michelle Jasso. 

The Kurt Weill Project, clockwise: Zoltan DiBartolo, Allison Lovejoy, Harriet March Page, Martha Cooper, Alexis Lane Jensen, Nathan Tucker, Michelle Jasso, Sibel Demirmen.

German-Jewish composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950), son of a cantor, was working as a theatre accompanist by the age of 15.  Eventually reigning as the leading composer for the German stage, Weill enjoyed many fantastic collaborations.  Two of note were Bertolt Brecht, with whom he composed his most (in)famous Threepenny Opera, a “biblical parable” actually serving as a Marxist-inspired critique of Capitalist values, and famed diseuse Lotte Lenya, who would become Weill’s wife and a champion of his compositions.  Shanghaied into childhood prostitution in Imperial Vienna, Lenya had many a story about the complicated lives and hearts of “Ladies of the Night,” and Weill wrote stacks of songs for her based upon her experience.  The couple split and separately fled Nazi Germany, only to re-meet and reunite in the US.  Shortly thereafter, the couple attended the final dress rehearsal of George Gershwin’s masterpiece Porgy and Bess.  After the curtain descended, Weill allegedly turned to Lenya and said “So jazz-influenced American opera does exist — and I’m going to write it.”  His next project was Street Scene, a massive, complex, beautiful piece of heartbreaking theatre for which Weill won the inaugural Tony Award for Best Original Score.  Sixty years after his death, the music of Kurt Weill continues to be performed regularly in classical, jazz, cabaret and even pop and rock settings.  Songs of Weill have been covered by artists like Nina Simone, David Bowie, The Doors and Tom Waits, to name a (very) few.

The true genesis of The Kurt Weill Project (KWP) would be in the San Francisco Concert Chorale, which Harriet March Page, now Artistic Director of Goat Hall Productions, joined in 1987.  In SFCC’s annual variety show in 1988, Page and Miriam Lewis (now a sought-after SF theatre costume designer) performed a rendition of the “Jealousy Duet” from Threepneny in which they ended up on the floor entangled in the curtains at the SF Community Music Center.  All the Kurt Weill-loving singers soon stepped up and, later that year, had their first Weill performance as Salvation Army-Turned-Whore at Hotel Utah, and later in 1988 performed a concept piece written by Page called The Sea Is Blue at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, a fully staged production with chamber orchestra.  Weill later fell by the wayside as the group evolved into Goat Hall Productions and began producing full seasons of opera, but Weill has never left Page’s heart.  Approximately a year ago Page decided to resurrect the KWP, stating simply “I want to sing this music until I die.”  A small handful of us got to work, reading through the mountain of Weill’s opus; the ensuing months brought about vicissitudes of personnel and therefore creative direction, but the goal has remained steadfast: to learn and perform as much of Weill’s rich repertory as humanly possible.   

This new incarnation of KWP had its debut performance as part of StageWerx’s Underground Sound series in July 2011, and has been going strong ever since.  Essentially a cabaret group, there’s always a theme: Moon Floating on Water; Songs of Ships and the Sea; Berlin, Broadway and Beyond, etc.  We’ve done something special for the month of April and are showcasing the work of KWP member and local pianist/composer/treasure Allison Lovejoy.  A second performance of this program of her original cabaret tunes will happen at The Red Poppy Art House in the Mission on Saturday, April 14th at 8pm.  The KWP appears every 2nd Monday at StageWerx (also in the Mission), and our next theme is Brecht!  

More about all this, as well as Goat Hall’s full season may be found here: http://goathall.org/