Theater Around The Bay: Year End Round Up, Act 4, The Stueys (Again)

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2014 list. Finally. We know it’s long, but read the whole thing. Seriously. If he was Tony Kushner you’d do it.

So if there is anything I learned last week it’s that one can have spent too much time thinking about Into The Woods.

No, but seriously, in the time since I published last week’s avante garde explanation for why I wasn’t going to do the Stueys, ironically, as these things often happen, I rediscovered why I want to do the Stueys. Blame it on a couple of supportive emails I got, a text of a friend reading my blog from inside a security fort and identifying too much, and a chat on a bay-side bench with a young, hopeful playwright, but my heart started to heal from the poison I was bleeding out of it and then one night, quite spontaneously, I just sat down and wrote them. And it just felt dumb not to share them. Before I do though, I wanted to briefly (for me) revisit the three things I wanted to get across in last week’s article. In 2015 it’s my goal to create space both for what I want to say, and what I need to say.

1) I kind of hate the Internet. But seriously, after the last year or so, does anybody not? I mean, I love what it can do but I’m starting to truly hate what it brings out in people, including myself. To be honest, while I am still quick with the quippy comments on Facebook and such, you may have noticed I am much quieter on the debates and controversy front than I once was and this is because I’ve just reached my limit of getting into fights that started out as conversations but then devolved into people just trying to outshout one another. It’s amazing to realize that a silent medium requires a volume dial but it really does, and the truth is, there are days I fear to be anything but funny on the internet, or ubiquitously positive, and so I ironically don’t want to talk in what is supposed to be a forum, not because I fear critique or debate, but because I’m not looking to start any wars. Too bad the Internet is pretty much a 24/7 war zone.

2) I kind of hate awards. I always kind of have, but this became more apparent to me after I won a TBA Award this year and I know that sounds ungrateful but believe me, I am honored and flattered to have received it, and I understand why awards are important, or at least necessary, and I can’t state enough, especially as someone who got to discuss the process and purpose behind the awards extensively with the folks running them, that I do believe the TBA awards are both well intentioned and super inclusive in their attempt to create an even playing field for theater makers coming from a diverse level of resources. What I dislike so strongly about awards is how many people, in the broader sense, use them as shorthand to designate the value of art, artists, and organizations. And no, they’re not supposed to do this, I know, but they do, and we as artists are not supposed to internalize this, I know, but we do. And I became really aware of that standing in a room with my fellow nominees that night, who didn’t win an award, all of whom were good sports about it but I could tell it made them sad. Which made me feel kind of miserable. And now my award lives in the back of my closet because as proud as I am of it, I’m also weirded out about it, and what it might mean to people, the expectations it might create about me or my work. And awards are nice but they can’t be why we’re in this, and I know that sounds kind of bullshit from somebody who has a few but it’s true and we have to remember that.

3) I kind of hate theater. Okay, that is an exaggeration but I am going through a phase of being sort of disenchanted with theater and some of the theater community. I know this is hardly a first for anybody in the community, and I suspect it’s a particularly common feeling when you’re feeling overworked- which I definitely was in 2014. 2015, however, doesn’t promise to be any less work, in fact the opposite, and so that’s got me down. And yes, I know it’s my choice to work as much as I do, but it’s also kind of not. A lot of what I do won’t happen without me and that makes me want to keep working because I believe in it and all the people it serves or creates opportunities for, but my inability to really escape the theater scene for more than a day or two before my inbox fills and my phone rings reached epic proportions in 2014 and lead to some intense moments of resenting the thing I love for needing me so very much while not always feeling like it needs me, Stuart, so much as anybody dumb enough to work this hard for this little pay. Which is a nasty thing to say but sometimes… sometimes it’s also kind of the truth. Feeling taken for granted sucks; feeling enslaved to passion has a dark side. So it goes. It balances out all the times I feel rescued and redeemed by it.

So, hopefully, you can see how all this could make for a mood not suited for creating the Stueys. Considering my general ambivalence/anxiety about awards, but recognizing that some people take the Stueys seriously enough to put them on resumes and websites, I really have been struggling with how ethical, not to mention hypocritical, it is for me, as an artist, to be handing out awards, no matter how playfully, to my fellow artists, when the only thing determining those awards is… me. Who no one should take seriously. But who apparently some people really do. Cue paralysis inducing terror and suddenly I couldn’t remember why I was doing this or what it was all about, but I felt I had to say something because I had all this stuff to say. But it can be hard for me to talk about myself, what I’m personally going through, and even harder for me to advocate for myself. I hate disappointing people. But I hate being insincere more. And I wanted to begin to understand why I was feeling all this dread.

Anyway, without more ado, and much, much later than intended, here they are, 14 awards for the 2014 Stueys.

BEST ADDITION TO THE BAY AREA THEATRE SCENE
The Bay Area Theatre Awards

The best thing about the Bay Area theater scene is that there is a huge diversity in the offerings, and so much on the table to begin with, and when we celebrate that whole community, regardless of budget or house size, Equity relationship or ticket price, we are celebrating our Art, ourselves as Artists, and Artists as contributors to and saviors of the World. Of course, no one organization or person can see it all, and therefore it’s important to share with one another the highlights of our time in the audience seat, if only to create a greater awareness of what and who is out there making stuff. No matter how far we cast our net, there is always more to see and more to explore and we’re fortunate to have it that way, so for a moment, let’s just celebrate what an incredible delight it is to now have an official awards system for our community that appears to be on the same page as that sentiment of inclusivity and casting a wide net, regardless of whatever other kinks may still need to be ironed out. And for those of you who feel the TBA Awards are not enough, or still missing the boat in some regards, you are correct. And you should do something about it, whatever that means to you. To me, it means keeping the SEBATAs going, because in my mind, Heaven is a place where at last we are all recognized for what we bring to the table, and I dream of a Bay Area filled with organizations and individuals proudly recognizing one another at every possible turn, for as many reasons as can be found, as many times as it pleases us to do so. And so I am giving the first Stuey this year to TBA, and specifically Robert Sokol, for having completed a Herculean task that they will now have to complete all over again. And then again. And then again. And again. Good luck everybody!

BEST NEW VENUE
PianoFight

Is there anyone who isn’t excited about all the potential here? Rob Ready and company have been building this space for years now, and walking into it you see why it has taken so long- it is just beautiful. From the mural by Molly Benson to the floors and the furniture, they have been seeking to create not just another black box or just another dive bar, but something truly magnificent, welcoming, inspiring, and everything a venue dedicated to a community art should be. Best thing of all? They’ve asked Theater Pub to perform there, and so we will be performing there, starting in January, at least twice a month going forward. Which makes us excited and scared. Something we’re sure they understand. This whole year looks to be exciting and scary.

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
San Francisco Fringe Festival (EXIT Theatre)

Dear San Francisco: this amazing thing happens right in the middle of you every year and not enough of you know about it and not enough of you make the time to visit it. And like… really visit it, not just duck in to see your friend’s show and then run out. And I understand why you do that because I used to do the same thing but now, having worked there for three years, I have to say, you are robbing yourself of an amazing opportunity to see theater from all over the country and the world, and to meet and talk with the most diverse collection of artists any one event assembles at any given point in the year, and to be a part of something bigger than you and bigger than just this venue or this theater scene for that matter. Do yourself a favor, serious theater goer, serious theater maker, and commit to seeing at least three shows at the Fringe this next year. Pick one by someone you know, one by someone you have heard of, and one by a total stranger. See them all, bring a friend, hang out in the Café and the Green Room between shows (on almost any night of the Fringe you can see 2-3 shows in one visit to the venue, and all the tickets are super cheap), introduce yourself to the staff and artists, tip the Fringe, and see if it doesn’t inspire you to want to see more, know more, do more. If the Bay Area Theatre scene is a garden, this is one of our most vital vegetable beds. Tend this garden, and then come get fed.

BEST SHOW
“Our Town” (Shotgun Players)

Won’t lie… it kind of kills me that this was my favorite show of the year. But it was, so much so that my boyfriend, afterwards, said, “Let’s not see anything else this year- let’s let this be where we stop” and he was right and I agreed, but that’s part of what worries me: for far too many people I think theater starts and stops with “Our Town”, or its equivalent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good theater because it is, and I have long defended Thornton Wilder as being one of the great playwrights whose work is often undermined by having been overdone. This production, directed by Susannah Martin with assistance from Katja Rivera, was anything but overdone, it was subtle and lovely and elegantly realized, from the costumes and lighting, to the music and the performances, and it all came together in a way that, while nostalgic and dramatically safe (which aren’t necessarily bad things, but important to recognize), still felt fresh and sincere, like the gesture of laying down in the rain on the grave of a loved one. There was really nothing I didn’t love. Though if I had to pick favorites I’ll say very little is more entertaining than watching Michelle Talgarow and Don Wood play off each other, even during the intermission raffle. The night I was there they got some very chatty audience feedback and they handled it Grover’s Corners style: graciously and politely and in a way that warmed your heart.

BEST READING
“Hydra” by Tonya Narvaez (SF Olympians Festival)

God, there is very little better in life than a really good reading, and possibly nothing more frustrating than watching people shoot themselves in the foot on what should be the simplest, easiest theatrical event to pull off. And yet… again and again we see it at the SF Olympians Festival, the full range of dramatic readings, from the simple but impafctful, to the overdone and done to death. This year we had a number of excellent readings, but my favorite standout was “Hydra”, written and directed by Tonya Narvaez. A ghost story, a comedy, a conundrum, the piece was elevated to a new level by Tonya shrouding the stage in total darkness except for reading lights for her cast who, illuminated in the stark and eerie glow, were uniformly excellent- not in the least because they were relieved of having to worry about blocking and forced by the light to focus only on the text. Such a simple, elegant choice, but so effective. She won that night of the festival, and wins this Stuey for Best Reading.

BEST SHORT PLAY
“Mars One Project” by Jennifer Roberts (part of “Super Heroes” at Wily West Productions)

Jennifer Robert’s play, about a female astronaut who is denied her chance to go to Mars because she has a daughter and the Powers That Be don’t think the world can stomach or root for a woman who would leave her child, even in an attempt to create a role model for that child, was by far the best piece in this evening of shorts. There was plenty of fine writing, but this is the one that transcended its own subject matter to present that ever elusive thing: an issue play in which both sides of the argument are presented with pathos. The tragedy of the piece is less that “we’re not there yet” and more, “is what it will take to be there always going to require sacrifice on this level”, to me a much more interesting, more human question. In an evening of mostly sketches, it was the one piece that could not only stand on its own, but really stood for something, and it’s a near perfect short play- which as an author of short plays, I assure you, is a near impossibility.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Amanda Ortmayer (EXIT Theatre Technical Director)

Amanda Ortmayer has let me cry on her shoulder so many times this year it’s astounding she doesn’t just keep a towel on hand. Only she probably does, since she’s seemingly prepared for anything, she just probably keeps it out of sight, since she also knows the value of never revealing your bag of tricks, or the exact location of your wishing tree. Something has to keep us in ballgowns and slippers and it’s probably not going to be wishes alone. But Amanda likes to encourage wishes too, and that rare combination of pragmatism and dreaming is why she is just generally… awesome. If you haven’t had a chance to work with her, I hope, one day, you do. It’ll remind you why we’re all in this, or at least, why we should all be in this: for the people.

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Marissa Skudlarek, “Pleiades”

One of my biggest pet peeves is listening to people complain about how there are not enough opportunities, while refusing to ever create those opportunities themselves. For the record I agree, there aren’t enough opportunities, but at some point we need to realize that if we have our health and a clear sense of our dreams, we’ve already been given more than most people get so it’s really just about figuring out how to see your dream materialize. Watching Marissa Skudlarek as she put together her first production as a producer (she wrote the script too, but we’re giving her recognition for the producer hat here), I was blown away by how organized and focused she was, how determined she was to do it as best she could even the first time out. Which is more than I can say for me. Even now, I feel like I mostly just take a deep breath, pick up my sword, and rush into battle blindly, while Marissa strategized and planned, gathered information, raised funds, and was just in general super smart about it all. Was anyone surprised? Not really. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take one more moment to tell her she did an amazing job. Everyone looking to produce a show in 2015- call Marissa. She knows what she’s doing.

BEST CHEMISTRY
Michaela Greeley, Katherine Otis, Terry Bamberger (“Three Tall Women”, Custom Made Theater Company)

It is not easy to play three versions of the same woman but this trio of ladies, under the direction of Custom Made veteran Katjia Rivera, brought so much magic to the stage that the leap of faith required for Act Two of Edward Albee’s classic was not only easy to make, you made it with a song in your heart! This is a lovely show, but one I rarely feel enthusiastic about, energized by, and these three performers, working so well together, in such total tandem with one another, sold me on this show in a way it’s never been sold to me before. Michaela Greeley was uncomfortably good at playing the frailty of her character in Act One and the fierce stubborn vitality in Act Two; while Terry Bamberger was an edgy warmth in Act One that ballooned into an explosion of heat and fire in Act Two; Katherine Otis, in the part with the least to work with in both acts, managed to strike the aloof brittleness required in the first act while still laying the foundations for the insecure idealist the second act tears to pieces. But what I may have loved the most was the way these ladies moved, always circling one another, always creating triangles on the stage, each one so aware of the other, having to fill the space one vacated, or rushing to claim a spot before the other could. It was like a dance, like a motorized portrait of the Three Fates and they wove a spell together that was frightening and enchanting all at once.

BEST RISK
Kat Evasco, “Mommie Queerest” (Guerilla Rep/DIVAfest)

Kat Evasco knows how to work an audience, but the audience at her show might not have been ready to get worked so hard. Bravely darting in and out of us, throwing herself around the stage in gleeful and breathless abandon, Kat unravels a personal story about the struggle to discover not only who she is- but who her mother is. And why she needs her mother to know who she is before she can finally accept herself. Co-written with John Caldon, who also directed, the show avoids the bulk of solo show clichés, feeling more like a play where Kat has just been tasked with playing all the roles to the best of her ability, and the audience isn’t really asked to come along so long as commandeered by her at the beginning and let go only when she sees fit. The piece is courageously risky, not only because of the controversial elements within it, but because Kat leaves no fourth wall standing between herself and the audience, and if they don’t run with her on it, her show is kind of screwed. Both times I saw this though, that wasn’t a problem; it’s hard not to jump in both feet at a time with a performer who is so ready and eager to do it.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
Justin Gillman (“The Pain And The Itch”, Custom Made Theater Company; “Blood Wedding” Bigger Than A Breadbox Theatre Company; “Pastorella” No Nude Men; and like a billion other things)

So… how many plays was Justin Gillman in this past year? It seemed like every time you turned around he was being cast in something, including by me, and every time he was pretty amazing in it. I don’t know how he does it. Like seriously, I don’t know how he memorizes all his lines, let alone doesn’t burn out from the constant rehearsal and yet somehow he shows up every night, fresh and ready to perform. Generous with everyone, onstage and off, it’s rare I don’t find him the highlight of a cast, usually finding a way to balance being a somewhat over-the-top character with a deeply human core that is achingly vulnerable when not just a tiny bit scary. In each of the three roles highlighted above, this was the common thread- men at first dismissable, who at sudden turns revealled their fangs, and then wept as they ripped your throat out. Delicious.

The ladies have gotten a lot of attention on this year’s list, which is great, but we like to keep things balanced here at the Stueys so we’re giving two more nods out: Kenny Toll (“Dracula Inquest”, Central Works) and Sam Tillis (“Slaughterhouse Five”, Custom Made Theater Company). In my opinion, both of these gentlemen were the best thing about these two shows, which were solid enough theatrical productions but elevated by fully committed actors. In both cases, both men also played characters who were… well, committed. As in insane. Though the insanity characterizations couldn’t have been more night and day than the plays were (Toll’s was of the by turns wimpering, by turns screeching Bedlam variety, Tillis was the diamond hard, lethally cold, slow burn sociopath kind), both managed to be believable and unsettling without being melodramatic or over-the-top. Toll even managed to be sympathetic, while Tillis managed to be mesmerizing. Either way, it was endlessly watchable, haunting, and impressive.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Cat Luedtke in Anything

Seriously, once upon a time there was no Cat Leudtke and then one morning we woke up and she was everywhere. I think I might have seen her in like six shows this year and in each case she was the walk away discovery, the revelation performance. The tremendous skill of this woman is matched only by her tremendous range, as every role I saw her in this year was different, though perhaps none so piercing and breathtaking as her role in Custom Made’s “Top Girls” as England’s most done-with-it-but-not-lying-down-about-it mother. I’ve also seen her sing and dance, act Lorca, play the 19th century adventurer, the dutiful wife, and more (probably helps that one of the things I saw her in was a collection of one-acts), bringing to each role a personal touch and a universal power, a sincerity and openness of heart that made you feel like you were watching a real person. She’s very much a “real actress”, whatever we mean by that when we say it. I know that what I tend to mean is somebody so good at throwing themselves into something, they transcend and turn into someone else, each and every time.

There is always an embarrassment of brilliant female performances in the Bay Area, so I feel a few other honorable mentions are in order: Mikka Bonel in “At The White Rabbit Burlesque” (DIVAfest), giving a performance as a rabbit that was unlike any performance of anything I’ve ever seen; Ariel Irula in “Blood Wedding” (Bigger Than A Breadbox), whose deeply passionate performance was matched only by the soul of her singing voice; Jean Forsman in “The Pain And The Itch” (Custom Made Theater Company), nailing well-meaning but vapid liberal mom as only someone like Jean could, walking perfectly that line of endearing and annoying; Stephanie Ann Foster in “Slaughterhouse Five” (Custom Made Theater Company), who played both a woman and a man in the show, and was lovely, heartbreaking, deeply sympathetic in each role.

BEST FUSION THEATER PIECE
Now And At The Hour (Christian Cagigal, H.P. Mendoza)

The fusion of theater and film is a tricky one, and I can only imagine how filming a stage show without destroying the magic of live theater must require an excellent understanding of both mediums. Now make that live theater a magic show too and you are truly setting yourself up to fall flat on your face, but H.P. Mendoza’s film of Christian Cagigal’s “Now And At The Hour” flies, it is magical and touching, the decision to interrupt the narrative of the stage show with the narrative of Christian’s life and the important players in it only adding to the emotional punch of this unique variation on “the artist and his work” formula. Beautifully shot, entertaining, unexpectedly poignant, this is a stellar example of a collaboration between artists and mediums.

BEST SOLO SHOW
Kevin Rolston, “Deal With The Dragon” (SF Fringe Festival)

Remember my earlier bit about the Fringe? Here is a glowing example of why going into something blind at the Fringe can sometimes result in stumbling across something truly excellent. I didn’t know anything about this show. It had a fun premise in the Fringe guide (Man moves in with Dragon) and a bad flier design (sorry, it can’t all be hugs and snuggles here) and while I had no expectations what I wasn’t expecting was to be so thoroughly moved and entertained. It does not hurt that Kevin Rolston is an incredibly talented performer with an ability to switch between his three narrators with glass-like smoothness, or that each of the three stories he tells, each with a different take on the idea of a “dragon”, are all funny and unsettling portraits of our tenous relationship with self-control and those things inside us that scare us. An unsettling fable about how our potential for violence and indulgence can also be our potential for strength and transformation, Rolston’s notes in the program claimed the piece is unfinished, but it could actually already stand as is. Here’s hoping the final product is as good as the draft.

And as for Me…

So Usually I end the awards with something about the show I personally worked on that affected me the most, but in all honesty I got so much out of all of them it would be hard to pick one so I kind of just want to take a final look at last year as a whole so I can both make sense of it and kiss it goodbye.

For me, it was an incredible year, but that doesn’t mean I loved every second of it. Far from it. It was as demanding as it was rewarding and at times it also seemed… endless. Like there was just always one more thing to do, to get through and then… two more. And then nine. I got to work with material by the incredible Kristin Hersh this year and that will forever be a highlight of my life but the production itself was a rough process, and the reception was rough, it all kind of placed too much strain on an important relationship in my life and I walked away feeling very differently than I had when I walked in- which was hopeful and desirous to bring a project that meant a lot to me to people I loved who I thought could benefit from it, but by the end I was wondering if I had ultimately done more harm than good by bringing such tremendous attention to something so natal. Then I directed a stellar production of “The Crucible” that made me acutely aware of how resistant critics and audiences can be to seeing a familiar play in a new way, and also how embracing they can be, but by that point I was having a hard time hearing the love and found it easier to focus on the detrimental views. I worked to let it all go, focused on feeling proud of the work my actors and designers had done, which was stupendous, and then just as I was feeling more balanced again, Wily West’s production of my play “Everybody Here Says Hello!”, after a whirlwind of a production process, opened to unexpectedly and ubiquitously positive reception. Suddenly, I was a guy with a hit show on my hands- technically my third this year since “Rat Girl” and “The Crucible”, despite whatever misgivings critics were having, were also big audience successes. For the first time in my career though my writing was the center of attention (I often feel I am mostly known as a director who writes, though I am actually a writer who directs), partly because Rik Lopes, not I, had directed “EHSH”, and so critics had to speak about our separate contributions separately, and that was wonderful but the moment was short-lived: we ended up having two performances canceled and the show only ran 7 times and it became my play everybody “really wished they had made it out to see.” Me too! Though one should never shake a stick at houses full of strangers. But oh… we do this partly because of the friends we hope to show something personal to, don’t we? And, again, I was having a year where it was hard not to keep adding things up in the negative, no matter how well they were actually going.

Anyway, this was then followed by the Fringe, as rewarding and as demanding as ever, which was then followed by the fast and furious (yet incredibly smooth) rehearsal process for my play “Pastorella”, which was the only piece I both wrote and directed last year, and which was well received, actually pretty much adored by audiences, but played to 2/3rds full houses or less its entire run after opening to an audience of 11- my second smallest audience in the history of my theater life in San Francisco (not my whole life- I once played to an audience of 2 in Tucson). The result was a show that, though very economically produced, still ended in the red, something which shouldn’t affect one personally as much as it does. But if you haven’t gathered yet, I’m being truthful here, even if it makes me seem a little petty. So yeah, my final passion project of the year was probably my personal favorite artistic accomplishment but it also cleaned out my bank account, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that 2014 was the year I went freelance/contractor and believe me- it’s been an adjustment. One I’m still adjusting to. Finally we had the fifth installment of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which was wonderful if perhaps more draining than usual, and fraught with an abnormal amount of backstage drama, from some diva moves on the part of some of our participants, to a failure to meet our fundraising goals (first time ever), and then the pique of which, of course, was having our dressing room robbed on, naturally, the night of my reading, which was successful in that it was well done by my trooper cast, but again, sort of middling attended, and a bit anti-climactic as an artist considering it had taken me all year to write it. And did I mention that some of my favorite actors kind of hated the script? Disappointing, but less so than having a “colleague” tell me that working with me was basically bad for businesses because of my strong opinions and tendency to carve my own way, nonsense that nobody who was actually a friend would have bothered to bring up- especially not when I was in the midst of trying to find a way to help them realize their own plans for the local theater scene. But I have occasionally been told my Achilles heel is caring about the band as much as I care about myself.

And somewhere in there I won a TBA Award for “EHSH”, had two works of mine garner bids for film adaptations, threw a delightful birthday party and another successful Easter brunch, but had to cancel a major social event because I got pink eye. Which is only worth mentioning again because in retrospect, it really is kind of funny. I wanted to get more reading done and much more writing, but it just didn’t happen. Best laid plans of mice and men…

So yes, 2014 was amazing but it was also, definitely, a mixed bag. Rewarding to no end, but unforgiving in many ways, most of all in that I had a hard time forgiving myself for just… well… doing my best but not always getting everything the way I wanted it or hoped for. The problem is, when you’re burnt out, stuff that you’d normally brush off or accept as the breaks of the business or just how life is get harder to be blasé about, and I found myself at the end of 2014 feeling accomplished but bruised, lucky but kind of cursed, exhausted and not excited so much as terrified about the future and yet… hopeful. Cause I am hopeful. And I want to stress that and more or less end there, and tell you it was amazing to have 800+ people applaud me for winning an award (even if it was for a play I always considered a bit of a “minor work” and never guessed would be so defining), and it was incredible to walk up those stairs that night, all alone, and think, even as my thoughts came crashing down around me, “Well, you certainly don’t do anything half-assed, do you Stuart?” (even if that means sometimes I paint myself into an intellectual corner with the same gusto I pull myself out of it). Though I definitely experienced a lot in 2014, I often felt like I wasn’t actually learning so much as surviving, and oh, by the way, I had massive writer’s block, and it was writing all that out last Monday that finally cured it… and got us here. And here is not a bad place to be: hopeful, and weirdly confident that whatever happens next, I can probably handle it. I just kind of wish I had a clearer idea of what “it” was. But then we all wish that, don’t we?

Ah well. C’est la vie.

Deep breath.

Happy New Year.


Stuart Bousel runs the San Francisco Theater Pub blog, and is a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. You can find out more about his work at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.

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Theater Around The Bay: Once Upon A Time…

Today is the first of our five (including last week’s prologue) part panel discussion of INTO THE WOODS, which is about to become a major film release from Disney Studios, but if you’re a regular follower of this blog, you probably don’t need to be told it’s also a seminal Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine that has spawned countless remounts across the world, acres of commentary and discussion, and launched more than one career. While we wouldn’t say it’s the “Great American Musical”, it’s certainly a great American musical, hugely influential, hugely popular, and just a touch controversial. We’ll use today to introduce our panelists and get to know them better, before diving into some deeper exploration of these enchanting, but treacherous, woods.

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Okay everybody. Imagine it’s like… AA for INTO THE WOODS addicts. Tell us who you are, and why you’re here.

Corinne: Hi! I am Corinne Proctor. I’m an actor, dialect coach and dramaturge. I’ve performed in Into the Woods twice, most recently as Little Red in San Francisco Playhouse’s production this past summer. I also played the Witch in a community theatre production in Maryland about 10 years ago. I may have just come out of the woods a few months ago, but I am raring to go back in again. This show has so much going on, it’s always a joy to be dissecting it.

Stuart: Howdy! I’m Stuart Bousel. I am a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub, which means I run this blog, amongst other things. I’m also the Artistic Director of No Nude Men Productions, the Executive Producer of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, a resident artist/social media manager/hospitality coordinator at the EXIT Theatre, and a freelance playwright, director, and occasional actor. I saw the original Broadway production of Into the Woods twice, including the final performance, and I’ve seen it three times since. It was the second Broadway show I ever saw and I consider it, and Sondheim, a major influence on my life and work as a theater maker.

Brian: Hello, I’m Brian Katz, Artistic Director of Custom Made Theatre Company. I’ve been obsessed with Sondheim since the early 90s, and have directed Assassins (twice), Merrily We Roll Along, and Putting it Together. This could have been about any Sondheim show, and I would have been happy to engage in a discussion. I am also very interested in musical theatre as an art form, because it is often dismissed en masse. I think it is just as important to be engaged with its masterpieces with the same intellectual fervor as, say, Shakespeare’s. Sondheim’s musical plays are the best we have.

Oren: Hey, I’m Oren Stevens. I’m a director/playwright, and the Production Coordinator and Artistic Associate at Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Company. I’m a huge fairy tale buff, and have used inspiration from them in both writing and directing projects; most recently I mashed up the stories of Baba Yaga, Cinderella, and Snow White in my new play Hungry/Happy. Full disclosure: I played the Baker in a production of Into the Woods in high school. It was set in a Wal-Mart. I will never bring it up again.

Marissa: Hi, I’m Marissa Skudlarek, playwright and SF Theater Pub columnist. I’ve been a huge Sondheim fan ever since I first saw Into the Woods at the age of 12 (the title of my SF Theater Pub column is a reference to A Little Night Music). In my junior year of college, I took a course on fairy tales and played Cinderella’s stepsister Lucinda in the drama department’s production of Into the Woods.

Nick: Oh, hello there! Perhaps you’ve heard of me? Nick Trengove, acclaimed local Bay Area actor and man-about-town. ITW holds a very special place in my heart — I directed a production of the show at UC Berkeley on a shoe-string budget. It was essentially the last thing I did as a student there. Aside from graduate. In any event, it was the last thing I did there that held any sort of significance for me.

Nick aside, it sounds like everyone is a pretty die hard Sondheim fan, and clearly when we talk about this show, we have to talk about Sondheim, especially as INTO THE WOODS is a bit of a standout in his career. So where does INTO THE WOODS rank in your personal “Best of/Favorite” Sondheim list?

Oren: This is always a painful question to answer — with most of Sondheim’s musicals I feel like I’m being asked to rank my children, and then with the rest I think to myself “Oh yeah… that one.” Company is, hands down, my favorite Sondheim show, and it’s completely because I think “Marry Me a Little” and “Being Alive” are such phenomenal songs, and between the two of them such a flawless summary of the show. Follies also occupies a very special place in my heart; besides the breathtakingly beautiful music, the aggressive and overwhelming nostalgia is so fully realized in every aspect of the show that at the end I’m an emotionally destroyed husk of a person in the best possible way. I can’t rank the others without ripping my soul into little pieces, but I will say that Into the Woods is definitely one that I love. If you want to point fingers at me for being safely non-committal, go ahead! You’re right.

Marissa: Into the Woods will always have a special place in my heart because it’s the first Sondheim show I saw and loved. I don’t think it’s my all-time favorite, though. A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park with George move me more deeply. Sweeney Todd is flat-out brilliant and hard to mess up. I even have days where I think that Follies has the best set of lyrics ever written for the American musical theater. I guess I tend to lump Woods together with Company in my personal Sondheim ranking. Both of them are among the first Sondheim shows I loved; both have incredibly strong scores; both have about equal numbers of male and female roles, but the women are more interesting; both expertly depict neurosis and indecision in song; and both of them generally work when the production is thoughtful, but are not 100% foolproof.

Stuart: Well, I’m going to part company (get it?) with you on the idea that the women in Company or Into The Woods are more interesting than the men (nobody in Company is more interesting than Robert, and the Baker and the Princes are, to me, of equitable interest to the women in Woods), but otherwise I’m more or less on the same page that Sweeney Todd is unquestionably brilliant, as is A Little Night Music– both to me are perfect shows, and are tied for first place in the “Best Sondheim show” category. Both are also in my top ten musicals of all time. Probably top five. Woods comes second, Company a close third. That said, I think Follies is probably “The Great American Musical” if there is such a thing, and I will always, always, love Passion. That’s actually the one I’d most want to direct at some point in my life. And my favorite Sondheim song, ever, is “Someone In A Tree” from Pacific Overtures.

Corinne: Into the Woods is also solidly in second place for me, (with Sweeney Todd taking first.) Disclaimers: I am not familiar with every single work of Sondheim. Also, I do not think of Gypsy or West Side Story as “Sondheim Shows”, even though Sondheim worked on them. Is that weird? If I have to count WSS and Gypsy then I guess Woods will come in 4th.

Nick: Oh, it’s definitely first for me. As I see it, Woods watches, sagely aloof, from its pedestal while Company and Sweeney Todd duke it out for second and third place. Somewhere, far far down on the pecking order, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Assassins wonder what it’s like to be as good as Into the Woods. They wonder and dream.

Brian: For me, top five, but never above number three.  Sunday in the Park with George and Follies fight for that top spot. Both those musicals have aged well with me, while Woods was more relevant in earlier decades. This is probably more about the type of story it is, rather than its quality. I was more into the hero’s journey as a teen, and I discovered Woods when other stories like this were my favorites, from Lord of the Rings to Siddhartha. In one’s teens and 20s, the path ahead is everything. When one reaches middle-age, looking forward is part of the process, but so is sustaining what one has, and passing along some kind of legacy. Those themes are more prevalent in Sunday and Follies.

Huh. Notice how nobody has mentioned “Anyone Can Whistle?”

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Stepping away from Sondheim for a moment, what are your thoughts on James Lapine, his collaborator, who wrote the script of the show and also directed the original production- still for many, the definitive version of INTO THE WOODS?

Nick: Oh Lapine is also a genius. Sunday in the Park with George, am I right? No, but seriously, I credit Lapine with really honing in on the psychology of these characters, lifting them out of their two-dimensional fairy tale origins and granting them each an interesting and relatable complexity.

Marissa: Yes, I love the characterization of Little Red as brash and bloodthirsty. I love “I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” which is one of the funniest lines in the show and yet gets at something very real (the thin line between smarm and charm) about life and the character. I love that the book of the show occasionally has these moments of winking at, or mocking, fairy tale tropes; but that, for the most part, it is sincere and the characters are fleshed out, rather than treated like cartoons.

Oren: What’s brilliant about the book is how effortless it is. I think it often gets overlooked because it glides by so smoothly, and when there’s about a hundred characters who are all on different missions, whose paths are crisscrossing constantly, that effortlessness is an insane achievement. In some ways, each scene feels very discrete — Jack and the Mysterious Man have an altercation, then both exit and the Baker and the Witch argue — but the reality is each scene feeds into the next flawlessly. People are watching each other, interrupting each other, hiding from each other (sometimes poorly) and the result is that you never for a moment think “I can relax, we’re between scenes.” The audience never checks out that way. As both a playwright and a director, I find this elegant seamlessness enviable. And not for nothing, it feeds into the music, too. Very rarely do you have a moment where you think “oh, a song is starting!” The music is constant enough, and the line between scene and song blurred enough, that everything flows together.

Brian: See, but that is partly why I maintain that no one really knows the entirety of Lapine’s contribution. Sondheim steals mercilessly from his book writers, and the sparser the book, the more you can bet he stole. That said, there are beautiful moments in act two that make the journey worthwhile, especially leading up to “No One is Alone.” The dialogue always seems well placed, the one-liners are hard to mess up, and he is invisible when it is called for. I’m also a huge defender of Goldman’s original book of Follies, which is also minimalistic, poetic, and deceptively simple.

Stuart: The flow between dialogue and song which is so effortless in Into The Woods is also part of what I love so much about Passion, another Lapine/Sondheim collaboration, which feels like a fever dream, if done right, and largely because the blurred line between line and lyric supports the blurred lines between passion and obsession which is the core of that story. I agree with Brian that Sondheim steals so much from his book writers that it makes it hard to tell, in some places, who is contributing what, but I also agree with Oren that Lapine is undeniably good at building a complex and byzantine network of plot and characters, which doesn’t always happen in Sondheim’s works, while it’s safe to say it pretty much always happens in Lapine’s to one degree or another, though this may be as much his contribution as director as it is writer (his film Impromptu, by the way, is an excellent non-musical, non-authored example of this). I will say this: I was much less worried about the film of Woods when I heard Lapine was writing the screenplay.

Corinne: The book has some shortcomings, and the score is so brilliant that it’s easy to see why it’s overlooked, but that said, it does the job of expanding on the story being told by the songs very well. There’s more meaningful repetition and connections than stand out in the first few readings and viewings- always a good sign. The script, like the score, is full of questions — which is so fitting for a show about people grappling with rights and wrongs. (FUN FACT: There are 420 questions in the show including questions asked in song. Trust me, I asked a computer.)

So, considering the songs are the bulk and thrust of the show, we gotta know: what’s your favorite?

Nick: “Moments in the Woods,” for so many reasons. Like any great Sondheim song, it’s a challenge for both the actor and the vocalist. Also, like most of the Sondheim greats, the important discoveries the character makes happen within the song. And when it’s done right (see Joanna Gleason), it really encapsulates a lot of what this musical is about – the tension between the fantasy of the lives we want to live and the reality of the choices and compromises we have to make. And that recognizing that having a choice and making it lends significance to our lives, even if it means we aren’t living our perfection. See? I told you. For so many reasons. Someone stop me.

Corinne: I actually really love another of the Baker’s Wife’s songs: “Maybe They’re Magic”. It’s so short and quick but so perfect. It tells us so much about who she is all while diving headfirst into core theme ideas about how right and wrong aren’t as clearly defined as fairy tales lead us to believe.

Marissa: “It Takes Two.” It’s almost a cliche to have a charming, witty, mid-tempo song that comes halfway through the first act and ends an argument or brings a couple closer together. Sondheim is fully aware of the cliche, so this song, while charming, is also a little bit knowing and ironic, which suits the characters of the Baker and his Wife. The title is generic but the melody is slightly odd and unexpected. And the lyrics are brilliant. “It takes trust / It takes just / A bit more / And we’re done / We want four / We had none / We got three / We need one / It takes two” — that’s nine lines, 27 syllables, seven rhymes, a recapitulation of the plot up to that point, and a pun on the song’s title. Sondheim, you take my breath away.

Brian: “No More.” It kills me. I don’t care how good or bad the production is, I’m going to be weeping like a baby when we get to: “No more giants waging war!/
Can’t we just pursue our lives/With our children and our wives/
’Til that happy day arrives/How do you ignore/
All the witches?/All the curses?
/All the wolves, all the lies/The false hopes, the good-bye’s/
The reverses/
All the wondering what even worse/Is still in store!
” Of course, it is important to remember that the Baker, who sings this, has just lost his wife, and that the actions he took on his journey led, more or less, to her death. There’s simplicity in the sentiment that gets to me. Into the Woods explores the theme of getting what you want, which is what you think you need. But at the end of the deceptively happy first act, only the evil stepmother and her daughters (and okay, Rapunzel, but more on that later) have learned the lesson. In the second act, character after character suffer the consequences of their paths, until the Baker is left with the child he thought he needed, but without the only person he truly cared about. The song makes us reexamine everything we thought we knew about the show. In act one, we want the “curse reversed,” for heaven’s sake – the Baker and his wife can’t have a child! In act two, we want them to defend their home by any means necessary. Over two hours into the story, we are forced to question the central journey of the play, just as we thought we knew the answers.

Oren: I always root for the underdog, so: there’s a song in the first act that usually doesn’t make it into the show. It’s called “Our Little World” and it serves as an introduction to the relationship between Rapunzel and the Witch (spoiler alert: it’s a weird relationship). It usually gets cut because… let’s just say it’s not the best one Sondheim ever wrote, but nonetheless I love it for two reasons. First, the monotony of Rapunzel’s existence is beautifully mirrored in the repetitiveness of the song. Secondly, because the Witch/Rapunzel relationship becomes very important later in the play, and this is the best introduction we get to it when everything is good. Here’s a real spoiler alert: it also drops a few hints as to why the Witch wants the curse broken, and why she would accuse Rapunzel of being biased against her ugliness — Rapunzel herself says it in this song. So, storytelling opportunities in both text and music, as well as its underdog status, make “Our Little World” one of my favorite songs ever written (objective quality be damned).

Stuart: Okay, so my favorite song, like Oren’s, is a bit of an underdog: “He’s A Very Nice Prince.” In particular, I like the full version, found on the Original Broadway Cast Recording, but usually trimmed out for stage productions. To me, this is where the show really starts to work its mojo, because you have a moment where the heroines of two separate stories, Cinderella and the Baker’s Wife, sit down and reflect on everything- and this is before the Wife realizes Cinderella has the shoe she needs. For a moment they are just people, connecting in the woods the way random people connect in life, and over the course of the song they sort of switch places: at the beginning Cinderella seems like this lost child and the Wife is this much more worldly person, but by the end of the song we see that the Wife is full of unrealized childish dreams, and Cinderella is already realizing not every dream is all it’s cracked up to be. There’s just a real poetry and nuance to the song and the character interaction that breaks my heart.

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So, considering how character driven the songs are, we have to ask: who is your favorite character?

Stuart: I’m going to use this moment to make a plug for Rapunzel and Rapunzel’s Prince. Secondary and supporting characters often really fascinate me in any show, but to me, these two in particular are both very innocent, and the show is just brutal to them. They’re not particularly well developed (I consider this a weakness of the show, actually), but what little hints we are given draws two very idealistic people who rush, like most young people do, into a situation that at first is a fairy tale and then turns out to be a total nightmare: she’s a broken, devastated person who can not exist in the real world and he is utterly ill-equipped to deal with her despite his best intentions. Rapunzel is often dismissed as kind of dumb, but she’s not: she’s had no experience of the real world, that’s been denied her, and her outlook is one of a prisoner who is brave enough to look outside her prison- she’s optimistic, not dumb. And when the world turns out to be the world, like many optimists she is crushed, but her inability to forgive the world, her mother, her prince, results in her refusal to grow and ultimately she is physically crushed as well as spiritually crushed. Rapunzel’s Prince is often lumped in with Cinderella’s Prince and therefore dismissed as a cad (for the record- I hate when some directors have him ALSO play a Wolf, as it dismisses the character to make a banal, cliche statement about young men), but there are many hints throughout the show that he’s actually a pretty good guy- shy, self-deprecating- and unlike his brother he suffers for his love- he’s blinded and wanders for two years looking for Rapunzel! When Rapunzel turns out to be a nightmare, he plays at being a cad but it’s so half-hearted: a mere dwarf deters him from Snow White when a Witch couldn’t deter him from Rapunzel. When Rapunzel died in the Broadway production, a moment that always stuck with me was Chuck Wagner’s look of grief and utter helplessness, and Rapunzel’s prince vanishes from the show after that until the end. I always fancied he basically banishes himself for being less than the hero his competitiveness with his brother lead him to believe he had to be, and that when he once again stumbles across Snow White, his decision to kiss her is really his goodbye to Rapunzel- after all, when he kisses he thinks she’s unwake-able/dead, so his only motive would have to be personal. Anyway, if there is one thing I’d do with a production of Into the Woods, it would be to fully realize the potential of these characters. To me, they epitomize the shattered idealism theme of the show, and that’s a storyline I find very poignant in anything, because I am an idealist. So is Cinderella, but more on that later.

Marissa: I’m going to say the Baker’s Wife, just because currently, I have the most unanswered questions and unresolved feelings about her. If I typically find it annoying and retrograde when female characters just want to have a baby, why do I like the Baker’s Wife? Maybe it’s because she’s shrewd and funny, strong and active. Maybe it’s because having a baby is a mutual goal for both her and her husband, and he seems like a pretty hands-on dad. Maybe it’s because he acknowledges that he needs her and he couldn’t have accomplished his quest without her help — but then does that edge dangerously close to the patriarchal trope of the incompetent husband with a smart, endlessly forgiving wife? And then, when the Baker’s Wife gets killed right after having sex with the Prince, is it the equivalent of the sexist horror-movie trope where the slutty girls get killed and the virginal ones survive? And then, does the answer to that affect how seriously we’re meant to take her epiphany in “Moments in the Woods”? I don’t know. But I like characters who make me wonder.

Brian:The Baker’s Wife. Smart, funny, passionate, generally a truth-teller, and truly the hero of the first act, and the central tragedy in the second.

Corinne: I love the Baker’s wife for her relentlessness pursuit of what she wants, her strength and her cleverness. She also has a wonderfully interesting personal journey. If I were to do the show a third time, hers is the role I would most want to play.

Nick: Baker’s Wife, obviously. For the long answer, see my thoughts on my favorite song. For the short answer, she has the most interesting character arc in a show full of interesting character arcs.

Oren: I could spend hours looking at characters and trying to pick a favorite I don’t think anyone else would say, but fuck it: the Witch. She’s a popular favorite, and not just because she has all the best songs. The utilitarianism that lets her try to sacrifice Jack seems psychopathic, but ultimately she’s the most exciting character because she’s the most free — she is completely uninhibited by social mores. The only reason we find it unsettling is because one of those mores is putting a high premium on human life. I’m not saying sacrificing Jack is the right thing to do (I’m not disagreeing with it either — it’s a complicated question), but when something is based on fairy tales, then it has to take opportunities to push, prod, and refocus the way we think. If someone’s going to talk about murder, let them be convincing, let them seem clearheaded and intelligent and make everyone around them seem like emotional, foolish, goody-goodies who can’t get anything done. She is the starkest reminder that in the real world, right and wrong are messy.

Well, and because Western psychology, Freud and Jung’s archetypes, etc. is very much at the heart of INTO THE WOODS- now who is the character you RELATE to the most?

Nick: Still the Baker’s Wife. Maybe it’s a function of being young or whatever, but I’m still obsessed with trying to live a meaningful life, with reconciling what I want my life to be with what it is becoming.

Oren: I would have given a very different answer in High School, but I’m going to also have to go with the Baker’s Wife. She’s pragmatic, but still emotionally driven and passionate. She doesn’t take no for an answer, and can recognize when the people around her are being ridiculous. At the same time, she’s able to step back and analyze (sometimes over-analyze) her own actions. Her willingness to lie to Jack to get his cow is the gentler, more human, less psychopathic version of the Witch’s willingness to sacrifice him (and while I probably wouldn’t throw anyone to the giant, I do appreciate a do-what-you-gotta-do mentality). She’s also easily distracted by fantasies of an alternate life (“Very Nice Prince” and “Any Moment” — I’m lookin’ at you). Regardless of whether or not I actually have any of these qualities, I certainly identify with them in her.

Brian: The Baker. I think most of us want to be like the Baker’s Wife, but truly we are the Baker. We think we’re the hero, but really we’re making a lot of errors, bumbling along, trying to do the right thing, and making a heck of a mess.

Corinne: The Witch. While I picked the Baker’s Wife as my favorite, most of the traits I love her for are ones I wish I had. I’ve always identified with the Witch (maybe even more so when I played her at 18 than I do now) because I have so often found myself on the outside of groups of people I don’t feel I can really connect with. It’s also not unusual for me to be the once voicing the unpopular or opposing opinion. I identify with her sass and her ability to criticize/call others out without remorse. (Hey, I’m not good, I’m not nice – I’m just right. 😛 )

Marissa: I’m not sure if I currently identify with one Into the Woods character above all others, because frankly, nothing can compare with how deeply I identified with the Witch as a high-school freshman. I’d gone to a new school that year and not found it welcoming, and I very much felt like an outsider. To avoid feeling sad and lonely, I decided that I was actually misunderstood, that I was better than everybody and they’d be sorry one day. I remember walking around campus, cultivating my resentment while singing “Last Midnight” under my breath; “I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right” felt like my credo. What I ignored, of course, is that at the end of that song, the Witch self-destructs. And that’s what I did that year, too. I felt angry, self-righteous, and invincible — and, in an attempt to make friends, I did something incredibly stupid and hurtful that backfired, big time. It’s dangerous to identify with the Witch.

Stuart: Cinderella. In fact, I would maintain that part of the reason why I’ve always loved this show, and why it made such a huge impression on me, is because Cinderella was probably the first character in a play I really, truly related to. I had related to characters in books before, but at 10, when I saw Into the Woods, I hadn’t yet seen a play where a character just made sense to me. And as I’ve gotten older- she makes more and more sense to me. Like Rapunzel, who is her doppleganger in the play, Cinderella wants something that isn’t material, but rather spiritual: she wants an experience, one she believes will transform her and allow her to finally feel like she belongs to somewhere. Then she has the experience and it’s not what she thought it would be, and comes with more than she bargained for. Her line in Act One, “Wanting a ball is not wanting a prince” nails that, and killed me the first time I heard it, I was like, “I know exactly what you mean.” Unlike Rapunzel, Cinderella is disillusioned but never stops learning while also never ceasing to believe in a benevolent world, and it’s her ability to live somewhere in-between “the nightmare” of her father’s house and the “dream” of the Prince’s castle, that ultimately becomes her strength: she, more than any of them, discovers that she can live in the woods. She’s learned to speak with birds and the spirits of the dead, she knows when to run and when to stand and fight, and she protects the people around her- whether it’s Jack, Little Red, or the Baker’s child- and believes in them even when they fail- she’s the one who welcomes the Baker back after he abandons them. Her journey in the play is about learning to be a good parent, someone who is neither the vague but purely supportive dead woman in a tree, nor the nasty wicked stepmother, nor the opportunistic survivor Wife, nor the overbearing and un-compassionate witch. She’s a high self-monitor, and thus often worries, even when she’s sitting on a throne or wearing a crown- that she’s an imposter or a failure (something I constantly worry about, especially when I’m sitting on my throne or wearing my crown), but in the end she wants to be more than a survivor and she comes to understand that entails being a leader and looking for ways to help, to protect, to forgive and to create. I’ve always read the relief with which she accepts the Baker’s invitation to move in (“Sometimes, I really enjoy cleaning”) as a combination of finally being included and appreciated, but also having finally found something she can truly contribute to. Her “I wish” that closes out the play I have always seen as a note of hopefulness, a recognition that we never stop believing in dreams until we’re dead. I have personally always believed that hope is the best within us and imagination is what keeps us alive and Cinderella epitomizes that while also being a neurotic mess on the inside. “An imaginative, hopeful, neurotic mess” is pretty much the most accurate description of myself that I can come up with.

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Join us next week as we dive deeper into the structure and themes of the show, talk about what it means and how it works. Meantime, how would you answer these questions? Sound off in the comments section! Have questions for us- post them there!

Theater Around The Bay: Keep The Ghost Light On

Stuart Bousel, fading in and out of view. In your mirror. At night. When you say his name.

So, I was gonna do this whole collection of personal ghost stories related to the theater for today’s blog… but only two people got back to me and only one got back with a personal experience, so that idea kind of died. I will, however, publish Claire Rice’s contribution, partly because it’s cool, and partly because it really thematically ties in since Claire recently left the San Francisco Theater Pub, so this is kind of like the ghost of Claire speaking to us from another world.

The rehearsal room/dance room at Eastern New Mexico University is haunted. Students used to send each other in there alone in the dark to freak each other out. A full instructional skeleton hung on a pole that could be moved around the room and was often a source of fun and silly frightening games. One night some of us told each other “La Llorona” tales in front of the big mirrors in the dark and then dared each other to really look into their mirrored darkness. The skeleton caught whatever light was left in the room and glowed eerily in the corner back at us. We all focused on it and merrily screamed and ran out of the room. But there were stories of the stereo or the television turning themselves off and on. Of the doors closing suddenly and forcefully by themselves. Of odd drafts whispering in from nowhere in particular. One night, late after rehearsal, I went in to close up the room. I was alone in the building. I turned off the light and, just as I was about to close the door, I saw a prop left in a far corner under the skeleton. I turned the light back on and crossed the room. I picked up the prop and turned back around and saw a reflection of someone else in the mirror near the door where I had just been. I looked at the door and there was no one. I looked back in the mirror and there was no one. I never went into that room alone again.

One of the things that I have always found fascinating is just how superstitious theater people are. We don’t all have the same superstitions, but I’ve never met a theater person who hasn’t, over time, acquired a bunch of rituals and charms, even if they walked in claiming (usually pretty loudly) that such things were nonsense. I can’t say for sure if it’s the live/anything can happen element of theater combined with the unusually high number of Type-A/control freak personalities that tend to do theater, or the part where we generally experience more rejection than acceptance in our line of work, but either would naturally predispose us to a tacit reverence for the weird and a desire for the mystical. Show me an actor or producer or director or writer who doesn’t have a lucky warm up song or opening night underwear or a thing they say to the mirror in their dressing room (or never say) or closing night tradition or whatever and I will show you the phone number of the agency you called to hire that fake actor/producer/writer/director, who will then reveal, because they are an actor/producer/writer/director, all of their superstitions. For better or worse, we have always been a people uniquely sensitive to Luck and the role Luck plays in the world and it’s because we know how quickly awesome can turn to crap- or crap to awesome. And we also know how much we really can and can’t control that.

The complication is that belief in Luck (or really, an awareness of Chance) tends to also indicate both a creative mind and an active imagination. Combine that with the part where we spend our lives convincing ourselves the Audience is Listening and after a while that can absolutely lead to a vague but constant feeling of always being watched. Additionally, we masquerade as other people and thus are acutely aware of how everyone else, theater person or not, is a masquerade to one extent or another, thus leading to a general perspective of “nothing is as it seems” and “everything is a sign/clue”. Lying, embellishment, fantasy weaving, and just being flat out delusional run rampant in the theater community and thank God because it generally makes for much better storytelling but sometimes it can even be hard for US to know where the illusion ends and the truth begins. Assuming there is such a thing as “the Truth”. The older I get, the more I understand why artists tend to be more interested in being “true” than “truthful.” Being true is about fully buying into the world around you both as it is but also as it could be or should be; being truthful is generally boring or disappointing, really only matters in life and death situations, and frequently requires one to be self-righteous in a way that doesn’t allow for much compassion or understanding- which is sort of the antithesis of good storytelling. Sure, we’d probably cut down on the drama if we were more truthful, but it would probably be at the cost of the Drama.

None of which should have anything to do with the long-standing tradition of theaters and rehearsal spaces being haunted, but then again, if this is the general psychology of the people spending their lives there- how could they not be? Particularly if you subscribe to the idea that ghosts are not so much the spirits of the dead, as residual energy left from profound, violent, or devastating occurrences. Aside from hospitals and prisons, it’s hard to think of a building that could match a theater when it comes to the number of arguments, passions, revelations, disappointments, and ecstasies having occurred within its walls, not to mention all the secrets, gossip, thwarted schemes, scandals and triumphs- practically a gothic novel behind each curtain. And while the death and violence of theater is rarely for real, the constant re-enactment of terrible things, and the frequent invocation of terrible people, is bound to be feeding the atmosphere if not the energy of whatever beings or memories become trapped behind the backdrops. As someone who subscribes to the belief that joy can be just as disturbing (and therefore residual) as pain, all the comedies and romances only contribute to the haunting of a theater, something I find comforting as I’d like to believe that love and laughter leave just as much of an impression as violence and fear. Either way, if you’ve never walked around a theater late at night, locking up, checking the bathrooms, I suggest it if only for the creepy/comforting sensation that you are not alone, no matter how much your footsteps echo. In fact, the more they echo the more you become aware of how they shouldn’t, because normally there is so much going on you would never have heard them and it is that sudden and obscene absence of furor that triggers sensations by turn nostalgic, bittersweet, melancholy, and unsettling. The quiet of a theater is not a comforting quiet because it is not natural, and for that matter neither is the darkness of a theater: both are the result of extensive steps to sound and light proof spaces, expressly to focus your attention on what’s happening in the theater. And it’s when nothing is happening that the sensation we call “haunting” tends to hit us most powerfully. Which is why nobody likes to linger in the theater once The Ghost Light is on and everything else is shut off.

And yes, I know the pragmatic reason for the existence of The Ghost Light is to keep people from falling off the stage when wandering in the absolute pitch dark of a vacant theater trying to find the light switches, but come on: we called it “The Ghost Light.” I mean, we could have called it a “The Service Light” or “The Stagehand’s Guide” or “The Blue Light” or any number of unromantic things (apparently at some point there was an attempt to call it “The Equity Light”) but we called it (and continue to call it) a Ghost Light for one reason and one reason only: because we are fundamentally romantic creatures and it tickles us to think we have somewhere to go when we die and it’ll probably be a theater full of our friends putting on all our favorite shows, only this time nobody fucks up their lines, the person you’re secretly sleeping with doesn’t freak out mid-run, and nobody is worried about making rent at the end of the run. Also because secretly we all know that any theater that’s seen at least one generation of theater artists pass through it is saturated in ghosts and if you didn’t leave that light on they would probably burn the place down in your absence- or perhaps in the middle of your show. If they’re actors, it’s definitely going to be the later. Actors know all about the importance of timing.

Luckily, theater ghosts seem to be primarily benign, and are usually fans or artists who haven’t moved on because they love a life in the theater so much. As proof I offer this tidbit sent to me by Christian Simonsen, who emailed it when he heard I was looking for theater ghost stories:

One of the most talked about haunted theaters in the United States is the Bristol Opera House in Bristol, Indiana. Built in 1896, it is currently managed by the Elkhart Civic Theatre Company. Over its century-long history, this building has managed to collect three ghosts, which actors and stage crew have assigned names to. There is a little girl (“Beth”), who has been seen peeking out of the stage left curtain, as if counting the number of filled seats. A handyman (“Percival”) has frequently been spotted by the women’s dressingroom, and has been known to tug on actors’ costumes right when they make an entrance. The third ghost is a middle-aged woman (“Helen”), a “protective presence” that is often simply “felt”. Unlike the other two spirits, it is quite rare for Helen to actually be seen. Apparently, even in the afterlife, theaters are unwilling to give a woman over forty any decent amount of stage time.

At the end of my play PASTORELLA, which just closed on Saturday, there is a little moment when the lead male character, Warren, shares with the female lead, Gwen, his own bit of superstition, and this seems like a good place to end because last night, ducking into the EXIT Theatre, I experienced one of those sensations that is, for me, the quintessential haunting of the theater maker. My play is a slice of life tragicomedy that works best if viewed as a direct look into the backstage ups and downs of a small theater company (as opposed to a traditional backstage comedy, which is usually actually about the onstage ups and downs of a production). The play is unrepentantly nostalgic, bittersweet, melancholy, and unsettling, and that’s appropriate because it’s largely based on my life and experience in the small theater, perhaps the most personal thing I have ever put on stage, and as a result filled with memories and masks and terrible people and events, passions and schemes and delusional episodes, revelations, dopplegangers, missing people and… ghosts. Ghosts everywhere. Ghosts with monologues and ghosts in the props and ghosts in the costumes and ghosts in the transition music and ghosts in the words and ghosts in the blocking and ghosts in the rawness and artifice alike, right down to the part where the play in a play the company is doing is Tom Stoppard’s ARCADIA- a play about ghosts, code, and the inescapable past. Many of the people who loved the show the most were part of the small theater community and it was always wonderful and disturbing to talk to them afterwards and hear them share their own memories, their own versions of the play’s events and characters, all of which seemed familiar- too familiar in some cases. Encountering a ghost usually results in a mix of sorrow and fear: sorrow for what was lost, fear that the past isn’t done with us yet. Warren, actor and director, small theater champion to a fault, sums it up best when he looks at the empty dressing room and says, “This place always freaks me out when it’s this clean” and because it’s a spooky truism of theater that the show you’re working on always seems to permeate your life and turn everything symbolic it makes perfect sense that, while ducking into the theater last night to retrieve a mirror that was used in PASTORELLA, out of the corner of my eye I saw Justin Gillman, the actor who had played Warren, standing in the wings of the stage. Of course, that’s because he’s there rehearsing another show (Bigger Than A Breadbox’s BLOOD WEDDING), but for one whole second I had the terrifying thought that I had somehow forgotten we had a show that night. And then the sad sensation of knowing that the show was gone.

WARREN: Well, here the new life begineth.
GWEN: What?
WARREN: Forster quote. E. M. Forster. You might not know who he is because he never wrote any plays.
GWEN: I know who E.M. Forster is. I read real books too, not just scripts.
WARREN: Well we got that in common. (beat) It’s what I say whenever I stand in a room I need to expel demons from so that tomorrow I can walk into said room as if I hadn’t had my heart broken into a billion pieces there. This room, however, probably needs a full on exorcism. Typical.

Sleep well. Happy Halloween.

Stuart Bousel is a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. You can find out more about him and his work at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.