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.

Advertisements

Cowan Palace: Getting Bloody with Ariel Craft

Double your dose of blood today via Theater Pub as AC squared gets a little bloody this week bonding about brides, Lorca, and Halloween!

While I’m counting the days until it’s “acceptable” to admit I’m listening to Christmas music (and honestly, this year I plan to start the jams on November 1) you may be feeling like you’re not quite ready to give up the bloody lifestyle of the Halloween season. Well, fear not, Theater Pub friends (or, um, keep fearing if that’s more fun), because Blood Wedding is opening in November!

What’s Blood Wedding? Did you not obsess over that play in college like I did? Well, to start with, it’s a Spanish tragedy written by Frederico Garcia Lorca. But here to help us uncover its beauty is San Francisco gem herself, Ariel Craft, the director of Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre’s production of Blood Wedding. Since we’re both “AC” (just like AC Slater and air conditioning!), I’ll be the “TP” of this exchange (please think of that as Theater Pub and not toilet paper, thank you).

TP: So to those who don’t know much about Blood Wedding, what would you tell them?

AC: Blood Wedding is a love story set in a place where there is no tolerance for such love. It is a play about people who are too passionate to exist within the confines of their world and, as a result, must try to rip it apart at the seams or risk being ripped apart themselves. It is an exploration of heartbreak. It is also poetry in its own right.

TP: Why did you decide that this would be the perfect time to put on a play that was written in 1932?

AC: I think the beauty of Lorca’s play is that its core is always relevant, because it is rooted in a consistency of the human experience. Regardless of year, people still want things that they aren’t supposed to have and which aren’t good for them. People still find themselves bound by social pressures which they can’t seem to navigate. People still can’t find their footing around loss and want and difficult circumstance. It works anytime because it is something with which we can all identify.

TP: Did you know right away that you wanted to set the play in the modern American south?

AC: Our decision to produce Blood Wedding came hand-in-hand with our overall production concept – rooted in the American south with country music influences – so I guess you could say that we did know right away. This play had been bumping around in my head for years – and I always knew that it was great – but it didn’t become a passion piece for me until we found this entry point. More on this to come…

TP: After spending half the year planning your own wedding, do you think your perspective of wedding celebrations has changed at all? And has any of that knowledge gone into your direction?

AC: Without a doubt, I have a completely different perspective on this play and its central questions now than I would have had a year and a half ago. In one way, I have loads more anecdotal experience to pull from which sometimes comes in handy: remembering the incredibly uncomfortable and unnatural pace at which a bride is supposed to walk down the aisle, for example, informed a moment of the piece. But in a more substantial sense, the sheer act of getting married demands that you ask yourself some profound questions. What does it actually mean to commit to something, or someone, for the rest of your natural life? What is the sanctity of our own promises? These and other such bubblings and introspections have informed my work and my understanding of the play.

Ariel and Max's Calistoga Mountain Wedding

TP: What has been your favorite part of being a real life “The Bride”?

AC: Cake tastings. Seriously: just walk into any bakery, tell them you are getting married, and they give you a platter of tiny, assorted cake slices. It is our society’s greatest untapped resource.

TP: What has been the biggest surprise while rehearsing Blood Wedding?

AC: Unearthing the joy of the piece is always a tremendous discovery. I know it will crop up somewhere but where and how it does is often surprising and delightful. When you do the kind of work that we do, there is a common misconception that you are a tragedy-monger, or that you’re heartlessly blood-thirsty, or that you feed on the depression of your audiences. To the contrary, finding the vibrancy, the liveliness, and the forward momentum of the world and its inhabitants is the greatest reward of our work. Despite the worst circumstances, our characters are always fighting – and often they’re losing – but regardless of the outcome, they push forward with determination and promise.

TP: Why is this production of Blood Wedding different that those that audience members may have seen in the past?

AC: I hope our audiences will find that there is a lot that distinguishes our Blood Wedding from other productions, but the most tangible difference would certainly have to be our musical additions. We’re fortunate enough to have David Aaron Brown, an incredible local composer and music director, as the driving musical force behind our production. David’s written original music and lyrics for the piece, while also setting some of Lorca’s text to music, pulling from a variety of country music inspirations. Some of the music is more honky-tonk, some is more bluegrassy, and then – of course – there is Dolly.

TP: Please tell us more about the show’s original score inspired by Dolly Parton as it seems like such a fun and unique choice!

AC: Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” was the song that started it all: that created the initial connection between this play and the genre, that lead us here to this concept and to this production. Using “Jolene” as an inspirational jumping-off point, David constructed the soundscape of this world. The music informs the action of the play, while often being in tonal opposition to it. It juxtaposes what is happening while also feeding it, and to me it adds a dimension which makes the play feel much more like life as I understand it. It is also worth noting: our production is not a musical in any traditional sense of the word. But to understand what I really mean, you’ll have to come and see the play!

get-attachment-2.aspx

TP: What scene are you currently most excited to see staged in front of an audience?

AC: Without giving too much away, I can tell you that the play’s climax horrifies me on the daily, and I can’t wait to see how others will react to it.

TP: What do you hope audiences leave the theater thinking about once they’ve seen the show?

AC: I’d like it if we stirred audiences to consider the nature of their own choice-making. What do you do because you feel it is right? What do you do because your gut calls you to? Which part of yourself do you navigate from? And are your choices sustainable? And are you fulfilled? And, if not, how long can you last?

TP: If you could grab a beer with Lorca, or maybe some Sangria since he’s Spanish, what would be the first thing you’d ask him?

AC: I’d like to know what part of him this play, because it is so enormous, was birthed from. I also hope that he’d bring Salvador Dalí along, because then it’d really be a party.

get-attachment.aspx

TP: Give us a sneak peek of what we can look forward to this season with Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Co.

AC: Blood Wedding is the final show of our second season, and our third season kicks off this March with Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad by Arthur Kopit. That one’s being directed by Ben Calabrese, my assistant director on Blood Wedding and the resident madman of our group. It’s just going to be too crazy to miss.

TP: What are you going to be for Halloween?

AC: I keep the costume stock from our company’s past productions at my home so I’ve thought about pulling a distinctive piece from each show and going as the Ghost of BTaB Past.

TP: What’s your favorite Halloween treat?

AC: Anything except candy corn. I reject candy corn in totality.

TP: In tens words or less, why should we come see Blood Wedding?

AC: Because it has everything to do with you. And you. And you.

I’ll be there and I hope you will join me! Come see the poetry unfold at The EXIT Stage Left, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco, playing: Friday, November 7th at 8pm, Saturday, November 8th at 8pm, Friday, November 14th at 8pm, Saturday, November 15th at 5pm, Friday, November 21st at 8pm, and Saturday, November 22nd at 8pm!

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.

Cowan Palace: Ashley The Actress Gets Knocked Up

This week Ashley talks about acting, pregnancy, apples, and oranges.

Maybe you’ve heard the news, gang. This gal has a bun in the oven (or a “pun in the oven” if you’ve seen our announcement video). And it’s awesome! It’s wonderful! But truth be told, it’s also hard. And complicated.

Before I say much more, it should be stated that being a mom has always been something I wanted to become. Since I learned to talk, I told anyone who would listen that I planned to grow up and be an actress and a mother. In fact, since I was always on the taller side, I spent a lot of my time in middle school, high school, and college getting cast as “the mother role”. Though, playing Mother in Roger Williams University’s production of Blood Wedding was still one of my proudest parts to date and landed me the nickname of “Mama” to all my college classmates.

Here I am at 19, crying about my kid in Blood Wedding! Look at that old age makeup!

Here I am at 19, crying about my kid in Blood Wedding! Look at that old age makeup!

That said though, I always imagined my journey into motherhood would be calculated and planned. To say the news of this pregnancy caught us off guard is the understatement of the year. (Then again, my family moved when my 5th grade class was taking Sex Ed so clearly, I don’t understand how babies are made.)

After spending eight months of planning our wedding and trading in rehearsals for workouts, Will and I were so thrilled by the idea of returning back to our life and just relaxing into our new relationship as a married couple. We were going to do more writing, push each other to audition for plays, and slowly save money for an eventual move. After a long talk, we also agreed that Will’s job wasn’t an ideal match and he decided to give his two weeks notice. A day later, we discovered we were pregnant and the world turned upside down.

As I bawled my eyes out into Will’s chest in the doctor’s office, a group of nurses kept whispering, “are they happy right now?” And yes, I was very happy but also totally terrified. We didn’t exactly feel “ready”. We had only been married a month! We live with roommates! Will just quit his job! But here was a new life inside of me! It was both amazing and overwhelming. Everything at once.

And no one mentioned how physically demanding it would be! Throughout my first trimester, I was too tired to do anything but go to work and stumble home. I was also so nauseated all the time that my good ole friend, food, became an enemy. Which has honestly been one of the most difficult elements for me.

We also couldn’t talk openly about it. Very few people knew. But one of the things we realized early on was that I wouldn’t be able to act in the late October show I had been cast in as by that time, I’d be about five months pregnant. Thankfully, my very understanding director, Colin, let me weep on the phone while promising to keep the secret. I had never dropped an acting role before and I started to realize that me and my acting love are going to have to take a bit of a break for awhile.

Earlier this week, that understanding hit me like a ton of bricks. While watching the Olympians Audition, I sat in the audience trying to curb my never ending nausea with snacks and small talk. I asked about how Terrorama (the show I had to drop) had been doing and I was greeted with enthusiastic replies. They were doing great! Which is fantastic! But I couldn’t help but feel a little sad knowing I was originally supposed to be included in this horror themed party and now couldn’t be a part of the terrifying fun. Once the actual auditions began, the weight sank in a bit more as I thought about how my body was getting bigger and I was watching an array of beautiful, young, slender actresses parade across the stage and impress everyone. It started to feel like I was being asked to leave a party I so desperately wanted to attend; that the exit was getting closer and everything was changing.

As you could have guessed, the feelings once again brought me to a tearful goodbye as I escaped the Exit Theater with two streams of water rolling down my face. Guys, I’m an emotional gal battling her way through some new hormones, you get it, right?

I worry you’re reading this and thinking I’m an ungrateful, selfish bitch. There are families out there trying to have a baby and here I am complaining and crying all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m terribly grateful But no one tells you how grueling and taxing the process can be. Most of what I know about it all has been through movies and 90’s sitcoms. They all said it would be wondrous and they promised I’d glow! They don’t tell you that it’s also sometimes the worst. Also, I worry more about my unborn child seeing this one day and thinking for a moment that they were unwanted for even a second. Because I assure you, that’s truly not it.

It’s just me processing life. And trying to be honest in the process. I have a lot of emotions. I feel all the feelings. I’m still an actress after all and it’s just something I do.

This is what I look like as a kind of trashy pregnant gal. I’ve been practicing this role for years.

This is what I look like as a kind of trashy pregnant gal. I’ve been practicing this role for years.

This week the baby is the size of a navel orange. Or an apple, if you read other sources. And as I contemplated the well known idiom and my feelings on my sabbatical from acting, I thought about trying to compare things that can’t really be compared. Life isn’t easy. And being an adult has proven to be harder than I imagined. You have to make grown up choices sometimes that you don’t feel ready to make. Some days, you need the apple and some days you need the orange; you don’t always get both. But when you’re ready to strike a delicious balance, maybe life will grant you a fruit salad. That’s what I’m aiming for anyway.

Comparing acting to my new motherhood is impossible and pointless. I’m delighted to take on my new real life mother role and I’ll also be excited to return to the stage sometime (hopefully soon) to continue to follow my passion. Goodness knows, I’ll be in the company of other amazing parents who are navigating a similar course. So until then, I thank you all for letting me be open and truthful about the adventure so far… and for following me on yet another journey of harmonizing theater with life.