It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: “Wait a Second … What Did He Say?”

Dave Sikula draws a line between two shows you probably wouldn’t have thought to compare.

I didn’t have a pressing topic this week, but, in trying to come up with a topic, was suddenly struck by a similarity that my current show, “Speakeasy,” has with Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara.” By the way, from what I learned tonight, we’re apparently a sensation and virtually sold out through March. (I know some potential patrons have balked at the price, but I do think it’s one of those things where you really get your money’s worth – and watching the audiences every night, they seem to really get into it; though there’s always the chance that it’s just the alcohol …)

Anyway, we’ve had just one weekend of performances so far, and as I expected, I still have no idea what to expect during the performances. (I can only imagine what audience are expected or come away with.) Being that many of the audience members spend the first part of the evening in the bar space (and as you may have gathered from the paragraph above, it is a bar and we do serve alcohol) in close quarters with the actors, it’s hard for some of them to know who’s an actor and who’s a patron. (Ticket holders are encouraged to come, if not in costume, as least dressed in a non-inappropriate fashion – and most of them have.) My character spends the entire evening parked at the bar, and at the first preview (we’re officially in previews until the 24th), someone tried to engage me in conversation. He asked me if I came to this bar often, and I answered, gruffly but in character, that I was here pretty much every night. I’m sure this answer (not to mention my general terseness and lameness at ad-libbing in character) confused him, and he soon moved on, much to my relief.

The unique difficulty for me in the show is that, as far as I know, I’m the only character who really interacts with the customers. (I haven’t seen the portions of the show that take place in other areas of the space.) I think others have some interaction, but not to the extent that I do. Most of the other scenes are intended to be eavesdropped-upon or be observed. Most of my stuff is like that, too, but I also have a couple of monologues that are addressed directly to “real” people, rather than to other characters. (I have one speech about Henry Ford and the Model T automobile, which I’m free to address to anyone I chose. I picked a couple of women in their 20s on Friday night and, as I began the speech, they asked what a Model T was. I had to incorporate instructional information into the speech so they understood what I was talking about, which threw everything off. Did I mention I hate ad-libbing in character?)

Because I spend the evening planted at the bar (where people are constantly coming to order fresh drinks) and have certainly one of the most interactive characters, I’m faced all evening with simultaneously trying to be friendly while giving off “please don’t talk to me” vibes. It’s exhausting. (Seriously; I never would have thought that sitting on a bar stool all night would be so tiring.)

While I find the whole experience enjoyable, one of the most enjoyable aspects of playing my character is that he starts off one way, giving the audience certain expectations, but gradually, those expectations are overturned through a series of speeches that give a whole new (and utterly period-appropriate) angle on him. (I don’t want to give anything away.) Given the way the show is structured, though, some patrons could miss the setups and get just the payoffs, which I’d find unfortunate, given the character’s arc. I mean, if you just see me at the end of the play, you won’t be able to put those speeches and actions into their full context. He’s just one-dimensional rather than well-rounded.

Things like that are some of my favorite things in theatre. I saw “Major Barbara” at ACT Tuesday night, and loved it. I thought it was a very entertaining production of one of my favorite Shaw plays. One of the things I most about the show is that the character (Andrew Undershaft) I should most despise is one of the most admirable. There’s no doubt where Shaw’s beliefs lie in this play, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of his writing. He forces his audience, whom I’m guessing he presumes will share his sentiments, to confront and defend their preconceptions by giving the most reprehensible motivations to a charming, witty, and articulate character. Shaw dares you to debate the character in your head. Unlike some writers (*cough*David Mamet*cough*), he doesn’t set up straw men and award audiences for having their prejudices confirmed. He gives the best lines and speeches to the “wrong” characters, virtually daring the audience to agree with them. It’s bracing theatre and makes you work.

Now I’m not saying that my guy in “Speakeasy” is anywhere on the level of a Shaw character. He’s just not complex enough – and let me speedily add that that’s not a flaw in the writing; the point of the evening isn’t to paint a full portrait of my guy. He’s simply a man of the 1920s spending yet another evening drinking illegal alcohol in speakeasy, and that’s all he’s intended ot be.

But I will say that it’s always fun to play someone that the audience is asked to have sympathy for in spite of their best intentions, and then to watch them react – and I really can watch them, in this case – as a guy they thought was one thing turns out to be quite another. It’s like when someone’s beloved elderly relative says something really offensive. You want to be outraged but need to contextualize the action. It’s easy to be outraged when a racial bigot or homophobe or rapacious capitalist whom we don’t know says or does something with which we disagree: “How dare they?!” It’s quite another when someone we’ve come to like or respect suddenly says or does something we find reprehensible. And, for me, it’s a pleasure to see or play a character who forces me to come to terms with my own actions and beliefs. I’d ask you to come see the show and talk it out with me afterwards, but there are no curtain calls in this one, and once I leave the bar (which is before the show ends), I’m on my way to the dressing room and home. I don’t stick around.

Theater Around The Bay: From Theater Pub to the Castro Theater

Another Theater Pub success story, Christian Simonsen describes the journey of his short script “Multi-Tasking” as it went from stage to screen.

In July of this year, my short comedy play “Multitasking” was produced as part of Theatre Pub’s Pint Sized Plays IV at the Café Royale. My play (indeed, the whole festival under producer Neil Higgins’ guidance) was a huge success… although oddly enough, the compliment I heard most often from audience members was: “your play was my father’s favorite!” which is an interesting niche audience to explore.

Pint Sized Plays is a site-specific festival; all of the stories have to take place in a pub. My script was a farce about two strangers, Eric and Kathy, waiting for a blind date and job interviewer, respectively. Just as they start a mild flirtation, a yuppie woman, Tess, bursts in on them, and hilarity ensues.

A coworker from my day job, Michael Laird, had come to see my play. He said he liked it a lot… but then, I thought, that’s what coworkers are supposed to say. Near the end of September, Michael reminded me that he was a part of the local film collective called Scary Cow. He had already paid his dues working on the crews of several films in different capacities, and he now felt ready to make his own. “Would you be interested in letting me produce ‘Multitasking’ as my first film?” I thought about it for a while— who am I trying to kid, I immediately said Yes!

Pre-production begins.

Michael’s plan was to knock the film out real quick: find the easiest location, use the same actors, shoot it in one afternoon “sometime this weekend or the next” while the actors still had their characters (and lines) in their heads, download it to a yet-to-be –determined editor, give the editor three or four days, bing-bang-boom, we have a film we can enter into the Scary Cow Film Festival at the Castro Theater. The deadline to submit was October 19th.

I was hesitant. I told Michael it seemed unlikely we could pull it off that quickly. He shrugged. “Why not try?” If everything doesn’t all come together, he added, we can just regroup, and try again later. “If we miss the Festival, it can still be on YouTube!” He had a point, and I realized, not for the first time, that “hesitant” is too often my natural state. I asked Michael if he planned on directing it, but he said no, he wanted to focus on producing. In other words, he wanted to take on all the unglamorous dirty work, including picking up the tab… really, how could I say no?

I then suggested myself as the director. “Do you have any film directing experience?” my new producer asked. “Sure, I studied filmmaking in college!” I did not bother to mention that back when I made student films, Jimmy Carter was still President, and I had no clue how to access the camera on my cell phone.

So I got the gig (that’s what we used to say back in the ancient ‘70s). But then I thought about what an impressive job the stage director Jonathan Carpenter did with my script in the Pint Sized Plays production. (I was even more impressed when I later found out that Jonathan and his cast only had one rehearsal together before Opening Night!) Did I really want to submit the actors to a brand new director with such a rushed schedule? And where in tarnation would I find the [REC] button on these modern computer chip camera gizmos?

Michael agreed that it would be awesome if we could get Jonathan to direct. So I set about contacting him and the three actors: Andrew Chung (Eric), Lara Gold (Kathy) and Jessica Chisum (Tess). Everyone was excited to do it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one in the Bay Area interested in them; their dance cards were all filling up fast. So we had to find one full day in the next two weeks where the key participants, producer Michael, director Jonathan and the three actors, were all free. (I did not count myself in that lofty group because they already had my script, so really, if I got run over by a bus at that point, the show would still go on).

Via Facebook / email / texting / carrier pigeon, we found the one window where we were all free: Sunday October 13th.

Perfect. Now, where would we shoot? The script’s original setting was a pub, per the Pint Sized Plays script submission rules. But for the film, I rewrote the location as a coffeehouse (it’s the only change in the script I made). Using a real coffeehouse on such short notice was problematic. You never know if business owners are going to get cold feet at the last minute, and renege on their promise to allow you to shoot on their property. Michael, ever the cheerful optimist, said that the living room in his new apartment was fairly large… if he got the right tables and chairs, it could probably pass as a small corner of a coffeehouse.

He had a good point. Michael’s view was always that this film would be more like a Saturday Night Live comedy sketch, as opposed to a full blown film with realistic locations, etc. Although it would still be “cinematic” (using camera angles and editing to help convey the story), the main focus would be on the script and the acting, with just enough “production values” to sell the idea of the setting. In other words, we were okay with a living room that sorta kinda looking like a coffeehouse.

So, we had a time, and a location! With those variables locked down, and my script in his hand, our big shot producer Michael could go to the next Scary Cow meeting and pitch our project, and collect a crew. As soon as he recruited Alisha McMutcheon as our Director of Photography and Camera Operator, Michael set up a meeting so Jonathan and I could meet her once before the shoot.

Before the meeting, I asked Jonathan if it would be okay if I story boarded potential shots for the film. Story boards are drawings of the different camera compositions that will be shot; they basically look like a comic book version of the film. My compositions would be suggestions only. But if Jonathan liked them, it would free up his time to coach the actors. He agreed, so I created three sets of shots, four shots each. The first set was the Must Haves: the shots we definitely needed for the film to make any kind of narrative sense. The second set was the Nice to Haves: these shots would add enough variety to keep the film from looking too “stagey”. The third set was the Luxuries: in the unlikely event we were ahead of schedule, we could shoot those to make the film, as Stanley Kubrick would say, all fancy schmancy (okay, only I would say that).

One page of my storyboard artwork. Hey, I never said I was a Renaissance Man.

One page of my storyboard artwork. Hey, I never said I was a Renaissance Man.

We had a great meeting! Alisha obviously knows her stuff, and came across as a real team player. Everyone liked my story boards. I promised to avoid the stereotype of the neurotic scriptwriter by staying in the shadows and letting Jonathon run the shoot. And Michael promised to feed us breakfast and lunch! (Now that’s a producer!)

Michael started bringing more people on board that he had worked with on other films. Before we knew it, we had a film crew.

Then the bad news came from actor Jessica Chisum. In order to secure a major part in a stage production of Macbeth, she had to drop out of our shoot (this is not the first time William Shakespeare has stolen good actors from me. That guy’s a Prima donna!).

We had to find a new actor quick. It was decided that Jonathan alone should recast the part. Since he had the most experience with local actors, he would know which ones would most likely have the best chemistry with Andrew and Lara. Not to mention which candidates could learn their lines the fastest (my script was very dialogue heavy).

There is an invisible point with any theater or film production, where the momentum of everyone involved has taken it past the “what if?” stage, and it becomes its own animal; a living, breathing entity that seems to tangibly exist. At that point, any problem that comes up (such as losing an actor) seems to be one that was made to be solved. This project had reached that stage. That didn’t mean that this film was guaranteed to be made (living creatures can still die at any time). What it meant was that our director could confidently entice top notch actors on short notice with a “real project”.

In just a few days, Jonathan was able to snag Helen LaRoche. I knew the name rang a bell, so I googled her. Sure enough, back in 2012 I saw Helen give a moving performance in Stuart Bousel’s emotionally complex play “Artemis and Apollo or Twins”. I had made a mental note at the time that I wanted to someday work with her. Score!

Three days before the shoot, I meet Jonathan for coffee so we can discuss any issues about the script before his one and only rehearsal with the actors. I would not be at that rehearsal. With such a tight schedule, the actors cannot be subjected to a two-headed dragon; they need just one leader guiding them. The shoot was now Jonathan’s baby.

On the morning before the shoot, Jonathan had his two hour rehearsal with all three actors. He phoned me afterwards. He was very happy.

Production begins.

At 9:00am on the morning of the shoot, Jonathan, Alisha, myself, and the rest of the crew arrived: Tom Morrow the Gaffer, Ben Gallion the Production Assistant and Stuart Goldstein the Still Photographer (we lost our sound guy, so Alisha did triple duty). We did most of the set up before the actors arrive at 9:45am. Michael was the only person who had met everyone before today.

 I believe Michael told his roommates he was "having a few friends over."

I believe Michael told his roommates he was “having a few friends over.”

In the world of live theater, cast and crew work together for a long enough period of time to become a family. Granted, that “family” more often resembles the House of Atreus than the Little House on the Prairie… but whether they are stabbing each other or laughing together, they still know each other. In film production, you are usually thrown together with a group of mostly strangers, with a very narrow period of time to complete the production. Lucky for all of us, Michael chose everyone well. We worked together beautifully.

Director Jonothan Carpenter checks the monitor to frame a shot.

Director Jonothan Carpenter checks the monitor to frame a shot.

I was given the task of maintaining the script log, meaning I took down any notes Jonathan had on all of the shots recorded. What I noticed doing this task was the unique challenges film actors have. I know the common sentiment is that live theater separates the men/women from the boys/girls; while I would generally agree with that, film acting has its own challenges. Films are almost always shot out of order; so every time there is a new camera shot, the actors must realign themselves to a totally new place on their character arch. For instance, the final camera angle covered the characters Eric and Kathy at the first two pages of the script, and then at the very last two pages. After the beginning was shot and the director yelled “cut”, actors Andrew and Lara had to make a drastic change from being cuter than a box of kittens to looking like refugees from a Kafka story. You could see the immediate transition of time in their body language alone.

Our cast!  Andrew Chung, Helen LaRoche, Lara Gold

Our cast! Andrew Chung, Helen LaRoche, Lara Gold

Thanks to everyone’s’ professionalism, we got all twelve shots we wanted, plus one extra, an epilogue we all thought up during our lunch break.

Post-production begins.

Evan Rogers was recruited by Michael to edit our film. Editing is an art form all its own. In fact, it is the creative aspect of filmmaking that most separates cinema from live theater. An editor can make or break a film, so I was a little concerned that the whole post production of “Multitasking” would be in the hands of someone in another city that I never met (to this day I haven’t met him). But Michael vouched for him, and I read an email where Evan said he loved my script (I can be a tad vain).

And besides, Evan had almost four whole days to edit our six minute film before the October 19th deadline. No problem. Until there was a computer glitch, that caused the downloading of the files to take an entire three days. Which meant Evan had one day to edit. With Stuart Goldstein designing the Titles and credits, somehow Evan finished the entire edit in time to burn the DVD and summit it to Scary Cow on October 19th, before the 5:00pm deadline!

“Multitasking” was part of the Scary Cow Film Festival in November. It was a dream come true to hear a full crowd at the Castro Theater laughing at a comedy film I helped create.

So, here is the staged version (starting at the 12:25 mark).

And here is the filmed version.

Thanks to the creative input of all the artists involved, both versions manage to be totally faithful to my script (not a line of dialogue was ever changed).

Yet at the same time, they are distinctly different from each other.

Although I would like to think they are both, you know, funny.

Where are they now?

I feel very lucky that my script was produced in two different mediums, both times with such loving care. Here’s what all of the talented cast and crew members are up to now:

Andrew Chung is currently performing in Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” at the Impact Theatre through December 15th. Lara Gold is developing her own company, Exposure Theater, which will specialize in documentary and autobiographical theater. Helen LaRoche is work shopping Miranda Jones’ new musical, “The Precipice”. Jessica Chisum has joined the cast of Boxcar Theatre’s immersive drama “The Speakeasy” which opens January 10th.

Michael Laird, Alisha McCutcheon, Ben Gallion, Stuart Goldstein and Tom Morrow are donning multiple hats on upcoming Scary Cow films. Evan Rogers is now a VFX artist at Guerrilla Wanderer Films.

Jonathan Carpenter is returning to his hometown of Boston to develop several new projects with old thespian colleagues, but he did promise he would someday return to us.

Both Neil Higgins and yours truly have been commissioned to write new plays, “Echidna” and “Scylla” respectively, for The San Francisco Olympians Festival V: Monster Ball in 2014.

And of course all of us are available for future projects!

It takes a village to make a six minute comedy.

It takes a village to make a six minute comedy.

All photos by Stuart Goldstein.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Attendance is Surrender

Dave Sikula will not surrender!

At the end of our last meeting, I mentioned that I’d run out of time and didn’t have the space (or the energy, really) to discuss two other topics I’d wanted to mention.

The second was “the tacit contract an audience enters into by purchasing tickets.” (I’ll deal with this one first, then move on to the first one.)

A couple of weeks ago, I was re-reading Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review of the “Tower Heist” movie. In spite of my reputation for not liking anything – which is totally unwarranted, by the way – I sort of enjoyed “Tower Heist,” which was a little surprising. I usually find Ben Stiller pretty repellent, but he was innocuous enough in this one. (Side note: When Stiller had his footprints immortalized at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre this week, it was the death knell of that venerable tradition; not even the ceremony celebrating Rodney Dangerfield sank that low.) Of course, considering there are three movie genres I am an absolute sucker for: heists and capers, newspaper pictures, and movies where things get blowed up real good,” my tepid endorsement of this one owed more to its genre than its quality.

Anyway, at one point in his review, Lane discusses an audience’s role when attending a performance. Even though Lane is referring specifically to film audiences, I think there are things that apply to spectators attending plays:

There’s only one problem with home cinema: it doesn’t exist. The very phrase is an oxymoron. As you pause your film to answer the door or fetch a Coke, the experience ceases to be cinema. Even the act of choosing when to watch means you are no longer at the movies. Choice — preferably an exhaustive menu of it — pretty much defines our status as consumers, and has long been an unquestioned tenet of the capitalist feast, but in fact carte blanche is no way to run a cultural life (or any kind of life, for that matter), and one thing that has nourished the theatrical experience, from the Athens of Aeschylus to the multiplex, is the element of compulsion. Someone else decides when the show will start; we may decide whether to attend, but, once we take our seats, we join the ride and surrender our will. The same goes for the folks around us, whom we do not know, and whom we resemble only in our private desire to know more of what will unfold in public, on the stage or screen. We are strangers in communion, and, once that pact of the intimate and the populous is snapped, the charm is gone. Our revels now are ended.

To deal with the specifics here, I’m old enough to remember when moviegoing was, if not an event, a bigger deal than it is now. There were first-run and second-run theatres (and, in larger cities, revival houses to screen really old pictures — Los Angeles, where I grew up had seven or eight really good ones). The first-run theatres were huge palaces with reserved seats, and ushers, and elaborate restrooms. There were even private rooms that were ventilated for smokers and soundproofed for crying babies. (Years ago, I went on a tour of the movie palace district in downtown L.A. and saw one of them that had a crying room in the basement that had an elaborate periscope system that showed the movie.) For big “road show” features, you’d clip a coupon in the newspaper and send off for tickets for some unspecified date in the future. Just as with buying theatre tickets, even though you could always try for seats on the spur of the moment, you’d know weeks — or even months — in advance when and where you were going to the movies. (And, unless it was a really big movie, you’d probably be going to a double feature. You could arrive any time, walk in in the middle of the movie, stay to the end of that one, watch the cartoon and trailers, see the other movie, and watch as much of it as you’d missed; hence, the old expression “This is where we came in.”) Obviously, in those days, there were no cell phones or other electronic devices to distract audiences from watching the movie. The social contract called for sitting quietly and paying attention. The expected behavior wasn’t mandated on the ticket; you were trained by your parents and peers in how to behave (and if you didn’t, the ushers would take matters into their own hands).

That was how you saw movies in those days. What movies were on television were usually late at night or big deals. (For years, people wrote TV Guide asking why “Gone with the Wind” had never been on TV. “The Wizard of Oz” showed once a year, usually around Easter. Everything else was old and in black and white.) If you wanted to see a movie, it was like going to a play; you had to get up out of the house and go to a theatre.

Until I read that “Tower Heist” review, though, I’d never thought of how much we surrender when we buy a ticket to a play or a movie. There’s a song in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “Me and Juliet” (one of their few flops) that calls an audience a “big black giant” that must be tamed. I think there’s something in that. When we go to a show, we tacitly agree to give up our individuality and autonomy. Things don’t run on our schedule; we agree to rearrange our lives to show up at a specified place at a pre-arranged time. We agree to sit where we’re told, among a group of strangers who have also been told to show up at the same time and sit where they’ve been told, in order to watch a group of actors — who have also, come to think of it, been told when to show up and where to go — tell us a story.

Except in very rare cases, we don’t have any choice in the way the story is to be told, how long it will take, or anything else. We’ve paid for the privilege of giving up a series of personal choices; to be ordered around and told what to do; to regulate our behavior to social norms — or, at least, to moderate and adapt them to the level appropriate to what is presented to us (I used to work with a guy who never understood why audiences applaud at the end of a number in a musical. I’ve never gone to a musical since without thinking of him and wondering just why it is we do applaud [long-time readers will remember my other questions about applause].) You wouldn’t behave the same way at a rock concert as you do at a classical concert; you wouldn’t behave the same at a classical concert as you do at a broad comedy; you wouldn’t behave at a broad comedy the same as you would at show produced at a bar. At each of these performances (all of which we, yes, agree to attend at specified and pre-arranged times) have their own codes of behavior, with which we tacitly agree to comply. We’re so used to the idea that we probably don’t even think about it anymore; we don’t plan in advance how we’ll behave. We just know when we’re there what the proper etiquette is.

I don’t know that I have a point here, ultimately. I just got to thinking about how much we agree to forego and modify in ourselves when we make the choice to attend a performance. I have a feeling it’ll be something I think about in the future, though.

It’s especially relevant to me now. I’m working on an environmental piece — “Speakeasy,” from Boxcar Theatre — that is intended to replicate an evening in a speakeasy in 1923. There are a number of areas in the space — a bar, a dressing room, an office, a casino, even a nightclub — and scenes will be taking place all over the building simultaneously; often in the same rooms. Audiences can follow characters and their storylines around or get a taste of numerous stories. They can even ignore the actors altogether and just drink and gamble. But, being as this is a unique experience, we actors have no idea how the audiences are going to react. Are they going to watch us from a table or stand next to us? Will they try to interact with us? (I hope not; I hate improving in character like that.) Will they answer us back? Comment on the action? Try to applaud? Sit silently? I have no idea — and I expect they won’t, either. We’re trained to react to certain forms of entertainment in certain ways, but there’s no instruction manual for this one. The audiences have agreed to show up at a certain (secret) location at a certain time, but beyond that, they don’t know what to expect. They’ll have to constantly recalibrate their reactions — and that’s not a bad thing. It’ll do them — and us — good to go in not knowing what will happen. As passive as the audience experience is, it’ll be interesting to have to do a little work while watching and listening.

At least I hope so …

And I still haven’t dealt with my first talking point: artistic depictions of the creative process. Guess that’ll have to wait until next time.