Theater Around the Bay: James Nelson and Neil Higgins of “Beer Culture”

The final performance of the Pint-Sized Plays is tonight at 8 PM and we’re concluding our interview series by talking with writer James Nelson and director Neil Higgins of “Beer Culture”!

“Beer Culture” offers some of the biggest laughs in the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays festival. When San Francisco hipster Annie (Caitlin Evenson) introduces her Stella-drinking Midwestern friend Billy (Paul Rodrigues) to her bow-tied beer-snob friend Charlie (Kyle McReddie), the stage is set for an uproarious satire of hipster snobbery and West Coast microbrew culture.

James headshot

Playwright James Nelson knows beer culture.

How did you hear about Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival, or if you’re returning, why did you come back?

James: I generally keep tabs on what Theater Pub is up to — they were the first group to welcome me in when I first was starting out in the Bay, and I’ve always admired the volume and variety of work that’s produced! I submitted to Pint-Sized this time because I was out of practice as a playwright, and wanted to use the festival as an excuse to churn something out.

Neil: I came back for the money.

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

James: Establishing a world with rules.

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

James: Honestly, they’re very quick to write. And they let you tell stories that are only interesting for a few pages.

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

Neil: Seeing my actors scream about, and orgasm over, beer.

What’s been most troublesome?

Neil: Scheduling. Dear god, scheduling.

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

James: Brian Friel, Peter Shaffer, Martin McDonagh, Anton Chekhov, Street Fighter (1994 film), and Benvenuto Cellini.

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

James: Patrick Stewart. It wouldn’t make any sense but he’s just that good.

Neil: Jesse Eisenberg because he seems like such a douche, which is exactly what my script calls for.

Neil Headshot copy

Director Neil Higgins prefers wine.

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

Neil: When Darren Criss isn’t in town, definitely Megan Cohen.

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

James: I just moved to Indiana to start a MFA in Directing, so I’m knee-deep in grad school at the moment. I do hope I’ll have a chance to write while I’m here — I’ve got a lot of stuff brewing and a school setting is so rich in resources.

Neil: I’m writing for SF Olympians this year, and am directing and acting in Left Coast Theatre’s next show, Left Coast News.

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

James: I don’t want to think about it, I’m gonna cry.

Neil: Seeing if the Llama comes back.

What’s your favorite beer?

James: I’ll give you a top five in no particular order: Evil Twin (Heretic); Brother Thelonious (North Coast); Back in Black (21st Amendment); Wookey Jack (Firestone Walker); and Ruthless Rye (Sierra Nevada). Also, if you like beer but haven’t visited Fieldwork Brewing in Berkeley, you need to go right now. They’re going to be the most important brewery in the Bay Area within a few years.

Neil: Wine.

See the FINAL performance of “Beer Culture” and the rest of the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays tonight at 8 PM at PianoFight!

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Adapt and/or Die

Adaptable Dave Sikula lays it down in dire stakes.

“This is a revolution, dammit! We’ve got to offend somebody!” – John Adams, “1776”

Seems like I never have a topic for these little efforts until suddenly, at the last moment, Fate steps in and lends me a hand.

This time, it’s a twofer; two topics that are tangentially related, but ultimately make a similar point.

The first is the New York Times report from Manhattan (Manhattan!) that the “progressive” Dalton School had scheduled a production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” that had to be sanitized and Bowdlerized (look it up) in order to defend against offending the delicate sensibilities of “several members of the community.”

Now, let me hasten to say that, with some exceptions, I don’t think the purpose of the theatre is to offend. That said, if I’m directing a play by Joe Orton or Thomas Bradshaw, to name but two, and I don’t offend the audience, I’ve neither fulfilled the intentions of the playwright (about which, more later) nor done my job properly.

Let me further hasten to add that, although my personal politics are decidedly liberal, this is the kind of story that makes me hate liberals. H.L. Mencken, one of my personal heroes (and whose level of invective I can only aspire to), defined puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Similarly, I find too many of my brothers and sisters live with the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be offended by something, somewhere.

If I may take a step back here (and who’s going to stop me?), here are the facts of the case as I understand them. The school scheduled the show, which will be performed by sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and those “members of the community” (I love the euphemism, by the way) “had concerns about ‘the play’s use of racial stereotypes and references to human trafficking,’ and efforts to change the script proved ‘insufficient,’ leading administrators to make plans for the song revue as well as ‘a forum featuring leading academics and practitioners’ to discuss race and theater.”

While I applaud the administrators’ intentions to contextualize the issues in the show, which librettist Dick Scanlan defended as “a deliberate political choice that (director) Michael Mayer, (composer) Jeanine (Tesori), and I made years ago to portray Asian stereotypes and then challenge them in order to bust them,” I deplore the rest of their tactics. According to Scanlon, he and the other creators were deliberately playing off and embracing stereotypes prevalent in the media of the 1920s in order to force their audiences to confront them. As I wrote in my last column, I’m a believer in challenging audiences’ assumptions and preconceptions and making them defend their beliefs, rather than comforting them.

In the Times article, Ellen Stein, one of the school’s administrators, is quoted as saying “that the school would perform a new version ‘recrafted by some members of the cast, with the playwright’s permission and generous cooperation.’” Scanlan responded “that he and the show’s composer, Jeanine Tesori, had approved the school’s sanitized version of ‘Millie’ and suggested some new lyrics and other ideas.”

My takeaway from that is that the “members of the community” decided that the show they’d applied for and been licensed to perform didn’t meet their personal standards for (dare I say it?) political correctness, and rewrote the “offensive” material, and then – and only then – went to the creators (and for that, they deserve credit) to ask approval, an approval that was granted to prevent the kids from being disappointed.

Now, I don’t doubt that there are plot points raised in the show that some of the kids might not appreciate, either historically or as satire. But does that mean that they have to be protected from them rather than having them explained and contextualized? I’ve mentioned one of my favorite quotes before; that “euphemizing the past excuses it.” Some might even see the logical end of this mindset is censoring any book, movie, television show, or music that has politics or characters that don’t meet with current standards. Most movies of the 20s through the 80s probably portray women in a sexist manner – and don’t even get me started on the way minority groups are represented. There are any number of songs of the 1910s and ‘20s that modern ears would find incredibly racist. Books like “Huckleberry Finn” have already been sanitized into nonsense. All of this was done in order to prevent delicate sensibilities from having to confront the sins of the past. Please note: I’m not saying none of these works can be considered unoffensive. A lot of them are, but to discard them without trying to understand the cultural mindset that created and supported them is something that I find personally offensive.

All of this goes along (as I said, tangentially) with Melissa Hillman’s blog post of earlier this week that elegantly takes to task directors and producers who take it upon themselves to rewrite the works of playwrights whose work they’ve licensed to produce, without obtaining the prior approval of those creators. I consider the case Ms. Hillman cites (Frank Galati – who is usually a very good director – taking it upon himself to rewrite Brian Friel’s “Philadelphia, Here I Come!,” about which, more here…) to be different from the “Millie” case in that, with the Friel, the director chose to rewrite the play for artistic reasons (i.e., he knows better than the playwright how it should be presented) and the Dalton School changed the show to avoid giving offense.

My ultimate points are these: Firstly, if you can’t do a show without making wholesale changes, don’t produce it. If you think a show is so flawed that only your genius can rescue it, you’re probably doing the wrong show in the first place, and should write your own play that will showcase your brilliance. Or, if those ideas are burning a hole in your figurative artistic pocket, approach the writers or licensors in advance. If the alterations are as good as you think, they might go along with them. I know that when I’ve approached writers about changes or alternate versions of scripts, they’ve been very approachable and (mostly) amenable to small changes (lines, business, music cues, etc.). They haven’t always approved them, but they’ve been open to being approached. (I had a wonderful hour-long conversation with Jules Feiffer when I directed his “The White House Murder Case.” It was a political satire that didn’t need changing, but I wondered if he’d had any thoughts on it in the 35 years since he’d written it).

Secondly – and, to me, more importantly – give your audiences some credit. Don’t think they need to be protected. Challenge them. If you’re producing a show with members of minority groups who are portrayed unfortunately, help your audience understand why those portrayals exist and why you think that, in spite of the unfortunate elements, the work is still worthy of production. The only way to defeat the stereotypes is to confront and defeat them, not hide them away in fear.