Theater Around The Bay: SHEHEREZADE’S LAST TALES

Bridgette Dutta Portman, celebrating the close of a 15-year tradition.

How does one portray on octopus on stage?

I found myself grappling with this question in late 2010, amidst my joy over learning that the Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco had selected one of my scripts for its annual short play festival, Sheherezade. My comedy Paul der Krake (which also required a cricket bat) called for an actor to don an octopus costume. I knew this was not something that a typical actor would have in his or her wardrobe (or was it?) and so to increase my bizarre script’s chances of being selected I had included “playwright will provide” next to the description of the costume. They had called my bluff. Now I had to provide.

I ended up taking a red hooded sweatshirt, sewing shut the arms and forming several extra arms out of the lower portion, then stitching on white shower curtain rings to look like suckers. The result, when worn by Wesley Cayabyab, who portrayed Paul the psychic octopus with the perfect blend of sublimity and torpor, was delightful.

Wesley Cayabyab, Philip Goleman, and Charles Lewis III in Paul der Krake by Bridgette Dutta Portman, directed by Ann Thomas (photo by Colin Hussey).

Wesley Cayabyab, Philip Goleman, and Charles Lewis III in Paul der Krake by Bridgette Dutta Portman, directed by Ann Thomas (photo by Colin Hussey).

I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to Sheherezade. Now, five years later, I have the privilege of being co-producer for PCSF’s final iteration of Sheherezade, aptly titled Sheherezade’s Last Tales, which opens December 3 at EXIT Stage Left. And I’ve learned that putting together an entire production is kind of like stitching together 6,000 octopus costumes, with live octopuses inside them.

Sheherezade, which has evolved significantly over its fifteen-year history, was not always a full production. It began as a gala event in 2001 featuring thirteen staged readings by PCSF member playwrights, and was so well-received that an annual tradition was born. Beginning in 2004, with Jody Handley as producer, the festival would feature a “year in review” theme, whereby news stories and events from the previous year inspired each selected play. 2007 marked the first off-book production of the show (two nights only at the Exit Theatre). In subsequent years the run was expanded as the festival’s ambition and reputation grew. Wily West Productions came on board as producing partner from 2012 to 2014. Last year, 2014, was a highlight for Sheherezade; the show was critically acclaimed and was nominated for a TBA award for best anthology. This year, PCSF is proud to present eight world premiere short plays in the final installment of Sheherezade before we transition to something a bit different (more on that later).

The “year in review” theme was dropped in 2013, but I find it interesting that several themes have emerged organically to interconnect our plays this year – the most prominent of which is, I think, “deception and revelation.” Each of our plays, in some sense, explores what happens when facades break down and true identities and personalities are revealed. In The Stuff We Keep, for instance, a brother and sister discover a secret their deceased father left behind. By Any Other Name features a lesbian rights activist struggling to accept her partner’s decision to transition from female to male. The protagonist of A Comfortable Life is a woman whose conventional existence is disrupted by a figure from the past she tried to bury. Even our more humorous plays involve people presenting themselves to others in ways that are potentially counter to their true personalities; in Sparse Pubic Hair, for instance, an aging couple on a first date quickly discover that their expectations of each other are woefully mismatched.

Alexaendrai Bond and Louel Señores rehearsing The Stuff We Keep by Rod McFadden, directed by Laylah Muran de Assereto (photo by Colin Hussey).

Alexaendrai Bond and Louel Señores rehearsing The Stuff We Keep by Rod McFadden, directed by Laylah Muran de Assereto (photo by Colin Hussey).

I dove into producing with little expectation of what it would entail. As a playwright who has never acted or directed (unless playing a mouse extra in a fourth-grade production of An American Tail counts), my understanding of the process of production was something along these lines:

1. I write a script, which a theatre agrees to produce.
2. Directors materialize.
3. Actors audition and are hired.
4. There are rehearsals. I try to attend at least one.
5. Something called “Tech Week” happens. This is apparently when the people involved in
the show are most likely to lose their minds. I figure it’s something like Finals Week
in college. Or maybe Shark Week.
6. Divine intervention.
7. The play is produced!

As you might imagine, then, this experience was a bit of a baptism of fire. In the words of my tireless and talented co-producer, Jerome Joseph Gentes, it involved “a learning curve so steep it’s not a curve but a vertical line.” I am deeply grateful for Jerome’s help, as well as the support of our directors: Laylah Muran de Assereto, whose years of experience producing Sheherezade has been a tremendous asset, and Adam Sussman, whose patience, professionalism and skill have been greatly appreciated. We also have our excellent stage manager, Arashi Veronica Cesana, our talented designers, and, of course, our wonderful actors and playwrights. I’m fortunate to be part of this strong team.

Among the innumerable things I’ve learned over the past couple of months have been:

• How to tape a floor for rehearsal. (Tip: remember to bring tape.)
• Why lights have to be “hung” (I thought they were just already there?)
• The actual definition of a wing nut.
• The differences between “wet tech,” “dry tech” and “paper tech.”
• What a “costume parade” is (hint: sadly, it’s not actually a parade).
• How to create a promotional video using iMovie.
• How far I can hurl my laptop when iMovie refuses to cooperate.

If that last one makes me sound at all weary, please know that I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. I highly recommend that all playwrights involve themselves, at some point and in some capacity, in other elements of production – it gives one a new and broader perspective on all that goes into bringing a play to life, and a greater appreciation for everyone involved behind the scenes. Plus, using a drill is just plain fun.

The set – mid-construction – for Sheherezade’s Last Tales. (photo by Bridgette Dutta Portman)

The set – mid-construction – for Sheherezade’s Last Tales. (photo by Bridgette Dutta Portman)

Sheherezade is special to me, and to a lot of people, for a number of reasons. As many playwrights can attest, bridging the gulf between staged readings and full productions can be a challenge, and Sheherezade has provided that bridge for PCSF members. Paul der Krake, my octopus play, was among the first plays I ever had produced. Auto-Incorrect, my entry in the 2013 festival, went on to multiple productions in the UK and Wales and was published in an anthology. The connections I’ve made through my involvement with Sheherezade have been lasting. And I’m not alone. A number of participants had similar comments about their experiences with the festival:

“When Sheherezade 14 accepted my play, The Interview, I was elated. It was the play’s first full production, and it was a very steep and exhilarating learning curve for me. … The Interview was subsequently produced at Towne Street Theatre in L.A., and I’ve worked with my Sheherezade 14 ‘team’ in a number of local productions in the year since then.” Madeline Puccioni, playwright

“Red Rover Red Rover, Send Rocky Right Over [2006] was my first Sheherezade play and it was, in part, the basis for Believers, soon to be produced in Istanbul and in Monterey in the spring.” – Patricia Milton, playwright (multiple years)

“In all the years I’ve been involved in Sheherezade, the unifying thing, other than the passion everyone brings to it, has been the opportunities it provides. I’ve seen new directors, producers, designers, playwrights, and actors start with Sheherezade alongside veterans and am proud to see their continued successes. It’s been a profoundly rewarding experience.” — Laylah Muran de Assereto (producer 2009-2014, director 2015)

The format of Sheherezade has likely contributed to its success. The “year in review” theme throughout most of the festival’s history resulted in a number of plays that focused on contemporary politically and socially-relevant issues, both dramatic and satirical. Even in the years since the theme was dropped, most plays have retained this sense of immediacy. “The short play format also usually gives us the highest stakes moment on stage, which can be really engaging for audience and actor alike,” comments Sara Staley, who directed for the show in 2009 and 2010. She recalls,

“Two very timely, often funny plays I directed for Sheherezade that come to mind are Michael Jackson and Farrah Faucet arguing over the last hair appointment in heaven on the day they die … and a play that gave us Bernie Madoff and his wife doing their best, in their own way, to come to terms with the depth and consequences of their wrongdoings.”

Diana Brown, Jaimelee Roberts, and Wes Cayabyab in Head N the Clouds by Brian Tognotti, directed by Sara Staley (photo by Colin Hussey)

Diana Brown, Jaimelee Roberts, and Wes Cayabyab in Head N the Clouds by Brian Tognotti, directed by Sara Staley (photo by Colin Hussey)

Actors, too, have found their experiences with Sheherezade memorable. “One of the greatest acting challenges I’ve had was playing Allen Turing in Rod McFadden’s Of Machines and Men in Sheherezade in 2012,” recalls Edward Kimak. He continues:

“Here was a man who was a gay, brilliant, stuttering Brit with Aspergers syndrome. Balancing all those elements while still being ‘in the moment’ for each scene was very difficult—as was going through the arc of his life in under 20 minutes! Luckily I worked with director Ann Thomas who understood the challenge and helped me get just the right mix.”

While this year’s show is the last Sheherezade, it is by no means the end of PCSF’s short play festivals. In the works for next year is a new program that will culminate in a fully-produced short play festival in the spirit of Sheherezade, but whose plays will be selected in a new and very different way that will allow more of our member playwrights to be involved in the process. We’re excited about this new development and can’t wait to see what our members will come up with next year.

In the meantime, as we head into tech week (note to self: it’s not like Shark Week…but then again, it sort of is), and I see all the elements of our show coming together, and opening night is a few days away, I feel both pride and gratitude. I am grateful to PCSF as an organization, to our prior producing partner Wily West, and to everyone who has been involved in this festival since its birth in 2001.

Please join us for our last Sheherezade, so we can celebrate together all the talent and hard work that our playwrights, actors, directors and designers have brought to this special production for so many years.

SHEHEREZADE’S LAST TALES
Dec. 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 12 at Exit Stage Left
Tickets and information: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2462868

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Theater Around The Bay: PINT SIZED V IS HERE! (Part One)

Pint Sized V begins its four performance run tonight at PianoFight at 8 PM! We’ve got an amazing line of up of writers this year, and check back next week when we introduce you to our directing team! Meanwhile, here’s Christina Augello, Stuart Bousel, Megan Cohen, Alan Coyne, Elizabeth Flanagan, Jeremy Geist, Christine Keating, Juliana Lustenader, Lorraine Midanik, and Daniel Ng telling you all about what it takes to bring you this year’s collection!

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How did you hear about Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival and what possessed you to send something in?

Stuart Bousel: Well, as one of the founders of Theater Pub, and the current Executive Director, I knew the festival was around because I’m the guy who puts it on the schedule. That said, I have had a piece in every Pint Sized except Pint Sized II. The first year was a short called Queen Mab in Drag. All the other years, including this one, have been a monologue written for our mascot, the Llama, who was created by Elana McKernan for the first Pint-Sized, and has been played by Rob Ready ever since. No, I don’t have to go through the submission process- I’m grandfathered in every year. Executive Directorship has its privileges.

Stuart Bousel

Stuart Bousel

Christine Keating: I heard about Pint-Sized when it happened in 2013, but I wasn’t able to see it. It sounded fun and exciting, and I enjoy short storytelling in many forms: flash fiction, web shorts, podcasts. I had written my plays a few months ago to get the idea onto paper, and then Pint-Sized seemed like the perfect venue for them!

Lorraine Midanik: I heard about the Festival from a fellow playwright who thought I might be interested. In March, one of my plays was produced at PianoFight’s Shortlived Festival, and I am excited to have another play presented in that terrific venue. I have always been fascinated by the names of beers and thought it would be fun to play with it in my writing.

Elizabeth Flanagan: General stalking of the SF Theater Pub website. I wasn’t fortunate enough to make any of the Pint-Sized performances at the Café Royale but I have seen most of the videos of the plays. Good stuff. I feel privileged to be part of this history. It‘s also pretty special to be included in the first Pint-Sized festival to be performed at PianoFight. My dad lived in the tenderloin and used to take us to Original Joe’s on occasion. It’s very cool to be back at the old stomping grounds in a new way.

Alan Coyne: I almost certainly heard about this iteration of Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival through Facebook, and from there, Theater Pub’s website. And I’d heard about previous versions of it from folks who’d been involved in them. I’ve had the idea of Einstein as a bartender in a scene for a long, long time. There’s something about the image of him as a silent observer in a bar, a place where the rules of space-time so clearly intersect with the rules of human behaviour, that I find engaging. And so this festival presented the perfect opportunity to try and explore that notion in my own clumsy way.

Christina Augello: I am very familiar with Theatre Pub and knew it was coming up and got an email reminder and followed the link and there it was and I have been wanting to write and the limited parameters seemed perfect to get me started. (Editor’s Note: And yes, this is Christina’s first play ever!)

Daniel Ng: It was a great experience having my piece, Mark +/-, in Pint-Sized IV, so I’ve been looking forward to submitting again since then.

Jeremy Geist: I found out about it from one of the Theatre Pub people I’m friends with on Facebook. It was only a two-page play submission, and I already had an idea, so I felt it was worth the effort.

Juliana Lustenader: After seeing the call for submissions on the SF Theatre Pub blog, I decided to do some research and found old YouTube videos of past Pint-Sized performances. The plays I watched were all so creative and funny. I knew I had to be involved with the process somehow. Usually I would audition as an actor for these sort of things, but watching those old videos inspired me to write what I think is the silliest five pages I’ve ever written. (Editor’s Note: And yes, this is Juliana’s Bay Area debut as a playwright!)

Megan Cohen: I watched the very first night of Theater Pub ever, years ago, sitting cross-legged on the floor in the front row, then I joined the family immediately, writing a piece for the very next monthly event. The community that’s found each other at Theater Pub is diverse in artistic style, and you never know what you’ll see, but I find that the theatermakers gathered under this banner tend to be reliably open and generous, with each other and with the audience. Pint-Sized feels like a flagship festival to me, because it pulls together so many of us, with our unique voices and approaches, and I just can’t miss it. I’ve written for Pint-Sized every year. I keep coming back here because of happy history, and because we get an unusual crowd. Since the shows are free, people come who otherwise wouldn’t take a chance on a night at the theater, and I love the responsibility of that; it means I better give them something worthwhile to watch, so they’ll come back!

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

Elizabeth Flanagan: Getting it done. I think the big misconception would be that shorts are quicker to write. Not for me they aren’t. I’m always amazed at the amount of time I can spend on a short. I can bang out a rough draft fairly quickly, but the rewrites are tricky. I tend to put just as much work into a short as a full length.

Lorraine Midanik: For me, it’s making sure the turn happens at the right time (not too early, not too late…sort of like Goldilocks!). In a short play, there isn’t much time to develop the characters and have an engaging plot so it’s really a challenge.

Juliana Lustenader: Fitting your 50 page idea into a 10 page limit.

Christine Keating: Crafting characters who are real and relatable in a short conversation.

Jeremy Geist: Creating something meaningful. With a play this short it’s really easy to just write a few pages of filler and call it a day.

Daniel Ng: The hardest thing is crafting a satisfying ending. Compelling concepts/scenarios/gags are relatively easy. Sometimes that’s all you need or have time for in a short piece, but delivering a definitive punchline or reaching a pithy denouement takes a piece to the next level. But it’s hard to get there in a short time in a way that feels organic, that isn’t just tacked on.

Megan Cohen: Short plays can be mistaken for “a little something,” as though their length means they are inherently small, in importance or in impact. The hardest thing is to not fall for that trap. As any poet will tell you, short isn’t the same as small. Keep the play big, and the words few.

Megan Cohen

Megan Cohen

Alan Coyne: The hardest thing about writing any play is the foreknowledge that the brilliant, dazzling dialogue in my head is going to come out all lumpy and misshapen when I start using actual words. And then once you start, it takes on a life of its own, and spawns a million new tangents, and you could spend the rest of your life rewriting it, and so finishing it is practically impossible. Thank goodness for deadlines!

Stuart Bousel: These days I don’t really write short plays any more, and the Llamalogues are really speeches, which I’ve always found rather easy to write, actually. That said, there is always all the usual challenges of any writing- which is to keep it interesting, and striking that balance between challenging and accessible- not always easy when your only character is a sort of emotionally unbalanced alcoholic anthropomorphic animal.

Christina Augello: Actually I liked writing a short play and it wasn’t hard at all.

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

Megan Cohen: Audiences love short work, and that’s enough for me; I just checked, and Pint-Sized will feature the 72nd short of mine produced onstage since 2008. (Wow, just reading that sentence makes me tired.) I like the immediacy of shorts; the way this industry works, a full-length play can take years to develop and find a home onstage, but the turnaround time to production with a short is often a journey of just a month or two. An audience is there almost immediately, showing you how your play works, and what it is. You see what makes them laugh, where they get upset, what they connect with, and you get the goodies now, not later, which is an obvious priority for me as an impatient American.

Lorraine Midanik: I like the opportunity to tell a story in a confined timeframe. It forces me to edit out unnecessary words and actions and focuses me on moving the play along in a fun way.

Daniel Ng: The best thing is bringing something to fruition in a short period of time. This is especially true when working with Pint-Sized, where pieces are quickly produced and performed. It’s like the immediate satisfaction from cooking and then enjoying a great meal.

Daniel Ng

Daniel Ng

Elizabeth Flanagan: Going deep quick. Often a short will feel like a throw away piece or it seems a little more frivolous, than say a heavy drama in two acts. But, because you have limited space and time, that entire world, those characters need to be created in a matter of words. When it works it’s fantastic. Also with shorts there is great freedom to experiment. With Magic Trick I had a lot of fun playing with a mix of language and genre.

Jeremy Geist: Being able to pursue weird ideas that wouldn’t necessarily work in longer formats. I read a lot of weird/gross things on the Internet and like working them into my writing, but they aren’t substantial enough for a full-length. It’s nice to use short formats to vent some of my more indulgent projects.

Juliana Lustenader: When writing a short play, I feel like I can “get away with” more things. Mainly because it’s over before anyone can go “Hey…”

Stuart Bousel: It’s definitely true that, aside from the length restriction, all other bets are off- and that is liberating.

Christine Keating: Not wasting any time getting to the point. Also, throwing an audience into the deep end of the world of the play is fun.

Christina Augello: You get it done quickly.

Alan Coyne: The best thing about writing a short play, or having it performed, is seeing how much better everyone else involved makes it.

Who do you think is a major influence on your work?

Christina Augello: The theatre artists I know and work with influence my work as well as over 60 years experience in the theatre and life in general.

Christina Augello

Christina Augello

Megan Cohen: The character of the BEEEEAAR, that is, the character in the monodrama I wrote for this year’s festival, specifically owes a lot to the influence of playwright Charles Ludlam, a leader of the “Ridiculous” aesthetic movement Off-Off Broadway in the 1970s and 80s. His work has taught me a lot about foolishness and dignity, and the entertainment value of earning a good laugh with a bad joke.

Lorraine Midanik: Because I often write about strong, funny women, my mother is my major influence. She passed away in 2008, but her strength and humor always permeate my work and live within me. My writing has also been influenced by Anthony Clarvoe from whom I have taken playwriting classes at Stagebridge for the last 3 years. I am very lucky to have a wonderful husband and two amazing daughters from whom I draw my inspiration.

Elizabeth Flanagan: Depends on the time of day. Thinking of the short form, Alice Munro is one of my favorite short story writers. Maybe I’m not so much influenced by her as I admire her ability to write a near perfect sentence, and I don’t mean grammatically. She’s one of those writers where a line cuts you to your core. You finish the last line, the last word, and you sit, you just sit with it, thinking there was no other ending because it’s so utterly complete.

Stuart Bousel: My influences are all over the place, I’m very intertextual, read a lot, see a lot of movies and theater, and I listen to a great deal of music. John Guare and Marsha Norman are my favorite playwrights, but their plays are sort of non-traditionally structured and my plays often follow a structure closer to film or musicals. My monologues, particularly the direct address ones like Llamalogue, are often structured like songs, with choruses repeated and builds and codas. So, for this one I’m going to say Sondheim, who is always an influence, really, for me. Sondheim, and some Shakespeare too. And Dostoyevsky. And Morrissey. All the greats.

Christine Keating: On these plays, probably comedians like Amy Schumer. In general, my favourite playwrights are Sarah Kane and Martin McDonagh.

Daniel Ng: The past couple of years, I’ve filled in some of my gaps in Vonnegut and Phillip K. Dick. As I get older, I like their ideas (and personal experiences) about persevering in the search for meaning in the face of a bewildering and uncaring, or worse, openly antagonistic world. Like maybe you can be world-weary, yet, at the same time, remain stubbornly human and humane.

Jeremy Geist: This question is hard for me because I can’t point at specific mechanisms I use and say exactly who it came from. In terms of my comedy, I will say I’ve been heavily influenced by a sportswriter named Jon Bois lately. His stuff is some of the best out there these days – check out his Breaking Madden series.

Juliana Lustenader: A major influence on my comedy writing is David Sedaris. I love the way he can spin an average and innocent encounter with another human being into a ridiculous farce using his wit and seemingly endless vocabulary. I didn’t use much wit or vocab in To Be Blue, but it is definitely ridiculous.

Alan Coyne: I’d like to imagine that Douglas Adams is a major influence on my work. I owe at least some of my interest in cosmology to the Hitchhikers’ Guide series, which I encountered early on thanks to my father. And if I could write like anyone, I would want it to be him. Adams, that is, not my father. Although for all I know, my father could also be a brilliant writer. I mean, he could also be a brilliant writer like Adams, not me, I wasn’t saying I was a brilliant writer. Er, let’s move on.

Alan Coyne

Alan Coyne

If you could pick one celebrity to be cast in your show, who would it be and why?

Elizabeth Flanagan: Because it’s noir I’m tempted to say Bogart or Bacall obviously. But I’d probably lean more towards Cary Grant. He has a better mix of comedy and suspense.

Juliana Lustenader: Kit Harington, so I can selfishly stare at him during rehearsals.

Stuart Bousel: I mean, it’s hard to think of anyone but Rob Ready playing the Llama, but if I had to go with someone else I’m going to say Derek Walcott, who I once heard read and has the like… sexiest voice. Also he’s a brilliant poet and he’d probably be able to do all sorts of exciting line readings a traditional actor wouldn’t necessarily think of.

Megan Cohen: All the roles in all my plays are written for Madeline Kahn; if you’re wondering why, just watch this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTXsec9rvw4M

Lorraine Midanik: That’s a tough question, but I’d have to say Anna Deveare Smith. She is extraordinary in how she takes on the persona of her characters. She is magical on stage by combining advocacy with her outstanding acting and writing.

Daniel Ng: Uzo Aduba. In Orange is the New Black, she perfectly rides that edge between mad fool and truth-teller, comedy and tragedy. And have you heard her story about learning to be proud of her name? Look it up–she’s a hero.

Christina Augello: Ian McKellen….he is a superb actor who’s performances invite you to share in his skill, fun and joy.

Christine Keating: Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson for Part 3, definitely.

Alan Coyne: If I could cast one celebrity in my show, it would be Albert Einstein. But not as himself.

Jeremy Geist: I think Ice-T could do a pretty good job.

Jeremy Geist

Jeremy Geist

What’s a writing project you are currently working on and/or what’s next for you?

Christina Augello: Working on a personal story to present as a solo show and looking forward to performing in a couple of upcoming plays in 2016.

Christine Keating: I’m directing two plays in Those Women Productions’ In Plain Sight night of one acts (September 4-20) as well as writing a full night of plays on horror tropes about sleep for September’s Theater Pub (September 21-29!).

Elizabeth Flanagan: I’m nearly finished with a new full-length that I affectionately call “the meth play”. I look forward to setting up a reading for that play and hearing it in its entirety. I’m also a cofounder of Ex Nihilo Theater, a new playwright group with Jennifer Lynn Roberts and Bridgette Dutta Portman. We’ll have a reading of short plays on Aug 20 at The Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland and in October we will present the first installment of a new serial play that we will be writing and presenting over the following twelve months. We would love to see you all there!

Elizabeth Flanagan

Elizabeth Flanagan

Megan Cohen: I’m writing a big ol’ two-act play about a pair of sisters, where the two actresses switch roles every night, and I’m trying to make the dynamic really taut, elastic just totally pulled to the limit between them; it’s so tense in the draft right now, and I hope it stays that way. I’m getting out of the house a little, too, acting in a show for SF Fringe Festival that runs in September. I’ve taken the role of the photographer Man Ray in the DADA spectacle Zurich Plays, so I’ll be going full trouser-drag for that which, as a 4’11” woman with serious hips, should be a glorious challenge. (http://www.sffringe.org/zurich/) Looking ahead, Repurposed Theatre (http://www.repurposedtheatre.com/) is doing a whole program of my short works and one-acts in December. All world premieres, all written by me, the show has this really fun vaudeville frame and is called The Horse’s Ass and Friends! That’s December 2015 at the EXIT Theater, directed by Ellery Schaar, a fabulously fearless partner who seems able to handle anything that comes out of my mind.

Daniel Ng: I’m trying to finish a short story that has now grown to a novella. There is an end in sight, though it’s merely vague and barely visible. My goal is to beat George R. R. Martin to the finish line.

Juliana Lustenader: Instead of finishing any of my scripts, I distract myself by auditioning for other people’s projects. You can see me as Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew at Curtain Theatre through September and Sister Leo in Nunsense at Altarena Playhouse starting in October.

Alan Coyne: I’ve been working off and on (mostly off) on a musical involving astrophysicists that will never see the light of day. But more relevantly, I’m playing Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew at the Curtain Theatre in Mill Valley through Sep. 13, and Stevie in Good People at the Waterfront Playhouse and Conservatory in Berkeley through Sep. 6 (yes, simultaneously; no, I didn’t think that through).

Jeremy Geist: Nowadays I’m mostly working on my board game company, follow me at @pknightgames. My flagship release is a Shakespeare-themed combat game called Happy Daggers!

Lorraine Midanik: I’m in the process of revising one of my full length plays after having worked with a dramaturg. The play is entitled Y Women and it focuses on the three very different women who meet in a behavior change program at a local gym. I have been fortunate enough to have had productions or staged readings of three scenes from this play. I’m also a playwright in the Theatre Bay Area’s 2015 ATLAS program (Advanced Training Leading to Artists’ Success) which begins this month. I am very excited to move my work to the next level.

Lorraine Midanik

Lorraine Midanik

Stuart Bousel: I’m working on a whole bunch of stuff I kind of can’t talk about. What I can talk about is that I’ll be going to Seattle in Septmeber to see the Seattle premiere of my play Everybody Here Says Hello! I’ll also be directing the October Theater Pub, which will be a short and furious version of Richard III. There’s a billion other things going on, but that’s all I can say… for now.

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

Megan Cohen: My own, of course! Anyone who says they care more about someone else’s shows than about their own is probably L-Y-I-N-G. That said, I’m really feeling Will Eno these days and am excited about The Realistic Joneses finally coming to SF (March 2016); I’ll follow actress Megan Trout to the ends of the earth, even if it means seeing Eurydice AGAIN (at Shotgun Players this time, Sept-Aug 2015); and you’ll certainly see me in Theater Pub audiences a lot in the coming months.

Elizabeth Flanagan: Aside from all the amazing Pint-Sized shorts you mean? I’ve never seen Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice so I definitely want to catch Shotgun’s production later this month.

Juliana Lustenader: I am looking forward to the Theatre Bay Area Awards this fall. I wasn’t able to attend last year, but many of my friends and colleagues were celebrated. Bay Area theatre companies stepped up their game this year and produced some spectacular shows, so I’m interested to see what the adjudicators enjoyed most. But more honestly, I can’t wait to celebrate with everyone.

Juliana Lustenader

Juliana Lustenader

Christina Augello: The 24th San Francisco Fringe Festival coming September 11-26th and of course Theatre Pub’s Pint-Sized Festival!

Alan Coyne: Other than my own, I’m looking forward to seeing Eat the Runt at Altarena Playhouse, and SF Olympians this November.

Daniel Ng: SF Olympians. It’s such a varied showcase of ideas and talent and 100% local.

Christine Keating: I’m looking forward to Disclosure from Those Women Productions at PianoFight, as well as the upcoming seasons at Custom Made, Magic Theatre, and Marin Theatre Company. Also, all the shows that are happening soon that I’m exciting about but won’t remember until closing weekend, and then rearrange everything to catch them!

Christine Keating

Christine Keating

Lorraine Midanik: I am particularly excited by venues that feature plays by women and include strong roles for women. 3Girls Theater immediately comes to mind as well as Shotgun Players that is producing an entire season of plays written by women.

Jeremy Geist: I haven’t really been paying attention to anything.

What’s your favorite beer?

Megan Cohen: Free!

Christine Keating: I’m more a cider person, I mostly drink Angry Orchard.

Alan Coyne: Smithwick’s, for purely patriotic reasons.

Christina Augello: I don’t like beer, sorry!

Juliana Lustenader: Hoegaarden, ‘cause day drinking.

Stuart Bousel: Bass. Harp. In my 20s I would frequently two-fist both.

Lorraine Midanik: I know this is going to sound odd, but I don’t drink beer. (Please don’t throw me out of the Festival!). I am actually a cocktail (whiskey sour) and wine person. When I find myself in a pub where cocktails and wine are unavailable or possibly frowned upon, I either order a hard cider (hopefully fruit flavored) or a shandy (beer mixed with lemonade or ginger ale). Forgive me!

Jeremy Geist: Anything from this bracket http://www.sbnation.com/2015/3/23/8277455/jon-and-spencers-beer-bracket-its-the-great-beer-bracket-challenge-so

Daniel Ng: Still Guinness. Always Guinness. They say you can drink it straight out of the new bottles, but they’re lying. Use a glass, you savages.

Elizabeth: Feels like I’m obligated to say Guinness. Which may or may not be true. You’ll have to catch me at SF Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Fest to find out for sure!

The Pint-Sized Plays will perform four times: August 17, 18, 24, and 25 at 8 PM at PianoFight, 144 Taylor St, San Francisco. Admission is FREE to all performances. For more information, click HERE!

In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – With a li’l Help from your Friends

Charles Lewis III checking in from the most recent Olympians meeting.

For last year’s fest Steve wore a dog collar. What has he got planned THIS time?

For last year’s fest Steve wore a dog collar. What has he got planned THIS time?

“I had been alone more than I could have been, had I gone by myself.”
– The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

In all of the year’s I’ve been involved in the active production of the Olympians Fest (Years 3, 4, and now 6), I think I’ve only ever missed a single meeting. I believe it was during Year 4. I actually had planned on attending, but as the day wore on, I got so ridiculously sick that I eventually expected a CDC “Quarantine” tent to go up over the house. I’m pretty sure that once one agrees to write for the festival, the only excuse for missing a meeting is to be dead – at least that’s the impression we get from Jeremy’s e-mails. He’ll only accept actual death because being “on the brink of death” means you’re still alive and therefore should be at the meeting.

Granted, the folks who missed out on the most recent meeting had pretty good reasons: one was rehearsing his new show; one was acting, producing, and hosting this month’s Theater Pub; and one was actually having a baby. I… guess those are valid-sounding reasons, what do you think?

So as we all settle in, stuff our faces, and gossip about actors who have burned too many bridges, I really begin to notice that the meetings for this year’s fest carry a significance that wasn’t there in meetings for previous years. I don’t just mean the fact that Rachel Kessinger’s veggie lasagna has raised the bar on the food we bring, or that an entire cantaloupe-sized bottle of wine was finished off before the meeting proper even started. No, what I’m noticing is that this year’s meetings really do point toward a shift in the way that the festival is put together. There are fewer meetings this year than there were in previous years. As such, a lot has been packed into each one, so if you miss it, you’re missing something significant about how this year’s festival will differ from the last five.

Someone actual wrote on blue pages. What sorcery is this?

Someone actual wrote on blue pages. What sorcery is this?

We cover the normal bases: stating how much of the play has been written so far, if at all; mentioning how the premise has changed from the original pitch, if at all; finding a director, if you haven’t yet; and the reading of pages from the script-in-progress. As before, I pass my pages off to other writers in the room, tilt my head to the side, and try to just listen. I hear flaws, lots of them. Not in the way it’s read, per se, but the readings give the characters a different interpretations that what I’d conceived. One joke I wrote crashes and burns like the toilet seat of a Russian space station, so I know it’s not likely to be in the next draft. I will say that the back-and-forth aspect I wrote for this scene sounds better spoken than it did as I wrote it, so that’s good. All in all, I’m not entirely pleased, but I have an idea of what to work on.

That was a major topic of the meeting. Not my shitty pages, but the topic of collaboration. The simultaneous gift and curse of writing is its solitary nature: it often requires you to block out the white noise of the outside world so as to let your Id run free, but doing intentionally requires cutting yourself off from those to whom you look for support, solace, or even a few quick laughs. Writing means translating billions of mental synapses into finger movements that will somehow paint a verbal picture meant to be interpreted by someone other than you. But although the writing process can be solitary, it doesn’t mean that means to get the wheels moving have to be.

This meeting was about asking everyone in the room “What do you need?” and trying our best to make sure they got it. Maybe they have writer’s block, maybe they forgot the dates, maybe they wrote for a specific actor whom they now know they won’t get (FYI: pre-casting in the festival is frowned upon, and with damn good reason). As such, we threw out not only our frustrations, but also our solutions – particularly those of us who have done the festival before. A lot of emphasis is put on the importance of having the scripts read aloud. You might think this was a no-brainer – what with it being the entire point of the festival – but it’s how past entries that were meant to 10-15 min. shorts wound up being around 30 min. or more; it’s how a festival that starts every night at 8pm and expects to be out by 10pm (if not earlier) winds up having nights that go as late as 11:30pm. To this conversation I contribute “Just remember that it’ll always sound different out loud than it does in your head, ‘cause the voice in your head will lie to you. Every. Single. Time.”

Suggestions are thrown out for setting up writing sessions and readings. It reminds me of when I went to such a meeting with fellow Olympians writers during Year 3. I wrote the first full draft of my one-act about Atlas longhand in that café. I wound up drastically rewriting it when I finally typed it up, but that session in the café really got the ball rolling.

See that bottle on the floor? That was the SECOND one of those opened.

See that bottle on the floor? That was the SECOND one of those opened.

Before we conclude for the evening, we touch on the other major necessary evil of art: funding. The fundraising template for the festival will be one of the most notable changes from years past. It’s a bit too early to say what it will be exactly, but it seems assured that it won’t resemble the campaigns from previous years. Of course, once your fundraiser video features creepy photo-bombing by Allison Page – 9:35 in the video – where else is there to go with it?

But the one thing of which we are sure is that it will require the effort of every single person who was in the room that night, as well as many more who weren’t there. If there was an overall message of this last meeting, it was that it only works when all of the pieces are in sync. Those of us who have been part of it from the beginning (in one capacity or another) know this to be absolutely true. Writers must communicate with directors, directors with actors, everyone with friends and family to see this new work and others like it. Once someone gets in their head that their way – and ONLY their way – is what will happen… well, there’s a reason each year’s festival has That One Play. Hell, it’s usually not even one – I tend to count two or three, depending on the year. It’s the play or plays that clearly had a communication breakdown and wind up being complete and utter train wrecks. Not even the good kind with some redeeming element of camp; no, they’re the ones that make audiences want to chew off their own limbs in an attempt to escape. There’s at least one every year. I sure as hell hope it isn’t mine.

So as we began to leave for the evening, encouraging all present to see this month’s ‘Pub show (that includes you reading this, it runs again this coming Monday and Tuesday), I dare say the one word on everyone’s lips is “collaboration”. That and Rachel’s lasagna.

Charles Lewis III is planning to once again direct his own Olympians piece on Poseidon this year. As to how that’s still collaborative, he plans to elaborate in the next “Of Olympic Proportions” entry. To read his and every writer’s proposal, and to learn more about the festival’s past and present, please visit the official SF Olympians Fest website.

In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – The End is the Beginning is The End

“My royal lord,
You do not give the cheer: the feast is sold
That is not often vouch’d, while ’tis a-making,
‘Tis given with welcome; to feed were best at home;
From thence the sauce to meat is ceremony;
Meeting were bare without it.”
– Lady MacBeth, MacBeth Act III Sc. 4, William Shakespeare

For all of us who have been there, it’s no surprise that Stuart’s apartment is often referred to as “The White Tower”. I honestly can’t recall what color the exterior really is, but I do know how exhausting it is to hike up those stone steps from one street to another, followed by another two flights of steps once you get inside – all for the sake of looking out over his balcony at one of the most enviable views of the San Francisco skyline without riding in a helicopter. Of course it’s The White Tower. What else would we expect from a self-proclaimed “Tolkien-nerd” who produces a festival based around ancient Greek mythology?

There’s a special something in the air for the first writers meeting of the annual SF Olympians Festival. If you’ve worked in the previous year’s festival, you’ve (hopefully) had time to decompress from that madness and have replaced your anxiety with excitement for the new fest, which is a good whole year away. If you’re new to the game, you probably have a walking-on-eggshells feeling of not wanting to look ridiculous in front of a bunch of folks who put on a festival where last year The Judgment of Paris was made to resemble RuPaul’s Drag Race. Don’t worry about it: before the night is over, you’ll be so stuffed with wine, cheese, and chocolate that you won’t think your idea is ridiculous – you’ll wonder if it’s ridiculous enough.

A typical Olympians meeting usually starts with a round of introductions, in which we all clumsily try to remember our names, our subjects, and our proposals for this coming festival. Even without alcohol, that’s a lot harder than you think – we didn’t become writers so that we’d have to, y’know, talk.

We then explain the logistics and mechanics of the festival. Again, those of us who have been through it before know that it’s nothing to be taken for granted, especially as the festival continues to expand – both in size and influence – with each successive year. There are going to be some major changes to the festival, come 2015. The fundamentals will remain the same, but the necessity for streamlining has presented itself. For all the new achievements, there’s also been the accumulation of a lot of dead weight that has slowed down what-should-be a rather expeditious process. That dead weight will have to be cut loose. The only folks likely to complain are those who have been letting others do their work anyway.

Which leads the meeting to another touchy subject: communication. It’s importance cannot be over-stressed. There were problems that sprung up in the last festival (and a few festivals before) that were the result of people not properly communicating with one another. As such, some of those people have become persona non grata with the festival. It’s not something anyone likes to do, but when people ignore repeated warnings, then action has to be taken. We want to be invitational, not exclusive. The idea of anyone feeling like they don’t belong is something we won’t tolerate.

So… after we’ve discussed scheduling, fundraising, and where to find cheap (or free) rehearsal venues all over the Bay Area, we finally come around to the main event of the evening: the writing samples. Every writer is (barring unforeseen circumstances) expected to attend every meeting, and every writer in attendance is expected to bring along two sample pages of their script as proof they’ve actually been, y’know, writing it. It’s not uncommon for pages to be written the day of the meeting (God knows I’ve done it plenty of times). Hell, some folks will actually write them during a lull in the meeting. So long as you aren’t doing this once the festival is up and running, we’re just glad to hear a sample.

I love reading for everyone else’s samples, but hate hearing my own. I mean, I know Allison will bring pages to have us on the floor holding our sides, that Rachel’s will make us all envious of her fertile mind, and that Bridgette will somehow, someway find a way to work iambic pentameter into her dialogue. I’m nowhere near as reliable with my writing, but I will at least try my best not to butcher the words of the fellow writer whose words I’m reciting.

My subject this year is a one-act based on the myth of Poseidon. I’ve always had a soft spot for Poseidon because I think he’s entitled to nearly as much fame (or infamy) as his brother Zeus. I mean, both of them had the tendency to be complete dicks, but somehow Zeus is the more revered dick. My play, in short, is actually pretty timely. I submitted it months ago, but thanks to certain recent revelations about one “Mr. Cosby”, my play has become topical in a way even I didn’t expect. Whether it will remain so in the coming year, remains to be seen.

Stuart calls my subject. I pass my type-written pages off to Sunil and Tonya. I turn my head away, but tilt it in their direction so as to take in every word. I keep my eyes to the ground because I don’t wanna know what everyone else thinks of it – not yet. The two readers keep a good pace with my pages. Two of my jokes even elicit laughs from the room. There’s a chunk about the modern world needing myths more than ever. I genuinely feel that the gravitas of the moment is working. For once in my self-deprecating life, I allow myself think that maybe – just maybe – people actually like the stuff I write. In about two minutes it’s over. I take my pages back, fold them into my bag with my red pen (for adjustments), and consider my work done for the night. I can breathe again.

I'm not saying this is the poster for my play, but I'm not saying it isn't.

I’m not saying this is the poster for my play, but I’m not saying it isn’t.

After all the pages are read, most of the wine has been drunk, and Rachel’s mac ‘n cheese has been completely devoured, we’re all dismissed for the evening. It’s a slow and steady process: phone numbers and e-mails are exchanged, last-minute bites of food are taken, Lyfts are ordered, what-have you. One thing we all take away from this meeting is the fact that the festival is changing. It has to. Everything does. It’s just a question of whether that change is one of a relic falling into decay or an organism evolving with its time and environment. I definitely think the latter is occurring. As I’ve said before, what I love about this festival is that it never ceases to surprise me. It’s almost irrelevant to try to explain certain things to newcomers because there’s something new for all of us. Now we’ve officially begun our yearlong journey into the Wine Dark Sea. And, as the name implies, just sailing out into it is an adventure in and of itself.

Also there’s gonna be a lotta dolphin sex. I mean, a LOT. You don’t even know…

Charles Lewis III can’t wait to make a splash with the upcoming festival. For more information about the history of the festival and next year’s readings, please visit http://www.SFOlympians.com.

The Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards for 2013

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2013 list. 

Three years ago I decided that I wanted to start my own Bay Area Theater Awards, because my opinions are just as legitimate as anyone else’s, the awards I give out are as valuable as any other critical awards, (recipients of the SEBATA, or the Stuey, if you prefer, get nothing but my admiration and some free publicity), and also because there’s a fairly good chance that I’ve seen a lot of theater the usual award givers haven’t seen. 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. No one 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.

Also, there are some people who think I don’t like anything, and I feel a need to not only prove them wrong, but to do so by expressing how much of the local color I do love and admire, as opposed to just pointing out that the reason they think I don’t like anything is because I generally don’t like *their* work (oh… I guess I did just point that out, didn’t I?). Normally I post these “awards” on my Facebook page, but this year I decided to bring them to the blog because the mission statement of the SEBATA is pretty in-line with the mission statement of Theater Pub, and having come to the close of an amazing year of growth for the blog, it now has a much farther reach than my Facebook page could ever hope to have. Congratulations SF Theater Pub Blog- you just won a Stuey.

Anyway, because I am a product of the generation that grew up with the MTV Movie Awards- and, because I’m the only person on the voting committee and thus can do what I like- I have decided that my categories are purely arbitrary and can be stretched to allow me to write about anyone I feel like. The two limits are 1) I can’t give myself an award (though I can have been involved in the show on a limited level) and 2) I won’t go over thirteen (though there may be ties for some awards). Because seriously, how (more) self indulgent would this be without either of those rules? Oh, 3) I won’t give out awards for how bad something was. I’m here to be positive. And chances are those people were punished enough.

To all my friends and frenemies in the Bay Area Theater Scene… it’s been a great year. Let’s you and me do it again sometime. Well… most of you.

And now, presenting the Fourth Annual Stuey Awards…

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
“Pint Sized IV” (San Francisco Theater Pub)
Pint Sized Plays gets better each year, and it’s honestly one of two things I actually miss about working at the Cafe Royale (the other is the uniqueness of doing Shakespeare there, which for some reason works in a completely magical way I wish it worked more often on traditional stages). This year the festival was put together by Neil Higgins, who did an amazing job, and I think we had some of the best material yet. The evening as a whole felt incredibly cohesive, with a theme of forgiveness and letting go, archly reflective of our decision to leave the Cafe Royale, and I think incredibly relevant to a lot of our audience. We knew Pint Sized could be very funny, and very socially pointed, but I’m not sure we had ever conceived of it as moving and this year it was, thanks in no small part to our writers (Megan Cohen, Peter Hsieh, Sang S. Kim, Carl Lucania, Daniel Ng, Kirk Shimano and Christian Simonsen), directors (Jonathan Carpenter, Colin Johnson, Tracy Held Potter, Neil Higgins, Charles Lewis III, Meghan O’Connor, Adam L. Sussman) and actors (Annika Bergman, Jessica Chisum, Andrew Chung, AJ Davenport, Eli Diamond, Caitlin Evenson, Lara Gold, Matt Gunnison, Melissa Keith, Charles Lewis III, Brian Quakenbush, Rob Ready, Casey Robbins, Paul Rodrigues, Jessica Rudholm). The evening would start off with a magical performance by the Blue Diamond Bellydancers, whose combination of skill and spectacle got our audiences excited for what was to come. As we moved through the pieces, each by turns funny and poignant, each in some way or another about finding something, losing it, letting it go, and then coming back stronger, you could feel the audience grow warmer and closer each night. By the time Rob Ready gave the closing monologue, fixing each audience member in turn with a smile, you could feel everyone really listening and you could hear a pin drop in the room, and that’s saying something for the noisy by nature Cafe Royale. I think a lot of love went into the festival this year, and not just because it might be the last, and the product of that love was real magic and like the best theater- you had to be there. And if you weren’t, you really missed out.

BEST SHOW
“The Motherf**ker With The Hat” (San Francisco Playhouse)
I saw a lot of decent, solid, well done theater this year but I had a hard time connecting to a lot of it, which was rarely a flaw with the show and probably had more to do with where I was/am as a person (lots of change this year). Then again, something about really good theater is that it can get you out of your own head and into some other world, for a while. Towards the end of the year, I saw three shows I really really liked: “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake” at Bigger Than A Bread Box Theater Company, “Peter/Wendy” at Custom Made Theater Company, and “First” at Stage Werx, produced by Altair Productions/The Aluminous Collective and Playground. Still, San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The Motherf**ker With The Hat”, directed by Bill English, was probably my favorite show of the year. Who knows why it has an edge on the others? Maybe because as someone who spent most of their childhood weekends in New York it seemed oddly familiar, or maybe it was the deft handling by the universally excellent cast (Carl Lumbly, Gabriel Marin, Rudy Guerrero, Margo Hall, Isabelle Ortega) of the complex relationships and dialogue that Guirgis does so well, or maybe it was just refreshing to see such a simple, honest play in what, for me, was a year characterized by a lot of stylistically interesting but emotionally cold theater. There is something very passionate, scathing, bombastic and yet also humble and forgiving about Guirgis’ work that I think makes him such an important voice in modern American drama and English’s production brought all that out with an easy grace. The show really worked, and got me out of my head, and when I went back to my life I felt much better for the journey. What more can you ask of a theater experience?

BEST READING
“Paris/Hector” (San Francisco Olympians Festival)
I attend a lot of readings every year, and run a reading festival myself, so I’ve come to greatly value a really well done reading. This year, the award goes to director Katja Rivera and writers Kirk Shimano and Bridgette Dutta Portman, whose pair of one acts about the pair of Trojan princes Paris and Hector made for one of the best nights of this past year’s San Francisco Olympians Festival. Part of what I loved about it was that in one evening we saw the amazing variety the festival can offer: Kirk’s play was a comedy with a poignant moment or two, while Bridgette’s was a faux-classical drama- written in verse no less. Though the writers are the center of attention at the festival, credit really has to be given to Katja Rivera, who as the director of both pieces, made many simple but effective choices to highlight the best elements of both works and utilize the talents of her excellent cast: Yael Aranoff, Molly Benson, Jeremy Cole, Mackenszie Drae, Allison Fenner, Dana Goldberg, John Lennon Harrison, Michelle Talgarow, Alaric Toy. With the combined excellent story-telling of the performers (including beautiful and surprising singing from Yael, Molly and Dana), the thoughtfulness of the scripts, and the cohesiveness of the whole, this night of the festival stood out best in what was a consistently strong year at the Olympians.

BEST SHORT PLAY
“My Year” by Megan Cohen (Bay One Acts Festival)
Megan Cohen’s “My Year” is the kind of thing I wish more short plays would be: dynamic, personal, and complete. In a sea of short plays that are really fragments, or meet-cute plays, it’s always lovely to see something with a beginning, a middle, and end, and full-formed characters having actual interactions and not just feeling like Girl A and Guy B, thrown together by the whimsy of the playwright to make a point (though of course, the right playwright can pull that off- which is why so many people try to ape it). A friend of mine described “My Year” as “A fun little 90s indie film on stage” and my reaction when watching it was “Oh, Dear God, convince Meg to let me write a companion piece to this!” because let’s face it: at least a third of what I write is a 90s film on stage. My own vanity aside, what I loved about this play (directed by Siobhan Doherty, starring Emma Rose Shelton, Theresa Miller, Nkechi Live, Allene Hebert, Jaime Lee Currier, and Luna Malbroux) was that it felt constantly on the move, while still being mostly composed of intimate moments between a group of women at a birthday party. Like a lot of the theater that I really loved this year, it also just struck a personal chord, watching this young woman (Emma Rose Shelton) trying to enjoy the party her friends have thrown for her (though she doesn’t like surprise parties) despite there being no food and a random stranger (Theresa Miller) who worms her way in only to turn out to be the troublemaker she’s originally pegged for. Megan’s writing had its usual combination of smart and sentimental, but whereas a lot of her other work heads into absurdity and/or extreme quirkiness (not that this is bad), “My Year” stayed very grounded and found its meaning in that effort to stay grounded, making what might be a quiet little play in anyone else’s oeuvre, a nice change of pace in Cohen’s. The final moment, where the characters howl at the moon because what else are you going to do after a shitty birthday, felt like a communal sigh even the audience was in on, probably because we could all relate to Shelton’s character, and while having always loved and admired Meg’s work, this is probably the first time I related to it so wholeheartedly.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Linda Huang (Stage Manager, Tech, Box Office, Everything)
You know how the Oscars and Tonys give out Lifetime Achievement Awards for people whose contribution is so massive that it would kind of be criminal to pick one work or contribution so instead they just get an award for basically being themselves? You know, like how Peter O’Toole got that award because at some point somebody realized that he was pervasively brilliant and always in fashion and therefore easily forgotten because things like “Oh, well, he’ll win next year” often times factors in to who we recognize, meaning things like reliability and consistency do not? Well, for the first time ever in the history of the SEBATAs, I’m creating The Peter O’Toole Award for General Awesomeness and giving it to Linda Huang, without whom, in all seriousness, I believe that small theater in San Francisco would probably grind to a halt. Earlier this year, I got recognized by the Weekly as a “Ringmaster” of the theater scene, but frankly I (and people like me) could not do what we do without having Linda (and people like her) constantly coming to our aid despite being paid a fraction of what they’re worth and half the time being forgotten because what they do isn’t in the immediate eye of the audience. Linda is a total gem of the theater scene. She wears many hats, though she’s probably best known for running light boards, and one of my favorite things when attending the theater is running into her, usually working in some capacity I previously was unaware she was qualified to do (note: Linda is qualified to do everything). What I love best about Linda (aside from her cutting sense of humor and tell-it-like-it-is demeanor) is her incredible generosity: she does so much for local theater and rarely gets paid, and even when she does get paid she often says, “Pay me last.” A true team player, and one we don’t thank enough, especially as she’s the only person who seems to know how to get the air conditioning in the Exit Theatre to work.

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Atticus Rex, Open Mic Night In Support of the Lemonade Fund (SF Theater Pub/Theater Bay Area Individual Services Committee)
I never expected to include a note about someone who performed at an open mic/variety show, but I wanted to shout out to Atticus Rex, a young performer who literally made his performance debut at the San Francisco Theater Pub/ISC fundraiser for the Lemonade Fund this year. A last minute replacement, Atticus and a friend performed some original hip-hop for our audience of mostly performance professionals and their friends, and despite the formidable crowd and the first time nerves, he basically killed it. Even when he made a mistake it worked: he’d call himself out, apologize, and start again, somehow without ever missing a beat. His lyrics are very tight and poetic, and the contrast between the power in his words and his humbleness at approaching and leaving the stage works so well you’d almost think it was an act- except he later confessed he’d never performed live before, and it couldn’t have been more sincere. With genuine hope he never loses his sincerity, while also continuing to grow his confidence and experience, I wanted to take a moment to say congratulations once again, and thank you for reminding us all what it looks like to really take a risk onstage.

BEST CHEMISTRY
Genie Cartier and Audrey Spinazola (Genie and Audrey’s Dream Show, SF Fringe Festival)
What’s potentially cuter than “Clyde the Cyclops?” Very little, but these two ladies and their breathless, funny, and surreal little clown show come dangerously close to giving Clyde a run for his money, and it’s the only show I saw at the Fringe this year that I wished my boyfriend had also seen. Bravely straddling the bridge between performance artists and acrobats, this collage of monologues, poems, jokes, mime, clowning, puppetry, stunts, music, and children’s games, is like watching two hyper-articulate kids on pixie sticks go nuts in a club house, but only if those kids had an incredible sense of timing and arch senses of humor (not to mention very flexible bodies). I’ve never been a huge fan of circus stuff (I like it as an accent, sometimes, but as entertainment on its own it doesn’t tend to hold my interest long), but I think I’d be a fan of anything that had these two women in it. Their ability to play off each other is the key to making their show work, and when you watch it you have that sense of being let into the private make-believe world of people who have found kindred spirits in one another. It’s an utterly magic combination and from what I know of other people who saw it, it basically charmed the pants off everyone. Or at least, everyone who has a soul.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
Ben Calabrese (Apartment in “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”)
I saw a lot of great performances by men this year (Sam Bertken in “Peter/Wendy”, Tim Green and Gregory Knotts in “First”, Paul Rodrigues “Pint Sized Plays IV”, Will Hand “Dark Play”, Casey Robbins “Oh Best Beloved!”), but this one really took my breath away (though since Sam Bertken actually got me to sincerely clap for fairies in Peter/Wendy, he gets a second shout out). Ben’s role, which is to literally embody the voice of a neglected apartment, is the kind of role that could either be the best thing about the show, or the worst. Luckily for Bigger Than A Breadbox’s production of “Crumble, or Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake (written by Sheila Callaghan), Ben rocked it. Bouncing around the stage, dive bombing the furniture, all the while spouting, eloquently, Callaghan’s beautiful and complex monologues, Ben was so utterly watchable it was impossible not to buy the conceit of the role, and so moments when he has an orgasm from having the radiator turned on, or turns his fingers into loose electrical wires, don’t seem ridiculous, but made immediate and total sense. It’s usually not a compliment to tell an actor they did a tremendous job being an inanimate object, but what Ben did so well was illustrate that a home, while not “alive”, does indeed have a life to it. And if that life occasionally fixes the audience with Ben’s particular brand of “scary actor stare” why… all the better.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Brandice Marie Thompson (Georgia Potts in “First”)
Oh, this was a tough one. As usual, the actresses of the Bay Area are kicking ass and taking names no matter what their role, and my decision to pick Brandice above the rest is because I think she best exemplified that thing which so many actresses have to do, which is take a relatively underwritten role in a play about men and turn it into a rich, believable character who somehow manages to steal the show. Evelyn Jean Pine, who wrote “First”, is a fantastic writer and she writes women and men equitably well, and due credit must go to her for the creation and inclusion of this character in a story mostly about male egos, but in a lesser capable actresses hands, this role could have been annoying, or forgettable, or purely comical, and Brandice avoided all of these traps while making the character utterly charming at the same time. The truth is, her arc became much more interesting to me than that of the main character, and I think a strong argument could be made that “First” was just as much about Georgia as it was about Bill Gates. Director Michael French no doubt had a hand in this too, but in the end it’s a performer who makes or breaks a role and Brandice’s ability to combine mousy with spunky with unexpected and yet thoroughly authentic character turns was deeply satisfying to watch. Georgia kicked ass and took names, because Brandice does. Runners up: Melissa Carter (“Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”, Bigger Than A Breadbox), Allison Jean White (“Abigail’s Party”, SF Playhouse), Sam Jackson (“Oh Best Beloved!”, SF Fringe Festival), Courtney Merril (“Into the Woods”, Ray of Light), Elissa Beth Stebbins (“Peter/Wendy”, Custom Made Theatre Company).

BEST FUSION THEATER PIECE
“Nightingale” (Davis Shakespeare Ensemble/SF Fringe Festival)
This little gem at this year’s fringe festival was adapted from the myth of Philomel by Gia Battista, with music by Richard Chowenhill, directed by Rob Sals (with Battista), and staring Gabby Battista, April Fritz and Tracy Hazas as three remarkably similar looking women who each take a turn playing the heroine of a bizarre fairy tale (all the other characters in the story are played by them as well). Dance, pantomime, narration, song and traditional theater techniques all came together in a way that was astonishingly clean and charming in its simplicity. The black and white aesthetic used to unify the look of the show and performers gave the whole thing a quality both modern and timeless, and in its gentle, dreamy tone the sharp elements of social commentary and satire often seemed more brutal and impactful. Of everything I saw at the Fringe this past year, which included a number of excellent works, this piece has stayed with me the longest.

BEST SOLO SHOW
“Steve Seabrook: Better Than You” by Kurt Bodden (The Marsh)
I saw a lot more solo performance than usual this year (including works by Annette Roman, Laura Austin Wiley, Alexa Fitzpatrick, Jenny Newbry Waters, Rene Pena), and realizing how good it can be is, in and of itself, kind of a miracle because I used to say things like, “Theater begins with two people” and “If Aeschylus had wanted to write sermons he wouldn’t have added Electra”. Kurt’s show was not created this past year, it has a long history, but I only saw it in its most recent Marsh incarnation and I’m hoping he’s been able to find ways to keep it going (his Facebook feeds indicate this is so). A satire of motivational speakers and the cult of self-improvement, “Steve Seabrook” manages to be so much more by combining satirical fiction with moments of the kind of personal monologue (still fiction) that permeates solo shows. The result is a sense of development, of a story (Steve’s) unfolding in real time while another story, (Steve’s Seminar) plays itself out over the course of a weekend. Playing off the convention of a backstage comedy (we see the seminar, then we see Steve when he’s not “on”), Kurt’s brilliance as a performer is evident in the seamless transition from one to the other, again and again, carrying a throughline that shows us not only why Steve buys into his mantras, but why any of us buy into anything we’ve come up with (or adopted from someone else) to keep us moving through life’s ups and downs. At once very funny and cutting, while also moving and real (and yes, fuck it, kind of inspirational), Kurt’s show also gets a nod for its fantastic takeaway schwag: a keychain light with Steve’s name on it, with which every audience member is encouraged to shine their light in a dark world.

BEST DIRECTOR
Rebecca Longworth and Joan Howard, “Oh Best Beloved” (SF Fringe Festival)
“Oh Best Beloved” got a lot of attention and deservedly so- well acted, well designed, it was a genuinely fun piece of theater. Perhaps most deserving of being singled out in the project, however, are director Rebecca Longworth and partner Joan Howard, who share credit for conceptualizing the show (in which Joan also played a part and had, in my opinion, the single best moment in the show), and who lead the rest of the company in adapting the material from Ruyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories”. Anyone who saw the show could easily see that it had about a million moving parts, and Longworth and Howard’s ability to keep all those plates spinning on a small budget and under the strict conditions of the San Francisco Fringe Festival (they literally put up and pulled down a full set with each performance) is worthy of award in and of itself, but the level of commitment and craft they were able to pull from their design team and performers was equally as impressive. Everything about the show, even the parts that didn’t work as well as others, felt thought through and done with panache, making this ambitious and unique experience a delightful jewel in the SF Fringe Festival’s crown.

BEST DESIGNER
Bill English, “Abigail’s Party” (SF Playhouse)
Scenery in general doesn’t do much for me. I enjoy good scenery, but the best scenery should kind of vanish into the background, in my opinion, and be something you barely pay attention to. As a result, I’m often just as happy with a blank stage, or really well thought out minimal set, as I am with a full one, so long as the play I’m watching is good. That said, every now and then I will see a set I just adore, and this year it was Bill English’s set for SF Playhouse’s “Abigail’s Party”, by Mike Leigh, directed by Amy Glazer. Basically a living room/dining room/kitchenet combo, this fully realized “home” was very well crafted as a place, but more importantly, it really worked as a place where people lived. The 70s style was at once present without being overwhelming, evoking the time period without looking like it was a homage to the time period, or a museum dedicated to 70s kitch. I mean, it honestly reminded me of numerous homes I’d played in as a child (I was born in 1978) and all the wallpaper looked like wallpaper in my parents’ home before my mother completely re-did the house in 1990 because “we can admit this is ugly… now”. The amazing thing about English’s set is that it didn’t seem ugly, in spite of being made up entirely of patterns and colors we now find appalling. He made it all work together, the way people once did, and the final result was simultaneously comfortable and dazzling. I remember thinking, waiting for the play to begin, “I could live here.”

And last, but not least, every year I pick…

MY PERSONAL FAVORITE EXPERIENCE TO WORK ON
“The Age of Beauty” (No Nude Men Productions/The Exit Theatre)
I had taken a break from directing my own work, but with this nine performance workshop I allowed myself to re-discover that, as much as I like directing plays by others, there is nothing quite as satisfying as feeling like I’m telling a very personal story of my own and having the final say on how that happens. Of course, such experiences are only rewarding when you get to work with great actors, and I was lucky to have four amazing women (Megan Briggs, Emma Rose Shelton, Allison Page, Sylvia Hathaway) who were willing to go on this adventure with me, always keeping stride as I made cuts and changed lines, memorizing a mountain of material in Emma and Sylvia’s case, and crafting subtle characters who had to be both different from each other and relatively interchangeable at the same time. When I had a hard time articulating what I was going for, they would nod and smile and then show me what I meant by doing it better than I could describe it. When the show opened by the skin of its teeth it had one of those minor miracle opening nights, where even though you’re just a tiny bit unprepared (all my fault, I kept changing the script), it somehow all comes together and really works. Over the course of the show, as their performances grew and refined (our final two nights were simply perfect), I was able to see what flaws still remained in the script (two pages, middle of scene of scene two were cut the day after we closed), and any writer of new work will tell you that’s the best experience you can hope for on a first production. Shout outs to my awesome design team Cody Rishell, Jim Lively and Wil Turner IV! “The Age of Beauty” helped restore some of my lagging faith in the theater process, and made me commit to doing more of my own work in the coming 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.

The Pub From Another World Arrives Tonight!

Tonight, for one night only, Cafe Royale transforms into THE PUB FROM ANOTHER WORLD, an inter-dimensional crossroads where theater is not bound by the constraints of reality! It’s a world where time travel is possible, where unicorns exist! From the minds of eight Bay Area playwrights—including a four-year-old girl featured on Boing Boing (http://boingboing.net/2013/03/02/horrorsf-play-by-a-four-year.html)—come imaginative tales of everything from superheroes to surrogates, monsters to mad scientists, and other flights of fancy. This night of staged readings will be talked about for all eternity by those afflicted with immortality, so don’t miss it!

This strange brew of stories was concocted by Timothy Kay, Audrey Kessinger, Sang Kim, Allison Page, Sunil Patel, Bridgette Dutta Portman, Kirk Shimano, and Marissa Skudlarek. The intrepid troupe of actors includes Giovanna Arietta, Sam Bertken, Andrew Chung, AJ Davenport, Colleen Egan, Caitlin Evenson, Paul Jennings, Timothy Kay, Dan Kurtz, Meg O’Connor, Sunil Patel, Peter Townley, and Olivia Youngers.

The wormhole will be open for one night only: Monday, May 20, at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale. Admission is free and no reservations are required for this journey, but we recommend you come early for the best seats. Hyde Away Blues BBQ will provide food for all human guests.

Announcing The Line Up For May’s “Pub From Another World”

Audrey Scare People Play
by Audrey Kessinger
Audrey tries to get Scare People out of her house.

Support Group for the Mortally Challenged
by Bridgette Dutta Portman
Immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The Overnight Exchange
by Kirk Shimano
What if you had someone sleep for you? Would you miss your dreams?

Days of Future Whatever
by Sang Kim
Kevin time traveled. Kevin time travels. Kevin will time travel.

Mrs. Youngblood
by Allison Page
One psychotic nanny. One terrified girl. Three knives.

Origin Stories
by Sunil Patel
Two superheroes walk into a bar. Who walks out?

The Progress of Perception
by Timothy Kay
A mad scientist enhances his sight and doesn’t like what he sees.

Horny
by Marissa Skudlarek
You can have a unicorn, or you can have sex.

Don’t miss The Pub From Another World, on May 20th at 8 PM, only at the Cafe Royale!