Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: It’s Not Locavore Theater if the Recipe’s From New York

Marissa Skudlarek undergoes a rite of passage for any Bay Area theater blogger: writing a “What’s the Matter with ACT” column.

Last Saturday (which also happened to be my birthday), we Theater Pub writers met at Café Flore for our semi-annual Blogger Conclave. We drank mimosas, patted ourselves on the back for having completed another successful half-year of blogging, and expressed gratitude to our readers for being interested in what we have to say.

We also decided that, from now to the end of 2014, the blog will tackle a new theme or subject each month. For July, we were inspired by the Independence Day holiday to think about the organizations and institutions that “govern” the local and national theater scene. Claire‘s and Ashley‘s posts on Theatre Bay Area started us off… you may also see posts about institutions like Actors’ Equity or the Dramatists’ Guild later this month.

American Conservatory Theater (ACT), San Francisco’s wealthy flagship regional theater, may not be a “governing” institution like the aforementioned, but it’s big and it’s powerful and it exerts a disproportionate influence. And like Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the colonists*, I’ve got some grievances about this Big Powerful Thing to get off my chest.

(I should note that ACT began its 2013-14 season with a production of 1776 that proved controversial once people realized that the season contained just one female writer (Marie-Hélène Estienne, co-adaptor of The Suit) and that 1776 is a disproportionately male-heavy musical: ACT’s production featured 24 male and 2 female actors.)

So, at the blogger brunch, as inevitably happens when a bunch of smart and disgruntled indie-theater folks gather over drinks, we got to complaining about ACT. How it feels so inaccessible and cut off from the wider currents of Bay Area theater-making. How it doesn’t seem to acknowledge the depth of acting, writing, and directing talent based here in the Bay. And I realized that I couldn’t even remember the last time ACT produced a play by a local playwright. I posed the question to my friends at brunch, but we were all stumped.

So I went to ACT’s website and reviewed their production history, whereupon I made the astonishing discovery:

The only local playwright that ACT has produced on their mainstage** in the last seven seasons is their artistic director, Carey Perloff, herself.

ACT produced Perloff’s drama, Higher, in 2012. Prior to that, its most recent production by a Bay Area playwright was After the War, by Philip Kan Gotanda, in spring 2007. It has no Bay Area playwrights in its upcoming season; and by my count, only 2 of the 10 artists it has under commission (Gotanda and Sean San José) are Bay Area residents.

To put this in perspective, I have lived in San Francisco for six theater seasons, and, in all this time, my city’s most well-funded theater, the one most known to and attended by people who don’t consider themselves “theater people,” has not produced a single play by a Bay Area resident. Aside from their own Artistic Director, of course.

To be fair, ACT has produced some Bay Area-themed plays in the last six seasons. It premiered an ambitious musical-comedy adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books – but the writers and many of the stars of that show came from New York. It presented the autobiographical one-man show Humor Abuse, in which Lorenzo Pisoni reminisces about growing up in S.F.’s Pickle Family Circus – but Pisoni is now a New York-based actor, and ACT basically imported his show wholesale from NYC. Perloff and local choreographer Val Caniparoli worked together to create The Tosca Project, a dance-theater piece about the history of the Tosca Café in North Beach – but that wasn’t a play in the traditional sense, and besides, it still makes Perloff the only local writer to get her plays produced on ACT’s mainstage. I should also note, in the interests of fairness, that ACT has commissioned local writers like Peter Sinn Nachtrieb to write plays for its MFA acting students.

It’s pretty galling that ACT ignores local playwrights to such an extent. But most galling of all is the way that the company thinks it is connected to the local theater scene, despite such evidence to the contrary. In 2011, after Tales of the City premiered, Perloff wrote an essay for the Huffington Post describing how this production was an example of what she calls “locavore theater,” “creatively embracing that which is grown and nourished in our own backyards.” She made a lot of high-minded, earnest-sounding points — audiences want to see stories that they feel connected to; a theater can succeed only if it is deeply rooted in its community — while importing the show’s writers and stars from across the country.

Perloff concludes her essay by writing, “Perhaps audiences can be encouraged to revel in vigorous and delicious work that is nurtured closer to home. It might be an experiment worth taking.” Yes, Carey, perhaps they could. In fact, many theater companies in the Bay Area meet with success by doing just that. But will you, and your organization, be brave enough to rise to your own challenge?

*Freudian slip: I initially typed “columnists” instead of “colonists.” True story.

**N.B.: Higher is listed on ACT’s website as a mainstage show, but it was not actually included in subscription packages and was performed in the smaller Theater at the Children’s Creativity Museum, not in ACT’s flagship proscenium space. Which either heightens or obscures my point.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Her play Pleiades, featuring nine local actors and a local director, opens at the Phoenix Theater this August. For more, visit pleiadessf.wordpress.com.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Truth and Kindness

Marissa Skudlarek, truer and kinder every day.

Yesterday, Ashley Cowan wrote the column I wanted to write. Damn her!

But it just so happened that both Ashley and I have had similar experiences in the last few weeks. Each of us published a piece that we considered critical but fair and honest, and each of us experienced a backlash from the people who we’d criticized. There was debate, there was drama, there was scandalized gossip, there were messages of support, there was soul-searching. And, in the end, neither of us apologized for what we’d written; neither of us backed down.

Ashley and I each went through this experience independently, yet I think we each gained strength from knowing that we were part of a community of writers, bloggers, and theater-makers here in San Francisco, and from knowing that we aren’t the first people in the world to receive blowback after publishing a piece that is honest but not totally positive. A few years ago, the experience of arguing on Facebook with an acclaimed American theater artist would have devastated me. I might have been intimidated into backing down or apologizing in order to smooth things over. I didn’t do that this time. Like Ashley, I waited to respond, and chose my words carefully. Like her, I reiterated that I had not had any nefarious motivations in publishing my piece, yet I was not going to apologize for writing it.

Heck, six months ago on this very blog, I got into an argument with my editor, Stuart Bousel, in the comments section of one of my posts. It got pretty heated and, as the argument progressed, I found myself running to the bathroom at work and crying. I say this not to cast blame on anyone, but because I feel like being honest. But I didn’t cry, this past week.

Oddly enough, my argument with Stuart centered around the way an artist’s work is received out in the world. Stuart had written, “The constant possibility of reactions beyond your control are just the nature of a life where you have elected to live big and loud over quietly tending your own garden and being satisfied with that.” And despite our quibbling over certain implications of this phrase, despite my crying in my office bathroom, you know what… I’ve come around to agree with Stuart’s point. As such, when the artist took me to task on Facebook for saying that I didn’t care for his latest play, many people commented that it was odd that he should respond in such a fashion. Didn’t he know that, when you put work out into the world, not everyone may enjoy it or understand it? Couldn’t he accept that the audience’s reaction was beyond his control?

And in the meantime, I’ve become better able to withstand negativity myself. I try to write only things that I can stand behind 100%, reminding myself that I can control the words I put down, but I can’t control the response to them.

This blog, which we’re now referring to as the San Francisco Theater Pub(lic), has been going for almost two years, but in the last few months, it feels like we’ve become an actual Thing. Just before Christmas, the regular bloggers had a meeting over sangria at our beloved Cafe Flore that has attained the status of legend. We stopped feeling like we were just a bunch of individual wordsmiths rushing to meet column deadlines, and started to realize that we were truly a tribe, a collective, a happy few, a band of brothers… (well, mostly sisters).

As bloggers, we all have our own individual voices, perspectives, and pet topics, but one of the most gratifying things about working on this blog for two years is that I can sense a larger pattern, or voice, developing that connects our disparate posts. It seems like many of our posts revolve around the idea of living an ethical life in a difficult business. (Or, hell, a difficult world; the theater may not coddle you, but life doesn’t coddle you either.) Or, as Ashley phrased it in her piece, perhaps the theme is “how to be both honest and kind.”

This theme has been especially striking in the past week, what with Will Leschber’s contention that “hating the Oscars is lazy reporting and lazy viewership,” to guest columnist John Caldon’s list of suggestions for how to deliver feedback honestly and constructively, to Ashley’s aforementioned “I’m not sorry I told my story” piece, to Claire Rice’s attempts to lay her heart open and get at the root of her writer’s block. (Freudian slip alert: I originally typed “writer’s blog” there just now. True story.) All of us are pushing ourselves to be more honest, more courageous, and more compassionate, both as writers and as human beings. Which means that we’re all pushing each other forward, as well; a rising tide lifts all boats. I’ve always dreamed of being part of a group like this, but thought that they only existed in stories. Now I know that it’s within my power — our power — to make it a reality.

I want you to keep pushing me to be a better writer and a better person. I want you to continue writing pieces that make me say, “damn, I wish I’d written that.”

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: J’Adore the Flore

Marissa Skudlarek waxes poetic about one of her favorite local places to create art.

I hope the Café Royale won’t get mad if I use this column to declare my affection for another San Francisco café with a vaguely French name: the Café Flore. I spent an extremely productive three hours at the Flore on Tuesday night revising my play Pleiades, and it’s made me want to do all my writing there from now on.

My initial reason for favoring the Flore is that Tony Kushner wrote Angels in America there. A few years ago, I attended a lecture of Kushner’s, and while he said many witty and brilliant things (see the blog post I wrote about it), my main takeaway was that he was a patron of the Flore. I am a bit superstitious, and a bit prone to romanticize the act of being a writer (rather than the act of writing), so I loved the idea of writing in the same space where the greatest American play of my lifetime was written. Even better, nobody else seems to know about the Flore’s Kushner connection, so the café is not yet overrun with aspiring playwrights seeking to soak up the Kushnerian magic. Part of me is reluctant to write this column and let the secret out; the other part of me thinks that the café management ought to put up a plaque in Kushner’s honor.

Going to the Café Flore can also me feel like I’m aping the creative process of genius songwriter Stephin Merritt, who claims, “I get most of my ideas in dark gay bars, listening to thumping disco music that I don’t particularly like” (source). OK, the Café Flore is more than just a gay bar and its background music isn’t really disco – but it’s gay-friendly and the top-40 pop music it plays can get loud and overbearing after the dinner rush is over. But that just makes you write all the faster as you start to feel self-conscious about sitting in an empty bar listening to Lady Gaga. And when you finish your three-hour revision session and hear Katy Perry shouting “Baby, you’re a FIIIRE-WORK!” you feel like she’s singing it for you.

Aesthetically, the Café Flore is pleasing, with copper-topped tables for beauty and hard wooden bench seats for making you feel ascetic and disciplined. I like to sit where I can see the bar and the dessert case as a reminder to treat myself to a drink or a slice of cake when I’m done writing. To fuel us writers during marathon writing sessions, the café offers an extensive selection of salads, sandwiches, pasta, etc., and makes a mean Arnold Palmer. Wherever I go, Arnold Palmers are my drink of choice when writing (thanks to the refreshing citrus and the hint of caffeine) and the Café Flore’s version is terrific. They thoroughly mix the tea and lemonade by pouring them into a cocktail shaker, and garnish it with a lemon slice!

If you go to the Flore on Tuesday or Thursday night, your Arnold Palmer (or Kir Royale, or margarita, or whatever) will likely be mixed by bartender Brian, who is an aspiring screenwriter. We had a nice conversation about dramatic writing on Tuesday night after I finished my revisions and he made me an Old-Fashioned.

Best of all, the Café Flore is pretty easy to get to, conveniently located near the Castro MUNI station. Or, if you ride the N-Judah like me, you can stroll up Noe Street to catch the N at Duboce Park. This part of Noe, lined by tall trees and elegant Edwardian architecture, has to be one of the most beautiful streets in San Francisco. Even if you are abstaining from sweets or alcohol, a nighttime walk up Noe Street is reward and solace enough for a hard-working writer.

Learning that Angels in America was written at the Café Flore is what initially spurred me to see it as a good place to write. But I keep returning there not out of superstition or nostalgia, but because I love its atmosphere, its energy, and those Arnold Palmers. That Kushner. He has good taste.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.