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: A Decade of Loving “Arcadia”

Marissa Skudlarek dissects the deepest of all love affairs: that of a fan with the work they love the most.

“Septimus, what is carnal embrace?”

“Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.”

Ten years ago, I read the opening lines of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, and fell in love. This wasn’t merely a playwright’s platonic love for a skillfully written script. No, I was a high school junior at the time, and I developed a massive crush on Septimus Hodge, the character who makes such a witty quip about the meaning of carnal embrace.

Spare me your Heathcliffs and your Mr. Darcys – for me it has always been Septimus and Septimus alone. He’s a ladies’ man, quick-witted, amusing, and rakish. But at the same time, he is capable of profound insights: “When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.”

In the play, Septimus is hired as tutor to the teenaged Lady Thomasina, who turns out to be a math prodigy. I identified with Thomasina, too, the way that I always identify with clever girls in works of fiction (Hermione Granger, say, or Roald Dahl’s Matilda). Being a smart girl, Thomasina naturally develops a crush on wonderful, sexy Septimus. He responds with mixed signals: he kisses her, but refuses to go to bed with her.

Yet, after Thomasina dies in a tragic accident, Septimus withdraws from the world and dedicates his life to investigating her mathematical theories. What greater proof of love could there be? Septimus may tease Thomasina, but deep down, he respects her. And he may sleep with other women, but it’s Thomasina who he loves. He admires her insight, her curiosity, all the essential traits of her personality. He loves her not in spite of her intelligence, but because of it. And when I was a gawky, bookish fifteen-year-old girl, that idea was very, very powerful.

There are many other reasons I love Arcadia: the script is brilliantly constructed, sparkles with epigrams, and expresses a perspective on life that I find both true and moving. But my original obsession was with Septimus and Thomasina. Perhaps I even took my identification with Thomasina a little too far: I made a point of rereading Arcadia on the night before I turned seventeen, because Thomasina dies in a fire on the eve of her seventeenth birthday. Yes, I feared dying in a fire that night, too! (This may make more sense if I explain that the night before my birthday is the Fourth of July, and people were shooting off bottle rockets nearby.)

And I still love Arcadia, though in recent years I’ve come to see it with a more critical eye. Even though it contains some excellent roles for women, it can also be criticized on feminist grounds: it’s a “dead girl play,” one of many in the dramatic canon that derives its emotional power from killing off a young female character. And, as a teenager, I found Thomasina and Septimus’ relationship wildly romantic – but, to my adult eyes, it looks kind of shady. My reaction has shifted from “Get over yourself, Septimus, and go have sex with your 16-year-old student!” to “Septimus, thank God you only went as far as kissing her.”

Yet, in ten years of loving Arcadia, I had never seen it staged. Though it’s a popular play at colleges and community theaters, years went by without my being in the vicinity of a production. Then, too, I didn’t want to be disappointed in the play when I did see it. I refused to attend a recent local production because I deemed the actor playing Septimus too old for the role – to see him would have dashed my girlish romantic dreams.

Then ACT, here in San Francisco, announced that Arcadia would be the closing production of their 2012-13 season. My feelings about this were as mixed as the jam in Thomasina’s rice pudding. Carey Perloff is famed for her productions of Stoppard plays, and ACT’s budget and resources would surely allow them to cast appropriate actors (i.e., they’d be able to find a young, cute Septimus). However, ACT is far from my favorite Bay Area theater company; I’ve seen some good shows there, but also some dreadful ones, such a dire production of Racine’s Phèdre helmed by Perloff herself. My optimism and my burning desire to finally see Arcadia prevailed, though, and I bought tickets to ACT’s production.

I’d always thought of Arcadia as a sprightly, fun script to read, but watching it, it seemed longer and talkier. It’s never dull, but it’s definitely a three-hour play of intricate complexity. However, seeing the play staged made me gain new respect for Stoppard’s dramatic construction. At the start of the play, there are dozens of unanswered questions; by the end of the play, everything has been tied up, to dazzling effect.

Thomasina was played by Rebekah Brockman, a student in ACT’s MFA program. Presumably, Brockman is in her twenties, yet she made an utterly believable thirteen-year-old, fidgeting and tucking her feet up under her as she sat in a chair. Meanwhile, to play Septimus, ACT imported Jack Cutmore-Scott, a New York actor who had understudied the role on Broadway. And yes, he’s cute. But more importantly, he gave a very human portrayal of Septimus. On the page, Septimus can come off as almost too good to be true – that’s why I developed a crush on him. But in Cutmore-Scott’s portrayal, Septimus wasn’t always in control of the situation. Though his quick wit soon enabled him to regain his equilibrium, he also had moments of vulnerability and confusion.

The production wasn’t perfect. Indeed, the night I saw it, there was an understudy in the role of Bernard Nightingale. His English accent was shaky, and he had to shout “Line!” several times. But it didn’t ruin the play.

Tom Stoppard has revealed that at the end of Arcadia – where modern music plays as the characters dance a Regency waltz – he wanted the song to be the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” That’s always been my favorite Stones song, I think because its lyrics acknowledge that life is not some Arcadian idyll and yet the music grooves and swells and exults. Thematically, it makes a perfect match for the final moments of Arcadia.

All right, then: you can’t always get what you want. (Even Stoppard couldn’t get what he wanted: he couldn’t use that song at the end of Arcadia because it’s not a waltz.) The Arcadia production at ACT wasn’t perfect, and Septimus Hodge doesn’t exist in real life. At the same time, I saw Arcadia with my boyfriend, who loves the script as much as I do, and is pretty special in other ways too. I had to wait ten years to see Arcadia; I also had to wait ten years to meet a man who’d love me for my intelligence. It was worth it, both times. If you try sometimes, you get what you need.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.