In For a Penny: Only if You Mean It

Charles Lewis III checks in one last time.

My first time at the ‘Pub, Feb. 2010

My first time at the ‘Pub, Feb. 2010

“Livin’ here in this brand new world might be a fantasy
But its taught me to love
So it’s real to me
And I’ve learned that we must look inside our hearts to find
A world full of love
Like yours, like mine, like…”
– “Home” from The Wiz, Charlie Smalls, et al.

I’ve been drafting this final dispatch from the magical ‘Pub HQ since mid-September. I assumed it would be my final entry in December. Then in October, I got the e-mail saying we’d be wrapping up the regular columns by mid-November. With that in mind, I also decided to revisit the “SF Theater Pub – By the Numbers” spreadsheet I mentioned in my last entry. Like my fellow columnists, I’d planned for this to be a nostalgic look back at the last almost-seven-years as a maudlin playlist of break-up songs played in the background. But, as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Also, “I am the Walrus,” but that’s neither here nor there.

I’m really glad I haven’t been on Facebook in over a year. I can only imagine how depressing it was last week. Admittedly, on Tuesday night I thought of logging onto Twitter – which I haven’t been on since August – and typing “Somebody just flipped/ My ‘Angry Nigga’ switch/ And the knob’s broken/ Stuck like that for four years, bitch!” But I didn’t do that, nor did I shed any tears. Part of me felt vindicated for this unfortunate proof that there is no “post-racial America,” but I was also disappointed. After finishing up at the SF Opera, I decided to head down to PianoFight.

Amidst the standing-room-only dour faces, I drank a Molson – yes, a Canadian beer – and looked at my phone to check Tumblr, the one social network I didn’t abandon this year. Most of the posts in my feed were what you’d expect, but I particularly took note of those attempting to reassure the worried that there are safe spaces from the dangers, real or imagined, that were trumpeted throughout this election cycle; that no matter what the next four years bring, there are places full of people supporting them and telling their stories; that there are sanctuaries where they could express themselves freely and be exposed to ideas from people who think the same. Kinda reminded me of a theatre company I’ve known for the past half-decade.

When the ‘Pub left the Café Royale in 2013, we were all quick to eulogize it. Leave it to Stuart see the bigger picture and point out that the ‘Pub wasn’t dying but evolving. He acknowledged how much the ‘Pub would be missed, but left us optimistic for what the future held. We’d already followed it “on tour” to the Plough and Stars bar, Borderlands Books, and the Bay Area One-Acts Fest; when it finally landed at PianoFight (and The Hall for a brief time), it was less a resurrection and more of a reawakening. This time is different.

We eulogized it then the same reason we do now: because it meant – nay, means – something to us all. As both San Francisco and its artistic communities changed before our eyes, “Theater Pub on Monday” remained a reliable constant for local artists struggling with forces beyond their control. It’s a company for which we have strong feelings and no shortage of memories. In February 2010 I went to the Café Royale to see a friend perform. By that December I’d appeared in shows about Oedipus, Oscar Wilde, HP Lovecraft, and was both co-writing and appearing in the first Xmas show.

When I asked myself what Theater Pub means, I couldn’t settle on any one thing. Hell, I couldn’t settle on 100 things. But it definitely included the following things. So before I look ahead, I hope you’ll indulge me in looking back over the past almost-seven years and picking a few things (some of which are viewable on the ‘Pub’s official YouTube channel) that illustrate just what I think Theater Pub means.

Theater Pub means arriving to see “an anti-Valentine’s Day show in a bar” (the ‘Pub’s second ever) and being greeted by Cody Rishell. He held a glass of wine in one hand and gracefully handed me the above program (featuring the logo he’d created) with his other hand. Classy as fuck, this ‘Pub thing. Were I forced at gunpoint to pick my favorite Cody piece of ‘Pub art, it would probably have to be…

Cthulu shan’t be denied his hors d’œuvres.

Cthulu shan’t be denied his hors d’œuvres.

Theater Pub means I was in the company’s very first musical, a Faustian parable called Devil of a Time. I sang and played a kazoo. Footage of the show got me cast in a different musical by fellow ‘Pub veteran Evangeline Reilly. One of my three ‘Pub regrets is that we never went through with our plan to record the Devil of a Time cast album. I still have the songbook from the show and have used it in auditions. I also have the kazoo.

Theater Pub means there’s one company where I’ve acted in more shows than anyone else. I’ve actively tried to disprove this fact over and over again – hell, I figured Andrew Chung must have done more than me by now. I put together the “By the Numbers” spreadsheet in part to show that I couldn’t have done the most. The results conclude that… yeah, I’ve acted in the more shows than anyone else. I’ll be damned.

Theater Pub means watching a version of 2001: A Space Odyssey that includes the one thing Kubrick’s masterpiece truly lacked: the phrase “Fuck! This! SHIIIIIIIITT!!!!” shouted at full volume. The looks on the faces of the brunch crowd at The Hall were priceless.

Theater Pub means me losing my mind singing along to Jesus Christ Superstar, standing silent as everyone around me sings Rent, and leading the audience through songs from Tommy. Nobody does Xmas the way ‘Pub does Xmas.

Theater Pub means a four-year-old writer got to debut her first work for our edification. It had Megan Trowbridge applying several band-aids. We are all richer for the experience.

Theater Pub means showing up in a toga to be greeted by a lot of bearded ladies.

Theater Pub means me directing the company’s first and only entry into ShortLived!, Ashley Cowan’s This is Why We Broke Up. Knowing it was an Ashley piece, I made it a point to incorporate at least one ‘90s jam into the production. As such, the play ended with Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You”. Good times.

Theater Pub means cuddling up with my then-girlfriend as we watch the aforementioned 2001 show. That same year I’d watch her perform (amazingly) in two ‘Pub shows, one of which was recorded. Maybe someday I’ll be able to watch that video without developing a pain in my chest.

Theater Pub means me directing for Pint Sized and the writer of my piece glaring at the actors like a stern principal. He claims that he loved it.

Theater Pub means that at one point the logo was on a pint glass. My second-of-three ‘Pub regrets is not buying one when I had the chance.

Regrets, I’ve had a few…

Regrets, I’ve had a few…

Theater Pub means knowing why there was a “don’t hold your drinks over the balcony” rule at the Café Royale.

Theater Pub means me as a horse. Of course, of course. It was Jean Cocteau. Ya had to be there.

Theater Pub means Andrew dousing himself with Axe Body Spray in a Pint Sized piece. There are three stages to this experience: 1 – watching Andrew douse himself; 2 – watching the people behind him cover their noses and mouths; and 3 – hearing the people in the Café Royale balcony groan as the smell wafts up to them. Beautiful.

Theater Pub means hearing lines like “I am reading Moby Dick!”, “Stop unnecessary circumcisions!”, and “Eat a bag of dicks, Voldemort!” (as written by Tonya Narvaez, Claire Rice, and Ashley Cowan, respectively).

Theater Pub means Marissa calling out another writer’s sexism, leading to a fiery discussion that blew up the comments section of her column.

Theater Pub means my column posts occasionally being held up as Stuart and I exchange a series of angry messages at one another via e-mail or FB Messaging. He’d say something that made me want to toss my laptop out the window, I’d say something that made him want to get a new columnist. All for a column regularly read by, at most, four people. Still, I only missed two deadlines in my time running this column – one as a result of said conversations, the other due to my just having forgot it was my day.

Theater Pub means this column almost got me a job writing for The San Francisco Chronicle. Yes, really.

Theater Pub means I got to be Huey P. Newton twice in one night. The first was when I read his (in)famous pro-Feminism/LGBTQ+ speech as part of Occupy: Theater Pub! (Jan. 2012). The second was when I was walking home from that show and was stopped by the police. It was neither my first nor last time being harassed cops for the oh-so-dangerous crime of walking down the street, minding my own business as a Black man. It pissed me off and it didn’t help matters that I had a weapon on me (a wooden baton that we’d used in the show). With nothing to hold me for, they let me go and I was able to briefly avoid becoming just another hashtag.

Theater Pub means that great Neil Higgins moment. I know I mentioned it at the end of my last entry, but it was really cool to witness first-hand.

Theater Pub means making snarky comments from the balcony at the TBA Awards.

Theater Pub means I had the time, place, and opportunity to put on Molière’s The Misanthrope, as well as my own adaptations of The Girl from Andros, Jekyll & Hyde, and an original murder-mystery on which I was collaborating with another writer. My third and final ‘Pub regret is that with all the chances I had, I never put on a single one.

That’s just a fraction of what I remember from the safe space that was Theater Pub. In fact, I can’t help but wonder if I thought of it as so safe that it held me back? Stay with me here…

If you’ve read this far then it should go without saying I love Theater Pub with the biggest, reddest heart emoticon there is. But I also wonder if the safety it provided lead to a complacency; that perhaps I couldn’t venture outward without a little push? I look at those shows I didn’t produce and recall that every time I’d think of one of them I’d also think “Oh, I can put that one off for a little longer.” I’d gotten so used to saying “someday” that eventually those days ran out. (When this year’s “November Classic” spot opened up, I wanted to do either Andros or Misanthrope. By the time I decided which one, the slot had been filled.)

Now I have to make those shows without the safety net the ‘Pub would provide… and that’s an exciting idea. Those who attended Olympians this year know from my pre-show bio that I’m moving ahead with both Andros and Misanthrope, and that’s just the beginning. Shows I’d imagined and written around our favorite bar will now have to be done in proper theatres. Hell, earlier this year an artistic director broached the idea of me directing for his company; last week I sent him an e-mail to catch up. And I’m equally dedicated to acting: I’m currently understudying at one the Bay Area’s most renowned theatres and will absolutely be collecting my optional EMC points from the show.

Will a show I direct ever be written up in the Chronicle? Will I soon be able to put “actor/writer/director” on my tax returns? I have no damn idea. But week after week I’d read Allison, Marissa, and Anthony’s posts about producing Hilarity, Pleiades, and Terror-Rama (respectively) as we all continued to work with this upstart theatre company that operated without NEA grants. I guess you can say it lit a fire in my belly.

I named this column “In For a Penny” because I told myself that making a small commitment to art is making a full commitment. I intend to fulfill that commitment.

Hmm? Ah, I see. Thank you.

My Hyrule fearie personal assistant tells me that my griffin-pulled chariot has arrived, so I should probably wrap this up. ‘Course, there’s nothing left to say, but… thank you.

Thank you to Stuart, Ben, Victor, and Brian for letting me take part in your theatre company that put on classics for common folk.

Thank you to Meg and Tonya for listening to me ramble on before and after shows, occasionally singing Rodgers & Hammerstein with me, and listening to me kvetch about romance.

Thank you, Marissa, for the Pleiades interview, which eventually lead to me creating this column.

Thank you to everyone whose name I can’t fit in this already-too-long entry, and everyone who saw a show I was involved in, walked up to me afterward, and asked “So what was that all about?”

Thank you again, Stuart – indisputably the keystone of the Theater Pub arch. Thank you for letting me ramble on your website every other week, letting me write and direct with some of the Bay Area’s best talent, and letting me sing “Pinball Wizard”.

And thank you, San Francisco Theater Pub for always making my Monday.

So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

So long. Farewell Au revoir. Auf Wiedersehen

So long. Farewell Au revoir. Auf Wiedersehen

Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born writer, actor, and director.
When not avoiding social media, you can follow his ongoing adventures on Medium, Twitter, Tumblr, and sites found at the bottom of his official blog, The Thinking Man’s Idiot. Life is a Cabaret, old chums.

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In For a Penny: What’s in a Name?

IamShakespeare3a.indd
“Well, that was bloody Shakespearean! D’ya know who Shakespeare is? He wrote the King James Bible!”
Gangs of New York, screenplay by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan

It’s a bit empty ‘round the ‘Pub offices these days. Yes, there are Theater Pub offices. They’re located within a classified, heavily-guarded location that may or may not resemble the ThunderCats’ Lair. Within the great hall – which bears a strong resemblance to the Childlike Empress’ throne room in The NeverEnding Story – we ‘Pubbers gather to feast on divine ambrosia, sip unicorn tears from The Holy Grail, and plot world domination. We also occasionally write plays.

But yes, these days our hallowed halls aren’t as occupied as they once were: no more dispatches from the rainbow over Cowan Palace; the Working Title now reads “Happily Ever After”; Everything has moved on to Something greater; The Five are too busy making every moment count; and I sincerely hope no one else has been Hit by a Bus – to name but a few written columns. There’s a genuine last-day-of-school feeling to it all. So as I pack up my monogrammed silken robes, my golden quill, and the two-headed axe given to me by Xangô himself, I decided my penultimate entry should cover something near and dear to we ‘Pub folk, so as to distract from its pending conclusion.

No, it’s not the incredibly thorough spreadsheet I’ve nearly completed (that’s not a joke: as I type these words I’ve got Excel open in another window as I try to finish the definitive ‘Pub factsheet titled “SF Theater Pub – By the Numbers”. It has every ‘Pub writer, actor, director, location, and guest musician cross-referenced by each and every show. Every. Single. One.), but rather our dear 452-year-old friend William Shakespeare. As some of you may have heard, the fine minds at Oxford have concluded that Shakespeare co-wrote his Henry VI trilogy with fellow playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe. As such, Marlowe and Shakespeare will now share credit in all future Oxford editions.

A shocking development to be sure – “scandalous,” some might say – but I’m not here to debate the evidence or credentials of some of the finest scholars in the western world. Having said that, I’d be remiss not to mention how this brings up the mosquito in the ear of every Shakespeare-lover (myself included): The Authorship Question.

What, you may ask, is “The Authorship Question”? Well, if you have 24 minutes to kill, you can watch a thorough (and hilarious) breakdown of it in this video. If you don’t have 24 minutes, here’s the TL;DR version: there are people who believe Shakespeare’s plays – with their magnificent turns-of-phrase and adventures in foreign lands – couldn’t possibly have been written by a poor kid from Stratford-upon-Avon with no higher education. These people, quite simply, are wrong. There is conclusive empirical evidence to show that they are wrong. This hasn’t stopped these folks (known as “non-Stratfordians” or “anti-Stratfordians”) from pushing this conspiracy theory since the 1800s.

Because everyone should have Rummy's worldview.

Because everyone should have Rummy’s worldview.

Still, the folks at Oxford say The Henry Trilogy was co-authored by Marlowe. Putting aside whatever fuel this adds to the non-/anti-Stratfordian fire, why is the idea of such a collaboration a bad thing? Shakespeare still likely wrote all of his other plays alone, so what’s wrong with him seeking help for his epic three-play cycle? Probably because most people don’t really know how art is created.

The public often knows of artists two ways: through the art they create and they mythology of that creation. Many a tale’s been told of how The Great Artist was one day struck with the lightning bolt of inspiration which lead him or her to immediately run back to the studio and create THE greatest thing the world has ever seen in merely a single draft. Right… Even more tales are told of aspiring artists who give up early because their first drafts are shit. They hear artists throw around phrases like “write what you know” and think all their work must be autobiographical and pristine from the get-go. Anyone who’s ever dared to take art seriously knows the terrible secret these folks don’t: all first drafts are shit.

Yet the legend of The Perfect First Draft is perpetuated, paradoxically enough, by other forms of art. If there’s one thing I hate about films, plays, or books about artists it’s how they oversimplify the artistic process. I know that for dramatizations they’re doing it for the sake of running time, but would it have hurt the film Frida to explain how Kahlo created her paintings rather than having them seem to appear by osmosis? One of my favorite films about the artistic process is Hustle & Flow because it shows that making art is a messy, exhausting process that has to be done over and over again. Hell, my favorite album of 2016, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, was more or less created in the public eye. West remixed songs, dropped some entirely, rewrote lyrics, constantly tweaked the tracklist, changed collaborators, and changed the title multiple times… all on his Twitter account. Sure, everyone thought he was crazy(-er than usual), but he showed the world what it’s like to tear up a drafts you hate and start over from scratch. And the result was fantastic.

And yes, he had collaborators. Just as the legend of The Perfect First Draft has little basis in reality, so too does that of The Lonely Artist. After all, if you can’t create art all by your lonesome, why even try, right? Quentin Tarantino tried to take sole credit for his screenplays Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Pulp Fiction, and the infamous Top Gun speech from the film Sleep with Me. Turns out those were all co-written (or, in the case of the latter speech, entirely written) by Tarantino’s collaborator Roger Avary. Avary successfully sued his former friend for proper credit and they both won Oscars for the Pulp Fiction screenplay. That’s just one of many stories about silent collaborators (trying looking up the making of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill sometime).
On the other hand, several great artists are open about how their greatest works were collaborations. Francis Ford Coppola – who’d already won an Oscar for the screenplay of Patton – credits Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne for writing one of the most important scenes of Coppola’s The Godfather. Steven Spielberg credits his friend John Milius with writing the USS Indianapolis scene from the film Jaws. And I’ve written before about my affinity for great artistic groups like The Inklings, The Algonquin Round Table, and Lorraine Hansberry’s group of fellow authors.

Art is not created in a vacuum, it’s the result of tireless destruction and recreation in the attempt to make an esoteric idea into something tangible. Even someone as skilled as Shakespeare would need someone as talented as Marlowe to be real with him and say “Will, this is shit.” (To which Shakespeare would likely respond “Yeah, well fuck you and your ‘thousand ships,’ Kit!” before calming down and asking Marlowe to elaborate.) These two became the greatest authors in the English language by bouncing their ideas off one another.

Unabashed Shakespeare fanboy Tom Stoppard imagined such a scene in his Oscar-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love. In one scene Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) runs into Marlowe (Rupert Everett) in a pub as the latter basks in the glow of his successful Doctor Faustus. Shakespeare mentions that he’s working on the unfortunately titled “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter”. Marlowe suggests setting the play in Italy because “Romeo” sounds Italian, and to have a scene where Romeo avenges the murder of his best friend Mercutio. And that’s it. That’s Marlowe’s only contribution. Shakespeare writes the rest of the retitled Romeo and Juliet on his own, and it’s great.

Huh. It’s almost as if Shakespeare was as human as the rest of us and needed help from time to time.

I've actually had this facial hair quite often. For I am Shakespeare.

I’ve actually had this facial hair quite often. For I am Shakespeare.

As you probably know, this month’s ‘Pub show will be King Lear as directed by Sam Bertken. He’s rounded up a helluva cast for what will be the ‘Pub’s sixth and final Shakespeare adaptation (the seventh Shakespeare-related when you include Molly Benson & Karen Offereins’ “Hamlet and Cheese on Post”). Shakespeare has often been invited to the ‘Pub because he means something to the ‘Pub, both to those who stage his plays and the audiences that see them. Hundreds of years after his death, the words he wrote – and yes, he did write them – resonate all over the world in a way few other works can. That’s why everyone takes The Authorship Question so seriously: they want to know by what process God created an artist so masterfully adept at writing the words to which so many can relate. Even if it was some poor kid from Stratford.

Shakespeare means a lot to the ‘Pub and it goes without saying that the ‘Pub means a lot to all of us. What does it mean to me exactly? Hmm… Maybe I’ve got one last thing to write from this golden quill.

Charles Lewis III’s favorite Shakespeare-related ‘Pub memory is when he witnessed first-hand how the amazing Neil Higgins took a potential disaster and flawlessly turn it into a live theatre triumph.

In For a Penny: Bum-rush the Show!

eggs-i-dont-care

“A wise man told me ‘Don’t argue with fools
‘Cause people from a distance can’t tell who is who’ ”
—Jay Z, “The Takeover”, The Blueprint

This past week I went to the Berkeley Rep to catch a preview performance of Jeff Augustin’s Last Tiger in Haiti. The story revolves around a group of “restaveks” (child slaves) and the stories they tell themselves to cope with the horrors of their daily lives. The first act takes place 15 years in the past, the second in present day, with the shadow of the 2010 Haitian earthquake looming large. Incidentally, this show was in production as Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti earlier this month, resulting in a death toll estimated between 1,000-1,300. As such, the curtain call features the actors asking for donations to help with relief efforts.

As I began putting on my coat, an older White man behind me began complaining to his female companion about being asked for donations. “It’s just like being in church: if I don’t put something in the collection plate I look like an asshole,” he said before ranting about how his having attended the performance should be “donation enough”. As I began making a mental list of just what obscenities I’d yell at him, I asked myself what the point would be in doing so. I put on my coat, dropped a fiver in the donation basket, and walked to BART.

I thought of that old man’s casual racism this past Tuesday when I went to The Magic to see Campo Santo’s final preview for Nogales. The play uses the story of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez – a Mexican teen killed on the Mexican side of the border wall by trigger-happy border agent on the Arizona side – as part of a wider examination on US-Mexican immigration. As I settled into my seat before the start of the show, a White couple in their 20s began talking about theatre around the country. The young woman said that she found Chicago “too insular,” but was willing to “tolerate” SF and LA. The young man ranted about how much he hated New York, really loved Cleveland, and lamented that in his short time in SF (he said he’d been here a week) he’d only seen “these kinds of ‘ethnic’ shows.” I didn’t turn around, but I could hear in his voice the way the word “ethnic” left a foul taste in his mouth. In fact, it’s probably for the best I didn’t turn around – I’d have been too tempted to punch him. I sipped my free wine and got ready for the show.

Neither of these incidents were a first for me and I know they won’t be the last. I also know from experience that if I were to engage them, odds are that I’m more likely to be painted as the bad guy. I’ve been in enough arguments at events for Intersection for The Arts and Z Space to know that what I call a debate has been described as “this Black guy just attacked us”. That can make someone a bit gun-shy about wanting to engage in such a debate again, leading to the misconception that he doesn’t have an opinion at all.

In my defense, my not hesitance has less to with how I’m perceived (although I do admit that I think about it) and more with my not wanting to “feed the trolls”. The old man at the Rep and the young couple at the Magic were, to my knowledge, nothing more than theatre patrons (ie. the lifeblood of our industry). They’re allowed to have opinions – passive-aggressively racist though they may be – so long they paid for their tickets; for full-color casts, no less. As much as I’d love to strap them in chairs Clockwork Orange-style as they sit front row for my long-planned production of Jean Genet’s Les Nègres, clownerie (The Blacks: A Clown Show), I take comfort in knowing I’m entitled to speak my opinion as freely as they, but that would be no different than engaging the anonymous randos who send me racist tweets. I haven’t been on Twitter since August, why do it in real life?

Not worth the effort.

Not worth the effort.

If I’m going to spend time and energy voicing an opinion about theatre, both are better spent on actual theatre artists. Granted, this too will occasionally get me in hot water. A few years back I was at the developmental reading of a show by a popular local theatre with whom I’d recently gotten on very good terms. I’ll never forget how offended I felt when the longest sequence in the show was dedicated to one of the few White characters/actors getting a subplot only tangentially connected to the main action and characters. At intermission, I was pissed. Really pissed. I mean go-to-a-corner-away-from-your-colleagues-so-they-can’t-see-the-scowl-on-your-face pissed. They second act was… a bit more tolerable, but still problematic. I sat in my chair thinking “I could just leave now, accept that I saw a shitty reading, and let it end there.”

But I didn’t do that. As the cast (all of whom I knew well) took their seats, the first few “questions” were really just shallow praise for the White writers and directors for telling a story about people of color. One of those praises came from someone higher on the Bay Area theatre food chain than I; someone whose opinion I respected; someone whose opinion of my actually could influence how further I got in this business, so it would have been in my best interests to stay quiet. Instead, my inner Kanye told me “Fuck it” as I raised my hand and (calmly and rationally – there were witnesses) explained everything I found wrong with the two hours of White privilege I’d just witnessed.

My comments immediately divided the room: half agreeing with me; others saying they were out of line; and all the while, the row of actors scowling at me from their seats on the stage. I eventually saw the full production and sure enough there were changes made. Overall it wasn’t a great show, but I felt better about speaking up when I did.

I made that show faaaaamous!

I made that show faaaaamous!

It’s no secret that lots of local theatre companies are struggling just to keep the lights on, but it obviously has a stronger effect on me when I see PoC theatre artists having to struggle even harder. Just as Campo Santo had to leave their longtime home a few years back, so too is Af-Am Shakes raising funds to find a new home and support their upcoming season. The importance and necessity of theatre companies like these becomes all the more apparent when I think of asinine opinions like the ones I mentioned above. In fact, they become apparent whenever some otherwise-progressive White theatre artists asks me why the Bay has “no Black actors/theatre”. In 2016 – the 50th anniversary year of the Black Panther Party (spawned here in the Bay Area) and the final year of the first Black president of the US – we’re still looked at in a “liberal” arts community as if we’re Klingons.

Here’s a hint: it’s not for a lack of trying, it’s because we seem to be easy to ignore. Whenever we do make ourselves visible enough to where we can’t be ignored, we’re told that we’re being over aggressive and threatening. Right… I’ll remember that the next time someone pretentious White theatre artist limply defends their show by telling me “if it offended you, it’s done its job”.

Charles Lewis III’s latest project is directing a script about a bunch of crazy White people.
You can see it tomorrow night at The EXIT Theatre as part of the SF Olympians Festival.

In For a Penny: I Die a little Inside

Charles Lewis III, waiting to be picked.

alemy-office-worker-copy

“The problem is that those of us who are lucky enough to do work that we love are sometimes cursed with too damn much of it.”
― Terry Gross, All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists

You ever get the feeling that you’re the one kid on the playground not picked to play kickball? Never mind the fact that they actually need you in order to have an even number of players on both teams; or that you’ve been practicing by kicking pinecones and have gotten pretty good at it; or that you’ve run around the yard just to prove you can run bases. No, all that matters is that the self-appointed captains have filled each of their teams with all of their friends. They don’t even pick you last, they just don’t pick you at all.

That’s what it feels like trying to find a good job these days. My skills are honed and demonstrable, colleagues (to my knowledge) all vouch for me, and I have at least twice as much experience as most of the folks who already work at the companies for which I apply. But clearly I’m not kissin’ the right asses because there’s no reason for me to have been without a full-time job for this long. The only thing more frustrating than not getting a response to my application is to get so far along in the interview process that they’re practically dangling the job in front of me, only for them to suddenly send an automated rejection letter. (I know they’re automated because every company sends the same damn one, word for word.)

I got several such letters this week. I know they shouldn’t get me down, but in addition to having been at this for quite a few years, they were altogether a helluva buzzkill for what was otherwise a week of good news. I stared at my laptop wondering if perhaps I were victim of a previous employer badmouthing me to other companies, maybe my lack of college degree being an immediate turn-off, or if maybe the fact that I have been out of work so many years (minus some part-time copywriting) means I’m somehow unworthy to work for this or that company. Whatever the answer is, I’m no closer to being hired than I was before applying.

“But, Charles,” you ask, “what has any of this to do with theatre, as suggested by this website being named ‘SF Theater Pub’?”

Well, imaginary-reader-with-whom-I’m-apparently-on-a-first-name-basis, that’s the good news I mentioned above. I’ve suddenly found myself with an overabundance of theatre projects to serve as a distraction from my lack of gainful employment. As I was awaiting the reactions from all of the “real world” jobs to which I’d applied, I’d gone through two incredibly brisk rehearsals of my Olympians play; I’d spent several weeks rewriting it for fear that it was too long, only for my actors to read it well enough that it clocked in at 25 minutes. I did some rehearsing at the SF Opera and got swept away in one of Verdi’s loveliest arias. I submitted to audition for the generals of a major company only to be told it wasn’t necessary because they know what I can do – for once, I took that as a compliment. On Monday, I auditioned at another major company only to get an e-mail the next day saying they’d love to have me understudy in their new show (I said “yes”).

In addition to that, I caught up with several acquaintances, tried processing Stupid Ghost more than a week later, and began checking my calendar for when I could get away to see fellow ‘Pub writer Anthony Miller’s show Terror-Rama II (co-written and directed by ‘Pub all-stars Claire Rice and Colin Johnson, respectively).

All of this has proven to be wonderfully fulfilling artistically, but such fulfillment does little to keep one financially stable. Would that I were as able to find myself in a cubicle (offices still have cubicles, right?) as I often as I find myself on stage, I’d feel as if I were appropriately balancing the “adult” side of my life with the “childish” part. Instead, it feels like I’m letting the kid take over as the adult refuses to speak to me. An oversimplification, I know, but I need the fulfillment (as well as the security) of a job as much as that of an artistic venture.

And yes, I’ve often thought about a line of work that does both – especially since my new understudy role will be the second to give me a significant number of EMC points. Right now, just getting a regular job is my goal; making a living as an artist is my dream.

During a few hours of downtime this week, I sat down to rewatch the documentary Listen to Me, Marlon, using personal recordings and home films from Marlon Brando. At several points he waxes on about the “value” of an actor, both in terms of contracted salary as well as how they function in society. In regard to the latter, he says that an actor’s ability to become anything makes them invaluable to people who believe they are only one thing, namely their job. The audience can live vicariously through the actor or curse their actions to the high heavens, but the ability to take an audience member away from their life and stir up such emotions is a skill to be valued.

Sometimes when I wonder what good I’m doing for the world as a writer, actor, and director of theatre, I think back to my first major role: I played Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Actors weren’t exactly the most valued of citizens in Shakespeare’s time and Bottom is part of a troupe of terrible actors who put on shitty shows. But he still finds himself part of a whimsical scheme involving supernatural beings and ends the play bringing joy to newly-married royals with he and his troupe’s terrible performance. Even pawns are valuable in a game of chess.

I look forward to the day when I can fully support my artistic endeavors with an appropriate level of income. Until then, I’ll have fun occasionally playing rich guys since I can’t be one myself.

Charles Lewis III touches on the “work vs. art” theme in his Olympians script.
You can see it tonight 8pm at The EXIT Theatre. Tix are $12 online, $10 at the door.
Raffle prize tix are $5

In For a Penny: The Numbers Game

Charles Lewis III, ranking it up.

We’ve all done it.

We’ve all done it.

It should come as no surprise that as much as I detest reductive labelling in this business we call “play-acting”, I’m not above sharing in some backstage gossip during my off hours. I’m only human. I find it both a great bonding experience with theatre colleagues as well as an incredibly cathartic way for us to air all of our frustrations. And as we snipe and snark in private, away from the sensitive ears of those who’d recoil in terror if we said these things on the record, I also find it a way to learn more about Bay Area talent beyond what I’ve read off of resumes. I hear about rehearsal showmances fizzling out on opening night, actors with poor personal hygiene making backstage a biohazard, and I get to tell about the time I was kicked on stage during a show by an actor throwing a tantrum.

That’s what I call a “10”.

You see, I have personal scale that I use for theatre folk based on how much they irritate me. It goes from folks whom I consider human mosquito bites to folks whom I will – over drinks with close colleagues – refer to as “everything wrong with the contemporary performing arts scene”. My list has no regard for race, gender, or position in the theatre community: a respected actor can be in the same category as an overworked concessions manager.
And since I know I’m on similar lists for other people (a producer once tried to threaten me by saying aloud “We [producers] talk to each other, y’know!”), I feel no guilt about having my own personal reference guide for folks I see on a regular basis. In fact, I’d dare say my list has been invaluable in creating pleasant work experiences, as many people I respect tend to avoid the same people I do.

But, as the increasingly irrelevant MPAA has proven, a rating scale that fails to adapt will eventually become obsolete. With that in mind, I looked at the categories on my list and reflected on an incredibly busy year of theatre to see if my scale needed adjusting.

1 – Lovably annoying
These folks are just as likely to be on my list of my favorite theatre folks, they just have quirks that get to me. Maybe they have short attention spans that can slow rehearsal, maybe they won’t turn off their phone, maybe they start to strip off all their clothes to make everyone pay attention. But I love them. This number has the most names because it’s full of all the best people.

2 – Pebble in my shoe
These are the folks I really like, but seem to think I’m a walking, talking font of intimate knowledge of the entire Bay Area theatre scene. When they find out I’m not, they get annoyed. Nice folks, but they have no reason to complain about me lacking knowledge they could look up themselves.

3 – If it weren’t me…
In the first episode of Atlanta, Earn (Donald Glover) suppresses his rage in the company of a White friend who casually says “nigga” around him. That’s how I feel about local actors, producers, and directors who think they JUST HAVE TO touch my hair. I try my best to explain it to these otherwise nice, talented folks, but it never gets through. Way too many people in this category.

4 – The “Well Actuallys”
These folks are smarter than you. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s true, they feel their purpose in life is to be the Big Brain in the room showing off to everyone. No matter how good you thought a show was, they could have done it sooooo much better, y’see? If it weren’t for the fact that they actually have talent, I’d cut them all out of my life like a pre-cancerous mole (alcohol is the sunscreen that makes them tolerable). Thankfully, I’ve cut down on these folks, but I can still think of about seven off the top of my head.

5 – The 50/50
This is the sort of theatre person for whom there is no question of his/her talent and his intelligence, but there’s a loooooong list of folks who’ve sworn never to work with him/her again. I’ve worked with them enough to know why others swear them off (conversations about them usually have me nodding my head and sighing “I know… I know.”), but I don’t think they’re lost causes. I have only one person in this category.

We’ve all been there.

We’ve all been there.

6 – The Insurrectionist
Unlike the folks in No.4 who feel the need to voice their opinions, but still respect the hierarchy of production roles, the Insurrectionists will do their damndest to take over a show. They’ll tell the music director/production composer/professional music teacher “That’s not a ‘G’, that’s a ‘D’.” They’ll ignore the choreographer’s work and tell their fellow actors to move in a way the Insurrectionist thought up on the bus to rehearsal. They’ll overstep their role as artistic director and attempt to act as, well, director, despite having hired someone else for that very role. Ours is a collaborative art form, but the Insurrectionist sees each production as potential coup d’état.

7 – The Drag-Ass
The prima donna actor who doesn’t bother to show up on time, let alone be off-book by the specified date. The conceited costumer who can’t be bothered to either wash the costumes or suggest to the actors how to care for them. The sound designer insisting s/he is put-upon because the director asked for specific cues rather than stock F/X. The casting director who doesn’t get back to you in time, then gets angry when you stop waiting and accept a role in another show. I’m really glad to only know a handful of these folks by name (especially tech folk, who are usually rock stars in this business).

8 – The Obliviods
Audience members who constantly talk and take photos. Also directors and actors who think an entire production should adjust to their personal “process”. Yet they wonder why no one wants to work with them anymore. If you think they’re disrespectful, well then it’s actually YOU who fails to respect the master craftsmanship they’re applying to this black box production of Seussical that’s oh-so-sure to be written about in Playbill and American Theater.

9 – The Stairmasters
Both you and this production are just a way to kill time until they move to NY/LA/Narnia and get to do “real acting”.

10 – Just… no.
The casting director who sleeps with actresses he never casts.
The actors who physically attack you on-stage and/or off.
The directors and producers who go out of their way to slander your name so you never work again.
The actors (male or female) who can’t keep their hands off their fellow actors.
The stage manager who shows up drunk.

I’ve known people who have done each and every one of these terrible things, so I keep a list. Anyone above a “6” I make it a point never to work with again. Anyone who’s a “9” or “10”, I dislike for personal reasons in addition to their lack of respect for this art form and business.

Looking at the categories above, I can see some parameters I could adjust, but the scale continues to serve me well. As I said above, I know I’m on other people’s personal lists, but I won’t lose any sleep as to who or what category. Instead, I’ll continue to hang out with the ones I genuinely like and respect as we gossip about and avoid working with people who think the world revolves around them.

Charles Lewis III was once told he would never get cast again. That was two years ago… two of the busiest years he’s ever had performing theatre.

In For A Penny: Accepting New Membership

Charles Lewis III, on long term goals and short term contributions.

teen-movie-token-black-guy-copy

“What is true of creed is no less true of nationality. There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism.”
– Theodore Roosevelt, Address to the Knights of Columbus (1915)

Now that the cat’s outta the bag, I thought about following up Meg, Tonya, & Stuart’s recent entry with my own reminiscence about what the ‘Pub has meant to me and what I think will happen when it’s gone. I’m going to hold off on that for three specific reasons: 1 – with a few more months to go, it hasn’t actually ended yet; 2 – I wrote a good-bye piece the first time the ‘Pub “died”, and the new one I’m thinking of shouldn’t be repetitive (which it won’t – I’ve already started it and it’s a bit heartbreaking); and 3 – I’ve also been thinking about just precisely how the ‘Pub has made a positive change for the Bay Area theatre scene.

Specifically, I’m thinking about the ‘Pub’s inconspicuous sibling, the Olympians Festival. We held auditions for the latter last week, and are officially cast as of three days ago. As usual, it was an embarrassment of local acting riches. As we pored over more than 100 headshots, resumes, and scheduling calendars, several of us noted just how diverse was this year’s talent pool. I’m pretty sure no year of the fest has been 100% White (especially since I’ve been acting in it since its first year), but there was a noticeable uptick in the number of Black, Latina, and Trans actors auditioning this time. (So much so with the latter that a gender-specific direction had to be modified halfway through auditions.) And yes, we were all delighted by this.

Yet we’d have been remiss not to mention how we wished for it be even more diverse and to see such casting all over the Bay Area. I’ve mentioned before in this column that I once had to use an Indian actor in my play because there were no young Black actors auditioning; well, this year there were still no (young) Black male actors auditioning. I’ve done lots of work with the SF Opera, whose technical crew has recently added lots of younger members, many of them women and people of color. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been as much diversity with the faces on-stage, much of it quite noticeable (at age 35, I may be the youngest regular supernumerary and one of the few Black faces).

Yes, yes, it’s that “diversity problem” we all notice and lament, but none of us seem to know how to solve. It’s the sort of thing that makes powerful people declare “There’s no talent in the Bay Area” as they walk past the very folks who just want an opportunity to prove themselves.

By why is it so damn hard to connect talented folks with the people who need them most? One of this year’s Olympians writers mentioned having a difficult time casting for a recent production because the role required a young Black actor to play a Gay character. He said he was unable to find an actor comfortable with the physical affection needed. I understand both sides of that. The first time I had to kiss a guy on stage, it was the result of the director insisting on it and me being caught off-guard before I could object. In hindsight, I’m glad I did it, but I understand the hesitation of a young Black actor – most likely from a Christian household – not wanting to be seen that way in front of friends and family.

On the other hand, I think of all the young Black actors who already have the fearlessness I had to work on to get. I also frequently find myself frustrated with the Black actors I know who are incredibly talented and fearless, save for one area: they won’t leave the comfort zone of Black theatre. I know this because I’m constantly egging them on to audition for Olympians, see shows at Theater Pub, and just get to know the good folks who put on shows at The EXIT and The Flight Deck. Contrary to popular belief, the dearth of noticeable Black actors in the Bay Area theatre scene isn’t entirely the result of them “go[ing] equity so quickly” (What work do you think they did before they went equity?), nor is it solely a result of them migrating out of the pricey Bay Area (if that’s not true for ALL people, it’s not true for just Black people). Part of the blame also lies at the feet of Black actors not wanting to take the leap outside the Black theatre bubble.

And I understand why. Black theatre offers them something they rarely get outside of it: substantive roles. Why would a Black actor audition for a company that only casts him in a play where he only appears in two scenes, when a Black theatre would likely make him the lead? Why would a Black actress settle for constantly being cast as, at best, the best friend of the young ingénue when a Black theatre would make her the love interest? Why would anyone want to be a company’s token attempt to make their diversity quota when they can just work with a company full of people with similar backgrounds, experiences… and complexions? Even if that company has a notoriously dodgy reputation.

Theatre Bay Area’s 2013 exposé of the Berkeley Black Rep

Theatre Bay Area’s 2013 exposé of the Berkeley Black Rep

I’ve also seen this with Latinx actors who only wanted to work with companies like Campo Santo (whose work was great) and LGBTQ actors who only audition for New Conservatory or Theatre Rhino. It doesn’t mean those theatres should stop putting on shows with these talented performers, but I really wish I didn’t have to go to a specifically themed theatre to find these folks.

At this point you’re probably wondering what this look at the greater Bay Area theatre scene has to do specifically with Theater Pub or Olympians. Simple: exposure. The great thing about Theater Pub performances being free (though the people who donate find a special place in Heaven) is that anyone can show up, and everyone has. Both the show performed and the networking afterward have connected talented folks who may never have even seen one other through regular channels. So many recent grads have gotten their names out through Olympians that I personally think of it as a rite of passage (but that’s just me). These methods work. These methods have been adopted by other local theatre companies. These are valid, legitimate ways to create diversity.

But, at the same time, it’s also up to the people begging for those opportunities to not expect them to simply fall out of the sky. I say that not as a criticism, but from personal experience. Just as I encourage non-PoC to take in shows at Af-Am Shakes, so too do I encourage PoC (and women, LGBTQ, and other such performers) to take that one step forward to getting yourselves seen.

At the very least, you can say you took a chance.

Charles Lewis III will be directing two shows – one of which he wrote – for this year’s SF Olympians Fest. He hopes you’ll come see both of them, as well as the final four Theater Pub shows.

In For a Penny: Raise a Broken Glass

Charles Lewis III, celebrating the mistakes and the mistaken.

Half Baked glass

“Let’s have a toast for the douchebags
Let’s have a toast for the assholes
Let’s have a toast for the scumbags
Every one of them that I know
Let’s have a toast for the jerk-offs
That’ll never take work off”
– Kanye West, “Runaway”

Recently I was watching a review wherein the critic commented on what a colleague had recently said to him, that something “good” can be measured by its lack of anything “bad”. The critic argued – and I’m inclined to agree – that “good” should be measured by “the presence of a defined positive, not the lack of a specific negative”. After all, how many times has each of us eaten a meal, taken a ride, or experienced a piece of art that was by no means bad, per se – there was nothing to make you swear it off ‘til your dying day – but left no impression for you to recommend it? It was serviceable, but not toe-curling – like having mediocre sex just to avoid taking out the trash.

It was with this in mind that I recently began pondering how much I truly appreciate the bad theatre I’ve had to sit through over the years. I don’t mean “so-bad-it’s-good” material, in which the cluelessness of the creators makes for a transcendent experience. No, I mean the truly bad shit – the shows that made me want to throw myself in front of a bus afterward; the shows I was cast in that made me want to burn down the theatre a week into the run; the shows which I and fellow audience members discuss as if we’re coping with PTSD. The REALLY bad shows.

I’m grateful for each and every one. Why? Because they provide the hurdle over which all the good (not merely serviceable) shows must jump. I’ve mentioned before that I value the necessary role of the art critic – even when a particular critic pisses me off – because I recognize the fact that they’ve made a professional duty out of what is really a human instinct. If we didn’t have a bar to be raised, we’d never find greatness to celebrate. Life’s too short to spend too much time experiencing or reminiscing about something bad, but you’re going to come across it eventually. But something terrible can occasionally be as valuable as something wonderful, if not more so.

It’s times like this when I like to raise an invisible glass to the folks who’ve created some of the truly terrible theatre I’ve seen and/or taken part in over during my 35 years on this Earth. Without them I wouldn’t have a clear idea as to what kind of theatre I don’t want to make.

Every show I’ve seen about mental illness that reduced it to a series of “adorable” neuroses.
Every actor who got physical with me on stage because the concept of “boundaries” eludes them.
Every artistic director who overstepped their bounds because they thought they were the actual director.
Every producer who licenses a show and then makes changes because s/he thinks the rules of licensing agreement are just suggestions rather than something that could wind up in court.
Every producer who decides to pre-cast instead of availing him/herself of an amazing, every-expanding talent pool.
Every male and female actor in their 40s who insist on playing the young heartthrob and ingénue.
Every director, artistic director, and producer who decides to personally stage a musical in spite of the fact that s/he “fucking hate[s] musicals”.
Each and every single White actor who’s taken on a role meant for an actor of color and justifies it by saying “What really matters is how the character is portrayed”.

All the above have been used to describe shows I’ve seen but wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and these are just a few I can think of off-hand. Yet I learned something from all of these obvious train wrecks and feel a bit richer for having sat through each of them. Not just for the sake of schadenfreude (though there’s that, too), but also because it gave me mental checklist of things I’d like to avoid when I write, act, or direct. I can think of two specific shows I acted in that left my theatre colleagues thinking “There but for the grace of God…” and I’d like to think it inspired them to make some of the great work they produced afterward.

So as much as I love to praise good shows to the high heavens, I’d like to take just one moment to salute those that made sitting in the audience a living hell. I hope that my bad shows have inspired you to improve as much as yours have inspired me.

Charles Lewis III was tempted to make this piece about all the bad Tennessee Williams productions he’s seen, but there are too many to name.