In For a Penny: Playground Rules

Charles Lewis III, a perspective on perspective.

Stop sign copy

“[W]hat is it that constrains the individual to fear his neighbor, to think and act like a member of a herd, and to have no joy in himself?”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations

I think it’s safe to say at this point that every theatre person I know took some time out last week to read the Chicago Reader’s exposé on Profiles Theatre. (In the days that followed, Profiles’ AD Darrell Cox released a response statement on the theatre’s official Facebook page, but as of this writing, all of the theatre’s social media channels are shut down. Their official site contains only a statement that the theatre has permanently closed its doors.) If you’re anything like me, the article probably got you thinking. Not just about the stories of the people mentioned in the article, but thinking about your own theatre history.

I thought about my first professional theatre job nearly a decade ago. It was a staged reading with movement for a major theatre and I was (I think) the only non-union person involved. I was very eager to please and didn’t want to look like a fool – or a wuss – in front of all these seasoned pros. So when the director decided that my scene partner and I would perform two kisses described in the script, I kept my apprehension to myself. Stage kisses are fucking terrifying and the only one I’d done before was on a girl’s cheek. Thankfully, my scene partner was a good guy and made it a comfortable learning experience for me. Considering the unspeakable stage acts I would later perform (playing The Soldier in Sarah Kane’s Blasted comes to mind), it now seems kinda silly that I got all choked up over a kiss. Still, it was a decision made about me without my input and I just sat there and said nothing.

I read the article and thought about how years after the above reading I was part of a full production that also required a kiss. The director was insistent that my scene partner and I kiss early into rehearsal, but I wasn’t ready. I want to read and develop a deeper understanding of my character before physical work is done, and it didn’t make much sense to me for physical intimacy to blocked when the entire cast is still on-book. The development I was discovering with my character got me lots of compliments from the cast and playwright, but the director wanted me to hurry up and kiss already; I wanted to find the motivation behind the kiss. This, combined with several other mitigating factors, lead to my leaving the show – a decision I don’t at all regret.

I read the article and thought of a production in which a female scene partner decided to ignore the director’s choreography and got uncomfortably physical with me. The longer the play ran, the more “grabby” she got, to the point where I – in character – would push her away from me. During one show in the penultimate week, as my character was walking away from hers, she grabbed my ass. I stood motionless on stage for a good second-and-a-half (brief, I know) before I regained my faculties and went through with the scene, glad to make my eventual exit. I remember my first instinct being to turn to her on stage, shout “What the fuck is wrong with you?!”, collect my things, and quit right then and there. Instead I finished the run and added names to my list of people with whom I’ll never work again.

I’ll be the first to say that the experiences described above pale in comparison to those described in the Reader article. By and large, I’ve been privileged to have worked with some of the most courteous and professional directors, trainers, and choreographers the Bay Area has to offer. I’ve had the personal comfort of I and my scenes partners given as high priority as that of our personal safety. Although I’m rarely part of union productions, I can usually place good faith in the thought that above scenarios were exceptions for me rather than the standard.

But, as the above proves, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for those things to happen. I don’t mean accidents, because only so much is our control (an on-stage misstep during last month’s ‘Pub show left me with knee pain that’s only now almost fully subsided). No, I mean situations that could – and should – be prevented but aren’t. Whether it’s an actor being “so into” his/her character that they make their fellow cast uncomfortable, or the director whose “artistic vision” requires bully tactics meant to reduce cast members to tears – none of these acts should be ignored, let alone encouraged.

Artistic collaboration relies on trust – between the creators, collaborators, and even the audience. Violating that trust for one’s own personal interest isn’t a healthy way to make great art, it’s a warning sign for disturbing behavior. People don’t listen to the playground bully because he has something invaluable to say, they do it because they’re afraid of what will happen if they don’t do what the bully says.

And the best way to push back against that is for voices to be heard – on both sides.

Far too often the onus of continued abuse is place on the abused rather than the abuser. I don’t think any theatre or company wants to hurt their collaborators, but they should be transparent in regards to those collaborators. Sure, this director’s last show was extended three times, but how many cast & crew would willingly work with that director again? And when a company sends out casting notices, they should ALWAYS be clear about the fact that the show has material (nudity, violence, etc.) that would make an actor uncomfortable to perform. The company’s job is to make their collaborators as safe and comfortable as possible at all times. Barring extenuating circumstances, failure to do so is the company’s fault.

And yes, actors can and should deeply research a company before auditioning. (Not doing so is a mistake I’ve made before.) The Information Age has thankfully made this much easier than it would have been years before. Is this your first production since graduating? Ask friends on social media what it’s like to work for this company. Look up reviews of shows. See how the season is programmed and if you’d want to do any of the shows in the first place. And always know what your comfort levels are, because you’re the only one who will. Peer pressure was tough on the playground and it’s tough in the real world, but you ALWAYS have the ability to say “No”.

It always breaks my heart when I read stories like these related to theatre. I feel bad for those hurt, in no short part because one of their favorite activities has turned into an absolute nightmare for them. I then feel angry at those who hurt them because it’s often a result of the latter forgetting the one indisputable truth about what we do: this is all make-believe. The sets, the costumes, the make-up, the dialogue – all of it is for the illusions; getting people who watch us to wholeheartedly believe something they know for a fact is not real. Our job is to find the underlying truth of our illusion, but it will remain an illusion. It’s a game that everyone should feel comfortable playing. If you can’t see that, then the problem isn’t everyone else.

Charles Lewis III likes to keep his characters ground by repeating the old Stella Adler quote: “To play dead, darling, you needn’t actually die.”

In For a Penny: Mid-Year Intermission

Charles Lewis III, keeping it together and taking stock.

dog%20-%20go%20on%20without%20me

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

So far this isn’t necessarily my favorite year, but it’s been busy nonetheless. Between a full-length show in which my character had the most dialogue, a stint in ShortLived, acting in two Theater Pub shows, and lots of on-camera work I can’t even remember, I should be relaxing. Instead I’m thinking about this evening’s rehearsal for a show that opens in just over a week. Besides, my way of decompressing at the start of summer is to just let my mind run in a million different directions at once. Like so:

Free Lunch

Over the weekend I took advantage of having some time off to see a great show before it closed. It was a last-minute decision and thankfully there were a few seats available. Unfortunately, their Square reader wasn’t working and I had no cash on me. Just as I was about to leave to find an ATM, the director showed up and insisted I be his comp for the evening.

I accepted, but I admit that I felt guilty about getting in free for an indie show. I have no problem taking advantage of comps or discounts from big houses, but I always feel a bit uneasy doing so for smaller venues and companies; I’m far too conscious of the fact that the money I’m saving is being denied to people in the production. Even using Goldstar or discount codes can make me feel like I’m shoplifting at a store struggling to pay property fees.

But I’m less adamant about this than I’ve been in years past. Back then, I thought taking advantage of a discount or comp from an indie theatre company was me giving the finger to said company; “Goldstar spite” I called it. (Some shows I only saw because I knew someone in production who’d comp me.) But I also don’t have endless money to throw around, so now I think of comps and discounts less a commentary on the theatre and more me not worrying about my account balance all the time.

Besides, I like that even before I began writing for this site I’ve been offered industry comps. It allows me to simultaneously take an active part in the local theatre scene AND make sure all of my bills are paid at the end of the month.

Field of Streams

If you read Playbill as often as I, then you probably saw the news that Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening, American Psycho) is creating a new musical that will be made available exclusively through a mobile app created by Verizon. The musical, Pulse, will feature a libretto by Kyle Jarrow and “[follow] a group of American expatriates living in Berlin who find themselves immersed in the city’s vibrant, kinetic dance scene. The series tracks one year of the characters’ lives telling the story as a lush and provocative EDM musical.”

Synopsis aside, the internet-first approach reminded me of Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog, which debuted on the internet in 2008. It also reminded me Alyssa Rosenberg’s recent Washington Post piece about how the price of Hamilton has become so prohibitively expensive that perhaps a film adaptation is now in order.

Ah, the age-old question of how to get audiences to the theatre. We indie folk often have to drag them kicking and screaming, but shows like Hamilton and Spring Awakening have to turn people away at the door. The question for both is how to get the show to people who won’t be there. As I’ve mentioned before, technology can be our friend in times like this. Streaming apps – Periscope in particular – have grown in popularity over the past year and it’s brought the live performance to new audiences. Just last year, I was part of a PianoFight audience as they livestreamed a production of Don’t Be Evil over YouTube. I remain convinced that it’s a great way to share theatre work with those who can’t be there in person. Whereas “Tweet Seats” still strike me as distracting to live performance, livestreaming is integrative and the very type of incorporation more live venues and companies – indies in particular – should research.

Turd Blossom

Recently I agreed to direct the staged reading for another writer of this year’s Olympians Fest. I then went to look over the material I currently have for my own script. As it continues to both shrink and expand, I found one particular verse that I knew would be the first to go. I’d written a pretty off-color joke that was unnecessary to the story proper and would definitely be taken as offensive to audiences that heard it (hell, it offended me).

I immediately 86’d the joke for the latest draft, but I was left wondering what corner of my subconscious spawned it to begin with? I’m not fond of shock value and don’t think highly of those who rely on it too much, but I also wondered if I was needlessly self-censoring my own work so as to not offend an audience that exists only in my mind? Would it be so bad if I occasionally embraced the more “uncouth” areas of my psyche during the creative process? I remember attending Tourettes Without Regrets a year or two back and watching this brilliant routine about how the Game of Thrones franchise is really just George R.R. Martin doing an extended version of “The Aristocrats”.

I actually liked writing the joke originally – done more or less during a stream of consciousness writing session – but editing is just as important to creativity. The joke didn’t add anything to script, so it was excised. Sorry, Dead Baby Joke – maybe some other play.

A few other theatre-related thoughts crossed my mind, but I decided to silence them with a nice jog. As this is my 35th year (yes, midyear of my mid-30s), I find it healthy to take a little mental inventory. I recently got news that I might not even be living in the Bay Area this time next year, so I’ll try to make the most of it while I am here. First-half of the year was busy, second-half looks intriguing. Let’s see what’s in store.

Charles Lewis III would like to assure you all that he does NOT have a collection of discarded death jokes just lying around. He’s much more of a “Knock-Knock” guy.

Theater Around The Bay: STICKY ICKY Character Guide (Part Two)

Excited for Sticky Icky, Theater Pub’s show opening tonight at PianoFight? Well here’s the second part of our character guide to get you acquainted with the heroes and heroines of our story.

received_10154233015265139 copy

Picking up where we left off last week…

THE BLONDE copy

The Blonde is beautiful, scatter-brained, and typically uninterested in intellectual pursuits. Sheila would fit in perfectly with the popular clique from Never Been Kissed.

The Blonde clique copy

THE DRUG DEALER copy

The Drug Dealer archetype can truly run the gamet. From kingpins like Pablo Escobar all the way down to dim-witted dealers selling to high schoolers. Rod lies somewhere between Lance from Pulp Fiction and Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad.

THE DRUG DEALER jesse copy

The Glaucoma Feral and The Dweeb Feral defy archetypal definition. You’ll have to come see the show to find out what they’re all about!

THE GLAUCOMA FERAL copy

THE DWEEB FERAL copy

Sticky Icky opens Monday, May 23 at 8:00pm at PianoFight (144 Taylor St). It runs 5/23, 5/24, 5/30, and 5/31.

In For A Penny: Vices I Admire

Charles Lewis III, on why vice can be nice.

Yes, I own this shirt.

Yes, I own this shirt.

“The cannabis experience has greatly improved my appreciation for art, a subject which I had never much appreciated before. The understanding of the intent of the artist which I can achieve when high sometimes carries over to when I’m down. This is one of many human frontiers which cannabis has helped me traverse. There also have been some art-related insights — I don’t know whether they are true or false, but they were fun to formulate.”
– Carl Sagan, Mr. X (1969)

I never smoked weed until I did theatre. For that matter, I never ate sushi until I did theatre. Yes, I was one of those boring teens who never drank, smoked, or went to parties. (Well, I did try smoking cigarettes several times, but it never caught on.) Part of that was due to just being an awkward teen who never hung with The Cool Kids, but another part was by choice. I studied religion as a kid and took the concept of “pure body, pure mind, pure soul” to heart. And to be honest, I was pretty damn content with myself.

It wasn’t until I was 27 – an age at which I’d put the “pure body, et. al” bullshit behind me – that I’d decided to see what weed was all about. I’d just finished a show with a local theatre company and we were having our closing night celebration. Turns out these folks had a closing night tradition of rechristening the dressing room as “The Green Room” for reasons that should be obvious. After awkwardly making my way in and patiently waiting for the bowl to come around to me, I took my first toke.

Nothing happened, really. It’d be a later incident at 4/20 in Golden Gate Park before I finally actually got high. Still, it worked in as much as being a socially-inclusive gateway to fellow theatre-folk. And even when I was a clean-living teen/upcoming artist, I was always fascinated by the idea of an intoxicating substance enhancing the creative process.

“Write drunk, edit sober” is a phrase we’ve all heard thrown around willy-nilly. (It’s often misattributed to Hemingway when it’s more likely from Peter de Vries.) Both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda were notorious for it. Mary Shelley got smashed on absinthe with her husband and Lord Byron, then wrote her masterpiece Frankenstein. Hell, scientists believe even Shakespeare may have smoked weed between writing sonnets. It all contributes to the idea that when inspiration is out of reach, it can be found within your poison of choice.

I personally wouldn’t know. I rarely drink outside of social gatherings (I’ve been drunk exactly five times my entire life) and do so as a method of decompression rather than inspiration. The only times I smoke weed are when I’m around someone who prefers not to smoke alone, and it’s never made want to start writing. I’ve never had the chance to do mushrooms, though I’m not opposed to the idea. And despite knowing many people who love it, I will never do cocaine. (Before we found out how terrible he was, Bill Cosby had stand-up routine that sums up my thoughts perfectly: “I said to a guy, ‘Tell me, what is it about cocaine that makes it so wonderful,’ and he said, ‘Because it intensifies your personality.’ I said, ‘Yes, but what if you’re an asshole?’”) I’m not on any moral high horse – I like weed, beer, and the friends who share in them with me – but they’ve never worked for me in terms of electrifying my creativity.

But that’s just me. In addition to the aforementioned authors above, I can cite countless works of art created under the influence which I hold dear: the weed-inspired illustrations Salvador Dalí or Mœbius; the coke-fueled ‘70s films of Martin Scorsese; hell, damn-near anything from the Harlem Renaissance. Without those substances, those great works might never have been possible and I might not have been inspired by them to become an artist.

The real problem is when an artist sees a mind-altering substance as their ONLY form of inspiration; when the supply gets low or empty, working with someone having withdrawal can be annoying, if not dangerous. I don’t even drink coffee, so I can’t really imagine what someone’s head must feel like when they’ve suddenly decided to teetotal.

The reason I bring all this up is because this month’s ‘Pub show, of which I’m a part, is an hilariously over-the-top satire about “the dangers of the demon weed”. Each character is based on a classic horror film trope, but with enough humanity to make them relatable. Incidentally, my character is a collegiate weed dealer, someone who uses the substance as the means to an end in order to do the art he truly loves. Yeah.

Before anyone asks: No, we don’t perform the show high. I’m sure that’d be hilarious (I’ve done Beer Theatre before and it was a fuckin’ blast), but I assure you that Colin’s script is plenty funny without the actors being baked. Plus, there’s probably some kinda law or somethin’ ‘bout smokin’ weed indoors with the public, right? I dunno…

But as I sit here with my script by my side and my soon-to-be-used typewriter in the corner, I tried to think of what it is that fuels me to write, act, direct, and explore other avenues of creativity. I’m still not really sure, but I hope I don’t run out of it anytime soon.

Charles Lewis III plays the world’s most lovable weed dealer in Colin Johnson’s “Sticky Icky”, starting this coming Monday at PianoFight. Admission is FREE, donations of $10 or more appreciated.

Theater Around The Bay: STICKY ICKY Character Guide (Part One)

Excited for Sticky Icky, Theater Pub’s show opening next week at PianoFight? Well here’s the first part of our character guide to get you acquainted with the heroes and heroines of our story. Come back next Monday for more, and don’t miss Sticky Icky!

received_10154233015265139 copy

Sticky Icky, written and directed by Colin Johnson, opens in one week! Mark your calendars, and read on to learn more about the cast of characters.

THE BARTENDER copy

The Bartender, usually disagreeable in nature, is a good listener with a rarely-seen soft side. He has a short temper, keeps a tab for all the regulars, and his bar is definitely not up to code. Who else can I compare Stevie to but Moe from The Simpsons.

THE DRUNK copy

In film, The Drunk is usually drunk more often than sober, the comic relief, never pays their bar tab on time, and almost always male. The Drunk in Sticky Icky is played by an intelligent woman named Donelda who drinks for free. She’s not quite Homer, but her relationship with Stevie resembles the relationship between Homer and Moe in The Simpsons.

THE DRUNK simpsons-2 copy

THE DRIFTER copy

The Drifter blows into town on a gust of wind. Eventually, there is a “gloves come off” moment and The Drifter helps the others fight off the Big-Bad-Whatever. For Kay, think of the nameless drifter from the John Carpenter film They Live.

The Drifter roddy copy

THE REDNECK copy

The Redneck is often a bit dim, racist and/or sexist, and accompanied by a girlfriend or wife. He seems very stereotypically masculine, but can also be (not so) secretly a scaredy cat. Chip is a cross between Owen from Planes Trains & Automobiles and Joe Dirt.

THE REDNECK joe dirt copy

Sticky Icky opens Monday, May 23 at 8:00pm at PianoFight (144 Taylor St). It runs 5/23, 5/24, 5/30, and 5/31.

In For a Penny: Of the People, By the People, For the People

Charles Lewis III, giving us another look at Paul Flores.

Paul Flores in character, in public.

Paul Flores in character, in public.

“There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down Brothas on the Instant Replay”
– Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not be Televised

On-site theatre is a risky proposition, both for the performers as well as the audience. One the one hand, you’ve freed yourself from the rigid constraints of a typical performance space; on the other hand, you’re subject to the elements and limited as to what you can openly display in public. I’ve done Shakespeare in the woods, Sarah Kane’s Blasted in an actual hotel room, and – as the name of this website may have told you – pub-set plays in actual pubs. I can’t recall any one of those being preceded by the advisory that the show could be “shut down by the police at any moment.”

Such was the case yesterday at 2pm outside the SFPD Mission station. I’d seen on Twitter that Theater MadCap would be staging a special performance of You’re Gonna Cry for the so-called “Frisco 5”, so I decided to check it out. For those who don’t know, the Frisco 5 are five SF activists and politicians (Edwin Lindo is running for District 9 Supervisor) who are staging a hunger strike in front of the Mission station in protest of police-related killings by the SFPD. They plan to continue their strike until Police Chief Greg Suhr resigns from his post. Despite the word “Frisco” rubbing me the wrong way, I sympathized with their cause and am always interested in the intersection of art and social justice. The very idea that art can be used for genuine social change is one that still gets my blood pumping.

Theater MadCap’s Eric Reid, also the show’s director, shares a laugh with hunger-striker Edwin Lindo.

Theater MadCap’s Eric Reid, also the show’s director, shares a laugh with hunger-striker Edwin Lindo.

The “early bird” audience consisted of the strikers themselves, reporters from various news outlets and websites (one cameraman from KTVU was captured everything), twenty-or-so students from Mission High who took the day off to witness protest first-hand. Given that Flores’ one-man show begins in 1995, I was struck by the fact that none of these kids were even alive when this all took place.

I remember clearly what San Francisco was like that year (I was 14) just as I remember that dot-com bubble that followed. I also remember that it as being the first time I took a theatre class and the first time I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I wanted to perform, I wanted to get in touch with my Blackness, I wanted to fully embrace every part of this great, big world that had now been opened up to me. All of those memories came flooding back as Flores put on many hats – literally and figuratively – and I scribbled down notes as traffic occasionally drowned him out.

Most of it was the business-as-usual collection of garbage trucks and mail carriers, but there were also the occasional pointed honks of solidarity from motorists who held their raised fists out their windows. Several folks stood across the street to take photos and get a better look, though they couldn’t hear what was said. Since the performance was in the street’s bike lane, quite a few Schwinn-enabled hipsters swerved around the crowd with bewildered looks on their faces. About 15 or 20min. into the performance, another motorist drove by to show neither curiosity or support. A White man over 40, he began using his horn as a punching bag and angrily shouting “Go home! Go HOME!!!” to all gathered. Since he drove by during a green light, he was as gone as quick as he’d appeared.

Through all of this, Flores never missed a beat. Sliding from one persona to the next, it makes sense that a play about the colorful characters who used to inhabit the Mission be staged amongst and for the colorful character who inhabit the Mission now. Jumping from Spanish to English and back again, the high schoolers in attendance seemed most receptive of all. As much as it pisses me off when people call to “kill off Shakespeare” – claiming that he’s obsolete in contemporary theatre and curricula – I get equally pissed by people who say that youngsters couldn’t possibly take an interest in theatre, given their supposedly short attention spans. The teens gathered yesterday contradicted that theory.

We were told that the SFPD could shut down the performance at any minute. This gave the show an air of uncertainty and unease when uniformed officers gathered at the corner of 17th &Valencia. Flores made it a good 50-or-so minutes through his performance without fail before he finally had to stop. To our surprise, it wasn’t the SFPD that stopped him.

Through a chorus of drum beats and chants heard from a block away, the 20-some-odd Mission High students were joined by a massive crowd of students from Everett Junior High School. Flores kindly relinquished his “stage” to these young supporters as they took turns extolling words of encouragement to the strikers.

Maria Cristina Gutierrez and Edwin Lindo meets students from Everett Middle School.

Maria Cristina Gutierrez and Edwin Lindo meets students from Everett Middle School.

It was then that I had another one of those moments. You know the ones. I’ve occasionally mentioned them during my column posts this year. It’s a moment that happens in spite of people saying “No one goes to theatre”. It happens in spite of my being told that my generation “is fucked and the next generation is double-fucked.” It happens in spite of everyone telling me “SF is so over”.

It’s the moment when I know they’re all wrong and I remember why I do what I do. I watched an effective peaceful protest in my hometown, punctuated by a moving performance, interrupted by a show of support from active youth. That’s almost everything I could want out of theatre.

On the BART ride home I just happened to see Barbara’s interview with Paul Flores get posted as I was already planning to write this very piece. I had no idea she’d interviewed him, so don’t mistake this for a two-part advertisement for his show. Still, I find it appropriate that both pieces run so close together, as they both present two important parts of the artistic process. The interview represented the artist’s intentions, this piece sees it in practice. Whether or not they’ve succeeded is up to you (this isn’t a review of the show), but I’m glad I got to observe it with the usual restrictions removed.

Charles Lewis III is in a show this weekend, but will definitely see You’re Gonna Cry during its run, which begins tomorrow and runs until May 28th. The “Frisco 5” protest has no end date in sight.

In For a Penny: The Early Bird

Charles Lewis III, getting the worm.

Free wine – the only reason I do theatre.

Free wine – the only reason I do theatre.

“I am glad I was up so late; for that’s the reason I was up so early.”
– William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, Act II, Sc. 3

As I continue my contemplation about the theatrical “ecosystem,” I recently took a moment to ponder the act of seeing something early. What does the audience think when they see a preview performance for a play or early screening of a film – are they hoping to see the next great masterpiece? Do they want to be ahead of the curve in bashing the next great disaster? Or are they like me in that they just want to escape from the world and were persuaded to do so by the discounted (or free) price?

Previews are a necessary evil: they’re billed as being works in progress; a peek behind the curtain of artistic evolution. This reasoning is meant to excuse what ever stumbles the production encounters in this performance (“It’ll be better in the show proper; we promise!”), but simultaneously sell the bright spots as on the verge of growing brighter (“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, folks!”). Notorious Broadway debacle Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark had the longest preview period in history with 182 pre-opening performances. You could argue that audiences and critics had their daggers out before the first curtain rose, but the show apparently showed little – if any – improvement during its run.

I opened a play last week after two preview performances. After months of memorizing lines and contemplating character motivation, I don’t have a damn clue what the audiences have thought of us so far.

With that show occupying much of my life of late, I took advantage of the rare opportunity to be part of an audience this week. This past Tuesday, I attended the Industry Night (so cool to be thought of a part of “the industry”) performance of Mfoniso Udofia’s Sojourners at the Magic Theatre. I knew practically nothing about the play going in, but I’d heard that Udofia is a resident playwright at the Magic and that Rotimi Agbabiaka – one of the best working actors in the Bay Area – would playing an important role. Free ticket, free wine, rub elbows with local theatre bigwigs – how could I resist?

I didn’t see the playwright herself that night, but the pre-show speech mentioned that the show is intended to be the first chapter of a nine-play cycle (Ch. 2, runboyrun, opens at the Magic on April 28) of Nigerian characters in the United States. An ambitious venture to be sure. In the “Blood and Brain” interview inside the program, Udofia explains that she “started with one play and thought [she] was done.” That one play became a trilogy which soon proved not enough.

So was I watching the start of the next theatrical story cycle – a la August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” or Tom Stoppard’s “Coast of Utopia”? I don’t know. Hell, I didn’t even consider the multi-chapter angle until the very end of the play. I doubt anyone else did either. All I can say for sure was that I know how I reacted to what I saw then and there. That’s what’s most important about previews: not what they represent for the future, but what effect they have right here and now.

I play to see runboyrun in early May, and my own play continues performances tonight. Just yesterday I had my costume fitting for the SF Opera (it’s a cool costume that I’d honestly wear in public, if I could). I’m tinkering over pages for my Olympians script as I mull over upcoming auditions. I’ve also recently been offered a directing opportunity that I’m seriously pondering.

In short, I have a pretty good idea as to what my theatrical future holds. That’s not going to stop me from living fully in the present.

Charles Lewis III is a writer, director, actor, and creator of the Flux Capacitor. No, you can’t see it.

In For a Penny: (T)BAcon Bits

Charles Lewis III, involved.

So official…

So official…

“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.”
– Macbeth, Act 3, sc. IV

Like many members of our local theatre tribe, I often wonder how I, too, can be more involved. In spite of the fact that I’ve personally seen the local theatre scene from nearly every conceivable angle, these days it’s very rare to see me as part of a closed-door meeting deciding the future of a company’s artistic direction. I’m not likely to appear in a room full of investors in an attempt to have them empty their coffers for an additional year. And my opinion about a play isn’t likely to have any bearing on the next year’s major theatre awards ceremonies.

So although I have an active role in the Bay Area theatre community, I still feel uninvolved in regard to the unseen goings-on that take place and shape what I see on each of these stages. This lack of involvement is both hierarchal and – as with most things – financial: I usually just can’t afford to attend events in which these things take place, and on the rare occasion I can, there’s usually a scheduling conflict.

So when Dale Albright of Theatre Bay Area offered me the opportunity to lead a session at this year’s annual TBA Conference, I gladly accepted. Not only would I be rubbing elbows with some of the biggest movers and shakers of the most important theatre scene on the West Coast, but I’d be getting in for free – a price I can always afford!

Here are things that happened over the course of the day:

9am-ish: Despite BART coming dangerously close to make me late, I showed up to the Berkeley Rep in time for the registration and to get my nametag (above). Sure, my doesn’t have any special titles, but it’s the same name that appears inside the program for my session, so I ain’t complainin’. I see lots of familiar faces, some I’ve never seen before, and – most importantly – free bagels and orange juice. I avail myself of the latter before heading into the theatre.

9:30am: I find a seat up front (I tend to sit in the “splash zone”), which happens to be right in front of the cool kids from The Breadbox Theatre. After a few words from Brad Erickson, we get our keynote speech from Diane Rodriguez of Center Theatre Group. For the most part, it’s a touching speech about evolving theatre that goes over pretty well… until she rails against theatres that still put on Shakespeare. Hoo-boy, did she pick the wrong room. This sentiment is still in the air when the first Q&A question isn’t a question at all – the artistic director of Marin Shakes voices her disapproval at the comment. “Don’t make Shakespeare the enemy!” she says to a thunderous applause.

It’s just after 10:30 and things have already gotten heated.

11am: After wandering around aimlessly – both because it took me a moment to figure out the map and I was deciding which panel to attend – I found myself in the filled-to-the-brim Berkeley Rep SOT “Bakery” for the panel Inclusivity: Breaking it Down. A wonderfully diverse panel of local theatre artists discussed how to make our local scene (and beyond) more inclusive. As before, the panelists all told wonderful stories, but the best stuff came from the audience. The comment that stood out most to me was when Sherri Young, Founder and Exec. Dir. of Af-Am Shakes, told the room “You’re preaching to the choir [..] how do we reach the people who are NOT in this room?” I hate to leave a few minutes before it ends, but official business calls…

Don’t Panic!

Don’t Panic!

12:15pm: Before I’d attended the last panel, I’d gone upstairs to the loft to see where I’d be working. Now it was time for the Speed Dating session, in which I’d be linking some of the Bay’s brightest tech folk with local producers and artistic directors. In the end, we wound up with only five tech folks and 20 producers/artistic directors. After screaming internally at this wild imbalance, I rolled with the punches and kept the session moving. It wasn’t perfect, but every producer got to see every tech. Were I to do it again, there are MANY things I’d do differently, but I learned from it and everyone left satisfied. As the old saying goes “No one died, so I consider it a success.”

1:15pm: Lunch. After cleaning the room, I walk around the block to a little sandwich place and chat with one of the ladies of PianoFight’s Chardonnay Comedy. My official responsibilities are over, now I’m just here to observe.

2:15pm: Leading with Trust to Build an Audience: Cultivating Patron Relationships longer than a One-Night Stand. That mouthful of a title was my next panel. The goal was to figure out how to get “normal people” to see more theatre. In the panelists’ research, they found that most people have usually seen just one play, didn’t like it, then never attended theatre again. Why does that seem unique to theatre when people will see hundreds of bad films or continue to support sports teams after they lose? Although I wasn’t a fan of some of their suggestions (I’m still VERY anti-Tweet seats), the idea of engaging with high schools and colleges intrigued me.

3:30pm: We’re back in the main theatre for one final panel/Q&A about inclusivity, incidentally featuring many of the speakers from the earlier panel on that very subject. After that, a scene is acted out from Lauren Yee’s in a word, right before Yee herself receives this year’s Will Glickman Award for the play. This is followed by a moving tribute to SF Chronicle theatre critic Rob Hurwitt, who will be retiring this year after 40+ years of service. Then we make it back to the lobby chat, drink, and stuff our faces.

Why we do theatre.

Why we do theatre.

So that was my first TBAcon. I met a lot of people, heard lots of interesting stories, and remembered what I do and don’t like about theatre. I’m glad I accepted Dale’s offer to help out; I’d most likely do it again, integrating the knowledge I didn’t have before to make for a more effective session. Most of all, I now know that the purpose of these gatherings is to find out why folks like me aren’t part of them to begin with. Both sides have the same goal, yet find it just out of reach.

I don’t know the definitive answer to that question, but I appreciate being part of the conversation.

Charles Lewis III is a writer, director, actor, and all-around theatre artist whose name tag was pretty bare because there was too much to add.

In For a Penny: What do I Stand for?

Charles Lewis III, wondering where he fits in.

A square peg forced into a round hole. 3D render with HDRI lighting and raytraced textures.

A square peg forced into a round hole. 3D render with HDRI lighting and raytraced textures.

“The moment when someone attaches you a philosophy or a movement, then they assign all of the baggage and all of the philosophy that goes with it to you. And when you want to have a conversation, they will assert that they already know everything important there is to know about you because of that association. And that’s not the way to have a conversation.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson, 2012 interview with BigThink

It’s funny what little things leave a big impression. Last night I attended a show for the sake of merely escaping a number of
responsibilities piling up (running lines before my next rehearsal, prepping for auditions, job-searching, finishing a “spec” assignment for a potential new job, etc.). Indeed, the show was a welcome distraction and it was nice to see people I knew on stage.

During the post-show decompression, I chatted up both the folks I knew in the show, as well as those I knew in the audience. One of the latter was a bit surprised to see me and was a bit taken aback that we were both there to see the same show. Without hesitation, one of the actors chimed in, “Charles is here to see us because he’s a good friend and really knows how to support local theatre.”

I didn’t say anything in response, but it punctuated a stream of thought I’ve been having lately: What do I represent to this theatre community? Aside from the labels I have listed on my CV and my TBA profile – actor, director, playwright – what does the sort of theatre I actively support say about me personally?

These thought were most intense this past Saturday, when I attended the African-American Shakespeare Company’s penultimate performance of The Colored Museum. Maybe the most resonant segment of George C. Wolfe’s play is the one that has aged much better than I thought it would: “Symbiosis”. In this scene, an upwardly mobile Black man (the kind I knew growing up in the Reagan-‘80s, when the play was written) attempts to bury all evidence of the radical youth he once was. This includes him throwing away his old records, his afro pick, his activist symbols, and verbally berating his younger self, who has physically manifested in the scene. He concludes that the “sell out” extreme he’s become is unable to co-exist with the extreme he once was.

The post-show speech included the usual “Thank you for coming” lines, but I wasn’t expecting to hear the specific donation push that followed. It seems that dubious forces are at play, attempting to push Af-Am Shakes out of their home in SF’s Burial Clay Theatre. With the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre having been kicked out of their longtime home years ago, the expulsion of Af-Am Shakes would create an even greater dearth of Afrocentric theatre in the Bay Area – particularly in San Francisco.

It’s moments like this when it once again drives home how much a simple act of consumerism – in this case, purchasing a theatre ticket – is a political act; that supporting an independent business financially gives greater voice to the proprietor of said business, even if you don’t particularly agree with them. There’s a popular Twitter phrase that often pops up on politically active profiles: “RT is not an endorsement.” That may be true, but the fact remains that you’ve still exposed this person’s words to an audience it wouldn’t have reached otherwise.

And I’m someone who’s constantly aware of the fact that his purchase represents a specific shift in the demographic of a business. Of all the possible categories into which I could fit (Black, cis-gendered male, mid-30s, neither Democrat nor Republican, etc.), I would never in a million years claim to be The Voice of My People™. But I bring all of those things with me – whether consciously or unconsciously – and they will color how I react to a purchase I make and a piece of art I observe.

As the author of a theatre column, my attention is occasionally drawn to how I and my fellow columnists distinguish ourselves. I’m unaware of who reads my column regularly, but I’m conscious of the fact that talking about ethnicity can transform me from an anonymous collection of words into an avatar of a race and all that a reader believes about that race. Granted, such entries are few and far between (I really wanted to do the last two for Black History Month), but I don’t suddenly lose my other distinguishing features whenever I write. Or see a show. Or wake up in the morning. I might not wave a flag declaring myself any of those things, but they’re no less a part of me than the things in which I do blatantly declare myself (actor/director/playwright).”

And yet, this is all a part of theatre, which means that no matter what sub-category into which I fit, I’m still an anonymous face in the crowd when the lights go down. As long as I don’t heckle, fart, or snore from boredom, what you think of my face when the lights come up is your problem, not mine. After last night’s show, I was seen as a friend and supporter of indie theatre. I like that label. I’ll take it.

Also, “Take Five” was used as transition music and I nearly fell out of my seat, wanting to shout “Are you kidding me?!”

Charles Lewis III is currently rehearsing for a show that goes up in April. He expects you, and every demographic you represent, to be in the audience.

In For a Penny: Eyes without a Face

Charles Lewis III weighs in on some recent controversy.

Can you spot the Oscar-winner under all that shoe polish?

Can you spot the Oscar-winner under all that shoe polish?

“In 1985, I’m sitting in the casting office of a major studio. The head of casting said, ‘I couldn’t put you in a Shakespeare movie, because they didn’t have Black people then.’ He literally said that. I told that casting director: ‘You ever heard of Othello? Shakespeare couldn’t just make up Black people. He saw them’.”
– Wendell Pierce, interview with The New York Times, 24 Feb. 2016

I don’t watch the Grammys. I mostly attribute that to growing up as a fan of The Simpsons, where both the ceremony and its namesake statuette were regularly mocked as being the most worthless of all celebrity milestones (the Golden Globes being a close second). I can also attribute it to the fact that as I grew up, the Grammys’ recipients rarely ever reflected my own tastes in music. Like the Billboard charts, the Grammys tell you what’s popular, not necessarily what’s good. Still, since the awards are a major celeb event, I wind up seeing the results on my timeline, even when I don’t seek them out.

One particular blurb caught my eye. Apparently one of the most-talked-about moments of this year’s ceremony involved a performance from the cast of Hamilton (a show which I’ve still neither seen nor heard). The show won an award, but apparently a considerable number of White viewers were put off by the multi-ethnic cast, leading to such condescending questions as “Do they know Alexander Hamilton was White?” In a country – nay, world – in which a whitewashed interpretation of Egyptian mythos is heavily promoted every 30 seconds and considered the norm, the idea of people of color dramatizing important milestones of American history is somehow taboo.

I’ve always been touchy about colorblind casting; as a Black man, I don’t have much choice but to be. One the one hand, I’ve done quite a few roles that were originally played by – if not specifically envisioned for – White actors, and I’m grateful for that. On the other hand, I’m not at all comfortable when I see all-White casts in Biblical stories or as Martin Luther King or… well, just look at that photo above. That sort of casting often relies on a flimsy interpretation of Occam’s Razor to infer that producers are simply casting the best actor available. What they fail to realize is that for people of color, all things in the universe are not equal.

This often leads to questions as to why people of color are allowed to be “forced in” (a term I’ve heard far too often) to traditionally all-White productions, but the reverse is discouraged. Yes, in 2016, people still have a problem interpreting the difference between “inclusion” and “erasure”. When a Shakespeare play – say, anyone that isn’t Othello, Titus, or Merchant (with the Duke of Morocco) – uses a diverse cast, they’re giving opportunities to actors who haven’t had them in plays for which ethnicity is not a factor – inclusion. When an all-White cast does Raisin in the Sun on the pretense that “they just want to tell a good story,” that’s erasure. (An odd middle ground would be an all-White version of The Wiz, something which does happen.)

And I get the impulse of moving ahead because of a “good story,” I really do. When I began writing and directing in high school, I was given the assignment to dramatize scenes from books being studied by the English classes. One of the scenes I chose was from Richard Wright’s Black Boy. As one of the few Black kids in the drama department – and the only one of those who was male – I had to either cast myself in the scene (which meant that I couldn’t look at it with the objective eye of a director) or cast someone else. I wound up casting a light-skinned, straight-haired Latino actor and got no shortage of mockery for it afterward.

In hindsight, I should have scrapped the scene and chosen one from another book. Ethnicity isn’t something that can simply being “up for interpretation by an actor,” as would a character’s religion or sexual orientation. Ethnicity isn’t just an interchangeable costume. It’s the interpretation of the life and culture of actual human beings. As such, a theatre producer is required to do all in his or her power to have the real kind of person represented in their production, or just scrap the production entirely.

I’ve spoken before about the first time I wrote and directed for the Olympians festival. One of the three lead characters was a half-Black/half-White teen, but limited casting options had me place an Indian actor in the role (as opposed to doing it myself, which, again, wasn’t gonna happen). Still, the idea of his character being an outsider amongst his fellow characters got through to the audience.

During last year’s festival, I cast a half-Latino actor in the title role of my play, with an Italian-American playing his son and a Latina playing his daughter. The latter was less about casting limitations (I hand-picked the title role actor myself) and more about a specific statement I was making about ethnicity in popular culture: the son was played by a White actor because he’d fully assimilated in a way his openly Latina sister had not. Both are their father’s child, but each differently interpreted the idea of “success in America”.

That’s not colorblind casting, that’s casting to prove a point. Kinda like Hamilton (or so I’ve heard).

Just like the Super Bowl, you can bet I’ll be watching the Oscars this coming Sunday. Yeah, yeah, I know: “It’s just a pageant of superficial glad-handing that has nothing to do with the genuine talent hiding within the industry.” I don’t care. I’ll be hanging out with other theatre artists as we cheer, jeer, and snarkily riff on the aforementioned pageantry. I’ll be with a diverse group of performers with whom I’ve shared the stage on many occasions as we drink ourselves silly laughing at the lily-white proceedings.

We’ll sit and enjoy ourselves because we know that this ceremony isn’t the end of the conversation about diverse casting; it isn’t even the middle. It’s the extension of a conversation that’s being going on before any of us were born and will hopefully continue after we’re gone. We’d just like to see a little more action to accompany all the talk.

Same role, no shoe polish.

Same role, no shoe polish.

Charles Lewis III can’t wait to see Chris Rock tear into Hollywood about its own hypocrisy.