Theater Around the Bay: Alan Coyne & Juliana Lustenader of “Bar Spies”

The Pint-Sized Plays begin their 2nd week of performances tonight! We continue our series of interviews with the folks behind the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays by speaking to writer Alan Coyne and director Juliana Lustenader of “Bar Spies”!

“Bar Spies” is a spy-fiction pastiche, full of false identities, double-crossings, and heightened tension. Actors Courtney Merrell and Andrew Chung show off an impressive array of accents and some slick trench-coated style as the two spies.

Alan Coyne clown

Playwright Alan Coyne has a sense of humor.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized, or, if you’re returning to the festival, why did you come back?

Alan: I wrote a piece for Pint-Sized last year (“Relativity”), and this year I figured I’d have another go. I can’t write without a deadline, and this festival gives you that plus a setting, so it’s exactly what I need to write something.

Juliana: I first got involved with Pint-Sized last year as the writer of “To Be Blue,” directed by the wonderful Neil Higgins and featuring the hilarious duo of Eden Neuendorf and Tony Cirimele. The show was such a success last year, I knew I wanted to come back. I’m super excited to return as a director this time!

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

Alan: For me, the hardest thing about writing a short play (or anything) is getting started. And after that, it’s translating the amazing idea in your head into the least-clunky language possible.

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

Alan: Knowing that everything in it has to matter. That helps focus me on what I actually need to put in, and what I can do without.

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Juliana: The most exciting moment for me so far this year was watching my actors read the script for the first time out loud while Alan and I watched. I couldn’t stop smiling as Courtney and Andrew took these two silly characters and brought them to life so easily despite the ridiculous accents we are making them do.

What’s been most troublesome?

Juliana: Scheduling! But that’s what I get for wanting to work with such talented folks.

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What are your biggest artistic influences?

Alan: P.G. Wodehouse and Douglas Adams. They are who I would want to write like, if I could. For this particular play, it’s John Le Carre, who wrote Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; “Bar Spies” is very much a parody of that genre, and he, for me, is the best spy writer. And I owe a little something to Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood, which is also a spy parody play. And Chess, which is the musical I’m rehearsing for at the moment, and is set during the Cold War.

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

Juliana: Sean Connery, because he is the best spy with the best accent.

Alan: Alec Guinness, who played the main character in the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and did so definitively. Luckily for me, Courtney Merrell pretty much is Alec Guinness, so that worked out.

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush? That is… what actor would you love a chance to work with?

Juliana: Brian Martin is the first to come to mind, though we did do a scene study project in college together. Still, I think it would be a treat to work with him in a more professional setting.

What other projects are you working on and/or what’s next for you?

Alan: My next writing project is for the San Francisco Olympians Festival, it’s called Hypnos, and it’s an excerpt from Shakespeare’s lost play, Cardenio. It’ll be performed Saturday, October 15. And my next acting projects are the aforementioned Chess for Custom Made (September/October), in which I play The Arbiter, followed by Feste in Twelfth Night at the Metropolitan Club on Saturday, November 5, which Juliana is also directing.

Juliana: Up next, I’m directing Twelfth Night as part of Shakespeare at the Club. I’m also performing in Chess at Custom Made Theatre Company and Avenue Q at New Conservatory Theatre.

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

Juliana: The Fringe Festival at the Exit Theatre.

Alan: The Olympians Festival is always wonderful, everyone should check that out at the EXIT this October. I had the opportunity to participate in Musical Cafe this year, and they’re doing another showcase in November, I highly recommend keeping an eye out for that. And PianoFight always has something good going on, especially shows which feature Andrew Chung.

What’s your favorite beer?

Juliana: Right now it’s Old Rasputin’s Russian Imperial Stout, but I’ll drink whatever you buy me.

Alan: For this show, I recommend drinking a pint of (Alec) Guinness.

“Bar Spies” and the other Pint-Sized Plays have 3 performances remaining: August 22, 23, and 29 at PianoFight! 

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Theater Around the Bay: Gabriel Bellman and Megan Briggs of “Polling Place”

The Pint-Sized Plays open TONIGHT so we’re bringing you another in our series of interviews with the folks behind the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays. Here are writer Gabriel Bellman and director Megan Briggs of “Polling Place”!

“Polling Place” satirizes the current political climate and the heated rhetoric of the 2016 election. In it, a highly strung woman who’s just cast her ballot goes into a bar and confronts a laconic man with the question “Do you think it’s fair to vote for a candidate based on whether they sit down or stand up when they use the washroom?” Caitlin Evenson plays the woman, Claire, and Ron Talbot is the man, Ian.

Gabriel Bellman

Writer Gabriel Bellman has his eyes on you.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized, or, if you’re returning to the festival, why did you come back?

Gabriel: I’m proud to have been in this festival before. I enjoy the challenge of writing something on deadline, so when I saw the call for entries post into the clouds via a proxy-streaming server third-party service that takes encrypted pieces of digital information and converts them into the written language, I decided to write a short play using keystrokes and symbols to make words that were then used as a key to unlock language from digital chunks of electromagnitized green-chip circuit boards.

Megan: I directed a Pint-Sized show several years ago and had such a blast! Pint-Sized is one of my favorite SF Theater Pub events so I’m excited to be a part of it again this year 🙂

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

Gabriel: I think it’s to avoid thinking of it as a short play. When you envision a three-inch photograph, for example, you might be thinking of only a corner of a mouth, but (possibly) a better photograph is a three-inch square-size photo of the planet Earth, as cliched and trite as that photo may be at this point (unless of course an alien is in the corner snapping a selfie and it isn’t a blatantly poor Photoshop-job). So if you set out to capture a micro-cosmonaut, then you can still explore heaven and earth, right? A small version of the entire experience of humanity, I guess is the goal, and that’s hard to fit into anything. I feel like I didn’t answer the question. The hardest thing about writing a short play is the constant comparisons to William Shakespeare from strangers on the street.

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Megan: The show I’m directing is absolutely delightful! Gabriel has written thoughtful and intelligent characters whose lives intersect in an unexpected way on Election Day. We had a fabulous time unpacking these characters and discovering the humor that comes when you mix politics with uncertainty. I also adore my cast. Caitlin Evenson and Ron Talbot are two fantastic performers and I’m very excited this show marks the first time they are working together on stage!

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

Gabriel: Getting to see different human minds, each encapsulated in uniquely shaped skulls, interpreting and engaging in the process of making art in live performance. Writing is such a solitary act that it can be a form of self-flagellation or affliction, but when actors come along, that all changes. Actors are a jovial bunch, on balance, and are attuned to human emotion to such a way that they can call it upon demand with strangers looking at them — it’s pretty amazing. So the best thing is to play in creative space with other artists — it can seem too good to be true.

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush? That is, what actor would you love a chance to work with?

Megan: I think Stacy Ross is an incredible performer! She excels at both comedy and drama and by all accounts she is a dream to work with.

Megan Briggs

Megan Briggs is a frequent Theater Pub performer and now, a Pint-Sized director!

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Gabriel: There are a lot of different ways to answer that. For one, I could say parents, teachers, other artists, I could point to the times we live in, I could recount a midnight screening of Gremlins, or a Bob Dylan concert, or a Shaquille O’Neal dunk, or a Pop-Tart. Let me say something more guided: here are a few writers I felt impressed by as an adult. Denis Johnson, Junot Diaz, Mary Shelley, Seamus Heaney. Allen Ginsburg’s Howl is still the best poem ever written (although not as good as Whitman’s Song of Myself – which is basically a rip-off of William Blake). Is that an answer? My biggest influences are gangsta rap, existentialism, Atari 2600, and Indian food.

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

Megan: I would have to say Emily Blunt because I would really love to see how this play would change if we had a British actress playing the part of Claire. It would bring up a series of entirely new questions about her character and why she is so intrigued by the political process.

Gabriel: Penelope Cruz because I have loved her since I was 19 and saw Belle Epoque. Actually, I wouldn’t want it to be weird, so maybe a better answer is Magic Johnson, since i have loved him since I was 15. Wait, was that a trick question? The answer is Madonna.

What other projects are you working on and/or what’s next for you?

Gabriel: I’m working on a feature play about a historical figure from New York at the turn of the century. I would say who and what it is about, but I’m too excited about it because I don’t think anybody else has done it yet, and it’s a good idea, and when you share those ideas early on, it bursts the bubble. What’s also next for me is a bubble tea. Very, very soon.

Megan: I’m very excited to be performing in Theater Pub’s production of King Lear this fall! I like my Shakespeare to be fast paced with high drama, and I think Theater Pub is the perfect venue for presenting Shakespeare that’s anything but boring and stuffy.

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

Megan: I’m excited about seeing the musical Chess for the first time at Custom Made Theatre Company this fall. I’m also super pumped for Hamilton next spring (although I have to be willing to wait for it).

Gabriel: I’m looking forward to the Lit Crawl, I believe I’ll be performing in that, and also seeing Hamilton, and plays that actors and playwrights from Pint-Sized are doing. It’s a talented group, excluding myself, since that sounds weird.

Finally, what’s your favorite beer?

Megan: I’m more of a cider girl myself, and Stella Cidre is my absolute favorite!

Gabriel: For anybody who was raised in the shadows of the Willamette Valley, it’s Black Butte Porter. But honestly, I love a nice Jamaican ginger beer.

See “Polling Place” and the other Pint-Sized Plays at PianoFight on August 15, 16, 22, 23, and 29!

Theater Around The Bay: Cowan Palace Goes Portal

Ashley may be 3000 miles away but it’s like she’s right next to you, singing in your ear about her interview with Kirk Shimano and Sang Kim, who prepare to rock San Francisco Theater Pub with Portal: The Musical!

Hello there, my San Francisco friends! Wow, what a few weeks it’s been, huh? Lots going on all over the world but I have to say getting the chance to interview writer Kirk Shimano and director Sang Kim was a real treat. This dynamic duo is currently working on San Francisco Theater Pub’s latest show, Portal: The Musical.

The cast features Alan Coyne, Jamie Lee Currier, Dan Kurtz, Courtney Merrell, and Karen Offereins with musical direction by Liz Baker, voice direction and production design by Renee LeVesque, and Paul Anderson and Spencer Bainbridge rounding out this rockin’ team as the band. The show is set to the music of Jonathan Coulton and this theatrical piece is sure to be unlike any other production you’ve seen this millennium.

Kirk Laughing!

AC: So firstly, what are audiences in store for when they sit down for Portal: The Musical?

KS: I think the experience will be pretty different based on what the audience member is bringing in. Fans of the video game are going to get to see the story they love brought to life in a totally different way. Jonathan Coulton fans will get to hear their favorite songs for the first time again when they’re sung by our characters. And people who don’t know anything about either are going to discover a whole new world that they never knew they were missing.

SK: A lot more feeling and earnestness than you’d expect for a video game based on dimensional rifts and psychotic artificial intelligence. Also – this show passed the Bechdel Test with extra credit! Good Job sticker for us!

AC: So, how did this project come to be?

KS: I played through the original Portal in one sitting and it’s been a favorite ever since. And when I found out the guy who wrote “Still Alive” had a whole repertoire of other work, I got my hands on all the Jonathan Coulton music I could find. But this all really gelled for me when I heard the song “Code Monkey” on the Best. Concert. Ever. album. As soon as I heard that, I immediately knew there was a character behind this song and wanted to bring it to life in a full musical.

SK: Kirk emailed me back in June 2013 after he punched out a first draft during his stay-cation. I replied back and said yes to working on this. I wish it was more dramatic and suspenseful, but there it is. How about we just pretend Kirk threw the script into a Thunderdome death pit and I emerged the victor and claimed the musical as my prize.

Sang Directing!

AC: What’s been the biggest surprise you’ve experienced while rehearsing a musical about a video game?

KS: I’d say it’s just seeing all the passion that people have for this source material. There’s always a great level of support among other members of the theater community, but it’s been wonderful to also see friends who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves “theater people” get really excited about this project because of their connection to the source material.

SK: Agree with Kirk. It’s gotten to the point where rehearsals are going long because there’s too many ideas and too much fun being had. And, oh Lord, the spontaneous singing. Always with the spontaneous singing. People singing and making up lyrics and breaking into song. It’s like witnessing a karaoke playlist for ADHD show choir students on meth.

AC: What’s been your favorite moment so far while working on the show?

KS: I’d have to say it’s those moments in rehearsal where we’ve had everyone sing along together. Our cast and creative team has been wonderful to work with in general, but that’s the moment when I just feel we’re all the most connected.

SK: Yes. This.

I played viola in the orchestra so the power of group singing has never made an impact on me until this show. I finally understand why the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day.

AC: What drink do you think would pair best with the production?

KS: Maybe one of those novelty drinks that comes in a beaker and has some dry ice to make fog spill out over the sides? Because something that is fun and a little creepy with a chance of killing you is basically the character of GLaDOS.

SK: Anything garnished with olives – just one olive so your drink is looking back at you which reminds me of all our little robot friends from the game.

The Creative Portal  Team

AC: What’s been the hardest challenge you and the cast/crew have faced while bringing this story to life (and song!)?

KS: I feel very fortunate in that Sang has been taking on the HUGE task of all the scheduling and coordination of bringing together all of the talent need to bring this together, and I just get to watch. But one challenge that comes to mind was having to cut a couple songs from the script that I really like but that weren’t serving the story (sorry “I Crush Everything”).

SK: Kirk is gracious but having this specific group of talent has been worth all the wrangling. The hardest thing is to pull the show back for a staged musical setting at Theater Pub. I think a lot of past contributors have excelled in presenting fantastic shows in such an unconventional setting. But the scope and creativity of Kirk’s musical, the Portal universe, Coulton’s songs,along with the talent involved have actually been an embarrassment of riches. Having limited time and resources means picking and discarding your darlings.

AC: Tell us more about what you’re up to after this show! Any fun new projects on deck?

KS: Next up for me will be the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which I’m happy to be returning to for the sixth year in a row. I’m looking forward to sharing a night with three other playwrights (Barbara Jwanouskos, Julianne Jigour, and Alan Coyne) as we present three very stylistically different approaches to the gods of sleep and dreams.

SK: After some rest, I’ll be helping co-write Thunderbird Theatre’s next original play. It’ll be a creative collaboration with The Mess sketch comedy, which also has a show up this November.

AC: What Bay Area show (other than this) are you most excited to see this summer?

KS: I’m a big fan of musicals in general, so I can’t wait to see City of Angels at the San Francisco Playhouse and Chess at the Custom Made Theatre Company. I’ve been a big fan of the cast albums of both and neither is a show that you see performed all the time.

SK: I was glad to see The Rules and the Loud and Unladylike Festival, but they both closed this past weekend. After that, probably my usual summer and fall diet of Pint Sized Plays and the Olympians Festival before I hibernate for the winter.

AC: Using only emoticons, how would you describe Portal?

KIRK: — 0 0– >

SANG: 🍰🤔

AC: If your directing/writing style was a song, what would it be?

SK: For this show? “Bizarre Love Triangle.” You’ll see.

KS: Want to be: “Everything is AWESOME!!!” But, actually: “Still Alive.”

See Portal: The Musical only at PIANOFIGHT (144 Taylor Street):, July 18, 19, 25, and 26 @ 8 PM.

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