Theater Around the Bay: Christian Simonsen & Alejandro Torres of “No Fault”

The Pint-Sized Plays have their 4th performance tonight! We continue our series of interviews with the festival’s writers and directors by speaking to writer Christian Simonsen and director Alejandro Torres of “No Fault”! (Alejandro also served as the Deputy Producer of Pint-Sized this year.)

“No Fault” introduces us to Jack and Kate, a divorcing couple with an 8-year-old daughter, who’ve scheduled a quick meeting in a corner bar to sign their divorce papers, make it official, and try to put the past to rest. Colin Hussey and Lisa Darter play the couple.

CS Blue Striped Shirt

Christian Simonsen, a writer returning to Pint-Sized.

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

Christian: I have been a fan of the Pint-Sized Play Festival since the beginning, and I was honored to have an earlier short play of mine, the comedy “Multitasking,” produced by this festival in 2013. I love immersive, site-specific theater like this, where the actors rub shoulders with the audience. That’s not just an expression… if you come to this show, a drunk llama may literally rub your shoulders!

Alejandro: I love this theater company and all the fresh work they bring to San Francisco (and on a monthly basis too). I’ve directed and performed with them before and have also met some great and talented folks that keep me coming back.

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

Christian: The challenge to writing a short play is to remember that it’s not a full-length play crammed into a few pages. That may sound obvious, but it’s tempting during the writing process to forget that. It generally can only be about one thing. Every word of dialogue, every prop, every stage direction must earn its keep. A full-length play can survive three or four weak scenes. A short play has trouble recovering from three or four weak lines of dialogue. As a general rule, a short script can’t really handle numerous subplots crisscrossing each other, but it should also avoid being a “mood piece” that just sits there.

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

Christian: Its purity. Audience members rarely walk away from a short play with mixed feelings; it either worked or it didn’t. As a writer, I’m most productive when I’m given boundaries and limitations, and the short play format fits the bill perfectly. For example, in “No Fault,” a separated couple are going through the awkward, tense ordeal of signing their divorce papers in a pub that they used to frequent during happier times. The stage directions have both actors sitting at a table for most of the script. But when the woman delivers the most intimate line of dialogue to her now ex-husband, she is standing away from the table while the man remains seated. The ironic contrast of their emotional closeness and their physical distance would be lost (or at least watered down) in a longer play where the actors would be moving around for two hours, willy-nilly.

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

Alejandro: Simply getting it all together as producer and table work as a director.

What’s been most troublesome?

Alejandro: Scheduling!

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Christian: For scriptwriting in general (short and long, stage and screen), they would include Richard Matheson, Elaine May, Ernest Lehman, Preston Sturges, John Guare, Tina Fey, Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, Ben Hecht, Tom Stoppard, Horton Foote, Monty Python.

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

Christian: That’s tough, because I try and make it a point not to picture celebrities, whether world-famous or local, when I create characters. My goal is always to write a character that is solid and fully-formed on the page, while still leaving enough wiggle room where an actor can put their own spin on him or her. That being said, for this script I could picture actors Mark Ruffalo, Elden Henson, John Hawkes, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Amy Poehler, Sandra Oh.

Alejandro: Hmm… Maggie Cheung and Joaquin Phoenix. I they would make for an interesting dynamic.

FB_IMG_1471293971167

Director Alejandro Torres shows off his dramatic side.

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

Alejandro: This is cheating as I have worked with these two before but have never directed them: Genevieve Perdue and Alan Coyne.

What are you currently working on/what’s next for you?

Christian: I was one of the staff writers on Killing My Lobster’s August sketch comedy show Game of Nerds, which was a lot of fun to work on. My next project is a collaboration with the multi-talented Sean Owens. We are developing a comedy web series called Under the Covers, which will be both hysterical and educational (or at least one of the two).

Alejandro: The SF Fringe Festival this September will be my next project. I will be remounting an original piece called Projected Voyages about dreams, nightmares, and passing thoughts.

What Bay Area theater events or shows are you excited about this summer/fall?

Christian: I want to see Barry Eitel’s The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident. I’ve always admired Barry as an actor, and I’m anxious to see what he does as a playwright. It also stars two of my favorite local actors, Becky Hirschfeld and Paul Rodrigues. And producer Stuart Bousel’s San Francisco Olympians Festival in October is always an exciting event that features new plays by Bay Area writers.

Alejandro: Killing My Lobster’s August show Game of Nerds. [ed: this closed last weekend! Apologies for not posting this interview sooner!]

What’s your favorite beer?

Christian: Stella Artois, but I will happily endorse another brewery if they give me their product or money or both.

Alejandro: IPAs that pair well with whiskey.

“No Fault” and the other Pint-Sized Plays have 2 performances remaining: August 23 and 29 at 8 PM at PianoFight! 

 

Advertisements

Theater Around the Bay: Announcing the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays

PintSized6

Theater Pub is thrilled to announce that our Pint-Sized Play Festival returns this August for FIVE performances at PianoFight — August 15, 16, 22, 23, and 29. That’s right, we’ve added a fifth performance by popular demand!

The Pint-Sized Plays – short plays by Bay Area playwrights that take place in a bar and involve characters drinking beer – have been Theater Pub’s flagship event since 2010. This year, producer Marissa Skudlarek and deputy producer Alejandro Emmanuel Torres are pleased to present 11 new plays by a mix of Theater Pub veterans and new faces.

Many of the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays deal with endings and beginnings. A man and woman meet to sign their divorce papers in “No Fault,” by Christian Simonsen. In Marissa Skudlarek’s “Cemetery Gates,” two moody and self-dramatizing teenagers sneak into the bar, while in Shirley Issel’s “Angel of Darkness,” Death himself comes to the bar and targets an unsuspecting patron.

Two one-woman shows depict women on the brink of major life changes: “Julie Kopitsky’s Bat Mitzvah” by Jake Arky features a 36-year-old woman who has finally become an adult according to Judaism, while Caitlin Kenney’s “Why Go With Olivia” is about a woman who’s ready to put her old life behind her and start anew.

National and world politics are on everyone’s mind this summer, so some of this year’s Pint-Sized Plays have a political bent. “Polling Place,” by Gabriel Bellman, satirizes the anxieties and rhetoric of the 2016 election, while in “Don’t I Know You,” by Elizabeth Gjelten, a woman confronts the trauma of her past in a war-torn country.

On the lighter side of things, “Beer Culture” by James Nelson satirizes just how snobby San Francisco millennials can be about microbrews, and “Where There’s a Will” by Tanya Grove pays tribute to Shakespeare in this #Shakespeare400 year by imagining his visit to a modern-day bar. Alan Coyne’s “Bar Spies” presents a dizzying array of false identities and double-crossings in a spy-fiction pastiche

As always, Pint-Sized Plays’ mascot, the drunken llama played by PianoFight’s Rob Ready, will return with a new “Llamalogue,” written by Stuart Bousel.

Full lineup of plays, with a quote from each, is as follows:

“Julie Kopitsky’s Bat Mitzvah,” written and directed by Jake Arky—“After the bar mitzvah…it’s just the bar. Okay, so technically this is a bat mitzvah, but let’s not split hairs, yeah?”

“Polling Place” by Gabriel Bellman, directed by Megan Briggs—“What if I did choose a candidate based solely on whether they share certain characteristics with me or not, does that mean I’m voting for myself? Because I’m terrified of narcissists.”

“Llama VI” by Stuart Bousel, directed by Emma Rose Shelton—“Look, I hate tradition as much as the next person, okay? But one day, probably, I won’t be here—and you’re gonna miss that.”

“Bar Spies” by Alan Coyne, directed by Juliana Lustenader—“You asked for this meeting. I have what you want. Tell me what I need to know, or there’s no deal.”

“Don’t I Know You?” by Elizabeth Gjelten, directed by Jimmy Moore—“Here I am, a long way from home, and I see this one here, and I swear, we shared a beer. Back home. Maybe at Salim’s?”

“Where There’s a Will” by Tanya Grove, directed by Vince Faso—“Thou thinkest thy sisters arranged a meeting but never had intention of coming hither? Forsooth, wherefore this deception?”

“Angel of Darkness” by Shirley Issel, directed by Jamie Harkin—“He’s probably going to finish that beer; and when he does… Are you listening? You’re gonna die. So, what are you drinking?”

“Why Go With Olivia?” by Caitlin Kenney, directed by Vince Faso—“I have accepted a new job and would like to pursue this without you beginning September 1st. This does not mean I want a long-distance relationship. Or much continued contact at all.”

“Beer Culture” by James Nelson, directed by Neil Higgins—“I’m really not cool about what just happened. He was going to drink a Stella! At my table! What would people say?”

“No Fault” by Christian Simonsen, directed by Alejandro Emmanuel Torres—“Look, if you haven’t read it, you shouldn’t sign yet. Nothing’s changed regarding Wendy. Still joint custody.”

“Cemetery Gates” by Marissa Skudlarek, directed by Adam Odsess-Rubin—“Every time you look at someone you love, you know they will never be more beautiful than they are at that moment, because they will never again be so young.”

The Pint-Sized Plays acting company will feature the talents of Layne Austin, Andrew Chung, Lisa Darter, Nick Dickson, Daphne Dorman, Caitlin Evenson, Sailor Galaviz, Jamie Harkin, Colin Hussey, Sarah Leight, Alexander Marr, Kyle McReddie, Brett Mermer, Courtney Merrell, Rob Ready, Paul Rodrigues, James F. Ross, Amitis Rossoukh, Jessica Rudholm, Ron Talbot, and Noemi Zeigler Sanchez. (Additional casting TBA.) Logo designed by Cody Rishell.

The Pint-Sized Plays will perform five times: August 15, 16, 22, 23, and 29 at 8 PM at PianoFight, 144 Taylor St, San Francisco. Admission is FREE to all performances. For more information, please visit www.sftheaterpub.com.

Theater Around the Bay: Announcing the 2016 Pint-Sized Play Selections

We are proud to announce the lineup for the 2016 edition of Pint-Sized Plays, our annual bar-specific short plays festival!

From over 45 submissions from Bay Area playwrights, we’ve chosen the following scripts:

Julie Kopitsky’s Bat Mitzvah by Jake Arky

Polling Place by Gabriel Bellman

Bar Spies by Alan Coyne

Don’t I Know You by Elizabeth Gjelten

Where There’s a Will by Tanya Grove

Angel of Darkness by Shirley Issel

Why Go With Olivia by Caitlin Kenney

Beer Culture by James Nelson

No Fault by Christian Simonsen

Cemetery Gates by Marissa Skudlarek

In addition, we are pleased to say that Pint-Sized 2016 will see the return of Rob Ready as the Llama (in a new “Llamalogue” by Stuart Bousel), and that due to popular demand, we have added a fifth performance!

 

See the Pint-Sized Plays on August 15, 16, 22, 23, and 29 in the PianoFight bar space!

Theater Around The Bay: Jessica Chisum On Morrissey and Returning To TP As A Writer

Jessica Chisum’s contribution to the Morrissey Plays is a little unusual in that we broke her piece into three installments to give a narrative arc to the evening. In light of that, we thought we’d have her do a special, extended interview about the singer she loves and the theater company she’s returning to- all the way from Seattle! 

So, despite no longer being local, you’ve been involved with Theater Pub in the past, yes? Did having that insider knowledge help you create your piece for this show?

Jessica: My first foray into the land of SF Theater Pub was as an actor. I was cast in Pint-Sized Plays IV after auditioning for another play directed by Jonathan Carpenter. It’s always nice to get a call from a director: “We can’t use you in the play you auditioned for, but there’s this other play IN A BAR!” I was in “Multitasking” by Christian Simonsen with Andrew Chung and Lara Gold, which was tons of fun. When I was writing “There Is A Light…” I was definitely channeling the mischief of Pint-Sized Plays, imagining myself back in that atmosphere- the sensation of eavesdropping on fellow bar patrons, and doing the things you always wanted to do in a bar but were afraid to do because you didn’t want to get kicked out.

Speaking of inspiration and guides, you also had a baby relatively recently… correct? Anything you’re trying to tell us with this play?

Jessica: Yes, I had a baby last summer and as an artist my refrain during pregnancy was “This IS my creative project!” After my daughter was born I was surprised by all the brain chemistry manipulations and honestly wondered if I could still write. (For those of you without tiny infants, your thought patterns completely change upon giving birth… so that you can be a good parent? I’m sure there is a technical term for it.) By writing this play while my three month-old napped I was trying to say “Hey guys! Moms can make art too!” Also Moms Love Morrissey.

How did you first discover Morrissey?

Jessica: I found Morrissey after hearing “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” on the radio my senior year of high school. I was listening to Parker Thompson’s show on KSUA, the college radio station at the University of Alaska. The song sent shivers down my spine and I stared at my clock radio wishing I could play it again and again. I ran down to Hoitt’s Music, the only music store in Fairbanks, and implored the staff to help me find it. “It’s about a double-decker bus,” I blurted breathlessly, an image in my mind of the funny red rectangles on wheels I had glimpsed as a very young child living in the UK. The song was found on The Smiths album “Best…II,” only one cassette left in the shop. I felt weird about buying “Best…II” without “Best…I,” but unfortunately “Best…I” was sold out. Thus began the summer of “Best…II.” As luck would have it, I was already a big Johnny Marr fan, having memorized his jangly guitar riffs from The The’s album “Mindbomb,” so the transition to Smiths’ Superfan was a smooth one.

What do you love about Morrissey?

Jessica: The man is ridiculously attractive, even now, in his fifties. But to be fair I never knew what Morrissey looked like until I saw him on the “120 Minutes” show on MTV. The man on the cover of The Smiths “Best…II” album was an actor from East of Eden, also ridiculously attractive, and I’m sure I knew then that this charming coverboy was not the singer I was getting blissed out on. Interesting that Morrissey would choose a gorgeous man for his cover with more than a passing resemblance to his own visage. As Narcissus gazes into the lake, and all that. But really I first fell in love with Morrissey’s lyrics, his poetry, and not his gorgeous eyebrows. Can we all agree that Morrissey is quite possibly Oscar Wilde reincarnate? Or at least has been given the power to summon the wit and humor of the floppy-haired Irishman? “If it’s not love, than it’s the bomb that will bring us together…” That’s up there with some of Wilde’s best aphorisms.

What do you hate about Morrissey?

Jessica: I can’t say I hate anything about Morrissey because even his smug pomposity is just an act put on by an insecure teenaged poet, about which I might know a few things. You’re so cute when you’re angry, Moz. Really I am just mad that he and Johnny Marr won’t kiss and make up and do one last reunion tour for like 50 billion dollars or however much producers have offered him. Seems so silly to hang on to a grudge for your whole life. Think of all the mediocre solo albums he could produce with that kind of cash! And maybe he would finally hire someone to come in and dust his grungy old mansion in the Hollywood Hills. At one point they will both be old enough and poor enough to let bygones be bygones and make an album together again. And it’s gonna be good! OK, OK, maybe not as good as The Smiths, but close. And the lyrics will be weird and brilliant and the guitar riffs will be crazy and sensual and transcendent and then I’ll be that weird mom at the concert embarrassing her kids by throwing her bra onstage.

Why is Morrissey important? 

Jessica: I feel like he basically invented indie rock. Of course, back then we called it “alternative,” which is problematic because what happens when alternative music becomes mainstream? Personally, he is a huge influence on all of the newer music I like today. Which fortunately keeps me somewhat relevant and not just an old broad listening to The Smiths and going on and on about the 90s and how cool they were and how attractive we all used to be. But really, we were gorgeous! Weren’t we? I find myself telling some story about being a “waver”* in the 90s and my poor millenial husband’s eyes just kind of gloss over and… oh never mind. *New Wave listener/style appropriater/opposite of poser

How is this play SO MORRISSEY?

Jessica: The characters in my play have strong feelings about Morrissey as a man and an artist and their relationship to each other is shaped by their shared experience of Morrissey. Together they speak the language of Morrissey. That’s like, SO MORRISSEY.

You didn’t envision the play as being split into three parts, and you’ve decided to wait and see where the divisions happen, when you’re watching the play. Any thoughts on this? Do you think it changes your script a lot? Some writers would definitely be worried about that. Why did you approve the idea?

Jessica: Stuart Bousel split my play into three little playlets and I have no idea what that’s going to be like in performance! I’m honored, excited and scared, mostly excited. There are a lot of beat changes, so I am dying with curiosity to know how that dramatic tension is going to play out. Will we still care about the characters when we see them again? Will we remember what in tarnation they were talking about? It definitely makes those beats a lot longer, which does change the energy of the play. DAMMIT I CAN’T WAIT TO SEE IT. Mostly I’m just thrilled that Stuart Bousel wants to mess around and do things with my play.

Total spoiler question here, but… what DID happen with Robert? 

Jessica: Ah yes, the elusive Robert, the unseen third character in my play (besides Morrissey)… To know more about him, I refer you to “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” the full-length play. Or webisode series! Only fitting that The Morrissey Plays would spawn a monster, yes?

Final question: What is your ultimate Morrissey Mixtape?

Jessica’s Ultimate Morrissey Mixtape!

Now for this mix I have to exclude “There Is A Light…” because…well that song just exists in a whole class by itself and deserves it’s own mixtape of itself over and over. Also don’t get mad because these are all The Smiths songs. I have supported Morrissey through all of his solo albums, I bought those CDs, I downloaded “World Peace Is None Of Your Business,” I did the hard, dark, introspective work of deciding that Morrissey + Johnny Marr = true genius so you don’t have to. So here it goes, sample lyrics included as “justifications for choice.”

5. “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”
What she asked of me at the end of the day
Caligula would have blushed
“You’ve been in the house too long” she said
And I naturally fled

4. “Bigmouth Strikes Again”
And now I know how Joan of Arc felt
now I know how Joan of Arc felt
as the flames rose to her roman nose
and her Discman started to melt

3. “Ask”
Because if it’s not love
Then it’s the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb
That will bring us together

2. “Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before”
Nothing’s changed
I still love you, oh, I still love you
Only slightly, only slightly less than I used to, my love

1. “How Soon Is Now”
There’s a club if you’d like to go
You could meet somebody who really loves you
So you go and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home and you cry
And you want to die

Jessica Chisum is an actor, playwright and the literary manager of Live Girls! Theater in Seattle. Live Girls has produced her plays DROWNED, SUPERGIRL, YELLOWED, INSERT QUARTER HERE, and MELEKELIKIMAKA COMRADE; SUPERGIRL was published by Rain City Projects. Jessica wrote HEAD FOR YOU TAIL FOR ME for Live Girls’ production of FEVER, plays inspired by the music of Peggy Lee. In San Francisco, she wrote PROMENADE produced by Three Wise Monkeys and PHOEBE PHOENIX SAVES THE WORLD, both of which were selected to be performed at the Last Frontier Theatre Festival in Valdez, Alaska. She was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska.

You can see her play, and the rest of the Morrissey Plays, starting tonight at 8 PM, only at PianoFight! 

Theater Around The Bay: Keep The Ghost Light On

Stuart Bousel, fading in and out of view. In your mirror. At night. When you say his name.

So, I was gonna do this whole collection of personal ghost stories related to the theater for today’s blog… but only two people got back to me and only one got back with a personal experience, so that idea kind of died. I will, however, publish Claire Rice’s contribution, partly because it’s cool, and partly because it really thematically ties in since Claire recently left the San Francisco Theater Pub, so this is kind of like the ghost of Claire speaking to us from another world.

The rehearsal room/dance room at Eastern New Mexico University is haunted. Students used to send each other in there alone in the dark to freak each other out. A full instructional skeleton hung on a pole that could be moved around the room and was often a source of fun and silly frightening games. One night some of us told each other “La Llorona” tales in front of the big mirrors in the dark and then dared each other to really look into their mirrored darkness. The skeleton caught whatever light was left in the room and glowed eerily in the corner back at us. We all focused on it and merrily screamed and ran out of the room. But there were stories of the stereo or the television turning themselves off and on. Of the doors closing suddenly and forcefully by themselves. Of odd drafts whispering in from nowhere in particular. One night, late after rehearsal, I went in to close up the room. I was alone in the building. I turned off the light and, just as I was about to close the door, I saw a prop left in a far corner under the skeleton. I turned the light back on and crossed the room. I picked up the prop and turned back around and saw a reflection of someone else in the mirror near the door where I had just been. I looked at the door and there was no one. I looked back in the mirror and there was no one. I never went into that room alone again.

One of the things that I have always found fascinating is just how superstitious theater people are. We don’t all have the same superstitions, but I’ve never met a theater person who hasn’t, over time, acquired a bunch of rituals and charms, even if they walked in claiming (usually pretty loudly) that such things were nonsense. I can’t say for sure if it’s the live/anything can happen element of theater combined with the unusually high number of Type-A/control freak personalities that tend to do theater, or the part where we generally experience more rejection than acceptance in our line of work, but either would naturally predispose us to a tacit reverence for the weird and a desire for the mystical. Show me an actor or producer or director or writer who doesn’t have a lucky warm up song or opening night underwear or a thing they say to the mirror in their dressing room (or never say) or closing night tradition or whatever and I will show you the phone number of the agency you called to hire that fake actor/producer/writer/director, who will then reveal, because they are an actor/producer/writer/director, all of their superstitions. For better or worse, we have always been a people uniquely sensitive to Luck and the role Luck plays in the world and it’s because we know how quickly awesome can turn to crap- or crap to awesome. And we also know how much we really can and can’t control that.

The complication is that belief in Luck (or really, an awareness of Chance) tends to also indicate both a creative mind and an active imagination. Combine that with the part where we spend our lives convincing ourselves the Audience is Listening and after a while that can absolutely lead to a vague but constant feeling of always being watched. Additionally, we masquerade as other people and thus are acutely aware of how everyone else, theater person or not, is a masquerade to one extent or another, thus leading to a general perspective of “nothing is as it seems” and “everything is a sign/clue”. Lying, embellishment, fantasy weaving, and just being flat out delusional run rampant in the theater community and thank God because it generally makes for much better storytelling but sometimes it can even be hard for US to know where the illusion ends and the truth begins. Assuming there is such a thing as “the Truth”. The older I get, the more I understand why artists tend to be more interested in being “true” than “truthful.” Being true is about fully buying into the world around you both as it is but also as it could be or should be; being truthful is generally boring or disappointing, really only matters in life and death situations, and frequently requires one to be self-righteous in a way that doesn’t allow for much compassion or understanding- which is sort of the antithesis of good storytelling. Sure, we’d probably cut down on the drama if we were more truthful, but it would probably be at the cost of the Drama.

None of which should have anything to do with the long-standing tradition of theaters and rehearsal spaces being haunted, but then again, if this is the general psychology of the people spending their lives there- how could they not be? Particularly if you subscribe to the idea that ghosts are not so much the spirits of the dead, as residual energy left from profound, violent, or devastating occurrences. Aside from hospitals and prisons, it’s hard to think of a building that could match a theater when it comes to the number of arguments, passions, revelations, disappointments, and ecstasies having occurred within its walls, not to mention all the secrets, gossip, thwarted schemes, scandals and triumphs- practically a gothic novel behind each curtain. And while the death and violence of theater is rarely for real, the constant re-enactment of terrible things, and the frequent invocation of terrible people, is bound to be feeding the atmosphere if not the energy of whatever beings or memories become trapped behind the backdrops. As someone who subscribes to the belief that joy can be just as disturbing (and therefore residual) as pain, all the comedies and romances only contribute to the haunting of a theater, something I find comforting as I’d like to believe that love and laughter leave just as much of an impression as violence and fear. Either way, if you’ve never walked around a theater late at night, locking up, checking the bathrooms, I suggest it if only for the creepy/comforting sensation that you are not alone, no matter how much your footsteps echo. In fact, the more they echo the more you become aware of how they shouldn’t, because normally there is so much going on you would never have heard them and it is that sudden and obscene absence of furor that triggers sensations by turn nostalgic, bittersweet, melancholy, and unsettling. The quiet of a theater is not a comforting quiet because it is not natural, and for that matter neither is the darkness of a theater: both are the result of extensive steps to sound and light proof spaces, expressly to focus your attention on what’s happening in the theater. And it’s when nothing is happening that the sensation we call “haunting” tends to hit us most powerfully. Which is why nobody likes to linger in the theater once The Ghost Light is on and everything else is shut off.

And yes, I know the pragmatic reason for the existence of The Ghost Light is to keep people from falling off the stage when wandering in the absolute pitch dark of a vacant theater trying to find the light switches, but come on: we called it “The Ghost Light.” I mean, we could have called it a “The Service Light” or “The Stagehand’s Guide” or “The Blue Light” or any number of unromantic things (apparently at some point there was an attempt to call it “The Equity Light”) but we called it (and continue to call it) a Ghost Light for one reason and one reason only: because we are fundamentally romantic creatures and it tickles us to think we have somewhere to go when we die and it’ll probably be a theater full of our friends putting on all our favorite shows, only this time nobody fucks up their lines, the person you’re secretly sleeping with doesn’t freak out mid-run, and nobody is worried about making rent at the end of the run. Also because secretly we all know that any theater that’s seen at least one generation of theater artists pass through it is saturated in ghosts and if you didn’t leave that light on they would probably burn the place down in your absence- or perhaps in the middle of your show. If they’re actors, it’s definitely going to be the later. Actors know all about the importance of timing.

Luckily, theater ghosts seem to be primarily benign, and are usually fans or artists who haven’t moved on because they love a life in the theater so much. As proof I offer this tidbit sent to me by Christian Simonsen, who emailed it when he heard I was looking for theater ghost stories:

One of the most talked about haunted theaters in the United States is the Bristol Opera House in Bristol, Indiana. Built in 1896, it is currently managed by the Elkhart Civic Theatre Company. Over its century-long history, this building has managed to collect three ghosts, which actors and stage crew have assigned names to. There is a little girl (“Beth”), who has been seen peeking out of the stage left curtain, as if counting the number of filled seats. A handyman (“Percival”) has frequently been spotted by the women’s dressingroom, and has been known to tug on actors’ costumes right when they make an entrance. The third ghost is a middle-aged woman (“Helen”), a “protective presence” that is often simply “felt”. Unlike the other two spirits, it is quite rare for Helen to actually be seen. Apparently, even in the afterlife, theaters are unwilling to give a woman over forty any decent amount of stage time.

At the end of my play PASTORELLA, which just closed on Saturday, there is a little moment when the lead male character, Warren, shares with the female lead, Gwen, his own bit of superstition, and this seems like a good place to end because last night, ducking into the EXIT Theatre, I experienced one of those sensations that is, for me, the quintessential haunting of the theater maker. My play is a slice of life tragicomedy that works best if viewed as a direct look into the backstage ups and downs of a small theater company (as opposed to a traditional backstage comedy, which is usually actually about the onstage ups and downs of a production). The play is unrepentantly nostalgic, bittersweet, melancholy, and unsettling, and that’s appropriate because it’s largely based on my life and experience in the small theater, perhaps the most personal thing I have ever put on stage, and as a result filled with memories and masks and terrible people and events, passions and schemes and delusional episodes, revelations, dopplegangers, missing people and… ghosts. Ghosts everywhere. Ghosts with monologues and ghosts in the props and ghosts in the costumes and ghosts in the transition music and ghosts in the words and ghosts in the blocking and ghosts in the rawness and artifice alike, right down to the part where the play in a play the company is doing is Tom Stoppard’s ARCADIA- a play about ghosts, code, and the inescapable past. Many of the people who loved the show the most were part of the small theater community and it was always wonderful and disturbing to talk to them afterwards and hear them share their own memories, their own versions of the play’s events and characters, all of which seemed familiar- too familiar in some cases. Encountering a ghost usually results in a mix of sorrow and fear: sorrow for what was lost, fear that the past isn’t done with us yet. Warren, actor and director, small theater champion to a fault, sums it up best when he looks at the empty dressing room and says, “This place always freaks me out when it’s this clean” and because it’s a spooky truism of theater that the show you’re working on always seems to permeate your life and turn everything symbolic it makes perfect sense that, while ducking into the theater last night to retrieve a mirror that was used in PASTORELLA, out of the corner of my eye I saw Justin Gillman, the actor who had played Warren, standing in the wings of the stage. Of course, that’s because he’s there rehearsing another show (Bigger Than A Breadbox’s BLOOD WEDDING), but for one whole second I had the terrifying thought that I had somehow forgotten we had a show that night. And then the sad sensation of knowing that the show was gone.

WARREN: Well, here the new life begineth.
GWEN: What?
WARREN: Forster quote. E. M. Forster. You might not know who he is because he never wrote any plays.
GWEN: I know who E.M. Forster is. I read real books too, not just scripts.
WARREN: Well we got that in common. (beat) It’s what I say whenever I stand in a room I need to expel demons from so that tomorrow I can walk into said room as if I hadn’t had my heart broken into a billion pieces there. This room, however, probably needs a full on exorcism. Typical.

Sleep well. Happy Halloween.

Stuart Bousel is a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. You can find out more about him and his work at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.

Theater Around The Bay: Another Pint, Please

Christian Simonsen interviews local producer Michael Laird about turning a second Pint Sized Play script into a film.

One of the most enthusiastic audience members of Theater Pub’s Pint Sized Plays Festival IV was Michael Laird. Luckily for me, he also happened to be an aspiring independent filmmaker who works through the Scary Cow film collective. Michael chose my Pint Sized script, “Multitasking”, as his first short film project as an independent producer. Not one to remain idle, Michael immediately set his sights on another script from the same festival: the clever and poignant “Mark +/-” by Daniel Ng (also recently remounted by original director Adam Sussman at the 2014 Titan Award Directors’ Showcase).

So, who is this Michael Laird guy?

ML: A regular guy from Nor Cal who always had creative thoughts but no outlet. Went to UC Santa Barbara to study physics, but ended up with a history degree – which I still read for fun (history, I mean.)

What made you want to become a filmmaker?

ML: I got tired of thinking great comedy lines and skits but doing nothing about them, or watching movies and thinking they could be more creative. Several years ago I heard about Scary Cow, where people make their own films; last year I finally decided it was time to do something, rather than just wishing that I did.

How does the Scary Cow film collective process work?

ML: Every four months they have a member’s meeting, where people who want to make a movie pitch their idea, to draw others into their group. Usually a movie takes twelve people, including a couple actors, but also someone who owns light equipment, knows how to run a camera, wiling to hold a boom microphone, and the most important – who will bring food?

The producer is the one who owns the film, pitches, recruits volunteers, juggle schedules, and rides the volunteers until there is a finished project. If the length is within 10 minutes, the film is then shown at the Castro Theater, where Scary Cow screens their results every four months.

What have you learned most from working as a crew member on other filmmakers’ productions?

ML: My first lesson – going up to Marin County one Friday evening, spent four hours, all for 20 seconds of finished product showing a scared women walking through an alley where several homeless stand around a fire. The lesson: making films takes a lot of time and patience.

The second lesson – you volunteer, give, help, be a friend, and then people are more willing to help you on your film.

Producers in both film and live theater are stuck with a lot of the unglamorous dirty work needed to bring a production to completion. What qualities do you think are most needed in that role?

ML: Organization and people skills. The producer is the one ultimately responsible for all the details – if a key actor doesn’t show up when everyone else is at the set, it isn’t the cameraman’s responsibility. Which means a lot of leadership skills, to bring out everyone’s best (since no one is getting paid).

You need to bring many different people with diverse talents together for a common goal. How would you describe your “management style”?

ML: I have to be a good listener and accept a lot of direction from those who have more skills. I don’t know as much about key lighting or camera angles as those who bought their own equipment and worked it for years. It would be different if I studied film in college and worked on a dozen films.

Most short films are based on original screenplays. What inspired you choose playwrights’ scripts from the local live theater community?

ML: In live theater you get an idea how the finished product looks and sounds-though film is different, since you get close ups and softer voices.

What drew you to Daniel Ng’s script, “Mark +/-“?

ML: I saw it live and almost fell off the chair laughing. But that wasn’t all – I immediately “boxed” the view, meaning I could see how to film it. Two actors around a table, one scene, no complicated locations or scenery. An easy shoot, compared to some that takes five days and renting three apartments for an extended story.

The script presented unique technical challenges, since the main character interacts with both past and future versions of himself. How did you overcome them?

ML: There were two possibilities. I first imagined “green screening” the main actor. You film him in front of a green screen, and then in editing you use a computer to paste his image over a café scene. That way you paste his image three times.

But on the day of the shoot, the cinematographer and director though it best to shoot him three times, with same unchanging background, then paste the images together in editing. That was easier for lighting and cinematographer, since not filming over an imagined background, but proved immensely more difficult for the actor – he had to repeat his words, hand movements, and timing exactly for all three shots of him sitting around the table.

So overall, was producing your second film easier or harder?

ML: The only harder part of a second film is I got over confident. My first film went so easy, I forgot that most films actually take longer to shoot and have more fires that need to be put out. We almost didn’t get the second film shooting finished, because it took longer than I expected.

What do you look for when you are hunting for a potential new “Michael Laird Production”?

ML: I still love the funny skit, Saturday Night Live style. I love funny dialogue rather than beautiful costumes or scenery. And something that isn’t a rehash of a dozen TV shows you already seen.

Do you have any new projects on the horizon?

ML: Editing my last film is taking longer than my first film. I am working on that, and also helping others on their films – which will come in handy when looking for volunteers for my Next Great Comedy.

The Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards for 2013

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2013 list. 

Three years ago I decided that I wanted to start my own Bay Area Theater Awards, because my opinions are just as legitimate as anyone else’s, the awards I give out are as valuable as any other critical awards, (recipients of the SEBATA, or the Stuey, if you prefer, get nothing but my admiration and some free publicity), and also because there’s a fairly good chance that I’ve seen a lot of theater the usual award givers haven’t seen. The best thing about the Bay Area theater scene is that there is a huge diversity in the offerings, and so much on the table to begin with. No one person can see it all, and therefore it’s important to share with one another the highlights of our time in the audience seat, if only to create a greater awareness of what and who is out there making stuff.

Also, there are some people who think I don’t like anything, and I feel a need to not only prove them wrong, but to do so by expressing how much of the local color I do love and admire, as opposed to just pointing out that the reason they think I don’t like anything is because I generally don’t like *their* work (oh… I guess I did just point that out, didn’t I?). Normally I post these “awards” on my Facebook page, but this year I decided to bring them to the blog because the mission statement of the SEBATA is pretty in-line with the mission statement of Theater Pub, and having come to the close of an amazing year of growth for the blog, it now has a much farther reach than my Facebook page could ever hope to have. Congratulations SF Theater Pub Blog- you just won a Stuey.

Anyway, because I am a product of the generation that grew up with the MTV Movie Awards- and, because I’m the only person on the voting committee and thus can do what I like- I have decided that my categories are purely arbitrary and can be stretched to allow me to write about anyone I feel like. The two limits are 1) I can’t give myself an award (though I can have been involved in the show on a limited level) and 2) I won’t go over thirteen (though there may be ties for some awards). Because seriously, how (more) self indulgent would this be without either of those rules? Oh, 3) I won’t give out awards for how bad something was. I’m here to be positive. And chances are those people were punished enough.

To all my friends and frenemies in the Bay Area Theater Scene… it’s been a great year. Let’s you and me do it again sometime. Well… most of you.

And now, presenting the Fourth Annual Stuey Awards…

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
“Pint Sized IV” (San Francisco Theater Pub)
Pint Sized Plays gets better each year, and it’s honestly one of two things I actually miss about working at the Cafe Royale (the other is the uniqueness of doing Shakespeare there, which for some reason works in a completely magical way I wish it worked more often on traditional stages). This year the festival was put together by Neil Higgins, who did an amazing job, and I think we had some of the best material yet. The evening as a whole felt incredibly cohesive, with a theme of forgiveness and letting go, archly reflective of our decision to leave the Cafe Royale, and I think incredibly relevant to a lot of our audience. We knew Pint Sized could be very funny, and very socially pointed, but I’m not sure we had ever conceived of it as moving and this year it was, thanks in no small part to our writers (Megan Cohen, Peter Hsieh, Sang S. Kim, Carl Lucania, Daniel Ng, Kirk Shimano and Christian Simonsen), directors (Jonathan Carpenter, Colin Johnson, Tracy Held Potter, Neil Higgins, Charles Lewis III, Meghan O’Connor, Adam L. Sussman) and actors (Annika Bergman, Jessica Chisum, Andrew Chung, AJ Davenport, Eli Diamond, Caitlin Evenson, Lara Gold, Matt Gunnison, Melissa Keith, Charles Lewis III, Brian Quakenbush, Rob Ready, Casey Robbins, Paul Rodrigues, Jessica Rudholm). The evening would start off with a magical performance by the Blue Diamond Bellydancers, whose combination of skill and spectacle got our audiences excited for what was to come. As we moved through the pieces, each by turns funny and poignant, each in some way or another about finding something, losing it, letting it go, and then coming back stronger, you could feel the audience grow warmer and closer each night. By the time Rob Ready gave the closing monologue, fixing each audience member in turn with a smile, you could feel everyone really listening and you could hear a pin drop in the room, and that’s saying something for the noisy by nature Cafe Royale. I think a lot of love went into the festival this year, and not just because it might be the last, and the product of that love was real magic and like the best theater- you had to be there. And if you weren’t, you really missed out.

BEST SHOW
“The Motherf**ker With The Hat” (San Francisco Playhouse)
I saw a lot of decent, solid, well done theater this year but I had a hard time connecting to a lot of it, which was rarely a flaw with the show and probably had more to do with where I was/am as a person (lots of change this year). Then again, something about really good theater is that it can get you out of your own head and into some other world, for a while. Towards the end of the year, I saw three shows I really really liked: “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake” at Bigger Than A Bread Box Theater Company, “Peter/Wendy” at Custom Made Theater Company, and “First” at Stage Werx, produced by Altair Productions/The Aluminous Collective and Playground. Still, San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The Motherf**ker With The Hat”, directed by Bill English, was probably my favorite show of the year. Who knows why it has an edge on the others? Maybe because as someone who spent most of their childhood weekends in New York it seemed oddly familiar, or maybe it was the deft handling by the universally excellent cast (Carl Lumbly, Gabriel Marin, Rudy Guerrero, Margo Hall, Isabelle Ortega) of the complex relationships and dialogue that Guirgis does so well, or maybe it was just refreshing to see such a simple, honest play in what, for me, was a year characterized by a lot of stylistically interesting but emotionally cold theater. There is something very passionate, scathing, bombastic and yet also humble and forgiving about Guirgis’ work that I think makes him such an important voice in modern American drama and English’s production brought all that out with an easy grace. The show really worked, and got me out of my head, and when I went back to my life I felt much better for the journey. What more can you ask of a theater experience?

BEST READING
“Paris/Hector” (San Francisco Olympians Festival)
I attend a lot of readings every year, and run a reading festival myself, so I’ve come to greatly value a really well done reading. This year, the award goes to director Katja Rivera and writers Kirk Shimano and Bridgette Dutta Portman, whose pair of one acts about the pair of Trojan princes Paris and Hector made for one of the best nights of this past year’s San Francisco Olympians Festival. Part of what I loved about it was that in one evening we saw the amazing variety the festival can offer: Kirk’s play was a comedy with a poignant moment or two, while Bridgette’s was a faux-classical drama- written in verse no less. Though the writers are the center of attention at the festival, credit really has to be given to Katja Rivera, who as the director of both pieces, made many simple but effective choices to highlight the best elements of both works and utilize the talents of her excellent cast: Yael Aranoff, Molly Benson, Jeremy Cole, Mackenszie Drae, Allison Fenner, Dana Goldberg, John Lennon Harrison, Michelle Talgarow, Alaric Toy. With the combined excellent story-telling of the performers (including beautiful and surprising singing from Yael, Molly and Dana), the thoughtfulness of the scripts, and the cohesiveness of the whole, this night of the festival stood out best in what was a consistently strong year at the Olympians.

BEST SHORT PLAY
“My Year” by Megan Cohen (Bay One Acts Festival)
Megan Cohen’s “My Year” is the kind of thing I wish more short plays would be: dynamic, personal, and complete. In a sea of short plays that are really fragments, or meet-cute plays, it’s always lovely to see something with a beginning, a middle, and end, and full-formed characters having actual interactions and not just feeling like Girl A and Guy B, thrown together by the whimsy of the playwright to make a point (though of course, the right playwright can pull that off- which is why so many people try to ape it). A friend of mine described “My Year” as “A fun little 90s indie film on stage” and my reaction when watching it was “Oh, Dear God, convince Meg to let me write a companion piece to this!” because let’s face it: at least a third of what I write is a 90s film on stage. My own vanity aside, what I loved about this play (directed by Siobhan Doherty, starring Emma Rose Shelton, Theresa Miller, Nkechi Live, Allene Hebert, Jaime Lee Currier, and Luna Malbroux) was that it felt constantly on the move, while still being mostly composed of intimate moments between a group of women at a birthday party. Like a lot of the theater that I really loved this year, it also just struck a personal chord, watching this young woman (Emma Rose Shelton) trying to enjoy the party her friends have thrown for her (though she doesn’t like surprise parties) despite there being no food and a random stranger (Theresa Miller) who worms her way in only to turn out to be the troublemaker she’s originally pegged for. Megan’s writing had its usual combination of smart and sentimental, but whereas a lot of her other work heads into absurdity and/or extreme quirkiness (not that this is bad), “My Year” stayed very grounded and found its meaning in that effort to stay grounded, making what might be a quiet little play in anyone else’s oeuvre, a nice change of pace in Cohen’s. The final moment, where the characters howl at the moon because what else are you going to do after a shitty birthday, felt like a communal sigh even the audience was in on, probably because we could all relate to Shelton’s character, and while having always loved and admired Meg’s work, this is probably the first time I related to it so wholeheartedly.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Linda Huang (Stage Manager, Tech, Box Office, Everything)
You know how the Oscars and Tonys give out Lifetime Achievement Awards for people whose contribution is so massive that it would kind of be criminal to pick one work or contribution so instead they just get an award for basically being themselves? You know, like how Peter O’Toole got that award because at some point somebody realized that he was pervasively brilliant and always in fashion and therefore easily forgotten because things like “Oh, well, he’ll win next year” often times factors in to who we recognize, meaning things like reliability and consistency do not? Well, for the first time ever in the history of the SEBATAs, I’m creating The Peter O’Toole Award for General Awesomeness and giving it to Linda Huang, without whom, in all seriousness, I believe that small theater in San Francisco would probably grind to a halt. Earlier this year, I got recognized by the Weekly as a “Ringmaster” of the theater scene, but frankly I (and people like me) could not do what we do without having Linda (and people like her) constantly coming to our aid despite being paid a fraction of what they’re worth and half the time being forgotten because what they do isn’t in the immediate eye of the audience. Linda is a total gem of the theater scene. She wears many hats, though she’s probably best known for running light boards, and one of my favorite things when attending the theater is running into her, usually working in some capacity I previously was unaware she was qualified to do (note: Linda is qualified to do everything). What I love best about Linda (aside from her cutting sense of humor and tell-it-like-it-is demeanor) is her incredible generosity: she does so much for local theater and rarely gets paid, and even when she does get paid she often says, “Pay me last.” A true team player, and one we don’t thank enough, especially as she’s the only person who seems to know how to get the air conditioning in the Exit Theatre to work.

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Atticus Rex, Open Mic Night In Support of the Lemonade Fund (SF Theater Pub/Theater Bay Area Individual Services Committee)
I never expected to include a note about someone who performed at an open mic/variety show, but I wanted to shout out to Atticus Rex, a young performer who literally made his performance debut at the San Francisco Theater Pub/ISC fundraiser for the Lemonade Fund this year. A last minute replacement, Atticus and a friend performed some original hip-hop for our audience of mostly performance professionals and their friends, and despite the formidable crowd and the first time nerves, he basically killed it. Even when he made a mistake it worked: he’d call himself out, apologize, and start again, somehow without ever missing a beat. His lyrics are very tight and poetic, and the contrast between the power in his words and his humbleness at approaching and leaving the stage works so well you’d almost think it was an act- except he later confessed he’d never performed live before, and it couldn’t have been more sincere. With genuine hope he never loses his sincerity, while also continuing to grow his confidence and experience, I wanted to take a moment to say congratulations once again, and thank you for reminding us all what it looks like to really take a risk onstage.

BEST CHEMISTRY
Genie Cartier and Audrey Spinazola (Genie and Audrey’s Dream Show, SF Fringe Festival)
What’s potentially cuter than “Clyde the Cyclops?” Very little, but these two ladies and their breathless, funny, and surreal little clown show come dangerously close to giving Clyde a run for his money, and it’s the only show I saw at the Fringe this year that I wished my boyfriend had also seen. Bravely straddling the bridge between performance artists and acrobats, this collage of monologues, poems, jokes, mime, clowning, puppetry, stunts, music, and children’s games, is like watching two hyper-articulate kids on pixie sticks go nuts in a club house, but only if those kids had an incredible sense of timing and arch senses of humor (not to mention very flexible bodies). I’ve never been a huge fan of circus stuff (I like it as an accent, sometimes, but as entertainment on its own it doesn’t tend to hold my interest long), but I think I’d be a fan of anything that had these two women in it. Their ability to play off each other is the key to making their show work, and when you watch it you have that sense of being let into the private make-believe world of people who have found kindred spirits in one another. It’s an utterly magic combination and from what I know of other people who saw it, it basically charmed the pants off everyone. Or at least, everyone who has a soul.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
Ben Calabrese (Apartment in “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”)
I saw a lot of great performances by men this year (Sam Bertken in “Peter/Wendy”, Tim Green and Gregory Knotts in “First”, Paul Rodrigues “Pint Sized Plays IV”, Will Hand “Dark Play”, Casey Robbins “Oh Best Beloved!”), but this one really took my breath away (though since Sam Bertken actually got me to sincerely clap for fairies in Peter/Wendy, he gets a second shout out). Ben’s role, which is to literally embody the voice of a neglected apartment, is the kind of role that could either be the best thing about the show, or the worst. Luckily for Bigger Than A Breadbox’s production of “Crumble, or Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake (written by Sheila Callaghan), Ben rocked it. Bouncing around the stage, dive bombing the furniture, all the while spouting, eloquently, Callaghan’s beautiful and complex monologues, Ben was so utterly watchable it was impossible not to buy the conceit of the role, and so moments when he has an orgasm from having the radiator turned on, or turns his fingers into loose electrical wires, don’t seem ridiculous, but made immediate and total sense. It’s usually not a compliment to tell an actor they did a tremendous job being an inanimate object, but what Ben did so well was illustrate that a home, while not “alive”, does indeed have a life to it. And if that life occasionally fixes the audience with Ben’s particular brand of “scary actor stare” why… all the better.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Brandice Marie Thompson (Georgia Potts in “First”)
Oh, this was a tough one. As usual, the actresses of the Bay Area are kicking ass and taking names no matter what their role, and my decision to pick Brandice above the rest is because I think she best exemplified that thing which so many actresses have to do, which is take a relatively underwritten role in a play about men and turn it into a rich, believable character who somehow manages to steal the show. Evelyn Jean Pine, who wrote “First”, is a fantastic writer and she writes women and men equitably well, and due credit must go to her for the creation and inclusion of this character in a story mostly about male egos, but in a lesser capable actresses hands, this role could have been annoying, or forgettable, or purely comical, and Brandice avoided all of these traps while making the character utterly charming at the same time. The truth is, her arc became much more interesting to me than that of the main character, and I think a strong argument could be made that “First” was just as much about Georgia as it was about Bill Gates. Director Michael French no doubt had a hand in this too, but in the end it’s a performer who makes or breaks a role and Brandice’s ability to combine mousy with spunky with unexpected and yet thoroughly authentic character turns was deeply satisfying to watch. Georgia kicked ass and took names, because Brandice does. Runners up: Melissa Carter (“Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”, Bigger Than A Breadbox), Allison Jean White (“Abigail’s Party”, SF Playhouse), Sam Jackson (“Oh Best Beloved!”, SF Fringe Festival), Courtney Merril (“Into the Woods”, Ray of Light), Elissa Beth Stebbins (“Peter/Wendy”, Custom Made Theatre Company).

BEST FUSION THEATER PIECE
“Nightingale” (Davis Shakespeare Ensemble/SF Fringe Festival)
This little gem at this year’s fringe festival was adapted from the myth of Philomel by Gia Battista, with music by Richard Chowenhill, directed by Rob Sals (with Battista), and staring Gabby Battista, April Fritz and Tracy Hazas as three remarkably similar looking women who each take a turn playing the heroine of a bizarre fairy tale (all the other characters in the story are played by them as well). Dance, pantomime, narration, song and traditional theater techniques all came together in a way that was astonishingly clean and charming in its simplicity. The black and white aesthetic used to unify the look of the show and performers gave the whole thing a quality both modern and timeless, and in its gentle, dreamy tone the sharp elements of social commentary and satire often seemed more brutal and impactful. Of everything I saw at the Fringe this past year, which included a number of excellent works, this piece has stayed with me the longest.

BEST SOLO SHOW
“Steve Seabrook: Better Than You” by Kurt Bodden (The Marsh)
I saw a lot more solo performance than usual this year (including works by Annette Roman, Laura Austin Wiley, Alexa Fitzpatrick, Jenny Newbry Waters, Rene Pena), and realizing how good it can be is, in and of itself, kind of a miracle because I used to say things like, “Theater begins with two people” and “If Aeschylus had wanted to write sermons he wouldn’t have added Electra”. Kurt’s show was not created this past year, it has a long history, but I only saw it in its most recent Marsh incarnation and I’m hoping he’s been able to find ways to keep it going (his Facebook feeds indicate this is so). A satire of motivational speakers and the cult of self-improvement, “Steve Seabrook” manages to be so much more by combining satirical fiction with moments of the kind of personal monologue (still fiction) that permeates solo shows. The result is a sense of development, of a story (Steve’s) unfolding in real time while another story, (Steve’s Seminar) plays itself out over the course of a weekend. Playing off the convention of a backstage comedy (we see the seminar, then we see Steve when he’s not “on”), Kurt’s brilliance as a performer is evident in the seamless transition from one to the other, again and again, carrying a throughline that shows us not only why Steve buys into his mantras, but why any of us buy into anything we’ve come up with (or adopted from someone else) to keep us moving through life’s ups and downs. At once very funny and cutting, while also moving and real (and yes, fuck it, kind of inspirational), Kurt’s show also gets a nod for its fantastic takeaway schwag: a keychain light with Steve’s name on it, with which every audience member is encouraged to shine their light in a dark world.

BEST DIRECTOR
Rebecca Longworth and Joan Howard, “Oh Best Beloved” (SF Fringe Festival)
“Oh Best Beloved” got a lot of attention and deservedly so- well acted, well designed, it was a genuinely fun piece of theater. Perhaps most deserving of being singled out in the project, however, are director Rebecca Longworth and partner Joan Howard, who share credit for conceptualizing the show (in which Joan also played a part and had, in my opinion, the single best moment in the show), and who lead the rest of the company in adapting the material from Ruyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories”. Anyone who saw the show could easily see that it had about a million moving parts, and Longworth and Howard’s ability to keep all those plates spinning on a small budget and under the strict conditions of the San Francisco Fringe Festival (they literally put up and pulled down a full set with each performance) is worthy of award in and of itself, but the level of commitment and craft they were able to pull from their design team and performers was equally as impressive. Everything about the show, even the parts that didn’t work as well as others, felt thought through and done with panache, making this ambitious and unique experience a delightful jewel in the SF Fringe Festival’s crown.

BEST DESIGNER
Bill English, “Abigail’s Party” (SF Playhouse)
Scenery in general doesn’t do much for me. I enjoy good scenery, but the best scenery should kind of vanish into the background, in my opinion, and be something you barely pay attention to. As a result, I’m often just as happy with a blank stage, or really well thought out minimal set, as I am with a full one, so long as the play I’m watching is good. That said, every now and then I will see a set I just adore, and this year it was Bill English’s set for SF Playhouse’s “Abigail’s Party”, by Mike Leigh, directed by Amy Glazer. Basically a living room/dining room/kitchenet combo, this fully realized “home” was very well crafted as a place, but more importantly, it really worked as a place where people lived. The 70s style was at once present without being overwhelming, evoking the time period without looking like it was a homage to the time period, or a museum dedicated to 70s kitch. I mean, it honestly reminded me of numerous homes I’d played in as a child (I was born in 1978) and all the wallpaper looked like wallpaper in my parents’ home before my mother completely re-did the house in 1990 because “we can admit this is ugly… now”. The amazing thing about English’s set is that it didn’t seem ugly, in spite of being made up entirely of patterns and colors we now find appalling. He made it all work together, the way people once did, and the final result was simultaneously comfortable and dazzling. I remember thinking, waiting for the play to begin, “I could live here.”

And last, but not least, every year I pick…

MY PERSONAL FAVORITE EXPERIENCE TO WORK ON
“The Age of Beauty” (No Nude Men Productions/The Exit Theatre)
I had taken a break from directing my own work, but with this nine performance workshop I allowed myself to re-discover that, as much as I like directing plays by others, there is nothing quite as satisfying as feeling like I’m telling a very personal story of my own and having the final say on how that happens. Of course, such experiences are only rewarding when you get to work with great actors, and I was lucky to have four amazing women (Megan Briggs, Emma Rose Shelton, Allison Page, Sylvia Hathaway) who were willing to go on this adventure with me, always keeping stride as I made cuts and changed lines, memorizing a mountain of material in Emma and Sylvia’s case, and crafting subtle characters who had to be both different from each other and relatively interchangeable at the same time. When I had a hard time articulating what I was going for, they would nod and smile and then show me what I meant by doing it better than I could describe it. When the show opened by the skin of its teeth it had one of those minor miracle opening nights, where even though you’re just a tiny bit unprepared (all my fault, I kept changing the script), it somehow all comes together and really works. Over the course of the show, as their performances grew and refined (our final two nights were simply perfect), I was able to see what flaws still remained in the script (two pages, middle of scene of scene two were cut the day after we closed), and any writer of new work will tell you that’s the best experience you can hope for on a first production. Shout outs to my awesome design team Cody Rishell, Jim Lively and Wil Turner IV! “The Age of Beauty” helped restore some of my lagging faith in the theater process, and made me commit to doing more of my own work in the coming year.

Stuart Bousel runs the San Francisco Theater Pub blog, and is a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. You can find out more about his work at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.