It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Who Needs a National Theatre?

In which Dave Sikula decries institutional theatre.

A few days ago, I was one of the many thousands who have been trooping to movie theatres to see a broadcast of Benedict Cumberbatch in the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet. I’ll begin this by saying that I’m generally a fan of Mr. Cumberbatch’s (the film of August: Osage County excepted; but, other than Margo Martindale, no one got out of that movie alive) and was highly looking forward to it.

My take on the overall reaction is that it’s been generally favorable, with reservations. That was pretty much my reaction. It was intelligent, reasonably well-spoken, and coherent, but not very gripping. (I’ll mention here that my wife loved it and found it “muscular” and though it clarified many of the knottier aspects of the text, so the opinions expressed herein are my own.)

What it lacked for me, though, was any sense of danger or even visceral excitement. In my mind, if Hamlet is anything, it’s everything. It’s a meditation on mortality. It’s a revenge story. It’s a comedy, a tragedy, a ghost story, an examination of the thought process. You name it, it’s got it. There’s so much in it that the one thing it shouldn’t be is routine. It’s not just another play; it’s the play. It’s the role. There’s got to be a reason to do it.

Unfortunately, the production I saw was just kinda there, trapped in a concept that had something to so with a big house and a lot of dirt. (Seriously, I felt sorry for the stage crew that had to lug all that dirt on stage at intermission and then clean it all up at the end of the evening.) It felt like the director had a big star and the huge budget that came with him and decided to spend all of it on her set rather than trying to tell her story in a gripping manner.

I’ve explained before about how tired I am of plays from London being broadcast on American movie screens. I’ve got nothing against the Brits per se, but I am tired of them being cast as Americans (I mean, how many more crappy accents do I need to hear?) and seeing their shows held up perfect exemplars of theatrical excellence. (“They have Training!”)

But the specific problem with this Hamlet, to me, was that, since the National is subsidized and paid for by the government, while it may not be swimming in money, it has so much that it can waste it on elephantine sets representing Elsinore.

The program cover. A shiny dime to anyone who can explain its relevance to the production.

The program cover. A shiny dime to anyone who can explain its relevance to the production.

Every so often, we hear calls for an American National Theatre. There have been numerous attempts to create one over the decades, probably as early as Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Rep in the ‘20s and ‘30s, Ellis Rabb’s APA-Phoenix in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre in the ‘90s and ‘00s. The problem with this plan is that it almost always centers around New York (there was some talk of creating a company at the Kennedy Center in Washington, but it didn’t last and was a rarity). That talk makes sense in that the center of commercial American theatre is indeed those 15 or so blocks in midtown Manhattan, but it also assumes that that’s the only place anything worthwhile is being done and that only work with a commercial focus is worthy. (One might also add parenthetically that it also seems to be the only place Equity actors who want to work in the Bay Area come from.)

This theory is, of course, arrant nonsense. One would be hard pressed to find a corner of the country where interesting and vital work isn’t being done. Seattle, Portland, Ashland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego – and that’s just part of the west coast and leaves out Denver, Chicago, Dallas, DC, Boston, Cleveland, Florida, Louisville, Minneapolis, and on and on and on and on. Any of these cities is producing work that can stand with anything done anyplace on the globe, but, of course, most of the country will never see or hear of it because it doesn’t come with the imprimatur of having a London or New York pedigree.

It makes sense for the Brits to put an English national theatre in London. The capitol is the center of the U.K.’s entertainment industry. TV, radio, film, and theatre are all headquartered there. But how would we justify placing an American national theatre in just one city? I suppose it would be possible to emulate the Federal Theatre of the New Deal era and have multiple locations and troupes, but the whole point of theatre is to be in that room with those people while they tell a story. Even screening productions in movie theatres wouldn’t be a solution, because, for all our pretenses, it’s really just another movie at that point. This is especially true if the production is recorded rather than live. Those actors are going to do the exact same things in the exact same way for eternity. The spontaneity and reaction to the audience that are at the heart of the art don’t exist. It doesn’t matter if the theatre is full or empty; the performances and production are frozen and will not change.

I remember in 1976, Christopher Durang and Mel Marvin’s A History of the American Film (which, I might add, is a very funny show that someone ought to revive – although, frankly, Americans’ knowledge of classic film isn’t as strong now as it was then, so most of the references would be lost) had three simultaneous premiere productions, in Los Angeles (where I saw it), Hartford, and DC. Was one of these more official than the other two? Despite doing the same script at the same time – even if they somehow each had the same design and same director (which they didn’t) – each was different because of the unique casts, venues, and regional receptions. There was no way to centralize the productions, and there never will be. Even a tour, which might be the best/only solution, would have variations from venue to venue.

The

The “Salad Bowl” number from A History of the American Film.

But the larger point, even if we could figure out a reasonable solution to the problem, was embodied for me in Hamlet and other shows I’ve seen at the National (either in person or on screen). They can be well done – really well done – but they’re safe and don’t take any risks. I don’t know if it’s that they don’t want to upset their government sponsors or don’t feel any pressure, but it never feels like there’s an imperative behind it. They’re nice to look at and intelligent, but they’re antiseptic.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I had no prejudice against the production because it had a big star in it. As I said, I him and actually applaud him for doing it. And there’s nothing wrong with big names in plays. I couldn’t have enjoyed Kevin Spacey or Nathan Lane in their own productions of The Iceman Cometh or Peter Falk and Joe Mantegna and Peter Falk in Glengarry Glen Ross, Harold Pinter in (yes, in) Old Times, or Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot any more if I’d tried.

The shows I’ve loved the most in my life – Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil production of Richard II, Mary Zimmerman’s Metamophoses, José Quintero’s The Iceman Cometh, Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and Ghost Quartet, even Casey Nicholaw’s The Drowsy Chaperone – were big and bold and personal and even messy in places, but there was a recognizable artistic sensibility behind them. They were shows that had to be done.

Mr. Malloy in Natasha and Pierre.

Mr. Malloy in Natasha and Pierre.

When I was in college, I remember overhearing the faculty planning the shows they’d be doing the next year. There was no excitement about the choices; it was more like “Well, we haven’t done a Moliere for a while … ” or “Do you want to do a Shakespeare this year?” “Naw, how about an Ibsen?” “Yeah. I guess … ”

If that kind of listless programming is the cost of creating a national theatre that doesn’t take enough chances to endanger its funding, I’ll take regional theatres that at least try something different.

Theater Around The Bay: Thirteen Questions (And One In-Joke) About Terror-Rama

Today’s guest interviewer is local actor Tony Cirimele, who interviews Anthony Miller, one of our regular columnists (“The Five”) and the mastermind behind this year’s Halloween spectacular, “Terror-Rama.”

TC: “Terror-Rama” is a rare breed of theater; billed as a “Horror Theatre Double Feature”, it is comprised of two one-acts whose sole purpose is to scare. Think “Grindhouse” with a bit of “Friday the 13th” and “M” thrown in for fun. “Terror-Rama” is comprised of two parts; “Camp Evil” by Anthony Miller is a darkly comic look at slasher flicks, while “Creep” by Nick Pappas is a deeply disturbing crime thriller. When Anthony Miller was approached about being interviewed for SF Theater Pub, he requested that his “celebrity” interviewer be yours truly. Besides bonding over having more or less the same name, Anthony and I worked together on several projects during our time at SF State, and one magical summer we were neighbors/drinking buddies. I recently sat down with Anthony (via email) to discuss “Terror-Rama”.

As anyone who saw “Zombie! The Musical!” will know, this isn’t your first theatrical horror piece. What is it about the horror genre that you feel makes it work for theater?

AM: Making it work is half the fun. Horror is very reactive and elicits a reaction from its audience, that lends itself very well to a live performance. But taking concepts from films and turning them into a theatrical concept, to make it theatre, is the exciting part. When it’s done well, it can be fun to watch, exhilarating even.

TC: Your piece, “Camp Evil”, is about a summer camp that may or may not be haunted. What was your camp experience (if any) like in your energetic youth?

AM: I was a Boy Scout so I did a lot of camping trips as a kid. My parents sent me to summer camp for years. I have good and bad experiences, but the bad ones were important because I was very much the weird kid who everyone teased mercilessly. Some of my bad experiences tie in (albeit in more comical ways) to what happens to the characters in “Camp Evil.” I also always loved movies and TV shows about summer camps. I was particularly fond of Salute Your Shorts, and of course, Sleepaway Camp.

TC: What scares you the most? And does that work its way into your writing (horror-genre or otherwise)?

AM: Death, I’m in general terrified of death. I had to deal with it early in my life so it was always something I’ve had to process, more so now because I’m in my mid-thirties and people my age are starting to die. So in every play I’ve written, someone dies and a big part of the plot is how people react to death. More specifically I’m afraid to die suddenly. Being given a time table and die in bed with my loved ones around me doesn’t worry me as much, it’s not seeing it coming or it happening in an impersonal way that scares me. Everything I write tends to deal with that.

TC: Let’s say I’m a total wuss who doesn’t like a lot of blood and guts in his talking pictures, but is willing to give it a go. What horror films do you recommend?

AM: There are lots of great Horror movies that aren’t big on blood and guts, they’re usually called thrillers. Movies like Dementia 13 or Psycho are good. Nightmare on Elm Street is so ridiculous; the violence is more comical than scary. Friday the 13th is pretty tame by today’s standards. Night of the Living Dead is another good one.

TC: Do you have a favorite obscure horror movie that you wish more people knew about? Or a famous horror movie you find inexplicably popular?

AM: Long Island Cannibal Massacre is an unknown masterpiece in my opinion. I also have a deep fondness for Troma Studios; they made the Toxic Avenger films, Basket Case, Monster in the Closet, De-Campetated, and Rockabilly Vampire. There’s a campy, punk rock, DIY feel to those movies that I try to carry over into my work. Lloyd Kauffman (Head of Troma Srudios) is a hero of mine. What I don’t get is torture porn type movies. I think Eli Roth is more talented than the films he makes. He’s got such a great talent for storytelling and his visual style is fantastic. But it seems like these movies are more like gross-out movies or just barrages of horrific imagery for the sake of having barrages of horrific imagery. The Saw films are also a good example, the first one is practically an art film, the dozen sequels don’t even come close. I will always consider the 70’s as a golden age for Horror. I think Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Dawn of The Dead are all brilliant films.

TC: Did you and fellow “Terror-Rama” playwright Nick Pappas collaborate and/or read each other’s pieces during the process? Or is one half of this show completely new to you?

AM: I commissioned him, gave him some parameters and we put both plays through a development process. There were several drafts, two readings and lots of dramaturgical work. So we often gave our opinions back and forth. Part of my job as producer was to shepherd along both plays. So I’m pretty excited to see how far the pieces have come. A neat thing about it is that both plays were commissioned, written, and developed for this show. So this has been a play incubator as well,

TC: What writers/non-writers have had the most influence on your writing style? And conversely, which writer has had the least influence?

AM: Playwrights like Charles Busch, Neil Simon, Arthur Laurents and Christopher Durang are all really influential. They are very much the folks I started off trying to emulate and after a while, find my own voice from. Also, I’ve always liked how David Mamet writes how people talk on the phone, I steal that pretty often. From Film; Quentin Tarantino, John Waters, Robert Rodriguez and Wes Craven are big influences as well. On the other end of that, I’d say my two favorite playwrights are also the ones that have had no real influence on my work. That’s Eugene O’Neil and George Bernard Shaw; I am deeply intimidated by their work. Candida and Long Day’s Journey Into Night are without a doubt my two favorite plays, but I don’t think my work resembles them or those plays at all.

TC: Describe your ideal writing setup. Laptop or longhand? Music or silence? Coffee or “Faulkner’s Little Helper”?

AM: I’m lucky enough to have my own little man-cave at home. So I still use a desktop computer (laptops and I have a strenuous relationship). I don’t do anything long hand, my handwriting is atrocious. I like being able to edit as I go and I don’t really have the romantic obsession with typewriters others do. I listen to a lot of music when writing; sometimes I’ll put together a playlist of songs that kinda resemble the tone I’m going for. “Camp Evil” was written to a lot of Styx, Peter Frampton, Bad Company and various 70’s stoner music. When I edit, it’s usually a quiet, concentrated time. Podcasts or silence is really good for editing. Writing and drinking has never really worked out for me. Coffee, if I’m writing at the beginning of my day.

TC: You have quite an eclectic cast assembled, including a very talented actress I once made out with in a zombie-related show. What kind of actors are you drawn to as a writer/director?

AM: Most of the time, I cast people because I see aspects of that character in the actor. But sometimes you have a person that can play anything. Sometimes, I use people who aren’t primarily actors, but who would do that specific role well. In truth, the kind of people I want/need to work with need to be kind of up for anything. The cast (and crew) we have for Terror-Rama is the best group I’ve ever worked with. Like, ever.

TC: You are serving only as playwright for “Camp Evil”, letting director Colin Johnson take the helm. Are you still active in the rehearsal process? You’re not one of those “back-seat directors”, are you?

AM: As Executive Producer, I was very hands-on at the beginning, I had some specific ideas that I wanted to be the foundation of the show. Like Sindie Chopper, the Horror host, she was a big element I pushed for. But now we’re in rehearsal and I’ve taken a big step back. There’s a quote by Tina Fey that I really like; “Hire brilliant people and get out of their way”. So to me, if I just meddled and micromanaged every aspect of the show, that would be a disservice to the people I hired. Some people can have one grand vision and execute every aspect of it, I’m not one of those people. I have learned that I like it much more when someone else directs my play. I can’t write and direct a play. In the best cases, the director sees something I didn’t and it’s better. I’m too reverent to my characters and writing. Colin has been perfect in this role; from day one he has always “got” the show. I was at the first read-through and then I didn’t go to rehearsals for two weeks. Now that we’re about to go into tech and we’re into run-throughs I’m around a bit more. But by this point, it’s very much their show, and I think this approach has worked out perfect. Don’t get me wrong, I find times to give my opinion. But I feel like Colin was given the space to make it his, and I love what he’s done with the whole show.

TC: You used to house manage at SF Playhouse. Have you ever based a character off of an annoying patron you’ve had to deal with?

AM: Patrons not so much, the most annoying ones aren’t that interesting. It was the people I worked with that were fascinating. Nick Pappas and I always talk about writing a pilot for an American version of Slings and Arrows based on the Playhouse. It is our dream to see Kevin Kline play Bill English.

TC: After reading the Terror-Rama Diaries at AwesomeTheatre’s website, this show seems to have had some difficulty getting off the ground. What motivates you to put on theater?

AM: Masochism mostly. But seriously, I get very frustrated when I hear people declaring theatre dead or dying because I find that to be patently false. Theatre as we know it now is destined to change, but that’s more natural evolution as dictated by what people want and react to. You have to keep it fresh. But the thing I think that will keep theatre around forever is that unlike every other form of entertainment, it requires more than one person to enjoy it. You can listen to music alone, you can look at a painting alone, you can watch TV, sporting events, and movies alone. You never have to interact with the people actually creating it. In theatre, there’s no way around it. Even if you’re the only person in the audience, you’re still in a room with actors and a couple of stage hands. You can’t have a theatrical experience all by yourself; theatre is unique in that sense. I mean, you can watch a play or musical that’s been recorded, but you’re really just watching a movie. I think that’s why I never got into film or TV, there’s an uncontrollable element to live theatre that I find appealing. If you want perfect, make a movie and it’ll be the same every time you watch it. But theatre has the ability to be different every time. Now in the case of Terror-Rama, I did initially pitch it to another group, and the talks went pretty far down the road but ultimately they didn’t really get it. That rings true for a lot of my projects, people don’t get it initially. Then they see it and they say, “oh now I get it”. So a big motivator for me is to take my crazy ideas that people don’t think will work and then prove them wrong. I’m really into converts, so I want to make theatre that attracts people who regularly wouldn’t go to theatre. If we can get those people in, then they can realize they do like theatre, provided they’re being told stories they want to hear. I’m less interested in what Theatre IS and more interested in what Theatre can be. It’s when we make hard definitions of the art form that people start to bemoan the death of theatre. I don’t think it will die, it just evolves. Being part of that evolution is what motivates me. And it’s the only thing I’m good at, so there’s that.

TC: And finally, what pearls of wisdom do you have for anyone trying to get a start as a playwright?

AM: It’s cheesy but, I think it’s important to spend a lot of time finding your voice. Knowing what you want to write and how you write it. So it’s not just writing a lot, it’s also finding out what inspires you and gets you excited about writing. Study the nuts and bolts of what it is that you like about them and what they do. Know what you like and know a lot about what you like. Also, sometimes only you will believe in your idea at first. Own your crazy idea and do it.

TC: My one In-Joke: Remember “Schuster Boys on Schuster Island”?

AM: Of course! Those damn Schuster boys; there was Jethro Scuhster, Mad Dog Schuster and their sister Lulabelle. Ah, wonderful times living in the Sunset.

Performances of “Terror-Rama” run October 17th-November 1st at the Exit Studio Theater in San Francisco. Tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets.

The Five: Comic Influences

Anthony R. Miller checks in with the five sources of his comic inspiration.

Hey you guys, so I realize September was comedy month, and now were just starting to wade into October, a month dedicated to the darkness. I promise you, you’re gonna hear a lot from me about horror and being spooky later this months. SHAMELESS PLUG: GO SEE TERROR-RAMA. But there was no way I was gonna miss out on giving my thoughts on one of the most important things in the world to me, that lady named comedy. To me, comedy is a beautiful, necessary and challenging art form full of possibilities. So here are the top 5 influences on me as a writer, more specifically a comedy writer.

The State

This MTV sketch comedy show from the 90’s was and still is one of the funniest things ever. It was a show that just didn’t mock convention, it attacked it. The influence for me was exposing me to a brand of comedy I like to call smart/dumb. Sure the jokes were juvenile and silly, but they were really clever. You can see their innate understanding of not just comedy but theatre and performance. There were grammar jokes, Shakespeare jokes, and even Pink Floyd jokes. There was an irreverent shamelessness to their writing and delivery that shows like Saturday Night Live hasn’t done in decades because unlike SNL, The State was never concerned with being cool or hip, just funny. They were genuine smart-asses. They were comedy whores. Sadly, only a couple dozen episodes exist, but you can watch them all on Hulu. After it’s cancellation, they went on to do projects like Reno 911, Viva Variety, Stella and of course, Wet Hot American Summer . I WANNA DIP MY BALLS IN IT!

Airplane!

Funniest movie ever period. Nothing really sums up what I believe to be perfect camp like this movie. You’d be hard pressed to find a better display of People doing and saying ridiculous things with a straight face a painfully sincere delivery. Not to mention the brilliant layering of the jokes, jokes happening in the background, jokes you didn’t even know were jokes until the 4th re-watching. To me, this is the gold standard of camp, often times we see people winking at the audience and hamming it up for laughs. But it takes true genius to say something funny not because it was funny but because that’s just what that character would say, because it’s who they were. Camp requires a certain naiveté to come across right, because the characters don’t know they’re being funny, that’s what makes it funny. So instead of reading Susan Sontag’s very clinical, yawn inducing (seriously how does she make comedy sound so dull?) dissection of camp, just watch Airplane! It’s way more fun.

Vampire Lesbians of Sodom by Charles Busch

A true light bulb moment for me was reading this play, five pages in; I knew I had finally found a kindred spirit. While I love Christopher Durang and Neil Simon and The Man Who Came to Dinner ( A dream project of mine, seriously, it’s the King Lear of Comedy). Nothing combined camp, sketch comedy and homage (not parody) like this play. It’s my comedic compass; the play that made me realize what I wanted to write was possible. Not to mention, it creates a clear line between homage and parody. In parody, you make fun of something, but when you pay homage to something you are embracing both the good and bad qualities of something you love. But this one-act play is just the tip of the iceberg; Busch’s body of work is funny, insightful and critical. So not only did it show me the kind of theatre I wanted to write was possible, it showed me where I could go from there.

No Cure for Cancer-Denis Leary

Acerbic, mean spirted, cynical and soul bearing are just a few words I use to describe Denis Leary’s breakout stand up special/one-man show. Every word of Leary’s comic tour-de-force was written from a place of incredible pain and fear. While in Europe, his wife gave premature birth to their son Jack. Because of the complications, they couldn’t leave. So Denis stayed and proceeded to write a piece of comedy that shaped the dark, critical side of my comedy writing. It’s so much more than couple funny songs and smoking jokes, He explores the death of his father, the pressure he feels to create a better world for his son, and the realization that no matter how depressed and overwhelmed we feel sometimes, you gotta shut the fuck up and go to work. This is the comedy that gave me a backbone, a desire to push forward. It has a perfect blend of sincerity, social criticism and toughness in the face of pain. He’s not just being funny, he’s getting shit off his chest. Also, I still use his “Whiney douchebag” voice, just watch it, better yet, buy the book version.

Commedia Dell Arte

Oh those goofy Italians, they sure were funny. But not just because they invented improv, not just because while the British were still putting wigs on 12 year old boys to play girls, the Italians were the first to put women on stage, or that they were the first pay actors, or even create a health care system for their actors. No, it is the invention of slapstick, a brand of comedy based on one basic premise, hitting people is funny. Whether you love low-brow comedy or dry high minded British humor or acerbic wit, you have Commedia Dell Arte to thank. Let’s break this down shall we? Commedia troupes started with basic pre-written scenarios that are built upon by big exaggerated performances and determining their actions on basic archetypes that we still see today. Sit coms, sketch comedy, improv, and physical comedy all owe their existence to Commedia. Oh, did I mention they were the first to show that women could be funny?

Anthony R. Miller is a writer, Director, Producer and a man who loves to sell theatre tickets. His show, TERROR-RAMA opens October 17th.

Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: Rape the Play

Claire Rice has had enough rape, thank you.

I’ve been trying all day to think about a funny way to say I’m tired of seeing rape on stage. But it’s just not coming to me.

The subject came about because the production year for me has been full of rape. The first play I directed was Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them by Christopher Durang, which I quickly followed up with You’re Going To Bleed by Melissa Fall. Both plays feature rape. In Torture the main character is drugged and violated. In Bleed the teen character has sex with her acting teacher (rape via abuse of power). Just recently I participated in the San Francisco Olympians Festival where the theme was the Trojan War. I’m sure there was a woman in that war who got out un-raped, but I can’t think of who just off the top of my head. I worked hard in my adaptation of Cassandra’s story to keep the sex consensual. It wasn’t easy. And I can tell you after sitting through 11 of the 12 nights of the San Francisco Olympian’s festival that it was difficult to impossible for many of the writers to avoid.

The point is: I’m done. I want 2014 to be a relatively rape-free year. So far, all of the projects I’ve been hired to do don’t have rape. I’m also not writing in any rape scenes into my plays. Lastly, I’m taking Law & Order: SVU out of my Netflix queue. Hooray! So, that takes care of my end. Now there’s just everyone else.

The problem is, rape storylines sneak up on you.

A friend and I walked out of a theatre this year and, over yogurt, decided that the play we had just seen, while well-acted and well written and beautifully produced, was really very “rapie.” The play focused on four young women and, as far as we could tell, all of them had been raped at least once by the end of the play. No man physically walked on stage, but if they were mentioned, they probably raped someone. Every man was an enemy, every woman was a victim. It was overwhelming, bleak, and unnecessary. Can’t a person have trauma without it being rape? Are there no other dramatic devises at all?

I just want to watch a year of plays without rape. Just one year. Is that too much to ask?

How Can I Tell There Might Be Rape In A Play?

I am at any type of festival where there are more than three plays.

There is only one woman in the whole cast and she’s an “outsider.”

There are only two women in the whole cast and one of them is way younger.

It’s an all women cast and they are talking about their pasts.

There is one woman and one man and they are working out their history.

There are two men and they are talking about their history.

There are a bunch of men and they are all talking about their history.

The play is about war and there is any number of women in it.

The play is by an edgy, emerging playwright.

There is a “dark secret.”

It is a “psychological thriller.”

It’s a “modern horror.”

It’s a “gothic horror.”

It’s a “dark musical.”

It’s a sex farce.

I want to emphasize that it’s not that I feel like rape as a topic isn’t an important one. Eve Enlser’s Vagina Monologues is an important work that discuses rape, specifically rape used as a tool in war. A Streetcar Named Desire wouldn’t be the same without Stanley raping Blanch. I’m not saying that the act shouldn’t be in storylines or anything like that. This isn’t an expression of the validity of a storyline that focuses exclusively on rape. This isn’t an argument that rape doesn’t exist as much as it does on stage. This isn’t even about how at some point a play crosses the line from having/discussing rape to being an actual rape fantasy. It’s not a protest against how women are portrayed in theatre (yet).

It’s just…ugh…so much rape. Too much rape. For me. I need a pallet cleanser.

So, just for fun this year: consensual sex.

I mean, that’s doable, right? Right?

Everything Is Already Something Week 20: Actors Who Write

Allison Page is the new James Franco. 

It’s three years ago or so, and I’ve just finished a reading of several episodes of a web series I wrote. We’ve all been milling about the theater chatting, having snacks, and discussing the episodes. I’m scratching down a bunch of notes for myself – things I want to change, things I really liked, changes inspired by the way a person read the character, all the regular stuff. A guy walks up to me, and says completely seriously, “That was pretty good writing, for an actor.” He smiles and leaves.

I would argue that I’ve been an actor since I’ve been a talker – possibly before that. It’s never not been a part of my life, and every time I’ve made an attempt to cut it out, I just can’t. But the last three years especially have been co-focused on writing. I make my living writing allllllll day. And yet, I have this chip on my shoulder that I’m always going to be seen as an actor first, and a writer second. Or that somehow I can never really be a writer because I was an actor…which, when you say it that way, sounds really stupid. Generally, no one cares what you focused on before you started focusing on whatever you’re doing now. There are probably people in the NFL who used to work at Best Buy. I doubt anyone’s watching the game saying, “Yeah, he’s okay, but shouldn’t he be selling TVs? I just can’t see him doing anything else, ya know? He’ll always be Best Buy Brian to me.” Which isn’t to say that acting is as important to me as selling TVs, but the point is that most of the time, no one cares about that. But the actor/writer combo feels like it has a weird little stigma. Or maybe it’s because I am doing both of those things, and not giving up one for the other. If anything I’m using them to inform each other – something that I imagine and hope other actor/writer hybrid monsterbots are doing. I’m pretty happy with that, but every once in a while someone will say something like “That was pretty good writing, for an actor.” And after I’m done mocking his hairline, which is not so much receding as it is just running away, to make myself feel better – I get to thinking about the various reasons he might have said that.

Actor/writer is definitely an interesting combo if you look plainly at stereotypes. Actors: flighty, demanding, vain, difficult, extroverted, emotional, possibly dumb, probably-loves-swimming-with-attractive-people. Example: Marilyn Monroe

I'm carefree because I don't have to think...WHERE ARE MY BLUE M&Ms?!

I’m carefree because I don’t have to think…WHERE ARE MY BLUE M&Ms?!

Writers: brainy, quiet, meditative, introverted, probably-shut-themselves-up-in-a-cabin-for-months. Example: Ernest Hemingway.

This is my writing beard. Do I look smart yet?

This is my writing beard. Do I look smart yet?

Putting those two things together seems impossible. But those are also just stereotypes and don’t hold a lot of water in real life, but just because they’re not true doesn’t mean that the idea of them doesn’t still exist.

I’m aware of other actors who have started to write and don’t even wait for someone else to put the burden on them, they just do it themselves. Putting themselves down for having been an actor first and discounting their own writing because of it. Congratulations for getting to it before your nay-sayers did…but now you’re your own nay-sayer! For me (and I’ve said it before) one of the best things about the bay area is that you can do nearly anything. It’s a big beautiful testing ground on which to spill your artistic guts. There are so many outlets for you, if you look for them.

Last night I took a Lyft home, as I am like to do. I had just come from Write Club SF, an event which describes itself as “Literature as blood sport”. Naturally I was a couple of beers in (when you become a writer, you get to drink more. BONUS.) and got to talking to the driver about the event. I won my bout that night and have a tiny trophy to prove it. He told me, somewhat sheepishly, that he’s always wanted to be a writer. “So be one.” I said. “I don’t know” he told me, shaking his head. “I just feel like I don’t have the education, and I can’t afford it.” Naturally, I pish-poshed at that. I told him my whole rambling story, (you can check out my previous blog “Sorry I Didn’t Go To College” if you want to find out how I got here.) He’d been wanting to write for years. He’s started writing several novels but hasn’t finished them because he doesn’t feel like he’s really allowed to. After all, what right does he have to join the ranks of the elite alcoholism and snobbery of writing…right? My advice to him was that if he wants to do it, he should do it. The best thing about writing is that you barely need anything. If you have a laptop – great – if you don’t, paper and a pencil are damn cheap. I told him about a ton of free events that can help get him started. He ended the ride saying he thought it was fate that brought me to his car to encourage him to go after his dream. I won’t put quite that much weight in it, but I’m glad he felt inspired. I’m no Hemingway, but I do what makes me happy without regard for the opinions of people who don’t have the right to set the standard for me, because I don’t let them.

Tonight I have a short play in the SF Olympians Festival. It’s my first time writing for it after having acted the last couple of years. One of the many things I love about this festival is its dedication to not giving a fuck who you are. You send in a proposal. If your proposal is chosen you have a year to write a play. Then a staged reading of that play is produced. There are first time writers, long time writers, sometime writers and everything in between. There are, like me, other actors who are writing for the festival. There’s a drama critic writing for the festival. People from the fanciest of colleges, and people who barely graduated from high school writing for the festival. Unemployed people, authors, mothers, teachers, grad school students, tech people, and directors writing for the festival. And the best part is that we are all on an even playing field. Sure, the quality of each individual play is up to the writer, but we all have the same resources. We all get a director, actors, a theater, and even a piece of artwork representing our plays, regardless of background, experience or education. We’re pretty well supported by the festival and each other. I personally have missed only 2 plays, and have seen 22 in the last 2 weeks. And at no point has anyone mentioned that I’m just an actor who writes.

I try to work really hard at what I do to get that cozy “I earned this.”, feeling. But I’m also sure not to get down on myself just because I’m not Pynchon or Poe or some other writer with a P name. I’m actually happy to be both an actor and a writer. It’s satisfying for me; otherwise I wouldn’t do it. In the end I don’t think of myself as an actor who writes or a writer who acts – I’m an actor and I’m a writer and a bunch of other stuff too. I don’t think I know anybody who boils down to only one thing.

And for good measure, here are some people who did both, in no particular order and including playwrights, screenwriters and authors. (Don’t worry, I won’t mention James Franco):

Sam Shepard

Tina Fey

Bob Newhart

Mary Pickford

Wallace Shawn

Molière

Mindy Kaling

Christopher Durang

Kristen Wiig

Jerry Seinfeld

Marion Davies

Larry David

William Shakespeare

Carol Burnett

Steve Martin

Amy Sedaris

Harvey Fierstein

John Cleese

Gilda Radner

The Marx Brothers

Paddy Considine

Woody Allen

Mary Tyler Moore

Christopher Guest

Jon Favreau

Jennifer Westfeldt

Kenneth Branagh

……JAMES FRANCO. (gotcha)

This smile never needs a caption.

This smile never needs a caption.

See Writer Allison’s play The Golden Apple of Discord TONIGHT (November 20th) at 8pm at the Exit Theatre along with other short plays based on the Trojan War. You can find her on Twitter @allisonlynnpage.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: I’m In an Ill Humour

Dave Sikula is bitching about British Theatre.

The misspelling above is intentional and the smallest of protests against what I see as a creeping Anglophilia in the theatre and, well, in general.

My wife and I saw the broadcast of the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Merrily We Roll Along” tonight, and my dislike of the show and the production aside, it reminded me of something I wanted to discuss after seeing the broadcast of the National Theatre’s production of “Othello” last week; namely, why the hell are the only productions seen in this format direct from London? *

Now, to make things clear from the start, I have nothing against the RSC, the National Theatre, the Chocolate Factory, or any other production company or entity (Okay; there are some companies who have burned me often enough that I’ll steer clear of them, but in general, I wish everyone all the best). I mean, I’ve seen their productions in person on numerous occasions and have obviously paid good (American) money to see the broadcasts. Some of them (John Lithgow in “The Magistrate;” “All’s Well That Ends Well”) I’ve enjoyed immensely; some of them were just dull (Derek Jacobi in “Cyrano” and “Much Ado About Nothing”); and some of them were just puzzling (the recent “Othello”). That said, anything that brings theatre into the consciousness of the mass public is to be welcomed.

But why is it always the Brits? What is it about that accent that turns otherwise-sensible Americans weak at the knees? I was going to say “discerning Americans,” but that would mean leaving out New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who seemingly spends as much time in the West End as he does in Times Square. This self-congratulatory article deals with it. (London’s “theatre scene … is the best in the world”? Yeah, it doesn’t get much better than “Grease 2 in Concert” or “The Mousetrap.”) But now I’m just getting petty. My point is, though, other than London and Broadway, Mr. Brantley doesn’t seem to think any other theatre is worth his time; nothing in Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, or even San Francisco seems worthy of his notice.

I found the production of “Merrily” pretty dull (an opinion in which I seem to be in the minority), but that’s not the point. If the exact same production had been mounted at, say, the St. Louis Muny or the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, only Sondheim buffs would have heard of it, and it certainly wouldn’t have been shown in American cinemas.

Now, I realize a good portion of this lack of American product is due to commercial considerations. Producers on Broadway are trying to sell tickets and make a profit. Road producers (I’m lookin’ at you, SHN!) probably think it would cramp their ticket sales. (Though it seems to me like exposure would increase, rather than diminish, audiences’ interest in seeing live shows.)

I wouldn’t expect to see “The Book of Mormon” or “The Lion King” at my local movie house (although that didn’t seem to be a consideration when the National’s “One Man, Two Guvnors” or “War Horse” were screened in advance of their runs on Broadway. For that matter, the films of “Les Mis” and “Phantom” didn’t seem to daunt their popularity as live attractions). But that doesn’t explain why we don’t see productions from seeming “non-profits” as the Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club, Lincoln Center Theater, or Playwright’s Horizons. Hell, national exposure might actually help these companies’ revenue stream. And those are just companies in New York. That barely scratches the surface of what’s being done in the rest of the country.

As a reader of American Theatre, I’m exposed on a monthly basis to shows I’ll never see in person. I’m not saying that every production across America needs broadcasting, but surely Steppenwolf’s production of Nina Raines’s “Tribes” or the Guthrie’s “Uncle Vanya” or the Magic’s “Buried Child” (to name just three) are as worthy of a national audience as Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art” from the National. But somehow the imprimatur of “London” makes it a must-see for some.

And it’s not just broadcasts of plays. How many times, especially in recent years, have we had to suffer through the lousy “American” accents of British actors? (It was actually a shock for me to see Nicole Holofcener’s “Enough Said” and hear Toni Collette play with her own Australian accent, so used was I to hearing foreigners play characters who were American despite no real reasons in the script.) Sure, there are actors (Collette herself, Hugh Laurie. Alfred Molina) who can do superb dialects, but there are just as many (such as the cast of “Merrily”) whose attempts are cringe-worthy. But they’re British, so the assumption is that they’re better trained and better actors solely because of their nationality.

(I’ve also noticed the creeping use of British English subject/verb agreement. I always find myself making mental corrections when a singular entity, such as a corporation or company is said to do something with a “have,” as in “BART have announced the strike has been settled.” It’s “has,” dammit. Or when someone is said to be “in hospital” or there’s some kind of scandal in “sport.” It just sets my teeth on edge.)

Anyway, my point isn’t that we shouldn’t be exposed to British theatre; what they show us is usually worth seeing.” What I am saying is that I’d like to see American companies, as well; or even Russian, Brazilian, Malaysian, or French (the greatest thing I ever saw on stage was Théâtre du Soleil’s “Richard II.”) Why should audiences be deprived of great theatre just because it didn’t originate in the West End? In Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (the Berkeley Rep production of which I so raved about in this space last time), Vanya has a long rant about what he sees as the debasement of American popular culture (a rant I – and a good portion of the audience – agreed with, by the way). The rant includes this complaint: “The Ed Sullivan Show was before Bishop Sheen, and he had opera singers on, and performers from current Broadway shows. Richard Burton and Julie Andrews would sing songs from Camelot. It was wonderful. It helped theater be a part of the national consciousness, which it isn’t anymore.” As much as we all love the theatre – either as participant or spectator – unless we do something to restore that awareness among the public at large, we’re talking to ourselves – and a dwindling “ourselves” at that. I don’t know if the Americanization of televised theatre would change that awareness, but I’d sure like to see someone try it.

* Okay, there were the broadcast of the production of Sondheim and Furth’s “Company” that starred Neil Patrick Harris, and Christopher Plummer in “Barrymore” and “The Tempest,” but those were rarities.

Working Title: Sad Autumn Roses, a Comedy

Will Leschber gets Chekhovian. 

Let me begin by saying that I love visiting Chekhov. There’s nothing like the dark catharsis that comes from watching Anton Chekhov’s characters meander circles around each other for over two hours and end up in roughly the same place in which they started. Nothing earth shattering happens. Yet everyone is more clearly acquainted with growing ever older and increasingly colder. I don’t want to live in these plays. But to visit and mourn with these characters for a time, that satisfies some desire to feel and purge melancholy. This exact aspect of depressing hopeless is why many have relayed to me their disdain for this Russian playwright. But to each their own. Having this affection, I absolutely went out of my way to see the Berkeley Rep production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”. This Christopher Durang play takes the tropes of Chekhovian drama and packages them in a comedy.

It is said that Anton Chekhov thought of his plays as comedies which were turned into dramas by their respective directors. While I don’t agree with “Uncle Vanya” being categorized as a comedy, I do think that the balance of humor and sadness is inherent to Chekhovian drama. This is something that film director Louie Malle plays with in his 1994 film “Vanya on 42nd Street.” What would make for a better film/theatre comparison than a play realistically portraying characters trapped by their Chekhov namesakes and a film that parades itself as a play in pre-production.

Malle’s film opens with shots of New York City’s bustling 42nd St. The cast meets and greets each other with affection on their way to rehearsal. Immediately, we get a sense of the community aspects built into creating theater with a group of friends. The space in which they are rehearsing lies in the dilapidated New Amsterdam Theatre. The creative players are surrounded by a hundred years of theatre history falling apart around them. It’s simultaneously melancholy and invigorating. “Its all crumbling but its all so beautiful,” says one of the actors. Fitting for Chekhov, I’d say. Durang’s play, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”, also takes place in the shadow of a hundred years of Chekhovian history. Old tropes and familiar character types are used to delight the audience and surprise them too.

Back on 42nd St, the actors and director converse about the day to day of life in the theatre. All of a sudden we then are thrown into the “actual” rehearsal. The switch between “real-life” conversation amongst actors and the written dialogue for “Uncle Vanya” is seamless. Our only tip is a small group including the director who are now shown now uniformly watching the interaction between performing actors. Where is the line between an actor and a character? Is there one? Christopher Durang plays with this line in his play as well. However he plays with it in a different way. The characters within “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” are named after Chekhovian characters. To most theatre goers, this goes without saying. The question watching the play unfold is then this: Is there a line between the original characters and the new? How closely are these recycled types tied to their original creations? Herein lies the fun. We are delighted to see characters making light (and dark) of their lot in life. We are also happy to see when Durang’s characters break away from the sad distinction of the Chekhovian original. We get to see a difference. This is not the case with the film. “Vanya on 42nd St” doesn’t draw a distinction between actors and the characters they portray. We know they are different but a clear distinction isn’t provided. They wear the same regular 90’s street clothes and speak in the same accents. This gives us question of identity to ponder. The ponderance of where one reality begins and another ends is intrinsic to the nature of theatre and yet, in this instance, it is more fully displayed in a film. The Berkeley Rep production presents characters who have to fight past the melancholic history built into their names and given identities. The film presents actors who are more real as characters rehearsing than as actors conversing.

It’s interesting how within the film, the delivered dialogue once the rehearsal has begun feels more natural than the conversations between actors at the opening. Is this just something in the way we expect to hear dialogue delivered within a performance that doesn’t line up with the less theatrical, everyday speech of the opening? Or is it a choice director, Louie Malle, is making about what is more real: everyday interaction or performance on a stage? The Vanya within Berkeley Rep’s production at one point writes and puts on a unconventional play. His aims to get at deeper truth than everyday experience. The play within the play finishes before its end as the author, Vanya, stumbles into a diatribe railing against change and reflecting on the culturally shared experiences he had as a youth. 106 million people watched the finale of MASH. More than half of all American households tuned in. If you didn’t watch, you heard about it. Everyone shared this. Nowadays we have so many more strands connecting us and only feel more isolated. This is the rampant subject matter of the tirade deftly delivered by Anthony Fusco. This idea is not new. Chekhov wrote about these things a century ago. But the presentation is stellar and the subject matter is still potent. As Nina says in “Uncle Vanya”, “The old are like the young. They want someone to pity them.”

In the end, the film uses the tools of the close proximity camera to access this Chekhov play through quiet realism. It’s an odd thing to say considering we are watching actors rehearse out of costume in a theatre that looks nothing like the setting of the play. The facade is on full display. The entirety of the story presentation is less realistic than a staged play and yet when we are shown these characters in close-up the emotions on screen resonate with a personal and quiet reality. That is where the film succeeds. “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” succeeds by playing with 100 year old characters and making them new again. The themes Anton Chekhov wrestled with in his life time still have to be fought through today. Have I wasted my youth? What is the point of a life unfulfilled? Is happiness illusory? Since these questions can only be answered individually, I welcome the altered Chekhov presentations given through Louie Malle’s film and Christopher Durang’s play.

The Berkley Rep production plays through Oct 27th. And “Vanya on 42nd Street” is available to purchase digitally on itunes, Amazon and Vudu.