Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: They Can’t Take That Away From Me

Marissa Skudlarek gives us one more look at the Glamorous Life! 

Nearly seven years ago, on Martin Luther King Day of 2010, I attended a staged reading of Euripides’ Cyclops in a crowded bar on the shady side of Nob Hill, and my life was changed.

I was very young then – young enough that life-changing events could still happen to me. I was a late-blooming 22, a virgin who had never gotten drunk to the point of vomiting. Nor had I ever had one of my plays produced in San Francisco, or acted in a show here, or translated a play from French, or been invited to write regularly for a website, or, or, or… I was shy and nervous, masking my insecurity with arrogance and bravado. I think, sometimes, that I must have been completely insufferable.

But Theater Pub welcomed me in, and, indeed, helped me grow up. Within two months of Theater Pub’s founding, I had drunk too many glasses of Spanish red at the Café Royale, and then thrown them up into my bathroom toilet. Within four months, I had lost my virginity. Within eight, I had had a play produced in the inaugural edition of the Pint-Sized Plays – the first time anyone in San Francisco wanted to produce my work. And then came acting, and producing, and translating from French, and meeting the woman who would direct a full-length play of mine, and writing this column for over four years, and, and, and…

I have always thought of myself as kind of a loner, a skeptical soul with an aloofness at her core. I don’t have a group of “besties” with whom I text incessantly; I know what Groucho Marx meant when he said he wouldn’t be part of any club that would have him as a member. But it is inaccurate to think of myself as such a lone wolf – I am not always so isolated. Under the right circumstances, I can be fanatically, doggedly loyal.

And Theater Pub caught me at just the right moment to provoke my lifelong loyalty. When it started, I had been in San Francisco for 18 months, struggling to make connections in the theater scene, and finding it a lonelier and more difficult endeavor than I’d anticipated. I liked Theater Pub’s goals and gestalt, but I also calculated that this organization was my opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something. In those days, it saddened me when Stuart and the other Theater Pub founders would say “Theater Pub was designed to be everybody’s side project and nobody’s band.” I didn’t have any other projects, you see, and I was desperate for a band of my own.

So – partly for lack of anything better to do, partly for careerist ambitions, but, more and more, for love – I started attending virtually every Theater Pub show. I brought innumerable people to the Pub as they passed through my life, failed dates and former co-workers and out-of-town guests. I experimented with my art, in a way that you can only do when you’re making theater in a bar and no one is getting paid more than $20. I sang rock songs, I wore reindeer antlers, I wrote silly poems and fake commercials. Eventually I became one of the “old guard,” sitting at a corner table and looking sidelong at the new wave of bright-eyed early-twentysomethings joining the organization.

So I saw how Theater Pub grew, and changed, and started a blog, and provoked controversy, and went on hiatus, and rebirthed itself. (We in San Francisco know that no startup can be considered successful until it releases Version 2.0, after all.) Alliances and relationships formed and shifted and disbanded. Though, at this time, let me give due credit to Stuart Bousel, at the helm of this for all seven years, and his partner, Cody Rishell, who diligently created promotional art for every Theater Pub show.

And now? I’ve written before that Theater Pub’s end is not to be seen as heartbreak or defeat. In 2017, there will certainly be moments when we think of Theater Pub with fond regret. But none of us are crying tears of remorse, or wailing “If only we’d fought harder, if only we could have saved it!” We’re all ready to let it go – if you were at our show on Monday, you heard the glee with which Stuart announced “Just 17 songs to go, and then I am no longer the Executive Director of this thing!” We’ve got the seven-year itch. All the cells in our body have renewed themselves, and so has the majority of Theater Pub’s artistic leadership. We all do have other projects we’re working on; Theater Pub is not our only band. It became a side project that demands a disproportionate amount of attention and energy.

As I said, that first Theater Pub show was incredibly crowded, standing-room only. I perched on the edge of the Café Royale pool table until the bar staff yelled at me not to. At the time, I envied the founders’ ability to start a new theater company that would draw such a crowd at its first-ever event. Only later have I come to realize that the difficult part is not creating a splash straight out of the gate: it’s keeping the organization going, keeping the crowds coming, for months and years on end.

Theater Pub’s end isn’t really a full-stop end, it’s more of an ellipsis or a line break. The Pint-Sized Plays will continue in the PianoFight bar; PianoFight itself will still be the artistic home for many of us and the place where the bartenders will always lend a sympathetic ear. We’re not leaving town or quitting the business. We will still be making art, using the skills that Theater Pub allowed us to hone.

Next summer, I will turn 30. And I already know that my thirties are going to be very different from my twenties, not just because of who will be in the White House, but because Theater Pub will no longer be an organizing principle in my life. But I will carry the experiences of the past seven years in me. I am less lonely than I used to be, less resentful, more calmly confident. When I was an awkward child and teenager, the wiser adults in my life looked at me and said “High school won’t be the best years of your life; college won’t be, either; you’re the kind of person who will only find her people in her twenties.” Despite all my skepticism and neuroses, I never doubted this. Despite this world, this decade, this life, a bunch of people got together in the most expensive city in the country and made theater in a bar for seven years.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Now that Theater Pub is over, keep up with her viamarissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

In For a Penny: Only if You Mean It

Charles Lewis III checks in one last time.

My first time at the ‘Pub, Feb. 2010

My first time at the ‘Pub, Feb. 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regrets, I’ve had a few…

Regrets, I’ve had a few…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmm? Ah, I see. Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So long. Farewell Au revoir. Auf Wiedersehen

So long. Farewell Au revoir. Auf Wiedersehen

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

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: The Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards for 2015

Stuart Bousel ends the year with 6,000 words. Which you know… is actually less than usual. 

You may not have noticed it, but until my recent interview by Barbara Jwanouskos, I took a year off from writing for the blog.

This was for a number of reasons, including wanting to make more space for others, and having to use some of our space for promoting shows since Theater Pub returned to putting out 12 shows a year, thanks entirely to Rob Ready, Dan Williams, and Kevin Fink at PianoFight for both providing and insisting we take them up on their offer of a new venue, and my incredible support staff who put this year together by the skin of their teeth: Megan Cohen, James Grady, Sara Judge, Cody Rishell, Marissa Skudlarek, and most of all Tonya Narvaez and Meghan Trowbridge. Additionally, I just kind of took a general break from both writing and publicly postulating, partly for my own sanity and mostly because I wanted to do a lot of listening. At the end of last year, as was apparent to many, I was sort of drowning in the overwhelm of too many voices, from adulatory to disparaging, plaintive to dismissive. I made a decision to stand still and listen, in the hopes I’d eventually find my way back to my voice. For the record, it worked, thanks in large part of a few really good friends- but more on that later.

So, Awards… do I feel better about them than I did last year? Eh, more or less. I’ve come to accept them for what they are, and I’m thankful we have an awards system, helmed by Theater Bay Area, that is more or less transparent, and based on a peer adjudication pool that is more or less quantifiable (certainly identifiable), tiered into a system that more or less recognizes the need to evaluate artists with their resources and limitations taken into account. I think it’s a tremendous loss that Robert Sokol, who did the bulk of the grunt work to make these Awards a reality, from vetting each ballot last year to making the rounds of every committee to ensure the concerns of TBA members were actually heard, is no longer with the Awards or TBA- and anyone who knows how hard I grilled Robert in meetings last year knows that I am not saying that lightly or affectionately. There are moments I have starred daggers into Robert across a conference table and meant each and every one of them, but at the end of the day, he brought a great deal of integrity to the Awards- as much as any awards system can have- and he was devoted to them and he has not been adequately replaced. Which is not to say the folks running things now are doing a bad job necessarily- but the job changed and nobody has really moved into his place, duties have just been sort of parceled out, and while I don’t feel this has necessarily compromised the integrity of the Awards themselves, yeah, some things and people are falling through the cracks. Like my whole committee, for instance, which was given no chance to have input on the Awards this year. But then, being forgotten is, sadly, sort of par for the course of the Individual Services Committee.

Speaking of… so I have left the ISC and the Board of TBA. It happened weeks ago, right after the last meeting of the year, so I feel like it’s okay to talk about it publicly now. Or if it’s not, well… somebody should have sent me an email about that. Oh well.

Anyway, yes, I stepped down. After three years on the ISC- which I loved- and one year on the Board- which I hated every second of- I decided that TBA and I were not a good fit for one another. This does not mean I think TBA is a bad organization or anything like that- I am still a member, as is San Francisco Theater Pub, and I believe that TBA has the potential to be a great service organization and an ally to the artists of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater scene, and an advocate for the arts in general. In some ways, it already is all of those things. In some ways- it’s got a long ways to go, and to TBA’s credit no one there is unaware of that and there is a lot of energy being expended in trying to improve. In the end, my decision to leave is a combination of many things, like all decisions, but it comes down this: the organization’s priorities are not my own, and while I joined the org in a volunteer capacity to understand it better, I also wanted to help create positive changes in the Bay Area theater scene. And the fact is, I wasn’t really being tapped for that, despite having been invited in. Boards are really all about raising money, when it comes right down to it. And like, I get that. But I’m an artist. A Struggling Artist. I got enough of that headache in my life already, you know?

So, hey, everybody, back to Awards as subject (and yes, don’t worry, the Stueys). Clearly I had some really heavy misgivings about whether or not I was, through well-intentioned silliness, perpetuating this kind of social ill, something I had never really thought about until I started winning awards myself, and experiencing all the highs (random theater companies suddenly being interested in my writing, feeling validated by my peers) and lows (friends telling me all the reasons I didn’t deserve recognition, or just sucked in general) that come with success of any kind. This year I was nominated for two more awards, and a show I directed was nominated for nine total, and I didn’t win any and neither did the show and you know what: I kind of enjoyed it more. Yes, I loved winning last year- I ADMIT IT. But not winning (which is not the same as “losing”, by the way) meant I could get drunk with my friends and dance and kiss people at the party and not worry about what this all meant and was I worthy and was I accidentally doing anything to offend all the people who didn’t win, and was I supposed to react a certain way and what if I did or didn’t? Plus some people I really adore and respect won awards this year and that was lovely because they deserve recognition.

Which by the way is all an award/Award is- some people saying you did a good job. Which only means something if you think it does. And if you think you did a good job.

Cut to me, having drinks with a local writer whose brain is my favorite critical brain in the Bay Area and at some point she says/I paraphrase, “I’m so glad you have made peace with all that. You do so much and you do it well and it is okay to be proud of that- and haters be damned.”

I reply/paraphrase, “Thank you. I am a deeply insecure human being in an industry that battens on insecurity. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say, with assurity, that I deserve anything, let alone an Award. But I am glad that play won one, because all said and done- I am really proud of that play.”

The Bay Area Theater Scene, friends/haters. So much insecurity. So much to be proud of.

The 2015 Stuart Excellence in Bay Area Theatre Awards

1. The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness- Dale Albright

True story: a couple of weeks ago I was a few egg nogs in and chatting with a co-worker while net surfing and lazily, without thinking, reposted Peter O’Toole’s death notice on Facebook, as if it was news. How embarrassing! Especially as I created this award the year Peter died (the first time) with the idea that it would be all about recognizing the people we often fail to recognize because they are so consistently awesome. Way to prove my own point, huh? Well, regardless, I couldn’t be more earnest this year when I give the award to Dale Albright, who may be the Bay Area Theater scene’s most unsung, unsung hero (he is the Program Director for TBA, if you didn’t know). Seriously, this man is earning his keep and then some and I would not have spent three years giving up my time if it wasn’t for Dale’s passion and commitment to TBA and everything it is and could be. And sure, he’s also a damn fine actor and director, but whatever: he a phenomenal human. He really and truly cares, he works himself to the bone on our behalf, and he does it all with a kind of insane but sincere modesty. No one I have ever spoken to about Dale has anything but incredible admiration for him and I’m not talking about a handful of people- I’m talking about hundreds of them. I know a lot of people.

2. Best Short Play- “Sparse Pubic Hair” by Lorraine Midanik, directed by Laylah Muran de Assereto, produced by the Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco, starring Rick Homan and Miyoko Sakatani with Louel Senores and Amber Glasgow, choreography by Wesley Cayabyab.

It’s always kind of funny what really makes a short play work and stand out. It’s usually this nearly impossible combination of big idea, simple but impactful execution, and charm. This piece, the capper of the last-ever Sheherezade Festival (PCSF’s annual short play collection) took the complex idea of aging and becoming obsolete and all the insecurity and fear attached to that, and reduced it to the very concrete but relatable fear of losing one’s sex appeal before one has lost the appetite for sex, without falling into the traps of being preachy, cutesy, smarmy, or vulgar. The result: an actually romantic, totally poignant tale of two grown ups having to learn how to be grown ups long after they thought they were done learning to be grown ups, complete with facing fears, getting over themselves, and forgiving one another’s human fallings- sparse pubic hair and all.

3. Best Show- “The Miraculous Journey Of Edward Tulane”, adapted by Dwayne Hartford from the book by Kate DiCamillo, directed by Doyle Ott, produced by the Bay Area Children’s Theatre, starring Terry Bamberger, Darek Burkowski, James Grady, Carlye Pollack

Okay, if you didn’t know it, some of the best theater being made in the Bay Area is consistently being made by Bay Area Children’s Theatre. Yes, it’s intended for kids and yes you will be looked at by amused/hyper-protective parents if you don’t show up without your own children, but the fact is, there’s some really excellent stuff happening here, high-quality entertainment being made and you’re probably missing it. Because it’s made for kids it’s also, in addition to being well done, often edifying and thought-provoking without hitting you over the head about it the way a great deal of theater for adults feels it needs to. The stories are also just unapologetically magical, because kids both believe in magic, and unlike most adults, feel no shame in admitting that or owning their need for it. No show, for me, better optimized this this year than “Edward Tulane”. Beautifully acted from top to bottom, gorgeously staged and directed as a kind of caravan theater meets medieval panto mash-up with songs, the tale of a toy that passes through many owners, becoming something uniquely valued by each, was FUCKING TEARING MY HEART OUT EVERY SECOND I WAS WATCHING IT. I barely held it together, my boyfriend cried continuously from twenty minutes in till the end, and we walked out wanting to make the world a kinder place. The restorative powers of forgiveness and the transformative aspect of service being subtley but unapologetically presented as the inevitable solutions to anger and vanity were so well nuanced that it was impossible to remain unmoved by a piece that comforted even as it kicked you in the face. And yeah, not all theater has to make you do that- but your chances of getting a Stuey are way higher if your theater does.

4. Best Ambitious Failure- “We Are Proud To Present A Presentation About The Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known As Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrkia, Between the Years 1884-1915” by Jackie Sibblies-Drury, directed by Molly Aaronson-Gelb, produced by Shotgun Players in association with Just Theater, starring Rotimi Agbabiaka, Lucas Hatton, Kehinde Keyoejo, Patrick Kelly Jones, David Moore, and Megan Trout.

Okay, before anyone gets offended please understand: I love Ambitious Failures, and no it’s not a backhanded compliment. In many respects, while I love a perfect gem of a show and it’ll make me love the world and theater, an ambitious failure gets me excited and makes me think in a way that gems big or little often fail to do. Also, it’ll stick with me for a long time to come, resulting in multiple conversations, extra mileage in the idea mill, good debates, etc. “Well then,” you say, “is it really a failure?” I mean, I guess not- but yes, no, it didn’t work, at least for me. And like, this show totally didn’t work for me, I walked out feeling I had seen something that couldn’t actually decide what it was trying to do or say and collapsed in on itself like a whirlpool that was more interesting than engaging, but oh how much I admired the fearlessness and commitment of the script, the actors, the director, whoever it was who had to make that title work on a poster. I knew I had seen something important and real, even if I had failed to get much out of it beyond what I felt was obvious and a result of statement, not storytelling, but the parts that sang, sang so well that I could not be dismissive either. In many ways, I felt the play was epitomizing its own impossible conversation, that its hot messiness was a statement about how no one in the world seems to be qualified or articulate enough to truly communicate with anyone else in the world AND THAT’S WHY WE’LL NEVER HAVE NICE THINGS… but then that reading doesn’t satisfy me either and the play didn’t corroborate it and I was back at square one feeling like I was asking aesthetic questions instead of struggling with the plethora of social ones the play was ostensibly about. It’s frustrating… but intriguing, and it has kept me intrigued. This is the one show from this year I would see again, if I could, no caveats. And that deserves a Stuey.

5. Best SF Olympians Reading- “Tethys/Oceanus” by Marissa Skudlarek/Daniel Hirsch and Siyu Song, directed by Marissak Skudlarek/Sara Staley, starring Diana Brown, Alan Coyne, Theresa Miller, Jacinta Sutphin, Aaron Tworek, Kendra Webb, Steven Westdahl, Janice Wright

So, usually I do a “Best Reading” award but every year I’ve chosen something from Olympians (because it’s where readings go to ascend) so let’s just call a spade a spade and admit I’m really going to just pick the best Olympians reading from the past year. This year was a strong year for the festival, and there was a lot of good material, but one night shone above the rest in terms of great material + perfect performances + random magic, and that was a pair of one acts, “Tethys” by Marissa Skudlarek, who also directed, and “Oceanus” by Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song, directed by Sara Staley. Between the two pieces the evening was the perfect blend of somber intellect (Marissa’s) and giddy theatricality (Dan and Siyu’s). Marissa’s quiet and subtle piece about defining and obtaining security in a perilous world was beautifully echoed in Dan and Siyu’s mini-epic about what happens in the handful of moments during an global internet outage when all of our distractions vanish and we’re forced to listen to the sound of our own lives again. Both had a wicked humor tempered with compassion for the stories being told and the characters portrayed were done so by an excellent group of actors clearly relishing their roles. Like all “best nights” of the Olympians, I walked out of that one going, “This is what this festival can do- this is the kind of stuff that happens here!” which makes for such an easier time at the bar afterwards. And while the object of the festival is not to create a final product but to instead be the start of a journey, both these plays felt like they could be lifted and fully produced as was- which only makes me more excited to see where they will go.

6. Best Director- Ariel Craft, “The Pillowman”, The Breadbox

“Really? Ariel again?” you ask me. Um, well, what can I say- I’ll stop saying Ariel’s the best director in the Bay Area when she stops being the best director in the Bay Area. Or at least when she wins a TBA Award. No, but seriously, Ariel continues to win my admiration for a combination of reasons: she is not only exceptionally skilled and incredibly hard working, but she consistently chooses incredibly challenging work and sometimes does exceedingly risky things with it and sometimes those things fail but it never seems to stop her from trying again- and usually shooting even higher. Pillowman was not a failure but was, in fact, the best production of this play I could possibly imagine. Each individual part and performance was spot on- but the sum of the whole was brilliant and that is Ariel’s great strength. Her vision has a signature that is unmistakably hers, making her unquestionably an artist, and as she continues to grow it’s becoming more and more exciting to see her hallmarks across a variety of works. Best part: I don’t even really like this play all that much. But I loved this production of it.

7. Best Actor – Jason Wong (Creon, “Antigone”, at Cutting Ball)

Jason Wong has always been an interesting and very watchable actor, and having known him and worked with him before, I also know he’s a pretty nice guy, hard-working, risk-taking, and smart. Very smart. It sort of killed me when he didn’t try out for my production of M. Butterfly (though I would never trade the brilliance of Sean Fenton in that show FOR THE WORLD), but he’s forgiven now for having been the jewel in the crown of Cutting Ball’s production of Antigone. Though the heroine of the story is the center of the piece, Creon is the meat of the drama, his arc the one we follow, his lesson the one that must be learned, his soul the one that must be broken and, if you’re Creon is well-played, redeemed. Jason walked on stage chewing the scenery like a madman, spilling Creon’s pompous but phony self-love all over the place and then slowly, systematically, cracking the façade one doubt and disaster at a time until he was just bones and then just a pile of bones. Ending the play as a forlorn echo of himself that you wanted to protect in spite of everything, you realize that Antigone has triumphed and the tragedy has and always was Creon. Jason, with his remarkable ability to play wounded and outraged at the same time, took me from sinister to pathetic so forcibly but fluidly that like the proverbial frog in a cauldron, I almost didn’t feel the burn until I was suddenly, fataly, scalded.

8. Best Actress- Michelle Drexler (Kathy, “Company”, SF Playhouse)

One of the advantages of seeing a play many times (and I have seen Company many many times) is that you can see a variety of actors tackle a role and approach its pros and cons differently, with different levels of success. Most people who see Company will walk away having an opinion on the Robert, the Joanne, the Amy, maybe the Marta and April, and that’s usually kind of it. Part of the fun (and point) of the show is that most of the characters are kind of fun but flat stereotypes, 2-D impressions of people that Robert is ultimately sort of short-changing because it helps him feel like it’s okay to lack what they have (and he actually wants), but in can be tough for the actor handed the role of Larry or Susan or Paul to both honor the restraints of the piece and make an impression. Of all the parts in Company (except maybe Paul), I think Kathy is the most thankless, “the nice girl” archetype who epitomizes the “one that got away” but who we kind of let get away because, nice as she was… we weren’t really all that into her. The whole point of Kathy is that she wasn’t really all that interesting to Robert until THE SECOND before she walked out of his life… and then even then, he let her do it, because she wasn’t all that interesting. The problem with Kathy is that she is often played as if Robert’s view of her is who she actually is. The brilliance of Michelle Drexler’s performance as Kathy in the SF Playhouse production of Company and why she’s getting this year’s Best Actress Stuey, in a year of amazing performances by women, for a five minute scene? I’m not sure, to be honest, exactly what it was. A fierceness, perhaps? A depth of performance that conveyed her Kathy was MUCH MORE than Robert ever knew her to be, and that Kathy not only knew she was much more but knew Robert would never see it- and loved him anyway? An implication that she wasn’t a wall-flower going back home to settle for less but maybe even a Robert herself, maybe someone who had been mistaking waiting for living and was finally making a choice knowing that breaking your own heart is an awful but certain way to remember you have one? I don’t know. We’ll never know. The whole point of Kathy is that she’s a mystery we feel sort of sad about never solving. And it was nice to see someone finally play her that way.

9. Best Surprise- Teri Whipple (“Harbour”, NCTC, “Dead Dog’s Bone”, Faultline)

So, I’ve known Teri Whipple for a few years, she being a company member of Custom Made and a frequent actor in the SF Olympians, but this year I caught her in two very different shows at two very different companies playing… well, a kind of hippy-dippy mom in both plays, truth be told- but she did it really differently each time!- and perhaps more importantly, incredibly convincingly, displaying a versatility and charisma that elevated her performances past cliché and to something quite startling and previously unseen in her (at least by me). Teri has always been someone I’ve enjoyed watching, but I find myself excited when I find out I’m seeing something she’s in because I feel like I’m watching a performer really come into their own. I totally get that the “Mom” roles are rarely something a woman is excited about having cornered the market on, but if you keep playing interesting moms in unexpected ways- I can think of worse fates. Do I hope to see Teri in non-Mom roles? Absolutely. Which means, directors and writers- get to work.

10. Best Laugh- “It Wasn’t Meat!” by Carolyn Racine, choreography Liz Tenuto, directed by Paul Charney, produced by Killing My Lobster, starring Ron Chapman and Sam Bertken

Due to Killing My Lobster drastically upping their game in the last year (yeah, I said it- it’s like Night and Day, truth be told), I’ve actually made it to more of their shows than usual. I’m not huge into sketch, but when it’s well done, it’s a good time and since I saw so much I enjoyed this year I figured it was about time the Stueys included a sketch award of some kind. This year it goes to a little nugget of gold that landed in the happy Christmas Stocking that was this year’s holiday KML show at Z Space: “It Wasn’t Meat”, a parody of “It Wasn’t Me”, written by Carolyn Racine, directed by Paul Charney, choreographed by Liz Tenuto, and featuring Ron Chapman and Sam Bertken in the most hilarious send up of relationship enforced vegetarianism I’ve ever seen. To me, the best comedy is fun because it’s true, and if it’s painfully true that’s often even better. In the Bay Area, in particular, I think laughing at ourselves may be the only cure for our chronic case of smugness and what’s more true (and Bay Area) than taking a song about sexual infidelity (which so many people here, myself included, would go to great lengths to downplay as unimportant in today’s sexually progressive relationships) and revamping it as struggling to remain true to your partner’s tyrannical diet restrictions (which so many people here, not including me, would go to great lengths to tell you is far more important and not at all tyrannical… even though you are literally requiring someone to eat the way you do like they are your child). The perfect balance of delivery volleying between Ron Chapman’s cool confidence in denial and Sam Bertken’s anxious self-flaggelation for having “wrapped bacon around more bacon” turned a fun idea into a little bit of biting social commentary that got quite literal at the end when meat-starved Sam started biting his own mentor. Truly funny, truly arch, truly a reason to see even more KML in the coming year.

11. Best Designer- Brooke Jennings, Everything

Okay, so you may have noticed as I’m listing Best Play and such I’m failing to list all the designers and crew. Designers and crew- PLEASE FORGIVE ME! I’m trying to keep to a word limit I am already so way over, and the fact is, unless your show is all about the design, the mark of good design (in my opinion) is that it kind of fades into the background and becomes THE WORLD OF THE PLAY- outstanding in its seamlessness, natural, un-intrusive, and therefore… easy to fail to appreciate. Right now, the local designer who epitomizes this the most for me is costumer Brooke Jennings, who I have been lucky enough to work with several times, and whose work has been seen on a vast variety of Bay Area stages this past year. Often times, when looking at a show, I will be struck by how quietly, subtly, and yet perfectly everything on the actors is working together, creating a color and texture palate that tells a story without being the story, adhering to the world of the play while creating the world of the play, helping define everything from the time period to the climate, with stops on the personality and motives of the character along the way. Often I will then think, “Huh. Did Brooke design this show too?” And then I’ll look in the program and she did. What else is there to say?

12. Best Musical- “Heathers: The Musical” by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, directed by Erik Scanlon, musical direction by Ben Prince, choreography by Alex Rodriguez, produced by Ray of Light Theatre, starring Laura Arthur, Teresa Attridge, Jordon Bridges, Melinda Campero, Samantha Rose Cardenas, Jessica Fisher, Paul Hovannes, James Mayagoitia, Zachariah Mohammed, Lizzie Moss, Abby Peterson, Jocelyn Pickett, Jessica Quarles, Nick Quintell, Andy Rotchadl, Mishca Stephens, Jon Toussaint.

So, I’m not a die-hard fan of Heathers: The Musical. I’m a die hard fan of the movie. The musical’s got some great songs and some fun moments, but I think it suffers from not deciding if it’s trying to be for the fans, or a work of art unto itself, and the truth is, it soft-pedals the darker, edgier aspects of the film, while loosing a great deal of the humor, and also coming off… vaguely homophobic and comparatively sexist? Yeah, no, I mean that, but I’m surprised by it because it’s a pretty entertaining and even profound show as long as you don’t really think about any of those things, and more pertinent to now, Ray of Light’s production was fantastic, probably the best thing I’ve seen them do yet, from the costumes (by Katie Dowse, shamelessly and amazingly recreating many of the looks from the film), to the tight direction, to the spot on impressions of the film cast and the startling moments of canonical departure intelligently woven between the bones throne to the audience- who clearly loved it. The humor and bite of the show was undeniably carried by Samantha Rose Cardenas, Lizzie Moss, and Jocelyn Pickett in the title roles, but the heart was provided by Jessica Quarles as Veronica and Laura Arthur as Martha Dunnstock, with Jordon Bridges bringing some much needed darkness as Jason Dean. The best song of the show, “Seventeen”, a kind of high school reject version of “Suddenly Seymour” (listen to it… hear it?), was stuck in my head for days afterward, infinitely more poignant when I watched Bridges and Quarles belt it at the Victoria than when I downloaded it on iTunes, as if they were channeling everything about the movie that made it my personal Bible in high school. The production as a whole deserved every single one of the 11 nominations it received at this year’s TBA Awards and seems to have been an all around hit with most audiences, doing what I think Ray of Light does best- making musicals not just accessible and entertaining, but an event that reminds people they’re also still a very relevant and multi-faceted art form.

13. Best Ensemble- “The Horses’ Ass and Friends” by Megan Cohen, directed by Ellery Schaar, produced by Repurposed Theatre, starring Danielle Gray, Ryan Hayes, Evan Johnson, Katharine Otis, Becky Raeta, Paul Rodrigues, Indiia Wilmott, Marlene Yarosh

Megan Cohen’s shows are always worth seeing- from the interesting failures, to the perfect little gems- but this particular show- directed by Ellery Scharr at the EXIT Theatre- was blessed by a truly excellent ensemble of players who managed to take an evening of individual experiments and weave them into a performative whole, the connective tissue of which was their own enthusiasm for the work and each other. Maybe it’s starting the show with a group dance party that bonds people, or just being a part of something you all believe in, but you can tell a good ensemble when you see them and it was obvious from the moment you walked in that the friends of the title were in the house and ready to show you what they had with everything they had. Watchable, charming, creative, smart, brave- Danielle, Ryan, Evan, Katharine, Becky, Paul, Indiia, and Marlene (okay, maybe a little extra gold star for Marlene)- are all excellent storytellers and were all tasked with the sometimes intimidating feat of telling a story written by the inimitable Meg Cohen. Each one rose to the occasion, each one succeeded in their own right, but best and brightest when together, as a troupe.

Well, there you go. 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.

One last bit. More than anything else that I’m aware of right now, it’s this: last year around this time I was dreading the new year. I was afraid it would be more of the same, and the truth is… it kind of was. But something happened over the course of the year, slowly at first, and then with gaining momentum: essentially, I found my way back to me. I started reading again. I started writing again. I made new connections and I let go of the ones that were turning sour and poisoning my self-esteem, or just taking up a lot of my time and not giving anything back in return. I had a lot of amazing conversations and I made some fantastic art. I broke a pattern of getting sick during my own production process, which had been going on for 2+ years. I got hit in the head… and I got back up and moved on. I stopped taking responsibility for things which aren’t mine to take responsibility for and started taking responsibility for something I rarely make room for: my own happiness. I remembered that even if I am a Sad King… I’m still a King. Surrounded by Kings. And Queens. Or whatever title you want to give yourself. You just be you, okay, whatever that is. I might not always like it, but we’ll probably figure out a way to get along in the long run. Meantime…

Five Collaborations With Old Friends But In Amazing New Ways

1) Marissa Skudlarek- Marissa Skudlarek has been the most consistent editorial force behind both Olympians and Theater Pub for years now, often acting as a second pair of eyes and a second opinion on everything from grammar to content and tone standards, but this year we did something we never thought we’d do before: sing harmony on a rock song together. Yup, our cameos as the Specialist and his Assistant in Guess Who? might not go down in rock history, but it’s definitely going down as a benchmark in our personal history. And Who Knows? (get it?) You might not have heard the last of us.

2) Megan Briggs and Allison Page- Megan Briggs is my muse and Allison Page has frequently been my leading lady, but this year they were also my co-producers on The Desk Set and let me tell you: you could not ask for a better team. Between Megan’s organizational skills and Allison’s marketing savvy, Desk Set was one of the best promoted, most tightly run ships I’ve worked on in a really long time, and the show’s tremendous success in spite of a myriad of hiccups (from the world’s biggest set to ever go into the EXIT Stage Left, to the longest props list of my directing career), not to mention the casts’ continued devotion to our Facebook chat thread, are a testimony to just what this dynamic duo can do. Let’s do it again (but better)!

3) Morgan Ludlow- Morgan has been an incredible advocate for my work over the years, producing four plays of mine, and letting me direct two of his. A few years ago he moved to Seattle, but he still returns to SF a few times a year to assist with local productions and this past autumn I had the honor of him stepping into directing shoes to bring the Seattle production of my play, Everybody Here Says Hello! to life. A truly excellent rendering, Morgan confessed (after I’d seen and liked the show) that he actually hadn’t directed in years and had only taken the risk because it was me.

4) Rob Ready– Rob has been in a number of things I’ve written, most notably playing the Llama in the Llamalogues for several years now, but this year Rob became our venue manager when TheaterPub resumed performances at his space starting in January. For all intents and purposes, this has made Rob our Executive Producer, and it’s been a truly rewarding experience. There are few people in the theater scene whose vision and love for the art exceed Rob’s, and it’s been a real honor having him as our patron saint and champion, even when we took some serious mis-steps this past year. Rob never stopped telling us we were doing a good job and because of that- we did.

5) Kim Saunders and David Brown– my choreographer and music director, respectively, on Grey Gardens: the Musical at Custom Made Theater. Never before had I shared the helm with two co-pilots, and while I consider myself a collaborative director, it’s one thing to be a gracious guy in charge, and another to be one of the three. It wasn’t always easy, but it was ultimately incredibly redwarding, and I learned a lot from my intrepid co-creators and would work with either, or both, again, in a heartbeat because damn our show was fantastic and it would not have been the same without each of us being the incredibly talented, passionate, invested and only occasionally egotistical maniacs we are… I mean… were.

Finally, finally, one last shout out- to a non-Bay Area person who took a huge risk by producing my not-quite finished, totally bizarre vampire melodrama, Gone Dark, in a sinking 19th century church in Chicago this past Halloween: Otherworld Theatre Company’s artistic director Tiffany Keane. She’s not local, so I can’t give her a Stuey, but I wish she was local so I could- and believe me, you also wish she was local. A gifted visionary, I was lucky enough to see my show rendered in a world so real you could sink your teeth into it… but my favorite moment will remain her innovative staging of a direct address monologue written entirely in French. Designed to scare off all but the most intrepid directors, Tiffany indulged me and made it work and watching her (and the remarkable actress in the role, Mary-Kate Arnold) spin that moment into gold, was the most breath-taking moment of a most breath-taking year.

All the best, everyone. And thank you.

Note: In an effort to get this posted before the end of the year, it was decided to post the draft version. Spelling, grammar, and minor aspects of content thus may be edited over the course of the next few days.

Theater Around The Bay: WHAT THESE TWO ARTISTIC DIRECTORS HAVE TO SAY ABOUT THEATER PUB WILL BLOW YOUR MIND AND YOUR PANTS

The AD interview you’ve all been waiting for: Tonya Narvaez and Meg Trowbridge ask the tough questions.

MT       Are you as uncomfortable using the title Artistic Director as I am? Do you say it in a funny voice like I do?

TN        I’ve totally been able to say it! But I think that’s because I started the year blissfully unaware of what it meant. I definitely do try to say it as quickly as possible, because if I take my time announcing my title it feels like it’s going to make me seem self-important and bore the other person to actual death.

MT        Like, for real, I can’t say it in a straight voice. My go-to voice is pretty muppet-ish. Hopefully after a few more productions it will roll off my tongue with a little more grace and authority.

muppets4

I’m Artistic Director for San Francisco Theater Pub – wocka wocka wocka!

TN        How are Theater Pub shows of today different than in years past?

MT        Well, to start, PianoFight’s space is a completely different beast than Royale. This year’s shows have only scratched the surface for ways we can utilize the bar space. Also, all of our shows having four performances is radically different. Theater Pub used to be a pop-up event and now we have 12 mini-productions. I feel like the last four shows we produced were where we started taking more risks and hitting our stride.

TN        I completely agree. We’ve had a bigger focus on new work as well! We still include classical work in the year, which is always relevant to the here and now. But overall, our work has been coming straight from the community.

MT       What has been your best moment this year?

TN        Honestly, there have been great moments throughout, but I have to say my best moment this year was the last performance of February’s H/D: A Symphonic Romance in Space. It was the first show I put on as AD, as well as the first Theater Pub show I’d ever written or directed. I was constantly worried that I’d forgotten some major component. I also changed the staging before almost every show because I was still learning how to work in the space. In the end, a lot of friendly faces showed up to the last night and it felt like all the pieces really came together. It had a tiny spark of that Theater Pub magic.

 

HD

Beautiful art for H/D: A Symphonic Romance in Space by Cody Rishell

MT        I loved each show I worked on (I allowed myself to sing U2 in a show – it’s been a good year), but I loved seeing the bond between the cast of I Like That. Sara Judge did her magic and brought this cast together to perform a very ambitious script. The play was wonderful, but I enjoyed watching the cast interact, hang out after the shows, and message each other funny inside jokes on Facebook even more. I had very little to do with this, BT-dubs.

 

GOOD CRAIC

Meg Trowbridge casts a spell on the Theater Pub audience with her singing in Good Craic

TN        Any surprises about how the year played out?

MT        I think we both felt, at times, that this year was a bit “seat-of-our-pants.” So, I was surprised to look back and see a pretty well balanced year of programming. We had comedy, drama, one-acts, experimentation on stage, and a ton of new work. I think it set a tone for our 2016 season to be ambitious and varied – and we shall see how that unfolds! How about you?

TN        Yes, I feel like every show was full of new surprises! The biggest surprise of all was that we did it and it was good. *High five* But more seriously, we began the year doing 3 performances a month at two venues. One was brunch at The Hall on Market Street. After a couple of shows there, we realized it just wasn’t a good fit for either of us. PianoFight gave us the space to expand our offerings to 4 nights, and thus our current schedule was born. It was a great surprise, because we now have a singular home with roots in the community.

MT       What’s one thing you have learned after putting on four shows?

TN        I’ve learned how to be an AD. Seriously, I learned so many lessons via trial and error this year. It was growing pains. During one show, I took more of a backseat and just let the show happen, asking whether anything was needed along the way. For some shows, that can work. My AD senses weren’t honed enough yet to realize this wasn’t one of those shows. Obviously the show still went on, but it definitely could have gone a lot smoother for all involved if I had a tighter grip on the reins from the start.

MT:       For me, I learned it never gets easier to ask people to donate their time and energy for a stipend that solely depends on the generosity of the audience. Even if we do well, by SFTP standards, it never feels like enough. THANK YOU to all the actors, writers, and directors who put on wonderful shows for love more than anything.

AUDIENCE

Thank you to our actors, writers, directors, and fantastic audiences

TN        What has been the hardest part of this year? Stuart already said it’s been a bumpy year so we can be honest here. What sucked?

MT        Well, the first is always the hardest. Putting up On the Spot definitely gave me some grey hairs. There were a lot of moving pieces, and we hadn’t rebuilt our community enough to get the numbers that I wanted. That being said, it went pretty well – sodomizing a youth with a banana and all!

TN        Hah! For me, the hardest part was also one of the most exciting parts. I produced A Wake by Rory Strahan-Mauk, which was unlike anything Theater Pub had ever done before. It was very exciting, but there were some moments where it was unpredictable and it went a bit off the rails! The show happened almost all at the same time and throughout the entire space (the stage, bar, bathroom, and even outside in the Tenderloin). There were so many moving pieces, and so many opportunities for failure, and (as we discovered) so many opportunities for passerby to be confused and think they were witnessing real life instead of a play. We made it through the other side, and the audience was into it overall, but I think the show was definitely ahead of its time for us.

MT       After a year on the job, what’s your dream show for Theater Pub?

TN        This is such a hard question. It’s set up for you to name a play that already exists, and to outline your plan for that play. But I kind of feel like I’m living my best life right now, as far as the plays I want to put on. For February I’m writing a fictional Lisa Frank origin story, Over the Rainbow. In May we have Colin Johnson’s Sticky Icky, a story about slackers holed up in a bar during a societal collapse caused by an infectious strain of marijuana. In September we have Savannah Reich’s amazing comedy Stupid Ghost, which features a ghost dance number. I truly don’t know what else I could want out of 2016.

MT        I know this is my question, but I have no idea. I guess my dream play is a new play for a small cast (2-4 actors, maybe) and maybe it could be in the round? We could put some audience up on stage? I dunno. I think I need to read more books about being an Artistic Director.

TN        What else have you spent your precious time on this year?

MT        Oh man, what was I thinking this year?! I jumped head-first into KML’s madness, and had the pleasure of directing two shows, head-writing two shows, and writing for several. It’s such a fun group of people and I’ve had a blast pulling my hair out balancing that with SFTP. I also wrote a full-length for the Olympians Festival this year and had to balance being a member of the Monday Night Playground pool while Theater Pub was first kicking off. Yeah, 2015 was IN-SANE. Oh, and my improv team Chinese Ballroom are my home away from home. Check out our monthly shows at PianoFight, kicking back up in February!

TN        This year I was Production Manager for DivaFest’s Loud & Unladylike. I’m writing about Christine Jorgensen in this year’s Loud & Unladylike, which will be read at Pianofight in mid-July! I also wrote and directed the opening party play for the San Francisco Olympians Festival. This year I am writing a one-act about Osiris, Cyrus, which will be read at the Exit Theatre on October 21. I also started seeing a therapist again, which I seriously recommend to anyone in the arts.

MT       What are you most excited about for 2016?

TN        I am so excited about our entire year! I look at the lineup and it brings me so much pride and joy. I’m also super stoked to check out Saturday Write Fever, and can’t wait to see what the bloggers have up their sleeves.

MT        I am stoked about all the musicals booked for next season! What has gotten into us?! I’m a musical-geek, so this is basically becoming my dream job. ❤

DRINKS

Here’s to another year

 

In For a Penny: Everyone’s a Cricket

Charles Lewis III, opening the new year with a chirp!

chirping_cricket copy

“In criticism, I will be bold, and as sternly, absolutely just with friend and foe. From this purpose nothing shall turn me.”
Edgar Allan Poe, in a letter to Joseph Snodgrass, 17 Jan. 1841

Considering the Theater Pub theme for January was supposed to be “downtime and balance”, it’s been… interesting to read how my fellow ‘Pub writers have interpreted that. I won’t pretend that I’m immune to the same anxiety – if you read my “Running in Place” piece from November, you know that isn’t true – but I’ve forced myself to take some deep breaths and enjoy some well-earned relaxation. Case in point: last week was my birthday and I successfully avoided a lot of headaches by cutting off social media, stopping at a few bars, and heading to The Castro to finally see Birdman. I was surprised to see that it was a film about theatre. Yes, I know, Will wrote about it, but – whether for film or theatre – I tend to avoid such write-ups before a show so that I can go in as “fresh” as possible. And given that all the advertising sells it specifically as the story of a washed-up film star looking for a comeback, you’ll understand if I wasn’t exactly expecting A Midwinter’s Tale. Besides, I still liked it. I didn’t find it the masterpiece everyone else has, but I thought it was well-performed, beautifully-shot, and had an ending that some are calling ambiguous, but I’m calling beautifully tragic.

Still… there was one thing that didn’t sit right with me as I watched it; one character really. And it’s a damn shame that with so many great characters that were over-the-top, yet ground, this one damn-near ruined the whole show for me. It’s a character that personified one of my most hated tropes. No, not The Magic Negro, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or the emasculated husband whose spirit is killed by his shrewish wife. It wasn’t the socially awkward intellectual, the “ugly” pretty girl with glasses, or the woman in the refrigerator either. No, dear reader, it was that was that one character you expect to show up in every clichéd “artist story”; that foul creature who brings only pain and misery wherever s/he goes. That’s right, folks, I’m talking about The Evil Critic.

Now don’t get me wrong: I understand the Fountainhead-esque urge to include such a caricature. Artists to put a lot of themselves into their work, so it only makes sense that they take criticism of said work personally – I say that as someone who has been singled out in reviews as being the weak link in a production. But putting aside the fact that this clichéd character has been done to death, its mere presence suggests that 1 – artists are beyond reproach simply because they’ve created something, and 2 – anyone who would criticize said work would only do so out of spite from not having created any of worth. Those ideas don’t just bore me, they offend me.

Say what you will about the overall increase or decrease of critical quality over the years, constructive criticism is invaluable to the artistic process. When done right, criticism isn’t really about the appeal of a work to public at large, but rather what the work says (if anything) beyond its surface interpretation, how it compares to other works that have done the same, and what it adds to the legacy of work that has come before. As Roger Ebert often said “It’s not what it’s about, but how it’s about what it’s about.” So when I so when see so many one-sided artistic interpretations of critics, it offends me because it implies that artists are just cry-babies who want to lash out at anyone who doesn’t go along with what they say (y’know, kinda like the way they show critics).

That’s not to say that critics are above getting personal in their reviews – they’re human beings. There are critics that hold personal grudges or just flat-out refuse to take seriously the work of a dedicated artist for petty reasons known only to the critic. In the near-decade I’ve been involved in professional theatre, every artistic director I’ve known (along with a few writers and directors) have shown me legitimate examples of critics with obvious axes to grind. They exist. We’ve all seen them.

But the critics can also be the ones to see the value of your work when you’re not bringing in the big audiences. In fact, I think that’s what gets me about Evil Critic characters like Ratatouille’s Anton Ego and Birdman’s Tabitha Dickinson: they come from the minds of two artists who once had nothing but critical praise when their films weren’t box office successes. I mean, I get when it comes from someone like M. Night Shyamalan (who had, then lost, the love of critics) or Roland Emmerich (who never had it), but seeing it come from critical darlings Brad Bird and Alejandro González Iñárritu strikes me as incredibly hypocritical.

Who is this supposed to be? Everyone who actually liked The Iron Giant?

Who is this supposed to be? Everyone who actually liked The Iron Giant?

But if you take the word of playwright-turned-screenwriter Aaron Sorkin – a writer whose work I admire, but whose ego is notoriously easy to bruise – the problem isn’t what is said so much as who is saying it. From The West Wing to The Newsroom, he’s used his characters to express his belief that giving the masses a voice through the internet is nothing but a detriment. That’s funny coming from a guy who claims to pride himself on freedom of speech.

Yes, the internet has made it possible for an anonymous troll to have his/her opinion heard as well as any established scholar. Yes, it’s created a Möbius strip of scrutiny in which everyone’s opinion about an opinion is subject to someone’s opinion. But in case you hadn’t noticed, that’s the price one pays for living amongst human beings and their ability to string together (mostly) cohesive thoughts. Everyone with a voice has the right to use it, just as YOU have the right to IGNORE them, if you so choose. That’s the not-so-hidden secret of receiving feedback: it isn’t the end. You take the feedback, digest it wholly, and take away whatever is necessary for you to improve. If a particular feedback source isn’t providing that, choose another. Choose several. Choose however many it takes for you to show improvement, but don’t complain just because someone exercised their human right to speak out. Every time I hear someone complain that their work “didn’t have the right audience” or “was presented to a public that wasn’t ready for it”, I always think back to one of my favorite quotes from Theater Pub’s own Cody Rishell (bold emphasis mine): “You are an artist. An artist cannot control his or her audience. You want people to talk about your work, good or bad. If you do not, you are a hobbyist.”

When I finally decided that this would be my column topic for this week, two incidents immediately went through my mind. The first was a memory of when I was offered a really, really great role in a classic play, but had to decline due to a previous commitment. When I went to go see the production, they guy they got to replace me was… well, he wasn’t the best thing in the play. At all. The only thing better than watching him crash and burn on stage was how all the critics singled him out as the downside to the show. In private moments of schadenfreude, I would boast to myself “That’s what happens when you don’t cast ME!”

The second incident that came to mind is one that regular ‘Pub readers know all too well. I actually love this because it’s the perfect example of what I’ve been trying to say: that the things we do and say don’t exist in a vacuum. A playwright didn’t like public perceptions of women, so she responded to it with her art. Her art was performed publicly, so a critic responded to it. His criticism was made public, so it too was responded to. And then that response was responded to. And so on and so on. That’s what’s so great about what we do as artists, we create something intangible that has a lasting effect on all who experience it.

I’ll admit that the older I get, my reaction to can be equal parts Zen and hair-pulling. On the one hand, I’ll hear that there’s a critic in tonight’s audience and think to myself “I’ve spent the last few months putting together something that you want to destroy with a two-star rating? Bring it on, muthafucka!!” On the other hand, even when I’ve seen my name mentioned positively in print I tend to fall on the Barton Fink reaction of “Well, they’ll be wrapping their fish with it in the morning.” I don’t know how others deal with it, this is just what works for me. This is why I’m not partial to straw man interpretations of critics; they come expecting the best, but your definition of that might be completely different than theirs.

At the end of the day, there’s only one thing I take away from every review I read – which I hope is similar to what every critic takes away from my work – what did you learn? Did you learn about the lives of characters like the ones in the show? Did you learn how to arrive early before the show starts? Did you learn that a black box production of a 17-person play might not be the best idea? Did you that the artistic director of this company is only interested in putting on productions that represent his/her myopic worldview? Hell, did you learn that the bar down the street from the theatre has the best garlic fries in the city? Above all, what did you learn?

If you can answer that question, then a two-star review might just be worth your trouble.

In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – Let the Monster Out

Charles Lewis III lets the monster out!

Artwork by Cody Rishell

Artwork by Cody Rishell

“There should be a place where only the things you want to happen, happen.”
— Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

It all started with a car ride. That’s what I was told. During a 2009 production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs for Atmos Theatre’s Theatre in the Woods, that’s when we’re told Stuart first pitched the idea of a theatre dedicated to the classic works of Greek and Roman playwrights. As everyone learns when they’re around Stuart for long enough: he doesn’t pitch ideas so much as give you a heads-up on his inevitable plans.

Within a year from the original car ride, twelve local playwrights were staging twelve brand new plays – each one dedicated to one of mythical Olympians. Less than a year after that, three of those twelve plays had full productions. A year after that, half of the first year’s plays were collected into the first book, Songs of Hestia. Here we are five years on and the festival has produced two books, commissioned work from nearly 100 playwrights, staged readings of some 103 plays, commissioned an equal number of stunning original illustrations by Bay Area artists, and showcased the talents of countless members of the Bay Area acting community.

Not bad for a quirky li’l staged reading fest that started from a drive through the woods. As the festival itself is such an interesting and evolving beast, it makes sense that the fifth year would be dedicated to the monsters of Greek mythology.

I actually thought that I wouldn’t be involved with the festival this year. I’ve been involved with it in one way or another since the first year, wherein I was an actor. I played Prometheus, which wound up becoming something of a running joke when I wound up playing him three years in a row. Why no one seems to remember Stuart playing an incredibly smug and condescending Judd Apatow, I’ll never know? But I digress. After acting in two plays that first year, I wound up cast in seven the next year. The third year I was only in three plays, but I also moved up to being one of the festival’s playwrights with my one-act about the Titan Atlas. I wasn’t the first Olympians alumnus to make such a leap, but it seems appropriate to mention her as hers was one of the eight plays I directed for the fourth year (in addition to writing one of my own).

So yeah, I’ve been in the festival once or twice. I guess I’ve done enough to where after this year’s auditions, potential actors kept sending me messages asking when casting would be announced. So too did potential writers for next year ask me when those choices would be made. I have no official administrative capacity with the festival, but I told them all the same thing: “Just be patient.”

And yet I honestly didn’t expect to take part this year. None of my writing proposals had been accepted, nor had I been picked to direct this year. I auditioned this year as I had every year, but I was thoroughly convinced I wasn’t going to be cast in anything. I mean, I wasn’t cast last year either, so it wasn’t a big surprise that as casting announcement were made my name never appeared. And I took that as one-of-many signs about where my career has been heading this year. I’ve had to ask myself some serious questions about where said career would, could, and should be heading and exactly how I could get there. I was considering spending my October/November taking a small role for a very prominent local company (I mean, one even non-theatre people know by name) and just trying to see whatever Olympians shows fell on my “off” nights. So imagine my surprise when, early in the run for Pastorella, I got an e-mail offering me a role in the closing night show, “Echidna” by Olympians superstar Neil Higgins. (Like Stuart’s Judd Apatow, Neil’s stage directions “character” was one of the most memorable parts of Year 1.)

Surprise… and relief. Unexpected relief. There’s an almost inexplicable thrill to the festival that one can’t really understand unless you’ve taken an active part in it: the surprise of getting to read for characters and plays that can go from comedic to dramatic at the drop of a hat; the amazement that comes from seeing all the artwork on display; the wicked glee that comes from talking about which play will be “that show” this year (you know the one – the stunning misfire that’s talked about over drinks for years to come); the relationships that are made by two auditioners who share a BART train afterward; and, of course, the very experience of watching some of the most enduring myths of the western world become bold new works for hungry new audiences.

Can you believe I almost passed that up?

That’s when something occurred to me: since so many people have an interest in how they can see, support, or get involved with the festival, why not pull back the curtain every now and then? During last week’s opening party, we got to hear the announcement of the writers for next year’s fest, of which I will be one. So in addition to the other topics I’ll be covering in this column, I’ll also spend the next year making occasional updates on the fun/maddening process of putting together this lovely li’l fest of ours. And having taken part from nearly all angles of it, I can tell you that it’s no easy feat.

Over the next year you will hear stories of concepts praised and mocked, of scripts written in haste just to be torn up moments later, of “dream casting” that becomes a nightmare for everyone involved, of Jeremy Cole tracking you down like an angry cheetah because you didn’t reply to his e-mail, of illustrators who were supposed to have finished work a month ago but only have rough sketches, of writers wanting to tear their hair out because in the end there is nothing more stressful than trying to find the right raffle prize for the night of your reading and seeing that said prize is sold out.

But most of all, you’ll see a lot of love. What started out as a fun idea during a car ride through the woods has evolved into an annual highlight of the entire Bay Area theatre scene. And that’s always been the bottom line of the festival – for its audiences, illustrators, directors, actors, and writers – everyone keeps coming back because none of them can deny just how much fun they’re having. And I can’t believe I almost went a year without it.

get-attachment.aspx

Charles Lewis would love to see Stuart return to his role as Judd Apatow, if for no other reason than to see a two-person show wherein Allison Page plays his Lena Dunham. SF Olympians V: The Monster Ball kicked off last night at the The EXIT Theatre and continues tonight with Megan Cohen’s Centaur, or Horse’s Ass and Annette Roman’s Satyr Night Fever. All shows begin at 8pm, all tickets are $10.oo cash at the door, with raffle tickets $5.oo a piece. For more information, please visit www.SFOlympians.com.