Barbara Jwanouskos interviews the guy who writes all these bylines… amongst other stuff.
When I was thinking of people to interview for the last installment of this column in 2015, I immediately thought of Stuart Bousel, who is a writer, director, producer and leader of the Bay Area theater community. I’ve always been interested in what Stuart has to say about the future and where he sees the tide turning. I had to convince him that what he had to say would be interesting to others as well, but rest assured, he does not disappoint. What follows is an interview where Stuart shares his thoughts on where we’re at and where we could go. I find it inspiring as we look to 2016 and all of the projects on the horizon, the seeds that we planted that have now germinated, perhaps collectively we can move forward into a collaborative, thriving scene with lots of wonderfully imaginative new feats.
Stuart Bousel, winning the 2014 Outstanding World Premiere Award from TBA.
Barbara: What do you think the defining aspect of this year in Bay Area theater was and how it differed from years past?
Stuart: Okay, this is about to sound a little mystical and hokey, but I think we’ve been going through a sort of five year period of difficult but rewarding growth. Or maybe that’s just me projecting my personal life onto the theater scene, which I do all the time because I have a hard time drawing boundaries between my art and pretty much everything else on the planet.
Anyway, I think 2014 was a lot about new beginnings, things ending but also things starting and new relationships forming, and this year has been a lot about the difficulties of new beginnings once they are no longer “new”. Especially the realization that you often have to confront the past or various present issues AGAIN before you can really move on and really, truly emerge into some new and better place. So it’s been a difficult year, but a rewarding one, and I really think next year is going to be all about reaping the rewards because we’re finally gonna have shaken off the pretty intense crap we were carrying around but kept telling ourselves we were too busy to deal with (especially back in 2012, which I will always call “the Year of Treading Water”).
This year, finally knowing where we want to be, I think we finally started actually dealing with our crap and it was a bloodbath. But we’re emerging survivors and not just people who run away from our issues or hide behind constant rehearsal. We’re throwing away our crutches but we’re also throwing away our polite opera fans, as I like to call them, and I feel like I’m seeing more real conversations between people out there. There’s a lot of people starting to create new bridges to cross and ladders to climb, and that’s been born in a great deal of sweat, blood, and tears, but I think that’s going to create a period of immense freedom, creativity, and benevolence within the Bay Area theater community FOR the Bay Area Theater community. I think we’re getting better at wanting to see all of us succeed.
Barbara: Were there new or emerging developments in theater production, writing, directing, acting, etc. that struck you as interesting? How so?
Stuart: The biggest development for the theater community of the Bay Area, regardless of what your title is, has been the opening of the PianoFight space, hands down. Opening a two stage space with a cabaret bar and rehearsal studios attached is really such a huge thing to begin with but we’re only now, a year later, really seeing the impact.
One aspect is that the amount of theatre being done in San Francisco seems to have doubled. I’m not sure if statistically that’s true, but it seems like everyone I know is constantly in a show, going back and forth between the EXIT and PianoFight, both of which make creating small theater so much easier. The fact that both venues, with multiple stages, have been booked out for the whole year and well into next year demonstrates that not only is there a lot of activity going on in the small theater world, but it’s supported both by the artist community and the audiences. The demand is very high for new work, small productions with cheaper tickets, locally grown productions, and productions which are more than a theater experience, but also a night out, a place to discuss the work and engage with the community, and to watch both communities engage.
On the other hand, the greater impact might be as simple as we finally have a bar where everybody knows our names and now you know where to go if you need inspiration, or a sympathetic ear, or to just relax with people who get what you do. The only other place that’s ever felt that way, to me, is the hallways of the EXIT and the Green Room during the Fringe, but in the case of the former you have to be in or seeing a show at the EXIT to be part of that community, and in the case of the later it’s only for three weeks of the year. With PianoFight, even when you’re not in a show, the bar space is an open stomping ground where stimulating things are constantly happening and the people you want to work with are always hanging out or passing through. In the past when people have asked me to show them the local scene I’ve taken them to a show at the EXIT because it generally doesn’t get more San Francisco Real Theater than that. Afterwards, I now take them to the PianoFight bar because it provides the thing the Bay Area theater scene has always lacked in spades outside of specific events: common ground and social context.
Barbara: Reflecting back on trends that pop up in theater – anything that you saw a lot of? What are your thoughts on it?
Stuart: Without meaning disrespect to anyone or their work, I have to be honest… we seem to be coming to the end of the devised theater trend and I’m really happy to see it go. Not as happy as I was to see the puppets trend die (remember when like… everybody’s play had to have puppets?), or the requisite full frontal male nudity trend, but as a playwright I was really getting tired of being vaguely belittled by people who didn’t identify as playwrights and had never really studied the form, but felt that they and their troupe could more or less do what I do, and that I should basically consider myself a scribe whose artistic ambitions should be satisfied by typing up their notes.
I’m not saying you can’t make good devised theater because you can- A CHORUS LINE is devised theatre and it’s amazing- there is a ton of devised work out there that is fantastic- but for the last five years or so people have been acting like it’s the only theater worthy of doing. There’s a narrow perspective that it’s the last truly innovative form and people who fall into that mentality are often writing themselves a blank check for whatever they throw on stage on the premise that it’s innovative, while also upholding it as this sort of edgy revolution against the tyranny of the text (read: playwrights) and that’s just ridiculous. First because a playwright should be treated as a collaborator too, in any production devised or otherwise, and respecting a text doesn’t mean you have to be enslaved to it but finding that balance would require, you know, flexibility on all sides and many devised theatre makers seem to be ironically kind of stuck in their own process; second, the hoopla around the form feels ridiculous because a lot of devised work isn’t edgy or innovative, it’s just bad. Like truly bad. Not entertaining, relying heavily on experimental theatre cliches from three decades ago, taking itself far too seriously while also failing to be coherent. Granted, you could say that about a lot of text-based theatre too. There’s always a good version and a bad version of everything, but when a trend floods the marketplace, so to speak, it’s usually, and unfortunately, the hastily, poorly made crap cashing in on the trend that becomes pervasive.
I enjoy good devised work and I look forward to seeing more of it now that a whole bunch of people who shouldn’t be making it will have moved on to other stuff that they also probably shouldn’t be making and will probably make me feel oddly nostalgic for the devised theater trend. If I was to hazard a guess as to what that next trend will be… probably something like the Hunger Games. Just kidding, it’ll probably be something retro like masks.
Barbara: What do you wish we’d talk about more in the theater scene and why?
Stuart: Oh, where to begin. But I’ll just pick one: I wish we’d talk more about our failures.
I feel like so many people I know, good people, smart people, are struggling- especially producers and directors, who struggle with how to be good artists but also how to be good leaders- and the struggle is really real but we don’t talk about it.
Sure, we talk about how hard it can be to find affordable space, or to get cast, or to balance our art schedules with our day jobs, but I feel like all those things, while important, are also very much the superficial struggles of what do and we never talk about the deep dark things that trouble us like the shows that are born dead on arrival, or the real impact of artistic compromise, particularly over time in a career, or the value of what we do at all beyond keeping us off the streets. Though sometimes, I can be found on the streets, driven there by what I do- and I wish we talked about that too.
For an art form that is obsessed with truth (stupidly so, I think, because the truth is usually dull and almost never the truth anyway) it’s outstanding how much we, as artists, lie to one another, and for the same reasons pretty much everyone else lies: because we don’t want to deal with most stuff so we lie to make it easier. And sometimes it does make things easier, I don’t think lies in and of themselves are necessarily bad (and in our art itself I actually think people should lie as much as they can), but over time, cumulatively and constantly, it eventually creates a culture of superficiality that isn’t remotely supportive and is in fact quite alienating because suddenly you can’t be someone whose show is terrible, who doesn’t always say the right thing, or isn’t constantly excelling, and if you just happen to be someone going through that the expectation is that you are going to suck it up and go through it alone- EVEN THOUGH EVERYONE GOES THROUGH PERIODS LIKE THIS, especially if they have a career of substantial length.
I know that the fear regarding honesty is that people will suddenly just say whatever the fuck they like, whenever and wherever they can, and that suddenly we’ll know the truth about one another and how nobody really knows what they’re doing or why, and that a bunch of us really do hate one another’s work, and half of us have been lying to everybody about our actual qualifications or motivations to run theater companies and such, and there will be some of that, but in reality I think most people will remain polite and compassionate with one another and it’ll really be about finally asking for help, admitting our own shortcomings or limitations, and learning to be compassionate to ourselves once we realize that failure in this industry isn’t the anomaly- it’s the norm. Which means we’re all just normal people, and not the utterly delusional losers many of us secretly think we are.
Barbara: And what do you think we need to move past and why?
Stuart: We need to get over equating “success” in art with “financial success.” Like seriously- it’s so bourgeois and counter-visionary and I hate how many discussions and meetings and panels I find myself in where everyone is talking about what we do using the same matrix of success that WalMart does.
I am not saying money isn’t important or that artists shouldn’t be paid, and paid more/sufficiently. But too much, it seems, we let Money determine Art: from our seasons, to our collaborators, to the kinds of projects we pick or the extent to which we realize them. Money is a necessary evil, but it should never be our motivation or our conscience and it especially shouldn’t determine our value. The value of Art isn’t material even when the art itself is material- and it definitely shouldn’t be quantifiable and put on a spreadsheet so we can have a board meeting where we talk about who is ahead and who is lagging behind and decide if they’re a worthwhile person with a “real career” based on the percentage.
It kills my soul when I’ve heard “top performer” used the way a CFO would say it, by an Artistic Director or aspiring performer or whoever to talk about a popular actor, or trending writer, or designer, or whatever. And I bet it really murders the souls of all the non “top performer” artists listening in.
Barbara: Beyond discussion – what sort of action seems ripe for the scene to take now?
Stuart: I think now is the time for the Bay Area theater companies and artists (and it would be lovely if our Theater Support Organization would help with this) to make it clear to the regional theaters that they are not part of the community if they are not hiring the bulk of their artists locally. I’m not saying they should stop hiring from other places- we should always be open to and creating opportunities for guest artists- actors, directors, playwrights, whatever- because we have so much to learn from other artists working in other places- but we also need to start saying “and hey, you could learn from us too”, not to mention saying to our local artists, “what you do does indeed have merit and is good- even if you haven’t had it done in New York.”
Some prominent individuals aside, there is this general tendency to act like, and even occasionally vocalize, that there is “nobody good” in the Bay Area theater scene, the implied subtext being that anyone who might choose to stay and work here is doing so because they are not capable of making it anywhere else- usually LA or New York. The truth is, most the artists I know working here consider themselves on par with colonists attempting to form a new community with its own unique strengths and merits. And like colonists we are generally working in less than great conditions, impoverished for resources, and having to improvise, but we’re doing it because we believe in what we do and we’re trying to make a positive impact with our art on the world. Not because we like to be dirty, poor, and figuring out how to unclog the toilet before the audience shows up, and certainly not because we have no other options.
So having the fine ladies and gentlemen with Yale degrees and hoity-toity internships on their resumes give us the sneer because the pipes rattle in our theater we built by hand or because they have never heard of us since our work hasn’t been performed in the one city they think gets to determine artistic value, is neither endearing nor of value, it enriches none of us as individuals or our theater scene as a whole. There is so much local resentment towards the big houses but much of that resentment could be done away with, easily, if a lot of those Bay Area arts orgs who seem to be principally hiring anywhere BUT San Francisco and the Bay Area would make doing so their priority. I think the “the talent isn’t out there” lie would evaporate extremely quickly once the prejudice was overcome and if there WAS found to be some truth to it: well, what an excellent opportunity for our flagship companies to show their leadership skills and investment in the community by CULTIVATING the potential instead of just turning their nose up at whatever isn’t what they think they need to keep being whatever it is they they think they are.
What will save theater in the Bay Area is creating a culture of abundance and opportunities for those who are invested in creating a life here.
I look around and I see that happening in our small theater scene all the time, with people making stuff happen, as much as they can, on very little. But like most local artists I look at our flagship theater companies and I see… a crumbling fortress made of the same names and baggage that one often sees there, surrounded by a wall with a sign on it that makes it clear you’re welcome to buy tickets and that’s pretty much the only way you can ever expect to get in. Especially without that Yale degree.
And it’s frustrating because in addition to being shut out of the castle, you can also see- it’s falling apart. They are barely keeping it together. Which sucks- it used to be a really nice castle. And I get that they probably think we’re resentful punks who are part the problem. But you can’t expect the local peasants to tend a garden where only the imported ruling class gets to stroll.
Barbara: Overall, what’s your outlook for the future of the Bay Area theater?
Stuart: Honestly, I do think we’re at the beginning of a really good era. It’s been a ton of struggle the last few years because so many people I know have been building, burning, building again. But now these things have been built, the doors are open, plans are made and we’re finally smart enough to know we’ll need more than one plan.
I think it’s going to be a great time for small theater. The population of the city is young and while I know everybody likes to claim tech workers are not invested in local culture the truth is, they are, many of them are, but like most young people they want to see themselves and the things they care about in that culture- which is not an unreasonable request, nor does honoring that request mean a company can’t still do challenging or edifying work.
The small theater scene has been the best, I think, at rising to the new populace and inviting them in, creating work and spaces that appeal to them, while still also holding on to their old supporters and audiences. Small theater is so much about finding a good working paradigm and being flexible and this is a good time to be a pioneer and even better one to be a local trading post that stocks its larder with pioneers in mind. Recognizing and honoring both who your community is and who it will become is tricky, but we’re in a good place and time to do it or learn how to.
Barbara: Any words of wisdom for those who want to do what you do?
Stuart: Don’t compare yourself to other people. It really is the root of all problems. So don’t do it. And please tell me how you manage to not do it so I can learn how not to do it.
Only make art you want to make. Don’t ever do anything for the money or the exposure or because you’re bored or because you think this will be easier than getting “a real job”, or because other people think you should do it. Do it because you want to and you feel you can say something or learn something by doing it.
Also, stop “telling the truth” and stop “thinking small.” So much American theatre has gotten so small and weirdly obsessed with the truth (I blame social activists who think the arts are a tool of activism; real artists know it’s the other way around) and there should be more, big, grand theater. Even “small” theater can be huge- remember that. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of people to tell big stories, and small stories can be told in big ways. The point is, tell the stories, any way you want but with as much imagination as possible. And screw realism. Theatre is a medium of miracles.
Barbara: And plugs for shows, friends’ work, and just overall awesome things coming down the pike?
Stuart: Well, I’m seeing the KML Christmas show tonight, I hear it is delightful.
And I’m in the Theater Pub Christmas sing along on Monday- you should come, neither of my solos are in my range so it will be an amazing exercise in humbling myself before my peers but it’s also a lot of fun beyond that.
I’m really looking forward to seeing The Mousetrap at Shotgun later this month and everyone should keep their eye on Custom Made. They’re having an amazing season so far, and they have a lot of cool programing about to begin in the next year.
Also, I’m excited for the next season of Theater Pub. We have lots of new people coming in- writers, directors, actors. The goal really is to get Theater Pub back to what it was best at: being a people’s theater, a community theater for the theater community. We have a lot of cool stuff coming up that creates more opportunities for that and I can’t wait to see it come to fruition in the next year.
Stuart Bousel with the cast and crew of Grey Gardens- our own little community- including Jerry Torre- the real life “Marble Faun!”