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.

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Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Forewarned is Forearmed

Warning: Incoming Marissa Skud-missle.

One of the hot topics du jour is trigger warnings, but many of the arguments I read, both pro and con, strike me as arguments in bad faith. Engage in a discussion of trigger warnings and you’ll find slippery slopes full of straw men. Both sides claim the moral high ground. The pro-trigger-warnings crowd can imply that their sensitivity to social justice issues makes them better, more highly evolved human beings. The anti-trigger-warnings crowd can imply that art should always challenge and disturb us, so it’s immature and imbecilic to want to mentally prepare yourself before experiencing an upsetting work of art.

Let’s acknowledge, right off, that there’s a problem with the way the word “trigger” has gone from having a legitimate medical meaning related to PTSD, to meaning “anything that I find uncomfortable or unpleasant or morally questionable.” It’s the equivalent of someone who says “I’m allergic to gluten” when they mean “I want to eat fewer carbs.” Therefore, perhaps a better term than “trigger warnings” is “warnings about upsetting content.”

Many of the discussions about trigger warnings involve academia, where this issue is especially tricky because of the power dynamics therein: the professor designs a syllabus and the students have to read and engage with the material, or else they could fail the class. This blog isn’t about academia, though, so I’m sticking to the somewhat less fraught issue of trigger warnings for theater. Here, at least, people can freely choose whether they want to buy a ticket and experience a certain story.

To counteract all of the bad-faith arguments that result when talking about trigger warnings, I want to promote a good-faith relationship between theaters and audiences, in which they meet each other halfway. If a theater is producing a potentially disturbing play, they could put a blurb on their website that says something like “This play contains potentially disturbing material and is not appropriate for children. Please email us if you have additional questions.” (Being vague, and asking people to email for more specific information, avoids spoiling the plot of the play for people who don’t require trigger warnings.) I don’t think this represents some horrible capitulation to the Philistine hordes who hate any art that challenges their perceptions. Instead, it allows people to obtain information and decide for themselves what actions to take.

In turn, it’s the responsibility of trigger-sensitive ticket buyers to educate themselves as to what they might be seeing, and contact the theater if they have questions. If the theater offers them the opportunity to do this, and they don’t take advantage of it, they can’t complain if they attend the show and experience a trigger. Human beings are pretty good at finding coping strategies that enable them to turn toward pleasure and turn away from pain; but they should know that the world always offers both pleasure and pain.

Like it or not, we theater artists are in the business of selling tickets and attracting audiences. As such, I think we need to manage our audience members’ expectations fairly, and keep lines of communications open. Some friends of mine recently felt swindled by the marketing for ACT’s Let There Be Love: they went into the theater expecting to see “an intimate and often humorous family drama” (per the blurb), only to discover that it’s a play about assisted suicide. Neither of them were triggered, per se, but they thought they were going to see a cozy and heartwarming show, and weren’t happy when the play took a darker turn. Even if you think that some suggested trigger warnings (“heteronormativity,” really?) are silly, it’s not hard to see that the topic of assisted suicide might be upsetting for many people, and I have to think that there’s some way ACT could have better prepared their audiences for this.

Think about it this way: at the end of every New York Times movie review, they print a blurb about the film’s MPAA rating and potentially disturbing subject matter. Over the years, the critics have made these blurbs into a wry little art form of their own (A.O. Scott’s blurb re: Mad Max: Fury Road’s R rating is simply that it’s “a ruthless critique of everything existing”). It’s fair to say that these blurbs are trigger warnings; yet I don’t see the anti-trigger-warning crowd calling for them to be abolished. As far as I can tell, a fair number of people appreciate that the Times does this, and nobody really finds it pernicious. Without enacting official censorship or a ratings system, is there a way to offer a similar advisory for theater?

I know. Everything I’m saying here sounds boring and sedate and wishy-washy. In this polarized environment, it’s more fun to say “Down with the heteronormative cissexual white patriarchy, trigger warnings for all!” or “You’re a bunch of snowflake crybabies who can’t handle the complexity of the real world, I refuse to coddle you!” And yet, there are other people arguing for the middle ground. As I was drafting this column, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to the article “How to Teach an Ancient Rape Joke,” by Donna Zuckerberg. The rape joke in question occurs in Euripides’ Cyclops – which, in a funny coincidence, is the first play that Theater Pub ever produced.

Zuckerberg writes that when she recently prepared to teach Cyclops, she realized that she needed to acknowledge the rape joke and address it in the context of Greek culture. She felt that there were many valid reasons for Cyclops to be on her syllabus, and that rape shouldn’t be the sole point of her discussion, but neither should it be ignored. She also decided that there are ways to read the scene in Cyclops as critiquing rape culture rather than reinforcing it, which brings up another important point: everyone involved in debating trigger warnings needs to acknowledge that depiction of an unpleasant situation, character, or attitude doesn’t mean that the author (or the professor, or the theater company) endorses this unpleasantness.

Art and fiction allow us to process uncomfortable emotions; indeed, some people would say that that’s their main purpose. Here’s one last, somewhat flippant thought. Greek tragedy is supposed to provoke catharsis – pity and fear. What if “cathartic” is just a synonym for “triggering”?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, producer, and arts writer. She finds bad-faith, slippery-slope arguments triggering. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or find her on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

An Interview With Marissa Skudlarek

We’re one week away from the staged reading of Marissa Skudlarek’s new translation of Jean Cocteau’s Orphee. A well-known local writer, actress, blogger and (most recently) director, Marissa has been part of many Theater Pub nights, but this is her first time taking the reins for an entire show.

So, you’ve been a part of Theater Pub from the early days. Want to tell us how it all began and what you’ve been involved with?

I vividly remember being present at the first Theater Pub show, Cyclops, in January 2010! I was friends with co-founder Bennett Fisher at the time, and seeking to become more involved in San Francisco theater, so he suggested that I should support his new theater-in-a-bar venture. My first real involvement with Theater Pub — also the first time one of my plays was produced in San Francisco — came when my play “Drinking for Two” was selected for the inaugural Pint-Sized Plays festival in August 2010. Since then, I’ve had another play produced in Pint-Sized (“Beer Theory,” 2012), and written poetry in praise of props masters and costume designers for the Odes of March show. I’ve also appeared onstage at Theater Pub several times in several silly costumes: a fake beard and toga for Congresswomen, reindeer antlers and smudged mascara for Code Red, pajamas and a dressing gown for Pajanuary. Additionally, for the last year, I’ve been writing a biweekly column about Bay Area indie theater, “Hi-Ho the Glamorous Life,” for Theater Pub’s blog.

What made you first want to translate Orphée?

At college, I double-majored in Drama and French, which led to a lot of people saying “Oh, are you going to write plays in French?” (To which I would reply “Who do you think I am — Samuel Beckett?”) Then, the summer I was 19, I won a national youth playwriting competition, which flew me to New York City for a whirlwind two weeks of theater-making and theater-creating. When the competition’s Literary Manager, a guy called Lucas Hnath, found out that I was a Drama-French double major, he asked me if I had ever read Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. “I haven’t read it,” Lucas told me, “but a friend of mine says that the script is based around an untranslatable French pun, so that made me curious, and I wondered if you’d read it.” Well, when someone tells me a script contains an untranslatable French pun, I become curious, too — though I didn’t actually get around to reading Orphée until the spring of 2010. And, indeed, there’s a pun that’s deeply woven into the fabric of the script and poses problems for the translator. Carl Wildman’s translation makes a decent effort at dealing with it, but is less than satisfactory; John Savacool’s translation doesn’t even try. I looked up what the phrase is in the original French, and was turning it over in my head one day, when I came up with, dare I say, a brilliant solution to the problem. I don’t want to give too much away, but let me just say that the pun involves a curse word, which makes it all the more fun. My solution was so brilliant that I decided I might as well translate the whole play — to place this jewel in an appropriate setting, as it were. Also, I have the same birthday as Jean Cocteau (July 5). As far as I know, he’s the only playwright born on this day, so I’ve always been interested in his art for this, somewhat selfish, reason.

Marissa Skudlarek: Cocteau Incarnate?

Marissa Skudlarek: Cocteau Incarnate?


There are a lot of different versions of the Orpheus myth- what makes this one unique?

Cocteau’s take on the Orpheus myth is pretty wild — it’s like no other version I’ve seen. It all takes place in Orphée’s living room, so you don’t actually get to witness Orphée’s trip to the Underworld or how he pleads to get Eurydice back. Death appears as a beautiful young woman, attended by two servants named Azrael and Raphael (which are names of angels in Christian theology), rather than as the Greek god Hades. Moreover, Orphée himself has a guardian angel, a character called Heurtebise. Yet, although the play takes place all in one room, a lot of crazy and quasi-surreal stuff goes on — we’re going to have someone reading the stage directions because there’s no way we could possibly stage everything at the Cafe Royale! Cocteau also pays a lot of attention to Orphée’s death: the myths tell us that Orpheus was torn apart by the Bacchantes (Dionysus’ followers), but most adaptations ignore this part of the story. However, this sacrificial death is central to Cocteau’s vision, which focuses much more on Orpheus as a poet than on Orpheus as a lover.

What’s your favorite version (aside from this one)?

I can’t pick just one, so I’m going to provide a sampler of Orpheus-related goodies. The aria “Che faro senza Eurydice?” (What shall I do without Eurydice?) from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice is simple but absolutely heartbreaking. Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld contains the most famous cancan music ever written as well as the hilarious “Fly Duet” (look up the YouTube video of Natalie Dessay and Laurent Naouri singing this — it is NSFW and very, very funny). The movie Black Orpheus has a bad rap nowadays because it’s problematic for a white writer-director to make a movie about black people in a Brazilian shantytown, but I really like some of the tricks it uses to translate the Orpheus story to the modern era. (It was also one of my grandfather’s favorite films, evidently.) Moulin Rouge was my favorite movie when I was a teenager and Baz Luhrmann is on record as saying that Christian’s attempt to rescue Satine from the “underworld” is inspired by the Orpheus legend. Finally, Cocteau’s 1950 film version of Orpheus is fascinating to compare to Orphée (which he wrote in 1925). There are some similarities between the two works and even some passages of dialogue that are the same, but also some really intriguing differences.

Assuming you’ve seen the current production of Eurydice at Custom Made Theater Company, how do you think Sarah Ruhl’s and Cocteau’s visions match up?

To my chagrin, I haven’t gotten around to seeing Katja’s production of Eurydice! In my defense, I’ve been really busy this month and, as soon as I complete these interview questions, I’m going to figure out when to go see Eurydice. But I’ve read Ruhl’s script, so I’ll take a stab at answering this question anyway. One major difference between Ruhl and Cocteau is that Ruhl is a feminist and I really don’t think that Cocteau was. (He depicts Orphée’s nemeses, the Bacchantes, as a mob of crazy lesbian bluestockings.) However, both of these playwrights are really drawn to magical realism, impossible stage directions, and breaking the laws of physics onstage. Moreover, both of them have found an intensely personal perspective on this ancient legend. Ruhl has said that she was inspired to write Eurydice because her father died when she was a young woman (hence the scenes of Eurydice meeting up with her father in the Underworld), while Cocteau used the Orpheus myth to showcase his ideas about the role of the poet/artist in society.

Well, one thing your Orphee and Custom Made’s Eurydice have in common is director Katja Rivera. What made you want to bring her in to direct this first reading?

I loved working with Katja when she directed my play “Beer Theory” for last summer’s Pint-Sized Play Festival. “Beer Theory” is an odd little script that is very close to my heart, and I was so happy to be paired up with Katja, who instinctively understood what the play was about and what I was going for when I wrote it. Then, as I thought about producing Orphée at Theater Pub, I knew I’d want to bring a director on board, because I don’t have confidence in my own directorial abilities. I roped Katja in by saying, basically, “I know you’re directing Eurydice in the spring — want to direct Orphée as well?” I figured she’d have a pretty hard time saying no to that…

Why bring Orphée to Theater Pub?

Thanks to the sensibilities of the folks who founded it, Theater Pub has always been interested in Greek mythology (producing Greek plays like The Theban Chronicles and Helen), and also in experimental European theater (with productions like Vaclav Havel’s The Memorandum and Evgeny Shvarts’ The Dragon). Cocteau’s Orphée is the perfect combination of these two sensibilities. Also, the script is approximately an hour long, it all takes place in one room, and it’s a “tragedy in one act, with an intermission” — so it fits Theater Pub’s time and space constraints pretty well, too.

Any plans for it in the future?

I don’t have any plans for Orphée in the future. However, I think my translation is better than either of the two published English translations that I have read, so it would be great to do something else with it… I’ll keep you informed.

And what’s next for you?

My short play “Horny” is going to be in the May Theater Pub show, The Pub From Another World. It’s about sex. And unicorns.

As a long time patron of Cafe Royale, what’s your favorite thing to order at the bar?

Red wine if I want to be sophisticated and bohemian, hard cider if I want to fool people into thinking that I’m drinking beer.

Don’t miss Marissa Skudlarek’s work this Monday, April 15, at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale. Like all Theater Pub events, it’s a free show and no reservations are necessary, but we encourage you to get there early to ensure a seat. Also, our pop-up restaurant friends, Hyde Away Blues BBQ will be there!

San Francisco Theater Pub Launches into the Blogosphere!

On January 18, 2010, the crowd inside the Café Royale on Post and Leavenworth extended out the door. Inside, a standing room listened as Skye Alexander sang “Wayfaring Stranger” from the upper balcony. As the song came to a close, an actor stepped in front of red curtain emblazoned with the Café Royale emblem, stood for a moment, then shouted “Dionysus! Dionysus my master, you son of a bitch!” The first lines of the first performance of the San Francisco Theater Pub.

The San Francisco Theater Pub was founded in late 2009 by Stuart Bousel, Victor Carrion, Bennett Fisher, and Brian Markley, with the support of Les and Dan Cowan and their bar, the Café Royale. For the inaugural event in January, co-founder Bennett Fisher directed a staged reading his new translation of the satyr play Cyclops by Euripides – a ribald retelling of the famous story from the Odyssey and the oldest, as far as we know, play about drinking – accompanied by live music and flowing drinks from two very overworked bartenders.

You can read an interview with Fisher about Cyclops on Tim Bauer’s blog here and watch video of the production from UnfocusedSF here.

Since the first night, the San Francisco Theater Pub has hosted two more events, also playing to standing room only crowds.

In February, the day after Valentine’s day, co-founder Stuart Bousel directed A Valentine’s Day Post Mortem – a collection of original writing and songs from local artists offering all manner of perspectives on the subject of love and what (if anything) it has to do with the holiday.

Last Monday, co-founder Brian Markley presented How To Ride a Bus in San Francisco – a series of short scenes, songs, poems, and meditations on the perils and pitfalls of that infamous San Francisco Transit System.

And more is coming…

In April, Fisher returns to direct the first full production for the San Francisco Theater Pub – Vacláv Havel’s comic one act Audience. The event runs for five performances on Mondays and Tuesdays – April 13, 19, 20 and May 3 and 4 – 8pm each night and (as always) free admission. Reserved seating is limited, so be sure to make a reservation early if you do not want to stand.

The local community has responded enthusiastically. Even in these first few events we, the founders, have found a considerable thirst for a different type of theatrical event performed on nights – Mondays and Tuesdays – when cultural events of all sorts are scarce. We hope that the San Francisco Theater Pub will continue to serve as an inviting and inclusive nexus for artists and audiences – offering pieces that are short, lively, and engaging and in a relaxed bar environment with plenty of good beer on tap.

We’ll keep this blog updated with the latest in all things San Francisco Theater Pub, upcoming projects, behind the scenes perspective into the process, and ways for all those to get involved. To learn more, become fans of us on Facebook, email theaterpub@atmostheatre.com, and swing by on performance nights to talk with the team.

We look forward to seeing you there.

-Stuart Bousel, Victor Carrion, Bennett Fisher, and Brian Markley.