Everything Is Already Something: The Ones Who Stay

Allison Page, back from hiatus, so she can say goodbye. 

Artists leave here all the time. Mass exodus. Okay, maybe not mass, but almost mass. What’s slightly less than mass? A lot. They leave because it’s expensive. They leave because it’s changing. But they also leave because it doesn’t look like they can have a career here — a career in the arts, anyway. Actors, directors, writers, comedians. They leave because they nearly always have to volunteer in order to do what it is they do and on the ladder of success, the San Francisco rungs are in the middle, never at the top. So they come here from places farther down on the ladder, hoping to figure out who they are. To figure out who they are, and to eat stacks of avocado toast as high as the Transamerica Pyramid. To figure out who they are, to eat stack of avocado toast as high as the Transamerica Pyramid, and to be able to tell stories later on about how they did stand up at a laundromat or saw a one man show that ended with a guy in a mask taking a shit on the floor.

And yet, somehow, some remain. And they don’t stay because they have to. And they don’t stay because they’re afraid. And they don’t stay because they’re not talented, or smart, or focused, or driven, they stay because they choose to. And some of them, some of them stay to build a future for other artists. The future the others left to find somewhere else. Because the truth is, if no one stays, there’s no one to create what’s missing, so what’s missing will always be missing. And what a choice to make.

How it feels to stay when the other artists leave: last piece of pizza.

How it feels to stay when the other artists leave: last piece of pizza.

It can feel like a sacrifice you hadn’t planned on, or didn’t even want. And you’ll have your moments of pettiness. Moments where you wonder what you’re doing, and remembering what it was like to only be worried about your own path. Your own auditions, your own gigs, your own shows, your own career.

And you have to find moments for yourself, too, times when you can take joy in the things in which you have always found joy. If you’re an actor, find times to act. If you’re a writer, my god, don’t stop writing. To me, that’s the death of our artistic leaders — when they don’t make art anymore, because they’re too busy supporting the systems that allow others to create it. Because suddenly you’ll find yourself the stepping stone used to get somewhere, you’ll be left, and you’ll look back at your Facebook memories and realize you haven’t been in a show in six years and you don’t know what your artistic identity is anymore. Everyone will just say, “Aren’t you in charge of that thing?” It’s an incredibly complicated balance. Because then people will find a way to assume that the only reason you’re getting to do anything artistic, is because you’re in charge, when it’s actually the other way around — you got here because you spent years in the arts and know what you’re doing. (HOPEFULLY)

All this “they” and “you” yadda yadda, should really be “we” and “me”. I mean, obviously. And after all this business about people who stay, this is the part where I mention that this is my last blog for SF Theater Pub. I’ve not been writing for the blog the last couple of months. Don’t feel bad for not noticing, there have been like a baker’s dozen of national and international tragedies in that time, and this doesn’t count as one of them. My professional life has changed a lot. My cohort and I are the first two full time employees of our theater company in 19 years. And while that’s so great, it is also BIG. And chock full of pressure. Most of my awake time, it’s all I think about. Everything else is secondary. There’s so much to be done, all the time, and whatever the task, odds are the two of us have to do it or solve it or make it or break it. It’s thrilling, it’s challenging, it’s intimidating, and it’s my full time existence now. And while I’ll never really step away from talking about theater and its issues, I am stepping away from writing here. I have loved my time spewing commentary on this blog and wore proudly the banner of TPub for the last few years.

I’ve also said some dumb stuff sometimes. I have absolutely read things I’ve written, months or years later, and been like “Ew, really?” It’s like listening to recordings of your own voice. But I’ve also definitely written some things I’m proud of. The best example of both of those things, is Sorry I Didn’t Go To College  from July 2013. I’m proud of being honest in it, and there are also a couple things in it I feel slightly squirmy about, but the whole thing was a big deal to me personally when I wrote it. Another proud moment came with the next post, The Grass Is Always Greener (On Some Other Asshole’s Lawn) about being jealous of other people’s successes and taking pride in your own path…and it definitely has some similarities to the beginning of THIS blog.

Thank you for reading now and any other time, and thank you to Theater Pub for letting me say things I needed to say, without almost any limitation. It’s been a ride, and I’ve loved it. If you want to see other things I’ve written, you can find me on Medium @AllisonLynnPage

I’ll see you at the theater.

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Allison Page is an actor/writer/director and Artistic Director of Killing My Lobster.

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Knowing When to Leave

Dave Sikula, on when to skip out.

My first directing teacher began our first class with his philosophy about the craft: “Directing is nothing more than teaching animals tricks.”

(One of my fellow students took that maxim a bit too literally and would throw M&Ms and other treats at his actors when they performed to his expectations. I have neither sunk – not risen – to that level yet.)

I don’t necessarily subscribe to this theory, though there’s some truth to it in that you’re trying to get people (who are, after all, animals) to do what you want them to.

In actuality, if I see directing as anything other than a collaboration, it’d be raising kids. (And let me hasten to add here that I don’t have kids of my own, so I can only speculate what it’s actually like.) You have a group of humans for whom you have to provide and safe and nurturing environment to ensure they have certain skills before you let them go to prosper or fail on their own.

Part of that process is knowing when to cut the cord and let them go out on their own. In reality, once the show opens, it belongs to the cast and the stage manager. (I used to use my opening night pep talk as an opportunity to verbally turn the show over to the SM. It was a formality, but I liked the ceremony of it.) Everyone has to color inside the lines the director has established, but his or her work is done. At this point, the director is, to quote Chekhov, “an unnecessary luxury … not even a luxury, but more like an unnecessary appendage—a sixth finger.” As an actor, it’s nice to see them, but (to stretch the parenting analogy to the breaking point) it’s like a divorced parent showing up. “Oh, it’s them.” As a director, you’re no longer part of the family, so while you can take part in some of the activities, the company has moved on without you (or in spite of you).

The director after opening night.

The director after opening night.

For some directors, the process is simple. After opening night, they’re gone. You may see them again occasionally during the run or on closing night, but mom or dad has gone out for a pack of cigarettes and isn’t coming back. Others like to see at least part of every performance. (I have to admit, in all honesty, that I’ve fallen asleep at at least a couple of performances of my own shows, but still felt compelled to go). Backstage at my current show tonight (in which I’m acting), one actor mentioned he’d worked with a director who came to every performance, four or five nights a week for four or five weeks. That’s either dedication or desperation or obsession.

If I do go to one of my shows a lot, it’s either because I really like it (it happens) or I’m trying to learn from it (still trying to figure out why something works or doesn’t – though I can’t recall either re-directing something or giving real extensive notes once a show has opened) or I’m trying to figure out how I want to video it.

It took me a long time to get to that point, though. I guess that, having acted so long, I really wanted to stay part of the company even after I’d kicked the kids out of the nest. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I’d miss a performance. Even now, I still feel, if not guilty, then intensely curious as to how things are going. (Even as I admit that the reception will be pretty consistent night after night.)

All of this isn’t to say there’s no role for the director after opening. In open-end runs (as in Broadway), many directors go back every so often to make sure that, despite the best efforts of their stage managers, the shows are what they intended them to be. Even though when my wife and I go to New York, we generally fly non-stop, for some reason one year, our return flight went through Las Vegas. When we got to the terminal at JFK for the trip home, I noticed an old guy (even older than I) typing away furiously at his Blackberry (that’s how long ago this was). I kept watching him and watching him, and finally turned to my wife (who hadn’t noticed him; she’s not as much of a people-watcher as I am) and said, “That guy looks like Hal Prince.” I paused and suddenly realized it was Hal Prince, whom I was now determined to meet.

Between him checking his phone and asking the ground crew about the flight’s status, he was constantly occupied and I didn’t want to interrupt him. He finally took a break and I rushed up and introduced myself and thanked him for his work and told him how it had influenced me. He told me that was a nice way to start the day (it was, like, 8:00 am), we talked a little shop, and then parted. He, being in first class, was seated on the plane before we were, and as we filed past him, he and I exchanged pleasantries. I kept trying to figure out why he was going to Vegas when it hit me that he was probably going to check up on the production of Phantom of the Opera that was running there then. That’s dedication. (Of course, if I were making Phantom-director money, I’d be dedicated, too …)

My buddy, Hal Prince

My buddy, Hal Prince

I mentioned in a previous post that I think a director’s main job is to get out of the way of the writer, but his or her second job is to get out of the way of the actors and realize that, once those lights come up on opening night, it’s time to realize that the kids have grown up and we need to start a new family. The old one will still be there, but they’re busy raising kids of their own.

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Shoulda Taken That Left Turn at Albuquerque

Dave Sikula outlines his own job description.

I'd like to see Bugs's Falstaff.

I’d like to see Bugs’s Falstaff.

As I’ve mentioned once or twice on these pages, I’m a director. In that role, I feel like I have two jobs. The first is to watch the actors, see what they’re doing, and tailor the action to their strengths (within the context of the script, of course). I’ve long found that if I try to get an actor to do something that isn’t organic to them, whatever it is isn’t going to work. If I can match the action to the actor, though, I find they can do anything.

My other job is to get the hell out of the writer’s way. When I read a script, I have to figure out both what it’s about (both on the surface and underneath) and the best way to get that message/story/metaphor/whatever across. Sometimes it’s by being big and bold, sometimes it’s getting tiny and intimate.

Now, this is not to say that there’s only one way to do any play. My Hamlet or Odd Couple or Sweeney Todd is going to be different from any other director’s, since we see different things in those plays that we’ll want to bring out. Even if I do something a second time, I’m going to do it differently from the way I did it the first time; different actors will bring out different values and moments and I’m an older and different person. The Long Day’s Journey I’d do now would be different from the one I did in 1997. (Though it would still be uncut.)

Even saying that, there may certainly be times where I’d want to deconstruct something or deliberately go against what’s on the page in order to make a statement about its values needing to be questioned or criticized. I have ideas about Chekhov that go against the way his plays are usually performed (though, ironically for this example, completely in line with what I think he intended), and in grad school, I devised a Brechtian deconstruction of You Can’t Take It with You (a play I really like) that highlighted and commented on its theatricality, artificiality, and place in the development of situation comedy.

So while there are obvious exceptions, most scripts intended for the commercial theatre—especially from a certain period—are pretty obvious as to what they’re about, and any attempts to screw around with them are foolhardy, pigheaded, and probably doomed to failure.

My own most notable experience here is when I directed The Fantasticks. I originally wanted to shake some of the rust and dust off of it; to lose some of its fussiness and make it more “relevant” to a modern audience. There was, I thought, a stodginess to it that needed to be lost. Anyone who’s directed the show knows that the licensor includes what is virtually an instruction manual the size of a phone book* on how to (more or less) recreate Word Baker’s 1960 production, right down to where to hang prop and costume pieces in the trunk.

Jerry Orbach is not included in the instructions. Dammit.

Jerry Orbach is not included in the instructions. Dammit.

(*Note to younger readers: a “phone book**” was a thick volume that contained addresses and phone numbers for every person and business in a designated are.)

(**Note to even younger readers: a “book” was a bound collection of paper upon which was printed a made-up story or accounting of factual events.)

When I got this manual, my first reaction was to sniff “Well, I’m not going to do it that way! My production will be my own!” But the more I looked at the script in conjunction with the manual, the more I realized that to make massive changes just for the sake of making changes was an exercise in hubris. There’s a reason the show has played so well for more than half a century. There probably really is a right way and a wrong way to do it, and I opted for the “right” way. It told the story in the way the authors intended. (This isn’t to say we didn’t tweak things or fit it to the actors; but we didn’t stray far from what was on the page.) The results were one of my proudest productions and fondest theatrical memories. It was a beautiful and touching production (if I say so myself), and I never regretted not having deconstructed it just because I could.

What brings this up? Well, we recently saw a production at one of the major houses in town of a show that could be considered a modern classic of sorts. (The production shall go nameless to protect the innocent.) From the moment it started, though, I knew we were in trouble. In the apparent name of shaking things up, the director (with a number of impressive credits nationally) had decided to put his or her stamp on it, despite anything intended by the creators. The changes weren’t done in the name of deconstruction or postmodernism or commenting on the text; they seemed done just because this director either knew better how to tell the story than the people who created it or was just tired of the “old” ways of doing it.

Let me hasten to add here (in case I haven’t made it clear) that I don’t expect directors, designers, or actors to do exactly what was done in the original production of something (if it’s, as in this case, a revival). Each company and production should be unique and bring a flavor or their own to the mix, while (as I mentioned last time) “coloring inside the lines.”

But this production was just a series of wrong-headed moves that kept denying or contradicting the script and its plot points, both major and minor; not for the purpose of commenting on them, but seemingly just for the hell of it. That the poor thinking extended to a good portion of the casting, as well, will go mostly uncommented on. (And, of course, that almost the entire cast was imported from out of town was inexcusable. There are literally dozens of local actors who could have played any of the roles with equal, if not greater, dexterity.)

One actor reminded me of no one so much as Jerry Colonna (seen in the video below). (To again offer clarification to younger readers, Colonna was a comedian in the 1940s known mainly for his big eyes and bigger moustache. Subtlety was not his calling card.) This isn’t necessarily a problem. I’m a fan of Colonna and his brand of overplaying, but for this role, it was like casting Elmer Fudd as Cyrano. It was almost as though the director, when faced with a choice of what to do in any moment, opted for the wrong one, just to see what would happen, then didn’t explore the alternative.

Certain of my friends will no doubt comment that “Well, you don’t like anything.” I’ll (as always) deny that, but some of the very friends who would say that shared these opinions of the production, so it wasn’t just me.

But, of course, at the end of the evening, the audience leapt to its feet to provide a seemingly sincere and hearty standing ovation, so what do I know? Ya pays yer money, and ya takes her cherce. Although in cases like this, I’m reminded of the late humorist Robert Benchley’s assessment of the utterly inexplicable popularity of the execrable Abie’s Irish Rose in the ‘20s: “This is why democracy can never be a success.”

In For a Penny: The Fine Art of Wasting Time

Charles Lewis III, filling the hours.

Time_Slipping_Away-web copy

“Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.”
– Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Two Sundays ago, I was an extra for a film shoot here in SF. Due to non-disclosure agreements we were all required to sign, I’m actually not yet allowed to say which film it is. And yet I’m willing to bet many Bay Area performers – stage and screen – probably got notices to work on it as well. Maybe some of you have even worked a few days on it. In any case, it’s a project I’m certain everyone has heard about, a subject whose work reached far and wide, and I watched a dramatic interpretation of a major pop culture milestone from my late-teens. It wasn’t such a bad day.

Well, I mean, unless you count the fact that I had to spend the night before at a friend’s house because the call time was 5am – meaning I had to be awake and out the door by about 4am. I don’t think cameras started rolling until maybe 11 or 12-noon. Lunch was a lot later. And, as I see from my payment voucher, I didn’t wind up officially checking out until 8pm. Fifteen hours watching Hollywood “magic” move slower than a snail racing a tortoise. After nearly a decade, you think I’d be used to it by now.

“Hurry up and wait.” It’s a common phrase in film-making. I’ve heard it’s also supposed to apply to theatre, but that’s never really been the case for me. In theatre, when my character isn’t in the scene being rehearsed or performed, I’m usually busy going over my lines, reading a book, checking, my e-mail, or (quietly) chatting up one of my fellow castmembers backstage. All of these things are done with the awareness of whether or not my scene is coming up next. Even working as an opera supernumerary (a topic I plan to cover in a future column) I’m made aware of the breakdown of the production so as to prepare myself for when I’m most useful.

Film is a different beast all together. You’re never expected to do the whole production in a single day, so the whole thing is assembled piecemeal. You’d think that would mean getting the most out of every moment production is in motion. And yet, if you’ve ever studied to be a film-maker (as I have) or taken part in a film production, you’ll know that the unspoken rule of the medium is to “Waste as much time as you want; it’ll all look a lot faster when it’s put together.”

Theatre is a performance medium first, a technological medium… well, not even second. All one needs on a fundamental level is a performance space and something to do; both of which are limited only by the minds of the performers. Film is a technology first and foremost. Storytelling will always be an afterthought compared to the functionality of the equipment. As such, the crewmembers ability to have things in working order trumps most concerns about preparedness on the part of the actors or stunt performers. As such, the performers will build up their energy only to lose it as they wait for lights to be placed and lenses to be cleaned.

But that’s all to be expected, knowing that film is a technology first. Where the time-wasting is most apparent (to me, anyway) is the lack of rehearsal done with the performers ahead of time. In theatre, you rehearse ad nauseum so as to know exactly what the hell you’re doing during a performance. Things may change during the run and a sudden burst of inspiration may make you approach your performance differently, but you’ll always have your rehearsal work on which to fall back. For film, the actors are expected to simply show up with their lines learned, to go through a quick run-through of how the scene could go, and then just perform multiple takes until everyone is satisfied (and then once more after that “just for safety”). You’d think that an industry known for its “time is money” reputation would strive to be more frugal in its use of both. Instead, everyone on set watches the hours draft away as everyone wonders what could happen, rather than knowing what should happen.

And it’s a problem adopted early. Film schools don’t teach aspiring film-makers to make decisions, they teach them to shoot as much as possible and let the editor decide what the final product will look like. “We’ll fix it in post” is the unfortunate motto every would-be Kurosawa learns their first day of class. They aren’t taught how to find the right angle, they’re taught to shoot from every angle – master shot, medium, single, close-up, extreme close-up – just to have options.
They aren’t taught how to be familiar with as many aspects as possible, just to find one area of the job that might work for you and focus only on that. They’re never taught to think of actors as anything more than props with dialogue, so they don’t understand why an actor needs character motivation and an understanding on a human level.

Now before someone sends me comments with the hashtag #NotAllFilmmakers, believe me, I know. When I work with folks who really have their shit together and the confidence to see it through, it’s a joy to behold. Hell, Will’s column is all about contemplating what separates the masters of the craft from the hacks – in both theatre and film. But it works both ways: if you ever wonder why every single movie, tv show, and web series starts to look the same, it’s because they’re all products of an art form whose educational basis teaches people to never distinguish themselves.

But how do you teach someone to be his/herself? I guess you can’t. I will say that I’ve always been more drawn to those who took the time to try to make something unique rather than just repeating what everyone else is doing. Perhaps they aren’t flamboyant attention-seekers, but someone who knows that there are some techniques that are only useful in the classroom and just waste time in the real world. I find myself thinking about this more and more as this year I’ve found myself directing more than I expected to (and will do more before the year is over). I’d like to think that every moment I spent with my actors was put to the best of use, that they and the technical folks were genuine collaborators in our production, and that I distinguished myself in a way that they’ll speak well of me when it’s all said and done.

Until then, I recommend showing up on film shoots with a fully-charged smartphone set to silent. You’d be surprised how easy it is to hide in period costume.

Charles Lewis III’s favorite memory of working as an extra is when he saw a former castmember of a much-beloved Aaron Spelling show have a complete meltdown begin shouting obscenities at the director. Good times.

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: What? And Quit Show Business?

Dave Sikula, having switched places, last week, with Barbara.

The thing that’s foremost on my mind this week is the 99-seat kerfuffle in Los Angeles. I’m sure many of my constant readers are aware of the situation, but for those who aren’t, here’s a precis (as best I understand it). Back in the ‘80s, a plan was implemented in Los Angeles theatres to allow members of Actor’s Equity to act in theatres with 99 seats or fewer at pay rates below Equity minimum. This usually amounted to token payments (in the low single or double figures) for rehearsals and performances. The most contentious part of this was that Equity had to be forced into the plan because of a court order.

Now, I’ll stipulate that, in a perfect world, anyone involved with a theatrical production – actors, designers, directors, technicians, stage managers, running crew, front-of-house staff – would be paid a living wage, but anyone in this business knows that we don’t live in a perfect world, do we? If we get paid at all, it’s a token amount that pays for gas or BART or Muni fare. And that’s fine. There’s an old saying that you can make a killing in the theatre, but not a living; none of us does this to get rich. It’s all about – or should be about – the creative process and the chance to do interesting work.

When I started auditioning for shows in Los Angeles in the late ‘70s, it was (for the most part) not good. The scene was filled with shows that were intended mainly as showcases for people to get agents to do film and television. There was some quality work – at The Odyssey, The Matrix, South Coast Rep; some other places – but most was middling or bad or featured TV and movie stars who wanted to tread the boards, to mixed results. (The Charlton Heston/Deborah Kerr Long Day’s Journey was particularly gruesome, but Dana Elcar, Donald Moffat, Ralph Waite, and Bruce French did an unforgettable Godot; the second-best I’ve ever seen).

Didi, Gogo, Pozzo

Didi, Gogo, Pozzo

Chuck as Tyrone. Not for the faint of heart.

Chuck as Tyrone. Not for the faint of heart.

After the waiver was implemented, LA theatre bloomed and entered, if not a golden age, then an explosion of creativity. Companies sprang up and thrived as actors, both known and unknown were able (to use a phrase I hate) to “practice their craft,” be creative, take artistic risks, and find their own level of success, unhampered by undue financial concerns.

For the last twenty-some years, this system must have stuck in Equity’s craw, and in recent months, they’ve announced plans to get rid of the waiver and ensure union actors are paid, at the very least, minimum wage. Now in theory, who could object to that? Actors should be able to make at least as much as the kid at McDonald’s who runs the drive-thru (a job that actually requires him or her to act being friendly for at least part of a shift), but doing that will drive up production costs to ruinous levels (I’ve read between 5,000% and 9,000%) that will drive a lot of companies out of business – ironically depriving the very actors whom the union wants to be paid for working. It seems Equity’s position is that actual work at small compensation is preferable to no work at minimum wage.

I was stunned to hear that there are 8,000 Equity members in the Los Angeles area. I don’t think there are 8,000 actors in the Bay Area, let along Equity members. (Of course, it seems like a good portion of the Equity actors working here live in New York … ) Now, obviously, not all of those union actors are working on stage, either fully paid or underpaid, but even if half of them were/are doing waiver shows, that half will soon be deprived of work, because the companies that have allowed them to do something with substance (or even something frivolous) won’t be there anymore.

As might be guessed, this proposal is causing large rifts in the LA theatre community, with plenty of actors – and plenty of them famous, if that makes any difference – pitted against their own union. (And let it be notes, the new plan has plenty of supporters.) While both sides are pretty adamant in their stances, Equity isn’t really playing fair, using phone banks to spread, if not misinformation, then incomplete information and deleting opposing comments from their Facebook and other web pages. And, on top of that, even though Equity members will be voting on whether to institute a new plan, it’s strictly advisory, and the union’s board will be free to dump the old plan and put in a new one. (And let me hasten to add, many of the people against the new plan acknowledge that the current one could stand some changes – just not the proposed one.)

Even Hal Holbrook is in favor of the waiver (hey, that rhymes).

Even Hal Holbrook is in favor of the waiver (hey, that rhymes).

Now, even though I’m a member of two unions (which will go unnamed) myself, not only am I in favor of keeping the waiver in Los Angeles, I wish we here had something similar; not because I don’t want actors to be paid, but because the talent pool available to a lot of directors and theatre companies in the Bay Area would rise dramatically (no pun intended). I haven’t been a member of the LA theatre community for over 20 years, but from what I read and hear about it, it’s vibrant, experimental, bold, and, most important, open. Even though theatre space has always been at a premium in the Bay Area – now (when it seems like any building in mid-Market is being replaced by skyscraping condo projects) more than ever – I’d have to think that a move that allowed actors to work in so many venues and with so any company that met the criteria would be a shot in the arm and kick start the golden age of theatre that San Francisco’s been on the verge of for the last 20 years. #pro99

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Moliere- Made to Order “Wile-U-Wait”

Dave Sikula, writing us from the directing chair.

I’m directing again. I enjoy directing. I’m not bad at it and the results are almost always worth the time it all took. There are, of course, occasional exceptions to this, but Dirty Work at the Crossroads and Damn Yankees will go unmentioned in these pages. (Though I will give you a full debriefing if you get enough alcohol into me – though there’s not that much alcohol in the world …)

But I digress.

I’m directing, and this time, it’s a unique experience for me because I’m directing my own script. Now, let me clarify that. It’s my script, but it’s neither original nor wholly my own. It’s an adaptation of Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid, written in collaboration with, primarily, my long-suffering wife and, secondarily, the cast.

When I toured the theatre at the interview, I knew it was going to be a small-scale production. I could see I wasn’t going to be able to fly in chandeliers or helicopters, and my royalty budget was going to be minimal, so I started thinking of what I could do that would fit the budget and the space. That’s fine. In the last decade, I’ve become more of a minimalist, and do what I can to get by with metaphor and suggestion. I was given carte blanche on what script to select, and after some brief thought, I remembered how two of the funniest productions I’ve ever seen were of Invalid, and that it might be time for me to try some Moliere. And if I was going to do Moliere, well, why not do my own translation? I mean, there would be no royalties at all, so the script would say exactly what I’d want it to, and it could be fun. Regardless, it would push me out of a comfort zone and force my creativity into an unfamiliar direction.

Pushed out of a comfort zone, or off a cliff?

Pushed out of a comfort zone, or off a cliff?

Now, I know I’m not unique in this. Playwrights do it all the time – the proprietor here is a prime example. But there’s a lot to do. It’s not as complicated as acting in a show while directing it, but it’s no walk in the park. We’re three weeks into rehearsal (and I’m already on my third ingenue. Don’t ask …), and it’s a constant battle to watch staging, add business, and course correct while simultaneously wondering if something is phrased correctly, gets the point across, advances the plot, and sounds right. And, most importantly, there’s no writer to blame if any of those script factors are lacking.

One of the things I’ve wanted to do during this process was to give the actors a literal voice; to make sure that not only are their ideas implemented, but that my deathless dialogue feel organic to them. (I can’t really call it Moliere’s deathless dialogue because A) it’s not in 17th century French, B) it’s not in rhyming Alexandrines, and C) I’m pretty sure Moliere never included references to Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, or Taylor Swift.) That’s the beauty part; even though Moliere’s point was that all doctors are quacks and frauds, and that none of them are to be trusted (which is ironic, because this is the play in which he suffered a fatal seizure while performing), we’re able to take his basic characters and situations and make them do whatever we want. (And, of course, since Moliere himself was adapting commedia archetypes and making them say and do whatever he wanted, I feel no qualms about doing that to him.) In my case, it means ribbing both “natural” medicine and hard-core evangelicals, among other targets. Given the time, and a desire to stick to the basic structure of the play, I wasn’t able to take it as far as I wanted to, but I neither wanted to really insult people nor lose the lightness of the original. It’s a dumb comedy about a rich hypochondriac who gets fleeced by con men, and that’s the story I wanted to stay with. All the rest is layering and dressing.

That whirring sound? Moliere spinning in his grave.

That whirring sound? Moliere spinning in his grave.

The thing this whole experience has pointed out to me is how back to basics it all is. It’s not quite “two planks and a passion,” but it’s not lavish. Jeebus knows that none of us do this for the money, but this is an extreme case of that. We’re taking a story and telling it in a fun and light manner. We don’t have much in the way of sets or costumes or props; we’re not skimping, but it’s not a show about the trappings. It’s a show about a company getting together, playing multiple parts, and entertaining an audience, and maybe giving them the slightest of messages to take home with them.

Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush. Not in Moliere's original.

Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush. Not in Moliere’s original.

It’s something I’d recommend to any director. Sure, it’s a privilege to work with big budgets and be able to get anything you want, but it’s truly bracing and challenging to have limited resources and make your creativity work rather than writing a check.

Everything Is Already Something Week 50: Why Isn’t It Just Funny?

Allison Page gets serious. And anxious. And anxious about being serious.

“Wh…what did you think?”, I stammer.
“Why wasn’t it just funny? It should have just been funny.”, says a faceless man, walking away from where I stand, leaving me in front of a grungy set, holding a beer. Then the floor opens up and I drop into a lava pit and am quickly enveloped in a sea of hot melty fire sludge. And then maybe a pterodactyl flies by or something.

This is what my brain makes up when I start thinking about what other people’s reactions to my first full length production as a playwright will be. The fact that I missed writing my last blog – which is the only time that has EVER happened in the last two years – should tell you how deep I am into this show. And let’s be clear about one thing – it is going fantastically well. Rehearsals are these great revelatory experiences, mostly because the director (Claire Rice) is the exact right fit for this play. She asks the right questions and that’s a biggie.

But I have this…thing hanging over me. And I sincerely doubt it’s unique. It’s also sort of narcissistic and I totally recognize that. It’s that thing where people get used to you doing a certain thing or being a certain way and then you deviate from the path in some manner and have no idea if that’s going to be a plus or a minus to people. Yeah, okay, I usually write comedy. I know that. And yes, this play has a title that makes it sound like a comedy. But it is really dark. The assistant director referred to it as “cruel” which it definitely is at times. This is especially true of the main character, who – SPOILER ALERT – is played by me. So yeah, now I’m that guy. I’m in a thing I wrote. Now, I don’t tend to write things for myself. Actually, I’ve never done it before. This is the first time. It’s a unique project and I don’t see writing lots of things for myself in the future. But it certainly is extra pressure on me. Then, naturally, my brain goes “God, what are people going to think of THAT?”

The Number 23 has an 8% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, in case anyone was wondering.

The Number 23 has an 8% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, in case anyone was wondering.

I could think about this stuff all day. I mean, I’d go crazy doing it, but I could do it. They’re all self-inflicted issues mostly based on what I would think if I knew someone who wasn’t me who was doing the same thing I’m doing. Ya know, because I’m a judgmental jerk and kind of a lunatic. Taking ownership of this project and saying “If people don’t like it, that’s okay.” is hard. But totally necessary. I’m making it not because I think it’s for everyone and that they’ll love it and lose their minds. I’m making it because I couldn’t let it go. It’s been brewing for 4 years in my brain, and at some point I just figured that I had to find a way to make it happen because otherwise I’ll be forever bitter at myself for not doing it. It just stuck with me like nothing else has, and I have to think that’s because I need to do it.

53%...slightly better, anyway!

53%…slightly better, anyway!

When I try to think about who I think this show is FOR – like what kind of audience is the best kind of audience for this play – I’m not sure I know how to answer that. I have this nagging feeling that any critics who have liked me up to this point are not likely to approve of this show. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m right. Either way it doesn’t really matter, I’m going to do what I’m doing because it feels necessary. And yeah, the narcissistic part is thinking that anyone, anywhere gives a shit if I deviate from a perceived norm. Because that means I think someone is actually paying enough attention to make the assumption that I only work on certain types of material.

*snake eats its own tail AGAIN*

I’m not a sensitive person, but this thing is bringing weird stuff out of me. I’m trying to stay even and calm because that’s my preferred state of mind, but I can’t help but feel I’m taking some kind of risk – which is important, right? Otherwise WHAT ARE WE ALL DOING?!

80% - hey, that's pretty good! Actually, I give this movie my own 100%, and I think Patton Oswalt is brilliant in it.

80% – hey, that’s pretty good! Actually, I give this movie my own 100%, and I think Patton Oswalt is brilliant in it.

Oh boy. What a mess this blog is. Also, I make no comparisons between me and Jim Carrey, Bill Murray, or Patton Oswalt. Just…so we’re clear. Back to revisions and memorizing. And then trying not to sweat it, and sweating it anyway.

You can catch Allison Page in her DIVAfest-produced HILARITY at the EXIT Theatre in San Francisco, opening March 5th.