Everything Is Already Something: Realistic TBA Conference Panel Ideas

Allison Page is clearly looking forward to the TBA conference on Monday.

Berkeley Frappe: Which Theatre Companies Have The Best Snacks

We Hired Only Local Actors for One Year & Our Theater Didn’t Burn to the Ground

The Sarah Rule: How to Produce Plays by Women (But Only if They’re Written by Sarah Ruhl)

How to Take a Selfie Good Enough to Use as a Headshot for Twelve Years

Getting Cast as a Woman Over 40 Without Playing Someone’s Stepmother

Set Designs You Can Repurpose Until They Collapse During a Performance of Man of La Mancha

Faces to Make During Board Meetings When You Want to Perish But Cannot

Audition Waist Trainers: A Roundtable Discussion

Creative Ways to Swear in Front of the Kid Playing Oliver Twist When Nancy Forgets Her Line Again

Pros & Cons: Pretending to be a Man to Get Ahead as an Actor

Fight Choreographers Wrestling Each Other for 90 Minutes

Improvising a Monologue Because You’re Too Lazy to Memorize Even One More Thing, Please God, Please

How to Watch ‘The Bachelor’ During Rehearsal Without the SM Noticing

Do Blondes Really Have More Fun (Playing Girlfriends of the Protagonist)?

Group Nap

Playwright Complaint Circle

Moving From San Francisco to New York to Get Cast in San Francisco

Producing David Mamet Over & Over & Over Again, A Guide

Stage Managing a Show You Hate with People You Hate

How to Perform on a Stage 400 Times Smaller Than This One:

Empty Theater Stage

Empty Theater Stage — Image by © Chase Swift/CORBIS

Showmances: How to End Them…Maybe, But Probably Not

How to Use a Toaster as a Light Board After Yours Gets Stolen for the 9th Time

Payment Negotiation for Actors: Get Two Beers Instead of One for a Three Year Run

Shakespeare for Dummies: Can You Get an Actual Dummy to Replace an Actor in Midsummer Night’s Dream to Save Cash? Yes, You Can.

5 Sexiest Theatre Companies Shut Down This Year Due to Lack of Funding, Hear From the Weeping Artistic Directors Themselves!

Getting Board Members to Stop Asking if You Can Tap Into the Popularity of ‘The Walking Dead’

Can You Get Away With Casting This White Male as Tiger Lily? (THIS IS A TEST)

Stage Manager & Director Speed Dating: Watch 45 Directors Fight Over 3 SMs

Costume Designing on a $6 Budget

Are You Ready to Set Every Show in the Apocalypse?

Allison Page is a writer/actor/director in San Francisco. She’ll be looking for snacks at the TBA Conference and live tweeting it all @allisonlynnpage.


Theater Around The Bay: The Great Blog Recap of 2015 Part II

Today we bring you three more annual round ups from three more of our core blogging team: Ashley Cowan, Will Leschber, and Dave Sikula! More tomorrow and the Stueys on Thursday!

The Top Five Thank Yous of 2015 by Ashley Cowan

1) You’re inspirational, Molly Benson
Aside from the incredible PianoFight mosaic we all continue to marvel at each time we’re in its proximity, you’ve managed to continue bursting through the creative scene while balancing parenting a small child (which I’ve personally found to be an incredibly difficult thing to do). You’re acting, you’re lending your voice to various projects, you’re making art, and you’re out there inspiring me to keep trying. So thank you and please keep it up!

2) You’re so great to work with, San Francisco Fringe Festival
2015 was the second year I had the chance to be a part of the SF Fringe Festival alongside Banal+ with Nick and Lisa Gentile, Warden Lawlor, Dan Kurtz, Tavis Kammet, and Will Leschber. (And this year, Eden Davis and Katrina Bushnell joined the cast making it even stronger!) Now, I always love working with this dynamic bunch but this time around, I was returning to the stage after a two year hiatus and straight off of having a baby and returning to work full time. Thankfully, everyone was so flexible and kind that when I had to leave a show immediately after my performance (skipping the other pieces in the lineup and curtain call) to relieve our babysitter, I was greeted with support and understanding. It made all the difference so thank you again.

3) You trusted me to be a 90’s (Rose McGowan inspired) teenager, Anthony Miller
Last year when I had to back out of TERROR-RAMA, I was pretty crushed. I don’t totally know how I lucked out in getting a second chance with this October’s reading of TERROR-RAMA 2: PROM NIGHT but oh, man, I loved it. After feeling a bit rusty and uncomfortable in my post baby body, Anthony Miller and Colin Johnson let me play this sexy queen vampire 90’s teen. And I had the best time. Anthony’s script is truly hilarious and under Colin’s direction, the reading was a great success. But I was also left with that electric, “yes! This is why I do this!” feeling after I had the chance to be involved and for that, I’m super grateful. Thank you, Anthony. And thank you Rose McGowan.

4) You Made Me Love Being an Audience Member Again, In Love and Warcraft
One of my theatrical regrets from this past year was not singing praises or appropriately applauding creative teams when I had the chance. In this case, I didn’t really take the opportunity to give a shout out to all involved in Custom Made’s recent show, In Love And Warcraft. I was unfamiliar with most of the cast but, wow, they were delightful. The script was smart, sweet, and funny (and totally played to my nerdy romantic sensibilities) and the whole thing came together into such an enjoyable theater experience. I had such fun being in the audience and invited into a world of warcraft and new love. Thank you, thank you.

5) You Make Me Feel Tall and Proud, Marissa Skudlarek
In our two part Theater Pub blog series, Embracing the Mirror, Marissa and I uncovered new heights. Or, really, uncovered the heights that had been there all along and allowed us to kind of honor them. I’m so thankful that Marissa suggested this collaboration because the topic allowed me to reconnect with tall actress friends from my past while reevaluating my own relationship to my height. Plus, getting to do it with Marissa was a treat in itself. So thank you, Marissa for continuing to positively push this blog forward and allowing me to stand next to you!


Top Five 2015 Films That Should Be Adapted Into A Stage Play by Will Leschber

Hi all! Since I spend most of the year trying to smash together the space between theater and film, why not just come out with it and say which bright shining films of 2015 should end up on our great stages here in San Francisco. So here are the top 5 films of 2015 that should be adapted to a San Franciscan stage production…and a Bay Area Actor who’d fit perfectly in a key role!

Now, since my knowledge of the vast pool of Bay Area creative performers isn’t what it used to be, lets just get fun and totally subjective and pull this recommendation list from a single show! And not just a single show… a single show that Theater Pub put up… AND I was in: Dick 3… Stuart Bousel’s bloody adaptation of Richard III. Yeah, talk about nepotism, right? Booyah… lets own this!

5) Room
This film adaption of the acclaimed book by Emma Donoghue would fit easily into a restricted stage production with the cloying enclosed location in which most of the action takes place. It’s a moving story dictated by creative perspective and wonderful acting, things that shine onstage. Brie Larson owns the film’s main performance but it if a bay area actress could give it a go, I’d love to see Jeunée Simon radiate in this role. Her youthful energy, subtle power, and soulful spirit would kick this one out of the park.

4) Steve Jobs
Regardless of the Aaron Sorkin lovers or haters out there, this film is written like a three-act play and would work supremely well on stage, as it does on screen. It’s talky and quick-paced as long as you keep up the clip of lip that the script demands. The perfect pairing to tackle this towering role of Steve Jobs and his “work wife” Joanna Hoffman (played respectively by Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet) would look excellent cast with Jessica Rudholm as Steve Jobs (Jessica is an unbelievably powerful performer and can command any room she steps into…perfect for Jobs) and Megan Briggs as the Joanna Hoffman character: resourceful, smart and can stand up to powerful chest-puffing men. Done!

3) Mistress America
This buoyant film by Noah Baumbach follows a New York pseudo-socialite, Brooke, embodied perfectly by Greta Gerwig, who has to fall a bit from her idealized youthful 20s phase of life towards something a bit more….self-realized…aka adulthood. At times a situation-farce houseguest comedy, and other times a story of searching for self discovery, the themes would read equally beautifully on stage. The second lead in this film is a bright-eyed, I-know-everything-in-the-world college freshman named Tracy, who befriends our beloved Brooke character. It’s a dual journey. Allison Page has more confidence than all the college freshman I know. She’d play the crap out of that! And for the main Greta Gerwig part… this is a hard role to fill with quirk and empathy, so I’d say let’s give Sam Bertken a shot at it! Sam as a performer has the whimsy of a confident yet lost late-20-something, but the charm and determination to persevere with her/his quirk intact.

2) Spotlight
This journalistic procedural which chronicles the story behind the Pulitzer-winning newspaper story of sexual abuse and the Catholic Church would be a heavy sit. But the story is powerful, the characters are true, and the setting lends itself to small scale theater. To play the stalwart Spotlight department newspaper lead editor, played by Michael Keaton in the film, lets go with Carl Lucania who’d give the role a nice imprint. AND to boot, the Mark Ruffalo character (who is the shoulder of the film, in my opinion) would be handled wonderfully by Paul Jennings. These two have the exact performing skills to juxtapose unrelenting determination and quiet, frustrated fury which fit perfectly for this story.

1) Inside Out
Now I hear you…animated films with complex imaginary landscapes and vistas filled with old memories might not immediately scream stage production. But if The Lion King, King Kong or even Beauty & the Beast can do it, I know some insanely talented set designers, costume designers and lighting specialists could bring this world to life. More importantly, the themes of passing away from youthful phases of life, how hard and lonely a childhood transition can be, plus learning that life isn’t simply divided into happy/sad/angry/scared memories. The complicated reality is that our selves and our memories are colored with a mad mix of many diverse emotions and characteristics. Coming of age with this palette of imagination would be glorious on stage. And who better to play the central character named Joy, than the joyful Brian Martin. He just adorable…all the time.

Five Things I Learned on My Last New York Trip by Dave Sikula

1) “Traditional” Casting Is Over
Well, not totally, obviously, but as Hamilton showed (among so many other things), anyone can play anything. I’m old enough to remember when musicals had all-white casts, then, little by little, there would be one African American male and one African American female in the ensemble, and they always danced together. Gradually, you began to see more and more people of color in choruses, and they were now free to interact with anyone. Now, of course, pretty much any role is up for grabs by any actor of any race or gender – or should be. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see an Asian female eventually playing Hamilton himself. Whether this – and the other innovations of Hamilton – percolates into more mainstream fare remains to be seen, but it’s certainly to be hoped.

2) A Good Director Can Make Even the Most Tired War-Horse Fresh and Vital
For my money, there aren’t many major playwrights whose work has aged more badly than Arthur Miller. Yeah, Death of Salesman is still powerful, but the rest of the canon isn’t faring so well. Years and years ago, I saw a lousy production of A View from the Bridge, and even then, it struck me as obvious, tired, and dull. Ivo van Hove’s production, then, had a couple of hurdles to overcome: 1) it’s a London import, and 2) it’s, well, it’s A View from the Bridge. Van Hove’s 2004 production of Hedda Gabler (surely one of the worst “important” plays ever written) was enough of a revelation that I wanted to see what he could do with this one, and boy, did he come through. Tough, powerful, and visceral, it’s nothing so much as what we hear Greek tragedy was so good at. It was so good, I’m anxious to see his upcoming production of The Crucible, and see if he can make another truly terrible play interesting.

3) Even a Good Director Can’t Make a Tired Old War-Horse Work
In 2008, Bartlett Sher directed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, a show I’d seen too much and from which (I’d thought) all the juice had long since been squeezed. By digging deep into the text and back story, though, Sher and company were able to make it vital, exciting, and relevant. Flash forward to last year and the reunion of some of the band to remount The King and I, another show whose time has all but passed. Despite breathtaking sets, more delving into two-dimensional characters by very good actors (Hoon Lee and Kelli O’Hara are doing superb work in the title parts), and marvelous staging, it just sits there. The problem to these tired old eyes is that musical dramaturgy of today doesn’t always fit well with that of the early 1950s, and the show itself just has too many fundamental flaws to work anymore. It’s a pity, because a lot of time and effort is being expended in a futile effort to make the unworkable work. In the words of Horace, “The mountain labors, and brings forth … a mouse!”

4) There Is No Show So Bad That No One Will See It
We’ve dealt with the awfulness of China Doll before. Despite barely having a script and offering audiences little more than the chance to watch Al Pacino alternately get fed his lines and chew scenery, it’s still drawing people. Sure, that attendance is falling week by week, but last week, it was still 72% full and took in more than $600,000. Running costs can’t be that much (two actors, one set), but even with what imagines is a monumental amount being paid Mr. Pacino, it’s probably still making money. If I may (correctly) quote the late Mr. Henry L. Mencken of Baltimore: “No one in this world, so far as I know – and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

5) It’s Still Magical
Despite the heavy lifting of New York theatre being done off- and off-Broadway and regionally, there’s still something that can’t be duplicated in seeing a really good show on Broadway that has a ton of money thrown at it – especially one you weren’t expecting anything from. I went into shows like An American in Paris or Something Rotten or – especially – Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 knowing next to nothing about them and came out enthralled and invigorated by what writers can create and actors can do. In the best cases, they give me something to shoot at. (And in the worst, multiple lessons on what to avoid … )

Ashley Cowan is an actress, playwright, director and general theater maker in the Bay Area, alongside writer/actor husband, Will Leschber. Dave Sikula is an actor, writer, director and general theater maker in the Bay Area who has been in plays with Ashley and Will, but never both at the same time.

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: When Is a Play Not a Play?

In which Dave Sikula wonders what the hell is up with David Mamet?

In our last meeting, I discussed the shows I had seen on my recent trip to New York – save one, David Mamet’s China Doll.

Little did I calculate then how timely this chapter would be now, since the show has officially opened and the reviews are pretty much what I expected; in short, “What the hell were they thinking?”

There’s an old story (it might be apocryphal, since a quick Google search turned up nothing) that, sometime in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart did one of the their collaborations, but reviews were not felicitous and one read “Kaufman and Hart didn’t have an idea for a play this year, but wrote one anyway.”
My reaction to China Doll was that David Mamet didn’t have an idea for a play, so he didn’t bother to write one.

Pam MacKinnon on her way out of town.

Pam MacKinnon on her way out of town.

One could say that Mr. Mamet is controversial. When he burst in on the scene in the ‘70s, he was exhilarating. Between the swearing and the poetry of his language, he was really like no one we’d ever seen before. From 1973 to 1985, there really wasn’t anyone quite as interesting (Sam Shepard was too sloppy and the really big names like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams had shot their wads.)

In 1985, Glengarry Glen Ross came along, won the Pulitzer – and it was over. His next three plays, Boston Marriage, Bobby Gould in Hell, and Oleanna, were obscure at best, and it’s been downhill from there. (Though I suppose November and Race may have their defenders … )

Mr. Mamet’s books on acting are not without interest, but one of the stupider things he’s said (and I admit that takes in a lot of territory) is that there are no characters in a script. There are words on a page; if the actor just says those words, he’ll guarantee the results. And while, strictly speaking, he’s right, there’s more alchemy involved than that.

In The New York Times recently, there was a feature on how designer Vinny Sainato created the production’s poster. It was an interesting precis in the creative process and how a piece of art like that needs to evolve based on given circumstances. It’s a shame Mr. Mamet didn’t do the same with his own drafts.

Mamet may be the only American playwright who nowadays who can get a straight play produced on Broadway right out of the box – no regional productions, no workshopping, no previous incarnations. (Mr. Shepard might be another, but he seems not to have pursued that avenue – and seems to have, more or less, abandoned writing plays.)

Go on; criticize me. I dare you.

Go on; criticize me. I dare you.

I’ll admit that, in spite of my antipathy to Mr. Mamet’s recent work, I was excited by the prospect of seeing the show – and of seeing Al Pacino in what promised to be a meaty role.

We bought our tickets well in advance – and then the early reports started drifting in: The play was incoherent. Mr. Pacino was having line trouble. Mr. Mamet had skipped town. Audience members were leaving in droves at intermission.

We regretted buying the tickets, but what could we do?

When we arrived at the theatre, one of the first things I saw was director Pam MacKinnon. That she was directing at all was a surprise to me. Mr. Mamet is, if nothing else, a wee bit phallocentric, so the idea of a woman directing one of his shows – and a new script at that – was interesting. As I saw her, though, the look on her face said it all: it was a combination of confusion, frustration, and resignation.

I honestly didn’t know what her job with the production was. The prevailing rumor – which persists even now that the show has opened – was that Mr. Pacino was having line trouble. It’s understandable. He’s 75, and I’d say that 85% of the script is him having cryptic telephone conversations – of which we hear only one side. He talks and talks and talks and talks and talks – all sound and fury signifying nothing. In my experience, anyway, there’s little one can do with an actor who is still struggling to get off-book (like I’m one to talk) in terms of characterization (and if Mr. Mamet is to be believed, he hasn’t written a character, anyway), and as far as staging goes, the blocking seemed to consist of Mr. Pacino walking or sitting anywhere he pleased at any time he wanted. He has enough training that the movement was appropriate, but an audience can watch an actor yammering away on a Bluetooth for only so long.

That Bluetooth is one of the more notorious things about the production. Because of it, the rumor mill was sure that he was being fed his lines through the earpiece. Given the choppy nature of the text and his delivery, though, who the hell knows? (As well as the earpiece, there are two Macs set prominently on the stage, the screens of which are both facing upstage, no doubt so that the scrolling script can’t be seen by the audience.)

But, after all this, what’s the play about? I have no idea. As I said, Mr. Pacino spends the vast majority of the evening (to quote Ben Brantley’s review in The Times) “talking to, variously, [his] lovely young fiancée; a Swedish plane manufacturer; a lawyer, and someone he calls Ruby, a former crony who is close to the Governor of the state, whose father (a former Governor) was [his character’s] mentor.” It has something to do with a plane he bought and will or will not pay taxes on, officials he may or may not have bribed, and arrests that may or may not be made. That’s it. There’s an old (again probably apocryphal) quip about the plot of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “Nothing happens. Twice.” China Doll’s plot is that nothing happens. At all.
Mr. Brantley’s review begins – begins, mind you – like this:

No matter what his salary is, it seems safe to say that Christopher Denham is the most underpaid actor on Broadway. Mr. Denham – a young man with, I sincerely hope, a very resilient nervous system – is one of a cast of two in China Doll, the saggy new play by David Mamet that was finally opened to critics on Wednesday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, and he is onstage for almost the entire show.

So is – pause for ominous silence – Al Pacino. Now please cue sound effects of chalk scratching on countless blackboards and the ping, ping, ping of an endlessly dripping faucet, and you have some idea of what Mr. Denham must be going through night after night after night.

My wife’s takeaway was that it was almost as though Mr. Mamet were giving one of his famous “fuck yous” to the idea of conventional dramaturgy and deliberately set out to write a script that violated every “rule.” Nothing happens. Most of the play is a man spouting one-sided exposition that never really amounts to anything. There is no character development (though if there are no characters, how can they develop?). There is no real acting to speak of. It all amounts to Mr. Pacino putting himself on display as though he were in a zoo, speaking meaningless lines slowly and haltingly in a desperate attempt to make them mean something.

As we were leaving the theatre, I saw Ms MacKinnon again, a notepad in her hand. I wanted to go up to her and say, “I know what you’re feeling. We’ve all been there.” But no matter how challenged any of us have been with our own productions, I can only imagine the pressures of dealing with a Pulitzer Prize-winner writer and an Oscar-winning actor in a multimillion-dollar production of a play that’s not working. Whatever she was paid wasn’t enough.

The director in happier days.

The director in happier days.

I’ve seen theatrical disasters before (remind me to tell you about the legendary first preview of Bring Back Birdie), but this wasn’t even a trainwreck; it was more in the “Well, there’s two hours of my life I won’t get back” category.

Derek McLane’s set is nice, though.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Art May Not Be a Democracy – But It’s Not a Dictatorship, Either

Dave Sikula waves the flag of theater revolution.

As I’ve mentioned, one of my favorite pastimes is watching old movies and TV shows. In my case, “old” means shows of the 1950s and ‘60s. (As I write this, I’m watching episodes of What’s My Line? and I’ve Got a Secret.)

"Do you deal in a service or a product?"

“Do you deal in a service or a product?”

With old television in mind, I had another one of those coincidences today that makes writing these posts so interesting.

The first part of it was an episode of Naked City, which was an early cop show. Based on the movie of the same name, one of the things the show (like the movie) was notable for was being shot on location in New York. In fact, the narration of the film (and the first season of the show) mentioned how all the locations were real and that there were no sets. (As the show went on, this “rule” was broken regularly, and obvious sets were used. In fact, there’s one set of a duplex apartment that gets used so much in the second season to represent different locations, that they must have thought the audience had the attention span of a gnat.)

"Look out! He's got an axe!"

“Look out! He’s got an axe!”

The main reason I watch the show, now, though, is that it features early appearances by “New York” actors who have gone on to greater things. (Nowadays, of course, the only way to see New York actors is to see Equity shows in the Bay Area … ) It’s interesting (for me, anyway) to see Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Peter Falk, Maureen Stapleton, Sandy Dennis, Christopher Walken, and (my favorite so far) William Shatner as a Burmese sailor with a German accent. This week’s episode featured George C. Scott as a sculptor who had been commissioned to create a statue of a revolutionary leader. In an obvious analogy to Fidel Castro, the revolutionary became a dictator, and Scott’s character came under incredible pressure to stop sculpting and destroy the statue. Despite a cash offer of $20,000, pickets at his apartment house, and even a sniper killing his pregnant wife, Scott refuses to give up on the project because Art is more important than anything else …

Or something.

Now, I’ve long advocated for art that gets people agitated and causes controversy, but this was taking it too far for even me – especially when the sniper shot the statue itself. (Spoiler: Scott keeps sculpting it, plugging the bullet holes with clay.)

(By the way, after searching for images from Naked City, I just want to warn you: don’t do Google Images searches for “Naked City.” Just sayin’.)

The second part of the coincidence actually came earlier in the day when I read this story. In Manchester, England, there’s an artist named Douglas Gordon. He’s won the Turner Prize, but his work seems to consist of adapting and mashing the work of other, better artists and taking credit for the results. (See also “Lichtenstein, Roy”) As far as I can tell, Mr. Douglas has neither a theatrical background nor training, but was nonetheless engaged to direct a show in a relatively new $40 million theatre. (I’ll pause here while my brother and sister artists wonder A) why and how Manchester spent $40 million on a theatre building while our own governmental agencies provide next-to-no support for theatre companies, and B) how and why an artist was hired to direct a play when so many qualified directors can’t get work. Must be an English thing … )

The answer to the latter question may be found on the theatre’s website: Manchester International Festival “ has invited Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon (Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait) and celebrated pianist Hélène Grimaud to create Neck of the Woods, a portrait of the wolf brought to life in a startling collision of visual art, music and theatre.” I guess because they don’t have enough wolf theatre in northern England. (Who does, really?)

Despite the presence of actress Charlotte Rampling, the BBC reported the general media reaction:

The Daily Telegraph said Neck of the Woods had “the unmistakable whiff of a vanity project,” with a script that “simply isn’t very good,” while “Rampling looks terribly uncomfortable most of the time.”

The Guardian, meanwhile, described it as a “humorless and sedate Red Riding Hood retelling” that “takes itself very seriously” and is “so old-fashioned you wonder if Gordon has any familiarity at all with contemporary theatre.”

Well, Mr. Gordon took exception to the notices and decided to take matters into his own hands – literally. The BBC notes that “the show begins with the sound of an axe, and the stage has a number of axes screwed to it.” Mr. Gordon took one of those axes and tried to chop a hole in the theatre’s concrete walls. After knocking out a few chunks, he drew a demonic hand around the holes, then signed and dated the resulting “artwork.”

This guy...

This guy…

...did this.

…did this.

As might be expected, the facility’s management didn’t take kindly to the act and will be allowing Mr. Turner to pay for repairing the damage. (Apparently, management doesn’t feel the benefits of having this uncommissioned sculpture outweigh the chance to get rid of it.)

If you haven’t guessed by now what these two have in common, it’s not that sculptors are stubborn boobs; it’s that there are times you really need to let go and not take your work so goddamn seriously. I’ve never quit a show (I may have once, but I’m not 100% sure), but if someone offered me the equivalent of $150,000 to stop working on one, I admit I’d to consider it. And in the second case, who the hell takes reviews that seriously? Well, Mr. Gordon does, but what anger management issues does a guy have that he reads his reviews, gets mad, tries to figure out what to do, makes up his mind, puts on his shoes, gets a jacket, finds his keys, gets in his car, drives to the theatre, goes in, says hello to the staff and crew, heads into the house, finds a way to remove one of the axes he’s attached to the stage, then attacks the concrete wall of a new theatre because some reviewer thought you were humorless – which is something you’ve just, ironically, proven.

We’ve all gotten bad reviews (and if you say you haven’t, you’re a liar – or an amnesiac), but we’ve all laughed them off or called the reviewer “an asshole who just didn’t get it” and moved on. But this guy? I don’t want to see anything by this guy.

There was actually a third story I also heard about this week, but it’s one that will go unmentioned because there are things I just can’t – or shouldn’t – talk about. Suffice it to say that, when I saw a quote on Facebook (and I hate quotes on Facebook) that said something to the effect of “Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right,” I took it to heart – and that comes from an opinionated hothead.

To bring my headline into this, no, Art isn’t a democracy. If you solicit opinion before making a movie or pander in an attempt to make everything appeal to the lowest common denominator, you’re just going to end up with a bunch of bland crap. (Although I have to admit this formula has been working for Disney for decades.) You’ve got to be bold and individual, even at the risk of offending people. I know I’ve seen a lot of stuff I didn’t like, but (in most cases) it was because I didn’t agree with the choices the director made. I’d rather watch an evening of bold, stupid choices than a bunch of stupid non-choices. At least the first one makes me think of how I’d do things differently.

On the other hand, if you’re so bloody-minded and determined to make art that, if you’re criticized or corrected, your only recourse is to hit a building with an axe or let your wife get shot, well, that’s another stupid choice.

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.”

Everything Is Already Something Week 45: Haiku For Tech Week

Allison Page shares with us the sound and the fury of tech week, summed up in haiku form.

Lights Up:
Spot light on stage right,
Actors on stage left somehow,
Look how avante garde

Wardrobe Malfunctions:
Oh you ripped your pants,
Oh you ripped them again, huh
Are you new to pants

Mush Mouth:
Did you just say “Glarp”
I have checked the script for “Glarp”,
I have found nothing

Sounds In The Wings:
A construction site,
Or an armoire factory,
Is much quieter

What Do I Do With My Hands:
Stop grabbing your shirt,
Stop messing with your hat please,
No no don’t hold hands

Big Dramatic Death Scene:
You’re dying so well,
But way way too far downstage,
You’ve died in their laps

Everybody Bleed Now:
Fight scenes are scary,
Please keep all your body parts,
It’s only Tuesday

Don’t eat in costume,
I’ll have to poison the food,
You’ll have it coming

Caught In A Bad Showmance:
Oh look they’re in love,
That’s sure to fall apart soon,
Don’t cry on costume

The Royal Ball:
Ev’rybody dance,
Yes that’s right with no rhythm,
I need a drink now

Object Lesson:
You’re miming a cup,
Cups are so hard to come by,
They’re just ev’rywhere

Curtain Call:
Yes please take your time,
They’ve just been here three hours,
Maybe crawl onstage

Allison Page is a writer/actor/director/wrangler of 65 teenagers for THREE MUSKETEERS opening this weekend in San Francisco.

Everything Is Already Something Week 44: Thinking Outside The Black Box

Allison Page, letting her imagination run free.

“Listen,” I said to the herd of 25 teenagers forming a semi circle around me, “What you’re doing here – you should really cherish it. Relish it. This giant stage, this beautiful theater, the multitude of sets, costumes, props, sword fights, spiral staircases, and sheer number of human beings on stage – get everything out of it that you can, because if you intend to go on as an actor this very probably isn’t going to be the kind of theater you work in frequently, if at all.”

All for one, and one for really fancy outfits!

All for one, and one for really fancy outfits!

They silently nod, whether they really get it or not. I definitely didn’t get that nugget of information when I was their age. I guess I just thought all theaters were totally enormous. I guess I also pretty much thought all productions were enormous. I remember the first time I read Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf when I was probably 16 and thought “THIS PLAY ONLY HAS FOUR CHARACTERS, WHAT’S GOING ON? THERE AREN’T, LIKE, BUTLERS OR ANYTHING.” It sort of blew my mind at the time. High school theater (and community theater, for the most part) is often a matter of spectacle. How many kids can we fit on the stage? Can we make up a bunch of parts so more people can be involved? We can build a rock-climbing wall, right? Let’s make a big horse for everyone to ride in the background. Guess what! EVERYONE’S GETTING WIGS! AND MATCHING DRESSES! 26 MATCHING DRESSES! Oh, add three balconies – that’ll give it a lil’ somethin’ for that one scene, and then we’ll strike the balconies completely.

A spiral staircase in progress...because, why not?

A spiral staircase in progress…because, why not?

But as an adult theater-maker, my life couldn’t be further from that. I work in black boxes, primarily. Which I’m not complaining about, by the way. I love it. And that’s been the majority of my experiences for the last nearly 7 years. So when I came into this great big prep school theater, it was almost a shock to my system.

The Three Musketeers is a gigantic show. Even if you haven’t read or seen it, I think you know it’s a biggie. Giant cast, giant costumes, giant everything. AND it’s 137 pages long which is sort of…yeah, giant. I mean, Act II opens with a MONTAGE. And in the montage, King Louis is supposed to be wearing a 17TH CENTURY BEEKEEPING OUTFIT and using a 17th century beekeeping device to…keep bees. There aren’t even any lines about it or any lines in that portion of the play at all. Just an absurd montage of sword fighting and overly precious costumes and props.

The last thing I directed before this? A minimalist sketch show with six performers and no props or costumes. I did that on purpose. Because I don’t usually love dealing with all this other stuff. Also – all this other stuff is expensive. But in this case, it’s not a cost I have to worry about, and it’s part of the package. (Thank goodness for the fight choreographer and costumer and tech crew.)

It’s been an adventure. Some days are better than others. It is unquestionably a tough job. I mean, I’m no coal miner or anything but wrangling this many teenagers would be a test of anyone’s patience. All hats off to teachers who do this every day, every year. I can’t imagine that. The kids are great, they really are. And they want to learn, and they want to succeed, but in a show like this, everyone has to be patient. And that’s not easy for any 16 year old. I’m tired. I’m definitely tired. I just spent two hours sitting on the floor looking at photos of people in costumes and trying to remember what worked for whom, what we’re missing, and what we suddenly realized we need and had totally neglected before.

Don't even act like you're not dying to wear a ridiculous ball gown.

Don’t even act like you’re not dying to wear a ridiculous ball gown.

In the end, I think this show is going to be awesome. Like, it will actually inspire awe. Because it’s just so absolutely huge. But when it’s over, I will be happy going back to the cozy theaters I usually call home. Making things that may be small, but remain mighty. Worrying about how we’re going to fit more than one desk in a tiny theater for a play with “DESK” in the title, so we kind of can’t avoid having them. Stretching the limits of what a dollar can buy us in terms of costumes. Oh, look, a perfectly good pair of overalls on the sidewalk! I’ll take it! Doubling up parts because we can only afford 5 actors – and even if we could afford more, we can’t fit them backstage. Using chairs instead of a couch. Having a mask represent a lion – a puppet represent another character. Whatever the thing is, we’ll find a way to pull it off. Black box theater is a world of substitutions. It keeps us on our toes. It forces us to be inventive, and I love it for that.

Exciting, eye-catching, over-the-top adventure plays began my love of theater, and over time I’ve learned to love many different types of plays. I want these kids to get everything they can out of this and every theatrical experience they have, which will shape and inform the types of artists they become, and the types of art they share with other people. That’s a big deal to the future of theater.

And their friends will probably think it’s super cool that they’re sword fighting and swinging across the stage on a rope. I mean, come on. It’s a teenage dream.

Allison Page is a writer/actor/director in San Francisco. THE THREE MUSKETEERS opens Nov. 7th. Tickets here: http://www.shcp.edu/events/three-musketeers-nov-07/