The Real World, Theater Edition: An Interview With Allison Page

Barbara Jwanouskos, helping us catch up, with both Allison and the blog.

Allison and Babs selfie

Allison and Babs selfie

Allison Page and I met over lunch to discuss the upcoming DivaFest production of her play, “Hilarity” directed by Claire Rice. Over quesadillas, we discussed the darkness of comedy and addictions and what it’s like to write something that becomes very taxing. I found it extremely interesting how Allison writes and her process of preparation. She has always been a source of inspiration because of her boldness in her convictions and how she approaches work. As I’m looking to hunker down into my own passion projects, I found learning about the background of the creation of “Hilarity” useful in helping to form my own strategies. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.

Babs: Can you tell me a little bit about the premise of “Hilarity”?

Allison: “Hilarity” is about a comedian who happens to be a woman who is also an alcoholic. And it’s completely dependent on her best friend who is also her personal assistant. So basically, that’s the person who’s in her world. The only other people that exist are her agent – who is funny, but kind of a coward and non-confrontational – and her mom who flies in once a year and just acts like an asshole. So, it’s about her sort of… I hesitate to say, “trying to get her shit together” because she only tries to get her shit together when someone forces her to get her shit together, but it’s basically about her and her life, which is starting to fall apart. So, it’s a fun romp!

Babs: How did it come to be? How did it start?

Allison: It’s something that I started thinking about 4 years ago, which is a pretty long time for me because I’m used to things happening much more quickly than that. I’ve always been really fascinated with comedians in general. Then I knew more and more of them. And then I became one myself and then I was engaged to one. So they’ve always just sorta been around and been the people I understand best, even though they’re often times – not always – so very conflicted. And I feel like it’s become this stereotype that comedians have some sort of substance abuse problem. But it’s a real thing that happens a shitload.

You know, people like Marc Maron talking about his previous substance abuse problems and how they affected all his relationships with all these other comedians. Anyone who listens to WTF knows that shit gets really complicated and really fascinating. So, I just started thinking about it and jotting some things down. I had met with one person from another theater company about producing it and sort of faded away so I put it away for a while. But I just kinda couldn’t stop thinking about it – which was unique – because I tend to drop things if they don’t happen. Like, who cares, whatever. I’m not precious about stuff that I do. But this was just the one nagging thing in the back of my head that wouldn’t really go away. And so about a year and a half ago, I sent Claire Rice a facebook message like, “Hey! Want to direct a thing maybe nex year?” And I was really vague about it. At that time I had another play that’s not mine – that’s from the thirties – that I considered putting up instead. Like, “well, maybe I’ll just do this thing because this thing I wrote would be harder…”

And then in the end I ended up choosing my thing. But she was was onboard immediately. I asked her, “Would you want to direct this thing next year?” And she was like, “Yep! Whatever you want!” Or I think she actually said, “Anything for you,” which is an embarrassing thing to admit.

We were just going to produce it ourselves, but Claire thought of bringing it to Diva Fest, and she did. They accepted it. And now, that’s why it’s happening.

Babs: Can you tell me about DIVAfest?

Allison: I know that they’ve been around for 14 years. It started as a festival to produce work of female playwrights. It sorta has expanded since then to produce solo work. They have a burlesque show, Diva or Die, and other miscellaneous stuff. And they had sort of a “season”, I guess you could say, before, but now it’s more that throughout the year they just have sprinkled things that they’re doing. So, it’s not that there’s a Diva festival happening in March and I’m part of that with a bunch of other things. There’s just different points that they do stuff. I know they have some things in development – like there’s a big solo show that’s in development. Claire’s worked with them. I think this is her 4th year.

Babs: Over the last four years, you’ve were developing the script and working with Claire-

Allison: Yeah.

Babs: Can you walk me through the steps of development?

Allison: So Claire’s only been onboard for the last year and a half or so. Before that, I would sort of work on it and not work on it and I was really arguing with myself about whether or not I was really going to do it.

Babs: What was the “no” voice saying? What was the difficulty in continuing?

Allison: Well, so… here’s the “Oh no! She almost let a man tell her what to do” situation. So I actually thought of this while I was still with my ex-fiance who’s a comedian.

I remember saying like, “I have this idea for this play and I’m kind of obsessed with it and just thinking about it.” And he was like, “But you can’t write a play…” And I was like, “Why not?” And he said, “Because you don’t write plays.” Okay, fair enough.

But then I did it anyway, but not until three years later. I mean between the time we had that conversation and now with this happening, I’ve written so many more things, which I actually think is good. It kinda prepared me for this a bit more. I don’t think I could have done this right out of the gate at the time. But now, I’ve written tons of stuff – lots of different things that have been able to prepare me.

So that was maybe part of the “no” voice and also, it just feels like… It’s a tough story. Strangely, for whatever reason, a lot of people in the cast have tough times with certain aspects of the script – reading it or watching it, or whatever – because most of us have experiences with people who have drinking problems – friends, relatives, parents who are alcoholics. So, we all have these ties to these people who have these problems and we’ve had to watch it and deal with it and all that stuff. I’m included in that. I’ve been really close to some people with very severe problems. So the complexity of the material is a little scary and that makes it- When I was writing it, it made it hard to work on. I felt like I’ll just go and do something else I was working on that was more fun, that was less draining. So, it would distract me from working on the thing because I was working on something else that was easier.

I certainly am glad I’m doing it. It just took me a long time to feel like I could deal with it all.

Babs: Do you feel comfortable with where it is right now? And is there a sort of future trajectory that you kind of have in mind for it?

Allison: I feel pretty good about where it is now. I think if you had asked me a week and a half ago, I would have been like, “I don’t know, man!”

Doing the re-writes while something is in rehearsal has been incredibly fascinating. I’ve made a lot of changes that I think are good. It’s in a much better place than I think it was a few weeks ago. And I really like it now.

I said that last night after rehearsal when we were done. It’s like ten-something PM and we’re like on this mattress in the middle of the floor – because that’s the set. It’s set on a mattress on the middle of the floor, so I’m just like lying on this mattress and I look up at Claire and I’m like, “Hey, I like this a lot more than I thought I liked it!” So, that’s pretty cool.

And I feel pretty good about where it is. The EXIT Press is publishing it, but I can still make changes after the production. Actually, having a deadline of when they needed to have the script to publish it was really helpful because then I was like, “Now is the time for it be really close to what it’s gonna be.”

I’ve sort of relaxed. I sent the final draft a couple days ago and now I’m like, “Huh, I feel pretty good about that!” I think I feel like I can leave it for now. Maybe I’ll do something to it later, but now I feel like I could leave it.

Babs: Is this the first full-length play that you’ve had produced?

Allison: Yeah, this is the first full-length that I have had produced. You know, exciting and moderately terrifying, I guess. I’m not a person who’s prone to fear, but I really like- And I don’t even know if fear’s the right word, but I’m just feeling a lot of weird stuff. It’s a weird thing that’s happening. And I’m in it. So like, that’s weird. I always have in the back of my head people going, “Oh, she’s in the thing she wrote,” and sort of like rolling their eyes.

Babs: Has that made it challenging – not only as the performer in your own piece – but hearing the other people around you too? Does your “writer brain” go off like, “No, that’s not what I was thinking!”

Allison: No, I don’t really… I’ve really been enjoying disconnecting from it as a writer. It’s been pretty cool. Sam Bertkin, who’s the Assistant Director, was saying after the first few rehearsals, “It’s really interesting to watch you try to interpret your own material.” Because I do feel like I’m doing that. I’m not looking at like “I wrote this.” I’m looking at it like, “what can I do with this? What can I do with that?”

Claire has brought so much to it and I completely trust her drive the direction of what’s going on. I’m also really not precious about the stuff that I’ve written, so if somebody says a line and then says, “I don’t know if that’s exactly how that should be”, I’m like, “Well, what do you think it should be?” You know, I could tell them to fuck off, but they probably are going to be right. But that doesn’t even really happen. There’s been like such minor things.

There’s some really intense fight scenes and I’ve been working on fight choreography. I wrote the fight really specifically in the script, but we’ve messed with it since then. As long as the intent is the same that’s what I care about.

Babs: I feel like I can definitely relate to you on that one. I guess I’m also sort of wondering, though you say you’re not precious about your words and are really interested in being collaborative, are there moments where you were like, “Well, for the sake of where we’re trying to go with this, I have to let go of this part or this scene”. And maybe have an emotional attachment to it that was unexpected? Or if it was something you just thought was funny, but ultimately it didn’t work?

Allison: Not really. Like, I haven’t had to cut a lot stuff I really cared about. There was one thing that I thought I was maybe going to have to cut that I would have been pretty sad about, but I ended up being able to re-arrange it and re-word it and sort of re-think it.

Babs: Do you think it still works in the re-arrangement?

Allison: Yes. It works better now. Before it mostly just, “This is what Allison thinks about this particular topic” and here’s a mild tirade on that completely from Allison’s perspective.” Then I re-worked it and made it fit more with the person who’s saying it and the show as a whole as opposed to it really being me. But that was the only thing.

Because Claire read it and said, “This is the one part where I feel like I don’t know if that should be there.” And then I changed it and she didn’t say that anymore, so either she forgot or it is better now. I think it’s better now. I like it. But that’s just me. It was very specific to comedy. It’s like a comedy tirade.

Babs: Hey, rants are great. I feel like often times when you’re doing playwriting exercises that can be a really good one to sort of jog people and get them going. Like, “have your character go into a rant right now”. Always really interesting…

Allison: It’s a rant about hecklers, which is fun.

Babs:So in writing this, and also in performing in it, I’m making an assumption – partially because I know I do this – that you’re drawing a lot from your own life?

Allison: Yeah, so I always say that Cyd, which is the main character’s name that I’m playing, that she’s like the nightmare version of myself. So, she’s me if I was given the exact wrong opportunities. And I can totally see that I – She’s pretty monstrous, but we all can be that. So she’s the combination of my worst fears about myself and then also my worst fears for the people that I know that have the set of problems she has. I can see how I could have gone down that same road. There’s definitely some real life stuff in there. There’s one male character in the show and some of the things he says, does, the way he is, the fact that he exists at all, is reminiscent of people that I know unfortunately.

Babs: Or even conversations that you’ve had

Allison: Yeah!

Babs: I would imagine that that becomes difficult when you’re inhabiting that character. And how do I make this person different from me because I wrote it? It’s coming from my experience.

Allison: There’s a lot things about her that are not like me, thank god. The toughest parts have been when she’s really vulnerable and when she’s really not doing well. The parts where she’s being really crass and mean and obnoxious – I don’t know, those can be hard sometimes depending on who I’m directing them at because it’s hard to be mean to Heather Kellogg, who’s the nicest person in the world.

But Claire says that we are totally different, but it’s got shadows of me and other people. I mean she is such a nightmare person. I really hope people don’t think of me that way, like “is that what’s going on in there?”

Babs: I have hope for you. So, as you’re talking it sounds like this is much more of a drama than a comedy.

Allison: It’s really dark. The other night we did a scene from it for the DivaFest gala fundraiser that’s the lightest friendliest part of the show. But it’s really brutal. I mean there’s tons and tons and tons of jokes in it, but it’s really really sad. Sam’s way of describing it was as a “cruel play”. I honestly don’t know how people are going to react to the tone of it because it’s so bizarre. Because even when it’s dark the people are still joking about things in order to cope. That’s pretty standard in a drama in some ways – that there’s still laughter intermingled. Especially the second act, which I said yesterday was like an acid bath. So, maybe people will laugh or maybe they’ll just be like, “oh god, this is not okay!”

Babs:
I think it’s always good writing when you’re having characters in the play that have these jokes or they are saying something that they intend as funny and either people within the scene or the audience are like “cringe!”

Allison: There are so many cringy things about this for sure. Any time that Cyd is left alone in her apartment, it’s like the air just get sucked out. She can’t even bear to be there. So it feels awful. There are many things that will hopefully feel awful – that’s a terrible thing to say! But it’s sort of meant to feel that way. But I hope that they laugh at the jokes too. There’s a million jokes in it because it’s a person who speaks primarily in one-liners. Which is also how I write. I write in single sentence responses and I write a lot of jokes. But there sometimes really sad jokes or mean jokes.

Babs: Do you have a favorite line?

Allison: Oh gosh… Okay, so, “You know what else everybody thought was a great idea? Painting watch faces with radium. Everybody’s happy until Betty’s face starts melting off.

Babs: Shifting gears a little bit, do you have any thoughts or advice, words of wisdom, not only if you’re a playwright and you’re thinking about how to produce your work?

Allison: Get a director that you trust. It would be such a nightmare if I didn’t have a director that I really trusted. I mean I wrote it and handed it to her and then she takes it. I’m still there and if in rehearsal someone asks a question specifically about the writing or has a question for me specifically as a playwright, but I kind of look to Claire first. And 95% of the time, she takes all questions about anything and I only chip in if they really want me to. I just feel like that separation is important. Also, because I’m in it so I don’t want it to feel like, “Well, I wrote this and the only reason someone else is directing it is because I can’t do it myself because that would be three things.” That’s not why she’s directing it. I asked her to direct it because I felt like she was the right person for the job. There was never anyone else I thought was right for the job. Definitely not me. So, I guess that’s my biggest advice – get a director that you believe in that understands what you’re doing.

Babs: Any thoughts about the writing process? Anything that helps you out?

Allison: Mostly I spend my time trying to trick myself into writing. So I set standards like “I’m going to write for 45 minutes”. Then take a break or whatever. But also because the writing was so hard, it was nice to take breaks and write something that was lighter. So, I just had to pace myself because sometimes it was a slog. Or sometimes I can’t write in my apartment, like the walls are closing in on me, so I go some place else or I meet up with other people that are doing the same thing and we write at the same time and sometimes we take really long breaks where we’re talking and drinking coffee.

I’m also fascinated by other people’s processes, I don’t know how others do it – and this is going to sound more impressive than it actually is – but there’s basically seven drafts of this. But to call them full drafts isn’t really genuine because sometimes not a lot has changed. So the first two times- So, I wrote up the whole thing and then side by side, I had another document and typed up the whole thing. So, the first draft to second draft are really different because I was re-typing up the whole thing. That meant anytime I had to type up a word, I had to really think if I wanted that word. That for me was really useful, but obviously a huge pain in the ass because it takes a really long time. I feel like it was worth it though.

Or like in the first one I didn’t worry about the formatting and then fixed that in the second one. I did have some interesting experiences with “locked pages”. Have you ever locked pages when you’re writing something?

Babs: No, what’s that?

Allison: It’s tough. It makes sense when you’re in rehearsal with something. Do you use Final Draft?

Babs: Yeah.

Allison: So, there’s several things in Final Draft that I never use that are really useful. Like in rehearsal you don’t want to print off the whole document again because the pages will change, so instead of that, with this feature, it locks the page number and adds an A, B, and so on after the number and you insert that into the existing scripts. But due to some inconsistencies in something, or my computer or whatever, Linda Huang, our amazing Stage Manager, had to spend hours printing pages with my computer. And we made the decision together so we just had to live with the consequences.

It also took me a really long time to write the end because I didn’t want to put a pretty ribbon on it, but it took a while to figure out what that was. Because in the end I want people to get what they want, but that doesn’t happen and sometimes it’s not always best for you.

Babs: Any last thoughts? Plugs?

Allison: It’s been a shock how great the project has been. People have been really supportive, which puts some pressure on. It’s tough to make something. Writing and now all these other people and all these working parts added into it, which creates more possibility that people will disagree. But that really hasn’t happened. I don’t know how. It’s been so harmonious. Claire said, “it’s been going so well it’s kinda freaking me out a little. Like am I going to get to opening night and go – I did everything wrong!” But I kinda don’t think that’s going to happen.

And if it does, I guess I don’t really give a fuck. I got exactly what I wanted. I did it how I wanted to do it with the people I wanted to work with.

Babs: It’s also not necessarily the end because it’s a play and a play lives on.

Allison: Yeah. Will it be? I don’t know. I kinda can’t imagine anyone else wanting to go through that, but you never know. It is fun. But it’s a part that’s a lot. I’d love to see someone else do it though, I’d watch the shit out of that.

The cast of "Hilarity" courtesy of Claire Rice.

The cast of “Hilarity” courtesy of Claire Rice.

For more of Allison Page’s “Hilarity”, check out http://www.theexit.org/divafest/2014/12/15/hilarity/. The show runs from March 5 through 28 at the EXIT Studio. Tickets are available at http://hilarity.bpt.me/. For more of Allison Page, follow her on twitter @AllisonLynnPage or her bi-weekly column on the SF Theater Pub blog, “Everything is Already Something”.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a Bay-Area based writer. Follow her on twitter @bjwany.

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.

Theater Around The Bay: Year End Round Up, Act 4, The Stueys (Again)

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2014 list. Finally. We know it’s long, but read the whole thing. Seriously. If he was Tony Kushner you’d do it.

So if there is anything I learned last week it’s that one can have spent too much time thinking about Into The Woods.

No, but seriously, in the time since I published last week’s avante garde explanation for why I wasn’t going to do the Stueys, ironically, as these things often happen, I rediscovered why I want to do the Stueys. Blame it on a couple of supportive emails I got, a text of a friend reading my blog from inside a security fort and identifying too much, and a chat on a bay-side bench with a young, hopeful playwright, but my heart started to heal from the poison I was bleeding out of it and then one night, quite spontaneously, I just sat down and wrote them. And it just felt dumb not to share them. Before I do though, I wanted to briefly (for me) revisit the three things I wanted to get across in last week’s article. In 2015 it’s my goal to create space both for what I want to say, and what I need to say.

1) I kind of hate the Internet. But seriously, after the last year or so, does anybody not? I mean, I love what it can do but I’m starting to truly hate what it brings out in people, including myself. To be honest, while I am still quick with the quippy comments on Facebook and such, you may have noticed I am much quieter on the debates and controversy front than I once was and this is because I’ve just reached my limit of getting into fights that started out as conversations but then devolved into people just trying to outshout one another. It’s amazing to realize that a silent medium requires a volume dial but it really does, and the truth is, there are days I fear to be anything but funny on the internet, or ubiquitously positive, and so I ironically don’t want to talk in what is supposed to be a forum, not because I fear critique or debate, but because I’m not looking to start any wars. Too bad the Internet is pretty much a 24/7 war zone.

2) I kind of hate awards. I always kind of have, but this became more apparent to me after I won a TBA Award this year and I know that sounds ungrateful but believe me, I am honored and flattered to have received it, and I understand why awards are important, or at least necessary, and I can’t state enough, especially as someone who got to discuss the process and purpose behind the awards extensively with the folks running them, that I do believe the TBA awards are both well intentioned and super inclusive in their attempt to create an even playing field for theater makers coming from a diverse level of resources. What I dislike so strongly about awards is how many people, in the broader sense, use them as shorthand to designate the value of art, artists, and organizations. And no, they’re not supposed to do this, I know, but they do, and we as artists are not supposed to internalize this, I know, but we do. And I became really aware of that standing in a room with my fellow nominees that night, who didn’t win an award, all of whom were good sports about it but I could tell it made them sad. Which made me feel kind of miserable. And now my award lives in the back of my closet because as proud as I am of it, I’m also weirded out about it, and what it might mean to people, the expectations it might create about me or my work. And awards are nice but they can’t be why we’re in this, and I know that sounds kind of bullshit from somebody who has a few but it’s true and we have to remember that.

3) I kind of hate theater. Okay, that is an exaggeration but I am going through a phase of being sort of disenchanted with theater and some of the theater community. I know this is hardly a first for anybody in the community, and I suspect it’s a particularly common feeling when you’re feeling overworked- which I definitely was in 2014. 2015, however, doesn’t promise to be any less work, in fact the opposite, and so that’s got me down. And yes, I know it’s my choice to work as much as I do, but it’s also kind of not. A lot of what I do won’t happen without me and that makes me want to keep working because I believe in it and all the people it serves or creates opportunities for, but my inability to really escape the theater scene for more than a day or two before my inbox fills and my phone rings reached epic proportions in 2014 and lead to some intense moments of resenting the thing I love for needing me so very much while not always feeling like it needs me, Stuart, so much as anybody dumb enough to work this hard for this little pay. Which is a nasty thing to say but sometimes… sometimes it’s also kind of the truth. Feeling taken for granted sucks; feeling enslaved to passion has a dark side. So it goes. It balances out all the times I feel rescued and redeemed by it.

So, hopefully, you can see how all this could make for a mood not suited for creating the Stueys. Considering my general ambivalence/anxiety about awards, but recognizing that some people take the Stueys seriously enough to put them on resumes and websites, I really have been struggling with how ethical, not to mention hypocritical, it is for me, as an artist, to be handing out awards, no matter how playfully, to my fellow artists, when the only thing determining those awards is… me. Who no one should take seriously. But who apparently some people really do. Cue paralysis inducing terror and suddenly I couldn’t remember why I was doing this or what it was all about, but I felt I had to say something because I had all this stuff to say. But it can be hard for me to talk about myself, what I’m personally going through, and even harder for me to advocate for myself. I hate disappointing people. But I hate being insincere more. And I wanted to begin to understand why I was feeling all this dread.

Anyway, without more ado, and much, much later than intended, here they are, 14 awards for the 2014 Stueys.

BEST ADDITION TO THE BAY AREA THEATRE SCENE
The Bay Area Theatre Awards

The best thing about the Bay Area theater scene is that there is a huge diversity in the offerings, and so much on the table to begin with, and when we celebrate that whole community, regardless of budget or house size, Equity relationship or ticket price, we are celebrating our Art, ourselves as Artists, and Artists as contributors to and saviors of the World. Of course, no one organization or person can see it all, and therefore it’s important to share with one another the highlights of our time in the audience seat, if only to create a greater awareness of what and who is out there making stuff. No matter how far we cast our net, there is always more to see and more to explore and we’re fortunate to have it that way, so for a moment, let’s just celebrate what an incredible delight it is to now have an official awards system for our community that appears to be on the same page as that sentiment of inclusivity and casting a wide net, regardless of whatever other kinks may still need to be ironed out. And for those of you who feel the TBA Awards are not enough, or still missing the boat in some regards, you are correct. And you should do something about it, whatever that means to you. To me, it means keeping the SEBATAs going, because in my mind, Heaven is a place where at last we are all recognized for what we bring to the table, and I dream of a Bay Area filled with organizations and individuals proudly recognizing one another at every possible turn, for as many reasons as can be found, as many times as it pleases us to do so. And so I am giving the first Stuey this year to TBA, and specifically Robert Sokol, for having completed a Herculean task that they will now have to complete all over again. And then again. And then again. And again. Good luck everybody!

BEST NEW VENUE
PianoFight

Is there anyone who isn’t excited about all the potential here? Rob Ready and company have been building this space for years now, and walking into it you see why it has taken so long- it is just beautiful. From the mural by Molly Benson to the floors and the furniture, they have been seeking to create not just another black box or just another dive bar, but something truly magnificent, welcoming, inspiring, and everything a venue dedicated to a community art should be. Best thing of all? They’ve asked Theater Pub to perform there, and so we will be performing there, starting in January, at least twice a month going forward. Which makes us excited and scared. Something we’re sure they understand. This whole year looks to be exciting and scary.

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
San Francisco Fringe Festival (EXIT Theatre)

Dear San Francisco: this amazing thing happens right in the middle of you every year and not enough of you know about it and not enough of you make the time to visit it. And like… really visit it, not just duck in to see your friend’s show and then run out. And I understand why you do that because I used to do the same thing but now, having worked there for three years, I have to say, you are robbing yourself of an amazing opportunity to see theater from all over the country and the world, and to meet and talk with the most diverse collection of artists any one event assembles at any given point in the year, and to be a part of something bigger than you and bigger than just this venue or this theater scene for that matter. Do yourself a favor, serious theater goer, serious theater maker, and commit to seeing at least three shows at the Fringe this next year. Pick one by someone you know, one by someone you have heard of, and one by a total stranger. See them all, bring a friend, hang out in the Café and the Green Room between shows (on almost any night of the Fringe you can see 2-3 shows in one visit to the venue, and all the tickets are super cheap), introduce yourself to the staff and artists, tip the Fringe, and see if it doesn’t inspire you to want to see more, know more, do more. If the Bay Area Theatre scene is a garden, this is one of our most vital vegetable beds. Tend this garden, and then come get fed.

BEST SHOW
“Our Town” (Shotgun Players)

Won’t lie… it kind of kills me that this was my favorite show of the year. But it was, so much so that my boyfriend, afterwards, said, “Let’s not see anything else this year- let’s let this be where we stop” and he was right and I agreed, but that’s part of what worries me: for far too many people I think theater starts and stops with “Our Town”, or its equivalent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good theater because it is, and I have long defended Thornton Wilder as being one of the great playwrights whose work is often undermined by having been overdone. This production, directed by Susannah Martin with assistance from Katja Rivera, was anything but overdone, it was subtle and lovely and elegantly realized, from the costumes and lighting, to the music and the performances, and it all came together in a way that, while nostalgic and dramatically safe (which aren’t necessarily bad things, but important to recognize), still felt fresh and sincere, like the gesture of laying down in the rain on the grave of a loved one. There was really nothing I didn’t love. Though if I had to pick favorites I’ll say very little is more entertaining than watching Michelle Talgarow and Don Wood play off each other, even during the intermission raffle. The night I was there they got some very chatty audience feedback and they handled it Grover’s Corners style: graciously and politely and in a way that warmed your heart.

BEST READING
“Hydra” by Tonya Narvaez (SF Olympians Festival)

God, there is very little better in life than a really good reading, and possibly nothing more frustrating than watching people shoot themselves in the foot on what should be the simplest, easiest theatrical event to pull off. And yet… again and again we see it at the SF Olympians Festival, the full range of dramatic readings, from the simple but impafctful, to the overdone and done to death. This year we had a number of excellent readings, but my favorite standout was “Hydra”, written and directed by Tonya Narvaez. A ghost story, a comedy, a conundrum, the piece was elevated to a new level by Tonya shrouding the stage in total darkness except for reading lights for her cast who, illuminated in the stark and eerie glow, were uniformly excellent- not in the least because they were relieved of having to worry about blocking and forced by the light to focus only on the text. Such a simple, elegant choice, but so effective. She won that night of the festival, and wins this Stuey for Best Reading.

BEST SHORT PLAY
“Mars One Project” by Jennifer Roberts (part of “Super Heroes” at Wily West Productions)

Jennifer Robert’s play, about a female astronaut who is denied her chance to go to Mars because she has a daughter and the Powers That Be don’t think the world can stomach or root for a woman who would leave her child, even in an attempt to create a role model for that child, was by far the best piece in this evening of shorts. There was plenty of fine writing, but this is the one that transcended its own subject matter to present that ever elusive thing: an issue play in which both sides of the argument are presented with pathos. The tragedy of the piece is less that “we’re not there yet” and more, “is what it will take to be there always going to require sacrifice on this level”, to me a much more interesting, more human question. In an evening of mostly sketches, it was the one piece that could not only stand on its own, but really stood for something, and it’s a near perfect short play- which as an author of short plays, I assure you, is a near impossibility.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Amanda Ortmayer (EXIT Theatre Technical Director)

Amanda Ortmayer has let me cry on her shoulder so many times this year it’s astounding she doesn’t just keep a towel on hand. Only she probably does, since she’s seemingly prepared for anything, she just probably keeps it out of sight, since she also knows the value of never revealing your bag of tricks, or the exact location of your wishing tree. Something has to keep us in ballgowns and slippers and it’s probably not going to be wishes alone. But Amanda likes to encourage wishes too, and that rare combination of pragmatism and dreaming is why she is just generally… awesome. If you haven’t had a chance to work with her, I hope, one day, you do. It’ll remind you why we’re all in this, or at least, why we should all be in this: for the people.

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Marissa Skudlarek, “Pleiades”

One of my biggest pet peeves is listening to people complain about how there are not enough opportunities, while refusing to ever create those opportunities themselves. For the record I agree, there aren’t enough opportunities, but at some point we need to realize that if we have our health and a clear sense of our dreams, we’ve already been given more than most people get so it’s really just about figuring out how to see your dream materialize. Watching Marissa Skudlarek as she put together her first production as a producer (she wrote the script too, but we’re giving her recognition for the producer hat here), I was blown away by how organized and focused she was, how determined she was to do it as best she could even the first time out. Which is more than I can say for me. Even now, I feel like I mostly just take a deep breath, pick up my sword, and rush into battle blindly, while Marissa strategized and planned, gathered information, raised funds, and was just in general super smart about it all. Was anyone surprised? Not really. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take one more moment to tell her she did an amazing job. Everyone looking to produce a show in 2015- call Marissa. She knows what she’s doing.

BEST CHEMISTRY
Michaela Greeley, Katherine Otis, Terry Bamberger (“Three Tall Women”, Custom Made Theater Company)

It is not easy to play three versions of the same woman but this trio of ladies, under the direction of Custom Made veteran Katjia Rivera, brought so much magic to the stage that the leap of faith required for Act Two of Edward Albee’s classic was not only easy to make, you made it with a song in your heart! This is a lovely show, but one I rarely feel enthusiastic about, energized by, and these three performers, working so well together, in such total tandem with one another, sold me on this show in a way it’s never been sold to me before. Michaela Greeley was uncomfortably good at playing the frailty of her character in Act One and the fierce stubborn vitality in Act Two; while Terry Bamberger was an edgy warmth in Act One that ballooned into an explosion of heat and fire in Act Two; Katherine Otis, in the part with the least to work with in both acts, managed to strike the aloof brittleness required in the first act while still laying the foundations for the insecure idealist the second act tears to pieces. But what I may have loved the most was the way these ladies moved, always circling one another, always creating triangles on the stage, each one so aware of the other, having to fill the space one vacated, or rushing to claim a spot before the other could. It was like a dance, like a motorized portrait of the Three Fates and they wove a spell together that was frightening and enchanting all at once.

BEST RISK
Kat Evasco, “Mommie Queerest” (Guerilla Rep/DIVAfest)

Kat Evasco knows how to work an audience, but the audience at her show might not have been ready to get worked so hard. Bravely darting in and out of us, throwing herself around the stage in gleeful and breathless abandon, Kat unravels a personal story about the struggle to discover not only who she is- but who her mother is. And why she needs her mother to know who she is before she can finally accept herself. Co-written with John Caldon, who also directed, the show avoids the bulk of solo show clichés, feeling more like a play where Kat has just been tasked with playing all the roles to the best of her ability, and the audience isn’t really asked to come along so long as commandeered by her at the beginning and let go only when she sees fit. The piece is courageously risky, not only because of the controversial elements within it, but because Kat leaves no fourth wall standing between herself and the audience, and if they don’t run with her on it, her show is kind of screwed. Both times I saw this though, that wasn’t a problem; it’s hard not to jump in both feet at a time with a performer who is so ready and eager to do it.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
Justin Gillman (“The Pain And The Itch”, Custom Made Theater Company; “Blood Wedding” Bigger Than A Breadbox Theatre Company; “Pastorella” No Nude Men; and like a billion other things)

So… how many plays was Justin Gillman in this past year? It seemed like every time you turned around he was being cast in something, including by me, and every time he was pretty amazing in it. I don’t know how he does it. Like seriously, I don’t know how he memorizes all his lines, let alone doesn’t burn out from the constant rehearsal and yet somehow he shows up every night, fresh and ready to perform. Generous with everyone, onstage and off, it’s rare I don’t find him the highlight of a cast, usually finding a way to balance being a somewhat over-the-top character with a deeply human core that is achingly vulnerable when not just a tiny bit scary. In each of the three roles highlighted above, this was the common thread- men at first dismissable, who at sudden turns revealled their fangs, and then wept as they ripped your throat out. Delicious.

The ladies have gotten a lot of attention on this year’s list, which is great, but we like to keep things balanced here at the Stueys so we’re giving two more nods out: Kenny Toll (“Dracula Inquest”, Central Works) and Sam Tillis (“Slaughterhouse Five”, Custom Made Theater Company). In my opinion, both of these gentlemen were the best thing about these two shows, which were solid enough theatrical productions but elevated by fully committed actors. In both cases, both men also played characters who were… well, committed. As in insane. Though the insanity characterizations couldn’t have been more night and day than the plays were (Toll’s was of the by turns wimpering, by turns screeching Bedlam variety, Tillis was the diamond hard, lethally cold, slow burn sociopath kind), both managed to be believable and unsettling without being melodramatic or over-the-top. Toll even managed to be sympathetic, while Tillis managed to be mesmerizing. Either way, it was endlessly watchable, haunting, and impressive.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Cat Luedtke in Anything

Seriously, once upon a time there was no Cat Leudtke and then one morning we woke up and she was everywhere. I think I might have seen her in like six shows this year and in each case she was the walk away discovery, the revelation performance. The tremendous skill of this woman is matched only by her tremendous range, as every role I saw her in this year was different, though perhaps none so piercing and breathtaking as her role in Custom Made’s “Top Girls” as England’s most done-with-it-but-not-lying-down-about-it mother. I’ve also seen her sing and dance, act Lorca, play the 19th century adventurer, the dutiful wife, and more (probably helps that one of the things I saw her in was a collection of one-acts), bringing to each role a personal touch and a universal power, a sincerity and openness of heart that made you feel like you were watching a real person. She’s very much a “real actress”, whatever we mean by that when we say it. I know that what I tend to mean is somebody so good at throwing themselves into something, they transcend and turn into someone else, each and every time.

There is always an embarrassment of brilliant female performances in the Bay Area, so I feel a few other honorable mentions are in order: Mikka Bonel in “At The White Rabbit Burlesque” (DIVAfest), giving a performance as a rabbit that was unlike any performance of anything I’ve ever seen; Ariel Irula in “Blood Wedding” (Bigger Than A Breadbox), whose deeply passionate performance was matched only by the soul of her singing voice; Jean Forsman in “The Pain And The Itch” (Custom Made Theater Company), nailing well-meaning but vapid liberal mom as only someone like Jean could, walking perfectly that line of endearing and annoying; Stephanie Ann Foster in “Slaughterhouse Five” (Custom Made Theater Company), who played both a woman and a man in the show, and was lovely, heartbreaking, deeply sympathetic in each role.

BEST FUSION THEATER PIECE
Now And At The Hour (Christian Cagigal, H.P. Mendoza)

The fusion of theater and film is a tricky one, and I can only imagine how filming a stage show without destroying the magic of live theater must require an excellent understanding of both mediums. Now make that live theater a magic show too and you are truly setting yourself up to fall flat on your face, but H.P. Mendoza’s film of Christian Cagigal’s “Now And At The Hour” flies, it is magical and touching, the decision to interrupt the narrative of the stage show with the narrative of Christian’s life and the important players in it only adding to the emotional punch of this unique variation on “the artist and his work” formula. Beautifully shot, entertaining, unexpectedly poignant, this is a stellar example of a collaboration between artists and mediums.

BEST SOLO SHOW
Kevin Rolston, “Deal With The Dragon” (SF Fringe Festival)

Remember my earlier bit about the Fringe? Here is a glowing example of why going into something blind at the Fringe can sometimes result in stumbling across something truly excellent. I didn’t know anything about this show. It had a fun premise in the Fringe guide (Man moves in with Dragon) and a bad flier design (sorry, it can’t all be hugs and snuggles here) and while I had no expectations what I wasn’t expecting was to be so thoroughly moved and entertained. It does not hurt that Kevin Rolston is an incredibly talented performer with an ability to switch between his three narrators with glass-like smoothness, or that each of the three stories he tells, each with a different take on the idea of a “dragon”, are all funny and unsettling portraits of our tenous relationship with self-control and those things inside us that scare us. An unsettling fable about how our potential for violence and indulgence can also be our potential for strength and transformation, Rolston’s notes in the program claimed the piece is unfinished, but it could actually already stand as is. Here’s hoping the final product is as good as the draft.

And as for Me…

So Usually I end the awards with something about the show I personally worked on that affected me the most, but in all honesty I got so much out of all of them it would be hard to pick one so I kind of just want to take a final look at last year as a whole so I can both make sense of it and kiss it goodbye.

For me, it was an incredible year, but that doesn’t mean I loved every second of it. Far from it. It was as demanding as it was rewarding and at times it also seemed… endless. Like there was just always one more thing to do, to get through and then… two more. And then nine. I got to work with material by the incredible Kristin Hersh this year and that will forever be a highlight of my life but the production itself was a rough process, and the reception was rough, it all kind of placed too much strain on an important relationship in my life and I walked away feeling very differently than I had when I walked in- which was hopeful and desirous to bring a project that meant a lot to me to people I loved who I thought could benefit from it, but by the end I was wondering if I had ultimately done more harm than good by bringing such tremendous attention to something so natal. Then I directed a stellar production of “The Crucible” that made me acutely aware of how resistant critics and audiences can be to seeing a familiar play in a new way, and also how embracing they can be, but by that point I was having a hard time hearing the love and found it easier to focus on the detrimental views. I worked to let it all go, focused on feeling proud of the work my actors and designers had done, which was stupendous, and then just as I was feeling more balanced again, Wily West’s production of my play “Everybody Here Says Hello!”, after a whirlwind of a production process, opened to unexpectedly and ubiquitously positive reception. Suddenly, I was a guy with a hit show on my hands- technically my third this year since “Rat Girl” and “The Crucible”, despite whatever misgivings critics were having, were also big audience successes. For the first time in my career though my writing was the center of attention (I often feel I am mostly known as a director who writes, though I am actually a writer who directs), partly because Rik Lopes, not I, had directed “EHSH”, and so critics had to speak about our separate contributions separately, and that was wonderful but the moment was short-lived: we ended up having two performances canceled and the show only ran 7 times and it became my play everybody “really wished they had made it out to see.” Me too! Though one should never shake a stick at houses full of strangers. But oh… we do this partly because of the friends we hope to show something personal to, don’t we? And, again, I was having a year where it was hard not to keep adding things up in the negative, no matter how well they were actually going.

Anyway, this was then followed by the Fringe, as rewarding and as demanding as ever, which was then followed by the fast and furious (yet incredibly smooth) rehearsal process for my play “Pastorella”, which was the only piece I both wrote and directed last year, and which was well received, actually pretty much adored by audiences, but played to 2/3rds full houses or less its entire run after opening to an audience of 11- my second smallest audience in the history of my theater life in San Francisco (not my whole life- I once played to an audience of 2 in Tucson). The result was a show that, though very economically produced, still ended in the red, something which shouldn’t affect one personally as much as it does. But if you haven’t gathered yet, I’m being truthful here, even if it makes me seem a little petty. So yeah, my final passion project of the year was probably my personal favorite artistic accomplishment but it also cleaned out my bank account, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that 2014 was the year I went freelance/contractor and believe me- it’s been an adjustment. One I’m still adjusting to. Finally we had the fifth installment of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which was wonderful if perhaps more draining than usual, and fraught with an abnormal amount of backstage drama, from some diva moves on the part of some of our participants, to a failure to meet our fundraising goals (first time ever), and then the pique of which, of course, was having our dressing room robbed on, naturally, the night of my reading, which was successful in that it was well done by my trooper cast, but again, sort of middling attended, and a bit anti-climactic as an artist considering it had taken me all year to write it. And did I mention that some of my favorite actors kind of hated the script? Disappointing, but less so than having a “colleague” tell me that working with me was basically bad for businesses because of my strong opinions and tendency to carve my own way, nonsense that nobody who was actually a friend would have bothered to bring up- especially not when I was in the midst of trying to find a way to help them realize their own plans for the local theater scene. But I have occasionally been told my Achilles heel is caring about the band as much as I care about myself.

And somewhere in there I won a TBA Award for “EHSH”, had two works of mine garner bids for film adaptations, threw a delightful birthday party and another successful Easter brunch, but had to cancel a major social event because I got pink eye. Which is only worth mentioning again because in retrospect, it really is kind of funny. I wanted to get more reading done and much more writing, but it just didn’t happen. Best laid plans of mice and men…

So yes, 2014 was amazing but it was also, definitely, a mixed bag. Rewarding to no end, but unforgiving in many ways, most of all in that I had a hard time forgiving myself for just… well… doing my best but not always getting everything the way I wanted it or hoped for. The problem is, when you’re burnt out, stuff that you’d normally brush off or accept as the breaks of the business or just how life is get harder to be blasé about, and I found myself at the end of 2014 feeling accomplished but bruised, lucky but kind of cursed, exhausted and not excited so much as terrified about the future and yet… hopeful. Cause I am hopeful. And I want to stress that and more or less end there, and tell you it was amazing to have 800+ people applaud me for winning an award (even if it was for a play I always considered a bit of a “minor work” and never guessed would be so defining), and it was incredible to walk up those stairs that night, all alone, and think, even as my thoughts came crashing down around me, “Well, you certainly don’t do anything half-assed, do you Stuart?” (even if that means sometimes I paint myself into an intellectual corner with the same gusto I pull myself out of it). Though I definitely experienced a lot in 2014, I often felt like I wasn’t actually learning so much as surviving, and oh, by the way, I had massive writer’s block, and it was writing all that out last Monday that finally cured it… and got us here. And here is not a bad place to be: hopeful, and weirdly confident that whatever happens next, I can probably handle it. I just kind of wish I had a clearer idea of what “it” was. But then we all wish that, don’t we?

Ah well. C’est la vie.

Deep breath.

Happy New Year.


Stuart Bousel runs the San Francisco Theater Pub blog, and is a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. You can find out more about his work at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.

Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: And Now a Note without a Suicide

Claire Rice on the Year of the Rat.

Madam life’s a piece in bloom
Death goes dogging everywhere:
She’s the tenant of the room,
He’s the ruffian on the stair.

– William Ernest Henley

Rat_Girl

I’ve spent the last year of my life contemplating incomplete suicides and other deaths. I’ve killed a great number of people on stage in a variety of ways. Sometimes I’ve written their deaths and sometimes I’ve directed them. Once or twice I’ve acted them. It often surprises me how flippant in the moment I can be about death, but after all the actor will get up and walk off stage in the dark only moments later. Crudely, it is often just one tool in the great storytelling tool box. Character B must die to show that Character A has lost all humanity. Meanwhile, Director A and Playwright B have spent hours going back and forth on the best method to bring about Character B’s demise. Should we slit the throat? Hang from rafter? Drown in a well? Poison? How fun it is to play at such violent fictions.

But this year has been the year of the Rat. Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, that is. In particular, I’ve spent the last year contemplating the climax of act one where she attempts to end her own life. I spent hours contemplating her method of death. Her door out. In the end I choose a violent and painful end. She picks up a discarded and used box cutter from the clutter that surrounds her. The tool yields itself up out of her world as if she’s bidden it to come. The box cutters appear during a discussion of the death of god, perception and responsibility, art and creation.

But it isn’t easy. The idea is there. The tool is there. The will is there. The need is there. Everything except the action.

In literal time it takes about ten minutes to get there.

In stage action time it takes two full songs and a monologue to get there.

In play time it takes a sleepless night, the purgatory of a hallucination, the stalemate between the fractured self and the sane self, and a calm acceptance of deeper desires.

And then she is reborn. At the top of act II she’s faced her own death at her own hands and now has to move forward and deal with consequences of that battle: the pain on the faces of her loved ones who feel betrayed and scared, the condescension of professionals who’ve seen it all before and the dismissal of those who expect nothing less of an artist. She’s died, but she hasn’t yet decided to live. As the evidence of the value and worth of her life piles up around her, she still cannot be sure. How can she be? How can we demand of her to hurry up and start living when she knows just how close death is and how easily it can be willed closer? At any moment the door out can be manifested before us and we can choose to walk through it or stand before it still.

When she finally chooses life she does so with her own voice.

How long does it take for her to find that voice?

In literal time it takes two hours and thirty minutes including a fifteen minute intermission.

In stage action time it takes about 38 short scenes split between two acts, several songs, a few monologues and two car scenes.

In play time it takes a crisis of identity, a swim in the ocean, a loss of a friend, a terrible accident, multiple discussions about art, the value of art (and thus the value of the self), a lonely suicide, a fractured survival, a move, a pregnancy, a validation, disillusionment, an escape and a return (all in all about a year and change).

Maybe in future productions it won’t take that much literal time, or that many songs or that many car scenes. Maybe in future productions it will take longer. But it will never be easy and it will never be separated from the discussion of art. How could it be? How could the life of an artist, who lives to created, not be filled with discussions on the value of that creation? The perceived value of that creation? The act of creation? Its place in the world? Its place among other art? The difference between art and product?

Of all the deaths on stage, it is this near death that has been the most difficult for me and the most rewarding to contemplate and put out into the world. It isn’t mine. It’s so many other people’s before it is mine, but it is so close to me.

I refuse to allow this death to be easy, or the life that follows it. I refuse to make it simple or direct, because it isn’t.

I’ve taken death on stage for granted, but I refuse to take the choice to live on stage for granted any more. And I’m not going to let you take it for granted either.

Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: Gone Fishing

Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List will return in two weeks.

In the mean time, go see Kristin Hersh’s RAT GIRL adapted for the stage by Stuart Bousel at DIVAfest. Get your tickets at: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/577015

You can support current and future DIVAfest projects here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/divafest-2014

Frogs

Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: One is the Loneliest Number

Claire Rice continues her meditation on the black box box office blues.

When all is said and done, even if we sell out all 588 seats to Rat Girl, there’s a chance that more people will have read this post then will have seen that play. And yet, that’s not a sad thing. A performance, even in a limited run, can still have an impact and be far reaching.

But we can’t measure the future. We can only count seats and hope. 588 is a lot of hope.

But that’s not the number I’m thinking about. That top number is rarely the number any of us think about.

We think about the One.

Admit_One

The One Ticket Sold

You think to yourself, as you print out the Brown Paper Ticket list, that there isn’t a need to print it out. There’s only one name. You could have written it down. Maybe you’re friends who said they were coming will surprise you and come tonight. Those fuckers always wait until the last minute to buy their tickets.

You wait behind your gray cash box that you bought at Office Max all those months ago. It has a lock on it, but you don’t bother to use it and the keys are inside under the cash tray next to that ball point pen that doesn’t work and you keep meaning to throw away. You wait, looking across the hall at the other show that seems sold out. It has a stupid name and the people running their box office seem much too peppy. They smile at you politely, the way people do when they feel sorry for you. Your list sits next to your cash box.

“Ok,” you say to the actor who you’ve been working with one on one for months to get this show onto it’s feet. “So there is one sketchy looking dude out there and that’s it. We’ve already been holding for ten minutes, I don’t think anyone else is coming. Give it all you’ve got and I’ll see you after the show.” Like a coward you run out of the dressing room. You are also the stage manager so you have to bring the lights down and the music up. The guy looks sleepy. You silently curse your friends while musing that the music seems very loud now that there is no one in the house.

She comes out to begin the show. You remember telling her that if there were any time there were less people in the house then there were on stage then the show wouldn’t happen. But, you remind yourself, you said that when it was a two women show. Now it’s just her. Less than One is None and the show must go on.

The One Who Didn’t Come

After awhile, loved ones begin to realize that you are never going to give up this acting thing. They still love you and believe in you and want you to accomplish all of your dreams, but they have also grown weary of seeing everything you do. The terrible thing about landing your dream job is that it becomes a job. Your parents are proud of you, but no longer take special trips to see you do…your job. Your boyfriend has become your partner and, though he loves you, he’s decided he only wants to see the shows that are “really good.” Of course, after that Shaw festival he no longer trusts you on what you think “really good” is. And as open minded as he is, he can’t help feel uncomfortable watching you kiss other people in public like it’s no big deal. He mostly stays home.

You peek through the curtains at the audience. Strangers. All strangers. The director and the producer are excited. “We don’t know anyone out there!” they keep saying. The marketing campaigns have all paid off. No one in the audience had to be comped, bribed, begged or threatened to see the play. Yet, it feels like no one is out there at all. Just people. Nice people, hopefully, but just people. People you will never see again.

The One Who Did

You can’t help it. You stare at the back of his head and try to imagine what he’s thinking. Why did he look down then? Why did he look up? What is he looking at? You try and watch the show, but keep turning back and looking at that head. Why is his hand like that? What’s he doing with his leg? Does that mean he’s bored? Is he going to leave early? Is he going to leave before intermission? If he does, will he still write a review? Is that fair?

You try and calm down. It’s opening night. Everything is fucked. The costume designer ran in late with the costumes, crying that her car broke down on the way to the laundry matt and that they had closed early and she had to call the landlord to get the costumes out. Two of the lamps burnt out moments before house opened. The props person forgot to bring more cookies, so the actors have to eat the leftovers form last night. The lead has a cold and is demanding hot water with lemon to be brought back at every scene break. The house was over sold due to an error in the the ticketing software. Everything is fucked.

But you can’t take your eyes off the back of the reviewer’s head. What the hell is he thinking? Does he see all the flaws? As you stare at him, his shoulders move as if in a shrug. Is he reading your thoughts or itching his back on the chair? You look up at the stage to distract yourself. Someone jumps a cue and suddenly no one knows what to do. It’s that horrible moment in theatre where a mistake happens and everyone has forgotten how to be human. The stillness is unbearable. When it finally ends you see him writing something down. Oh god, this whole this is an unmitigated disaster. Everything is fucked.

The One Who Mattered

The words tumble out of their mouths and it seems inconceivable that they were ever in your head at all. It’s an out of body experience that isn’t entirely without pleasure, but mostly is full of discomfort. Every now and again they trip on them and you wince. Sometimes it’s your fault, to many words starting with the letter “s” all in a row. It’ll have to be cut in the next draft. Sometimes it’s their fault and you curse the actors for their laziness and the director for her stupidity. Then that part happens, with the flowers and the water, and it’s all magic again. You love everyone. They are more talented then you will ever be and you are humble and honored. Then you remember it all began with you and you feel big and bold and proud. You did this.

Then you see her.

A few rows in front of you and to the side enough that you can see most of her face. You never told her, but you wrote this play for her. This play is about her. This play has her as a main character. Sure, you invited her to come but you never thought she’d show up. Her husband sits next to her, holding her hand. They watch the play. The lights from the stage reflected on their faces. Suddenly you feel like a hack. You feel false. The words feel like daggers and everything is wrong.

You wrote about her fear of death and now an actress who is a younger version of her is monologuing about it at her. You want to die. You imagine running out of the theatre and throwing up in the waste bin outside or maybe going to the bar and ordering a triple shot of something terrible and numbing and then throwing up.

She’s crying.

She brings her hand up to her mouth. Her husband holds her to him. She watches a younger version of herself die poetically onstage. Everything goes dark.

Theater Around The Bay: Burlesque, Creating New Art by Reaching Back to Old Traditions

Today’s guest blogger is Red Velvet, a Bay Area Burlesque goddess who will has been performing at the EXIT Theatre for over a year now, and will be tearing it up this May as part of DIVAfest.

“Burlesque?” I am often asked. “Don’t you take your clothes off with that?” How to answer – maybe, sometimes, frequently, only when I want to? So, if burlesque isn’t just about taking off clothing, what is it about?

Let’s start with the definition of burlesque. Burlesque: 1. an absurd or comically exaggerated imitation of something, esp. in a literary or dramatic work; a parody. 2. a variety show, typically including striptease.

Burlesque has a long and varied history, but many people historically attribute the art form we consider “burlesque” to Lydia Thompson and her London Blondes which arrived in New York in the late 1860’s with shows consisting of a variety of music, comedy, social satire, and the shocking sensation of women playing men’s roles while wearing tights. While women in tights seems pedantic today, in the 1860’s female legs were a hot commodity.

Lydia Thompson

Lydia Thompson

Another offering of the same genre, The Black Crook, has been both attributed to a “burlesque” tradition, as well as to the first “musical theatre.” It certainly involved dance, music, and some element of dialogue, but was also considered by many to be demoralizing and outrageous due to the exposure of the female leg.

Regardless of the potentially sinful nature of the female form, these theatrical offerings were exactly that – theatre. Despite shocking some people’s sensibilities of the era, the productions involved more than just prurient diversions, but actual entertainment.

In the early 20th century, burlesque was typically a variety show with singers, comics, and dancers. Risqué comic sketches and bumps and grinds kept away the “family atmosphere” associated with Vaudeville and, burlesque was often considered “low class.” Burlesque has most often appealed to the working-class audiences, many of whom felt overlooked by the offerings (and often expense) of attending the “legitimate” theatre. Burlesque may have been the “lowest branch” of the theatre, according to Ann Corio, burlesque performer and author of This Was Burlesque, but it was also “the limb nearest the people.”

burlesque fan dancer

burlesque fan dancer

With all of its variety acts, stripping in burlesque shows didn’t actually begin until the 1930’s. Stripping at the time often involved taking off clothes off stage and appearing in less on stage. Burlesque shows, with the bawdy bumps and grinds, required performers to be in a minimum of g-strings and pasties, sometimes more, which could include net bras and panties, which would give the appearance of nudity. Meanwhile, “real” theatre, including Ziegfeld and other (comparatively) expensive Broadway shows could have women appearing in nothing, as long as they were considered to be part of the “scenery” or “staging.” At that time, being nude and holding a candelabra while the holder remained as still as a statue was apparently considered a fine art fit to be shown in the legitimate theatre: While burlesque houses of the time were often raided and Mayor Fiorella La Guardia deemed them a “corrupting moral influence,” Ziegfeld never had a show raided or deemed corrupt.

The 1940’s was often considered to be the “beginning of the end” for burlesque, the start of the slow decline which culminated in what many thought was to be the “death” of burlesque in the 1970’s, when nudity was commonplace and sexual gratification was often expected.

However, burlesque is having a resurgence, slowly starting back up in the late 1990’s, with burlesque variety shows, typically featuring “neo-burlesque” stripping acts, but also singing, comedy, dance, aerial, acrobatics, you name it. Modern acts are frequently classical in nature, and may emulate prior burlesque “legends.” However, most acts tend to put emphasis on style and sensuality rather than sexuality. Performer self-expression and self-esteem is often a big focus of acts, and the act itself (even striptease acts) can be used to challenge stereotypes, including sexual objectification, orientation, and other social taboos or pressures. Striptease acts in the neo-burlesque scene are often mini theatrical events in themselves, with a story plot wholly encompassed within the act. As such, neo-burlesque has gone back to the burlesque of the early 1920’s to refine, expand, and create a new art from that which previously existed.

Neo-burlesque star Dirty Martini

Neo-burlesque star Dirty Martini

But, we are going even farther back than that. Last year, DIVAfest produced, as part of its 2013 festival Rebel Without A Bra, which was a combination of burlesque, cabaret, and theatre. With that show, we went back once again, to cull from the burlesque theatrical experience of the 1860’s to combine elements of the stage into a more cohesive program and create a show that was a connected whole, not just a variety show or similarly themed acts. That show traced (albeit in a nonlinear fashion) the history of women in burlesque (a theatrical version of the treatise above, if you will). We combined the theatrical expertise of director Amanda Ortmayer and our key narratrix Sean Owens, with a bevy of burlesquers including co-creators If-N-Whendy and myself, Bunny Von Tail, Josie Starre, Laika Fox, Shimmies Galore, and Dee Os’Mios. We managed to go back to the beginnings of burlesque and once again combine song, dance, dialogue, (and some clothing removal) to lovely, insightful, and hilarious effect.

The theatre and the theatrical environment was a very supportive venue for burlesque – both in the performance aspect as well as the creation aspect. The theatrical process, including very extensive rehearsing; directorial advice, guidance, and input; costuming guidance and creation; stage sets; etc. made the individual neo-burlesque acts stronger as well as providing the crucial cohesion to tie the entire show into a whole. Bringing burlesque back into the theatre provides burlesque performers the opportunity to grow and expand our capabilities and capacities – bringing more to our personas, our caricatures, and broadening the horizons of what is possible on stage, both internally and externally. Burlesque also brings something back to the theatre – aspects which have always been in the theatre, but sometimes are forgotten – musicality, humor (sometimes downright slapstick and juvenile), irreverence, and that ability to take a serious subject and make people address it without lecturing or alienating the audience. For some reason, an act addressing a serious subject such as feminine equality or spousal abuse can relay the message but doesn’t create quite so much angst when clothing removal is involved.

This year, we are again hitting the DIVAfest stage in another new burlesque/theatrical production entitled At The White Rabbit Burlesque… We are again directed by the ever-patient, persevering, and inspirational Amanda Ortmayer, and joined by local theatre maven Mikka Bonel. The burlesque cast this year includes co-creators If-N-Whendy and myself (Red Velvet), Laika Fox, Tornado Supertrouble, and Ophelia Coeur de Noir. The audience will be attending a somewhat surreal burlesque show run by the White Rabbit with the assistance of stage hand and general gopher, Alice. The show features the on-and off-stage antics of the two aforementioned plus the rest of the cast, representing the familiar Alice tropes, including the diva-like Queen of Hearts, the jocular Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the perplexing Duchess, the Hare, the Hatter, and more! We are working to create individual acts as well as develop the characters and interactions which create context and story-line. It is a challenging, but fun, process and we are excited about our upcoming production. While creating a burlesque variety show is certainly applause-worthy, combining burlesque into an overall theatrical experience is a more complex level of creation and, we hope, audience enjoyment.

If this intrigues you and you are interested in joining us for this experience, you can find out more and get tickets at www.DIVAfest.info.

For more information go to www.DIVAfest.info.

For more information go to http://www.DIVAfest.info.

Red Velvet, a life-long dancer, began studying dance at the age of 2. Proficient in tap, ballet, and jazz, Red Velvet continues to study new forms of dance such as samba and flamenco. Ms. Velvet currently performs Isadora Duncan dance, she has performed with the Hot Pink Feathers, Bombshell Betty’s Burlesqueteers, and Alegria Samba Dance Company. She is a co-artistic director of the “DIVA or Die” burlesque show (a production of DIVAfest) at the Exit Theatre, and the co-creator of the burlesque play “Rebel Without a Bra: A Burlesque Cabaret” which was presented as part of DIVAfest 2013. Ms. Velvet has performed solo acts at various burlesque festivals in North America and won an award for “Most Humorous” at the Great Burlesque Expo 2014. Red Velvet currently teaches Can-can, Duncan dance, and burlesque classes.