Theater Around the Bay: Christian Simonsen & Alejandro Torres of “No Fault”

The Pint-Sized Plays have their 4th performance tonight! We continue our series of interviews with the festival’s writers and directors by speaking to writer Christian Simonsen and director Alejandro Torres of “No Fault”! (Alejandro also served as the Deputy Producer of Pint-Sized this year.)

“No Fault” introduces us to Jack and Kate, a divorcing couple with an 8-year-old daughter, who’ve scheduled a quick meeting in a corner bar to sign their divorce papers, make it official, and try to put the past to rest. Colin Hussey and Lisa Darter play the couple.

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Christian Simonsen, a writer returning to Pint-Sized.

What made you get involved with Pint-Sized this year or, if you’re returning to the festival, why did you come back?

Christian: I have been a fan of the Pint-Sized Play Festival since the beginning, and I was honored to have an earlier short play of mine, the comedy “Multitasking,” produced by this festival in 2013. I love immersive, site-specific theater like this, where the actors rub shoulders with the audience. That’s not just an expression… if you come to this show, a drunk llama may literally rub your shoulders!

Alejandro: I love this theater company and all the fresh work they bring to San Francisco (and on a monthly basis too). I’ve directed and performed with them before and have also met some great and talented folks that keep me coming back.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Christian: The challenge to writing a short play is to remember that it’s not a full-length play crammed into a few pages. That may sound obvious, but it’s tempting during the writing process to forget that. It generally can only be about one thing. Every word of dialogue, every prop, every stage direction must earn its keep. A full-length play can survive three or four weak scenes. A short play has trouble recovering from three or four weak lines of dialogue. As a general rule, a short script can’t really handle numerous subplots crisscrossing each other, but it should also avoid being a “mood piece” that just sits there.

What’s the best thing about writing a short play? 

Christian: Its purity. Audience members rarely walk away from a short play with mixed feelings; it either worked or it didn’t. As a writer, I’m most productive when I’m given boundaries and limitations, and the short play format fits the bill perfectly. For example, in “No Fault,” a separated couple are going through the awkward, tense ordeal of signing their divorce papers in a pub that they used to frequent during happier times. The stage directions have both actors sitting at a table for most of the script. But when the woman delivers the most intimate line of dialogue to her now ex-husband, she is standing away from the table while the man remains seated. The ironic contrast of their emotional closeness and their physical distance would be lost (or at least watered down) in a longer play where the actors would be moving around for two hours, willy-nilly.

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Alejandro: Simply getting it all together as producer and table work as a director.

What’s been most troublesome?

Alejandro: Scheduling!

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Christian: For scriptwriting in general (short and long, stage and screen), they would include Richard Matheson, Elaine May, Ernest Lehman, Preston Sturges, John Guare, Tina Fey, Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, Ben Hecht, Tom Stoppard, Horton Foote, Monty Python.

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

Christian: That’s tough, because I try and make it a point not to picture celebrities, whether world-famous or local, when I create characters. My goal is always to write a character that is solid and fully-formed on the page, while still leaving enough wiggle room where an actor can put their own spin on him or her. That being said, for this script I could picture actors Mark Ruffalo, Elden Henson, John Hawkes, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Amy Poehler, Sandra Oh.

Alejandro: Hmm… Maggie Cheung and Joaquin Phoenix. I they would make for an interesting dynamic.

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Director Alejandro Torres shows off his dramatic side.

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush? That is… what actor would you love a chance to work with?

Alejandro: This is cheating as I have worked with these two before but have never directed them: Genevieve Perdue and Alan Coyne.

What are you currently working on/what’s next for you?

Christian: I was one of the staff writers on Killing My Lobster’s August sketch comedy show Game of Nerds, which was a lot of fun to work on. My next project is a collaboration with the multi-talented Sean Owens. We are developing a comedy web series called Under the Covers, which will be both hysterical and educational (or at least one of the two).

Alejandro: The SF Fringe Festival this September will be my next project. I will be remounting an original piece called Projected Voyages about dreams, nightmares, and passing thoughts.

What Bay Area theater events or shows are you excited about this summer/fall?

Christian: I want to see Barry Eitel’s The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident. I’ve always admired Barry as an actor, and I’m anxious to see what he does as a playwright. It also stars two of my favorite local actors, Becky Hirschfeld and Paul Rodrigues. And producer Stuart Bousel’s San Francisco Olympians Festival in October is always an exciting event that features new plays by Bay Area writers.

Alejandro: Killing My Lobster’s August show Game of Nerds. [ed: this closed last weekend! Apologies for not posting this interview sooner!]

What’s your favorite beer?

Christian: Stella Artois, but I will happily endorse another brewery if they give me their product or money or both.

Alejandro: IPAs that pair well with whiskey.

“No Fault” and the other Pint-Sized Plays have 2 performances remaining: August 23 and 29 at 8 PM at PianoFight! 

 

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Working Title: Therapy with Woody Allen

This week Will reconciles the fact that he doesn’t want to go to Therapy with Woody Allen…but still is attached to his films.

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Regardless of what you think of Woody Allen, Woody Allen won’t think of you in less regard. He probably wont think of you at all. He’s too busy. His job list unfold something like this: screenwriter, director, actor, comedian, author, playwright, and musician. Yes, yes, I know. Every time you hear someone lauded today, a long list of descriptors and slash-categories normally follow their name to instill artistic gravitas. (Ben Affleck: actor/ director/ producer/ screenwriter/ Mallrat/ Batman. James Franco: actor/ director/ screenwriter/ producer/ teacher/ author/ experimental filmmaker/ weirdo/ body-pillow lover.)

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You get the idea.

However, in Woody Allen’s case he’s been doing this for over 50 years. His pace clocks in at almost a film a year…and that’s just directing. His writing credits are another abundant story. I’ve been acquainted with the films of Woody Allen for near 20 years and had no idea he wrote plays. So much of what he creates can fly under the radar simply because there is so much of it. He doesn’t stop making film or writing plays or playing jazz.

Last week, I was able to sojourn to the east bay and see the Actors Ensemble of Berkley production of Relatively Speaking. This showcases three one act comedies: “Talking Cure” by Ethan Coen, “George is Dead” by Elaine May, and “Honeymoon Motel”by … you guessed it… Woody Allen. Each of these three writers excel in their craft. Yet the JPM (jokes per minute) count falls easily in Allen’s court. He delves into his own creative archetypes (The wise cracking rabbi, the shrewd wife, the witty but morally questionable leading man, the baseball-loving best friend, the young mistress, the wise everyman who shows up with the moral, etc) and then packs in as many jokes as possible.

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It’s terribly funny and the physical hilarity is very well orchestrated. Colin Johnson, who directed “Honeymoon Motel” had this to say, “Our play is gonna feel like the early, funny Woody. Even though he wrote the play in 2011, it’s more in the vein of [his films] Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973) and padded with a lifetime of punch lines.” Having watched Bananas recently I can tell you that similarly to “Honeymood Motel” the jokes are rapid, the physical comedy is ridiculously and the plot is…there to hold up the jokes. Since it is comedy, the thin plot works. To quote the movie, if anyone were taking this story seriously it would be “a travesty… a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham.” Seeing Woody deliver that line in Bananas never fails to crack me up. Hell, even reading it in plain white print makes me chuckle.

There is no doubt he knows his craft. He’s been nominated for 24 Academy Awards, four of which he won. Six different actors have earned Oscars in his films and three times as many were nominated. We are all aware the list of accolades goes on. The films keep coming. But Allen often appears dismissive of his films. Is this just part of his self-depreciation persona or are other personal issue at play? Does Woody Allen even care about his beloved films? More importantly, does that change how we receive his films?

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Allen has said, “I do the movies just for myself like an institutionalized person who basket-weaves. Busy fingers are happy fingers. I don’t care about the films. I don’t care if they’re flushed down the toilet after I die.”

It sounds as if, he makes film out of compulsion instead of any need for artistic gratification. His creative sensibilities are like a faucet that gurgles and spouts and flows smooth but cannot be shut. It makes sense from that stand point that the Golden Globes named him this year’s Cecil B. Demille award recipient for life time achievement.

Although his quote above was entirely dismissive, Allen also has said this, “All the success over it or the rejection, none of that really matters because in the end, the thing will survive or not survive on its merits.” I would say that regardless of personal taste, it would take a particular narrow outlook to say Woody Allen is without merit. Not many are saying that but from time to time an artist like Allen has his art overshadowed by his personal life. What we often get is a split between private and artistic personas. Allen strays from public life, refraining from plentiful interviews and avoiding award ceremonies. Yet he puts so much of himself into his film year in and year out, it is easy to feel like you know him.

To be honest these issues are hard for me to reconcile. When I started out writing, my point was going to round the “art before the artist” stance. I felt that my interaction with Woody Allen was clear-cut. He makes movies, I watch them. What does it matter what his personal life is like? I don’t have to hang out with him. Often I have this response. I don’t have to get a drink with Mel Gibson, I don’t have to buy a sofa with Tom Cruise, and I don’t have to go to therapy with Woody Allen. Though I do love many of the movies they’ve made. The nature of art and artists are complicated in grey. Oversimplifying does not do justice to either side. My enjoyment is now murky.

In the end, I can definitively say this: Woody Allen’s contribution to cinema is immense, I hold a handful of his films close to my heart, I will continue to see them and you should see Relatively Speaking (with the Allen penned “Honeymoon Motel”) at the Live Oak Theatre. With all of his neurosis distilled down to punch lines, just like the best of his pure comedies, it’s worth the time.

Relatively Speaking runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. til Jan. 25th, 2014

Any number of Woody Allen films can be streamed or rented through the regular streaming avenues.

Sources:

Fine, Alex. Woody Allen Oscar. N.d. Photograph. http://www.whitezine.comWeb. 21 Jan 2014.

James Franco, Spiderman, Ben Affleck, Daredevil. 2013. Photograph. http://www.eonline.comWeb. 21 Jan 2014.

Kaminska, Anna. Final Dress Rehearsal. 2013. Photograph. http://www.aeofberkley.org. Web. 21 Jan 2014.

Still of Woody Allen. N.d. Photograph. http://www.imdb.comWeb. 21 Jan 2014.