In For a Penny: Only if You Mean It

Charles Lewis III checks in one last time.

My first time at the ‘Pub, Feb. 2010

My first time at the ‘Pub, Feb. 2010

“Livin’ here in this brand new world might be a fantasy
But its taught me to love
So it’s real to me
And I’ve learned that we must look inside our hearts to find
A world full of love
Like yours, like mine, like…”
– “Home” from The Wiz, Charlie Smalls, et al.

I’ve been drafting this final dispatch from the magical ‘Pub HQ since mid-September. I assumed it would be my final entry in December. Then in October, I got the e-mail saying we’d be wrapping up the regular columns by mid-November. With that in mind, I also decided to revisit the “SF Theater Pub – By the Numbers” spreadsheet I mentioned in my last entry. Like my fellow columnists, I’d planned for this to be a nostalgic look back at the last almost-seven-years as a maudlin playlist of break-up songs played in the background. But, as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Also, “I am the Walrus,” but that’s neither here nor there.

I’m really glad I haven’t been on Facebook in over a year. I can only imagine how depressing it was last week. Admittedly, on Tuesday night I thought of logging onto Twitter – which I haven’t been on since August – and typing “Somebody just flipped/ My ‘Angry Nigga’ switch/ And the knob’s broken/ Stuck like that for four years, bitch!” But I didn’t do that, nor did I shed any tears. Part of me felt vindicated for this unfortunate proof that there is no “post-racial America,” but I was also disappointed. After finishing up at the SF Opera, I decided to head down to PianoFight.

Amidst the standing-room-only dour faces, I drank a Molson – yes, a Canadian beer – and looked at my phone to check Tumblr, the one social network I didn’t abandon this year. Most of the posts in my feed were what you’d expect, but I particularly took note of those attempting to reassure the worried that there are safe spaces from the dangers, real or imagined, that were trumpeted throughout this election cycle; that no matter what the next four years bring, there are places full of people supporting them and telling their stories; that there are sanctuaries where they could express themselves freely and be exposed to ideas from people who think the same. Kinda reminded me of a theatre company I’ve known for the past half-decade.

When the ‘Pub left the Café Royale in 2013, we were all quick to eulogize it. Leave it to Stuart see the bigger picture and point out that the ‘Pub wasn’t dying but evolving. He acknowledged how much the ‘Pub would be missed, but left us optimistic for what the future held. We’d already followed it “on tour” to the Plough and Stars bar, Borderlands Books, and the Bay Area One-Acts Fest; when it finally landed at PianoFight (and The Hall for a brief time), it was less a resurrection and more of a reawakening. This time is different.

We eulogized it then the same reason we do now: because it meant – nay, means – something to us all. As both San Francisco and its artistic communities changed before our eyes, “Theater Pub on Monday” remained a reliable constant for local artists struggling with forces beyond their control. It’s a company for which we have strong feelings and no shortage of memories. In February 2010 I went to the Café Royale to see a friend perform. By that December I’d appeared in shows about Oedipus, Oscar Wilde, HP Lovecraft, and was both co-writing and appearing in the first Xmas show.

When I asked myself what Theater Pub means, I couldn’t settle on any one thing. Hell, I couldn’t settle on 100 things. But it definitely included the following things. So before I look ahead, I hope you’ll indulge me in looking back over the past almost-seven years and picking a few things (some of which are viewable on the ‘Pub’s official YouTube channel) that illustrate just what I think Theater Pub means.

Theater Pub means arriving to see “an anti-Valentine’s Day show in a bar” (the ‘Pub’s second ever) and being greeted by Cody Rishell. He held a glass of wine in one hand and gracefully handed me the above program (featuring the logo he’d created) with his other hand. Classy as fuck, this ‘Pub thing. Were I forced at gunpoint to pick my favorite Cody piece of ‘Pub art, it would probably have to be…

Cthulu shan’t be denied his hors d’œuvres.

Cthulu shan’t be denied his hors d’œuvres.

Theater Pub means I was in the company’s very first musical, a Faustian parable called Devil of a Time. I sang and played a kazoo. Footage of the show got me cast in a different musical by fellow ‘Pub veteran Evangeline Reilly. One of my three ‘Pub regrets is that we never went through with our plan to record the Devil of a Time cast album. I still have the songbook from the show and have used it in auditions. I also have the kazoo.

Theater Pub means there’s one company where I’ve acted in more shows than anyone else. I’ve actively tried to disprove this fact over and over again – hell, I figured Andrew Chung must have done more than me by now. I put together the “By the Numbers” spreadsheet in part to show that I couldn’t have done the most. The results conclude that… yeah, I’ve acted in the more shows than anyone else. I’ll be damned.

Theater Pub means watching a version of 2001: A Space Odyssey that includes the one thing Kubrick’s masterpiece truly lacked: the phrase “Fuck! This! SHIIIIIIIITT!!!!” shouted at full volume. The looks on the faces of the brunch crowd at The Hall were priceless.

Theater Pub means me losing my mind singing along to Jesus Christ Superstar, standing silent as everyone around me sings Rent, and leading the audience through songs from Tommy. Nobody does Xmas the way ‘Pub does Xmas.

Theater Pub means a four-year-old writer got to debut her first work for our edification. It had Megan Trowbridge applying several band-aids. We are all richer for the experience.

Theater Pub means showing up in a toga to be greeted by a lot of bearded ladies.

Theater Pub means me directing the company’s first and only entry into ShortLived!, Ashley Cowan’s This is Why We Broke Up. Knowing it was an Ashley piece, I made it a point to incorporate at least one ‘90s jam into the production. As such, the play ended with Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You”. Good times.

Theater Pub means cuddling up with my then-girlfriend as we watch the aforementioned 2001 show. That same year I’d watch her perform (amazingly) in two ‘Pub shows, one of which was recorded. Maybe someday I’ll be able to watch that video without developing a pain in my chest.

Theater Pub means me directing for Pint Sized and the writer of my piece glaring at the actors like a stern principal. He claims that he loved it.

Theater Pub means that at one point the logo was on a pint glass. My second-of-three ‘Pub regrets is not buying one when I had the chance.

Regrets, I’ve had a few…

Regrets, I’ve had a few…

Theater Pub means knowing why there was a “don’t hold your drinks over the balcony” rule at the Café Royale.

Theater Pub means me as a horse. Of course, of course. It was Jean Cocteau. Ya had to be there.

Theater Pub means Andrew dousing himself with Axe Body Spray in a Pint Sized piece. There are three stages to this experience: 1 – watching Andrew douse himself; 2 – watching the people behind him cover their noses and mouths; and 3 – hearing the people in the Café Royale balcony groan as the smell wafts up to them. Beautiful.

Theater Pub means hearing lines like “I am reading Moby Dick!”, “Stop unnecessary circumcisions!”, and “Eat a bag of dicks, Voldemort!” (as written by Tonya Narvaez, Claire Rice, and Ashley Cowan, respectively).

Theater Pub means Marissa calling out another writer’s sexism, leading to a fiery discussion that blew up the comments section of her column.

Theater Pub means my column posts occasionally being held up as Stuart and I exchange a series of angry messages at one another via e-mail or FB Messaging. He’d say something that made me want to toss my laptop out the window, I’d say something that made him want to get a new columnist. All for a column regularly read by, at most, four people. Still, I only missed two deadlines in my time running this column – one as a result of said conversations, the other due to my just having forgot it was my day.

Theater Pub means this column almost got me a job writing for The San Francisco Chronicle. Yes, really.

Theater Pub means I got to be Huey P. Newton twice in one night. The first was when I read his (in)famous pro-Feminism/LGBTQ+ speech as part of Occupy: Theater Pub! (Jan. 2012). The second was when I was walking home from that show and was stopped by the police. It was neither my first nor last time being harassed cops for the oh-so-dangerous crime of walking down the street, minding my own business as a Black man. It pissed me off and it didn’t help matters that I had a weapon on me (a wooden baton that we’d used in the show). With nothing to hold me for, they let me go and I was able to briefly avoid becoming just another hashtag.

Theater Pub means that great Neil Higgins moment. I know I mentioned it at the end of my last entry, but it was really cool to witness first-hand.

Theater Pub means making snarky comments from the balcony at the TBA Awards.

Theater Pub means I had the time, place, and opportunity to put on Molière’s The Misanthrope, as well as my own adaptations of The Girl from Andros, Jekyll & Hyde, and an original murder-mystery on which I was collaborating with another writer. My third and final ‘Pub regret is that with all the chances I had, I never put on a single one.

That’s just a fraction of what I remember from the safe space that was Theater Pub. In fact, I can’t help but wonder if I thought of it as so safe that it held me back? Stay with me here…

If you’ve read this far then it should go without saying I love Theater Pub with the biggest, reddest heart emoticon there is. But I also wonder if the safety it provided lead to a complacency; that perhaps I couldn’t venture outward without a little push? I look at those shows I didn’t produce and recall that every time I’d think of one of them I’d also think “Oh, I can put that one off for a little longer.” I’d gotten so used to saying “someday” that eventually those days ran out. (When this year’s “November Classic” spot opened up, I wanted to do either Andros or Misanthrope. By the time I decided which one, the slot had been filled.)

Now I have to make those shows without the safety net the ‘Pub would provide… and that’s an exciting idea. Those who attended Olympians this year know from my pre-show bio that I’m moving ahead with both Andros and Misanthrope, and that’s just the beginning. Shows I’d imagined and written around our favorite bar will now have to be done in proper theatres. Hell, earlier this year an artistic director broached the idea of me directing for his company; last week I sent him an e-mail to catch up. And I’m equally dedicated to acting: I’m currently understudying at one the Bay Area’s most renowned theatres and will absolutely be collecting my optional EMC points from the show.

Will a show I direct ever be written up in the Chronicle? Will I soon be able to put “actor/writer/director” on my tax returns? I have no damn idea. But week after week I’d read Allison, Marissa, and Anthony’s posts about producing Hilarity, Pleiades, and Terror-Rama (respectively) as we all continued to work with this upstart theatre company that operated without NEA grants. I guess you can say it lit a fire in my belly.

I named this column “In For a Penny” because I told myself that making a small commitment to art is making a full commitment. I intend to fulfill that commitment.

Hmm? Ah, I see. Thank you.

My Hyrule fearie personal assistant tells me that my griffin-pulled chariot has arrived, so I should probably wrap this up. ‘Course, there’s nothing left to say, but… thank you.

Thank you to Stuart, Ben, Victor, and Brian for letting me take part in your theatre company that put on classics for common folk.

Thank you to Meg and Tonya for listening to me ramble on before and after shows, occasionally singing Rodgers & Hammerstein with me, and listening to me kvetch about romance.

Thank you, Marissa, for the Pleiades interview, which eventually lead to me creating this column.

Thank you to everyone whose name I can’t fit in this already-too-long entry, and everyone who saw a show I was involved in, walked up to me afterward, and asked “So what was that all about?”

Thank you again, Stuart – indisputably the keystone of the Theater Pub arch. Thank you for letting me ramble on your website every other week, letting me write and direct with some of the Bay Area’s best talent, and letting me sing “Pinball Wizard”.

And thank you, San Francisco Theater Pub for always making my Monday.

So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

So long. Farewell Au revoir. Auf Wiedersehen

So long. Farewell Au revoir. Auf Wiedersehen

Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born writer, actor, and director.
When not avoiding social media, you can follow his ongoing adventures on Medium, Twitter, Tumblr, and sites found at the bottom of his official blog, The Thinking Man’s Idiot. Life is a Cabaret, old chums.

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Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: If Only Angels Could Prevail

Marissa Skudlarek, prevailing. 

This is my last scheduled post as a regular columnist for the Theater Pub blog.

Really great timing, huh?

When Stuart and I were discussing our plan to wind down the blog, and I realized that my final post was scheduled to run two days after the election, I said, “If Trump wins, I might not be able to get you that post on time, FYI.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Stuart, “he’s not gonna win.”

But, while I may have been prescient enough to have at least considered the possibility of a Trump victory, I was not prescient enough to know what my own response would be. Yes, I am sad and numb and hollowed out. Yes, I have chills and I’ve lost my appetite, the way I always do when blindsided by bad news.

But I woke up this morning, the day after the election, and put on a black dress and pulled my hair back and drew on eyeliner and walked outside with my head high. The first battle of the new American era was simply getting out of bed and facing the day with dignity. And I am ready to fight. And if I were to simply wallow in my grief tonight and not write anything, I would feel even worse.

I spent Election Night at PianoFight, the venue where Theater Pub performs, which was hosting a party with a free edition of Killing My Lobster’s election-themed sketch-comedy show. I had thought, “No matter what happens, this is where I want to be, these are the people I want to be among.” But it was loud and crowded and, as the disappointing election returns started to come in, increasingly anxious and panicked. There were lots of hugs and mutual support. There was cautious optimism, defiant singing, political rationalizations. And always, always, there was that damned CNN map on a big screen in the corner. (When I closed my eyes in bed last night, visions of a red and blue patchwork danced before me.) I became so anxious that I started to get lightheaded, and I didn’t much feel like laughing.

So, along with Theater Pub’s Artistic Director Tonya Narvaez, I sneaked into a tech rehearsal in PianoFight’s smaller theater. A group of SF State students were there, practicing a revue of Stephen Sondheim songs. It was cool and quiet, art was being made, and we could check the election results on our phones but not be glued to the TV screen. And, if the world was ending, why not spend it listening to live performances of Sondheim?

I didn’t cry when Prince or Bowie died, but I sure as hell am going to cry when Sondheim dies. And as this shitty year winds down its last shitty weeks, the thought “At least Sondheim is still alive… please God let him hang on till 2017” has popped into my head a few times.

Sondheim has written some dark material, and the students’ selection focused on the more political side of his oeuvre. Several pieces from Assassins and Sweeney Todd. “Pretty Lady” from Pacific Overtures, a deceptively beautiful song about sexual predation. A woman with long red hair sang “Every Day A Little Death” and I couldn’t help thinking of Melania Trump—another trophy wife in a relationship with a blustering man who “talks softly of his wars / and his horses and his whores.”

So Tonya and I, two unmarried Millennials, strong women descended from strong women, with surnames (Spanish and Slavic) that still sound foreign to many ears, escaped into the tech rehearsal in the back room. We held hands, we hugged, we shed a few tears when we realized how things were going. We realized the irony of treating PianoFight’s small theater as a refuge, because the set for Every 28 Hours is still up—posters of the people of color who have been slain by police in recent years, reminding us that even in Obama’s America, it was not safe to be brown or black. We heard the lyric “If only angels could prevail” and thought yes, if only.

I know I live in a liberal, artistic bubble. In the day since the bad news has sunk in, I have seen many people express thoughts about the role of artists under a Trump administration, responses that take one of two forms. Some people say “At least some great art will come out of this, great art always emerges from adversity,” which seems like a pathetic attempt to find a silver lining in the situation. All things considered, most artists would prefer to work under conditions of peace and prosperity, not conditions of adversity. It is difficult to make art if you live in a society that refuses to see you as fully human—perhaps one reason that art by white men dominates the Western canon.

Other people are framing this slightly differently, saying, “This is the time for artists to get to work. We need your stories and your voices now more than ever.” I have mixed feelings about this. While I appreciate being reminded that my voice matters and that art has a larger purpose, I am skeptical of the idea that art is what will get us out of this mess. I’m also not sure that I agree with the implication that the only art we should be making in this troubled time is overtly political, agenda-driven art.

But still, there is a reason I went to the Sondheim show last night, and a reason that I have continued to think about art and literature today. I mentioned that, when faced with a bleak and distressing situation, I lose my physical appetite. I also lose my metaphorical appetite: my compulsion, usually so strong, to immerse myself in works of art. Instead, for a time, I feel like there is no joy in the world and no art that is possibly worth experiencing. I wake up in the morning and think “What can I read on the way to work today? What can I possibly read?”

And then, unbidden, the craving for some work of art will hit me, and it is the first moment I feel like myself again, the first moment I see a path out of despair. Today, someone on Twitter posted the Tolkien quote about how the only people who hate escapism are jailers. I’m not much of a one for Tolkien, but the quote reminded me of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in which the title characters create a comic-book superhero called The Escapist. “I will start rereading Kavalier and Clay when I get home,” I thought, and, for the first time, I felt a little better. It’s a story about a Czech Jewish refugee and his queer Brooklyn cousin fighting fascism with art—the kind of America, and American values, that I want to believe in.

If we wanted, we could darkly joke that Theater Pub was a product of the Obama era and so it is appropriate that it’s ending in December 2016. Just one more casualty of this year, every day a little death. But that might produce the impression that Trump’s victory caused us to quit in defeat, when that isn’t true at all. As I said in an earlier piece about Theater Pub’s impending end, the organization and the blog are going away, but we aren’t going away. I’ve already started to think about other outlets for my writing.

I don’t know what the future holds. It may well be scary and dark. But I know that I want to be prepared to confront it, with all my wits about me. If Hillary Clinton had won the electoral vote, this final column would have been sentimental and nostalgic and maybe even a bit complacent, looking back at the last six years rather than looking ahead at the future. But because Trump has won, I cannot spend time on nostalgia. The last six, or eight, years have shaped me. Theater Pub has shaped me. Art of all kinds has shaped me and made me stronger. Now it is time to test my mettle.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her on Twitter @MarissaSkud or at marissabidilla.blogspot.com.