Theater Around The Bay: The 2016 Stueys

Stuart Bousel wraps us up with a year-end wrap up. 

Well, here we are again.

Another year has passed here in the Bay Area theater scene, and while many are saying 2016 was a cursed year, I personally found it to be a rather relentless year of change, challenge, growth, and ultimately: reward. Which doesn’t mean I’d do it all over again, but I have a hard time just writing it off either. For better or worse, and for the most part it’s been better though maybe not immediately apparent how so, a lot of stuff that kind of needed to happen, happened this year, and I’m grateful. I think I’m a smarter, stronger, more centered person, and a superior artist to who I was. Which isn’t the same thing as happy, but there’s a price for everything, right?

One of the many things that happened this year was that I branched out, or rather, I branched back out, expanding my participation in the form beyond the writer/director status I had more or less relegated myself to (and embraced) to also include acting, once again. The result was being cast in two shows, one of which, the Custom Made Theatre Company production of CHESS, became so time consuming I actually didn’t see a play by anyone else from August through November of this year. Even then I only just managed to catch Rapture Blister Burn at Custom Made, and if I wasn’t a staff member there it is debatable if I would have done so. I missed all but two nights of the SF Olympians Festival, and one of the two I managed to attend… was my own. That 2016 has been a largely successful year for me on the theater front is undeniably true, and no where is it more apparent than now, writing the Stueys, and finding I have a mere 26 shows to consider. That may seem like a lot, but usually it’s more like 40-50. The fact is, I was at the theater just as much if not more so than usual, but in 2016 the show I was most often at was one of my own.

Many things finished their course this year, including Theater Pub and DIVAfest, two organizations that were quite energy and time-consuming for me, and were indeed the equivalent of part-time jobs (though only one of them was I actually paid for). I’ve debated if the STUEYS should do likewise and end their reign of terror, but I rather enjoy publishing a personal Best Of list, if only to remind people, annually, that I do in fact like quite a lot out there. And because if there’s one thing I’ve come to understand about the Bay Area Theatre scene over the years, it’s far more diverse than most of the accepted press is willing or able to agknowledge, and so an additional voice is not only welcome, but necessary. Hence, here we are again, with all the usual caveats that no awards here mean anything beyond my personal admiration for the named artist, and that no rules apply to this process aside from my own personal whimsy when it comes to determining categories and recipients, and my own personal promise to not give myself or anything I creatively worked on an award because my vanity is a mere 7 out of 10.

So without further ado, the Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards 2016, or the SEBATA, or The Stueys.

To all my friends and frenemies in the local rat race we call Art, let’s all do it again next year. But better. And maybe a little more paced out. Cause I am tired and I know I’m not the only one.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness: Jay Yamada
Do I really need to talk about how cool Jay Yamada is? I hope not. But then, if you haven’t worked with him, you might not know. The man is a saint, truly, and even better- he’s an artist, an excellent stage photographer who actually understands how to work with stage lighting and capture moments in shows you could never reproduce as posed shots. The Mohammed Ali of stage photogs, Jay is weaving around your actors at a final dress like a dancer, camera clicking away and sometimes inches from their faces, and yet amazingly unobtrusive. At the end of the night you know you’ll be walking away with at least 40 usable portfolio shots and press photos, and what’s more- your actors and designers will too, because Jay knows to get all that stuff and capture it in use, the way it should be captured. He often does this for dirt cheap or free if you’re a small company, and that’s just cool, providing the level of theater that needs it the most a touch of professionalism and gloss it might not otherwise get.

Best Thing I Saw But Didn’t Actually Like: The Lion (ACT)
I am a white guy who enjoys stories about white guys and acoustic guitar and I do not and will not apologize for it because some of that shit is gold. But man- you know a show is AGGRESSIVELY CAUCASIAN when even I am like, “Wow, this shit is white.” Still, Benjamin Scheuer does for white straight guys who make it through cancer what W;T did for white women who don’t, and if it’s a little Beaches in the mix to boot, all the better. His music is excellent, if utterly innocuous from the sampling in the show (I coined the term “innocurock” after seeing it), and he tells his story well, sincerely and without self-aggrandizement, owning where he comes from with everything from the Trunk Club wardrobe to the Lisa Loeb (™) brand bohemian apartment set, and it all works because the point is- even these guys die. Even these guys face a moment where they will be stripped of dignity and confronted with their insignificance and find out who they really are. When I say I didn’t actually like the show it’s because I found it low-stakes (I mean, we know it turns out okay, he’s sitting there performing it), a little saccharine (nobody in Ben’s life fails to find their place in his heart), and a little too polished (don’t tell us you were scared, Ben, show us, compromise that golden boy image you effortlessly project). But all that said, I found myself thinking, “I like this guy. He’s a good performer and a good spirit. I’m glad he’s okay. I hope he uses all this incredible talent and this second chance at life to make some really good art some day.” The Lion was, for me, all about potential- and realizing you have some. And that you shouldn’t waste it. Cause that clock is ticking, even if you’re a good looking heterosexual white kid whose life has been non-stop options (which, by the way, may actually make it easier to piss away your assets than someone whose daily existence is a reminder not to blow their shot), and I sincerely hope this was the prologue to something bigger in scope, and even better in execution.

The Best Thing I Saw Sans Qualifications: Colossal (SF Playhouse)
Against all odds, I loved this show. I say against all odds because I could care less about football. I don’t even hate it. I just don’t care. It’s like a thing that matters on another planet to people who in turn come from an even farther one from my daily reality and I just don’t get it. But man do I get falling stupidly in love with terrible people, hot gay sex, and the appeal of that which will probably destroy us, and playwright Andrew Hinderaker’s downright nasty, unapologetic, semen and sweat soaked script is one of the edgiest meditations on the mass appeal of self-destruction and its direct link to our urge to fuck one another that I’ve encountered in years. Beautifully directed by Jon Tracy, with some excellent performances (particularly the central character played by both Jason Stojanovski and Thomas Gorrebeeck, each bringing a distinct aspect to their interpretation of the role that highlights the disparity between who we are and who we perceive ourselves to be), the show managed to take some truly commendable risks and for the most part they all paid off in spades (the countdown clock behind the action at all times- brilliant! the relentless football drills- gorgeous!), somehow tricking me into accepting football not only as something people might genuinely want in their lives, but would like… make art about. And really good art at that.

Best Ambitious Failure: Cage (Performers Under Stress)
As usual, I feel like I first need to remind folks that I love very little as much as I love a Good Ambitious Failure. In fact, if pressed, I’d much rather watch a GAF than a Well Made Play any day of the week, because the former is much more likely to surprise me and one of the reasons I head to the theater is to be surprised. I feel like Performers Under Stress sort of specialize in the GAF, and Scott Baker’s continued forays into the realms unexplored and frequently ignored by the general theater community are worthy of a Stuey themselves, but this show in particular is a standout amongst their work that I have seen. Tar Gracesdóttir’s script is witty and interesting, though it borrows so heavily from the Joe Orton comedies that clearly influence it that it runs the risk of predictability and it devolves in to the sort of Facebook Status Update liberalism I’ve grown, as a liberal, to really detest. Still, Baker’s direction kept it moving, and Val Sinckler’s performance in the lead provided the perfect dose of skeptical every person required to make an otherwise alien group of characters at least contextually believable. It’s Valerie Fachman’s humane and sympathetic turn in a supporting role, however, that provided the evening with heart, and made me want to revisit the script again, and think about the production I’d just seen. Was it a perfect night? Far from it. But it got under my skin, and frankly that’s always the harder battle to win with an undeniably jaded audience member like myself.

Best Addition To The SF Theater Scene: Lily Janiak (SF Chronicle Critic)
Those of you wondering if this is me kissing ass in a very public way, rest assured, part of what I love about Lily as a critic is that she knows there are times I think she couldn’t be more spot on, and times I think she is full of pretentious nonsense, and my respect for her is in a large part due to my ability to express, publicly and privately, both of these perspectives at any given time, with the assurance that neither stance will influence her critique of my work, which has ranged from super flattering to just a shade less complimentary than that time the Guardian negatively compared my work to a Star Trek convention. Coming back onto the scene just a few months after she told me she was done with criticism, now bigger and bolder than ever, Lily has been shaking up the local theater scene in ways both admirable and terrifying, and I for one couldn’t be happier about it. Though she’s not my favorite local theater critic, she’s certainly one of my favorite local thinkers, and while some people will claim her importance as a wrench in the way we usually do things around here is the whole being female part, I would claim it’s got a lot more to do with being under 40 and not afraid to ask questions, particular of our very comfortable old guard who could use a little pointed poke in the grey matter now and then. If theater has a future in the Bay Area, it’s time we start getting some next generation (or really, this generation) perspectives and I can’t applaud the Chronicle more for going with someone exciting and fresh and smart and willing to put her mind out there. It’s not about kicking out the old, whose mentorship and legacy are invaluable, but we’re long past the point of making a place at the table for the new and this was an important step in the right direction. How excellent, as a director, to glance at the critic sector of the audience on opening night and see someone stuffing their bike helmet under the chair amidst that sea of venerable, adored, and largely white, gentlemanly heads. I might not always like what she’ll have to say, but then I can’t always predict what that’ll be either, and that, one artist to another, is delicious.

Best Synthesis of Tech and Action/Best Director: Cole Ferraiuolo/Maggie’s Riff (Faultline)
Look, I’ll be honest (cause that’s how I roll these days): I think Jack Kerouac sucks. I think he’s a shitty writer, and from what I’ve read he was a craptastic human being too, and yes I realize I’m basically telling you to revoke my San Francisco citizenship and my Reed College diploma. Jon Lipsky’s play didn’t do a thing to change my opinion, despite excellent performances from Paul Rodrigues, JD Scalzo, Nicole Odell, Rich Lesnik, and if anything it reinforced my assumption that having sex with Kerouac was probably like having sex with a bowling alley only less erudite, but what it did do was foster a new admiration for Cole Ferraiuolo’s abilities as a director, particularly in his ability to synthesize tech aspects of the show with the text aspects of the show to create an aesthetic whole that seemed almost seamless. In particular, the integration of shadow affects, by Alisa Javits, into the narrative highlighted the tension between truth and fiction, perception and reality, legacy and legend that provide the intellectual nut of the show. The piece felt like a fever dream, poetic and important, even if only to the dreamer, and the pacing, which is what kills so many shows for me, was pitch perfect from beginning to end.

Best Five Minutes: Justin Gillman and Cat Luedtke in Middletown (Custom Made Theatre Company)
Will Eno is a mixed bag for me. For everything I like and admire, from the language to the ideas, there’s a thing I’m twiddling my thumbs at, there’s a moment I’m wondering how something so bland can somehow inspire such passionate praise. Middletown epitomizes this for me, and is why if someone asked me “where to begin” with Eno, I would send them here, with the caveat of, “it’ll leave you unsatisfied- which I think is how it’s supposed to leave you- which means I think you’ll have successfully gotten it and him? I don’t know. It’s not really my thing. Even though it kind of is.” That said, my single favorite five minutes of theater this year was in the Brian Katz directed production at Custom Made Theatre Company, and it happened in the second act, when Cat Luedtke’s doctor encounters Justin Gillman’s lunatic and decides to help him out with some birthday drugs she “spills” from the supply of pain killers she apparently just wanders around with. If Brian excels at anything as a director, it’s a kind of stoic naturalism, and in a scene between two such archetypes, it’s his light hand that allows for two excellent actors to soak in the relationship and find the nuances that turn this five minute scene into a stand-alone one-act I’d award Best Short Play to if I could. No where else in the production was that theme of the extra-ordinary ordinariness of things better realized, and the moment was at once sad and funny and romantic and real, like a treasured scene of an early ‘aughts indie film I would have, at another point in my career, played on repeat to actors insisting “that’s how you do that.”

Best Actress In A Thankless Role: Melanie Marshall, Peer Gynt (ArtistsRepSF)
There are a lot of thankless roles out there, male and female, but women more often than not, through sheer numbers, end up in parts that, while not necessarily bad parts, are still just kind of thankless. For every regal queen role, or unrepentant murderess, or inspiring historical figure, or mold-breaking heroine who takes center stage or at least holds her own on the supporting side, there are like three times as many handmaidens, best-friends, random sexies, and blandly supportive mothers or love-interests. Solveig in Peer Gynt falls into the last category, though too his credit Ibsen attempts to give her some personality, he just also sort of forgets about her for 2/3rds of the play after she’s introduced, bringing her back at the end once his hero has learned an important lesson- one she embodies, thus rendering her not just a personified concept, but a kind of reward. That Solveig has a little more grit to her in the Artists’ Rep adaptation of Peer Gynt is no doubt partly due to Oren Steven’s revisioning and direction, but it’s hard to imagine anyone having brought to the role what actress Melanie Marshall was able to bring through a unique combination of earthiness and no bullshit deadpan. Often times Solveig feels beautiful and forgiving, but because she has to be (that’s how she was written to be). Melanie made it clear her Solveig was making it work as a choice- her choice- and that nobody, starting with Peer, should take it for granted. As a long time fan, for all its flaws, of the original work, it was impossible not to be charmed by this fresh take on the character, and even wish that a full spin-off revisioning, WICKED-style, was in the works somewhere, preferably with Melanie at the helm.

Best Surprise, The Big Hot Mess (DIVAfest)
To know Catherine Debon is to know a true San Francisco original, though Parisian in origin (but then, true SF Originals are almost always from somewhere else, right?). A femme fatale come to life, a dancer and performer, a writer and thinker, Catherine has been creating unusual and challenging performance work in the Bay Area for years, but with The Big Hot Mess, directed by Amanda Ortmayer and featuring Kevin Copps in a supporting role, she gave us something unique and unusual even for her. Part film noir, part performance art, this exploration of time and agency, and the relationship between the two, made use of duct tape and wall-clocks, movement and voiceover, one slinky black dress and one fedora to illustrate how our personal sense of control over our lives slips as we age and find ourselves progressively written out by the world around us. As the guy who had done some publicity work on this piece, I knew to expect something heady and stylish, but what I wasn’t expecting was to be utterly and thoroughly delighted by the end product, for it to be by turns elegantly self-aware and comically absurd, yet at its core a heroic journey, a depiction of one woman’s willingness and ability to stand up for what was right. A total inversion not only of the noir genre, but the medium of performance art in general, The Big Hot Mess was anything but, and the only time this year I found myself saying, “Yeah, I know I was paid to tell you to see this- but you really really should see it. It’s so good!”

Best Spirit: Terra Incognita: Through The Waves (DIVAfest/UpLift Physical Theatre)
I feel like it’s already a bit of a legend, how on opening night of this piece, created and performed by Juliana Frick, Hannah Gaff, and Nicholette Routhier, the soundtrack didn’t work and the show went on anyway, with all three women performing in absolute silence to an awestruck theater full of people wondering how you could pull off a movement piece without the music and soundscape it had been created to. As we sat rapt for thirty minutes, watching them tumble and lift and dance and roll with only the patter of their feet and the slap of their skin against the lone piece of scenery, a table, to accompany them, I remember thinking, “This is what it means to be an artist- and to be a small theater artist- this right here.” While a bigger company would have canceled the night, refunded the tickets, and maybe should have, that was not only not an option for these women, but ultimately an asset. When you’re in the business of making art that is raw and real, you know you can’t back down because the tech craps out. When your art gets better because you didn’t back down, that’s when you know you’re the part that’s raw and real.

Best Designer: Carlos Aceves, Scenery For The Awakening (The Breadbox)
The Breadbox’s production of The Awakening, adapted by Oren Stevens and directed by Ariel Craft, earned a tremendous amount of attention this past year, including a truckload of TBA Awards and critical praise, and all of it was, unquestionably, deserved. I could heap more praise myself, but decided that in the spirit of the Stueys, which try to highlight some stuff left off the other Best Of lists, I thought I would call attention to what was one of my favorite aspects: the simple and yet evocative set design that captured beautifully the turn of the century Gulf coast community in which the action was set. One of the more transformative sets I’ve seen in the EXIT Stage Left, Carlos Aceves’ combination of boardwalk and driftwood echoed with Louisiana elegance and bygone nostalgia, evoking not just the sea but the beach, specifically, and the cultures that grew up around The Shore. From the knots in the wood to the knots in the hammock, there was a graininess to it all that practically bled sepia-toned photographs, and sucked you into the world that had to be real before any of the conflicts happening inside of it could truly be understood in context. A precise blend of conceptual and literal, the set accented perfectly everything else the show so adeptly executed.

Image That Will Stay With Me The Most: Mikka Bonel/Amy Sass (A Whale’s Wake, The Flightdeck)
Amy Sass is an admirable theater artist for a number of reasons, but if I had to pick one, it’s this: girlfriend does not compromise her vision. Sometimes this is a wonderful thing, and sometimes it’s a questionable thing, but for what it’s worth, we don’t do art so the audience will be indifferent about it and Amy Sass seems to not only get that, but embody it. There was a lot about her play A Whale’s Wake that I admired, and some I sort of rolled my eyes at, but if I had to pick one moment from any show that I saw this year that best epitomizes this year it’s without doubt from Amy’s personal spin on the domestic drama, and that oldest of tropes in the domestic drama trope bag: the reluctant mother giving birth. In this case, because it’s Amy, she gives birth during a flood, as she’s swept out to sea, and said baby sort of ballet dances away on its umbilical cord, before said cord is severed by a Dude Who Fixes Everything trope. I know this sounds ridiculous, and it was, but somehow, thanks to Amy’s direction, and Mikka Bonel’s icy but graceful performance as the mother, it also worked, and seared itself into my imagination forever. What is life if not the wondrous and terrible moment of seeing your newborn hoisted out of you by forces beyond your control?

And so, there you go. Another year, another list. Hopefully you found it as amusing to read as it was for me to write.

Now, as I sit in the living room of my new apartment (I moved in October of this year, just one of many difficult changes that made me better), tying all this up, I suddenly find myself thinking that while in some ways I flew a little more under the community radar than usual this year (no TBA Award nominations, and I skipped the conference; lower attendance of shows than usual, and more stepping away from administrative roles than times past; and I went to virtually nobody’s parties), I still directed my favorite play, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation at Custom Made, had the honor of having my play Adventures in Tech directed by Allison Page at PianoFight, and ended the year directing the American premiere of Clive Barker’s gorgeous Paradise Street at the EXIT Theatre. A show of mine was done in Chicago, I mounted a collection of short plays about a pop star I idolize, Rob Ready slew another llamalogue I wrote, I had a reading in New York, I built a new works development program, I worked with awesome artists in a variety of ways, and I sang in front of paying customers for a month solid and nobody threw anything at me. Not every moment was perfect but in many ways, it was actually a bumper year as far as me doing what I wanted as an artist, though somewhat ironically, I also felt a little more on the outside of the community, for reasons I really can’t quite explain. At the back of my head, of course, I recognize it’s probably got something to do with having followed my own bliss a bit more whole-heartedly, un-appologetically, and occasionally at the sacrifice of passionate obligations and social politicking that at another point in my career would have called the shots more. I de-friended more of my fellow theater artists this year than ever before (albeit mostly due to the election), while at the same time expanding my collaborative circles exponentially, and though I suspect my approach to my own trajectory has always been complex if not outright paradoxical (can one be as diplomatic as I aspire to be, while also holding their integrity as close to the core as I also aspire to do?), I suppose what’s changed is that I’m no longer fighting that intrinsic tension, but rather embracing it. It’s about recognizing that everything is a mixed bag, including me, including everyone else, and sort of shrugging at the people who can’t accept that (or me) and letting them learn that without feeling the need to personally educate them- or apologize for not living up to their idea of what and who I’m supposed to be. Not everything is going to go according to plan, not everything battle is going to be won, not everything is going to be to your standards, but that’s okay. And also how it kind of has to be. Accept it, celebrate it, or let it go and celebrate that, but don’t let it stop you. If there’s one thing 2016 taught me, it’s that: don’t let it stop you. And don’t wait for people to catch up.

The right people always will.

Editor’s Note: In an effort to get this out before the end of the year, numerous grammatical and spelling mistakes have no doubt been made, and as such, will be edited in the future in an effort to uphold some kind of standard.

Theater Around The Bay: Autumn Is A Good Time To Say Goodbye

So, you’ve probably heard the rumors that Theater Pub is coming to an end and it’s true: Meg, Tonya, and Stuart have decided to close up shop this December. With fall right around the corner and the holidays looming, it seems like a good time to say goodbye, so we’re giving official notice today.

Meg Trowbridge says farewell to the theater in a bar she loves the most…

Theater Pub came back at a serendipitous time for me. I was newly freelancing (read:unemployed) and looking to dive head-first into making art. When Stuart asked me to take on an Artistic Director position, I was eager to get to work. Turns out, it’s a lot of work, guys! Monthly shows are no joke, but even with the non-stop nature of Theater Pub giving me gray hairs, it was magical to see the old and new faces coming together to make theater. It was a pleasure to get to know the crew of PianoFight so well. I especially loved opening nights that were followed by Beatles Karaoke. My theater-loving heart was full on many of these nights.

But a non-stop theater that can’t support its staff is not sustainable. It was around the same time that Stuart, Tonya and I were all thinking about our graceful exit from SFTP – unbeknownst to each other. Stuart was the first to say Uncle (to be fair, he’d been there since 2010, so it was really his time). When Tonya and I sat with the idea of taking on SFTP on our own, the biggest question we had to ask ourselves was why? Did SFTP serve a purpose anymore? When Theater Pub started all those years ago, it accomplished two things: it helped a bar bring in folks on a Monday night, and provided a venue for theater people to produce unlikely works. When we returned to PianoFight, we tried to do the same thing: bring crowds into PianoFight on quiet nights and provide a venue for exciting theater.

I figured once we returned that we’d have people knocking down our door to pitch ideas or get involved – but that wasn’t the case. Not that we didn’t feel loved, there are just a lot more opportunities and venues in the Bay Area today than there used to be. It’s actually great news – it’s news that makes it easier to put Theater Pub to bed.

The three people running Theater Pub right now are playwrights – we sometimes direct, sometimes act, sometimes go full-on diva at a piano bar, but we are playwrights first and foremost. And when playwrights are spending most of their time managing art instead of creating it, it is time to move on. (We get itchy.)

From here, I go on to head up writing a few shows for Killing My Lobster (check out The Political Show this November and look for next season’s announcement!). I will also be finishing up my Pontos Trilogy, which got its beginnings in the Olympians Festival: Wine Dark Sea.

I look forward to seeing what other SFTP regulars have in store! I look forward to having more time to see theater! And if you keep your eyes peeled, Pint-Sized Plays may rear its drunken head for another go next summer…

Much love to all of those who worked with us and supported us.

Meg

Tonya Narvaez gives a long hug goodbye to SFTP…

I wanted to be part of Theater Pub from the first time I attended, which was Pint-Sized in 2011. I wanted to support it however I could. My support took the form of shouting about the shows from the rooftops (of my Facebook), bringing friends along to get them hooked, donating at each show, acting in shows, writing shows, and eventually becoming Co-Artistic Director with Meghan Trowbridge and working with her and Stuart Bousel to see how Theater Pub fit into this new theater landscape. I wanted to do all of these things because Theater Pub has given so much to me.

As an actor, it served to connect me with so many talented theater artists and inspire me with unique shows and magical theater moments.

As a writer, it gave me a home to put on some of my more peculiar ideas and taught me important lessons about my process and my voice.

As a producer, I’ve learned so many hard lessons about how to put on theater. About how to plan a season, how to work with friends (or strangers), how to rely on others, how to expect the unexpected, or when that fails, how to roll with the punches, how and when to say the hard things, and remembering to say the good things. Producing is not for the faint of heart, and it certainly isn’t for anyone who isn’t all-in.

This year I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t all-in for Theater Pub. Not because it’s not worthy. Not because it’s not glorious. But because my priorities have shifted since taking the position of Artistic Director two years ago and I only have so much bandwidth at my disposal.

Thank you so much to everyone who has supported Theater Pub all these years. Whether by attending shows or Saturday Write Fever, reading the blog, writing, directing, acting, producing, playing music, singing, donating money, donating rehearsal space, providing a venue, or any of the other countless ways in which the community has helped make this organization what it is.

It’s wonderful Theater Pub had a home in this town for so long and that it was a place that connected people and allowed artists to play. But I do not believe the end of Theater Pub will leave a gap that will need filling in our community. At least not right now. The San Francisco indie theater scene is truly alive right now. The amount of art being created and the number of new artists emerging each year is thrilling.

So if this news leaves you feeling a gap in yourself, I implore you to make some art. To bring a group of people together and create something for this community to consume. To make some mistakes, learn some lessons, add value and a unique voice to the community, and have a lot of fun. I know I’ve had more fun than should be allowed.

Stuart bids a loving adieu to his baby, Lil Theater Pub Bousel…

So, this is not the first time I’ve said goodbye to Theater Pub, though I suspect this time it’s a little bit more definitive. When I announced my departure in April, I had done so hoping Tonya and Meg would be up for carrying the torch forward, but when it came to light that they weren’t necessarily looking to do that, we made the decision to bring the organization itself to a close. A bittersweet decision, to be sure, but the right one. The truth is, we were all ready to move on to new things, many of us already had, and Theater Pub, while dear to our hearts, was preventing us from doing that or making it harder to fully engage the futures that were arriving whether we were ready or not. We talked about handing over the baton to new folks, but didn’t feel that the “right” people had emerged to replace us at Theater Pub. The “right” people seemed to want to do their own thing, not inherit somebody else’s creation, and I can’t blame them for that: after all, I only helped found Theater Pub because I was the sort of people who wanted to be a trailblazer myself.

What’s important to point out is that Theater Pub isn’t ending because it “has” to end. It’s ending because of the reverse reason: it’s been wildly successful, for the most part, and accomplished what it set out to do: build a community and be a launching point for the careers of the people most intimately connected to it. The trouble is that Meg, Tonya, myself, and others (such as our bloggers, original founding team, and various staff) have got so much on our plates now that we’re having a harder and harder time keeping all of them spinning. Something has to give, and we’d rather set something down then drop it, if for no other reason than when you set something down you still have the option to one day pick it up again. That’s the beauty of knowing when to stop before you break something, or yourself for that matter.

The most amazing thing about Theater Pub is that it’s lasted as long as it has, and has refused to die at least twice. So chances are, it’ll be back again, at some point, in some form. Recently I went to a concert of my favorite band, Belly, who were on tour after a 20-year hiatus. It was pretty amazing. They were actually better than they had been back in 1996. Sometimes taking a break, a nice long one, is not only necessary, but helpful. If we do come back somewhere down the line, I expect we’ll be back for all the right reasons, and super happy to be there. In the meantime, Saturday Write Fever will continue in 2017 as part of the EXIT, and Marissa and I will periodically post on the blog or let others do so when someone really has something to say. The Stuey Awards will continue. The Pint-Sized Plays will continue as part of PianoFight. We’ll all stay in touch, one way or another. And when you least expect it, I have a sneaking suspicion we’ll be back. And if we’re not… well… we’ll always have Paris. Right?

“Everything dies,” the heroine of my favorite novel, The Last Unicorn, says to her lover, “I want to die when you die!” Things are precious because they are not eternal. It’s been a tremendous gift to start something, stay with it for years, put it to bed, wake it up again, watch it succeed anew and learn from it once more. And it would be a tremendous ingratitude to hold on until it felt like we were prisoners to our own creation. Sometimes the way you love something best is to let it go, especially while you still love it.

Thank you, everyone. It’s been one of the best times of my life.

Please join us for our last four months of shows at PianoFight, including Stupid Ghost, opening September 19th!

The Real World – Theater Edition: Imagination as Power

The other day I had the good fortune to join local playwright, Veronica Tjioe, in being interviewed by Jovelyn Richards on her radio program, Jovelyn’s Bistro. We talked about the SF Olympians Festival and the plays we were writing as a part of it. I had a fantastic time being a part of the conversation, which you’ll be able to check out on KPFA’s website, under the Cover to Cover archives.

One of Jovelyn’s questions really got me thinking about our role as writers and creators and the power we have to invent new worlds, new language, new characters, relationships, and modes of being. I’m paraphrasing, but she asked our thoughts on the importance of inventing new language and constructing new narratives in order to respond to what we’re not seeing represented. If I could underline, highlight, put in bold, and make 64 font anything, it’d be this idea. And the heart of it, for me, is within the question Jovelyn asked.

As writers (but honestly this could span to the other roles we play as well), it’s more than just the recognition that we have this ability to see and imagine new worlds and possibilities — I would say we have a responsibility to promote and enact them to the fullest of our capacity. And — good news! — if you are creating, dreaming, and envisioning, you are already doing that. Here’s one step further, if you have articulated this vision to another person or written the idea down, you are already working towards implementation. This is a huge step closer to seeing a new possibility as a reality and creating it.

When I started writing plays some of it was a response to things about the world that I found more nuanced than what the mainstream version of that idea was. I see these unspoken rules that are often hypocritical, yet we’re expected to live by them. For instance, with one of the first full length plays I wrote, It’s All in the Mix, I really just wanted to create a play about DJs because I wanted to see that on stage. Rob Handel of CMU would often tell us to write the play you would go see. But in this world I was seeing these rules and ideas that tended to collide and overpower each other.

Everyone can be a DJ if you learn how and pursue it with passion and skill.

Skill and technique talks.

Okay, well, what about women are they good DJs?

I feel like all I hear is no, but I’m a woman and I like DJing so am I doomed to being bad?

Oh, I saw this DJ who’s a woman and she was really good!

But other male friends didn’t think so? Can’t articulate why?

I don’t get it.

For me in this instance, it starts with this feeling like something I’m experiencing isn’t being represented, or is minimized, shut down, and ignored. So I want to test if this is true. I started with using plays in order to see the characters relate to each other and how it unraveled. I’m using gender in this example, but this extends into race, ethnicity, income level, backgrounds and abilities of all types, who you love, what you look like, how you live your life, and what you believe. There is so much out there beyond what has become a standard for a protagonist or story. We just need to create it and if people aren’t going to make it – then we need to help each other make it.

I think now I’m in a different space with writing – I see gaps in what characters or stories the entertainment world and I’m looking to fill that gap if I can. And if I can’t, I want to support someone (or multiple people!) who can. It starts with the recognition that I can do something. One of my gifts may be writing or storytelling. Others have other gifts or other ways they express those gifts. We can all learn so much from each other as we continue to imagine different worlds than what we’re seeing and support each other in making them real.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a local writer. Blog’s over here. THANATOS, the play she is writing with Julie Jigour and directed by Christine Keating, is being read on October 15 at EXIT Theatre in San Francisco.

Incidentally, if you want to put that imagination into practice – check out the SF Olympians Festival’s call for submissions! The Real World – Theater Edition: Imagination as Power

Theater Around the Bay: Alan Coyne & Juliana Lustenader of “Bar Spies”

The Pint-Sized Plays begin their 2nd week of performances tonight! We continue our series of interviews with the folks behind the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays by speaking to writer Alan Coyne and director Juliana Lustenader of “Bar Spies”!

“Bar Spies” is a spy-fiction pastiche, full of false identities, double-crossings, and heightened tension. Actors Courtney Merrell and Andrew Chung show off an impressive array of accents and some slick trench-coated style as the two spies.

Alan Coyne clown

Playwright Alan Coyne has a sense of humor.

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

Alan: I wrote a piece for Pint-Sized last year (“Relativity”), and this year I figured I’d have another go. I can’t write without a deadline, and this festival gives you that plus a setting, so it’s exactly what I need to write something.

Juliana: I first got involved with Pint-Sized last year as the writer of “To Be Blue,” directed by the wonderful Neil Higgins and featuring the hilarious duo of Eden Neuendorf and Tony Cirimele. The show was such a success last year, I knew I wanted to come back. I’m super excited to return as a director this time!

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

Alan: For me, the hardest thing about writing a short play (or anything) is getting started. And after that, it’s translating the amazing idea in your head into the least-clunky language possible.

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

Alan: Knowing that everything in it has to matter. That helps focus me on what I actually need to put in, and what I can do without.

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

Juliana: The most exciting moment for me so far this year was watching my actors read the script for the first time out loud while Alan and I watched. I couldn’t stop smiling as Courtney and Andrew took these two silly characters and brought them to life so easily despite the ridiculous accents we are making them do.

What’s been most troublesome?

Juliana: Scheduling! But that’s what I get for wanting to work with such talented folks.

Juliana_L_003_layout copy

What are your biggest artistic influences?

Alan: P.G. Wodehouse and Douglas Adams. They are who I would want to write like, if I could. For this particular play, it’s John Le Carre, who wrote Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; “Bar Spies” is very much a parody of that genre, and he, for me, is the best spy writer. And I owe a little something to Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood, which is also a spy parody play. And Chess, which is the musical I’m rehearsing for at the moment, and is set during the Cold War.

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

Juliana: Sean Connery, because he is the best spy with the best accent.

Alan: Alec Guinness, who played the main character in the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and did so definitively. Luckily for me, Courtney Merrell pretty much is Alec Guinness, so that worked out.

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

Juliana: Brian Martin is the first to come to mind, though we did do a scene study project in college together. Still, I think it would be a treat to work with him in a more professional setting.

What other projects are you working on and/or what’s next for you?

Alan: My next writing project is for the San Francisco Olympians Festival, it’s called Hypnos, and it’s an excerpt from Shakespeare’s lost play, Cardenio. It’ll be performed Saturday, October 15. And my next acting projects are the aforementioned Chess for Custom Made (September/October), in which I play The Arbiter, followed by Feste in Twelfth Night at the Metropolitan Club on Saturday, November 5, which Juliana is also directing.

Juliana: Up next, I’m directing Twelfth Night as part of Shakespeare at the Club. I’m also performing in Chess at Custom Made Theatre Company and Avenue Q at New Conservatory Theatre.

What upcoming shows or events in the Bay Area theater scene are you most excited about?

Juliana: The Fringe Festival at the Exit Theatre.

Alan: The Olympians Festival is always wonderful, everyone should check that out at the EXIT this October. I had the opportunity to participate in Musical Cafe this year, and they’re doing another showcase in November, I highly recommend keeping an eye out for that. And PianoFight always has something good going on, especially shows which feature Andrew Chung.

What’s your favorite beer?

Juliana: Right now it’s Old Rasputin’s Russian Imperial Stout, but I’ll drink whatever you buy me.

Alan: For this show, I recommend drinking a pint of (Alec) Guinness.

“Bar Spies” and the other Pint-Sized Plays have 3 performances remaining: August 22, 23, and 29 at PianoFight! 

Theater Around The Bay: Executive Director Stuart Bousel Stepping Down

Spring brings changes; Stuart Bousel announces a big one.

Happy April Fool’s Day!

So, today seems like as good a time as any to make an announcement I’ve been meaning to make. My plan was to piggyback off another announcement that I’ve been waiting for, but that news seems delayed, so I’m going to just forge ahead.

As I stated on Facebook few weeks back, I’ve been going to therapy again. This is the result of a combination of things, easily summed up as “Life was getting stressful, had been for quite some time, and I opted not to repeat my mental breakdown of 2007-2008, by preemptively doing something about it instead of waiting to lose my mind first.” As often happens in therapy, organizing one’s thoughts and desires quickly makes apparent that action is sometimes required on multiple fronts if one wants to have a decent shot at thriving over merely surviving, and so it was with me, and is part of what led to this decision, the nutshell of which is: I’m stepping down from Theater Pub.

Now, this won’t happen tomorrow (sorry, would-be successors, be patient). It will happen after the New Year, starting January 1, 2017. I know that seems like a really long time, but due to some I-can’t-yet-say-what circumstances, I’m effectively booked from August through December with other projects, so my artistic involvement with Theater Pub this year was most likely ending with August’s Pint-Sized Plays anyway, though I’m sure I’ll be involved with the musical too, if in a very cameo capacity. Part of the reason why I am stepping down is because I have just hit the maximum amount of hours I can squeeze from a day and blood I can extract from my stone heart. And at the risk of bragging, things don’t look to be slowing down, but rather the opposite, meaning I’ve finally hit a point of having to make some tough decisions and withdraw from various things I love, so I can keep doing other things I love, but also growing and evolving as an artist and as a person.

While we’re on it, I won’t be working the Fringe Festival this year (though I plan to be back next year) and I will be involved in the SF Olympians Festival in a very reduced capacity (though I plan to be back in full force next year). All this is not because I’m taking a vacation, but because other opportunities presented themselves, and after years of saying no to similar opportunities in the name of being a good leader/founder and looking after my various responsibilities, I decided it was time to say yes. And like… see what happens. I love the Fringe, I love SF Olympians, and I love Theater Pub… but it’s important that love be a choice, and not an obligation, lest it grow into resentment. Which sometimes, lately, it has.

We (being myself, Tonya Narvaez, Meg Trowbridge, and Rob Ready) still haven’t actually decided if Theater Pub will continue to exist after January 1st. I sincerely hope it does. I love having helped found and for a long time direct an organization that embodies the best aspects of the Bay Area theater scene, its pluck and creativity and innovation and scrappiness, not to mentioning actually putting the Inclusive back into ‪#‎buzzwordinclusivity‬ ‪#‎tbacon16‬. Hundreds of different artists have passed through Theater Pub in the last seven years, we have debuted a ton of new work, and for many people (writers, actors, directors, etc.) we have been their first venue in the Bay Area, or the place they returned to doing theater after a long hiatus, or the place they finally got to try on a new hat, or try on a theater hat at all. Since our fourth show we have paid everybody who has worked with us, and we have started a handful of Bay Area traditions that have ensured we are a formidable source of experimentation and opportunity. We survived a venue change, a regime change, a restructuring, and in the last year and a half have rebuilt what a lot of people didn’t think could be rebuilt. We are just now starting to hit what I predict will be a new stride, a new golden era for the company, and I do not want that to go away, but it’s a lot of work, occasionally quite thanklessly so, and I’m not going to force it upon someone simply because I no longer feel it’s the right thing for me. If Tonya and Meg decide to keep it going, there are no better people I can imagine to do the job. If they do not, then this year will be a long kiss goodnight. Either way, I’ll be here through December in an administrative and advisory capacity, either to help transition or to help shut everything down.

Marissa Skudlarek will be taking over the blog at the end of the year, so that won’t be going away, though it will probably change, and knowing Marissa, drastically improve. Rest assured, the Stuey Awards will continue, and will be my annual contribution. I’m not leaving the world, just leaving Theater Pub. If the production side of Theater Pub continues I am planning to snag an annual “Legacy Show” for myself to direct once a year, but again, we’ll see on that front. Saturday Write Fever will also continue under my and Megan Cohen’s guidance, though it may become an exclusively EXIT Theatre event, depending on what happens with the rest of Theater Pub. That said, we’re in the process of selecting and training more hosts, so that Jeunée Simon, Andrew Chung, Sam Bertken, and ourselves have a little bit more scheduling flexibility. I’m not the only one with a life, and I know that. And there comes a time in every career where you want to move on, or at least just be able to take a sabbatical.

Anyway, I think that sums it up. Thanks for reading, and thanks to everyone who has made Theater Pub special over the years. It’s been a pleasure to serve you.

Except when it hasn’t been. (smiley face)

And just to be clear… this is a totally real announcement.

Theater Around the Bay: All the Theater Pub News that’s Fit to Print

Marissa Skudlarek is wearing her news-reporter fedora (and not her columnist cloche) this Thursday.

The year is still young but it’s already been very kind to Theater Pub and many of its affiliated artists.

Theater Pub in the media!

Writer Beth Spotswood and photographer Gabrielle Lurie attended the penultimate performance of The Morrissey Plays and then wrote this wonderful feature article about it for the San Francisco Chronicle! We’re thrilled that Theater Pub is now described, in print in the local paper of record, as “creating an atmosphere more reminiscent of 1960s Greenwich Village than 2016 Tenderloin” and targeting “pop-culture-savvy, intellectually snooty theater kids.”

Travel bloggers Shine and Isis of Let’s Go Travel Show, a new web series, attended January’s Saturday Write Fever and filmed it for inclusion in their series! We haven’t seen the footage yet, but keep an eye out on their web page http://www.letsgotravelshow.com/.

Theater Pub artists creating new work!

The Custom Made Theatre Co. has just announced the writers participating its inaugural Undiscovered Works play-development program, and three of them have Theater Pub ties: Dan Hirsch (author of “Shooter,” Theater Pub’s contribution to the 2013 Bay One-Acts Festival), Marissa Skudlarek (longtime Theater Pub columnist and “Pint-Sized Plays” tsarina), and Kirk Shimano (author of Theater Pub’s shows “Love in the Time of Zombies” and the upcoming “Portal: The Musical”). Congratulations!

Meanwhile, the three women writing plays for the 2016 Loud and Unladylike Festival, which commissions new works about lesser-known historical women, also have Theater Pub connections: Skudlarek once again, plus “Hit By A Bus Rules” columnist Alandra Hileman, and Artistic Director Tonya Narvaez. More info is available at http://loudandunladylike.com/. Remember that Tonya is also writing and directing our February show, the Lisa Frank fantasia Over the Rainbow!

Opportunities for actors and directors!

Theater Pub founder, Stuart Bousel, will be holding auditions on February 24 and 25 for his production of Paradise Street by Clive Barker, which is happening at the EXIT Theatre (co-hosts of Saturday Write Fever) in December 2016. This is an especially good opportunity for actors who’ve been working on their British Isles accents — the play features Liverpudlian, Cockney, Scottish, Irish, and time-traveling Elizabethan characters! 5 roles for men and 4 roles for women are available. For more information and to sign up for an audition slot: https://www.facebook.com/events/513349952159221/.

Sooner in time and closer to home, our own Sara Judge is still seeking actors and directors who are interested in being a part of Theater Pub’s March show, On the Spot! This is our twist on the ever-popular “24-hour theater festival.” Writers have 24 hours to write a ten-minute play based on a given prompt, actors rehearse with a director for just one week, and the show performs at PianoFight on March 21, 22, 28, and 29! For more information and to sign up: https://sftheaterpub.wordpress.com/how-to-get-involved/.

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

Our final round of recaps from our core blogging team brings you top five lists from Alandra Hileman, Allison Page, and Marissa Skudlarek. Enjoy! And join us for our last blog of the year with The Stueys tomorrow.

Five Underwhelming Behind-the-Scenes Job that Deserve Awards for Surviving 2015 by Alandra Hileman

As someone who regularly gets paid to be as invisible as possible in theatre, I wanted to shine a little light on a few of the unsung heroes of 2015 theatre, both local and global.

1) The Ushers
Look, being an usher is such a massively underrated job that, below a certain operating budget, most places either use community volunteers or ask technicians/theatre staff to double-up on their other duties to do it. And true, usually it’s an incredibly boring task of helping patrons remember the alphabet. But sometimes you get weird situations like the infamous incident at Broadway’s Hand to God in July where a patron climbed on stage to attempt to charge a cell phone in the fake scenic outlet. And that is when the ushers, like true theatre-ninjas, swoop in en masse to preserve the sanctity of the show. Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean. I salute you, ushers!

2) The Prompters
I think very few of my fellow stage managers will disagree when I say being on book for actors in that weird nebulous time between “first day with no script in hand” and “opening night” is one of the worst parts of the job. Line notes are tediously painful. But, it’s a necessary part of the process…or at least it was until this year, when apparently everyone just gave up trying and just wore earpieces so they could be prompted when they went up. Guys, what happened? I get that this happens sometimes in previews; I’ve been on book during previews of local shows, but the entire run, folks? Well, regardless on me feelings about the overall practice, my hat is off to the invisible voices on the other end of the earpiece who are, apparently, just as responsible for keeping the show going as the big-name star who graces the marquee.

3) The Managers
Has Rob Ready slept this year? When was the last time Natalie Ashodian saw her house? How long has Stuart Bousel been working his way through Great Expectations? There are hundreds more folks in the SF Bay Area, and all over the country, who I could shout out for taking on the very unsexy titles of administrator, coordinator, production manager, program director, and other boring-sounding things that have to do with Excel spreadsheets and web design and mountains of paperwork, and all so that beautiful, fascinating, innovative art can blossom in spite of everything working against theatre right now, and in so doing have paved the way for the upward swing

4) The Techblr Community
Did you know that there’s a huge community of stage managers, designers, and technicians on Tumblr? While it’s not a “job” per se, one of the things that is the most amazing about the folks who use this tag is how willing they are to dive in and help each other out. Possibly the coolest coming together of the tech theater community I’ve ever seen have been instances where a frantic high school student makes a post begging for help with how to rig a prop, or run a certain kind of light board, and dozens of professional theatre worked have joined forces to offer help and advice.

5) The Bloggers
My 5th award was always going to be to “the guy who films so many of the #Ham4Ham shows,” because those tiny snippets of silliness are full of joy and talent and delight, and the fact that somebody is filming them and putting them on YouTube fills my West Coast grounded heart with warm fuzzies. But then, as I was scrolling mindlessly through Twitter, I happened to discover that one of the primary sources of these delightful Broadway nuggets is actually none other than Howard Sherman, currently director of the new Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama, Senior Strategy Director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts in New York, and one of the most influential theatre advocates in the country, who is very well known for his blog. And I realized that the theatre bloggers of the world do deserve a shout-out, because most of us will never be as famous as Mr. Sherman, but we do it anyway, just so we can share out thoughts, insights, advice, opinions and love of this crazy world of the stage. Sometimes only one person may read a post…but sometimes our post is the only review a show gets, or serves as a reminder to that one read why they love theatre. And I think that’s pretty cool.

5 Things I Can See From My Couch That Remind Me Of This Year In Theater by Allison Page

It’s the end of the year, and most theaters wrapped something up around Christmas, and will start something new up in January. It’s a time to sit on your couch and think about the past year. And if you’re me, and who says you aren’t, you might be parked in your apartment, looking around at the things you haven’t taken care of. In honor of the theatrical downtime at the end of 2015, here are 5 things I can see from my couch that remind me of my year in theater:

1) A BOTTLE OF SRIRACHA MY BOYFRIEND LEFT ON THE COFFEE TABLE
Sriracha is a hot sauce many people are pretty dedicated to. It goes well on/with a number of things: tacos, pad thai, soup, dips, sandwiches, or if you’re my boyfriend, just slathered on some bread. What does this errant bottle of Sriracha remind me of? Easy. Megan Cohen’s THE HORSE’S ASS & FRIENDS, which I saw just a couple of weeks ago. Actually, it might even remind me of Megan’s work in general: always a good idea, no matter the vehicle.

2) A DIRTY PLATE WHICH USED TO INCLUDE FRENCH TOAST
2015 was, by far, the craziest, busiest year of my theatrical life. I counted myself as a produced playwright for the first time, in March. By the end of the year, I was involved in some way or another with 19 different productions, as producer, director, actor, writer, artistic director, or some combination of those titles. So there have literally been a lot of dirty plates in my apartment, because I didn’t have time to clean them. Worth it.

3) THREE BOTTLES OF CONTACT SOLUTION ON MY TV STAND
I’ve seen a lot of stuff this year. A LOT of stuff. Having been an adjudicator for the TBA awards allowed/forced me to see stuff I would never have seen otherwise. I went to a kids’ show. I went to some theatres for the first time EVER. I saw comedies, dramas, shows with expensive sets, shows without any sets, period pieces, modern tales, and it was an eye opening experience because it reminded me of the variety the Bay Area actually has. I think we forget that sometimes. It was a good reminder.

4) A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS TREE
Simple. Humble. Has a button you can push to play Charlie Brown Christmas music. Not big and showy. Not overcomplicated. Flashy though, in its way. Gloriously brilliant when the timing is just right. Gets to the point: HERE IS A SMALL TREE. YOU WILL LOVE THIS SMALL TREE. It does what it does and it does it well. That’s how I feel about the parts of the theater community that sometimes aren’t considered theater, ya know, by idiots. The Bay Area has a steadily growing community of improv and sketch performers and companies. We (yeah, I’m saying we) perform in traditional and non-traditional spaces alike. Great, big, beautiful theaters and teeny tiny stages meant for one person with a guitar. From Endgames to The Mess to BATS to Killing My Lobster (had to) to every small group of people who took one class together and then created their own thing in a basement, there has been significant growth in the last several years, and with the opening of PianoFight, there are more stages to occupy than ever. Here’s to the scrappy people with stick-on mustaches and open hearts, sometimes performing well after everyone’s gone to bed. Keep pushing that button.

5) A STACK OF BIOGRAPHIES ABOUT FAMOUS WOMEN
Ingrid Bergman. Lillian Hellman. Sophie Tucker. Gloria Swanson. Pola Negri. Carole Lombard. Elizabeth Taylor. (Okay, yes, I have a lot of old timey lady biographies) There were a lot of bright moments for women in theater this year. An obvious one is the outcry of theater artists everywhere that we just need MORE WOMEN IN THEATER. It can be hard, sometimes, to not just focus on that problem, instead of taking a minute for game to recognize game and point out people, places, companies, organizations that are doin’ it right. Here are some moments from 2015 that had me pumpin’ my fists in joy for women in theater, some of them shamelessly to do with my own stuff, some more broad: Mina Morita became Artistic Director of Crowded Fire, I saw Phillipa Soo in Hamilton and cried REAL HARD, Marissa Skudlarek produced SF Theater Pub’s Pint Sized Plays to PACKED, PACKED, PACKED houses, all the women in SF Playhouse’s Stage Kiss killed it: Carrie Paff, Millie DeBenedet, Taylor Jones (it’s still playing, you can see it!) Lauren Yee’s Hookman at Z Space, Heather Orth’s portrayal of Little Edie in Custom Made’s Grey Gardens: The Musical, Jessica Roux was the best stage manager in the entire world for multiple Killing My Lobster shows, Geneva Carr and Sarah Stiles being absolutely fearless in Hand to God on Broadway, Kaeli Quick became Artistic Director of Endgames Improv, Linda Huang once again stage managed the SF Olympians Festival at the EXIT dealing with just a HUGE quanitity of people and needs, Beth Cockrell’s beautiful lighting of gross things for Hilarity, Shanice Williams in The Wiz Live…I could go on and on but I’ll go way over the character limit.

Top 5 Surprising Performances of 2015 by Marissa Skudlarek
2015 marked my return to the stage after a long absence, in a role that I never expected to play (dizzy blonde secretary), so I’ve been thinking a lot about typecasting versus, shall we say, counter-intuitive casting. Moreover, I’m not always comfortable opining on what’s the absolute “best” acting I saw in a given year, but I do like writing about performances I admire. So here are five skillful performances that each involved something a bit out-of-the-ordinary. They are in chronological order according to when I saw each play.

1) Madeline H.D. Brown as the Stage Manager in Our Town at Shotgun Players

It was a bit of a surprise to hear that Shotgun Players had cast a woman in her 30s as a character that’s typically played by a middle-aged or elderly man, but it’s not at all surprising that Madeline triumphed in the role. She is deeply attuned to the spiritual cycles and undercurrents that run beneath our daily existence (check out her new tarot-reading business, You Are Magick) and she brought this intuition to her role of Our Town‘s narrator and guide. This was the Stage Manager not as folksy patriarch, but as androgynous angel of death: infinitely full of wisdom, with an unearthly tenderness that tempered the harsh truths she revealed to Emily, and to us.

2) Adam Magill as Con in Stupid Fucking Bird at San Francisco Playhouse

I’d hung out with Adam several times at Theater Pub and other events before I ever saw him onstage, which is always a little weird: what would I do if I liked him as a person but didn’t like his acting? Fortunately, I liked him a lot in the role of Con, the Constantine analogue in this postmodern riff on The Seagull. And in the surprising moment where Con breaks the fourth wall and asks the audience what he can do to get Nina to love him again, Adam employed his natural charisma and humor to make friends with the whole audience. The night I saw it, some wiseacre in the balcony shouted “Why don’t you kill a bird and lay it at her feet?” Without missing a beat, Adam retorted, “You know, some people here haven’t seen The Seagull, and you had to go and ruin it for them.” I was amazed at Adam’s ability to think on his feet, creating a moment that can only exist in live performance.

3) Heather Orth as Big Edie and Little Edie in Grey Gardens at Custom Made Theatre Co.

Heather Orth has made a career of playing musical-theater leading ladies who are several decades older than she actually is. The complex and emotionally demanding role of Big Edie/Little Edie in Grey Gardens is written for a woman of about fifty: in Act One, she plays a demanding socialite mother whose world is shattered; in Act Two, an eccentric daughter still dealing with the fallout from that shatter. Both women are indomitable yet fragile; they must register as separate individuals and also as mirror images. I was a bit surprised that someone as young as Heather would be cast in this role (and the fifty-year-old musical-theater actresses of the Bay Area must be gnashing their teeth that the role went to her) but as she hit every note with her clarion voice, paraded around in Brooke Jennings’ increasingly outlandish costumes, and embodied the two halves of this toxic mother–daughter dyad that has entered into American mythology, her calendar age became totally irrelevant.

4) Thomas Gorrebeeck as Posthumus and Cloten in Cymbeline at Marin Shakespeare

I was intrigued by Marin Shakespeare’s decision to stage the rarely-seen Cymbeline and further intrigued by their choice to have Thomas Gorrebeeck double as noble hero Posthumus and his silly rival Cloten. It didn’t seem to be for economic reasons – they had a big cast with plenty of extras. Instead, the doubling highlights how these characters are foils to one another – and also provides an opportunity for an acting tour de force. (Later, I learned that this is a rather common practice when staging Cymbeline: this year’s Central Park production had Hamish Linklater double as Posthumus and Cloten, and Tom Hiddleston won an Olivier for playing this dual role in London in 2007.) As Posthumus, Gorrebeeck was sincere and anguished; he also made the smart choice to play Posthumus as extremely drunk when he agrees to a wager on his wife’s fidelity — perhaps the only way that a modern audience will accept that plot point. As Cloten, he was a sublimely ridiculous, strutting, preening fool in a silly blond wig. It’s a cliché to praise an actor in a dual role by saying “the audience didn’t realize it was the same guy.” But in this case it would also be true.

As an aside, if any young men out there are interested in playing one of these roles in 2016, I hear Theater of Others is quite desperate for a Posthumus for their upcoming Cymbeline production. Write to sffct@yahoo.com for more info.

5) Siobhan Doherty as Florinda in The Rover at Shotgun Players

Florinda is a tricky role because, especially for modern audiences, she can come across as too nicey-nice and boring when compared with the other female leads of The Rover. Hellena is bold, witty, and sexually forward; Angellica Bianca is an elegant and passionate courtesan; but Florinda is a virginal young lady who wants to marry her true love. With a generic ingénue in the role of Florinda, she’d be a forgettable or even an annoying character, but Siobhan is a quirky ingénue. She played Florinda without overdoing the sweetness and sighs, concentrating on the truth of her situation and the actions she takes to get the man she loves. She was brave and spunky and a heroine in her own right.

Alandra Hileman, Allison Page, and Marissa Skudlarek are San Francisco Theater Pub bloggers who each wear many many other hats and look good in all of them.