Theater Around The Bay: You’re Never Gonna Work In This Town Again

Stuart Bousel talks about the surprising response to his blog of the previous week. Once more, names have been changed to protect the innocent. Will this end up being a trilogy? Who can say…

Last week I published a blog entry about my experience as an audience member at Berkeley Rep’s “The Wild Bride.” I have to say, in all honesty, it was more for my own benefit that I did this than anyone else’s, and so when the article went from the usual 150-200 hits, to 500 and then 800 and then 1000, I was more shocked than pleased- though I was pleased too. All artists have to create for themselves first, but even the most self-assured, self-sustaining, the-reward-is-in-the-journey of us still long, on some level, for recognition of what we’ve put out there because your work isn’t complete until it’s reached an audience and reacted to.

And the reactions to my blog (titled “Theater Around The Bay: Please Take Your Conversation Home”) have been really kind of amazing- and by that I don’t mean universally positive. I have had people write to tell me they enjoyed the piece, it made them laugh, it made them nod their head in agreement, it made them think about stuff they should be thinking about, even if they didn’t agree. I have had a surprising number of people thank me for “blowing the whistle” on a problem they felt wasn’t talked about enough, and wasn’t unique to my community either- people from Seattle, New York, Houston, Portland, Boston and Chicago. Honestly, that’s not surprising, because everywhere there is a group of artists all working to their own ends, there is going to be a sub-society rife with all those problems we thought we left behind in junior high school and/or Salem, Massachusetts circa 1692. And I’m only halfway joking when I use that last example because one of the responses I got was an e-mail from someone saying, “Funny. Hope it was worth blowing your potential career, loser.”

Um… what?

Let’s go back to the spring of 2004, and I am a fresh young thing in the San Francisco Theater scene who has produced five local plays and appeared in a handful of others. Like most aspiring artists of 25, I am both insanely driven, insanely energetic, not bad looking, and kind of an asshole. I mean, I don’t think I’m as big of an asshole as some 25 years olds I have known, but I have that young person’s tendency to react first and think second, and I’m more confrontational than constructive. I’m actually not that different from who I am now, I just hadn’t learned to deal with myself as well as I do currently. It’s arguable I may have also been happier then, but I’m a lot more centered now.

Anyway, it’s spring of 2004 and I am experiencing a brief hayday as a suddenly in demand actor- again, 25, male, reasonably good looking, can play straight and have some basic training. We all know that means I owned this town (and does that arrogance bother you? Good!). A phone call comes in from a guy who saw a play I was in earlier that year and he wants me to read for a role in his new play that he’s also producing. I am deeply flattered and so I accept the offer without asking to read a script first (again, I’m 25). I go in to read for the role and the director (let’s call him “Saruman”) tells me, point blank, “Well, you’re not really the right guy for the part, but “Sauron” really wants you, so I guess you can do it.” I know now, of course, I should have said, “No thanks” and walked out the door, but I’m 25, and I hear, “Sauron validates your existence” and so I sign on.

That’s how these things always begin, isn’t it?

One week later, in the middle of rehearsal, I quit the show. I have only done this two other times in my life, and one of those times I even ended up staying with the show in a bunch of small parts because the director needed somebody to play them and she was too nice for me to walk out on with a week and a half until she opened. Saruman, on the other hand, is a total douche bag to me, to all the actors, but especially to me, the guy he doesn’t want in his play, the guy he feels he was forced to cast, the guy who he has no problem saying that to in front of everybody. I mean, come on, really? I have had my moments of losing my patience as a director, but I have never told an actor they weren’t wanted because how the hell am I going to get them to do something for me if they know I don’t like them? Of course, if you think Saruman sounds like a piece of work, “Grima Wormtongue,” the stage manger, was even better. When she and Saruman weren’t fighting right in front of the cast over dumb stuff (props, our stipends, an actress’s haircut) or she wasn’t voicing her opinion about us directly to the cast, she had the nerve to continuously remind all of us how “professional” she was. When I dropped my script on her table and announced I was done with the show following a humiliating dressing down by the director, Grima followed me down the hall screaming:

“I’ll make sure you never work in this town again!”

Just as the elevator doors closed I turned and smiled, “Bitch, please. I’m a producer.”

Now, you probably think I meant, “Bitch, please, I’ll just make my own work,” but I actually meant, “Bitch, please, I have been putting on plays since I was 18 and thus I know that every day, all day long, somebody somewhere in the Theater Community is doing Something that should result in them never working in this town again and the sheer fact of the fucking matter is- they will work in this town again.” Will it be easier for some than for others? Absolutely. If they are a white heterosexual male- or can play one- they will basically have to murder someone to not be considered for casting and if they are acquitted I give it six months before someone either convientely forgets the death of Theoden, or decides to brag in their press release about how they have cast an aquitted murderer in their show. If the theoretical offender is rich and can pony up cash for a show or a season- wave the six months no matter what they do or who they are. For the rest of the world, the likelihood that they will “never work in this town again” is pretty low because if there is one thing the theater world always needs it’s more people. Especially people willing to work for little, or for free, or at the drop of a hat, usually because they are replacing someone who dropped out of a show for reasons ranging from refusal to be a director’s punching bag, to the old (and somehow more socially acceptable), “Oh, a better opportunity has come up- so sorry, so mean it!”

The irony of the theater world has always been, from my perspective, that in an art form that would literally cease to exist if everyone acted the way I have seen some people habitually act, there are virtually no real repercussions for bad conduct, breaking commitments or even total incompetence. Just think of all the famous people- actors, directors, writers, whatever- who are at least partly known for being terrible people and/or terrible to work with- and yet they still keep getting work. I mean, sure, maybe at some point someone can have such a bad reputation nobody will touch them with a ten foot pole but for some reason unless we are personally screwed over by someone, we generally tend to give them a chance no matter what we’ve heard if for some reason we want them or need them for our own project. And honestly, that’s how it probably should be, because every relationship and every situation is different, and just because “Denethor” doesn’t think “Faramir” is worth the air he breathes, doesn’t mean you won’t get along great together, and even “Gandalf,” who let’s be honest, we all want to work for at some point, still screws up sometimes and thus should be given, and give, the benefit of the doubt. So you might as well stand up for yourself and tell the truth about what you think and see and stop worrying what’s going to happen to you because the fact is, since nothing happens to the people who do actually screw people over, nothing will happen to you for just trying to be honest, right? I mean, nobody can actually ensure you “never work in this town again” can they?

Not so quick to agree, are you? It’s okay, I understand why. I too have occasionally thought, “Oh shit! I went too far and now They can see me and They know! The Eye! Not the Eye!” Like I said, I was an asshole once, but these days I’m no where near as brash, though I probably appear more-so on the surface. For years I spent a good deal of my time repressing my opinions, at first from a sincere desire to get along with everyone, and then from a strange fear of what would happen if I didn’t get along with everyone. As if that would be so terrible. Turns out my confidence returned the day I realized no matter what I say, They will live- and so will I. The difference is that once my confidence came from believing I was untouchable; now it comes from no longer giving a fuck.

No longer giving a fuck about what? Well… making it, namely. Whatever “making it” really means. I know what it means to me, but I suspect for a lot of people, including in the theater community, it means something to do with a combination of money, fame and, let’s call a spade a spade: power. Whether that’s power over what others think or power over what others do, or just the power to live our own lives entirely on our own terms with no consideration of others.

And the response to my article last week made me very aware of that.

All of the responses, from “You speak the words of my heart!” to actors playfully (or is it?) caveating their posting-board opinions with “Still cast me everyone!”, to the people who felt they had to defend “The Wild Bride” and Berkely Rep even though my blog wasn’t attacking either, to “Hope it was worth blowing your potential career.” They’re all versions of, “How could you say that? Aren’t you afraid the Balrog will hear you?”

Frankly, I’m rather hoping the Balrog does. Frankly, it would be rather flattering to know the Balrog pays attention.  Frankly, it would be nice to have confirmation that the Balrog actually exists. I mean, sure, it’s a scary prospect that it might manifest by ripping my head off, but if it exists at least I know all those scripts and resumes and press releases have been received by something because the alternative- that they just go into a black hole of nothing- kind of means my whole life has been a lie.

Another flashback:  a terrified 11:30 PM e-mail from my friend Eowyn, panicked as all get out because Morgoth, the Artistic Director of Mordor, had responded to some post she had made on her blog and OMG she didn’t know what to do! Said post had been MILDLY inflammatory but completely legitimate, a thoughtful and reasoned critique (that pulled no punches) of one of their recent orc raids (I mean, productions), and Eowyn was a smart and articulate person who’d said only what she really thought and she really had nothing to fear. But she was afraid, genuinely, that she might say or do something (or already had) that would genuinely prevent her from advancing in the theater world.“But you’re so much better at arguing with people online than I am!” she responded to my response which was basically, “Have at it, Sheild Maiden!” No girl, I’m not better at it than you: I just don’t care as much about the potential outcome as you do, because I already know I’m never gonna work in Mordor. Or if I do, it’s not going to be because I did or did not kiss Morgoth’s One Ring. Frankly, that’s kind of insulting to Morgoth to suggest it’s the only way I could get into Mordor- or the reason I wouldn’t.

There are a lot of characters in books and movies and plays that I relate to, and many more that I admire. But if I had to pick one character, above all others, that I both relate to and admire, it is, naturally, Galadriel. Our obvious similarities aside (otherworldly beauty, magic powers, ability to pull off white at any occasion), I admire her generosity, her evenness of temper, her compassion. I relate to how she has carved out this little kingdom in the wilds, and she’s done her best to make it both lovely, and a safe place for people to come to, either to rest or to join the cause. I relate to her desire to be fair in her dealings with everyone, to welcome them into this one patch of the planet she can control, and to try to help them do whatever it is they are on their way to do. And I relate to her fierce loyalty to this place, her willingness to defend it at all costs.

But most of all, I relate to her temptation. I relate to the moment when she is offered The One Ring, and while I admire her ability to turn it down, I relate to the moment she almost takes it. I relate to her desire for the power to crush her enemies. I relate to her desire for the power to exact revenge on those who deserve to have revenge exacted upon them. And I relate to the part of her that thinks, “Well, it’s okay if I do this, because I’d still be one of the good guys, right? I mean, there’s no way I’d ever not be one of the good guys, is there?” Thankfully, I also relate to the part of her that knows this would most likely not be the case. How we use whatever small amount of power we have is what ultimately defines us. And we do all have power- namely the power to speak, the power to listen, and the power to rise above our desire to control those abilities in others. Let’s try to use that longing to empower people instead.

Here’s the point of all this: it’s unlikely that our major theater companies and their big time decision makers are actually Mordor and Sauron, Moria and Morgoth, but so long as we act like we need to whisper their names in code whenever we talk about them and dance around their egos like they have the power to make or break our careers, then they will be super villains ruling evil kingdoms- whether they want to be or not- and we will run the risk of being Sauruman, Wormtongue, the Balrog- doing our best to keep whoever we perceive as below us on the totem in a state of subordination. Because that’s what is at the heart of “You’ll Never Work In This Town Again!” It’s a cry, like a spell or a curse, uttered by the less powerful in an attempt to channel what they perceive as the more powerful so as to assert themselves in hopes of becoming the more powerful. Or to put it simply, it’s a threat. Like a knife to someone’s throat.

There is a real danger to anyone who uses that approach, or buys into it when someone else does. You will ultimately be corrupted and your art will be corrupted. Those of us that do our best to stay out of it run our own risk of being trapped in our little fiefdoms, becoming a Rivendell, a Grey Havens, a Lothlorien, perhaps brilliant in and of ourselves, but always isolated and always on the brink of being extinguished, and always doing less than we could if we just stopped trying to curry favor, or didn’t have to always be on the defensive (admittedly, my worst sin). I believe most of our problems as collaborators and undoubtedly our division from each other, stem from a mentality of “what if what I do brings the Eye upon me?” as if one, the Eye can’t take it, and two, we should be doing our best to please the Eye. Not to belabor the allegory (too late, I know) but any place we need to flatter our way into, or muzzle ourselves to be acceptable for, is not going to foster trees with gold leaves and or save the Shire, okay? It’s going to turn you into an orc, or expect you to act like one. And yeah, you might be an orc with a bigger budget than the elves, but are you making anything worth doing with that? Am I the only one who remembers that once upon a time, all the orcs used to be elves?

My two favorite people in the Bay Area theater scene, let’s call them “Sam” and “Rosie”, are both leaders of small, scrappy, but incredibly important, corner-stone companies and both people who have taught me a thing or two about graciousness, generosity, inclusivity and integrity, despite the occasional moments I’ve thought “pesky hobbits, don’t they realize I’m an elf?” One of them has made it a point to hire and engage their own competition and most vocal critics; the other has created opportunity after opportunity for artists in this city to work and create, and has done so without censorship or personal artistic agenda entering the mix. I saw one of them tell a director they would stand with them against whatever backlash their production incurred, and I saw the other tell a room full of theater creators of every level that we were, all of us, artists, and that art would save the world if we worked together.

If they’re reading this, and they recognize themselves, they’re probably wondering why they have to be the hobbits. Because hobbits are cool and there is a reason one is chosen to carry the One Ring. The humans, you see, get their rings and are corrupted by them. They want power too badly. The elves, they get theirs and they use their rings to seal off their domains and hunker down and that’s fine, somebody has to be the Evenstar, but somebody has to be friggin’ Aragorn too, right? Only the Hobbits have the ability to take the Ring where it needs to go because they are humble and resilient and optimistic. They stand up for themselves, they say what they mean, and they have no use for power beyond what it takes to sustain their own gardens, yet they still find ways to help someone else tend their own. And every now and then one of them finally does what the rest of us are afraid to do- either because we’re too afraid, or hedging our bets, or too busy defending our borders. And someone has to do this, my friends, or we’re all going to live in fear of each other until, one by one, we have all flickered out from frustration and exhaustion.

Anyway, this epic has gone on long enough. Just like the source material I’m borrowing aliases from because I’m a mere elf.

But to the bullshit orc who sent me that email, my career is going to be just fine. I got Sam on my side, and I got Rosie. I got Merry and Pippin and Fatty Bolger. I got Eowyn and Faramir and maybe Gandalf and somewhere out there is a Frodo and I am going to be a light for that poor crazy fuck who will do what I’m too tired and too apathetic and probably just too old to do. And even if all I have is me, I still hope that one day all of us, including you, will plant flowers in Mordor together. And when I run into you over the athelas patch, I know we won’t talk about that time you thought you could hold a knife to my throat only to discover I’m not actually afraid of never working in this town again.

The only thing I’m afraid of, is turning into you.

Stuart Bousel is one of the founding artistic directors of the San Franciso Theater Pub, and a prolific writer and director. His website,, will tell you all about it.