Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Live Nude Feminism

Marissa Skudlarek, walking the talk.

Don’t ever say that I can’t both talk the talk and walk the walk. I spent Saturday evening posting on Twitter and Facebook about casual sexism in local theater, and Sunday evening attending a fundraiser for the feminist theater organization DIVAfest. Saturday was about getting irritated over the persistence of inequality; Sunday was about reminding myself that there are plenty of people trying to find solutions to this problem.

The sexism that I see around typically isn’t outrageous misogyny – it’s subtler than that. It is a worldview that devalues women’s contributions and stories, that refuses to consider their perspectives worth presenting or their money worth having. I’m thinking of things like a glowing review of Maggie’s Riff, at FaultLine Theatre, that initially neglected to mention or credit Nicole Odell, who plays the title role. (Editor’s note: as of midafternoon on 5/26/16, a few hours after our piece went up, the review has been updated to mention Odell.) And also of the latest marketing copy for the Speakeasy, as it seeks a final round of funding before it re-opens in North Beach in August. The Speakeasy producers are very pleased to tout the “one-way mirror into the chorus girls’ dressing room” as one of the major highlights of the show, yet they make no equivalent promise of voyeuristic eye candy for those of us who prefer handsome fellas to lovely ladies.

Let’s be clear: I’m not against sexy fun, or scantily clad women. In fact, DIVAfest, the organization I supported on Sunday night, has a strong sideline in naked ladies. It produces a monthly burlesque variety show, Diva or Die, and a larger theater-burlesque fusion show once a year. Indeed, it was DIVAfest’s Hotel Burlesque show this year that finally convinced me of the truth of something I’d often heard said: that neo-burlesque can be a feminist and empowering genre, rather than a misogynistic male-gazey one. In Hotel Burlesque, the cast featured six lovely ladies and one female impersonator, so just about every moment of the plot passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors. It transported me into a sparkly, glamorous, female-led world and showed me that striptease can be about more than just titillation. A female thief reveled in her crimes as she stripped off all her (stolen) clothing. Nudity was used to represent the anguish and vulnerability that an alcoholic feels when faced with the temptation to drink, or a battered woman feels when recalling her abuser.

At the DIVAfest fundraiser party, Amanda Ortmayer introduced a performance by Red Velvet and reminded us that burlesque artists appreciate vocal approval: applause, whooping, cheering, were all encouraged (and plentiful). And, as Red Velvet tap-danced, shimmied, and stripped down to her thong and pasties, the lights in the main room remained on. I liked that; it kept things honest. It eliminated some of the creepy power dynamics that can arise when a woman takes her clothes off for the entertainment of others, because, as we watched Red Velvet, she could also watch us. She could see our faces and discern whether or not we were having a good time, and also hear our joyous and vocal appreciation. And I can’t help, again, contrasting this with the way the Speakeasy is presenting female nudity: spying on “hot chorus girls” from behind the anonymity of a one-way mirror.

A lot has been written lately about the masculinity and “bro” attitudes of start-up culture in the Bay Area. In many ways, the Speakeasy seems to be positioning itself as a theater start-up. It’s thinking big: it wants to disrupt live entertainment in San Francisco and then spread out across the country. It is soliciting money according to a new model called “equity crowdfunding” (I’m a little confused as to how this differs from traditional for-profit, Broadway-style funding, but no matter) and, with a minimum investment of $2000, it’s clearly aiming for high-roller donors rather than the $25-$100 donations that make up the bulk of a typical Indiegogo or Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. In 2014, the Speakeasy’s expensive tickets and lack of discounts meant that the show was very popular with the tech crowd while remaining inaccessible to the kinds of people who are getting priced out of this city. And, yes, the Speakeasy seems very, very male. The three founders are all male. The website copy has a persistently male point of view, and not just in its references to the chorus girls and the one-way mirror. For instance, when giving examples of some of the costumed characters that audience members can pay to play, both of the examples they give are male.

Meanwhile, DIVAfest hosted a traditional nonprofit-theater fundraiser last weekend: finger food, raffle tickets, and performances, in a board member’s fancy house that was donated for the occasion. I hope it was successful, and it was certainly quite glamorous to watch the sunset from a North Beach rooftop deck, eating delicious food among nicely dressed people. But it cannot change the fact that DIVAfest is a small, indie, shoestring operation, run out of a Tenderloin theater that has miraculously weathered all the changes to San Francisco in the last thirty years.

I know there is a place for people like me at DIVAfest, but, as a feminist woman, I have a hard time imagining that there’s really a place for me at the Speakeasy. And, while I’m grateful that organizations like DIVAfest exist, I’m also bothered that they feel like such small, precarious members of the arts ecosystem. The Speakeasy caters to the male gaze and raises $3 million in venture capital funding and becomes the subject of glowing media profiles; DIVAfest provides a counter-narrative and a place for women, and is relegated to the fringes. I said before that sexism in the 2010s tends to be subtle and insidious. Well, here’s another example of it: is it fair that the men get the big dreams and the big bucks and the naked ladies, and we women get to play out our stories on a much smaller stage?

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

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Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Male And Female, I Created Them

Marissa Skudlarek as Everybody.

Six years ago, for the first time, I wrote a male character that I felt really, truly proud of. He was the first male character I’d created that I felt like I understood — someone not cobbled together out of bits of other male characters from other works of fiction, but a real person with flaws and virtues. Furthermore, while I can sometimes go too far in thinking that male characters need to be possessed of a certain alpha-male masculinity, this character was not defined by his gender. He was a complex person who happened to be a dude.

The secret might be that, to a large extent, I based this character, Jon, on myself. In my very first plays, I’d started from an assumption that men are not like women; men are inherently different from me. (Hence, perhaps, the predilection for writing alpha-males.) But as I grew older, I came to understand that while there are many men out there who are nothing like me, there are also men who share many of the same qualities I do. It perhaps helped that this was one of my first plays where the conflict didn’t center around romance (I was pretty sure that men didn’t experience romance the same way I did), but around themes of self-actualization and escaping the daily grind.

Jon is frustrated; he feels bored, awkward, and out-of-place in his office. He is defensive and pedantic. He tries to be self-deprecating, but it backfires. He kind of thinks he’s better than everyone else. He’s more grouchy and angry than I tend to be (probably because it’s more socially acceptable for a man to be outspokenly angry than a woman) but, to a large extent, he’s me, with all the flaws I had when I was just out of college, only in a male body.

The play containing the character of Jon is no masterpiece. It will probably never be staged. And I realize that “just base all of your characters, male and female, on yourself” is no way to develop a varied and interesting body of work. But I’m bringing this up today because it’s my way of pushing back against those people who say that men can’t write women, or women can’t write men. This idea, however, seems predicated on an assumption that all men are one way and all women are another way. No man can understand the nature of being female; no woman can understand the nature of being male. But why throw up such walls in the name of ideology, when art is supposed to promote empathy and understanding?

Indeed, criticism these days can be very doctrinaire and ideological. In the new movie Mistress America (written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig), a college freshman, Tracy, writes a short story in which the central character is based upon her new friend Brooke, a 30-year-old New Yorker of limitless ambitions and limited means. Predictably, Brooke eventually lays eyes on the story, and becomes furious at how her teenage protégée Tracy has “betrayed” her by turning her into a character. Brooke’s friends take Tracy to task, too. Not only has she betrayed Brooke’s confidence, but also her story paints all its female characters in an unflattering light. One woman hurls questions like “Do you believe in a woman’s right to choose?” and “How do you feel about female genital mutilation?” at a bewildered Tracy.

This scene is over-the-top satire, but the reason it’s so funny is because it captures something about the way we evaluate art in the 2010s. Brooke’s friends think it’s more important for Tracy’s story to promote a feminist message than for it to be truthful, or interesting, or complex. You can also read this scene as Baumbach and Gerwig having a laugh at themselves, embedding a criticism of their own movie within the screenplay before anyone else can make that same criticism. Although they’ve written a very smart movie with two complex female characters at the center of it, an overly ideological critic could still take them to task for writing about women with messy lives who do some manipulative and underhanded things.

Taking women to task for depicting female characters in supposedly unflattering ways; insinuating that women can’t write male characters because men are too different… it’s all two sides of the same coin, and that coin is “letting ideological considerations become so overwhelming that it’s impossible to write anything at all.”

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

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: When Your Politics and Your Artistic Tastes Collide

Marissa Skudlarek continues the Marissa Skudlarek Chronicles.

The current Broadway revival of The Heidi Chronicles will be closing this weekend after 80 performances. After the show announced its plans to close, The New York Times published an article analyzing why it might have flopped so badly. Much of the article discusses whether this play about a Baby Boomer woman speaks to women of younger generations, particularly those in “the lively world of online feminism.” (The fact that younger women just plain don’t pay attention to Broadway plays as much as older ones do only merits a parenthetical. Look, I’m doing it again!) Overall, the article implies that whether or not you like The Heidi Chronicles is a matter of whether or not you agree with its feminist politics – though with the added twist that, in the 21st century, many self-proclaimed feminists have trouble with the play’s message.

Well, I could have told you as much. In college, I did a research paper on people’s reactions to The Heidi Chronicles, and made that same argument. My professor had asked everyone to pick a 20th-century play, find as many reviews of different productions as we could, and then write a paper discussing how the performance tradition and/or the critical reception of that play had changed over time. I elected to do my project on The Heidi Chronicles. It was early in 2006, Wendy Wasserstein had just died, and I wanted to write about her play as a way of honoring her. My research showed that, while the play was pretty universally praised in its first Broadway production in 1988 (it also won the Best Play Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize), more recent productions had had more mixed reviews, and the reviewers’ political beliefs always seemed to color their reactions to the play.

I’ll come out and say it: I’ve never seen a production of The Heidi Chronicles, but I’ve read it several times, and I do like it. Even though I know I supposedly “shouldn’t” like it because of the way it represents a very second-wave, elitist, white, bourgeois liberal feminism that it is my generation’s duty to move beyond. (Besides, like Heidi, I am a bourgeois white liberal woman who went to Vassar. To completely abjure those parts of me would be self-loathing.) At the same time, though, I totally get it when, say, a queer black working-class feminist says “You’re telling me I should like The Heidi Chronicles because it’s one of the most acclaimed and successful feminist plays in the canon, but I’m sorry, it doesn’t speak to me.”

And that’s what I really want to talk about in this column: what happens when you feel like you’re “supposed” to like a play for political reasons, but you actually don’t like it? And the inverse: what happens when you really enjoy a play that nonetheless has some elements that you know are politically iffy?

I consider myself a feminist, but that doesn’t mean that I love every show that promotes a feminist message. I get offended when people suggest that I “should” love a certain show because I generally agree with its politics. Politics is not and has never been why I go to the theater. On the occasions when I do like a show for feminist reasons, it’s typically because the show features complex and fascinating and intelligently written female characters, not because it strives to make an Important Political Statement About the Female Condition.

Let me give you two examples of plays I saw in 2014 where my opinion of the play’s politics did not match my opinion of its artistry. First, The House That Will Not Stand at Berkeley Rep. I really thought I was going to like this play: it had a majority-female cast and explored a fascinating but little-known piece of American history. In telling the story of free women of color in New Orleans, it showed the plight of women in a patriarchal society and their attempts to find freedom, power, and dignity. But I hated the play. I thought it was silly and melodramatic and overheated, and while set in the early 1800s, some of the characters behaved in unbelievably 21st-century ways. The leading actress gave such a mannered performance, and the writing was so overwrought, that, halfway through the show, I decided that I would much prefer to see it performed by drag queens. And then I felt like a terrible feminist.

Then, a few months after that, I saw Wittenberg at the Aurora Theatre. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test: it is written for three men and one woman. The woman (unlike the men) has to play multiple small parts, and all of her roles feel like afterthoughts. Her character was billed in the playbill as “The Eternal Feminine,” which I thought was just plain icky — putting women on a pedestal can be a form of misogyny, you know. And yet, despite all those caveats, I really liked the show. The writing was clever and entertaining. It dealt with some philosophical and ethical matters (the main conflict in the play is between Martin Luther and Dr. Faustus, professors at Wittenberg University) but it was not explicitly political in the 21st-century sense of “political theater.” And again, I felt like a terrible feminist. What was I doing, preferring this elitist, smarty-pants, Stoppard-lite comedy about three dead white men, to a politically conscious, highly emotional drama about women of color?

But I think I’m just going to have to go on being a terrible (read: complex, and not doctrinaire) feminist. Reducing a play to its political message means that you ignore the thousands of hours of craft and artistry that it took to create the play, in favor of promoting a one-sentence slogan or moral or tagline. I don’t want anyone to treat my plays that way, so the least I can do is accord that same respect to the plays of others.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, producer, and arts writer. She feels like most of the feminists she knows often worry that they are terrible feminists. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Miss Skudlarek’s Downtime Activities

Marissa Skudlarek explores the unglamorous, glamorous life.

I feel like 2015 has gotten off to a quiet start for me, though I’ll take quiet after the crazy roller coaster that was the second half of 2014. I have no theater projects or major deadlines on the horizon for a little while, so this month has been devoted to grounding myself and developing habits that will stand me in good stead for the rest of the year. In keeping with our January blog theme of “downtime and balance,” I thought I’d tell you some of what I’ve been doing this month to take care of myself – and how these things might just prove useful to me as a theater-maker as well.

Using the f.lux app. This app adjusts the color of your computer screen so that it harmonizes with the time of day. During daylight hours, it remains bright white, but in the evening, it gradually gets warmer and dimmer, as though lit by candlelight. Staring at a bright-white computer screen late at night is said to negatively impact sleep quality, and when my screen reaches its dimmest point around 10 PM, it serves as a nice reminder that I really ought to think about going to bed. Since I started using this app, I feel like I’ve had fewer nights where I stayed up too late browsing the Internet.

How this will help my theater-making: Our profession often requires us to be night owls, for the purposes of rehearsals and performances. Economic exigencies require many of us to have day jobs and keep a 9 to 5 schedule. So, on the nights when we don’t have to be up late, doesn’t it make sense to get a good night’s sleep?

Cleaning my room. Okay, my room is still not as clean as I (or my mom) would ultimately like it to be. But I spent several hours cleaning it this weekend and my head feels clearer already. Toward the end of 2014, the external mess in my room and the internal mess in my head reinforced one another, creating a negative feedback loop that sapped my motivation. But now that I’ve cleared away piles of papers and larger patches of my lovely wooden floors are shining in the sun? I’m motivated to keep going.

How this will help my theater-making: As I said, the cleaner my room, the clearer my head. But also: the ability to clean and organize spaces quickly and efficiently is an invaluable skill during load-in and strike.

Watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. This is an Australian TV show, recommended to me by several Theater Pub bloggers, about a glamorous, independently wealthy, free-spirited lady detective in 1920s Melbourne. It’s the perfect show to watch with a cup of tea on a cold winter’s night: sumptuous costumes, hot guys, the satisfaction of a smart detective catching the culprit and restoring order to the world. For theater people, I especially recommend Season 1, episode 6, a cheerfully ridiculous piece of fluff involving murders and a ghost backstage at a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore.

How this will help my theater-making: Too often, feminists have to battle against the perception that they are humorless killjoys who take offense at everything. Even if you consider yourself a feminist, doesn’t the phrase “feminist theater” or “feminist television” make you worry that it’ll be an eat-your-vegetables kind of show? That it’ll be high-minded and depressing, rather than fun and escapist? Miss Fisher, though, is definitely feminist and definitely fun. It was created and produced by women, and I think every episode I’ve seen so far passes the Bechdel test. Miss Fisher’s investigations often reveal the injustices of 1920s society, but never in a hit-you-over-the-head way; and she is a splendidly bold and independent heroine. 90% of the reason I watch Miss Fisher is simple enjoyment, but 10% of it is because it makes me think about how entertainment can present a feminist perspective without alienating viewers.

Trying out new hairdos. I’ve made a few changes to my appearance as 2015 starts. I got new glasses, I’m using a darker lipstick, and I’ve become enamored with updos. My hair is a bit above shoulder length, so figuring out attractive ways to wear it up can be challenging. But I’m having fun playing around with different hairstyles after years of just wearing my hair down all the time.

How this will help my theater-making: Rumor has it that I may have to wear a wig in The Desk Set this summer, and if I figure out good techniques for putting my hair up now, it’ll be a great help when I need to stuff my hair under the wig cap. When I was in Into the Woods in college and had to wear a pink wig (photo here), I developed mad skills at doing my hair in two French braids and then pinning them up in back – I’d like to have those skills again!

Furthermore, if cleaning my room corresponds to clearing my head, does pinning my stray strands of hair in a neat chignon correspond to untangling my messy thoughts and gathering them into something tidy and elegant? Maybe. I’m hoping.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Clearly, she has moments of wanting to be a lifestyle guru, but she also hates the phrase “lifestyle guru.” Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Who’s a Horse’s Ass?

Marissa Skudlarek discusses Megan Cohen’s most recent contribution to the SF Olympians Festival, and one local critic’s take on the show.

George Heymont begins his review of Centaurs and Satyrs, an Olympians Festival staged reading that happened last Thursday, by outlining the recent upsurge in feminist advocacy among theater-makers and in the culture at large. He notes that the Olympians Festival, while never explicitly framing itself as a feminist organization, has a better record of gender parity among its writers than many other theaters in town. So far, so good. Critics should be aware of the current sociopolitical issues and trends relating to their art form, and feminism is one of the loudest conversations happening right now. It’s nice to see a male critic acknowledge that.

Heymont then transitions into discussing the reading of Megan Cohen’s Centaurs, or The Horse’s Ass, a “postmodern vaudeville comedy” for two women. I was at the theater last Thursday, too, and I’d describe the play as a mix of traditional vaudeville tropes (soft-shoe routines, “Who’s on First”-style wordplay) and edgier elements (gross-out humor, dick jokes). And, starting with a joke about the difference between a “horse” and a “whore” and going on from there, the play also becomes more and more interested in issues of feminism and gender. It’s a scathing and provocative piece, whose feminism isn’t just “rah-rah, women are awesome” platitudes, but something much more complex and searching.

Heymont’s intro paragraphs about feminism led me to believe that he was gearing up to point out these aspects of The Horse’s Ass. Instead, Heymont writes, “Although Cohen and Bousel [sic] cast two women as their centaurs, the gender of the actors was not as important as the concept of two centaurs trying to tell corny jokes and perform bits of physical comedy onstage.”

Say what?

(You’ll have to imagine a record-scratching sound here, people.)

To say that the gender of the actors in The Horse’s Ass was “not important” or suggest the play would have been equally effective with male actors is frankly, incomprehensible.

First of all, it’s always a feminist statement when women get to be loud and messy and grotesque onstage. Gallagher may smash watermelons and the dudes of PianoFight may host “Throw Rotten Veggies at the Actors” Night, but when was the last time you saw two women onstage chewing up and spitting out carrots?

Second, the initial scenes of The Horse’s Ass might work OK with men in the roles, but when themes of gender and feminism explicitly enter the text, it wouldn’t work with anything but women. Megan is fascinated by the half-human, half-horse nature of the centaur, and situates that within a clearly female context: “Do you ever feel like the best and most noble parts of yourself are tied to the worst and most despicable things a human being can have inside them? Like, despite the fact that you are capable of love and of mercy, you’re also just a two-legged hatrack on which is hung a gaping, yearning hellmouth that spews blood and can never be satisfied?” Try imagining a man saying that!

The vaudeville also contains the following scenes, which wouldn’t work with male actors:

A discussion about whether you’d rather be raped or murdered (“I guess I’d rather be raped. Since 1 out of every 6 women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, it would at least give me something in common with a lot of people, so if I’m at a party or something I can be like ‘Hey, the funniest thing happened to me the other day, has this ever happened to you?’ and 1 out of every 6 women would be like ‘Oh my god, totally’”).

Use of carrots as substitute penises, which gets into that whole Freudian thing about female penis envy and wouldn’t work, y’know, if the actors had penises of their own.

An extended metaphor contrasting the discursive structure of a vaudeville act and the phallic-linear structure of a Hero’s Journey narrative, “the decadent last breath of a dying patriarchy obsessed with the dogmatic enforcement of their own sexual template as the dominant format for cultural pleasure.” Which is why you need women up on stage, saying that. Not representatives of the dying patriarchy.

I should admit here that I’m biased. For reasons that even I can’t fully understand, the staged reading of The Horse’s Ass cracked something in me wide open and left me feeling weird and vulnerable for the entire next day. About two-thirds of the way through watching it, I started feeling like I was about to cry – and not in the “laughing so hard you cry” way, but out of some combination of envy and discomfort and confusion and anguish. Gratitude toward Megan for writing such a trenchant play, mixed with despair at the world her play depicted.

Earlier that day, I’d already been in a weird mood. It seemed that if I separately considered each individual fact of my life and my existence, things seemed manageable, even forgivable. But when I thought about my life and the world as a giant, interconnected system, it seemed irrevocably fucked up. I had become preoccupied with the idea that the white race is the cancer of human history, as Susan Sontag said, and that even Western culture’s most stirring achievements (symphonies, cathedrals, Greek mythology) probably aren’t enough to redeem us. I had also been haunted by some comment I’d read online saying that if you are a heterosexual woman, if you wish to love a man and be loved by him in turn, you are merely a victim of Stockholm syndrome who’s been brainwashed into empathizing with your oppressor. I felt trapped by my race and gender and class and circumstances, doomed from birth to be a white oppressor and a self-deluding female, and not strong or brave enough to help overthrow society.

And then, after having such thoughts, I saw a play that asked, “Do you ever feel like the best and most noble parts of yourself are tied to the worst and most despicable things a human being can have inside them?” A play that reminded me that my attachment to linear storytelling is a symptom of how I’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy. And it’s no wonder that, after the play ended, I made a beeline for the EXIT Theatre’s back courtyard, sat on a bench, and sobbed.

Megan and I belong to a similar demographic: white, female, born in the 1980s, educated at fancy colleges, spending too much time on the Internet. For that reason, it makes sense that I’d feel a stronger connection to her play than George Heymont did. (And, conversely, it might be a fair criticism of her piece if it works for people in her own demographic but is incomprehensible to the older generation.) I’m not saying that Heymont is required to love or appreciate Megan’s writing. But, if he’s going to set himself up as a “legitimate” arts blogger, I do expect him to discuss the work he sees with accuracy and insight. I expect him to realize that, not only is feminism a big topic of discussion these days, but also that he’s got a blazingly insightful feminist vaudeville onstage in front of him.

If I look at Heymont’s review of The Horse’s Ass as an isolated event – just a bizarre misinterpretation of a single work of art – it seems manageable, even forgivable.

But if I look at his review in the context of a wider system – a system in which women’s art is devalued and even an explicitly, brutally feminist play is dismissed as “not really about gender” – it seems irrevocably fucked up.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer who is a combination of the noble and the despicable. Like you. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Theater Around the Bay: A Mother’s Care

Charles Lewis III returns with part two of his interviews with the creative team behind Pleiades, which opens later this week at the Phoenix Theatre.

“A son is a son ‘til he takes a wife, a daughter’s a daughter all of her life.”
– Old Irish Proverb

I had the pleasure of taking part in the ‘Pub’s production of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, newly-translated by Marissa Skudlarek. I wore a horse’s head and that is all you need know about my involvement. It was my first – and hopefully not last – time working with director Katja Rivera. I’d first heard of her in 2011 when she directed another primarily female show set in the early 1970s, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Star of that show, actress/songbird Michelle Jasso, affectionately Katja described as “no bullshit, but incredibly open to collaboration and suggestion”. With the full production of Marissa’s Pleiades about to enter tech week under Katja’s direction, I was able to briefly catch up with her to talk about the play. As a complimentary piece to last week’s interview, I got to ask Katja about her approach to the material, historical accuracy, and bringing a maternal perspective to a story of young women trying to find their place in the world.

Katja

Did you attend the original Pleiades reading in 2011?

No, I didn’t attend the first reading of Pleiades. I didn’t even know about the Olympians Festival then!

What about Marissa and her script encouraged you jump aboard this project?

Marissa had sent me her script, and I particularly was impressed with how she understood the dynamics of a large family. I’m from a family of seven, so that aspect of the script particularly resonated with me. I also enjoy working with Marissa (on Pint Sized and Orphée), so I wanted a chance to collaborate with her on a full production.

Whereas Marissa’s script was written by someone trying to imagine a specific time in history, you were actually alive during that time. How important was historical accuracy to you? Are you on the lookout for specific anachronisms or is it better to have just a general sense of the era, so as to focus more directly on story and character?

I like to be as historically accurate as possible, and do think we are products of our time. I do look out for anything that smacks of anachronism, because I don’t want to distract audience members. I feel like Marissa has a good sense of the period, as I remember it, so she’s made my job easy in that regard.

Having myself assisted with the Pleiades auditions and seen the embarrassment of riches in terms of local female talent, how does one begin to whittle that down to “the right” eight women you needed for this play?

The 8 characters in the play are all so individual, so while we had some women in the play who could have played more than one of these roles, their personalities lent to making it easy to slot them into their roles.

Was there any special consideration in choosing Paul Rodrigues (a talented fella whom I’ve had the pleasure of directing) as the sole male role?

With Paul, we definitely wanted someone who was likable, so it wouldn’t easy to dismiss the character out of hand for what he does. Paul is also such an intelligent actor. He is bringing qualities the role that I didn’t see before we started the rehearsal process. It’s delightful.

On the surface, the play would appear to simply be “the problems of eight rich White girls and one White guy”. What would you say is a more accurate description and how would you sell it people who don’t resemble the characters portrayed?

I would say it is about 7 young women, sisters, who are trying to figure out how to live an authentic life, as the world around is shifting below their feet.

Is there a particular character with whom you identify more than the others?

Alison, played by Annabelle King. I’m the middle child of 7, as is she, and there are some character traits that particularly resonate with me.

The proper “adults” in the play are alluded to, but are never seen. It almost as if the sisters live in an insulated world all their own, with disruption immediately followed by the arrival of an outsider. As a mother yourself, how do you approach a story with one of the most frustrating scenarios a parent can think of – namely children holding onto secrets (one becoming the victim of a serious crime) and not turning to their parents for help? Furthermore, how do you think your own daughters will react to this play?

All characters have secrets. That’s my belief. Some of their secrets are revealed in this play, but I encourage actors to have secrets for their characters. As to my daughters’ reaction, I hope they will love the play. They are in the age range of these characters, age 25 and 22, and avid theatergoers. My goal in directing this is for them to love it.

To end with the generic-but-informative questions: What have you got coming up theatre-wise? What projects do you want to do, but haven’t had the opportunity (yet)?

I’m directing Three Tall Women by Edward Albee in November at Custom Made Theatre, and filming Merritt Squad, a webseries, this summer. And I would love to do some more acting soon, as well as some writing. We’ll see what the Universe has in store!

Photo by Serena Morelli

Photo by Serena Morelli

Pleiades begins previews this Thursday, August 7, with opening night Saturday, August 9. The play will run for 12 performances, Thursdays through Saturdays, through August 30th at The Phoenix Theatre in San Francisco. Tickets are available at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/780504. For more information, press inquiries, and to purchase tickets, please visit http://PleiadesSF.wordpress.com.

Charles Lewis III thinks that if you have any appreciation for women in theatre, independent theatre, and creative new work, then you should hurry and get your tickets for Pleiades before all twelve performances are sold out.

Theater Around the Bay: Sing a Song of Seven Sisters

Charles Lewis III is today’s guest blogger, with an extremely thorough interview of Marissa Skudlarek, author of the upcoming world premiere, PLEIADES. We’re super excited about the show, and encourage everyone to go. We’d also like to let Marissa know we have never used the term Box Office Babe ironically. “Babe” is a gender neutral term and we consider anyone willing to work our box office SUPER SEXY.

Poster by Emily C. Martin

Poster by Emily C. Martin

“Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?”
– The Holy Bible, Book of Job: Chapter 38, verse 31 (King James Version)

One of TheaterPub’s greatest strengths has always been its networking prowess. Its productions are unmatched in their ability to bring together such a disparate (some would say “motley”) collection of theatre artists to form lasting connections. It was during one such post-show mingle in the ‘Pub’s first year that I was introduced to an unassuming-yet-unforgettable Vassar gal named Marissa Skudlarek. We were both eager to make names for ourselves in the Bay Area theatre scene, but even as we spoke about a variety of topics (I remember Tristan & Isolde being a major one), I knew she was more likely than I to make a splash.

By the end of that summer, most of us knew her bright smile on sight when she warmly greeted each of us as first-ever box-office manager (aka “The Box-Office Babe”) for The San Francisco Olympians Festival’s opening year. What started as idea during a car ride to an Atmos Theatre production has become an annual must-do for the Bay Area indie theatre scene. Now in its fifth year at The EXIT Theatre, the staged reading festival has commissioned more than 130 new scripts; an equal number of fine art illustrations, mosaics, and needlepoints; two books; and the collaboration of countless actors, directors, and theatre technicians. To say nothing of scripts that have gone on to full productions.

It just so happens that the ‘Pub’s own “Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life” columnist is the latest Olympians alumnus to get a full production. Having gone from the festival’s box office manager to playwright to copyeditor of the two Olympians books (Songs of Hestia and Heavenly Bodies), so too will her original script Pleiades, written for Year 2, graduate to a fully-staged run this August at The Phoenix Theatre. Based on the Greek myth of the seven daughters of Titan god Atlas, the play revolves around the seven Atlee sisters, their activist cousin, and a local Casanova in the affluent Hamptons during the summer of 1971. In the middle of her increasingly busy schedule, I was fortunate enough to pose a few questions to Marissa during the final hours of the Pleiades’ successful IndieGoGo campaign. We discussed how she’s grown as a writer, how the script has evolved since the original reading, and why a production with a largely female cast & crew is so important to modern audiences.

First things first: how did you get involved with the Olympians Festival during its inaugural year?

Almost five years ago now, I submitted a proposal to write the “Artemis” play for the first-ever Olympians Festival… but that was the year that everyone wanted to write about Artemis, so I didn’t get chosen. (This is one reason that an Artemis figure, in the guise of rabble-rousing feminist Diane, shows up in Pleiades.) I still thought that the festival sounded like a really cool idea, though, and I was fairly new in town and hungry to be part of the theater community, so I befriended Stuart Bousel and asked if I could help out with the festival. He mentioned the box-office job, and while it was unpaid, it meant that I could see all 12 Olympians shows for free. And that seemed like a great way to get acquainted with a lot of actors and writers very quickly, so I accepted the gig.

Who came up with the name “Box Office Babe”? Does anyone even remember?!

I feel like Stuart came up with the “box office babe” nickname, but I don’t think that I actually heard it used until Year Two, when Barbara Jwanouskos was box-office manager. I admit I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with that title and don’t tend to use it myself, because there’s something kind of old-fashioned and chauvinistic about the word “babe” (even though I understand that it’s ostensibly being used ironically here. Ah, hipster sexism).

One of the things I most remember from first meeting you in 2010 was that you weren’t all that fond of the term “emerging playwright”. One’s profile definitely raises with the production of their first full-length. How would you say you’ve evolved as a writer in the four years since?

Well, Pleiades is the only full-length I’ve written since leaving college six years ago — I’m not the fastest or most prolific writer, so it’s not like I had a wealth of plays from which to choose. If I didn’t produce Pleiades, it might be another 2 or 3 years before I write another full-length play that I’m proud of… and I wasn’t prepared to wait that long to have a full-length produced in San Francisco. Moreover, I felt that as long as Pleiades went unproduced, it was kind of blocking me from getting started on another full-length. It felt like unfinished business. I needed to see this script to fruition (in the form of a full production) before I could move on.

What was it about this script that you felt it had to be your first proper full-length production?

I wanted to produce Pleiades as a way of actively participating in the conversation about gender parity and feminism in theater that has become so prominent recently. There are all these statistics about how female playwrights and directors and actors are underrepresented, and rather than continuing to talk about how unfair that is and debate possible solutions, I just wanted to produce a new play that has a female writer, female director, eight female actors, and be like “DEAL WITH IT.”

Because I haven’t written another full-length since Pleiades, it’s hard to say how my playwriting has evolved. Maybe I’ve learned to be less afraid of my own voice? Pursuing my crazier whims, rather than trying to make my writing sound like everybody else’s. I definitely think I’ve become more courageous in terms of my nonfiction writing. Three years ago, I’d never have written that piece I wrote for Theater Pub recently, pointing out that ACT hasn’t produced a local playwright in 7 years apart from their own AD. I would have been too afraid of getting on Carey Perloff’s blacklist. But, well, the whole point of the article is that she’s not producing local playwrights, right? So what have I got to lose?

Katja Rivera directed your Theater Pub-produced translation of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée last year. At that point had you already considered her for the director of Pleiades?

At the time of the Orphée reading (April 2013) I wasn’t sure yet that I wanted to self-produce Pleiades. My feeling that I needed to produce the play grew slowly over the course of 2013 until, by the end of the year, it had become overwhelming, and I contacted Katja to see if she wanted to direct it. It’s like that Anaïs Nin quote: “The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Some playwrights think the most daunting thing about self-production is raising the funds, or simply finding the time/energy to embark on such a major project. Those things never fazed me. For me, the most daunting aspect of self-production was always the problem of finding a director.

Did you ever consider directing it yourself?

I have never wanted to direct my own plays — I have no training as a director, no sense of how to block a scene, absolutely no self-confidence in that area. Plus, having a director handle the day-to-day aspects of production (rehearsals and the like) while I handled the big-picture elements (contracts, fundraising, marketing) sounded do-able… handling everything myself sounded like a disaster in the making.

Katja was definitely my first-choice director. I first met her in 2012, when she directed my play “Beer Theory” for Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival. “Beer Theory” is a weird little play that, more than anything else I’ve ever written, tries to illustrate what it’s like to live inside my head, and Katja knew exactly what I was going for… I felt like she “got” me right away. Our collaboration on Orphée was also harmonious. Further points in Katja’s favor were that she liked the Pleiades script and she’s from a different generation than me — I thought it would be good for the director of Pleiades to have been alive in 1971, the year the play takes place. But it was still scary to send that initial email to Katja and ask her if she wanted to direct Pleiades! I was asking her to clear her schedule and devote months of her life to my work, for very little compensation. And I’m not sure what I would’ve done if she’d said no!

Another thing I recall from that first year is that you were fond of the phrase “Plays are never finished; only abandoned.” I remember seeing the original reading of Pleiades in 2011 and I understand it’s been read around the country since then…

Well, it’s only had one other reading since the Olympians one, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend it: the reading happened in Myrtle Beach, SC, on the same weekend in April 2013 that Katja and I were doing tech for Orphée!

What’s changed about the script since the Olympians reading?

The script still has the same basic structure that it had in 2011, but I like to think that it’s stronger. After the Olympians reading, I beefed up the climax to make it more cathartic. I streamlined certain scenes and expanded others. I tried to raise the stakes a little; I tried to deepen the characters and make them more complex. It’s identifiably the same story, with the same characters; but I think it works a little better.

Have you done any rewrites since announcing the start of production?

I did make some changes to the script between announcing my decision to produce the play (in January) and going into rehearsals in June, but they were fairly minor — rewriting half a page of dialogue so it flows better, that kind of thing. Act One now ends with more impact and has a better curtain line. I haven’t handed out any rewrites to my cast since the start of rehearsals, though.

Your story is about a group of women struggling to define themselves during the height of the Second-wave Feminist movement. One of the icons of that movement, Gloria Steinem, recently celebrated her 80th birthday. You’ve never been shy about defining yourself as such, but what is it about the word “Feminism” that seems to rub modern women – many of them high-profile – the wrong way; particularly the ones who claim to profess the very ideals for which the movement stands?

So it seems to be axiomatic among a lot of people that “young women refuse to call themselves feminists nowadays because they think it makes them sound like man-hating lesbians with hairy armpits,” but I don’t actually know how much truth there is to that. Supposedly, women between the ages of 18 and 29 are most likely to self-identify as feminists. If a young female celebrity says “I’m not a feminist because I love men,” as happened with Shailene Woodley recently, the Internet explodes with essays telling her why she’s wrong. Sometimes I feel like every female playwright I know is a feminist. Which is awesome! But it also means that feminism has lost some of its pungency. It used to be that if you said “I’m a female playwright and I want to tell women’s stories,” it made you sound kind of cool and edgy. Now it’s like “Yeah, so what else is new?”

Thanks to the Internet, more people are discussing and debating feminism than ever before, and feminist concepts (like the Bechdel Test) are entering the pop-culture lexicon. However, the Internet also has a way of magnifying people’s outrage; and online, the people who get the most attention are often the loudest, most extreme, angriest people. So a young woman might see this and think that to be a feminist, you need to be snarky, or bitter, or humorless, or antagonistic, or perpetually outraged, when none of those things are actually true. There are humorless feminists and hilarious ones; there are feminists who want to smash the patriarchy and feminists who want to dismantle it gently. It’s a broad movement. (uh, no pun intended.)

One other challenge of being a feminist is that, once you start calling yourself one, you have to examine your own unconscious prejudices and develop your own understanding of what feminism means to you. And each time you detect sexism, you have to decide whether you are going to call it out or whether you are going to let it slide — and both of those things are hard to do, for different reasons. Even if you live in a supportive environment, being a feminist is not always easy. It requires self-reflection and self-questioning, qualities that our culture does not always encourage.

Marissa Skudlarek takes her place amongst the goddesses. Photo by Tracy Held Potter

Marissa Skudlarek takes her place amongst the goddesses. Photo by Tracy Held Potter

You’ve often spoke of your fondness for productions with large casts and Pleiades is unique among contemporary independent theatre (particularly in the Bay Area) as it has a cast of nine that is primarily female. What were the steps you took to make all the voices individual and how did the traditional Greek interpretation of the characters influence the way you wrote them?

The thing about the Pleiades in Greek mythology, at least according to the sources that I’ve found, is that they weren’t very individual as personalities. They are treated like a unit, especially in the most famous story about them, the one that goes “Orion was chasing the Pleiades and Zeus turned them into stars to protect them.” They’re just objects to Orion — he doesn’t see them as individuals. I mean, how do you even chase seven women at the same time? Then I discovered that, maybe the Pleiades don’t have individual personalities, but some of them do have individual stories. The eldest three of them — Maia, Elektra, and Taygete — all had children by Zeus. In fact, Maia and Zeus’s son was Hermes. The youngest, Merope, married a mortal and was punished for it: she’s the dimmest star in the constellation. Artemis turned Taygete into a deer after Zeus raped her — whether this was to protect her or punish her is a matter of debate. I started to see how I could turn these stories into a play.

But you’re right that my most difficult task in writing this play was to figure out who each of these young women was, as an individual. And also to make the story psychologically credible, since it would be taking place in a realistic milieu (the Hamptons in 1971) rather than the stylized world of myth. It’s one thing for a myth to say “Zeus had children with the three eldest Pleiades,” it’s another thing for me to write a believable, serious-minded play about a man who has sex with each of three sisters.

Toward the beginning of the writing process, after I’d figured out the basic plot of the play, I took a day to just outline each character’s personality — listing the adjectives and qualities that define each young woman. I also decided, early on, that it was OK if not all of the roles were equal in size or importance, as long as each character had an individual voice. And, as I started to fill in the backstory for the play, I made a timeline listing the characters’ birth dates, key historical events, etc., and I had fun thinking about which zodiac sign each of my characters might be and matching their astrology to their personality.

In addition to your writing, you’re also quite renowned for your impeccable fashion sense. That having been said, the 1970s aren’t generally regarded as a high-point in 20th century fashion, particularly in the United States…

I actually kind of love ’70s fashion! Especially the early ’70s, which were fascinating. The hippie looks of the late ’60s were still hanging on, and there was also a revival of ’30s and ’40s fashion… it could be pretty glamorous. We have a vintage Seventeen magazine from June of 1971 as one of the props in the play and I’ve had great fun browsing through it for inspiration. It makes me want to grow my hair long and walk through a meadow in a gauzy dress!

What was your and Katja’s philosophy in regards to dressing nine different characters of affluent means in the Hamptons of the early-‘70s?

One thing I’ve insisted on from the start is that I do not want the primary message of the costumes in the play to be “look at the kooky things people wore in the ’70s.” I fear that that would distance the audience from the story. I don’t want people to see this as a “period piece” that has no relevance to life in 2014; I want them to empathize with the characters and relate to them! Obviously I don’t want the characters wearing anything that stands out as anachronistic, but a lot of them will be wearing clothes that could work equally well in 1971 and in 2014.

This fits with my play, too, because my characters are old-money WASPs, which means that many of them favor classic preppy styles instead of wacky trends. And they’re at the beach, so they’re dressed fairly casually. They may be an affluent family and they probably pride themselves on wearing good-quality clothing, but they’re not trying to flaunt their wealth or their individuality through their clothes — in fact they would probably consider that quite gauche.

Earlier this year Allison Page gave five reasons encouraging self-production. In the beginning you seemed to want to do everything about Pleiades yourself. What inspired you decide to co-produce with No Nude Men Productions?

My collaboration with No Nude Men basically means that I can Facebook-message Stuart with all of my silly newbie-producer questions and he’s honor-bound to answer them, because his theater company is nominally producing the show. I also got to use the NNM list of press contacts when sending out my press release. It’s not a financial arrangement (no money has changed hands in either direction) and I still am mostly doing everything myself.

I didn’t approach Stuart asking if NNM would produce Pleiades — he actually suggested it to me, and I took him up on the offer because it seemed to offer some advantages and no significant downsides. Unfortunately, there is still kind of a stigma around self-producing (people wonder where the line is between “self-production” and “vanity production”) and I thought it could only be a good thing if my play was associated with one of SF’s longest-running indie theater companies, rather than being “a Marissa Skudlarek production.”

What’s been the most valuable lesson from the collaboration thus-far?

The biggest challenge I’ve had as a producer was finding a set designer, and after I put out feelers to one designer, I got a rather snarky and aggrieved email in reply. Stuart calmed me down and reminded me that, even though I was desperate to find a set designer, that’s no reason to work with people who seem like they’ll be rude or difficult.

Earlier this year you were in the middle of Bay Area theatre controversy when a playwright took personal issue with your review of his most recent work. And yet as artists we’re meant to be aware that we have very little (if any) control over how our work will be interpreted. Were it up to you, what message would like people to walk away with after seeing Pleiades?

I don’t want to get too spoilery, so forgive me if this sounds overly abstract. But I would say that the message of the play is something like “terrible things can happen, but sisterhood can help you get through it.” The world of the play contains malice, violence, and sexism; it also contains humor, courage, and kindness. As such, while bad things happen in Pleiades, I really hope that people don’t interpret it as one of those bleak, nihilistic, “everything in the world is awful” plays.

As mentioned above, I also want people to see the connections between the era of the play and the present era, and to think about how the lives of young women have or haven’t changed since 1971.

Would you invite the aforementioned playwright to one of the performances?

I’d be fine if he came, as long as the rest of the Bay Area theater community didn’t try to turn it into something sensationalistic. The last thing I want is to have people gossiping about me and this playwright and wondering “Ooh… What’s he gonna say about her play? Is the feud going to continue?” Really, at this point I wish people would just stop talking about this so-called controversy.

With a full production now under your (haute couture, envy-inspiring) belt, what are your plans for the next one? Bigger cast? Musical numbers? Sychronised swimming routine?

I don’t actually know. I still love big-cast plays and will continue to advocate for them, but producing Pleiades has made me understand a little better why producers prefer smaller casts: a big cast means more schedules to juggle, more costumes to find, more stipends to pay out! Sometimes I think that my next play should be, like, a really tightly-structured slamming-door farce; sometimes I think I should go in the opposite direction and write something abstract and lyrical. I know that I don’t want my next play to be too similar to Pleiades; it’ll probably be a while before I write another family drama. And I’d like to try writing something set in the present day — it’d be nice to sit down and write without having to do historical research first! But nothing’s certain yet. As Claire Rice writes in “Europa” (one of the plays that will be published, along with Pleiades, in the forthcoming Heavenly Bodies anthology), “What a great burden an open and unknown future is.”

The Atlee sisters look toward the future. Photo by Serena Morelli

The Atlee sisters look toward the future. Photo by Serena Morelli

Pleiades runs Thursdays through Saturdays, August 7 to 30, at the Phoenix Theatre in San Francisco, August 7 – 30. Tickets are on sale at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/780504. For more information or to get in touch with the Pleiades team, please visit http://PleiadesSF.wordpress.com.

The San Francisco Olympians Festival, for which Pleiades was first commissioned, will have its fifth annual run this November at The EXIT Theatre in San Francisco. The producers of the festival are currently running an IndieGoGo campaign through August 1st in support of this year’s entries. To learn more about the festival – including artwork, cast lists, and synopses of all plays throughout its five-year history – please visit http://www.sfolympians.com.

The official Pleiades poster at the top of this article was illustrated by Emily C. Martin. Emily’s work can be found through her official site: http://www.megamoth.net The official cast photo for Pleiades was part of a set taken by photographer Serena Morelli, whose work can be found on-line at http://www.serenamorelli.com.

Charles Lewis III considers himself privileged to have seen both the original reading of Pleiades and the very first Olympians Festival. He’s even more pleased to see what each has become in the years since.