Follow the Vodka: My Left Shoulder

Our favorite tippler Robert Estes, shouldering his load.

So, gentle reader of the chronicles of Follow the Vodka, I will digress before I begin the piece properly. As your intrepid night columnist, I had planned on writing about the piano bar The Alley on Grand Avenue in Oakland and the octogenarian pianist Rod Dibble, who has been playing there before recorded history. In my many nights reading there at the one table that has a light, I found that words of Samuel Beckett made a great accompanist to hearing the grateful regulars take their turns, well, not quite belting out tunes, but quite joyfully singing the sentimental romantic American Songbook tunes of their youth. At the center of those songs, there is often loneliness, or depression even, with an obsessive or timeless desire, “you’re gonna love me, like nobody’s loved, come rain or come shine…” that fits in with Beckett’s often uncompromised, oddly static characters, who seemingly will be what they are forever, come rain or come shine.

Again, I had planned (god laughed), to spend this past weekend’s midnight hours at The Alley writing my column for your reading pleasure. Then, on Friday, about noon, I began feeling a pain in my left shoulder. By the time of the opening that night of the show I had directed, What Rhymes with America, I had to be careful how I walked, to avoid feeling as if I were self-electrocuting my left arm with pain.

So, my grand plan of the Alley just couldn’t happen with the pain. Still, clichéd as it may be, when you have lemons, make lemonade! The pain in my body kind of gave me access to the pain of producing theater. I really couldn’t fall asleep Friday night and I couldn’t help but let the body pain travel into a little bit of psychic pain.

Just a little background on me: Before I got into theater, I was a devoted audience member. I would guess that I saw easily 50 shows a year, but probably a higher number. I would often go with my good friend Carol and sometimes we would talk to theater people after the show or in some other occasion. We were often taken aback by how angry they could be about the work of others. Carol and I couldn’t help but make inside jokes about the Bitter Theater People.

I got into theater when I was 43 years old by volunteering at the California Shakespeare Theater. I was more than happy at the thought of just running off script copies (my day job was as a paralegal, so I was used to “organizing and preparing documents” as my billing entries to the clients often read), doing historical research for classical scripts or comparing versions of scripts now out of copyright (it was much more fun to collate versions of Arms and the Man than the closing documents for the latest massive, half-scammy business transaction at the firm).

I was very lucky at Cal Shakes because the first director that I worked for was Lillian Groag and she loved historical research when directing her plays. So I went wild on every aspect of Arms and the Man. I was double lucky that Bronwyn Eisenberg was the Resident Dramaturg as she nurtured me by giving me further research projects and opportunities to write for the program.

So, from the one small choice to volunteer at Cal Shakes at 43, my life for the past 13 years has been spent on all kinds of theater projects, now leading to my founding Anton’s Well Theater Company in the East Bay.

Yet now, I have to admit, I might be becoming the Bitter Theater Person. Or maybe just Crotchety Old Bitter Theater Guy.

Let me start with the thing that has an easy solution: paying for tickets. I totally understand if a theater person (or anyone in fact) is scraping by. I’m very happy to offer comps or pay what you can to get in someone who loves theater and wants to see, say, the Bay Area premiere of the work of an upcoming writer like Melissa James Gibson.

But so often, I feel as a theater ticket seller, it’s almost like I’m Exxon Mobil in the mind of the buyer. It almost seems like a moral sin to pay for a full-price ticket. Why? In my case, with $20 General/$17 Student/Seniors, if you buy through Goldstar, you would pay $14, of which only $10 goes to the theater. You’re giving Goldstar $4 to save yourself $6 from the $20 full price. I mean, $6 is a cup and half of coffee, or even less.

And, in the past, it’s been very frustrating to give someone a comp or $5 ticket, and then see on Facebook a week later that they’re having Duck a la Orange at Trendy Dandy Don’s foodie flash restaurant of the week. So, there’s my crotchety old bitter theater guy. I guess I just would hope that we in the small (or indie or however you want to define it) theater scene would value each other’s work by paying full price as often as we can.

And, moving on, I would hope that we could somehow (I admit, I have no solution for this other than to make an observation) value each other’s work other than on the basis of an inflation of praise. It’s not enough nowadays (man, that word makes me sound oooold!) that a show is said to be “amazing,” it has to be “truly amazing.” The phrase “truly amazing” seems to me like the passive aggressive (or maybe just aggressive) way of saying that this show actually is good and the other “amazing” shows are poseurs and are actually bad.

I have no solution to hype inflation. I suppose in the era of competing with on-demand binge watching at home, it could be argued that a show has to be amazing or why go out to see it? Well, because, there’s a lot to be gained from shows that are not even amazing. The might be compelling. They might be intriguing. They might be gloriously flawed.

I’m almost always happy that I made the effort to see a show. Maybe once a year, I think that it would have been better just to stay home. So I guess that’s just subjective me, and I could understand if others have seen so much theater that a show really does have to be amazing, but then I think they’re going to be disappointed because so many shows that are said to be “amazing” really are not. But they’re still worth seeing!

I believe that we have a good show in What Rhymes with America. I think the $20 ticket price is fair based on theater rental, cost of the rights, and giving the actors and crew a decent stipend (they shouldn’t lose money on the deal). I understand that there are other, shall I say, highly regarded shows out there like I Call My Brothers, Colossal, Deal with the Dragon, and there are event theater things like ShortLived, so in the pecking order of theater attendance, we might be a junior partner.

Still, despite any reservations, it’s amazing (oops, I mean great) to be part of the whole enterprise of putting on theater. I guess that is what I’d really like to say: what we do is vital. Sometimes when I’m with groups of theater people, the discussion will go to extended, enthusiastic discussions of the latest cable series rather than theater. Maybe this is puritanical of me, but it kind of hurts. Let’s talk about our local shows! “I found this part extraordinary…I didn’t quite see what was going on here…I would love to see more of…”

Now that I’ve gotten this off my shoulder (I mean my chest), my psychic pain is lessened. I think it’s time for the best painkiller for my shoulder…which just happens to be my favorite cocktail, the Jim’s Manhattan at Wood Tavern! (See, theater pub blog editors, I got in my favorite cocktail in the column, just like I’m supposed to!).

Jims Manhattan copy

Follow the Vodka: Necrophilia Tonight!

Robert Estes, on a Wednesday, back to Tuesday next time!

I’m sitting in the piano bar Martuni’s round midnight this past Monday night, listening to the versatile pianist Joe Wicht accompany singers on songs ranging from West Side Story classics to show tunes that stump the slyly knowledgeable audience when he queries, “What musical was that from?” and it’s all happiness and escape, almost as if it were Saturday night, except that I’m sitting there writing about necrophilia.

The odd part of my new Theatre Pub column is that my given prompt is that I’m writing about reading a play in a bar, which is sort of hard to do in the dark recesses of most liquor havens. But being an intrepid cub columnist, I’ve cornered the one lit table in Martuni’s this Monday night, the light reflecting in my watermelon martini as it highlights the sculpture of a musical note hanging on the wall behind me. I feel relatively ingenious in stealing that limited, directed light for my own selfish purpose of jotting notes about all that’s going on around me.

I confess. I’m not reading a play. Damn, second column and I’ve already blown the prime directive. Hey, if you had the choice, would you rather read a play or hear it being read? Would you rather hear about show tunes, or hear the tunes themselves? Tonight, I’m listening to plays being sung by the most devoted show tune lovers in the bay. There are damn good singers here.

I would mention names but I feel a shyness, as if it’s sort of a private party and I’ve been sneaking in without an invitation. I never sing. I’m breaking the social contract by not doing so. Let’s face it; I’m way out of my league. If it isn’t the touring cast of Kinky Boots (that one time!); it’s the pro local singers dropping in on their Monday off night. No way am I getting in the way of hearing them sing by singing myself.

But still, I take pride in being here. There is virtue in presence. And I always participate with full voice in the sing along numbers. It’s actually quite thrilling to be part of the chorus. But most of all, the singers, the performers need an audience and that is me being one drop of that happy, effusive human sea of appreciation, and, yes even tonight feeling consciously cool that I am here.

Lurking at Martuni's copy

Then I remember the time when I found something that I took a cool pride in that was revealed to have a dark shadow, or should I say a dark shade? I once loved black and white movies, I still do. There is something architectural about how they look. The chiaroscuro makes them almost seem 3D to me. There is almost something tactile about black and white. And then, there’s just the clarity of the difference in time, as if the era of black and white movies was equivalent to a different geologic period. No one can ever again live in a black and white movie. Noir will always be its own thing. Everyone will always want to be Cary Grant, even Cary Grant.

So I thought till in an everyday conversation years ago, the brilliant actor Danny Scheie casually mentioned “those necrophiliacs who love black and white movies.” What? What does having sex with the dead have to do with seeing my beloved, oh no, yes, um, I hate when I have to see that he’s right, everyone on the screen is dead. I’m communing with the dead. It’s so obvious. I’m a necrophiliac, how disturbing.

Yet, I wished I would have made that thought connection before I heard it from him. Here I was thinking about black and white movies all the time and I had realized that all the people were dead, but never really made the through line to necrophilia. I had to wonder, was the idea of black and white movies being a form of necrophilia a common sentiment?

I’ve often thought that the cool part of being Mark Zuckerberg would be to search a phrase in all of Facebook and see how many times that exact thought had been written before. “Said no one ever” would come up a billion times; it would seem that rather than never being said, everyone says that phrase always! Can you imagine how often “This.” would appear when linking to an article? I mean, whatever the poster is linking to really can’t be that personally interesting to them if all they can muster is “This.”? I would actually pay attention more if they could summon up a simple declarative sentence “This is interesting to me because…”

But then who I am to say that, declaring one’s self is not easy. I won’t even sing in a community piano bar. But I will sit in the piano bar and write about necrophilia, which kind of makes me feel like a weirdo.

And so, in Martuni’s round midnight last Monday night, I began to wonder if in addition to being a necrophiliac, I was also a lurker as I scribbled my notes sitting in the half-light against the wall.

Yes, let’s make the through line of thought go from my non-singing to the status of lurker as the through line of thought of seeing dead people to necrophilia went straight through the prior discovery.

So odd, I’ve never thought of myself as a lurker. Really, though, not that I can answer at the moment, but what is the difference between lurking and observing? What do audiences do when they watch a play? A good audience might respond in many ways, their presence might be felt in a community of electricity, but they are kind of assigned the role of lurker. They are often looking through the fourth wall, which is sort of Peeping Tom, who must be a lurker before a peeper.

And often, I’ve heard the motives of audiences questioned, as one actor once said that he thought some audience members specifically came to the first preview so they could see a train wreck.

Yet, beyond the audience, what does a director do? Is being an observer a central part of directing? I’m sure there are many different places an individual director would fall on the spectrum of being an observer, but it does seem that one of the central doings of directing is observing. Yes, observing is doing, which is so unlike the common refrain that “I don’t want to observe, I want to do.”

So I wonder if observing without purpose is lurking? Then is observing with intent something else? I admit all of these thoughts are improvised right now, but there’s something highly energetic in finding the necrophilia in watching black and white movies or the lurking in observing.

There is something rich in accessing the dark arts when working in theater. We do commune with the dead quite literally when we work on a dead playwright’s work; but even if the playwright is alive, they are often not there in presence. Then there’s always the smudged presence of those who’ve communed with the work before and then that indistinct but charged engagement is carried on to those who may work on it afterwards.

The actors perform in front of lurkers, there is that phrase, lurking in the audience. It’s okay for us to embrace the shadow, or even celebrate the shades of memory that each and every theater production eventually becomes.

So as I thought of necrophilia and lurking at Martuni’s last Monday night, the young man sang “We’re lost in the Stars…”

Really, theater’s kind of a ghost show, isn’t it?

And a ghost is sort of a combination of necrophilia and lurking.

FOLLOW THE VODKA: Introductions

Today we’re excited to premier a new regular columnist: writer/producer/director Robert Estes!

Photo for Theater Pub

A few weeks ago, I was asked by SF Theater Pub if I would like to write an occasional, recurring entry for their blog wherein I would discuss a play while having one of my favorite drinks in one of my regular bar redoubts. Hey, I’m not an actor, I’m the booze relief.

Seriously, though, I’d feel remiss in writing about theater and drinking without acknowledging that there’s often a very troubled relationship between theater people and booze. I only got into theater in my 43rd year on the planet, and, then, shortly afterwards, for some reason, I began really looking forward to an artfully made drink. Often, when I mentioned grabbing a drink after rehearsal or performance, I was surprised how quickly and strongly that the theater person would say that they don’t touch a drop. The sharpness of the words instantly conveyed their painful journey to abstinence. In a future post, I’m sure that I’ll take up the tense relationship between the bipolar world of theatrical enterprise and problem drinking.

For now though, I’ll just say that I tend to follow my mother’s rule, “I like to drink, but I don’t like to be drunk,” which is sort of the perfect excuse for anything, “I like to drive 140 miles an hour, but I don’t like to crash.” Still, I find so far for me that drinking is often a necessary complement to the inherent anxiety of the theatrical endeavor as well as just being my way of following Montaigne’s warm advice that we should allow ourselves to cultivate one vice.

Although it is great fun to enjoy the drinking vice with other theater people, I also love going to places where not only it is unlikely that I’ll know anyone, it is unlikely that anyone from the bay area will be there. Such a place is The Buena Vista near Fisherman’s Wharf, where they serve, as many of you already know, rows and rows of Irish Coffees to throngs and throngs of tourists, so that I’m sure the place is often on the unwritten but ever-present avoid list of many native San Franciscans–although “native” in this use probably just means anyone that has lived here longer than someone newly arrived and much less cool than them.

Since I have pretensions of coolness, I rarely order the Buena Vista’s Irish Coffee; rather, I quite knowingly order one of their martinis, which, like milkshakes come not only with a glass but also with the accompanying tin, a very nice bargain. Tonight, in honor (or more accurately, in lack of honor) of reading Anton Chekhov, I’m having a Vodka Martini; yet, if I were being annoyingly true in spirit to Uncle Vanya, I would just be pounding vodka shots. I’m also reading what I consider to be the best Chekhov biography (although it is not a proper biography), which is a book of his letters entitled Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary, edited & annotated by Simon Karlinsky, translated by Michael Henry Heim. Interspersed among the many letters are sparkling essays on thematic and social concerns, and voluminous, yet concisely written footnotes—all of which are first rate and engaging and help greatly in gaining a deeper understanding of his works.

But nowhere in the whole book do they discuss the key character trait of Uncle Vanya’s Astrov–which leads directly to an understanding of his descent in the play–his vodka drinking! In the very first scene, when asked if he’d like a shot, he says no. Soon enough, he relents and has a shot, but with bread, so that the effect of alcohol will be lessened. By the end of the play, he’ll have the shot of vodka and specifically decline the bread —he most assuredly finishes the play as a confirmed alcoholic.

Naturally, Astrov’s alcoholic trajectory is not a happy thought or a thought that brings much comfort when sitting in a bar alone on a Monday night at midnight having a double vodka martini (oh yeah, that tin I mentioned before is definitely an entire second drink), but the beautiful part of the Buena Vista is that you can always talk to the people next to you because they’re not from here, they want to know where you’re from and they want to tell you where they’re from, it’s great. They’re tourists! Ugh!
But I love “tourists!” I love any group that gets some kind of derogatory name attached to it. In the 1980s, everyone would put down “yuppies,” even people who looked and acted completely like yuppies. I thought I was a yuppie. I was young, urban and sort of professional. Would you rather be an YSUPIE? Young, suburban, professional—and with a horrible acronym? Nowadays, everyone puts down “hipsters.” I wish I could be a hipster! But I’m not cool enough. As I thought a few months ago, my only true goal in life is to be the first yupster, so that I can be the most put-down person ever!

So I think these thoughts which seem to come from some unknown yet central part of myself as I sit in the bar and re-read the letters of Chekhov, particularly this one from March 4, 1888:

“The people I’m afraid of are the one who look for tendentiousness between the lines and are determined to see me as either liberal or conservative. I am neither liberal, nor conservative, nor gradualist, nor monk, non indifferentist. I would like to be a free artist and nothing else, and I regret God has not given me the strength to be one. I hate lies and violence in all their forms…Pharisaism, dullwittedness and tyranny reign not only in merchants’ homes and police stations. I see them in science, in literature, among the younger generation. I look upon tags and labels as prejudices. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take. Such is the program I would adhere to if I were a major artist.”

Wow, I suppose each person reading so much clarity would find their own sentence of bliss, but for me sitting in the bar, I now instantly recall when reading that letter for the first time decades ago how strongly the simple sentence “I look upon tags and labels as prejudices” pierced my own thoughts. And I hope and I think that reading that letter is why I’ve often felt like I was a “yuppie” or a “hipster” or a “tourist.” I would rather join with the labeled than be one of the labelers.

As Bill English of SF Playhouse says, theater is an empathy gym. And I do feel that the great reason to read Chekhov’s letters or attend one of his depressing plays—well, let’s face it, depressing is the typical can-do American’s putdown of the apparently terminally stalled nature of his plays—is that ultimately pained empathy is more beautiful than glossy positivity.

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if I’m not really falling into the vice of labeling—a vice that I do not want to cultivate. It’s just damn hard for me not to label people that I disagree with politically. Of course, it’s easy to label the red state politicians, but I even caught myself labeling the other side in the current blue debate. The labels seem to be getting more extreme: “corrupt” for “hypocritical,” “deranged” for “misinformed,” “treasonous” for “just plain wrong.” But the thing is, some of the politicians that I don’t agree with are deranged, or close to it. Eek, well, Theater Pub Blog, an extended political handwringing is not on offer here, but I just want to note the obvious tension between trying not to label and seeing that right now in politics it is almost impossible not to do so.

Just for instance, I come back to an example of labeling that Chekhov once described that I wonder if many in San Francisco would not find perfectly valid: he said that in a dispute between a landlord and a tenant, so many people would automatically know who was in the right simply by the labels “landlord” and “tenant.” Some would instantly know the greedy landlord was to blame, others would say the scoundrel tenant. It almost seems that not using labels in this instance is a denial of the current reality in San Francisco.

So with my frustration about keeping a basic equilibrium about humanity as I try to figure out what is labeling and what is not and my simple desire to retain my usual enjoyment of human personality in all its contradictions, I find sitting in the Buena Vista, talking to people from all over the place is actually kind of soul-inspiring. Yes, you jaded San Franciscans, if you’re tired of all the hipster irony and yuppie, I mean techie, consumerist overreach, come on over and talk to Clare and Bill (from Ohio!), who are apparently completely irony-free and don’t know tech from teach. But they’re extremely nice, and gracious enough to treat yours truly to an Irish Coffee. Now I’m definitely not cool enough to pass up that action.

Cheers until next month and another adventure in pairing the perfect cocktail with a play!