Theater Around The Bay: Sometimes A Commission Is A Love Letter

Stuart Bousel lets Will and Ashley linger in the spotlight just a moment longer. 

So, you’ve probably heard that Ashley Cowan and Will Leschber got married.

You may have even heard something about me writing part of their ceremony (which was predominantly written and spoken by Chris Quintos Cathcart).

What you probably haven’t heard is that I sweated bullets over this page and a half like it was my own wedding.

I get asked to write stuff for people all the time: letters of recommendation, reviews and testimonials, the occasional play. The blessing/curse of being articulate and having a decent command of the language is that people often hit you up to make something sound better or put into words what they can’t, but there’s a big difference between, “write us a two person sketch about XXX”, or “list the five reasons I should get into this grad program”, and “try to capture the poetry of our romance.” That’s a lot of pressure. I mean, it’s one thing to be the weak link in an evening of shorts, or one of the myriad of reasons someone doesn’t get into grad school; it’s quite another to potentially ruin someone’s wedding. And like, their parents will be there. Is there anything worse than disappointed mom stare?

On the other hand, it’s deeply flattering to be asked to do something so important for someone, to be so earnestly trusted, and recognize the faith a friend or pair of friends (in this case) has in you to not only not fuck up, but enhance what was already bound to be a special day. It’s not only flattering, but also inspiring, especially if you’ve been going through a bit of a creative slump, as I have been. I hemmed and hawed and complained and procrastinated, but when I finally forced myself to sit down and write something, I ended up walking away a few hours later, immensely proud of what I’d done.

Sometimes, when we are writers, and particularly writers whose work is getting performed and/or published on a regular basis, we forget who we are writing for and why. In the last few years I have really been embracing the creation of art for its own sake, and for my sake, and the sake of “the right people.” I’ve stopped caring about being producible or commercial, I’ve stopped caring about critics, and I’ve stopped caring about whether or not people really get what I’m doing. When asked “what about the audience?” I’ve pretty much adopted the stance of one of my favorite auteurs, Hal Hartley, “What about them?” This has actually been a really liberating place to be, and if I’ve been running a bit dry this year it has less to do with any kind of writer’s block so much as exhaustion: I wrote 4 full length plays last year, a number of essays and articles, and 3 short plays. If it wasn’t for the part where I’m supposed to have a new full length by the end of this year, I’d be fine with giving myself the year off to just read and revise, but there is no rest for the articulate human with something to say. And I always have something to say.

Meanwhile, thanks to Ashley and Will, I’m sort of getting back into the swing of writing again. This was the short sprint I needed to prep for the marathon. And while I’m way past the point of writing for the audience, I hope you enjoy this as much as they did.

Monologue For Ashley and Will

What I want all of you to walk away with, is that without me, none of this would be happening.

I first met Will in the summer of 2002 when he was acting in a play I wrote, “A Random Act of Creation.” It was being produced in Tucson, Arizona, where he was spending the summer being an actor and I was packing my stuff to move to San Francisco that fall. Will played the god Thor and wore super-tight leather pants. That’s pretty much all you need to know about Will’s youth, and the kind of plays I wrote in my early twenties.

I first met Ashley in the spring of 2009 when I was holding auditions for a production of “The Frogs.” Ashley auditioned for one of the frogs, and despite some really excellent Frog Moves, I did not cast her, but remembered her audition and later that summer cast her in another play as a peasant girl who is abducted by a king who wishes to marry her, but she regains her freedom with the help of a talking magic fish. That’s pretty much all you need to know about Ashley, period, and the kind of plays I wrote in my late-twenties.

One of those plays was a larger, expanded version of the magic fish story, which opened here in San Francisco in 2010. This play, called “Giant Bones”, was based on a collection of short stories by a writer named Peter S. Beagle, of whom Will happens to be an ardent fan. On the opening night of the show, Peter’s agent, Connor, was planning to throw the cast and crew a very fancy party in an art gallery over looking Union Square, with Peter in attendance, and audience members who wished to attend could purchase a special ticket that allowed them to do so. Will, fan that he is of both Peter and myself, decided this was something not to be missed, purchased a ticket to the show and a flight to San Francisco, and flew out for the gala of “Giant Bones.” About the same time, as if by fate, Ashley, who was friends with a number of people involved with the show, also purchased a ticket to the gala night of “Giant Bones.”

What I want all of you to walk away with, is that without my “Giant Bones”, none of this would be happening.

Anyway, the party was amazing. It had the three true signifiers of success: 1) an open bar; 2) sushi; and 3) a dude in a tux playing a harp. Everybody who is almost somebody was there, like probably 60 people, and at some point between beer 2 and 15 I notice that there is this tall blonde kid in a suit who keeps smiling at me but to be honest I hadn’t seen Will in 8 years by that point and I didn’t recognize him so I just assumed what I always assume in these situations which is that I must have slept with him. Because of this, at some point, I apparently leaned over and told Ashley, “Hey. Go find out if that guy’s gay.” Turns out the answer is no.

What I want all of you to walk away with, is that we never know when or how or where the most important person in our life is going to make their appearance… but if we’re lucky, it’s through the most whimsical means possible, and within 8 feet of an open bar… or at the very least, in a city by the sea, full of glass and iron towers, and mysterious fog banks and lonely piers, and exsquisite little parks and coffee shops and all the other magical things you can explore like Will and Ashley did, together, the whole rest of his first trip out here.

Like all good stories, there is a mixture of magic and hardship and when two young people who live in different cities and are on different trajectories with their lives meet, the inevitability of the hardship is almost as surefire as the magic. It was not always easy after that first incredibly easy, incredibly magical weekend. As someone friendly with both parties, it was often times as heartbreaking as it was heartwarming to watch Will and Ashley’s relationship grow and deepen, but I have to say what always both impressed and inspired me was their unflagging respect and admiration for each other, and their refusal to stop caring for one another, even when life was pulling them in opposite directions. I think to fully understand the relationship of these two people you have to realize that both Will and Ashley fundamentally believe in love at first sight, and that such a belief is fundamentally courageous, and requires people with both fluid imaginations and huge, open, gaping wounds of hearts. And while I’m not saying that my belief that when two such people meet they should never let go of one another informed my decision to offer Will a role in my 2011 production of “Twelfth Night”, I’m fairly certain that it was Ashley’s belief in such things that gave her the courage to suggest it to me. And it really was a brave thing to do, especially as they weren’t together at the time- and she was playing the lead in the show. And it was a really brave thing for him to say yes, and give up the familiar things of his life, and move to a strange city for a summer, and parade around in a pair of tights, all for a possibility that was only supposed to be vaguely, faintly possible.

But what I want all of you to walk away with, is that because their love is true, and because their love is brave, all this is happening.

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Theater Around The Bay: Why I Love When Things Go Wrong

Today’s guest blog is appropriately titled since Barbara Jwanouskos is too slammed this week to get her blog in. Luckily, Meg Trowbridge, a local actress, writer, improver and director, is ready to fill in the gap with a testimony to just why it’s sometimes good that bad things happen.

My husband and I were at the SFJazz Center last month to see Bill Frisell and the Big Sur Quintet. The music was wonderful, the vibe was mellow, and the audience was digging it. With the amps and speakers, you were fully immersed in the music and transported to a path on a ridge in Big Sur, looking out over an expanse of rolling hills covered with shrubs, pines, and charred Redwoods. The lighting followed the mood of each song, delicately shifting from warm orange when the violin and viola were in a playful duet, to a soft blue when it was quiet and thoughtful. A fast-paced piece started and each member of the band looked to be having the time of their life – the violist was alternating between rapidly plucking strings to accenting staccato notes with his bow, the drummer had traded in his brushes for sticks and was moving a mile a minute, and the cellist was energetically playing his instrument like an over-sized guitar, swaying his head and wearing an enormous grin – with Bill Frisell in the center, looping riffs with his electric guitar. And then the power went out.

Here is why I love when things go wrong in live performance: it is that rare moment when you can truly connect with the person on stage, and share with them one experience. I go to movies to escape or to appreciate great performances (or to bitch about how it was all wrong), but I go to live performances for connection – to feel something.

I studied music in college with Rebecca Seaman (a wonderful vocal coach and conductor in the Bay Area), and one semester she was flush with vocal students. This meant we all had the pleasure of singing two songs at the student show case at the end of the semester. My friend, no stranger to the stage, was discovering her voice, surprised to learn that despite her husky speaking timbre, she was a Soprano – who knew?! She was also discovering stage fright for the first time: she had never sung alone to an audience before, and when her time came, she squashed those fears down and started her song. About one verse in, there was a catch in her throat, just enough to allow all the fears and anxiety to rise up and paralyze her. She stopped singing. The piano repeated the same few bars, waiting for her to come back in. The audience held their breath. The world stopped on its axis. Then, she quietly said, “I can’t do this.” Without a beat, Rebecca loudly proclaimed “Yes you can” and the entire audience chimed in with shouts of affirmation and support. She took a breath, and continued her song, and the audience was riveted. She received the most enthusiastic applause for the whole showcase, and every single person in that house shared the same pride and excitement for her.

I was also privileged to be in the audience of Giant Bones by Stuart Bousel (based on stories by Peter S. Beagle) on the night of the infamous ‘Cockroach Performance.” Allow me to take you back there: the scene opens on a dark, moonlit evening, the stage is bare, the lights are dim, everyone is hushed. Slowly, Mikka Bonel enters the stage, walking backwards and looking off stage and all around to ensure she’s alone. Simultaneously, Paul Rodrigues enters, mirroring her. As they slowly walk on stage, unaware of each other’s presence, the audience becomes very aware of another presence – there is a sizable cockroach crawling on Mikka’s shawl, making its way down from her shoulder towards her hand. We all see it – she doesn’t. The next moments are like a perfectly choreographed ballet: the cockroach is slowly making its descent to Mikka’s hand; Mike begins to lift her hands, sensing something is behind her; Paul and Mikka inch closer; they begin to turn, about to discover each other; the cockroach comes into Mikka’s sight; her face, only for a moment, reveals her horror; she flicks the roach off of her hand at the same moment she faces Paul and they both let out an electric gasp of surprise, as did the audience. Every hair on my body stood upright, adrenaline rushing through me, as I watched the scene continue without missing a beat, and with renewed energy.

So what does Bill Frisell, accomplished Jazz guitarist and consummate professional, do when there is no power to amp his electric guitar? He picks up his acoustic, they all unplug, and the show goes on in the emergency lighting of the SFJAZZ Center. The first plugged-in hour of the show was wonderful, but I realized that it was easy. The music surrounded us, so I could sneak a look at my phone, I could whisper something to my husband, I could get lost in my thoughts about the day, and still hear and experience the music. But when the set went acoustic, we all had to lean in, be quiet, and focus – and it was magic. We could hear them speak to each other about the next song, we could hear the happy moans from the audience when there was a particularly satisfying harmony or solo, and we all, together, were hanging from every note.

It is a performer’s nightmare when something goes wrong, and you have to improvise, or hope no one notices, or bear through it until it sorts itself out, but aren’t those the memories we keep and the stories we tell afterwards? And when we’re put under that pressure, and we rise to the occasion, isn’t that when we learn something about ourselves?

As I sat in the dark stall of the powerless restroom after the show, humming a motif from the violin in the last song, I could hear other women doing the same, and we created our own quintet in the dim light of the SFJAZZ Center bathroom, which happened to have pretty great acoustics.

Theater Around The Bay: Adaptors Are Artists Too

Stuart Bousel talks about how adaptation is an often undervalued skill in the theater industry.

For almost a year now I have been working on a stage adaptation of Kristin Hersh’s memoir, Rat Girl, which is a project that began when I read the book and knew I wanted to turn it into a stage play. There were a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is my own love for the music of Kristin Hersh, but it fundamentally came down to believing that Kristin’s story was one that could be serviced greatly by live performance, centered as it was on a live performance art, and that the things which I connected to were the kind of things other audience members would connect to. I found her portrayal of herself and the people in her life charming and believable, and I liked that she openly stated at numerous points throughout the book that while everything “had happened”, she was not an entirely reliable narrator, especially considering she was suffering from undiagnosed bi-polarity for about half of the book, and undergoing treatment for said mental condition for the remainder.

reason #7,000 to love Kristin: you have got to have a sense of humor about yourself to choose this image for the cover of your book about how you went insane.

reason #7,000 to love Kristin: you have got to have a sense of humor about yourself to choose this image for the cover of your book about how you went insane.

As a playwright rather notoriously known for plays that employ a lot of first-person, direct-address narrative from somewhat questionable narrators, and a penchant for alt-culture music and lifestyles, the book and I just seemed like a natural fit. Luckily, I was able to convince Kristin and her management to give me a chance to prove myself, even if only for a single production. Equitably lucky, the Exit Theatre, where I have been putting up work since 2005, was willing to take on producing the show and before I had so much as typed out a title page I had an opening date, a production schedule, a budget, half my cast, and a little less than a year to write a show. Now, most people would probably consider this a win and it was, but it also meant I now had to put my money where my mouth was, in a situation where people I greatly admired were watching and would be holding me accountable for the results, and a clock was ticking the whole time.

“Piece of cake,” a friend tells me when I express joy at the commission, and fear at being able to pull it off in time, “I mean, it’s basically already written for you anyway, right?”

“Well, actually…”

“Oh, you know what I mean,” he brushes me off, and the troubling thing is, I do know what he means.

Cut to many months later, I’ve finished a first draft of the script and we’ve had a reading and everything, and I’m sitting down with the producer and the director and we’re tossing around billing for the press releases and posters which are now only a month away from coming out. Obviously we want Kristin’s name as prominent as possible, because the show is being produced as part of a women-centric performance festival, and oh yeah- she’s famous, and a new play needs all the cachet it can get. Still, I’m a little alarmed (and kind of hurt) when the proposed title is, “Rat Girl, by Kristin Hersh, adapted for the stage by Stuart Bousel.” I mean, sure she wrote the book (and lived the life the book is based on), but I’m the guy who spent the last six months of his life reading it three times and trying to turn a charming, smart, but at times barely coherent, kind of rambling diary, into a dramatically paced story with a beginning, middle, and end, not to mention playable characters and discernible themes. In other words, I’m the guy who wrote the play, which is what we’re talking about here- not the book- and while of course the play wouldn’t exist without the book, it’s important to point out that the play (at least in this form) wouldn’t exist without me.

Because Kristin is both alive and in communication with me, the billing debate is easily ended by sending her an email with a couple of options and, to my relief, she goes for my proposed “Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, adapted for the stage by Stuart Bousel”, but before we get there, my producer, bless her, says in passing, “Well, it seems that all we’re doing is adapting the book anyway,” which, I know, isn’t meant to come off as, “you’re not doing all that much here anyway,” but it kind of does. With no disrespect to my producer (who is lovely), it often seems to me that in the minds of most people who don’t write plays (or films), there is a real big difference between an adaptation and an original work, and of course there is, but that difference is often construed to be that original work reflects a greater, more substantial, more creative, and thus more worthy effort on the part of the writer than an adaptation does. I’m here to tell you, as an author with an accomplished resume of both original works and adaptations, that this is simply not true.

Fact: Turns out the Oscar for Best Screenplay and the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, are BOTH mostly made out of tin.

Fact: Turns out the Oscar for Best Screenplay and the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, are BOTH mostly made out of tin.

Rat Girl is my sixth straight up adaptation, though you could argue at least three of my other plays are adaptations of famous myth cycles (the Trojan War, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Jason and the Argonauts), and I technically adapted an HP Lovecraft story (“The Thing on the Doorstep”) into a screenplay in college, though the less we talk about that the better. I’ve adapted a collection of short stories by Peter S. Beagle (“Giant Bones”), a play by Jean Genet (“The Balcony”), a novella by H.P. Lovecraft (“The Dunwich Horror”), three plays by Shakespeare (“Henry IV part 1 and 2, Henry V”), and two more works I kind of can’t talk about because I signed contracts saying I’d never admit to the work (ghost writing is a probably a blog worthy of itself). I’ve written in the past about my adaptation process (you can read about it, in regards to my Shakespeare adaptation, “The Boar’s Head”, on this very blog), but the adaptation process for RAT GIRL has been especially interesting since it’s technically based not only on previously written work, but actual historical events and people.

Don’t be fooled by the hats; Dave, Kristin, Tea, and Leslie are all real people

Don’t be fooled by the hats; Dave, Kristin, Tea, and Leslie are all real people

That said, Kristin’s book is not a straight-forward historical account of what happened, but a collage of 1) her diary from the time, 2) song lyrics spanning her entire career up to the present and 3) memories and anectdotes of events that occur both before and after the principal time line of the book, not to mention 4) told from the perspective of someone who is admittedly (and diagnostically) even more unreliable than the average human being (and most human beings, unless gifted with photographic memories and impeccable honesty, are at least somewhat unreliable narrators). Needless to say, this makes an adaptation a daunting task in and of itself as one attempts to create a story an audience can follow, but Rat Girl is further complicated by two more things, neither of which are a given in every adaptation, but further illustrate my general point that adaptors (particularly of memoirs) have their work cut out for them.

The first complication is that the book is written first-person, entirely from Kristin’s perspective, which means NONE OF THE CHARACTERS EXCEPT HER ARE GIVEN A FIRST PERSON PERSPECTIVE, and while we get more than 300 pages of Kristin’s thoughts and views and ideas, all we get about the other people is what she tells us about them, and what hints we can glean from their dialogue (which to Kristin’s credit, she has an excellent ear for dialogue). When you’re reading the book, this isn’t something that really bothers you, but transferred to a dramatic form, you become quickly aware (as we all did in the first reading) that everyone in the story but Kristin has very little in regards to internal reflection or interior monologue, and thus, despite some fun details or moments, comes across flatter than we tend to prefer characters to be in modern American theater. Especially since a massive chunk of Kristin’s internal monologue, describing these folks to us, hits the cutting room floor because this isn’t a one woman show, even if Kristin is the leading role, and having her talk about the other people completely defeats the point of including them as actual characters in the play. Bottom line, solving this problem required me to dramatize relayed situations where characters could actively demonstrate who they were rather than passively be described, and that in turn often entailed expanding or adjusting their dialogue from the book, or in some cases collapsing the actions and traits of several smaller characters into more prominent, important ones in an effort to provide more dimensionality.

Do you think Kristin’s saying, “If I’m ever turned into a character in a play, I will have just as many monologues as Hamlet”? Because that’s kind of how it fell out.

Do you think Kristin’s saying, “If I’m ever turned into a character in a play, I will have just as many monologues as Hamlet”? Because that’s kind of how it fell out.

The second complication to Rat Girl’s adaptation process was that while many things happen over the course of Kristin’s story, and there are many dramatic moments (including the decision, at one point, to attempt suicide by slitting her wrists), the book, being based on life, mimics life’s amazing ability to evade dramatic structure because of that whole thing where dramas have an arc and a point, while life is essentially a series of vaguely connected events that frequently only have relevancy to one another because we retrospectively see them that way. This is perhaps even more apparent in Rat Girl because the central conflict in the book is really Kristin vs. herself, engaged as she is in a battle to keep her fragmenting mind and personality together as she first becomes a rock star, and then a young mother. Though her band’s almost-too-easy-to-be-true rise to prominence in the indie rock scene and the course of her pregnancy provide a throughline to the events of the book, the “two steps forward, one to three steps back” nature of coping with a mental health crisis results in a series of twists and turns that are interesting to read about, but dramatically feel like a series of confusing anti-climaxes, particularly post suicide attempt. The major aspect of Kristin’s story that appealed to me and I wanted to bring to the stage was her struggle to learn to live with a mental health condition that can never be truly cured, but that struggle is fundamentally internal, and dramatic structure requires progress and action. Or to coin a cliché: in the book Kristin tells us what she goes through, but in the play we have to show, not tell, the story, and this meant cutting and re-arranging a long, meandering road of small but distinct events into a shorter sequence of more impactful events that moved in a definitive and climactic direction. Which also meant, once again, generating some material of my own, including crafting whole scenes based on a handful of lines in the book, or sometimes just an implication. This made me nervous as all get out, but the alternative would have been either a story full of holes, or an actor playing Kristin, standing center stage, telling us everything, and thus essentially just reading the book to us.

I imagine that would look like this, only the band is being way more forgiving than I suspect the audience would be.

I imagine that would look like this, only the band is being way more forgiving than I suspect the audience would be.

It all this comes down to this: it is hard to adapt a story from one medium to another, and as much as I get why people might think it’s easy because “you’re not telling a story from scratch”, the truth is, you still kind of are, because the way we tell a story in prose is vastly different from the way we tell one on the stage and you, as the adaptor, have to come up with your approach and make it work- even if you do opt to include a bunch of direct address monologues (which, by the way, only really work outside of Greek theatre when a character is describing their feelings and thoughts- not the events and people of the play). It’s arguably even harder to adapt something because it’s often exactly what works or appeals about the pre-existing material that complicates your attempts to turn a narrative form into a performative one. This will be exceptionally irritating if, like me, you really love the material because of the way it was written, because style is almost impossible to preserve from one medium to another. Also, if you’re really into the subplots, or little details of characters, it’s going to be a heartbreaking process as early and late drafts will both be about cutting, cutting, and more cutting, usually of the stuff you loved the most. Sadly, the backstory and exposition that give great books scope frequently become overwhelming when brought to the stage in all but the most subtextual fashion, and every book ever written is going to contain more details than you can put on stage within the confines of a running time that audiences can actually endure.

You think this is long?

You think this is long?

Try this.

Try this.

A good adaptor has to be so much more than just a good writer. They have to be an editor and a conceptualist, a researcher and a puzzle solver, a plot and character surgeon- and assassin. They are tasked with having to capture the spirit and substance of the original material while simultaneously boiling it away down to the bones, picking it apart even as they are putting it together. It’s a juggling act, very different from the pure generation process of creating original work, but in no way inferior, for in that conversion of one voice by another there is the potential to strike a chord otherwise impossible. If adaptation and original work have anything in common, it’s the potential to fail is equitably present, but when the adaptor fails they fail not only themselves but also the source material and that material’s generator. Then again, greater stakes often make for better drama, both on and off the stage… and the page.

Stuart Bousel is a co-Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub, and a prolific writer, director, producer and actor in the Bay Area. His website, http://www.horrorunspeakable.com will tell you all about it. His adaptation of Kristin Hersh’s RAT GIRL opens at the Exit Theatre on May 3rd. You can find out more about Kristin’s music at http://www.throwingmuses.com

The Producer From Another World

In preparation for this month’s Theater Pub, The Pub From Another World, we interviewed producer Sunil Patel about his vision and process for this show.

Take Me To Your Leader

Take Me To Your Leader

Who are you, in a hundred words or less.

I am a voracious consumer of stories in any medium—television, film, video game, book, comic, music, anecdote—who loves words more than anything. I love to create new stories, but I also love introducing people to stories I love. I’m a pop culture fan, a geek, a nerd, and when I love something, my first instinct is to share it. As of this night, I am a writer/actor/director/producer. By day, I work in drug safety and write about people with explosive diarrhea.

How did you get involved in Theater Pub?

I made my Bay Area theater debut with the Thunderbirds in 2010, and it was my first time onstage in seven years, so I was excited to get back into theater. And lo and behold, Theater Pub was holding auditions for The Theban Chronicles, and they didn’t even need monologues! I had gone to the February Theater Pub (the Valentine’s Day show), and it looked like a fun group to work with. I was in three of the four plays, and I got a death scene, and I’ve become more and more involved since then.

So, where did this idea come from?

At the Theater Pub retreat, we were asked to come up with pitches for the next year of Theater Pub. I was excited to be a producer, as I had previously only produced halftime shows, but I didn’t know what to suggest. I didn’t know any obscure plays I wanted to put on. I’ve had an idea for a murder-mystery Theater Pub for a couple years, but I hadn’t gotten it off the ground and I wasn’t going to pitch it if I didn’t think I could write it in time. We had talked a lot about inclusivity, though, and it suddenly hit me: I could create a space for new work. I’m a genre fan and a theater fan, but I don’t see a lot of genre theater, so why not give genre writers an opportunity to write for theater and playwrights an opportunity to write genre? I had the sense that the plays I wanted to see—whether or not they were being written—were not being produced because people look down on genre, so I was going to stand up say, “I will produce your genre plays! Let your geek flag fly!”

What defines something as “genre” and specific to these genres, what defines something as Horror, Sci-Fi and Fantasy?

I am by no means an expert and trying to define “genre” will result in hours of heated conversation in the company I keep, but I see “genre” work as work that uses or is informed by established tropes—which is sort of saying that genre is genre. In general, however, when someone refers to “genre” work, they usually mean the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genres, which are the genres that least resemble the real world. These works tend to take place in a world that is definitely not our own for one reason or another: hence The Pub from Another World.

Defining each genre is just as tricky as defining “genre.” To me, horror is not just about the obvious elements—ghosts, vampires, serial killers, etc.—but about evoking that visceral, primal fear. And in the best horror, the scary thing isn’t just a scary thing but a manifestation of a real, relatable fear. Similarly, sci-fi is not just about spaceships and time travel and aliens but about taking real science and extrapolating the implications. Some people prefer the term “speculative fiction,” which handily eliminates the need for science and brings in more dystopic fiction. These imagined futures can tell us a lot about our present.

Fantasy may be the easiest genre to identify thanks to its long, long history; today, the stories of Greek mythology can seem like fantasy, what with gods transforming into animals and people being magically brought back to life. Fantasy can be speculative as well, but, unlike science fiction, it has less basis in reality. My goal with this project was to tell unreal stories that have real emotion.

We don’t often think of these genres as applying to the theater, but there are many examples of each. What are your favorites in each category?

The first horror play that springs to mind is Nathan Tucker’s Dionysus, which kicked off the first Olympians festival. It really captured that sense of visceral horror. Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman had one of the most horrifying jump-scares I’ve ever experienced in a theater. And, although they’re a bit more comedic, I love Tim Bauer’s Zombie Town and Kirk Shimano’s Love in the Time of Zombies; both are great examples of the sort of genre theater I’d like to see more of.

I haven’t seen a lot of sci-fi theater, but I read a lot of great sci-fi scripts on the reading committee for Cutting Ball’s RISK IS THIS experimental theater festival a couple years ago. Consider for a second the fact that sci-fi theater is considered “experimental”; could that be why we see so little of it? Two of my favorite scripts—which have received readings but no full productions, to my knowledge—were Garret Groenveld’s The Hummingbirds, a wickedly funny Brazil-esque tale set in a bureaucratic dystopia, and Richard Manley’s This Rough Magic, which uses science fiction ideas to examine basic human truths about how we interact with our families and people in general. I also think Josh Costello’s Little Brother (adapted from the Cory Doctorow novel, produced at Custom Made Theater Company)—one of my favorite plays in recent years—counts as near-future dystopian sci-fi.

I also haven’t seen a lot of fantasy theater, although one of my favorite theater experiences was a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The best example of the sort of fantasy theater I’d like to see was Stuart Bousel’s Giant Bones (adapted from Peter S. Beagle short stories), as it transported the audience to a fantasy world and told stories as compelling as any in the real world.

As the producer, you have a lot of inside knowledge of this event- what are some things you’re really looking forward to sharing with the audience.

Personally, I’m just looking forward to sharing all eight plays with the audience, since they’re all very different and I think there’s something for everyone. I’m also very excited about my cast, since most actors play multiple roles, and I think it will be a real treat for the audience. AJ Davenport, Colleen Egan, Peter Townley, and Olivia Youngers all play three roles, no two alike. But with regards to inside knowledge…in Audrey Scare People Play, the monster, Scare People, is described as being “an octopus monster with wings,” and Meg O’Connor is attempting to make that costume. So I can’t wait to see it myself.

Did the unusual subject matter pose any particular challenges to the process?

See above re: octopus monster with wings. For the most part, however, no one wrote anything too outrageous because they were conscious of the limitations of theater and Cafe Royale specifically. You can do genre theater without a lot of special effects!

This show has a teaser at a bookstore. Tell us more about that and how you made that happen.

I have a good relationship with the people at Borderlands, and my original pitch included the preview reading because people who shop at a genre bookstore are more likely to see a night of genre theater, and vice-versa. It was a way to benefit my favorite bookstore and my favorite theater-in-a-bar. I floated the idea past Alan Beatts, the owner, and he was very receptive. And, to my surprise, he immediately suggested using microphones to broadcast throughout the store and draw people toward the reading and recording the reading as a podcast, which I hadn’t even considered. He wanted to make this the event it deserved to be.

We know you don’t drink, so what’s your favorite thing to order at the Cafe Royale on Theater Pub nights?

Coke. It’s the nectar of the gods. Not the Elder Gods, just the regular gods.

Don’t miss The Pub From Another World, playing one night only on May 20th, at 8 PM, for FREE, at the Cafe Royale!

Theater Around The Bay: Please Continue Your Conversation At Home

Stuart Bousel comes clean about the real reasons he ultimately walked out of Berkeley Rep’s “The Wild Bride”.”

Yesterday afternoon, a friend whom we shall call “Wagner” (all the names in this rant will be changed so I won’t feel bad about whatever it is I’m about to say), dropped me an instant message saying he had an extra ticket to see The Wild Bride at Berkeley Rep that night, and since I’d heard some good stuff about this show (which is in its second incarnation) and I didn’t have anything else to do (which is a lie because I have so much else to do and I’m really enjoying David Wong’s John Dies At The End right now), I jumped on BART after work and headed over to the East Bay for an impromptu man-date, hoping to be blown away by a show the SF Chronicle deemed “The Best Show of the Year!” last year, and several friends of mine had waxed poetic about.

To say I was underwhelmed is putting it lightly – especially as this show was a creation of the British theater group Kneehigh, who were the folks behind the beautiful and moving Brief Encounter, a show that ACT hosted a few years back. Thankfully, I actually didn’t know they were the creators until I was flipping through the program and noticed the director’s bio. I say “thankfully” because I want to believe my opinions on this show are based on what I was watching, not just disappointment due to false expectations and artist loyalty. But what about all those good things I’d already heard from reviews and friends – couldn’t that have raised that bar too high? Honestly, no. One, because I hadn’t followed the reviews of The Wild Bride beyond the critics I regularly read and two, because I have learned to always take local buzz with a grain of salt. Frankly, I’ve been an active creator and appreciator of theater since I got here more than ten years ago (seriously, on day 6 after my move, I went to see – and greatly enjoyed – Shotgun’s Troilus and Cressida), and there is so much I love about this theater scene, but if I had a nickel for every show in the Bay Area that gets undeservedly called “genius” or gets a completely unwarranted standing ovation, I’d have enough money by now to move to New York, where I sometimes feel like the kind of theater I personally enjoy is more prevalent.

I recognize those are fighting words – particularly from someone who is as vocal (and active) in the local theater scene as I am. But what you’re ultimately going to discover is “the point” of this article, is not that I begrudge anyone their taste, but rather that I’m getting a little tired of being a complicit part of what another friend of mine (let’s call him “Valentine”) calls “the Yay-Bay”: basically the idea that as residents of the Bay Area (but particularly the Axis of Smug that is San Francisco, Berkeley and The New Republic of Oaksterdam), not only is our poop gold, but anyone else who shows up and takes a shit in our yard is automatically elevated to Golden Goose status so long as they tell us what we want to hear: namely that we’re edgy, smart, and nowhere near as disconnected from the harsh realities of the world as a great deal of the rest of the world perceives us to be.

From my own perspective, both as a creator and as an audience member with a critical eye, I will admit I have noticed there is a local tendency to respond, sometimes with real anger, to anyone who calls us on this, and to actively turn our attention away from things that would challenge us to be more thoughtful about our own lives, more considerate of perspectives “less enlightened” than our own, and more open to the possible rewards from letting ourselves experience the full range of intellectual and emotional experience- in art, and in our actual lives. My friend “Siebel” likes to say that the Bay Area is a terrible place to get your heart broken, because there’s a resentment of anyone who brings the party down; I know what he’s talking about (though most of my friends are amazing bastions of support in my low periods), and when it comes to the arts I tend to agree: this is not always a great place for self- or socially-reflective art about being in a bad situation, disillusioned, or heartbroken- unless that heartbreak is over Bush winning an election, in which case you’ve just pooped gold. See, we are allowed to be angry here, but preferably about stuff we can all agree upon. And yes, I feel like there is an enormous pressure for us all to agree here, or not speak if we don’t agree. Which is another way of agreeing.

I don’t want to imply that New York is some bastion of integrity in these regards because it’s not – it too suffers from an insular worldview that tends to place itself at the center of the universe and many New Yorkers I know are guilty of looking on the rest of the world as a place where handmaidens come from (any city that isn’t New York) and open space filled with peasants (any other place where people live). And New York theater is notoriously self-referential and a great deal of what is successful there follows the trifold agenda of 1) be about New York 2) reaffirm New York is the center of the universe 3) reflect the vast cultural and social diversity of New York, subtly underlining the idea that no one need ever come from anywhere else because New York, like Noah’s Ark, already has two of everything – and everyone. And I say this as someone whose favorite play, hands down, is John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. But the thing about New York is that for all its solipsism, it is a place where most people have embraced an undercurrent of constant change and aspiration and all the attendant fear and anxiety that comes with following your heart, while the Bay Area has often been pegged as being about attaining and maintaining a level of lifestyle best described as “laid-back, comfortable,” but detractors of the Bay Area see as “lazy and indulgent.” As a young local musician I recently had a drink with told me (we’ll call her “Margaret”), “In New York they ask, ‘What’s your passion?’, in Los Angeles they ask, ‘What’s your dream?’ and in San Francisco they ask, ‘What’s your pleasure?'” Not a bad question to ask, mind you, but if we accept this characterization (and I have to admit, I immediately agreed it was pretty accurate), then it is indicative of the heart of the problem I/we struggle with here: a certain culturally ingrained resistance towards anything that discomforts us or screws with our way of looking at the world.

Which is the real reason I walked out of last night’s performance of The Wild Bride.

The fact is, if anyone ever should have loved this show, it is ME. I am sucker for three things in this world, and the number one thing is mythology or fairy tales of any variety. The second is folk musicals – those shows which incorporate music and singing into their stories while actively avoiding the trappings of mainstream musical theater in an attempt to create something widely appealing and accessible as opposed to glittery or virtuosic (not that there isn’t a time and a place for that). The third thing, however, that I am a sucker for, is human feelings. Put some emotion on your stage, from screaming teenage raw to drawing-room repressed – and even if I hate your story or hate your characters, I’ll probably still find something to like about your show because honestly, I go to the theater to feel, it’s that simple. As much as I like to be intellectually stimulated, if there is no emotional hook I don’t see the point – of anything really. I personally believe it’s our emotions, and not our intelligence, that actually set us apart from the lesser animals. Or rather, what I really believe is that our emotions, and our attempt to understand our emotions, are the signs that we actually are intelligent, and not just the varying degrees of clever that we see demonstrated by birds and snakes and other critters that have learned to bash their food against a rock or play dead when a bigger critter comes along.

For me, The Wild Bride lacked an emotional center that conveyed to me why the story was one this theater troupe felt a need to tell. Throughout the first act, despite the obvious craft and skill on stage, I became progressively aware of the math of the show, of what the artists behind it were doing, and less and less interested in what was going on in the world of the play. By the time the glowing pears showed up, I was thinking things like, “Oh, that’s cool-looking, wish I had thought of that, and hey, that actress looks like she’s having fun trying to get the pear in her mouth” and not, “Awww, the trees are feeding this poor broken woman of their own accord – it’s a miracle!” Which means the show failed for me. Look, I love highly theatrical ideas and design – I get why Kushner wants you to see the strings on the Angel, and as a guy who has been in The Fantasticks three times and still cries at the end, I don’t need or desire realism and I value meta-theater enormously. My own writing is highly satirical – I make fun of everything, particularly myself, and I think irony, surrealism, absurdism, symbolism and all the other isms all have their place. But for heaven’s sake, is it so much to ask that by forty-five minutes in I should care about something or somebody on stage? I don’t have to like them, I don’t have to admire them – but I should feel like I am invested in them. I ALWAYS know I am watching a play when I am watching a play, because I am not delusional (that way). For me, suspension of disbelief begins the moment I sit down in the theater because I am a lifetime theatergoer and I know that’s my part of the game we’re all playing. I have never done acid because I don’t need to – I have an overly active imagination as it is. The one thing I need, and then I’ll do a great deal of the rest of the work myself, is an entry into the story you are telling me – and for me, that entry needs to be human. Not a design element. Not a cool idea. Good design and good ideas are what elevate the experience, but if there’s no humanity there, there is no experience for me – good or bad. And frankly, non-experience is the only thing I feel isn’t worth my time because life is too short to not be engaged. To me, The Wild Bride felt as cold and distant and as if someone was standing center stage reading me the light cues instead of telling me a story that was important to them, about people they felt I should care about.

Maybe it was an off night. I kind of doubt it, because I know what makes a good script and little of that was there, but I also can see how in hybrid theater where the songs and movement are a massive chunk of the script (arguably more important than the dialogue), something can work better on nights when the cast is really selling it. Then again, maybe they were selling it and all they had to sell was a flat story with undeveloped characters and no real stakes. Or maybe it was the best performance of the best show in the world and it just wasn’t my thing. Any of these things could be true but the result is the same: I wasn’t enjoying it. Yes, I politely applauded the end of Act One (which was an astounding example of anti-climax), but when Wagner turned to me and asked if I liked it I said, “No,” then laughed and said, “Honestly, good tech and performances aside, I feel like I’m watching bad college theater. It’s all concept but no content. Or really, it’s more like children’s theater, only with children’s theater it wouldn’t have a second act and we’d know at the end of an hour what the moral of the story was.” My friend piped in with his own opinions, which were not as damning, but equally as strong and less than enthusiastic. And that’s when the woman sitting in the row in front of us felt a need to step into our conversation.

I have come to accept that part of living in the Bay Area is that strangers feel they are allowed to talk to you whenever they want. You have to understand that this is not an easy thing for me to grasp – my parents are from New York, where strangers only talk to you because they are lost tourists or potential muggers, and I spent my formative years in Arizona, where there is a strong culture of “stay the fuck out of my business unless I invite you in.” In the Yay Bay, we have a lovely climate of friendliness and perennial smiles that when I first moved here actually confused the shit out of me because like a lot of newbies, I kept thinking I had made all these friends only to realize “friendly” and “friend” are not the same thing (my dad, as New York as they come, would frequently say, “when are you going to realize that nice people are usually liars?”). It took me two years, more or less, to understand that people here are people just like they are everywhere else, and some are good and some are bad and most are just trying to get through life, but because so many of us are comfortadores here (thanks Joss Wheedon, for coining the term), boldly on the lookout for our next good glass of wine and/or casual sex partner (and I am not saying that’s a bad thing), we have cultivated a culture of “it’s all good” and many have internalized it to mean “there are no boundaries” and that is bullshit. I have boundaries. You should too. One of those boundaries is that if I am not talking to you, and you don’t know me, then you ask to be part of my conversation. You don’t just walk in. I mean, the women in the row behind us were talking about their low blood sugar and how cold the theater was. Did I turn around and tell them there were cookies and possibly more heat in the lobby? No. And maybe I should have. But I didn’t get the impression they were sharing their woes with me and I personally consider it rude to rush in to help unless someone is bleeding on the sidewalk and nobody has called an ambulance.

This woman in front of us, however (we will call her “Martha” because I don’t know her actual name), obviously had no such sense of boundaries. Never mind that our conversation is in a different row – which to me is like a different table at a restaurant, where the idea that each conversation is an island not to be breached is inherent to good service – or that it is intermission and so we’re hardly disturbing the performance. Never mind that we’re talking about the play we’re watching and thus attempting to make the most of our night at a disappointing theatrical experience. Never mind that for all she knows, we’re actual theater critics, or agents, or potential producers, or students, and this is our job or in some other way we’re obligated to have an opinion and to articulate that opinion. Never mind that as normal audience members we have the right and the obligation to respond to the show as honestly as we can, so long as it’s not screaming our thoughts aloud while the actors are on stage. For some reason, Martha feels she has every right to turn and say, “Hey guys, please continue your conversation at home. People can hear you.”

At another point in my life I would have told this woman to go fuck herself and learn that being polite means not listening in on someone just because you can technically hear them. At another point in my life that wasn’t that point, I would have told her that it is our duty to express our opinions of the work as audience members, and doing that in the theater during intermission is perfectly fine as that’s kind of what intermission is for (contrary to popular belief, it’s not to get snacks or pee – in the olden days, people did that all throughout the show) – a moment to process what you’re seeing and to do so socially, as in theory that should heighten your enjoyment of the next act. At still another point in my life, I would have probably apologized to her, certain I had done something wrong, even though I hadn’t. But in the last few years I have started to follow the advice of a friend of mine (let’s call her “Gretchen”), and whenever these moments happen I now hear her voice in my head saying, “Is this your hill to die on?” And 90% of the time now, I say “no.” So, instead I turned to Wagner and said, “On that note, I’m out.”

“Seriously?”

“Yup. I don’t need to watch the second act, and I definitely don’t need this pretentious Martha’s attitude, and it’s a long BART ride home.”

“Oh, well, I’m not staying by myself.”

And that’s why two men in their early 30’s, perhaps the theater community’s most coveted demographic after two men in their mid 20’s, walked out during the intermission of The Wild Bride.

So here’s the thing… if Martha had turned and said, “You know, I really like this show,” I would have been taken aback (boundaries!), but I also would have probably said, “Well, to each their own… hey, why do you like it?” And maybe she would have responded and maybe we would have had an awkward conversation and maybe we would have ended up having a drink after the show to talk more. But instead, she basically tried to shame me for having an opinion, and for expressing that opinion, and that infuriated me so much I walked out on a show that I was otherwise willing to see through to the bitter end because I have only walked out of three other shows before in my life. My friend “Mephisto,” who is also a theater maker with much stronger and much more vocal opinions than I, likes to talk about how theater is dying predominantly, in his opinion, because people feel it’s a duty to attend and not a joy, that it’s exclusionary and not inclusive, and because you’re not really allowed to react to it but instead expected to act like good little boys and girls. Now I don’t quite agree with all that, or with some of Mephisto’s attempts to solve it (like, say, having vegetables thrown at the actors), but at moments like this I do see his point. I mean, honestly, if I’m not allowed to have and express a dissenting opinion at the show, no matter how much the local literati like something, then there really is no reason for me to bother showing up to a live performance. Because the fact is, the only reason to see something live is to have that “in the moment” response – be it joy, laughter, tears, or anger. Hating something is another way of enjoying the experience of experiencing it. Ironically, what Martha made me realize is that I didn’t hate The Wild Bride, but I was hating the lack of experience that was watching it. I was bored. Which is a legitimate response, and I was processing it in substantive way. But Martha, in full Yay Bay fashion, doesn’t want to hear anything that’s gonna harsh her buzz, and since I can’t prove otherwise, I kind of take it that it’s less that she cares what I think, so much as she objects to me expressing it.

On the BART home, Wagner confesses he has already seen the show once and doesn’t like it – and that it’s a relief to know he’s not alone (note to self: he fears the backlash of the Yay Bay as much as I do). In fact, the whole reason he asked me is that he wanted to see the show again, but also to have someone to talk about it with. Which is precisely the point of this epic rant: we go to the theater, or really any live event, to engage, not exist in a bubble unto ourselves. We have our living rooms and streaming Netflix for that. The thrill of witnessing a performance or even a film is due, in large part, to the energy of the people around us – and our inability to control that energy. I have been in the audience of a show that people hated knowing that I alone was cheering it on – and grateful for that experience. I have also sat in the audience of a show where all of us were taken in by that special magic that sometimes emerges and brings everyone together. Both experiences are valuable. Both experiences are what make going to the theater such a crapshoot, and so exciting.

My dear friend “Helen” has an awesome story about being the only person laughing at a comedy performance she genuinely and heartily adored (these weren’t pity laughs), while a bunch of stone-faced couples sat around her refusing to give the performer anything more than the occasional smile or titter. At the end of the show, the audience, practically silent the whole time, gave a standing ovation that mystified Helen. She had liked the show – a lot – but it was, after all, a light comedy. Afterwards, as the audience was filing out of the theater, a woman near her (“Lilybeth”) turned and said, “I can’t imagine how the performers could concentrate with you laughing like a hyena all night long.” Helen replied, “I think it’s a shame to come see a show and not express your enjoyment of it.” Lilybeth responded, “You are mildly retarded.” Yes, that happened in San Francisco. Yes, we still laugh about it. To this day, Helen refers to herself as “mildly retarded.” She now remembers that part of the evening more than she remembers the show itself. The irony of this is that the woman who probably thought she was defending these poor put-upon performers, has in Helen’s memory, managed to completely upstage them. But then, being called retarded by another adult who doesn’t approve of how you laugh is a pretty hard act to follow.

A few years ago I adapted and directed a stage version of a book of stories by Peter S. Beagle called Giant Bones, a show that, for the record, had reviews that ran the gamut from glowing, to telling me I should never put on a play again. We had a night of the show where literally half of the audience walked out at intermission, and we also had nights when people couldn’t stop gushing to us afterwards. But that’s not why I bring it up, the relevant part is that in Giant Bones there is a city where theater has been banned, and the main character of the play, who is the director of a traveling theater company, talks about how on the surface, everything in the city is good, life is calm and orderly and dignified, and no one seems to really have any objections to the way things are done. It’s an exceptionally comfortable place to live, known for its lovely gardens, its thriving markets, its good food. “But as for what its people really think or feel?” he asks, with a shrug. “Well, that’s what the theater is for” says his lead actress, and the implication is that the theater is not just a place for the artist to tell the truth, but for the audience to do so as well. Both about what’s happening outside the theater, and in the theater itself.

Any theater company worth its audience knows how valuable audience discussion is, and they know it starts in the theater. At Theater Pub, we close every show telling the audience to stick around and talk to us, and I have maintained from the beginning that it is precisely that element of Theater Pub, the part where the audience can so directly congregate afterwards to discuss what they’ve just seen, that has made us a success. I’m sure many theater companies wish they had such a built in salon so readily attached to their productions, but most of them don’t. For most of them, the one moment they really have to foster audience discussion before everyone races out the door, is intermission.

Unless you happen to be sitting behind Martha Yay Bay, in which case… is this your hill to die on?

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