The Real World, Theater Edition: Final Girl

Barbara Jwanouskos, determined to survive the night.

So, you know that ole trope in horror movies where there’s one final young woman who has to confront the killer and tell the story? Lately, what with all the playwright deadlines and opportunities, I’ve been feeling like that person – well, that is, I’m actually not sure if I’m the Final Girl or, maybe more likely, perhaps I’m the Penultimate Girl. What a way to go! You’re in the last 15 to 20 minutes of the film and then bam. Axe. In your brain. Awh, man!

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There was a great article I read recently about one playwright’s attempt to analyze all the rejection letters he had received over the years. By including a stamped postcard to the theaters he submitted his work to asking them to complete a postcard-sized survey and send it back, he found that:

“The likelihood that your unsolicited script will be rejected or totally ignored by a theater is 99.57 percent. That means no production, no showcase, no staged readings. Zip.”

-“How The World’s Most Frequently Rejected Playwright Survives” by Donald Drake

Granted, from a scientific perspective, there are a couple things with his methodology for data gleaning that are bit problematic, but even using this informal way of tracking play submissions, how dismal is that? It’s probably comparable to your odds of surviving a serial killer in a horror movie if you’ve had sex somewhere else in the film.

Like many other writers and artists of all kinds, I spend most of my days sending stuff off, crossing my fingers, and hearing, “No”. It can be a daunting task to continually pick yourself back up after each rejection, and if I could figure out a way to be a productive person without facing rejection or humiliation, I would choose that path. Unfortunately, with the odds ever not in my favor, I actually end up buying into the whole competitive spirit that maybe, just maybe this time, it’s gonna happen. Maybe it’s the drive for artistic survival?

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I will say that once it has been determined that I’ve received an opportunity, an award, or been accepted somehow by someone else, there’s a whole big element of my personality that finds that success hard to deal with and wants to discount the work I put in to do it. When I don’t get something it’s “But I worked so hard!” and when I do get something, it’s “WTF?! I guess I must have been lucky!” This is actually a whole phenomenon apparently, called “Impostor Syndrome”.

Impostor Syndrome basically says that you’re may be a highly successful/high achieving person, but you’re feelings around your achievements don’t match – that there’s an element of low self-esteem that makes you question whether you are “worthy” or “deserving” of receiving such accolades. I encountered this recently when I learned that I was accepted into Just Theater’s New Play Lab for 2014-2015. I saw the posts going up on people’s walls about a rejection and was able to put two and two together that there must have been some crossover with the news I had just received. I mean this is a local theater company I greatly respect who has produced playwrights that I look up to and want to emulate like Anne Washburn, Rob Handel, Erin Bregman, and Glen Berger to name just a few. Why would they want to work with me? And immediately the only reason I could justify it is that I must be good at proposal-writing (not playwriting) since I’ve made a career for myself in that.

It’s so not nearly like this because I would never want to diminish the suffering of another person who has gone through such trauma, but I think of the guilt survivors of horrible events feel that they alone are left standing. I look around at my playwriting buddies and feel a little guilty that I’ve been fortunate to be given an opportunity. But then this amazing thing happened that made me think, “Yes, this is what a community of artists is all about!” I got so many personal messages from people that were genuinely happy that I had been chosen for this role. I did that thing where you post your accomplishment on facebook and twitter, but those messages I received meant a lot. It was if it was saying, it’s okay to have a moment of success every so often.

If you’re gonna be the Final Girl, you might as well try and honor the people who didn’t make it this time around. Because more often we’re the Penultimate Girls and Boys. We’re close, but no cigar. We’re way off the mark. We’re the rejects. And we’re a community where both individual success and failure is completely okay, because as a group we’re still moving things forward.

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Barbara Jwanouskos is a Bay Area based playwright who was recently welcomed to the Just Theater 2014-15 New Play Lab. She is a graduate of the Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University under Rob Handel’s direction. You can follow her on twitter @bjwany.

WORKING TITLE: To Dance Defiant

Will Leschber looks to the One-Man shows when “All is Lost” “Underneath the Lintel”.

What decisions in life remain the most important? How do we measure it all? What significant artifacts do we leave behind? Is anything we leave behind significant? Or is the struggle and the suffering and the joyous dance in spite of all the dark, the only significance we are afforded? What better way to examine what it means to exist than by taking in a one-man show. In the one-man arena, Theatre and Film can be stripped to their essential parts. No flash, no show-stopping set pieces. We are left with acting and the story that actor is telling. When left in the hands of a singular performer for near two hours one would hope they are up to the task. Luckily David Strathairn and Robert Redford are indeed. Strathairn stars in “Underneath the Lintel” at ACT and Redford’s film “All is Lost” recently opened in theatres. Although they are both one-man shows, the ways in which their stories are conveyed are fundamentally different: one is primarily auditory and one primarily is visual.

Written by Glen Berger, “Lintel” tells the story of a Dutch librarian who finds a very overdue book. This book is in fact 113 years overdue. What the librarian discovers inside this long overdue book sends him globetrotting in search of a wandering myth.

This story is relayed directly to the audience as if we had come to see a lecture at the library. Slideshow included. These brief slides aside, the experience is almost purely auditory. The play could be taken in eyes closed. We listen to the deft Strathairn wind us in his long yarn for an hour and a half and we are happy to be entwined. The feat of the theatrical one-man show is this: keeping an audience entertained vocally for the length of a show all the while maintaining constant character traits, dictating pace, and allowing the myriad of high energy character comedy and deeply felt empathy to be expressed with equal skill. Forget your lengthy 2 minute audition monologue. How about an hour and a half monologue? All of the Librarian’s storytelling is leading us to one thing: the Wandering Jew.


“Underneath the Lintel…lintel not lentil. If you do not understand this, all is lost,” Strathairn says framing his story. Half way through the show the audience begins to hear the myth at the center. But first for anyone who doesn’t know, a lintel is a piece of wood or stone that lies across the top of a door or threshold that bears the weight of the structure above it. The Wandering Jew myth is born of a small decision made underneath a shop lintel and the weight that decision comes to carry. Our Dutch librarian relays the tale about a Jewish shop owner who, under threat of Roman Guard, sends Christ away from his door where the savior was resting on his way to the crucifixion. For this fleeting decision of self preservation, Jesus curses this Jewish shop owner to forever walk without rest until the second coming. Our lovable librarian in search of this myth is transformed into a wanderer himself in the way that we all are searching for significance through the small moments in our lives. How often does a small decision made under a doorway affect our years to come? Maybe I should have held her closer. Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten into that car. Maybe that job was worth taking. Maybe this all would have been different if not for that fleeting momentary decision. “Though we rarely recognize the place, underneath the lintel is where we stand every day, every moment, of our lives.” (Berger).

Thematically the content of “Underneath the Lintel” is similar to the Robert Redford helmed “All is Lost”. Both concern themselves with human endurance, trials through suffering and small decisions, maybe even not our own, that affect our lives in monumental ways. J.C. Chandor wrote and directed this sparse tale of an elderly mariner who’s yacht is hit by a loose piece of drifting freight.


This singular occurrence leads Redford, credited in the film only as ‘Our Man’, towards monstrous sea storms, shark infested waters, dwindling supplies and possibly an end without salvation. Or is he saved after all? Those wondrous ambiguous endings get you every time! This modern Old Man and the Sea tale is purely visual. This may go without saying being that film is a visual medium, but in this case, I mean that the film would play equally well with all sound removed. The script is near dialogue free and a mere 32 pages long. However the unfolding visual opera plays for 106 minutes. Normally a page of script equals a minute of screen time, so this expansion is a feat of visual storytelling. So much of the film is framed in close medium shots on Redford, so that every storm wave and rain pelt is felt. Every inch of boat rope is gripped and pulled by the audience along side our drifting Man. Although dialogue is drastically minimal, Redford has his performance cut out for him. At 77 years old he is subtle and as good as he ever was.


Even if each production can be broken down to its bare “Auditory” or “Visual” category, each is enhanced and made whole by its collective parts. Glen Berger in his authors note says,

“Humanity inevitably finds the strength, despite our mistakes and tragedies, to rebuild, to persevere, to proceed until death does us in. In the face of overwhelming existential bewilderment and terrible suffering to respond with a little defiant dancing (in all its myriad forms) is a very human and wondrous thing.”

In the end its all one man can do.

“Underneath the Lintel” has been extended until Nov. 23rd. “All is Lost” is in theatres now.

CN_Allislost.jpg. 2013. Photograph. Thecouchsessions.comWeb. 5 Nov 2013.
All is Lost. 2013. Photograph. Web 5 Nov 2013
Berger, Glen. “A Note from the Playwright.” Underneath the Lintel Playbill. n.d. 14-17. Print.
Berne, Kevin . Underneath the Lintel 2 Web. 2013. Photograph., San Francisco. Web. 5 Nov 2013.