Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: An Interview with Danielle Gray

Marissa Skudlarek speaks with one of the Bay Area’s most exciting multi-hyphenate performers!

I don’t think I’d ever seen the actor-singer-musician-clown-fashionista Danielle Gray at this time last year, and then all of a sudden they burst upon the indie-theater scene. And, while I spend my days in a cubicle at a day job, Danielle always seems to be learning new circus skills, or singing torch songs in secret cabarets, and looking fabulous doing it. Currently, Danielle is acting in the new play Hunting Love in Oakland, which seemed as good an excuse as any to chat with them about their art and aesthetics.

HuntingLove

Nican Robinson as Narciso, Danielle Gray as Echo, Susan-Jane Harrison as Love.

Marissa: Tell me a little bit about Hunting Love and the character you play in it.

Danielle: Hunting Love is a new play by Susan-Jane Harrison. It’s kind of a reunion collaboration between Susan-Jane and director Erin Merritt, who used to work together at all-female Shakespeare company Woman’s Will. Hunting Love is being produced by a new company called Local Dystopia, which has produced shows here and in London, and is going up at the Flight Deck in downtown Oakland. The piece is fairly ambitious in its incorporation of dance/movement and sound/music. We have this amazingly talented three-person Greek chorus/band (Jed Parsario, Mia Pixley, Bruce Bennett) who play original music, provide atmospheric Foley sounds with their instruments, and act as minor characters. I am so impressed by them all the time.

Hunting Love is a new story, loosely using characters from Greek mythology. I play two characters who are inextricably connected in the story – Echo, a lovesick dryad who has willingly been turned into air so that she may follow Narciso (played by Nican Robinson) forever, and I also play Histrionia, daughter of Love (played by Susan-Jane Harrison). Character inspirations for my Echo include ballerinas, kittens who scratch you even when they’re trying to be affectionate, and baby velociraptors. She’s a bit feral, but in a lovable way. Histrionia is in her early twenties, but has had some emotional development setbacks… so she is a fully-grown woman with the emotional capacity and understanding of intimacy of a teenager. The play is about learning what intimacy and love even are — how do we go about this confusing business of loving one another?

Marissa: You’ve said that your audition for the 2015 San Francisco Olympians Festival (after which you were cast in a major role in the staged reading of Allison Page’s Jasons) is the reason you’ve been so busy with work over the last year.

Danielle: This is true! I auditioned on the advice of a friend who did it several years ago, and quickly found myself surrounded by excellent new friends and collaborators.

danielle-Theater Pub

Danielle as a mime in the March Theater Pub show, On the Spot. Photo by Tonya Narvaez.

Marissa: What were some of the artistic highlights of the last year for you?

Danielle: It sounds like I’m pandering, but sincerely, working with Theater Pub has been a major highlight of 2016. [Danielle played the Duke in Theater Pub’s February show Over the Rainbow, had roles in two short plays in our March show On the Spot, and also appeared in our June show Better Than Television –ed.] Theater Pub is the opposite of elitist, and everyone involved is engaged fully in the process of trying new things, both with existing texts and new work. It’s been really refreshing. However, my favorite show I only got because the director and writer saw me at Olympians was The Horse’s Ass & Friends, Megan Cohen’s delicious vaudevillian showcase of short works that played last December. It was a dream cast and crew and experience — everyone involved was a super talented pro and a lovely person, and I still count them all as friends I would recommend to anyone, or work with again in a second.

Marissa: Since so many good things came out of the Olympians Festival for you, it’s appropriate that you’re now acting in another play that is inspired by Greek mythology. What’s your favorite Greek myth or mythological figure?

Danielle: Oh, it is hard to pick. I like Medusa quite a bit, because she’s such an interesting, nuanced character who is often unfairly reduced to a Halloween monster. Her situation is fully unfair and she’s just trying to make the best of things by living up to her bad bitch reputation with no apologies, amirite? I’ve also always been fascinated by Hera, who is clearly the one keeping Mount Olympus running behind the scenes while Zeus is being a swan unconcerned with consent or whatever. I like complicated, imperfect female or non-binary characters in basically any mythology.

Marissa: You are making it as a working artist (sans day job) in the Bay Area, at a time when many people say that that’s no longer possible. What are your tips on how to make this work?

Danielle: So this is a popular rumor, and it’s only sometimes true, but I have been known to pull it off for months at a time. My situation changes frequently. I have anywhere from two to four part-time day jobs going at any given time. Nearly all are at least a little art-related, a rule I made for myself this year.  Right now I am teaching at an outdoor preschool for the summer, and I work at the front desk of a dance studio so I can get class credit, which is like… medium artistic, more about supplementing process expenses and doing research. Other arts work is contract-based and somewhat unpredictable, like cabaret or walk-around character acting for parties.

Tip #1: FOUR JOBS IS TOO MANY, don’t do this, I do this so you can see how crazy it can make a person.

Tip #2: Most artists I know have at least two things they love. My advice, for people who are willing to hustle like they will die tomorrow, is to do both of them. Don’t buy the advice that you have to pick. I love working with kids, so I keep my side job options open in five-and-under education, and luckily I live in the Bay Area, where when parents find out I also do cabaret they just think I am cool. They recognize that adults contain multitudes and are capable of being responsible, caring human beings AND doing weird circus sideshows for cash.

Tip #3: Accept help from trusted sources. It would be disingenuous for me to pretend that as an artist in a city with skyrocketing prices, I never hit a surprise financial wall and let my mom (a former costumer and lifelong artist/arts supporter herself) boost me with grocery money. I figure I’ll pay her back when she’s old and I’m successful by being Dorothy to her Sophia and making sure she gets to go on a vacation whenever she effing wants, just like she does for her mother.

Tip #4: This one is honestly the most important. Don’t work jobs that make you miserable. Don’t do it, it’s not worth it. Hold out if you can for a day job that has a team you love, or perks that are actually worth it (like training you in skills that will benefit your arts career), or a job that just makes you happy. Do not languish in industries you hate because you are afraid you won’t find something better in time to rescue yourself from late rent. You will manage. Believe in your own resourcefulness. Ask your network for help.

Marissa: You’ve also been getting into the cabaret scene as a singer, ukulele player, and clown. I am an amateur ukulele player myself so I have to ask: what are your favorite songs to play on the uke?

Danielle: I have been clowning and doing circus sideshow for a couple of years now, started teaching myself ukulele about four years ago but only started playing publicly last year, and I’ve been singing since I could open my mouth. But now I get paid to do it all in dark cabarets and variety shows, fulfilling my destiny of being Sally Bowles with (slightly) more sense in my head, and hopefully fewer Nazis. Lately I’ve been playing the following to relax: “I Wish I Was the Moon,” by Neko Case, “The Chain,” by Ingrid Michaelson, and “That Was Us,” by Julia Nunes. And I’m learning a duet with my dear friend Adam Magill which we will finish eventually: “To Die For Your Ideas,” Pierre de Gaillande’s English translation of a Georges Brassens song. I play so many broody songs on the ukulele I created a clown character centered around it just to lighten the mood. Triste is a sad, pretty clown, who sings pretty, sad songs.

danielle - fortune teller

Danielle as Gilda the Fortune-Teller. Photo by Ralph Boethling.

Marissa: What are your biggest influences or contributors to your aesthetic sensibility?

Danielle: I read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe as a kid, starting just about as soon as I could read a novel. That probably had a lot to do with what is happening here. I read Grimm’s fairy tales and the Anne of Green Gables series like a hundred times. My favorite book in high school was Lolita, because I am obsessed with Nabokov’s love letters to the English language, and the concept of playing with and manipulating audience sympathies. Lydia from Beetlejuice was a strong influence, though I only started wearing black in my late twenties: I didn’t have a “goth phase,” at least not where wardrobe is concerned, because I grew up in the desert. I also grew up in a very theatrical and musical household, so we watched a lot of TCM as a family and on our own. Old Hollywood films, musicals in particular, have had a huge impact on my aesthetic: Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Carol Burnett, Buster Keaton. Also the fashion of forgotten gems of 1990s cinema. Not the enduringly popular films, but the weird ones like With Honors, or Michael, or Truly, Madly, Deeply. Dad-jeans time capsules. I am enduringly obsessed with vaudeville aesthetics, magic, etc.

Marissa: What’s coming up next for you, and what shows are you most excited to see this summer/fall?

Danielle: So we just opened Hunting Love this past weekend, and it will run through August 21. Click here for tickets. We’ve also begun rehearsals for KML: The Musical, opening in September, which is SO EXCITING because it’s not just my first time working with Killing My Lobster, it’s my first foray into any sketch comedy since my high school cohort’s tragic but heartfelt attempt to form a troupe. I’m thrilled about the team for this show.

I haven’t booked anything at Panic & Give Up (a secret speakeasy cabaret I love) in the near future, but I am always haunting that joint and I’m sure I will turn up on their stage again eventually. It’s a good place to look for me. You can keep in the loop by using the form at www.daniellegray.com/booking, and requesting to be added to my email list. Or follow me on Facebook — I always do a public post when I have a show coming up.

The next show I’m going to see is The Thrush and the Woodpecker at Custom Made, and I’m pretty stoked about the space station they’re building over at PianoFight for Faultline Theater’s The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident.

Marissa: My column is called “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life” and you are a notably glamorous person, so I also have to ask: do you have any pointers (either practical or philosophical) for achieving glamor?

Danielle: Oh goodness, Marissa. Blush. I get asked about fashion advice a lot because I am not subtle about my evolving love affair with my wardrobe, and the best advice I have for anybody is to wear what you actually like. It is that simple. Honestly. If you want to wear a ball gown every day, just do it. I’m not at all exaggerating. If you like to wear yoga clothes, buy the ones you really like and rock them. The only thing stopping you from looking exactly the way you want is your hesitation – find photos that inspire you and replicate the items, scour thrift stores and department stores alike, be real about the colors you enjoy, don’t be snobby about brands (high end or low end). I think of every outfit as a costume, with a particular inspiration. Once a friend told me my outfit was “a pair of fishnets away from Bob Fosse Captain Hook,” which remains one of my most treasured compliments. Some days I’m “Andro Duckie.” Often, I get “80s New Wave/Boy George.” You know what makes you feel good, you know whose style you admire. There’s no reason you can’t do what they do. People like to see other people being unabashedly themselves.

Keep up with Danielle’s adventures at www.daniellegray.com.

In For a Penny: Dead Men tell No Tales

Charles Lewis contemplates the Great Beyond.

“Death Found an Author Writing His Life” (1827) by E. Hull

“Death Found an Author Writing His Life” (1827) by E. Hull

“I’ve got my own life to live
I’m the one that’s going to have to die
When it’s time for me to die
So let me live my life the way I want to”
– Jimi Hendrix, “If 6 was 9”, Axis: Bold as Love

Funny thing about writing a play about death: it makes you think a lot about dying. Who knew? And if you want to get technical, the play in question isn’t actually about death, but the lack thereof. Let me explain…

I’m writing the Opening Night Party play for this year’s SF Olympians Festival. You may or may not recall that last year I occasionally dedicated this column to exploring the development process of said festival. If so, you may also recall that my final entry, “A Pre-Post-Mortem”, attempted to take an optimistic look at death, a frequent topic in a festival revolving around Greek mythology. Many Greek myths look at death not as the end of the journey, but rather the beginning of the next journey. For them, death wasn’t something to be dwelt upon – for lack of a better term – as it is today. Still, they acknowledged it as an inevitability and possibly one step closer to achieving greatness.

The Egyptians are a different story all together: everything was about death. EVERYTHING. Perhaps that’s not fair – it may be more accurate to say that they were about life, which they felt continued after death. But that doesn’t change the fact that quite a lot of those lives were spent in preparation for their inevitable deaths. And when they did die, everyone took notice.

Remember, these were once decked out in shiny Tura Limestone.

Remember, these were once decked out in shiny Tura Limestone.

So when writing for a Greek mythos fest that’s now added Egyptian gods for good measure, it’s no surprise to find death at every turn.

Except, of course, in my play. The script (working title: It’s a Fucking Dylan Thomas Poem!) is about characters for whom, shall we say, death is not a problem. No matter how much harm they inflict on themselves or each other, they never need to worry about shuffling off this mortal coil. It’s not quite a Tuck Everlasting situation, but they live lives (that they believe are) without consequence. Well, when you live your life knowing you can get away with anything, you’ll eventually ask yourself what the point of living is. And what’s the point of asking that question if you’re never going to die?

Naturally I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about dying. Not taking my own life – when you’ve known as many people as I have who attempted suicide right in front of you, it kinda puts you off the idea – but just what will or won’t be said when I’m gone. It’ll be completely out of my control, but that doesn’t stop me from contemplating what would be said, if anything at all. As I’ve been tinkering with this script over the past few months, I began to notice that whenever I’d seriously start to write notes or dialogue, a celebrity would die. (Not my fault, I swear!)

Such high-profile deaths inevitably lead to a lot of fawning eulogies, as well as some scathing posthumous criticisms. For me, the most interesting comment came after Prince’s death. With no legal will specifying the division of his $300m estate, Time asked Snoop Dogg if he’d made preparations for his family. He doesn’t. “I don’t give a fuck when I’m dead.”

As much as I disagree with the callous way a multi-millionaire refuses to make sure his family is protected once he’s gone, I have to say that I admire his response. He seems to understand the way the futility of worrying about something that will be completely out of his control. Though I don’t agree with how he does it, I like how he accepts the fact that he only has control for a finite amount of time, then everyone will be on their own.

Of course, it’s still Snoop Dogg, so he was probably high off his ass when he said it.

The problem with never wanting to talk about death is that it makes you unprepared for it. What both confounds and fascinates me about the characters I’m writing is that they’re unprepared for what life has in store when death never comes. They have to find reasons to keep living because it’s the one thing they’ll always do. What does that do to a person’s sense of health, spirituality, or ability to form lasting relationships?

I’m not quite sure, but as I keep writing, they’ll find out or attempt to die trying.

Charles Lewis III want you to celebrate life and art by contributing to this year’s Olympians Festival Indiegogo campaign. His script will be read during the Opening Night party on Sunday, October 2nd.

In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – Can you Macarena?

Charles Lewis III, lining it up.

All men, mostly White – this is the LEAST likely line-up for Olympians auditions.

All men, mostly White – this is the LEAST likely line-up for Olympians auditions.

“Give [the audience] pleasure – the same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.”
– Alfred Hitchcock, Asbury Park NJ Press (13 August 1974)

Home stretch, folks. After nearly a year of plotting, outlining, fundraising, and writers burning pages from our own scripts before we tear out our hair and shout to the heavens in futility, we’re now kicking into gear. This past Monday was the final pre-festival meeting of writers and directors (“The White Council”), so from this point on you can consider the gears officially in motion. The SF Olympians Fest draws nigh.

So what does that mean for you good folks? Well, if you’re patron of the arts, fan of Greek mythos, on the lookout for cheap SF theatre, or just someone with strong opinions about dolphins, Miley Cyrus, the name “Jason”, or pumpkin-spiced… anything, then you’re in for a real treat.

But if you’re an actor, then you’re in for the wildest ride of all. This coming Sunday and Monday will see the return of the hilarious chorus line known as the Olympians auditions.

As one of this year’s writers and directors, I originally followed the above statement with a maniacal laugh. Then I took a moment to think about it and remembered the truth about the Olympians auditions: the actors are the ones with the advantage.

First off, you should all read Ashley’s spot-on Olympians auditions advice column from two years ago. Not only is it a great read, it’ll put a lot of the following into context.

Now that you’ve done that, here are a few things I know from having been on both ends of this festival’s audition process. Many folks think being an auditor is easy because all you have to do is plant your ass in a chair for several hours whilst an endless parade of pretty faces beg for your approval by reciting Neil LaBute and 32 bars from Seussical. That’s true, to an extent, but it’s also true that we can be just as terrified watching as you are of auditioning. I’m terrified that you folks will be so goddamned talented that the work on which I’ve spent a full year will seem mediocre when spoken by someone other than the voices in my head. I’m scared that all of the Bay Area actors of color who constantly seek out opportunities won’t even consider coming to this audition. I’m afraid that I’ll find the absolutely pitch-perfect roster – they look the parts, they read with conviction, all of their schedules sync up perfectly – only to be told I can’t use them because they’ve already said “Yes” to another Olympians piece. (As a rule, actors are allowed to be cast in any number of plays throughout the festival, but not on the same weekend.)

And make no mistake, folks: we will fight over you. Every year there are those actors who bring it so hard in auditions, that you can feel it in the room. As soon as one of them leaves, every writer and director underlines their name and puts stars and hearts around it like a middle school love note. And it’s not as if it’s just a handful, oh no. Olympians auditions are an embarrassment of riches: actors you haven’t seen in years; youngsters fresh out of (or still in) school; adult newbies who always loved performing and are trying this for the first time. All those people whom critics claim don’t exist in the Bay Area theatre scene – they all come out of the shadow.

And we auditors sit dumfounded, asking ourselves “Where have you been all my life?”

So if I had any advice for actors auditioning next week, it would be “You have all the power. Use it.” You don’t need to prepare anything, you don’t need to worry, you don’t need any preconceived notions – just be you. And if you’re curious as to whether we still had spots available, you read the info here and send a query to the e-mail provided. In fact, you can even try getting a walk-up slot, if one’s available. Just bring a headshot, a resume, and a love of performance.

Other than that, there’s a room full indie theatre’s best waiting to hear you totally own your randomly-selected monologue.

Now do it with a Scottish accent.

Charles Lewis III is writing and directing this year’s Poseidon play, which requires a cast of various ethnicities and genders. He can’t wait to see who shows up.

In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – The Direct Approach

Charles Lewis III, on directing for the SF Olympians Festival.

Pre-show layout for "Hydra" by Tonya Narvaez

Pre-show layout for “Hydra” by Tonya Narvaez

“Cut! That’s a print. Now get that bastard off my set!”
– John Frankenheimer

The quote above from the late film director was reportedly spoken on the set of his 1996 film The Island of Dr. Moreau. Adapted from the HG Wells book of the same name, the ’96 production is one of Hollywood’s most infamous: Frankenheimer replaced the original director, actors shot footage only to be replaced, the weather was hell, the make-up didn’t come out right, the budget and shooting schedule both expanded, the script was being rewritten every half-hour, and Marlon Brando was… Marlon Brando. But it was working with Val Kilmer that drove Frankenheimer to the breaking point. By some reports, the director is said to have gotten so fed up with Kilmer’s diva antics that two came close to a fistfight at one point. So when it came to shoot Kilmer’s final scene, Frankenheimer is said to have followed the last take with the quote above.

Every director, if they make a career out of it, has at least one or two actors whose very names drive the director into a blind rage. I know I do. I started to think of one in particular during last week’s Olympians Fest directors meeting (which was followed by the writers meeting this week). I’d gotten the chance to direct a great script by a great writer, but we weren’t able to get our No. 1 or 2 choices for a key role because they were both in another reading that same weekend (actors may only be cast in one reading per week of the festival). I tried my diplomatic best to work with the actor we got, but he was determined to do the opposite of every direction I gave him. It was a script meant to be read at a snappy pace, but he would drag… out… every… line. His character was meant to focus one way, but he would try to keep the focus on him. In a staged reading, he kept moving so much that he obviously kept losing his place in his script, and I gave the other actors movements in an attempt to appear as if there were any kind of cohesion with what he was doing. It was a shit show and to this day, whenever I see the author, my first instinct is to say “I’m sorry for that reading.”

After five years, 78 writers, 57 directors, some 290, believe me when I say that there are many such stories connected with the festival. On that same note, there are just as many – if not more – stories of festival collaborators who clicked so well that they immediately got together again on their next project. In fact, if you were to survey the Olympians alumni whose work went on to full production, I’m sure at least part of that could be attributed to the chemistry that was developed during the original reading. Having taken part in the festival every year since its inception, and having taken part in every creative role except illustrator (I’ve taken up finger-painting, so it’ll happen eventually), I know there are far more people I’d love to work with than those I wouldn’t.

It ain’t gonna happen.

It ain’t gonna happen.

The role of Olympians director has always been a tricky one because it’s always been the one that’s been hardest to define. It’s a writers festival first and foremost, so the two most necessary elements are writers to create the scripts and actors to read them. In a festival of staged readings, the emphasis will always be on the “reading” portion. So why is a director necessary at all? There isn’t a lot of work that goes into putting a bunch of people on stage to read a script; what’s the point of being a director if you’re not there to inject some stylistic flourish? Quite a lot, actually.

I first directed for the festival in Year 3 and the first thing I remember was how strongly the writers were discouraged from directing their own scripts. As my own script developed, I began to see why finding someone else to direct was so strongly recommended. Writing is a solitary process. Doing it means spending a great deal of time bumping around in your own head. The problem is that the voice in your head will lie to you. A lot. Having the perspective of an additional artistic point of view will enlighten you to aspects of your script not even you had considered.

The problem comes when directors try to make it less about the writer’s words and more about what the audience will see. The impulse is understandable, but it’s also wrong. Those of us who have been with the festival long enough know why there are now rules about there being only 3-5 rehearsals before a reading, why you should never force an actor to do something with which they’re uncomfortable, and why you should never, ever wait until the day of a reading to fully stage a physical assault scene requiring the actors to both move and read while their scripts are in-hand. There’s at least one of those readings every year. We’ve all seen it. Some of us have actually been in it.

If I wrote a list of banned Olympians directors, this guy would be at the top.

If I wrote a list of banned Olympians directors, this guy would be at the top.

“Well then,” you might ask, what can a director do to help out when the emphasis is meant to be all about the words coming out of the actors’ mouths?” Easy: help them understand those words. They’re still actors, after all. They want character motivation and a better understanding of the person or persons they’ll be portraying. Perhaps the more esoteric moments in the script immediately made sense to you and the writer, but an actor will need something more. These are stories based on ancient mythological beings with fantastic abilities. The script is how it makes sense to the writer, the director makes sense of the script for the actors, and the actors translate that for an audience.

And that doesn’t require a lot of bells and whistles. The most common staged reading direction of planting folks in front of music stands is used as often as it is because it works. It allows the actors to always have eyes on their scripts, but still turn and react to their fellow actors. Wanna shake it up a bit? You can do like Stuart Bousel often does and eschew with the music stands all together, arranging the actors in the form of an orchestra. You can define the characters through costume (which, like direction, should be simple, but can still be eye-catching). You can take full advantage of the fact that there’s nothing on stage but the actors. Last year’s Hydra by Tonya Narvaez was one of the most memorable because of the atmospheric way Tonya staged it. She wrote a paranormal thriller and set the mood by having the actors lit only by the lights on their music stands (see the photo at the top). Needless to say, we were still talking about that one days afterward.

Simplicity, it makes all the difference.

I had a list of about twelve people whom I’d considered for directing my Year 3 script about Atlas. The one I chose wound up not being on the list at all and she was the one who encouraged me to direct it myself. After I picked her, she wound up having a busier year than she’d expected, so I relieved her of directing duties to make things easier. After failing to find another director whose schedule would fit, I reluctantly agreed to direct it myself – something I hadn’t done since I was in school. I did direct, it went off okay, and I have since directed so much that I actually should put a director’s resume together one of these days.

I’ve also seen my scripts directed by others, but in the festival and out. It’s given me a pretty clear perspective as to what function directors serve in a festival of staged readings: we’re conductors. That’s probably why Stuart prefers the orchestra-style approach to readings, because it makes clear just how everyone fits into the symphony. The writer composes, the actors sing (sometimes literally – again, happens every year), and the directors is there to make sure every single not is pitch perfect for the welcome audience.

Now you’ll have to excuse me, I think I hear the downbeat…

Charles Lewis is writing and directing this year’s Poseidon play. The music he’s been listening to that which plays when Kirk fights Gorn… it’ll make sense when you see the play. For more information about the SF Olympians Festival, please visit SFOlympians.com

In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – With a li’l Help from your Friends

Charles Lewis III checking in from the most recent Olympians meeting.

For last year’s fest Steve wore a dog collar. What has he got planned THIS time?

For last year’s fest Steve wore a dog collar. What has he got planned THIS time?

“I had been alone more than I could have been, had I gone by myself.”
– The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

In all of the year’s I’ve been involved in the active production of the Olympians Fest (Years 3, 4, and now 6), I think I’ve only ever missed a single meeting. I believe it was during Year 4. I actually had planned on attending, but as the day wore on, I got so ridiculously sick that I eventually expected a CDC “Quarantine” tent to go up over the house. I’m pretty sure that once one agrees to write for the festival, the only excuse for missing a meeting is to be dead – at least that’s the impression we get from Jeremy’s e-mails. He’ll only accept actual death because being “on the brink of death” means you’re still alive and therefore should be at the meeting.

Granted, the folks who missed out on the most recent meeting had pretty good reasons: one was rehearsing his new show; one was acting, producing, and hosting this month’s Theater Pub; and one was actually having a baby. I… guess those are valid-sounding reasons, what do you think?

So as we all settle in, stuff our faces, and gossip about actors who have burned too many bridges, I really begin to notice that the meetings for this year’s fest carry a significance that wasn’t there in meetings for previous years. I don’t just mean the fact that Rachel Kessinger’s veggie lasagna has raised the bar on the food we bring, or that an entire cantaloupe-sized bottle of wine was finished off before the meeting proper even started. No, what I’m noticing is that this year’s meetings really do point toward a shift in the way that the festival is put together. There are fewer meetings this year than there were in previous years. As such, a lot has been packed into each one, so if you miss it, you’re missing something significant about how this year’s festival will differ from the last five.

Someone actual wrote on blue pages. What sorcery is this?

Someone actual wrote on blue pages. What sorcery is this?

We cover the normal bases: stating how much of the play has been written so far, if at all; mentioning how the premise has changed from the original pitch, if at all; finding a director, if you haven’t yet; and the reading of pages from the script-in-progress. As before, I pass my pages off to other writers in the room, tilt my head to the side, and try to just listen. I hear flaws, lots of them. Not in the way it’s read, per se, but the readings give the characters a different interpretations that what I’d conceived. One joke I wrote crashes and burns like the toilet seat of a Russian space station, so I know it’s not likely to be in the next draft. I will say that the back-and-forth aspect I wrote for this scene sounds better spoken than it did as I wrote it, so that’s good. All in all, I’m not entirely pleased, but I have an idea of what to work on.

That was a major topic of the meeting. Not my shitty pages, but the topic of collaboration. The simultaneous gift and curse of writing is its solitary nature: it often requires you to block out the white noise of the outside world so as to let your Id run free, but doing intentionally requires cutting yourself off from those to whom you look for support, solace, or even a few quick laughs. Writing means translating billions of mental synapses into finger movements that will somehow paint a verbal picture meant to be interpreted by someone other than you. But although the writing process can be solitary, it doesn’t mean that means to get the wheels moving have to be.

This meeting was about asking everyone in the room “What do you need?” and trying our best to make sure they got it. Maybe they have writer’s block, maybe they forgot the dates, maybe they wrote for a specific actor whom they now know they won’t get (FYI: pre-casting in the festival is frowned upon, and with damn good reason). As such, we threw out not only our frustrations, but also our solutions – particularly those of us who have done the festival before. A lot of emphasis is put on the importance of having the scripts read aloud. You might think this was a no-brainer – what with it being the entire point of the festival – but it’s how past entries that were meant to 10-15 min. shorts wound up being around 30 min. or more; it’s how a festival that starts every night at 8pm and expects to be out by 10pm (if not earlier) winds up having nights that go as late as 11:30pm. To this conversation I contribute “Just remember that it’ll always sound different out loud than it does in your head, ‘cause the voice in your head will lie to you. Every. Single. Time.”

Suggestions are thrown out for setting up writing sessions and readings. It reminds me of when I went to such a meeting with fellow Olympians writers during Year 3. I wrote the first full draft of my one-act about Atlas longhand in that café. I wound up drastically rewriting it when I finally typed it up, but that session in the café really got the ball rolling.

See that bottle on the floor? That was the SECOND one of those opened.

See that bottle on the floor? That was the SECOND one of those opened.

Before we conclude for the evening, we touch on the other major necessary evil of art: funding. The fundraising template for the festival will be one of the most notable changes from years past. It’s a bit too early to say what it will be exactly, but it seems assured that it won’t resemble the campaigns from previous years. Of course, once your fundraiser video features creepy photo-bombing by Allison Page – 9:35 in the video – where else is there to go with it?

But the one thing of which we are sure is that it will require the effort of every single person who was in the room that night, as well as many more who weren’t there. If there was an overall message of this last meeting, it was that it only works when all of the pieces are in sync. Those of us who have been part of it from the beginning (in one capacity or another) know this to be absolutely true. Writers must communicate with directors, directors with actors, everyone with friends and family to see this new work and others like it. Once someone gets in their head that their way – and ONLY their way – is what will happen… well, there’s a reason each year’s festival has That One Play. Hell, it’s usually not even one – I tend to count two or three, depending on the year. It’s the play or plays that clearly had a communication breakdown and wind up being complete and utter train wrecks. Not even the good kind with some redeeming element of camp; no, they’re the ones that make audiences want to chew off their own limbs in an attempt to escape. There’s at least one every year. I sure as hell hope it isn’t mine.

So as we began to leave for the evening, encouraging all present to see this month’s ‘Pub show (that includes you reading this, it runs again this coming Monday and Tuesday), I dare say the one word on everyone’s lips is “collaboration”. That and Rachel’s lasagna.

Charles Lewis III is planning to once again direct his own Olympians piece on Poseidon this year. As to how that’s still collaborative, he plans to elaborate in the next “Of Olympic Proportions” entry. To read his and every writer’s proposal, and to learn more about the festival’s past and present, please visit the official SF Olympians Fest website.

In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – The End is the Beginning is The End

“My royal lord,
You do not give the cheer: the feast is sold
That is not often vouch’d, while ’tis a-making,
‘Tis given with welcome; to feed were best at home;
From thence the sauce to meat is ceremony;
Meeting were bare without it.”
– Lady MacBeth, MacBeth Act III Sc. 4, William Shakespeare

For all of us who have been there, it’s no surprise that Stuart’s apartment is often referred to as “The White Tower”. I honestly can’t recall what color the exterior really is, but I do know how exhausting it is to hike up those stone steps from one street to another, followed by another two flights of steps once you get inside – all for the sake of looking out over his balcony at one of the most enviable views of the San Francisco skyline without riding in a helicopter. Of course it’s The White Tower. What else would we expect from a self-proclaimed “Tolkien-nerd” who produces a festival based around ancient Greek mythology?

There’s a special something in the air for the first writers meeting of the annual SF Olympians Festival. If you’ve worked in the previous year’s festival, you’ve (hopefully) had time to decompress from that madness and have replaced your anxiety with excitement for the new fest, which is a good whole year away. If you’re new to the game, you probably have a walking-on-eggshells feeling of not wanting to look ridiculous in front of a bunch of folks who put on a festival where last year The Judgment of Paris was made to resemble RuPaul’s Drag Race. Don’t worry about it: before the night is over, you’ll be so stuffed with wine, cheese, and chocolate that you won’t think your idea is ridiculous – you’ll wonder if it’s ridiculous enough.

A typical Olympians meeting usually starts with a round of introductions, in which we all clumsily try to remember our names, our subjects, and our proposals for this coming festival. Even without alcohol, that’s a lot harder than you think – we didn’t become writers so that we’d have to, y’know, talk.

We then explain the logistics and mechanics of the festival. Again, those of us who have been through it before know that it’s nothing to be taken for granted, especially as the festival continues to expand – both in size and influence – with each successive year. There are going to be some major changes to the festival, come 2015. The fundamentals will remain the same, but the necessity for streamlining has presented itself. For all the new achievements, there’s also been the accumulation of a lot of dead weight that has slowed down what-should-be a rather expeditious process. That dead weight will have to be cut loose. The only folks likely to complain are those who have been letting others do their work anyway.

Which leads the meeting to another touchy subject: communication. It’s importance cannot be over-stressed. There were problems that sprung up in the last festival (and a few festivals before) that were the result of people not properly communicating with one another. As such, some of those people have become persona non grata with the festival. It’s not something anyone likes to do, but when people ignore repeated warnings, then action has to be taken. We want to be invitational, not exclusive. The idea of anyone feeling like they don’t belong is something we won’t tolerate.

So… after we’ve discussed scheduling, fundraising, and where to find cheap (or free) rehearsal venues all over the Bay Area, we finally come around to the main event of the evening: the writing samples. Every writer is (barring unforeseen circumstances) expected to attend every meeting, and every writer in attendance is expected to bring along two sample pages of their script as proof they’ve actually been, y’know, writing it. It’s not uncommon for pages to be written the day of the meeting (God knows I’ve done it plenty of times). Hell, some folks will actually write them during a lull in the meeting. So long as you aren’t doing this once the festival is up and running, we’re just glad to hear a sample.

I love reading for everyone else’s samples, but hate hearing my own. I mean, I know Allison will bring pages to have us on the floor holding our sides, that Rachel’s will make us all envious of her fertile mind, and that Bridgette will somehow, someway find a way to work iambic pentameter into her dialogue. I’m nowhere near as reliable with my writing, but I will at least try my best not to butcher the words of the fellow writer whose words I’m reciting.

My subject this year is a one-act based on the myth of Poseidon. I’ve always had a soft spot for Poseidon because I think he’s entitled to nearly as much fame (or infamy) as his brother Zeus. I mean, both of them had the tendency to be complete dicks, but somehow Zeus is the more revered dick. My play, in short, is actually pretty timely. I submitted it months ago, but thanks to certain recent revelations about one “Mr. Cosby”, my play has become topical in a way even I didn’t expect. Whether it will remain so in the coming year, remains to be seen.

Stuart calls my subject. I pass my type-written pages off to Sunil and Tonya. I turn my head away, but tilt it in their direction so as to take in every word. I keep my eyes to the ground because I don’t wanna know what everyone else thinks of it – not yet. The two readers keep a good pace with my pages. Two of my jokes even elicit laughs from the room. There’s a chunk about the modern world needing myths more than ever. I genuinely feel that the gravitas of the moment is working. For once in my self-deprecating life, I allow myself think that maybe – just maybe – people actually like the stuff I write. In about two minutes it’s over. I take my pages back, fold them into my bag with my red pen (for adjustments), and consider my work done for the night. I can breathe again.

I'm not saying this is the poster for my play, but I'm not saying it isn't.

I’m not saying this is the poster for my play, but I’m not saying it isn’t.

After all the pages are read, most of the wine has been drunk, and Rachel’s mac ‘n cheese has been completely devoured, we’re all dismissed for the evening. It’s a slow and steady process: phone numbers and e-mails are exchanged, last-minute bites of food are taken, Lyfts are ordered, what-have you. One thing we all take away from this meeting is the fact that the festival is changing. It has to. Everything does. It’s just a question of whether that change is one of a relic falling into decay or an organism evolving with its time and environment. I definitely think the latter is occurring. As I’ve said before, what I love about this festival is that it never ceases to surprise me. It’s almost irrelevant to try to explain certain things to newcomers because there’s something new for all of us. Now we’ve officially begun our yearlong journey into the Wine Dark Sea. And, as the name implies, just sailing out into it is an adventure in and of itself.

Also there’s gonna be a lotta dolphin sex. I mean, a LOT. You don’t even know…

Charles Lewis III can’t wait to make a splash with the upcoming festival. For more information about the history of the festival and next year’s readings, please visit http://www.SFOlympians.com.

Cowan Palace: Let’s Eat Our Feelings and Write About It!

Ashley gives herself a writing challenge and confronts her own food demons.

So it’s September and I’ve been attempting to climb over a writer’s block that’s managed to wedge itself into my path for a few months. But considering the piece in question is for the San Francisco Olympian’s Festival and auditions are just a few weeks away, the clock has started to tick louder and louder each day.

I submitted three proposals for consideration last year right before the midnight deadline. Two were silly and fluffy. One was way more personal and scary; which ended up being the play I was matched to write.

Last year I had a blast writing my Olympian’s short, Oenone because I was able to take an honest, awkward middle school existence and channel it into a retelling of Paris’s first wife while making fun of some of my twelve year old self at the same time. It proved to be both fun and healing and forever solidified my belief that in this life, we’re all just middle schoolers trying to find a place to have lunch.

I guess I had hoped I’d have a similar experience this year. The myth I was drawn to surrounding Charybdis involved this female character being punished for eating one of Hercules’ prized cattle. She was then thrown into the sea where she was left to resume life as a monster.

Growing up, I always felt my relationship with food was a struggle. Without going too much into it now, it’s consumed more of my thoughts and energy than I’d care to admit. And when I thought about this idea of being turned into a sea creature over a ravenous appetite, I was inclined to finally explore it. Even though it made me feel a bit more vulnerable than I expected. Every time I would draft out a few pages, it never felt quite right. Perhaps because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to really say and how truthful to be to my own experiences. How many demons should a writer unleash before they attempt their story?

Ashley takes a bite out of life and also, some meat.

Ashley takes a bite out of life and also, some meat.

So instead of answering that question, I thought it may be more useful to do some research. Since I had chosen to place this play in an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, I figured I should probably educate myself a bit more on the organization. Which meant, agreeing to attend a meeting to truly obtain the experience.

See, this isn’t really a new thing for me. I’m always trying to “dare” myself to do stuff so I can share the story later. (A few years ago I challenged myself to go alone to a strip tease class for that very purpose. And if you know ANYTHING about me, you can imagine what that was like. And if you can’t, well, here’s an image: I was unaware that we were supposed to bring a towel with us to incorporate into our dance routine. So I then had to use my bright pink hoodie in its place…awkward, duh.) So true to my character, I went online and found a San Francisco Overeaters Anonymous meeting.

And then I (hilariously) came down with food poisoning. What luck, huh? I’m forever an accident waiting to happen. I will be attending one, however, before my next blog is out and I look forward to sharing the tale with you all soon. In the meantime, I found a whole bunch of valuable YouTube clips to keep me busy. I mean, aside from all the puppies and babies and stuff.

I stumbled across a 1985 dramatization of a slightly chubby, middle aged woman who eats cookie dough batter after her teenage daughter sasses her about not understanding what it’s like to go out on a dancing date. The short film seems to be sponsored by Overeaters Anonymous and while I couldn’t help but mock some of the dialogue and direction (this woman’s husband shames her for eating a tiny cupcake and then she goes to the grocery store where a judgmental clerk says, “see you tomorrow!”), this dated piece did provide some interesting information and a perspective of someone attending an OA meeting for the first time.

Straight from the YouTube clip: sassy 80's daughter sassing her mom!

Straight from the YouTube clip: sassy 80’s daughter sassing her mom!

Yes, some of it was pretty amusing to watch because I’m mean and can’t get enough of 80’s hair styles, but I also appreciated this idea of finding people with similar experiences and chronicling them to help heal each other. There’s something kind of hopeful about how someone who truly felt hopeless could find acceptance and learn to cope through the encouragement of others.

Since my only personal experience with meetings of this nature was through a stupid ex-boyfriend (stupid because he was idiot, not because of his addictions), it’s a world I only really know through pop culture’s eyes. And even though it makes me pretty uncomfortable to dive into this particular whirlpool (Charybdis pun, holla!) I feel like it’s time to face my own monsters for the sake of writing this piece and explore this myth the way it deserves. Did I bite off more than I can chew? Probably. I’m working on that. But hey, choking makes for enjoyable future blogs, doesn’t it?

So in the meantime friends, make sure to sign up for an Olympians audition (this is your last week to do it!) and I’ll look forward to seeing you there with the newest version of my story.