Theater Around The Bay: The Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards for 2015

Stuart Bousel ends the year with 6,000 words. Which you know… is actually less than usual. 

You may not have noticed it, but until my recent interview by Barbara Jwanouskos, I took a year off from writing for the blog.

This was for a number of reasons, including wanting to make more space for others, and having to use some of our space for promoting shows since Theater Pub returned to putting out 12 shows a year, thanks entirely to Rob Ready, Dan Williams, and Kevin Fink at PianoFight for both providing and insisting we take them up on their offer of a new venue, and my incredible support staff who put this year together by the skin of their teeth: Megan Cohen, James Grady, Sara Judge, Cody Rishell, Marissa Skudlarek, and most of all Tonya Narvaez and Meghan Trowbridge. Additionally, I just kind of took a general break from both writing and publicly postulating, partly for my own sanity and mostly because I wanted to do a lot of listening. At the end of last year, as was apparent to many, I was sort of drowning in the overwhelm of too many voices, from adulatory to disparaging, plaintive to dismissive. I made a decision to stand still and listen, in the hopes I’d eventually find my way back to my voice. For the record, it worked, thanks in large part of a few really good friends- but more on that later.

So, Awards… do I feel better about them than I did last year? Eh, more or less. I’ve come to accept them for what they are, and I’m thankful we have an awards system, helmed by Theater Bay Area, that is more or less transparent, and based on a peer adjudication pool that is more or less quantifiable (certainly identifiable), tiered into a system that more or less recognizes the need to evaluate artists with their resources and limitations taken into account. I think it’s a tremendous loss that Robert Sokol, who did the bulk of the grunt work to make these Awards a reality, from vetting each ballot last year to making the rounds of every committee to ensure the concerns of TBA members were actually heard, is no longer with the Awards or TBA- and anyone who knows how hard I grilled Robert in meetings last year knows that I am not saying that lightly or affectionately. There are moments I have starred daggers into Robert across a conference table and meant each and every one of them, but at the end of the day, he brought a great deal of integrity to the Awards- as much as any awards system can have- and he was devoted to them and he has not been adequately replaced. Which is not to say the folks running things now are doing a bad job necessarily- but the job changed and nobody has really moved into his place, duties have just been sort of parceled out, and while I don’t feel this has necessarily compromised the integrity of the Awards themselves, yeah, some things and people are falling through the cracks. Like my whole committee, for instance, which was given no chance to have input on the Awards this year. But then, being forgotten is, sadly, sort of par for the course of the Individual Services Committee.

Speaking of… so I have left the ISC and the Board of TBA. It happened weeks ago, right after the last meeting of the year, so I feel like it’s okay to talk about it publicly now. Or if it’s not, well… somebody should have sent me an email about that. Oh well.

Anyway, yes, I stepped down. After three years on the ISC- which I loved- and one year on the Board- which I hated every second of- I decided that TBA and I were not a good fit for one another. This does not mean I think TBA is a bad organization or anything like that- I am still a member, as is San Francisco Theater Pub, and I believe that TBA has the potential to be a great service organization and an ally to the artists of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater scene, and an advocate for the arts in general. In some ways, it already is all of those things. In some ways- it’s got a long ways to go, and to TBA’s credit no one there is unaware of that and there is a lot of energy being expended in trying to improve. In the end, my decision to leave is a combination of many things, like all decisions, but it comes down this: the organization’s priorities are not my own, and while I joined the org in a volunteer capacity to understand it better, I also wanted to help create positive changes in the Bay Area theater scene. And the fact is, I wasn’t really being tapped for that, despite having been invited in. Boards are really all about raising money, when it comes right down to it. And like, I get that. But I’m an artist. A Struggling Artist. I got enough of that headache in my life already, you know?

So, hey, everybody, back to Awards as subject (and yes, don’t worry, the Stueys). Clearly I had some really heavy misgivings about whether or not I was, through well-intentioned silliness, perpetuating this kind of social ill, something I had never really thought about until I started winning awards myself, and experiencing all the highs (random theater companies suddenly being interested in my writing, feeling validated by my peers) and lows (friends telling me all the reasons I didn’t deserve recognition, or just sucked in general) that come with success of any kind. This year I was nominated for two more awards, and a show I directed was nominated for nine total, and I didn’t win any and neither did the show and you know what: I kind of enjoyed it more. Yes, I loved winning last year- I ADMIT IT. But not winning (which is not the same as “losing”, by the way) meant I could get drunk with my friends and dance and kiss people at the party and not worry about what this all meant and was I worthy and was I accidentally doing anything to offend all the people who didn’t win, and was I supposed to react a certain way and what if I did or didn’t? Plus some people I really adore and respect won awards this year and that was lovely because they deserve recognition.

Which by the way is all an award/Award is- some people saying you did a good job. Which only means something if you think it does. And if you think you did a good job.

Cut to me, having drinks with a local writer whose brain is my favorite critical brain in the Bay Area and at some point she says/I paraphrase, “I’m so glad you have made peace with all that. You do so much and you do it well and it is okay to be proud of that- and haters be damned.”

I reply/paraphrase, “Thank you. I am a deeply insecure human being in an industry that battens on insecurity. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say, with assurity, that I deserve anything, let alone an Award. But I am glad that play won one, because all said and done- I am really proud of that play.”

The Bay Area Theater Scene, friends/haters. So much insecurity. So much to be proud of.

The 2015 Stuart Excellence in Bay Area Theatre Awards

1. The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness- Dale Albright

True story: a couple of weeks ago I was a few egg nogs in and chatting with a co-worker while net surfing and lazily, without thinking, reposted Peter O’Toole’s death notice on Facebook, as if it was news. How embarrassing! Especially as I created this award the year Peter died (the first time) with the idea that it would be all about recognizing the people we often fail to recognize because they are so consistently awesome. Way to prove my own point, huh? Well, regardless, I couldn’t be more earnest this year when I give the award to Dale Albright, who may be the Bay Area Theater scene’s most unsung, unsung hero (he is the Program Director for TBA, if you didn’t know). Seriously, this man is earning his keep and then some and I would not have spent three years giving up my time if it wasn’t for Dale’s passion and commitment to TBA and everything it is and could be. And sure, he’s also a damn fine actor and director, but whatever: he a phenomenal human. He really and truly cares, he works himself to the bone on our behalf, and he does it all with a kind of insane but sincere modesty. No one I have ever spoken to about Dale has anything but incredible admiration for him and I’m not talking about a handful of people- I’m talking about hundreds of them. I know a lot of people.

2. Best Short Play- “Sparse Pubic Hair” by Lorraine Midanik, directed by Laylah Muran de Assereto, produced by the Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco, starring Rick Homan and Miyoko Sakatani with Louel Senores and Amber Glasgow, choreography by Wesley Cayabyab.

It’s always kind of funny what really makes a short play work and stand out. It’s usually this nearly impossible combination of big idea, simple but impactful execution, and charm. This piece, the capper of the last-ever Sheherezade Festival (PCSF’s annual short play collection) took the complex idea of aging and becoming obsolete and all the insecurity and fear attached to that, and reduced it to the very concrete but relatable fear of losing one’s sex appeal before one has lost the appetite for sex, without falling into the traps of being preachy, cutesy, smarmy, or vulgar. The result: an actually romantic, totally poignant tale of two grown ups having to learn how to be grown ups long after they thought they were done learning to be grown ups, complete with facing fears, getting over themselves, and forgiving one another’s human fallings- sparse pubic hair and all.

3. Best Show- “The Miraculous Journey Of Edward Tulane”, adapted by Dwayne Hartford from the book by Kate DiCamillo, directed by Doyle Ott, produced by the Bay Area Children’s Theatre, starring Terry Bamberger, Darek Burkowski, James Grady, Carlye Pollack

Okay, if you didn’t know it, some of the best theater being made in the Bay Area is consistently being made by Bay Area Children’s Theatre. Yes, it’s intended for kids and yes you will be looked at by amused/hyper-protective parents if you don’t show up without your own children, but the fact is, there’s some really excellent stuff happening here, high-quality entertainment being made and you’re probably missing it. Because it’s made for kids it’s also, in addition to being well done, often edifying and thought-provoking without hitting you over the head about it the way a great deal of theater for adults feels it needs to. The stories are also just unapologetically magical, because kids both believe in magic, and unlike most adults, feel no shame in admitting that or owning their need for it. No show, for me, better optimized this this year than “Edward Tulane”. Beautifully acted from top to bottom, gorgeously staged and directed as a kind of caravan theater meets medieval panto mash-up with songs, the tale of a toy that passes through many owners, becoming something uniquely valued by each, was FUCKING TEARING MY HEART OUT EVERY SECOND I WAS WATCHING IT. I barely held it together, my boyfriend cried continuously from twenty minutes in till the end, and we walked out wanting to make the world a kinder place. The restorative powers of forgiveness and the transformative aspect of service being subtley but unapologetically presented as the inevitable solutions to anger and vanity were so well nuanced that it was impossible to remain unmoved by a piece that comforted even as it kicked you in the face. And yeah, not all theater has to make you do that- but your chances of getting a Stuey are way higher if your theater does.

4. Best Ambitious Failure- “We Are Proud To Present A Presentation About The Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known As Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrkia, Between the Years 1884-1915” by Jackie Sibblies-Drury, directed by Molly Aaronson-Gelb, produced by Shotgun Players in association with Just Theater, starring Rotimi Agbabiaka, Lucas Hatton, Kehinde Keyoejo, Patrick Kelly Jones, David Moore, and Megan Trout.

Okay, before anyone gets offended please understand: I love Ambitious Failures, and no it’s not a backhanded compliment. In many respects, while I love a perfect gem of a show and it’ll make me love the world and theater, an ambitious failure gets me excited and makes me think in a way that gems big or little often fail to do. Also, it’ll stick with me for a long time to come, resulting in multiple conversations, extra mileage in the idea mill, good debates, etc. “Well then,” you say, “is it really a failure?” I mean, I guess not- but yes, no, it didn’t work, at least for me. And like, this show totally didn’t work for me, I walked out feeling I had seen something that couldn’t actually decide what it was trying to do or say and collapsed in on itself like a whirlpool that was more interesting than engaging, but oh how much I admired the fearlessness and commitment of the script, the actors, the director, whoever it was who had to make that title work on a poster. I knew I had seen something important and real, even if I had failed to get much out of it beyond what I felt was obvious and a result of statement, not storytelling, but the parts that sang, sang so well that I could not be dismissive either. In many ways, I felt the play was epitomizing its own impossible conversation, that its hot messiness was a statement about how no one in the world seems to be qualified or articulate enough to truly communicate with anyone else in the world AND THAT’S WHY WE’LL NEVER HAVE NICE THINGS… but then that reading doesn’t satisfy me either and the play didn’t corroborate it and I was back at square one feeling like I was asking aesthetic questions instead of struggling with the plethora of social ones the play was ostensibly about. It’s frustrating… but intriguing, and it has kept me intrigued. This is the one show from this year I would see again, if I could, no caveats. And that deserves a Stuey.

5. Best SF Olympians Reading- “Tethys/Oceanus” by Marissa Skudlarek/Daniel Hirsch and Siyu Song, directed by Marissak Skudlarek/Sara Staley, starring Diana Brown, Alan Coyne, Theresa Miller, Jacinta Sutphin, Aaron Tworek, Kendra Webb, Steven Westdahl, Janice Wright

So, usually I do a “Best Reading” award but every year I’ve chosen something from Olympians (because it’s where readings go to ascend) so let’s just call a spade a spade and admit I’m really going to just pick the best Olympians reading from the past year. This year was a strong year for the festival, and there was a lot of good material, but one night shone above the rest in terms of great material + perfect performances + random magic, and that was a pair of one acts, “Tethys” by Marissa Skudlarek, who also directed, and “Oceanus” by Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song, directed by Sara Staley. Between the two pieces the evening was the perfect blend of somber intellect (Marissa’s) and giddy theatricality (Dan and Siyu’s). Marissa’s quiet and subtle piece about defining and obtaining security in a perilous world was beautifully echoed in Dan and Siyu’s mini-epic about what happens in the handful of moments during an global internet outage when all of our distractions vanish and we’re forced to listen to the sound of our own lives again. Both had a wicked humor tempered with compassion for the stories being told and the characters portrayed were done so by an excellent group of actors clearly relishing their roles. Like all “best nights” of the Olympians, I walked out of that one going, “This is what this festival can do- this is the kind of stuff that happens here!” which makes for such an easier time at the bar afterwards. And while the object of the festival is not to create a final product but to instead be the start of a journey, both these plays felt like they could be lifted and fully produced as was- which only makes me more excited to see where they will go.

6. Best Director- Ariel Craft, “The Pillowman”, The Breadbox

“Really? Ariel again?” you ask me. Um, well, what can I say- I’ll stop saying Ariel’s the best director in the Bay Area when she stops being the best director in the Bay Area. Or at least when she wins a TBA Award. No, but seriously, Ariel continues to win my admiration for a combination of reasons: she is not only exceptionally skilled and incredibly hard working, but she consistently chooses incredibly challenging work and sometimes does exceedingly risky things with it and sometimes those things fail but it never seems to stop her from trying again- and usually shooting even higher. Pillowman was not a failure but was, in fact, the best production of this play I could possibly imagine. Each individual part and performance was spot on- but the sum of the whole was brilliant and that is Ariel’s great strength. Her vision has a signature that is unmistakably hers, making her unquestionably an artist, and as she continues to grow it’s becoming more and more exciting to see her hallmarks across a variety of works. Best part: I don’t even really like this play all that much. But I loved this production of it.

7. Best Actor – Jason Wong (Creon, “Antigone”, at Cutting Ball)

Jason Wong has always been an interesting and very watchable actor, and having known him and worked with him before, I also know he’s a pretty nice guy, hard-working, risk-taking, and smart. Very smart. It sort of killed me when he didn’t try out for my production of M. Butterfly (though I would never trade the brilliance of Sean Fenton in that show FOR THE WORLD), but he’s forgiven now for having been the jewel in the crown of Cutting Ball’s production of Antigone. Though the heroine of the story is the center of the piece, Creon is the meat of the drama, his arc the one we follow, his lesson the one that must be learned, his soul the one that must be broken and, if you’re Creon is well-played, redeemed. Jason walked on stage chewing the scenery like a madman, spilling Creon’s pompous but phony self-love all over the place and then slowly, systematically, cracking the façade one doubt and disaster at a time until he was just bones and then just a pile of bones. Ending the play as a forlorn echo of himself that you wanted to protect in spite of everything, you realize that Antigone has triumphed and the tragedy has and always was Creon. Jason, with his remarkable ability to play wounded and outraged at the same time, took me from sinister to pathetic so forcibly but fluidly that like the proverbial frog in a cauldron, I almost didn’t feel the burn until I was suddenly, fataly, scalded.

8. Best Actress- Michelle Drexler (Kathy, “Company”, SF Playhouse)

One of the advantages of seeing a play many times (and I have seen Company many many times) is that you can see a variety of actors tackle a role and approach its pros and cons differently, with different levels of success. Most people who see Company will walk away having an opinion on the Robert, the Joanne, the Amy, maybe the Marta and April, and that’s usually kind of it. Part of the fun (and point) of the show is that most of the characters are kind of fun but flat stereotypes, 2-D impressions of people that Robert is ultimately sort of short-changing because it helps him feel like it’s okay to lack what they have (and he actually wants), but in can be tough for the actor handed the role of Larry or Susan or Paul to both honor the restraints of the piece and make an impression. Of all the parts in Company (except maybe Paul), I think Kathy is the most thankless, “the nice girl” archetype who epitomizes the “one that got away” but who we kind of let get away because, nice as she was… we weren’t really all that into her. The whole point of Kathy is that she wasn’t really all that interesting to Robert until THE SECOND before she walked out of his life… and then even then, he let her do it, because she wasn’t all that interesting. The problem with Kathy is that she is often played as if Robert’s view of her is who she actually is. The brilliance of Michelle Drexler’s performance as Kathy in the SF Playhouse production of Company and why she’s getting this year’s Best Actress Stuey, in a year of amazing performances by women, for a five minute scene? I’m not sure, to be honest, exactly what it was. A fierceness, perhaps? A depth of performance that conveyed her Kathy was MUCH MORE than Robert ever knew her to be, and that Kathy not only knew she was much more but knew Robert would never see it- and loved him anyway? An implication that she wasn’t a wall-flower going back home to settle for less but maybe even a Robert herself, maybe someone who had been mistaking waiting for living and was finally making a choice knowing that breaking your own heart is an awful but certain way to remember you have one? I don’t know. We’ll never know. The whole point of Kathy is that she’s a mystery we feel sort of sad about never solving. And it was nice to see someone finally play her that way.

9. Best Surprise- Teri Whipple (“Harbour”, NCTC, “Dead Dog’s Bone”, Faultline)

So, I’ve known Teri Whipple for a few years, she being a company member of Custom Made and a frequent actor in the SF Olympians, but this year I caught her in two very different shows at two very different companies playing… well, a kind of hippy-dippy mom in both plays, truth be told- but she did it really differently each time!- and perhaps more importantly, incredibly convincingly, displaying a versatility and charisma that elevated her performances past cliché and to something quite startling and previously unseen in her (at least by me). Teri has always been someone I’ve enjoyed watching, but I find myself excited when I find out I’m seeing something she’s in because I feel like I’m watching a performer really come into their own. I totally get that the “Mom” roles are rarely something a woman is excited about having cornered the market on, but if you keep playing interesting moms in unexpected ways- I can think of worse fates. Do I hope to see Teri in non-Mom roles? Absolutely. Which means, directors and writers- get to work.

10. Best Laugh- “It Wasn’t Meat!” by Carolyn Racine, choreography Liz Tenuto, directed by Paul Charney, produced by Killing My Lobster, starring Ron Chapman and Sam Bertken

Due to Killing My Lobster drastically upping their game in the last year (yeah, I said it- it’s like Night and Day, truth be told), I’ve actually made it to more of their shows than usual. I’m not huge into sketch, but when it’s well done, it’s a good time and since I saw so much I enjoyed this year I figured it was about time the Stueys included a sketch award of some kind. This year it goes to a little nugget of gold that landed in the happy Christmas Stocking that was this year’s holiday KML show at Z Space: “It Wasn’t Meat”, a parody of “It Wasn’t Me”, written by Carolyn Racine, directed by Paul Charney, choreographed by Liz Tenuto, and featuring Ron Chapman and Sam Bertken in the most hilarious send up of relationship enforced vegetarianism I’ve ever seen. To me, the best comedy is fun because it’s true, and if it’s painfully true that’s often even better. In the Bay Area, in particular, I think laughing at ourselves may be the only cure for our chronic case of smugness and what’s more true (and Bay Area) than taking a song about sexual infidelity (which so many people here, myself included, would go to great lengths to downplay as unimportant in today’s sexually progressive relationships) and revamping it as struggling to remain true to your partner’s tyrannical diet restrictions (which so many people here, not including me, would go to great lengths to tell you is far more important and not at all tyrannical… even though you are literally requiring someone to eat the way you do like they are your child). The perfect balance of delivery volleying between Ron Chapman’s cool confidence in denial and Sam Bertken’s anxious self-flaggelation for having “wrapped bacon around more bacon” turned a fun idea into a little bit of biting social commentary that got quite literal at the end when meat-starved Sam started biting his own mentor. Truly funny, truly arch, truly a reason to see even more KML in the coming year.

11. Best Designer- Brooke Jennings, Everything

Okay, so you may have noticed as I’m listing Best Play and such I’m failing to list all the designers and crew. Designers and crew- PLEASE FORGIVE ME! I’m trying to keep to a word limit I am already so way over, and the fact is, unless your show is all about the design, the mark of good design (in my opinion) is that it kind of fades into the background and becomes THE WORLD OF THE PLAY- outstanding in its seamlessness, natural, un-intrusive, and therefore… easy to fail to appreciate. Right now, the local designer who epitomizes this the most for me is costumer Brooke Jennings, who I have been lucky enough to work with several times, and whose work has been seen on a vast variety of Bay Area stages this past year. Often times, when looking at a show, I will be struck by how quietly, subtly, and yet perfectly everything on the actors is working together, creating a color and texture palate that tells a story without being the story, adhering to the world of the play while creating the world of the play, helping define everything from the time period to the climate, with stops on the personality and motives of the character along the way. Often I will then think, “Huh. Did Brooke design this show too?” And then I’ll look in the program and she did. What else is there to say?

12. Best Musical- “Heathers: The Musical” by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, directed by Erik Scanlon, musical direction by Ben Prince, choreography by Alex Rodriguez, produced by Ray of Light Theatre, starring Laura Arthur, Teresa Attridge, Jordon Bridges, Melinda Campero, Samantha Rose Cardenas, Jessica Fisher, Paul Hovannes, James Mayagoitia, Zachariah Mohammed, Lizzie Moss, Abby Peterson, Jocelyn Pickett, Jessica Quarles, Nick Quintell, Andy Rotchadl, Mishca Stephens, Jon Toussaint.

So, I’m not a die-hard fan of Heathers: The Musical. I’m a die hard fan of the movie. The musical’s got some great songs and some fun moments, but I think it suffers from not deciding if it’s trying to be for the fans, or a work of art unto itself, and the truth is, it soft-pedals the darker, edgier aspects of the film, while loosing a great deal of the humor, and also coming off… vaguely homophobic and comparatively sexist? Yeah, no, I mean that, but I’m surprised by it because it’s a pretty entertaining and even profound show as long as you don’t really think about any of those things, and more pertinent to now, Ray of Light’s production was fantastic, probably the best thing I’ve seen them do yet, from the costumes (by Katie Dowse, shamelessly and amazingly recreating many of the looks from the film), to the tight direction, to the spot on impressions of the film cast and the startling moments of canonical departure intelligently woven between the bones throne to the audience- who clearly loved it. The humor and bite of the show was undeniably carried by Samantha Rose Cardenas, Lizzie Moss, and Jocelyn Pickett in the title roles, but the heart was provided by Jessica Quarles as Veronica and Laura Arthur as Martha Dunnstock, with Jordon Bridges bringing some much needed darkness as Jason Dean. The best song of the show, “Seventeen”, a kind of high school reject version of “Suddenly Seymour” (listen to it… hear it?), was stuck in my head for days afterward, infinitely more poignant when I watched Bridges and Quarles belt it at the Victoria than when I downloaded it on iTunes, as if they were channeling everything about the movie that made it my personal Bible in high school. The production as a whole deserved every single one of the 11 nominations it received at this year’s TBA Awards and seems to have been an all around hit with most audiences, doing what I think Ray of Light does best- making musicals not just accessible and entertaining, but an event that reminds people they’re also still a very relevant and multi-faceted art form.

13. Best Ensemble- “The Horses’ Ass and Friends” by Megan Cohen, directed by Ellery Schaar, produced by Repurposed Theatre, starring Danielle Gray, Ryan Hayes, Evan Johnson, Katharine Otis, Becky Raeta, Paul Rodrigues, Indiia Wilmott, Marlene Yarosh

Megan Cohen’s shows are always worth seeing- from the interesting failures, to the perfect little gems- but this particular show- directed by Ellery Scharr at the EXIT Theatre- was blessed by a truly excellent ensemble of players who managed to take an evening of individual experiments and weave them into a performative whole, the connective tissue of which was their own enthusiasm for the work and each other. Maybe it’s starting the show with a group dance party that bonds people, or just being a part of something you all believe in, but you can tell a good ensemble when you see them and it was obvious from the moment you walked in that the friends of the title were in the house and ready to show you what they had with everything they had. Watchable, charming, creative, smart, brave- Danielle, Ryan, Evan, Katharine, Becky, Paul, Indiia, and Marlene (okay, maybe a little extra gold star for Marlene)- are all excellent storytellers and were all tasked with the sometimes intimidating feat of telling a story written by the inimitable Meg Cohen. Each one rose to the occasion, each one succeeded in their own right, but best and brightest when together, as a troupe.

Well, there you go. To all my friends and frenemies in the Bay Area Theater Scene… it’s been a great year. Let’s you and me do it again sometime. Well… most of you.

One last bit. More than anything else that I’m aware of right now, it’s this: last year around this time I was dreading the new year. I was afraid it would be more of the same, and the truth is… it kind of was. But something happened over the course of the year, slowly at first, and then with gaining momentum: essentially, I found my way back to me. I started reading again. I started writing again. I made new connections and I let go of the ones that were turning sour and poisoning my self-esteem, or just taking up a lot of my time and not giving anything back in return. I had a lot of amazing conversations and I made some fantastic art. I broke a pattern of getting sick during my own production process, which had been going on for 2+ years. I got hit in the head… and I got back up and moved on. I stopped taking responsibility for things which aren’t mine to take responsibility for and started taking responsibility for something I rarely make room for: my own happiness. I remembered that even if I am a Sad King… I’m still a King. Surrounded by Kings. And Queens. Or whatever title you want to give yourself. You just be you, okay, whatever that is. I might not always like it, but we’ll probably figure out a way to get along in the long run. Meantime…

Five Collaborations With Old Friends But In Amazing New Ways

1) Marissa Skudlarek- Marissa Skudlarek has been the most consistent editorial force behind both Olympians and Theater Pub for years now, often acting as a second pair of eyes and a second opinion on everything from grammar to content and tone standards, but this year we did something we never thought we’d do before: sing harmony on a rock song together. Yup, our cameos as the Specialist and his Assistant in Guess Who? might not go down in rock history, but it’s definitely going down as a benchmark in our personal history. And Who Knows? (get it?) You might not have heard the last of us.

2) Megan Briggs and Allison Page- Megan Briggs is my muse and Allison Page has frequently been my leading lady, but this year they were also my co-producers on The Desk Set and let me tell you: you could not ask for a better team. Between Megan’s organizational skills and Allison’s marketing savvy, Desk Set was one of the best promoted, most tightly run ships I’ve worked on in a really long time, and the show’s tremendous success in spite of a myriad of hiccups (from the world’s biggest set to ever go into the EXIT Stage Left, to the longest props list of my directing career), not to mention the casts’ continued devotion to our Facebook chat thread, are a testimony to just what this dynamic duo can do. Let’s do it again (but better)!

3) Morgan Ludlow- Morgan has been an incredible advocate for my work over the years, producing four plays of mine, and letting me direct two of his. A few years ago he moved to Seattle, but he still returns to SF a few times a year to assist with local productions and this past autumn I had the honor of him stepping into directing shoes to bring the Seattle production of my play, Everybody Here Says Hello! to life. A truly excellent rendering, Morgan confessed (after I’d seen and liked the show) that he actually hadn’t directed in years and had only taken the risk because it was me.

4) Rob Ready– Rob has been in a number of things I’ve written, most notably playing the Llama in the Llamalogues for several years now, but this year Rob became our venue manager when TheaterPub resumed performances at his space starting in January. For all intents and purposes, this has made Rob our Executive Producer, and it’s been a truly rewarding experience. There are few people in the theater scene whose vision and love for the art exceed Rob’s, and it’s been a real honor having him as our patron saint and champion, even when we took some serious mis-steps this past year. Rob never stopped telling us we were doing a good job and because of that- we did.

5) Kim Saunders and David Brown– my choreographer and music director, respectively, on Grey Gardens: the Musical at Custom Made Theater. Never before had I shared the helm with two co-pilots, and while I consider myself a collaborative director, it’s one thing to be a gracious guy in charge, and another to be one of the three. It wasn’t always easy, but it was ultimately incredibly redwarding, and I learned a lot from my intrepid co-creators and would work with either, or both, again, in a heartbeat because damn our show was fantastic and it would not have been the same without each of us being the incredibly talented, passionate, invested and only occasionally egotistical maniacs we are… I mean… were.

Finally, finally, one last shout out- to a non-Bay Area person who took a huge risk by producing my not-quite finished, totally bizarre vampire melodrama, Gone Dark, in a sinking 19th century church in Chicago this past Halloween: Otherworld Theatre Company’s artistic director Tiffany Keane. She’s not local, so I can’t give her a Stuey, but I wish she was local so I could- and believe me, you also wish she was local. A gifted visionary, I was lucky enough to see my show rendered in a world so real you could sink your teeth into it… but my favorite moment will remain her innovative staging of a direct address monologue written entirely in French. Designed to scare off all but the most intrepid directors, Tiffany indulged me and made it work and watching her (and the remarkable actress in the role, Mary-Kate Arnold) spin that moment into gold, was the most breath-taking moment of a most breath-taking year.

All the best, everyone. And thank you.

Note: In an effort to get this posted before the end of the year, it was decided to post the draft version. Spelling, grammar, and minor aspects of content thus may be edited over the course of the next few days.

The Real World – Theater Edition: An Interview With Stuart Bousel

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews the guy who writes all these bylines… amongst other stuff.

When I was thinking of people to interview for the last installment of this column in 2015, I immediately thought of Stuart Bousel, who is a writer, director, producer and leader of the Bay Area theater community. I’ve always been interested in what Stuart has to say about the future and where he sees the tide turning. I had to convince him that what he had to say would be interesting to others as well, but rest assured, he does not disappoint. What follows is an interview where Stuart shares his thoughts on where we’re at and where we could go. I find it inspiring as we look to 2016 and all of the projects on the horizon, the seeds that we planted that have now germinated, perhaps collectively we can move forward into a collaborative, thriving scene with lots of wonderfully imaginative new feats.

Stuart Bousel, winning the 2014 Outstanding World Premiere Award from TBA.

Stuart Bousel, winning the 2014 Outstanding World Premiere Award from TBA.

Barbara: What do you think the defining aspect of this year in Bay Area theater was and how it differed from years past?

Stuart: Okay, this is about to sound a little mystical and hokey, but I think we’ve been going through a sort of five year period of difficult but rewarding growth. Or maybe that’s just me projecting my personal life onto the theater scene, which I do all the time because I have a hard time drawing boundaries between my art and pretty much everything else on the planet.

Anyway, I think 2014 was a lot about new beginnings, things ending but also things starting and new relationships forming, and this year has been a lot about the difficulties of new beginnings once they are no longer “new”. Especially the realization that you often have to confront the past or various present issues AGAIN before you can really move on and really, truly emerge into some new and better place. So it’s been a difficult year, but a rewarding one, and I really think next year is going to be all about reaping the rewards because we’re finally gonna have shaken off the pretty intense crap we were carrying around but kept telling ourselves we were too busy to deal with (especially back in 2012, which I will always call “the Year of Treading Water”).

This year, finally knowing where we want to be, I think we finally started actually dealing with our crap and it was a bloodbath. But we’re emerging survivors and not just people who run away from our issues or hide behind constant rehearsal. We’re throwing away our crutches but we’re also throwing away our polite opera fans, as I like to call them, and I feel like I’m seeing more real conversations between people out there. There’s a lot of people starting to create new bridges to cross and ladders to climb, and that’s been born in a great deal of sweat, blood, and tears, but I think that’s going to create a period of immense freedom, creativity, and benevolence within the Bay Area theater community FOR the Bay Area Theater community. I think we’re getting better at wanting to see all of us succeed.

Barbara: Were there new or emerging developments in theater production, writing, directing, acting, etc. that struck you as interesting? How so?

Stuart: The biggest development for the theater community of the Bay Area, regardless of what your title is, has been the opening of the PianoFight space, hands down. Opening a two stage space with a cabaret bar and rehearsal studios attached is really such a huge thing to begin with but we’re only now, a year later, really seeing the impact.

One aspect is that the amount of theatre being done in San Francisco seems to have doubled. I’m not sure if statistically that’s true, but it seems like everyone I know is constantly in a show, going back and forth between the EXIT and PianoFight, both of which make creating small theater so much easier. The fact that both venues, with multiple stages, have been booked out for the whole year and well into next year demonstrates that not only is there a lot of activity going on in the small theater world, but it’s supported both by the artist community and the audiences. The demand is very high for new work, small productions with cheaper tickets, locally grown productions, and productions which are more than a theater experience, but also a night out, a place to discuss the work and engage with the community, and to watch both communities engage.

On the other hand, the greater impact might be as simple as we finally have a bar where everybody knows our names and now you know where to go if you need inspiration, or a sympathetic ear, or to just relax with people who get what you do. The only other place that’s ever felt that way, to me, is the hallways of the EXIT and the Green Room during the Fringe, but in the case of the former you have to be in or seeing a show at the EXIT to be part of that community, and in the case of the later it’s only for three weeks of the year. With PianoFight, even when you’re not in a show, the bar space is an open stomping ground where stimulating things are constantly happening and the people you want to work with are always hanging out or passing through. In the past when people have asked me to show them the local scene I’ve taken them to a show at the EXIT because it generally doesn’t get more San Francisco Real Theater than that. Afterwards, I now take them to the PianoFight bar because it provides the thing the Bay Area theater scene has always lacked in spades outside of specific events: common ground and social context.

Barbara: Reflecting back on trends that pop up in theater – anything that you saw a lot of? What are your thoughts on it?

Stuart: Without meaning disrespect to anyone or their work, I have to be honest… we seem to be coming to the end of the devised theater trend and I’m really happy to see it go. Not as happy as I was to see the puppets trend die (remember when like… everybody’s play had to have puppets?), or the requisite full frontal male nudity trend, but as a playwright I was really getting tired of being vaguely belittled by people who didn’t identify as playwrights and had never really studied the form, but felt that they and their troupe could more or less do what I do, and that I should basically consider myself a scribe whose artistic ambitions should be satisfied by typing up their notes.

I’m not saying you can’t make good devised theater because you can- A CHORUS LINE is devised theatre and it’s amazing- there is a ton of devised work out there that is fantastic- but for the last five years or so people have been acting like it’s the only theater worthy of doing. There’s a narrow perspective that it’s the last truly innovative form and people who fall into that mentality are often writing themselves a blank check for whatever they throw on stage on the premise that it’s innovative, while also upholding it as this sort of edgy revolution against the tyranny of the text (read: playwrights) and that’s just ridiculous. First because a playwright should be treated as a collaborator too, in any production devised or otherwise, and respecting a text doesn’t mean you have to be enslaved to it but finding that balance would require, you know, flexibility on all sides and many devised theatre makers seem to be ironically kind of stuck in their own process; second, the hoopla around the form feels ridiculous because a lot of devised work isn’t edgy or innovative, it’s just bad. Like truly bad. Not entertaining, relying heavily on experimental theatre cliches from three decades ago, taking itself far too seriously while also failing to be coherent. Granted, you could say that about a lot of text-based theatre too. There’s always a good version and a bad version of everything, but when a trend floods the marketplace, so to speak, it’s usually, and unfortunately, the hastily, poorly made crap cashing in on the trend that becomes pervasive.

I enjoy good devised work and I look forward to seeing more of it now that a whole bunch of people who shouldn’t be making it will have moved on to other stuff that they also probably shouldn’t be making and will probably make me feel oddly nostalgic for the devised theater trend. If I was to hazard a guess as to what that next trend will be… probably something like the Hunger Games. Just kidding, it’ll probably be something retro like masks.

Barbara: What do you wish we’d talk about more in the theater scene and why?

Stuart: Oh, where to begin. But I’ll just pick one: I wish we’d talk more about our failures.

I feel like so many people I know, good people, smart people, are struggling- especially producers and directors, who struggle with how to be good artists but also how to be good leaders- and the struggle is really real but we don’t talk about it.

Sure, we talk about how hard it can be to find affordable space, or to get cast, or to balance our art schedules with our day jobs, but I feel like all those things, while important, are also very much the superficial struggles of what do and we never talk about the deep dark things that trouble us like the shows that are born dead on arrival, or the real impact of artistic compromise, particularly over time in a career, or the value of what we do at all beyond keeping us off the streets. Though sometimes, I can be found on the streets, driven there by what I do- and I wish we talked about that too.

For an art form that is obsessed with truth (stupidly so, I think, because the truth is usually dull and almost never the truth anyway) it’s outstanding how much we, as artists, lie to one another, and for the same reasons pretty much everyone else lies: because we don’t want to deal with most stuff so we lie to make it easier. And sometimes it does make things easier, I don’t think lies in and of themselves are necessarily bad (and in our art itself I actually think people should lie as much as they can), but over time, cumulatively and constantly, it eventually creates a culture of superficiality that isn’t remotely supportive and is in fact quite alienating because suddenly you can’t be someone whose show is terrible, who doesn’t always say the right thing, or isn’t constantly excelling, and if you just happen to be someone going through that the expectation is that you are going to suck it up and go through it alone- EVEN THOUGH EVERYONE GOES THROUGH PERIODS LIKE THIS, especially if they have a career of substantial length.

I know that the fear regarding honesty is that people will suddenly just say whatever the fuck they like, whenever and wherever they can, and that suddenly we’ll know the truth about one another and how nobody really knows what they’re doing or why, and that a bunch of us really do hate one another’s work, and half of us have been lying to everybody about our actual qualifications or motivations to run theater companies and such, and there will be some of that, but in reality I think most people will remain polite and compassionate with one another and it’ll really be about finally asking for help, admitting our own shortcomings or limitations, and learning to be compassionate to ourselves once we realize that failure in this industry isn’t the anomaly- it’s the norm. Which means we’re all just normal people, and not the utterly delusional losers many of us secretly think we are.

Barbara: And what do you think we need to move past and why?

Stuart: We need to get over equating “success” in art with “financial success.” Like seriously- it’s so bourgeois and counter-visionary and I hate how many discussions and meetings and panels I find myself in where everyone is talking about what we do using the same matrix of success that WalMart does.

I am not saying money isn’t important or that artists shouldn’t be paid, and paid more/sufficiently. But too much, it seems, we let Money determine Art: from our seasons, to our collaborators, to the kinds of projects we pick or the extent to which we realize them. Money is a necessary evil, but it should never be our motivation or our conscience and it especially shouldn’t determine our value. The value of Art isn’t material even when the art itself is material- and it definitely shouldn’t be quantifiable and put on a spreadsheet so we can have a board meeting where we talk about who is ahead and who is lagging behind and decide if they’re a worthwhile person with a “real career” based on the percentage.

It kills my soul when I’ve heard “top performer” used the way a CFO would say it, by an Artistic Director or aspiring performer or whoever to talk about a popular actor, or trending writer, or designer, or whatever. And I bet it really murders the souls of all the non “top performer” artists listening in.

Barbara: Beyond discussion – what sort of action seems ripe for the scene to take now?

Stuart: I think now is the time for the Bay Area theater companies and artists (and it would be lovely if our Theater Support Organization would help with this) to make it clear to the regional theaters that they are not part of the community if they are not hiring the bulk of their artists locally. I’m not saying they should stop hiring from other places- we should always be open to and creating opportunities for guest artists- actors, directors, playwrights, whatever- because we have so much to learn from other artists working in other places- but we also need to start saying “and hey, you could learn from us too”, not to mention saying to our local artists, “what you do does indeed have merit and is good- even if you haven’t had it done in New York.”

Some prominent individuals aside, there is this general tendency to act like, and even occasionally vocalize, that there is “nobody good” in the Bay Area theater scene, the implied subtext being that anyone who might choose to stay and work here is doing so because they are not capable of making it anywhere else- usually LA or New York. The truth is, most the artists I know working here consider themselves on par with colonists attempting to form a new community with its own unique strengths and merits. And like colonists we are generally working in less than great conditions, impoverished for resources, and having to improvise, but we’re doing it because we believe in what we do and we’re trying to make a positive impact with our art on the world. Not because we like to be dirty, poor, and figuring out how to unclog the toilet before the audience shows up, and certainly not because we have no other options.

So having the fine ladies and gentlemen with Yale degrees and hoity-toity internships on their resumes give us the sneer because the pipes rattle in our theater we built by hand or because they have never heard of us since our work hasn’t been performed in the one city they think gets to determine artistic value, is neither endearing nor of value, it enriches none of us as individuals or our theater scene as a whole. There is so much local resentment towards the big houses but much of that resentment could be done away with, easily, if a lot of those Bay Area arts orgs who seem to be principally hiring anywhere BUT San Francisco and the Bay Area would make doing so their priority. I think the “the talent isn’t out there” lie would evaporate extremely quickly once the prejudice was overcome and if there WAS found to be some truth to it: well, what an excellent opportunity for our flagship companies to show their leadership skills and investment in the community by CULTIVATING the potential instead of just turning their nose up at whatever isn’t what they think they need to keep being whatever it is they they think they are.

What will save theater in the Bay Area is creating a culture of abundance and opportunities for those who are invested in creating a life here.

I look around and I see that happening in our small theater scene all the time, with people making stuff happen, as much as they can, on very little. But like most local artists I look at our flagship theater companies and I see… a crumbling fortress made of the same names and baggage that one often sees there, surrounded by a wall with a sign on it that makes it clear you’re welcome to buy tickets and that’s pretty much the only way you can ever expect to get in. Especially without that Yale degree.

And it’s frustrating because in addition to being shut out of the castle, you can also see- it’s falling apart. They are barely keeping it together. Which sucks- it used to be a really nice castle. And I get that they probably think we’re resentful punks who are part the problem. But you can’t expect the local peasants to tend a garden where only the imported ruling class gets to stroll.

Barbara: Overall, what’s your outlook for the future of the Bay Area theater?

Stuart: Honestly, I do think we’re at the beginning of a really good era. It’s been a ton of struggle the last few years because so many people I know have been building, burning, building again. But now these things have been built, the doors are open, plans are made and we’re finally smart enough to know we’ll need more than one plan.

I think it’s going to be a great time for small theater. The population of the city is young and while I know everybody likes to claim tech workers are not invested in local culture the truth is, they are, many of them are, but like most young people they want to see themselves and the things they care about in that culture- which is not an unreasonable request, nor does honoring that request mean a company can’t still do challenging or edifying work.

The small theater scene has been the best, I think, at rising to the new populace and inviting them in, creating work and spaces that appeal to them, while still also holding on to their old supporters and audiences. Small theater is so much about finding a good working paradigm and being flexible and this is a good time to be a pioneer and even better one to be a local trading post that stocks its larder with pioneers in mind. Recognizing and honoring both who your community is and who it will become is tricky, but we’re in a good place and time to do it or learn how to.

Barbara: Any words of wisdom for those who want to do what you do?

Stuart: Don’t compare yourself to other people. It really is the root of all problems. So don’t do it. And please tell me how you manage to not do it so I can learn how not to do it.

Only make art you want to make. Don’t ever do anything for the money or the exposure or because you’re bored or because you think this will be easier than getting “a real job”, or because other people think you should do it. Do it because you want to and you feel you can say something or learn something by doing it.

Also, stop “telling the truth” and stop “thinking small.” So much American theatre has gotten so small and weirdly obsessed with the truth (I blame social activists who think the arts are a tool of activism; real artists know it’s the other way around) and there should be more, big, grand theater. Even “small” theater can be huge- remember that. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of people to tell big stories, and small stories can be told in big ways. The point is, tell the stories, any way you want but with as much imagination as possible. And screw realism. Theatre is a medium of miracles.

Barbara: And plugs for shows, friends’ work, and just overall awesome things coming down the pike?

Stuart: Well, I’m seeing the KML Christmas show tonight, I hear it is delightful.

And I’m in the Theater Pub Christmas sing along on Monday- you should come, neither of my solos are in my range so it will be an amazing exercise in humbling myself before my peers but it’s also a lot of fun beyond that.

I’m really looking forward to seeing The Mousetrap at Shotgun later this month and everyone should keep their eye on Custom Made. They’re having an amazing season so far, and they have a lot of cool programing about to begin in the next year.

Also, I’m excited for the next season of Theater Pub. We have lots of new people coming in- writers, directors, actors. The goal really is to get Theater Pub back to what it was best at: being a people’s theater, a community theater for the theater community. We have a lot of cool stuff coming up that creates more opportunities for that and I can’t wait to see it come to fruition in the next year.

Stuart Bousel with the cast and crew of Grey Gardens- our own little community- including Jerry Torre- the real life "Marble Faun!"

Stuart Bousel with the cast and crew of Grey Gardens- our own little community- including Jerry Torre- the real life “Marble Faun!”

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: The Practical Magic of Props

Marissa Skudlarek, giving props to props.

Making theater means spending your life creating and re-creating other worlds onstage. Some of the tools we use to create these other worlds are abstract – language, gesture, spatial relationships. But there’s also a whole heap of tangible stuff that becomes part of the world of the play: sets, lighting, costumes, props. These items need to be carefully considered, and obtained, and maintained. October 2015 is Design Month on the Theater Pub blog, so, to kick things off, I asked friends and members of the community to share their favorite stories about props.

Playwrights have vivid imaginations, which means that scripts can sometimes require weirdly specific props. If a prop is mentioned in the stage directions but not the dialogue, you might be able to do without it, but if the characters discuss it, you’re probably on the hook for including it.

The Desk Set requires a plush rabbit that can conceal a bottle of champagne. In the production I was in this summer, we substituted a rabbit hand puppet, but it still caused some problems during a dress rehearsal.

Other shows require people to get more artsy-craftsy. Claudine Jones shared the following story on Facebook: “The plot of Angel Street literally hinges on a brooch that contains hidden jewels. The description in the script is so vivid, it’s almost impossible to fake. I set out to make a brooch that fit all these requirements: small enough to wear as an article of jewelry, easy to open and close, and able to hide “jewels” that are big enough to be recognized as such by the audience. A couple of weeks of trial and error, bizarre prototypes that went straight into the trash, and I finally succeeded. The main component was an old tuna fish can, painted gold, with a pin epoxied on the back and an overlapping series of metal triangles that formed a kind of iris that opened and closed. The “jewels”? 3mm ruby Swarovski crystals that shone like crazy. I think the playwright would have approved.”

 Oh, Tony Kushner and your weirdly specific, metaphorical props. Photo by Dale Ratner.

Oh, Tony Kushner and your weirdly specific, metaphorical props. Photo by Dale Ratner.

The play Slavs requires a Russian-style icon of St. Sergius of Radonezh with the face of Lenin. When Dale Ratner directed this play in graduate school, he commissioned someone to paint the icon on salvaged wood – and still has it in his living room. Alandra Hileman has a similar story from when she directed the short play Overtones, in which the characters discuss an “ugly but expensive” lamp. After searching in vain for a suitable 1910s-era lamp, Alandra “assembled this from a candlestick, a votive holder, and an LED tea light for like $5 total. It’s lived on our mantle since then because my mom thinks it’s adorable.”

Ugly but expensive? More like cute and $5! Photo by Alandra Hileman.

Ugly but expensive? More like cute and $5! Photo by Alandra Hileman.

Dale and Alandra aren’t the only people who’ve been known to take props home and use them as décor. For the last month or two of my freshman year of college, I lived with a stylized wrought-steel horse’s head hanging on the wall, because my roommate had been in a student production of Equus.

Theater is all about provoking emotion, and it can be either cathartic or harrowing to see something destroyed before your eyes. But what a nightmare it must cause for the props master! I’m thinking of plays like Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, where, at a climactic moment, the characters muss and dirty a pristine living room. Or, my friend Catherine Cusick shared the following story: “I did a play where a character pours a full bottle of vodka onto a MacBook laptop that we’ve seen working and being used for two hours onstage. My mom called me up out of nowhere during rehearsals asking if I still needed that. Turns out a neighbor had left a lookalike to the working laptop out on the side of her driveway. My mom walked right by and promptly swiped it.”

Speaking of finding props on the street… When I worked with director Katja Rivera on the production of my play Pleiades in summer 2014, I learned that she has what I call a “magpie superpower” – a preternatural ability to find cool and useful stuff on the sidewalks of Berkeley. This year, a record player that Katja found has starred in three productions in a row: Grey Gardens, at the Custom Made Theatre; The Desk Set, produced by No Nude Men; and The Real Thing, at Masquers Playhouse. You have to admit that’s a pretty snazzy resume – and such versatility too, going from the 1970s in the Hamptons to the 1950s in New York City to the 1980s in London without missing a beat! “Do I have an eye for talent, or what? I literally picked that baby up off the sidewalk, and he’s done three shows this year. Next stop Broadway!” Katja writes.

Katja’s record player got passed around between these three productions thanks to informal bartering and Katja’s generosity in loaning it out to friends. If a theater company maintains a proprietary stock of props and costumes, one can even more frequently see the same items appearing in multiple productions. Stuart Bousel recalls “a dress that appeared in five productions I directed in Tucson: a simple red ankle-length gown with a gathered bodice. It was made for a chorus member in Lysistrata, then used in the Oresteia, where it was worn by Clytemnestra. Then we used it in a comedy sketch about the Oresteia where it was worn by Cassandra, then in a production of Faust Part One, where it once again went back to the chorus, then a production of Salome, where it was worn by the Cappadocian (female in our version). I’m almost certain it was finally retired after that… but maybe not.”

In the first show I ever did in high school, I had a small role as a Russian noblewoman attending an opera, and got to wear a beautiful mink stole. I grew very attached to the stole and, later on in high school, basically insisted on wearing it again when I played Mrs. Luce in Little Shop of Horrors. It’s been over ten years, but in all likelihood, that stole is still being worn by teenage actresses at my high school. Though, if I’m honest with myself, I still think of it as “mine.”

Indeed, if you love a prop or a costume piece enough, you’ll find ways to keep reusing it. Catherine Cusick, again: “I worked with a theater in high school that made a papier-maché cow for a production of Into the Woods, but managed to slip it into any other show that could conceivably involve a cow on wheels.”

Marissa Skudlarek is a playwright, producer, and arts writer. She still wants a mink stole, especially now that it’s October. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Performance Anxiety

Dave Sikula… is nervous?

Last Saturday, I went to the San Francisco Silent Movie Festival to see The Donovan Affair, a 1929 movie that was both silent and not. “How is this possible?,” I hear you not asking. The answer is simple. The Donovan Affair was the first talking picture directed by Frank Capra (he of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life fame). While the film itself is intact (unlike so many movies from that period), the problem is that, in the 75 years since it was made, the soundtrack has vanished.

Considering it’s a movie about a murder investigation with an incredibly complicated plot (a ne’er-do-well is murdered when the lights are turned out during a birthday party – a stunt that is repeated twice, leading to both a second murder and the apprehension of the murderer), without dialogue, any viewer of the film is going to be stymied. Being that sound was recent to the movies in 1929, Capra and company packed it to the gills with talk, especially during the scenes where the lights are turned out and all the viewer sees is a black screen.

The Donovan Affair

The Donovan Affair

Bruce Goldstein, the legendary programmer at New York’s Film Forum, wanted to show The Donovan Affair as part of a Capra retrospective and hit upon the idea of taking the script and having a cast live-dub the movie in real time. The problem was that, not only has the screenplay also been lost to the mists of time, so has the script to the stage play the movie was based on.

While some of the dialogue could be intuited though lip reading, there are plenty of scenes with off-stage characters, actors with their backs to the camera, and the aforementioned blacked-out scenes. After a long, long search, Goldstein located a transcript in the by-then-defunct New York State Film Censorship Board’s archives that, while incomplete and obviously wrong in some places, was complete enough to allow him to proceed. The film was presented to great acclaim, and Goldstein had repeated the stunt a few times (I saw it at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2013), the most recent being the screening at the Castro, where, once again, a cast of live actors, a sound-effects man, and a pianist did the work.

The whole experience is great fun. The actors are skilled enough to tread the fine line of playing things deadpan while simultaneously being just over the top enough to acknowledge both the absurdity of the plot and the peculiarities of early sound film acting. (There are few things on the planet with less animation to them than Wheeler Oakman in The Lights of New York, the first all-talking feature. Coincidentally, Oakman appears in Donovan.)

That's not a still. That's Oakman's actual performance.

That’s not a still. That’s Oakman’s actual performance.

And that, at long last, brings me to this week’s topic: the ways in which we’re influenced by the performances of actors who have preceded us. Now, as good as Donovan’s modern-day cast was (and they were very good, indeed), they had to approximate – if not outright duplicate — the rhythms, cadences, and acting styles of their 1929 equivalents. If they did anything else – commenting on the performances, mocking them, sending them up – the whole thing would fall apart. The joke would be good for about 15 minutes before it stopped being funny. It’s the commitment of the voice actors to emulating the originals that makes it work at all.

All that said, it can’t help but be a little frustrating for those voice actors. Rather than having the freedom to pause a little here or emphasize or downplay something a little more, if they’re going to be faithful to the lip movements and actions of the original cast, they have to color within the lines, so to speak. There’s a certain creativity that is sparked for me (maybe even a freedom) when being restricted as to what I can do in a case like that. I don’t want to say I like directing with a small budget (because having an impressive physical production is nice), but when I’m forced to come up with a theatrical equivalent for something we just can’t afford, that’s when the creativity really starts.

I’m also reminded of this because of my current show, Grey Gardens, which I’ll mention again that you really should see (and that tickets are almost gone – even for our recently-announced extension). Anyone who is a fan of musical theatre has collected more than a few cast albums and listened to them over and over until the songs – and, more importantly, the performances of those songs – get locked into our brains. While this provides entertainment, it also provides a template that’s hard to break out of. Not that there’s only “one way” to perform a number (any more than there’s only “one way” to perform Hamlet or Hedda Gabler or Oscar Madison), but we get those voices and rhythms in our heads and it’s sometimes tough to break away. That said, anyone doing The Music Man, My Fair Lady, or Sweeney Todd is going to labor in the shadows of Robert Preston, Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, and Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou or George Hearn.

No, I don't have my lines written on my hand.

No, I don’t have my lines written on my hand.

I should note here that this is really a condition that’s more applicable to musicals than plays; the number of original casts of non-musical plays that have been immortalized on record (or even film) and listened to repeated times is miniscule. And the nature of musical theatre, with numbers written to be performed at certain tempos in more or less the same timespan as the originals kind of limits the options for later performers. I’m currently singing more or less the same notes John McMartin did in more or less the same tempos and times. I’m not duplicating what he did, but I’m working in a pretty tight structure.

Yes, we all want– and need – to bring our own unique qualities to the roles we play, but the originals are always lurking in the backs of our heads somewhere. Even if we specifically decide to not do what was done of the original cast album, that very reaction is a response. “I’m not going to sing ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right out of My Hair’ like Mary Martin; I’m just not.” That very denial of the template is an acknowledgment of it. Am I saying it’s impossible to bring fresh takes to old roles? Of course not. If that were the case, all you’d need to do is put a CD player on stage and save the expense of hiring actors. There are scores of brilliant Evitas and Roses and John Adamses every year doing things Patti LuPone and Ethel Merman and William Daniels never thought of. But, even if we’re working on original material, we’re either working within the frameworks that our predecessors have established or from the people and things we’re observed in our lives, and it’s that unique synthesis that brings new life to even the most tired and familiar material.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Sitting in Limbo

Dave Sikula, hanging in space.

An acquaintance of mine (I can’t call her a friend, even if we are Facebook friends) has a CD by this title, featuring the tune of the same name by Jimmy Cliff. The title and the song refer (as might seem pretty obvious) to the gap between the known, the expected, and what’s to come.

Waiting.

Waiting.

I feel particularly “in limbo” right now for a couple of reasons. The more immediate one is the one referred to in our last meeting: David Letterman’s retirement, which not only has now actually occurred, but (as I write this) is airing on the east coast. All day long, I’ve been in communication with my friends who were at the theatre during the taping. (They weren’t in the theatre, but actually stuck in Rupert Jee’s Hello Deli around the corner while security kept them from leaving while the show was being taped. Alec Baldwin’s and Jerry Seinfeld’s trailers were just outside the deli and many, many limos were parked on 53 rd St. while they waited.) From all reports, it’s quite a show, running 20 minutes longer than usual, and is likely to make me as much of an emotional mess as I expected (all day long, I’ve felt as though someone I know died), but I’m in limbo to see the actual results until the show airs here.

More specifically to this page’s usual mission, though, is my other feeling of limbo – and that one is actually a double one. As I’ve mentioned, I’m in the Custom Made Theatre Company production of the musical Grey Gardens. From what I can tell, it’s going to be a superb show. (I almost used the word “amazing,” but that’s a word that’s so overused that it’s really become meaningless.) I pretty much exempt myself from this assessment, in that it refers mainly to the women who play the various incarnations of the Beale women in the story. They are truly phenomenal performances, and not only am I astonished by what these women do every night, I’m honored to be part of a company with them. (And let me hasten to add that the men and girls in the company aren’t too shabby, either.)

Trust me; it's brilliant.

Trust me; it’s brilliant.

All that said, because of the vagaries of the space we’re working in, we’re off tonight (Wednesday), two nights before our first preview. Taking a break at a time like this (tech week) is always odd, in that we’ve added tech and costumes, and are gaining momentum when we suddenly have to hit the pause button and put ourselves in the limbo of taking a hiatus from the work we’ve been doing. I’m delighted for a night off and the chance to rest both mentally and vocally, but feel suspended between the past of the what we’ve done and the future of playing to actual audiences.

Which brings me to my last state of limbo: the gap between the impressions of the past and the present of the rehearsal process and the anticipation of and curiosity about not just the way audiences will receive the show, but the ways in which that reception will make the show grow.

I don’t think there’s ever been a show that I’ve done where there wasn’t at least one sure fire laugh or bit that failed to work and died a horrible death or something that, completely unexpectedly, played like a house on fire. (By the way, if you’re ever doing a show with me and think I’m doing something well, please don’t tell me that until the show’s over; otherwise, I’ll become totally self-conscious about it and it’ll never work that way again.)

The last couple of days of rehearsal for me are always bittersweet. There’s a sense of not being able to wait for an audience to see it – and to play off of – and at the same time, there’s a sense of loss; that it’s not “ours” or “mine” anymore; that something that’s been private until opening night is suddenly in the public domain and open to discussion, critique, and criticism (because I know, as good as this show is, there are going to be people who just plain won’t like it, or – worse – be meh about it).

But it’s all limbo; that state of knowing that not only have we done all we can, but we still have more to do, even if we don’t know what that is.

Theater Around The Bay: The Marble Faun Returns To Grey Gardens

It’s not a secret that the Executive Director, Stuart Bousel, is directing the San Francisco premiere of Grey Gardens: The Musical, at Custom Made Theatre Company (featuring TP columnist Dave Sikula). What you might not know is that for one night only, the show will be attended by Jerry Torre, affectionally known as “The Marble Faun” of Grey Gardens. In a guest story by Lawrence Helman, we tell you all about the event.

Custom Made Theatre Company takes great pleasure in presenting a rare on-stage interview with Jerry Torre: The Marble Faun of Grey Gardens on Sat. May 30, 2015 at 7:00 pm – before a performance of Grey Gardens: The Musical. Jerry is featured prominently in the 1975 iconic documentary GREY GARDENS by David & Albert Maysles. In a 2014 Sight and Sound poll, film critics voted Grey Gardens one of the best documentaries of all time.

big-edie-little-edie

Jerry came to live at the dilapidated mansion in the well-heeled town of East Hampton, Long Island NY and befriend matriarch Edith Beale – a reclusive socialite mother, and her adult daughter Edie Beale – the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – and was privy to what really went on when the cameras stopped rolling.

Jerry Torre appears in the documentary as the young gardener / handyman, as well as a close friend of the Beales. Jerry worked for Gerald Geddes who owned the mansion next door to Grey Gardens. After riding his bicycle past the decaying house many times (described in 1972 by the health department as “unfit for human habitation”), he finally decided to ride up the driveway and knock on the door. Little Edie met him at the door and upon first seeing him said “it’s The Marble Faun”, remembering the book by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Jerry offered his services as a gardener and was welcomed into their world.

3 shot lower res Jerry - by Al Maysles

After Jerry left the Grey Gardens, he traveled the world and enjoyed many rich experiences during the course of his life, including working alongside Wayland Flowers and his puppet “Madame” during their cabaret acts in the ‘70s, as well as working for the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia. He went on to drive a Taxi Cab for 20 years in NYC. Torre is now a sculptor and spends his time pursuing a lifelong ambition, carving stone at the prestigious Art Students of League of NY.

Jerry & Madame

Jerry Torre’s character plays a major role in the second act of Grey Gardens: the Musical, running at Custom Made Theatre, May 22 – June 21, 2015. He even has a song about him, the rather infamous “Jerry Likes My Corn”, fantastically performed by Bay Area actors Mary Gibboney, Heather Orth, and Nathan Brown.

grey-gardens-exterior-1970s

Jerry Torre will be interviewed on stage by his friend and Bay Area publicist
Lawrence Helman before a performance of Grey Gardens: The Musical on
Sat. May 30, 2015 at 7:00 pm – before the 8:00 pm show, at Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough Street (at Bush), SF 94109. Tickets are $100 – $150 and include the interview and performance of Grey Gardens: The Musical, and a post reception with Jerry Torre and the cast. All proceeds benefit Custom Made Theatre Co.

For Tix: http://www.custommade.org/meet-jerry or by calling 415- 798-2682

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Hashtag Goodbye Dave

No, Dave Sikula is not leaving, but he’s a little torn up about another Dave who is.

One thing about writing these blog posts is the regular schedule. I know that, no matter what else I do, every two weeks, I’ll be turning out an article bloviating about something or other.

But even as I write this, I know that, when my next deadline rolls around in a fortnight, I’ll be as depressed as I’ve been in a long time.

“Why?,” you may ask. “Because,” I would answer, “I’ll be writing in the absence of David Letterman.” Dave and I have a long history together. It’s not like I’ve ever met the man, though I have seen his show live (I think) seven times, but he’s been a big part of my life for, damn, nearly 40 years.

david-letterman-retirement

I’ve long admitted I didn’t like his standup when he was beginning. There was something about it – and him – that I found kinda smarmy, so it took me a while to watch his morning show that aired in 1980. But once I discovered that show, I became a fan for life, and I realized the other day that his humor and comedy have been major influences on me for more than half of my life, and certainly almost all of my adult life. (And when you consider that I’ve missed only a handful of David Letterman Shows, Late Shows with David Letterman, and no Late Nights with David Letterman, it’s in the neighborhood of 6,000 hours – nearly eight solid months – I’ve spent watching the guy.)

I’m not alone in this, well, obsession. Since 1993, I’ve been part of an online group that tracks, discusses, and dissects the show – and Dave – and those people have become some of my dearest friends, even if I’ve actually met most of them only a few times.

(You’ll have to excuse me. Tina Fey just stripped down to her underwear on Dave’s show.)

Where was I?

Ah, yes; the AFLers. Back in the early days of the Internet, there was a thing called Usenet, which allowed people with similar interests to gather and post about them. (Usenet still exists in a vastly altered form. Most of the content was overwhelmed by spammers and trolls, and the remainder was more or less absorbed by Google.) Most of these groups had names that were prefaced with the prefix “alt” or “rec,” and alt.fan.letterman was one of those many thousands of groups. The people of AFL are some of the finest I know, and knowledgeable about many, many things outside of late night talk shows. We have doctors, educators, editors, musicians – including a musicologist who’s become the unofficial official archivist of the show. (Seriously, his New York apartment is apparently filled to capacity with VHS tapes of virtually every broadcast Dave has ever done.) Not to mention, we even have current and past writers for the show as members. (The Usenet group has long since migrated to Facebook.)

The AFLers; I'd rather be with them than with the finest people. You can just see my head peeping up there in the middle.

The AFLers; I’d rather be with them than with the finest people. You can just see my head peeping up there in the middle.

Every year, the AFLers gather in New York for “Davecon” to see the show live and in person, have dinner, crack wise, and (for the newbies) get a tour of the Ed Sullivan Theatre – yes, I’ve stood on the spot where the Beatles performed and sat behind Dave’s desk – and just gather. Over the years, we’ve come to know staffers, writers, and producers from the show – even the security guy. (And Rupert Jee, who owns the Hello Deli next door to Dave’s theatre? Nicest and most modest guy in the world.) This year will (obviously) be the last assemblage (and I have to miss it, dammit; it’s during our preview week for Grey Gardens – which you should see, since it’s going to be a remarkable show, even with me. But I know where my heart will be Monday the 18 th at 3:30 pm PT), but the memories of Davecons past will linger.

What was really happening behind that desk.

What was really happening behind that desk.

Now, in spite of all of that, I was sure that, given how, in recent years, the show isn’t what it once was (Dave’s lost a lot of interest in doing the show, it feels like), that when it was over, I’d be sad, but not too much so, But now that the number of remaining shows is in the single digits, I’m starting to feel the loss already, and know I’m going to be a mess when Paul Shaffer and the band hit that final final note to end the show.
The thing that got me thinking about all of this tonight was that, as we were leaving rehearsal tonight, I mentioned that I had no idea what I was going to write about this week (is it that obvious?), and one of my fellow cast members, who is determined to turn my name into a hashtag, said I should write about that. I begged off, thinking it as uninteresting as I am, the idea of becoming any kind of a meme is even moreso. But it did remind me of how, not only are the AFLers responsible for a couple of my favorite nicknames, but turned me into an acronym that also doubles as a hashtag I’m happy to use. (Seriously; it’s in the Urban Dictionary on the prestigious Internet.)

At this point in an article, I usually try to bring a couple of seemingly unrelated points together in an effort to make a larger point, but I have to admit I got nothin’ in that regard this time. Being in rehearsal, I haven’t had time to see anything to comment on, really. (Other than Stupid Fucking Bird at SF Playhouse, which is a really interesting production and has been sticking in my head, not for the least reason that it’s making me rethink my approach to translating Chekhov; that and Sister Play at the Magic, which was really good and criminally underlooked.) What’s been at the forefront of my mind in terms of “entertainment” and art has been Dave Letterman.

So, while this hasn’t been the most incisive, analytical, or insightful of articles, it is the smallest of explanations for why I’m both so thankful for a man who’s played a major part in shaping American comedy for the last 40 years and a warning that in two weeks, I won’t be in much of a mood to write.