Theater Around the Bay: Tanya Grove, Caitlin Kenney, & Vince Faso of “Where There’s a Will” & “Why Go With Olivia?”

The Pint-Sized Plays just got a great review (complete with Clapping Man) from SF Chronicle theater critic Lily Janiak, and they have 1 more performance, next Monday the 29th. In the meantime, here’s another in our interview series with Pint-Sized folks.

Vince Faso is directing 2 shows in Pint-Sized this year: “Where There’s a Will” by Tanya Grove, and “Why Go With Olivia?” by Caitlin Kenney. In “Where There’s a Will,” Will Shakespeare  (Nick Dickson) visits a contemporary bar and finds inspiration in an unlikely source: a young woman named Cordelia (Layne Austin), whose dad is about to draw up his will. Meanwhile, Lily’s review aptly describes “Why Go With Olivia?”  as “an epistolary monologue from perhaps the world’s most ruthless email writer, played by Jessica Rudholm.”

Here’s our conversation with Caitlin, Vince, and Tanya!

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Caitlin Kenney at Crater Lake.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized this year?

Caitlin: I live with someone wrapped in the SF theater community, who has attempted submitting before, and thought I had as good a chance as any of piecing something together.

Vince: I’ve been an SF Theater Pub fan for a long time, been in a few productions, directed a little, but Pint-Sized was one I have always been interested in being a part of, and as I seem to be transitioning to more directing, I seized the opportunity, and am excited to be involved.

Tanya: I have two friends who’d had their plays in the festival last year, so I went to support them and had so much fun that I wanted to take part myself!

What’s the best thing about writing a short play?

Caitlin: Drinking several beers while making a verbal list of pie-in-the-sky ideas with no judgement.

Tanya: While I’m writing, I’m also imagining the performance in my head, so it’s like going to the theater all the time, which is my favorite thing to do!

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Vince: I’m probably not alone in saying that the actors I’m working with make it special. I’ve always loved seeing Jessica Rudholm perform, and practically jumped out of my chair at the chance to direct her for a second time. And I’ve worked on several shows with Nick Dickson and Layne Austin, and it doesn’t hurt that they live around the corner and we get to rehearse in my living room. Also, the pieces I’m directing are brilliant in their simplicity, and clever in the flexibility they lend the actors.

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Tanya Grove has a head full of ideas.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Tanya:  I often have lots of ideas going in many directions, and I have to remind myself to simplify. You can usually get across the same message whether you have a cast of two or twenty, ten minutes or two hours, one scene or three acts. Because one of my day jobs is being an editor, I’ve learned to pare ruthlessly to get to the essence of text.

Caitlin: Personally, I think it’s planting the first seed. For me this means to stop poo-pooing every idea I have and actually start typing something.

What’s been most troublesome?

Vince: Finding rehearsal time for a festival like this is always a challenge.

What are your biggest artistic influences?

Tanya: My current playwriting hero is Lauren Gunderson. I think she’s brilliant. But my style is more William Shakespeare meets Tina Fey…

Caitlin: Richard Brautigan, Joni Mitchell, Sense and Sensibility, and Google (to answer my formatting questions).

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

Vince: Meryl Streep, because while she is arguably the best around, she seems like she’d be a very giving actor to work with.

Tanya: When I was in high school I had a crush on Richard Dreyfuss, so I guess I would cast 1977 Richard Dreyfuss as my Will. That’s as good a reason as any, right?

Caitlin: Any sparkle-charming person with insecure confidence…how about Zoe Kazan? I’ve been watching the Olive Kitteridge miniseries and she’s hard not to watch.

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush? That is… what actor would you love a chance to work with?

Vince: Such a hard question! At the risk of straying off topic: I’ve worked with them before, but Scott Baker and Performers Under Stress always give me an intellectual and emotional challenge.

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What other projects are you working on and/or what’s next for you?

Vince: As an actor I’m excited to get started on a production of King Lear for Theater Pub that goes up in November. As a director, I’m been gearing up for a production of Hamlet with my 7th and 8th graders at Redwood Day in Oakland where I teach. That will also go up in November.

Caitlin: I‘ve got a one-act for middle-schoolers going about a mindfulness-based therapy group with participants vaguely reminiscent of Hamlet characters. I’m finding it really hard to sit down and “crank it out,” but if I do, it will probably be entertaining.

Tanya: In September I begin my fourth season as a playwright for PlayGround, so I’m gearing up to write a short play each month. I’m more productive when I have an assignment and a deadline, so the challenge of writing a play in four days based on a prompt works well for me.

What upcoming shows or events in the Bay Area theater scene are you most excited about?

Caitlin: I went to the Oakland BeastLit Crawl and fell hard for spontaneous storytelling, so I am looking forward to one day spitting in the mic at StorySlam.

Tanya: I’m looking forward to seeing what Josh Kornbluth ultimately creates from his time volunteering at Zen Hospice. I’m a Josh fan from way back.

Vince: Events like Pint-Sized and the Olympians Festival that allow original works to be read or staged are a must for keeping the independent theater scene in San Francisco alive.

What’s your favorite beer?

Vince: I’m a sucker for a good IPA, but if a bar is serving Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale then I have to get it.

Caitlin: The Barley Brown Hot Blonde – spiciest, sexiest beer around. Though not around, because it’s brewed in Northeastern Oregon and they don’t distribute anywhere good for me or you.

Tanya: I used to drink a lot of Corona, but I think I’m more of a Hefeweizen gal now. I don’t have a favorite brand, though. Any recommendations?

Your final chance to see “Where There’s a Will,” “Why Go With Olivia?” and the other Pint-Sized Plays is on Monday August 29th at PianoFight at 8 PM! Don’t miss it!

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Follow the Vodka: Everyday Theatricality!

Robert Estes, theater’s super-tailgater.

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Ah, the dedication of the night columnist! Late on a Monday night, I’m still diligently laboring at the newest gin joint in the city, White Chapel (600 Polk Street). This place is a fantastical recreation of an abandoned tube station in London; well, except that the station in question, White Chapel is actually still operating. Here, though, the imaginary abandoned station has become a lovingly rendered 1890s gin palace.

When I first looked at White Chapel’s extensive drink menu, I fell in love with the two page listing of twenty-two drinks under the heading “The Martini Family.” Who knows if the dates and descriptions given to all the drinks are academically accurate; I’m not interested in fact-checking the menu, only drink-checking it. So, tonight I began my ginventure by having the first drink on the list, the Pink Gin (dated 1840s), composed of Plymouth Gin and angostura bitters.

I love that the early reviews for this place kept mentioning all the “fake” things about the recreation, such as fake water damage. My theater self couldn’t help but say, it’s not fake, it’s distressed, it’s Theater!

Indeed, it’s fascinating to realize how many bars in the city have become insanely popular by creating an immersive theatrical experience for their drinkers, I mean patrons. An entity called Future Bars now owns nine different local bars, all theatrically presented, ranging from the just opened Pagan Idol tiki bar to the old-standby Bourbon and Branch speakeasy.

It makes me think that so often in theater we wonder how to attract an audience, yet somehow people outside of us, use our rough magic to create very popular events. Even real estate agents know in their bones how important it is to the sale price of a property for it to be properly “staged” at the open house.

On a much greater scale, the mass popularity of sports rests on a ham-handed strict adherence to the principle of dramatic conflict. The “classic matchup” between this team and that one or this player and that one sells all! And franchises encourage theatricality on the part of their fans. One of the joys of going to a sporting event in person is to experience the unconscious theatricality of everyday people as they come to cheer on their team.

I always laugh to myself when I happen to be on a Sunday morning BART train on the day of a Oakland Raiders home game. Raiders fans are legendary for their elaborate costumes, intricate makeup, and outlandish accessories! I would love to compliment them on their detailed and beautiful theatricality, but I also wish to retain my front teeth, so I just smile to myself. But if you ever get the chance, I highly recommend surreptitiously checking out the character-specific costuming choices of the rebel/pirate/Star Wars/Hells’s Angel’s Raider Nation.

And on a smaller, humbler, yet just as faithful way, please notice the down-scale yet touching outfits of the long-suffering A’s fan. They still wear player jerseys from the 1970s. Being the team of my single-digit -year days (oh the love of an 8 -and-a-half-year-old for his team), I still am, on the inside, a fan wearing my Dad’s San Francisco Giants cap inside-out in shame in the bleachers in 1969, when that area was known as Reggie’s Regiment. It was a cold night and my dad would not let me go bare-headed.

Just the other day, after spending the last ten months indoors in rehearsal and performance for five consecutive shows, I happily returned to the Coliseum for a day game. Once again, I couldn’t help but feel the connection in so many ways between baseball and theater. Both are places of memories. There are ghosts on the playing field just as on the playing stage. Looking out at the infield where the shortstop plays, I see Campy Campaneris, Rob Picciolo, Alfredo Griffin, Walt Weiss, just as when I look at various Bay Area stages, I see Tony Amedola, Lorri Holt, John Bellucci, Michelle Morain, Sarah Moser.

I still remember the first that I saw James Carpenter. He was a young man in Otherwise Engaged at the Berkeley Rep in 1984. Like most theatergoers, I’ve seen him so many times since then, all the way from his nervous comic performance in Paint it Red at the Rep to a slithery Stanley in The Birthday Party at the Aurora. It was kind of a shock when he started playing the older, patriarchal “ravenous Earls” in Shakespeare. (Maybe we’ve both gotten older!) Still, it’s been fun to follow his career. Just like it’s been fun to follow my favorite baseball players as a fan.

kind of wish that theater had more of the “true fans” just like baseball. The true fan attends the game even if their team isn’t doing very well. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a devoted group of people who rooted for us! Let’s go, PianoFight! Three-peat! Well, maybe PF does have those fans! Seriously, though, as my previous night column touched on, it would be great if we could support theater without it always having to be (allegedly) amazing.

Yet we’re kind of lucky in theater when compared to athletes, because everything we do is subjective. Pity the poor baseball player who’s having a bad year! Could you see your worst review being highlighted every day by the theater company where you perform? In baseball, every team shows the player’s statistics before every at-bat. “Now standing at the plate to deliver To Be or Not to Be, the actor with the .198 batting average for the season!” Shudder.

Perhaps perversely, I admit that I actually enjoy going to baseball games when my team isn’t doing as well. It’s almost like going to an audition as the marginal players engage in a Darwinian struggle to remain alive in the show (major leagues). I remember one actor saying that he thought certain audience members deliberately chose to attend the first preview of every show because they wanted to see a trainwreck. Of course, life-long humiliation is one of darker sides to sports…who will ever forget the name of the Boston Red Sox’s first baseman who let the ground ball go through his legs in a World Series game thirty years ago?

In the make-believe of theater, where every corpse arises for a joyful linking of hands for the curtain call, we all live for another day, I hope without humiliation. Still, it takes bravery for actors to be absolutely vulnerable in front of so many people. The nerves of the athlete under pressure must surely be like the nerves of the actor. And for the fans, it is their personal nerves in watching that bind them to the emotional event of the game or the play.

Personally, baseball has influenced my work in theater. Last summer, I directed an adapted version of Henry IV parts 1 and 2 called Falstaff! in which the great rogue was played by six different women. The women would also play other roles and the men changed roles as well, so Prince Hal could be Poins and vice versa. The first performance or two was kind of confusing as we worked out the switches, but as the production moved forward, I was pleased that the show developed a great feeling of generosity as everyone had an equal part in carrying the whole play. By the end it was actually like a baseball game where everyone gets their turn at the plate. And for the audience, it was exciting because they weren’t quite sure who they would see playing what role next.

I’ve often thought that the advantage of sports over theater is that we don’t know what will happen in sports. Why couldn’t we, just one time, with no announcement, alter the ending to one of Shakespeare’s plays? Wouldn’t it be great if Emilia said, “Hey, wait a minute, I gave that handkerchief to my husband”? Could you imagine the gasps from the audience at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival if they did that? There could be riots!

Perhaps the appeal of the Shotgun Players’ current Hamlet (running for the next year!), where everyone in the cast learned the entire show and each actor is assigned their part for a particular performance only 5 minutes before show time, comes from each show being part theater and part sports. You really don’t know what will happen each night. And, being honest, there’s a higher chance of a trainwreck on stage each night, which again, is part of the appeal of sports. I wonder if each show seems to the actors like an athletic game, where nightly success or failure is a more open question than in a conventional production.

But then in baseball, we see success and failure in every game. We also see practice. Yes, go the park two hours before game time and you can see batting practice. I wonder if it would be possible to open our theater houses early and let our fans (oh again, how I would love to have fans) see the vocal warm-ups or fight call. For the true fans that would really make attending theater like attending a baseball game!

Well, how much of all of this found synchronicity between baseball and theater is just fine Plymouth gin speaking? This 1840s-era drink is fiery and it’s numbing my tongue! Now as the bar closes and my rambling thoughts on the connections between baseball and theater grow ever more tenuous, I’ll just say Play Theater!

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Just Call Him Snakespeare

Marissa Skudlarek provides a snake-a-licious dessert course to yesterday’s Harry Potter smorgasbord.

In yesterday’s blog post, Ashley Cowan provided an introduction to the traits of the four Hogwarts houses, and then we Sorted seven of our favorite playwrights. But what about the Big Guy, the man we celebrate every April but especially this April (because as of April 23, the world has been bereft of him for four hundred years), the playwright whose works haunt and taunt every other English-language writer, Mr. William Shakespeare? What Hogwarts house does he belong in?

Ashley’s and my Sorting of playwrights was inspired by this piece in The Toast about Sorting 19th-century British novelists. In the comment section of that piece, someone suggested that Shakespeare was a “Ravenclaw who hung out with Hufflepuffs for inspiration,” which I kind of love, because it makes him sound like a real-life version of his character Prince Hal: a reserved, cerebral type who was often found in the company of earthier, jollier folks.

But upon further reflection, isn’t Prince Hal a Slytherin who hangs out with Hufflepuffs at the pub? (Hal isn’t intellectual enough to be a Ravenclaw, and his “Herein will I imitate the sun” soliloquy is pure Slytherin cunning.) And – strange as it sounds at first – mightn’t Shakespeare be a Slytherin, too?

Don’t be shocked. J.K. Rowling’s novels certainly paint Slytherins in a very sinister light, but it seems kind of illogical for one-quarter of all British wizards to be assigned to a house that represents pure evil. Therefore, many Harry Potter fans take a revisionist line on Slytherin. According to the Sorting Hat, Slytherins are “power-hungry” and “ambitious,” but those qualities need not always be yoked to amorality or corruption. Voldemort is the most famous Slytherin, but not all Slytherins are Voldemort. What Slytherins have in common is ambition, drive, resourcefulness, flexibility, and the cunning (if not necessarily the poison) associated with their mascot, the serpent.

For proof that you can be a Slytherin and still a good guy, as well as a talented and word-drunk playwright, take a look at Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda’s public persona is upbeat, nerdy, earnest, and amiable – pretty much as far from Voldemort as you can get. But he is incredibly driven and accomplished (note the inspirational meme that says “Remember, you have just as many hours in the day as Lin-Manuel Miranda”) and he identifies as a Slytherin.

He's got Professor Snape hair and a shiny green suit that makes him look like a snake. Yep. Definitely a Slytherin. (Photo credit: Sara Krulwich)

He’s got Professor Snape hair and a shiny green suit that makes him look like a snake. Yep. Definitely a Slytherin. (Photo credit: Sara Krulwich)

So, why do I think Shakespeare was a Snake? First, his plays deliver a fantastic rogue’s gallery of Slytherin villains and anti-heroes: Richard III, Prince Hal, Iago, Shylock, Edmund, Macbeth and his Lady. Indeed, Macbeth is basically a treatise on What It’s Like To Be Slytherin. These are incredibly memorable characters that created the template for the self-delighted, crafty, manipulative villains that we still see in movies and TV today. Shakespeare also enjoys playing with the audience’s sympathies, sometimes making us cheer these characters’ wicked deeds: the more evil Richard is, the more we love him. I think that any kind of playwright can write a Slytherin villain, but it takes a Slytherin playwright to make us like or sympathize with that villain.

Even many of Shakespeare’s non-villainous protagonists show the Slytherin traits of cunning, resourcefulness, and a willingness to bide their time till their plans come to fruition. Rosalind, in As You Like It, dressing up as a boy in order to train the man she loves to treat her better? Slytherin. All of Portia’s actions in The Merchant of Venice – mocking her suitors, waiting till the very last moment to save Antonio from the knife, and all that manipulative business with Bassanio’s ring in Act V? Totally Slytherin. And, while it may seem folly to sort as complex a character as Hamlet into a Hogwarts house, his feigning of madness in order to quietly pursue his goals is a very Slytherin move.

Shakespeare understood the dark side of human nature, even if he did not fall prey to it himself. He was an unusually empathetic Slytherin, to be sure, but a Slytherin nonetheless.

Shakespeare didn’t just write Slytherin characters well and frequently. Though much of his life is a mystery, what little we do know is consistent with a Slytherin Sorting. He was an ambitious writer and a shrewd businessman. He went from being a provincial nobody to being a leading shareholder in the king’s own company of players. His plays flattered the monarch and nobility; he enjoyed thinking about power, and he enjoyed being close to power. He clearly valued knowledge, but I think he valued it in a Slytherin way, as a means to the end of writing good plays, rather than valuing knowledge for its own sake, as a Ravenclaw does. It is notoriously difficult to discern Shakespeare’s own personality or political views from reading his plays; he was slippery, like a snake. And, at the end of his life, he had “Cursed be he that moves my bones” chiseled on his tomb, and isn’t that a Slytherin epitaph?

It’s also interesting to contemplate the Slytherin strain in Shakespeare fandom: I am of course speaking of the Oxfordians, who assert that Shakespeare’s plays must have been written by a nobleman rather than a glovemaker’s son from Stratford. In Harry Potter, the Slytherins are the only House obsessed with “blood purity” and aristocracy, and the Oxfordians seem to have a similar obsession.

Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, St. George’s Day, and popular tradition says that he was born on St. George’s Day as well. George, who according to legend slew a dragon or serpent, is the patron saint of England; and England, like Gryffindor, is represented by a red lion. Meanwhile, Shakespeare is almost a secular patron saint of England, but make no mistake: he was no lion. He was the serpent.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and Ravenclaw. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Angels in an American Election Year

Marissa Skudlarek, on politics, history, and Angels In America.

One way you can tell a play is great is by how frequently other things remind you of it. And over the past year, I’ve been reminded of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America numerous times. When the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage is legal across the land, I thought of Prior Walter’s affirmation in the last scene of Angels: “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.” More recently, when I read that Roy Cohn was one of Donald Trump’s political mentors, I knew just why that’s so scary: Cohn was an unrepentant McCarthyite, a power-hungry liar, and, in Angels, one of the great stage villains of modern times. And last Friday, when Hillary Clinton made her gaffe about how the Reagans had “started a national conversation on AIDS,” I thought of Angels’ depiction of AIDS in the ‘80s, and how this play has educated me about an era that I am too young to remember.

This year also marks the silver anniversary of Angels: the world premiere of Millennium Approaches and the first public staged reading of Perestroika took place at San Francisco’s own Eureka Theater in May 1991. So how has the play aged, and what it’s like to perform it in our current political climate? As it happens, Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette is just finishing up an ambitious production of Angels – they produced Millennium Approaches around this time last year, then brought the whole cast back for Perestroika this year. My friend Alan Coyne is playing Joe Pitt in that production, and he, two of his castmates, and director Joel Roster agreed to talk with me by email. They all provided incredibly beautiful and thoughtful responses that I almost feel sad to have had to edit for length – which just goes to testify to the complexity and enduring power of Kushner’s play.

Marissa: What’s it like performing this big, complicated, American play during a contentious election year? Have the past year’s events shaped the way that you approach Perestroika?

Kerri Shawn (Hannah Pitt): The past year’s events have deepened this experience for me and everything about this journey has become even more meaningful and important. I do not usually talk about my political views openly. I listen a lot and pay attention to everything but I do not get into heated discussions or debates about the news. However, I have loved being with this particular group of artists during this time. We have had some wonderful discussions in the dressing room about all of the political issues the play brings up. I have also felt the audience’s reaction to our production has deepened because of current events, especially everything going on with the election.

Alan Coyne (Joe Pitt): The lead-up to the same-sex marriage ruling was a huge part of our lives during Millennium Approaches. I think we were pretty confident it was about to happen, so it made Prior’s assertions of his rights and the general theme of progress seem all the more prophetic. But of course, we still weren’t quite there, and there was some anxiety that it might not get through. Millennium Approaches demonstrates with painful clarity what happens when you deny same-sex couples their human rights: Louis’ secretive behavior with Prior at his grandmother’s funeral; the lack of official sanction for their relationship; Joe and Harper’s terribly damaging relationship, in part due to marriage between a man and a woman being the only available option. So it felt like we were fighting, in a small way, on the right side in that struggle.

Joel Roster (director): The music that permeates our soundtrack for both parts of Angels is from the late 1960s–a contentious, blood-sweat-and-tears time in our nation’s history, smack dab in the heart of civil rights and war. The reason for this (as opposed to using music from the 1980s) is that history does repeat itself for those who fail to acknowledge or learn from it. When a prominent Presidential candidate is fanning racial hatred and prejudice, there’s never been a more important time to learn from our own history. I wouldn’t say that today’s events have shaped our approach to the piece, but we’d be foolish not to acknowledge the startling similarities.

Alan: With Perestroika, Donald Trump has come up a lot in our dressing-room conversations. I first found out his ties to Roy Cohn right before we started rehearsal for Perestroika, from the epic Funny Or Die version of Art of the Deal, starring Johnny Depp. I highly recommend everyone watch it, because it is (horrifyingly) one of the few accurate and detailed accounts of Trump’s rise to power. We’ve made a point of bringing up Trump’s relationship to Cohn at every talkback, because once you know about it, it is terrifyingly obvious.

LaMont Ridgell (Belize): Our marvelous dramaturge Meg Honey helped us put the show and our characters in perspective by revealing to us what was actually happening during the time of the play, politically and historically. I believe the current election proceedings, make the play even more relevant — most, if not all of the themes are still true today. I was very disappointed in Hillary’s comments regarding Nancy Reagan – and while she apologized twice, she said very little about the Reagans and their indirect and sometimes direct responsibility for so many men and women dying of AIDS. They simply did nothing.

Alan: There was definitely a different energy on the night after Hillary Clinton’s comments at Nancy Reagan’s funeral, more anger in our performance. Perhaps it made us feel that what we were doing was more important, that people were starting to forget what it was like in the ‘80s, the silence that cost so many people their lives.

Marissa: Has the audience reaction been different this year, compared to last year?

LaMont: This year’s audience has been with us for the long haul, so after the time they invested in getting to know the characters and their stories, they get a huge payoff with Part 2. And the stories are very real… not wrapped up neatly with a nice, shiny bow. Also, in Part 2, you’re witness to more characters. Belize and Hannah aren’t as prominent in Part 1, but in Part 2, their characters are fleshed out more.

Joel: There’s a lot more laughter. Kushner stated that he framed Millennium Approaches as a tragedy and Perestroika more as a comedy. For a play where AIDS is such a prominent focus, only one character dies: the villain of the piece. I always think of it as one play, as does the cast, but the reaction has mostly been “I liked this even more than Part One.” Part One is mostly tragic exposition and set-up for the explosion that is Part Two, and I think that Part Two is far more hopeful; perhaps that’s why it’s been received even better than Part One has been. Millennium Approaches was the best-reviewed play in Town Hall’s history, but that was shattered this year by the overwhelming critical response to Perestroika.

Alan: I think we’ve had bigger crowds this year. This could be due to a number of factors; it seemed like a couple of people who came to Millennium Approaches last year didn’t know what to expect (I think they thought it was a nice play about angels like It’s a Wonderful Life, which Jerry Motta & I were in at Town Hall the previous December). Also, the first part gets done a lot more often (though that’s not doing the play justice at all!), so perhaps folks have come to see Perestroika because they haven’t had a chance to see it before. Millennium Approaches won a few Shellie Awards, including Best Production, so that could have had an effect. And perhaps the same-sex marriage ruling made more straight people realize that “gay theater” is actually the same thing as, you know, theater.

Kerri: So many audience members came last year and are now returning. Often they tell us that they enjoyed Perestroika in a deeper way and that they’ve loved seeing how the story resolves. Many companies only do Millennium but is clear after this experience that the two need to be done together. Both parts are brilliantly written! It is a very powerful story – and it still needs to be told!

Marissa: Are there any lines in the play that particularly stick out for you as having relevance to our current historical moment?

Alan: Everything Roy Cohn says sounds like Donald Trump, only smarter. His racist provocations, his absurd boastful posturing, his dismissal of “losers,” his gloating at being the “dragon sitting atop the golden horde.” In Perestroika he says “Half the time I just make it up, and it still turns out to be true” and “You feel bad that you beat somebody…everybody could use a good beating.” So it’s no surprise that Cohn was Trump’s mentor; the big surprise is that Kushner literally forgives Cohn. Of course, it’s easier to forgive the dead. But the best lines are the universal ones, because ultimately, Angels in America is a universal story. People frequently write it off as a “play about AIDS,” which is rather like calling Hamlet a “play about 12th-century Danish politics.” It’s hugely important that the ‘80s AIDS crisis is the setting, but this play is about so much more: love, loss, abandonment, hope, theology, progress, forgiveness… you know, Life. At the end of the play, when Prior addresses the audience — “You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life” — it hits. Every single time. But you have to live through it all for the magic to work.

Joel: In Prior’s final monologue, he also says “We will not die secret deaths anymore. We will be citizens. The time has come. The world only spins forward.” That sticks with me a lot, as does Belize’s diatribe about the state of America: “I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing sounds less like freedom to me.” The fact that in Part One Louis says that “Justice is God” and then we learn in Part Two that God has abandoned us, abandoned heaven and the angels… it says a great deal about where we are in America.

LaMont: Prior’s closing monologue and my (Belize’s) “I hate America” monologue, definitely. When I’m asking Louis to bless Roy: “It’s not easy… it doesn’t count if it’s easy. It’s the hardest thing. Forgiveness.” And my line regarding the angel’s visit: “That’s malevolent. Some of us didn’t exactly CHOOSE to migrate! You know what I’m sayin’?” Overall, it’s been kinda weird playing Belize because I’ve been him. More times than not feeling “trapped in a world of white people!” — so to speak.

Kerri: Prior’s speeches in both the Angels Council scene and at Bethesda will stay with me long after the play closes. In the council scene he says: “But still, bless me anyway. I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do… We live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough, so inadequate but… Bless me anyway. I want more life.” I have been acting for over 40 years and have had the privilege of working on the stories of many great playwrights including O’Neill, Williams, Miller, and Shakespeare. This is my first experience with Tony Kushner and I will forever be grateful for this profound experience of being a part of both Millennium and Perestroika. I am a better person for having worked on this project with this group of wonderfully talented artists. I feel so fortunate for the whole of it!

Marissa: This question is specifically for Alan: I know you were born in Ireland and came to this country with your family as a child, and now, you’re playing what seems to be the most stereotypically “All-American” character in a great American play. Do you have any thoughts about what it’s like to act in a quintessentially American play while being an immigrant to this country? Or is being an immigrant the most quintessentially American experience of all — and am I coming off as some kind of awful nativist Trump supporter for even asking you this question?

Alan: Well, as I mentioned, this is not so much an American play as a universal one. It begins with an immigrant, the rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, saying “You do not live in America… no such place exists.” Migration is a significant theme throughout the work; Joe says “I migrated across the breadth of the continent of North America, I ran all this way to get away.” And in Millennium Approaches, I got to play an ancestor of Prior’s from Yorkshire, which is where my father was born, and therefore a dialect I am very comfortable with (more so than Irish, actually). So my immigrant status has been an asset, if anything.

Joe may seem “all-American,” but as a Utah Mormon who has become a lawyer in New York City, he is an alien, an outsider. Roy points it out in their very first scene in Millennium; Louis repeatedly remarks on how strange it is; Prior and Belize gawp at him like he’s an exotic animal. More than that, as a gay Mormon, he’s a secret alien; in Millennium Approaches, he confesses to Roy, “I never stood out, on the outside, but inside, it was hard for me. To pass.” Similarly, my immigrant status is only visible because I insist on it. After living here for nearly 30 years, I don’t have an accent. And because I’m white, Americans only know I’m foreign because I keep telling them so. Unlike Joe, I don’t need to hide it; it’s infinitely easier to be Irish in the Bay Area today than it is to be a gay Mormon in the ‘80s. But perhaps my secret struggle is confronting how American I have actually become.

Marissa: I hope you’re still Irish enough that I can wish you a Happy St. Patrick’s Day today! Thank you so much, Alan, Joel, Kerri and LaMont for sharing your thoughts about the “great work” of performing Angels. Break legs this weekend!

The TBA-recommended production of Angels in America: Perestroika is in its final week of performances at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette. Visit http://www.townhalltheatre.com/main-stage-performances/angels-in-america-perestroika for more information.

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Who Needs a National Theatre?

In which Dave Sikula decries institutional theatre.

A few days ago, I was one of the many thousands who have been trooping to movie theatres to see a broadcast of Benedict Cumberbatch in the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet. I’ll begin this by saying that I’m generally a fan of Mr. Cumberbatch’s (the film of August: Osage County excepted; but, other than Margo Martindale, no one got out of that movie alive) and was highly looking forward to it.

My take on the overall reaction is that it’s been generally favorable, with reservations. That was pretty much my reaction. It was intelligent, reasonably well-spoken, and coherent, but not very gripping. (I’ll mention here that my wife loved it and found it “muscular” and though it clarified many of the knottier aspects of the text, so the opinions expressed herein are my own.)

What it lacked for me, though, was any sense of danger or even visceral excitement. In my mind, if Hamlet is anything, it’s everything. It’s a meditation on mortality. It’s a revenge story. It’s a comedy, a tragedy, a ghost story, an examination of the thought process. You name it, it’s got it. There’s so much in it that the one thing it shouldn’t be is routine. It’s not just another play; it’s the play. It’s the role. There’s got to be a reason to do it.

Unfortunately, the production I saw was just kinda there, trapped in a concept that had something to so with a big house and a lot of dirt. (Seriously, I felt sorry for the stage crew that had to lug all that dirt on stage at intermission and then clean it all up at the end of the evening.) It felt like the director had a big star and the huge budget that came with him and decided to spend all of it on her set rather than trying to tell her story in a gripping manner.

I’ve explained before about how tired I am of plays from London being broadcast on American movie screens. I’ve got nothing against the Brits per se, but I am tired of them being cast as Americans (I mean, how many more crappy accents do I need to hear?) and seeing their shows held up perfect exemplars of theatrical excellence. (“They have Training!”)

But the specific problem with this Hamlet, to me, was that, since the National is subsidized and paid for by the government, while it may not be swimming in money, it has so much that it can waste it on elephantine sets representing Elsinore.

The program cover. A shiny dime to anyone who can explain its relevance to the production.

The program cover. A shiny dime to anyone who can explain its relevance to the production.

Every so often, we hear calls for an American National Theatre. There have been numerous attempts to create one over the decades, probably as early as Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Rep in the ‘20s and ‘30s, Ellis Rabb’s APA-Phoenix in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre in the ‘90s and ‘00s. The problem with this plan is that it almost always centers around New York (there was some talk of creating a company at the Kennedy Center in Washington, but it didn’t last and was a rarity). That talk makes sense in that the center of commercial American theatre is indeed those 15 or so blocks in midtown Manhattan, but it also assumes that that’s the only place anything worthwhile is being done and that only work with a commercial focus is worthy. (One might also add parenthetically that it also seems to be the only place Equity actors who want to work in the Bay Area come from.)

This theory is, of course, arrant nonsense. One would be hard pressed to find a corner of the country where interesting and vital work isn’t being done. Seattle, Portland, Ashland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego – and that’s just part of the west coast and leaves out Denver, Chicago, Dallas, DC, Boston, Cleveland, Florida, Louisville, Minneapolis, and on and on and on and on. Any of these cities is producing work that can stand with anything done anyplace on the globe, but, of course, most of the country will never see or hear of it because it doesn’t come with the imprimatur of having a London or New York pedigree.

It makes sense for the Brits to put an English national theatre in London. The capitol is the center of the U.K.’s entertainment industry. TV, radio, film, and theatre are all headquartered there. But how would we justify placing an American national theatre in just one city? I suppose it would be possible to emulate the Federal Theatre of the New Deal era and have multiple locations and troupes, but the whole point of theatre is to be in that room with those people while they tell a story. Even screening productions in movie theatres wouldn’t be a solution, because, for all our pretenses, it’s really just another movie at that point. This is especially true if the production is recorded rather than live. Those actors are going to do the exact same things in the exact same way for eternity. The spontaneity and reaction to the audience that are at the heart of the art don’t exist. It doesn’t matter if the theatre is full or empty; the performances and production are frozen and will not change.

I remember in 1976, Christopher Durang and Mel Marvin’s A History of the American Film (which, I might add, is a very funny show that someone ought to revive – although, frankly, Americans’ knowledge of classic film isn’t as strong now as it was then, so most of the references would be lost) had three simultaneous premiere productions, in Los Angeles (where I saw it), Hartford, and DC. Was one of these more official than the other two? Despite doing the same script at the same time – even if they somehow each had the same design and same director (which they didn’t) – each was different because of the unique casts, venues, and regional receptions. There was no way to centralize the productions, and there never will be. Even a tour, which might be the best/only solution, would have variations from venue to venue.

The

The “Salad Bowl” number from A History of the American Film.

But the larger point, even if we could figure out a reasonable solution to the problem, was embodied for me in Hamlet and other shows I’ve seen at the National (either in person or on screen). They can be well done – really well done – but they’re safe and don’t take any risks. I don’t know if it’s that they don’t want to upset their government sponsors or don’t feel any pressure, but it never feels like there’s an imperative behind it. They’re nice to look at and intelligent, but they’re antiseptic.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I had no prejudice against the production because it had a big star in it. As I said, I him and actually applaud him for doing it. And there’s nothing wrong with big names in plays. I couldn’t have enjoyed Kevin Spacey or Nathan Lane in their own productions of The Iceman Cometh or Peter Falk and Joe Mantegna and Peter Falk in Glengarry Glen Ross, Harold Pinter in (yes, in) Old Times, or Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot any more if I’d tried.

The shows I’ve loved the most in my life – Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil production of Richard II, Mary Zimmerman’s Metamophoses, José Quintero’s The Iceman Cometh, Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and Ghost Quartet, even Casey Nicholaw’s The Drowsy Chaperone – were big and bold and personal and even messy in places, but there was a recognizable artistic sensibility behind them. They were shows that had to be done.

Mr. Malloy in Natasha and Pierre.

Mr. Malloy in Natasha and Pierre.

When I was in college, I remember overhearing the faculty planning the shows they’d be doing the next year. There was no excitement about the choices; it was more like “Well, we haven’t done a Moliere for a while … ” or “Do you want to do a Shakespeare this year?” “Naw, how about an Ibsen?” “Yeah. I guess … ”

If that kind of listless programming is the cost of creating a national theatre that doesn’t take enough chances to endanger its funding, I’ll take regional theatres that at least try something different.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Ridiculously Easy, Theatrically Inspired Halloween Costumes

Marissa Skudlarek has some costume tips for Halloween procrastinators.

Without quite being able to articulate why, I’ve always thought there was something a little odd about dressing up for Halloween as a character from a play. Maybe it’s because I feel like the people who are most likely to do that are actors themselves, and as such, dressing up as a theatrical character represents a weird blurring of their personal and professional lives. Like, rather than playing this role in a staged production, they’ve decided to play it for Halloween.

Maybe, too, it’s because there are fewer iconic theater costumes than film costumes. Because theater encourages multiple interpretations of classic plays, the iconography associated with what classic characters wear is more diffuse. There’ve been productions of Antigone where she wears a chiton and productions where she wears jeans.

Nevertheless, Halloween is approaching and for anyone who’s still deciding on a costume, I thought I’d offer some suggestions for Ridiculously Easy, Theatrically Inspired Halloween Costumes.

I feel like every dude in S.F. has this outfit. David Tennant as Hamlet (photo by Robbie Jack/Corbis).

I feel like every dude in S.F. has this outfit (sans skull). David Tennant as Hamlet (photo by Robbie Jack/Corbis).

Hamlet. Hamlet may be one of the most challenging roles in theater, but it is seriously the world’s easiest Halloween costume. Here’s how you dress up as Hamlet:

  1. Wear a long-sleeved black shirt and black pants.
  2. Go to a store that sells Halloween decorations and buy a plastic skull.
  3. Carry the skull around and look melancholy.

Is that not the easiest thing in the world? (And if you’re worried about choosing a costume that requires you to look glum and melancholy, remember that Hamlet also “puts an antic disposition on,” which sounds like a good excuse if you want to go crazy on the dance floor.) I will also point out that Hamlet is a unisex costume – women have been playing Hamlet for hundreds of years. And, if you’re used to thinking of Hamlet as a slim fellow and you’re worried you may not have the physique to dress as him, check out this article arguing that Shakespeare may have intended an overweight Hamlet.

The Soothsayer and Caesar (Thomasina Clarke & Raphael Nash Thompson) in the 2006 St. Louis Shakespeare Festival production. Photo by J. David Levy.

The Soothsayer and Caesar (Thomasina Clarke & Raphael Nash Thompson) in the 2006 St. Louis Shakespeare Festival production. Photo by J. David Levy.

Julius Caesar & Soothsayer. You know what’s a ridiculously easy costume? A bedsheet toga. You know how you can jazz up your bedsheet toga so that it doesn’t look like such a lazy cliché? Get a Halloween blood-makeup kit and paint stab wounds on your arms and torso, and you’re Julius Caesar! If you can, go with a friend who accessorizes his/her toga with fortuneteller-style scarves and jewelry, to portray the Soothsayer. This is my idea of a cute couples’ costume, and I’m not sure I want to know what that says about me.

elizabeth-taylors-style-cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof-6

Brick’s blue bathrobe is an easy Halloween costume for a lazy dude, too. Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Stanley Kowalski / Maggie the Cat. If you want a sexy costume this Halloween, no characters from 20th-century theater are hotter than these two. For Stanley: wear Levis and a torn, sweaty undershirt, and stand in the rain yelling “STELLA!” For Maggie: wear a white ‘50s slip (available at any vintage store); carry a tumbler of whiskey; pose in doorways.

Stanley knows how to party. Marlon Brando in

I realize that suggesting you dress up as Stanley Kowalski is tantamount to suggesting that you dress up as a Sexy Rapist, and yet, I’m doing it anyway. Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

The hitch: These costumes are so simple that they really only work if you’re as hot as the young Marlon Brando or Elizabeth Taylor.

Natalie Dessay as Violetta and Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo in

The amazing Natalie Dessay as Violetta and Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo in “La Traviata” at the Met.
Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

The Lady of the Camellias. Maybe this is cheating, because this character originated in a novel, not a play. But I think the play, sometimes known in the English-speaking world as Camille, has become more famous than the novel, so I’m including it. And lest you say “But in order to be Camille, don’t I have to find a hoop skirt and a corset and do my hair in corkscrew curls? That’s not easy!” I will point out that the French title of the play translates as The Lady with the Camellias. That’s all you need. A lady, and (silk) camellias. (And probably some other clothing too; I don’t want these suggestions to get anyone arrested for public indecency.) Traditional productions of Camille and the opera that’s based on it, La Traviata, do require hoop skirts and corsets, but there’ve been modern productions with updated costumes – in the Metropolitan Opera’s current production, the heroine wears a red cocktail dress with a white camellia tucked at her bosom. If you’ve got a sexy red dress in your own closet, go to the craft store, get some faux camellias, put them in your hair or your cleavage, and voila.

Charles Ludlam: the most famous Camille of the late 20th century.

Charles Ludlam: the most famous Camille of the late 20th century.

This can be a unisex costume, too! Charles Ludlam, founder of the “Theater of the Ridiculous,” became famous for playing Camille in a low-cut dress that revealed his hairy chest.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She won’t be dressing up as a theatrical character this Halloween, but she will be wearing the platinum wig that she originally wore in The Desk Set this summer — does that count? For more: visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Everything Is Already Something Week 59: Haiku for Auditions

Allison Page brings poetry to the audition process.

Monologues are dumb
Wait you want me to cold read
I miss monologues

Oh please don’t make me
Reading with him is torture
Give me the tall one

Sixty five actors
Hot stuffy hallway of sweat
Rabid dogs who read

To be or not to—
Oh god I forgot the rest
To be or not to—

Don’t make me watch them
I’ll just sign people in k
I can’t take it man

I wore extensions
I totally look 13
Cast me now I’m teen

Don’t let them see fear
Show your teeth for aggression
I hope it’s working

Oh no not this guy
Summer of ’13 he saw
I tripped into poop

To be or not to—
I think I got it this time
Or not to pee — damn

Did not dress to move
Swing dancing in pencil skirt
Fetch me a seamstress

It’s Spanish oh boy
Uh no habla espanol
Si si si si si

Scene calls for kissing
Who kisses at auditions
He wouldn’t—mmmfffff

To be or not to—
Oh god am I wearing pants
—That is the pants—shit

Oh great she’s here blech
Might as well give it to her
Shiny hair kill me

To be or not to be—
Nailing it so hard right now
THAT IS THE QUESTION

They’re releasing me
They must know they’re casting me
Or the opposite

Allison Page is an actor/writer/person. You can catch her as Bunny Watson in THE DESK SET at the EXIT Theater now through July 25th!