Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: If Only Angels Could Prevail

Marissa Skudlarek, prevailing. 

This is my last scheduled post as a regular columnist for the Theater Pub blog.

Really great timing, huh?

When Stuart and I were discussing our plan to wind down the blog, and I realized that my final post was scheduled to run two days after the election, I said, “If Trump wins, I might not be able to get you that post on time, FYI.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Stuart, “he’s not gonna win.”

But, while I may have been prescient enough to have at least considered the possibility of a Trump victory, I was not prescient enough to know what my own response would be. Yes, I am sad and numb and hollowed out. Yes, I have chills and I’ve lost my appetite, the way I always do when blindsided by bad news.

But I woke up this morning, the day after the election, and put on a black dress and pulled my hair back and drew on eyeliner and walked outside with my head high. The first battle of the new American era was simply getting out of bed and facing the day with dignity. And I am ready to fight. And if I were to simply wallow in my grief tonight and not write anything, I would feel even worse.

I spent Election Night at PianoFight, the venue where Theater Pub performs, which was hosting a party with a free edition of Killing My Lobster’s election-themed sketch-comedy show. I had thought, “No matter what happens, this is where I want to be, these are the people I want to be among.” But it was loud and crowded and, as the disappointing election returns started to come in, increasingly anxious and panicked. There were lots of hugs and mutual support. There was cautious optimism, defiant singing, political rationalizations. And always, always, there was that damned CNN map on a big screen in the corner. (When I closed my eyes in bed last night, visions of a red and blue patchwork danced before me.) I became so anxious that I started to get lightheaded, and I didn’t much feel like laughing.

So, along with Theater Pub’s Artistic Director Tonya Narvaez, I sneaked into a tech rehearsal in PianoFight’s smaller theater. A group of SF State students were there, practicing a revue of Stephen Sondheim songs. It was cool and quiet, art was being made, and we could check the election results on our phones but not be glued to the TV screen. And, if the world was ending, why not spend it listening to live performances of Sondheim?

I didn’t cry when Prince or Bowie died, but I sure as hell am going to cry when Sondheim dies. And as this shitty year winds down its last shitty weeks, the thought “At least Sondheim is still alive… please God let him hang on till 2017” has popped into my head a few times.

Sondheim has written some dark material, and the students’ selection focused on the more political side of his oeuvre. Several pieces from Assassins and Sweeney Todd. “Pretty Lady” from Pacific Overtures, a deceptively beautiful song about sexual predation. A woman with long red hair sang “Every Day A Little Death” and I couldn’t help thinking of Melania Trump—another trophy wife in a relationship with a blustering man who “talks softly of his wars / and his horses and his whores.”

So Tonya and I, two unmarried Millennials, strong women descended from strong women, with surnames (Spanish and Slavic) that still sound foreign to many ears, escaped into the tech rehearsal in the back room. We held hands, we hugged, we shed a few tears when we realized how things were going. We realized the irony of treating PianoFight’s small theater as a refuge, because the set for Every 28 Hours is still up—posters of the people of color who have been slain by police in recent years, reminding us that even in Obama’s America, it was not safe to be brown or black. We heard the lyric “If only angels could prevail” and thought yes, if only.

I know I live in a liberal, artistic bubble. In the day since the bad news has sunk in, I have seen many people express thoughts about the role of artists under a Trump administration, responses that take one of two forms. Some people say “At least some great art will come out of this, great art always emerges from adversity,” which seems like a pathetic attempt to find a silver lining in the situation. All things considered, most artists would prefer to work under conditions of peace and prosperity, not conditions of adversity. It is difficult to make art if you live in a society that refuses to see you as fully human—perhaps one reason that art by white men dominates the Western canon.

Other people are framing this slightly differently, saying, “This is the time for artists to get to work. We need your stories and your voices now more than ever.” I have mixed feelings about this. While I appreciate being reminded that my voice matters and that art has a larger purpose, I am skeptical of the idea that art is what will get us out of this mess. I’m also not sure that I agree with the implication that the only art we should be making in this troubled time is overtly political, agenda-driven art.

But still, there is a reason I went to the Sondheim show last night, and a reason that I have continued to think about art and literature today. I mentioned that, when faced with a bleak and distressing situation, I lose my physical appetite. I also lose my metaphorical appetite: my compulsion, usually so strong, to immerse myself in works of art. Instead, for a time, I feel like there is no joy in the world and no art that is possibly worth experiencing. I wake up in the morning and think “What can I read on the way to work today? What can I possibly read?”

And then, unbidden, the craving for some work of art will hit me, and it is the first moment I feel like myself again, the first moment I see a path out of despair. Today, someone on Twitter posted the Tolkien quote about how the only people who hate escapism are jailers. I’m not much of a one for Tolkien, but the quote reminded me of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in which the title characters create a comic-book superhero called The Escapist. “I will start rereading Kavalier and Clay when I get home,” I thought, and, for the first time, I felt a little better. It’s a story about a Czech Jewish refugee and his queer Brooklyn cousin fighting fascism with art—the kind of America, and American values, that I want to believe in.

If we wanted, we could darkly joke that Theater Pub was a product of the Obama era and so it is appropriate that it’s ending in December 2016. Just one more casualty of this year, every day a little death. But that might produce the impression that Trump’s victory caused us to quit in defeat, when that isn’t true at all. As I said in an earlier piece about Theater Pub’s impending end, the organization and the blog are going away, but we aren’t going away. I’ve already started to think about other outlets for my writing.

I don’t know what the future holds. It may well be scary and dark. But I know that I want to be prepared to confront it, with all my wits about me. If Hillary Clinton had won the electoral vote, this final column would have been sentimental and nostalgic and maybe even a bit complacent, looking back at the last six years rather than looking ahead at the future. But because Trump has won, I cannot spend time on nostalgia. The last six, or eight, years have shaped me. Theater Pub has shaped me. Art of all kinds has shaped me and made me stronger. Now it is time to test my mettle.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her on Twitter @MarissaSkud or at marissabidilla.blogspot.com.

Advertisements

The Five- 5 Horrible Imaginary Plays I Would Rather Watch Than Hear One More Word About This Godforsaken Election

Anthony R. Miller checks in with crappy imaginary options to crappy reality.

Hey you guys, I used to really get into elections. There was a time in my life where I almost double-majored in Political Science. But there are so many aspects of our current presidential election that have beaten the ability to care right out of me. So for those who share my sentiment and would rather be slapped in the face with a dead trout than hear one more thing about this dumpster fire of an election, here are some theatrical equivalents to trout-based assault. Remarkably, there are five.

White Hamilton

Also known as 1776. (I kid, I kid.) I swear to god, you could recast this show with Macklemore, Snow, Everlast, The Lordz of Brooklyn, Princess Superstar and Artie from Glee and I would rather see that than have one more conversation that invalidates my opinion because I am stupid, or being lied to, or haven’t read this article, or watched this video, or care about people in other countries. I would rather watch the walking corpse of Corey Montieth take over for Lin-Manuel Miranda than see one more article from a totally unaccredited source be shoved in my face and considered true because it validates your worst fears.

The More Similar Than Not Couple

Neil Simon’s comedy reimagined as a 90-minute play where two adults have a quiet respectful conversation. At the end they realize they agree on more than they disagree on. The both enjoy a sandwich and watch Daredevil on Netflix. This would be boring, and refreshing — refreshing in the saddest way possible.

The Last Five Years

No joke here, I just find this show painful to even be near. Yet I would prefer to hear “Yeah, I’m a douchebag, but I’m a douchebag because you didn’t love me enough” than one more conversation between a Bernie supporter digging their heels in the ground about not voting if he isn’t the nominee and a red-faced Hillary supporter screaming “SO YOU’D RATHER HAVE TRUMP?!?!”

Long Days Journey Into Night In Real Time

I would rather watch 15 hours straight of sad, broken people drinking and telling each other how they really feel and talking in insightful drunken monologues than hearing two drunk liberals argue that Bernie Sanders is in fact a unicorn that poops ice cream and Hillary Clinton is the Winter Solider.

Noises Off: Fury Road

Taking Michael Frayn’s backstage comedy and setting it in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world where water is the greatest currency of all sounds better than watching CNN and thinking “Oh crap, the apocalypse might actually happen.” I would rather see Lloyd make Poppy and Brooke his sister-wives than hear one more conversation about super delegates. I would rather imagine Poppy with a really sweet robotic arm, and a set that doesn’t just revolve in between acts, it REVOLVES FOR THE WHOLE SHOW. I would rather see Timothy Allgood play a guitar that shoots fire than spend one more moment watching friends shame each other for their political views. Freddy Fellows, wearing a crimson mask of his own nose blood while having the blood of virgins intravenously transferred in to his veins, is a more preferable image than the one I’ve been seeing for months. An image of people without empathy, loathing compromise, holding on to a “we’re right, you’re wrong, fuck you” attitude and just generally being crappy and condescending to each other. Cut it out, take a breath, please vote, and remember we all need to be friends after this election. Now if anyone needs me, I have a guitar that shoots fire to create.

Anthony R. Miller is a writer and producer and will vote for a Cat Dressed As A Shark Riding A Roomba before he votes for Donald Trump. Keep up with him at www.awesometheatre.org or on twitter at @armiller78.

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.

Everything Is Already Something Week 49: When Women Aren’t Even Writing For Women

This morning I went through the numbers at the company for which I am one of two Creative Directors. Not finances – it’s a major LOL if you think I have anything to do with that. But the breakdown of who we work with. (We’ll come back around to why I was looking at this in a minute.)

Actors:
17 Women, 9 Men

Writers:
19 Women, 11 Men

Some of these people do double duty, so figuring that in we have:
31 Women, 18 Men

We have one director who isn’t from either of those groups:
1 Man

And two stage managers:
1 Man, 1 Woman

For an actual total of:
32 Women, 20 Men

That’s pretty great, if you’re looking at it from a “BUT ARE THERE AS MANY WOMEN AS MEN?!” perspective. Though we weren’t out in search of having a female dominated sketch comedy company. That’s just what happened. Those are just the people who passed through our doors, whom we liked a lot and thought were funny and fun to work with and displayed the varied set of skills which make someone good at this crap. In the five years I’ve been with this crazy group of humans, there have always been really amazingly talented women – both performers and writers. But sadly, that doesn’t always equal the varied types of roles for women that you might think it would. It does SOMETIMES. We’re not that shitty. But it seems as though it gets away from us. I say us because I am just as guilty of immediately writing a role for a man as my cohorts (regardless of their gender).

Be the Lisa Loopner you wish to see in the world.

Be the Lisa Loopner you wish to see in the world.

Right now, I’m directing our set for SF Sketchfest – admittedly one of my favorite shows of the year, every year. And as I was putting together the sketches to use for that show, a sad-pants theme started to arise: almost all of the crazy, kooky, wacky character parts were for men. I’ve been doing some cross gender casting out of necessity, which is fine. I’m happy to do that. But my real wish is that we would write more over the top characters who are PURPOSELY women – as opposed to having a woman play a part written for a man (regardless of whether they choose to play the part as a woman or as a man). We tend to have six person casts – three men and three women, but sometimes having enough juicy stuff for the women to dig into without cross gender casting can be next to impossible.

Yes, women can be Vice Presidents too.

Yes, women can be Vice Presidents too.

In some sort of strategy to combat something or other – I started writing some characters with no gender at all. Actually, I wrote a whole sketch with only non-gendered characters in it, and it’s one of the best I’ve ever written. I doubt that means anything, but it is interesting. (They ended up being played by 3 men and 3 women, I think.) And the idea of casting someone purely out of their fit for the role, and not due to their male or female identity is a good one, to me. It leaves a bunch of things open for interpretation, and I like that.

Our company is about to have possibly the craziest year we’ve ever had, with a brand new production happening every month. And, as my preamble for the kickoff meeting for our inaugural show in that schedule (actually called SEX BATTLE…so that’s pretty funny) states: This is a year of risk-taking for us. For all of us. Not just in the quantity of our content, but in the quality, style, and variety of our content. I’m challenging myself to be better at these things this year, and I’m going to pose that challenge to the rest of my cohorts as well.

Cookie Fleck knows what's up.

Cookie Fleck knows what’s up.

We have all these magnificently talented, energetic, creative women going to bat for us, and if we don’t give them the material they deserve, it’s no one’s fault but our own. We haven’t been total failures at it, but we’re not where we should be. And thankfully, with all these shows happening, we have 12 chances to try to get it right.

SEX BATTLE actually cannot have this problem – we’re dividing up writers and actors into two teams (chicks and dudes) and each team will create the same amount of sketches on the same topics (Politics, Love, an Impressions Speed Round and many others) so the only way they can fail at parity in my eyes is if somehow the ladies only write sketches where the other ladies have to play men. But I don’t think that’ll happen.

I anticipate at least one Hillary Clinton impression.

Allison Page is an actor/writer/creative director at Killing My Lobster. You can catch the Sketchfest show she’s directing January 27th at the Eureka Theater.

Everything Is Already Something Week 19: Don’t Go Elite-ing My Heart

Allison Page will not be silenced, no matter what kind of woman she wants to be. 

I’ve noticed a trend I find disturbing. (Don’t worry, it has nothing to do with twerking.) There’s an awful lot of talk about feminism in relation to theater going on lately. I’m all for more roles for women. I mean…I AM ONE, so yeah, that would be cool. When I talk to sketch writing classes, or any group of writers or theater makers, or an overly chatty cab driver – I always stress the importance of expanding roles for women in comedy and just in theater and art in general. We’re not just wives and mothers, right? Right. We’re all kinds of things. Just like men are all kinds of things and people are all kinds of things. But the mistake, to me, is saying that because a female character has a relationship with a male character that it means she’s not a good female character. If she focuses at all on the male whom she is in some sort of relationship with, or maybe that she’s just having a sexual relationship with, or that she had some relationship with in the past – suddenly someone’s going to pop up and say “HOLD ON, THAT’S NOT A STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER! SHE CARES TOO MUCH ABOUT DUDES! ANTI-FEMINISM, YA’LL!” Alright, so…is the message that women who are in relationships with men are not interesting? Are not strong? Can’t be feminists? Don’t have stories to tell? That the stories they do have to tell, or are used to telling, are not as valid or compelling? That they’re not important? BOLOGNA. BALONEY. BOTH OF THEM.

Stories are not for one person, or one kind of person. There are stories for all people. There are stories about all people. I’m hard-pressed to think of a heterosexual female I’ve encountered in my life who has never had a part of their own personal life story be related to a man. Hillary Clinton is married. If you wrote a play about Hillary Clinton, very likely there’s going to be something about Billy Boy in there, right? It’s feasible to think she might have a thing or three to say about that guy. He’s kind of interesting.

Hills and Bills and Chels

Hills and Bills and Chels

Does that mean that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t make a strong female character? How about when you factor in Monica Lewinsky? Because it’ll turn into a story about two women and one man for a minute. Does that mean Hills isn’t a woman for other women to look up to? It seems recently that a question people are asking themselves about their feelings toward female characters is “How much is she focusing on a man? Is it too much?” which, to me, is a little absurd. It’s like the idea of having more diverse women on stage has somehow over-directed into having more female characters that have nothing to say or to do with a man.

I’d call that narrowing the funnel. It’s a term used at the gaming company I work for, I don’t know if other places use it but I wouldn’t be surprised. When we say something “narrows the funnel” we mean that some factor has made the feature accessible to fewer people. (It’s not a good thing.) In this case, the funnel seems to be narrowing and squeezing out a great big bunch of people. You can see that either as a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective.

But how realistic is it? When people go to the theater, they’re going to experience something. They’re going to watch a story unfold, to watch characters go through some shit and also to see something they can connect with. They want to see something of themselves up there. Something they can relate to. You know what a lot of people relate to? Complex relationships. Love. Anger. Betrayal. Happiness. Comfort. Heartache. Sadness. Regret. Most of those words don’t specify anything about other people being involved, but if you read them and visualize them I’m willing to bet you might be picturing another person with you in, or causing, those situations. They don’t often exist in a vacuum.

A vacuum in which women do not live.

A vacuum in which women do not live.

Aside from that, it’s just sort of insulting. Yeah, we’re not all wives and mothers – BUT SOME OF US ARE. What’s wrong with that? (I’m neither, by the way. That shit scares the hell out of me.) It seems strange that someone would say “Why did that character have to be married? She didn’t need that man there.” It’s like saying “Why wasn’t that play just about someone else entirely?” which sounds an awful lot like you’re not reviewing a play or taking it in – but instead just thinking about some other show which doesn’t exist. Maybe you should just go home and write it. Some of the bigger realizations about myself that I’ve had in the last 10 years (I’m 29, so…there were lots and lots of ‘em. It was a big decade.) had at least some relation to other human beings. Plenty of them men. And I don’t see why if I were, for instance, writing a story about my own experiences, they shouldn’t be given any importance. And if they were, why that would make me…I don’t know…”less good” or less interesting. Or less feminist, for that matter.

It seems everyone’s got their own definition of feminism. Well, I’m 100% about equality. Not “anything men can do, women can do better”, just “men and women are both equally capable.” I understand it’s not as catchy and it’s not likely to inspire a show tune, but it’s where my brain lives. I am of the belief that a woman doing just exactly as she pleases is feminist all by itself. If that woman wants to be a single astronaut for the rest of her life – by all means do it. But if a woman wants, of her own free will, out of nothing but her desire for this life – CHOOSES – to marry, to raise children, and to open a real estate business, or be a housewife – by all means do that. Valuing one type of female character or female person over another based on their ideas about love doesn’t feel feminist to me. It feels elitist. It feels insincere. Most of all, I think it feels unrealistic and out of touch.

I’m not saying the story about the asexual astronaut wouldn’t be fabulous – it totally could be. (“SOLO IN SPACE” STARRING TILDA SWINTON.]

In space, no one can hear you Swinton.

In space, no one can hear you Swinton.

But so could the story of a homemaker turned real estate agent. [“SHIRLEY SELLS SEA HOUSES BY THE SEA SHORE.” STARRING MELISSA LEO.] Those facts alone will not determine whether or not these are “good” characters – whatever the fuck that’s supposed to mean. I’m not saying cut out those female characters whom aren’t strongly connected to a husband or boyfriend or girlfriend or wife or anybody – I’m just saying we should consider embracing women in general. Both ends of the spectrum and everyone in between. Stories about 8 lesbians in a hay stack, stories about a single mom and her 9 daughters, stories about a lady farmer and her stay-at-home-dad husband, stories about a woman trying to cure cancer, stories about a mom who runs a daycare full of alien babies, stories about the first woman to smoke a cigar – stories about us all. Because we are all worthy of stories. I stand for the equality of women both real and fictional, and not for the division of us by ourselves.

I wanna sell you a sea house! And my son's a boxer!

I wanna sell you a sea house! And my son’s a boxer!

I had a conversation with a playwright friend of mine recently where we both expressed a concern that the inclusion of certain male characters in both of our upcoming plays would be poo-pooed by someone who would say that their existence makes our leading ladies seem less valuable, somehow. In my particular case, I’m writing something very much focused on two women. They are essentially the only people there for each of them, and they’re sort of codependent and unhealthy in that friendship. Things had to come to a head eventually, and they finally do. It’s Some Guy who finally helps to bring that about. (His character’s name is Some Guy, I don’t even want him to have a name.) The truth is, it would have had to happen some time, in some way – but because neither of them could quite make it happen without some sort of outside catalyst, Some Guy is what’s needed to bring about the explosion. The last thing I want is for someone to see it and say “Ohhhh it’s just two girls fighting over a man! How anti-female.” Because that’s just NOT WHAT’S HAPPENING AT ALL. It’s possible that I’m over-thinking that, and I’m sure someone will say “Well, it’s good that you’re thinking about that. That’s something you should be thinking about.” But I feel like what I should be thinking about, is how to tell the best story. Because after all the clutter is cleared away, that’s what the hell we’re doing here, isn’t it? We’re all raconteurs. And like I said before, there isn’t just one type of story, and there isn’t just one type of woman. In a time when the theater is always striving to bring more people in, to get more butts in the seats, the last thing that would ever help that would be to limit the types of stories we think should be told and poo-poo on the everywoman. In a time when some theaters seem to be going above and beyond to be elite (see Marissa Skudlarek’s most recent blog) I desire to go away from that in favor of the everyman and definitely the everywoman. We need her. She’s important. She is so many of us and she has a story, too.

Allison encourages you to see the San Francisco Olympians Festival – three weeks of staged readings of new plays by local playwrights based on various aspects of the Trojan War, starting tonight. Allison’s “The Golden Apple of Discord” plays with several other shorts on November 20th. She’ll also be writing and reading at Write Club SF’s 2 year anniversary show at the The Make-Out Room, November 19th.