Everything Is Already Something Week 37: Honesty Is The Best Policy

Allison Page= iron fist in iron glove.

We’ve all been there: you’re working on a show (any end of it) and you’re feeling disgruntled, dissatisfied, and generally like a big old grouch, but you don’t feel like you can say anything. It’s not your place. No one wants your opinion. They want to rule from the top of a mountain covered with statues of their own faces cast in gold. You’re not in charge. Who cares what you think? So then you wait until the show is over, or until you’ve left the company, to bad-mouth everybody responsible for what you see as the downfall of a production or organization.

Leadership positions in arts organizations are weird. Well, leadership positions in any situation have the potential to get weird. Of course, if you’re happy to have people not tell you the truth, then it’s fine. There are all kinds of places I’ve worked (both in theater and other places) where no one was truthful with the people in charge for fear of getting fired, never being cast again, or just having someone be angry at them. But generally speaking, honesty is the best policy, right? Especially if you actually give a shit if your co-conspirators are happy with what they’re doing.

Allison is...FEARLESS LEADER! But, like, with a couple of fears.

Allison is…FEARLESS LEADER! But, like, with a couple of fears.

So, as someone who finds themselves in a position of authority in a company full of comedians, how do I get people to tell me truth – as that is something that I foolishly desire? How do I convince them that I really want to know what they feel is working and what is not, and that if they disagree with me I’m not going to tar and/or feather them, or throw them to the rabid dogs, or publicly mock them in a well-attended Comedy Central Roast that isn’t actually on Comedy Central but just happens in my studio apartment?

Jeff Ross will still make an appearance.

Jeff Ross will still make an appearance.

I’ve been just straight up asking people pointed questions, but it was posed to me that it’s possible that even though I’m doing that, someone may not feel like they can actually give me an honest real answer, and that I’m just looking to hear what I want to hear. Which, to me, seems ridiculous. But I guess people are ridiculous anyway.

So I made an anonymous survey for people to fill out, prompting them to be as honest as possible with no consequences. We’ll see how that goes. It’s interesting that going from being on an even playing field with everyone, to being in a position to make this call or that call, starts to change how other people see you. I feel the same as I always have. I have really strong opinions about what kind of art I want to make, and how I want to make it. But I want other people to have their strong opinions too, and then we can work together to figure out how best to achieve our goals. I guess it’ll take some time for everyone to get used to how our ship is being sailed, but ultimately I want them to know that they’re sailing just as much as I am. Because sometimes I’m only scrubbing the poop deck.



I want to be the kind of leader that I would like to have lead me: passionate, deliberate, someone with a strong vision, but who will listen to the input of others. I don’t want to be the kind of leader with a high turnover rate. If your crew isn’t with you, sailing is going to be pretty hard. I’m not interested in having a mutiny on my hands – wow, it really sounds like I want to go sailing. Someone get me a boat and fill it with comedians.

Allison Page is the Co-Creative Director of Killing My Lobster. You can hear her talk about how she’s changing the way their shows are made at http://pianofight.com/bornready/born-ready-ep-5-being-a-derelict-w-allison-page/ You can also follow her on Twitter @allisonlynnpage

Theater Around The Bay: Shh, I’m Trying to Create Here

The guest posts just keep on rolling in, with today’s coming from actress and cross-stitcher extraordinaire, Tonya Narvaez, who starts her blog off with a quote from no less than Noel Coward.

“I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.” – Sir Noël Peirce Coward

Earlier this month, I heard one too many people be told their opinion is invalid. I hit my threshold. I found that sassy quote and found myself thinking, “You tell ‘em Noël”! Honestly, I don’t know enough about Noël Coward to be sure if he was joking or sincere. I suspect a bit of both. But I see that quote and hear it as sarcastic for my own purposes.

Noël Coward is too cool to care about criticism.

Noël Coward is too cool to care about criticism.

I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by thoughtful, intelligent, kind-hearted, fiery and opinionated people. Obviously, some of those qualities can stir up a bit of trouble from time to time, but I’ve noticed it a lot more frequently this past month. I’ve seen several brave, fair, honest, emotional, and generous pieces of writing this month. And whether it was in a Facebook post, blog, personal exchange, or otherwise, I’ve seen these people be told to shut up. I don’t want to dredge up each situation individually or in any sort of detail. I just want to go over a few opinions that were shared that I find to be incorrect or ridiculous or harmful to our theater community and explain why I feel that way.

1 – You should give a play multiple viewings before forming an opinion on it.

I wholeheartedly believe that if people want to see a play more than once and have the resources and time to do so, they absolutely should. Otherwise, I cannot agree to this. Seeing a play multiple times is something you can’t expect out of an audience member. Firstly, the time commitment is unrealistic. Between the other plays to see in the city, making a living, regular life stuff, and the lure of Netflix, I feel honored if someone sees my work once. Secondly, the financial constraints. If I gave every piece I was unsure about more than one chance, I would need another job to help pay the bills. Thirdly, it just doesn’t make sense! This point will need an example, and the best real life comparison I can think of is my aversion to olives. I love a surprising number of salty and briney foods. They are right up my alley. But every time I eat an olive, I just want to spit it out and tell everyone the olives have gone bad. So I’m not about to go out and buy more olives. If I happen across an olive, and I’m feeling adventurous, sure I’ll try it. I will not go hunting for more olives though. It makes no sense to do that.

“Nobody drink the beer! The beer has gone bad!”

“Nobody drink the beer! The beer has gone bad!”

2 – You should give extra consideration to a work when a person who you admire is involved.

This is called blind favoritism. Even the twinkliest of stars can be dimmed by a foggy night. Can I just cite Johnny Depp in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory and move on?

I just try to forget this ever happened.

I just try to forget this ever happened.

3 – You should do research on a show prior to and after seeing it before you can consider yourself a person who is interested in the arts.

I don’t believe anyone should dictate how a person chooses to be involved in the arts. If researching a play before you see it makes you happy, go nuts! Personally, when I see a play (with a few exceptions) I try to know as little as possible about it. I love having as blind an experience as possible at first. Then, if there’s an intermission I’ll thumb through the program. I also try to engage in discourse with my fellow theatergoers afterward. If I liked something enough, or if it spurred an interest in me somehow, I would research it more. If not, I’d move on with my life, feeling no less artistically inclined than anyone else.

Watching an amazing play that you weren’t at all prepared for feels like this.

Watching an amazing play that you weren’t at all prepared for feels like this.

4 – You should stop expressing your opinion because my feelings are hurt. You should probably also apologize.

It’s all well and good to apologize for someone’s feelings being hurt, but if you’re honest and fair, an opinion shouldn’t be silenced or apologized for. Sometimes the truth hurts. I am sorry for that.

I have no caption. This picture makes me sad.

I have no caption. This picture makes me sad.

5 – Your opinions are invalid because they come from an emotional place.

When people see your work, you typically want them to have an emotional reaction. When I send a script I’ve written to someone, I want to hear his or her whole reaction to it. I’m not asking them to proof it for mistakes in structure, grammar, and spelling. When artists create and put something out into the world, they have no actual control over how it might affect someone. Viewing art can be a very personal and individual experience, influenced by a number of internal and external factors. It’s what makes art so wonderful, in my opinion. We can’t view and create art without emotion. Okay, we CAN. It’s not impossible, but it has a tendency toward dull and uninfluential. I want to call on Meryl Streep for some backup here. At the January 8th National Board of Reviews Awards, she said some controversial things about Disney, and some poignant things about Emma Thompson. Here is an article with the speech in it’s entirety if you’re interested.

“She has real access to her own tenderness, and it’s one of the most disarming things about her. She works like a stevedore, she drinks like a bloke, and she’s smart and crack and she can be withering in a smack-down of wits, but she leads with her heart.”

These are my opinions. While they are not wrong, it’s very possible some of you out there disagree with me. You are not wrong either. I’d like to engage in a dialogue about this because I don’t really know what the answer is here. Except that it seems if we were all a bit like Emma Thompson, things would probably be better.

Un-captioned for your enjoyment.

Un-captioned for your enjoyment.

Tonya Narvaez is a Bay Area actor and writer. You can see her work at the San Francisco Olympians festival – http://www.sfolympians.com/?page_id=1830

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Truth and Kindness

Marissa Skudlarek, truer and kinder every day.

Yesterday, Ashley Cowan wrote the column I wanted to write. Damn her!

But it just so happened that both Ashley and I have had similar experiences in the last few weeks. Each of us published a piece that we considered critical but fair and honest, and each of us experienced a backlash from the people who we’d criticized. There was debate, there was drama, there was scandalized gossip, there were messages of support, there was soul-searching. And, in the end, neither of us apologized for what we’d written; neither of us backed down.

Ashley and I each went through this experience independently, yet I think we each gained strength from knowing that we were part of a community of writers, bloggers, and theater-makers here in San Francisco, and from knowing that we aren’t the first people in the world to receive blowback after publishing a piece that is honest but not totally positive. A few years ago, the experience of arguing on Facebook with an acclaimed American theater artist would have devastated me. I might have been intimidated into backing down or apologizing in order to smooth things over. I didn’t do that this time. Like Ashley, I waited to respond, and chose my words carefully. Like her, I reiterated that I had not had any nefarious motivations in publishing my piece, yet I was not going to apologize for writing it.

Heck, six months ago on this very blog, I got into an argument with my editor, Stuart Bousel, in the comments section of one of my posts. It got pretty heated and, as the argument progressed, I found myself running to the bathroom at work and crying. I say this not to cast blame on anyone, but because I feel like being honest. But I didn’t cry, this past week.

Oddly enough, my argument with Stuart centered around the way an artist’s work is received out in the world. Stuart had written, “The constant possibility of reactions beyond your control are just the nature of a life where you have elected to live big and loud over quietly tending your own garden and being satisfied with that.” And despite our quibbling over certain implications of this phrase, despite my crying in my office bathroom, you know what… I’ve come around to agree with Stuart’s point. As such, when the artist took me to task on Facebook for saying that I didn’t care for his latest play, many people commented that it was odd that he should respond in such a fashion. Didn’t he know that, when you put work out into the world, not everyone may enjoy it or understand it? Couldn’t he accept that the audience’s reaction was beyond his control?

And in the meantime, I’ve become better able to withstand negativity myself. I try to write only things that I can stand behind 100%, reminding myself that I can control the words I put down, but I can’t control the response to them.

This blog, which we’re now referring to as the San Francisco Theater Pub(lic), has been going for almost two years, but in the last few months, it feels like we’ve become an actual Thing. Just before Christmas, the regular bloggers had a meeting over sangria at our beloved Cafe Flore that has attained the status of legend. We stopped feeling like we were just a bunch of individual wordsmiths rushing to meet column deadlines, and started to realize that we were truly a tribe, a collective, a happy few, a band of brothers… (well, mostly sisters).

As bloggers, we all have our own individual voices, perspectives, and pet topics, but one of the most gratifying things about working on this blog for two years is that I can sense a larger pattern, or voice, developing that connects our disparate posts. It seems like many of our posts revolve around the idea of living an ethical life in a difficult business. (Or, hell, a difficult world; the theater may not coddle you, but life doesn’t coddle you either.) Or, as Ashley phrased it in her piece, perhaps the theme is “how to be both honest and kind.”

This theme has been especially striking in the past week, what with Will Leschber’s contention that “hating the Oscars is lazy reporting and lazy viewership,” to guest columnist John Caldon’s list of suggestions for how to deliver feedback honestly and constructively, to Ashley’s aforementioned “I’m not sorry I told my story” piece, to Claire Rice’s attempts to lay her heart open and get at the root of her writer’s block. (Freudian slip alert: I originally typed “writer’s blog” there just now. True story.) All of us are pushing ourselves to be more honest, more courageous, and more compassionate, both as writers and as human beings. Which means that we’re all pushing each other forward, as well; a rising tide lifts all boats. I’ve always dreamed of being part of a group like this, but thought that they only existed in stories. Now I know that it’s within my power — our power — to make it a reality.

I want you to keep pushing me to be a better writer and a better person. I want you to continue writing pieces that make me say, “damn, I wish I’d written that.”

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