Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Sense and Sensitivity

Marissa Skudlarek, commenting on comments.

There was a piece posted on the theater website Howlround earlier this week that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. In it, Erin Butcher, a young woman who runs a theater company called Maiden Phoenix in the Boston area, talks about the harassment her all-female cast experienced when putting on a Shakespeare play in a public park, and vows never to make the same mistake again.

If you’re a young woman, nothing about Butcher’s piece is particularly surprising — not the fact that an all-female group experienced harassment that a mixed-gender group wouldn’t, nor the long and sometimes antagonistic comment thread that sprung up below the article. But as I said, something about this piece has stuck with me. I was even moved to post a comment on it on the Howlround site — which is not something I usually do.

Maybe it’s because I produced a play last year where the writer (me), the stage manager, and eight of the nine actors were women under the age of 30, and I remember taking that into account when choosing a venue for the production. I rejected a theater on Sixth Street in favor of one near Union Square, and one reason was because that neighborhood is safer. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable asking nine young women to walk down Sixth Street every evening to get to the theater.

It’s because, in a little while, I will leave the café where I am writing and go to the EXIT Theatre for the Olympians Festival, and I know I will need to keep my wits about me and my bitch-face on as I walk down Eddy Street.

It’s because, this summer, when I told a guy that I put my bitch-face on when I walk to the EXIT, he thought I was being kind of funny, and teased me about it in a good-natured way, and only later did he realize that I was entirely serious.

It’s because I resent the idea (inherent in some of the ugly comments on Erin Butcher’s piece) that you have to suck up and deal with whatever unfair shit life throws at you, or else you are a thin-skinned, spoiled Millennial who overreacts to everything.

Certainly, a large part of what is meant by “maturity” is learning how to suck it up and deal with it. A mature person knows how to pick her battles. But that’s not the same thing as saying that mature people never battle or protest. Sometimes the only way to deal with something is to mount a spirited objection to it. The amount of outrage and overreaction in the culture these days can be both fatiguing and depressing — but I don’t think the solution is to suggest that people should stop reacting entirely. Mature people know how to manage their sensitivity, but they do not disown their sensitivity.

Erin Butcher’s essay is certainly a reaction to what happened to her theater company in the park, but (apart from the click-baity headline) I don’t believe it’s an overreaction. She’s not demanding that the men who harassed her be jailed or even punished; her proposed solution is that she will change her behavior and never again produce an all-female outdoor show. She implies that the alternatives proposed in the comments — namely, to hire security, or to suck it up and deal with it — would cost her too much, either in money or in emotional distress.

Above all, the comments implying that women who object to being leered at and harassed by men just need to grow a thicker skin, piss me off because I believe that a world full of thick-skinned, emotionally hardened people is a world without artists. It’s also a world where problems fester and the pace of progress is slow.

Certainly, we do need a skin. Our skin is the boundary between us and the world, and we need boundaries. But if you have strong boundaries, you also have a strong sense of right and wrong; of what you will tolerate, and what you will find intolerable. And I don’t think we should tolerate the idea that every complaint is a sign of hypersensitivity — nor should we tolerate it when women are required to pay extra in order to exist in the world and make art.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She’s involved in two Olympians Festival shows at the EXIT Theatre next week: she’s playing an intense French lady in Delphin, or Christian Teen Dolphin-Sex Beach Party on Wednesday the 18th, and she wrote & directed Tethys, or You’ll Not Feel the Drowning on Friday the 20th.

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The Real World: Theater Edition: Tools for Today’s Playwright

Barbara Jwanouskos is bringing a more writer-focused bent to her column, and starts the transition with a link packed tool-box for today’s Fresh Off the Grad School playwright.

If you’re a playwright out there trying to write, make connections and get produced, there are a couple resources you should be aware of that might make it a bit easier for you. I’ve put together a mini guide to memberships you may want to consider and a couple sites online where you can read and participate in discussions involving theater.

The Dramatists Guild
Playwrights don’t have a union like screenwriters and TV writers do, but they do have the Dramatists Guild and when it comes to issues of legality, the Dramatists Guild is an excellent resource for playwrights, composers, and librettists. It has been around for over 80 years and has over 6,000 members nationwide. As a member, you receive a subscription to their publication, The Dramatist, as well as a guide to playwriting opportunities, and information about other meet-ups that are helpful to networking with other playwrights.

The best thing about the Guild is how they advocate for your rights as a playwright.

YOU: Wait, I have rights??
ME: Yes, you do.

Take a second to visit their site and you’ll find the Bill of Rights, which includes being compensated for your work as a playwright if the production charges admission and/or compensates others on the production team – EVEN IF IT IS VERY SMALL. You will also see that no one can change the words in a script you’ve written without your approval and other helpful rights. While these are not laws, they are modes of conduct that are fair and equitable and any good theater company will not only be aware of, but also abide by. As a member, you can also call (800-289-9366) the Guild if you are having legal problems with a production of your work and they will advise you on how to navigate the problem.

July 14-17th marks #RightsWeek, which is sponsored by the Dramatists Guild, Samuel French, and HowlRound, when theater makers will be having a series of online and offline conversations about one’s rights in the theater, specifically with regards to intellectual property. Follow the above listed sites and use the hashtag #newplay and #rightsweek for more information.

The Playwrights’ Center
The Playwrights Center is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota and is an excellent resource for playwrights of all experience levels. They offer several fellowships for emerging, mid-career and experienced playwrights that include fantastic benefits such as a respectably sized stipend to offset financial costs associated with devoting all of your time to playwriting, mentorships with more experienced playwrights for those emerging, and staged readings and productions of your work.

For members, they offer many discounts to bookstores, software, and theater publications (like American Theatre put out by TCG). They are an excellent resource for playwriting submission opportunities around the world. Their search functions and organization makes it easy to identify which ones you are interested in pursuing. They also offer classes to their members conducted by their group of Core Writers. Sadly, they are held in Minnesota, so you would need to take a trip out there if you’re coming from here.

The Playwrights Foundation
Not to be confused with the Playwrights Center above, the Playwrights Foundation is based in San Francisco. It offers a variety of classes for playwrights to brush up on their chops – a lot of them taught by local writers like Lauren Gunderson, Octavio Solis, and Eugenie Chan. I’ve taken several classes here and have always had a great time and broken through blocks I’d had in writing.

The Playwrights Foundation also hosts the Bay Area Playwrights Festival each summer that includes a selection of new plays, many of which go on to be produced by the Playwrights Foundation or other companies.

Theater Bay Area
I’ve only recently joined TBA, so am not as familiar with what resources are available and exciting to playwrights. But, from what I can see, you gain access to the Job and Talent Bank, which is an excellent resource (as Ashley mentioned the other day) for audition listings. I have also seen job postings and playwriting opportunities online when I’ve searched it after starting my membership. You get a subscription to the Theater Bay Area magazine and discounts on tickets around the Bay. They also support artists through small CA$H grants and have a Lemonade Fund to support artists who are terminally ill.

In addition to the above, these online discussion sites are great places to keep up with your theater news and issues:

HowlRound includes essays and editorials on theater making. Writers and artists of all kinds participate in ongoing discussions about the most prevalent topics in theater.

Bitter Lemons is a site devoted to LA’s theater scene, but also has some great essays that take up sometimes controversial stances on the practices of making theater.

2AMt is another great site for essays and views on theater.

Born Ready is a podcast hosted by Rob Ready and Raymond Hobbs where they make fun of the issues theater has.

What other resources (memberships, websites, podcasts, etc.) would you add? Let us know!

Barbara Jwanouskos is a playwright who recently moved back to the Bay Area having completed the MFA Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University. You can follow her on twitter @bjwany.

Theater Around The Bay: Tossing the Baby and Bathwater

Today’s guest blog is by Charles Lewis III, who returns with a record number of links in one article.

In olden times they had to make their own fun.

In olden times they had to make their own fun.

“So the conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it — perhaps as much more as the roots are more vital than grafts. It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race. It is good that the old should resist the young, and that the young should prod the old; out of this tension, as out of the strife of the sexes and the classes, comes a creative tensile strength, a stimulated development, a secret and basic unity and movement of the whole.”

– Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History (co-authored with Will Durant – 1965)

I didn’t attend the recent Theatre Bay Area convention (aka TBAcon14 or “T-bacon”), so you’ll forgive me if today’s topic well-worn territory for any attendee who might be reading. Still, though I was not present, there was a topic of discussion rattling around in my brain.

If you’re reading this, you likely have a connection to the theatre community – most likely that of the Bay Area. As such, in the past few months, I’m willing to bet you or your connections have seen this Brendan Kiley article floating around social media. It’s from 2008, but it’s reignited the same passion now that it did then. I’ll be honest, when I first thought of writing this piece, I didn’t want to link to the article at all; I thought I’d just refer to it as “that article” and everyone would know what I was talking about. But that would have made it sound like some anonymous internet comment that should be easily dismissed. Since the article – or rather, the topic it covers – being something about which we all feel so strongly, I offer you the chance to (re-)read it and decide for yourself on which side of the debate you fall.

Me? I have a major fucking problem with it article and it starts with the very first sentence: “1. Enough with the goddamned Shakespeare already.” From the get-go he dismisses the greatest playwright in history as someone whose work is archaic and obsolete. Shakespeare’s work, he infers, has no place outside of high school – and he doesn’t want to see it there either. As such, if one wishes to “save” theatre from going the way of the 8-track tape, Rule 1 is to eschew the work of the very man from whose work nearly all modern drama draws its inspiration.

And he’s not the only one. Nary a week goes by when I don’t see some new article stating how all traditional forms of art – theatre, opera, poetry, painting, etc. – are just pageantry for the bourgeoisie and in need of the sort of upheaval more often seen in a coup d’état. But whilst these artistic “revolutionaries” argue over whose head to fit in the guillotine, I find myself equally disturbed and amused by their myopic thinking. Disturbed by the way they so easily wish to dismiss history; amused by the way they’re so blatantly repeating it. “Isn’t this something every young person says?” I think to myself. “Hell, isn’t it something I used to say?”

Thankfully I did no major damage in my youth before coming across the phrase “das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten”. If you’re German’s a li’l rusty, just look at the title of this article and the accompanying woodcarving.

Now let me start by saying I don’t think anyone’s heart is in the wrong place here. I get what everyone is going for: as we keep our ears peeled for the latest news relating to our most cherished art form, we’re easily disheartened by news that the forum for said art – be it theatre, gallery, or even bookstore – appears to be dwindling. You’re not ready to see it disappear and neither am I. So we’re kicking around a series of ideas to make it more appealing to this newly-discovered agoraphobe of the Digital Era: the one less likely to venture out into the real world (with its weather, traffic, and people) and more likely to huddle in a dark room with their digital device watching reruns of Say ‘Yes’ to the Dress.

Friends, I’m not here to slam you for trying out new ideas, I’m just here to give those ideas a little perspective. For instance…

1 – Yes, it’s okay to hate a classic.

Remember that South Park episode where all the kids (8 and 9 years old) are falsely diagnosed with ADHD because none of them can sit through a reading of The Great Gatsby in its entirety? That wasn’t the first or last sacred lamb to be skewered by their show: they’ve fired off on such beloved classics as Catcher in the Rye and A Charlie Brown Christmas. While one’s tastes are entirely subjective, the fact that something has been labeled a classic doesn’t make it invulnerable to criticism. Quite the contrary: being labeled a classic means a work must face even harder scrutiny because it represents the highest of standards.

My personal tastes are pretty eclectic: I get the same thrill from the cinematic majesty of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis that I do from the chuckle-inducing sight of Sting in a blue speedo in Dune. When recommending musicals, I’ll mention Jon Waters’ Cry-Baby with the same enthusiasm with which I’d mention West Side Story. I love the exploitation films of Larry Cohen just as much as the masterpieces of Alfred Hitchcock.

But I fucking hate Vertigo.

I’m not kidding, I hate it. I find every character unlikable, I find every action unbelievable, and instead of appealing to my suspension of disbelief, I find the film an insult to my intelligence. I think the critics of its time were right in calling it Hitchcock’s failure. I think it’s bullshit that one list recently named it “Greatest Film of All Time”. I think the only good to come from the film was Brian De Palma ripping it off for Body Double. Seriously, fuck Vertigo.

And it’s perfectly all right to feel that way. Not every work is for everyone. It’s okay for someone to say they don’t like the work of Shakespeare, Euripedes, or Lorraine Hansberry. Each one of their works was composed a long time ago in places unfamiliar with characters and dialogue that don’t quite fit today. They’re old. They’re ancient. But being old doesn’t mean something is obsolete.

And it’s perfectly all right to feel that way. Not every work is for everyone. It’s okay for someone to say they don’t like the work of Shakespeare, Euripedes, or Lorraine Hansberry. Each one of their works was composed a long time ago in places unfamiliar with characters and dialogue that don’t quite fit today. They’re old. They’re ancient. But being old doesn’t mean something is obsolete.

You can argue that Shakespeare is taught in schools only because of outdated curricula; you can also argue that the reason Romeo & Juliet continues to resonate with youngsters is because it’s about two horny teens [/LINK] whose over-the-top emotions lead to disaster. You can say Raisin in the Sun is a quaint piece from the pre-Civil Rights Era; you can also say that in this time of racist headlines and record evictions, that it could have been written yesterday. TheaterPub’s own Stuart Bousel is currently directing a production of the quintessential “American high school play,” Arthur Miller’s The Crucible [/LINK]; a play that takes place in a time (1692 – Salem, Mass.) that was outmoded when it was written (the 1950s). Do you think of it as a heavy-handed – and sexist – anti-McCarthyist parable of Good vs. Evil? Would you believe me if I told you that it’s a complex meditation on three-dimensional characters not speaking up when they should? That the women are the strongest characters because they exercise the most control, whilst the men spend the entire playing trying (and failing) to catch up? That its themes of paranoia are even more powerful in this age of surveillance?

You don’t have to like a classic, but when you call for its removal from regular academia, you’d better prove its obsolescence. Nobody likes a cry-baby who whines “I don’t get it, so it must be worthless.”

They give new meaning to the phrase ‘What fools these mortals be’

They give new meaning to the phrase ‘What fools these mortals be’

2 – What’s really “new”?

This past February I got to see The SF Neo-Futurists’ weekly show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Though I’d heard about from a good friend – troupe member and ‘Pub regular Megan Cohen – and from Will Leschber’s ‘Pub write-up of the Chicago branch, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Everyone kept describing it in such mythic terms (“A whole new form of theatre!”) that I wondered what frame of reference my mind would even have for what I was about to see. No sooner had the show begun when I immediately identified their type of performance: Sketch.

That’s not at all criticism of the work I saw (some pieces were brilliant), but it was still Sketch. Yeah, they “don’t do characters” and pieces can be dramatic, comedic, insightful, and everything in between – but it’s still Sketch. Hell, I went to the show as the +1 guest of a member of Killing My Lobster – one of the Bay Area’s best sketch groups (one of their Creative Directors is ‘Pub’s own Allison Page) – and y’know what? He was the one who kept insisting to me that it wasn’t sketch; that the Neos’ intense workshops are what distinguish it. Having never taken one of those workshops, I can’t speak on them. All I know is that what I saw that night was part of a long tradition that goes as far back as Vaudeville and is as recent as Key & Peele.

And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with acknowledging that you’re part of a long, great tradition? I know everybody wants to sell their products and services by saying “This isn’t your grandfather’s whatchamacallit!”, but our grandparents had some really cool shit. Sure, we have a more enlightened socio-economic perspective (or so we think), but they had things that were built to last – that’s why they still do.

And I can see the ancestry of classic formats in all of these “new” productions that have popped up recently: the much-lauded “interactive theatre” show Speakeasy, the popular Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding, and even the upcoming SF Dungeons Tours are part of a trend that extends back as far as the 1930s and ‘40s. Even the new so-called [LINK: http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/top-5-participatory-opera-experiences/%5D “Participatory Opera Experiences” [/LINK] (including [LINK: http://www.operaontap.org%5D Opera on Tap [/LINK], which I’ve attended several times) owe their history to fourth-wall-breaking that took place long before any of us were born. Hell, I performed Sarah Kane’s Blasted in an actual hotel room with the audience mere inches away.

The only difference between the aforementioned productions and elementary school history tours is that the former allow – nay, encourage – heavy drinking. But that’s great because there’s just as much room for these experiments as there is for a traditional theatre setting; especially when they recreate history. It’s easy to laugh at Renaissance Faires and Civil War re-enactments, but they bring you face-to-face with a piece of history you otherwise wouldn’t experience. And history will always be necessary, even when it isn’t trendy. Remember the “Kissing Cousin” episode of Frasier, where Zooey Daschanel played Roz’s young cousin? Roz tries to keep up with the early-20s party gal, but soon realises she can’t. When said cousin gives her lip about Roz’s songs all being on the “Classic Rock” station, Roz replies “For your information, Classic Rock is both classic and it rocks!”

Kudos to you for experimenting. Just ask yourself this question from time to time: Are you performing in front of an audience? If you answered “yes”, then very little of what you’re doing is “new”. But that doesn’t mean you can’t distinguish yourself. Speaking of which…

3 – Innovation vs. Gimmick

Four or five years ago I got into a very heated on-line debate with the social media admin. (possibly the artistic director) of a highly-renowned SF theatre company. I was voicing my displeasure at their new implementation of “Tweet seats” – a trend where a certain section of audience members spend the entire show dividing their attention between the action on stage and commenting on said action via social media. The admin and a few supporters said it was somehow more immersive with the show, even if the actors don’t always have their undivided attention. As I said then: the action on stage should always have your undivided attention! What the fuck do you think all the lights, costumes, make-up, and who-knows-how-long rehearsal period was for? To be ignored? It’s one thing to zone out during boring show, it’s another to pay admission just to look at the glowing box in your hand.

Technology will always be a double-edged sword in the arts: on the one hand, it opens up a host of new possibilities for both the creation of work and the promotion/distribution of said work; on the other hand, it can become a crutch to distract from a creatively bankrupt production. Tweet seats remind me of someone going through a mid-life crisis: so desperate to maintain relevance that he or she will adopt the most ridiculous contemporary fad in an attempt follow the zeitgeist. The only thing missing is cheap hair dye, plastic surgery, and an expensive sports car. Tweet seats don’t compliment a performance, they contradict it.

Can those people up there be quiet? I’m trying to update my Pinterest board

Can those people up there be quiet? I’m trying to update my Pinterest board

But there are many great strides in the marriage of classic theatre and modern technology. From its inception, PBS has been bringing theatre and opera into the homes of millions. The rise of digital projection cinema has allowed this idea to flourish into full high definition presentations on giant screens. And now independent theatres are getting in on the game with live-streaming outlets, including HowlRound TV. As this trend grows, everyone will have to keep up-to-date with things like internet access, internet speed, and how to get cameras and microphones in key places to best capture the performance, yet not be noticed by the audience. None of which is impossible. None of which takes away from what the performers fought so hard to put together.

I’ve been a tech buff since I was four years old and the only one in the house who knew how to set the clock on the VCR. I’ve seen “the next big thing” come and go without so much as a blip on the national radar (does anyone even remember MiniDisc? CD-i? HD-DVD?). It’s near-impossible to predict which new technology will most influence the future, but as artists there is one thing we can do. When we come across some new tech – be it a new shade of blue to add to an illustrator’s palette, or the ability to project on the side of a skyscraper – we can ask ourselves “How will this make it easier for me to say what I want to say?” Hitchcock and Kubrick were always innovative in the technology used in their films, using bluescreen, matte paintings, etc. Do you honestly think they wouldn’t have used CGI, had they lived? Terence Malick uses it. To an artist, everything is a potential tool. Everything.

Similarly, right now you’re reading this on the internet. Chances are you came to this article by clicking over from a social networking site. I currently do part-time work for a company that handles the outsourced social media for corporations. A single headline can make or break a casual patron’s entire impression of a company. It has to short, to the point, and intriguing. We all hate Upworthy’s click-bait headlines, but those fuckers know how to dangle a worm somethin’ fierce, y’all. The impact of social media on the arts cannot be understated. When you work thrives by word-of-mouth, you have to keep track of the words about you that are instantly published and can be seen by thousands a day. Print reviews and postcard advertising are still a part of what we do, but few of those make the impact of someone taking to Facebook to say how much they loved/hated a show, how long the show playing, and where you can donate funds to the producers. These are things that all add to experience.

It shouldn’t be about keeping up with the Joneses, it should be about telling the story the best way possible. Something else to keep in mind…

4 – Scorched Earth

Before I go on, I think it prudent to issue a mild DISCLAIMER: I’m going to address a topic that is very sensitive and stirs up passions for those on both sides. I’d like to say that I’m not trying to throw fuel on the fire, just that I see an unmistakable parallel.

You still there? Okay then…

This idea of dispatching the old to make way for the new is not only a problem with theatre, but with the city of San Francisco in particular. I say that with many good friends in the tech industry. Said friends are good, hard-working people who actually would like to be part the unique culture for which this city is known. Unfortunately, they find themselves employed by companies who have torn down century-old building for the sake of erecting a new Starbucks in its place. When the art galleries on Geary Blvd. are evicted to make way for a new headquarters of a-company-that-might-not-be-around-in-two-years, then that’s a problem. The loss of an artistic outlet is a problem, in no short part because the identities – those of the artists and the town that welcomed them into their gallery – will be lost. History repeatedly tells us the cost of destroying something ancient just to make way the new invaders: something truly invaluable is always lost. And once the new owners of these buildings have no use for them, they’ll just leave the damaged remains behind.

On the plus side: I have a Mad Max fanfic for just this occasion.

On the plus side: I have a Mad Max fanfic for just this occasion.

But I’m not here to blame anyone. Really, I’m not. No good comes from misguided blame. In fact, you might find this hard to believe, but I’m actually pretty optimistic. I really am. I know what you’re thinking: how can I, an independent theatre artist, be remotely optimistic about the future of theatre when even Broadway and The Metropolitan Opera [/LINK] are tearing their hair out over how to save their “dying industries.” ?

I’m glad you asked, and the reason is…

5 – Conclusion: We’re all in this together.

The reason I don’t freak out about the future of theatre is that all of the ideas mentioned above, including the ones I don’t like, mean that there will be a future for theatre. You know what literature, television, painting, and film all have in common? They’re all dependent upon technology. Every one of those great artistic and entertainment format would be impossible without some great technological advancement to make them possible: the printing press, the cathode ray, the feathered brush, and the photochemical process – all of them an inextricably linked with the advanced that bore them. Theatre requires only two things: a performer and an audience. It’s been like that since the beginning of time.

As much as I abhor some of the ideas to “save” theatre, it comforts me to know that it still stirs that kind of passion within people. It’s okay to hate a classic, because it became a classic by being scrutinised over the years. Citizen Kane wasn’t called “Greatest Film of All Time” until the 1960s. Y’know which film held the title before that? Birth of a Nation. Seriously. Hate as many classics as you like. I happen to know of a local theatre company that “produces re-imagined classics and scripted original works, as well as creative and social events, preferably in a casual bar environment or other non-traditional venue, emphasizing collaboration and connection between new and established theater artists and audiences.” What was their name again?

As much as we worry over finding that audience of One , new innovations allow for a wider net to find that audience, no matter where they are. I was there the night my good friends at PianoFight Productions raised all the funds for their new Taylor Street headquarters. After having heard them talk about it for so long, it was amazing to actually walk through the space: multiple stages, a full restaurant & bar, a film/video studio, and a recording studio. There will be full plays, improv shows, stand-up, and live-streaming capabilities. All of the classic qualities of live performance successfully merged with cutting edge technology in a venue where there are no limits. That is how one creates “new theatre”.

I’m optimistic about theatre because I know theatre isn’t dying, it’s evolving. It’s getting more perspectives from women and people of color . It’s thriving in places, even when you can’t find it. It’s refusing live or die by outdated definitions of what it is or isn’t.

Whatever old-school theatre folk think of the new upstarts (and vice versa), the point is that we’re all after the exact same thing. Know how I know? We chose theatre. No one goes into theatre to be cool. They go into theatre because they know there’s nothing like an audience and a performer breathing the same air; nothing like connecting with someone, even when there’s distance between you; nothing like truly losing yourself in the experience of something that you logically know is make believe. I recently read an article of polled theatre audiences who say that attending a live show is just as invigorating as getting a pay raise. And that is what we do, what we have done, what we will continue to do until the end of time: make everyone’s life a little richer, one performance at a time.

But seriously, fuck Vertigo.

Charles Lewis is a local actor, writer and director who is equally adept at mending fences and burning bridges.

Higher Education: Meeting the Fear Barrier

Barbara Jwanouskos ponders when and why we push ourselves.

Interestingly enough, Howlround posted an article on two theater artists’ journey to create a new play about female boxers this week right as I am also working on a new play with a female martial artist as the protagonist. I found myself relating on many levels as they talked about what it was like to box, what stories from real life to bring into the rehearsal room, and how exactly the story should be told.

When Suli Holum (of Pig Iron Theatre Company) described her experience working with her boxing trainer and being ashamed of crying in front of him, I thought of the times in both training in martial arts and in working on a new play where the same thing has happened. Holum says:

I had to overcome my aversion—which manifested as a wave of nausea—at throwing a right hook to my trainer’s head. And finally I had to be willing to move towards risk, to lean into fear. To box is to be vulnerable, radically vulnerable—it’s an intimate agreement made between two people to push each other to their very limits. It reminds me of acting, until I get punched and then I remember the difference.

I’ve been writing and thinking a lot lately on the need to push yourself. When you spar with someone, there is no way that you cannot address the fear of getting hurt and also hurting someone. As Holum describes, it’s this weird contract you make with your partner that you will hurt one another physically in order to be ready to defend yourself if that ever is called upon. I absolutely can see how to people who don’t train in martial arts or fighting skills, the idea of this is completely masochistic and insane.

The truth is, I am not a violent person. In fact, I find it to be one of the most all-consuming upsetting things about the world we live in. And while I may have fun as I playfully spar with my trusted friends in kung fu classes, there is a difference between that and real violence. Because ultimately both a sparring session and a play are pretend. For the survivors of physical and emotional violence, I think is essential to acknowledge this important distinction because real violence is never agreed upon by both parties.

Like Holum, I find the connection between training to fight and in creating theater. When we put an event on the stage, just like when we square up with our training partners to spar, we have a contract with our audience and ultimately that is an implicit promise that they will get something out of sitting there for an hour or two. The audience trusts that this is going to happen (whether it does is another thing entirely). Everything in theater requires a kind of vulnerability that is so difficult to bear sometimes.

Artwork by Annie Yokom, part of the cast of "The Imaginary Opponent"

Artwork by Annie Yokom, part of the cast of “The Imaginary Opponent”

As I head into the last week of rehearsals for my thesis play, “The Imaginary Opponent”, I have to remember not to beat myself up for the times when my own fears have pierced through and caused me to express emotions in a way that I am not usually comfortable doing. This vulnerability of showing something that you’ve created, worked long hours on, and struggled time and time again to understand is why I think we need to be confident, but also humble as artists, as Ashley Cowan grappled with in her article for this week, “A Confidence Question”.

The humbleness, for me, comes from acknowledging that there is intense fear in putting an event on stage, because you never know what is going to happen and how people will react. The confidence goes back to pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. To me, it’s recognizing that “this is something I’m afraid of and uncomfortable with” but still gently telling yourself that whatever happens, it will ultimately be okay. Good, bad, success, failure… it’s all relative. But at some point, it has to be done. A choice has to be made about whether you will continue forward or not – like an on/off switch.

In martial arts we train a fighting technique over and over so that once we spar we can address the attack from our partners. The repetition of it becomes routine. It becomes easier to stay relaxed and not freeze up once the attack comes, and then we learn that we can react quickly in the moment. It’s the repetition that builds up our confidence with squaring up against our training partners. We do the same thing in theater. We rehearse a play over and over again so that it becomes routine. Every move, look, word and feeling is mapped out. We bring in people to watch us during the process so that an audience feels routine. Everything we do helps us feel more comfortable and more confident for the actual performance.

For me, the repetition proves to me that it’s okay to be vulnerable because whatever I’m afraid of, I can handle. It absolutely is a privilege to get to that state and I am consistently impressed by the people around me who demonstrate this quality with fears and experiences much greater than mine. It’s inspiring that I too can meet my fear barrier and, yes, take a foot across.

Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: What Theatre Needs

Claire Rice gives us a list of wishes…

You don’t have to tell me that if wishes were fishes we’d all be very good at making our own sushi. Still, there are things I wish existed that I really think would be awesome. And I know that some of these things are in my grasp. Like a bike, for example. I could make that happen. Black Widow getting her own Avenger’s movie, on the other hand, is not exactly in my control. I mean, I can write the screenplay and I can film it and I can hire the lawyers to protect me from Disney and Marvel…but it just wouldn’t be as satisfying as if Mark Boal wrote it and Catherine Bigelow directed it. Sometimes I think it’s OK to just send things out into the universe and wish.

But none of these wishes are going to be for more money. All of the wishes I have below can be gotten for more money, but “more money” as an answer is boring. You will always want there to be more money. You will always want things to be more equal. You will always want things to be more fair or to work in your favor.

This isn’t that kind of list.

So, I wish…

1 – Ashland Everywhere
This past Monday I was sitting in the lobby of Berkeley Rep listening to a pre-show discussion with a few of the playwrights featured in this week’s Monday Night Playground. When, as part of a general discussion about the arts and funding, Jonathan Luskin asked “Why can’t every state have an Ashland?”. I’m sure I’m among the many who, after returning from their first trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, felt a deep longing for the utter immersive theatrical environment that is OSF. The dream of spending nine months living and breathing live theatre. It’s hard not to romanticize it. But, before OSF alumni comment on the thrills of seclusion in Ashland and the joys of months upon months of self important tourists, let me say that I know that it can’t be perfect. But, I also agree with Jonathan, why can’t every state have it’s version of Ashland? I don’t mean the paint-by-numbers three month runs of Oklahoma!, or the unscrupulous and shady touring productions (like a certain production of Peter Pan that blew through a few years ago.) No, I mean forward thinking, risk taking, creative, invested caretakers of the American theatrical ambition. A place where the artists and craftsmen are treated as both employees and artists. A place to be introduced to theatre for the first time, a place to live theatre for a week, a place to relive favorites, and a place to discover new voices. And, yes, employers. Great behemoth employers where the young train, the up and coming to hone their craft, and the established relax into 401k plans.

2 – Nerdy Trade Magazines
Oddly specific and full of the best and most up to date information on trends, topics and news. How many theatre companies prefer to use Meisner Technique in their rehearsal rooms? Meisner Today knows (or it would if it existed.) I know, I know. Print media is dead!!! We’re playing a wishing game here. I want to open my mail box and have piles of glossy news items fall out. Yes, I get American Theatre Magazine and Theatre Bay Area and both are great. I don’t know about you, it get’s exhausting looking at all the ads for graduate schools in American Theatre Magazine, surely there is someone else willing to advertise in there that will make reading it feel more adult. There will never be a day when Howl Round or 2amT will come monthly and glossy, and I don’t think it should…oh but I kind of wish it did. I’m not going to lie. I want a theatre version of Rollingstone. I want it to be that stupid, that gossipy, that hero worshipping, that controversial and that entertaining in itself.

3 – Legitimate coverage
I don’t want to wait for Vanity Fair to cover Tracy Letts because Meryl Streep is in an adaptation of his play. I want every entertainment magazine, newspaper and entertainment broadcast to devote a little space to theatre. Not just major catastrophes like Spiderman, but the fact that cool stuff and terrible stuff is happening all over the country all the time. I want Vanity Fair to talk about theatre so much that around the time of the Tony’s they have a big Annie Leibovitz theatre spread where they name everyone and give little descriptions (I love those!) I want AV Club and Jezebel to roll their eyes at Vanity Fair and write article after article about “real” theatre stars, accomplishments and pitfalls.

4 – Conventions and Trade Shows
We never called it cosplay – we called it costuming. And,no, it isn’t fun to dress up as the family from Death of a Salesman, but you can’t tell me there wouldn’t be a million Rent heads there all to see the panel with the original cast. Vender booths, sneak previews of Broadway hits before they open, tech fairs with the latest in lighting and sound and projection equipment, costume parades from our favorite designers (LIKE FASHION WEEK!), season announcements from big regional theatres and…oh goodness. It would be terrrible and wonderful and fun.

5 – Comfortable Seats
The older I get the more I dread going to see theatre at certain venues. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter how good the show is. If my ass has fallen asleep, my spine has started to tingle from bad lumbar support, and my hips (my lovely wide American hips) have finally had enough of being squished beneath the arm rests I may just walk out.

6 – More Broadway in Las Vegas
This is like the Ashland wish, only this theatre is way more commercial. Yup. Hoaky, touristy, loud show offy and commercial commercial commercial. I want more of it. I want a Rogers and Hammerstein Theatre on the strip doing shows in rep. I want brilliant musical directors, singers, actors, set designers and crew to cut their teeth and earn retirement fund there. I want the type of people who wrote Urinetown to have an edgy big theatre there too that does crazy new works with big budgets. I want a sketch comedy troupe with multi-media know-how to do their thing there.

7 – More Poaching from the Lower Ranks
I want the big regional companies to look below them and think about moving whole shows up from the small independent companies. When I see a cool show at Crowded Fire, I want to get excited when I see that the next season it’s at Marin Theatre Company.

8 – Less Excitement about Seeing it First, More Excitement about Seeing it Next
I want a new play to premiere at Kitchen Dog Theatre and I want to know for sure that in the next few months I’ll get the opportunity to see it too. I want there to be a ripple of excitement spreading across the country. The New Play Network and it’s rolling premiers are doing a good job and I want more! I want little black box theatre franchises all over that will open a show all in the same season. I want a big broadway show to open on Broadway AND in Los Angeles. I want previews for shows just like movies. I want them all in a single place so I can watch them all. I want to share them on Facebook and I want to say: “Man, I can’t go to Dallas right now but I hear that Playhouse will do the show in June!”

9 – Away with Curtain Call
I just don’t think they are necessary. It’s a false kind of pageantry that isn’t necessary. It’s hoaky. It breaks the mood. It wastes time. It’s a form of begging. I want the audience to feel like it’s a special treat to see the actors without the makeup or the character. The curtain call has become pro forma. It’s lost it’s magic. I don’t need it any more.

10 – A Powerful Politician and The Owner of a Media Outlet
I want friends in high places for theatre. Loud ones.

Higher Education: Show Me The Money, Part One

Barbara Jwanouskous’ first column of 2014 is asking some tough but vital questions. 

This is the last week before the second (and last, for me) semester of the dramatic writing program at CMU. Over the course of the holiday, I’ve gotten to link up with various people and re-connect with the Bay Area theater scene. One thing that I’ve been keeping my eye on is the A.C.T. Indiegogo for their project to research women’s leadership in residential theaters, and I hope others are keeping their eye on this too.

The idea for the project is that women’s leadership came from the statistics that point that women have never held more than 27% of the leadership positions in American nonprofit theater. A.C.T. seeks to discover why there are so few women in leadership positions and what can be done to achieve greater diversity in theater leadership. They plan to make a study with the Wellesley Centers for Women and conduct forums alongside HowlRound.

There are a couple interesting facets about the project I’d like to point out and then I’d like to start asking some questions. Let me get it straight that I’m neither in vehement support for or against this project, but I do find some things vague and I would like to open them up a bit more (if nothing else, so I can wrap my head around them…). That being said, this topic will probably get a lot of love from me, so this, my friends, is Part One!

Tom Cruise's standard money-getting turtleneck.

Tom Cruise’s standard money-getting turtleneck.

Though they used a crowdfunding platform to raise funds for the project, there was already been support from a variety of players.

A little background for those unfamiliar: Kickstarter and Indiegogo are known for their ability to raise funds and visibility for various projects using a social media to encourage funding. Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing platform where the goal for funding is established by the project creator whereas Indiegogo projects receive all the funds raised regardless of whether the goal is met. Those interested in supporting the project receive specific incentives for “investing” at certain levels with both services.

Both on the indiegogo project and on the page on their website, A.C.T. indicates that they are receiving a matching grant from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. This means that whatever they raise from other donors for this project will be matched by the Toulmin Foundation (it does not indicate on their pages whether there is a cap on the matching level). They are also partnering with the Wellesley Centers for Women for the research (though they do not indicate whether partnership with the WCW is an in-kind service, or if they will use money raised to pay for Center services).

As of December 31, 2013, the indigogo project raised $6,805 for the project via indiegogo. A portion of that will have to go to indiegogo for administrative hosting fees, but the rest will be matched by the Toulmin Foundation, bringing the total for this research project to more than $13,000 – nothing to sneeze at if you’re a theater producer or arts organization.

They could be reaching out to their donors in a variety of ways other than through indigogo and their webpage.

I would be surprised if A.C.T. hadn’t targeted particular current major gift donors that were interested in women’s leadership within theaters. It would be easy to find this out since most foundations and donors indicate during the cultivation process what their priorities and interests are in funding nonprofits. A.C.T. has a link on their webpage encouraging folks to donate to the leadership project directly (not through indiegogo).

One of the main ways we used to encourage individual support for a matching gift from a major donor when I previously worked in fundraising at Second Harvest Food Bank, was to use our direct mail campaigns as a venue for this solicitation. The direct mail stats year over year indicated about how much revenue we would receive given on past history. I remember once we started using more challenge or matching grants (which, let me just say, are one of my favorite ways to raise support) we received even more favorable responses than in years prior.

That means, that instead of a total project budget of $13,000, they have possibly raised even more than that from other donors for this research.

So, one of my questions is, why would A.C.T. use indiegogo as a way to generate support for this project when they could have found it using their own donor base?

There are a variety of reasons why an organization would choose to do this – perhaps to receive greater widespread visibility for this project or perhaps it helped with the matching grant accounting to show which funds came in for the support of the research. I’d like to hear thoughts from you! Let’s keep this discussion rolling before I move on to the second part of this series.

Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: I Don’t Want to Wait

Marissa Skudlarek gives us her longest blog ever, because she’s got a lot to think about. 

As Allison Page noted here last week, self-producing is a hot topic among theater-makers right now. On Facebook, the group “The Official Playwrights of Facebook” frequently plays host to conversations about best practices for self-producing, and last week, HowlRound led a Twitter conversation on the topic.

In these discussions and conversations, there always seems to be someone (or multiple someones) offering advice along the lines of “Before you even think about self-producing a play, make sure you’ve done tons of drafts and multiple readings and workshops.”

Here’s why I think that that may be dangerous advice.

(Caveat emptor: I haven’t self-produced a play before, though I am planning to do so this year. Therefore, I may be writing this column from a place of naïve ignorance. If the play I self-produce this year goes disastrously, and I end 2014 moaning “Oh, if only I’d listened to the advice of my betters, if only I had revised and workshopped the play more before I produced it,” I will write a follow-up piece lamenting my folly. But these are my beliefs as they stand now.)

Now, I want to be clear that I don’t think playwrights should slap their raw, unedited first drafts onstage. My plays have definitely benefited from table reads, staged readings, and thoughtful revision. What I am taking aim at, though, is the idea that a playwright must spend years revising and workshopping a single script before it can even be considered stageworthy.

The standard counter-example to the idea of “every play needs tons and tons of revision” is Shakespeare. While we know very little about Shakespeare’s life or his writing process, consider this: he wrote about forty plays in twenty years, at a time when writing was much slower and more difficult than it is today. And he had a day job, too: he acted in and helped run a theater company. So it’s doubtful that he had the time to do multiple revisions and workshops of each of his plays!

But, you might say, Shakespeare was a genius and, anyway, he lived 400 years ago. Still, think of some examples closer to our own time. Well-known American playwrights such as Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson got their start by writing and producing lots of plays at the Caffe Cino: fast, cheap, and dirty. Not all of their early plays stand the test of time, but they got these writers noticed, taught them valuable lessons about the craft of playwriting, and are still being read and produced today.

Moreover, why are playwrights told to spend years workshopping and revising, when we do not expect the same of screenwriters? Woody Allen writes and directs a film a year, pretty much, and he claims that he doesn’t do multiple drafts of his screenplays—he just writes a script and then shoots it. And he has more Oscar wins and nominations for screenwriting than anyone else! Or, as you know, we are living in a Golden Age of television, and a typical TV episode is written, shot, and edited within a span of weeks or months. Some of the most brilliant dramatic writing of the 21st century has appeared on TV, and none of it comes from writers who spent years revising and workshopping a single script.

We playwrights may not earn as much money as Hollywood screenwriters, but historically, we’ve consoled ourselves by saying “Well, at least our plays do not get stuck in ‘development hell’ the way that screenplays do!” Yet now, people are advising us that for “the good of the play,” we need to get stuck in a development hell of our own making. We hear that our work is so precious, so special, so flawed, so fussy, so hard to get right, that it needs years of tender loving care before it’s ready to go out into the cruel world.

Actually, here’s a metaphor for you. You’ve probably heard people compare writing a play to having or raising a child. And, in the olden days of high infant mortality, parents would have lots of children and then try not to get too attached to them, for fear that the child would die. Discipline was severe, and parents expected their kids to grow up fast. Nowadays, people plan for their children carefully, have just one or two kids, lavish them with attention, and overthink every aspect of parenting. Likewise, in the olden days, playwrights expected to write plays at a steady pace, have them produced regularly, and then move on to their next play. But, nowadays, we are encouraged to write fewer plays, and become “helicopter parents” to the plays we have written.

I don’t want to return to an era of Dickensian cruelty and high infant mortality, nor do I want to live in a world where every play is produced right after the playwright completes the first draft. Still, there’s evidence that helicopter parenting is harmful to children, and I think it can be harmful to plays as well.

Consider this: if every new play needs to be workshopped for years before production, this will ensure that the theater always lags a few years behind the rest of culture. One of the theater’s advantages has always been its immediacy and flexibility. But as the rest of the culture speeds up (blogs, Twitter, the 24-hour news cycle), we’re encouraging playwriting to slow down and take its time. Also, if you do too many drafts, there’s a risk that you will grow bored with your own play and that it will lose its initial freshness and liveliness. You may even extinguish the creative spark that caused you to write it in the first place.

And if you want to do a dozen drafts and three workshops of your play in the hopes that you can iron out all of its flaws and make it critic-proof… sorry, honey, that’s not going to happen. No play is ever “critic-proof,” because no work of art can ever appeal to everyone’s tastes. Moreover, I remember reading a line in Chad Jones’ SF Chronicle review of American Dream, by Brad Erickson, that pulled me up short: “For a new play, American Dream is in remarkably good shape, though, as with any new work, there is still room for editing.” I never saw American Dream and therefore cannot say whether it had “room for editing” or not — what bothers me here is Jones’ cavalier implication that every new play needs editing and that it’s rare to find a new play that is in “good shape.” It suggested that critics approach new plays with the assumption that they are always flawed in some way. And if a critic goes into your play with that attitude, no amount of revision will help your cause.

A culture that encourages “five years of revisions” encourages writers to operate from a mentality of fear and scarcity, rather than a mentality of joy and abundance. It suggests that the financial, emotional, and reputational damage accrued from producing a less-than-perfect play will be far more consequential than any lessons you might learn from producing that play. (And everyone says that producing a play teaches you a lot and will make you a better writer the next time around.) It encourages black-and-white thinking: it suggests that unless your play is perfect, it is worthless.

Maybe some people do benefit from this advice. Maybe there are brash, over-confident people who bang out a play in two weeks, refuse to revise it, and insist on producing it “as is.” But I’m a fearful, neurotic person who has struggled with perfectionism for my whole life. So I can say with some authority that, for people like me, it is dangerous to tell us to wait and revise and make sure everything is perfect. Because we will wait, oh yes. We will wait forever.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She’s gearing up to self-produce a full-length play later this year. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.