The Real World- Theater Edition: Interview with William H. Bryant Jr. and Skyler Cooper

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews the creative team behind Every 28 Hours.

Every 28 Hours is a piece that was created by linking one-minute plays based on the staggering statistic that every 28 hours, a person of color is murdered by a police officer, vigilante, or security guard. This is a piece that hits deeply into the legacy of white supremacy that our culture has been built upon and asks us if we are willing to look at ourselves to build a way of living and interacting where black lives matter.

I had the opportunity to speak with two of the actors in the Every 28 Hours production here in the Bay Area. Their names are William H. Bryant Jr. (BJ) and Skyler Cooper, and I feel fortunate that we were able to connect to share their experiences working on such an intensely powerful theatrical production.

Every 28 Hours is produced by Faultline Theater and playing at PianoFight until Nov.12.

Skyler Cooper. Photo Credit: Joy Yamada.

Skyler Cooper. Photo Credit: Joy Yamada.

Barbara: Tell me about Every 28 Hours and how you came to be involved. What are you bringing to the table? Where do you see yourself in the piece?

Skyler: Every 28 Hours is a collection of stories influenced by experiences of black and brown men and women at the hands of law enforcement in this country. I wanted to be a part of this because it’s necessary and it’s vitally important to raise awareness and I am all about the creative activism that weaves throughout these stories. In my heart I knew I was being called forth from a deep spiritual place to do something with my artistic voice. I have been using my art to bring awareness to LGBTQ issues in the past, present, and future. But I am not just from that community, I am also black and I am an American and this affects me and my loved ones. I am fortunate that I am able to say “Yes”. I know so many actors would if they could. It felt like a “call to arms” when I was first told about the project. Also I relate to these stories not just because I’m black but also because I’m transgender, as well as two-spirited. I have walked in both black men and women’s shoes in this country and I’m here to tell you it ain’t easy. Currently the path I walk in the world is predominately as male. I’m either seen as a cisgender black male or a black trans male, every now and then (although I identify as a transgender actor), I am still remembered for the characters I’ve done as a cisgender masculine-of-center female. So I could be seen as black butch female. They have it just as bad as males if not worse in some cases.

BJ: First and foremost, thank you, Barbara, for the opportunity to share a bit about myself and the type of work I love doing the most. Every 28 Hours is a project comprised of 72 one-minute plays that are inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and was developed after the news of Michael Brown’s death. The title comes from the often challenged statistic that a person of color is murdered by a police officer, vigilante, or security guard every 28 hours.

I first heard of the plays, actually, from one of my cast mates and friend, Deane, who had already started working on the plays before I came aboard. I ended up joining the rest of the amazing cast late because they needed another actor due to one having to drop out because of a conflict. I couldn’t be more grateful for the open arms that welcomed me, from the cast, to the directors, to the production team. Not only did I see it as an amazing opportunity to speak up for something with life-and-death importance to me, but I saw it as a responsibility to stress how important it is for us to, at the very least, open dialogue and have a conversation about the subject matter of the plays.

I see myself in this piece as part of a group with a story to tell. We all complement each other in ways I feel make us most effective in telling these stories. The bond that we created has been so crucial in working to do the writers of these incredibly moving pieces justice.

Barbara: What has the creative process been like? Has there been anything that surprised you along the way?

Skyler: Doing one-minute plays with five different (amazing) directors is a treat. Yet the creative process is different on so many levels from a traditional three-act structured play. It’s kind of like boot camp for character development. Much of what these plays give are a three-act story structure in one minute. I can find the beginning, middle, and end in most of the pieces on stage. Much of the creative process on all these plays is put into the backstory — what is not seen or said in the play. It has allowed us to bring full characters to the table. It’s necessary when you only get one minute! I’m surprised at how full these plays can be, say so little, and give so much.

BJ: The creative process of working on the pieces has been quite the learning experience. We are very lucky to be working with five of the most ingenious, brilliant, and hardworking directors and production team. This itself has made the creative process for this project so much more effective and real. The directors have put all of their beings into this whole process, instilling life into the pieces and allowing us the freedom to do the same with the characters while keeping in mind that this project isn’t for us; it’s for the victims, their families, and everyone who is blind to the fact that there is a major problem in our society/country.

I was actually surprised by how physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting, the entire process would be. But, the cause itself, the work, and each other are motivation enough that help along the way and keep us aiming to raise the bar after each and every performance.

3rd: William H. Bryant Jr. Photo Credit: Joy Yamada.

3rd: William H. Bryant Jr. Photo Credit: Joy Yamada.

Barbara: Is there anything you do for yourself when investing so much of yourself into a powerful piece like this one? How do you keep going when it goes so deep?

Skyler: What I do to care for myself through this process is exercise my spiritual practice. It keeps me grounded and I include everyone else in my prayers — cast, crew, audiences and the souls that we lost. I rededicate each performance and I try to ground myself in their power, the power of the piece, and the power of the people. When I’m able to do this my cause is unshakable, because the roots are deep with love rather than fear or hate. I try to give love to myself and to the purpose of the piece. It’s all love.

BJ: When investing everything I can into a piece like this I learned that it helps to clear your head by bonding with your cast mates, friends, family, and loved ones. Also, I have guilty pleasures that I go to, like watching cartoons every now and then or watching superhero movies. I’ve learned during this project that we have to continue to go as deep as possible because this play isn’t for us and we have a message to send. So it helps knowing that we’d be selfish if we were to hold ourselves back in any way. So that, and knowing that my castmates, who have become like brothers and sisters to me, and my family and friends always have my back, definitely helps keep me going. I’m extremely lucky and blessed to have the support system I have especially in doing a project like this.

Barbara: Do you have a favorite moment or line of the piece? What is it and why is it your favorite?

Skyler: There are many… but I think my favorite line is the whole point of Every 28 Hours. It’s where two black men, one from the past and the other from the present, say, “I don’t want to fight. I want to be free.”

BJ: It’s tough to point out a specific piece or line and say it is my favorite because there are so many magical, tragic, heartfelt moments that capture the essence of the messages we are trying to send. There is a piece called “The Gray Area,” written by Chisa Hutchinson and performed spectacularly by Adriane Deane and Stephanie Wilborn in our run. It is a play in which a black protester explains to a white protester who is protesting “police brutality against all people,” that her form of protest is a form of racism because of her choice to ignore the fact that police brutality disproportionately targets black people. This is one of my favorite pieces because there are so many people in society who severely undermine the Black Lives Matters movement with the statement, “all lives matter,” when all lives aren’t being taken at the same rate that black lives are because of police brutality.

Barbara: What words of wisdom would you give to others that want to do what you do?

Skyler: Do it. There is only one you. Also, know that training, focus, dedication, courage, humility, and passion, are helpful to any actor who wishes to find their artistic voice. When I was able to find my artistic voice, I was able to chose the plays and characters that helped me to develop my craft beyond my training. Even still I think taking workshop intensives are great. Every instrument needs to be tuned every now and then. The theater is where I started and I highly encourage anyone who wants to be an actor to look to theater at some point preferably at the beginning. It truly is where the actor gets to work their craft the most, your entire body becomes your instrument.

BJ: I would say if they are willing to put everything they have into their craft, especially in doing plays like these, then be sure to take care of yourself mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Really diving into a piece as heavy as this one can take a toll on your body in many different ways.

Barbara: What are you hoping someone watching the piece will take away?

Skyler: To have an unshakeable desire to enact a change in this country. Mindfulness to a degree that allows them to shift unconscious biases held against black and brown people.

BJ: What I am really hoping that people take away from this piece is the urge to act and not just stand by any longer as this continues to go on throughout the country. There are many ways to become active and fight against racism, systematic racism, and police brutality against people of color. I also hope more and more people try to get others to open their minds and understand the struggle instead of staying stagnant, in denial that there is a problem in society.

Skyler Cooper and William H. Bryant Jr. Photo Credit: Joy Yamada

Skyler Cooper and William H. Bryant Jr. Photo Credit: Joy Yamada

To learn more about Skyler Cooper’s work –including several upcoming films — is visit http://www.skylercooper.net/#skyler-cooper and https://www.facebook.com/skyler.cooper.9. For more information on upcoming projects for William H. Bryant Jr., please visit http://www.williambryantjr.com/ and @bjbeege19 on Instagram.

The Real World- Theater Edition: An Interview With Star Finch

Barbara Jwanouskos brings you the author of H.O.M.E.

I heard the title first, H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually) and I thought, “okay, now, that’s gonna be good…” I see it and it’s this meld of worlds, ideas, curiosities, passions, and most importantly, issues I care about, so I was immediately drawn in. It’s speaking to something mythic and larger than life, but is what our every day is made of. When we think of what the future – or even the present – will be like and wonder who’s going to celebrate in the success and who will be left out? With people being pushed out of their homes and places around the Bay that they grew up, this is palpable and real. And the play opens that door. For me, it was the first time in a long time that I felt connected to something that I can only relate to the word, “spiritual”. It’s the type of theater that captures you and draws you into its share experience and shared space. It lets you be there and lets you listen as the ideas, the words, the characters come to life on stage. Gives you a place where you can share this with others.

Suffice it to say, I was moved deeply.

Campo Santo is currently putting on the production at The Strand Theater by playwright, Star Finch, who was born and raised in San Francisco. I was able to connect with her after seeing the show – thanks to Sean San Jose. I asked her about her process and how H.O.M.E. developed.

Star Finch

Star Finch

Barbara: Tell me about your artistic and writing background. What drew you to theater?

Star: I’ve always used writing as a way to make sense of the world or my experiences within it since I was a teen. It wasn’t until later in life that I found the courage to admit to myself that I wanted to be a writer and should actively pursue it rather than hide it away in notebooks. I found my way to theater specifically in grad school when I randomly took a course with Michelle Carter, despite my focus being in fiction. I immediately fell in love with the plays we went to see, the playwrights she introduced into my world, and the layers of energy that could be folded into great dialogue. Michelle Carter became a mentor and later a great friend who was instrumental in encouraging me to pursue my path.

Barbara: Do you have any influences – shows you saw that you were inspired by, books or essays, teachers, family, friends or mentors, etc. – that show up in your writing?

Star: I’m very much inspired/influenced by the playwrights Caryl Churchill and Suzan-Lori Parks. Everything David Lynch produced made a big impact on my childhood subconscious (why I was allowed to watch his work as a kid is its own mystery). Michelle Carter’s emphasis on the dance of beats and subtext within dialogue stays with me. Kara Walker and Wangechi Mutu’s work speak directly to the ghosts I carry. And lastly D. Scot Miller’s manifesto on AfroSurrealism was a revelation that gathered all the tiny fragments of my lived experiences and named/framed them into a whole.

Barbara: What’s your process like and did anything about it change in writing and developing H.O.M.E.?

Star: My process was always to write late at night after my kids and husband had gone to bed and the house was finally quiet. I would write by hand in notebooks until I felt like I had a solid chunk of scenes and then I’d type them up on my computer to get a view from a different angle. For the most part that remains my process in that I always begin by hand in a notebook. For whatever reason I can’t just jump onto a computer/laptop and take off. What was different with H.OM.E was that it was written within Campo Santo’s informal writing group, Clika. So in this case I was sharing scenes, hearing scenes read by actors, and getting feedback from the very beginning. Prior to that I had only written something all the way through on my own and then asked for feedback on the draft as a whole.

Barbara: I’m curious about your thoughts on how you engage with collaborators, for instance once you’re in the rehearsal room. What was it like to work with Campo Santo?

Star: Campo Santo is an amazing place to call home. Sean San Jose truly feels like a long lost brother. I don’t know if it’s because we’re both SF natives or what, but we just vibe really well and make each other laugh. There is a trust involved that speaks to our commitment to speak truth in matters of injustice, hypocrisy, or oppression within the stories we seek to tell in our work. In the rehearsal room we spent a good two weeks sitting around a table asking questions. Everyone at the table was given a voice to seek whatever answers they needed to best help them embody the text. In a way we were all sitting in the dark with a script and it was important to build the world collectively through conversation.

Barbara: Could you tell me about H.O.M.E. and what inspired or prompted you? Do you have a favorite moment or line in the play? What draws you to it?

Star: The original prompt for this play was a photograph, by Chris Arnade, of two sex workers in the Bronx looking through a telescope. The photo got me to wondering about space travel, access, privilege, and who would be “allowed” to travel to new worlds in the future. It’s difficult to pick a favorite line or moment in the play, but one of my favorite images is the idea of a mythological Tupac Amaru Shakur living as a prophet in a cave on Mars. That thread throughout the piece became even more poignant for me after the death of Afeni Shakur in May. I love the idea of writing the spirit of their names across the solar system.

Star's inspiration for H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually). Photo by Chris Arnade.

Star’s inspiration for H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually). Photo by Chris Arnade.

Barbara: What do you think about where San Francisco and the Bay Area is at now (theater scene or beyond) and where we’re going?

Star: In theater (and beyond) I think San Francisco and the Bay Area talks about wanting diversity and inclusion but it’s for the most part just talk. The word diversity is often a matter of using numbers to secure grants, create a “colored” brochure, or pat oneself on the back for being a progressive city. But true progress requires actively dismantling and rebuilding as an act of restoring normalcy, not feigning nobility. Organizations, neighborhoods, workplaces ought to be diverse because the very nature of Nature itself is diversity in abundance. The gap between the image the Bay Area projects and the reality of who is made to feel welcome here grows wider every day.

Barbara: Is there anything that drives you to write within (or out of) that context? How so?

Star: Yes! Because I know how diverse, vibrant, wild and open this city used to be. I’m always writing from a place that questions the sanity of what we’re conditioned to consider normal, and who benefits from said conditioning.

Barbara: Are there other theaters, writers, performance artists, artists of any media for that matter that you think are doing really something really interesting? Work you enjoy experiencing?

Star: I like how Ubuntu Theater Project and AlterTheater are putting on shows in unexpected spaces. Local artists like Paul Lewin and Lexx Valdez produce imagery that speaks to my soul. Over the last year I’ve been leaning heavily into reading women playwrights such as Naomi Wallace, Kia Corthron, Annie Baker, and Sarah Kane. And of course I have to again mention Michelle Carter and Sean San Jose. For some reason I tend to be most inspired and excited by documentaries about space, nature, creatives, and subcultures–the more wild and far out, the better. Foreign films are another source of inspiration. Is it odd for a writer to find most of her inspiration from visual art forms? LoL! I love all of the exhibits SOMArts puts on and the ways they engage with gentrification and its erasure.

Barbara: What do you love most about San Francisco?

Star: My old answer to the San Francisco question would be its diversity. I grew up around people who looked like me, in addition to having friends/neighbors from a wide variety of different cultural backgrounds, and sadly when I look at my children’s class photos that is no longer the case. My new answer to what I love most about San Francisco now would be the food. Whenever I take a trip out of town I quickly realize how unbelievably spoiled we are here. Not to mention its beauty. The city is gorgeous from every angle.

Barbara: Any words of wisdom or thoughts for people who want to do what you do?

Star: The most important bit of wisdom I can offer is Keep Writing!! (and sending your stuff out.) Even when it might seem pointless or as if no one is interested, press on. You never know when an opportunity might present itself and when it does you’ll want to have your best work on deck and ready to be read. It also helps immensely to be part of a community—so seek that out whether it comes from school, volunteering at a theater, taking acting classes, signing up for a workshop. Making authentic connections with your fellow creatives is a vital part of the process.

Barbara: Any upcoming projects you or friends are working on in the Bay Area?

Star: I have a play called Bondage that will be produced by AlterTheater next January. It’s a play that came about through my year long residency with them in AlterLab 2015. Campo Santo also has a bunch of cool collaborations on the horizon through their residency with Magic Theatre and beyond. First up is Nogales, written by Richard Montoya and directed by Sean San Jose. The best way to keep up with them is via their Facebook page: CampoSantoSF

Image by Lexx Valdez

Image by Lexx Valdez

You can check out H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually) at the Strand Theater through the weekend. Click here for more information.

The Real World – Theater Edition: Interview With Alex Spieth

Barbara Jwanouskos starts your Pride Weekend with an interview with Alex Spieth!

I met Alex Spieth at Carnegie Mellon. She was one of the BFA actors in her senior year and was in a collaborative class in TV Writing/Acting/Directing. Although the class, at the time, was mainly focused on the classic three-camera sitcom format, it was still interesting in that it started to develop a nuanced skill of creating serial work for the camera for students taking the class.

Flash forward, around a year or so ago, Alex and other artists came together to create a web series called [Blank] My Life. It is a low-budget comedy that is self-produced. When I heard that Alex was trying to spread the word, I thought about this space and how we could explore the idea of creating your own work in this interview. After talking initially, she brought up some very good points about theater artists moving to the digital space.

Below is our interview for your enjoyment.

Alex Spieth: The Greatest Unknown Force on the Internet

Alex Spieth: The Greatest Unknown Force on the Internet

BJ: Tell me about your background as a theater artist and how you got where you are now. Is there any aspect of your personality that has helped you get where you are now and into the arts?

AS: One time I was begging my mom for something and she said, “Lexie! You’re so dramatic! You should be an actor!” And I remember it so clearly, because I thought: This is the finest compliment I could ever receive…I must enter…the craft.

So, I started acting in the 6th grade, and would say I became serious about it in high school. I grew up in Nashville, and had the good fortune of getting to work with the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts in Acting, and (through a scholarship through my high school) Interlochen Arts Camp. These three experiences shaped my formative years as an artist so clearly and made me very comfortable taking risks at a young age.

When I approached my senior year of high school, I protested that I did not want a BFA, because ACTING SHOULD BE FOR THE MASSES NOT THE FEW. However, after I was rejected early decision from my top B.A. choice, I was like, Fuck my former principles…and auditioned at all the BFAs minus Juilliard (the reason I told everyone was “There wasn’t enough sunlight in the classrooms!”…but I was just scared of rejection? Much food for thought…). I got into Carnegie Mellon, and made the ultimate decision that this was absolutely where I was gonna go and I’d been ridiculous to want anything else.

Carnegie Mellon University was the best. I loved every inch of the four years: the training, neurosis, panic, return to Christianity, departure from Christianity, fun, scenes, and people. While I am sometimes depressed to not be Super Fucking Famous Already, every opportunity I have had since college has come from the relationships I fostered at CMU. Currently, I work a lot with Tele-Violet and Irondale Ensemble (most recently doing a 5-hour production of the 4 Shakespeare plays written in 1599).

I think the aspects of my personality that have helped me get where I am are that I refuse to not work. I want to be working 24/7, and I’m good at creating work and getting in work. Additionally, I have a sense of humor. My sense of humor has helped me when I felt depressed that I am not Super Fucking Famous Already and, In Fact, Have Not Done Much Regionally Either.

BJ: I know you had vigorous training at CMU’s School of Drama since that’s how we met! Can you give people an idea of what it was like? Is there anything that particularly prepared you?

AS: CMU is the best. It really is a completely comprehensive program that will equip you to work in your field. The thing that is hard is that the process of learning often messes you up for practically being able to ACT. Many of my classmates and, certainly myself, seemed to take a few steps backward in getting better. One time at a Bible Study (sophomore year I reclaimed religion before slowly letting it drift away junior year), I said, “I feel like I’ve lost my ability to act!” Which is very dramatic and not true long-term, but it can feel pretty crippling to have a constant “What do I do with my hands?!?!?” thought running through your head.

Carnegie prepares its students to act, collaborate, and perform incredibly well. They accept a student body that is not only talented, but also smart, giving, vibrant, and largely funny. The only change I would suggest for my time there (reiterate: I left 3 years ago, so times may have changed) is to incorporate crowdfunding/a basic DSLR camera utility session into Business of Acting (taken senior year).

BJ: Tell me about [Blank] My Life. How did it come about?

AS: I started writing the pre-season of [Blank] My Life after I got dropped by my agency the first year out of college. It was the first time that the Adelyne Roth Levine Memorial Scholar (aka me) felt like she had Publicly Failed. The options became: Ugh, god, I guess I could continue to do things that will make me feel even worse about myself (sleeping with Evil Playwrights, trying to trap newly single boys into thinking I was The Love of Their Life, etc.) or I could start writing.

If you watch the first few episodes of the pre-season, they are very rudimentary because it was literally my friends and I getting together for a few hours on Saturdays to film. We started in a guess and check kind of manner: making a video, editing it, sending it to YouTube. By the summer of 2015, we had 9 episodes and had gotten the quality and team to a level that I was proud of. I wrote the proper first season of [Blank] in the summer of 2015, and we started filming in October.

Over the year of 2015-2016, we filmed, edited, and released [Blank] My Life‘s first season on no budget. I’m incredibly proud of the product and think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I am lucky to work a fair amount in the theatre although I am tragically not Already Super Fucking Famous. However, creating and producing my own work has given me back the confidence I felt like I lost when I got dropped.

When I first got out, I spent a lot of time and money doing pay-to-play classes and workshops, and I would advise anyone who feels powerless in their career to NOT DO PAY-TO-PLAY CLASSES and spend the money on a rehearsal room, or a venue, or Final Cut Pro, or a DSLR, or knitting material, or a book on gardening, or anything in the world that will grow who you are as a person and a performer. In my experience, it has made all the difference.

BJ: For those perhaps unfamiliar, tell us about the premise of [Blank] My Life. What’s it about? Were you inspired by or responding to anything in particular?

AS: [Blank] My Life is an insecure comedy that just wants to make a connection that follows Susan, an NYC millennial, on her quest to find love and simultaneously not end her life. It’s like Louie if Louie was written by a young lady, it’s like Girls because it features a young lady with more elements of magical realism. While the series is based off of my thoughts/interactions, it’s also just as really based on nothing. It wasn’t in response to anything other than my need to keep creating work for myself.

Promo Shot from 'Ex-BF. Susan goes on a date with the devil in 'Ex-B

Promo Shot from ‘Ex-BF. Susan goes on a date with the devil in ‘Ex-B

BJ: What has been your process of writing and creating the series?

AS: In the summer of 2015, I got up every morning, and I wrote enough until I felt like I had a season (we axed 6 episodes, so I guess it was more than a season). Before I begin proper, I go through a “culling” period where I talk to People Who May Have Insights. Before the pre-season, I talked to a lot of people about the rudimentary natures of Cameras and What They Do, and before the first season I talked to a lot of web series creators about fundraising, location scouting, and SAG queries. All the time spent acting advice is great and often very useful; however, eventually you must kick yourself into high gear and just do the thing.

This time around, the project has a SAG New Media Agreement but wasn’t funded through anything other than myself and the generous donations of my team to the project. This was intentional as I wanted to created a fully-fleshed product before we started asking for money for the next endeavor.

A shoot would usually be planned 2-3 weeks in advance, we would get everyone there, and DO IT. We only went overtime once and we were only late to release an episode once WHICH IS PRETTY COOL.

BJ: What are some of the exciting discoveries or interesting/unexpected challenges that have come from creating the series?

AS: Exciting Discoveries:
–Interesting Casting Choices are Always the Best
–People Turn Up Every Time
–Actors appear to not know their lines and then magically get on set and WILL KNOW THEM ALL.
–NYC will not give a fuck where you film
–You can ask the NYC Parks Department for a waiver but they will nearly 100% not check it.
–People WILL give you space for Free!
–People WILL act for Free!
–There is literally always a Plan B when things fall through. Plan B will be just fine.

Unexpected Challenges:
–Technology will often die unexpectedly (One day after shooting 7 hours, a camera died and we’d thought we’d lost it all and it was all very Jack and Rose from Titanic)
–How to get 1,000,000 million views (or anything above 6K)

–A personal challenge for me was learning how to be a leader. It’s hard to be a leader and have a stick up your ass (which I CERTAINLY do at many times). It’s easier for yourself and everyone else if you let most things be relaxed, keep the vibe generally chill, and only put your foot down when it really matters.

BJ: How many people are typically involved?

AS: Each episode involved me, a director, a DP, a PA/ Boom Operator, and 2-3 cast members; so per episode it’s about 6-7 people total. Overall we’ve had likely 30-35 people work on the first series.

BJ: And do you ever put money into promoting it on Facebook or YouTube (you know like the sponsored/promoted content?

AS: I have put money into sponsored content and am trying to find the algorithm for the greatest yield! We’ve also submitted to a fair amount of web fests, and I’m trying to see what will stick.

BJ: I’m curious about your thoughts on theater artists inhabiting and playing in the digital space. Tell me what you see.

AS: I think all actors should have web series other than maybe the few, few who are gainfully employed most of the time (I Release and Destroy The Need to be Super Fucking Famous Already!) I do not say this because it will lead to lots of dollars and/or success, but it’s a better and cheaper “Acting for the Camera” class than anyone you can take in NYC! One of your friends likely has an iPhone or Android you could borrow.

The digital space is really exciting because it can cut out the middleman. I’ve def not discovered how to get teenagers on my side (and this is where the power is….the power is in the teens), but if you can figure out how to be a tastemaker you can be your own agent, be your own boss, and LIVE YOUR OWN LIFE.

BJ: How has creating your own work opened up other opportunities for you?

AS: It’s made me more confident. When I walk into a room for an audition, I used to feel painfully alone, but now I have [Blank] with me. Wherever I go, I’m not just Alex-Looking-for-Next-Job-Spieth, I’m Alex-the-Person-Who-didn’t-Take-No-for-an-Answer.

It’s hard because I have no tangible proof that this will necessarily lead to anything, but I feel much better day to day. Which is kind of all that matters.

BJ: What are you looking forward to next within the series?

AS: I want to get as many eyes on this as possible. LITERALLY, SF, if you know anyone interested in the quirky musings of a vague Greta Gerwig, send them to [Blank]! If you know anyone that has a taste for female-driven comedy at a no-budget level, send them to [Blank]! If someone ever again says the phrase, “I am bored”, send them to [Blank]!!!!!

And I’m writing the next season. Let us pray for the future.

BJ: Any words of wisdom you have for people that want to do what you do?

AS: Do it. Do it really badly, because it will get better rapidly.

BJ: Any shout-outs or plugs for other projects or friends’ work (especially in the Bay?)?

AS: Yes!!! This summer, My friends Rodney Earl Jackson Jr. (CMU classmate) and Marcelo Pereira run San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company (Sfbatco) and are collaborating with a young group called YPTMTC (Young People Teen Musical Theater Company) which is an arts education company. They will be creating a new way for youth to get engaged in heightened text in a program called “Not Yo Mama’s Shakespeare”.

Rodney’s one of my great friends, and you should always catch his butt on the Motown tour (for….there….is….no…town…like…Motown…..).

For more on [Blank] My Life, check out Alex Spieth’s website.

The Real World – Theater Edition: Interview with Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song

Barbara Jwanouskos brings us a double interview with one of San Francisco’s most exciting writing teams.

When I heard about Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song’s idea for a play inspired by the god Oceanus, for the San Francisco Olympians Festival, I was very excited because it seemed like this really interesting meld of Greek mythology, technology and environmental issues. So when I heard that Dan and Siyu’s play had been selected for the New Play Development Program and the Undiscovered Works Series by Custom Made Theatre, I was jazzed for the play to get a further life at other Bay Area theaters. I’ve always been fascinated by writing collaboratively and have started to venture to do this myself as well. When I had the chance to ask Dan and Siyu how they came together, I couldn’t pass it up. Below is an interview with Dan and Siyu about their process and what to expect next Tuesday at the Gallery Cafe.

BJ: Could you each tell me about your artistic background/trajectory? How did you get into writing?

DH: I’ve been a theatre nerd since I had the ability to throw a towel around my shoulders and call it a cape— but veered towards prose and journalism in college. It was after I graduated that my longtime interest in writing, specifically nonfiction, and theater came together when I started to write plays. It’s my hope that my dramatic work has a journalistic quality and the journalism has a dramatic flair.

SS: I studied computer science in school and worked for a few animation/visual effects studios. I was always very interested in stories and storytelling but coming from a technical background, I was always intimidated by the “creative” side of storytelling. But, I took an improv class four years ago on a whim and haven’t looked back. With improv, I found ways to break down stories and characters to patterns and logic that was very conducive to my brain and the way I was trained to approach problems. After doing improv for a few years, the desire to tell more specific and nuanced stories led me naturally to want to do more writing.

BJ: Tell me how you came together to work on Oceanus — what was the idea?

DH: Siyu and I have been friends since we took a sketch comedy writing class way back when. And we’re both alums of the SF Olympians — a one of a kind new works festival that I’m sure your readers are familiar with. When a call for pitches for the 2015 “Wine Dark Sea” iteration of Olympians came around, we were talking and somehow decided that working together would be more fun than working alone. In discussing the possible prompt of Oceanus, a primordial sea god that controlled an underground river that circles the earth, we somehow got on the topic of underwater internet fiber optics cables. And we’re like, let’s write a play about that. Let’s write a play about what happens when a line gets cut and is somehow inspired by a Greek god. Is that how you remember it, Siyu?

SS: Yea that’s about right. When we were going through the topics for pitches, Oceanus stuck out to me because earlier that year my work had suffered a similar internet outage when a fiber optic line got cut and our provider had to send a boat out to the middle of the ocean to fix it. I am a classically trained engineer, so for me it was a nice reminder that while we regard the internet and “the cloud” as ephemeral, they are things that exist in the physical world and have tangible manifestations. We ran through many iterations of what the play would be, but the fiber optic line being cut was the central idea that we developed around.

BJ: How have you worked together to create the piece?

SS: We met in person in the beginning while we were figuring out how to build a play around the idea of a disconnect in the internet infrastructure. Those meetings were mostly just us hanging out and talking about things we wanted to write about. Data, relationships, talking sharks. There was a lot of agreeing. Partly because Dan and I are very polite humans but (hopefully?) more because we are very similar people with a lot of the same interests but we approach the world from slightly different perspectives so it’s always interesting for me to get Dan’s take on something.

DH: Also, lots of g-chatting! We’re actually both answering these questions via a Google Doc right now. One funny life imitating art thing about this process has been that while we were writing this play about people trying and failing to connect across great distances I moved a great distance— to Pittsburgh where I’m currently working on an MFA in dramatic writing at Carnegie Mellon. So as we’ve been working together writing scenes about friends trying to see each other on a video chat we too have been trying to video chat.

BJ: Any interesting discoveries along the way?

DH: I’ve learned a lot about collaborating and how you can share authorship with someone. I think we’re still figuring out our process and how we make collective decisions that reflect both people’s sensibilities. And I’m such an overbearing control freak, so that’s hard. Siyu, I hope I haven’t been a total pain in the ass to work with this whole time.

SS: Ha! No it’s great. I think for me when we landed on a sort of anthology piece with lots of vignettes that was when everything clicked. To Dan’s point about sharing authorship- there are threads that feel very much like Dan’s personality and threads that are very much Siyu’s but my feeling after the SF Olympians reading in November was that the ways the threads connected and the structure felt like something we created together.

BJ: Has the piece changed substantially since the SF Olympians reading? And what are you aiming for developmentally?

DH: It’s about 20 minutes longer. We’ve added several additional scenes to really flesh out the cast of characters we have and to make sure each vignette gets something like a full arc. I also think when we first started working on this we really only envisioned it as something that would be a staged reading. Now, as part of Custom Made’s Undiscovered Works series, we’re trying to envision this thing more as an actual play.

dansiyu copy

BJ: What are you hoping to hear at the Custom Made reading next Tuesday?

DH: This play has so many different characters and plotlines, I’m just hoping to see if the audience can follow it all and that each of the vignettes lands in some fundamental way.

SS: We talked a lot about the world we were building to tell all the disparate stories. I’m interested in hearing about what worked for the audience and which characters or scenes didn’t quite sit in the world.

BJ: I’m curious about your creative process and artistic development personally– what do you do (or not do) to keep yourself, or at least feel, a forward momentum?

DH: Spreadsheets. Specifically, I keep a spreadsheet of all the plays I’m working on and where I’ve sent them out, where I’ve been rejected, etc… Accumulation of material feels like momentum.

SS: HA! I’m impressed and mortified at “spreadsheets”. I’m nowhere near that organized (but also not as prolific as Dan) I’m lucky to be an ensemble member with the SF Neo-Futurists, part of that means being in a weekly show for months at a time where we write/direct/perform pieces.

BJ: Tell me about the theater scene either here or more broadly — is there anything you are seeing/not seeing that makes you excited?

DH: All the current dialogue that’s happening about diversity and inclusivity in theatre feels positive. We could see a lot more representation of underrepresented communities out in the world and on our stages, but I’m glad there’s a sense of urgency about getting there.

SS: I echo all of what Dan said. I’m also acutely aware of how difficult it is to be an art maker in San Francisco. Hopefully I’m not setting the bar too low here, but seeing anyone put up original work these days, my reaction is “Yes. Please. More.”

BJ: Any advice that you have for others that would like to do what you do?

DH: Don’t take advice from people who aren’t qualified to give advice? Well, actually, the best piece of advice I heard recently from someone else is: finish things. I think that’s true for writing and life. You don’t know what you’ve got on your hands until you written— figuratively or literally— the words “the end.”

SS: Again, I echo everything Dan says. Just to be different though – I’ll say pursue lots of endeavors and don’t get bogged down in a specific form or medium. Sketch writing isn’t so different from dramatic plays isn’t so different from improv. Trying different forms will expose you to new ideas, new people, and new opportunities.

BJ: Any plugs and shout-outs for other work you have coming down the pike or friends’ work we should check out?

DH: Everyone should keep an eye on the rest of Custom Made’s Undiscovered Works series. On the second Tuesday of every month you can hear new plays by the talented likes of Marissa Skudlarek, Kirk Shimano, and Alina Trowbridge and us (we’re coming back in October with a new draft!). Also, Siyu is one of the members of the totally bad-ass SF Neo Futurists that perform weekly, you should check out their extra special Pride Show, Wednesday, June 15. I’m positive it will be exciting and surprising and very fun.

SS: Dan’s play Subtenant is premiering on June 17th at the Asylum Theater in Las Vegas. I got to see a reading of it a while back and it was so good it made me angry, it was like when Salieri hears Motzart’s symphony and goes into a fugue state. I haven’t tried to poison Dan yet, but it is that good. It will be playing until July 3rd so if you’re in Las Vegas you should definitely make an effort to see it.

DH: Salieri to my Mozart? More like Romy to my Michelle! By the way, rest in peace Peter Shaffer…

You can catch Oceanus this coming Tuesday, June 14th, at the Gallery Cafe at 1200 Mason Street in San Francisco. For more, click here.

The Real World- Theater Edition: An Interview With Christopher Chen

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews one of San Francisco’s notable playwrights, Christopher Chen.

I was lucky enough to see one of Christopher Chen’s staged readings a couple of years ago and remember thinking, “Whoa, I didn’t know you could do that in plays?!” Christopher has this great style, which he describes as having “a maximalist approach.” He’s definitely another writer who inspires me to explore and play with form and theatricality in my own writing, while still focusing on the topic or issue or idea that the play was responding to in the first place.

I’d been wanting to chat with Christopher for some time about playwriting, his style, and his upcoming projects. And as it turned out, we were able to connect and talk about Home Invasion, which is 6NewPlays’ first production.

What follows is the interview I had with Christopher Chen about his work.

Christopher Chen

Christopher Chen

Barbara: How did you get into writing plays? And tell me about your writing style?

Christopher: Before I landed on playwriting I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I was all over the place in terms of what kind of artist I wanted to be. In elementary school I wrote stories and made puppets; in middle school I was obsessed with movies (Malcolm X was the movie that got me; I watched five movies a week); in high school I got into novels (Virginia Woolf, Paul Bowles) and music (the minimalists, grunge). I entered college as a music major, on the music composition track. But I also wanted to be a film director so I took film classes. And I took English classes because I wanted to be a novelist or poet. Or a sociologist or psychologist. And I also took acting classes and was in Theatre Rice, an Asian American theater group that mainly did/does sketch comedy. But they also had space for drama, and I wrote my first short play with them. I wrote my first play because I wanted something to direct, and I didn’t want to direct somebody else’s work. I think I was using theater directing to scratch my film directing itch. But then I found that playwriting was actually the thing that fulfilled all my creative impulses simultaneously: It combines literature with musicality with visual spectacle. It’s also a discipline tailor-made for my introvert (with extrovert impulses) personality. I love the process… a period of introverted writing followed by organized collaboration where I can still sort of be a wallflower.

In terms of my writing, I’ll cut and paste something I’ve written for grants: “My work as a playwright deals foremost with systems of power: how they are structured, perpetuated and how they wend their way into even the most intimate psychological spaces. My primary interest is the very scope of a system’s complexity, and to capture this, I use an all-cylinders-firing approach to theater making. It is a maximalist approach that combines elements of fable with up-to-the-moment political discourse; absurdist humor with subtle naturalism; and intimate spaces with multi-media spectacle. All of these elements are situated within kaleidoscopic, shifting structures designed to continuously challenge an audience’s expectations. The idea behind these multi-faceted constructions is to reflect the complexity of the system I’m exploring.” That sounds a little pretentious, but that’s fine.

Barbara: Tell me about 6NewPlays and how Home Invasion came to be?

Christopher: 6NewPlays is Erin Bregman, Eugenie Chan, myself, Barry Eitel, Andrea Hart and Brian Thorstenson. We are a producing playwrights’ collective inspired by 13P, the New York playwrights’ collective whose whole thing was putting the production directly into the hands of the playwright. We wanted to do that too, and produce plays of ours that might be a little riskier, might be cast aside by established theater companies. We liked the idea of bypassing the whole institutional machine of theater-making that so often creates DOA products. Our plays are going to be high-quality, formally inventive, and low-cost.

Home Invasion is a surreal murder mystery that is being performed in actual private living rooms around the Bay Area. We decided to have this be our inaugural production because it was something we could pull off relatively easily and because it embodies our scrappy, nimble get-it-done ethos. Most of the budget is going to artist stipends. I was excited to take this on because I’ve been increasingly gravitating towards more subtle character-driven writing, and having actors perform in real living rooms, just feet away from the audience’s faces, allows a level of intimacy and nuance you can’t get outside of movies or TV. It’s like writing for the screen… but it’s live.

Barbara: What has your experience as a SF playwright been like?

Christopher: I’ve lost steam after the first two answers.

Barbara: What’s your take on the current theater scene?

Christopher: There’s a lot of different facets to it.

Barbara: Is there anything you would change or see an opportunity for within the scene?

Christopher: Doing Home Invasion with 6NewPlays was very inspiring for me because it really drilled home a Bay Area truism: where there’s a will there’s a way. It’s not as cut-throat here as it is in New York or Chicago, so there’s no reason NOT to gather really good people together who share your passions and instincts, and then just make theater at relatively low risk. Everyone will be glad to pitch in if everyone likes and respects each other and shares common goals. THEN THEATER WILL HAPPEN. In the group development phase of 6NewPlays we all pitched in. As a group we collaboratively tackled all practical matters: finances, grantwriting, budget-making, etc. etc. These things would be overwhelming if you were doing it all by yourself for the first time. That’s why you need a team. And then, during the artistic phase of Home Invasion, I’m once again experiencing the joys and ease of collaborating with a dedicated, passionate and professional team, all pulling together in a DIY way. Where there’s a will there’s a way. I was able to snag my dream director: Matthew Graham Smith, and my dream cast: Kat Zdan, Lisa Anne Porter, Matthew Hannon. And they’re going to go into private living rooms, big and small, for audience sizes ranging from 15-40, and put on a full-length play. I’m losing sight of the original question, but the bottom line is: In this community there’s room to make your own opportunity.

Barbara: What can we expect from Home Invasion?

Christopher: I was originally inspired by Dial M For Murder. ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES EVER AND IT ONLY TAKES PLACE IN ONE ROOM. (Mostly.) I was also inspired by The Maltese Falcon, Vertigo, and The Twilight Zone. The play goes into some strange places. I was inspired by a mysterious book my story collaborator Hannah Birch Carl found at Urban Ore. This mysterious book was a big inspiration.

Home Invasion, running April 16-30th in various Bay Area living rooms.

Home Invasion, running April 16-30th in various Bay Area living rooms.

Barbara: Any advice for people who would like to do what you do?

Christopher: Gather good people together and just make the work. Don’t listen to too much feedback– double down on your own instincts. In fact, push your instincts to their logical conclusions. Explore many other artistic influences other than theater. If you’re starting out in this community, start by saying yes to everything. Before I gained any traction as a playwright I worked box office and house managed and interned at the Magic Theatre, I acted at Impact Theatre (Horatio) and Shotgun Players (a tiny tiny role in a Marcus Gardley world premiere!), and did all kinds of staged readings and development workshops.

Barbara: Any projects coming up you can talk about?

Christopher: I am working on commissions with A.C.T., Crowded Fire, S.F. Playhouse and O.S.F. (that controversial Play On! translation project— I’m doing Antony and Cleopatra). My play Caught will be at Shotgun Players this Fall, along with productions in Seattle, Chicago and New York.

Barbara: Any plugs for your own work or friends’ work?

Christopher: I wish I’d gotten tickets to Peter Nachtrieb’s House Tour, but it’s all sold out.

For more on Christopher Chen, check out his website at http://www.christopherchen.org. Home Invasion runs April 16-30 at selected living rooms across the Bay Area, including a barebones performance at The Flight Deck in Oakland in collaboration with Just Theater. For more info, go here.

The Real World – Theater Edition: Gino DiIorio

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Gino DiIorio, the writer of SAM AND DEDE (OR MY DINNER WITH ANDRE THE GIANT), opening at Custom Made Theatre on February 11th.

On his website, Gino describes the play as such —

True story: 12-year old Andre the Giant, already over 6 feet tall and 240 pounds, didn’t fit on the school bus. Andre’s neighbor, as a kind gesture of returning a favor, offered to drive him to school in his truck. The neighbor was Samuel Beckett. Out of that bit of trivia comes “Sam and Dede, or My Dinner with Andre the Giant,” imagining three scenes between a giant – a man who cannot hide, and a writer obsessed with silence.

So of course, I was intrigued. I mean lately I’ve been obsessed with silence and subtlety and how it’s theatricalized. Gino and I talked about that and also his influences and creative process.

Enjoy the interview below!

Gino Dilario

Gino DiIorio

Barbara: First off — your premise for SAM AND DEDE sounds amazing — a man obsessed with silence and a giant who cannot hide — how did you come to the idea for this play? What intrigued you?

Gino: My son was very interested in professional wrestling. And I mentioned that when I was his age, I was as well and he asked who were my favorites. And I mentioned Bruno Sammartino and the British Bulldogs and of course, Andre the Giant. He had never heard of him so we Wikied him and that’s where I found out he knew Sam Beckett. And I thought if anyone can write this play, it’s me. Cause I love Beckett as well.

It was great fun to write because once I got them in the room together, I couldn’t shut up them up. They just had great takes on the world, such different experiences and in a way, (not to be too egotistical) but they’re extensions of me. And I guess that’s true of all writers, every character we write is just an extension of ourselves. But Andre is the part of me that thinks I can do everything and that everything is simple and nothing matters and so what if it did? And just have a good time and live life to the fullest. And theatre is about being big and over the top and crazy. Beckett is the part of me that doubts everything, my ability to do anything, the reason to get out of bed in the morning, the weight of the world, the heaviness of existence, the inability to construct a sentence. In this regard I suppose they’re probably like everyone else on the planet!

Barbara: Tell me about your creative process. Is each play unique or do you generally approach new work in a similar way?

Gino: I try to put the characters in a room and let them talk. And if it’s going well, they do things that surprise me.

Barbara: Anything that you’ve come across in your trajectory as a theater artist that made you question or overhaul what you do? What happened? What changed?

Gino: Good question. I sometimes think I’m a bit of an anachronism. I tend to write stuff that’s very linear, straightforward plot lines, etc. I think it’s harder to write a play with a plot. Most writers avoid plot because it’s so damned difficult. But then again, it’s good to try to write something that perhaps doesn’t follow a traditional line and I guess Sam and Dede is just that. It’s a play where I didn’t feel to urge to have anything happen. Kind of like a Beckett play I suppose. Nothing happens. and in turn, things begin to happen in that absence. If that makes sense.

Barbara: How did you get into theater and writing in particular?

Gino: I began as an actor. I did a lot of Shakespeare, regional stuff, commercials, etc. I did it in high school mostly cause I was good at it. And I liked losing myself in the role.

Barbara: Tell me about the current state of theater. Where are we going?

Gino: Oy. In some ways,there’s a lot of good going on. I see a lot of focus on new play development. The problem is it’s too expensive to produce new plays on Broadway and Off Broadway. So it’s hard for plays to get their New York pedigree,if you will. If i could snap my fingers and change one thing about theatre, it’d be that. I’d make it easier to produce new works on the New York stage. it’s just too cost prohibitive. Negotiating a new deal with the technical unions would be a good first start.

But here’s the good news, people still love writing for the theatre. And going to the theatre. It’s wonderfully atavistic and despite the cost and the assault from new technologies, it still remains unique and vibrant.

Barbara: Anything about it that scares you or makes you dream big?

Gino: Wow. I don’t know. I think I get scared that I’ll die before I finish all these play ideas I have in my head! I don’t dream that big. I dream of small honest moments on stage. If I get a lot of those, I’m happy.

Barbara: What’s next for you?

Gino: I’m researching a historical piece on slavery in the 18th century. Yeah, I know. Good luck getting that produced! But it’s what I’m interested in.

Barbara: Words of wisdom for people who want to do what you do?

Gino: If you can do anything else, do it. If you must write or be in the theatre, don’t think you can make a living at it. Remember what makes it great, what you love about it, and judge your success by how much you live in that.

Barbara: Any bad advice that might actually be good?

Gino: Wow, good question. I’ve been lucky, I haven’t gotten that much bad advice. But I will share something my good friend Gary Garrison told me, it’s good to listen to lots of people but reserve the right to ignore all of it. Or some of it. You can pick and choose your advice. Ultimately the piece has to mean something to you. It’s why you wrote the thing in the first place.

Barbara: Shout outs and plugs for your things (theater and otherwise), friends’ things or just anything you thought was rad?

Gino: New Jersey Rep is the greatest. Suzanne and Gabe Barabbas, great people. Clark University rocks. Which is where I met Leah Abrams and Brian Katz of Custom Made!

Dave Sikula and Brendan Everett in rehearsal at Custom Made for SAM AND DEDE.

Dave Sikula and Brendan Averett in rehearsal at Custom Made for SAM AND DEDE.

You can catch SAM AND DEDE at Custom Made Theatre from February 11 through March 5.

Theater Around The Bay: The Great Blog Re-Cap Of 2015 Part I

Today is the first of our three installments of 2015 recaps from each of our nine staff bloggers. Each has their own unique angle on this past year, so make sure you come back for the rest tomorrow and Wednesday. The Stueys will post on New Year’s Eve.

Top Five “Words of Wisdom” From Folks I’ve Interviewed by Barbara Jwanouskos

2015 marked the first year of shifting “The Real World – Theater Edition” to a mostly interview-based column mainly focused on generative theater artists, new work, and playwrights. As I reflected on the year, five “words of wisdom” moments sprung to mind that I would love to set as an intention moving forward into 2016. They resonated with me when I initially interviewed each of the people below and then again as I reviewed the interviews of the past year.

I think it’s best to let these words stand alone without any framing or reasons why I chose them. After all, when something resonates for you personally, it just does. There’s not much more to it than that. Hopefully, though, highlighting these five artists will also bring new ideas and wonder to the forefront of everyone reading too!
In no particular order, here are their words again:

1) Ariel Craft, director
“Don’t be afraid of not knowing, and don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know. You can’t be expected to have all the answers in the beginning and, if you think that you do, be cautious of those answers.”

2) Donald E. Lacy, Jr., comedian, radio DJ, performer, writer, director, and community leader
“For other writers and artists I can’t tell them what to write or how they should address social ills, but the first advice I would give is to say you have to feel passionately about what you are writing about, whatever that may be. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, but for me, I have to care. Especially as it relates to social issues and or injustices. I despise injustice. I despise racism, so having such strong feelings about those issues, it makes it easy for me to tap into what I want to say about those particular issues. But for me, I like to support my point of view with facts.”

3) Alan Olejniczak, playwright, librettist
“You must also really love the subject of your play as it may take years to develop.”

4) Savannah Reich, playwright, performer, and producer
“For me the simplest way to get your play produced is to do it yourself. It is only very recently that other people have wanted to produce my plays, and that is a new and exciting thing, but it’s important to me to always know that I can make my own work, and that I never need to get picked out of the pile or get the grant or win the contest to make my art.”

5) Marisela Treviño Orta, playwright
“I make a point to wait until I’ve gotten a play into several drafts before sharing the script with anyone. I need that time to really get to know what the story so that when people have notes for me I’m able to determine if those notes help me realize the narrative I’m trying to write or if they are going in another direction.”

The 5 Most Surprising Things that Happened to Me This Year by Charles Lewis III

I wouldn’t call 2015 my favorite year, but it was an interesting one theatrically. Some of it was by design, some of it was happenstance, but all of it taught me something. With all the moments I now recall, here are five that came out of left-field.

1) I sang. I’ve auditioned for so many musicals over the years that I’d long-since stopped holding my breath about actually being cast in one, let alone two in one year (one of which also required me to dance). But between appearing in a brand new musical and singing “Pinball Wizard” at the top of my lungs, I finally got over a stage-based fear that’s been with me since high school.

2) I saw the Red Planet. I was part of the writers’ pool for this year’s two rep shows by Wily West Productions. It was my first time being part of a group, this one led by Jennifer Roberts. One of the two scripts, Zero Hour: The Mars Experiment, had a performance attended by actual candidates of the Mars One project and got a reading at the Otherworld Theatre in Chicago.

3) I learned to like costumes. Not that I ever hated them (although I’ve worn a few horrendous ones in my time), I just didn’t ever want to be the one making the decisions about them. But a director kinda has to make those decisions and I wound up directing a lot this year. To my pleasant surprise, I wound up liking the things my actors wore: I created a cartoonish burger-place cap for On the Spot; I got my Olympians cast to look like a pack of scented markers; and as for Texting

4) I made a skimpy man-thong into a prop. A proud moment for me. Nothing I put on my resume will ever top it. Speaking of which…

5) I gave up my reluctance in calling myself a director. I only acted in two projects, which would normally lead me to calling this a slow year. But I felt envigorated after doing them. This occurred in the same year that I found myself at the proverbial “helm” of so many projects that I finally felt confident enough to put “Director” on my theatrical CV and told people to consider me for projects – which they have.

Oh yeah – I also ran into Colin Firth on the streets of San Francisco, but no one wants to hear about that, do they?

The Top Five Venues of 2015 by Anthony Miller

Hey you guys, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, when my Top 5 format becomes everyone’s format. It’s much like the 90’s, when what I already wore became fashionable. At the beginning of the year I made 2 resolutions, 1) Read The Great Gatsby and 2) Leave the house more often. As we come to the end of the year, only one of those really worked out. As it stands, I have read 17 pages of The Great Gatsby, it took all of 2014 just to finish the introduction. So we’ll table this one again. However, I did manage to get out more, consequently I got to see a lot of different shows in a whole bunch of places. So let’s look at my five favorite venues of 2015.

1) Pianofight
Wasn’t this everyone’s favorite venue of 2015? I’m not the first person to say it, but what Rob Ready and everyone at Pianofight has accomplished is amazing. It’s always fun to be there, the bar is great, the fried chicken sandwiches are the best, and it’s provided a clubhouse of sorts for SF theatre. With three stages, it’s hosting shows from every facet of the Bay Area performing arts scene. All the mini-scenes in the bay are getting together in one place and it’s resulting in more shows and bigger audiences. Whether I’m seeing a show or producing a show there, it’s always fun. I see a huge 2016 for this place, and they deserve it.

2) The Curran
While the 100 year-old Curran Theater is going under renovations, it has been hosting an exciting new series of plays called Curran: Under Construction. I was lucky enough to see a lot of these this year, and because I knew most of the house staff, I got to see not only a lot of cool theatre; I got to explore the place like crazy. By putting the audience on stage with the show, it turns the historic Curran stage into an intimate 150 seat venue that just happens to overlook a 1600 seat theatre and a giant chandelier. The sheer variety of shows I saw was vast There were immersive theater pieces like The Object Lesson, one man tributes to Lenny Bruce, and the Theatre Rock awesomeness of Ghost Quartet and Stew’s Notes of A Native Song. Add that to hanging out on a stage that has hosted hundreds of theatre legends, exploring their basement, fly rails and sneaking into a box seat and drinking a beer, and it makes for an awesome experience every time. And entering through the star door is pretty fun; It’s a really nice stage door.

3) Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater
For purely sentimental reasons, The ol’ Roda Theater makes my list. After roughly 3 years of House Managing for them, I left for greener pastures. Sure, the Roda can be aptly described much like Ferris Beuller described Cameron’s house; “It’s like a museum it’s very beautiful and very cold, and you not allowed to touch anything”. But I did have a lot of fun there. My co-workers were great, and as nerdy as it sounds, there is something absolutely thrilling about getting 600 people seated and giving the house away on time. Not to mention, I saw Tartuffe there, which was easily my favorite show of 2015.

4) The Grand Lake Theater
OK, this is a movie theater, but it is noteworthy. The historic Grand Lake Theater in Oakland is my favorite movie theater in the world. I saw Star Wars Episode 7 in classic 2 projector 3D there and whenever I can see a movie here, I do. It’s a beautiful old fashioned theater that still raises a curtain when the movie starts; an organist plays before the show, and it’s got a pretty ceiling. Not to mention the fiercely liberal views that are often displayed on the marquee. Let me be clear, this is best movie theater in the Bay Area. They’re currently hosting the “Roadshow” Version of The Hateful Eight in glorious 70mm, You’re doing it no justice by seeing it at the Kabuki AMC, Go to Oakland, see a movie there. You won’t be sorry

5) The EXIT
I just can’t quit you EXIT Theater, I love you and your pee-pee smelling sidewalk. I don’t see a world where I don’t see shows here. It still remains a place where independent theatre artists can find a home or just get started. It’s the home of SF Fringe, The Olympians Festival, DivaFest and everybody’s first show in San Francisco. With great new venues like Pianofight and the Strand opening up, the Exit is still the Exit, the CBGB’s of SF Indie Theater.

Charles Lewis is an actor and a director and a writer. Barbara Jwanouskos is a playwright. Anthony R. Miller is writer and producer, he’s a got a very busy 2016 coming up, keep up with it at http://www.awesometheatre.org.