Cowan Palace: I’m Not In San Francisco Anymore, Toto

Somewhere over the rainbow in Connecticut, Ashley shares her first audition back.

Well, it’s been about six weeks since I moved to Connecticut and it’s been theatrical to say the least. But, in the middle of battling new-apartment woes resulting in a lack of hot water, electricity, and a working door, I decided to throw myself into the local audition scene. Because in times of rainbowed chaos, why not throw another color into the mix, right?

I was auditioning for the role of Sylvia the dog in A.R. Gurney’s play of the same name. I unpacked some makeup and found my Goodwill purple dress covered in patterned dogs to wear. Unfortunately, I was unable to find an iron to take out some of the wrinkles but that didn’t stop me!

The theater company was only a town over but in order to get to their space, I’d have to take a twenty-minute trek on the highway. Now, I get that this mundane task sounds easy to many of you. But for someone who hasn’t been driving in eleven years, it was a big deal to me. To add more fun, on the evening of my audition, we experienced a massive thunderstorm and I found myself having to do the commute in pouring rain and ill-timed foggy conditions. I also turned on the Into the Woods soundtrack a bit too loud to try and pump myself up and I managed to miss the audible directions provided by my phone so my journey took even longer and resulted in having to take a dreaded left-hand exit. YIKES BIKES, a moment in the woods, indeed.

Clueless Driving copy

But I made it! I walked in, filled out my audition form, tried to find the most comfortable chair, and read over the sides. It then started to hit me that I wasn’t in San Francisco anymore. Back in the Bay Area, I would have known at least five people in the waiting room and would have been trying to inappropriately gossip with all of them; I would have been familiar with the space in some capacity, either as an audience member or from working there before; I would have known more about the company, the production team, and their history than what I was able to quickly learn online. But here I was, the new girl in town, wearing a purple-patterned dog dress, quietly waiting her turn.

Don’t look at me like that, Dorothy. You would have worn the dog dress, too.

Don’t look at me like that, Dorothy. You would have worn the dog dress, too.

When they called me in, I had a moment to introduce myself as they found someone to read with me. Immediately, in my heightened nervous state, I did what I always do: ask as many questions as will fit in my mouth. I asked what show was currently in the space, if they were working on anything other than this, how long they had been doing theater with this company, and how auditions were going, in a record ten seconds. ZING! WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD, COWAN! Luckily for them, my scene partner soon walked in and we took a go at things.

After completing the first side, I was asked to do some physical improv exercises to show off my dog sensibilities. These are always fun but I never know how far to push the limit and if I should cut myself off at any particular moment. While I’m glad that I really committed to whatever action I was doing at the time, at one point, I chose to run up on a ramp, lie on it, and then slide down it as the audition panel asked each other, “is she allowed to use the set like that?” Whoops. Lesson learned, you probably don’t want to distract the people who may be interested in casting you by putting the stage in danger.

Once that was over, my small talk returned! Upon mentioning all I had learned from my own dog, I proceeded to say that I had adopted her the day after Obama had been elected President because I was young, new to San Francisco, and feeling extra hopeful and inspired about life. I cut myself off after I had a moment of, “you’re not in San Francisco anymore, Cowan” wondering if I should try to keep any political opinions, along with my dangerous physical ways, outside the casting room considering I was trying to make a good first impression based upon my acting abilities.

Auditions Pic copy

After reading one more scene, I sincerely thanked everyone for their time and went to find my car. When I got home, I literally high-fived myself because, sure, I was proud of myself for trying but honestly, I was so excited I had completed the journey by car alone. The next day, I was asked to come in for a callback and I felt like a fearless pro as I navigated the streets to the theater. I read a few of the sides from the evening before and found myself with the same question I always have at callbacks regardless of location: do I do the scene with what seemed to “work” last night and attempt to recreate some of those beats or do I try something totally new and fresh with the same sides to show them something different?

I ended up trying to do a little of both and I’m not totally sure it worked. Moving forward, gang, I would love to know what you think is the best way to handle a callback so that I can hopefully keep improving my ways. I didn’t end up getting the part but I did receive a truly kind and greatly-welcomed phone message letting me know and encouraging me to audition again. Which, yes, I absolutely will, if even simply to be able to write about the experience. Though I may need a new audition dress…

Well, until next time, friends! You’re always in my thoughts and heart. I hope the view over your San Francisco rainbow has been full of theatre beauty!

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: The Practical Magic of Props

Marissa Skudlarek, giving props to props.

Making theater means spending your life creating and re-creating other worlds onstage. Some of the tools we use to create these other worlds are abstract – language, gesture, spatial relationships. But there’s also a whole heap of tangible stuff that becomes part of the world of the play: sets, lighting, costumes, props. These items need to be carefully considered, and obtained, and maintained. October 2015 is Design Month on the Theater Pub blog, so, to kick things off, I asked friends and members of the community to share their favorite stories about props.

Playwrights have vivid imaginations, which means that scripts can sometimes require weirdly specific props. If a prop is mentioned in the stage directions but not the dialogue, you might be able to do without it, but if the characters discuss it, you’re probably on the hook for including it.

The Desk Set requires a plush rabbit that can conceal a bottle of champagne. In the production I was in this summer, we substituted a rabbit hand puppet, but it still caused some problems during a dress rehearsal.

Other shows require people to get more artsy-craftsy. Claudine Jones shared the following story on Facebook: “The plot of Angel Street literally hinges on a brooch that contains hidden jewels. The description in the script is so vivid, it’s almost impossible to fake. I set out to make a brooch that fit all these requirements: small enough to wear as an article of jewelry, easy to open and close, and able to hide “jewels” that are big enough to be recognized as such by the audience. A couple of weeks of trial and error, bizarre prototypes that went straight into the trash, and I finally succeeded. The main component was an old tuna fish can, painted gold, with a pin epoxied on the back and an overlapping series of metal triangles that formed a kind of iris that opened and closed. The “jewels”? 3mm ruby Swarovski crystals that shone like crazy. I think the playwright would have approved.”

 Oh, Tony Kushner and your weirdly specific, metaphorical props. Photo by Dale Ratner.

Oh, Tony Kushner and your weirdly specific, metaphorical props. Photo by Dale Ratner.

The play Slavs requires a Russian-style icon of St. Sergius of Radonezh with the face of Lenin. When Dale Ratner directed this play in graduate school, he commissioned someone to paint the icon on salvaged wood – and still has it in his living room. Alandra Hileman has a similar story from when she directed the short play Overtones, in which the characters discuss an “ugly but expensive” lamp. After searching in vain for a suitable 1910s-era lamp, Alandra “assembled this from a candlestick, a votive holder, and an LED tea light for like $5 total. It’s lived on our mantle since then because my mom thinks it’s adorable.”

Ugly but expensive? More like cute and $5! Photo by Alandra Hileman.

Ugly but expensive? More like cute and $5! Photo by Alandra Hileman.

Dale and Alandra aren’t the only people who’ve been known to take props home and use them as décor. For the last month or two of my freshman year of college, I lived with a stylized wrought-steel horse’s head hanging on the wall, because my roommate had been in a student production of Equus.

Theater is all about provoking emotion, and it can be either cathartic or harrowing to see something destroyed before your eyes. But what a nightmare it must cause for the props master! I’m thinking of plays like Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, where, at a climactic moment, the characters muss and dirty a pristine living room. Or, my friend Catherine Cusick shared the following story: “I did a play where a character pours a full bottle of vodka onto a MacBook laptop that we’ve seen working and being used for two hours onstage. My mom called me up out of nowhere during rehearsals asking if I still needed that. Turns out a neighbor had left a lookalike to the working laptop out on the side of her driveway. My mom walked right by and promptly swiped it.”

Speaking of finding props on the street… When I worked with director Katja Rivera on the production of my play Pleiades in summer 2014, I learned that she has what I call a “magpie superpower” – a preternatural ability to find cool and useful stuff on the sidewalks of Berkeley. This year, a record player that Katja found has starred in three productions in a row: Grey Gardens, at the Custom Made Theatre; The Desk Set, produced by No Nude Men; and The Real Thing, at Masquers Playhouse. You have to admit that’s a pretty snazzy resume – and such versatility too, going from the 1970s in the Hamptons to the 1950s in New York City to the 1980s in London without missing a beat! “Do I have an eye for talent, or what? I literally picked that baby up off the sidewalk, and he’s done three shows this year. Next stop Broadway!” Katja writes.

Katja’s record player got passed around between these three productions thanks to informal bartering and Katja’s generosity in loaning it out to friends. If a theater company maintains a proprietary stock of props and costumes, one can even more frequently see the same items appearing in multiple productions. Stuart Bousel recalls “a dress that appeared in five productions I directed in Tucson: a simple red ankle-length gown with a gathered bodice. It was made for a chorus member in Lysistrata, then used in the Oresteia, where it was worn by Clytemnestra. Then we used it in a comedy sketch about the Oresteia where it was worn by Cassandra, then in a production of Faust Part One, where it once again went back to the chorus, then a production of Salome, where it was worn by the Cappadocian (female in our version). I’m almost certain it was finally retired after that… but maybe not.”

In the first show I ever did in high school, I had a small role as a Russian noblewoman attending an opera, and got to wear a beautiful mink stole. I grew very attached to the stole and, later on in high school, basically insisted on wearing it again when I played Mrs. Luce in Little Shop of Horrors. It’s been over ten years, but in all likelihood, that stole is still being worn by teenage actresses at my high school. Though, if I’m honest with myself, I still think of it as “mine.”

Indeed, if you love a prop or a costume piece enough, you’ll find ways to keep reusing it. Catherine Cusick, again: “I worked with a theater in high school that made a papier-maché cow for a production of Into the Woods, but managed to slip it into any other show that could conceivably involve a cow on wheels.”

Marissa Skudlarek is a playwright, producer, and arts writer. She still wants a mink stole, especially now that it’s October. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.

In For a Penny: Up ‘n At ‘Em!

Charles Lewis III, jumping back into the game.

“Don’t call it a comeback, I been here for years”
– LL Cool J, “Mama Said Knock You Out”

As I write this, I’m a few hours removed from finally seeing Into the Woods. For personal reasons I didn’t take part in Theater Pub’s month-long series dedicated to the stage show, but I went in to the film expecting the worst (given the terrible fucking advertising) and wound up being somewhat pleasantly surprised. It’s not perfect by any means, but this isn’t a review so I won’t dissect it piece-by-piece. It just struck me on my way home that this was one of the first three films I’ve seen in 2015 (after the great-but-flawed Birdman and the campy thriller The Boy Next Door) and two of those films have direct links to theatre. The first stage production I’ve seen has been our Satyr Night Fever, I’ve attended my first Saturday Write Fever in almost a year, I spent the last two weekends doing box office for one theatre company, will spend the next month doing it for another company, and I have my first stage audition of the year happening two weeks. And I’ve put some Olympians gears into motion.

After feeling like a hamster running in place with nothing to do, it’s clear that my personal theatre year has begun.

It’s a bit exciting, thankfully not terrifying. Exhausting, but not terrifying. In the few short weeks of our new year, I’ve been on my feet much more than I’d expected to be. I’ve been constantly running from one place to another with a bag that’s twice as heavy when carrying the laptop I use to write the words you see before you. I’ve been trying to have dinner with two of my best theatre friends for the past two weeks, but sickness and scheduling conflicts have put it off. All this running around and lack of exercise has screwed up my circadian rhythm and made me more of nightowl than usual (which is often never). Plus I have yet to be paid for a commercial I shot weeks ago. Thankfully I don’t have any health concerns; I’m just pissed off that I’m not getting my usual eight hours sleep and waking up at 6am under my own power.

But I've adjusted well enough.

But I’ve adjusted well enough.

But then who would I be to complain? That commercial I shot was just the first of two well-paying jobs I’ve done recently, including one of my first voiceovers (for which I was paid – very well at that). I’ve run into friends I haven’t seen in forever, I’ve written things that confuse even me (because I don’t know where they come from in my subconscious), and I’ve seen considerable improvements in my personal life in regards to employment and dating. Plus I have keys to a theatre. Just this past Monday, I was speaking to one of our new co-ADs about the power trip that comes with having keys. Needless to say an evil supervillain laugh is a requirement. “I have access to the cupboard with the extra toilet paper – mua-ha-ha-ha-ha!!!”

I guess the point I’m trying to make with this is that after trying my best to take full advantage of the “downtime and balance” that was our theme for January, it was a bit jarring to have to hit the ground running. But I’m keeping it all in perspective, so as not to bitch when people out there have real problems. Hell, people close to me have real problems and responsibilities and my biggest concerns in the immediate future are choosing an audition song and deciding which Super Bowl party I’m gonna go to. I’m trying knock out a few quick bios for theatre websites and actually mulling over directing offers. I just wish I weren’t awake at 2am right now with a pounding migraine, sore feet, and a few weeks’ worth of aching muscles.

But make no mistake, I’m excited about what the new year holds and I’m glad that it’s finally underway. It’s the fire in my belly that I needed and I hope for good things in the year to come. If the films and shows I’ve seen so far are indication of what lies ahead, then I’ve got a lot of entertaining productions in my future.

But seriously, go see The Boy Next Door. It’s fucking hilarious and there’s gorgeous nudity of both genders.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Miss Skudlarek’s Downtime Activities

Marissa Skudlarek explores the unglamorous, glamorous life.

I feel like 2015 has gotten off to a quiet start for me, though I’ll take quiet after the crazy roller coaster that was the second half of 2014. I have no theater projects or major deadlines on the horizon for a little while, so this month has been devoted to grounding myself and developing habits that will stand me in good stead for the rest of the year. In keeping with our January blog theme of “downtime and balance,” I thought I’d tell you some of what I’ve been doing this month to take care of myself – and how these things might just prove useful to me as a theater-maker as well.

Using the f.lux app. This app adjusts the color of your computer screen so that it harmonizes with the time of day. During daylight hours, it remains bright white, but in the evening, it gradually gets warmer and dimmer, as though lit by candlelight. Staring at a bright-white computer screen late at night is said to negatively impact sleep quality, and when my screen reaches its dimmest point around 10 PM, it serves as a nice reminder that I really ought to think about going to bed. Since I started using this app, I feel like I’ve had fewer nights where I stayed up too late browsing the Internet.

How this will help my theater-making: Our profession often requires us to be night owls, for the purposes of rehearsals and performances. Economic exigencies require many of us to have day jobs and keep a 9 to 5 schedule. So, on the nights when we don’t have to be up late, doesn’t it make sense to get a good night’s sleep?

Cleaning my room. Okay, my room is still not as clean as I (or my mom) would ultimately like it to be. But I spent several hours cleaning it this weekend and my head feels clearer already. Toward the end of 2014, the external mess in my room and the internal mess in my head reinforced one another, creating a negative feedback loop that sapped my motivation. But now that I’ve cleared away piles of papers and larger patches of my lovely wooden floors are shining in the sun? I’m motivated to keep going.

How this will help my theater-making: As I said, the cleaner my room, the clearer my head. But also: the ability to clean and organize spaces quickly and efficiently is an invaluable skill during load-in and strike.

Watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. This is an Australian TV show, recommended to me by several Theater Pub bloggers, about a glamorous, independently wealthy, free-spirited lady detective in 1920s Melbourne. It’s the perfect show to watch with a cup of tea on a cold winter’s night: sumptuous costumes, hot guys, the satisfaction of a smart detective catching the culprit and restoring order to the world. For theater people, I especially recommend Season 1, episode 6, a cheerfully ridiculous piece of fluff involving murders and a ghost backstage at a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore.

How this will help my theater-making: Too often, feminists have to battle against the perception that they are humorless killjoys who take offense at everything. Even if you consider yourself a feminist, doesn’t the phrase “feminist theater” or “feminist television” make you worry that it’ll be an eat-your-vegetables kind of show? That it’ll be high-minded and depressing, rather than fun and escapist? Miss Fisher, though, is definitely feminist and definitely fun. It was created and produced by women, and I think every episode I’ve seen so far passes the Bechdel test. Miss Fisher’s investigations often reveal the injustices of 1920s society, but never in a hit-you-over-the-head way; and she is a splendidly bold and independent heroine. 90% of the reason I watch Miss Fisher is simple enjoyment, but 10% of it is because it makes me think about how entertainment can present a feminist perspective without alienating viewers.

Trying out new hairdos. I’ve made a few changes to my appearance as 2015 starts. I got new glasses, I’m using a darker lipstick, and I’ve become enamored with updos. My hair is a bit above shoulder length, so figuring out attractive ways to wear it up can be challenging. But I’m having fun playing around with different hairstyles after years of just wearing my hair down all the time.

How this will help my theater-making: Rumor has it that I may have to wear a wig in The Desk Set this summer, and if I figure out good techniques for putting my hair up now, it’ll be a great help when I need to stuff my hair under the wig cap. When I was in Into the Woods in college and had to wear a pink wig (photo here), I developed mad skills at doing my hair in two French braids and then pinning them up in back – I’d like to have those skills again!

Furthermore, if cleaning my room corresponds to clearing my head, does pinning my stray strands of hair in a neat chignon correspond to untangling my messy thoughts and gathering them into something tidy and elegant? Maybe. I’m hoping.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Clearly, she has moments of wanting to be a lifestyle guru, but she also hates the phrase “lifestyle guru.” Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Theater Around The Bay: Year End Round Up, Act 4, The Stueys (Again)

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2014 list. Finally. We know it’s long, but read the whole thing. Seriously. If he was Tony Kushner you’d do it.

So if there is anything I learned last week it’s that one can have spent too much time thinking about Into The Woods.

No, but seriously, in the time since I published last week’s avante garde explanation for why I wasn’t going to do the Stueys, ironically, as these things often happen, I rediscovered why I want to do the Stueys. Blame it on a couple of supportive emails I got, a text of a friend reading my blog from inside a security fort and identifying too much, and a chat on a bay-side bench with a young, hopeful playwright, but my heart started to heal from the poison I was bleeding out of it and then one night, quite spontaneously, I just sat down and wrote them. And it just felt dumb not to share them. Before I do though, I wanted to briefly (for me) revisit the three things I wanted to get across in last week’s article. In 2015 it’s my goal to create space both for what I want to say, and what I need to say.

1) I kind of hate the Internet. But seriously, after the last year or so, does anybody not? I mean, I love what it can do but I’m starting to truly hate what it brings out in people, including myself. To be honest, while I am still quick with the quippy comments on Facebook and such, you may have noticed I am much quieter on the debates and controversy front than I once was and this is because I’ve just reached my limit of getting into fights that started out as conversations but then devolved into people just trying to outshout one another. It’s amazing to realize that a silent medium requires a volume dial but it really does, and the truth is, there are days I fear to be anything but funny on the internet, or ubiquitously positive, and so I ironically don’t want to talk in what is supposed to be a forum, not because I fear critique or debate, but because I’m not looking to start any wars. Too bad the Internet is pretty much a 24/7 war zone.

2) I kind of hate awards. I always kind of have, but this became more apparent to me after I won a TBA Award this year and I know that sounds ungrateful but believe me, I am honored and flattered to have received it, and I understand why awards are important, or at least necessary, and I can’t state enough, especially as someone who got to discuss the process and purpose behind the awards extensively with the folks running them, that I do believe the TBA awards are both well intentioned and super inclusive in their attempt to create an even playing field for theater makers coming from a diverse level of resources. What I dislike so strongly about awards is how many people, in the broader sense, use them as shorthand to designate the value of art, artists, and organizations. And no, they’re not supposed to do this, I know, but they do, and we as artists are not supposed to internalize this, I know, but we do. And I became really aware of that standing in a room with my fellow nominees that night, who didn’t win an award, all of whom were good sports about it but I could tell it made them sad. Which made me feel kind of miserable. And now my award lives in the back of my closet because as proud as I am of it, I’m also weirded out about it, and what it might mean to people, the expectations it might create about me or my work. And awards are nice but they can’t be why we’re in this, and I know that sounds kind of bullshit from somebody who has a few but it’s true and we have to remember that.

3) I kind of hate theater. Okay, that is an exaggeration but I am going through a phase of being sort of disenchanted with theater and some of the theater community. I know this is hardly a first for anybody in the community, and I suspect it’s a particularly common feeling when you’re feeling overworked- which I definitely was in 2014. 2015, however, doesn’t promise to be any less work, in fact the opposite, and so that’s got me down. And yes, I know it’s my choice to work as much as I do, but it’s also kind of not. A lot of what I do won’t happen without me and that makes me want to keep working because I believe in it and all the people it serves or creates opportunities for, but my inability to really escape the theater scene for more than a day or two before my inbox fills and my phone rings reached epic proportions in 2014 and lead to some intense moments of resenting the thing I love for needing me so very much while not always feeling like it needs me, Stuart, so much as anybody dumb enough to work this hard for this little pay. Which is a nasty thing to say but sometimes… sometimes it’s also kind of the truth. Feeling taken for granted sucks; feeling enslaved to passion has a dark side. So it goes. It balances out all the times I feel rescued and redeemed by it.

So, hopefully, you can see how all this could make for a mood not suited for creating the Stueys. Considering my general ambivalence/anxiety about awards, but recognizing that some people take the Stueys seriously enough to put them on resumes and websites, I really have been struggling with how ethical, not to mention hypocritical, it is for me, as an artist, to be handing out awards, no matter how playfully, to my fellow artists, when the only thing determining those awards is… me. Who no one should take seriously. But who apparently some people really do. Cue paralysis inducing terror and suddenly I couldn’t remember why I was doing this or what it was all about, but I felt I had to say something because I had all this stuff to say. But it can be hard for me to talk about myself, what I’m personally going through, and even harder for me to advocate for myself. I hate disappointing people. But I hate being insincere more. And I wanted to begin to understand why I was feeling all this dread.

Anyway, without more ado, and much, much later than intended, here they are, 14 awards for the 2014 Stueys.

BEST ADDITION TO THE BAY AREA THEATRE SCENE
The Bay Area Theatre Awards

The best thing about the Bay Area theater scene is that there is a huge diversity in the offerings, and so much on the table to begin with, and when we celebrate that whole community, regardless of budget or house size, Equity relationship or ticket price, we are celebrating our Art, ourselves as Artists, and Artists as contributors to and saviors of the World. Of course, no one organization or person can see it all, and therefore it’s important to share with one another the highlights of our time in the audience seat, if only to create a greater awareness of what and who is out there making stuff. No matter how far we cast our net, there is always more to see and more to explore and we’re fortunate to have it that way, so for a moment, let’s just celebrate what an incredible delight it is to now have an official awards system for our community that appears to be on the same page as that sentiment of inclusivity and casting a wide net, regardless of whatever other kinks may still need to be ironed out. And for those of you who feel the TBA Awards are not enough, or still missing the boat in some regards, you are correct. And you should do something about it, whatever that means to you. To me, it means keeping the SEBATAs going, because in my mind, Heaven is a place where at last we are all recognized for what we bring to the table, and I dream of a Bay Area filled with organizations and individuals proudly recognizing one another at every possible turn, for as many reasons as can be found, as many times as it pleases us to do so. And so I am giving the first Stuey this year to TBA, and specifically Robert Sokol, for having completed a Herculean task that they will now have to complete all over again. And then again. And then again. And again. Good luck everybody!

BEST NEW VENUE
PianoFight

Is there anyone who isn’t excited about all the potential here? Rob Ready and company have been building this space for years now, and walking into it you see why it has taken so long- it is just beautiful. From the mural by Molly Benson to the floors and the furniture, they have been seeking to create not just another black box or just another dive bar, but something truly magnificent, welcoming, inspiring, and everything a venue dedicated to a community art should be. Best thing of all? They’ve asked Theater Pub to perform there, and so we will be performing there, starting in January, at least twice a month going forward. Which makes us excited and scared. Something we’re sure they understand. This whole year looks to be exciting and scary.

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
San Francisco Fringe Festival (EXIT Theatre)

Dear San Francisco: this amazing thing happens right in the middle of you every year and not enough of you know about it and not enough of you make the time to visit it. And like… really visit it, not just duck in to see your friend’s show and then run out. And I understand why you do that because I used to do the same thing but now, having worked there for three years, I have to say, you are robbing yourself of an amazing opportunity to see theater from all over the country and the world, and to meet and talk with the most diverse collection of artists any one event assembles at any given point in the year, and to be a part of something bigger than you and bigger than just this venue or this theater scene for that matter. Do yourself a favor, serious theater goer, serious theater maker, and commit to seeing at least three shows at the Fringe this next year. Pick one by someone you know, one by someone you have heard of, and one by a total stranger. See them all, bring a friend, hang out in the Café and the Green Room between shows (on almost any night of the Fringe you can see 2-3 shows in one visit to the venue, and all the tickets are super cheap), introduce yourself to the staff and artists, tip the Fringe, and see if it doesn’t inspire you to want to see more, know more, do more. If the Bay Area Theatre scene is a garden, this is one of our most vital vegetable beds. Tend this garden, and then come get fed.

BEST SHOW
“Our Town” (Shotgun Players)

Won’t lie… it kind of kills me that this was my favorite show of the year. But it was, so much so that my boyfriend, afterwards, said, “Let’s not see anything else this year- let’s let this be where we stop” and he was right and I agreed, but that’s part of what worries me: for far too many people I think theater starts and stops with “Our Town”, or its equivalent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good theater because it is, and I have long defended Thornton Wilder as being one of the great playwrights whose work is often undermined by having been overdone. This production, directed by Susannah Martin with assistance from Katja Rivera, was anything but overdone, it was subtle and lovely and elegantly realized, from the costumes and lighting, to the music and the performances, and it all came together in a way that, while nostalgic and dramatically safe (which aren’t necessarily bad things, but important to recognize), still felt fresh and sincere, like the gesture of laying down in the rain on the grave of a loved one. There was really nothing I didn’t love. Though if I had to pick favorites I’ll say very little is more entertaining than watching Michelle Talgarow and Don Wood play off each other, even during the intermission raffle. The night I was there they got some very chatty audience feedback and they handled it Grover’s Corners style: graciously and politely and in a way that warmed your heart.

BEST READING
“Hydra” by Tonya Narvaez (SF Olympians Festival)

God, there is very little better in life than a really good reading, and possibly nothing more frustrating than watching people shoot themselves in the foot on what should be the simplest, easiest theatrical event to pull off. And yet… again and again we see it at the SF Olympians Festival, the full range of dramatic readings, from the simple but impafctful, to the overdone and done to death. This year we had a number of excellent readings, but my favorite standout was “Hydra”, written and directed by Tonya Narvaez. A ghost story, a comedy, a conundrum, the piece was elevated to a new level by Tonya shrouding the stage in total darkness except for reading lights for her cast who, illuminated in the stark and eerie glow, were uniformly excellent- not in the least because they were relieved of having to worry about blocking and forced by the light to focus only on the text. Such a simple, elegant choice, but so effective. She won that night of the festival, and wins this Stuey for Best Reading.

BEST SHORT PLAY
“Mars One Project” by Jennifer Roberts (part of “Super Heroes” at Wily West Productions)

Jennifer Robert’s play, about a female astronaut who is denied her chance to go to Mars because she has a daughter and the Powers That Be don’t think the world can stomach or root for a woman who would leave her child, even in an attempt to create a role model for that child, was by far the best piece in this evening of shorts. There was plenty of fine writing, but this is the one that transcended its own subject matter to present that ever elusive thing: an issue play in which both sides of the argument are presented with pathos. The tragedy of the piece is less that “we’re not there yet” and more, “is what it will take to be there always going to require sacrifice on this level”, to me a much more interesting, more human question. In an evening of mostly sketches, it was the one piece that could not only stand on its own, but really stood for something, and it’s a near perfect short play- which as an author of short plays, I assure you, is a near impossibility.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Amanda Ortmayer (EXIT Theatre Technical Director)

Amanda Ortmayer has let me cry on her shoulder so many times this year it’s astounding she doesn’t just keep a towel on hand. Only she probably does, since she’s seemingly prepared for anything, she just probably keeps it out of sight, since she also knows the value of never revealing your bag of tricks, or the exact location of your wishing tree. Something has to keep us in ballgowns and slippers and it’s probably not going to be wishes alone. But Amanda likes to encourage wishes too, and that rare combination of pragmatism and dreaming is why she is just generally… awesome. If you haven’t had a chance to work with her, I hope, one day, you do. It’ll remind you why we’re all in this, or at least, why we should all be in this: for the people.

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Marissa Skudlarek, “Pleiades”

One of my biggest pet peeves is listening to people complain about how there are not enough opportunities, while refusing to ever create those opportunities themselves. For the record I agree, there aren’t enough opportunities, but at some point we need to realize that if we have our health and a clear sense of our dreams, we’ve already been given more than most people get so it’s really just about figuring out how to see your dream materialize. Watching Marissa Skudlarek as she put together her first production as a producer (she wrote the script too, but we’re giving her recognition for the producer hat here), I was blown away by how organized and focused she was, how determined she was to do it as best she could even the first time out. Which is more than I can say for me. Even now, I feel like I mostly just take a deep breath, pick up my sword, and rush into battle blindly, while Marissa strategized and planned, gathered information, raised funds, and was just in general super smart about it all. Was anyone surprised? Not really. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take one more moment to tell her she did an amazing job. Everyone looking to produce a show in 2015- call Marissa. She knows what she’s doing.

BEST CHEMISTRY
Michaela Greeley, Katherine Otis, Terry Bamberger (“Three Tall Women”, Custom Made Theater Company)

It is not easy to play three versions of the same woman but this trio of ladies, under the direction of Custom Made veteran Katjia Rivera, brought so much magic to the stage that the leap of faith required for Act Two of Edward Albee’s classic was not only easy to make, you made it with a song in your heart! This is a lovely show, but one I rarely feel enthusiastic about, energized by, and these three performers, working so well together, in such total tandem with one another, sold me on this show in a way it’s never been sold to me before. Michaela Greeley was uncomfortably good at playing the frailty of her character in Act One and the fierce stubborn vitality in Act Two; while Terry Bamberger was an edgy warmth in Act One that ballooned into an explosion of heat and fire in Act Two; Katherine Otis, in the part with the least to work with in both acts, managed to strike the aloof brittleness required in the first act while still laying the foundations for the insecure idealist the second act tears to pieces. But what I may have loved the most was the way these ladies moved, always circling one another, always creating triangles on the stage, each one so aware of the other, having to fill the space one vacated, or rushing to claim a spot before the other could. It was like a dance, like a motorized portrait of the Three Fates and they wove a spell together that was frightening and enchanting all at once.

BEST RISK
Kat Evasco, “Mommie Queerest” (Guerilla Rep/DIVAfest)

Kat Evasco knows how to work an audience, but the audience at her show might not have been ready to get worked so hard. Bravely darting in and out of us, throwing herself around the stage in gleeful and breathless abandon, Kat unravels a personal story about the struggle to discover not only who she is- but who her mother is. And why she needs her mother to know who she is before she can finally accept herself. Co-written with John Caldon, who also directed, the show avoids the bulk of solo show clichés, feeling more like a play where Kat has just been tasked with playing all the roles to the best of her ability, and the audience isn’t really asked to come along so long as commandeered by her at the beginning and let go only when she sees fit. The piece is courageously risky, not only because of the controversial elements within it, but because Kat leaves no fourth wall standing between herself and the audience, and if they don’t run with her on it, her show is kind of screwed. Both times I saw this though, that wasn’t a problem; it’s hard not to jump in both feet at a time with a performer who is so ready and eager to do it.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
Justin Gillman (“The Pain And The Itch”, Custom Made Theater Company; “Blood Wedding” Bigger Than A Breadbox Theatre Company; “Pastorella” No Nude Men; and like a billion other things)

So… how many plays was Justin Gillman in this past year? It seemed like every time you turned around he was being cast in something, including by me, and every time he was pretty amazing in it. I don’t know how he does it. Like seriously, I don’t know how he memorizes all his lines, let alone doesn’t burn out from the constant rehearsal and yet somehow he shows up every night, fresh and ready to perform. Generous with everyone, onstage and off, it’s rare I don’t find him the highlight of a cast, usually finding a way to balance being a somewhat over-the-top character with a deeply human core that is achingly vulnerable when not just a tiny bit scary. In each of the three roles highlighted above, this was the common thread- men at first dismissable, who at sudden turns revealled their fangs, and then wept as they ripped your throat out. Delicious.

The ladies have gotten a lot of attention on this year’s list, which is great, but we like to keep things balanced here at the Stueys so we’re giving two more nods out: Kenny Toll (“Dracula Inquest”, Central Works) and Sam Tillis (“Slaughterhouse Five”, Custom Made Theater Company). In my opinion, both of these gentlemen were the best thing about these two shows, which were solid enough theatrical productions but elevated by fully committed actors. In both cases, both men also played characters who were… well, committed. As in insane. Though the insanity characterizations couldn’t have been more night and day than the plays were (Toll’s was of the by turns wimpering, by turns screeching Bedlam variety, Tillis was the diamond hard, lethally cold, slow burn sociopath kind), both managed to be believable and unsettling without being melodramatic or over-the-top. Toll even managed to be sympathetic, while Tillis managed to be mesmerizing. Either way, it was endlessly watchable, haunting, and impressive.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Cat Luedtke in Anything

Seriously, once upon a time there was no Cat Leudtke and then one morning we woke up and she was everywhere. I think I might have seen her in like six shows this year and in each case she was the walk away discovery, the revelation performance. The tremendous skill of this woman is matched only by her tremendous range, as every role I saw her in this year was different, though perhaps none so piercing and breathtaking as her role in Custom Made’s “Top Girls” as England’s most done-with-it-but-not-lying-down-about-it mother. I’ve also seen her sing and dance, act Lorca, play the 19th century adventurer, the dutiful wife, and more (probably helps that one of the things I saw her in was a collection of one-acts), bringing to each role a personal touch and a universal power, a sincerity and openness of heart that made you feel like you were watching a real person. She’s very much a “real actress”, whatever we mean by that when we say it. I know that what I tend to mean is somebody so good at throwing themselves into something, they transcend and turn into someone else, each and every time.

There is always an embarrassment of brilliant female performances in the Bay Area, so I feel a few other honorable mentions are in order: Mikka Bonel in “At The White Rabbit Burlesque” (DIVAfest), giving a performance as a rabbit that was unlike any performance of anything I’ve ever seen; Ariel Irula in “Blood Wedding” (Bigger Than A Breadbox), whose deeply passionate performance was matched only by the soul of her singing voice; Jean Forsman in “The Pain And The Itch” (Custom Made Theater Company), nailing well-meaning but vapid liberal mom as only someone like Jean could, walking perfectly that line of endearing and annoying; Stephanie Ann Foster in “Slaughterhouse Five” (Custom Made Theater Company), who played both a woman and a man in the show, and was lovely, heartbreaking, deeply sympathetic in each role.

BEST FUSION THEATER PIECE
Now And At The Hour (Christian Cagigal, H.P. Mendoza)

The fusion of theater and film is a tricky one, and I can only imagine how filming a stage show without destroying the magic of live theater must require an excellent understanding of both mediums. Now make that live theater a magic show too and you are truly setting yourself up to fall flat on your face, but H.P. Mendoza’s film of Christian Cagigal’s “Now And At The Hour” flies, it is magical and touching, the decision to interrupt the narrative of the stage show with the narrative of Christian’s life and the important players in it only adding to the emotional punch of this unique variation on “the artist and his work” formula. Beautifully shot, entertaining, unexpectedly poignant, this is a stellar example of a collaboration between artists and mediums.

BEST SOLO SHOW
Kevin Rolston, “Deal With The Dragon” (SF Fringe Festival)

Remember my earlier bit about the Fringe? Here is a glowing example of why going into something blind at the Fringe can sometimes result in stumbling across something truly excellent. I didn’t know anything about this show. It had a fun premise in the Fringe guide (Man moves in with Dragon) and a bad flier design (sorry, it can’t all be hugs and snuggles here) and while I had no expectations what I wasn’t expecting was to be so thoroughly moved and entertained. It does not hurt that Kevin Rolston is an incredibly talented performer with an ability to switch between his three narrators with glass-like smoothness, or that each of the three stories he tells, each with a different take on the idea of a “dragon”, are all funny and unsettling portraits of our tenous relationship with self-control and those things inside us that scare us. An unsettling fable about how our potential for violence and indulgence can also be our potential for strength and transformation, Rolston’s notes in the program claimed the piece is unfinished, but it could actually already stand as is. Here’s hoping the final product is as good as the draft.

And as for Me…

So Usually I end the awards with something about the show I personally worked on that affected me the most, but in all honesty I got so much out of all of them it would be hard to pick one so I kind of just want to take a final look at last year as a whole so I can both make sense of it and kiss it goodbye.

For me, it was an incredible year, but that doesn’t mean I loved every second of it. Far from it. It was as demanding as it was rewarding and at times it also seemed… endless. Like there was just always one more thing to do, to get through and then… two more. And then nine. I got to work with material by the incredible Kristin Hersh this year and that will forever be a highlight of my life but the production itself was a rough process, and the reception was rough, it all kind of placed too much strain on an important relationship in my life and I walked away feeling very differently than I had when I walked in- which was hopeful and desirous to bring a project that meant a lot to me to people I loved who I thought could benefit from it, but by the end I was wondering if I had ultimately done more harm than good by bringing such tremendous attention to something so natal. Then I directed a stellar production of “The Crucible” that made me acutely aware of how resistant critics and audiences can be to seeing a familiar play in a new way, and also how embracing they can be, but by that point I was having a hard time hearing the love and found it easier to focus on the detrimental views. I worked to let it all go, focused on feeling proud of the work my actors and designers had done, which was stupendous, and then just as I was feeling more balanced again, Wily West’s production of my play “Everybody Here Says Hello!”, after a whirlwind of a production process, opened to unexpectedly and ubiquitously positive reception. Suddenly, I was a guy with a hit show on my hands- technically my third this year since “Rat Girl” and “The Crucible”, despite whatever misgivings critics were having, were also big audience successes. For the first time in my career though my writing was the center of attention (I often feel I am mostly known as a director who writes, though I am actually a writer who directs), partly because Rik Lopes, not I, had directed “EHSH”, and so critics had to speak about our separate contributions separately, and that was wonderful but the moment was short-lived: we ended up having two performances canceled and the show only ran 7 times and it became my play everybody “really wished they had made it out to see.” Me too! Though one should never shake a stick at houses full of strangers. But oh… we do this partly because of the friends we hope to show something personal to, don’t we? And, again, I was having a year where it was hard not to keep adding things up in the negative, no matter how well they were actually going.

Anyway, this was then followed by the Fringe, as rewarding and as demanding as ever, which was then followed by the fast and furious (yet incredibly smooth) rehearsal process for my play “Pastorella”, which was the only piece I both wrote and directed last year, and which was well received, actually pretty much adored by audiences, but played to 2/3rds full houses or less its entire run after opening to an audience of 11- my second smallest audience in the history of my theater life in San Francisco (not my whole life- I once played to an audience of 2 in Tucson). The result was a show that, though very economically produced, still ended in the red, something which shouldn’t affect one personally as much as it does. But if you haven’t gathered yet, I’m being truthful here, even if it makes me seem a little petty. So yeah, my final passion project of the year was probably my personal favorite artistic accomplishment but it also cleaned out my bank account, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that 2014 was the year I went freelance/contractor and believe me- it’s been an adjustment. One I’m still adjusting to. Finally we had the fifth installment of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which was wonderful if perhaps more draining than usual, and fraught with an abnormal amount of backstage drama, from some diva moves on the part of some of our participants, to a failure to meet our fundraising goals (first time ever), and then the pique of which, of course, was having our dressing room robbed on, naturally, the night of my reading, which was successful in that it was well done by my trooper cast, but again, sort of middling attended, and a bit anti-climactic as an artist considering it had taken me all year to write it. And did I mention that some of my favorite actors kind of hated the script? Disappointing, but less so than having a “colleague” tell me that working with me was basically bad for businesses because of my strong opinions and tendency to carve my own way, nonsense that nobody who was actually a friend would have bothered to bring up- especially not when I was in the midst of trying to find a way to help them realize their own plans for the local theater scene. But I have occasionally been told my Achilles heel is caring about the band as much as I care about myself.

And somewhere in there I won a TBA Award for “EHSH”, had two works of mine garner bids for film adaptations, threw a delightful birthday party and another successful Easter brunch, but had to cancel a major social event because I got pink eye. Which is only worth mentioning again because in retrospect, it really is kind of funny. I wanted to get more reading done and much more writing, but it just didn’t happen. Best laid plans of mice and men…

So yes, 2014 was amazing but it was also, definitely, a mixed bag. Rewarding to no end, but unforgiving in many ways, most of all in that I had a hard time forgiving myself for just… well… doing my best but not always getting everything the way I wanted it or hoped for. The problem is, when you’re burnt out, stuff that you’d normally brush off or accept as the breaks of the business or just how life is get harder to be blasé about, and I found myself at the end of 2014 feeling accomplished but bruised, lucky but kind of cursed, exhausted and not excited so much as terrified about the future and yet… hopeful. Cause I am hopeful. And I want to stress that and more or less end there, and tell you it was amazing to have 800+ people applaud me for winning an award (even if it was for a play I always considered a bit of a “minor work” and never guessed would be so defining), and it was incredible to walk up those stairs that night, all alone, and think, even as my thoughts came crashing down around me, “Well, you certainly don’t do anything half-assed, do you Stuart?” (even if that means sometimes I paint myself into an intellectual corner with the same gusto I pull myself out of it). Though I definitely experienced a lot in 2014, I often felt like I wasn’t actually learning so much as surviving, and oh, by the way, I had massive writer’s block, and it was writing all that out last Monday that finally cured it… and got us here. And here is not a bad place to be: hopeful, and weirdly confident that whatever happens next, I can probably handle it. I just kind of wish I had a clearer idea of what “it” was. But then we all wish that, don’t we?

Ah well. C’est la vie.

Deep breath.

Happy New Year.


Stuart Bousel runs the San Francisco Theater Pub blog, and is a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. You can find out more about his work at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.

Theater Around The Bay: Year End Round Up Act 3, The Stueys

Stuart Bousel was supposed to do his annual best of list, the Stuart Excellence in Bay Area Theater Awards. Instead, he’s giving us this experimental, free-flowing one-man show that may or may not have begun as he was walking up all those stairs between the first floor of the Geary Theatre and the very top balcony where he was seated for the TBA Awards, one of which he’d just picked up for his play, EVERYBODY HERE SAYS HELLO. He took the stairs, and not the elevator, for a reason. It’s worth noting, the stairs were empty the entire way up, despite the theater being full. This is always an interesting place to be. The empty place next to a full one. If you can accept that he began this monologue on the stairs of the Geary, then you can probably also accept he finished it sometime in early January. It took him that long to climb the stairs.

So, I was going to have the last 2014 blog entry for SF Theater Pub be the Stuey’s but the day came and went and the story wasn’t… satisfactory… so I skipped it and said I’d finish it on the 1st. Which I didn’t. Despite telling everyone I was going to. Which is how I blackmail myself into finishing things when I don’t want to. But this time I just kind of… blew it off. Which is probably for the best. It’s 2015. What do the winners of 2014 matter now? Talking about the past and all the change, the triumph and failure that you may or may not have actually processed because you didn’t have the time and when you did you didn’t have the energy and neither did anybody else- people, is this anyway to start a new year? Benny just lost his cat. Have you seen the video?

Over the last year in particular, often times when reading something on the internet, particularly Facebook, particularly a debate, particularly about… ANYTHING, I have found myself quietly quoting the Witch from Into The Woods: “No but what really matters is the blame; somebody to blame; fine if that’s the thing you enjoy, placing the blame, if that’s the aim, give me the blame…”. This is, by the way, the most important lyric in “Last Midnight”, not the far more often touted, “I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right.” Please. I get why people are like “Ooooooo” cause it’s a smooth ass bit of verse, but if you walk out of the show thinking the Witch is right you have missed the point of the show and no, it’s not open for debate- if the Witch WAS right, the show wouldn’t end with her coming out and singing a third variation of her big song in which she completely changes her perspective from the previous variations. There’s only one thing the Witch is in fact right about before “Children Will Listen” and it’s that most people, even good people, when faced with the complications of life, would rather put energy into placing the blame and finding fault than celebrate the success or, God forbid, forget the blame and just offer a solution to the problem. Cause you see, that would take work. Like actual work and trial and error and looking bad and getting better and cooperation and genuine pride tempered with genuine modesty and tolerance and forgiveness and everything else we hate to have to do because it can’t be done quickly and angrily while the mob posts “fuck yeah!” on our thread and we can come out looking like we have somehow saved the world again without any sacrifice on our end. See, throwing Jack to the Giant is, in fact, the easy solution because the Witch doesn’t care about Jack and she doesn’t really care about the kingdom. The Giant, to her, is an interesting problem to be solved and once Rapunzel is gone the Giant becomes a tool of the Witch’s rage, a physical manifestation of eye for an eye that does not care about what happens next, just wants to see everyone get theirs like she got hers because the world has crapped on her and the only thing that matters is how it hasn’t crapped on you AS MUCH or AS HARD and BOOM CRUNCH that’s Justice. Which doesn’t make the Witch evil, by the way, or the Giant. But it doesn’t make them good or admirable, either, so don’t lie to yourself about that, or the nature of Justice.

One of the ironies of the Witch calling out everyone else on their blame game is that she’s been doing it- blaming THE ENTIRE WORLD- since… well, since before all the characters we spend time with were born. The Witch’s garden is sown with hate and it grows ladders to destruction and the smugness with which the Witch berates the others is that brand of modern smugness now so prevalent, especially on the internet. Or more likely, probably always prevalent but now with a bigger, higher platform on which to display itself with that utter conviction that turns all conversations into arguments because Captain Justice understands the nuts and bolts of something, the basic math, but none of the nuance (often known as “reality”, “context” and “life”) that defines a blueprint from an actual building. This is usually buoyed on a blazingly obvious bed of deep insecurity and low self-worth, not to mention lack of genuine interest in others as actual human beings with souls and minds of their own and of equitable value, even if in opposition, to the Witch. The Witch may be factually right about some stuff… but she also is desperately trying to win a beauty contest in her head, the prize of which is the questionable love of the girl-woman she has held hostage for over a decade. This doesn’t mean disregard the Witch, but take her with a grain of salt, especially when she says things like, “Fuck you all for not killing the kid like I, with my fucking awesome nectarines, told you to- I’m out!” Anyone who leaves the room because they can’t handle being said no to was probably never there to improve the situation in the first place. They were just there to be right.

Not that I’ve never done that myself. Or called for Justice. As much as it’s a mentality I dislike, I’ve certainly fallen into it, almost everyone does at some point, with the redeeming (but also terrifying) factor being that almost everyone does it out of good intentions. You think you are standing up for yourself, you think you are standing up for someone else, you think your are standing up for A Reason, and maybe you are, but if the reason has made you so tall you can no longer hear or see what you destroy as you rampage on your quest… I mean, you can see where this is going and the point is, I do understand it. It’s a terrible world- princes, humans, wolves. The lot of them. They are all liars and thieves and that’s an opinion based on experience and including the knowledge that I’m not any better. Depending on who you ask I’m a prince, or a wolf, or just some douche bag whose song didn’t even make the film cause fuck that guy, what does he know, he traded his kid for a salad and probably thought he was getting the better end of the bargain. I mean, I firmly believe we all have a soul, and we all have value, and that means we all have the potential to do good, and be Good, but then again, depending on the day, look around, see how some of us are actualizing that potential… and you might see why someone would think that the best thing you can do is find a tower and hide in it. Is it a perfect solution? Well, no, I mean… for one thing you’ll be stuck in a tower, you probably won’t learn or grow very much, better hope there are at least some good books and games, oh and food, but even if a tower protects you for a while it’s only a matter of time before everyone around you in all the neighboring towers will probably blame you for all kinds of shit, including how their tower isn’t as nice as yours and so yours should be taken away from you (the ones who don’t think your tower is an eye-sore, of course, and thus just needs to be removed), or some curious prince/wolf/human will show up with all their desires and complications and breeding potential but hey, at least for a while in your tower you can’t hear it all or see it all and you don’t have to crush anything since you’re not going anywhere, so it’s almost an acceptable way to live. You know, provided you haven’t bothered to look outside your tower- something you’re absolutely not supposed to do, by the way, if you want to keep your tower flying below that collective “Come Fuck With Me” radar as long as possible. That window is for air, you hear me? We’re just keeping you alive so your cage has a purpose and don’t you forget it or we’ll take the cage away and then where will you be? That’s right: out here, getting stepped on by Giants.

My problem has always been that I have always looked outside my tower, all the time, and playing alone for long periods of my life, and getting really good at it, I might add, hasn’t reduced my desire to go out into the world, it has actually magnified it, to the point where, as an adult, I fear loneliness while also desperately craving silence. Like most artists I’ve spent most of my life feeling alienated and different, but also with a powerful, maddening compulsion to put myself out there, to be seen and listened to, to share my personal world with the bigger one, without really understanding what that might entail or how it will be received. I’m smarter than the average human so I do pick up enough pre-game to know that the world is rough and when you adventure into it, you should go disguised- sometimes as something flashier than yourself, sometimes as something duller than who you really are, but neither one telling anyone exactly who I am or even what I want. And because the interactions are not entirely sincere, they are a show, but I, in my madness, want to experience sincerity while using artifice, the part where I end up feeling disappointed by how “the world” still doesn’t seem to really care about me unless I am happy or angry enough to have become an annoyance of some kind… well, that is hardly the world’s fault. I mean, I don’t even know what I want, so why should the world be able to give it to me, or want to? Thank God that I’m so good at looking like I know what I want and even fairly good at going about getting it myself, that generally the world has been relieved of having to bother with a polite inquiry or even admitting I exist and have value and yes… I appreciate that as a token of the world’s appreciation for me never really seeming to need its interest and yet somehow managing to occasionally clean myself up into something it thinks is just the right balance of mainstream and “what is that?”, that I have been sent this lovely man with a slipper. The problem is, I don’t know what to do with this lovely man or this slipper, seeing as I just have the one. Correction: I can use it as a marble jar. Thank you, it’s lovely. The other…

Well, it’s like I got a puppy, you know? I mean, it is fucking bonkers cute and there will be days I just can’t stop snuggling it and it will snuggle me back AND THAT WILL BE TREMENDOUS, and of course, it’s all over the Internet and people I like are just going “yeah!” and people I don’t like are so noticebly quiet or super-satisfyingingly petulant, but… I can already feel that puppy getting less cute. And bigger. And getting bored. I know it’s a good puppy, it has the potential to be a great dog, but that is going to require work, classes probably, and in the meantime I am also going to have to feed it and it is constantly hungry. Which wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s also super finicky about what it will eat and it will only tell you what it will eat AFTER you have bought and cooked the meal, and what am I, a fucking mind-reader here? Like, I’m supposed to be that while I’m wearing this outfit, which by the way is not gold, it’s gold leaves and gold stars, but even if it was gold that does not mean I am made of gold. Also, it’s questionable if this puppy-dog-man really has a discerning pallet to begin with. Also, it’s Canine, apparently, and I speak Human. Human and a little Bird. I mean, I get that a dog is like… a bright toddler… so we should be able to communicate but… well, anyway, you may not realize this, but that dress I wore, am wearing, was technically a hand-me-down (I mean, it literally came from the high parts of a tree, down to me) and possibly made from some leaves I just kind of threw together- I just look THAT FUCKING GOOD in gold- so while I’m flattered you think I belong on this throne I’m not sure I actually want to sit on it or that I was aiming for it and don’t you dare say I asked for it. You have no idea what I want. And even if I did want it… wanting a ball is not wanting a prince. I’m not “asking for it” by showing the fuck up. I mean, I recognize that doing so basically qualifies me for everything but that’s society’s fault, not mine, why am I being put on the pedestal (chopping block?) for it?

Oh, right, because I’m letting you. And because it’s true… I like the view from up there. You can really see the gold stars. And my whole life is pretty much about gold stars and trying to find a really good view from… well, anywhere, really. Except maybe this tower. And maybe this one too. Okay, maybe all of them. I mean, look people, if I wanted to just see it all from someone else’s tower or worse, from the one I was just handed by fate, then I wouldn’t have gone about putting all this work into baking cookies and writing graduate program recs for the people who are helping me build a tower of my own- which will totally have public viewing hours and elevators for patrons in wheelchairs so just calm the fuck down and let me have my Sunday on the Moon Deck with The Muse to myself, okay? Please? I mean, didn’t I earn it? I cleaned all those fucking pots for you and we don’t even have indoor plumbing.

Sitting on the Facebook (which I should never have open while I’m writing but I often do because I LIKE TO MAKE MY LIFE HARDER/GENUINELY CARE ABOUT WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK AND SAY/CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF MY OWN VOICE/D) and reading other people’s responses to the Rob Marshall film version of Into the Woods, and Shotgun’s production of Our Town, (want to break your mind open- compare the two), and thinking on the past responses to my own productions of Hamlet and The Crucible, and the screen adaptations of Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit, and every Shakespeare play ever, and throwing in the case-studies of my three world premieres this past year, Rat Girl, Everybody Here Says Hello, and Pastorella, plus the case-study of the one play I managed to finish this year, Pandemonium, and the general hoopla leading up to and following the Tony Awards and the TBA Awards, all awards in general, and I am having just millions of thoughts about it all, none of which are helping me finish the Stueys, but in the end they all boil down to one: most people, even most very smart people, want what they know, which is a polite way of saying, that most people, even ones with a taste for adventure, just want to be comfortable, experience as little change as possible, and thus they are going to hate you, like truly hate you, when you give them anything that is different, pushes them too hard, or asks for anything too challenging, and then have the audacity to also like… expect them to be interested enough to at least say something thoughtful and sincere, instead of dismissive or grandstanding. But being too cool for school and incredibly self-righteous is what the internet was invented for, it’s the town pub to end all town pubs, and one doesn’t walk in with their “I’m Here To Help” or “I’m Here To Learn” face on because that’s how people get robbed and murdered so believe you me, when you walk in looking like that holding your little heart going “Look I made this!” best have made something they want or be prepared for the knives. And yes, I understand that you might have been confused by all the shouting until they are blue in the face(book) about wanting new visions, new ideas, new blood, real stories, real challenges, more individual voices, more unique perspectives, more this, more that, ALL THE THINGS THAT ARE LACKING etc. but when push comes to shove what most of them really want… you know, like, what they’ll actually pay for and not resent it?… is like… a really well done gourmet mac and cheese. Oh, is that pasta local? Bacon? Very untraditional. A diverse medley of different cheeses? TAKE ALL MY MONEY! INVENTION THY NAME IS MAC AND CHEESE!

And lest you think I am being reductive to be spiteful, I have one of the most diverse palates of anybody I know and I too fucking love mac and cheese. Even when it’s kind of bad, and when it’s good… well, nothing is better than mac and cheese in both its comfort food simplicity and your ability to turn it into gourmet food just by adding stuff. Like virtually ANYTHING. Everyone in the cheese eating world knows this. Which is why it, or its equivalents, are a staple of so many modern restaurants’ menues. Like, even restaurants with super crazy exotic and original menues, take a look- there’s mac and cheese, down in the corner, HOLDING UP THE WORLD LIKE ATLAS, telling you, “Go ahead, try that, see if you like it. If you don’t no worries… you can always send it back and order me, mac and cheese.” I mean, thank God for mac and cheese, and cobb salad, and chocolate chip cookies, and tomato soup, and baked potatoes with sour cream. Without those things, people would go hungry, at least half because they turn their nose up at anything else, and it is important to recognize and celebrate our mac and cheese chefs because if we don’t honor our staples the building will collapse or just sit empty. Which means this restaurant we’re all running would totes probs be closed. And we can not let that happen, we have got to keep these doors open, and sure maybe mac and cheese alone isn’t enough, maybe we also need cobb salad, the Superman of salads, and I’m not seeing a reliable desert here so, good, good, thank you for stepping up Chocolate Chip Cookies and don’t you dare look at me like that, it’s tough out there! And the world needs mac and cheese. I need it, you need it, we all need it, and furthermore some of us are really damn good at it. I HAVE MADE SOME DAMN FINE MAC AND CHEESE IN MY LIFE AND I HAVE THE SLIPPERS TO PROVE IT! And we will make room for your little new cuisine mis-steps but Luna Park had fucking SMORES ON YOUR TABLE and look what happened to them! BOOM SQUISH. #techgentrificationallegory #thatsridiculoustechisnotagiant #butgiantsruinshit #notallgiants #giantscanbegood #socancobbsalad #whycantwehaveboth #becausewefearabundancelikewefearsuccess #wefearsuccess #idodontyou #giantisapejorativeterm #ithasbeenreclaimed #bywho #yesnomaybe #cultureofblame #killingme #withhowfuckingboringitis #onedayihope#becomesembarassinglikeusingthetermmansplainingdid #isthattermembarassing #yes #but #noyousoundlikeasnotbagkiditsthatsimple #checkyourprivledge #checkyours ###

The croquet ball whispers, “silencio”.

Which I have to retype like ten times because fucking Autocorrect doesn’t give a shit about my creative spirit. Autocorrect doesn’t seem to mind being capitalized though. Probably because It knows It is one day going to run the World.

So… I can’t seem to finish writing the Stueys this year because I can’t seem to bring myself to work on them. I mean, I made a list, I checked it like five thousand times, asking myself if I really stood by my choices, suspicious of half of them because I’d started to notice a trend, too many of the same names again, and again, deserving, of course, but also how does it reflect me, the community, etc. and are the Stueys serving the same purpose as when I started them, or is it just becoming one more thing people expect now, am I contributing to a culture that places achievement over process and lives for the prince instead of the ball or am I just being a punk-ass kid who likes to throw stones at giants, and will anyone take any of this seriously or dear God, what if they take it too seriously? And after the year I had, that so many people seem to have had a variation on, is it really honest and meaningful to just throw some more promotion around especially if that promotion seems obsolete, or biased, or half-hearted, or saccharine, or intentionally provocative, or not brave enough, or arbitrary, or…?

The point is there was material there, so… I could probably crank it out if you put a gun to my head, which you probably will one day, possibly because I decided to basically skip the Stueys for the year, until I can figure out what I want them to really be, beyond just another show of support for the artists I support all year, or if I think we really need them in the world, or if it’s just more noise and one more thing to do and deal with, for both of us. I know this definitely won’t get the same amount of traction as the Stueys would so hey, if it’s about less is more, mission accomplished, right? No? I understand. I probably deserve to be shot. If not for this, then something else, I’m sure. I feel guilty all the time and I am totally lying about stuff and occasionally stealing so yeah, go ahead and do it now, please, somebody, anybody? No? No. No? You know what, this is why we can’t have The Stueys: because of gun control. I almost miss the Witch.

Also, I didn’t finish the Stueys because I am afraid. I am afraid of 2015. Which is just ridiculous. I mean, how is that possible? To be afraid of a year? I might as well be afraid of the air. Come to think of it, I kind of am. I mean, depending on the day and where we are, the air we breath is actually more poison than air. Which is not good because… this is the air. It’s pretty much going to be the air, poison or not. So we really need to think about that and do something (not just blame the people who actually do something, but maybe not something we like) because it would not be good to live in poison, even if we technically can do it for like… far too long considering it’s poison. Wait. I got it. This is why we can’t have The Stueys: because of the poison. And so we’re clear, when I say “poison” I don’t mean “unpleasant.” I mean Poison. The kind of shit you can’t actually smell or taste, but secretly worms its way into the air and the water and then your body. And my body. I mean, who knows how much is already there? My fear is not that 2015 will be a bad year. Just that it’ll be a year, like any other, with Fashionable Intentions and Buzzwords in the morning followed by Witches and Partly-Poison Atmosphere with a chance of Giants. And if I don’t take a moment to stop and focus on me, and ask myself why and what I think about all this, from my head to my slippers, and what my role in it is aside from getting caught up in it all and banging a drum of some kind, then I’m going to probably be someone that contributes to all this. Everyone keeps telling me I had an amazing year and they are right but I’m also exhausted and so much changed and I feel like I should think about that instead of telling everyone else about what I think they should be celebrating. Because I agree, last year was amazing but it definitely wasn’t always fun and even if it had been… I’m not sure I can go through that again. Not in my current state at least. I guess I do need to purge last year’s poison. Not that I know for certain that there is any. I don’t think there is. Then again, there is poison everywhere and some of it is definitely in people and I have been to a lot of balls this year. #gayjoke

Girls, look at your nails, look at your clothes… look at your choices. Why do some of you have eyes… and why do some of you… not have eyes? It’s good to have something to look at, it’s nice to go to balls. But what might we do to keep our eyes?

STATIC

Okay, this is ridiculous, you ruined this perfectly innocuous best of list by making it all about you and your year and this is just so long and ranty and not what I was hoping for and just take it down a notch, okay young man? Young lady? Wait? Who are you again? Your meta-narrative has reached Lynchian proportions over the last two years and I am just exhausted from trying to figure it out. Also, am I the world? Is that what you’re saying? And that I don’t get you so now you don’t feel like trying to get me or anyone else for that matter? I try to get you. I try all the time. I mean, I thought you were the gay one in that play you wrote because you’re gay but there’s like three of them, so it  was confusing just what you’re trying to say there and who you’re trying to reach, and while I am fairly certain you’d never write yourself as the hot one, the angry one was way too uncomfortable to watch, but there were some funny parts so I gave you the benefit of the doubt and… wait, no. No. Oh God. You’re not the black one, are you? That’s racist! Right? 

STATIC

CUT TO:

EXT. WOODS. NIGHT.

Nobody knows my actual name. I don’t even know it. I mean, nobody really knows anybody’s actual true name, right, except God who is like… so not sharing. AMIRIGHT? No? You don’t really think about it because He’s dead/your Christian, whatever, it’s cool, if not terribly imaginative and WOW, it is so awkward in here isn’t it? Sorry. Anyway, it’s fine. Like everybody else, I go by this name I have been given. Unlike some people, I guess, I actually like this name. It’s a name for a servant, but also like for a prince, or leader. You know, like how Cinderella is both a scullery maid’s name and the name of a princess. Like, nobody ever mentions that, do they? That she doesn’t change it to “Victoria” or “Sansa” or whatever, she actually stays “Cinderella” like, “Hello, Royal Subjects, I am she of the ashes!” Like Jenny From the Block but… sincere. Anyway, I consider myself lucky to have a name with so much possibility. I can be anything. And I don’t need that slipper. I got a tree in a forest somewhere that makes slippers as an accessory to ballgowns for fuck’s sake, but… thank you. I will accept it and put it somewhere I can’t see it because one slipper looks… lost. Like an accident. I never thought about that when there were no slippers. Now I think about slippers way more than I should. Plus the puppy chews on it, a lot, which is just reinforcing the puppy’s tendency to think the only things that matter are what makes us laugh and feel good and people yelling at us until we figure out how to make them stop. Anyway… looks like you need a new house. I can help with this. I have this tree that grants wishes but also like… has been destroyed. I am clearly still adjusting to that new development as well as a long list of others- by the way has anyone else realized that if the giants come from the sky and it’s right above us that really at any time it could happen again? Oh please don’t comfort me, people are dying out there, I’m just venting and hey… I still got the birds. And those birds are… violent. Which is helpful. Anyway, I don’t have this tree anymore, but I guess I do now have all this wood, so let’s build something from the wreckage of my hopes and dreams and yes… yes, I will help you with your house. There are times I really enjoy cleaning. And like… how ironic, right? I mean, I basically went to the ball just so I could end up back in the kitchen. Technically, this is not even the first time. It’s not even the second. No, please, I’m not upset. These are happy tears. I chose this. I am chosing this. I will always chose this. I just learned something too, something I never knew. Just kidding, why am I here, where is my castle, where is my prince? Just kidding again, I am a bottomless well aren’t I and you are a fucking tough batch of puppies let me tell you, but… it’ll be a nice kitchen. It’ll be warm. It will be welcoming. Mostly. I’m sure we’ll have our bad days. But it’s going to have all this counter space to make cobb salad on. Or whatever. I’m giving up carbs. And you know what? That slipper is just gonna glow by the light of the new fireplace. Just you wait and see. Our fireplace.

For the record, Shotgun’s production of OUR TOWN is this year’s Stuey for BEST OVERALL PRODUCTION. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking show and I saw a lot of great theater in the Bay Area this past year (despite how this post might come across), but this is the only show from then you can actually still see because it’s still playing so head out there if you haven’t.

#raisedtobesincere

Stuart Bousel is what is missing from your life. Unless he’s a presence, in which case it’s certainly possible he’s worn out his welcome. Sucks he’s not going anywhere then.

While he cannot encourage you enough to see OUR TOWN over at Shotgun, he’d also like to announce one more SEBATA, the recipient of this year’s Peter O’Toole Award for General Awesomeness. This is because the intention behind this award is the only one that is truly clear: it is to recognize someone who is often unrecognized, often because they are so prevalent, so constantly contributing that it’s easy to forget them, and all they do, from listening to us, to keeping us in line, to fixing our problems quietly, behind our backs, even though they have more than enough of their own stuff to do. One of these people (and there are so many) is Amanda Ortmayer, the technical director of the EXIT Theatre. She has let me cry on her shoulder so many times this year it’s astounding she doesn’t just keep a towel on hand. Only she probably does, since she’s seemingly prepared for anything, she just probably keeps it out of sight, since she also knows the value of never revealing your bag of tricks, or the exact location of your wishing tree. Something has to keep us in ballgowns and slippers and it’s probably not going to be wishes alone. But Amanda likes to encourage wishes too, and that rare combination of pragmatism and dreaming is why she is just generally… awesome.

Theater Around The Bay: Year-End Round-Up Act 2, The Best of the Blog 2014

2014 was another year of change on multiple fronts and our website was no exception. We lost Claire Rice but gained Charles Lewis III, as well as bringing on Anthony Miller, making us a team of nine now. Everyone, including our lengthy list of occasional contributors, gets to share in the success of the blog, which has continued to increase its traffic over this past year. With 51,112 hits and counting in 2014 (compared to 45,819 in 2013, 27,998 in 2012, 11,716 in 2011, 8,435 in 2010), 228 subscribers, and 2814 Facebook followers, there can be no doubt that the San Francisco Theater Public (as we’ve taken to calling the blog amongst ourselves) continues to be “kind of a thing.” With our current all time total at 145,024 hits, we wanted to use the next to last blog entry of this year to celebrate the different voices that make our blog unique, while also paying homage to the vast and diverse world of online theater discussion. To everyone who makes our blog a success, a gigantic thank you for making 2014 the best year so far! Here’s hoping that 2015 is even better!

STUART BOUSEL by Dave Sikula 

I’ll admit I don’t know Stuart all that well. He’s directed me in one show, and is about to direct me in another, and we cross paths reasonably frequently, but if you work in Bay Area theatre at all, it’s almost impossible to escape him. He’s everywhere, and that’s something I really admire about him (despite his own admiration for the fatally-flawed Into the Woods). If I may indulge myself for just a moment, I’ll confess to massive inertia and procrastination in my personal and professional lives. It takes an external stimulus just short of an earthquake to get me out of my easy chair and into action. (For example, I’m using the writing of this as an excuse to not work on my translation of The Imaginary Invalid.) But Stuart should be studied by the people at the Department of Energy: He’s as close to a perpetual motion machine as I can think of. He is constantly either coming up with an idea for something, or writing it, or producing it, or all three simultaneously.

Stuart Bousel, alone at work... in the 40s. That's how dedicated he is.

Stuart Bousel, alone at work… in the 40s. That’s how dedicated he is.

Most of us are more comfortable sitting in a bar or a living room bitching about the lack of opportunity or parts or shows in the city, but Stuart isn’t there. He’s off writing yet another script or arranging a venue to produce it in or creating spaces for other people to be creative or seeing shows or directing someone else’s script or holding meetings or readings. If you haven’t worked with him yet, you will. He’s the Tasmanian Devil of Bay Area theatre. Meanwhile, this is my favorite of Stuart’s posts of the last year. It’s not particularly analytical or insightful, but is, perhaps more importantly, a reminder of a very pleasant occasion; the wedding of two good friends.

From the outside world I’d like highlight something from Mark Evanier’s blog. Mark is a writer who’s worked in comics, sitcoms, variety shows, animation, and any number of other areas. It’s not, strictly speaking, about the theatre or the arts, but is about the effect that a creative artist can have on others, how that creation is received, and (probably of most importance to me), the vital need for artists to know history and what has gone before them in order to have a foundation upon which to either build the future or knock the past down in an informed way.

ASHLEY COWAN by Stuart Bousel

My boyfriend and I often refer to Ashley, with tremendous affection, as “the cool babysitter you always wanted as a kid.” This is because Ashley is uniquely gifted with seemingly endless patience, bottomless love and forgiveness, incredible creativity, and a plethora of cookie recipes. Seriously, invite her over to stuff at your house, and make sure she knows she’s supposed to bring treats. She’s like a fairy tale princess who conquers through kindness and she sets a sterling example for anyone looking to be just a little bit sweeter, a little bit nicer, a little bit more understanding. Like all incredibly good people, she also struggles not to be a doormat, cause the truth is, we live in a world of witches, wolves, and humans, and those of us who aspire to be a force for light often radiate “I Will Help You!” and “Come Fuck With Me!” at the same time, whether we intend to or not. Learning to draw lines with others, learning to stand up for ourselves, learning to speak up even when it’s not polite, is just as important as setting a good example and taking the higher road. This year Ashley took a tremendous step as a human being and risked her “nice girl” reputation to stand by a statement she felt she had to make, something I wish I had the courage to do more often, and in typical Ashley fashion she both learned a lot from that action and shared it with the rest of us. This blog entry is like a song from Into The Woods, Ashley’s “I Know Things Now” and just like Little Red, I love how Ashley celebrates her knew understanding of herself, while at the same time admitting how it weirds her out. So real, so human. So Ashley.

Ashley Cowan: my favorite fairy tale bride.

Ashley Cowan: my favorite fairy tale bride.

Outside of Theater Pub, the article that gave me the most pause this year was this interview with Marsha Norman. I have long been a fan of Norman’s work: ‘Night Mother was the first really serious, non-musical play I saw as an adolescent and connected to, and The Secret Garden remains one of my top five musicals of all time, so it was wonderful to get Norman’s analysis of her own process as a writer. On the other hand, while I respect her opinions on new play development I found them to be suspiciously New York/Ivy-Leage Institution centric, out-of-touch with the larger reality of most playwright’s lives and the indie theater scene that I personally work in and advocate for. Additionally, while I respect and share her desire to advocate for more women playwrights and more exposure for their work, as a man it was disappointing to read that she thinks the formation of women-only teams is the solution, as I am more and more adamantly of the belief that mixed-gender teams are the key to a future that achieves actual progress instead of just recreating the problems of the past with a new mask. That said, I love that she recognizes the value of male allies, and that they often need to be invited in, rather than expected to show up of their own accord. So why am I sharing this article when I don’t agree with half of it? Because in the end, to me, our principal job as artists, writers, intellectuals, is to share ideas, including and especially ones we don’t entirely agree with. Comparing our beliefs is how we figure out who we are, how we form bonds with others, and how we continue our quest, as human beings, for meaning and truth. When an experienced and thoughtful practitioner of something (in this case playwrighting) speaks, you listen, because you will certainly hear something you want to respond to. Listen to Marsha. And then respond. The worst conversation is almost always the one you don’t have.

BARBARA JWANOUSKOS by Marissa Skudlarek

Barbara Jwanouskos has had quite a year! She finished up her MFA in Dramatic Writing at Carnegie Mellon, returned to the Bay Area, re-branded her Theater Pub column from “Higher Education” to “The Real World, Theater Edition,” got accepted into Just Theater’s New Play Lab, and discovered quite the talent for interviewing local theater-makers about how they develop new works. She’s also been admirably open about her own writing process and her doubts, fears, and struggles throughout this eventful year.

“Won’t you be my neighbor?” It’s great to have Barbara back in the Bay Area!

“Won’t you be my neighbor?” It’s great to have Barbara back in the Bay Area!

I especially want to highlight Barbara’s piece “Meeting the Fear Barrier,” from toward the end of her time at Carnegie Mellon. In the past few years, Barbara has committed herself to two very different, but intense and disciplined, pursuits: playwriting and kung fu. She combined these two passions in her thesis play this year, The Imaginary Opponent (which deals with violence at a kung fu studio), and some of her Theater Pub columns also draw on the way that these two activities often teach her complementary lessons. In writing about how kung fu can seem “completely masochistic and insane” to someone who doesn’t practice it, she allows us to draw the inference that producing indie theater can also seem like a masochistic, insane pursuit to outsiders. She also makes a connection that theater and kung fu require both vulnerability and strength, and can bring up unexpected emotions. I’m pretty much a couch potato, but I admire Barbara’s physical courage and drive. And even if I never learn how to break a board with my bare hand, I can at least try to emulate the way she strives to break through the mental barriers that can hold us back from making great art.

Favorite article elsewhere online: Frank Rich on Moss Hart, New York magazine, April 11, 2014. I’m recommending this partly because the absolute best theater-related thing I read this year was Moss Hart’s memoir Act One, but it was published in 1959, so I can’t exactly put it on this list. But I can tell you to read Rich’s article about Hart’s book! Act One is a tale of struggle that ends in triumph: Hart’s first Broadway production, at the age of 25. It’s glamorous and romantic and engaging and funny and inspirational. (My mother very thoughtfully gave it to me for my birthday this summer as I was producing Pleiades, and I intend to reread it every time I produce a play.) But Rich’s article reveals what Hart left out of his autobiography: he was bipolar and bisexual in an era when both of those things were considered shameful secrets. “The more we learn about the truth of Moss Hart, the more powerful Act One becomes, not just as a book but as a heroic act of generosity from a man whose heart and mind were breaking down even as he was writing it,” Rich writes.

2014 was a hard year for a lot of us. The headlines were alternately depressing and rage-inducing. In the span of two months (August-September), I produced a play, had a health crisis, and got dumped. I don’t understand people who are cheerful all the time, but I have the utmost respect and sympathy for people who are acquainted with the darker side of life and will themselves not to give into despair. They create joy and hope that is all the more profound for its proximity to sorrow. That’s what Moss Hart did in Act One, and what I strive to do in 2015.

WILL LESCHBER by Allison Page

It’s time to talk about Will Leschber, my friends. Yes, he is a writer here at the blog, but I knew him before that. We acted together in Prelude To A Kiss last year, where we spent the one chunk of the show where neither of us had anything to do chatting backstage on the couch every night, talking about life. That’s also where he told me about his plan to propose to his now wife, who also happens to be a close friend of mine. INTERTWINED, YA’LL. He’s a gentleman if there ever was one, manages to be the only dude I know who can pull off wearing a vest, and laughs all the time. These are solid, solid qualities.

Focus on Will Leschber. Literally.

Focus on Will Leschber. Literally.

He’s a thoughtful guy with thoughtful thoughts. And my favorite blog of his this year is on a topic ever-so-close to my tiny black heart: sad clowns. I’m caught up in my first full length production as a playwright and it’s about that very thing, so it’s crazy relevant to me right now (and let’s face it, always).

As for the rest of the internet, I’m having my own personal HOLY SHIT I’M FALLING IN LOVE WITH CHRIS ROCK AGAIN moment right now. I had heard about his new movie TOP FIVE and was interested but didn’t think much about it. Then this Vulture interview with him came out and I was then obsessed with seeing it and having more Chris Rock in my life. He didn’t/doesn’t shy away from talking about difficult, uneasy stuff (Ferguson, Cosby, etc) and still manages to be hilarious and personable. Also Top Five was magnificent and you should see it, but here’s the article.

CHARLES LEWIS III by Anthony Miller

As we were all assigned to write about a fellow T-Pub (That’s what I’m calling it now) Blogger, I am here to tell you all about our newest regular writer; Charles Lewis. Here’s why I like Charles, better yet, here’s why I think his existence is pivotal to the Indie Theatre Community; he is indisputably this scene’s flag bearer. His belief and passion for the SF Indie Theatre World is undeniable. He has the ability to talk about the people and the work involved with such reverence, he simply elevates the importance of it all. When you read Charles’ posts about the Olympians Festival it’s as if you’re getting a backstage look at The Humana Festival. His interview with Marissa Skudlarek reads like a New York Times in depth look at the career of Dame Judi Dench. He embodies the very feeling that we all have as we struggle to self-produce our work in Black Box Theatres in neighborhoods that smell like pee, the feeling that what we are doing is important. Nobody can articulate the importance we all place on our work as Charles does. He speaks about our work and experiences as we would speak of them, but he is also reverent, critical, and observant and unites the scene by saying “What we are doing counts, and here’s why”.

Easily my favorite quality about Charles is that he believes what he believes and worked real hard in figuring out why he believes it. So his thoughts and opinions are devoid of bullshit. His own confidence in what he thinks is immeasurably valuable. After the first reading of Terror-Rama, Charles quickly left the building. As I saw him leave, I thought; “Oh man, Charles must have HATED it, I gotta talk to him”. So I chase him down out front and ask him about the show. He takes a breath and says, “The first one has potential but the other is a misogynist piece of shit.” Boom. Honest, critical and to the point. It was my favorite comment the whole night because it gave me a clear notion of what I had to do in developing those two plays over the next year. It was a simple, no bullshit, State of the Union.

So the post by Charles I want to recommend is part of his ongoing series about the SF Olympians Festival. See how he paints such a clear picture of everything that goes on behind the scene. Most importantly, see how he so perfectly embodies the excitement we all have for this festival . The way he tells it shows just how important and special it is without just saying “This is very Important and Special to us”. That’s why Charles is a kick ass dude, he believes in the work we do, and he takes it seriously. He successfully embodies the collective excitement and passion the people in this scene feel for every project they do.

Here’s the link. Oh and read this one too, it’s awesome.

Charles Lewis III. What else is there to say?

Charles Lewis III. What else is there to say?

OK Part 2, here’s where I recommend a Theatre blog that isn’t T-Pub. A task in which I will fail miserably because I just don’t read a lot of theatre blogs that aren’t T-Pub. But I do listen to a shitload of podcasts. So go and check out the Podcast of Bret Easton Ellis (Ok not a theatre guy, but go with me.) What makes this show a must-listen for anyone who does something creative is the interviews he does with guests are fascinating explorations of how artists think. He doesn’t ask boilerplate questions, asking about their new project or their background. Usually he starts the show, with a monologue about whatever is on his mind that day, be it a play, film book or a celebrity (His observations on Miley Cyrus are fucking brilliant.) and then he engages the guest in a conversation about it. We get to know how artists we admire feel about their work, others work and their own feelings on their respective mediums. They feel like Master Class Lectures on the creation of art and those who create it. Check out the show here: And go to the interview with Michael Ian Black. Do it.

ANTHONY MILLER by Will Leschber

Anthony R Miller- With his brazen wit and ah-fuck-it attitude, Anthony weaves his endearing yet self-depreciating voice around many Bay Area theater issues in his column The Five. One of my particular favorites was his internal discussion surrounding his experience at the TBA Awards. The ragged thoughts he displays, sweetly gets to the heart of what many artistic folk and theater-makers have to balance: The opposing desire to turn inwards to replenish and the need to turn on social extroversion. Get out of my head Anthony! You see my pain! Also this article uses one subheading entitled, “I’m a loner Dottie, a rebel”. Anyone who uses a Get Up Kids song as a subheading just made my short list of bloggers I have to read. You the man, Anthony. You the man.

Anthony Miller: ah-fuck-it attitude

Anthony Miller: ah-fuck-it attitude

This was the year podcasts reached a new level of cultural awareness and breached the bubble of relevant pop culture. This mainly had to do with the runaway success of the Serial podcast. More importantly, the new attention paid to the medium of podcasting has ushered in a time where podcasting can be taken seriously as a creative / media outlet. The quality is higher than ever, the variety available is more diverse than before and the a la carte funding “from listeners like you” signals a shift in radio that looks something akin to the Netflix revolution. This all boils down to: there are a lot of great audio selections out there and it’s time to listen up. One of my favorites this year was the 99% Invisible podcast episode entitled “Three Records from Sundown“. It’s an award winning radio piece rebroadcast, that chronicles the music of Nick Drake. It reminds me why I love music, why I love good storytelling and why I love great radio.

ALLISON PAGE by Charles Lewis III

The thing that always gets me about Allison’s column is that it (often) eschews the normal “tears of a clown” shit. Oh, she’ll get personal and it can be heartbreaking, make no mistake, but what I love is that she doesn’t go for the easy route of “Yes, I want you to laugh, but more than that I want you to cry at the pain – oh, the pain – that my laughter covers up. Oh, the pain! The pain of it all!” No, Allison’s spiel is more of a “Remember we said someday we’ll look back on this and laugh? Today’s that day.” By taking the latter route, she earns our sympathy because she isn’t fishing for it. Her scars are no less prominent or legitimate, but she doesn’t feel the need to be solely defined by them. And yet the blog of hers I’m highlighting today is one of the less intimate: “How to Make Actors Never want to Work with You Again”. Sure, an argument can be made for the other side (and other blogs did just that), but she said things that needed saying in that piece. Just as performers are not above reproach, neither are the backstage folks who keep the wheels moving. Someday we’ll all look back on That One Bad Production and laugh…

Allison Page, one second away from flinging yet another brilliant witticism your way.

Allison Page, one second away from flinging yet another brilliant witticism your way.

This was a funny years for me, in terms of thinking of my “career” as a performer. When I wasn’t being rejected after auditions and – as I mentioned yesterday – burning bridges, I was acting in Sundance films, taking the stage at prominent Bay Area theatres, and being forced to seriously consider whether or not to join SAG and/or the AEA. I mean, union reps were mailing me paperwork. It got me thinking that maybe I actually could make a living out of this, but would it be a living I want? In the middle of all this, Theatre Bay Area re-tweeted this NY Post article about Broadway actors who have done the same role for over a decade. Normally the Post is only good for the bottom of a birdcage, but this article – combined with the fact that I acted in a play, Pastorella, about theatre-folk coming to terms with their careers – stuck with me. It would require major changes (most notably the geographical kind), but I’m certain I could make a living at this, and a comfortable living at that. But would I be happy if I wound up just another cog in the theatrical machine rather than the corporate one? Is it worth giving up all the control I’ve gotten for the guarantee of having rent on time? I haven’t stopped asking myself these questions, nor have I found any wholly satisfying answers. But I’m comforted by the fact that it wasn’t too late for me to consider that kind of life.

DAVE SIKULA by Barbara Jwanouskos

I don’t know Dave as well as the other TPub bloggers and was a little nervous when I selected his name at our last meeting because he always struck me as a more serious theater person than I was. In reading “It’s a Suggestion, Not a Review” however, I’m struck by Dave’s continuing discussion about very relevant themes in theater like censorship, copyright issues, controversy plays, and creator’s rights. It’s actually surprising his articles don’t illicit further discussion in the comments section because he brings up some very valid points in a direct, comprehensive way. With Dave, I always feel like I’m learning something – the way you would listening to your well-traveled uncle give his observations of what he’s seen out there. Beyond his series on directing choices vs. playwright intent using fascinating stories of productions of Endgame, Oleanna, and Hands on a Hardbody (which is extremely informative and worth a read), Dave is a phenomenal storyteller. It’s easy to get sucked in by his wit. One of his most recent posts, “Boo!” was particularly engaging for its discussion of theater ghosts and the other worldly nature of being in spaces that many, many others have passed through. I had goosebumps at the end because of Dave’s knack for turning a casual activity into something much more dramatically interesting.

Dave Sikula, not a man to mess with on Jeopardy or on stage

Dave Sikula, not a man to mess with on Jeopardy or on stage

There have been a lot of great blog articles and podcasts on theater this year, but I very much appreciated a recent article by Lisa Drostova (who is also a co-worker and desk buddy at Ragged Wing Ensemble!) because there is usually a dearth of quality writing on professional playwriting/dramatic writing programs. As someone who was on the other side of this a couple years ago, I found it inspiring and informative when I could find someone lay out what exactly was out there. I tried to write a bit about this back in August too, and would like to continue adding to that on my own blog, but what I appreciated about this article is how it gave an expansive look at the various different playwriting programs specifically in the Bay Area. We have phenomenal resources available to those wishing to sharpen their skills right at our fingertips and this article highlights the ways to find that in universities and community colleges around the Bay.

MARISSA SKUDLAREK by Ashley Cowan

Marissa Skudlarek had a pretty great year in the Theater Pub World. In reviewing her blogs it was nearly impossible to pick just one to celebrate. Should I go with her incredibly popular, https://sftheaterpub.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/hi-ho-the-glamorous-life-whos-a-horses-ass/, or https://sftheaterpub.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/hi-ho-the-glamorous-life-chestnut-tea-with-the-other-me/, which I found to be lovely and creative? Nah. Think outside the blackbox, Ashley. I’m going to go with: https://sftheaterpub.wordpress.com/2014/10/02/hi-ho-the-glamorous-life-things-of-darkness-and-of-light/. Did I love that my husband, unborn baby, and I got a shoutout? Duh. But I also loved reading Marissa’s honest discussion of certain challenges while still choosing to search for stars in seemingly dark skies. For me, I found this to be a relevant theme of this action packed year. We all had some ups and downs throughout the past twelve months, but what a beautiful way to stay positive.

It's always spring time when Marissa is in the room!

It’s always spring time when Marissa is in the room!

I’ll be honest, I’ve read way too many wedding and baby related online articles this year that I didn’t think would be appropriate to share. So the article I picked was one that made me laugh. if you’re involved in any theater community, I think you’ll appreciate this comic take on casting and the strong, critical nature such a group can occasionally possess when a cast list is revealed. My favorite line may be, “…but that at a big-boned 5’9”, she doesn’t exactly present the unique mixture of Dixie elegance and delicate vulnerability that ticket holders will expect to see come opening night.” As a 5’9’’ actress who would love to one day play Blanche Dubois, I found this piece for The Onion to be pretty great.

We’ve got one more act tomorrow! See you then! 

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Catching Up with Corinne Proctor

Marissa Skudlarek, with the first ever Hi-Ho the Glamorous Life interview!

I first became acquainted with the delightful singer-actress Corinne Proctor in 2011, when I went to see a staged reading of the new trip-hop musical Ozma of Oz at the Cutting Ball Theater. Corinne stole the show as a sassy, talking, rapping chicken (complete with hand puppet). Later that night, following a party in a bohemian loft of the kind that I thought existed only in New York, the two of us belted out “Cabaret” on the streets of SoMa at 2 AM. Definitely a night to remember!

Corinne moved to New York about two years ago, but fortunately for her friends and fans in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Playhouse has brought her back here twice. She played Little Red Riding Hood in their production of Into the Woods this summer, and is currently starring as Marge MacDougall in their holiday production of Promises, Promises. Marge is a kooky barfly who hits on the musical’s heartbroken hero, Chuck Baxter (Jeffrey Brian Adams) at the start of Act Two. It’s a brief but notoriously scene-stealing role: both Marian Mercer, who played Marge in the original production, and Katie Finneran, who played her in the 2010 Broadway revival, won Tony Awards for it. Playing Marge is also special for Corinne because it marks her first role as a member of Actors’ Equity — “I’m overjoyed to have an asterisk of my own [by my name in the playbill],” she says.

I caught up with Corinne recently to chat about holidays, stage names, and how to throw a swingin’ office party.

Marissa: You’re originally from the East Coast: you grew up in Maryland and went to college in Upstate New York. What brought you out to the Bay Area after college?

Corinne: I wish I could pretend it was something cooler, but the truth is I ran out of money after spending my first year after college living outside Boston, and this is where my parents lived at the time. My mom was heading to our place in Florida (my parents are both there permanently now) so I moved in with my dad. I really miss that SOMA condo. I used to be able to walk to SF Playhouse!

Marissa: Then, about two years ago, you relocated to New York City. What prompted you to move back East?

Corinne: I had always been planning to save money to move to NYC by living with my dad and working full-time, which I did virtually the entire three years I lived here. I might have moved sooner if the Bay Area theater scene hadn’t been so wonderfully loving and fun and so incredibly kind to me, especially Susi Damilano and Bill English at S.F. Playhouse. I kept thinking I’d move when I hit a slump, but I ended up having incredibly good fortune. The longest I went without knowing what my next gig would be was five days. (I can’t resist bragging about that, haha.) I also just fell in love with my life out here, and it was definitely hard for me to leave. Then, in 2012, my dad was relocating to Houston and I knew it was time for me to finally make the move. I was in My Fair Lady at SF Playhouse at the time, and toward the end of that run I was living alone in the condo with no furniture except an air mattress!

Marissa: If any of our readers are Bay Area residents contemplating a move to the Big Apple, what advice would you give them to help them make that transition?

Corinne: HAVE LOTS OF MONEY. But no, seriously. I had saved about $20,000 and I can tell you that it didn’t last me a year. Now, I don’t claim that I was living off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but I wasn’t having pheasant under glass for dinner every night either. Plan to drop upwards of $3,000 in order to get into an apartment. Someone who grew up in California might also have some culture shock, but since I spent the first two decades of my life on the East Coast I’m very used to the quicker, louder pace.

Marissa: Many Bay Area actors, especially those in your demographic (young and female) agonize long and hard over whether or not to join Equity. Was this ever a concern for you? If so, did it become less of an issue when you moved to New York?

Corinne: Many people wanted me to be more worried about joining Equity, but I have to tell you I barely thought twice about it. (If I were staying in the Bay Area, I might have given a bit more pause, but I won’t swear to it.) I’d been working consistently as a non-Equity actor since 2008, and I was ready to take it to the next level. Particularly in New York, being non-Equity is super rough — although being an EMC (Equity Membership Candidate) does get you on a slightly better waiting list.

The one and only, Corinne Proctor.

The one and only, Corinne Proctor.

Marissa: I know that one of Equity’s rules is that no two members can have the same stage name. I suppose it’s pretty unlikely that there would be another Equity actress called “Corinne Proctor,” but if you’d needed to choose a different stage name, what would you have done?

Corinne: Haha, I had a lot of fun thinking about this, of course. Because I speak Spanish, I thought about taking my paternal grandmother’s maiden name, Gomes. It’s actually a Portuguese name, but I thought maybe it would help me be considered for roles where I could employ that skill. Of course I always could have tried “Cori” instead of Corinne. Another family name I thought about was my mother’s maiden name, which is Gormley. Then again, there’s always that old trick of taking your middle name and the name of the street you grew up on, in which case I’d be Elizabeth Greenwood — very Old Hollywood, don’t you think?

Marissa: As Marge in Promises, Promises, you make drunken-dancing and tipsy comedy look easy, but what are the biggest challenges of playing this scene-stealing role?

Corinne: You are sweet to say so! I am certainly having a ton of fun and am super lucky to be onstage with the extremely talented Jeffrey Brian Adams. I’ve stayed nervous so much longer for this role than any other I’ve played, and I think it’s because I have all of Act I to build anxiety, and because I spend such a short amount of time onstage that it’s hard to really get comfortable or used to it. (In the end, I think that serves me well in terms of keeping it fresh.) Comedy is so hard in a way that’s hard to put a finger on. Every audience is different and it seems like the smallest shift in line delivery can take something from hysterical to boring. In all, I guess timing/navigating the laughs is the biggest challenge.

Corinne Proctor as Marge MacDougall in Promises, Promises -- vodka stinger in hand. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Corinne Proctor as Marge MacDougall in Promises, Promises — vodka stinger in hand. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Marissa: In Promises, Promises, Marge gets drunk on vodka stingers. Did you drink any of these as research for the role? What’s in a vodka stinger, anyway?

Corinne: I am fully committed to important character research such as this. My professionalism cannot be doubted since I willingly consumed crème de menthe mixed with vodka for the sake of my art. Yes, that’s what’s in a vodka stinger — crème de menthe and vodka. My only thought is that it’s for people who want to get drunk in a bar and still have minty-fresh breath if anyone hot shows up. And if you think that’s gross, consider this: the reason “vodka” is specified in the drink name is because the original “stinger” is brandy and crème de menthe.

Marissa: They also must have been associated with a certain type of woman during that time period: Joanne in Company, which came out two years after Promises, Promises, drinks vodka stingers too. (Joanne’s a lot angrier and more cynical than Marge is, but they’re both well-to-do, drunkenly promiscuous Manhattanites.)

Corinne: Honestly, though, the vodka stinger was surprisingly drinkable despite being inherently disgusting. It kind of reminded me of the spearmint snow-cones that used to be served at our community pool.

Marissa: Still, it doesn’t sound like vodka stingers will become your drink of choice any time soon. What do you typically order at the bar?

Corinne: CHAMPAGNE! But, of course, that is too expensive for starving actresses, so I am usually seen at the White Horse with a Trumer Pils. I’ve also been known to enjoy a Hendrick’s Gin on the rocks, or any drink that is free.

Marissa: At this point, the Bay Area is your “home away from home.” What are you looking forward to doing in San Francisco this festive season?

Corinne: I love being back here! I’ve been having a lot of fun going to my old haunts and seeing friends. In terms of holiday cheer, I’m currently accepting applications for ice skating partners… doesn’t anyone else like to do cheesy things like that?

Marissa: Is it hard to stay connected to loved ones when you’re in a show and can’t go home for the holidays?

Corinne: This will be my third Christmas where I’m in the Bay Area doing a show and everyone else in my family is in Florida. My family is fantastically nerdy, so we do a reading of A Christmas Carol every year. When I can’t be there, I Skype in — usually as Marley’s Ghost, which is fitting for someone who’s not really in the room.

Marissa: Apart from Promises, Promises, what’s your favorite holiday show? And what’s the movie that you HAVE to watch every Christmas?

Corinne: I guess I like holiday movies better than holiday shows. I’m not terribly familiar with the stage versions of most of them. But you know what, haters? I really like seeing various versions of A Christmas Carol. That said, I can be super picky about them. As for movies, THE one for my brother and me is Muppet Family Christmas. NOT Muppet Christmas CarolMUPPET. FAMILY. CHRISTMAS. This article from AV Club nails it.

Marissa: Several of us Theater Pub folks will be involved in Stuart Bousel’s production of The Desk Set next summer — which, like Promises, Promises, is a mid-century Manhattan workplace comedy that features a wild office Christmas party. Got any tips or advice for us?

Corinne: There’s no such thing as too big when it comes to hair, ladies. Bump it, tease it, rock it. Otherwise, I feel wild partying is solidly in the skill set of most theater people. Tell the men they have a free pass on butt pinching and ta-da! It’s mid-century!

Marissa: Corinne, it was a pleasure catching up with you and even more of a pleasure to see you back onstage in the Bay Area! Happy Holidays and best wishes for 2015!

Promises, Promises runs at the San Francisco Playhouse through January 10. Tickets here. If you’d like to hear more from Corinne Proctor, check out her contributions to Theater Pub’s roundtable on Into the Woods.

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

Theater Around The Bay: Honor Their Mistakes

The INTO THE WOODS panel with Stuart Bousel, Brian Katz, Corinne Proctor, Marissa Skudlarek, Oren Stevens, and Nick Trengove continues. This week they tackle Giants, Witches, and Wolf penis.

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Okay, so last week we pretty firmly established one thing about this show: that we all more or less love it. So this week, let’s get a little harder on it for a moment and talk about it with a more critical eye, because as praised as the show often is, it’s also considered “problematic” or “flawed” by a considerable contingent of critics- including some of its most ardent supporters. What do you think are INTO THE WOODS’ “problems?”

Corinne: There are some significant flaws and inconsistencies in the storytelling. The two biggest problems in my view are: 1) the Baker’s arc doesn’t quite work. The idea that he begins the show as a coward/unsure is undermined by the fact that he’s ordering his wife to stay at home and to go home repeatedly. This feels awfully dominant for a character who is supposed to be reluctant and afraid before coming into his own and becoming “daring” and “sure”; 2) Rapunzel’s hair not being a functional ingredient in the spell because it has been touched by the Witch is seriously problematic for me. Actually, this is the number one cringe moment in the show for me. Apparently Lapine thought it was extremely important that there be a reason the witch doesn’t get the items herself, but for me that’s not a huge concern. In the land of fairytales witches order others to fetch items for them – that’s not something I need an explanation for. I’m willing to go with that as part of the ‘rules’ of fairytale land. But for me it makes ZERO sense that her hair isn’t a “real” ingredient and that it can just be substituted with the random ‘hair’ of the corn instead.

Brian: Oh Rapunzel, Rapunzel- why are you in this show? Okay, sure, the witch needed something to motivate her, and “Agony” would be boring if only sung by one prince, but she’s a plot point/sight-gag/sound-gag with a serious amount of hair that some poor props person has to deal with. Her death NEVER works, or I’ve never seen it solved, and we don’t really care about her, we care about her mother (if the witch is played well.) I’ve also now seen two productions where her death was so poorly staged I had to tell my companion it happened. Speaking of death, the off-stage giant battle just does not work. It’s not as bad as the jousting in Camelot, but it’s bad. The antagonist in the second act is a sound effect and the fight is narrated. It’s the main reason I am excited about the film: we finally get to see some epic giant fighting!

Oren: I think a lot of people find Into the Woods problematic because it can feel like two different shows. The first act is such a lighthearted review of all the stories we know, and then the second act is a dark and twisty assault on moral absolutism. I also think that some people are responding to the discomfort that the musical is supposed to make you feel. There’s something deeply unsettling about suspecting, whether it’s in the back of your mind or blatantly obvious, that maybe our hero Jack is a murderous larcenist, and maybe the monstrous giant actually has legitimate complaints. These stories are stones in the foundation of many people’s childhoods, and Into the Woods rattles that foundation. And just so I can be clear: Jack is a murderer, and he is a thief, and he is a dumb teenager who thought he was having an adventure, and in the court of the theater-going-public opinion, I think he should be tried as a minor. Personally, my only real problem is totally nitpicky: I love the song “Your Fault” to death, but it is ludicrous to blame Little Red for anything because she dared Jack to do it. You can feel how hard they’re reaching to find something to point the finger at her for, and it doesn’t quite work. I don’t think there aren’t any other tough spots in it, but my memory is that there isn’t anything a director can’t figure out somehow.

Marissa: Okay, this might seem really nitpicky, but it’s not: When Rapunzel says to the Witch, “You locked me in a tower for 14 years,” it sets up a backstory timeline that doesn’t make any sense. Rapunzel is the Baker’s younger sister, and the Witch stole her away as soon as she was born. The Baker doesn’t know any of this until he is an adult and the Witch tells him, which implies that he was a very small child when Rapunzel was born. (If he had been older, he’d surely remember his mother’s pregnancy, the Witch coming to the house and taking the baby, etc.) Now, it might be possible to portray Rapunzel as a 14-year-old (it makes her seduction by the Prince pretty icky, but also truer to Grimm reality) but it makes NO sense at all to think that the Baker is 16 or 18. He and his wife have been trying to have a baby for years. They have a successful business. They read as significantly older than Jack and Little Red. They are not teenagers — and thus, Rapunzel has to be older than 14. I really wish that Rapunzel’s line was something like “you locked me in a tower for years on end” instead of “for 14 years” so that we wouldn’t have to deal with this conundrum. Also… the second half of Act Two is sloooow — “No More,” followed by “No One Is Alone,” followed by “Children Will Listen,” is three ballads that are more about imparting lessons, than about advancing the plot or delineating character. It doesn’t help that often, the person who plays the Narrator/Mysterious Man is a character actor with a weak singing voice, which makes “No More” tedious rather than touching. I mean, I guess it makes a certain amount of sense that the show slows down at this point. The Narrator and the Witch (both outsider-figures who helped push the plot along) are dead or disappeared, so of course the remaining characters feel uncertain and lack direction. But “uncertainty and lack of direction” don’t make for a very exciting final half-hour of a musical.

Stuart: Ha- so, for the record, that’s kind of what I love the most about the second half. I agree, the Narrator and the Witch are two sides of the same coin: authority. Both are more or less the people in control or most desirous of being in control. Or as a friend of mine puts it, “They represent the best and worst aspects of both the patriarchy and the matriarchy” so when they’re gone the children (i.e. everyone else) are really alone in the woods. So then the story becomes about them finding direction, coming up with new things to be certain of themselves, and then bravely moving forward. Which to me is super exciting- both that moment of them moving forward, but watching that process of them finding their way back to the path. Most stories end on “happily ever after” or the opposite (“woefully never to be?”) but Into the Woods is about how life is an endless cycle of victories and tragedies, one often spurring the other. That said, while I have a soft spot for Rapunzel (as I said last week), I agree that she is woefully under-developed (even her nameless prince demonstrates more personality than her) and Corinne’s point about the hair not being a viable ingredient to the Act One potion doesn’t help make her feel as important as she actually really is. But she’s as colorful as Cleopatra compared to Cinderella’s Father… perhaps the most worthless role in a play ever written? I mean, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty only have one line but they’re at least a fun joke. Cinderella’s Father is like a character from a first draft they forgot to cut. Maybe that’s the point, that he’s completely obsolete, but talk about a character who is a prop… I mean, that’s just it- Milky White, the prop cow, is more of a presence than Cinderella’s Father.

Nick: Hmm… The show has a lot of characters, and a lot of subplots, so it can be hard to follow for audiences more interested in the current pop musical fare, but… I defy you to find a show with any amount of critical acclaim that is not also considered “problematic.” Personally, my qualms have always been production specific: bad prosthetic wolf penises, and I’ve never heard a voice-over for the Giantess voice that I didn’t think was super hokey. They always sound like overweight ghosts with reverb.

So going back to the stuff about the Narrator, and incorporating the discussion of the second act, which is often a target for criticism, both regarding its pace and tone, how do we feel about the Narrator, who sets so much of the pace and tone of Act One, as a device?

Corinne: The Narrator works really well for me. The show is about storytelling and how the stories we pass down to our children shape their lives, etc . The Narrator fits into that really well.

Oren: I’m not going to say the Narrator is itself a clever idea, so much as a crucial part of an idea that runs throughout the show. Into the Woods spends time setting up the traditional fairy tale narrative in act one, and then breaking it down in act two. The narrator being present and powerful, giving the story shape and direction in act one, and then being literally killed by the characters in act two as the fairy tale form breaks down really brings home the breakdown of structure and absolutes. We move from a world structured by story, to a world like our own — not structured at all. Also worth mentioning: I know I’m throwing back to high school, but the rule “show don’t tell” that Mrs. Lott-Pollack hammered into my head is still so apt. I never feel like the Narrator’s presence is used to tell us pieces of the story that should be shown, but instead used to rush us through the boring information so we can get to the juicy stuff. We don’t need Cinderella to tell us she’s coming home from the ball herself, we just need to see her geek out over the prince with the Baker’s Wife.

Marissa: The narrator of Into the Woods is one of the few narrators you will ever find me championing. I distinctly remember being in elementary school and assigned to create a skit with a group of other kids. One of them started off by asking “Okay, who’ll be the narrator?” and I was like “Why does there have to be a narrator?” I do think that often, the decision to have a narrator is a crutch or an unthinking choice — but I also feel like in this case, Sondheim and Lapine did think about it and figure out how to make it work. A narrator is a traditional component of fairy tale theater (“content dictates form” is one of Sondheim’s dicta) and then in Act Two, when the characters decide to kill the narrator and the story goes off the rails? That’s some pretty clever theatrical storytelling. I know that Pirandello was doing this kind of thing decades before Sondheim and Lapine, but Pirandello doesn’t get produced as frequently as Into the Woods, and I’m all for introducing young people to “meta” tricks and the idea of breaking the fourth wall.

Nick: I too love the Narrator. That little meta-moment when they kill him? Ach! The layers of significance! The sloughing off the authorial voice marks a post-modern shift the narrative!

Brian: I don’t have an issue with a narrator for fairy tales, per se. My problem with the narrator is, as already touched on, in Act Two, where the idea of the story spinning-out-of -control is, to me, not fully explored. When the crowd offers the Narrator up to the Giant, he warns them that they need him to keep structure; where would they be without his presence? This does not ring true at the time because the fairy tales have already started crumbling but okay, we think, “it could get worse, right?” However, it doesn’t become drastically different. The same chaos that is descending upon the story simply continues. The only time this concept gets a nod is the Baker’s Wife’s “What am I doing here?…/ I’m in the wrong story!” before her death. It is not enough, and it is a wasted opportunity- or one that should have been left alone.

Stuart: One of my favorite moments is the Witch to the Narrator: “Some of us don’t like the way you’ve been telling it.” Possibly the best line in the play as it’s funny as hell, but also scary, and it highlights the tension between individuals in a society and the restrictions of that society. It reveals so much about the Witch but also comments on the mentality of most people who fit that archetype: justified in their position, perhaps, but unforgiving, vindictive, and usually proposing irrational solutions to that tension. It’s actually the Witch who finally throws the Narrator to the Giant, after the others have realized that isn’t the right thing to do. But that’s the problem with the Witch: it’s not that she isn’t technically right- it’s that she always takes it too far.

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And speaking of the Witch- she’s also “problematic”, isn’t she?

Stuart: Yes. And I say that as someone who loves the Witch. But there’s been a fair amount of ink in various articles over the years about how the role, which is really a supporting role, has unduly captured the audience imagination and this is often “blamed”, for lack of a better word, on a star, Bernadette Peters, having originally been cast in the role, thus elevating the stature of a character who is not meant to be the main character, and is also essentially missing from the last act of the play. Interestingly enough, a similar observation is often made about Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, who I think has a lot in common with the Witch. Both are outsiders, both have daughters they treat as possessions to be hidden from the world, and both have legitimate gripes against the people they perceive as the insiders, but the intelligence and moral high-ground of both are undone by this unforgiving, embittered world view that doesn’t allow for much mercy or compassion, let alone acceptance of or appeal to whatever good qualities the perceived insiders might have. They have both lost the ability to listen, most likely because they have never felt listened to themselves, and while they speak truths they are incomplete truths, or these kind of law of the jungle/final solution truths that aren’t going to work in a world where humans are social creatures and the lines between right and wrong are blurry. But we all sometimes want to be right more than we want to be like… open to the possibility of a plan B… and that is why I think the Witch is such a fascinating character regardless of who plays her.

Corinne: “Witches can be right/Giants can be good” is such an important lyric in the show because there isn’t a clear answer. That song, “No One Is Alone”, expresses one of the strongest themes in the show – the elusive nature of right and wrong and how people have to find an individual path to moral understanding (“you decide what’s right/you decide what’s good.”) and that path is not straight or clear.

Nick: The Witch is right insofar as we can be expected to subscribe to her rather cut-and-dry personal philosophy. To appease the Giants, we need to set aside our sentimentality and sacrifice the culpable Jacks. In other words, making the rational decision is always the most correct decision. But look what happens at the end of the musical – the Witch, advocate of the Rational Approach, alienates the others and ends up alone. The others band together, forced to face the more dire consequences of their more sentimental, albeit less rational decision to save Jack. But they are together, and through their combined efforts, they succeed. So yes, the Witch is right in a sense, but at the cost of companionship and human connection. And Giants can certainly be good. They can also be evil. Giants are people, too. Duh.

Marissa: Well, the Witch is pretty much a strict utilitarian. She argues that unless they give up Jack to the Giant, it will only cause more suffering. She also suggests that everyone is complicit in getting into this mess. Both of these things are factually true but the question of the show is whether they are morally true. If everyone’s complicit, shouldn’t everyone work to make amends? As for Giants… it’s interesting that Into the Woods kind of glosses over the fact that the Giant tries to eat Jack, which is normally such a huge part of that fairy tale. (Jack sings “Something bigger than her comes along the hall to swallow you for lunch,” but that’s just one line in the song, and despite almost getting chewed up, he still calls them “wonderful giants in the sky.”) If it weren’t for that, I’d say that the Giants really were decent creatures, at least to start out, and Jack is being a jerk when he steals the Giants’ treasure and arouses their anger. But if the giant threatened to eat him, eh, they’re both to blame.

Brian: Again, to quote the show (and Corinne): “You decide what’s right/You decide what’s good.”

Oren: Exactly, that’s the real point: whether or not the Witch is right is impossible to objectively determine, but regardless: she thinks she is. The giant also absolutely believes that she is good as well. Ultimately, all this absolute morality nonsense fades away pretty quickly in the face of real problems, and people have to figure it out for themselves.

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Well, and since we’re on the subject of “No One Is Alone”, that song probably gets the most discussion outside of the show. It’s been called both “sentimental” and “a flat out lie.” What do we think?

Brian: I do not believe it is a lie, nor is it overly sentimental. There is a theme of interconnectedness in much of Sondheim’s work; it is also a theme in Tony Kushner’s plays, my other favorite playwright of the late 20th century. Feeling desperately alone is an emotion, but not a reality. Even if one feels abandoned, Woods says you are connected to your ancestors, your community, and the place your soul holds in our collective consciousness.

Stuart: There is a similar theme in E. M. Forster’s work- and Forster is a major influence for me, and I suspect also for Lapine and Sondheim, as George’s repeated wish of “Connect George” has got to be an allusion to Forster’s mantra of “Only Connect.” I personally believe that the meaning of life is essentially learning how to live together in a way that celebrates our common humanity while still honoring our personal struggles and allowing for the pursuit of our personal definitions of happiness. That is a tall order and in my eyes thats why humans have been given free will and hope and all these other things- opposable thumbs- that is the stuff of fairy tales and myths and religion and philosophy and everything else that essentially boils down to us trying to make sense of it all, find the meaning, find that path, which is, yes, not always straight and clear, but there is a path. And to me that is what “No One Is Alone” is about, but I have often been accused of being sentimental and occasionally of being a liar.

Marissa: I think the problem with “No One Is Alone” is that it’s muddled. The title has a double meaning — it means both “You are not alone: I am singing this song to comfort you in this scary time” and “You are not alone: you are a member of society and anything you do can have repercussions and consequences.” The latter idea, that of communal responsibility, is the one that Sondheim and Lapine really want to focus on. But the former idea, being simpler and more sentimental, is the one that the audience tends to hear.

Corinne: But the song is not a lie. Of course, there are times when a person is alone, physically or on the side of a conflict, but that’s not what the song is about. No one exists in a void; our lives are all part of the greater human story. To interpret the lyric in a literal way misses the larger point. When we are faced with a moral dilemma or challenge, we must choose how to act. Though we may feel isolated or abandoned in these moments, we are not truly alone. The struggle to know what is right is part of the human condition.

Oren: Is it sentimental? Absolutely! Is it a lie? A more complicated question. Since the song is really a paean to grey areas disguised as a comforting ballad, I think the important thing to remember is that halfway through the song they sing “they [giants and witches] are not alone,” a further reminder that just because some people back you up, it doesn’t mean you’re right. Ultimately (and ironically, given that so much of this show undoes some of the bowdlerizing and simplification that many fairy tales received to make them more child-appropriate) this complicated moral lesson is dressed up to make it more palatable to the two young children being instructed.

Nick: I think the worst that can be said about “No One is Alone” is that it’s ever so slightly sentimental. But the message of this song is something I think is espoused by the whole musical – we are all interconnected, for better or worse. We don’t act in vacuums. Our actions and choices are both our own, yes, and also products of our memories and our connections with people, and have repercussions on others as well.

Will this discussion have repercussions? We hope so! Join us next Monday for part three and in the meantime, let us know what your answers to these questions are, or if you’ve got questions of your own you’d like to ask us!

Theater Around The Bay: Once Upon A Time…

Today is the first of our five (including last week’s prologue) part panel discussion of INTO THE WOODS, which is about to become a major film release from Disney Studios, but if you’re a regular follower of this blog, you probably don’t need to be told it’s also a seminal Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine that has spawned countless remounts across the world, acres of commentary and discussion, and launched more than one career. While we wouldn’t say it’s the “Great American Musical”, it’s certainly a great American musical, hugely influential, hugely popular, and just a touch controversial. We’ll use today to introduce our panelists and get to know them better, before diving into some deeper exploration of these enchanting, but treacherous, woods.

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Okay everybody. Imagine it’s like… AA for INTO THE WOODS addicts. Tell us who you are, and why you’re here.

Corinne: Hi! I am Corinne Proctor. I’m an actor, dialect coach and dramaturge. I’ve performed in Into the Woods twice, most recently as Little Red in San Francisco Playhouse’s production this past summer. I also played the Witch in a community theatre production in Maryland about 10 years ago. I may have just come out of the woods a few months ago, but I am raring to go back in again. This show has so much going on, it’s always a joy to be dissecting it.

Stuart: Howdy! I’m Stuart Bousel. I am a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub, which means I run this blog, amongst other things. I’m also the Artistic Director of No Nude Men Productions, the Executive Producer of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, a resident artist/social media manager/hospitality coordinator at the EXIT Theatre, and a freelance playwright, director, and occasional actor. I saw the original Broadway production of Into the Woods twice, including the final performance, and I’ve seen it three times since. It was the second Broadway show I ever saw and I consider it, and Sondheim, a major influence on my life and work as a theater maker.

Brian: Hello, I’m Brian Katz, Artistic Director of Custom Made Theatre Company. I’ve been obsessed with Sondheim since the early 90s, and have directed Assassins (twice), Merrily We Roll Along, and Putting it Together. This could have been about any Sondheim show, and I would have been happy to engage in a discussion. I am also very interested in musical theatre as an art form, because it is often dismissed en masse. I think it is just as important to be engaged with its masterpieces with the same intellectual fervor as, say, Shakespeare’s. Sondheim’s musical plays are the best we have.

Oren: Hey, I’m Oren Stevens. I’m a director/playwright, and the Production Coordinator and Artistic Associate at Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Company. I’m a huge fairy tale buff, and have used inspiration from them in both writing and directing projects; most recently I mashed up the stories of Baba Yaga, Cinderella, and Snow White in my new play Hungry/Happy. Full disclosure: I played the Baker in a production of Into the Woods in high school. It was set in a Wal-Mart. I will never bring it up again.

Marissa: Hi, I’m Marissa Skudlarek, playwright and SF Theater Pub columnist. I’ve been a huge Sondheim fan ever since I first saw Into the Woods at the age of 12 (the title of my SF Theater Pub column is a reference to A Little Night Music). In my junior year of college, I took a course on fairy tales and played Cinderella’s stepsister Lucinda in the drama department’s production of Into the Woods.

Nick: Oh, hello there! Perhaps you’ve heard of me? Nick Trengove, acclaimed local Bay Area actor and man-about-town. ITW holds a very special place in my heart — I directed a production of the show at UC Berkeley on a shoe-string budget. It was essentially the last thing I did as a student there. Aside from graduate. In any event, it was the last thing I did there that held any sort of significance for me.

Nick aside, it sounds like everyone is a pretty die hard Sondheim fan, and clearly when we talk about this show, we have to talk about Sondheim, especially as INTO THE WOODS is a bit of a standout in his career. So where does INTO THE WOODS rank in your personal “Best of/Favorite” Sondheim list?

Oren: This is always a painful question to answer — with most of Sondheim’s musicals I feel like I’m being asked to rank my children, and then with the rest I think to myself “Oh yeah… that one.” Company is, hands down, my favorite Sondheim show, and it’s completely because I think “Marry Me a Little” and “Being Alive” are such phenomenal songs, and between the two of them such a flawless summary of the show. Follies also occupies a very special place in my heart; besides the breathtakingly beautiful music, the aggressive and overwhelming nostalgia is so fully realized in every aspect of the show that at the end I’m an emotionally destroyed husk of a person in the best possible way. I can’t rank the others without ripping my soul into little pieces, but I will say that Into the Woods is definitely one that I love. If you want to point fingers at me for being safely non-committal, go ahead! You’re right.

Marissa: Into the Woods will always have a special place in my heart because it’s the first Sondheim show I saw and loved. I don’t think it’s my all-time favorite, though. A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park with George move me more deeply. Sweeney Todd is flat-out brilliant and hard to mess up. I even have days where I think that Follies has the best set of lyrics ever written for the American musical theater. I guess I tend to lump Woods together with Company in my personal Sondheim ranking. Both of them are among the first Sondheim shows I loved; both have incredibly strong scores; both have about equal numbers of male and female roles, but the women are more interesting; both expertly depict neurosis and indecision in song; and both of them generally work when the production is thoughtful, but are not 100% foolproof.

Stuart: Well, I’m going to part company (get it?) with you on the idea that the women in Company or Into The Woods are more interesting than the men (nobody in Company is more interesting than Robert, and the Baker and the Princes are, to me, of equitable interest to the women in Woods), but otherwise I’m more or less on the same page that Sweeney Todd is unquestionably brilliant, as is A Little Night Music– both to me are perfect shows, and are tied for first place in the “Best Sondheim show” category. Both are also in my top ten musicals of all time. Probably top five. Woods comes second, Company a close third. That said, I think Follies is probably “The Great American Musical” if there is such a thing, and I will always, always, love Passion. That’s actually the one I’d most want to direct at some point in my life. And my favorite Sondheim song, ever, is “Someone In A Tree” from Pacific Overtures.

Corinne: Into the Woods is also solidly in second place for me, (with Sweeney Todd taking first.) Disclaimers: I am not familiar with every single work of Sondheim. Also, I do not think of Gypsy or West Side Story as “Sondheim Shows”, even though Sondheim worked on them. Is that weird? If I have to count WSS and Gypsy then I guess Woods will come in 4th.

Nick: Oh, it’s definitely first for me. As I see it, Woods watches, sagely aloof, from its pedestal while Company and Sweeney Todd duke it out for second and third place. Somewhere, far far down on the pecking order, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Assassins wonder what it’s like to be as good as Into the Woods. They wonder and dream.

Brian: For me, top five, but never above number three.  Sunday in the Park with George and Follies fight for that top spot. Both those musicals have aged well with me, while Woods was more relevant in earlier decades. This is probably more about the type of story it is, rather than its quality. I was more into the hero’s journey as a teen, and I discovered Woods when other stories like this were my favorites, from Lord of the Rings to Siddhartha. In one’s teens and 20s, the path ahead is everything. When one reaches middle-age, looking forward is part of the process, but so is sustaining what one has, and passing along some kind of legacy. Those themes are more prevalent in Sunday and Follies.

Huh. Notice how nobody has mentioned “Anyone Can Whistle?”

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Stepping away from Sondheim for a moment, what are your thoughts on James Lapine, his collaborator, who wrote the script of the show and also directed the original production- still for many, the definitive version of INTO THE WOODS?

Nick: Oh Lapine is also a genius. Sunday in the Park with George, am I right? No, but seriously, I credit Lapine with really honing in on the psychology of these characters, lifting them out of their two-dimensional fairy tale origins and granting them each an interesting and relatable complexity.

Marissa: Yes, I love the characterization of Little Red as brash and bloodthirsty. I love “I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” which is one of the funniest lines in the show and yet gets at something very real (the thin line between smarm and charm) about life and the character. I love that the book of the show occasionally has these moments of winking at, or mocking, fairy tale tropes; but that, for the most part, it is sincere and the characters are fleshed out, rather than treated like cartoons.

Oren: What’s brilliant about the book is how effortless it is. I think it often gets overlooked because it glides by so smoothly, and when there’s about a hundred characters who are all on different missions, whose paths are crisscrossing constantly, that effortlessness is an insane achievement. In some ways, each scene feels very discrete — Jack and the Mysterious Man have an altercation, then both exit and the Baker and the Witch argue — but the reality is each scene feeds into the next flawlessly. People are watching each other, interrupting each other, hiding from each other (sometimes poorly) and the result is that you never for a moment think “I can relax, we’re between scenes.” The audience never checks out that way. As both a playwright and a director, I find this elegant seamlessness enviable. And not for nothing, it feeds into the music, too. Very rarely do you have a moment where you think “oh, a song is starting!” The music is constant enough, and the line between scene and song blurred enough, that everything flows together.

Brian: See, but that is partly why I maintain that no one really knows the entirety of Lapine’s contribution. Sondheim steals mercilessly from his book writers, and the sparser the book, the more you can bet he stole. That said, there are beautiful moments in act two that make the journey worthwhile, especially leading up to “No One is Alone.” The dialogue always seems well placed, the one-liners are hard to mess up, and he is invisible when it is called for. I’m also a huge defender of Goldman’s original book of Follies, which is also minimalistic, poetic, and deceptively simple.

Stuart: The flow between dialogue and song which is so effortless in Into The Woods is also part of what I love so much about Passion, another Lapine/Sondheim collaboration, which feels like a fever dream, if done right, and largely because the blurred line between line and lyric supports the blurred lines between passion and obsession which is the core of that story. I agree with Brian that Sondheim steals so much from his book writers that it makes it hard to tell, in some places, who is contributing what, but I also agree with Oren that Lapine is undeniably good at building a complex and byzantine network of plot and characters, which doesn’t always happen in Sondheim’s works, while it’s safe to say it pretty much always happens in Lapine’s to one degree or another, though this may be as much his contribution as director as it is writer (his film Impromptu, by the way, is an excellent non-musical, non-authored example of this). I will say this: I was much less worried about the film of Woods when I heard Lapine was writing the screenplay.

Corinne: The book has some shortcomings, and the score is so brilliant that it’s easy to see why it’s overlooked, but that said, it does the job of expanding on the story being told by the songs very well. There’s more meaningful repetition and connections than stand out in the first few readings and viewings- always a good sign. The script, like the score, is full of questions — which is so fitting for a show about people grappling with rights and wrongs. (FUN FACT: There are 420 questions in the show including questions asked in song. Trust me, I asked a computer.)

So, considering the songs are the bulk and thrust of the show, we gotta know: what’s your favorite?

Nick: “Moments in the Woods,” for so many reasons. Like any great Sondheim song, it’s a challenge for both the actor and the vocalist. Also, like most of the Sondheim greats, the important discoveries the character makes happen within the song. And when it’s done right (see Joanna Gleason), it really encapsulates a lot of what this musical is about – the tension between the fantasy of the lives we want to live and the reality of the choices and compromises we have to make. And that recognizing that having a choice and making it lends significance to our lives, even if it means we aren’t living our perfection. See? I told you. For so many reasons. Someone stop me.

Corinne: I actually really love another of the Baker’s Wife’s songs: “Maybe They’re Magic”. It’s so short and quick but so perfect. It tells us so much about who she is all while diving headfirst into core theme ideas about how right and wrong aren’t as clearly defined as fairy tales lead us to believe.

Marissa: “It Takes Two.” It’s almost a cliche to have a charming, witty, mid-tempo song that comes halfway through the first act and ends an argument or brings a couple closer together. Sondheim is fully aware of the cliche, so this song, while charming, is also a little bit knowing and ironic, which suits the characters of the Baker and his Wife. The title is generic but the melody is slightly odd and unexpected. And the lyrics are brilliant. “It takes trust / It takes just / A bit more / And we’re done / We want four / We had none / We got three / We need one / It takes two” — that’s nine lines, 27 syllables, seven rhymes, a recapitulation of the plot up to that point, and a pun on the song’s title. Sondheim, you take my breath away.

Brian: “No More.” It kills me. I don’t care how good or bad the production is, I’m going to be weeping like a baby when we get to: “No more giants waging war!/
Can’t we just pursue our lives/With our children and our wives/
’Til that happy day arrives/How do you ignore/
All the witches?/All the curses?
/All the wolves, all the lies/The false hopes, the good-bye’s/
The reverses/
All the wondering what even worse/Is still in store!
” Of course, it is important to remember that the Baker, who sings this, has just lost his wife, and that the actions he took on his journey led, more or less, to her death. There’s simplicity in the sentiment that gets to me. Into the Woods explores the theme of getting what you want, which is what you think you need. But at the end of the deceptively happy first act, only the evil stepmother and her daughters (and okay, Rapunzel, but more on that later) have learned the lesson. In the second act, character after character suffer the consequences of their paths, until the Baker is left with the child he thought he needed, but without the only person he truly cared about. The song makes us reexamine everything we thought we knew about the show. In act one, we want the “curse reversed,” for heaven’s sake – the Baker and his wife can’t have a child! In act two, we want them to defend their home by any means necessary. Over two hours into the story, we are forced to question the central journey of the play, just as we thought we knew the answers.

Oren: I always root for the underdog, so: there’s a song in the first act that usually doesn’t make it into the show. It’s called “Our Little World” and it serves as an introduction to the relationship between Rapunzel and the Witch (spoiler alert: it’s a weird relationship). It usually gets cut because… let’s just say it’s not the best one Sondheim ever wrote, but nonetheless I love it for two reasons. First, the monotony of Rapunzel’s existence is beautifully mirrored in the repetitiveness of the song. Secondly, because the Witch/Rapunzel relationship becomes very important later in the play, and this is the best introduction we get to it when everything is good. Here’s a real spoiler alert: it also drops a few hints as to why the Witch wants the curse broken, and why she would accuse Rapunzel of being biased against her ugliness — Rapunzel herself says it in this song. So, storytelling opportunities in both text and music, as well as its underdog status, make “Our Little World” one of my favorite songs ever written (objective quality be damned).

Stuart: Okay, so my favorite song, like Oren’s, is a bit of an underdog: “He’s A Very Nice Prince.” In particular, I like the full version, found on the Original Broadway Cast Recording, but usually trimmed out for stage productions. To me, this is where the show really starts to work its mojo, because you have a moment where the heroines of two separate stories, Cinderella and the Baker’s Wife, sit down and reflect on everything- and this is before the Wife realizes Cinderella has the shoe she needs. For a moment they are just people, connecting in the woods the way random people connect in life, and over the course of the song they sort of switch places: at the beginning Cinderella seems like this lost child and the Wife is this much more worldly person, but by the end of the song we see that the Wife is full of unrealized childish dreams, and Cinderella is already realizing not every dream is all it’s cracked up to be. There’s just a real poetry and nuance to the song and the character interaction that breaks my heart.

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So, considering how character driven the songs are, we have to ask: who is your favorite character?

Stuart: I’m going to use this moment to make a plug for Rapunzel and Rapunzel’s Prince. Secondary and supporting characters often really fascinate me in any show, but to me, these two in particular are both very innocent, and the show is just brutal to them. They’re not particularly well developed (I consider this a weakness of the show, actually), but what little hints we are given draws two very idealistic people who rush, like most young people do, into a situation that at first is a fairy tale and then turns out to be a total nightmare: she’s a broken, devastated person who can not exist in the real world and he is utterly ill-equipped to deal with her despite his best intentions. Rapunzel is often dismissed as kind of dumb, but she’s not: she’s had no experience of the real world, that’s been denied her, and her outlook is one of a prisoner who is brave enough to look outside her prison- she’s optimistic, not dumb. And when the world turns out to be the world, like many optimists she is crushed, but her inability to forgive the world, her mother, her prince, results in her refusal to grow and ultimately she is physically crushed as well as spiritually crushed. Rapunzel’s Prince is often lumped in with Cinderella’s Prince and therefore dismissed as a cad (for the record- I hate when some directors have him ALSO play a Wolf, as it dismisses the character to make a banal, cliche statement about young men), but there are many hints throughout the show that he’s actually a pretty good guy- shy, self-deprecating- and unlike his brother he suffers for his love- he’s blinded and wanders for two years looking for Rapunzel! When Rapunzel turns out to be a nightmare, he plays at being a cad but it’s so half-hearted: a mere dwarf deters him from Snow White when a Witch couldn’t deter him from Rapunzel. When Rapunzel died in the Broadway production, a moment that always stuck with me was Chuck Wagner’s look of grief and utter helplessness, and Rapunzel’s prince vanishes from the show after that until the end. I always fancied he basically banishes himself for being less than the hero his competitiveness with his brother lead him to believe he had to be, and that when he once again stumbles across Snow White, his decision to kiss her is really his goodbye to Rapunzel- after all, when he kisses he thinks she’s unwake-able/dead, so his only motive would have to be personal. Anyway, if there is one thing I’d do with a production of Into the Woods, it would be to fully realize the potential of these characters. To me, they epitomize the shattered idealism theme of the show, and that’s a storyline I find very poignant in anything, because I am an idealist. So is Cinderella, but more on that later.

Marissa: I’m going to say the Baker’s Wife, just because currently, I have the most unanswered questions and unresolved feelings about her. If I typically find it annoying and retrograde when female characters just want to have a baby, why do I like the Baker’s Wife? Maybe it’s because she’s shrewd and funny, strong and active. Maybe it’s because having a baby is a mutual goal for both her and her husband, and he seems like a pretty hands-on dad. Maybe it’s because he acknowledges that he needs her and he couldn’t have accomplished his quest without her help — but then does that edge dangerously close to the patriarchal trope of the incompetent husband with a smart, endlessly forgiving wife? And then, when the Baker’s Wife gets killed right after having sex with the Prince, is it the equivalent of the sexist horror-movie trope where the slutty girls get killed and the virginal ones survive? And then, does the answer to that affect how seriously we’re meant to take her epiphany in “Moments in the Woods”? I don’t know. But I like characters who make me wonder.

Brian:The Baker’s Wife. Smart, funny, passionate, generally a truth-teller, and truly the hero of the first act, and the central tragedy in the second.

Corinne: I love the Baker’s wife for her relentlessness pursuit of what she wants, her strength and her cleverness. She also has a wonderfully interesting personal journey. If I were to do the show a third time, hers is the role I would most want to play.

Nick: Baker’s Wife, obviously. For the long answer, see my thoughts on my favorite song. For the short answer, she has the most interesting character arc in a show full of interesting character arcs.

Oren: I could spend hours looking at characters and trying to pick a favorite I don’t think anyone else would say, but fuck it: the Witch. She’s a popular favorite, and not just because she has all the best songs. The utilitarianism that lets her try to sacrifice Jack seems psychopathic, but ultimately she’s the most exciting character because she’s the most free — she is completely uninhibited by social mores. The only reason we find it unsettling is because one of those mores is putting a high premium on human life. I’m not saying sacrificing Jack is the right thing to do (I’m not disagreeing with it either — it’s a complicated question), but when something is based on fairy tales, then it has to take opportunities to push, prod, and refocus the way we think. If someone’s going to talk about murder, let them be convincing, let them seem clearheaded and intelligent and make everyone around them seem like emotional, foolish, goody-goodies who can’t get anything done. She is the starkest reminder that in the real world, right and wrong are messy.

Well, and because Western psychology, Freud and Jung’s archetypes, etc. is very much at the heart of INTO THE WOODS- now who is the character you RELATE to the most?

Nick: Still the Baker’s Wife. Maybe it’s a function of being young or whatever, but I’m still obsessed with trying to live a meaningful life, with reconciling what I want my life to be with what it is becoming.

Oren: I would have given a very different answer in High School, but I’m going to also have to go with the Baker’s Wife. She’s pragmatic, but still emotionally driven and passionate. She doesn’t take no for an answer, and can recognize when the people around her are being ridiculous. At the same time, she’s able to step back and analyze (sometimes over-analyze) her own actions. Her willingness to lie to Jack to get his cow is the gentler, more human, less psychopathic version of the Witch’s willingness to sacrifice him (and while I probably wouldn’t throw anyone to the giant, I do appreciate a do-what-you-gotta-do mentality). She’s also easily distracted by fantasies of an alternate life (“Very Nice Prince” and “Any Moment” — I’m lookin’ at you). Regardless of whether or not I actually have any of these qualities, I certainly identify with them in her.

Brian: The Baker. I think most of us want to be like the Baker’s Wife, but truly we are the Baker. We think we’re the hero, but really we’re making a lot of errors, bumbling along, trying to do the right thing, and making a heck of a mess.

Corinne: The Witch. While I picked the Baker’s Wife as my favorite, most of the traits I love her for are ones I wish I had. I’ve always identified with the Witch (maybe even more so when I played her at 18 than I do now) because I have so often found myself on the outside of groups of people I don’t feel I can really connect with. It’s also not unusual for me to be the once voicing the unpopular or opposing opinion. I identify with her sass and her ability to criticize/call others out without remorse. (Hey, I’m not good, I’m not nice – I’m just right. 😛 )

Marissa: I’m not sure if I currently identify with one Into the Woods character above all others, because frankly, nothing can compare with how deeply I identified with the Witch as a high-school freshman. I’d gone to a new school that year and not found it welcoming, and I very much felt like an outsider. To avoid feeling sad and lonely, I decided that I was actually misunderstood, that I was better than everybody and they’d be sorry one day. I remember walking around campus, cultivating my resentment while singing “Last Midnight” under my breath; “I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right” felt like my credo. What I ignored, of course, is that at the end of that song, the Witch self-destructs. And that’s what I did that year, too. I felt angry, self-righteous, and invincible — and, in an attempt to make friends, I did something incredibly stupid and hurtful that backfired, big time. It’s dangerous to identify with the Witch.

Stuart: Cinderella. In fact, I would maintain that part of the reason why I’ve always loved this show, and why it made such a huge impression on me, is because Cinderella was probably the first character in a play I really, truly related to. I had related to characters in books before, but at 10, when I saw Into the Woods, I hadn’t yet seen a play where a character just made sense to me. And as I’ve gotten older- she makes more and more sense to me. Like Rapunzel, who is her doppleganger in the play, Cinderella wants something that isn’t material, but rather spiritual: she wants an experience, one she believes will transform her and allow her to finally feel like she belongs to somewhere. Then she has the experience and it’s not what she thought it would be, and comes with more than she bargained for. Her line in Act One, “Wanting a ball is not wanting a prince” nails that, and killed me the first time I heard it, I was like, “I know exactly what you mean.” Unlike Rapunzel, Cinderella is disillusioned but never stops learning while also never ceasing to believe in a benevolent world, and it’s her ability to live somewhere in-between “the nightmare” of her father’s house and the “dream” of the Prince’s castle, that ultimately becomes her strength: she, more than any of them, discovers that she can live in the woods. She’s learned to speak with birds and the spirits of the dead, she knows when to run and when to stand and fight, and she protects the people around her- whether it’s Jack, Little Red, or the Baker’s child- and believes in them even when they fail- she’s the one who welcomes the Baker back after he abandons them. Her journey in the play is about learning to be a good parent, someone who is neither the vague but purely supportive dead woman in a tree, nor the nasty wicked stepmother, nor the opportunistic survivor Wife, nor the overbearing and un-compassionate witch. She’s a high self-monitor, and thus often worries, even when she’s sitting on a throne or wearing a crown- that she’s an imposter or a failure (something I constantly worry about, especially when I’m sitting on my throne or wearing my crown), but in the end she wants to be more than a survivor and she comes to understand that entails being a leader and looking for ways to help, to protect, to forgive and to create. I’ve always read the relief with which she accepts the Baker’s invitation to move in (“Sometimes, I really enjoy cleaning”) as a combination of finally being included and appreciated, but also having finally found something she can truly contribute to. Her “I wish” that closes out the play I have always seen as a note of hopefulness, a recognition that we never stop believing in dreams until we’re dead. I have personally always believed that hope is the best within us and imagination is what keeps us alive and Cinderella epitomizes that while also being a neurotic mess on the inside. “An imaginative, hopeful, neurotic mess” is pretty much the most accurate description of myself that I can come up with.

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Join us next week as we dive deeper into the structure and themes of the show, talk about what it means and how it works. Meantime, how would you answer these questions? Sound off in the comments section! Have questions for us- post them there!