Theater Around The Bay: PianoFight expands ​Pint Size​d Plays, San Francisco’s only theater-in-a-bar festival, to five new shows in 2017!

A special announcement, just in time for the holidays! 

rob-ready-llama

PianoFight and San Francisco Theater Pub are proud to announce the latter’s marquee production, the venerable Pint Sized Plays, will return in 2017 with five all-new installments running throughout the year. Pint Sized Plays is made up of short plays set in a bar, written by locals. The only rule is that each play can’t run longer than it takes one of its characters to finish a beer. Pint Sized will happen in the PianoFight bar on Mondays at 7:30 PM in March, May, August, October and December, 2017. Tickets range from free to $30 donation, and can be reserved at www.pianofight.com.

As SF Theater Pub closes its doors this December, PianoFight will take over production and expand Pint Sized while keeping a few key ingredients of continuity. Meghan Trowbridge, who is currently the co-Artistic Director of Theater Pub, will continue with the new incarnation of Pint Sized as its Literary Director. “We’re accepting submissions right now and throughout the year,” says Trowbridge, who expects to see many of the voices that shaped Pint Sized return, but is also excited to find new talent. “This is a great opportunity for seasoned writers and brand-new voices. All are welcome and encouraged to submit!”

“Over the years, PianoFight Creative Company members, myself included, have been involved in past Pint Sized productions as actors, writers, directors, and musicians,” says PianoFight Artistic Director, Rob Ready. “On top of that, accessibility is important to us, and free theater in a bar is the single most accessible way you can see a play. SF Theater Pub’s tagline was, ‘Make it Good. Keep it Casual. Have a Beer.’ And we intend to keep that idea alive and flourishing.”

The first annual Pint Sized Plays took place at the Café Royale in August of 2010, and included short plays by numerous well-known folks in the Bay Area theater scene, including Stuart Bousel, Bennett Fisher, Jeremy Cole, Molly Benson, Karen Offereins, Marissa Skudlarek, and Megan Cohen. It also marked the first appearance of the Llama character, created by Elena McKernan and played by Rob Ready, who holds the distinction of being the only cast member to have appeared in all six installments.

Pint Sized’s expanded production schedule represents more opportunities for Bay Area residents to get involved in the arts in a fun, low-stakes environment. “The five installments could need around 40 different writers and directors, and will likely involve over a hundred actors,” says Ready. “We hope to fill these roles with voices who are new to the PianoFight community, and new to the Bay Area theater community.”

In years to come, PianoFight hopes to expand Pint Sized further to have an all new lineup run each month in the bar. “Pint Sized was one of the Theater Pub shows that toured to other bars, and it always did well in different settings,” says Ready, “so in the next few years, ideally, there is a new lineup every month at PianoFight, while different renditions of the show play other bars in the Bay Area.”

For now, Pint Sized Plays will return in 2017 with all-new installments happening in the bar at PianoFight, 144 Taylor St in San Francisco, every Monday at 7:30 PM in March, May, August, October and December. Tickets are free to $30 and can be reserved at www.pianofight.com. Bay Area writers wishing to submit a script to Pint Sized should refer to the full guidelines on PianoFight’s site.

Theater Around The Bay: Get Ready For Better Than Television!

Our next show, Better Than Television, is going to turn your world upside down! Before the adventure begins, we figured it was time to check in with regular TP contributor, Megan Cohen, who is the brains behind this crazy new show!

TP: Megan Cohen- you’re back again! What keeps you coming back to Theater Pub?

MC: Every mad scientist needs a lab.

TP: Every show you do is different, but how is this show particularly unique?

MC: As a swirling “live channel” programmed with serial shows and commercials, Better Than Television is bigger AND smaller than anything I’ve done at Pub. The plays are tiny; micro-episodes of just a few minutes each, for short attention spans. The evening is huge, with lots of characters, genres, theme songs, commercials. I’ve got about 25 artists on the team: writers, actors, musicians. That’s a lot of talent for a free show in a bar.

TP: Explain your process behind this one- there was some kind of writing party?

MC: Over a weekend, 17 writers came to my house. We drank 2 flats of Diet Coke, I made 16 pizzas, and between us all, on that Saturday and Sunday we wrote 59 brand new micro-plays. We created the soap opera All My Feels, the sci-fi adventure Space Bitch, and everything else you’ll see onstage.

Megan Cohen is sort of like what would happen if Orson Welles had a better childhood.

Megan Cohen is sort of like what would happen if Orson Welles had a better childhood.

I love to do things myself; I’ll write a whole show and mix the soundtrack and make the props with a glue gun; heck, as a performance artist, I’m working on a 12-hour durational solo show right now. I love doing things myself, but I wanted Better Than Television to be about teamwork, friendship, and celebrating the incredible wealth of talent in our community. I built a structure, gave some prompts, gave a format, and then the crew of writers really made the episodes and commercials their own! A fabulous array of voices. I am surprised, thrilled, delighted, and definitely entertained by what people wrote in this format, and I hope you will be too.

TP: What is it about television that makes it a suitable topic for its perceived nemesis- The Theater?

MC: I’m part of The Broadcast Television Generation. The generation before me didn’t have TV on all the time in the house growing up, and the generation after me has everything online and on-demand, where they can curate it themselves. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, tuning in for “Nick at Night” and “TGIF,” at the blissful mercy of a machine that fed me dreams on its own schedule. Going to theater is not so different from trusting a Broadcast Network. You show up, and it takes you somewhere you didn’t know you wanted to go. You just stay tuned. I think we all need that. We all make a lot of decisions every day, and sometimes you want to relax and let someone you trust take the reins. That’s what I’m planning for these shows to do. People want to be entertained, and I think they want to be a bit surprised.

TP: So, ideally someone comes to all four nights of this, yes?

MC: Better Than Television is a different show each night! New episodes of each micro-serial, a rotating cast of actors, twists and turns all the time; I hope that if you come once, you’ll get hooked, and will want to come back and see what happens next. If you get addicted to the channel and binge-watch the whole 4-night series, you’ll have a lot of fun. More fun than a cat in a banana.

This is the second-most-fun thing in the world.

This is the second-most-fun thing in the world.

TP: And what if someone can only come one night? How does it change their experience?

MC: Each night stands alone. If you tune in with us at Theater Pub for one night, you won’t see the complete run of any series, but you will see enough episodes of each micro-show to get the gist, so you can fall in love briefly with the characters and the story. Especially Space Bitch. Everyone loves Space Bitch.

TP: If you could work on any real-life TV show, what it would be and what would you bring to the table?

MC: Any TV show ever? Deadwood. Any current TV show? Orphan Black. What would I bring to the table? Wit, courage, small pores, and the chops I’ve built in an energetic and dedicated writing career where, at age 32, I’ve shared almost 100 of my scripts with audiences around the world.

TP: What if a network approached you and said, “Anything you want?” What does your ideal TV show look like?

MC: It’s kind of a Deadwood-meets-Orphan-Black mashup in a comic vein with a supernatural slant, where everyone in a small frontier town is played by the ghost of Madeline Khan.

(For real, though, if anyone wants to rep me, I can send you an hour-long TV pilot that’s not that.)

TP: Any shout outs for other stuff going on in the community?

MC: Along with Theater Pub, KML and Faultline are 2 resident companies at PianoFight that are having strong seasons this year, with lots of good artists involved. See them, see everything, see Theater Pub every month. See anything by any of the artists who are part of making Better Than Television: Paul Anderson, Scott Baker, Sam Bertken, Stuart Bousel, Jeremy Cole, Barry Eitel, Valerie Fachman, Fenner Fenner, Danielle Gray, Kenneth Heaton, Paul Jennings, Colin Johnson, Dan Kurtz, Rebecca Longworth, Carl Lucania, Becky Raeta, Samantha Ricci, Cassie Rosenbrock, Heather Shaw, Jeunee Simon, Marissa Skudlarek, Peter Townley, Steven Westdahl, Indiia Wilmott, Marlene Yarosh, wow that’s a mouthful. Keep an eye on those people. Also, of course you should see everything that I personally am doing everywhere always.

TP: What’s next for you?

MC: On the closing day of this show, I’m heading for the “Ground Floor” new works program at Berkeley Rep. We’re doing some development there on my new full-length play Truest. It’s about a pair of sisters who love and fight each other, kind of a Thelma-and-Louise-meets-Sam-Shepard vibe. For news on that and other projects, keep in touch with me on Twitter: @WayBetterThanTV or on my website www.MeganCohen.com.

Better than Television starts on June 20 and plays through June 28, only at San Francisco Theater Pub! 

Working Title: Keeping it Short

This week Will Leschber talks Shorts Upsets and Shortlived with Jeremy Cole.

I know what you all are thinking. It’s egregious what happened at the Oscars on Sunday night. Am I right!? I keep hearing about it. Obviously, the biggest upset at this year’s Oscars was not the issues of diversity, or Lady Gaga not winning for Best Song after her amazing performance, or even the underdog Best Picture win for Spotlight. It’s so clear. Anyone who participated in an Oscar pool knows the biggest upset, the real dark horse, the office Oscar pool villain was… the short films!

I hear what you are saying… “But, Will, everyone I know saw the best documentary short films! How could no one predict the winner!” I don’t know dear audience. I don’t know. All I know is, I was 9 for 9 halfway through the night when the animated, live action, and doc shorts ruined everything! Dammit all, Oscar pool. Whyyyy?! (Now give me a second while I remove this tongue from my cheek.)

Meanwhile, our friends at PianoFight are gearing up for the next edition of ShortLived. It’s exactly like the Oscars, except not at all, and you, the audience, get to vote! Jeremy Cole wrote a piece in the competition this year, so of course, I had to pick his brain about what film pairing may help get one in the mood for his short play. Here’s what he had to say:

My short piece is about a couple meeting at a bar but their thoughts are told to the audience by two translator characters, one for him, one for her. It’s one of those horrific really awkward pick up situations. [My paired movie recommendation is] Casablanca. Casablanca is actually quoted in the show and is what ends up sealing the deal. While my main story is the standard meet cute thing, the translators subvert it pretty thoroughly.

Well said, Jeremy. I’m sure we can all relate to a horrifically awkward first date. Casablanca‘s ill-fated lovers had the unfortunate circumstance to fall in love in the middle of a war. But they didn’t have proper love translators! The two characters of Jeremy’s short play may fare romantically better than Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Don’t worry. Seeing ShortLived may be the start of a beautiful friendship between you and short plays.

Forget the Oscar pool. (Nobody had Ex Machina  for Visual Effects…geez). But seeing a great short play competition is within your grasp. Barreling towards winner-take-all entertainment, PianoFight’s Short Lived opens this Thursday, March 3rd, and runs for six weeks. Out of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, you should walk into PianoFight and enjoy Short Lived. More details can be found on facebook, https://www.facebook.com/events/537652233075789/ or on Pianofight.com.

Lastly, even though the Oscar shorts lost you your precious $10 buy-in, they are still worthy of your time too. They can be found on iTunes, on Demand, and various corners of the internet.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: A Monologue of One’s Own

Marissa Skudlarek, acting sensation.

After The Desk Set closed two weeks ago, I was pretty sure that my summer-of-2015 flirtation with being an actor had ended. I truly enjoyed the experience of acting in a play again after seven years, but I wasn’t sure where to go next. I’m well aware that there are more talented 20-something female actors in the Bay Area than there are roles for them, and, as I wrote in a comment to Ashley Cowan’s post on the same subject, I am philosophically opposed to audition monologues.

Well, never say never, I guess. A week ago, I opened up my inbox to find an email from playwright Jeremy Cole, saying that the actress who was originally supposed to perform his piece in the “Repro Rights – Women @ Risk” theatrical benefit had unfortunately had to drop out. Would I be interested in replacing her in the role of Virginia Woolf, delivering a monologue called “A Womb of One’s Own”?

I’m always up for a challenge and I know how much of a headache it is to lose an actor a week before the show, so I said yes. Wow! To go from playing a Marilyn Monroe-esque sexy secretary in The Desk Set to playing a Bloomsbury bluestocking of famously formidable intelligence… well, no one could say I was being typecast, that’s for sure. It was a nice reminder of the reasons so many people go into acting in the first place: to be able to take on roles that are very different from one another and from their real-life personalities.

Furthermore, because I am a good deal younger than the actress who was originally cast in the role, it’s a nice reminder of theater’s flexibility, how the same role can be played by different types of people. One does tend to think of Virginia Woolf as a middle-aged woman (perhaps because she published most of her best-known works when she was in her 40s) but why can’t she be played by someone younger? I started to research the twentysomething Virginia Woolf and even to identify with her. In 1909 (when Woolf was 27, and unmarried, and still named Virginia Stephen), Lytton Strachey wrote to Leonard Woolf: “You must marry Virginia. She’s sitting waiting for you, is there any objection? She’s the only woman in the world with sufficient brains, it’s a miracle that she should exist; but if you’re not careful you’ll lose the opportunity…She’s young, wild, inquisitive, discontented, and longing to be in love.” I would be thrilled if someone wrote such words about me.

Communing with Virginia.

Communing with Virginia.

But each new role brings challenges. If my role in The Desk Set was about becoming confident with my physicality and sexuality onstage, this role is about becoming comfortable with doing a monologue, a one-woman show. Never before has anyone asked me to fill eight minutes of stage time all by myself, and that can feel daunting. My role in The Desk Set was quite small — I think I had 10 lines, meaning that when my scene partner and I accidentally dropped a line on opening night, I later teased him about making me mess up “10% of my role.” With “A Womb of One’s Own,” it’s just me out there — and I’m opening the show!

My opposition to audition monologues mainly comes from the awkwardness of being asked to deliver a speech to the empty air, whereas if you were actually performing that monologue in a play, you’d most likely be speaking to another actor onstage. Fortunately, “A Womb of One’s Own” is written as though Virginia Woolf is giving a lecture at a college, which relieves much of that awkwardness. Instead, the challenge is to be more than just a “talking head.” The words of the monologue, and the point the Woolf character makes about women’s bodily autonomy, are very important, but I have to remember that this is a play, it isn’t an actual lecture. As such, I have to act the text rather than merely speaking it. This isn’t always easy. There are still moments where I’m not sure what to do with my hands.

I believe this is also the first time I’ve been asked to play a real-life historical figure, rather than a fictional character. As such, I dove into doing research. I found a clip of Virginia Woolf’s speaking voice, featuring one of those fluty, cut-glass English accents that don’t exist anymore. I realized I’d have to brush up my RP accent: I looked up resources on pronunciation and phonetics, and underlined words in the script that I thought might be tricky. I rewatched The Hours – one of my favorite movies when it came out – and paid close attention to Nicole Kidman’s acclaimed performance as Woolf. Somewhat to my relief, I discovered that while Kidman employed an RP accent to play Woolf, she didn’t mimic Woolf’s cadences or elocution. She used her natural voice, which is much huskier and harsher than Woolf’s plummy murmur. Well, if it’s good enough for Academy Awards voters, it’s good enough for me: I also plan to employ the accent but not the tone or cadence.

I know, this is a one-night-only benefit performance and, cerebral woman that I am, I’m probably over-thinking it. No matter what, tonight I’m going to go onstage and, for eight minutes, play Jeremy Cole’s version of Virginia Woolf. And who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not I.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and (occasional?) actress. She’s performing in the ReproRights benefit tonight at Thick House. For more, follow @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – Let the Monster Out

Charles Lewis III lets the monster out!

Artwork by Cody Rishell

Artwork by Cody Rishell

“There should be a place where only the things you want to happen, happen.”
— Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

It all started with a car ride. That’s what I was told. During a 2009 production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs for Atmos Theatre’s Theatre in the Woods, that’s when we’re told Stuart first pitched the idea of a theatre dedicated to the classic works of Greek and Roman playwrights. As everyone learns when they’re around Stuart for long enough: he doesn’t pitch ideas so much as give you a heads-up on his inevitable plans.

Within a year from the original car ride, twelve local playwrights were staging twelve brand new plays – each one dedicated to one of mythical Olympians. Less than a year after that, three of those twelve plays had full productions. A year after that, half of the first year’s plays were collected into the first book, Songs of Hestia. Here we are five years on and the festival has produced two books, commissioned work from nearly 100 playwrights, staged readings of some 103 plays, commissioned an equal number of stunning original illustrations by Bay Area artists, and showcased the talents of countless members of the Bay Area acting community.

Not bad for a quirky li’l staged reading fest that started from a drive through the woods. As the festival itself is such an interesting and evolving beast, it makes sense that the fifth year would be dedicated to the monsters of Greek mythology.

I actually thought that I wouldn’t be involved with the festival this year. I’ve been involved with it in one way or another since the first year, wherein I was an actor. I played Prometheus, which wound up becoming something of a running joke when I wound up playing him three years in a row. Why no one seems to remember Stuart playing an incredibly smug and condescending Judd Apatow, I’ll never know? But I digress. After acting in two plays that first year, I wound up cast in seven the next year. The third year I was only in three plays, but I also moved up to being one of the festival’s playwrights with my one-act about the Titan Atlas. I wasn’t the first Olympians alumnus to make such a leap, but it seems appropriate to mention her as hers was one of the eight plays I directed for the fourth year (in addition to writing one of my own).

So yeah, I’ve been in the festival once or twice. I guess I’ve done enough to where after this year’s auditions, potential actors kept sending me messages asking when casting would be announced. So too did potential writers for next year ask me when those choices would be made. I have no official administrative capacity with the festival, but I told them all the same thing: “Just be patient.”

And yet I honestly didn’t expect to take part this year. None of my writing proposals had been accepted, nor had I been picked to direct this year. I auditioned this year as I had every year, but I was thoroughly convinced I wasn’t going to be cast in anything. I mean, I wasn’t cast last year either, so it wasn’t a big surprise that as casting announcement were made my name never appeared. And I took that as one-of-many signs about where my career has been heading this year. I’ve had to ask myself some serious questions about where said career would, could, and should be heading and exactly how I could get there. I was considering spending my October/November taking a small role for a very prominent local company (I mean, one even non-theatre people know by name) and just trying to see whatever Olympians shows fell on my “off” nights. So imagine my surprise when, early in the run for Pastorella, I got an e-mail offering me a role in the closing night show, “Echidna” by Olympians superstar Neil Higgins. (Like Stuart’s Judd Apatow, Neil’s stage directions “character” was one of the most memorable parts of Year 1.)

Surprise… and relief. Unexpected relief. There’s an almost inexplicable thrill to the festival that one can’t really understand unless you’ve taken an active part in it: the surprise of getting to read for characters and plays that can go from comedic to dramatic at the drop of a hat; the amazement that comes from seeing all the artwork on display; the wicked glee that comes from talking about which play will be “that show” this year (you know the one – the stunning misfire that’s talked about over drinks for years to come); the relationships that are made by two auditioners who share a BART train afterward; and, of course, the very experience of watching some of the most enduring myths of the western world become bold new works for hungry new audiences.

Can you believe I almost passed that up?

That’s when something occurred to me: since so many people have an interest in how they can see, support, or get involved with the festival, why not pull back the curtain every now and then? During last week’s opening party, we got to hear the announcement of the writers for next year’s fest, of which I will be one. So in addition to the other topics I’ll be covering in this column, I’ll also spend the next year making occasional updates on the fun/maddening process of putting together this lovely li’l fest of ours. And having taken part from nearly all angles of it, I can tell you that it’s no easy feat.

Over the next year you will hear stories of concepts praised and mocked, of scripts written in haste just to be torn up moments later, of “dream casting” that becomes a nightmare for everyone involved, of Jeremy Cole tracking you down like an angry cheetah because you didn’t reply to his e-mail, of illustrators who were supposed to have finished work a month ago but only have rough sketches, of writers wanting to tear their hair out because in the end there is nothing more stressful than trying to find the right raffle prize for the night of your reading and seeing that said prize is sold out.

But most of all, you’ll see a lot of love. What started out as a fun idea during a car ride through the woods has evolved into an annual highlight of the entire Bay Area theatre scene. And that’s always been the bottom line of the festival – for its audiences, illustrators, directors, actors, and writers – everyone keeps coming back because none of them can deny just how much fun they’re having. And I can’t believe I almost went a year without it.

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Charles Lewis would love to see Stuart return to his role as Judd Apatow, if for no other reason than to see a two-person show wherein Allison Page plays his Lena Dunham. SF Olympians V: The Monster Ball kicked off last night at the The EXIT Theatre and continues tonight with Megan Cohen’s Centaur, or Horse’s Ass and Annette Roman’s Satyr Night Fever. All shows begin at 8pm, all tickets are $10.oo cash at the door, with raffle tickets $5.oo a piece. For more information, please visit www.SFOlympians.com.

Theater Around The Bay: A Matter of Taste

Jeremy Cole returns for a second round of guest editorialship.

How many times have you heard (or said) “Well, there’s no accounting for taste?” A million? A trillion? It’s a cliché that will never die so long as people disagree on plays/books/films/fashion/[insert-pretty-much-anything-that-suits-your-fancy-here]. It’s an easy way to dismiss a point of view that doesn’t jibe with your own.

Peaches

I’ve used the phrase myself. Repeatedly. Redundantly. Ad nauseam. But a couple of recent incidents have made me reconsider this tired old saying, and after some thought (and much searching of my tortured soul) I have decided to retire that phrase from my databanks. I have decided it’s time to take taste into account. Let’s start right now, shall we?

The news is (drum-roll, please…) that everyone has different tastes. (Wuuuuut? I know, right? Shocking! Revolutionary! Who knew?) On the one hand, that statement is so obvious as to be embarrassing, but on the other, that doesn’t stop us from saying “there’s no accounting for taste” with a practiced sneer, by which we really mean “there’s no accounting for HIS/HER taste,” by which in turn we mean: “I am RIGHT and he/she/they are WRONG.” This is a Black and White Zone. No gray areas need apply.

A case in point: The Phantom of the Opera is the longest-running musical in Broadway history. It has been translated into a scad of foreign languages and never fails to pack ‘em in. If there’s one musical that EVERYONE loves, it must be Phantom, right? Wrong. I loathe that show. (Okay, I’ll grant that I kind of like Madame Giry, because she seems to be as underwhelmed by the piece as I am, but other than that…) I would love nothing more than to attend it with a gun so I could use the entire show as a shooting gallery – picking off all those characters I hate one-by-one until only Madame Giry and I are left standing. Then we’d go for a drink and eulogize the dead with much snide laughter.

Phantom is simply not to my taste. But if I mention this to a Lloyd Webber acolyte, he/she/it is instantly disgusted with me. They act as if I must be broken. “WHY?” they ask, “Why don’t you like The. Greatest. Musical. Ever. Written?” And they expect me to delineate my reasons (as if they would even listen to them). But art – whatever its format – isn’t something that can be tested empirically (or we’d all simply follow the formula and produce masterpieces).

It comes down to this: Phantom is based on a 19th century pulp fiction potboiler, and I’m just not a fan of that particular type of melodrama. Things gothic don’t float my particular boat. (A dinghy, if you must know. Because I like saying “dinghy.”) Phantom eludes me. I don’t understand what the mutant guy in the mask sees in that vapid-even-for-an-ingénue-and-that’s-pretty-vapid Christine. I want to swat Meg Giry with a human-sized flyswatter. Raoul is so flat and dull my brain goes into hibernation mode the second he walks on stage. It doesn’t matter that the singing is impeccable, the acting terrific, the orchestra magnificent…if the material doesn’t do it for me, the most amazing production values are not going to change how I feel (though, admittedly, they may make it easier to sit through).

And yet, people seem to take it as an affront – a personal attack on THEM – if I don’t share their taste.

Those hyper-sensitive fools, I say. And yet am I really so different? That would be a big fat “NO.”

I was recently in a production of a play that ran three hours with two intermissions. Some friends came one night and left during one of the intermissions. I was hurt that they didn’t like the show enough to stay to the end. I was hurt that they didn’t text me or even Facebook me some excuse (“So sorry, I came down with Ebola and had to leave right away to sponge the blood from my eyes”). But the truth is: the show was probably not to their taste. Why did I take it personally? I didn’t write the show. I didn’t direct it. I was only a supporting role in it, so I shouldn’t take their exit as a diss of my performance (at least, I don’t THINK I single-handedly destroyed the show…), and if I were to be completely honest, the show is not of a genre I care for myself. So I probably wouldn’t have attended the show AT ALL were I in their shoes. Hmm…maybe I should try taking their tastes into consideration.

Gee… Ya think? (This is what passes for a “Eureka!” moment in my world.)

And then, not even one full week later, I had a reading of a script that I did write. All by myself. So I had a bigger investment in it, you might say. After a lively discussion, one of the actors gave me a ride home and continued to talk about my play. I was pleased by this, because he was the one initiating the discussion – he was interested enough in the play to continue chatting about it. I felt validated. I felt I was on the right track with this piece. Then that proverbial other shoe fell. (Fucking proverbs.) He told me that the play reminded him of a play he saw recently that was just FANTASTIC. It was called Ghost Light, he said. They did it over at Berkeley Rep…had I seen it?

In my first post for this blog (on “Creative Vilification”), I mentioned this play. And let’s just say…it’s not to my taste. (Okay, that’s disingenuous: that play is its own circle of hell in my eyes. As I sat watching it, I thought “Wow, this must be what waterboarding feels like,” and “Gee, Gloucester in King Lear had it EASY.”) So imagine the heights of ecstasy I felt at having my own work compared – favorably – to Ghost Light. My heart pulled a reverse-Grinch maneuver and shrunk two sizes. My stomach twisted into a perfect Gordian knot. I found myself caught in a tangle of hyperbole. Not unlike this essay. How could I account for taste in this instance? A moment before, I had been happy with the work I was doing on my play and the input I had received on it. Then there I was, listening to someone compare my work to a piece I hated so much that my bile rises all over again at the mention of its name…

Can one share the same taste with another regarding genre (in this case, docu-drama), yet differ that greatly from him vis-à-vis content? I suppose so… I HOPE so. What a sly, conniving little vixen is this thing we call “taste.” I have always been one who is up for a fight (sorry, I mean, “lively discussion on differences in opinion”), but I have too often tossed aside others’ viewpoints with that catch-all phrase I discussed earlier in this piece. Maybe I’m mellowing in the second half of my own personal century, but I think I’m ready to give up that convenience. I’m actually interested in accounting for taste. I’m ready to ask the big questions. For instance, I want to know what people see in Phantom that I do not. What was it about Ghost Light that worked for those who –gulp- liked it? And why, oh, why do people keep producing Glengarry Glen Ross? (Which I like to refer to as “G-G-G-Ross.”) And speaking of taste…what is the deal with kale? Is that even a food?

Theater Around The Bay: We’ll Fix The Title In Post

Our guest blogger series continues with a piece by John Caldon, who as a child was perpetually in trouble for talking back. Not much has changed.

Talking to an artist about their developing work is like having the opportunity to critique someone raising a toddler. While on more than one occasion I’ve wanted to tell someone their two-year old is an asshole, I know better. But the same doesn’t hold true for commenting on a colleague’s still infant play. I’m allowed to call that an asshole. I’m encouraged to say it’s a little slow, or socially inept, or a missed opportunity to exercise our constitutional rights established under Roe v. Wade.

As a creator and consumer of theater, 10% of my time is spent making plays and 90% is spent talking about them. That being the case, I reveled in Jeremy Cole’s contribution to this blog series about creative vilification. All too often we hear “that sucked” passed off as actual criticism, when really we want to walk out of A.C.T. and say “that was the best middle school pageant I’ve ever seen!” No offense intended to middle schools anywhere. That being said, more often than not I find myself talking to people I respect deeply about their own work. And not just their work, but work of theirs that was mounted with full knowledge it would somehow fail, such as readings and workshops. The most satisfying part of belonging to a motley crew of independent theatre artists in San Francisco is participating in conversations around developing work, which is unveiled for the public in an unfinished state because as we all know, you can’t finish a play unless you show it to people before it’s finished.

But there’s a vast difference between what I might say after watching AMERICAN IDIOT, which I detested, versus hearing the very first draft of Stuart Bousel’s adaptation of RAT GIRL, which was problematic but deliciously promising. That difference is rooted in my desire to assist in the improvement of a developing work versus my desire to knock someone’s artistic hubris down a peg (or three). And this is where things get complicated. Having staged twelve new full-length plays in the last seven years, five of which I also wrote, I’m very accustomed to giving and receiving notes. I also figured out a lot about the art of feedback as a student in the Creative Writing department at SFSU, the year-long online screenwriting class I’m taking through UCLA, and the various talk-backs I’ve participated in over the years, which have left me with low grade PTSD. Why is that? Because though we’ve all developed processes for acting, writing, directing, designing, producing and managing, what most of us lack is a process for giving feedback. I’m talking about constructive feedback. Feedback designed to help, not hinder. Because burning something down is easy. Building it takes finesse.

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In the interest of building things, I’m writing to give away a process for providing feedback I’ve developed over time. I’ve used it when talking to artists and leading talk-backs and find it allows for capturing all types of input while promoting active conversation. Feel free to use it or ignore it. After all, that’s what we do with most things, right? So here are the four questions I address in the order written to help focus my conversations:

1. What worked and how did it make you feel? What images, language, moments, humor or poignancy really stuck with you?
2. How did it make you think? What themes, ideas and concepts did it prompt you to consider?
3. What was left unanswered? Were there questions intentionally left unanswered by the artist? Was anything confusing?
4. What did not work? What could be improved, changed or cut?

In my experience most people tend to do this in the reverse by starting with what didn’t work, followed by what confused them, moving on to what thoughts their confusion prompted, and finishing up with what they liked. The problem with that approach is twofold.

First, the writer must know whether or not their intended message has landed before any other note is relevant. If the answer to the first question is “I loved your romcom twist on Macbeth in which Lady M becomes a manic pixie dream girl and the King is reimagined as the Mayor of Jersey City,” when the writer was trying to create a heady drama about psychological abuse in modern relationships, then it’s clear from the outset the writer’s goal was not accomplished, or the person giving notes is farther from the target audience than Sarah Palin is from Russia. Either way, any note after that is pointless.

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Secondly, while I’m all for artists having a thick skin and think we should be able to take heavy criticism without shutting down or clamming up, it’s not our job to cut our colleagues so they can get used to the knife. They’ll get enough of that from the world, so feel free to treat them kindly without fear you’ll coddle them into being too soft to take a punch. Starting with what worked is a sure fire way to be heard when you’re talking about what didn’t.

Moving on from there to questions two through four allows for exploring themes, asking questions and dropping bombs. The difference in saving the bombs for last is the receiver can place them within the context of what they already know to be working or not. They’re also far likelier to absorb the criticism than to just grin and bear it.

Providing feedback is a skill necessary to an art form as collaborative as theater. We create, criticize, revise and retry in an endless loop. I’ve found this process for feedback has helped me give notes to colleagues and collaborators. For me it’s also replaced the excruciating talk-back scenario of people being invited to ask random questions, which invariably leads to forty-five wasted minutes I’d rather spend eating glass or cutting myself. Next time you have a talk-back try leading your audience through these questions instead, then write me a long email of profuse thanks.

Or you can just keep doing it how you’ve been doing it. I mean, theater has survived this long with no defined process for giving feedback, so perhaps it’s not working all that badly. Plus there’s something incredibly cathartic about calling a two-year old an asshole.

John Caldon is Artistic Director of Guerrilla Rep, a San Francisco based independent theater company. Check out their latest offering, MOMMY QUEEREST, playing at The EXIT Studio from February 28 to March 29 as the overture to this year’s DIVAfest.