Theater Around The Bay: Creative Vilification

Our series of guest writers continues with Jeremy Cole telling us to tell it like it is- and then maybe twist the knife some more.

When I lived in Denver, I had a mutual admiration society going on with Joanne Greenberg, author of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, In This Sign, and others. I would read all her books (The King’s Persons is my favorite), and she came to see all the plays I directed (I think Death of a Salesman was her favorite). I remember traveling a LONG way by bus to watch her tell stories in Gullah dialect (long story I’ll tell you some time) at a local charter school. I learned that she had sent her sons to that very school, and – dismayed by the prevalence of the F-word she kept hearing in the hallways – she offered to teach a class on creative vilification. What a delicious idea, I thought. Why simply drop an F-bomb on someone, she said, when you could zing them with “I should live long enough to bury you,” or better yet, “a hundred houses you should have, in every house a hundred rooms and in every room twenty beds, and may a delirious fever drive you from bed to bed.” These are Yiddish curses, and Joanne is a firm believer in Yiddish as the language of insult (q.v., my particular favorite: Er zol kakn mit blit un mit ayter – “He should crap blood and pus.”)

I’ll never forget Joanne on Merchant of Venice: “I hate that play. ‘Hath a Jew not eyes?’  Oh, please:  hath a DOG not eyes? Stupid play.” (Joanne once memorized Hamlet, however, in its entirety.)

I’ll never forget Joanne on Merchant of Venice: “I hate that play. ‘Hath a Jew not eyes?’ Oh, please: hath a DOG not eyes? Stupid play.” (Joanne once memorized Hamlet, however, in its entirety.)

I have to agree. We’ve become so banal in our criticisms, nowadays, that they hardly even register on our critical Richter scales. Political correctness, anger management and sensitivity training may all have their place, but at what cost? What happened to the days of the withering remark? The snarky aperçu? Where are our modern-day Alexander Woollcotts and Dorothy Parkers? He who once wrote “Number 7 opened last night. It was misnamed by five.” She, who once wrote of the play Give Me Yesterday: “Me, I should have given him twenty years to life.”

Do we hear such things today? Sadly, no. Not since 1986, when the New Yorker printed a one sentence review of Brighton Beach Memoirs that said “If you’ll believe Blythe Danner and Judith Ivey are Jewish, you’ll believe anything.” No, instead, we get pabulum: “Well…” (we hem, we haw) “It wasn’t to my taste” we say, or “I suppose it could have been better…” Balls. These are cop-outs. Case in point: I have no trouble admitting that I LOATHED the play Ghost Light. To say it wasn’t “my taste” would be disingenuous. I don’t merely want back the time I spent watching that travesty, I want all memory of it eradicated from my brain. I want restored to me the gray cells that committed suicide rather than take even one more minute of it. That is much closer to how I actually feel than simply saying “it needed work.” Please. The Autobahn needed work. The Pyramids needed work. That play needed a good paper shredder. So let’s get creative with our disdain. I don’t want someone to pull their punches when they don’t care for a performance, I want to hear their pain grow wings and take flight. If theater is meant to be an art-form, shouldn’t our discussion of it be an art, as well?

3 Jewish characters, 1 Jewish actor. I’ll give you three guesses…

3 Jewish characters, 1 Jewish actor. I’ll give you three guesses…

Let us put as much effort into our condemnations as we purport to put into our own work. If one’s problem with a given play is that the director didn’t understand the text, how can the complaint be taken seriously if it is uttered in a series of monosyllabic grunts? One of my favorite playwrights, Megan Cohen, never ceases to delight me with her originality. I honestly never know what’s coming next in her plays because she eschews formulas. She’s too smart for that, too uncompromising. Let us take a page out of her script the next time we have an unsatisfactory experience at the theater. Get out your thesaurus! Don’t say “bad” if “putrid” is nearer the mark. Don’t settle for “tepid” when “so boring I thought I was slipping into a coma” is more appropriate. Let us compare a plot riddled with gaping holes to the streets of San Francisco (no, not the old TV series, but the disastrous pot-holed nightmares that are this city’s streets). Next time we see lousy choreography, let us compare it to the chaos that is Critical Mass, or regale our rapt audience with tales of our first disastrous junior high dance. We are artists, dammit, and that should be apparent in every aspect of our lives. Not merely on our resumes, Facebook pages and blogs.

And speaking of blogs, have you been reading that one about Bay Area Theater? Child, you better turn your Hoover on, ‘cause I’ve got some dirt!

The Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards for 2013

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2013 list. 

Three years ago I decided that I wanted to start my own Bay Area Theater Awards, because my opinions are just as legitimate as anyone else’s, the awards I give out are as valuable as any other critical awards, (recipients of the SEBATA, or the Stuey, if you prefer, get nothing but my admiration and some free publicity), and also because there’s a fairly good chance that I’ve seen a lot of theater the usual award givers haven’t seen. 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. No one 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.

Also, there are some people who think I don’t like anything, and I feel a need to not only prove them wrong, but to do so by expressing how much of the local color I do love and admire, as opposed to just pointing out that the reason they think I don’t like anything is because I generally don’t like *their* work (oh… I guess I did just point that out, didn’t I?). Normally I post these “awards” on my Facebook page, but this year I decided to bring them to the blog because the mission statement of the SEBATA is pretty in-line with the mission statement of Theater Pub, and having come to the close of an amazing year of growth for the blog, it now has a much farther reach than my Facebook page could ever hope to have. Congratulations SF Theater Pub Blog- you just won a Stuey.

Anyway, because I am a product of the generation that grew up with the MTV Movie Awards- and, because I’m the only person on the voting committee and thus can do what I like- I have decided that my categories are purely arbitrary and can be stretched to allow me to write about anyone I feel like. The two limits are 1) I can’t give myself an award (though I can have been involved in the show on a limited level) and 2) I won’t go over thirteen (though there may be ties for some awards). Because seriously, how (more) self indulgent would this be without either of those rules? Oh, 3) I won’t give out awards for how bad something was. I’m here to be positive. And chances are those people were punished enough.

To all my friends and frenemies in the Bay Area Theater Scene… it’s been a great year. Let’s you and me do it again sometime. Well… most of you.

And now, presenting the Fourth Annual Stuey Awards…

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
“Pint Sized IV” (San Francisco Theater Pub)
Pint Sized Plays gets better each year, and it’s honestly one of two things I actually miss about working at the Cafe Royale (the other is the uniqueness of doing Shakespeare there, which for some reason works in a completely magical way I wish it worked more often on traditional stages). This year the festival was put together by Neil Higgins, who did an amazing job, and I think we had some of the best material yet. The evening as a whole felt incredibly cohesive, with a theme of forgiveness and letting go, archly reflective of our decision to leave the Cafe Royale, and I think incredibly relevant to a lot of our audience. We knew Pint Sized could be very funny, and very socially pointed, but I’m not sure we had ever conceived of it as moving and this year it was, thanks in no small part to our writers (Megan Cohen, Peter Hsieh, Sang S. Kim, Carl Lucania, Daniel Ng, Kirk Shimano and Christian Simonsen), directors (Jonathan Carpenter, Colin Johnson, Tracy Held Potter, Neil Higgins, Charles Lewis III, Meghan O’Connor, Adam L. Sussman) and actors (Annika Bergman, Jessica Chisum, Andrew Chung, AJ Davenport, Eli Diamond, Caitlin Evenson, Lara Gold, Matt Gunnison, Melissa Keith, Charles Lewis III, Brian Quakenbush, Rob Ready, Casey Robbins, Paul Rodrigues, Jessica Rudholm). The evening would start off with a magical performance by the Blue Diamond Bellydancers, whose combination of skill and spectacle got our audiences excited for what was to come. As we moved through the pieces, each by turns funny and poignant, each in some way or another about finding something, losing it, letting it go, and then coming back stronger, you could feel the audience grow warmer and closer each night. By the time Rob Ready gave the closing monologue, fixing each audience member in turn with a smile, you could feel everyone really listening and you could hear a pin drop in the room, and that’s saying something for the noisy by nature Cafe Royale. I think a lot of love went into the festival this year, and not just because it might be the last, and the product of that love was real magic and like the best theater- you had to be there. And if you weren’t, you really missed out.

BEST SHOW
“The Motherf**ker With The Hat” (San Francisco Playhouse)
I saw a lot of decent, solid, well done theater this year but I had a hard time connecting to a lot of it, which was rarely a flaw with the show and probably had more to do with where I was/am as a person (lots of change this year). Then again, something about really good theater is that it can get you out of your own head and into some other world, for a while. Towards the end of the year, I saw three shows I really really liked: “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake” at Bigger Than A Bread Box Theater Company, “Peter/Wendy” at Custom Made Theater Company, and “First” at Stage Werx, produced by Altair Productions/The Aluminous Collective and Playground. Still, San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The Motherf**ker With The Hat”, directed by Bill English, was probably my favorite show of the year. Who knows why it has an edge on the others? Maybe because as someone who spent most of their childhood weekends in New York it seemed oddly familiar, or maybe it was the deft handling by the universally excellent cast (Carl Lumbly, Gabriel Marin, Rudy Guerrero, Margo Hall, Isabelle Ortega) of the complex relationships and dialogue that Guirgis does so well, or maybe it was just refreshing to see such a simple, honest play in what, for me, was a year characterized by a lot of stylistically interesting but emotionally cold theater. There is something very passionate, scathing, bombastic and yet also humble and forgiving about Guirgis’ work that I think makes him such an important voice in modern American drama and English’s production brought all that out with an easy grace. The show really worked, and got me out of my head, and when I went back to my life I felt much better for the journey. What more can you ask of a theater experience?

BEST READING
“Paris/Hector” (San Francisco Olympians Festival)
I attend a lot of readings every year, and run a reading festival myself, so I’ve come to greatly value a really well done reading. This year, the award goes to director Katja Rivera and writers Kirk Shimano and Bridgette Dutta Portman, whose pair of one acts about the pair of Trojan princes Paris and Hector made for one of the best nights of this past year’s San Francisco Olympians Festival. Part of what I loved about it was that in one evening we saw the amazing variety the festival can offer: Kirk’s play was a comedy with a poignant moment or two, while Bridgette’s was a faux-classical drama- written in verse no less. Though the writers are the center of attention at the festival, credit really has to be given to Katja Rivera, who as the director of both pieces, made many simple but effective choices to highlight the best elements of both works and utilize the talents of her excellent cast: Yael Aranoff, Molly Benson, Jeremy Cole, Mackenszie Drae, Allison Fenner, Dana Goldberg, John Lennon Harrison, Michelle Talgarow, Alaric Toy. With the combined excellent story-telling of the performers (including beautiful and surprising singing from Yael, Molly and Dana), the thoughtfulness of the scripts, and the cohesiveness of the whole, this night of the festival stood out best in what was a consistently strong year at the Olympians.

BEST SHORT PLAY
“My Year” by Megan Cohen (Bay One Acts Festival)
Megan Cohen’s “My Year” is the kind of thing I wish more short plays would be: dynamic, personal, and complete. In a sea of short plays that are really fragments, or meet-cute plays, it’s always lovely to see something with a beginning, a middle, and end, and full-formed characters having actual interactions and not just feeling like Girl A and Guy B, thrown together by the whimsy of the playwright to make a point (though of course, the right playwright can pull that off- which is why so many people try to ape it). A friend of mine described “My Year” as “A fun little 90s indie film on stage” and my reaction when watching it was “Oh, Dear God, convince Meg to let me write a companion piece to this!” because let’s face it: at least a third of what I write is a 90s film on stage. My own vanity aside, what I loved about this play (directed by Siobhan Doherty, starring Emma Rose Shelton, Theresa Miller, Nkechi Live, Allene Hebert, Jaime Lee Currier, and Luna Malbroux) was that it felt constantly on the move, while still being mostly composed of intimate moments between a group of women at a birthday party. Like a lot of the theater that I really loved this year, it also just struck a personal chord, watching this young woman (Emma Rose Shelton) trying to enjoy the party her friends have thrown for her (though she doesn’t like surprise parties) despite there being no food and a random stranger (Theresa Miller) who worms her way in only to turn out to be the troublemaker she’s originally pegged for. Megan’s writing had its usual combination of smart and sentimental, but whereas a lot of her other work heads into absurdity and/or extreme quirkiness (not that this is bad), “My Year” stayed very grounded and found its meaning in that effort to stay grounded, making what might be a quiet little play in anyone else’s oeuvre, a nice change of pace in Cohen’s. The final moment, where the characters howl at the moon because what else are you going to do after a shitty birthday, felt like a communal sigh even the audience was in on, probably because we could all relate to Shelton’s character, and while having always loved and admired Meg’s work, this is probably the first time I related to it so wholeheartedly.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Linda Huang (Stage Manager, Tech, Box Office, Everything)
You know how the Oscars and Tonys give out Lifetime Achievement Awards for people whose contribution is so massive that it would kind of be criminal to pick one work or contribution so instead they just get an award for basically being themselves? You know, like how Peter O’Toole got that award because at some point somebody realized that he was pervasively brilliant and always in fashion and therefore easily forgotten because things like “Oh, well, he’ll win next year” often times factors in to who we recognize, meaning things like reliability and consistency do not? Well, for the first time ever in the history of the SEBATAs, I’m creating The Peter O’Toole Award for General Awesomeness and giving it to Linda Huang, without whom, in all seriousness, I believe that small theater in San Francisco would probably grind to a halt. Earlier this year, I got recognized by the Weekly as a “Ringmaster” of the theater scene, but frankly I (and people like me) could not do what we do without having Linda (and people like her) constantly coming to our aid despite being paid a fraction of what they’re worth and half the time being forgotten because what they do isn’t in the immediate eye of the audience. Linda is a total gem of the theater scene. She wears many hats, though she’s probably best known for running light boards, and one of my favorite things when attending the theater is running into her, usually working in some capacity I previously was unaware she was qualified to do (note: Linda is qualified to do everything). What I love best about Linda (aside from her cutting sense of humor and tell-it-like-it-is demeanor) is her incredible generosity: she does so much for local theater and rarely gets paid, and even when she does get paid she often says, “Pay me last.” A true team player, and one we don’t thank enough, especially as she’s the only person who seems to know how to get the air conditioning in the Exit Theatre to work.

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Atticus Rex, Open Mic Night In Support of the Lemonade Fund (SF Theater Pub/Theater Bay Area Individual Services Committee)
I never expected to include a note about someone who performed at an open mic/variety show, but I wanted to shout out to Atticus Rex, a young performer who literally made his performance debut at the San Francisco Theater Pub/ISC fundraiser for the Lemonade Fund this year. A last minute replacement, Atticus and a friend performed some original hip-hop for our audience of mostly performance professionals and their friends, and despite the formidable crowd and the first time nerves, he basically killed it. Even when he made a mistake it worked: he’d call himself out, apologize, and start again, somehow without ever missing a beat. His lyrics are very tight and poetic, and the contrast between the power in his words and his humbleness at approaching and leaving the stage works so well you’d almost think it was an act- except he later confessed he’d never performed live before, and it couldn’t have been more sincere. With genuine hope he never loses his sincerity, while also continuing to grow his confidence and experience, I wanted to take a moment to say congratulations once again, and thank you for reminding us all what it looks like to really take a risk onstage.

BEST CHEMISTRY
Genie Cartier and Audrey Spinazola (Genie and Audrey’s Dream Show, SF Fringe Festival)
What’s potentially cuter than “Clyde the Cyclops?” Very little, but these two ladies and their breathless, funny, and surreal little clown show come dangerously close to giving Clyde a run for his money, and it’s the only show I saw at the Fringe this year that I wished my boyfriend had also seen. Bravely straddling the bridge between performance artists and acrobats, this collage of monologues, poems, jokes, mime, clowning, puppetry, stunts, music, and children’s games, is like watching two hyper-articulate kids on pixie sticks go nuts in a club house, but only if those kids had an incredible sense of timing and arch senses of humor (not to mention very flexible bodies). I’ve never been a huge fan of circus stuff (I like it as an accent, sometimes, but as entertainment on its own it doesn’t tend to hold my interest long), but I think I’d be a fan of anything that had these two women in it. Their ability to play off each other is the key to making their show work, and when you watch it you have that sense of being let into the private make-believe world of people who have found kindred spirits in one another. It’s an utterly magic combination and from what I know of other people who saw it, it basically charmed the pants off everyone. Or at least, everyone who has a soul.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
Ben Calabrese (Apartment in “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”)
I saw a lot of great performances by men this year (Sam Bertken in “Peter/Wendy”, Tim Green and Gregory Knotts in “First”, Paul Rodrigues “Pint Sized Plays IV”, Will Hand “Dark Play”, Casey Robbins “Oh Best Beloved!”), but this one really took my breath away (though since Sam Bertken actually got me to sincerely clap for fairies in Peter/Wendy, he gets a second shout out). Ben’s role, which is to literally embody the voice of a neglected apartment, is the kind of role that could either be the best thing about the show, or the worst. Luckily for Bigger Than A Breadbox’s production of “Crumble, or Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake (written by Sheila Callaghan), Ben rocked it. Bouncing around the stage, dive bombing the furniture, all the while spouting, eloquently, Callaghan’s beautiful and complex monologues, Ben was so utterly watchable it was impossible not to buy the conceit of the role, and so moments when he has an orgasm from having the radiator turned on, or turns his fingers into loose electrical wires, don’t seem ridiculous, but made immediate and total sense. It’s usually not a compliment to tell an actor they did a tremendous job being an inanimate object, but what Ben did so well was illustrate that a home, while not “alive”, does indeed have a life to it. And if that life occasionally fixes the audience with Ben’s particular brand of “scary actor stare” why… all the better.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Brandice Marie Thompson (Georgia Potts in “First”)
Oh, this was a tough one. As usual, the actresses of the Bay Area are kicking ass and taking names no matter what their role, and my decision to pick Brandice above the rest is because I think she best exemplified that thing which so many actresses have to do, which is take a relatively underwritten role in a play about men and turn it into a rich, believable character who somehow manages to steal the show. Evelyn Jean Pine, who wrote “First”, is a fantastic writer and she writes women and men equitably well, and due credit must go to her for the creation and inclusion of this character in a story mostly about male egos, but in a lesser capable actresses hands, this role could have been annoying, or forgettable, or purely comical, and Brandice avoided all of these traps while making the character utterly charming at the same time. The truth is, her arc became much more interesting to me than that of the main character, and I think a strong argument could be made that “First” was just as much about Georgia as it was about Bill Gates. Director Michael French no doubt had a hand in this too, but in the end it’s a performer who makes or breaks a role and Brandice’s ability to combine mousy with spunky with unexpected and yet thoroughly authentic character turns was deeply satisfying to watch. Georgia kicked ass and took names, because Brandice does. Runners up: Melissa Carter (“Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”, Bigger Than A Breadbox), Allison Jean White (“Abigail’s Party”, SF Playhouse), Sam Jackson (“Oh Best Beloved!”, SF Fringe Festival), Courtney Merril (“Into the Woods”, Ray of Light), Elissa Beth Stebbins (“Peter/Wendy”, Custom Made Theatre Company).

BEST FUSION THEATER PIECE
“Nightingale” (Davis Shakespeare Ensemble/SF Fringe Festival)
This little gem at this year’s fringe festival was adapted from the myth of Philomel by Gia Battista, with music by Richard Chowenhill, directed by Rob Sals (with Battista), and staring Gabby Battista, April Fritz and Tracy Hazas as three remarkably similar looking women who each take a turn playing the heroine of a bizarre fairy tale (all the other characters in the story are played by them as well). Dance, pantomime, narration, song and traditional theater techniques all came together in a way that was astonishingly clean and charming in its simplicity. The black and white aesthetic used to unify the look of the show and performers gave the whole thing a quality both modern and timeless, and in its gentle, dreamy tone the sharp elements of social commentary and satire often seemed more brutal and impactful. Of everything I saw at the Fringe this past year, which included a number of excellent works, this piece has stayed with me the longest.

BEST SOLO SHOW
“Steve Seabrook: Better Than You” by Kurt Bodden (The Marsh)
I saw a lot more solo performance than usual this year (including works by Annette Roman, Laura Austin Wiley, Alexa Fitzpatrick, Jenny Newbry Waters, Rene Pena), and realizing how good it can be is, in and of itself, kind of a miracle because I used to say things like, “Theater begins with two people” and “If Aeschylus had wanted to write sermons he wouldn’t have added Electra”. Kurt’s show was not created this past year, it has a long history, but I only saw it in its most recent Marsh incarnation and I’m hoping he’s been able to find ways to keep it going (his Facebook feeds indicate this is so). A satire of motivational speakers and the cult of self-improvement, “Steve Seabrook” manages to be so much more by combining satirical fiction with moments of the kind of personal monologue (still fiction) that permeates solo shows. The result is a sense of development, of a story (Steve’s) unfolding in real time while another story, (Steve’s Seminar) plays itself out over the course of a weekend. Playing off the convention of a backstage comedy (we see the seminar, then we see Steve when he’s not “on”), Kurt’s brilliance as a performer is evident in the seamless transition from one to the other, again and again, carrying a throughline that shows us not only why Steve buys into his mantras, but why any of us buy into anything we’ve come up with (or adopted from someone else) to keep us moving through life’s ups and downs. At once very funny and cutting, while also moving and real (and yes, fuck it, kind of inspirational), Kurt’s show also gets a nod for its fantastic takeaway schwag: a keychain light with Steve’s name on it, with which every audience member is encouraged to shine their light in a dark world.

BEST DIRECTOR
Rebecca Longworth and Joan Howard, “Oh Best Beloved” (SF Fringe Festival)
“Oh Best Beloved” got a lot of attention and deservedly so- well acted, well designed, it was a genuinely fun piece of theater. Perhaps most deserving of being singled out in the project, however, are director Rebecca Longworth and partner Joan Howard, who share credit for conceptualizing the show (in which Joan also played a part and had, in my opinion, the single best moment in the show), and who lead the rest of the company in adapting the material from Ruyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories”. Anyone who saw the show could easily see that it had about a million moving parts, and Longworth and Howard’s ability to keep all those plates spinning on a small budget and under the strict conditions of the San Francisco Fringe Festival (they literally put up and pulled down a full set with each performance) is worthy of award in and of itself, but the level of commitment and craft they were able to pull from their design team and performers was equally as impressive. Everything about the show, even the parts that didn’t work as well as others, felt thought through and done with panache, making this ambitious and unique experience a delightful jewel in the SF Fringe Festival’s crown.

BEST DESIGNER
Bill English, “Abigail’s Party” (SF Playhouse)
Scenery in general doesn’t do much for me. I enjoy good scenery, but the best scenery should kind of vanish into the background, in my opinion, and be something you barely pay attention to. As a result, I’m often just as happy with a blank stage, or really well thought out minimal set, as I am with a full one, so long as the play I’m watching is good. That said, every now and then I will see a set I just adore, and this year it was Bill English’s set for SF Playhouse’s “Abigail’s Party”, by Mike Leigh, directed by Amy Glazer. Basically a living room/dining room/kitchenet combo, this fully realized “home” was very well crafted as a place, but more importantly, it really worked as a place where people lived. The 70s style was at once present without being overwhelming, evoking the time period without looking like it was a homage to the time period, or a museum dedicated to 70s kitch. I mean, it honestly reminded me of numerous homes I’d played in as a child (I was born in 1978) and all the wallpaper looked like wallpaper in my parents’ home before my mother completely re-did the house in 1990 because “we can admit this is ugly… now”. The amazing thing about English’s set is that it didn’t seem ugly, in spite of being made up entirely of patterns and colors we now find appalling. He made it all work together, the way people once did, and the final result was simultaneously comfortable and dazzling. I remember thinking, waiting for the play to begin, “I could live here.”

And last, but not least, every year I pick…

MY PERSONAL FAVORITE EXPERIENCE TO WORK ON
“The Age of Beauty” (No Nude Men Productions/The Exit Theatre)
I had taken a break from directing my own work, but with this nine performance workshop I allowed myself to re-discover that, as much as I like directing plays by others, there is nothing quite as satisfying as feeling like I’m telling a very personal story of my own and having the final say on how that happens. Of course, such experiences are only rewarding when you get to work with great actors, and I was lucky to have four amazing women (Megan Briggs, Emma Rose Shelton, Allison Page, Sylvia Hathaway) who were willing to go on this adventure with me, always keeping stride as I made cuts and changed lines, memorizing a mountain of material in Emma and Sylvia’s case, and crafting subtle characters who had to be both different from each other and relatively interchangeable at the same time. When I had a hard time articulating what I was going for, they would nod and smile and then show me what I meant by doing it better than I could describe it. When the show opened by the skin of its teeth it had one of those minor miracle opening nights, where even though you’re just a tiny bit unprepared (all my fault, I kept changing the script), it somehow all comes together and really works. Over the course of the show, as their performances grew and refined (our final two nights were simply perfect), I was able to see what flaws still remained in the script (two pages, middle of scene of scene two were cut the day after we closed), and any writer of new work will tell you that’s the best experience you can hope for on a first production. Shout outs to my awesome design team Cody Rishell, Jim Lively and Wil Turner IV! “The Age of Beauty” helped restore some of my lagging faith in the theater process, and made me commit to doing more of my own work in the coming 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.

Introducing The Directors Of Pint Sized IV! (Part Two)

Pint Sized Plays IV is more than halfway through it’s run! This year our excellent line up of writers is supported by an equitably awesome line up of directors, so we thought we’d take a moment to introduce some of them and find out more about who they are, what they’re looking forward to, and how they brought so much magic to this year’s festival.

Tell the world who you are in 100 words or less.

Tracy Held Potter: I’m a writer/director/producer who recently discovered that I have to create inspirational mantras that are the exact opposite of the inspirational mantras that I used in high school. I run All Terrain Theater (www.allterraintheater.org) and Play Cafe (www.playcafe.org) and I’m a co-founder of the 31 Plays in 31 Days Project with Rachel Bublitz (http://31plays31days.com). My biggest projects right now are directing The Fantasy Club by Rachel Bublitz and getting ready to move to the East Coast for a fancy-pants MFA Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University.

Jonathan Carpenter: Formerly a biologist and Bostonian, I’m now a San Francisco-based theater director. I love bold, new plays that sometimes have music and sometimes don’t happen in traditional theater spaces at all.

Colin Johnson: I am Colin and I like telling stories and stuff.

Colin Johnson: What A Rebel

Colin Johnson: What A Rebel

How did you get involved with Theater Pub, or if you’re a returning director, why did you come back?

Tracy Held Potter: I saw several Theater Pub shows in the past year and loved them, especially Pint-Sized Plays, and also got to run sound for Pub from Another World, which was extremely fun. “Audrey Scare People Play?” Whaaaaaat!

Jonathan Carpenter: This is my first time directing for Theater Pub! I met Meg O’Connor at an event for the SF Olympians Festival. She mentioned that her friend Neil (Higgins) was looking for directors for the Pint Sized Festival. A few days later, Neil and I were emailing each other about the line-up for this year’s festival, and not too long after I was on board to be part of the Pint Sized directing team. I had always been really interested in Theater Pub, and so when the opportunity arose to get involved, I jumped on it.

Colin Johnson: I got involved through the fearless producer called Neil, whom I’ve worked with during the last two years on the SF Olympians Festival.

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Jonathan Carpenter: There’s nothing better than being in the rehearsal room and digging into a script with actors, so I would say that my rehearsal time with Jessica (Chisum), Lara (Gold), and Andrew (Chung) was the most exciting part of the process for me. Multitasking (by Christian Simonsen) is a deceptively tricky play. You have to keep asking yourself, “Wait, what the hell is going on here?!” All three actors were really smart about figuring out what makes these characters tick. I had a blast bringing the play to life with them.

Colin Johnson: Analyzing and then over-directing the crap out of a one page script. Sometimes the greatest challenges come in the smallest packages. Oh, and also practicing a musical number with a drunk llama.

Tracy Held Potter: Getting invited to direct for Pint-Sized plays and then finding out that I was going to direct a piece by Megan Cohen were freaking awesome. I still relive moments from watching Megan’s piece from last year, so this really has been a thrill for me. I also loved rehearsing with Charles Lewis III, Caitlin Evenson, and Jessica Rudholm … and I won’t lie that sewing the knight props and costumes in the middle of the night was pretty special as well.

What’s been the most troublesome?

Tracy Held Potter: Keeping things simple with this brief yet epic play. I tend to work on projects with a minimal amount of props and set design, but there’s a part of me that wants to go all out with this one: more rehearsals in the space and more elaborate costuming. I got to work with a great cast and I we pulled out a lot of interesting material from the script in a very short period, so I can’t really complain, though.

Colin Johnson: Troublesome? I don’t know the meaning of the word, I say! But I suppose rehearsing with a drunk llama can have its setbacks.

Jonathan Carpenter: Casting was probably the trickiest piece of the puzzle for me. There are, of course, so many wonderful actors in the Bay Area; the only problem is that they’re so wonderful that they’re always cast in multiple projects! The Theater Pub performance schedule is great because Monday is usually a day off for actors, so it’s possible to do Theater Pub along with other shows. But it doesn’t always work out. I lost a terrific actor that I was really excited to work with because it turned out that she was needed for rehearsals for another project during the final week of Pint Sized performances. And then when I had to find another actress for that role, there were several other wonderful folks that I couldn’t use because we couldn’t find common free times to rehearse! It all worked out beautifully in the end – thanks to Neil’s guidance, persistence, and huge network of actor friends – but there were some moments where I was really banging my head against the wall.

Jonathan Carpenter: Casting Clusterf**k Survivor

Jonathan Carpenter: Casting Clusterf**k Survivor

Would you say putting together a show for Pint Sized is more skin of your teeth or seat of your pants and why?

Tracy Held Potter: I would say “seat of your pants” because I have sensitive teeth and the other metaphor makes them hurt.

Jonathan Carpenter: Pint Sized is definitely a seat of your pants kind of endeavor. You’re making theater that’s going to happen in a bar where anything can happen. Someone could walk through your scene to go to the bathroom. A noisy garbage truck could whiz past Cafe Royale. Who knows, an especially drunk audience member might even try to get in on the action. So, you have to stay adaptable and be ready to fly by the seat of your pants. But that’s also what’s so exciting, right? Live theater!

Colin Johnson: I’d say seat of the pants is a better term. When you perform in public, especially a bar, you must be prepared to adapt and circumvent logistical problems at a moment’s notice. Skin of the teeth makes it seem like we’re barely hanging in there, which is untrue. This production has actually been one of the most tightly coordinated and relaxed projects in a while for me.

What’s next for you?

Colin Johnson: Next, I’m writing a full-length adaptation of Aeneas’s tale for SF Olympians: Trojan Requiem (titled Burden of the Witless) in November. I also have a recently-completed independent short film that will hopefully be making festival rounds this year. And most likely directing a Woody Allen One-Act early next year in Berkeley

Tracy Held Potter: I’m directing and producing a HILARIOUS sex comedy by Rachel Bublitz called The Fantasy Club that we’re premiering at The Alcove Theater near Union Square from Aug 2 – Aug 11 (http://fantasyclub.brownpapertickets.com). It’s about a stay-at-home-mom who faces the man she’s been fantasizing about since high school and has to decide between her marriage and making her fantasies come true. I’ve spent a lot more time on Google researching underwear and logo contraceptives for this show than I have for anything else. In August, we’re also relaunching the 31 Plays in 31 Days Challenge and rehearsing for Babies, the Ultimate Birth Control: Terrifyingly Hilarious Plays about Parenting for SF Fringe (http://www.sffringe.org), which both Rachel and I wrote pieces for. In the midst of all this, I’m going to finish packing up my family to move to Pennsylvania. You know, taking it easy.

Tracy Held Potter: Taking It Easy

Tracy Held Potter: Taking It Easy

Jonathan Carpenter: I’m about to begin rehearsals for the west coast premiere of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon, which Do It Live! Productions will be producing in A.C.T.’s Costume Shop theater in September. And after The Golden Dragon, I’ll be directing readings of Jeremy Cole’s On The Plains of Troy and Madeline Puccioni’s The Walls of Troy for the SF Olympians Festival.

What are you looking forward to in the larger Bay Area theater scene?

Tracy Held Potter: I’m looking forward to “A Maze” by Rob Handel and produced by Just Theater at Live Oak Theatre, which just opened. Rob is the theater teacher for my new grad program and I’ve heard great things from people who’ve already seen it (phew!). There are a lot of shows that I’m really sad to be missing because I’ll be out of the state, but I’ll be catching all of Bay One-Acts and at least a couple of SF Olympians shows towards the end of the festival.

Colin Johnson: BOA is always an amazing fun time! As is the Olympians! They’re both a great conglomeration of all the best the Bay indie theatre scene has to offer! And great folks!

Jonathan Carpenter: Oh my gosh. I’m a huge nerd, and I just can’t wait to see Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart in No Man’s Land at Berkeley Rep. I mean, it’s Gandalf! And Professor X! AND they’re doing No Man’s Land! I have loved Pinter ever since I first dove into his plays a few years ago while working on a production of The Homecoming. They’re so juicy. So I’m really looking forward to that production. I’m also really excited to check out Rob Handel’s A Maze at Just Theater this summer. I read a draft of the play about three years ago, and I was completely enthralled. It read like a comic book, and I was totally fascinated to imagine how you might stage such an intricate play. I’ve heard great things about the production, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Who in the Bay Area theater scene would you just love a chance to work with next?

Jonathan Carpenter: Woah! It’s way too hard to pick just one artist! Can I say “all of them”?!? Well…actor Reggie White is probably at the top of my list. He’s been a friend of mine for a couple of years now, and it seems criminal that we haven’t done a show together yet.

Tracy Held Potter: I can’t count how many actors, directors, stage managers, writers, and other theater people that I got to work with this year who I really admired. I have so many theater crushes here that it’s crazy. With that said, I would fall out of my chair if I got to work with Desdemona Chiang on one of my plays.

Colin Johnson: I would love to have a rematch of my 2012 Olympians knock-out, drag down fight with Jeremy Cole. But most of my Bay Area dream collaborations have been fulfilled, with hopefully more on the horizon.

What’s your favorite thing to order at the Cafe Royale?

Jonathan Carpenter: Whatever stout they have on tap.

Colin Johnson: I’m a fan of the Marin Brewing Company IPA. But if I’m expected to be productive, a Cider or a Pilsner.

Tracy Held Potter: I don’t really drink that much so I like to order soda or tea, but last time the bartender made me a limeade which was pretty good. There are photos of me on the Theater Pub Facebook page drinking that, if anyone’s interested.

Don’t miss the last two performances of Pint Sized Plays IV: July 29 and 30, at 8 PM, only at the Cafe Royale! The show is free and no reservations are necessary, but we encourage you to get there early because we will be full!

Don’t Miss The Dead! One Night Only!

Every year on June 16th, fans of James Joyce celebrate “Bloomsday” – the day upon which the novel Ulysses takes place. But what is to be done on the day after?

Join us today, June 17th, for San Francisco Theater Pub’s staged reading of Joyce’s famous short story, “The Dead!”

Performed Reader’s Theater style, this adaptation of The Dead, by our very own Jeremy Cole, ran for six seasons at Hunger Artists Ensemble Theater in Denver, CO!

The year is 1904. It is a snowy winter’s night in the city of Dublin. Gretta and Gabriel Conroy are among the guests at the Morkan Sisters’ annual dinner on the Feast of the Epiphany and the last day of Christmas. An evening of laughter, music and dance ends in introspection and Gabriel has an epiphany of his own.

The Theater Pub cast features: Melissa Clason, Siobhan Doherty, Jean Forsman, Cameron Galloway, Heather Kellogg, William Leschber, Theresa Miller, Rhio Ossola, Vince Faso, and Sara Breindel on the harp.

Admission is, as always, FREE with a suggested donation, and of course, we’ll have Hide Away Blues BBQ there so arrive hungry and get there early to ensure a seat!

See you tonight!

Cowan Palace: James Joyce, A Man For The Living And The Dead

Ashley Cowan preps you for next week’s dramatic reading of “The Dead.”

As we move closer to the summer equinox, it seems like the perfect season to soak in some Theater Pub. Well, you’re in luck, friends, because on June 17, “The Dead” is taking over Cafe Royale. Before you get too excited about another zombie tale, you should know that “The Dead” is actually a short story included in James Joyce’s Dubliners, a collection of tales from 1914. Though the word “short” may not quite do it justice, “The Dead” in its entirety is 15,672 words and may be better classified as a novella.

The plot surrounds Gabriel Conroy on a January evening in 1904. More specifically, it’s the annual dance and dinner hosted by the Morkan sisters. But without giving too much away, as the story will reveal itself under the direction of Jeremy Cole, here are a few fun facts about James Joyce, the holiday known as Bloomsday, and how it can help you survive “The Dead”.

So first, who is this James Joyce guy?

Well, his full name is James Augustine Aloysius Joyce and he was born in Dublin, Ireland as the eldest of 10 children. He was probably best known as a poet and novelist but spent a lot of his life struggling to earn a living for his family and often took whatever clerical or teaching work he encountered.

But then he had it easy once he became better known for his writing, right?

Not exactly. Among many life challenges, the poor guy also didn’t have the best eyesight. In fact he underwent over 25 eye surgeries in his lifetime and when he finally began to make a living from writing, his eyesight had deteriorated considerably. He was then forced to rely on others to help him complete his works.

Yikes. Do you think this impacted “The Dead?”

Well, the story seems to be leading to a moment of clarity and ultimately with that, the painful cost that comes with self-awareness. Gabriel battles social awkwardness and crippling insecurities that on some level most of us could understand. It’s likely that Joyce grappled with aspects of these things as well.

But wait, what’s this Bloomsday thing I always here about? Was Joyce a party animal?

Bloomsday, June 16, encompasses an annual celebration for Joyce fans worldwide. It’s honored in at least 60 countries but, of course, it’s probably nowhere near the revelry in Dublin.

Why is that?

As Dublin is the setting for the book Ulysses, Joyce fans have made a tradition of reenacting the story as the central character, Leopold Bloom. His entire itinerary is carried out across the city in new and creative ways each year. But honestly, who needs an excuse to drink a Guinness and party?

When did Bloomsday start?

It actually wasn’t Joyce’s idea. Bloomsday was created in 1954, the 50th anniversary of the events in the book. Two men named John Ryan and Flann O’Brien decided to organize a daylong adventure following the route set about in Ulysses. Included in the friends who joined them was Joyce’s cousin, Tom Joyce.

It seems like Bloomsday has impacted a lot of people.

I’d say so. In fact, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married on June 16, 1956 in honor of Bloomsday.

Bloomsday also continues to make its mark in popular culture as well. A couple references you may remember include: In Mel Brooks’ classic 1968 film, The Producers, Gene Wilder plays a character named Leo Bloom, who as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, is in honor to the fella from Ulysses. Furthering the homage, in the musical adaptation from 2005, the office calendar reads “June 16”.

Richard Linklater was also clearly a Joyce junkie and included Ulysses in his 1991 film, Slacker, by having a character read a passage from the book. He also sets his 1995 Before Sunrise (one of Ashley Cowan’s favorites!) all on June 16.

Okay, I get that June 16 is the day Ulysses was set on and that the name comes from Leopold Bloom. But what’s so important about June 16? Why did Joyce pick that day?

This one may impress all you romantics out there. On June 16, 1904, Joyce took Nora Barnacle on their first date.

And did their first date lead to a second?

Oh, it did! They had quite the love affair. Aside from creating two children, they were also known for some rather erotic letters they would write to each other. In fact, for one lucky fan, a letter sold for almost half a million dollars at Sotheby’s back in 2004.

Any examples from their passionate letters?

Well, pervert, many of Joyce’s books were censored and banned, some even pirated, so we know he was full of potential! But I’ll give you one example with this sexy sentence meant for Nora, “The two parts of your body which do dirty things are the loveliest to me.” Try that one on your honey in honor of Bloomsday!

I can see why Theater Pub wanted to take this project on…

Originally, Joyce had earlier considered titling Dubliners (the book where “The Dead” can be found) Ulysses in Dublin. However, Dubliners made the final cut. The characters Gabriel Conroy, Gretta Conroy, Kate and Julia Morkan, and Bartell d’Arcy, from “The Dead”, are suggested but none of they actually make an appearance in Ulysses. In any case, as Bloomsday also celebrates Joyce in the whole, it seems like a perfect choice for the June 17 Theater Pub.

So tell me more about Joyce’s kids.

Sure. They were named Giorgio and Lucia Joyce. Lucia led an interesting life; at one point she actually dated Samuel Beckett! Later though she was declared a schizophrenic and had to be confined in a mental asylum.

Way to be a downer.

Yeah, well, that’s life. Writers often experience a lot of pain but their work is enriched and praised because of it. Joyce was a complicated guy. It’s also said that he suffered some strong fears. His phobias included: cynophobia (fear of dogs) and keraunophobia (fear of lightning and thunder). It’s believed his final words were, “Does nobody understand?” before he died on January 10, 1941 and I hope for him, heaven is a place without dogs or storms.

Joyce once said, ”mistakes are the portals of discovery”. But don’t make the mistake of missing this Theater Pub or you’ll discover you’ve missed quite the event! So this June 17th, join us at the Cafe Royale at 8 PM, order up your favorite Irish inspired beverage, sit back, and allow the cast of “The Dead” to transport you to Dublin where you’re welcome to take home an Irish accent and a piece of the Bloomsday spirit.

The Dead Will Rise One Week From Tonight!

Every year on June 16th, fans of James Joyce celebrate “Bloomsday” – the day upon which the novel Ulysses takes place. But what is to be done on the day after?

Join us on Monday, June 17th, at 8 PM for San Francisco Theater Pub’s staged reading of Joyce’s famous short story, “The Dead.”

Performed Reader’s Theater style, this adaptation of The Dead, by our very own Jeremy Cole, ran for six seasons at Hunger Artists Ensemble Theater in Denver, CO.

The year is 1904. It is a snowy winter’s night in the city of Dublin. Gretta and Gabriel Conroy are among the guests at the Morkan Sisters’ annual dinner on the Feast of the Epiphany and the last day of Christmas. An evening of laughter, music and dance ends in introspection and Gabriel has an epiphany of his own.

The Theater Pub cast features: Melissa Clason, Siobhan Doherty, Jean Forsman, Cameron Galloway, Heather Kellogg, William Leschber, Theresa Miller, Rhio Ossola, Vince Faso, and Sara Breindel on the harp.

Admission is, as always, FREE with a suggested donation, and of course, we’ll have Hide Away Blues BBQ there so arrive hungry and get there early to ensure a seat!

Jeremy On Joyce

We’re starting June off with an interview with Jeremy Cole, the adaptor/director behind this month’s Theater Pub, a dramatic reading of James Joyce’s The Dead. It happens for one night only on June 17th, only at the Cafe Royale, so don’t miss it! Meanwhile, in Jeremy-land…

Jeremy Cole, waiting for us to get to the important part.

Jeremy Cole, waiting for us to get to the important part.

Who are you, in a hundred words or less?

I was christened Lance Smith – but changed my name in 1986. After all, Smith is so generic and Lance is what you do to a boil. Born in San Diego, raised in the Ozarks, recovering Catholic, honorary Jew, total Atheist, trend-setter (I came out in 1976), and sarcastic Oscar Wilde wannabe. I’ve been acting since forever (though I’m a LOUSY liar – so I tell the truth instead, and let me tell you: honesty is so NOT the best policy…but whatcha gonna do?), mostly a director and a designer, now a playwright on occasion. Your basic all-around good-time guy.

What’s your past with Theater Pub, and how did you get involved with us?

Mostly I attend Theater Pub shows. I especially like the program illustrations. But I got directly involved when I wrote a script for the first Pint Sized Plays called “Hot? Or Not…” – followed by two other shorts – for Pint Sized II, and Occupy Theater Pub.

You’ve got a past with this play, too. Tell us more about that.

I originally directed this piece for the late, lamented Hunger Artists Ensemble – a group I worked with a lot in Denver, Colorado. We had no idea if a reader’s theater piece would fly – especially since we were doing it right around the holidays, and it’s not exactly a thigh-slapping comedy. It not only flew – it soared – they continued to bring it back as their holiday show for the next five seasons, as well.

What made you want to bring it to Theater Pub?

I’ve wanted to re-mount it out here for some time. Since it struck such a chord with the community in Denver, which is #20 on the list of most college degrees per capita, I felt that it would certainly go over well out here, in the city that holds First Place on that same chart. And Theater Pub already has a history of doing script-in-hand shows, so it seemed like a perfect fit. Plus there’s alcohol. It’s a trifecta!

What’s exciting and challenging about dusting it off and working with it again for this reading?

No matter how many times I read/hear this story, I notice things that I hadn’t before, or which I hadn’t noticed in the same way before… Every new actor that works on the show brings different colors to their characters – it’s as if James Joyce wrote a Lanford Wilson script – one where the basics are sketched in, but a great deal of room is left for the actor to fill in the blanks.

Is there anything you’re inclined to change or fix?

Absolutely. The prior script had seven readers. This one has nine. Previously, Mary Jane and Gretta were read by the same actress. It made for some fun acting challenges – particularly in a scene where the two were talking one right after the other, but while that got laughs, it was the conceit that elicited the laughter – the actress’s quick shift of voice and physicality – not the scene that was being played. This version takes away those laughs, but helps Gretta retain the gravitas that she needs to have during the second act.

Lots of people are intimidated by Joyce- what do you think is intimidating about this piece?

I would be horribly intimidated by Ulysses or Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but this story is much less dense and much more naturalistic than those more dense and abstract works. The big intimidation with this piece is that it is so well-known and well-loved. Like the current film version of “Gatsby” – everyone is going in with their own idea of what the story should be. I respect that and don’t try to lay something on top of the script that doesn’t belong there. Nothing comes from left field. There may be purists who nit-pick at my cuts, but it wasn’t written as a play, so some cuts were necessary. On opening night in Denver, a woman called me on the carpet for cutting “blancmange” out of the list of condiments served at the dinner. She’d really be upset with this current version, because I cut even more. Lists – even of delicious food items – don’t play very well in performance – they bring the show to a halt.

What about this piece appealed to you and made you want to adapt it?

There’s a funny story there. I love “The Dead”, and admired John Huston’s film version of it, but I never had any desire to adapt it. Hunger Artists had commissioned a local playwright/director to adapt it into a play. They even got a grant for it. About seven weeks before the auditions, he told them he had pneumonia and wouldn’t be up to directing the show, so they asked me if I’d be interested. I said, “Sure!” – assuming that he had already written the script and that I was just stepping in to direct it. They handed me a copy of The Dubliners. Gulp. Panic set in, but I don’t back away from commitments, so I took the plunge and decided quickly that we needed to keep the narration (the final paragraph is so famous/loved, I’d be hung from a tree if I didn’t keep it exactly as is), and once I had made the decision to do it reader’s theater style, the piece began to find its shape pretty quickly.

What else is in the future for you?

I don’t know if you’ve heard of the San Francisco Olympians Festival…? Well, they’re doing this Trojan War shindig in November. I’m writing a piece for it called On the Plains of Ilium in which the plains themselves are recalling lesser known stories from the Trojan War – the tales of Cycnus, Memnon, Protesilaus, Aethra, Palamedes… You know, the usual: murder, rape, betrayal…it’s a hoot. Plus, I’m planning to do/take the 31 Plays in 31 Days challenge again. It’s a program where you commit to writing and submitting a short play every day for the month of August. I did it last year, and though it kicked my ass to Pacifica and back, it was a terrific experience.

Joyce liked to drink- what do you think he’d order from our bar? What do you like to order?

Joyce himself wrote: “What is better than to sit at the end of the day and drink wine with friends, or substitutes for friends?” I’m all about that – especially the substitute friends part. I usually order the Malbec when I’m at Cafe Royale, so I flatter myself that Joyce would join me. But he’d drink more. A lot more. He’d be an expensive date.

Don’t miss The Dead, for one night only, June 17th, at the Cafe Royale in San Francisco. The event is free, begins at 8 PM, and reservations aren’t necessary, but get there early and enjoy some Hyde Away Blues BBQ!