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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEST NEW VENUE
PianoFight

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

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
San Francisco Fringe Festival (EXIT Theatre)

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

BEST SHOW
“Our Town” (Shotgun Players)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Marissa Skudlarek, “Pleiades”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Cat Luedtke in Anything

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

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

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

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

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

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

And as for Me…

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

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

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

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

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

Ah well. C’est la vie.

Deep breath.

Happy New Year.


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

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Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Truth and Kindness

Marissa Skudlarek, truer and kinder every day.

Yesterday, Ashley Cowan wrote the column I wanted to write. Damn her!

But it just so happened that both Ashley and I have had similar experiences in the last few weeks. Each of us published a piece that we considered critical but fair and honest, and each of us experienced a backlash from the people who we’d criticized. There was debate, there was drama, there was scandalized gossip, there were messages of support, there was soul-searching. And, in the end, neither of us apologized for what we’d written; neither of us backed down.

Ashley and I each went through this experience independently, yet I think we each gained strength from knowing that we were part of a community of writers, bloggers, and theater-makers here in San Francisco, and from knowing that we aren’t the first people in the world to receive blowback after publishing a piece that is honest but not totally positive. A few years ago, the experience of arguing on Facebook with an acclaimed American theater artist would have devastated me. I might have been intimidated into backing down or apologizing in order to smooth things over. I didn’t do that this time. Like Ashley, I waited to respond, and chose my words carefully. Like her, I reiterated that I had not had any nefarious motivations in publishing my piece, yet I was not going to apologize for writing it.

Heck, six months ago on this very blog, I got into an argument with my editor, Stuart Bousel, in the comments section of one of my posts. It got pretty heated and, as the argument progressed, I found myself running to the bathroom at work and crying. I say this not to cast blame on anyone, but because I feel like being honest. But I didn’t cry, this past week.

Oddly enough, my argument with Stuart centered around the way an artist’s work is received out in the world. Stuart had written, “The constant possibility of reactions beyond your control are just the nature of a life where you have elected to live big and loud over quietly tending your own garden and being satisfied with that.” And despite our quibbling over certain implications of this phrase, despite my crying in my office bathroom, you know what… I’ve come around to agree with Stuart’s point. As such, when the artist took me to task on Facebook for saying that I didn’t care for his latest play, many people commented that it was odd that he should respond in such a fashion. Didn’t he know that, when you put work out into the world, not everyone may enjoy it or understand it? Couldn’t he accept that the audience’s reaction was beyond his control?

And in the meantime, I’ve become better able to withstand negativity myself. I try to write only things that I can stand behind 100%, reminding myself that I can control the words I put down, but I can’t control the response to them.

This blog, which we’re now referring to as the San Francisco Theater Pub(lic), has been going for almost two years, but in the last few months, it feels like we’ve become an actual Thing. Just before Christmas, the regular bloggers had a meeting over sangria at our beloved Cafe Flore that has attained the status of legend. We stopped feeling like we were just a bunch of individual wordsmiths rushing to meet column deadlines, and started to realize that we were truly a tribe, a collective, a happy few, a band of brothers… (well, mostly sisters).

As bloggers, we all have our own individual voices, perspectives, and pet topics, but one of the most gratifying things about working on this blog for two years is that I can sense a larger pattern, or voice, developing that connects our disparate posts. It seems like many of our posts revolve around the idea of living an ethical life in a difficult business. (Or, hell, a difficult world; the theater may not coddle you, but life doesn’t coddle you either.) Or, as Ashley phrased it in her piece, perhaps the theme is “how to be both honest and kind.”

This theme has been especially striking in the past week, what with Will Leschber’s contention that “hating the Oscars is lazy reporting and lazy viewership,” to guest columnist John Caldon’s list of suggestions for how to deliver feedback honestly and constructively, to Ashley’s aforementioned “I’m not sorry I told my story” piece, to Claire Rice’s attempts to lay her heart open and get at the root of her writer’s block. (Freudian slip alert: I originally typed “writer’s blog” there just now. True story.) All of us are pushing ourselves to be more honest, more courageous, and more compassionate, both as writers and as human beings. Which means that we’re all pushing each other forward, as well; a rising tide lifts all boats. I’ve always dreamed of being part of a group like this, but thought that they only existed in stories. Now I know that it’s within my power — our power — to make it a reality.

I want you to keep pushing me to be a better writer and a better person. I want you to continue writing pieces that make me say, “damn, I wish I’d written that.”

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

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.

Writer Stuart Bousel on “Brainkill”, Theater, Celebrity Guests, and His Mental Health

At the end of this month, the Bay One Acts Festival will be premiering a number of new works by local writers and performances groups. San Francisco Theater Pub will be producing one of these works, a new short play, “Brainkill”, by Stuart Bousel, one of the founding artistic directors. We’ve already spoken with “Brainkill” director Sara Staley, so this week we thought we’d check in with the writer but (and now the secret is out), the website interviews have predominantly been conducted by Stuart Bousel, and having him interview himself seemed a little bit ridiculous. Ever resourceful, we asked Megan Cohen, frequent Pub collaborator and fellow BOA writer, to pick the brain behind “Brainkill”. Keep reading to see the results.

Meg: If you could make any three people in the world come to see “Brainkill”, who would they be and why?

Stuart:  Okay… let’s limit this to living people. Because the dead… I mean, there are a lot of dead people I’d love to get feedback from. But as for the living… well, Hal Hartley is the first that comes to mind. He’s my favorite film-maker and in many ways my favorite living American artist. His writing and his films have been very influential on me over the years and his way of making art- his absolute commitment to making his work on his own terms and maintaining his artistic integrity- have been really inspiring to me as a person. I met him years ago at a screening of a movie of his and I was so tongue-tied it was probably very socially awkward. I suspect he probably wondered if I was mentally stable, but he was still a really nice guy to me. And I’d love to have him watch something of mine, even though I don’t know if he’d like it. But I’d love that chance to have five minutes afterwards to ask, “What did you think?” and hear what he had to say, whatever he had to say. The other two are Stephen Sondheim and Sally Potter and the reasons are essentially the same- they’re just artists I have an endless amount of respect for and it would be deeply humbling to have a chance to learn directly from people whose work I have been following and learning from for years.

Meg: You wear almost every conceivable hat in the Bay Area theater scene: writer, artistic director, producer, director, actor, one-man publicity machine, ad-hoc casting director, diplomat, nemesis, cheerleader, and goodness knows what else.  How, if at all, do you think these different perspectives on this art form have informed your work as a writer?

Stuart: I think that the more hats someone has worn in the theater community, the better in general they are at everything and more importantly, the more considerate and aware they are of what it takes to make a play happen. Directors who have been actors have a better understanding of what actors are going through; designers who also direct learn to think more efficiently, etc. Walking in the shoes of another role usually results in learning to work as a team rather than thinking a show is all about you and your vision. As a writer, I think having been an actor has resulted in me always striving to make sure that characters I create are genuinely interesting to play- not just a set of quirks or a stand-in for an archetype or symbol, but rather a personality with something to say and a reason to be there beyond “advances the plot.” Though it’s always important to advance the plot. All the other hats I have worn have taught me to never limit my imagination as a writer. No matter what your crazy vision, the fact is the right director and designers can make it happen. They may have to dance-theater that shit, but there’s always a way. So don’t limit yourself- just also make sure you don’t limit them. Don’t insist your show only be done with real helicopters or life-size elephants or whatever. Your job as the writer is to plant the seed, not tend the leaves, you know? My life as a producer has taught me a lot, but the big thing is to always create with passion. Because we’re definitely not in it for the money or the love of our peers. As a writer, that means write what’s important to you because if your work isn’t important to you, why should it be worth someone else’s time and money?

Meg:What’s the creative history of Brainkill?  Has it had previous stagings or readings, and when did you write it?

Stuart: I wrote it in March of 2011, in about three hours, during a moment of deep frustration and disappointment with… the world. I wrote it by hand in a spiral notebook, while sitting at a table in Caffe Trieste on Market Street. I did some re-drafting over the next couple of weeks, but I’d say it’s about 85% exactly the same as the first draft. I actually only heard it aloud for the first time at the BOA reading this past March. Which was terrifying, because I had no idea how it would come off.

Meg: The dialogue in BRAINKILL is mostly very terse, fast, and streamlined; the world of the play is intense, and pretty much breathless.  What’s your writing process like when you’re crafting such a crisp, curt script?

Stuart: Almost every play I have written has a different process it seems. In this particular case it was just sitting at the table and scratching away till my hand hurt and then scratching away some more because I had something I felt I really needed to say and it was now or never. The breathlessness of the script reflects my own mind at the time, which was just exploding with rage. I was having some chai, and thinking intensely about things, and suddenly I heard Alex and Bobby’s opening dialogue and I thought, “Oh, I need to write this down right now” and I just kept writing… one scene led to another. And then it led to the end. I remember afterwards going to a rehearsal for M. Butterfly and saying to Rik Lopes, “I just wrote a play.” And it was like I had just woken up. Sometimes you get possessed like that and there isn’t much to really say about how it happened. I was inspired and I followed that inspiration until I got out what I needed to say.

Meg: At least one of the roles in the play, Alex, could have been cast with either a male or female actor.  What kind of conversation did you and director Sara Staley have about who to cast, and how much of a factor was gender?

Stuart: Actually, all five roles in the show can be cast with either men or women. The names are intentionally non-gender specific and there are no pronouns in the play. Alex ended up as a woman in this first production because Theresa Miller auditioned for the play and Sara and I both love Theresa and both really love it when Theresa, who is a lovely person, plays evil. And so we had her read the role at auditions and she was just super funny, but she also made all of Alex’s lines really work- on the first read. They were simultaneously very outrageous and totally believable coming out of her mouth. The rest of the casting went from there: Dave Levine had a kind of feckless sweetness that made him a good Bobby, who needs to be easy to dupe but also easy to root for; Kate Jones has a sexiness combined with a certain edge that screamed Darcy; and Travis Howse is one of those actors who is just immediately likable, which is ideal for Elliot, who needs to be trust-worth from his first entrance. The only time gender really entered the decision making process was when we realized that if Alex AND Darcy, were both women, as the less sympathetic characters, we would need a female Carmen to balance out the gender portrayals in the play. Otherwise, it would potentially come off as “Women evil, Men good”, which is not what either of us wanted the play to be construed as. Luckily, a very strong actress named Giovanna Arieta auditioned and seemed like the perfect foil for Theresa, so she rounds out the cast. I’m excited about them all, but I won’t lie, I also look forward to someday seeing a production with, say a female Bobby and a male Darcy. Or where everybody is female, or everybody is male. An all male cast, with only Carmen as female, strikes me as potentially very interesting.

Meg: The characters in BRAINKILL spend a lot of time at and/or near the psychological breaking point.  Stuart, are you okay?

Stuart: Um… no. No I’m not. I’m getting better, but the truth is, I’m exhausted, I’m frustrated, and I’m angry at a world that is too many parts apathy and too many parts unfocused rage. I feel like we’re progressively living in a society that doesn’t value teaching its kids to think for themselves and be creative, be forgiving, be honest, and understand that it’s not all about status or material gains or physical pleasure or being told you’re special all the time. There are people I know who claim to be my friends but really aren’t, and from what I can tell have nobody else’s lives in mind but their own. I often feel like I’m struggling with a local art scene that has a ton of potential but perpetually shoots itself in the foot, or its best people in the face. I love San Francisco, but I also recognize it’s a city that is becoming impossible for people of diverse incomes to live in and it often seems indifferent to cultivating and preserving those things that make a city great- like a great art scene, and a variety of industries and professions. I’m angry at how little we, as individuals, say and how often we’re encouraged to keep our dissenting thoughts to ourselves for fear of saying what isn’t popular or what people don’t want to hear. I’m scared by how, when we finally do say these things, it’s usually in a forum or manner that makes it dismissible or violent or impossible to be argued and reasoned with- either because we’re driven past the point of reason, or because the real goal has been to just lash out rather than reform. The death of critical thinking, the animosity with which intellectual and artistic integrity are met, sometimes within the artistic community itself, really tortures me. The extremes of everything terrifies me. I don’t want to live in a world of flag waving mediocrity and I don’t want to live in a world of chaotic anarchy. But I may have to. And I may have to accept that speaking my mind and telling the truth and living by example will mean losing some friends and half my votes for prom king. Actually, accepting that is pretty much what it’s going to take to be okay. And I’m working on that. Actually, writing this play was the beginning of accepting that.

Meg: How did you and Sara Staley, who is directing the production, find each other as collaborators?

Stuart: Theater Pub, as a group, made a decision to be a producing partner in the Bay One Acts Festival this year, but one of our requests was that we produce a play by someone who had worked at the Pub previously, and that it be directed by someone who had worked at the Pub. Sara Staley had worked on three pub shows and so Jessica matched her up with us. Sara was then free to choose any play she wanted from the writers who had submitted work, though preferably one who had worked with Theater Pub already. She picked me from the pile, which was deeply flattering of her, and that’s how it happened. Though we’ve both done a lot at Theater Pub, this is actually our first time working together.

Meg: As a busy theatermaker, you spend a lot of time in rehearsals, in performance spaces, and at shows.  It’s easy to get lost in the black box and forget about the outside world; what’s a non-theater-related activity that enlivens your work?

Stuart: I read a lot. I go on long walks. My boyfriend and I recently re-watched the entirety of the 1991 revival of Dark Shadows. I have a lot of friends around the country and world I try to keep up. Some aren’t even involved with or like the theater, which can be truly refreshing. I also have a semi-secret hobby of hand-drawing street-maps of cities and floorplans of medieval castles. I’ve been generating a massive fictional world, a la J.R.R. Tolkien since I was in high school. It’s very calming.

Meg: What’s next on the docket for you?

Stuart: I’m directing The Merchant of Venice for Custom Made, which I’m very excited about. It’s my second time working there and I think they’re really emerging as a company so it’s a good time to be there and feel like you’re helping good people better realize their dream of having a diverse and accomplished company. Plus I love that play. After that, there’s a bunch of things, but the big thing is the third installment of the Olympians Festival. You can find out more about that here: http://www.sfolympians.com.

Meg: What are you looking forward to seeing onstage in the coming months, besides the hundred-and-one projects that you’re involved in?

Stuart: There are some other shows in BOA that I’m looking forward to. Namely, yours, actually, and Claire Rice directing Erin Bregman’s play (which I’m also producing). In both instances, the scripts are kind of out of left field and I’m just, frankly, waiting to see how they are realized onstage because I can’t envision them myself, particularly Erin’s. It’s a very clever script and I feel like I “get it”, I’m just also sort of boggled by it on a practical level but those scripts are my favorite to see Claire wrestle with because she’s a super astute director and an innovative thinker. I’m looking forward to the new Sleepwalker’s show, Down To This. I like Tore Ingersoll-Thorpe a lot as a director. Even when I don’t particularly like the plays he’s chosen to direct, I admire his aesthetic and his approach and I like that he chooses challenging work. I actually know very little about the show, I just know I’ll walk out having something to talk about with my boyfriend. I look forward to seeing what Pint Sized looks like this year. We have a ton of submissions, more than ever and many from people I’ve never heard of, and even though I’m part of Theater Pub, Julia Heitner runs that festival, currently, and she brought in a bunch of surprises last year that really elevated the evening. I’m excited to see what she does and to continue to see our pool of writers expanding. Claire Rice’s full length, Waterline, is also slated to be directed by John Caldon over at Geurilla Rep, later this year. I went to a reading of it the other night and it’s a great script. John, like Claire, is a theater artist whose mind I just really admire and so seeing them work together basically gives me hope for the future. Which clearly I need a strong dose of.

Meg: In five words or less, what do you hope you’ll overhear someone in the lobby say after seeing this production of Brainkill?

Stuart: “What did you think?”

For more information about the BOA Festival and all the great shows included in this year’s line up, including “The Bird Trap” by Founding Artstic Director Bennett Fisher, head over to http://www.bayoneacts.org.

An Interview With Kirsten Broadbear, Star Of Helen

Having spent the last month thinking about Helen of Troy, it seemed only natural that we should take a few moments to chat up Kirsten Broadbear, a staple of the San Francisco indy theater scene, who will be playing the title role in Helen this Valentine’s Day at SF Theater Pub.

What kind of characters are you drawn to as an actress?

I find humans fascinating, so the more complex the character, the more interesting it is to try to discover and explore what makes the character tick.

So then, what’s it like to play the most beautiful woman who ever lived?

It’s the one thing I’m trying not to focus on, actually. Of course, this molds a large part of who Helen is, but instead of trying to understand what it would feel like to be that beautiful, I’m more intrigued by what it might feel like to be a person underneath a canvas upon which strangers project their conceptions, like we do with celebrities all the time.

What did you know about Helen of Troy before you took this role?

That she caused the Trojan War and a lot of men died for her.

How about now? Has your opinion about her changed?

I think this is the first time I’ve ever even held an opinion about her; before she was just a vapid sort of pawn or catalyst for war and I didn’t attribute much of a personality or humanness to her.

We’re doing this show on Valentine’s Day for a reason. In your opinion, what does this play say about love?

Love is a funny thing. It reveals itself in unexpected ways, and lasting love isn’t always the kind that’s full of passion and romance. In the end, it’s just bloody nice to have someone who knows you, by your side, enjoying an average animal sacrifice in the morning together.

What’s your involvement with Theater Pub been like in the past?

I’ve been fortunate to have participated in quite a few of Theater Pub’s shows. Each time has been a different cast and crew, a different topic, a different concept and different presentation and use of the space, but every single time – it’s made for a great night. Theater Pub is an extremely important venue for the community; it’s accessible and relaxed without being dumbed down. And it’s truly a night to commune. No conventional stage or lights or restricted access to bathrooms enables a connection with the audience that makes everyone feel like they’re a part of the success of the event.

What keeps you coming back, both as a theater artist, and as an audience member?

I am constantly proverbially pinching myself because I’m amazed at how many incredibly intelligent, kind, and fantastically talented people there are to work with in the Bay Area. Theater Pub has a playfulness and an ability to engage with such a variety of people, equally including all those involved behind the scenes and running the bar and the patrons.

As an actress, what’s the difference between acting in a full production, vs. a reading like this show?

There are a lot of differences. But I suppose one important distinction is that a reading somehow allows for more innovation. It’s looser since sets and costumes aren’t present, and it incites the imagination more than a full production with all the spectacles laid out before you.

What else are you working on these days?

I’ll be doing a staged reading for BoxCar’s Sam Shepherd festival in March, which I’m really excited for. Then, I’m thrilled to be part of BOA again this year, working with an incredible group of talents (Megan Cohen, Jessica Holt, Sarah Moser, Siobhan Doherty, Megan Trout, among others), immediately followed by Tia Loca and Her Life of Crimes produced by the wonderful and delicious John Caldon, and performing side by side with the magnificent Matt Gunnison.

Anything you’re looking forward to seeing in the local theater scene?

As I mentioned before, there is such an amazing group of talented people in and around this town, I am constantly looking forward to seeing the magic these people create. It’s always an adventure and I feel lucky to be on the ride.

Catch Kirsten playing Helen in HELEN, this Valentine’s Day at the San Francisco Theater Pub. The show starts at 8, but we encourage you to get there around 7:30 as we can get pretty full. The event is FREE, and only happens at the Cafe Royale, 800 Post Street, San Francisco.