Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: If Only Angels Could Prevail

Marissa Skudlarek, prevailing. 

This is my last scheduled post as a regular columnist for the Theater Pub blog.

Really great timing, huh?

When Stuart and I were discussing our plan to wind down the blog, and I realized that my final post was scheduled to run two days after the election, I said, “If Trump wins, I might not be able to get you that post on time, FYI.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Stuart, “he’s not gonna win.”

But, while I may have been prescient enough to have at least considered the possibility of a Trump victory, I was not prescient enough to know what my own response would be. Yes, I am sad and numb and hollowed out. Yes, I have chills and I’ve lost my appetite, the way I always do when blindsided by bad news.

But I woke up this morning, the day after the election, and put on a black dress and pulled my hair back and drew on eyeliner and walked outside with my head high. The first battle of the new American era was simply getting out of bed and facing the day with dignity. And I am ready to fight. And if I were to simply wallow in my grief tonight and not write anything, I would feel even worse.

I spent Election Night at PianoFight, the venue where Theater Pub performs, which was hosting a party with a free edition of Killing My Lobster’s election-themed sketch-comedy show. I had thought, “No matter what happens, this is where I want to be, these are the people I want to be among.” But it was loud and crowded and, as the disappointing election returns started to come in, increasingly anxious and panicked. There were lots of hugs and mutual support. There was cautious optimism, defiant singing, political rationalizations. And always, always, there was that damned CNN map on a big screen in the corner. (When I closed my eyes in bed last night, visions of a red and blue patchwork danced before me.) I became so anxious that I started to get lightheaded, and I didn’t much feel like laughing.

So, along with Theater Pub’s Artistic Director Tonya Narvaez, I sneaked into a tech rehearsal in PianoFight’s smaller theater. A group of SF State students were there, practicing a revue of Stephen Sondheim songs. It was cool and quiet, art was being made, and we could check the election results on our phones but not be glued to the TV screen. And, if the world was ending, why not spend it listening to live performances of Sondheim?

I didn’t cry when Prince or Bowie died, but I sure as hell am going to cry when Sondheim dies. And as this shitty year winds down its last shitty weeks, the thought “At least Sondheim is still alive… please God let him hang on till 2017” has popped into my head a few times.

Sondheim has written some dark material, and the students’ selection focused on the more political side of his oeuvre. Several pieces from Assassins and Sweeney Todd. “Pretty Lady” from Pacific Overtures, a deceptively beautiful song about sexual predation. A woman with long red hair sang “Every Day A Little Death” and I couldn’t help thinking of Melania Trump—another trophy wife in a relationship with a blustering man who “talks softly of his wars / and his horses and his whores.”

So Tonya and I, two unmarried Millennials, strong women descended from strong women, with surnames (Spanish and Slavic) that still sound foreign to many ears, escaped into the tech rehearsal in the back room. We held hands, we hugged, we shed a few tears when we realized how things were going. We realized the irony of treating PianoFight’s small theater as a refuge, because the set for Every 28 Hours is still up—posters of the people of color who have been slain by police in recent years, reminding us that even in Obama’s America, it was not safe to be brown or black. We heard the lyric “If only angels could prevail” and thought yes, if only.

I know I live in a liberal, artistic bubble. In the day since the bad news has sunk in, I have seen many people express thoughts about the role of artists under a Trump administration, responses that take one of two forms. Some people say “At least some great art will come out of this, great art always emerges from adversity,” which seems like a pathetic attempt to find a silver lining in the situation. All things considered, most artists would prefer to work under conditions of peace and prosperity, not conditions of adversity. It is difficult to make art if you live in a society that refuses to see you as fully human—perhaps one reason that art by white men dominates the Western canon.

Other people are framing this slightly differently, saying, “This is the time for artists to get to work. We need your stories and your voices now more than ever.” I have mixed feelings about this. While I appreciate being reminded that my voice matters and that art has a larger purpose, I am skeptical of the idea that art is what will get us out of this mess. I’m also not sure that I agree with the implication that the only art we should be making in this troubled time is overtly political, agenda-driven art.

But still, there is a reason I went to the Sondheim show last night, and a reason that I have continued to think about art and literature today. I mentioned that, when faced with a bleak and distressing situation, I lose my physical appetite. I also lose my metaphorical appetite: my compulsion, usually so strong, to immerse myself in works of art. Instead, for a time, I feel like there is no joy in the world and no art that is possibly worth experiencing. I wake up in the morning and think “What can I read on the way to work today? What can I possibly read?”

And then, unbidden, the craving for some work of art will hit me, and it is the first moment I feel like myself again, the first moment I see a path out of despair. Today, someone on Twitter posted the Tolkien quote about how the only people who hate escapism are jailers. I’m not much of a one for Tolkien, but the quote reminded me of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in which the title characters create a comic-book superhero called The Escapist. “I will start rereading Kavalier and Clay when I get home,” I thought, and, for the first time, I felt a little better. It’s a story about a Czech Jewish refugee and his queer Brooklyn cousin fighting fascism with art—the kind of America, and American values, that I want to believe in.

If we wanted, we could darkly joke that Theater Pub was a product of the Obama era and so it is appropriate that it’s ending in December 2016. Just one more casualty of this year, every day a little death. But that might produce the impression that Trump’s victory caused us to quit in defeat, when that isn’t true at all. As I said in an earlier piece about Theater Pub’s impending end, the organization and the blog are going away, but we aren’t going away. I’ve already started to think about other outlets for my writing.

I don’t know what the future holds. It may well be scary and dark. But I know that I want to be prepared to confront it, with all my wits about me. If Hillary Clinton had won the electoral vote, this final column would have been sentimental and nostalgic and maybe even a bit complacent, looking back at the last six years rather than looking ahead at the future. But because Trump has won, I cannot spend time on nostalgia. The last six, or eight, years have shaped me. Theater Pub has shaped me. Art of all kinds has shaped me and made me stronger. Now it is time to test my mettle.

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

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In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – The End is the Beginning is The End

“My royal lord,
You do not give the cheer: the feast is sold
That is not often vouch’d, while ’tis a-making,
‘Tis given with welcome; to feed were best at home;
From thence the sauce to meat is ceremony;
Meeting were bare without it.”
– Lady MacBeth, MacBeth Act III Sc. 4, William Shakespeare

For all of us who have been there, it’s no surprise that Stuart’s apartment is often referred to as “The White Tower”. I honestly can’t recall what color the exterior really is, but I do know how exhausting it is to hike up those stone steps from one street to another, followed by another two flights of steps once you get inside – all for the sake of looking out over his balcony at one of the most enviable views of the San Francisco skyline without riding in a helicopter. Of course it’s The White Tower. What else would we expect from a self-proclaimed “Tolkien-nerd” who produces a festival based around ancient Greek mythology?

There’s a special something in the air for the first writers meeting of the annual SF Olympians Festival. If you’ve worked in the previous year’s festival, you’ve (hopefully) had time to decompress from that madness and have replaced your anxiety with excitement for the new fest, which is a good whole year away. If you’re new to the game, you probably have a walking-on-eggshells feeling of not wanting to look ridiculous in front of a bunch of folks who put on a festival where last year The Judgment of Paris was made to resemble RuPaul’s Drag Race. Don’t worry about it: before the night is over, you’ll be so stuffed with wine, cheese, and chocolate that you won’t think your idea is ridiculous – you’ll wonder if it’s ridiculous enough.

A typical Olympians meeting usually starts with a round of introductions, in which we all clumsily try to remember our names, our subjects, and our proposals for this coming festival. Even without alcohol, that’s a lot harder than you think – we didn’t become writers so that we’d have to, y’know, talk.

We then explain the logistics and mechanics of the festival. Again, those of us who have been through it before know that it’s nothing to be taken for granted, especially as the festival continues to expand – both in size and influence – with each successive year. There are going to be some major changes to the festival, come 2015. The fundamentals will remain the same, but the necessity for streamlining has presented itself. For all the new achievements, there’s also been the accumulation of a lot of dead weight that has slowed down what-should-be a rather expeditious process. That dead weight will have to be cut loose. The only folks likely to complain are those who have been letting others do their work anyway.

Which leads the meeting to another touchy subject: communication. It’s importance cannot be over-stressed. There were problems that sprung up in the last festival (and a few festivals before) that were the result of people not properly communicating with one another. As such, some of those people have become persona non grata with the festival. It’s not something anyone likes to do, but when people ignore repeated warnings, then action has to be taken. We want to be invitational, not exclusive. The idea of anyone feeling like they don’t belong is something we won’t tolerate.

So… after we’ve discussed scheduling, fundraising, and where to find cheap (or free) rehearsal venues all over the Bay Area, we finally come around to the main event of the evening: the writing samples. Every writer is (barring unforeseen circumstances) expected to attend every meeting, and every writer in attendance is expected to bring along two sample pages of their script as proof they’ve actually been, y’know, writing it. It’s not uncommon for pages to be written the day of the meeting (God knows I’ve done it plenty of times). Hell, some folks will actually write them during a lull in the meeting. So long as you aren’t doing this once the festival is up and running, we’re just glad to hear a sample.

I love reading for everyone else’s samples, but hate hearing my own. I mean, I know Allison will bring pages to have us on the floor holding our sides, that Rachel’s will make us all envious of her fertile mind, and that Bridgette will somehow, someway find a way to work iambic pentameter into her dialogue. I’m nowhere near as reliable with my writing, but I will at least try my best not to butcher the words of the fellow writer whose words I’m reciting.

My subject this year is a one-act based on the myth of Poseidon. I’ve always had a soft spot for Poseidon because I think he’s entitled to nearly as much fame (or infamy) as his brother Zeus. I mean, both of them had the tendency to be complete dicks, but somehow Zeus is the more revered dick. My play, in short, is actually pretty timely. I submitted it months ago, but thanks to certain recent revelations about one “Mr. Cosby”, my play has become topical in a way even I didn’t expect. Whether it will remain so in the coming year, remains to be seen.

Stuart calls my subject. I pass my type-written pages off to Sunil and Tonya. I turn my head away, but tilt it in their direction so as to take in every word. I keep my eyes to the ground because I don’t wanna know what everyone else thinks of it – not yet. The two readers keep a good pace with my pages. Two of my jokes even elicit laughs from the room. There’s a chunk about the modern world needing myths more than ever. I genuinely feel that the gravitas of the moment is working. For once in my self-deprecating life, I allow myself think that maybe – just maybe – people actually like the stuff I write. In about two minutes it’s over. I take my pages back, fold them into my bag with my red pen (for adjustments), and consider my work done for the night. I can breathe again.

I'm not saying this is the poster for my play, but I'm not saying it isn't.

I’m not saying this is the poster for my play, but I’m not saying it isn’t.

After all the pages are read, most of the wine has been drunk, and Rachel’s mac ‘n cheese has been completely devoured, we’re all dismissed for the evening. It’s a slow and steady process: phone numbers and e-mails are exchanged, last-minute bites of food are taken, Lyfts are ordered, what-have you. One thing we all take away from this meeting is the fact that the festival is changing. It has to. Everything does. It’s just a question of whether that change is one of a relic falling into decay or an organism evolving with its time and environment. I definitely think the latter is occurring. As I’ve said before, what I love about this festival is that it never ceases to surprise me. It’s almost irrelevant to try to explain certain things to newcomers because there’s something new for all of us. Now we’ve officially begun our yearlong journey into the Wine Dark Sea. And, as the name implies, just sailing out into it is an adventure in and of itself.

Also there’s gonna be a lotta dolphin sex. I mean, a LOT. You don’t even know…

Charles Lewis III can’t wait to make a splash with the upcoming festival. For more information about the history of the festival and next year’s readings, please visit http://www.SFOlympians.com.

Theater Around The Bay: Llamalogue

Stuart Bousel will not be changing names to protect the innocent.

Last night at Theater Pub, the fourth installment of The Pint Sized Plays opened and you should make it a point not to miss this production because it will be our last show at the Cafe Royale.

Also, it’s a very enjoyable evening. After a magical prelude by the Blue Diamond Bellydancers you will be induced to much laughter by volley after volley of razor wit interspersed with life lessons and dramatic moments. At the end of the 80 minutes of drinking themed shorts we bring out the Llama, the un-official (who are we kidding- he’s official- we made t-shirts) mascot of the San Francisco Theater Pub, originally created for the Pub by Elana McKelahan, played for the fourth year in a row by Rob Ready and written, for the second year in a row, by me.

I have often said the Llama is the spirit of the Pub and this year he delivers a bittersweet speech. It’s part ode to Megan Cohen’s dancing bear (played, last year, by Allison Page) and part rumination on the nature of loss, milked as much for laughs as possible but with perhaps a bit more sting than in the past. He concludes the speech (and the evening) valiantly trying to bolster himself (and the audience) with some pop music, before wandering off into the night and the lights go out on the silent, empty space. It’s funny and sad and a fitting end to our time at the Cafe Royale, if perhaps a bit melancholy.

“My bear would never betray the Llama like he does in your play,” Megan Cohen said to me.

“This isn’t about your bear,” I replied, with a wink, “it’s about the idea the llama has attached to the bear.”

Here is my goal in life as a writer and as an artist: to make fun of shit, and to get you to think about and appreciate yourself and the world around you. For years I have been trying to create a new breed of romantic satire where I validate the meaning of it all, even as I validate the likelihood that everything is meaningless. On an individual basis, I want you to laugh, and then I want to rip your heart out and hand it back to you with tears in my eyes and a kiss on my lips, leaving you intact and healing but with a lot to think about. I love you painfully and I want you to know that. Also, I absolutely believe theater is a transformative art (otherwise, why bother), and I want to transform you, if not in the theater than sometime later when you’re sitting by yourself and suddenly it hits you what this was really all about. I have faith that this happens because I have seen it happen, I have had it reported back to me by people it’s happened to, and I have experienced it myself. And I genuinely feel sorry for anyone who hasn’t gone through this at least once in their life. It’s the same sadness I feel for people who tell me they don’t believe in Love. I always think “how gray the world must be for you,” and then I think, “but it will happen some day- and how exciting that will be for you too.” That’s me, putting the romance back into romantic satire. I want you to have your big moment even when you adamantly refuse to accept such a thing could occur. It almost matters more when it happens to people like you.

Speaking of big moments, today is the 16th anniversary of my older brother, Edwin, dying. This is not, generally speaking, something I advertise, but it’s never been something I hide either. I just find that it tends to make people uncomfortable, so I don’t bring it up unless I need to, and it happened so long ago now that many people who currently occupy my life don’t know I ever had a brother named Edwin, let alone that he died, tragically, at the age of 23. When I get asked by new friends, or even older friends who have never asked before, “Do you have any brothers and sisters?” I tend to reply that I do, indeed, have siblings, and leave it at that. Only if asked where they live, or what they do, do I ever mention that one is dead. At which point most people get very crestfallen, tell me how sorry they are, and then suddenly it’s my job to comfort them and let them know that it’s okay: it was a long time ago, and I dealt with it (therapy, an HIV scare, some really colorful drug experimentation) and there is nothing else they need to say or do. He’s gone and it’s sad because I was only 18 and never really got to know him, but it’s also life. Everything ends, including other people. Including you. Including me.

I recently told the cast of my new play, Age of Beauty, that I worship the idea of Light and I do, but it’s partly because I need something to balance a dark world view and aesthetic. And I don’t mean that kind of recent college graduate, post-modern, “I-totally-threw-in-a-rape-scene-following-a-baby-eating-scene-to-shock-you” type of dark. I’m dark like the Bronte Sisters, Arthurian legends and the Shakespeare comedies are all really dark and if you’re intrepid and open to it you can see it, but I also employ lots of little tricks to mitigate my darkness because I’m fundamentally a gentleman and I don’t enjoy awkward silences with people who would rather just glide on the surface. Humor, particularly self-depricating humor, is very present in my work and daily conversation as a way for me to say, “don’t take this too seriously” for fear of you doing so and we all suddenly end up on Intervention together (which I would just find amazingly tasteless). Symbolism is also a very big thing for me: I often say things very openly in my shows but in ways that make sense to virtually nobody else (in the form of, say, a character who constantly cuts black paper into strips, or a certain song that plays behind a monologue spoken by a character who can turn the lights on and off at will) so that the choice can be dismissed as weird instead of the quiet revelation of my inner turmoil that you’re actually seeing. I love the idea of “hidden in plain sight” emotions because I feel that most pain is like that: constantly surrounding us, but we’re blind to it, sometimes accidentally, but often willfully, often because it would just take too much work to understand it, so we’re better off just pretending it’s not there or not significant. Sometimes I revel in being misunderstood as much as I revel in being perceived clearly. Both states have their advantages.

It is no secret that I love the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and there are a number of reasons why but if I had to pick one thing, above all others, that I love, it would have to be his dark aesthetic of loss. The right people know what I’m talking about, how he threads through his encylopedic histories and silly hobbit antics a miasma of sorrow over the slow disintegration of a world that can never be gotten back, only glimpsed from a distance or heard in echoes. The great irony of the War of the Ring, which in Middle Earth marks the end of The Age of The Elves just as the Trojan War marked the end of The Age of Heroes in Greek mythology, is that it will be won by people who will come out of the dust only to find that they have lost the world they fought to preserve. This is because it either no longer exists, or because they have become different people in the course of the war, and even once restored to where they began they no longer fit in with the larger puzzle they were knocked out of. The Lord of the Rings is not so much a fantasy novel as it is an epitaph for Middle Earth and all that Middle Earth stood for in Tolkein’s mind. It is an epic rumination on the excruciating pain of moving from one era of your life into the next, the “painful progress” that Harper, in her final scene in Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, would so eloquently embrace as the only way for her to move on from her disaster marriage. For all it’s adventure and romance and humor and joy, Lord of the Rings remains one of the saddest books I know and yet also one of the most life affirmative because in the end of one age does lie the birth of another and at some point, like Samwise “I’m Back” Gamgee (or Harper Pitt if you prefer), if you’re lucky enough to survive the shit that happens to you there comes a moment you suck it up, shake off the remnants of shadow, say goodbye to the past and embrace where you are now because your only other choice is to lay down and die and that’s not really an option.

Though it is a temptation.

If the Llama is the spirit of the Pub then I think the reason this year’s speech is so bittersweet is because the Llama, like the Pub, has grown from a brash and confident celebrant staking his territory into a tired and battle-worn survivor of a long war who isn’t sure if he either lost or won, only that he has survived to see the end of an age. An age that was, for San Francisco Theater Pub, The First Age, and thus will always be truly significant, no matter what happens next. If my words, through the Llama, seem bittersweet it’s because the process of ending this age is both bitter and sweet, as almost any necessary process is. We have so much to be proud of, and so much to look forward to, and so much to mourn, all at the same time. I tried to capture that with the Llama, couching it in much symbolism and self-deprecating humor to make the pill easier to swallow, but yes, I also hope it sits uneasy in your stomach for some time after. We had something real, a home that was often times as much a curse as it was a gift but always an integral part of what we were doing, and for a while there will be a hole where it used to be, the same kind of hole left by an ended love affair or a lost object. Or a dead person.

Everything ends, including other people. Including you. Including me. Including projects we really care about, sanctuaries we’ve found, experiences we’ve cherished. That’s why it’s important to sing and dance while we can, even as we know it won’t be forever, because we know the singing and dancing must end, if only because both are very tiring activities. Only when we embrace the fundamental brevity and meaninglessness of life and all that life encompasses does it become meaningful and we transcend to something eternal: the recognition that nothing ends, it just changes. My brother was only here for a short time, but he made an impact on me I’ll have until I die, and through whatever I leave behind and the people I impact, he continues to influence the world and so in many ways I have never thought of him as gone even though I hardly ever talk about him now. I’m starting to sort of see the Pub’s time at the Cafe Royale the same way: as something slipping into the chronicle of my life, bound to influence me for many years to come, but also relegated to the past. Like my brother. Like the first theater company I ever ran. Like my youth, frankly. Which I really miss sometimes. But fairly certain I wouldn’t go back to, even if I could. But you can’t. Life only moves forward, and not everyone, or everything, is there for the whole ride. Something worth mourning, the value of which I get because I have a dark aesthetic that recognizes life is all about loss. Amongst other things.

“You had a really good, really impressive run of it,” Les Cowan, without whose patronage Theater Pub never would have existed, said to me last night, the two of us talking about Pub’s time at Cafe Royale like we were at a wake.

I couldn’t agree more, but I replied, “I kind of can’t wait to be done,” because that’s true too and that’s the angle I’m starting to focus on these days. Because I’ve reached the point where I kind of just want to sing one last song and then head off into the night looking for the next thing- knowing that there will be a next thing. Because there is always a next thing. Because having a dark aesthetic often means worshiping the Light, and believing very much that the end of one age is the birth of another.

And because I am a Llama, and that’s true wherever I go.

Stuart Bousel is one of the Founding Artistic Directors of the San Francisco Theater Pub and was recently named by the SF Weekly as “Best Ringmaster” of the San Francisco indie theater scene. His short play, Llamalogue, will be performed by Rob Ready four more times at Pint Sized Plays IV, which plays tonight and July 22, 29, and 30 at the Cafe Royale, always at 8 PM. Don’t miss it!