Cowan Palace: Crappy Holidays From Our Dysfunctional Family To Yours!

Ashley’s enjoying the crap out of Crappy Holidays.

Hi gang! Well, it’s been quite the month in the new working mom/actress/writer sitcom that is my life in San Francisco. So this week I’m keeping with our themes “breaking the rules” and exploring the Fringe Festival with a blog comprised of some images of my experience being back on stage… instead of you know, writing about them. Such a rebel, I know.

Will Leschber, Warden Lawlor, and Ashley Cowan in Crappy Holidays

Will Leschber, Warden Lawlor, and Ashley Cowan in Crappy Holidays

But first, let me plug the show!

Crappy Holidays was written by the eternally funny and wonderfully wicked, Nick Gentile and Lisa Gentile. Warden Lawlor is our fearless director and completing the bad ass team is the cast; featuring, Eden Davis, Kat Bushnell, Dan Kurtz, Tavis Kammett, and Will Leschber. Oh, and Cowan Palace Queen herself, me.

Tavis Kammet, Ashley Cowan, and Will Leschber in the first scene of Crappy Holidays.

Tavis Kammet, Ashley Cowan, and Will Leschber in the first scene of Crappy Holidays.

As our Facebook invite explains, “Crappy Holidays is a trio of dark comedies showcasing the cynical side of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. “Death is My Bitch” features the Grim Reaper making friends in the wrong places. “Ma’s Thanksgiving Pie” depicts a quasi-sane mother locked in a battle of wits with her offspring. “Bobby’s Letter to Santa” delivers a drunken, disgruntled holiday icon facing a career change. Don’t need to see “A Christmas Carol” again? Then this show is for you!” (Guys, this show is seriously for you.)

Eden Davis puts the elf back into Christmas.

Eden Davis puts the elf back into Christmas.

The production has been endlessly fun to work on for so many reasons. Everyone is hilarious and brings so much to the table (sometimes in the form of pie!). You have three more chances to see us:

September 19 (1 PM),
September 20 (9 PM), and
September 22 (9 PM).

Katrina Bushnell and Tavis Kammet backstage at the Fringe.

Katrina Bushnell and Tavis Kammet backstage at the Fringe.

Also, The San Francisco Fringe Festival is in its 24th year! That means it can almost rent a car! It’s full of all the fun, adventurous stuff that defines the scene. So if you can, come see our show! Or go see one of the many other offerings of this year’s lineup. And if it helps to convince you, here are some pictures from our dressing room and from our show last night!

Dan Kurtz, approving of the editor's decision to scatter the pictures throughout the article.

Dan Kurtz, approving of the editor’s decision to scatter the pictures throughout the article.

Find out more about Crappy Holidays and all the other shows the Fringe has to offer at http://www.sffringe.org.

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Theater Around The Bay: 16 Actors You Should Totally Cast

Stuart Bousel processes a callback that was an embarrassment of riches.

I recently had the awesome experience of sitting through the call-backs for Custom Made’s 2014 production of The Crucible, which I will be directing. I say “awesome” because it’s probably the first time in my career I gotten to watch 50+ actors audition their butts off for five hours and have literally all of them be really, really good. No lie: we honestly could have charged admission to the callbacks, they were that entertaining and engaging. I could have easily cast the show three times over with totally different people each time, and been perfectly happy with each version of the cast, that’s how good this pool of performers was.

Alas, as is often the case, I only had 16 slots available, not even a third of the excellent actors I had to choose from. When it came to decision time, I worked really hard to balance my final choices with familiar faces and new ones, people I loved working with along with people I’ve been wanting to work with, while also factoring in all those different things any director factors in when casting (like if certain actors make for a believable family, etc.), and yet of course at the end of the day I still ended up with a list of un-cast actors I couldn’t help but stare at and think, “Oh, but that person’s fantastic!” while also recognizing there just wasn’t a place for them in this show.

For me, the list of desired collaborations is always longer than the list of people I actually get to collaborate with on any given show, so, with an enormous desire to celebrate just how much talent we really have in this Bay Area theater scene of ours, here are 16 incredible folks from The Crucible callbacks that I didn’t cast this time around, which again still leaves out a whole lot of other great people who I saw that day. Next time, my friends. And in the meantime, to all my fellow directors, snatch these folks up while you can. They’re amongst the best of the best.

Sam Bertken. I’ve gotten to know Sam pretty well over the last year since I first met him at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, and he’s both a delightful person and a delightful actor. His strengths lie in physical comedy and exciting, larger-than-life characters, and so he’s perfect for stylized works, broad comedies and performances pieces. He played Tranio for me when I directed Taming of the Shrew this past year and he’s very easy to work with, very dedicated, and he comes into the room with a lot of ideas to contribute towards building a character. He also takes direction exceptionally well, pulling back and toning down when you need him to, opening up and making a character explode on stage when you let him run loose. He almost stole the show every night of our run and yet he’s undeniably a total team player. He’ll be playing Peter Pan this fall at Custom Made and I kind of can’t wait in an embarrassingly fanboy way.

Kat Bushnell. Kat and I have a long history of working together, ever since I cast her back in 2011 in my production of Giant Bones, the auditions for which were my first introduction to the bundle of warm support and talent that is Kat Bushnell. Funny, smart, friendly- and she can sing!- Kat Bushnell is a triple threat who pulls off one of the best British accents of any actress I’ve seen in the Bay and she works hard in any role you put her in, from minor character to lead: a perfect ensemble member (which was essential in Giant Bones). She’s also a great cold reader- playwrights take note!- and a lot of the work I’ve done with her has been script in hand because Kat’s good at making strong, immediate choices and she has a lovely, melodic speaking voice that makes all your lines sound good, hence making her a staple of the SF Olympians festival since year one.

Ben Calabrese. Never saw this guy before Crucible auditions, I sincerely hope to get a chance to work with him at some point in the future. An able reader and a jovial participant, I kept having him read partly because I enjoyed what he brought out in other actors and he had a really nice, open-to-anything vibe that I found myself enjoying regardless of what role I had him read for. Lots of energy and enthusiasm, my guess is he’s a total team player- you’d have to be to endure five hours of callbacks and still have a smile on your face.

Ashley Cowan. Ashley has played a lead for me twice now and I have to say, she is one dedicated actor and you can be sure, if you cast her, that she will work incredibly hard. She’s also a friendly, pro-team presence backstage, perpetually positive and good at rallying the troops even when you’re marching through that deathly terrible dress rehearsal where nothing goes right. She turns in thoughtful, layered performances with a particular penchant for anti-ingenues, those young women roles characterized by being just outside the normal, run-of-the-mill heroine variety, smarter and quirkier than the girl next door. As Viola in my Twelfth Night she had a heart-breaking reunion scene with her Sebastian that brought tears to the audience’s eyes every single time but she’s probably better known throughout the Bay Area as a comic actress and for very good reasons: she’s genuinely funny and has a dry, deadpan delivery that kills when aimed to do so.

Laura Domingo. A passionate, fiery performer, Laura does hysteria and agony like nobody else, but she’s also got a sexy, seductive side that revealed itself during the Olympians Festival last year when she played a femme fatale in a noire style play by Colin Johnson. In reality, she’s a sweet person who has been game for everything we’ve given her at the Olympians Festival and I love when she turns up again and again for consideration- demonstrating a positive, open attitude that characterizes the best variety of performer. One day, Laura, I just know we’re going to do a kick-ass show together. 

Matt Gunnison. Matt and I have done four full productions together and a play I wrote has, what I think, is the perfect leading role for him (now if only I could find a producer!). Talk about an actor with range, Matt can do funny, Matt can do scary, and Matt can do sympathetic, and in my ideal role for him he gets to do all of that and more in one night. He has an elastic body and an incredibly expressive face that evokes tremendous responses from audiences and he’s both absolutely solid and reliable while also being the sort of performer who can, when asked, surprise the hell out of you. On top of that he’s arguably the nicest guy in the Bay Area theater scene, soft-spoken and gently witty, astute and supportive and 100% there when you need him. He’s a cornerstone actor, the kind of presence that elevates your production both backstage and onstage, and it’s criminal that he’s not hugely famous.

April Green. Seriously, this woman is such a powerhouse and I never saw her or knew her name before these auditions and now I want to see whatever she gets cast in next because I sense she tears it up like few others can. She brought a deeply emotional weight to everything she read for and she has a grace and a kindness to her that I found very moving, especially for a cold read. I worry she’s gonna read this and think I’m a stalker. I swear, I’m not. Just a freshly converted fan to who was, for me, the best new face in this truly epic assortment of actors.

Ryan Hayes. My longest running collaborator in the Bay Area, Ryan was in the very first show I ever directed in the Bay Area (Edward II) and we’ve probably done ten shows together since, not to mention a ton of readings and other theatrical collaborations. An amazingly versatile and dedicated performer, Ryan is one of those people who can play a wide variety of roles, from over-the-top to incredibly subtle, and often times accessing both extremes of his range in the same evening. He loves big characters but he’s excellent at solid and subtle ones too and when he’s in your cast you can rely on him coming through on all fronts, being one of the first to get off book, and ready to lend a hand with any element of the production. He’s a team player and a team leader, and he just gets better and easier to work with as time goes on.

Neil Higgins. Neil can do flamboyant, acidic wit like nobody else and, interestingly enough, his other forte is charmingly insecure everymen. He has exceptionally good comic timing and the unique ability to go from brittle to endearing at the drop of a hat. Backstage he’s a solid addition to the mix, sure to make people laugh in the rehearsal process, always able and willing to buckle down and get work done when the time has come. During the production of Measure for Measure I cast in him (and in which he stole the show every night) he destroyed a bottle of beer mid-performance and totally made it work without missing a beat. It was pretty legendary. 

Sharon Huff Robinson. I only got to know Sharon a little bit through callbacks but she made a very good impression on me, striking me as a smart woman with a great sense of humor about herself and the whole show business thing, combining that with some really truly solid acting skills. What I loved the most about her audition is that she’s so obviously a strong, self-assured woman who wouldn’t put up with all the crap Miller subjects his female characters to in The Crucible. Side note: she kind of looks like mid-1980s Carrie Fisher.

Heather Kellogg. Yet another smart, enthusiastic and courageous actress, Heather always makes super daring choices during auditions that are a nice contrast to her very girl-next-door look and vibe. She can do a thoroughly believable Irish accent, has a good command of stylized language and classical text, and she’s at the perfect place to play a number of different ingénue roles, from flighty and delightful, to the “guarding secrets and plans” variety, to the brave and plucky kind. I kind of want to see her play Anne Shirley in a stage adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, and if you know how much I love Anne of Green Gables, you realize this is no joking matter.

Brian Martin. Of all the actors I have known over an extended period of time, Brian has evolved the most. He was always very watchable, a cute guy with a very natural acting style that makes him an excellent choice for modern theater, but in the last few years I have been using him for classical productions and he’s just as competent and comfortable with verse and poetry. He works hard, he takes himself and the art very seriously, but he’s never a wet blanket about anything and he has no ego at all, making him a great addition to the backstage environment of the show (seriously, is there anyone in the world who doesn’t like Brian?). He’s at the perfect age to play lots of male romantic leads and he’s one of the most non-awkward stage kissers I’ve ever directed. Seriously, he’s made out with somebody in every single play I’ve cast him in, and nobody ever complains about it. 

Theresa Miller. Speaking of inarguably lovable, Theresa Miller is another person I think we can all agree is just, well… utterly likable. Blessed with an inarguably endearing smile and a penchant for feckless comedy, my favorite roles I’ve seen her in are the ones where someone has noticed just how terrifying Theresa is when cast as evil. Evil Theresa is truly scary, because when she says horrible things there’s still an undertone of sweetness to her that somehow makes it just that much more psychotic sounding. She also nails victimized characters, at least partly because you never want to see anything bad happen to Theresa. A few years ago I produced a play she was in called Oily Replies where she played a kind of lost film noire ingénue and moments when the detective would manhandle her you really just wanted to punch him. A truly charming and dedicated actress who generates immediate emotional loyalty from audiences (when not creeping them out), I can’t recommend her more.

Allison Page. This just in: if you don’t know Allison Page, you need to, and now is your chance because I predict she will be beyond big time relatively soon. Everything about her is star quality. She’s funny, she’s smart, she’s sensitive, she’s articulate, she can take direction well and she likes to push herself to do new things and go places she hasn’t gone before. She’s a delight backstage- I thoroughly believe she has been blessed with the remarkable ability to be able to get along with virtually anybody- and audiences fall in love with her approximately 35 seconds after she first walks out on stage. Jennifer Lawrence whatever, Allison is the perfect ingénue for modern theater because she nails quirky without ever being precious or contrived and she’s also got a tough core that lends her characters a nice edge and some gravitas. She’s very beautiful in a throw-back to the Golden Age of Hollywood way, and her ability to knock both indie heroine roles and comedic love interest parts out of the park makes her usable in a variety of shows and contexts.

Jessica Rudholm. Ultra-professional backstage and a thoughtful, invested performer, the most unique and startling thing about Jessica is that she packs, into a small and delicate body, an unbelievable amount of power and strength. She has dancer and movement training that allows her to do physically astounding things on stage and her voice is deep, smoky and resonate. She’s so striking on stage she almost demands exceptional parts of the Queen, Sorceress, God Incarnate variety, and in the past she’s played unusual characters like Feste in Twelfth Night and the Moon in my play Twins because there is an ethereal, mesmerizing quality to her that allows her to pull off those kinds of roles without the tiniest bit of affectation. It’s just Jessica doing what she does best, namely being the most riveting presence in the room.

Paul Stout. I kind of feel like Paul can do almost any kind of character you throw at him, and is the apex of that solid, dependable performer you can use in a wide variety of roles, always knowing that whatever he’s been given he’ll make it a vital part of your production with strong and compelling storytelling. I’ve particularly liked Paul in lovable dickhead roles, though I think my favorite performance of his is still the first one I saw him in, as a drunk, pathetic factory foreman in Audience at Theater Pub. Paul nailed that perfect balance between irritating and impossible to not feel sorry for, and he repeatedly makes difficult characters accessible, show after show.

So there you go. Sixteen actors I won’t be using for my next show but you absolutely should. And you know what? I could list another 16, and still not have listed everyone at these call-backs who was worthy of note (which again, was pretty much everyone). What it really comes down to is this: there are a lot of things we can stand to improve in the Bay Area theater scene, but it’s important to also remember there are a lot of things which are right, which are un-beatable, and there’s nothing like five hours of watching talented, passionate performers perform to remind you that a lot of the good stuff about doing work out here starts with the people you get the chance to work with. Someone you love not on this list? Then by all means, tell us about them! Tell the world! Help open a door for them and by doing so continue to grow our scene into a better, brighter, more exciting place to be.

Stuart Bousel attends an abnormally large number of auditions over the course of any given year and does his best to pay really close attention to all of them. That said, he won’t be casting any shows for quite some time in the forsee-able future. Yes, it’s screwing with his brain. He hopes to one day talk a producer into funding his dream production of Clive Barker’s Colossus, in which he would be able to cast literally everybody who was at the Crucible auditions, and then some. You would want to see this show. It would be amazing.

Theater Around The Bay: Theater Pub Evolution

Co-Founding Artistic Director Stuart Bousel confirms, denies and imparts the future of Theater Pub.

So, by now, you may or may not have heard that San Francisco Theater Pub is about to go through some major changes.

If you’ve been a part of Theater Pub from the beginning, you may know that we’re pretty much always changing, that few constants exist in Theater Pub-land. As the lead line of this recent article about us suggests, One Bourbon One Scotch and One Bard, part of the appeal of Theater Pub has always lain in its unpredictability, and that’s not just on stage. It’s always an adventure to be in one of our shows, or to put one together, just as much or more so than it is to watch one. True, a hapless audience member may have a glass dropped on them (or be pulled onto a pool table for impromptu romance with another audience member), but from day one of Theater Pub (and only myself and co-Founding Artistic Director Brian Markley remain from Day One) there has always been an undercurrent of “this could end at any time”. Truth be told, when myself, Brian, Ben Fisher and Victor Carrion first came together to create Theater Pub, we planned no farther than three months in advance and habitually said, “In six months, when this is all over, we’ll be glad we did it.” The fact that we’ve lasted 43 months is, all things considered, pretty amazing, and entirely unexpected.

And no, Theater Pub is not ending. Let’s just kill that rumor first. But yes, we are leaving the Cafe Royale at the end of July. That is true. Our last performance there will be the closing night of this year’s Pint Sized plays, on Tuesday, July 30.

“But no!” you cry and “Why?!?”

Why we’re leaving the bar is a complex conversation and can probably best be summed up by Brian Markley’s recent statement that “bars have souls” and the soul of this bar, the Cafe Royale, is changing. The soul of any business develops as a combination of who is running that business and what their vision for it is, and who is regularly patronizing it and what their expectations are. We were brought into the Cafe Royale at the invitation of Les Cowan, who had a vision for his bar as a cornerstone of local culture and a fixture in the arts scene, but he left the Cafe Royale in March of last year to pursue other ventures. The new owners took us on but from the beginning made it clear they wanted to make the bar their own and honestly you can’t blame them for that: it’s their bar. To their credit, they recognized that we were an invested entity that was very successful, both financially and in our  ability to attract a robust and loyal audience and press following, but we were never part of their vision when they as a group of friends first got together and made plans to purchase and open a bar. We were inherited with the place, and something they had to adjust their vision for. We agreed to give it a year and it’s a testimony to them and us that we not only got through it and all the changes that came with the new ownership, but that both Theater Pub and the bar continued to succeed together. When the decision was made, earlier this year, to leave the Cafe Royale, it was entirely on mine and Brian’s end, and comes down to the fact that every theater company also has a soul. And our soul feels progressively headed in a different direction than the Cafe Royale.

These things happen. Things change. But in addition to unpredictability, part of Theater Pub’s appeal has also always been its flexibility and adaptability. As Julia Heitner, Artistic Director At Large, aptly demonstrated last year when she took a number of our shows to other locales, and as Sunil Patel recently continued to demonstrate with the Borderlands Bookstore preview of “The Pub From Another World”, Theater Pub doesn’t have to happen in a bar- or the same bar- to be Theater Pub. True, it’s not the same thing seeing, say, Measure For Measure, in the Plough And Stars as opposed to the Cafe Royale, but progressively the Cafe Royale (which is scheduled to be heavily renovated this fall) isn’t going to be “the same” either, and the truth is no matter how good our shows are or how exciting it’s been to have balconies to stage Shakespeare in, the real reason I, at least, have stayed with Theater Pub so long is because of the people we get to work with and the people who come to see us, again and again, and love us so much.

As current Cafe Royale co-owner Will Weston recently said to me in a phone call, “You guys are cool. You’re a thing,” and I agree. We are A Thing. I’d even go so far as to say we’re A Scene or A Movement even. We’re most definitely A Community, and we have every confidence we can continue to serve and foster that Community in a variety of ways for a long time yet to come. The real point of Theater Pub was never to put on monthly shows at the Cafe Royale; the true core of why we existed was to bolster the San Francisco Theater Community by making it more accessible, to audiences and artists, and more fun. The word “Pub” comes from “Public House”, being a place where a community gathers to be a community. Usually with beer. Going forward we plan to be more of a Public House than ever, frequently, but not always, with beer.

In concrete terms we can absolutely tell you what the rest of 2013 looks like, and we hope you’ll support us in this transition by continuing to attend and participate in our events. Saturday Write Fever, our monthly event at the Exit Cafe, will continue as scheduled and we love that so many of our regulars at the Pub have turned up there- we hope to see more of you! Additionally, our November event, which will be produced by previous collaborators Nick and Lisa Gentile, will happen at the Exit Cafe as scheduled. Between now and then we will be returning to the Bay One Acts Festival for a third time this September/October, with Brian Markley producing the event and frequent Pub contributor Rik Lopes directing a piece of their choosing. Kat Bushnell and James Grady, who have been the driving force behind our holiday musical theater concerts of Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent, are already busy planning this December’s show, and seeking a venue. We’re even talking of touring a couple bars this time around.

Which may be the future of Theater Pub in general. After all, from the beginning we’ve basically operated out of a box in the basement of the Cafe Royal: why not move the box from venue to venue, like theater companies of old, putting on a show wherever they let us and people are willing to watch and throw some money in the pot? Though it’s true we’re taking a partial hiatus from regular productions (shows will happen, just much more sporadically), we do hope to return to our monthly format further down the road in 2014, and being nomadic may be the way to go as it certainly has its advantages. That said it’s also really nice to have a home, as the Cafe Royale was for us for over three years, and we’re definitely interested in finding new hosts if they’re out there. So if you know of a bar, or if you run a bar that wants to take on the unique, Award-Winning, Critically Praised, Frequently-Packed-Beyond-Standing-Room San Francisco Theater Pub, don’t hesitate to drop us a line. We’d love to meet with you and see your space and find out how we can be part of your vision. But in the end it will come down, once again, to a soul thing, as Brian and I agree that our soul is far more important, and far richer than putting on a show each month. But of course, we’re theater people and we love a show, so fingers crossed for 2014 and we look forward to being there with our community in whatever capacity presents itself at the time.

Finally, the digital form of Theater Pub, this website, will continue to exist and grow. Since this became “more than just a website” starting in February of 2012, we have literally tripled our output and quadrupled our traffic and the fun is only just beginning. Like the Cafe Royale, we have plans for some major overhaul in the next few months. New look, new writers, new features all intended to continue the conversation we get to have on the website not just with the Bay Area, but the world as a whole.

That conversation is, in the end, what this is all about and what any artistic endeavor should be about. We are truly, madly, deeply invested in making sure that conversation continues, and we’re looking forward to being surprised and delighted by wherever and whenever it pops up next- on the internet, in a bar or a coffee shop, a bookstore, a park. The possibilities are limitless and the truth is, by stepping away from the bar and our obligations there, we can truly explore those possibilities. We’re using this break with the structure of the past as an opportunity to be more flexible in both what we do and what kinds of projects fall under our umbrella so as usual if you have ideas, let us know: maybe there’s a one-off or a site specific production only an e-mail or two away from happening at a bar near you. The future is wide open and that’s scary, and bittersweet, but also very exciting.

Stuart Bousel is a Co-founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. He has a soul and you’re soaking in it. 

Ma Vie Boheme

Co-Artistic Director Stuart Bousel talks about RENT, and why this year’s Theater Pub Christmas concert, “Christmas Bells Are Ringing”, is bringing his love-hate relationship with this show full circle.

Maureen, I’m not a RENT person.

No seriously… I liked it for about two weeks when I was a freshman in college, and then I stopped liking it.

I never owned my own copy of the soundtrack. My friend Jessica loaned it to me the first time, over my freshman year Christmas Break, and then I borrowed it from my sister a couple of times in the years that followed. I remember that by the summer after my sophomore year of college I was already dis-enchanted enough to declare in the car to a friend that I thought it was “banal.” I held that opinion for a long time.

My sister really liked RENT. I bought her the behind-the-scenes book for Christmas one year. She sang “Seasons Of Love” at her high school graduation (the speaker at the event charmingly called it “rock music”) and she saw it on Broadway and on tour. I saw… the movie. And I kind of liked it. Which is the surest proof I’m not a RENThead. All those people apparently hate that movie.

So why am I singing a major role in our cover band version of it, specially whipped up for Christmas?

Well, I’m an artistic director of Theater Pub and to some extent I feel an obligation to be in the show and Mark was the better fit of any of the other roles (I mean, I suppose I could have been in the chorus… but fuck that, I’m not running myself into the ground for Theater Pub so I can not cop the occasional lead). I also love working with James Grady and Kat Bushnell, who have spearheaded this project (for the record- I wanted to do Les Mis this year) and fine, okay, on some level some part of me wants to recapture my eighteen year old self that bought into the idea that being bohemian was cool and we could all be bohemian- even if in reality the show implies we can all only be bohemian by being bohemian the same way.

Which is what really rubs me wrong about RENT. I think the irony of its “hey man, don’t sell out!” message is that RENT is like the epitome of the show that sold out. Jonathan Larson’s tragic and untimely death made him the poster child of the bo-ho movement of the late ‘90s, but when you look at his career he was clearly always vying for Broadway, desperately looking to “make it”. Yes, he didn’t sell out and get a job working in an office (he famously kept his waiter job all the way up till RENT’s workshop went into previews), but how is praying every day to get picked up by the theatrical equivalent of Hollywood not selling out? Maybe I’m too much the product of the generation that Kurt Cobain killed himself to stay cool for, but something about Larson and his work (especially his first musical, Tick-Tick-Boom) has always struck me as precious and phony.

Plus, the artists in RENT never seem to make any art (or any good art). Maureen’s protest song, which I think is one of the three truly brilliant moments in RENT (and yes, I do think there are moments of brilliance), is really the only time we see one of these “artists” making art. I mean, sure, there’s Roger’s song but… the less said the better, right? By the time RENT came into my life I’d already discovered Sondheim’s SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, which I still think is the most honest, brutal and accurate portrait of what the artistic process and life is like for many of us. People talk about all the parts of RENT that move them, but nothing in RENT comes close to the choking-back-tears sensation I get every time Dot and George’s final scene in SUNDAY culminates with her finishing the part of the lesson book he can’t read. But ultimately these are such different shows with such different objectives- SUNDAY is about making art; RENT is about being part of a scene.

And yet these two shows are compared all the time. Larson himself references SUNDAY, directly, with a whole song, in Tick-Tick-Boom. It’s probably that show’s best moment (naturally, because it’s Sondheim), and he nods to it again in “La Vie Boheme” in RENT. The nods are nice (Larson is a good boy who thanks his influences, something I admire about him) and yet to me it’s also a painfully obvious reminder of how sincere and brave SUNDAY was compared to how pandering and drama-club fantastic RENT would become. Not that I think Larson intended that, or could have predicted it even if he wanted to, but while SUNDAY remains timeless (artists will always struggle with alienation and frustration over a world ill-equipped to support and understand them), RENT has aged badly: the story is now riddled with clichés, some of which are kind of offensive (like the humor derived from Maureen having left Mark for a woman), and the bo-ho scene that was so edgy in 1996 (with it’s bisexuality, drug use and post-modern irony) now seems passé, twee and, let’s face it my friends- about as charming as when our parents talk about the 1960s and ‘70s and how cool they were. But what is shocking to discover as I’ve learned this material now, at the age of 34, is that what holds RENT back is not its temporal setting (SUNDAY, set in the 1880s was never current, yet feels more fresh) but its lack of depth.

Yeah, I said it: RENT isn’t deep. It’s got a lot of heart. More heart than 525,600 productions of Damn Yankees put together. But that’s not the same as depth. Depth requires self-awareness, including self-celebration and also self-mockery, and RENT has moments of both (it’s when the show shines brightest), but they are eclipsed by a deluge of self-projection and self-proclomation, and like most pop culture phenomena, it’s the naive earnestness that appeals to teenagers, but grates when you grow past that moment in your life (and start actually paying rent). It’s like a number of yearbook messages I have from people I didn’t know all that well in high school, who left very nice sentiments about how this was the best time of our lives and I should never change. At the time it seemed sweet, but now I think, “Really? The best time in our lives? Who hopes they pique at eighteen?” But RENT is all about capturing and defining a moment, not looking to the future. After all, the closest it comes to a defining philosophy is “No Day But Today.”

The problem is, once you capture a scene- who is in it and what they value and what they wear and what they listen to, read, etc.- you have essentially killed it. And yes, I do think RENT helped kill the 1990s. It turned moving downtown, being sexually and politically progressive, and pursuing your artistic dreams, into something trendy. Over the decade RENT was on Broadway it went from being a show staring nobodies, many of whom were not trained singers and actors, but rather aspiring performance artists and rock stars, to being just another Broadway tourist trap, with technically perfect singers coming out of various prestigious musical theater programs, sleepwalking their way through the role to entertain legions of mid-west show choir kids on their first NYC visit. When the movie came out it was lapped up by the same America that RENT was ostensibly rejecting. The songs became showtunes, sung by hopeful kids everywhere whose dream was less bohemia and more being famous on American Idol or worse, Glee. I remember the first time I heard a former friend of mine, now a Bible-thumping Christian who voted against gay marriage in her state, go off about how much she loved RENT, and what a cynic I was not to find Angel’s death from AIDS moving. My response was, “Yeah, I’d find it much more moving if he and Collins could get married.” The problem with RENT is that it made bohemia palatable for the non-bohemians of the world- and then they didn’t have to take it or its people seriously. And yes, the flaw lies within the material. RENT is so busy proclaiming “this is who we are” that it fails to ever say, “and this is why you should care.” It’s all sentiment, but no real ideas, and it mistakes sentiment for passion. I commend the show on not apologizing for itself, but I scowl at its lack of anything to say besides its own name.

So here’s my big confession: despite all of this I am excited that for one night, I get to sing Mark. But unlike many people I know who would love to be in my shoes, or one day will be, it’s not because I like RENT. I still don’t really like RENT, though I do think I appreciate it more (that “Christmas Bells” song is a real piece of craftsmanship). It has a lot of corny lyrics and crappy songs, the majority of which seem to be mine. But for better or worse I have managed to dig up that guy who used to wear three layers of shirts and army boots and in his pretentious teenager way he’s reclaiming RENT for my generation, taking it back from all the post-Spring Awakening Gleeks who don’t know anything about the AIDS crisis and all the fear it created in people, or the clean-up of NYC that displaced legions of homeless, or that being an artist is more than a wardrobe and the desire to be an internet meme. I don’t believe RENT really does justice to any of these issues, but I’m going to sing Mark as the person he thinks he is, not the person I see him as. Now.

Which is easier than it sounds because secretly, deep down, I relate to Mark. Still. He strikes me as the kind of guy who listened to SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE over and over again (as Larson apparently did, and as I used to), hoping against hope that he would grow up to be the next Seurat. Yes, he should have aspired to create the next Island of Le Grande Jatte, but mistaking the trappings for the content is something we do when we’re young.

Our self-proclomation is an incredibly catchy tune.

But since we all have to sing it at some point, let’s at least do it in a bar full of all our self-proclaimed bohemian friends.

Don’t miss “Christmas Bells Are Ringing!” our one night only Christmas concert, tonight at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale in San Francisco. Get there early- it’s going to be packed!