Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Embracing the Mirror, Part Two: Such Great Heights

Marissa Skudlarek follows up Ashley Cowan’s piece from yesterday with her own tall tales.

September, 2000. I am a 13-year-old high school freshman who dreams of theatrical stardom. My local community theater is holding auditions for Annie, seeking girls between the ages of 7 and 13 to play the orphans, and I beg my parents to let me try out.

“Okay,” they say, “but you realize you haven’t got a chance, right? The orphans in Annie need to be cute kids, but you don’t look like a cute kid anymore – you’re too tall.”

At 13, I am about 5’6”, a few inches below my final adult height of 5’8”. I argue that there are plenty of real-life 13-year-old girls who are 5’6”, and it stood to reason that one of them could’ve been in a Depression-era orphanage. There was nothing wrong with that logic, except that casting has its own shorthand. The orphans in Annie have to be cute kids, and the easiest way to convey that a character is young is to cast someone short.

If I’d been cast as a 5’6” orphan in Annie, my idea was to play the role as surly and truculent and resentful – since I’d be playing the oldest orphan, the one who’d been there the longest. Even as a young girl, I guess I’d absorbed the idea that tall women often play the bitch or the villainess. “I feel like unless I ask to read for a certain role, I am going to be handed sides for the ball-buster/ice queen/bitchy lawyer part,” says local actress Erika Bakse, 5’9”. “I don’t generally mind this because they are pretty fun roles — there’s a reason the majority of quotes in the recent New Yorker article about The Real Thing came from Charlotte, who is in only 3 scenes of the play. But it would be fun to get the opportunity to show other sides of myself. Interestingly, the one time I got to be more of an ingénue was in Stop Kiss, with a shorter Callie opposite me. Bisexuals/lesbians can be any height, I guess.”

(Full disclosure: last year, Katja Rivera and I cast Erika as a ball-busting feminist in my play Pleiades. Erika’s character was also supposed to be the oldest of the eight young women onstage, and her height probably helped her read that way to the audience, too.)

On this blog, we often talk about the difficulties facing female actors: too many aspirants and not enough roles. In such an environment, anything that makes a woman “difficult” to cast can turn into a permanent handicap. I therefore wonder how many tall women get dissuaded from acting, if prejudices along the lines of “The leading man always needs to be taller than the leading lady” mean that they’re not cast as frequently as their shorter sisters. By the time I got to college I was pretty sure that the odds were against my making it big as an actress, and I felt like part of that had to do with my height.

At the same time, college was when I came to terms with my height, and started to take pride in it. Instrumental in this was seeing Cate Blanchett play Hedda Gabler, in a production that began with a dumb-show in which Blanchett stalked around the stage for a minute or two. The stage was dimly lit and I was seated in the back row of the balcony, but Blanchett’s stage presence astounded me: her elegance, her dignity, her power, her height. Like me, she is 5’8″. I draw on my memory of her performance whenever I need a jolt of self-confidence about being a tall lady.

Me and the Desk Set ladies on audition night. Even slouching, I'm still taller than everyone.

Me and the Desk Set ladies on audition night. Even slouching, I’m still taller than everyone.

This year, when I played Elsa in the comedy The Desk Set, my four-inch heels and bouffant blonde wig made me the tallest person onstage. And there were several moments where my height became part of the joke: in my stage kiss with Alan Coyne (who commented that the wig and heels made me very intimidating); when I stared down my romantic rival, played by the petite brunette Kitty Torres; when I danced the tango with Andrew Calabrese, my breasts at the level of his eyes. It was fun to use my physicality in this way, though if I think about it too hard, I can start to have qualms: does this mean there’s something inherently ludicrous about tall women? And it seems less likely that I’d be asked to kiss a shorter actor in a scene that was meant to be earnest rather than comical.

Some roles are specifically earmarked for tall actresses. I get annoyed when women of average height play Rosalind in As You Like It, because the reason Rosalind gives for dressing up as a boy is “I am more than common tall.” And the catfight between Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a short-girl vs. tall-girl classic. (After our scene in The Desk Set, Kitty Torres and I are now hoping that someone will cast us as Hermia and Helena. Producers, call us!) Overall, though, in classical theater, there seems to be an unspoken rule that young actresses play ingénues and middle-aged actresses play queens. The difficulty is that we tend to think of ingénues as petite and queens as statuesque.

Local actress Valerie “Three-Time Helena” Weak, who is 5’10”, has these stories and tips:

I don’t think I’ve ever played opposite someone in a romantic onstage relationship who was shorter than me. I’ve definitely dealt with callbacks where we were paired according to height (like when none of the taller Noras got to read with the shorter Torvald) – and that happens even more often when they’re putting together ‘families’ or ‘couples’ for a callback at a commercial.

I’ve learned to make sure I wear flat shoes when I audition for shorter male directors – I’ve definitely had audition situations where a shorter male director is put off by my height in general. I also know to ask costume designers for rehearsal shoes ASAP if I’m going to be wearing a heel in the show – not so much for me to practice walking in them, but for the men who will be working with me to get ready for how much vertical stage space I’m going to take up, rather than that being one more thing for them to adjust to in tech week.

Let’s go back to 13-year-old Marissa. In the middle of writing this article, I procrastinated by rereading some old emails I sent to my high-school acting teacher, and happened upon this amazingly pertinent quote:

I was complaining to my mom about this and she said I should ask you. I read in Vanity Fair that this hot new talent, an 18-year-old actress called Anne Hathaway, had wanted to do Broadway but wasn’t cast because she was too tall. Her height? 5 foot 8. What I wanted to know is if, in your experience with various shapes and sizes of actors, height is a hindrance to actresses if they want to get cast. Because it would absolutely suck if that were the case. So superficial.

Even as a teen, it seems, I was worried about the plight of being a tall actress. My teacher responded with these words of wisdom:

The theater world runs the gamut from directors and agencies that cast specifically for looks, to directors and agencies that cast based on talent, and everywhere in between. Is your cousin dating the casting director? Did you schmooze with the right people? Has so-and-so told what’s-their-name about whozit who mentioned your work to the director? Did you perform remarkably? Was your audition scheduled after the director had a fight with his/her boyfriend/girlfriend? So many factors figure into casting that it is best to just do your best. Let the rejections roll off your back, and the acceptances be wonderful surprises. Height, weight, skin color, gender… there are a few things with which you are born… worry about the elements under your control. Are you well-rehearsed? Have you worked on making your instrument the best it can be? Did you sleep enough last night? Do you have good relations with your family and friends?

Which seems like good advice for anyone, be they old or young, male or female, short or tall.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and sometime actress, who enjoys playing the “Am I The Tallest Person In This Elevator” game whenever she’s at her day job. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

Advertisements

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: The Practical Magic of Props

Marissa Skudlarek, giving props to props.

Making theater means spending your life creating and re-creating other worlds onstage. Some of the tools we use to create these other worlds are abstract – language, gesture, spatial relationships. But there’s also a whole heap of tangible stuff that becomes part of the world of the play: sets, lighting, costumes, props. These items need to be carefully considered, and obtained, and maintained. October 2015 is Design Month on the Theater Pub blog, so, to kick things off, I asked friends and members of the community to share their favorite stories about props.

Playwrights have vivid imaginations, which means that scripts can sometimes require weirdly specific props. If a prop is mentioned in the stage directions but not the dialogue, you might be able to do without it, but if the characters discuss it, you’re probably on the hook for including it.

The Desk Set requires a plush rabbit that can conceal a bottle of champagne. In the production I was in this summer, we substituted a rabbit hand puppet, but it still caused some problems during a dress rehearsal.

Other shows require people to get more artsy-craftsy. Claudine Jones shared the following story on Facebook: “The plot of Angel Street literally hinges on a brooch that contains hidden jewels. The description in the script is so vivid, it’s almost impossible to fake. I set out to make a brooch that fit all these requirements: small enough to wear as an article of jewelry, easy to open and close, and able to hide “jewels” that are big enough to be recognized as such by the audience. A couple of weeks of trial and error, bizarre prototypes that went straight into the trash, and I finally succeeded. The main component was an old tuna fish can, painted gold, with a pin epoxied on the back and an overlapping series of metal triangles that formed a kind of iris that opened and closed. The “jewels”? 3mm ruby Swarovski crystals that shone like crazy. I think the playwright would have approved.”

 Oh, Tony Kushner and your weirdly specific, metaphorical props. Photo by Dale Ratner.

Oh, Tony Kushner and your weirdly specific, metaphorical props. Photo by Dale Ratner.

The play Slavs requires a Russian-style icon of St. Sergius of Radonezh with the face of Lenin. When Dale Ratner directed this play in graduate school, he commissioned someone to paint the icon on salvaged wood – and still has it in his living room. Alandra Hileman has a similar story from when she directed the short play Overtones, in which the characters discuss an “ugly but expensive” lamp. After searching in vain for a suitable 1910s-era lamp, Alandra “assembled this from a candlestick, a votive holder, and an LED tea light for like $5 total. It’s lived on our mantle since then because my mom thinks it’s adorable.”

Ugly but expensive? More like cute and $5! Photo by Alandra Hileman.

Ugly but expensive? More like cute and $5! Photo by Alandra Hileman.

Dale and Alandra aren’t the only people who’ve been known to take props home and use them as décor. For the last month or two of my freshman year of college, I lived with a stylized wrought-steel horse’s head hanging on the wall, because my roommate had been in a student production of Equus.

Theater is all about provoking emotion, and it can be either cathartic or harrowing to see something destroyed before your eyes. But what a nightmare it must cause for the props master! I’m thinking of plays like Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, where, at a climactic moment, the characters muss and dirty a pristine living room. Or, my friend Catherine Cusick shared the following story: “I did a play where a character pours a full bottle of vodka onto a MacBook laptop that we’ve seen working and being used for two hours onstage. My mom called me up out of nowhere during rehearsals asking if I still needed that. Turns out a neighbor had left a lookalike to the working laptop out on the side of her driveway. My mom walked right by and promptly swiped it.”

Speaking of finding props on the street… When I worked with director Katja Rivera on the production of my play Pleiades in summer 2014, I learned that she has what I call a “magpie superpower” – a preternatural ability to find cool and useful stuff on the sidewalks of Berkeley. This year, a record player that Katja found has starred in three productions in a row: Grey Gardens, at the Custom Made Theatre; The Desk Set, produced by No Nude Men; and The Real Thing, at Masquers Playhouse. You have to admit that’s a pretty snazzy resume – and such versatility too, going from the 1970s in the Hamptons to the 1950s in New York City to the 1980s in London without missing a beat! “Do I have an eye for talent, or what? I literally picked that baby up off the sidewalk, and he’s done three shows this year. Next stop Broadway!” Katja writes.

Katja’s record player got passed around between these three productions thanks to informal bartering and Katja’s generosity in loaning it out to friends. If a theater company maintains a proprietary stock of props and costumes, one can even more frequently see the same items appearing in multiple productions. Stuart Bousel recalls “a dress that appeared in five productions I directed in Tucson: a simple red ankle-length gown with a gathered bodice. It was made for a chorus member in Lysistrata, then used in the Oresteia, where it was worn by Clytemnestra. Then we used it in a comedy sketch about the Oresteia where it was worn by Cassandra, then in a production of Faust Part One, where it once again went back to the chorus, then a production of Salome, where it was worn by the Cappadocian (female in our version). I’m almost certain it was finally retired after that… but maybe not.”

In the first show I ever did in high school, I had a small role as a Russian noblewoman attending an opera, and got to wear a beautiful mink stole. I grew very attached to the stole and, later on in high school, basically insisted on wearing it again when I played Mrs. Luce in Little Shop of Horrors. It’s been over ten years, but in all likelihood, that stole is still being worn by teenage actresses at my high school. Though, if I’m honest with myself, I still think of it as “mine.”

Indeed, if you love a prop or a costume piece enough, you’ll find ways to keep reusing it. Catherine Cusick, again: “I worked with a theater in high school that made a papier-maché cow for a production of Into the Woods, but managed to slip it into any other show that could conceivably involve a cow on wheels.”

Marissa Skudlarek is a playwright, producer, and arts writer. She still wants a mink stole, especially now that it’s October. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.

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.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Things of Darkness and of Light

Marissa Skudlarek, walking in and out of the shadows. 

October. A new month, and none too soon. We Theater Pub bloggers chose comedy as our September theme, and then several of us found ourselves facing personal crises and challenges in September that made it very hard to be lighthearted. Hence my “maybe comedy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be” article, last time around. Hence Stuart’s invocation of the terrifying momentum of this white-knuckle year.

Our October theme might be more in line with what we’re feeling. This is the month when the days get rapidly shorter, when the Sun moves into moody Scorpio, and the spooky Halloween holiday caps things off. And, appropriately, our theme this month has to do with the magic and mystery of theater (and life), ghost stories, horror theater, the frightening, the numinous.

What could be more numinous, more magical, than the thought that Ashley and Will, two of my co-bloggers, have together created a new life? This baby, conceived around the summer solstice, announced on the autumn equinox, will come into the world around the time of next year’s spring equinox. I think about that, and about how the Spanish euphemism for “giving birth” is “dar a luz,” “to give to the light.” And it feels both wonderfully appropriate and wonderfully mysterious.

My year hasn’t been quite as momentous as Ashley and Will’s, but it — and particularly, the past few months — have brought me bigger challenges than I’ve had to face in a long time. Halfway through the run of Pleiades in August, I began experiencing terrible stomach pains that started as soon as I lay down in bed and kept me awake for hours. After a few nights of this, I went to the doctor and got diagnosed with gallstones. Honestly, the diagnosis came as a relief, rather than shocking or frightening me. I wasn’t crazy! This wasn’t psychosomatic! I was really ill — I had stones in my abdomen that weren’t supposed to be there! And, while I’d have to go on a super low-fat diet and then get my gallbladder surgically removed (neither of which would be much fun), at least that would be an effective, permanent cure.

A few days later, the metaphorical resonances of my situation began to hit me. The process of producing Pleiades, from the time I floated the idea to director Katja Rivera in mid-December 2013 to closing night at the end of August 2014, took about nine months. And then at the end of the process, I came down with terrible abdominal pains and had to go to the hospital to get something removed from inside me! I wasn’t just giving birth to a play. I was giving birth to gallstones.

And then I decided that I needed to name my gallstone. I know this sounds kooky, but I come from a family that names everything — our cars, even our Christmas trees. Giving something a name makes it real and concrete in my mind, and as such, gives me power over it. After considering and rejecting a few silly names that didn’t feel right (gallstones are sometimes made of bilirubin, so perhaps I could name my stone “Billy Rubin”?) I reached back to literature for inspiration. And I decided that my gallstone was named “Caliban.” Partly because it was angry and caused me pain and would flare up if I drank too much alcohol. But mostly, I was thinking of the line at the end of The Tempest, when Prospero says of Caliban, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”

This gallstone was a thing of darkness. This health crisis was no fun. But if I acknowledged it as mine — if I accepted it rather than falling prey to self-pity or anger — I could survive.

Then, too, I thought of a monologue I had written for one of the key moments in Pleiades. The character of Teresa (in our production, wonderfully played by Monica Ammerman) has been raped, late at night on a beach. The next morning, she tells her sister and her cousin what happened:

The sand. So much sand. Rubbing me raw and abrading me—getting into places where sand shouldn’t go— And at first I closed my eyes and tried to forget it was happening but that just made it worse. You know when your eyes are closed you feel things more intensely, right? So I opened them and saw him, of course, big and dark and close up. And the only other thing I could see was the sky. Big and dark and far away. But full of stars. And I remembered what they say, that there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on Earth. The stars win out. They have to win out. There has to be more starlight than sand… But there was so much sand!

And I realized that if Pleaides was the starlight in my life, these gallstones were the sand. I was so proud of my show, this play inspired by mythology and constellations and sisterhood. And the stars would win out… even if I had this sand, or these stones, inside me, too.

I think October is about acknowledging those things of darkness that are ours. But also acknowledging the starlight. The sparks of light within us, like the candle in a jack-o-lantern.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She has never read “Illness as Metaphor” but she probably should. Find her on Twitter @MarissaSkud or at marissabidilla.blogspot.com.

Theater Around the Bay: A Mother’s Care

Charles Lewis III returns with part two of his interviews with the creative team behind Pleiades, which opens later this week at the Phoenix Theatre.

“A son is a son ‘til he takes a wife, a daughter’s a daughter all of her life.”
– Old Irish Proverb

I had the pleasure of taking part in the ‘Pub’s production of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, newly-translated by Marissa Skudlarek. I wore a horse’s head and that is all you need know about my involvement. It was my first – and hopefully not last – time working with director Katja Rivera. I’d first heard of her in 2011 when she directed another primarily female show set in the early 1970s, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Star of that show, actress/songbird Michelle Jasso, affectionately Katja described as “no bullshit, but incredibly open to collaboration and suggestion”. With the full production of Marissa’s Pleiades about to enter tech week under Katja’s direction, I was able to briefly catch up with her to talk about the play. As a complimentary piece to last week’s interview, I got to ask Katja about her approach to the material, historical accuracy, and bringing a maternal perspective to a story of young women trying to find their place in the world.

Katja

Did you attend the original Pleiades reading in 2011?

No, I didn’t attend the first reading of Pleiades. I didn’t even know about the Olympians Festival then!

What about Marissa and her script encouraged you jump aboard this project?

Marissa had sent me her script, and I particularly was impressed with how she understood the dynamics of a large family. I’m from a family of seven, so that aspect of the script particularly resonated with me. I also enjoy working with Marissa (on Pint Sized and Orphée), so I wanted a chance to collaborate with her on a full production.

Whereas Marissa’s script was written by someone trying to imagine a specific time in history, you were actually alive during that time. How important was historical accuracy to you? Are you on the lookout for specific anachronisms or is it better to have just a general sense of the era, so as to focus more directly on story and character?

I like to be as historically accurate as possible, and do think we are products of our time. I do look out for anything that smacks of anachronism, because I don’t want to distract audience members. I feel like Marissa has a good sense of the period, as I remember it, so she’s made my job easy in that regard.

Having myself assisted with the Pleiades auditions and seen the embarrassment of riches in terms of local female talent, how does one begin to whittle that down to “the right” eight women you needed for this play?

The 8 characters in the play are all so individual, so while we had some women in the play who could have played more than one of these roles, their personalities lent to making it easy to slot them into their roles.

Was there any special consideration in choosing Paul Rodrigues (a talented fella whom I’ve had the pleasure of directing) as the sole male role?

With Paul, we definitely wanted someone who was likable, so it wouldn’t easy to dismiss the character out of hand for what he does. Paul is also such an intelligent actor. He is bringing qualities the role that I didn’t see before we started the rehearsal process. It’s delightful.

On the surface, the play would appear to simply be “the problems of eight rich White girls and one White guy”. What would you say is a more accurate description and how would you sell it people who don’t resemble the characters portrayed?

I would say it is about 7 young women, sisters, who are trying to figure out how to live an authentic life, as the world around is shifting below their feet.

Is there a particular character with whom you identify more than the others?

Alison, played by Annabelle King. I’m the middle child of 7, as is she, and there are some character traits that particularly resonate with me.

The proper “adults” in the play are alluded to, but are never seen. It almost as if the sisters live in an insulated world all their own, with disruption immediately followed by the arrival of an outsider. As a mother yourself, how do you approach a story with one of the most frustrating scenarios a parent can think of – namely children holding onto secrets (one becoming the victim of a serious crime) and not turning to their parents for help? Furthermore, how do you think your own daughters will react to this play?

All characters have secrets. That’s my belief. Some of their secrets are revealed in this play, but I encourage actors to have secrets for their characters. As to my daughters’ reaction, I hope they will love the play. They are in the age range of these characters, age 25 and 22, and avid theatergoers. My goal in directing this is for them to love it.

To end with the generic-but-informative questions: What have you got coming up theatre-wise? What projects do you want to do, but haven’t had the opportunity (yet)?

I’m directing Three Tall Women by Edward Albee in November at Custom Made Theatre, and filming Merritt Squad, a webseries, this summer. And I would love to do some more acting soon, as well as some writing. We’ll see what the Universe has in store!

Photo by Serena Morelli

Photo by Serena Morelli

Pleiades begins previews this Thursday, August 7, with opening night Saturday, August 9. The play will run for 12 performances, Thursdays through Saturdays, through August 30th at The Phoenix Theatre in San Francisco. Tickets are available at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/780504. For more information, press inquiries, and to purchase tickets, please visit http://PleiadesSF.wordpress.com.

Charles Lewis III thinks that if you have any appreciation for women in theatre, independent theatre, and creative new work, then you should hurry and get your tickets for Pleiades before all twelve performances are sold out.

Theater Around the Bay: Sing a Song of Seven Sisters

Charles Lewis III is today’s guest blogger, with an extremely thorough interview of Marissa Skudlarek, author of the upcoming world premiere, PLEIADES. We’re super excited about the show, and encourage everyone to go. We’d also like to let Marissa know we have never used the term Box Office Babe ironically. “Babe” is a gender neutral term and we consider anyone willing to work our box office SUPER SEXY.

Poster by Emily C. Martin

Poster by Emily C. Martin

“Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?”
– The Holy Bible, Book of Job: Chapter 38, verse 31 (King James Version)

One of TheaterPub’s greatest strengths has always been its networking prowess. Its productions are unmatched in their ability to bring together such a disparate (some would say “motley”) collection of theatre artists to form lasting connections. It was during one such post-show mingle in the ‘Pub’s first year that I was introduced to an unassuming-yet-unforgettable Vassar gal named Marissa Skudlarek. We were both eager to make names for ourselves in the Bay Area theatre scene, but even as we spoke about a variety of topics (I remember Tristan & Isolde being a major one), I knew she was more likely than I to make a splash.

By the end of that summer, most of us knew her bright smile on sight when she warmly greeted each of us as first-ever box-office manager (aka “The Box-Office Babe”) for The San Francisco Olympians Festival’s opening year. What started as idea during a car ride to an Atmos Theatre production has become an annual must-do for the Bay Area indie theatre scene. Now in its fifth year at The EXIT Theatre, the staged reading festival has commissioned more than 130 new scripts; an equal number of fine art illustrations, mosaics, and needlepoints; two books; and the collaboration of countless actors, directors, and theatre technicians. To say nothing of scripts that have gone on to full productions.

It just so happens that the ‘Pub’s own “Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life” columnist is the latest Olympians alumnus to get a full production. Having gone from the festival’s box office manager to playwright to copyeditor of the two Olympians books (Songs of Hestia and Heavenly Bodies), so too will her original script Pleiades, written for Year 2, graduate to a fully-staged run this August at The Phoenix Theatre. Based on the Greek myth of the seven daughters of Titan god Atlas, the play revolves around the seven Atlee sisters, their activist cousin, and a local Casanova in the affluent Hamptons during the summer of 1971. In the middle of her increasingly busy schedule, I was fortunate enough to pose a few questions to Marissa during the final hours of the Pleiades’ successful IndieGoGo campaign. We discussed how she’s grown as a writer, how the script has evolved since the original reading, and why a production with a largely female cast & crew is so important to modern audiences.

First things first: how did you get involved with the Olympians Festival during its inaugural year?

Almost five years ago now, I submitted a proposal to write the “Artemis” play for the first-ever Olympians Festival… but that was the year that everyone wanted to write about Artemis, so I didn’t get chosen. (This is one reason that an Artemis figure, in the guise of rabble-rousing feminist Diane, shows up in Pleiades.) I still thought that the festival sounded like a really cool idea, though, and I was fairly new in town and hungry to be part of the theater community, so I befriended Stuart Bousel and asked if I could help out with the festival. He mentioned the box-office job, and while it was unpaid, it meant that I could see all 12 Olympians shows for free. And that seemed like a great way to get acquainted with a lot of actors and writers very quickly, so I accepted the gig.

Who came up with the name “Box Office Babe”? Does anyone even remember?!

I feel like Stuart came up with the “box office babe” nickname, but I don’t think that I actually heard it used until Year Two, when Barbara Jwanouskos was box-office manager. I admit I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with that title and don’t tend to use it myself, because there’s something kind of old-fashioned and chauvinistic about the word “babe” (even though I understand that it’s ostensibly being used ironically here. Ah, hipster sexism).

One of the things I most remember from first meeting you in 2010 was that you weren’t all that fond of the term “emerging playwright”. One’s profile definitely raises with the production of their first full-length. How would you say you’ve evolved as a writer in the four years since?

Well, Pleiades is the only full-length I’ve written since leaving college six years ago — I’m not the fastest or most prolific writer, so it’s not like I had a wealth of plays from which to choose. If I didn’t produce Pleiades, it might be another 2 or 3 years before I write another full-length play that I’m proud of… and I wasn’t prepared to wait that long to have a full-length produced in San Francisco. Moreover, I felt that as long as Pleiades went unproduced, it was kind of blocking me from getting started on another full-length. It felt like unfinished business. I needed to see this script to fruition (in the form of a full production) before I could move on.

What was it about this script that you felt it had to be your first proper full-length production?

I wanted to produce Pleiades as a way of actively participating in the conversation about gender parity and feminism in theater that has become so prominent recently. There are all these statistics about how female playwrights and directors and actors are underrepresented, and rather than continuing to talk about how unfair that is and debate possible solutions, I just wanted to produce a new play that has a female writer, female director, eight female actors, and be like “DEAL WITH IT.”

Because I haven’t written another full-length since Pleiades, it’s hard to say how my playwriting has evolved. Maybe I’ve learned to be less afraid of my own voice? Pursuing my crazier whims, rather than trying to make my writing sound like everybody else’s. I definitely think I’ve become more courageous in terms of my nonfiction writing. Three years ago, I’d never have written that piece I wrote for Theater Pub recently, pointing out that ACT hasn’t produced a local playwright in 7 years apart from their own AD. I would have been too afraid of getting on Carey Perloff’s blacklist. But, well, the whole point of the article is that she’s not producing local playwrights, right? So what have I got to lose?

Katja Rivera directed your Theater Pub-produced translation of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée last year. At that point had you already considered her for the director of Pleiades?

At the time of the Orphée reading (April 2013) I wasn’t sure yet that I wanted to self-produce Pleiades. My feeling that I needed to produce the play grew slowly over the course of 2013 until, by the end of the year, it had become overwhelming, and I contacted Katja to see if she wanted to direct it. It’s like that Anaïs Nin quote: “The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Some playwrights think the most daunting thing about self-production is raising the funds, or simply finding the time/energy to embark on such a major project. Those things never fazed me. For me, the most daunting aspect of self-production was always the problem of finding a director.

Did you ever consider directing it yourself?

I have never wanted to direct my own plays — I have no training as a director, no sense of how to block a scene, absolutely no self-confidence in that area. Plus, having a director handle the day-to-day aspects of production (rehearsals and the like) while I handled the big-picture elements (contracts, fundraising, marketing) sounded do-able… handling everything myself sounded like a disaster in the making.

Katja was definitely my first-choice director. I first met her in 2012, when she directed my play “Beer Theory” for Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival. “Beer Theory” is a weird little play that, more than anything else I’ve ever written, tries to illustrate what it’s like to live inside my head, and Katja knew exactly what I was going for… I felt like she “got” me right away. Our collaboration on Orphée was also harmonious. Further points in Katja’s favor were that she liked the Pleiades script and she’s from a different generation than me — I thought it would be good for the director of Pleiades to have been alive in 1971, the year the play takes place. But it was still scary to send that initial email to Katja and ask her if she wanted to direct Pleiades! I was asking her to clear her schedule and devote months of her life to my work, for very little compensation. And I’m not sure what I would’ve done if she’d said no!

Another thing I recall from that first year is that you were fond of the phrase “Plays are never finished; only abandoned.” I remember seeing the original reading of Pleiades in 2011 and I understand it’s been read around the country since then…

Well, it’s only had one other reading since the Olympians one, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend it: the reading happened in Myrtle Beach, SC, on the same weekend in April 2013 that Katja and I were doing tech for Orphée!

What’s changed about the script since the Olympians reading?

The script still has the same basic structure that it had in 2011, but I like to think that it’s stronger. After the Olympians reading, I beefed up the climax to make it more cathartic. I streamlined certain scenes and expanded others. I tried to raise the stakes a little; I tried to deepen the characters and make them more complex. It’s identifiably the same story, with the same characters; but I think it works a little better.

Have you done any rewrites since announcing the start of production?

I did make some changes to the script between announcing my decision to produce the play (in January) and going into rehearsals in June, but they were fairly minor — rewriting half a page of dialogue so it flows better, that kind of thing. Act One now ends with more impact and has a better curtain line. I haven’t handed out any rewrites to my cast since the start of rehearsals, though.

Your story is about a group of women struggling to define themselves during the height of the Second-wave Feminist movement. One of the icons of that movement, Gloria Steinem, recently celebrated her 80th birthday. You’ve never been shy about defining yourself as such, but what is it about the word “Feminism” that seems to rub modern women – many of them high-profile – the wrong way; particularly the ones who claim to profess the very ideals for which the movement stands?

So it seems to be axiomatic among a lot of people that “young women refuse to call themselves feminists nowadays because they think it makes them sound like man-hating lesbians with hairy armpits,” but I don’t actually know how much truth there is to that. Supposedly, women between the ages of 18 and 29 are most likely to self-identify as feminists. If a young female celebrity says “I’m not a feminist because I love men,” as happened with Shailene Woodley recently, the Internet explodes with essays telling her why she’s wrong. Sometimes I feel like every female playwright I know is a feminist. Which is awesome! But it also means that feminism has lost some of its pungency. It used to be that if you said “I’m a female playwright and I want to tell women’s stories,” it made you sound kind of cool and edgy. Now it’s like “Yeah, so what else is new?”

Thanks to the Internet, more people are discussing and debating feminism than ever before, and feminist concepts (like the Bechdel Test) are entering the pop-culture lexicon. However, the Internet also has a way of magnifying people’s outrage; and online, the people who get the most attention are often the loudest, most extreme, angriest people. So a young woman might see this and think that to be a feminist, you need to be snarky, or bitter, or humorless, or antagonistic, or perpetually outraged, when none of those things are actually true. There are humorless feminists and hilarious ones; there are feminists who want to smash the patriarchy and feminists who want to dismantle it gently. It’s a broad movement. (uh, no pun intended.)

One other challenge of being a feminist is that, once you start calling yourself one, you have to examine your own unconscious prejudices and develop your own understanding of what feminism means to you. And each time you detect sexism, you have to decide whether you are going to call it out or whether you are going to let it slide — and both of those things are hard to do, for different reasons. Even if you live in a supportive environment, being a feminist is not always easy. It requires self-reflection and self-questioning, qualities that our culture does not always encourage.

Marissa Skudlarek takes her place amongst the goddesses. Photo by Tracy Held Potter

Marissa Skudlarek takes her place amongst the goddesses. Photo by Tracy Held Potter

You’ve often spoke of your fondness for productions with large casts and Pleiades is unique among contemporary independent theatre (particularly in the Bay Area) as it has a cast of nine that is primarily female. What were the steps you took to make all the voices individual and how did the traditional Greek interpretation of the characters influence the way you wrote them?

The thing about the Pleiades in Greek mythology, at least according to the sources that I’ve found, is that they weren’t very individual as personalities. They are treated like a unit, especially in the most famous story about them, the one that goes “Orion was chasing the Pleiades and Zeus turned them into stars to protect them.” They’re just objects to Orion — he doesn’t see them as individuals. I mean, how do you even chase seven women at the same time? Then I discovered that, maybe the Pleiades don’t have individual personalities, but some of them do have individual stories. The eldest three of them — Maia, Elektra, and Taygete — all had children by Zeus. In fact, Maia and Zeus’s son was Hermes. The youngest, Merope, married a mortal and was punished for it: she’s the dimmest star in the constellation. Artemis turned Taygete into a deer after Zeus raped her — whether this was to protect her or punish her is a matter of debate. I started to see how I could turn these stories into a play.

But you’re right that my most difficult task in writing this play was to figure out who each of these young women was, as an individual. And also to make the story psychologically credible, since it would be taking place in a realistic milieu (the Hamptons in 1971) rather than the stylized world of myth. It’s one thing for a myth to say “Zeus had children with the three eldest Pleiades,” it’s another thing for me to write a believable, serious-minded play about a man who has sex with each of three sisters.

Toward the beginning of the writing process, after I’d figured out the basic plot of the play, I took a day to just outline each character’s personality — listing the adjectives and qualities that define each young woman. I also decided, early on, that it was OK if not all of the roles were equal in size or importance, as long as each character had an individual voice. And, as I started to fill in the backstory for the play, I made a timeline listing the characters’ birth dates, key historical events, etc., and I had fun thinking about which zodiac sign each of my characters might be and matching their astrology to their personality.

In addition to your writing, you’re also quite renowned for your impeccable fashion sense. That having been said, the 1970s aren’t generally regarded as a high-point in 20th century fashion, particularly in the United States…

I actually kind of love ’70s fashion! Especially the early ’70s, which were fascinating. The hippie looks of the late ’60s were still hanging on, and there was also a revival of ’30s and ’40s fashion… it could be pretty glamorous. We have a vintage Seventeen magazine from June of 1971 as one of the props in the play and I’ve had great fun browsing through it for inspiration. It makes me want to grow my hair long and walk through a meadow in a gauzy dress!

What was your and Katja’s philosophy in regards to dressing nine different characters of affluent means in the Hamptons of the early-‘70s?

One thing I’ve insisted on from the start is that I do not want the primary message of the costumes in the play to be “look at the kooky things people wore in the ’70s.” I fear that that would distance the audience from the story. I don’t want people to see this as a “period piece” that has no relevance to life in 2014; I want them to empathize with the characters and relate to them! Obviously I don’t want the characters wearing anything that stands out as anachronistic, but a lot of them will be wearing clothes that could work equally well in 1971 and in 2014.

This fits with my play, too, because my characters are old-money WASPs, which means that many of them favor classic preppy styles instead of wacky trends. And they’re at the beach, so they’re dressed fairly casually. They may be an affluent family and they probably pride themselves on wearing good-quality clothing, but they’re not trying to flaunt their wealth or their individuality through their clothes — in fact they would probably consider that quite gauche.

Earlier this year Allison Page gave five reasons encouraging self-production. In the beginning you seemed to want to do everything about Pleiades yourself. What inspired you decide to co-produce with No Nude Men Productions?

My collaboration with No Nude Men basically means that I can Facebook-message Stuart with all of my silly newbie-producer questions and he’s honor-bound to answer them, because his theater company is nominally producing the show. I also got to use the NNM list of press contacts when sending out my press release. It’s not a financial arrangement (no money has changed hands in either direction) and I still am mostly doing everything myself.

I didn’t approach Stuart asking if NNM would produce Pleiades — he actually suggested it to me, and I took him up on the offer because it seemed to offer some advantages and no significant downsides. Unfortunately, there is still kind of a stigma around self-producing (people wonder where the line is between “self-production” and “vanity production”) and I thought it could only be a good thing if my play was associated with one of SF’s longest-running indie theater companies, rather than being “a Marissa Skudlarek production.”

What’s been the most valuable lesson from the collaboration thus-far?

The biggest challenge I’ve had as a producer was finding a set designer, and after I put out feelers to one designer, I got a rather snarky and aggrieved email in reply. Stuart calmed me down and reminded me that, even though I was desperate to find a set designer, that’s no reason to work with people who seem like they’ll be rude or difficult.

Earlier this year you were in the middle of Bay Area theatre controversy when a playwright took personal issue with your review of his most recent work. And yet as artists we’re meant to be aware that we have very little (if any) control over how our work will be interpreted. Were it up to you, what message would like people to walk away with after seeing Pleiades?

I don’t want to get too spoilery, so forgive me if this sounds overly abstract. But I would say that the message of the play is something like “terrible things can happen, but sisterhood can help you get through it.” The world of the play contains malice, violence, and sexism; it also contains humor, courage, and kindness. As such, while bad things happen in Pleiades, I really hope that people don’t interpret it as one of those bleak, nihilistic, “everything in the world is awful” plays.

As mentioned above, I also want people to see the connections between the era of the play and the present era, and to think about how the lives of young women have or haven’t changed since 1971.

Would you invite the aforementioned playwright to one of the performances?

I’d be fine if he came, as long as the rest of the Bay Area theater community didn’t try to turn it into something sensationalistic. The last thing I want is to have people gossiping about me and this playwright and wondering “Ooh… What’s he gonna say about her play? Is the feud going to continue?” Really, at this point I wish people would just stop talking about this so-called controversy.

With a full production now under your (haute couture, envy-inspiring) belt, what are your plans for the next one? Bigger cast? Musical numbers? Sychronised swimming routine?

I don’t actually know. I still love big-cast plays and will continue to advocate for them, but producing Pleiades has made me understand a little better why producers prefer smaller casts: a big cast means more schedules to juggle, more costumes to find, more stipends to pay out! Sometimes I think that my next play should be, like, a really tightly-structured slamming-door farce; sometimes I think I should go in the opposite direction and write something abstract and lyrical. I know that I don’t want my next play to be too similar to Pleiades; it’ll probably be a while before I write another family drama. And I’d like to try writing something set in the present day — it’d be nice to sit down and write without having to do historical research first! But nothing’s certain yet. As Claire Rice writes in “Europa” (one of the plays that will be published, along with Pleiades, in the forthcoming Heavenly Bodies anthology), “What a great burden an open and unknown future is.”

The Atlee sisters look toward the future. Photo by Serena Morelli

The Atlee sisters look toward the future. Photo by Serena Morelli

Pleiades runs Thursdays through Saturdays, August 7 to 30, at the Phoenix Theatre in San Francisco, August 7 – 30. Tickets are on sale at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/780504. For more information or to get in touch with the Pleiades team, please visit http://PleiadesSF.wordpress.com.

The San Francisco Olympians Festival, for which Pleiades was first commissioned, will have its fifth annual run this November at The EXIT Theatre in San Francisco. The producers of the festival are currently running an IndieGoGo campaign through August 1st in support of this year’s entries. To learn more about the festival – including artwork, cast lists, and synopses of all plays throughout its five-year history – please visit http://www.sfolympians.com.

The official Pleiades poster at the top of this article was illustrated by Emily C. Martin. Emily’s work can be found through her official site: http://www.megamoth.net The official cast photo for Pleiades was part of a set taken by photographer Serena Morelli, whose work can be found on-line at http://www.serenamorelli.com.

Charles Lewis III considers himself privileged to have seen both the original reading of Pleiades and the very first Olympians Festival. He’s even more pleased to see what each has become in the years since.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Saying “I Do” to Self-Production

Leave it to Marissa to find the tie-in between all the Big Days…. 

You’ve rented the venue, you’ve taken care of every detail, you’ve dealt with unexpected crises, and now the crowd is filing in, excited to witness the fruition of your plans…

Wait. Am I talking about planning a wedding — or producing a play?

Both of these things have been much on my mind of late. As my fellow Theater Pub bloggers Ashley Cowan and Will Leschber have reminded you, they’re getting married on June 20. Two days after I attend their wedding, I’ll be officiating at the wedding of two other dear friends, Rachel Sadler and Will Knox-Davies. (Their second date was at Theater Pub!) The day after that, rehearsals for my production of Pleiades start. It’s going to be a crazy weekend.

Doing the pre-production for Pleiades as Rachel and Ashley do the “pre-production” for their weddings has made me realize just how similar the two processes are. Here are what I see as the biggest parallels.

The proposal: It must be scary to ask someone to marry you. In this day and age, though, a marriage proposal is rarely a complete surprise — often the couple has discussed marriage before the official proposal takes place, and conventional wisdom says that you shouldn’t ask anyone to marry you unless you’re sure they’ll say yes. Asking Katja Rivera to direct Pleiades was scary, too — she was my first choice director, and I had no idea whether or not she’d say yes. I knew she liked the script, but would she want to direct it — devoting months of her life to my play, with very little compensation? Sure, it’s not a “till death do us part” commitment like marriage, but I still felt like I was asking a lot of her.

The venue: After Katja agreed to direct Pleiades, I knew that the next step would be to find and rent a theater. From there, lots of other things (e.g. our production schedule) would fall into place. We quickly learned that we had to be flexible. For a long time, I was attached to the idea of opening the show in July (Pleiades takes place over Fourth of July weekend, and my birthday is July 5), but theaters just didn’t seem to have July availability. We ended up booking the Phoenix Theatre for a four-week run in August, and are very happy with the way things ended up — but it meant that I had to get rid of some of my pet, preconceived notions. Similarly, the top wedding venues get booked months in advance, and the first step after the engagement takes place is to pick a date and book a venue. I assume that brides and grooms have to be flexible, too, when it comes to locations and venues.

The collaboration: Wedding planning can stress out a lot of couples. There are so many decisions to be made, and what happens when you and your sweetheart disagree about an important aspect of your wedding? You want a sophisticated evening wedding in the city — he wants a folksy outdoor wedding in the countryside. Does this mean the marriage is doomed? At the same time, collaborating and compromising during the wedding planning process can bring a couple closer together. And if you both agree on something without needing to argue about it — well, that just proves that you’re truly meant to be together, right? After Katja and I watched two nights of auditions, we were pleased to discover that we had very similar ideas of which actors we wanted to cast in which roles. Sometimes, writers and directors have very different conceptions of which actor is right for a role — and if that had happened with Pleiades, I think I would have experienced a soul-searching moment of “is this collaboration doomed?” Discovering that Katja and I had a similar perspective on the play and its characters, though, confirmed my belief that she’s the right person for me to work with on this project.

There are some big differences between producing a play and planning a wedding, of course. I envy my wedding-planning friends the fact that weddings are a bigger part of our culture than theater is — and thus, there are more resources, handbooks, websites, etc. available to engaged couples than to aspiring theater producers. Also, most wedding expenses are typically covered by the married couple and their families — but if you’re a self-producing playwright, there’s a stigma around putting your own money into the play, as well as a stigma around having Mommy and Daddy give you the money to produce a play. Both weddings and plays require smart budgeting, but theater requires fundraising to a much greater extent.

My mom tells me that after successfully planning her wedding on a short time frame (6 months from proposal to ceremony), she felt like she could do anything. The odd thing about planning a wedding, though, is that you really only get one shot at it — unless you plan to divorce and remarry someday, and who goes into a marriage thinking that it won’t last forever? Whereas, one of the things that’s sustaining me through the difficulties of producing Pleiades is the understanding that every lesson I learn, every mistake I make, will make producing the next play that much easier. And maybe, if I ever find myself in the position of planning a wedding, my theater-production experience will make that easier for me, too.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, producer, and arts writer. She sends all her love and best wishes to Ashley, Will, Rachel and Will as they get married this month — and wishes a happy 30th anniversary to her mom and dad. Find out more about Marissa’s play Pleiades at pleiadessf.wordpress.com