Cowan Palace: Hey Assholes, Ready for a Fight?

Ashley Cowan balances hugs and cuddles with blades and waves.

I’ve never been much of a pot stirrer. I’m either seasoning that pot into a delicious savory dish or I’m burning my mouth to devour what’s inside it because I’m starving. But making a point to cause a heated commotion? Eh, it’s not exactly my thing.

Growing up, I always valued kindness above everything else. I believed that nice guys finished last only because the best things are saved for the end. Even now, I’m the kind of person who can’t sleep because I’m worried I forgot send someone a happy birthday greeting on Facebook.

But I realize “being nice” isn’t exactly an ideal trait to possess in a creative circle known to praise voices who are outspoken, artistic, and bold. And often I find that because I’m not speaking out of anger, my voice tends to go unheard.

Except in RENT, where I got a microphone.

Except in RENT, where I got a microphone.

Maybe my blog and my general lifestyle don’t scream in raging profanities. Sure, I watch a whole lot of terrible reality television and endless videos of adorable animals doing adorable things. But that doesn’t mean I’m not a valuable member of this community too. And it doesn’t mean my voice deserves to be talked over just because someone else is speaking louder.

It’s been an unfortunate understanding to realize that often people assume because I’m nice, I’m also stupid. Not like a moron, just sweetly stupid and naive. Ignorance is bliss, you know what I mean? And sometimes that sucks for me. Just because I’m kind it doesn’t mean that I care any less about making this community stronger and better than what it is right now. Yes, I’m aware it’s far from perfect, but I often chose to view it with optimism instead of getting drunk and yelling about it. I want to thoughtfully problem solve. I want to be a part of the conversation. I want to make positive changes.

Plus, why do I have to be angry all the time to make this a better theater scene? If we’re aiming to have more honest conversations, why does honesty need to equate anger? I appreciate those of you who get fired up and burn to encourage change, I do. But if we all go around starting fires everywhere we step, pretty soon every theater will be made of ash and we won’t have a place to play.

See those fences? They guard the ashes.

See those fences? They guard the ashes.

And, I want to work again! Preferably here. If I trash talk everything, who is going to want to work with me? Besides, the real truth is, I’m not exactly in a position where I can get away with always speaking truthfully about every poor production I’ve been a part of or every performance I haven’t really cared for, especially in such a public forum. I’ve learned when to hold my tongue and when to inquire its service in helping me to address a concern.

But to all those pot stirrers out there looking to pick a fight, I just ask that you think about what you’re fighting for. Does every conversation we have about the current status of Bay Area theater need to end in an online and/or offline shouting match in order to make a statement? I’m fighting but my war tactics differ. And I’m going to keep on my kindness train because it’s what I do. In any case, I’d like to think we’re still all on the same side and I hope this is a fight we can win together.

Ashley can cheer too.

Ashley can cheer too.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Truth and Kindness

Marissa Skudlarek, truer and kinder every day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cowan Palace: From Hugs and Cuddles to Blades and Waves

Ashley approaches the aftermath of a yes, a new voice, and what it means to be a kind artist.

Another month has come and gone. Mercury hopped out of retrograde and we’re about to spring forward in time. And considering I almost always have a song from some musical in my head blaring on repeat, I keep coming back to the line, “March went out like a lion, a-whippin’ up the water in the bay” from Roger and Hammersein’s beloved, “Carousel”. Because it sure seemed like it took a lot to get here. And the waves continue to make their presence known.

Throughout these past two weeks, since my last article ran, I must have written a separate follow-up at least a dozen times. A lot of the drafts can be found in the various streets of San Francisco after choosing to try and “walk out” some of my many feelings. The steps would range from stunned to apologetic to angry to hurt to sad… and so on and so on. Emotions have never been a lacking area for me, after all.

When we had our end of the year team pow-wow over sangria, the other Theater Pub writers nicknamed me “Hugs and Cuddles” as most of my past work tended to focus on building people up, highlighting the positive sides of the local scene, and wearing the heart that longs to love on my thrift store sleeves. I was truthful, sure, but often it was easy.

Two weeks ago, my emotional honesty took a turn in a new direction. Using Theater Pub as a platform, I stood up and shared something with a slightly different pulse. Suddenly and all at once, “Hugs and Cuddles” stepped aside to allow another perspective. And to say I was ill prepared for the reaction is an extreme understatement.

Now, before I go too much further, I would like to reiterate some points that may not have been clear. I wrote the piece because I wanted to acknowledge my very personal feelings as an artist and attempt to create a conversation about what that role translates to within a community. It wasn’t written out of anger or because I believed I had been the helpless victim of creative theft. I didn’t script it with the intent to hurt anyone or bad mouth any project, past or present. And I truly apologize if it was understood in that manner.

But I’m not sorry I wrote it.

My new alter ego "Blades and Waves". She'll cut you. But with a cake knife. We're working on her...

My new alter ego “Blades and Waves”. She’ll cut you. But with a cake knife. We’re working on her…

I’ve spent my entire life obsessed with the idea of “kindness”. It’s the force that has governed my whole existence and I consider it both a blessing and a curse. I’m much more driven by it than by competition and in an industry that thrives off of determination rather than simply rewarding the nice guy, it hasn’t always worked to my advantage.

However, being nice is not the same as being weak. In fact, within these last few weeks, I’ve found that to be clearer than ever when choosing to stay away from cruel words as my retaliation; even when they were shot at me with the aim to wound. It took all my strength to hold my hurt tongue and chose to move forward without harboring a bad taste in my mouth.

I’ve also gained strength in the company of some other amazing writers over these past few weeks that have chosen to speak honestly but professionally, strongly but not meanly. From reading open Facebook discussions with a playwright and an audience member to a blogged candid exploration of the writing process, it’s been fascinating to see the bigger conversations that can stem from online discourse. I find myself an active participant in the larger picture of creative development. While I will never advocate for other artists to be ripped apart, I do feel that writing honest, thoughtful work serves a greater good and it would be an injustice and a step back to limit our voices to safe, held responses.

While I understand my feelings may not be shared by all audiences, it doesn’t mean they are invalid. We have to be able to converse and connect if we want to create something worthwhile. And sometimes that means you have to step away from the “Hugs and Cuddles” persona in search of an alternative voice. It’s certainly not the easiest thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do if it means we’re evolving as a group and continuing to challenge each other.

As someone who spends a lot of time being her own personal mirror, these last two weeks have proven to be a time of more intense reflection. But I’ve also used the time to reach out to people all over the country who have crossed my path in one artistic way or another to discuss what it feels like to be a participant of art. And of life. It’s created a fire inside of me and I want to make s’mores. S’mores made out of feelings. Delicious feelings.

More than ever, I’m getting a better grasp on what’s important to me and what I want to focus on in the future. I want to keep the doors of communication open. If we’re reacting and responding to each other, it means we are keeping something alive. Thank you for giving me a chance to take a breath and providing me some air to continue. I love, love, love that I seek a life blessed with creativity. I’m always rooting for more work good work. Especially new pieces by women, for women, and starring women regardless of if I have any involvement on the project. I still appreciate kindness above almost anything and value a voice that contains the ability to hold strength while remembering the “Hugs and Cuddles”.

A typical "Hugs and Cuddles" picture. Knits AND pets?! There's so much to snuggle and love!

A typical “Hugs and Cuddles” picture. Knits AND pets?! There’s so much to snuggle and love!