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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEST NEW VENUE
PianoFight

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

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
San Francisco Fringe Festival (EXIT Theatre)

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

BEST SHOW
“Our Town” (Shotgun Players)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Marissa Skudlarek, “Pleiades”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Cat Luedtke in Anything

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

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

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

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

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

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

And as for Me…

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

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

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

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

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

Ah well. C’est la vie.

Deep breath.

Happy New Year.


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

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Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: And Now a Note without a Suicide

Claire Rice on the Year of the Rat.

Madam life’s a piece in bloom
Death goes dogging everywhere:
She’s the tenant of the room,
He’s the ruffian on the stair.

– William Ernest Henley

Rat_Girl

I’ve spent the last year of my life contemplating incomplete suicides and other deaths. I’ve killed a great number of people on stage in a variety of ways. Sometimes I’ve written their deaths and sometimes I’ve directed them. Once or twice I’ve acted them. It often surprises me how flippant in the moment I can be about death, but after all the actor will get up and walk off stage in the dark only moments later. Crudely, it is often just one tool in the great storytelling tool box. Character B must die to show that Character A has lost all humanity. Meanwhile, Director A and Playwright B have spent hours going back and forth on the best method to bring about Character B’s demise. Should we slit the throat? Hang from rafter? Drown in a well? Poison? How fun it is to play at such violent fictions.

But this year has been the year of the Rat. Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, that is. In particular, I’ve spent the last year contemplating the climax of act one where she attempts to end her own life. I spent hours contemplating her method of death. Her door out. In the end I choose a violent and painful end. She picks up a discarded and used box cutter from the clutter that surrounds her. The tool yields itself up out of her world as if she’s bidden it to come. The box cutters appear during a discussion of the death of god, perception and responsibility, art and creation.

But it isn’t easy. The idea is there. The tool is there. The will is there. The need is there. Everything except the action.

In literal time it takes about ten minutes to get there.

In stage action time it takes two full songs and a monologue to get there.

In play time it takes a sleepless night, the purgatory of a hallucination, the stalemate between the fractured self and the sane self, and a calm acceptance of deeper desires.

And then she is reborn. At the top of act II she’s faced her own death at her own hands and now has to move forward and deal with consequences of that battle: the pain on the faces of her loved ones who feel betrayed and scared, the condescension of professionals who’ve seen it all before and the dismissal of those who expect nothing less of an artist. She’s died, but she hasn’t yet decided to live. As the evidence of the value and worth of her life piles up around her, she still cannot be sure. How can she be? How can we demand of her to hurry up and start living when she knows just how close death is and how easily it can be willed closer? At any moment the door out can be manifested before us and we can choose to walk through it or stand before it still.

When she finally chooses life she does so with her own voice.

How long does it take for her to find that voice?

In literal time it takes two hours and thirty minutes including a fifteen minute intermission.

In stage action time it takes about 38 short scenes split between two acts, several songs, a few monologues and two car scenes.

In play time it takes a crisis of identity, a swim in the ocean, a loss of a friend, a terrible accident, multiple discussions about art, the value of art (and thus the value of the self), a lonely suicide, a fractured survival, a move, a pregnancy, a validation, disillusionment, an escape and a return (all in all about a year and change).

Maybe in future productions it won’t take that much literal time, or that many songs or that many car scenes. Maybe in future productions it will take longer. But it will never be easy and it will never be separated from the discussion of art. How could it be? How could the life of an artist, who lives to created, not be filled with discussions on the value of that creation? The perceived value of that creation? The act of creation? Its place in the world? Its place among other art? The difference between art and product?

Of all the deaths on stage, it is this near death that has been the most difficult for me and the most rewarding to contemplate and put out into the world. It isn’t mine. It’s so many other people’s before it is mine, but it is so close to me.

I refuse to allow this death to be easy, or the life that follows it. I refuse to make it simple or direct, because it isn’t.

I’ve taken death on stage for granted, but I refuse to take the choice to live on stage for granted any more. And I’m not going to let you take it for granted either.

Theater Around The Bay: Playwright’s Note vs. Director’s Note

With RAT GIRL about to close on May 24th and THE CRUCIBLE about to open on May 20th, Stuart Bousel finds himself in the rare position of not only having two works playing simultaneously in San Francisco, but both being works based on true stories (that interestingly enough, also both took place in New England, and both focus heavily on teenage girls). Paradoxically, one is a new work being tested for the first time (RAT GIRL), and one is a great American classic that’s been done many times (THE CRUCIBLE), and while he penned the first one (adapted from the memoir by Kristin Hersh), he directed the second (which is written by Arthur Miller). The juxtaposition of these two works has certainly generated a great deal of introspection on his end, particularly in regards to how we tell a story, and why, how it is received and what expectations audiences and critics walk in the door with, what we bring to a production process depending on our role in that process, and what roles truth and reality play in making a work of art, whether we’re breaking new ground or re-visiting a well trod path. Though there is, no doubt, a whole other article coming discussing his experience of inhabiting two such different (and yet oddly similar) worlds at the same time, for the moment it seems like the best way to offer a window into his mind is via the notes he wrote to accompany these two unique shows.

Playwright’s Note On RAT GIRL

Kristin is a real person.

She’s a mother of four sons who divides her time between New England and New Orleans, and when she’s not being a mother, writing songs or touring the country with her indie rock royalty band The Throwing Muses, (or her more recently formed punk rock trio, 50 Foot Wave), she’s working on more books and co-running a non-profit to empower more aspiring musicians. The fact that she took the time to personally respond to my ridiculous request to turn her book into a play is a high-point of my life, let alone the part where she gave us the permission to create this show and put it on. But from what I can tell, that’s Kristin: generous, benevolent, all about people pursuing their passions and quick to say “hey, we’re all losers here.” By which I’ve come to think she means we’re all human, all struggling with something, and that’s what’s interesting about us, even if some of us happen to also be rock stars.

I originally conceived and pitched this show as a piece about the relationship between Kristin and movie star Betty Hutton, who had relocated to New England in her 60s to “dry out” and pursue a masters degree at Salve Regina University, where Kristin’s father was teaching and she was also a student. But like so many shows it evolved into something else, but with the added element of being based on historically true events and the lives of people who actually lived and not only that- lived in the public eye. One of my major challenges in the process was balancing the source material (the book) with all the outside historical information, trying to stay true to what happened and who these people were, while still trying to turn it into a dramatically viable play abut people who anybody could potentially relate to, while also trying to unpack the exquisite mystery that is Kristin’s music and her love/hate relationship to it. At some point I realized the second two values trumped the first, and the drafts got a lot better after that, if less reverent. Luckily, my two heroines are neither reverent, nor people with a conventional relationship to reality.

But they are all real people- down to the reporters and the students in Kristin’s art therapy class. Betty (about whom Kristin wrote the song “Elizabeth June”) died in 2007. Tea is Tanya Donelly, who would later leave the band to form The Breeders, then Belly, and then go solo, becoming an alt rock icon in her own right. Gary is Gary Smith, of Fort Apache Records, Ivo is Ivo Watts-Russell, who founded 4AD Records and has a Cocteau Twins song named after him, and Gil is Gil Norton, a now legendary record producer whose discography reads like a Who’s Who of the last thirty years of rock music. Leslie has retired from music and returned to California, but Dave is still Dave, touring with the Throwing Muses, sitting at the drums behind Kristin, not wearing his glasses.

Mark has also died since the events of RAT GIRL, but the details around his life are always fuzzy. Numerous lyrics in songs by both Kristin and Tanya seem to reference him, this gentle, kind boy who was living under a porch for a while, but unlike so many of the other people in RAT GIRL, he was never part of the music industry or larger art world, and so he has the rare luxury of being a private citizen who has remained, mostly, part of Kristin’s private life. Along with Betty, Kristin dedicated the book RAT GIRL to him.

As a new play is developed, many things come and go. What you’re seeing on stage is something between draft 4 and 5. My first draft was incredibly reverent of the material and four hours long. With each draft, material has been cut, while subtle things changed or were added, put into my own words, or morphed together from Kristin’s. In the case of the character of Jeff, who is a major figure in the first half of the book, at least three other people have been collapsed into him, and Kristin’s parents, so important in the memoir, are now just voices from the past. Still, it was the last cut I made, a week before previews, that I think stands out most in my thoughts on the process. It is the final line of the book and was to be the final line of the play: “I absolutely did not invent this.” In the book, it’s Kristin talking about her first born son. In the play, it was to be the summation of everything the audience had just seen. But with each draft it felt less and less necessary as the play truly became a play, something apart from the book, from the music, and from Kristin’s actual life, a story about a young woman who could really be anybody, any of us.

She just happens to be named Kristin.

Director’s Note For THE CRUCIBLE

Note: it’s probably helpful to know this production is staged on a floor painted with a map of the Salem area of Massachusetts in 1692, and that this was the foundation concept behind this particular production.

The decision to place this production of the Crucible on a map of Salem Town and the larger, more ambiguous region known as “Salem Village” came from a desire to communicate to our audience that what is often perceived as an event taking place in some quaint, cobblestoned seaport, actually took place over almost 100 square miles of farmland and hamlets that would later become what is present day Beverly, Andover, Marblehead, and Salem.

With roughly 2,000 residents in 1692, Salem Town was the second largest settlement in New England (after Boston), but the home of Reverand Parris, where the witch hysteria began, was located 7 miles away, at a crossroads where 10-15 buildings and homes had clustered together to form the center of an agricultural parrish over which 500 or so farmers and craftsmen were scattered, living the majority of their days in relative isolation save for their own families, servants, and hired farmhands. Their once a week journey to the parish center for Sunday prayer at the meeting house would have been the bulk of their social interaction with people outside of their households, and for many this would have been a trip of several hours, often on foot, through fields and pockets of forest in which Natives Americans and wolves prowled. In winter they could expect anywhere between three to nine feet of snow, and very little by way of highway maintenance. Households in the parish had to be largely self-sustaining and also defensible, especially in a time when marauding bands of French soldiers were attacking villages and farms along the Maine borders, and even one’s neighbors were more likely to be strangers than friends. News was communicated slowly, by foot or by horseback, medical aid was difficult to obtain in a timely fashion, and firewood was arguably more precious than gold since it would have to be dragged a great distance and obtained from the source rather than in a marketplace. Candles, the primary source of indoor light, were expensive and used sparingly, windows heavily curtained in an effort to insulate houses made of wood and stone.

The cliche of small towns where people lived their lives within five miles of the house they were born in is not only a truth about Salem Village, but intrinsic to understanding how something so incomprehensible as the witchcraft hysteria could have happened. Isolated from one another and attempting to eke out a living under harsh conditions, perched on the edge of a strange continent only barely explored, it’s not hard to see how an avid and culturally ingrained belief in demons and angels could morph into something diabolical when combined with the active imaginations of people living in places where the night-time darkness must have seemed impenetrable, the shadows full of dangers, the chill weather deadly, and help far away, if it existed at all.

That these people had come to New England in search of a new and better life, usually in the form of land ownership that was impossible in the Old Country, is further hinted at by the map, which was continuously re-drawn with each generation as farms failed or succeeded, families grew or died off, and disputed territory was correctly or incorrectly designated in wills or via private sales often occurring outside any kind of formal and enforceable legal process. It has been argued that a principal motivation behind the witch trials was one faction of families, lead by the wealthy Putnams, seeking to acquire the land of those they accused, but in reality the land of the accused rarely became available to private buyers, reverting instead to the state. Long standing disputes over land, and the resentments attached to those disputes, however, most certainly fanned the fires of personal grudges that combined with the miasma of paranoia and resulted in nearly 300 people being arrested on false charges and 25 people losing their lives- 19 by hanging, 1 by being pressed to death, and 5 by sickness while languishing in Salem’s prison.

Today Salem Village no longer exists, having been renamed Danvers in an early attempt to erase the dark past of the region. In a delicious stroke of irony, the Danvers Lunatic Asylum was later built on the land once owned by Judge Hathorne, whose great-great-grandson Nathaniel (who added a “w” to his surname so as to distance himself from his legacy) would pen “The House of Seven Gables”, which still stands in modern day Salem. The Asylum, however, burned down in 2007, and the land remains empty except for a cemetery which is consider haunted.

RAT GIRL has three more performances. Tickets and info at www.divafest.info. THE CRUCIBLE opens Tuesday, May 20th, tickets and info at www.custommade.org.

Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: Gone Fishing

Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List will return in two weeks.

In the mean time, go see Kristin Hersh’s RAT GIRL adapted for the stage by Stuart Bousel at DIVAfest. Get your tickets at: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/577015

You can support current and future DIVAfest projects here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/divafest-2014

Frogs

Theater Around The Bay: Adaptors Are Artists Too

Stuart Bousel talks about how adaptation is an often undervalued skill in the theater industry.

For almost a year now I have been working on a stage adaptation of Kristin Hersh’s memoir, Rat Girl, which is a project that began when I read the book and knew I wanted to turn it into a stage play. There were a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is my own love for the music of Kristin Hersh, but it fundamentally came down to believing that Kristin’s story was one that could be serviced greatly by live performance, centered as it was on a live performance art, and that the things which I connected to were the kind of things other audience members would connect to. I found her portrayal of herself and the people in her life charming and believable, and I liked that she openly stated at numerous points throughout the book that while everything “had happened”, she was not an entirely reliable narrator, especially considering she was suffering from undiagnosed bi-polarity for about half of the book, and undergoing treatment for said mental condition for the remainder.

reason #7,000 to love Kristin: you have got to have a sense of humor about yourself to choose this image for the cover of your book about how you went insane.

reason #7,000 to love Kristin: you have got to have a sense of humor about yourself to choose this image for the cover of your book about how you went insane.

As a playwright rather notoriously known for plays that employ a lot of first-person, direct-address narrative from somewhat questionable narrators, and a penchant for alt-culture music and lifestyles, the book and I just seemed like a natural fit. Luckily, I was able to convince Kristin and her management to give me a chance to prove myself, even if only for a single production. Equitably lucky, the Exit Theatre, where I have been putting up work since 2005, was willing to take on producing the show and before I had so much as typed out a title page I had an opening date, a production schedule, a budget, half my cast, and a little less than a year to write a show. Now, most people would probably consider this a win and it was, but it also meant I now had to put my money where my mouth was, in a situation where people I greatly admired were watching and would be holding me accountable for the results, and a clock was ticking the whole time.

“Piece of cake,” a friend tells me when I express joy at the commission, and fear at being able to pull it off in time, “I mean, it’s basically already written for you anyway, right?”

“Well, actually…”

“Oh, you know what I mean,” he brushes me off, and the troubling thing is, I do know what he means.

Cut to many months later, I’ve finished a first draft of the script and we’ve had a reading and everything, and I’m sitting down with the producer and the director and we’re tossing around billing for the press releases and posters which are now only a month away from coming out. Obviously we want Kristin’s name as prominent as possible, because the show is being produced as part of a women-centric performance festival, and oh yeah- she’s famous, and a new play needs all the cachet it can get. Still, I’m a little alarmed (and kind of hurt) when the proposed title is, “Rat Girl, by Kristin Hersh, adapted for the stage by Stuart Bousel.” I mean, sure she wrote the book (and lived the life the book is based on), but I’m the guy who spent the last six months of his life reading it three times and trying to turn a charming, smart, but at times barely coherent, kind of rambling diary, into a dramatically paced story with a beginning, middle, and end, not to mention playable characters and discernible themes. In other words, I’m the guy who wrote the play, which is what we’re talking about here- not the book- and while of course the play wouldn’t exist without the book, it’s important to point out that the play (at least in this form) wouldn’t exist without me.

Because Kristin is both alive and in communication with me, the billing debate is easily ended by sending her an email with a couple of options and, to my relief, she goes for my proposed “Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, adapted for the stage by Stuart Bousel”, but before we get there, my producer, bless her, says in passing, “Well, it seems that all we’re doing is adapting the book anyway,” which, I know, isn’t meant to come off as, “you’re not doing all that much here anyway,” but it kind of does. With no disrespect to my producer (who is lovely), it often seems to me that in the minds of most people who don’t write plays (or films), there is a real big difference between an adaptation and an original work, and of course there is, but that difference is often construed to be that original work reflects a greater, more substantial, more creative, and thus more worthy effort on the part of the writer than an adaptation does. I’m here to tell you, as an author with an accomplished resume of both original works and adaptations, that this is simply not true.

Fact: Turns out the Oscar for Best Screenplay and the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, are BOTH mostly made out of tin.

Fact: Turns out the Oscar for Best Screenplay and the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, are BOTH mostly made out of tin.

Rat Girl is my sixth straight up adaptation, though you could argue at least three of my other plays are adaptations of famous myth cycles (the Trojan War, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Jason and the Argonauts), and I technically adapted an HP Lovecraft story (“The Thing on the Doorstep”) into a screenplay in college, though the less we talk about that the better. I’ve adapted a collection of short stories by Peter S. Beagle (“Giant Bones”), a play by Jean Genet (“The Balcony”), a novella by H.P. Lovecraft (“The Dunwich Horror”), three plays by Shakespeare (“Henry IV part 1 and 2, Henry V”), and two more works I kind of can’t talk about because I signed contracts saying I’d never admit to the work (ghost writing is a probably a blog worthy of itself). I’ve written in the past about my adaptation process (you can read about it, in regards to my Shakespeare adaptation, “The Boar’s Head”, on this very blog), but the adaptation process for RAT GIRL has been especially interesting since it’s technically based not only on previously written work, but actual historical events and people.

Don’t be fooled by the hats; Dave, Kristin, Tea, and Leslie are all real people

Don’t be fooled by the hats; Dave, Kristin, Tea, and Leslie are all real people

That said, Kristin’s book is not a straight-forward historical account of what happened, but a collage of 1) her diary from the time, 2) song lyrics spanning her entire career up to the present and 3) memories and anectdotes of events that occur both before and after the principal time line of the book, not to mention 4) told from the perspective of someone who is admittedly (and diagnostically) even more unreliable than the average human being (and most human beings, unless gifted with photographic memories and impeccable honesty, are at least somewhat unreliable narrators). Needless to say, this makes an adaptation a daunting task in and of itself as one attempts to create a story an audience can follow, but Rat Girl is further complicated by two more things, neither of which are a given in every adaptation, but further illustrate my general point that adaptors (particularly of memoirs) have their work cut out for them.

The first complication is that the book is written first-person, entirely from Kristin’s perspective, which means NONE OF THE CHARACTERS EXCEPT HER ARE GIVEN A FIRST PERSON PERSPECTIVE, and while we get more than 300 pages of Kristin’s thoughts and views and ideas, all we get about the other people is what she tells us about them, and what hints we can glean from their dialogue (which to Kristin’s credit, she has an excellent ear for dialogue). When you’re reading the book, this isn’t something that really bothers you, but transferred to a dramatic form, you become quickly aware (as we all did in the first reading) that everyone in the story but Kristin has very little in regards to internal reflection or interior monologue, and thus, despite some fun details or moments, comes across flatter than we tend to prefer characters to be in modern American theater. Especially since a massive chunk of Kristin’s internal monologue, describing these folks to us, hits the cutting room floor because this isn’t a one woman show, even if Kristin is the leading role, and having her talk about the other people completely defeats the point of including them as actual characters in the play. Bottom line, solving this problem required me to dramatize relayed situations where characters could actively demonstrate who they were rather than passively be described, and that in turn often entailed expanding or adjusting their dialogue from the book, or in some cases collapsing the actions and traits of several smaller characters into more prominent, important ones in an effort to provide more dimensionality.

Do you think Kristin’s saying, “If I’m ever turned into a character in a play, I will have just as many monologues as Hamlet”? Because that’s kind of how it fell out.

Do you think Kristin’s saying, “If I’m ever turned into a character in a play, I will have just as many monologues as Hamlet”? Because that’s kind of how it fell out.

The second complication to Rat Girl’s adaptation process was that while many things happen over the course of Kristin’s story, and there are many dramatic moments (including the decision, at one point, to attempt suicide by slitting her wrists), the book, being based on life, mimics life’s amazing ability to evade dramatic structure because of that whole thing where dramas have an arc and a point, while life is essentially a series of vaguely connected events that frequently only have relevancy to one another because we retrospectively see them that way. This is perhaps even more apparent in Rat Girl because the central conflict in the book is really Kristin vs. herself, engaged as she is in a battle to keep her fragmenting mind and personality together as she first becomes a rock star, and then a young mother. Though her band’s almost-too-easy-to-be-true rise to prominence in the indie rock scene and the course of her pregnancy provide a throughline to the events of the book, the “two steps forward, one to three steps back” nature of coping with a mental health crisis results in a series of twists and turns that are interesting to read about, but dramatically feel like a series of confusing anti-climaxes, particularly post suicide attempt. The major aspect of Kristin’s story that appealed to me and I wanted to bring to the stage was her struggle to learn to live with a mental health condition that can never be truly cured, but that struggle is fundamentally internal, and dramatic structure requires progress and action. Or to coin a cliché: in the book Kristin tells us what she goes through, but in the play we have to show, not tell, the story, and this meant cutting and re-arranging a long, meandering road of small but distinct events into a shorter sequence of more impactful events that moved in a definitive and climactic direction. Which also meant, once again, generating some material of my own, including crafting whole scenes based on a handful of lines in the book, or sometimes just an implication. This made me nervous as all get out, but the alternative would have been either a story full of holes, or an actor playing Kristin, standing center stage, telling us everything, and thus essentially just reading the book to us.

I imagine that would look like this, only the band is being way more forgiving than I suspect the audience would be.

I imagine that would look like this, only the band is being way more forgiving than I suspect the audience would be.

It all this comes down to this: it is hard to adapt a story from one medium to another, and as much as I get why people might think it’s easy because “you’re not telling a story from scratch”, the truth is, you still kind of are, because the way we tell a story in prose is vastly different from the way we tell one on the stage and you, as the adaptor, have to come up with your approach and make it work- even if you do opt to include a bunch of direct address monologues (which, by the way, only really work outside of Greek theatre when a character is describing their feelings and thoughts- not the events and people of the play). It’s arguably even harder to adapt something because it’s often exactly what works or appeals about the pre-existing material that complicates your attempts to turn a narrative form into a performative one. This will be exceptionally irritating if, like me, you really love the material because of the way it was written, because style is almost impossible to preserve from one medium to another. Also, if you’re really into the subplots, or little details of characters, it’s going to be a heartbreaking process as early and late drafts will both be about cutting, cutting, and more cutting, usually of the stuff you loved the most. Sadly, the backstory and exposition that give great books scope frequently become overwhelming when brought to the stage in all but the most subtextual fashion, and every book ever written is going to contain more details than you can put on stage within the confines of a running time that audiences can actually endure.

You think this is long?

You think this is long?

Try this.

Try this.

A good adaptor has to be so much more than just a good writer. They have to be an editor and a conceptualist, a researcher and a puzzle solver, a plot and character surgeon- and assassin. They are tasked with having to capture the spirit and substance of the original material while simultaneously boiling it away down to the bones, picking it apart even as they are putting it together. It’s a juggling act, very different from the pure generation process of creating original work, but in no way inferior, for in that conversion of one voice by another there is the potential to strike a chord otherwise impossible. If adaptation and original work have anything in common, it’s the potential to fail is equitably present, but when the adaptor fails they fail not only themselves but also the source material and that material’s generator. Then again, greater stakes often make for better drama, both on and off the stage… and the page.

Stuart Bousel is a co-Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub, and a prolific writer, director, producer and actor in the Bay Area. His website, http://www.horrorunspeakable.com will tell you all about it. His adaptation of Kristin Hersh’s RAT GIRL opens at the Exit Theatre on May 3rd. You can find out more about Kristin’s music at http://www.throwingmuses.com

Theater Around The Bay: Your Place Is Not To Complain, Young Man

Every day in his mind, Stuart Bousel holds a one man conference about gender parity in the Theater Community. Today, he offers you a glimpse inside.

On my way to work, I walk past a grade school playground where young boys and girls are running and playing, engaged in their physical education routine. Now and then I have helped them retrieve a ball that went over the fence, but rarely do I notice them beyond the general background noise and semi-suburban quaintness that characterizes that particular stretch of Castro. Today, however, my mind already muttering over the pieces of this essay as it formed in my head, I heard one of their instructors (a man) say to one of his students, “Your place is not to complain, young man, but to just do the best you can do!” and of course, that got under my skin as quickly as possible. Partly because I agree with the spirit of what the instructor is saying, and partly because I think that a person does have an obligation to complain, when a person really thinks there is something to complain about. The trick is knowing when to do it, and for how long, and how to recognize when it’s time to stop complaining and start doing something. And then, of course, just what exactly you should do so that you can solve the issue without becoming the issue yourself.

Today, on the other side of the Bay, the annual TBA conference is going on and one of this year’s focuses is Gender Parity. An important subject to be sure, but I prefer my important subjects argued over in living rooms with articulate people sipping cocktails, or on Facebook where I can somehow justify procrastination easier than in my actual life, so I skipped the conference. Also because I’m broke and need to go to work while I still have a day job. Still, it is a bit of a shame, because as a person in the Theater Community (see how I used the capitals there to emphasize Big Picture) who pays attention to what’s trending and what everyone is talking about, I’ve been very aware of the ongoing discussion about opportunities in the Theater Community, who gets them, and how gender plays a role in that, and I’m almost interested in hearing what official representatives of the Community are saying about it. I say “almost” because another part of me is also just truly bored by the whole thing.

Saying I’m bored by the discussion about gender parity doesn’t mean I believe we shouldn’t be having it: it just means that I, personally, am beginning to wonder if I really have anything valuable to either get from it or to contribute to it. From what I can tell, there are a lot of angry women out there and they have every right to be angry, but at the same time, I’m starting to feel like their effort to be heard is overwhelming their ability to listen, and that the protest, though necessary, would rather be resolved with immediate re-action over measured discussion and strategic action. And that if some of them can exact a little retribution in the process- even better.

Perhaps I feel this way because I find myself tempering my own desire to engage with a nagging doubt that I’m really welcome to do so. I find that, depending on who is doing the talking, I now have an earnest fear of being accused of sexism should I do anything aside from absolutely agree with whatever that woman is saying. The truth is, while I know that I am not sexist (or racist, or homophobic, or anything else I’ve been accused of for just not being of the same mind as everyone else), my desire not to spend hours defending myself (as opposed to defending my stance) can sometimes sorely outweigh my desire to engage, more so lately than in the past.

Perhaps my reluctance is also because a lot of the solutions I see many of my concerned peers propose or champion, seem to be the theatrical equivalent of a crash diet: i.e. let’s over-compensate for as much as we can for past imbalances, even if that won’t actually provide a long term solution to ensure a healthy future. Or in straight forward, non-allegorical terms: let’s minimize involvement of men in the theatrical process, if not take them out of the equation entirely. Which sounds ridiculous when I write it out (and probably more so when you read it) but it takes very little digging around to find that quite a lot of female exclusive groups, festivals and events seem to be cropping up lately. Which, personally, I find distressing, because if there is one thing nobody in the Theater Community needs, it’s less inclusivity- even if the motivation behind that is, ironically, to be more inclusive.

I understand, enormously, the impatience of people (regardless of how they identify) who feel they have not been treated fairly or given a chance, and I also understand the earnest desire (usually fueled by guilt) on the part of the people who have been given a chance, to “correct” the past by making the most earnest effort possible in the present. That said, as someone who firmly believes we only condemn the future to be the past when we continue the systems of the past under a different name, this mentality of “you had your turn, now it’s ours” doesn’t work for me. You can’t balance the scales with imbalance on the other side. And you can’t win a war without allies. The complications, of course, lay in how we define allies,  how we win them over, and how we keep them on our side, whatever our cause is. Generally speaking, alienation is never the solution to any of these questions, and yet alienation is sort of where I see the current discussion heading.

And sure, maybe I just feel that way because I am a man. A white man. Because I am currently in a romantic relationship with another man I am a homosexual, and because I was raised by a Jewish father whose family had a stronger influence on me than my Christian mother’s did, I tend to identify as a secular Jew, but the truth is, the only religion I’ve ever really loved are the cults of Helios, Selene and Apollo, and my personal mantra is better expressed by the myth of Eros and Psyche than, say, The Joy of Gay Sex, so essentially I’m a white man and many people in my life, particularly many people in my artistic life, feel a need to constantly remind me of that. Sometimes they are right too, and sometimes they are annoying and pretentious, and sometimes they really hurt my feelings because they make me feel like the part where I was born lucky enough to be part of the dominant culture means I somehow have limitless possibilities, no hurdles of my own to overcome, and perhaps most outrageous, am not as inclined to need and desire the love, respect and good will of my peers as they are.

“I really hope, out of everyone we know, Nicholas Greene makes it big some day,” my friend, the writer Alexander Pope, says to me as we’re talking about all our fellow writers.

“I hope we all make it,” I respond.

“Yes,” she says, “But I hope she makes it more. I mean, I love you and everything, but she’s a woman and the world needs more women playwrights.”

Yes, that’s definitely true… but I guess I don’t see why the world needs more women playwrights any more or less than it needs me. Which is not, I think, how Mr. Pope means me to take her comment. In fact, I know it’s not. But it still hurt because it sent me the message that by virtue of being a man, I was less valuable and most certainly not unique. An entirely selfish perspective on my part, I realize, but in an industry where all but a chosen few are constantly being told how un-valued they are (and even those people get rejected), forgive me for clinging to the belief that I am just as deserving of recognition and reward as Nicholas Greene- a playwright who I absolutely also believe should get everything their heart desires. But because she is a great writer, a visionary artist, a good person, hard-working and dedicated to her craft and much better at putting herself out there than I am. Not because she is a woman. That means absolutely nothing to me except that, so long as current personal trends continue, I probably won’t ever be sleeping with her. Naked time is really the only time I ever concern myself over who has a penis and who doesn’t.

I also allow that this particular issue might be particularly poignant for me because I was dedicating myself to making the Theater Community a better place for women- and men- long before it became fashionable to do so. As long as I have been attending theater and making theater I have been attracted to work that featured interesting female characters. I have never given much thought as to who wrote or directed something, but as a guy who has numbered the Broadway musical of The Secret Garden and the play ‘Night Mother as amongst his top ten favorite shows since he was 12, let’s suffice it to say I’ve got gender blind taste (I was once informed by an obnoxious writing colleague, who we shall call Archduke Henry, that I had “women’s taste”- unpack that shit, if you will) when it comes to whether a man or woman wrote it, directed it, or stars in it.

As a theater maker, I have done my best to uphold a value system based on this premise. As a producer I have produced a number of plays by women, and I have hired a number of female directors over the years. As a director, I choose work where the women play important roles and which will allow me to work with actresses whose skills and strengths I admire. When I have chosen to do classic plays where the women’s roles are fewer or less interesting I have found ways to rectify that: I made a number of characters in The Frogs, for instance, female, and I directed a production of Hamlet with women, as women, in the roles of Claudius, Rosencrantz, Horatio, Polonius, Marcellus and Hamlet himself. As a writer I pride myself on creating interesting, complex women’s roles in all my plays, and with the exception of three plays (out of forty) that I have written, if there are more than four roles, at least three of them have been women, and my only single-sex full-length show is an entirely female cast. And I know I’m not the only male theater maker who can make claims like these, all I’m saying is, it’s really sort of a slap in the face when somehow I get lumped into “the problem” side of the problem. Which I sometimes do, usually when I’m asserting that as much as I value the contribution of women, I don’t value the contribution of men any less, and while we’re at it, yes, I am offended, producer, when you tell me, “I love your play but sadly, I only produce the work of women writers.”

I think everyone is valuable. I include myself in “everyone.” If we’re going to have to rank people and prioritize who should be successful and who shouldn’t be, I would want someone to do it based on talent, ability, hard work, dedication, good will and vision (not necessarily in that order), with gender (or race, for that matter) not factoring into the equation at all. I also understand that this can be hard for some people to do, and that on some level, as a white man, it’s easier for me to cry “Hey, let’s all win the war this way!” because for centuries, I have been winning the war without really having to try. For me, it’s a choice to get involved rather than just continue to reap the rewards of my birth (though for the record, the ability of the average white man to benefit purely from being a white man is greatly exaggerated) and I recognize that. But while I don’t expect to get a medal for throwing myself on the side of the side that should win (Gender Parity, in case you were confused), I also don’t expect to be punished for doing that, particularly by the side I’ve been fighting on! And lately I’m starting to feel kind of punished. For having a penis.

Not that I think people mean to punish me when they uphold as progressive theater companies that prioritize works by female writers or plays with all female casts, or when they champion certain productions because the director is female, or the lead, etc. Though I think it’s a bit patronizing to emphasize those aspects of a work over whether or not it’s actually good, I would be lying if I said I had never done the same thing, and I think we do that kind of thing, as people, out of well-meaning intentions that should be applauded for their sincerity, even if they are somewhat lacking in a sophistication of thought that fails to see the greater implications. I am 100% behind subject-based festivals, showcases and groups putting out work in an effort to gain more awareness for those female theater artists or female-centric art they believe are under-represented so long as no effort has been made to exclude men who might be able and/or interested in contributing to that conversation. It’s only when I find myself being belittled or shut out for being a man that I get angry and then sad. Angry because I hate being shut out just for being who I am, and sad when I recognize that many women have probably felt this too, but apparently some gleaned a desire to be the one barring the gates due to that experience, rather than being the one throwing them open.

“People don’t become better people if we don’t sometimes tell them they have hurt us or done something wrong,” my therapist, let’s call him Queen Elizabeth, once said to me. “Morality is not inherit, neither are ethics. We have to work at them. We have to help each other work at them. The joy comes from the moments of victory we achieve in our struggle to be good. The struggle is because no one can master it, we are all just trying to do the best we can do, fighting against both the world and our own natures at the same time. One of the ways we support the people we love is to tell them what they’re doing wrong, or could do better.” In context, he is telling me this because I have been having intensely negative feelings towards an ex-lover of mine (let’s call him Princess Sasha), and struggling with the part of me that wants to scream at him, versus the part of me that wants to rise above it and move on. “What do you think you will get out of it if you scream at him?” Elizabeth asks me. “Will it help you feel better? Will it help you focus on moving on?” Excellent questions, really, especially as I was mad over a past I really couldn’t change and probably was keeping alive via all the anger I was carrying. But figuring out what to actually do about something is much harder than complaining about it, and finding a path towards internal balance that didn’t involve hurting other men like I had been hurt turned out to be even more challenging. For a while there, I had to build a walled garden that only a selected few were let into because I was suspicious of everyone, including myself, and you really had to be like me to not be put on immediate watch. But the truth is, nothing there really bloomed until I was open to a variety of gardeners and I came to understand that there was room for everyone and anyone who had the common goal of creating a beautiful garden. Maybe we’re not there yet as a community. Maybe we’re in a stage of needing to complain, or of putting walls up around the garden. I get that. But boy is it starting to feel like I’m being shut out of a lot of walled gardens.

My friend Shelmerdine, who in some ways is the love of my life (sans penis), and certainly a muse of mine, struggles with her own version of this. She has so much anger and fear that is sourced in years of being dismissed, ignored, undervalued, objectified and generally treated badly because she is not just a woman, but a physically attractive one, smart and sensitive and talented and in other words, a threat to everyone, including other women. She frequently submits her writing under a male pseudonym and when I confronted her about it she admitted that it was partly because she felt she had to in order to be to taken seriously, but also because “I’d rather be a man, anyway. I rarely find women interesting.” And I laughed and tried to come up with all the examples I could think of strong, interesting women, real and created by artists, only so she could nod and shrug and say, “Sure, but it comes down to this: I don’t relate to any of them. Not really. And it’s not because they’re strong or not strong, but because they’re still fundamentally defined as women. And I don’t want to be a strong woman. I want to be a strong person.” And I understood what she meant. Personally, I can’t stress enough how much I love being a man. But I don’t want that to define me, in the eyes of other men, or women, any more than I want to be defined as white or gay. And I definitely don’t want it to define my work, or be the basis on which my work is judged, funded or performed.

“Your place is not to complain, Young Man,” is an accidental statement that to me implies some of us have the right to bitch about feeling like the deck is stacked against us and some of us do not. The truth is, we all feel that way sometimes, and we all have the right to complain. “Just do the best you can do!” is also an accidental statement, and to me, it’s solid advice, because really, that’s all we can expect of anybody, in a world where everything is unfair and probably most things always will be, because fair isn’t really something ingrained into human nature and it takes work to be good. And that struggle to be good and to be fair, is neither male nor female, and being one or the other makes you no more naturally inclined to be part of the solution or part of the problem. Each individual soul is on its own journey, and that is why each voice is valuable, and should be individually evaluated when it speaks through its art or otherwise.

A project I have just begun is adapting Kristin Hersh’s memoir Rat Girl into a stage play and I’ve already made the sincere but ridiculous proposition that it should be adapted, in part, because it’s a great story about young women and would provide excellent roles for young women to play with the added bonus of being based on real women they could admire and look to as role models. While I do believe all that, the truth is, what interested me the most in the project was that, as a long time fan of Hersh’s, I bought her book expecting a celebrity autobiography with a hipster twist and instead I got a book about a young person struggling with her art and her life and her own insanity and it reminded me so much of myself I knew I had to work with the material somehow. The fact that she is a woman and I am a man didn’t really occur to me at any point, but when I read this particular passage I felt oddly vindicated for all the years I had maintained that none of that should ever really matter anyway:

“…writer after writer points out that we’re teenagers and three of us are female. We never have answers to these non questions. “Teenager” just means stupid. And is there a difference between male and female people? Is there?  Seriously. I have yet to identify a single character trait I would attribute solely to one gender or the other.

Tonight one of the sexist journalists is a woman who’s angry that Dave is a man. “Why didn’t you hire a woman to play drums?” she asks me accusingly.

I’m at a loss. “Because Dave’s not a woman,” I answer, “I didn’t ‘hire’ him anyway; he doesn’t get paid.”

“I’m a volunteer!” Dave chirps happily.

She gives him a blank look and then turns back to me. “Surely you would agree that you play female music.”

“Sometimes we play female music,” I say. “But not any more often than men do.”

Which is really what I’m getting at here: there is no such thing as Men’s art or Women’s art. There is just Art. Sometimes that Art is about women, and sometimes it is about men, and sometimes it is about both, but the idea that the nature of the Art (and the audience it is intended for) is inherently decided by the gender of the creator is implying that its value is also based on that. And the fact is, I value this memoir because it’s amazing and insightful and beautifully written and that’s really what I should be talking about when I talk about why I want to adapt it, and why someone should produce it, and why it needs to be in the world, reaching as many people as it can, for all those young women who can look on Hersh as a role model. And all those young men too.

Ask me who my influences are and I will rattle off a dozen names and still feel like I haven’t named everybody (I’m big into inter-textuality) but certain names always come up quickly: Peter S. Beagle, Hal Hartley, Stephen Sondheim, John Guare, Marsha Norman, E. M. Forster, Bret Easton Ellis, Sally Potter, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Tolkien, The Bronte Sisters, HP Lovecraft, Kristin Hersh, Tanya Donelly, Chopin, Berlioz, Racine and All The Greeks. Yes, it’s a very white list, and it’s a lot of men. But if you were to dig deeper and ask which characters in fiction, plays, movies most influenced me, you might be surprised to find out how many of them are women. And if I had to pick one figure, above all others, that really solidified my sense of self it’s probably Orlando, from Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name and Sally Potter’s film adaptation of it.

From the first time I saw the film I immediately identified with this strange, lost, erudite but horribly naive soul who feels like a complete freak regardless of its sex. The love affair Orlando begins, both with a woman and with poetry, strikes a deep chord with me, and it’s true she experiences this as a man. But a deeper chord is struck with me when he is in the body of a woman, and running from the garden where she has lost himself, trips and whispers to the ground, “Nature take me- I am your bride.”  To me, that moment is all about how we finally start to accept and love ourselves once we recognize that feeling like you’re left out and unwanted and there’s no opportunities is kind of the human condition.

With or without a penis.

Stuart Bousel is one of the Founding Artistic Directors of the San Francisco Theater Pub and a prolific Bay Area writer, director, producer and occasional actor. You can find out more about him here, at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.