Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: I Am My Own Director

Marissa Skudlarek is knee deep in an exciting- and stressful- new theatrical role. 

On March 29, I’m having a staged reading of my play The Rose of Youth as part of the EXIT Theatre’s Behind the Curtain festival, and I’m directing it myself — which is a new experience for me. It’s also a fairly stressful one. A one-night-only reading would seem to be low-stakes, as far as these things go — I don’t have to deal with tech or design or blocking — butThe Rose of Youth is the biggest play I’ve ever written. Casting twelve actors and getting them all in the same room to rehearse a few times is challenge enough!

Whenever possible, I’ve shied away from directing my own work. We all know that theater is a collaborative artform, and my feeling is, the more the merrier. I’ve never studied directing, and I lack a director’s eye and instincts. Moreover, as a playwright, I like to be in the room with the director, see how the play is coming together, answer any questions, and make sure that the script is working. But in order to do that, I need to hang back and observe, rather than actively stage and direct the play.

The Behind the Curtain festival came together so quickly, though, that it wasn’t really practical to seek out a director. Besides, I already know that the script works — it was produced five years ago, at my college. Assisting with that production is what gave me the confidence (the brash foolhardiness, more like) to say that I would direct the upcoming staged reading myself.

And now, it’s stressing me out. I’ve already decided that the reading will be very simple — just actors at music stands — which has helped me overcome my concern that I don’t have a good sense for staging and blocking. What really frightens me is that the lack of a director gives me sole responsibility for orchestrating the evening and making sure that it turns out all right. In the other shows I’ve done, I’ve been fortunate to have great directors who’ve made me really happy; nonetheless, in the back of my mind, I’ve always thought “If this turns out badly, I can blame the director.” If you’re a playwright, a director gives you plausible deniability. Then, if an audience member tells you that one scene fell flat? “It was the director’s fault! Totally not my problem!” you say. And then you rush home to re-write the offending scene.

But, with the upcoming reading, I bear all the responsibility for its success — and have no way to make excuses for myself. And that’s scary. Coward that I am, I find myself craving the plausible deniability that a director would afford me. But why, exactly, do I crave this? Why am I so scared of taking accountability for my own work? Shouldn’t I be proud of what I’ve written, grateful for the opportunity to share it with an audience? It’s not very pleasant to admit that I’d rather have someone else to blame if things go wrong. So I am nobly trying to accept the challenge of shouldering all the credit or the censure, whichever it is that I merit.

I also wonder if there’s a gendered component to all of this. Being a director feels like a more public, active (hence, masculine) role than being a playwright. And even though I’m a feminist, maybe I still have an internal discomfort with the idea of taking on a directorial role. I recently came across a quote from Lena Dunham that seems to have a bearing on this: she says that in 2012, she learned that “it’s possible to feel like a creepy, pervy producer even if you are a 26-year-old girl.” I suppose this must be in regards to casting people on her show Girls and asking them to do nudity and sex scenes. While there won’t be any of that in The Rose of Youth (sorry to disappoint you), it still feels weird for me to email men I barely know and ask them to play the romantic lead in my staged reading. I worry that they’ll think I’m coming onto them, because “I want you to play a romantic lead in my show” is exactly the kind of line that creepy casting-couch producers have used on young women for centuries. Plus, I can’t deny that I’m judging these actors on the basis of their appearance and persona, in addition to their acting talent. And it still feels socially unacceptable for a woman to judge, to choose, to solicit a man in this fashion.

But, like it or not, in four weeks’ time, I am directing a staged reading of The Rose of Youth. So I’ve got to stop thinking about cowardice and excuses, and I’ve got to get to work. The Rose of Youth, by the way, is a backstage dramedy about a group of Vassar students and their professors putting on a production of Antony and Cleopatra in 1934. Hey, that’s a good motto for the weeks ahead: less thinking about deniability, more thinking about de Nile.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and sometime director. She graciously invites you all to come see her staged reading of The Rose of Youth, March 29 at 8 PM at the EXIT Theatre. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or follow her on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Cowan Palace: Girls Talk

Ashley Cowan takes a moment away from the theatre scene to talk about HBO’s Girls.

As you may know by now, I’m a theatre lover. I like it way more than just a friend. But before we move on with this relationship, there’s probably something you guys should know about me. I have a weakness for television. Bad reality shows are a guilty pleasure and funny, well-written shows showcasing lots of lady talent are a guilt-free indulgence. So when one of my best friends gifted me season one of HBO’s new hit show: Girls, I was intrigued. A program with the reputation of harsh reality portrayals and written, directed, produced, and starring Lena Dunham? Yes! Besides, I too spent my early twenties living in Brooklyn during the aftermath of Sex and the City (shadows of cosmopolitans and fabulous shoes were everywhere) and was curious to see her version of it.

So without knowing a great deal about the show, my sister and I (along with our boyfriends) watched season one in its entirety on New Year’s Day (don’t judge, we were still developing resolutions).  And upon first viewing, I liked it. I guess I was hoping to feel a little more passionate about it instead of some neutral responses but again, I liked it. We all did. We laughed, we cringed, and we grew invested. There was a sense of authenticity and brutal honesty that I appreciated. I had known girls just like the ones portrayed in the show while I lived in New York (and other cities). And while I found the leads to be unsympathetic on occasion that’s often how I react to those types of people in real life as well.

And clearly, I’m not the only one thinking about Girls lately. The show recently picked itself up two coveted Golden Globes earning both praise and heated remarks from the public. After reading through a few articles (and more interestingly, the comments attached to them) there seem to be a lot of thoughts regarding Ms. Dunham’s creation. For starters, many believe the show is racist because of its lack of cast diversity. It seems to be completely dedicated to first world white people problems with whiny personalities.

I understand some of the backlash. I do. It’s unfortunate that in one of the most diverse cities of the world there isn’t much of an opportunity to venture outside the upper middle class white bubble. When asked about it, Lena said it had been “an accident” and something she hoped to work on if the show continued. While I do feel like these “accidents” can be observed as a sad reflection of our time, I also think it’s important to note that this particular story is told through the perspective of a small group who may live in a more closeted space than expected. But the soul of the show comes from a real place. The four leading ladies are all the daughters of well-known established parents. They had the opportunity to grow up in a more privileged setting and first experienced the world in this capacity. It’s my hope that as the show progresses, perhaps that world can expand to explore some additional characters who can cover some of the beautiful diversity of New York City as a natural instinct rather than to correct an accident.  There’s plenty of room to allow the show and her characters to evolve a bit more.

On top of that criticism, there seems to be an even greater amount of talk about the show’s awkward tendencies (like the plethora of long, uncomfortable sex scenes) and Lena’s unapologetic behavior to showcase her very average body. Which for the record, I think is awesome. It’s refreshing. For some reason though, people are very hung up on this deliberate choice to incorporate a “normal” woman’s nude body. And folks can be cruel. Many comments were targeted at bashing her physicality and angrily pointing out her less than perfect frame. I felt like we were all back inside the cruel walls of a middle school cafeteria. But can I just say, had it been an average man who had decided to strip before the camera, we wouldn’t be reacting like this. We would have laughed and moved along. And I’m thankful that Dunham is strong enough to stand up to the waves of harsh words because I’m hopeful it’ll help shift the tides entertainment expectations regarding nudity and humor.

Further concerning gender roles, however, there also seems to be a lot of complaints that Girls constantly depicts and criticizes men who are too weak, too sensitive and too effeminate or porn obsessed douchebags who call the shots. Again, it’s not always a flattering or hopeful interpretation of the male population but I have to admit it’s truthful. Not everyone is like that but sure, there are fellas like that out there and there are ladies who help define them. Again, setting these flaws aside though, this storyline happens to revolve around a particular set of people and within that small select group lives a, at times, brutally honest, image. But it’s important to remember that the show doesn’t represent everyone. It hasn’t taken on that responsibility. And within all the shortcomings, Hannah (played by Lena Dunham) seems to embody a great number of them.

Hannah declares herself the voice of our generation in a drug-inspired rant to her parents who have just decided to cut her off from their financial support during episode one and though Lena later claimed she intended it as a joke, she’s not far from the truth. As a generation, some of us are indeed a little lost, messy, and misguided. Personally, I find the best thing about the show has been talking about it. It’s flawed, sure, but we’re acknowledging it and reacting, processing, and having discussions. For me, that’s where the strength is. I’m thankful that Lena is attempting to explore some boundaries while making me laugh. The pressure to truly be “the voice of a generation” may be a bit unrealistic and unfair for this grittier Sex and the City group but I look forward to seeing how the next season unfolds. In between all the great theatre out there, of course.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your reactions Girls and if you think the show promotes a certain image of our generation. Come join the Girls Talk conversation!

Ashley Cowan is a writer, director, actress, and general theater maker in the Bay Area. She’s got lots of stuff to say, most of it pretty entertaining, so follow her here at https://twitter.com/AshCows.

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: We & Orson Welles

Marissa Skudlarek ponders a quarter life crisis in prestigious company.

The fact that Orson Welles was 25 years old when he wrote, directed, and starred in the most acclaimed movie of all time is enough to give anyone a quarter-life crisis. I turned 25 this year, and am curious to know how Welles achieved so much at such a young age (while keeping in mind that the remainder of his life is a cautionary tale about early success). Plus, I have a major weakness for ‘30s theater and ‘40s cinema. So I’m currently in the midst of reading Simon Callow’s biography of the young Welles, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu.

Though people are inclined to consider Welles a filmmaker foremost, he achieved his earliest successes and learned most of what he knew from working in the theater. (Citizen Kane was his first movie, the bastard.) Reading this biography, I can’t help comparing the theater of Welles’ time to that of our own, wondering if such a meteoric rise to fame could happen nowadays, and seeing if his story has any lessons for young theater-makers of the 21st century.

Well, in terms of Welles’ rise, it certainly helped that he was a tall, striking, charismatic young man with a beautiful speaking voice. At the age of 17, he traveled to Ireland, finagled his way into an audition at the Gate Theatre, and won the second-biggest role in their current production, portraying a character over twice his age. While it’s hard to imagine any theater today hiring a teenager to play a dissipated 40-year-old Grand Duke, I can easily picture a contemporary theater having trouble filling that role. In 2012, we’re always complaining that the pool of “leading man”-type actors is too small, and it seems that in the 1930s, the same problem existed. If the teenage Orson Welles showed up on the scene today and auditioned for one of our shows, we’d probably still go crazy for him.

In the ‘30s, people really did go crazy for Welles – such a talented actor and director, so hugely ambitious, so skilled at self-promotion and creating a stir. (His penchant for rehearsing at odd hours and the tough demands he placed on his design team, meanwhile, drove people crazy in a different way.) Again, it’s hard to imagine anyone following Welles’ trajectory today: directing large-cast plays in New York at 20, starting a repertory-theater company on Broadway at 22, making a Hollywood movie at 24. Things take longer these days; the theater places more of an emphasis on professional credentials and is wary of entrusting a big job to a newcomer. Our attitude toward the theater has subtly shifted – while it has gained some dignity and respectability as a profession, it’s lost the sense of being a playground for eccentrics and visionaries.

Yet even in the ‘30s, it wasn’t like just anyone could have achieved what Orson Welles did. Most obviously, Welles was a white male in an era far more racist and sexist than our own. In 1941, the 26-year-old Orson Welles got four Oscar nominations for writing, directing, starring in, and producing Citizen Kane; in 2012, the 26-year-old Lena Dunham has four Emmy nominations for writing, directing, starring in, and producing Girls. I’m not claiming that the playing field is completely level these days, but I am saying that blanket statements like “The barriers to entry in the arts were much lower in the ’30s” ignore the reality that, for the majority of the population, the barriers to entry are lower now.

Welles also had many other advantages in his youth: he came from an upper-middle-class, arts-loving Chicago family; he traveled extensively before he was out of his teens; he went to a liberal private school whose headmaster basically let him take over the school theater and do whatever he wanted. It’s a good reminder that a lot of success is due to one’s external circumstances, or to being in the right place at the right time. (Similar points can, and have, been made about Dunham’s privileged background.)

Even so, the crucial reasons for Welles’ success came from within: his chutzpah, his energy, his ruthless drive. Simon Callow’s biography of Welles makes some guesses as to the psychological factors behind Welles’ enormous ambition, but in truth we will never really know what lit the fire in his belly. This book is never going to teach me how to replicate Welles’ success and become a 25-year-old world-famous genius; if a book could teach that, we’d all be famous already. Instead, this detailed exploration of Welles’ high-flying early career is actually a cautionary tale for any theater artist. I’d heard of Welles’ groundbreaking work at the helm of the Mercury Theatre — a classical-repertory company that enjoyed astounding critical and popular success from the get-go — but what I hadn’t realized is that the Mercury nearly fell apart within 12 months of its founding, due to Welles’ egotism, disorganization, and lack of consideration for his fellow artists. Welles’ motivations for becoming a quadruple-threat writer-actor-director-producer may still be mysterious; the reasons for his quick flameout, though, are depressingly obvious. And while the American theater could use a jolt of Wellesian ambition and energy, I’m not sure that we need all of the other, less positive qualities that often accompany those virtues.

Marissa Skudlarek is a journeyman playwright toiling in obscurity at the age of 25.