Theater Around The Bay: The 2016 Stueys

Stuart Bousel wraps us up with a year-end wrap up. 

Well, here we are again.

Another year has passed here in the Bay Area theater scene, and while many are saying 2016 was a cursed year, I personally found it to be a rather relentless year of change, challenge, growth, and ultimately: reward. Which doesn’t mean I’d do it all over again, but I have a hard time just writing it off either. For better or worse, and for the most part it’s been better though maybe not immediately apparent how so, a lot of stuff that kind of needed to happen, happened this year, and I’m grateful. I think I’m a smarter, stronger, more centered person, and a superior artist to who I was. Which isn’t the same thing as happy, but there’s a price for everything, right?

One of the many things that happened this year was that I branched out, or rather, I branched back out, expanding my participation in the form beyond the writer/director status I had more or less relegated myself to (and embraced) to also include acting, once again. The result was being cast in two shows, one of which, the Custom Made Theatre Company production of CHESS, became so time consuming I actually didn’t see a play by anyone else from August through November of this year. Even then I only just managed to catch Rapture Blister Burn at Custom Made, and if I wasn’t a staff member there it is debatable if I would have done so. I missed all but two nights of the SF Olympians Festival, and one of the two I managed to attend… was my own. That 2016 has been a largely successful year for me on the theater front is undeniably true, and no where is it more apparent than now, writing the Stueys, and finding I have a mere 26 shows to consider. That may seem like a lot, but usually it’s more like 40-50. The fact is, I was at the theater just as much if not more so than usual, but in 2016 the show I was most often at was one of my own.

Many things finished their course this year, including Theater Pub and DIVAfest, two organizations that were quite energy and time-consuming for me, and were indeed the equivalent of part-time jobs (though only one of them was I actually paid for). I’ve debated if the STUEYS should do likewise and end their reign of terror, but I rather enjoy publishing a personal Best Of list, if only to remind people, annually, that I do in fact like quite a lot out there. And because if there’s one thing I’ve come to understand about the Bay Area Theatre scene over the years, it’s far more diverse than most of the accepted press is willing or able to agknowledge, and so an additional voice is not only welcome, but necessary. Hence, here we are again, with all the usual caveats that no awards here mean anything beyond my personal admiration for the named artist, and that no rules apply to this process aside from my own personal whimsy when it comes to determining categories and recipients, and my own personal promise to not give myself or anything I creatively worked on an award because my vanity is a mere 7 out of 10.

So without further ado, the Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards 2016, or the SEBATA, or The Stueys.

To all my friends and frenemies in the local rat race we call Art, let’s all do it again next year. But better. And maybe a little more paced out. Cause I am tired and I know I’m not the only one.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness: Jay Yamada
Do I really need to talk about how cool Jay Yamada is? I hope not. But then, if you haven’t worked with him, you might not know. The man is a saint, truly, and even better- he’s an artist, an excellent stage photographer who actually understands how to work with stage lighting and capture moments in shows you could never reproduce as posed shots. The Mohammed Ali of stage photogs, Jay is weaving around your actors at a final dress like a dancer, camera clicking away and sometimes inches from their faces, and yet amazingly unobtrusive. At the end of the night you know you’ll be walking away with at least 40 usable portfolio shots and press photos, and what’s more- your actors and designers will too, because Jay knows to get all that stuff and capture it in use, the way it should be captured. He often does this for dirt cheap or free if you’re a small company, and that’s just cool, providing the level of theater that needs it the most a touch of professionalism and gloss it might not otherwise get.

Best Thing I Saw But Didn’t Actually Like: The Lion (ACT)
I am a white guy who enjoys stories about white guys and acoustic guitar and I do not and will not apologize for it because some of that shit is gold. But man- you know a show is AGGRESSIVELY CAUCASIAN when even I am like, “Wow, this shit is white.” Still, Benjamin Scheuer does for white straight guys who make it through cancer what W;T did for white women who don’t, and if it’s a little Beaches in the mix to boot, all the better. His music is excellent, if utterly innocuous from the sampling in the show (I coined the term “innocurock” after seeing it), and he tells his story well, sincerely and without self-aggrandizement, owning where he comes from with everything from the Trunk Club wardrobe to the Lisa Loeb (™) brand bohemian apartment set, and it all works because the point is- even these guys die. Even these guys face a moment where they will be stripped of dignity and confronted with their insignificance and find out who they really are. When I say I didn’t actually like the show it’s because I found it low-stakes (I mean, we know it turns out okay, he’s sitting there performing it), a little saccharine (nobody in Ben’s life fails to find their place in his heart), and a little too polished (don’t tell us you were scared, Ben, show us, compromise that golden boy image you effortlessly project). But all that said, I found myself thinking, “I like this guy. He’s a good performer and a good spirit. I’m glad he’s okay. I hope he uses all this incredible talent and this second chance at life to make some really good art some day.” The Lion was, for me, all about potential- and realizing you have some. And that you shouldn’t waste it. Cause that clock is ticking, even if you’re a good looking heterosexual white kid whose life has been non-stop options (which, by the way, may actually make it easier to piss away your assets than someone whose daily existence is a reminder not to blow their shot), and I sincerely hope this was the prologue to something bigger in scope, and even better in execution.

The Best Thing I Saw Sans Qualifications: Colossal (SF Playhouse)
Against all odds, I loved this show. I say against all odds because I could care less about football. I don’t even hate it. I just don’t care. It’s like a thing that matters on another planet to people who in turn come from an even farther one from my daily reality and I just don’t get it. But man do I get falling stupidly in love with terrible people, hot gay sex, and the appeal of that which will probably destroy us, and playwright Andrew Hinderaker’s downright nasty, unapologetic, semen and sweat soaked script is one of the edgiest meditations on the mass appeal of self-destruction and its direct link to our urge to fuck one another that I’ve encountered in years. Beautifully directed by Jon Tracy, with some excellent performances (particularly the central character played by both Jason Stojanovski and Thomas Gorrebeeck, each bringing a distinct aspect to their interpretation of the role that highlights the disparity between who we are and who we perceive ourselves to be), the show managed to take some truly commendable risks and for the most part they all paid off in spades (the countdown clock behind the action at all times- brilliant! the relentless football drills- gorgeous!), somehow tricking me into accepting football not only as something people might genuinely want in their lives, but would like… make art about. And really good art at that.

Best Ambitious Failure: Cage (Performers Under Stress)
As usual, I feel like I first need to remind folks that I love very little as much as I love a Good Ambitious Failure. In fact, if pressed, I’d much rather watch a GAF than a Well Made Play any day of the week, because the former is much more likely to surprise me and one of the reasons I head to the theater is to be surprised. I feel like Performers Under Stress sort of specialize in the GAF, and Scott Baker’s continued forays into the realms unexplored and frequently ignored by the general theater community are worthy of a Stuey themselves, but this show in particular is a standout amongst their work that I have seen. Tar Gracesdóttir’s script is witty and interesting, though it borrows so heavily from the Joe Orton comedies that clearly influence it that it runs the risk of predictability and it devolves in to the sort of Facebook Status Update liberalism I’ve grown, as a liberal, to really detest. Still, Baker’s direction kept it moving, and Val Sinckler’s performance in the lead provided the perfect dose of skeptical every person required to make an otherwise alien group of characters at least contextually believable. It’s Valerie Fachman’s humane and sympathetic turn in a supporting role, however, that provided the evening with heart, and made me want to revisit the script again, and think about the production I’d just seen. Was it a perfect night? Far from it. But it got under my skin, and frankly that’s always the harder battle to win with an undeniably jaded audience member like myself.

Best Addition To The SF Theater Scene: Lily Janiak (SF Chronicle Critic)
Those of you wondering if this is me kissing ass in a very public way, rest assured, part of what I love about Lily as a critic is that she knows there are times I think she couldn’t be more spot on, and times I think she is full of pretentious nonsense, and my respect for her is in a large part due to my ability to express, publicly and privately, both of these perspectives at any given time, with the assurance that neither stance will influence her critique of my work, which has ranged from super flattering to just a shade less complimentary than that time the Guardian negatively compared my work to a Star Trek convention. Coming back onto the scene just a few months after she told me she was done with criticism, now bigger and bolder than ever, Lily has been shaking up the local theater scene in ways both admirable and terrifying, and I for one couldn’t be happier about it. Though she’s not my favorite local theater critic, she’s certainly one of my favorite local thinkers, and while some people will claim her importance as a wrench in the way we usually do things around here is the whole being female part, I would claim it’s got a lot more to do with being under 40 and not afraid to ask questions, particular of our very comfortable old guard who could use a little pointed poke in the grey matter now and then. If theater has a future in the Bay Area, it’s time we start getting some next generation (or really, this generation) perspectives and I can’t applaud the Chronicle more for going with someone exciting and fresh and smart and willing to put her mind out there. It’s not about kicking out the old, whose mentorship and legacy are invaluable, but we’re long past the point of making a place at the table for the new and this was an important step in the right direction. How excellent, as a director, to glance at the critic sector of the audience on opening night and see someone stuffing their bike helmet under the chair amidst that sea of venerable, adored, and largely white, gentlemanly heads. I might not always like what she’ll have to say, but then I can’t always predict what that’ll be either, and that, one artist to another, is delicious.

Best Synthesis of Tech and Action/Best Director: Cole Ferraiuolo/Maggie’s Riff (Faultline)
Look, I’ll be honest (cause that’s how I roll these days): I think Jack Kerouac sucks. I think he’s a shitty writer, and from what I’ve read he was a craptastic human being too, and yes I realize I’m basically telling you to revoke my San Francisco citizenship and my Reed College diploma. Jon Lipsky’s play didn’t do a thing to change my opinion, despite excellent performances from Paul Rodrigues, JD Scalzo, Nicole Odell, Rich Lesnik, and if anything it reinforced my assumption that having sex with Kerouac was probably like having sex with a bowling alley only less erudite, but what it did do was foster a new admiration for Cole Ferraiuolo’s abilities as a director, particularly in his ability to synthesize tech aspects of the show with the text aspects of the show to create an aesthetic whole that seemed almost seamless. In particular, the integration of shadow affects, by Alisa Javits, into the narrative highlighted the tension between truth and fiction, perception and reality, legacy and legend that provide the intellectual nut of the show. The piece felt like a fever dream, poetic and important, even if only to the dreamer, and the pacing, which is what kills so many shows for me, was pitch perfect from beginning to end.

Best Five Minutes: Justin Gillman and Cat Luedtke in Middletown (Custom Made Theatre Company)
Will Eno is a mixed bag for me. For everything I like and admire, from the language to the ideas, there’s a thing I’m twiddling my thumbs at, there’s a moment I’m wondering how something so bland can somehow inspire such passionate praise. Middletown epitomizes this for me, and is why if someone asked me “where to begin” with Eno, I would send them here, with the caveat of, “it’ll leave you unsatisfied- which I think is how it’s supposed to leave you- which means I think you’ll have successfully gotten it and him? I don’t know. It’s not really my thing. Even though it kind of is.” That said, my single favorite five minutes of theater this year was in the Brian Katz directed production at Custom Made Theatre Company, and it happened in the second act, when Cat Luedtke’s doctor encounters Justin Gillman’s lunatic and decides to help him out with some birthday drugs she “spills” from the supply of pain killers she apparently just wanders around with. If Brian excels at anything as a director, it’s a kind of stoic naturalism, and in a scene between two such archetypes, it’s his light hand that allows for two excellent actors to soak in the relationship and find the nuances that turn this five minute scene into a stand-alone one-act I’d award Best Short Play to if I could. No where else in the production was that theme of the extra-ordinary ordinariness of things better realized, and the moment was at once sad and funny and romantic and real, like a treasured scene of an early ‘aughts indie film I would have, at another point in my career, played on repeat to actors insisting “that’s how you do that.”

Best Actress In A Thankless Role: Melanie Marshall, Peer Gynt (ArtistsRepSF)
There are a lot of thankless roles out there, male and female, but women more often than not, through sheer numbers, end up in parts that, while not necessarily bad parts, are still just kind of thankless. For every regal queen role, or unrepentant murderess, or inspiring historical figure, or mold-breaking heroine who takes center stage or at least holds her own on the supporting side, there are like three times as many handmaidens, best-friends, random sexies, and blandly supportive mothers or love-interests. Solveig in Peer Gynt falls into the last category, though too his credit Ibsen attempts to give her some personality, he just also sort of forgets about her for 2/3rds of the play after she’s introduced, bringing her back at the end once his hero has learned an important lesson- one she embodies, thus rendering her not just a personified concept, but a kind of reward. That Solveig has a little more grit to her in the Artists’ Rep adaptation of Peer Gynt is no doubt partly due to Oren Steven’s revisioning and direction, but it’s hard to imagine anyone having brought to the role what actress Melanie Marshall was able to bring through a unique combination of earthiness and no bullshit deadpan. Often times Solveig feels beautiful and forgiving, but because she has to be (that’s how she was written to be). Melanie made it clear her Solveig was making it work as a choice- her choice- and that nobody, starting with Peer, should take it for granted. As a long time fan, for all its flaws, of the original work, it was impossible not to be charmed by this fresh take on the character, and even wish that a full spin-off revisioning, WICKED-style, was in the works somewhere, preferably with Melanie at the helm.

Best Surprise, The Big Hot Mess (DIVAfest)
To know Catherine Debon is to know a true San Francisco original, though Parisian in origin (but then, true SF Originals are almost always from somewhere else, right?). A femme fatale come to life, a dancer and performer, a writer and thinker, Catherine has been creating unusual and challenging performance work in the Bay Area for years, but with The Big Hot Mess, directed by Amanda Ortmayer and featuring Kevin Copps in a supporting role, she gave us something unique and unusual even for her. Part film noir, part performance art, this exploration of time and agency, and the relationship between the two, made use of duct tape and wall-clocks, movement and voiceover, one slinky black dress and one fedora to illustrate how our personal sense of control over our lives slips as we age and find ourselves progressively written out by the world around us. As the guy who had done some publicity work on this piece, I knew to expect something heady and stylish, but what I wasn’t expecting was to be utterly and thoroughly delighted by the end product, for it to be by turns elegantly self-aware and comically absurd, yet at its core a heroic journey, a depiction of one woman’s willingness and ability to stand up for what was right. A total inversion not only of the noir genre, but the medium of performance art in general, The Big Hot Mess was anything but, and the only time this year I found myself saying, “Yeah, I know I was paid to tell you to see this- but you really really should see it. It’s so good!”

Best Spirit: Terra Incognita: Through The Waves (DIVAfest/UpLift Physical Theatre)
I feel like it’s already a bit of a legend, how on opening night of this piece, created and performed by Juliana Frick, Hannah Gaff, and Nicholette Routhier, the soundtrack didn’t work and the show went on anyway, with all three women performing in absolute silence to an awestruck theater full of people wondering how you could pull off a movement piece without the music and soundscape it had been created to. As we sat rapt for thirty minutes, watching them tumble and lift and dance and roll with only the patter of their feet and the slap of their skin against the lone piece of scenery, a table, to accompany them, I remember thinking, “This is what it means to be an artist- and to be a small theater artist- this right here.” While a bigger company would have canceled the night, refunded the tickets, and maybe should have, that was not only not an option for these women, but ultimately an asset. When you’re in the business of making art that is raw and real, you know you can’t back down because the tech craps out. When your art gets better because you didn’t back down, that’s when you know you’re the part that’s raw and real.

Best Designer: Carlos Aceves, Scenery For The Awakening (The Breadbox)
The Breadbox’s production of The Awakening, adapted by Oren Stevens and directed by Ariel Craft, earned a tremendous amount of attention this past year, including a truckload of TBA Awards and critical praise, and all of it was, unquestionably, deserved. I could heap more praise myself, but decided that in the spirit of the Stueys, which try to highlight some stuff left off the other Best Of lists, I thought I would call attention to what was one of my favorite aspects: the simple and yet evocative set design that captured beautifully the turn of the century Gulf coast community in which the action was set. One of the more transformative sets I’ve seen in the EXIT Stage Left, Carlos Aceves’ combination of boardwalk and driftwood echoed with Louisiana elegance and bygone nostalgia, evoking not just the sea but the beach, specifically, and the cultures that grew up around The Shore. From the knots in the wood to the knots in the hammock, there was a graininess to it all that practically bled sepia-toned photographs, and sucked you into the world that had to be real before any of the conflicts happening inside of it could truly be understood in context. A precise blend of conceptual and literal, the set accented perfectly everything else the show so adeptly executed.

Image That Will Stay With Me The Most: Mikka Bonel/Amy Sass (A Whale’s Wake, The Flightdeck)
Amy Sass is an admirable theater artist for a number of reasons, but if I had to pick one, it’s this: girlfriend does not compromise her vision. Sometimes this is a wonderful thing, and sometimes it’s a questionable thing, but for what it’s worth, we don’t do art so the audience will be indifferent about it and Amy Sass seems to not only get that, but embody it. There was a lot about her play A Whale’s Wake that I admired, and some I sort of rolled my eyes at, but if I had to pick one moment from any show that I saw this year that best epitomizes this year it’s without doubt from Amy’s personal spin on the domestic drama, and that oldest of tropes in the domestic drama trope bag: the reluctant mother giving birth. In this case, because it’s Amy, she gives birth during a flood, as she’s swept out to sea, and said baby sort of ballet dances away on its umbilical cord, before said cord is severed by a Dude Who Fixes Everything trope. I know this sounds ridiculous, and it was, but somehow, thanks to Amy’s direction, and Mikka Bonel’s icy but graceful performance as the mother, it also worked, and seared itself into my imagination forever. What is life if not the wondrous and terrible moment of seeing your newborn hoisted out of you by forces beyond your control?

And so, there you go. Another year, another list. Hopefully you found it as amusing to read as it was for me to write.

Now, as I sit in the living room of my new apartment (I moved in October of this year, just one of many difficult changes that made me better), tying all this up, I suddenly find myself thinking that while in some ways I flew a little more under the community radar than usual this year (no TBA Award nominations, and I skipped the conference; lower attendance of shows than usual, and more stepping away from administrative roles than times past; and I went to virtually nobody’s parties), I still directed my favorite play, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation at Custom Made, had the honor of having my play Adventures in Tech directed by Allison Page at PianoFight, and ended the year directing the American premiere of Clive Barker’s gorgeous Paradise Street at the EXIT Theatre. A show of mine was done in Chicago, I mounted a collection of short plays about a pop star I idolize, Rob Ready slew another llamalogue I wrote, I had a reading in New York, I built a new works development program, I worked with awesome artists in a variety of ways, and I sang in front of paying customers for a month solid and nobody threw anything at me. Not every moment was perfect but in many ways, it was actually a bumper year as far as me doing what I wanted as an artist, though somewhat ironically, I also felt a little more on the outside of the community, for reasons I really can’t quite explain. At the back of my head, of course, I recognize it’s probably got something to do with having followed my own bliss a bit more whole-heartedly, un-appologetically, and occasionally at the sacrifice of passionate obligations and social politicking that at another point in my career would have called the shots more. I de-friended more of my fellow theater artists this year than ever before (albeit mostly due to the election), while at the same time expanding my collaborative circles exponentially, and though I suspect my approach to my own trajectory has always been complex if not outright paradoxical (can one be as diplomatic as I aspire to be, while also holding their integrity as close to the core as I also aspire to do?), I suppose what’s changed is that I’m no longer fighting that intrinsic tension, but rather embracing it. It’s about recognizing that everything is a mixed bag, including me, including everyone else, and sort of shrugging at the people who can’t accept that (or me) and letting them learn that without feeling the need to personally educate them- or apologize for not living up to their idea of what and who I’m supposed to be. Not everything is going to go according to plan, not everything battle is going to be won, not everything is going to be to your standards, but that’s okay. And also how it kind of has to be. Accept it, celebrate it, or let it go and celebrate that, but don’t let it stop you. If there’s one thing 2016 taught me, it’s that: don’t let it stop you. And don’t wait for people to catch up.

The right people always will.

Editor’s Note: In an effort to get this out before the end of the year, numerous grammatical and spelling mistakes have no doubt been made, and as such, will be edited in the future in an effort to uphold some kind of standard.

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Theater Around the Bay: Tanya Grove, Caitlin Kenney, & Vince Faso of “Where There’s a Will” & “Why Go With Olivia?”

The Pint-Sized Plays just got a great review (complete with Clapping Man) from SF Chronicle theater critic Lily Janiak, and they have 1 more performance, next Monday the 29th. In the meantime, here’s another in our interview series with Pint-Sized folks.

Vince Faso is directing 2 shows in Pint-Sized this year: “Where There’s a Will” by Tanya Grove, and “Why Go With Olivia?” by Caitlin Kenney. In “Where There’s a Will,” Will Shakespeare  (Nick Dickson) visits a contemporary bar and finds inspiration in an unlikely source: a young woman named Cordelia (Layne Austin), whose dad is about to draw up his will. Meanwhile, Lily’s review aptly describes “Why Go With Olivia?”  as “an epistolary monologue from perhaps the world’s most ruthless email writer, played by Jessica Rudholm.”

Here’s our conversation with Caitlin, Vince, and Tanya!

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Caitlin Kenney at Crater Lake.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized this year?

Caitlin: I live with someone wrapped in the SF theater community, who has attempted submitting before, and thought I had as good a chance as any of piecing something together.

Vince: I’ve been an SF Theater Pub fan for a long time, been in a few productions, directed a little, but Pint-Sized was one I have always been interested in being a part of, and as I seem to be transitioning to more directing, I seized the opportunity, and am excited to be involved.

Tanya: I have two friends who’d had their plays in the festival last year, so I went to support them and had so much fun that I wanted to take part myself!

What’s the best thing about writing a short play?

Caitlin: Drinking several beers while making a verbal list of pie-in-the-sky ideas with no judgement.

Tanya: While I’m writing, I’m also imagining the performance in my head, so it’s like going to the theater all the time, which is my favorite thing to do!

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Vince: I’m probably not alone in saying that the actors I’m working with make it special. I’ve always loved seeing Jessica Rudholm perform, and practically jumped out of my chair at the chance to direct her for a second time. And I’ve worked on several shows with Nick Dickson and Layne Austin, and it doesn’t hurt that they live around the corner and we get to rehearse in my living room. Also, the pieces I’m directing are brilliant in their simplicity, and clever in the flexibility they lend the actors.

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Tanya Grove has a head full of ideas.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Tanya:  I often have lots of ideas going in many directions, and I have to remind myself to simplify. You can usually get across the same message whether you have a cast of two or twenty, ten minutes or two hours, one scene or three acts. Because one of my day jobs is being an editor, I’ve learned to pare ruthlessly to get to the essence of text.

Caitlin: Personally, I think it’s planting the first seed. For me this means to stop poo-pooing every idea I have and actually start typing something.

What’s been most troublesome?

Vince: Finding rehearsal time for a festival like this is always a challenge.

What are your biggest artistic influences?

Tanya: My current playwriting hero is Lauren Gunderson. I think she’s brilliant. But my style is more William Shakespeare meets Tina Fey…

Caitlin: Richard Brautigan, Joni Mitchell, Sense and Sensibility, and Google (to answer my formatting questions).

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

Vince: Meryl Streep, because while she is arguably the best around, she seems like she’d be a very giving actor to work with.

Tanya: When I was in high school I had a crush on Richard Dreyfuss, so I guess I would cast 1977 Richard Dreyfuss as my Will. That’s as good a reason as any, right?

Caitlin: Any sparkle-charming person with insecure confidence…how about Zoe Kazan? I’ve been watching the Olive Kitteridge miniseries and she’s hard not to watch.

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush? That is… what actor would you love a chance to work with?

Vince: Such a hard question! At the risk of straying off topic: I’ve worked with them before, but Scott Baker and Performers Under Stress always give me an intellectual and emotional challenge.

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What other projects are you working on and/or what’s next for you?

Vince: As an actor I’m excited to get started on a production of King Lear for Theater Pub that goes up in November. As a director, I’m been gearing up for a production of Hamlet with my 7th and 8th graders at Redwood Day in Oakland where I teach. That will also go up in November.

Caitlin: I‘ve got a one-act for middle-schoolers going about a mindfulness-based therapy group with participants vaguely reminiscent of Hamlet characters. I’m finding it really hard to sit down and “crank it out,” but if I do, it will probably be entertaining.

Tanya: In September I begin my fourth season as a playwright for PlayGround, so I’m gearing up to write a short play each month. I’m more productive when I have an assignment and a deadline, so the challenge of writing a play in four days based on a prompt works well for me.

What upcoming shows or events in the Bay Area theater scene are you most excited about?

Caitlin: I went to the Oakland BeastLit Crawl and fell hard for spontaneous storytelling, so I am looking forward to one day spitting in the mic at StorySlam.

Tanya: I’m looking forward to seeing what Josh Kornbluth ultimately creates from his time volunteering at Zen Hospice. I’m a Josh fan from way back.

Vince: Events like Pint-Sized and the Olympians Festival that allow original works to be read or staged are a must for keeping the independent theater scene in San Francisco alive.

What’s your favorite beer?

Vince: I’m a sucker for a good IPA, but if a bar is serving Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale then I have to get it.

Caitlin: The Barley Brown Hot Blonde – spiciest, sexiest beer around. Though not around, because it’s brewed in Northeastern Oregon and they don’t distribute anywhere good for me or you.

Tanya: I used to drink a lot of Corona, but I think I’m more of a Hefeweizen gal now. I don’t have a favorite brand, though. Any recommendations?

Your final chance to see “Where There’s a Will,” “Why Go With Olivia?” and the other Pint-Sized Plays is on Monday August 29th at PianoFight at 8 PM! Don’t miss it!

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Around the World with Life and Art

Marissa Skudlarek is tramping around Oxford, sending us missives of wisdom.

I embark on my longest vacation in several years, two full weeks, three wonderful cities: New York and then Paris and then Oxford. I pack light, but I do bring my laptop; despite my best efforts, there are some writing projects I need to finish, some tasks I must carry with me across the ocean.

My New York theater critic friend tells me that for a writer, there is no such thing as a non-working vacation.

Around eleven at night, my fourth day in Paris, I burst into tears due to guilt at time slipping away without me working on my writing, then dry my eyes and go to “Paris’s #1 Philosophical-Café” to sip linden-blossom tea and write for an hour before they close.

I do get some writing done when I’m in New York. I take my laptop to Shakespeare and Company on the Upper East Side (not to be confused with the more famous Parisian bookstore of the same name) and drink an iced tea and immerse myself in my work for two hours. “You’ve been here a long time! Writing the Great American Novel?” a man asks as I get up to leave. “The Great American Play, actually,” I say. He introduces himself as the theater editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “the oldest newspaper in New York. Walt Whitman was our first editor!”

I give the man my card and think about how none of that encounter would ever have happened in San Francisco.

Before I leave for vacation, my friends at PianoFight make a video taking The Bold Italic to task for proclaiming that there are no artists left in San Francisco. I laugh, I love it, I post it on social media. I am deeply invested in the idea that there is wonderful art being made in San Francisco and that this can continue. But sometimes I wonder if I am fooling myself, being blindly optimistic instead of realistic.

I see a beautiful production of La ménagerie de verre, that is, The Glass Menagerie, for fifteen euros. When it’s over, we applaud so much our arms and hands ache; we make the actors take five curtain calls. This is par for the course at French theater productions. The profession of the actor is noble in any society, but it seems so much nobler, so much more respected, in France.

I follow Rue Racine to the Place de l’Odéon, location of one of Paris’s oldest theaters, noting that there are an awful lot of gendarmes in the vicinity, only to discover that the Odéon has been occupied by theater artists and stagehands who are protesting cuts to their unemployment insurance.

Marissa 2

Sara Judge, Empress of On the Spot, comments that we ought to do the same thing in this country. I say “First we would actually need job security in order to protest when they try to remove it.” Touché, says Sara.

I overhear a Quebecois theater director, looking very much the Europhile artist in stylish scarf and overcoat, talking about his career while I have lunch at a French café.

I overhear some French youths loudly discussing art and sex over beers, as French youths, or really all youths, are wont to do. “I’m getting busy with Amandine,” says one. “No, you’re getting busy with your ass!” says the other. My back to them, I listen, I take notes, I swell with delight at understanding their slangy French gossip.

Over Shake Shack burgers in Madison Square Park, an Irish fantasy novelist tells me that in Ireland, writers and artists and musicians don’t have to pay tax on the money they earn from their artistic endeavors unless it’s over 50,000 euros a year.

Marissa 1

Outside Shakespeare and Company on the banks of the Seine, I meet another Irishwoman, a screenwriter, whose government has awarded her a fellowship to study and research for three weeks in Paris.

I meet a bearded Englishman about my own age who’s been happily living the expat life in Paris for the last seven years, writing and editing and running a theater festival.

I mentally review my own family tree and what I know about the immigration laws of various countries. Could I get European citizenship through a distant ancestor?

I think about how it seems like everyone I know in San Francisco has a well-defined escape plan in their back pocket for when they inevitably get evicted by a greedy landlord, and how over the last year or so, I’ve started to feel like an anomaly because I lack such a plan.

I wonder if those vague daydreams of getting European citizenship are actually the beginnings of my own back-pocket escape plan.

I see how many translated books are displayed for sale in the Paris bookshops, and think with envy of all the French people who can thereby earn a living as literary translators.

I stroll up and down the streets of Paris, the wide avenues lined with Haussmann limestone buildings six or seven stories tall, and think about how everyone always freaks out about building taller buildings in San Francisco (“Don’t turn it into Manhattan!”). But what if we could turn it into, not Manhattan, but Paris?

I think about how when I return to San Francisco, I’ll return to my nasty, petty habit of mentally demolishing any one-story building I see and imagining a five-story housing complex built in its place.

I stop and look at listings in the windows of real estate agents. Despite the dollar-to-euro or dollar-to-pounds exchange rate, the prices seem amazingly reasonable – or have I merely been living in the San Francisco real estate bubble for too long? A room in a shared flat for $750 a month. A three-bedroom Oxford house for $2000 a month. A small Paris one-bedroom, yours outright for $325,000.

The brick houses of Oxford are smaller and narrower and cozier than the painted ladies of San Francisco, but most of them have bay windows, too.

Paris Métro trains come, on average, every five minutes, and I nearly always get a seat, even when I take the busiest segment of the busiest line at rush hour.

San Francisco friends message me to say that a horrible breakdown on the N Judah ruined everyone’s commute. They invite me to feel schadenfreude, and I do, but I also start dreading, truly dreading, going back to BART and MUNI.

My friend Sunil Patel, a Twitter demi-celebrity with friends in every corner of the world (it’s because of him that I had that burger with that Irish novelist), “has a nice moment” with Lin-Manuel Miranda at a book signing. I giggle to myself on a late-night, near-empty Métro train when I see Sunil’s and LMM’s tweets about this momentous encounter. I remember that good things happen and people are doing good work in the USA as well.

My friend Lily Janiak is announced as the new lead theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and again, I remember that despite the many difficulties facing the theater business and the journalism business, sometimes we do get nice things.

In a hipster café on the Cowley Road in East Oxford, a young man tells a friend that his band has been invited to play at a BBC Introducing gig.

In an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side, another young man tells some friends about his attempts to make it as an indie rock artist and to recruit a sought-after young drummer for his band.

I try to remember when’s the last time I overheard such a conversation in San Francisco at a venue that wasn’t PianoFight.

A San Francisco friend messages me to say that she overheard two cute French people talking in a Hayes Valley café, but they were discussing how to get venture capital funding for a startup.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Theater Around The Bay: The Best of the Blog

2013 was a year of change on multiple fronts and our website was no exception. Though Marissa Skudlarek, as our first “official” blogger, began her semi-monthly contributions in 2012, the eight-writer line up that currently composes the blog’s core writing team wasn’t solidified until October of this year, when Claire Rice was brought on to replace Helen Laroche, who, along with Eli Diamond, stepped away as a regular contributor earlier this year. Eli and Helen, along with the current eight and our lengthy list of occasional contributors (most notably Annie Paladino), all get to share in the success of the blog, which steadily and dramatically increased its traffic over this past year. With 45,611 hits in 2013 (compared to 27,998 in 2012, 11,716 in 2011, and 8,435 in 2010), there can be no doubt that the San Francisco Theater Public (as we’ve taken to calling the blog amongst ourselves) is “kind of a thing.” With our current all time total just shy of 100,000 hits, we wanted to use the last blog entry of this year to celebrate the different voices that make our blog unique, while also paying homage to the vast and diverse world of online theater discussion. To everyone who makes our blog a success, including our dedicated readers and Julia Heitner, our Twitter-mistress who brings every installment to the Twitter-sphere, a gigantic thank you for making 2013 the best year so far! Here’s hoping that 2014 is even better!

STUART BOUSEL by William Leschber 

Whether it be Shakespeare, Ancient Greece, Celtic Myth, or the plight of the contemporary 30 something, Stuart Bousel always has something intelligent to say about it, and if you’ve read any of  his blogs over the past year you’ll know he has an ample array of in-depth thoughts about these things and so much more. I’m proud to have known Stuart for a number of years and the plentiful hours of intelligent conversation are invaluable to me, but my favorite 2013 blog entry of his is one that offers both a larger social insight and something very personal as well. The Year of the Snake blog isn’t afraid to be vulnerable, and offers the perfect mix of two brands of self awareness: the satisfaction that comes at being proud of one’s achievements, juxtaposed with the self doubt that comes whenever we embark on something new and challenging. These traits are heightened by a particularly uncertain year for myself and so many others who have had an odd go of it in 2013, the Year of the Snake, and maybe that is why this particular blog resonated so strongly. Although this year is possibly the most challenging some of us have had in recent memory, what Stuart articulates so well here is that sometimes we have to pass through the fire to come out stronger from the forge. The process of wriggling into new skin in due time…aye, there’s the rub: “…the truth is, the changes tend to kind of happen while you’re not looking, almost as a side result of trying to change.”

There's Stuart, emerging from his security blanket just like 2013 emerged from the crap year known as 2012.

There’s Stuart, emerging from his security blanket just like 2013 emerged from the crap year known as 2012.

In other favorites-of-the-year news, I present you the Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith. For those in constant transit and who have an easier time taking in a podcast over reading articles online, this is for you. Now my favorite podcast surrounding film would fall to Filmspotting where new and old films are discussed weekly with humor and insight. But if I had to choose the single best episode  I heard this year it would be Jeff Goldsmith’s interview with writer/director Ed Burns. In the words of the host, the Q&A podcast aims to “bring you in-depth insight into the creative process of storytelling”. He interviews screenwriters specifically (often writer/directors) about how they go about their personal process. Not only are the insights into the writer’s process wonderful to hear but the peeks into their role in the film industry are also fascinating. The Ed Burns episode ranges in topic from 90’s indie films, to his writing process, then on to making micro budget films, and his thought on how the industry is changing and what he’s doing to work in the grain of the dawn of steaming entertainment. It’s great. And here it is: http://www.theqandapodcast.com/2012/12/edward-burns-fitzgerald-familiy.html

ASHLEY COWAN by Claire Rice

Ashley Cowan’s posts often feel like sitting on the couch with your best friend and chatting late into the night with a mug of hot coco.  Every post  is heartfelt and full of a kind of determined enthusiasm that is infectious.  Her post abouttheatre traditions/ superstitions was very funny (if I had known that thing about peacock feathers I might have made different choices with my life.) And her post about her grandmother and goodbyes was touching and beautiful.  But my favorite post would have to be Why Being A Theatre Person with a Day Job is the Best…and the Worst.  She beautifully lays out the complex and heart breaking experience of knowing a “the show must go on” mentality is an imminently transferable job skill, but a skill hard to sell to non-theatre perspective employers.

I read Dear Sugar’s advice column for the first time on September 1, 2013, my thirty second birthday.  The piece I read was Write Like Motherfucker  It was surprising, honest and full of so many of the things I had been thinking and feeling.  It was and is full of all the things I needed to hear. “We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor.  I know it’s hard to write, darling.  But it’s harder not to.”

Ashley Cowan and Dear Sugar - You've just made two new best friends.  You're welcome.

Ashley Cowan and Dear Sugar – You’ve just made two new best friends. You’re welcome.

BARBARA JWANOUSKOS by Stuart Bousel 

Barbara Jwanouskos is the kind of theater person who figured out long ago what many of us take much longer to figure out: namely that one can balance theater with the rest of their life (she’s a pretty amazing martial artist in addition to being a playwright, blogger, grad student, and non-profit development expert), and that nothing happens if you sit and wait for it, you have to go after your dreams actively. Smart, generous, good-natured, Barbara’s writing reflects a serious mind and soul you might not immediately pick up on when you first meet her, though her bad-ass-ness is definitely apparent in her punk rock haircuts and straight forward conversation style. Her “calls it as see sees it” voice is still developing in her blog, but with “Young Beautiful Woman” she had a bit of a breakthrough, giving us a story both personally meaningful to her while also showing us where the issue of pigeon-holing women in theater and films begins: that most double-sided of backyards, the fine arts masters’ program. This blog had the greatest reader impact of all the contributions Barbara has made for us this year, and it’s the kind of thing I want to see more of from her. It’s with incredible eagerness I look forward to her 2014 contributions, knowing she plans to really hit our readers, black belt style, with more ideas like these.

Barbara Jwanouskos is so intense she needs to be photographed in Dutch Angles.

Barbara Jwanouskos is so intense she needs to be photographed in Dutch Angles.

Outside of our humble little blog, I have read a number of interesting theater related articles this year, but this one from HowlRound seems to have stayed with me the longest. Though when I first read this I kind of had a reaction of, “Well, duh, it’s just part of the process- stop whining!”, I also admire that what Morgan is saying is that a life in the arts is pretty always a heartbreaking business, even when you do finally find your niche, your project, your collaborators. And it’s heartbreaking not just because of the lack of opportunities, or the difficulty in making a living, or all the other things we also talk about, but just from the sheer fact that if you’re doing it right you’re ALWAYS putting your heart into it and the nature of the business rarely appreciates or honors that- while, of course, still expecting you to throw your whole heart into it every time! I, and most of the theater people I know, spend a lot of time talking about sustainability in the theater community, funding and payroll, audience demographics and marketability, etc. and sometimes I can’t help but wonder when theater started to quantify and qualify itself the way I expect Wal-Mart too. When did it become about numbers and money and conventional ideas of success as represented through big numbers, and not about coming together with people of vision and making cool stuff because the world really needs that? Morgan’s article is a bittersweet plea to remember we’re all artists here and artists are delicate creatures in many ways, even if it’s probably through their strength that, ultimately, the world will be saved.

WILLIAM LESCHBER by Marissa Skudlarek

It has been a pleasure to read Will Leschber’s “Working Title” column since it debuted in September 2013. Theater can sometimes feel like an insular, inward-looking art; it’s not  a part of the mainstream cultural conversation in the way that movies, music or TV are (though we Theater Pub bloggers are doing our best to change that!) Even worse, theater people sometimes take a perverse pride in their own insularity, looking down on movies and TV as lesser, more commercial art forms. So I love Will’s idea of writing a column that places theater in dialogue with film. He acknowledges the virtues of each art form without belittling either of them and, in so doing, seeks to bring theater into the larger cultural conversation. Nowhere is this more evident than in his piece “To Dance Defiant” about one-man dramas Underneath the Lintel and All is Lost. The play is language-based and the film is image-based, says Will, but both confront stark, essential truths: “What decisions in life remain the most important? How do we measure it all? What significant artifacts do we leave behind? Is anything we leave behind significant? Or is the struggle and the suffering and the joyous dance in spite of all the dark, the only significance we are afforded?” Will’s column is about the importance of the art we make, be it on stage or on film — and therefore, is about the importance of our humanity.

William Leschber, proving saucy minx comes in a wide variety of hats.

William Leschber, proving saucy minx comes in a wide variety of hats.

In one of my earliest Theater Pub columns, I wrote about how much I liked local critic Lily Janiak’s willingness to publicly critique her own criticism and question her own assumptions. So it was great news this year that Lily was selected as one of HowlRound’s inaugural NewCrit critics, bringing her work to a national audience and allowing her to write longer, more in-depth pieces. Even better, Lily has continued to question her assumptions and acknowledge her biases, approaching criticism in a spirit of open-minded inquiry. I particularly liked her piece “Our Own Best Judges: Young Female Characters Onstage” because, if I may admit my own biases, Lily and I are both extremely interested in the depiction of young women in plays. And then we ask ourselves: are we right to be so concerned, or does it mean that we are (wrongly) holding female characters to a higher standard than we hold male ones? “Critics are supposed to be objective, to approach a work with no agenda, but in this case, I have one. […] It’s impossible to separate one’s politics from one’s aesthetics (aesthetics are never pure!), but sometimes I worry that my politics have too much control over my critical criteria,” Lily writes. The whole piece is well worth reading for its thoughtfulness and honesty. That it happened to discuss three plays that I saw myself, got my friends’ names published on a national theater website, and spurred a response from Stuart Bousel on our own blog is just icing on the cake.

Lily Janiak: Because This Picture Is Just Too Good Not To Include

Lily Janiak: Because This Picture Is Just Too Good Not To Include

ALLISON PAGE by Dave Sikula

Let me tell you about Allison Page.

I met her this year when I played her father. I had no idea who she was. I had friended her on Facebook and, looking at her posts, thought we might get along. We had some similar interests, and despite her terrible taste in other things (I mean, seriously, “Ghost Dad,” “Daria,” and Kristen Wiig?), there was enough overlap that I thought we might become friends.

Then we met and she instantly drove me crazy.

I have every reason to hate her. There are things she does and writes about that just annoy the bejeezus out of me – BUT, that’s what I love about her. Her pieces for this here blog combine the miracle of being confessional and personal without being self-indulgent. Obviously, I don’t agree with everything she says (she accuses me of not liking anything, but oh, how wrong she is), but even when she irritates me, it’s in a way that makes me need to defend my own positions – and that’s what the best art does for me. If I had to pick one post of hers that really spoke to me, it was this one on how we need and create nemeses. I find you’ve got to have someone or something to fight against or do better than in order to do your own best work.

But don’t tell her I like anything of hers or she’ll just hold that over me.

Allison Page: because this photo never gets old.

Allison Page: because this photo never gets old.

Moving on to something online that I found of interest was this, Frank Rich’s latest profile of Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim is one of those people my feelings for whom, words like “reverence” are far too mild. I know that if I were ever somehow to get a chance to meet him, I’d fall over in a dead faint, or at the very least, be utterly tongue-tied to the point where I’d sound like an episode of “The Chris Farley Show:” “You know when you did ‘Sweeney Todd?’ That was great.” But any chance to read about what he’s really like is fascinating.

CLAIRE RICE by Barbara Jwanouskos

What I love most about reading Claire Rice’s Enemy List is how Claire seems to pick up on an uncanny wave-length of theater topics that happen to be populating my brain (and others), like why there were so many plays dealing with rape this year. The post I particularly enjoyed was her interview with Dave Lankford, Executive Director of The Shelter and author of the internet famous blog post, “Dear Actor”. Claire’s interview gave a clear insight into Lankford, his background as a theater artist (playwright, actor, director, etc.) and what prompted the writing of the post. More so, her interview demonstrated through Lankford’s response, what it is like today to be a theater artist where so many of us are also using the internet as a means of communication, discourse and criticism about theater in general. For whatever reason, “Dear Actor” seemed to resonate with many people in a way that was surprising, but Claire’s interview presented Lankford at a more more meta level, which was fascinating to consider.

Claire Rice: just who exactly is the enemy?

Claire Rice: just who exactly is the enemy?

I love tracking HowlRound essays by some of my favorite playwrights – especially when they write about things I’m actually dealing with… like teaching playwriting! “Teaching in the 21st Century” by Anne García-Romero and Alice Tuan was a blessing to me sent from the heavenly gods of playwriting. I constantly flip back to this essay when I need to recalibrate my goals as a new teacher. García-Romero and Tuan’s approach mirrors what they had learned from the great Maria Irene Fornes. I appreciate their innovative approaches to get writers of all kinds jazzed about writing plays and how they deviate from strict adhearance to teaching structure versus other traits that good plays have – like voice and liveness.

DAVE SIKULA by Ashley Cowan

I met Dave Sikula earlier this year while working on BOOK OF LIZ at Custom Made Theatre. A project that inspired a blog or two on Cowan Palace and also provided a chance to get to know the guy who is now behind the column, “It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review”. After kindly driving me home after numerous performances and being graced with many Broadway songs on his impressive car sound system, I soon got to know Dave as a incredibly smart, insightful, and experienced theatre enthusiast. I’ve come to enjoy his contributions to the Theater Pub blog for the same reason. One of my personal favorites to read was his last piece, The Ritual Business. Ten years ago when I studied in London, I had the chance to see TWELFTH NIGHT starring Mark Rylance at the Globe and it’s a performance that’s forever stuck by me. I loved reading about Dave’s time in New York and his vivid description as an attentive audience member. I felt like I was there again reliving a magical moment of the theatrical experience of my past while also connecting to his observations and reactions.

Dave Sikula: suggesting you eat this cheesecake instead of reviewing it.

Dave Sikula: suggesting you eat this cheesecake instead of reviewing it.

Aside from Dave’s contributions, it’s been an interesting year for the Internet, huh? I fell for every hoax imaginable and had my spirits crushed when I learned that no, there would not be a new season of Full House or an 8th Harry Potter book to look forward to in 2014. With all that going on, one article that weaseled under my skin came from The Onion, believe it or not, and was entitled: Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life. I found it to be a humorous and honest piece about how many of us (in this artistic community) tend to balance our time. But the thing I truly want to share with you guys is this video, because at the end of the day (or year) sometimes you just need to watch some cute animals do some cute stuff.

MARISSA SKUDLAREK by Allison Page

Marissa Skudlarek and I communicate differently, but we think about a lot of the same things. If I’m a grilled cheese sandwich, she’s duck confit. She has the ability to say things that I know I’m also feeling, but haven’t brought myself to express properly without the use of a lot of F-bombs and references to Murder, She Wrote. Generally speaking, I like to accentuate the positive rather than wallow in a pool of the negative, so when her article “You’re Doing It Wrong, You’re Doing It Wrong” (Technically the second half of a two part article. The first one is also worth reading, but the second really drove it home for me.) The internet, and the world, can be a dark and dismal place. Some days it feels like there’s nothing to be happy about; nothing that’s going right. In a world that seeks to find the worst in everything, Marissa seeks out the subtle nuances of her theatrical experiences, and of the world around her. It’s refreshing and thoughtful, and a big reason I love reading her posts. Not everyone is doing it right wrong. I like to think Marissa is striving to do it right; for women in general and for herself.

Marissa Skudlarek: you bet your sweet ass she'll make that dinosaur chair look classy.

Marissa Skudlarek: you bet your sweet ass she’ll make that dinosaur chair look classy.

Outside of the Theater Pub Blog, there are always a lot of conversations stirring up interest. Every writer, every playwright – hell, every person has a different way they like to work. This last year I’ve been focusing more on writing and I’m always trying to find new ways to keep myself excited about the writing process. That can be hard to do, seeing as you still need to sit down and fuckin’ write at some point. That part is unavoidable. Though this article is actually from the end of 2012, I didn’t read it until this year, so I’m counting it! It’s an interesting collection of the daily routines and writing habits of famous writers. Hemingway wrote standing up? Well, that’s weird.

Theater Around The Bay: A Critic Isn’t Batman

Stuart Bousel talks about why he’s nowhere near as worked up about a bad review as some people think he should be… and why nobody probably ever should be.

So, over the weekend, as I was listening to a first reading of the first draft of a new play (my adaptation of Kristin Hersh’s memoir, RAT GIRL), an article on another theater website, HowlRound, was apparently causing some distress amongst my circle of theater associates, largely because the writer, Lily Janiak, had written less than flattering things about both my play and the play of a friend of mine, FANTASY CLUB by Rachel Bublitz Kessinger. To be fair, Rachel (and her director, Tracy Held Potter) got the worse end of the stick, but to be fair to Lily as well, her article was less a review of either of our plays (or a third play, WHAT EVERY GIRL SHOULD KNOW, by Monica Byrne) as it was a meditation on whether or not her ability to critique a show is influenced by her own personal aesthetics, taste, and (since this was a comparison of three plays “about women”) the social-political agenda that she personally, as a woman, wants to see satisfied by a theater experience ostensibly focused on women. As I read her article, she ultimately concludes that yes, of course, all these things factor in, but she still feels she can tell a “good” show from a “lacking” one. In light of all that (and regardless of whether or not I personally feel, based on her work, that Lily has reached the point where she can think outside of her own perspective), I really found her inclusion of my play in her article rather flattering, and my reaction to it directly can be summed up by the following post on Facebook:

Everyone keeps asking if I’m going to have a response to a play of mine being mentioned (somewhat negatively) in a HowlRound article and I have to keep telling people I just don’t really care. Ironically, I may now have to write a blog about how and why I just don’t really care… To me, that is a worthy topic: about how I long ago stopped putting much weight into criticism- even though I absolutely think criticism is valuable and I’m happy, as an artist, that my work gets talked about at all. But that’s just it- the goal here is to stimulate conversation, not like… be loved by everyone. And the truth is, the article isn’t really about my play, and to some extent the writer, who I know personally and think very highly of (even though I frequently disagree with her), is crediting my play with having made her think about what part her own personal taste plays in her review of what she sees. Which I take as a compliment. The whole part where she doesn’t like how some of my female characters talk too much about their ex-boyfriends is like… whatever. The point of the play isn’t about women who can’t get over men, it’s about how all people struggle with their past and what relationship it continues to play in their lives. But even if it had been a play about women who can’t get over men- THERE ARE WOMEN LIKE THAT, and while you may not be interested in that, it doesn’t mean their stories shouldn’t be told. Just means you should go see something else. As a gay man who is frequently sitting at shows where I see disappointing representations of gay life and gay people (frequently created by gay theater artists and gay theater companies, I might add), I long ago realized that my personal taste isn’t everyone else’s, and something isn’t bad or unworthy, just because it isn’t how I want it or would do it/say it. To me, her article is about her coming to realize that and I’m kind of just shrugging and thinking, “Good for you, and thanks for spelling my name right when you credited me as part of that process for you.” Job well done on both our parts, I say.

If you’re interested in reading Lily’s article, you can do so here. If you would like to read a different perspective on my show, you can do so here. It’s worth noting that both reviews are written by critics I know personally (Sam openly states that in his article, but the fact is Lily was in the same festival a year earlier), neither of whom I think has a particular personal bias towards me as an artist, as one thing I have really tried to establish about myself over the years is that I treat everyone the same, whether they’re into my work or not, so long as I feel they are coming at my work from a place of honesty and make a reasonable effort to speak their opinions coherently. Do I feel that Sam “got” this particular play and Lily did not? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean I think Lily’s perspective is wrong so much as it’s just hers and her perspective is one that is seeking an experience that isn’t the same as the experience I sought to create as an artist. Which obviously is disappointing to her, but the suggestion that my characters are not strong portrayals of women or speak like television characters is really just her opinion- and she’s entitled to it. I mean, I put the work out there, and if I’m allowed to do that (and I am, and should be), then she is allowed to have a reaction and articulate that reaction (and as a critic, she’s obligated to do so). The risk we all take, artist and audience, is that one half of that equation might not work for the other half of the equation. That doesn’t make either half wrong, in and of itself, merely unsuited for one another.

But again, talking about Lily’s review specifically, isn’t all that interesting to me, so much as talking about how I got messaged by fifteen or so people, over the course of Saturday and Sunday, asking me, “Did you see this yet?” and then “What do you think?” after I confirmed, yet again, that I had seen it and certainly have the ability to recognize my own name when it pops up. What I began to realize, however, is that what people really couldn’t understand was how I could have read the article and not had a strong reaction to it, and so the assumption was, as more and more time passed without me talking about the article, that I must have been in ignorance of it. A fair assumption, I suppose, especially as Tracy Potter and Rachel Kessinger had been talking about it on their Facebook pages and Tracy had gone so far as to post a response in the comments section on Lily’s article. Around person eleven or so to ask me what I thought, I finally replied, “Do you think I should be angry or upset? ‘Cause I’m not. I just find it all kind of amusing that more people are writing or calling to ask if I’m upset than to congratulate me on the good reviews I got when the show was up and running.” The friend in question (who for the record, is always very supportive) replied, “I think what makes this special is that being mentioned on HowlRound at all is kind of a big deal.” I wrote back, “Yeah, I guess it is. And then again, it sort of isn’t.” And there in lies the twist that, to me, makes for a more amusing blog post than anything I might have argued about this particular critic’s response to this particular play of mine.

Once upon a time, when I was 19 and a junior at Reed College, an early but cornerstone play of mine, THE EXILED, came very close to being made into an independent film. Well, as close as most films get, meaning it died on the table early in the process and nothing in regards to that effort has happened since. If you know anyone working in the film industry, you probably know that the number of never-made movies far outweighs the number of ones that get into the production phase (where many films also die), let alone the number that actually get finished and then released (the day you find out how many finished films sit forever in some studio storage space somewhere, never to be screened, is the day you really truly realize just how small a percentage of aspiring artists ever actually see their efforts presented to an audience on even the most humble level), but a never-made movie is still farther along than a never-considered screenplay and it’s astounding how traumatizing something that never actually happened, can be. And how it can really put into perspective, for the rest of my life, what any critic (professional or amateur) will ever say about my work.

So what exactly did happen? Well, I scrambled to write a screenplay after the boyfriend of an actress who liked the play (and wanted to play the female lead) rashly decided to finance a film of it. This happened in 1998, when making independent films was sort of the raison d’etre for my entire generation (besides going to the music store and spending all night in coffee shops), but what made this particular situation a little different is that the aspiring film producer in question was able to use his connections as a former alternative/extreme sports star (a la Jason Lee) to open a number of doors that led to rooms none of us was really experienced or equipped to walk into, let alone hold our own in. He teamed up with a co-producer who was the son of a prominent entertainment lawyer (and of course, an aspiring actor himself) who in turn pulled his own strings (namely, using his dad’s contacts to bypass agents and get my hastily assembled screenplay directly into the hands of celebrities), and the result was that my work was suddenly being read by some really famous people long before it should have been, and not even remotely in the right context or with the correct layers of agents, organizations and other protections that would have probably stopped, or at least mitigated, the level of direct correspondence that ultimately resulted in me being forwarded (by the co-producer/wanna-be actor) an outrageously nasty email where an actor who had been approached to play the male lead basically said I should be executed and my work should be mulched for toilet paper. I think I’m actually making him sound more polite than he was. Anyway, I was forwarded that email as an explanation for why the co-producer suddenly wanted me to completely re-write the script and then subsequently walked on the project once I refused to do so without some kind of contract promising me some kind of control and ownership of my screenplay and more importantly, my stage-play.

Now, real producers would not have let an actor’s bitchy email bother them, but I wasn’t working with real producers and I definitely was not working with artists: I was working with people who were looking to ride a cultural wave to fast fame and hopeful fortune and the whole thing had never been about me, my work, or film-making as an art form. If they had been interested in any of those things, they would have known that it is hard to make a movie, and that rejection is part of the game, particularly when you are doing something new or different or with people who don’t have enough celebrity clout to get a free pass on their “work” no matter how good or bad it is because everyone just wants to be associated with them. Real producers and real artists know that when the going gets rough, as it’s bound to, that’s when it’s most important to stand by your people and your work. Even at that age, I knew that, and I was prepared to dig my heels into the project and see it through to the end and the only reason I rationally walked away was because my agent at the time, bless her, calmly said to me over the phone, “You are young and this will not be your only opportunity, and you need to realize that if this movie even gets made, and I doubt it will, there is virtually no chance it will be something you want your name attached to because none of these people share your vision and that is the only thing that would make sticking this out worth doing.” I knew she was right and we killed the contract the next day. A year later, EXILED had its first small theater production and was well-received and has been periodically produced in small theaters across the country since. I’m happy every time it happens and almost never think about the debacle that was it’s three months in “pre-production”.

Except, sometimes, when I get a bad review.

I am very lucky, and generally speaking my work receives positive reviews. Even when it doesn’t, it’s rarely trashed (I can only think of one out-right pan I have ever received) and usually the critic appears to have at least taken it seriously, discussing the problems and merits of the piece, demonstrating that at the very least it gave them something to think about and was, thus, worthy of their time. I long ago realized that I do not create mainstream theater and I am okay with that. Actually, I’m proud of that. Sure, sometimes I feel unappreciated, unpopular, or like there is just no point in doing what I do, but I don’t know any artist who doesn’t feel that from time to time, and on the plus side I know that I am my own man, that my work has integrity and reflects my ambitions and beliefs and not someone else’s prescription for success, and on those rare occasions I do score a hit or a critic really gets what I do it’s all the more gratifying because I know they’re not just blowing sycophant smoke up my celebrity asshole. My former agent would frequently remind me that my work was “not-marketable”, “too esoteric”, “too smart”, “not trendy” and “difficult” and all that used to rankle me, but now I realize that all that boils down to her opinion and ability to sell me to people who probabably held similar perspectives. None of whom would do my work well anyway. On one level it does suck that I apparently have small hope of being a famous, oft-performed writer; but if the price of fame and fortune is that I change my art into something that doesn’t reflect my voice, then it comes at much too high a cost, and by the way, the majority is still not everybody and there is no shame in being a niche voice that speaks to a niche community. These days, a strong cult following appeals far more to me than universal acclaim ever did. The universe always finds something new to crow over; cults honor forever.  Similarly, the words of someone who gets my work, matter so much more than the words of someone who doesn’t; even when that someone is famous or is associated with some kind of “big deal”, be it a studio, a theater,  or a publication. Being successful at a business that is at least one third luck and one third who you know, doesn’t actually make you someone worth listening to any more so than someone who hasn’t achieved the same level of “success” but may have put in just as much (or more) work.

So who was that actor who wrote the nasty email proclaiming this was literally the worst thing he’d ever read? Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Let’s just call him “Batman”. The people who know me well know why and the rest of you can have fun thinking about it. Who he is honestly doesn’t matter because in the end all that did matter was that he was kind of a big deal then, and he’s an even bigger deal now, and regardless his opinion means nothing at all beyond being his opinion and the fact that he is famous adds no more weight to his words.

Or maybe it does, but not in the way that most people think.

See, when I got that email, I cried. I mean, seriously, I got to the first derogatory comment and burst into tears. And then I had to get through the rest of the e-mail and it just got worse and worse and worse. Where a simple “no” would have sufficed, Batman felt a need to go the extra mile and really just express over and over how it was basically insulting to him to have even been asked to consider the part he was being offered (which is amazing because honestly, even if a project is not for you, it’s always an honor to be asked and anyone who sees otherwise has a ridiculous ego that will only harm them one day and sure enough, Batman has developed a nasty reputation). The particulars of what he wrote do not matter, all that matters is that at this point in my life, though I had been bringing my writing to workshops for three years now and subjecting it to public viewing and review for just as long, nobody had ever just torn me to shreds so ruthlessly, so explicitly, and so comprehensively, tearing apart not just my work but me as a person, even though he knew nothing about me. In this actor’s defense, he had sent the email to the producer, not me, and maybe would not have been so nasty if he had known I’d end up reading it (maybe) but I was 19 and I just simply lacked the experience to react in any other way than total horror and sadness, taking entirely personally what was, in reality, the ridiculous ranting of an egomaniac actor who has most certainly made far worse films than the one I wrote. Anyway, I ran downstairs to a friend who lived on the floor below (at the time I was living in a dorm) and gushed out my sorrow and despair.

“Batman doesn’t like my work! Batman thinks I should be taken out of the gene pool! Batman couldn’t even finish his morning coffee because he hated it so much!”

Seriously, he’d said that in the e-mail.

My friend, who is herself an accomplished sci-fi/fantasy writer, listened to about five minutes of my wailing and then cut me off with the incredibly insightful, “Stuart… Batman… read your screenplay.”

Which, looking back, is the only part of the entire experience that matters.

I believe we need critics. As a producer, I need reviews to market my own shows and the work of the artists who create under my banner, whose work I believe in enough, be they writer or actor or other type of theater maker, to risk not only my finances but my reputation. As an artist, I like reviews (and I always read them and don’t believe people who say they don’t) because I like knowing my work is being seen and instigating reactions and conversations- whatever those reactions are and wherever those conversations may lead. Also, sometimes, a critic will show me something about myself and my work I didn’t see, and that’s always valuable, whether they illuminate a positive or negative aspect. Sometimes they are also just dead wrong and that’s valuable too as it documents how a work can be mis-perceived or fails to strike the proper chord with someone. I know that something needs to be fixed when I have been watching the show, night after night, silently feeling the same way, and a critic who nails the problem I already know is there is a jewel to be cherished. On the other hand, if I love my show, it kind of doesn’t matter to me what the critic says. And for the record, I have occasionally read really positive reviews of my work that made me roll my eyes because, as much as they liked it, they clearly didn’t “get it.” Being understood is actually, for me, way more important than being liked or loved. It’s certainly more gratifying. But I try not to begrudge any audience member their experience and just be grateful that they were there and had one at all. I’m not making art to be loved, but I am definitely not making it to be ignored.

Ever since I figured that out about myself it’s been much easier to absorb the bad reviews along with the good. Sure, it’s disappointing from time to time and as a producer it can be stressful if I feel like it’ll damage the financial success of a show. When someone I like and respect doesn’t like my work it’s not a happy thing, but it’s also not a requirement of knowing me or being my friend, and I’d rather an honest conversation about what I do than a dishonest one, and I do my best to engage people who I like and respect but don’t like my work because it can be valuable but also because at some point it’ll probably happen at least once with everybody I know since I chose not to surround myself with idiots and paid escorts. Honestly, part of being an artist is accepting that some people are just not going to be my audience, and that includes some of my friends and it definitely includes some critics, most of whom are no more bias free than anyone else who has ever seen more than one play, read more than one novel, heard more than one song. Once I figured all that out it really takes whatever sting was left out of whatever someone has to say, and on the rare occasion a habitual detractor or the perpetually unimpressed colleague does throw me a compliment I’m like, “Oh, thank you, what a pleasant surprise”. What’s nice about that is, since I’m not looking for approval from them, the compliment can be a good thing without becoming something I pin my identity as an artist upon. Far too many people I know, no matter what they say, are living for approval, be it from friends or critics or the audience or the industry, and that is a dangerous thing to base your art on because it’s entirely out of your control and entirely subjective.

The truth is, I’m not looking for approval from anybody except the artists I’m working with on a given project, who must buy into or share my vision for what we’re doing together to truly work. For them and they alone, on a case by case basis, am I still willing to put my ego into such a vulnerable position. Occasionally, I catch myself letting someone’s words get to me without any real validity to what they have to say, but when it comes right down to it, I recognize that I have to have confidence in my work and if I don’t that’s my issue to deal with, not the result of somebody else expressing their opinion. When it comes to your art, other people’s opinions are only as valuable as you let them be, and once you’ve been torn apart by Batman, it’s astounding how many people who are supposedly “a big deal” suddenly aren’t any more. Not because they are or aren’t Batman, but because in every situation, regardless of the critic, I am still me.

And time has proven that not even Batman can stop me.

Stuart Bousel is one of the founding artistic directors of the San Francisco Theatre Pub. You can find out more about him, AGE OF BEAUTY, THE EXILED and more of his work at http://www.stuartbousel.com.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Accentuate the Positive?

Marissa Skudlarek continues her mis-adventures in Theaterland. Want to send missives from your corner of the Bay Area Theater Community? We’re looking for Wednesday columns- pitch us one!

In order to succeed as a theater artist, you need to be good at identifying subtext. Playwrights strive to write dialogue laden with subtextual layers; actors and directors spend the rehearsal period investigating the play’s deeper meanings and determining how to highlight them in performance.

And when a show opens and the reviews come out, a sensitivity to subtext can again prove handy.  In order to assess the merit of a review, it helps to know where the critic is coming from: her tastes, her biases, her approach to criticism. For instance, if your production ofSweeney Todd gets a negative review, it’s very different if it comes from a known Sondheim fan than if it comes from someone who is on record as hating all musicals. Reviews should not be taken at face value; you should first evaluate them for their subtext, and only then decide how seriously to take the reviewer’s opinion.

The subtext of a review is not always simple to discern, but sometimes the reviewers make it easy for us.  Lily Janiak, theater critic for SF Weekly, has a fascinating blog called The Split End (lilyjaniak.blogspot.com) where she discusses her writing process and critiques her own criticism. For instance, in a recent post, Janiak interrogated the approach she took to reviewing the Bay One Acts Festival:

“Reviewing an entire festival of plays definitely posed some structural challenges:  Ought I write a detailed review of each of its ten plays? How could I do so without the article feeling list-y? Should I instead just discuss the event’s mission and general vibe? If so, would the article still be a review?

“Instead, I took an in-between route: beginning with some general observations and then discussing the most successful one-acts in detail. I worry, though, that this choice skews the review: If I don’t analyze what I disliked about the other shows, does the article give the false impression that my experience was more uniformly positive than it was?

“In the end, I felt that because these shows were all produced by relatively small companies, lauding those that really deserved it makes more of a difference than picking apart flawed shows. Readers ought to know about playwrights and indie theater companies whose work transcends; trumpeting their achievements is a critic’s most exciting duty.”

This post got at many issues I have been pondering lately as well. In general, I agree with Janiak’s approach to reviewing the one-acts festival. I believe “it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness” — it profits the world more to focus on positive solutions and things that work, rather than complaining about what is broken. Writing about things that you love and want to promote is better for your soul and your karma than writing about things that you despise.  While it can take more work to write a positive review than a negative one (it’s all too easy to turn your Snark-O-Matic on and lambaste away), the challenge almost seems to prove the moral value of the action. As Tony Kushner once said, “It is an ethical obligation to look for hope. It is an ethical obligation not to despair.”

But, as Janiak notes, this approach has its downsides, namely, “giving the false impression that my experience was more uniformly positive than it was.” I understand the impulse to do this. As artists working in San Francisco indie theater, we feel embattled and defensive. Our art form is not at the center of the cultural discourse, so we feel compelled to promote it and talk about how awesome we are all of the time.  But when does a focus on the positive cross the line into mindless boosterism?  Or worse, an intolerance of negative opinions and the feeling that we cannot honestly discuss our work with one another?  Our focus on the positive means that sometimes, when someone does express a negative opinion, it comes off as far harsher and more hateful than intended.

Furthermore, this approach encourages artists to read between the lines. Yes, plays are all about subtext, but should theater criticism be about subtext too? If a review of a one-acts festival focuses only on the plays that the critic liked, you will assume that if she didn’t mention your play, she despised it. And you’ll get annoyed at the critic because of something that she didn’tactually write. Wouldn’t it be better to get annoyed because of something that’s there on the page, rather than your interpretation of the subtext?

I suppose that, even more than I value blind positivity or blunt honesty, I value transparency in the way that we discuss our work and our reactions to the work of others. That’s why a blog like The Split End is so valuable: it shows that a critic’s opinion is not an objective judgment handed down from on high. Instead, it’s just one person’s perspective – and even then, the critic may second-guess herself. Janiak acknowledges what few critics dare to admit: reviews are full of subtext and they cannot possibly cover every noteworthy aspect of a production. She does us a service by bringing the subtext of her reviews to light on her blog: reading her posts, we can better evaluate her approach to criticism, and thus, better evaluate our own work.  What would our theater community be like if more critics embraced Janiak’s metacritical approach and started blogs of their own?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, dramaturg, and arts writer. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com and on Twitter @MarissaSkud.