Theater Around The Bay: Stupid Ghost – the Who, What, & Why, with Director Claire Rice

Stupid Ghost director Claire Rice tells us about the immense talent involved in this month’s production, the challenges faced in staging the show in a bar, and the reasons it’s important to catch before we close tomorrow night!

stupidghost-01 copy

Who are you? Who is involved in this production?

I am Claire Rice and I’m the director of Stupid Ghost. Tonya Narvaez, Theater Pub co-artistic director and the producer of this play, brought me this script in early 2016. Along the way she’s been my sounding board for ideas, my champion, my anti-procrastination machine, and a constant source of positive energy. Savannah Reich is the playwright. Early on I decided that the song in the show needed to have music arranged for it so I brought on Spencer Bainbridge who wrote the music. To help promote the show I created a short video. Spencer played guitar, Karen Offereins sung and it was recorded by Christine McClintock. I was able to convince Tonya to play a ghost in the woods along with Marissa Skudlarek, Neil Higgins, Erin Merchant and my husband Matt Gunnison. Tonya and Theater Pub co-artistic director Meg Trowbridge helped cast the show. The actors are Megan Cohen, Christine Keating, Ryan Hayes, Celeste Conowitch and Valerie Fachman. Celeste designed and did the lettering on the costumes. The actors designed their own costumes. I can’t believe how lucky I am to get such a talented group of people together.

What is Stupid Ghost?

Stupid Ghost is a story of love, regret, selfishness, the search for life experiences and the destruction of lives. In many ways it really does follow the path of a traditional ghost story. A ghost follows a girl home and slowly begins taking over her life and the consequences are tragic. But instead of it being a horror from the perspective of the living, it is a tragedy from the perspective of a lonely ghost. She doesn’t mean for the things that happen to happen. And I think following her journey we can see ourselves in her. Searching for contact with other people. Searching for love and light. Trying to be seen for who we really are and falling in love when we shouldn’t. It is a really lovely play that packs a great deal into its short run time.

What challenges did you encounter staging this production in a bar?

I think the biggest challenges with this play have been trying to translate it to the bar. It isn’t easy, but it is fun, to come up with concepts for a canoe and a car chase through the woods in a black box theater, but it feels impossible in a bar. Even simple choices in any script become a strategic nightmare. Both Savannah and I were worried about ensuring that the intimate scenes remained quiet and intimate, which can be difficult in a working bar in the Tenderloin. I tried to work on as many levels as I could and keep the play moving so that when we get to that scene the audience is ready for stillness.

stupid-ghosts-in-park-copy

Why Stupid Ghost?

I am drawn to plays that reach out beyond themselves to connect with the audience. It isn’t just the direct address, but the use of unreliable narrators, linear storytelling, unique world building, and moments that almost feel like lessons in empathy. In this play the characters need so much and they discover what those needs are as they go. They learn about themselves through mistakes and sacrifices and successes and connections. The characters are well drawn and the action is entertaining. It has been a fun show to work on and I’ve really enjoyed watching it over the past two nights as well.

Why here? Why now?

What I love about the San Francisco theater scene is the urge of its artists to do theater in every nook, cranny and corner they can. There is an urgency and a living quality to the scene that makes it feel as necessary to the fabric of San Francisco as cable cars and strangely warm weather in the Fall. Stupid Ghost is a storytelling play reaching into the audience. It makes sense that the audience be in arms’ reach and in a place that doesn’t feel like a traditional theater space. And Stupid Ghost is entertaining. It is funny and lively and lovely. You feel hope and fear and love and all the things that make seeing theater fun.

You have two more opportunities to catch Stupid Ghost at PianoFight (144 Taylor St.)!

TONIGHT – Monday, September 26 @ 8:00pm
TOMORROW – Tuesday, September 27 @ 8:00pm

As always, admission is FREE, with a $10 donation suggested at the door. No reservations required, but we suggest getting there early to get a good seat and enjoy PianoFight’s full bar and dinner menu. Remember to show your appreciate to our hosts.

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Cowan Palace: Olympian Doughnuts With Sam Bertken

This week Ashley chats with Sam Bertken about tonight’s reading with the San Francisco Olympians Festival.

It’s night five of the San Francisco Olympians Festival! Can you feel the magic? Well, I certainly can because tonight’s the night my short will be taking its first breath in front of an audience. This evening’s performance, THE CREW, features eight shorts by Steven Westdahl, Megan Cohen, Laylah Muran de Assereto, Jennifer Lynne Roberts, Alandra Hileman, Seanan Palmero, Alan Olejniczak, and me! Wearing an additional hat, the pieces are being directed by Steven Westdahl who has assembled a fearless group of eight actors including, Sam Bertken, Matt Gunnison, Layne Austin, Heather Kellogg, Wayne Wong, Tom Cokenias, Katharine Otis, and Kim Saunders.

To give me a little additional insight into the acting process, Sam agreed to help answer a few questions. So wahoo! Here we go:

Ashley: First, tell us who you are playing in this evening’s performance.

Sam: I am playing such a fun breadth of different characters! One half of a foul-mouthed duo on a segway tour of Atlanta, an actor who reads stage directions, one half of a Canadian air rescue team, one half of a Marina bro pair celebrating the holidays at their wives’ OBGYN clinic, and the hammiest narrator I’ve ever had the honor of portraying.

The patented Sam Bertken smile.

The patented Sam Bertken smile.

Ashley: If you took one of those online “Which Greek God Are You”? quizzes, who do you think you would get?

Sam: Ideally, it would be someone ultra-cool and talented like Hephaestus, who is my personal favorite out of the entire pantheon, but it’s more likely I’d get someone spry like Hermes or something more confusing like Hestia.

Ashley: What’s your favorite line you get to say in tonight’s show?

Sam: It’s a tough choice, but simply because it is so close to my personal interests, “Bring on the fucking doughnuts!” definitely ranks up there with the best of ’em.

Ashley: What’s the most challenging thing about being an actor in the Olympians Festival?

Sam: As someone who has written for the festival previously, I think it’s actually remarkably easy to be an actor in the Olympians Festival. Just show up to the right rehearsals, and go with the flow. Be ready to go with the flow.

Ashley: What’s the best part about being an actor in the Olympians Festival?

Sam: The auditions! And probably the performance night, but I can’t be 100% sure yet. 🙂

Ashley: If you could only use emoticons to describe tonight’s show, which ones would you use?

eggplant, doughnut, trophy

eggplant, doughnut, trophy

Ashley: Where can we see you next? Are you acting in any upcoming productions?

Sam: Well, I’m going to the TBA Awards! And then I’m going to be part of the comedy maelstrom that will be KMLZ, Killing My Lobster’s end-of-year show, which you should totally come see!

Awesome, Sam! Well, gang, you can see Sam, me, and the rest of “the crew” tonight at The Exit. We hope you’ll be there with doughnuts.

The 2015 festival will play 12 nights, November 4-21, Wednesday through Saturday, at the EXIT Theatre in San Francisco (156 Eddy Street). Tickets are $10.00 at the door, and can be purchased starting at 7:30 the night of the show, or in advance for $12 at Brown Paper Tickets. All shows begin at 8 PM. Audience members who attend more than four nights get the fifth free!

Claire’s Enemy’s List: I Have No Fucking Clue What I’m Doing

Claire Rice, ensuring I have to spend at least an hour downloading, uploading, and formatting all her photos.

My camera broke.

I think it’s an easy fix and I’m going to look into getting it repaired. It probably broke from a combination of neglect, abuse and age: but I can’t say for sure. When it comes to that thing, I have no fucking clue what I’m doing.

I just sort of aim, fire and hope.

I know fuck all about that particular piece of equipment. I love it. I love taking pictures and I feel like I’ve gotten lucky and I’ve taken some really good ones. But, unlike my life in theatre where I know why a thing is good, I can’t write an essay on photography. I can’t tell you why one photo is better than another. It just feels right. Oh, I could bullshit about it for a long time if you want to. I can use the knowledge I have of theatrical framing and…blah blah blah… I know a thing or two about a thing or two. I’m not going to bullshit further or wax poetic or pretend I know anything about what I’m doing. But I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t mind. Getting lucky is fun. It isn’t artful and there’s no craft in it.

But, because my camera broke and I’m feeling nostalgic about it, I want to show off some of my favorite photos.

Don’t worry. I have a super angry post that feels very Enemy’s List cooking in the background here.

Troy: The Gates of Hell – Rehearsal Shot, SF State Rosie Josue, Aaron Teixeira, Vanessa Cota, Gregg Hood, Cecilia Palmtag, Teri Whipple, Megan Watson

Troy: The Gates of Hell – Rehearsal Shot, SF State
Rosie Josue, Aaron Teixeira, Vanessa Cota, Gregg Hood, Cecilia Palmtag, Teri Whipple, Megan Watson

City of Angels – Press Shot, SF State Sheena McIntyre (Clyde Sheets did all the lighting and set up for this)

City of Angels – Press Shot, SF State
Sheena McIntyre (Clyde Sheets did all the lighting and set up for this)

Don Juan – Production Shot, SF State  Elaine Gavin

Don Juan – Production Shot, SF State
Elaine Gavin

Killing My Lobster Reboots – Production Shot, Killing My Lobster Allison Page

Killing My Lobster Reboots – Production Shot, Killing My Lobster
Allison Page

Into the Clear Blue Sky – Production Shot, Sleepwalkers Theatre

Into the Clear Blue Sky – Production Shot, Sleepwalkers Theatre

Twelfth Night – Press Shot, AtmosTheatre Ashley Cowan, Nicholas Trengrove

Twelfth Night – Press Shot, AtmosTheatre
Ashley Cowan, Nicholas Trengrove

Ryan Marchand – For Fun

Ryan Marchand – For Fun

You’re Going To Bleed – Production Shot, DIVAfest Sam Bertken, Paul Jennings

You’re Going To Bleed – Production Shot, DIVAfest
Sam Bertken, Paul Jennings

Extra Shot – Taken during a photoshoot where we used a smoke machine

Extra Shot – Taken during a photoshoot where we used a smoke machine

Better Homes and Amo – Production Shot, No Nude Men James Tinsley, Warden Lawlor, Molly Benson, Cassie Powell

Better Homes and Amo – Production Shot, No Nude Men
James Tinsley, Warden Lawlor, Molly Benson, Cassie Powell

Love in the Time of Zombies – Press Shot, San Francisco Theatre Pub Neil Higgins

Love in the Time of Zombies – Press Shot, San Francisco Theatre Pub
Neil Higgins

The Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards for 2013

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2013 list. 

Three years ago I decided that I wanted to start my own Bay Area Theater Awards, because my opinions are just as legitimate as anyone else’s, the awards I give out are as valuable as any other critical awards, (recipients of the SEBATA, or the Stuey, if you prefer, get nothing but my admiration and some free publicity), and also because there’s a fairly good chance that I’ve seen a lot of theater the usual award givers haven’t seen. The best thing about the Bay Area theater scene is that there is a huge diversity in the offerings, and so much on the table to begin with. No one person can see it all, and therefore it’s important to share with one another the highlights of our time in the audience seat, if only to create a greater awareness of what and who is out there making stuff.

Also, there are some people who think I don’t like anything, and I feel a need to not only prove them wrong, but to do so by expressing how much of the local color I do love and admire, as opposed to just pointing out that the reason they think I don’t like anything is because I generally don’t like *their* work (oh… I guess I did just point that out, didn’t I?). Normally I post these “awards” on my Facebook page, but this year I decided to bring them to the blog because the mission statement of the SEBATA is pretty in-line with the mission statement of Theater Pub, and having come to the close of an amazing year of growth for the blog, it now has a much farther reach than my Facebook page could ever hope to have. Congratulations SF Theater Pub Blog- you just won a Stuey.

Anyway, because I am a product of the generation that grew up with the MTV Movie Awards- and, because I’m the only person on the voting committee and thus can do what I like- I have decided that my categories are purely arbitrary and can be stretched to allow me to write about anyone I feel like. The two limits are 1) I can’t give myself an award (though I can have been involved in the show on a limited level) and 2) I won’t go over thirteen (though there may be ties for some awards). Because seriously, how (more) self indulgent would this be without either of those rules? Oh, 3) I won’t give out awards for how bad something was. I’m here to be positive. And chances are those people were punished enough.

To all my friends and frenemies in the Bay Area Theater Scene… it’s been a great year. Let’s you and me do it again sometime. Well… most of you.

And now, presenting the Fourth Annual Stuey Awards…

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
“Pint Sized IV” (San Francisco Theater Pub)
Pint Sized Plays gets better each year, and it’s honestly one of two things I actually miss about working at the Cafe Royale (the other is the uniqueness of doing Shakespeare there, which for some reason works in a completely magical way I wish it worked more often on traditional stages). This year the festival was put together by Neil Higgins, who did an amazing job, and I think we had some of the best material yet. The evening as a whole felt incredibly cohesive, with a theme of forgiveness and letting go, archly reflective of our decision to leave the Cafe Royale, and I think incredibly relevant to a lot of our audience. We knew Pint Sized could be very funny, and very socially pointed, but I’m not sure we had ever conceived of it as moving and this year it was, thanks in no small part to our writers (Megan Cohen, Peter Hsieh, Sang S. Kim, Carl Lucania, Daniel Ng, Kirk Shimano and Christian Simonsen), directors (Jonathan Carpenter, Colin Johnson, Tracy Held Potter, Neil Higgins, Charles Lewis III, Meghan O’Connor, Adam L. Sussman) and actors (Annika Bergman, Jessica Chisum, Andrew Chung, AJ Davenport, Eli Diamond, Caitlin Evenson, Lara Gold, Matt Gunnison, Melissa Keith, Charles Lewis III, Brian Quakenbush, Rob Ready, Casey Robbins, Paul Rodrigues, Jessica Rudholm). The evening would start off with a magical performance by the Blue Diamond Bellydancers, whose combination of skill and spectacle got our audiences excited for what was to come. As we moved through the pieces, each by turns funny and poignant, each in some way or another about finding something, losing it, letting it go, and then coming back stronger, you could feel the audience grow warmer and closer each night. By the time Rob Ready gave the closing monologue, fixing each audience member in turn with a smile, you could feel everyone really listening and you could hear a pin drop in the room, and that’s saying something for the noisy by nature Cafe Royale. I think a lot of love went into the festival this year, and not just because it might be the last, and the product of that love was real magic and like the best theater- you had to be there. And if you weren’t, you really missed out.

BEST SHOW
“The Motherf**ker With The Hat” (San Francisco Playhouse)
I saw a lot of decent, solid, well done theater this year but I had a hard time connecting to a lot of it, which was rarely a flaw with the show and probably had more to do with where I was/am as a person (lots of change this year). Then again, something about really good theater is that it can get you out of your own head and into some other world, for a while. Towards the end of the year, I saw three shows I really really liked: “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake” at Bigger Than A Bread Box Theater Company, “Peter/Wendy” at Custom Made Theater Company, and “First” at Stage Werx, produced by Altair Productions/The Aluminous Collective and Playground. Still, San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The Motherf**ker With The Hat”, directed by Bill English, was probably my favorite show of the year. Who knows why it has an edge on the others? Maybe because as someone who spent most of their childhood weekends in New York it seemed oddly familiar, or maybe it was the deft handling by the universally excellent cast (Carl Lumbly, Gabriel Marin, Rudy Guerrero, Margo Hall, Isabelle Ortega) of the complex relationships and dialogue that Guirgis does so well, or maybe it was just refreshing to see such a simple, honest play in what, for me, was a year characterized by a lot of stylistically interesting but emotionally cold theater. There is something very passionate, scathing, bombastic and yet also humble and forgiving about Guirgis’ work that I think makes him such an important voice in modern American drama and English’s production brought all that out with an easy grace. The show really worked, and got me out of my head, and when I went back to my life I felt much better for the journey. What more can you ask of a theater experience?

BEST READING
“Paris/Hector” (San Francisco Olympians Festival)
I attend a lot of readings every year, and run a reading festival myself, so I’ve come to greatly value a really well done reading. This year, the award goes to director Katja Rivera and writers Kirk Shimano and Bridgette Dutta Portman, whose pair of one acts about the pair of Trojan princes Paris and Hector made for one of the best nights of this past year’s San Francisco Olympians Festival. Part of what I loved about it was that in one evening we saw the amazing variety the festival can offer: Kirk’s play was a comedy with a poignant moment or two, while Bridgette’s was a faux-classical drama- written in verse no less. Though the writers are the center of attention at the festival, credit really has to be given to Katja Rivera, who as the director of both pieces, made many simple but effective choices to highlight the best elements of both works and utilize the talents of her excellent cast: Yael Aranoff, Molly Benson, Jeremy Cole, Mackenszie Drae, Allison Fenner, Dana Goldberg, John Lennon Harrison, Michelle Talgarow, Alaric Toy. With the combined excellent story-telling of the performers (including beautiful and surprising singing from Yael, Molly and Dana), the thoughtfulness of the scripts, and the cohesiveness of the whole, this night of the festival stood out best in what was a consistently strong year at the Olympians.

BEST SHORT PLAY
“My Year” by Megan Cohen (Bay One Acts Festival)
Megan Cohen’s “My Year” is the kind of thing I wish more short plays would be: dynamic, personal, and complete. In a sea of short plays that are really fragments, or meet-cute plays, it’s always lovely to see something with a beginning, a middle, and end, and full-formed characters having actual interactions and not just feeling like Girl A and Guy B, thrown together by the whimsy of the playwright to make a point (though of course, the right playwright can pull that off- which is why so many people try to ape it). A friend of mine described “My Year” as “A fun little 90s indie film on stage” and my reaction when watching it was “Oh, Dear God, convince Meg to let me write a companion piece to this!” because let’s face it: at least a third of what I write is a 90s film on stage. My own vanity aside, what I loved about this play (directed by Siobhan Doherty, starring Emma Rose Shelton, Theresa Miller, Nkechi Live, Allene Hebert, Jaime Lee Currier, and Luna Malbroux) was that it felt constantly on the move, while still being mostly composed of intimate moments between a group of women at a birthday party. Like a lot of the theater that I really loved this year, it also just struck a personal chord, watching this young woman (Emma Rose Shelton) trying to enjoy the party her friends have thrown for her (though she doesn’t like surprise parties) despite there being no food and a random stranger (Theresa Miller) who worms her way in only to turn out to be the troublemaker she’s originally pegged for. Megan’s writing had its usual combination of smart and sentimental, but whereas a lot of her other work heads into absurdity and/or extreme quirkiness (not that this is bad), “My Year” stayed very grounded and found its meaning in that effort to stay grounded, making what might be a quiet little play in anyone else’s oeuvre, a nice change of pace in Cohen’s. The final moment, where the characters howl at the moon because what else are you going to do after a shitty birthday, felt like a communal sigh even the audience was in on, probably because we could all relate to Shelton’s character, and while having always loved and admired Meg’s work, this is probably the first time I related to it so wholeheartedly.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Linda Huang (Stage Manager, Tech, Box Office, Everything)
You know how the Oscars and Tonys give out Lifetime Achievement Awards for people whose contribution is so massive that it would kind of be criminal to pick one work or contribution so instead they just get an award for basically being themselves? You know, like how Peter O’Toole got that award because at some point somebody realized that he was pervasively brilliant and always in fashion and therefore easily forgotten because things like “Oh, well, he’ll win next year” often times factors in to who we recognize, meaning things like reliability and consistency do not? Well, for the first time ever in the history of the SEBATAs, I’m creating The Peter O’Toole Award for General Awesomeness and giving it to Linda Huang, without whom, in all seriousness, I believe that small theater in San Francisco would probably grind to a halt. Earlier this year, I got recognized by the Weekly as a “Ringmaster” of the theater scene, but frankly I (and people like me) could not do what we do without having Linda (and people like her) constantly coming to our aid despite being paid a fraction of what they’re worth and half the time being forgotten because what they do isn’t in the immediate eye of the audience. Linda is a total gem of the theater scene. She wears many hats, though she’s probably best known for running light boards, and one of my favorite things when attending the theater is running into her, usually working in some capacity I previously was unaware she was qualified to do (note: Linda is qualified to do everything). What I love best about Linda (aside from her cutting sense of humor and tell-it-like-it-is demeanor) is her incredible generosity: she does so much for local theater and rarely gets paid, and even when she does get paid she often says, “Pay me last.” A true team player, and one we don’t thank enough, especially as she’s the only person who seems to know how to get the air conditioning in the Exit Theatre to work.

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Atticus Rex, Open Mic Night In Support of the Lemonade Fund (SF Theater Pub/Theater Bay Area Individual Services Committee)
I never expected to include a note about someone who performed at an open mic/variety show, but I wanted to shout out to Atticus Rex, a young performer who literally made his performance debut at the San Francisco Theater Pub/ISC fundraiser for the Lemonade Fund this year. A last minute replacement, Atticus and a friend performed some original hip-hop for our audience of mostly performance professionals and their friends, and despite the formidable crowd and the first time nerves, he basically killed it. Even when he made a mistake it worked: he’d call himself out, apologize, and start again, somehow without ever missing a beat. His lyrics are very tight and poetic, and the contrast between the power in his words and his humbleness at approaching and leaving the stage works so well you’d almost think it was an act- except he later confessed he’d never performed live before, and it couldn’t have been more sincere. With genuine hope he never loses his sincerity, while also continuing to grow his confidence and experience, I wanted to take a moment to say congratulations once again, and thank you for reminding us all what it looks like to really take a risk onstage.

BEST CHEMISTRY
Genie Cartier and Audrey Spinazola (Genie and Audrey’s Dream Show, SF Fringe Festival)
What’s potentially cuter than “Clyde the Cyclops?” Very little, but these two ladies and their breathless, funny, and surreal little clown show come dangerously close to giving Clyde a run for his money, and it’s the only show I saw at the Fringe this year that I wished my boyfriend had also seen. Bravely straddling the bridge between performance artists and acrobats, this collage of monologues, poems, jokes, mime, clowning, puppetry, stunts, music, and children’s games, is like watching two hyper-articulate kids on pixie sticks go nuts in a club house, but only if those kids had an incredible sense of timing and arch senses of humor (not to mention very flexible bodies). I’ve never been a huge fan of circus stuff (I like it as an accent, sometimes, but as entertainment on its own it doesn’t tend to hold my interest long), but I think I’d be a fan of anything that had these two women in it. Their ability to play off each other is the key to making their show work, and when you watch it you have that sense of being let into the private make-believe world of people who have found kindred spirits in one another. It’s an utterly magic combination and from what I know of other people who saw it, it basically charmed the pants off everyone. Or at least, everyone who has a soul.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
Ben Calabrese (Apartment in “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”)
I saw a lot of great performances by men this year (Sam Bertken in “Peter/Wendy”, Tim Green and Gregory Knotts in “First”, Paul Rodrigues “Pint Sized Plays IV”, Will Hand “Dark Play”, Casey Robbins “Oh Best Beloved!”), but this one really took my breath away (though since Sam Bertken actually got me to sincerely clap for fairies in Peter/Wendy, he gets a second shout out). Ben’s role, which is to literally embody the voice of a neglected apartment, is the kind of role that could either be the best thing about the show, or the worst. Luckily for Bigger Than A Breadbox’s production of “Crumble, or Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake (written by Sheila Callaghan), Ben rocked it. Bouncing around the stage, dive bombing the furniture, all the while spouting, eloquently, Callaghan’s beautiful and complex monologues, Ben was so utterly watchable it was impossible not to buy the conceit of the role, and so moments when he has an orgasm from having the radiator turned on, or turns his fingers into loose electrical wires, don’t seem ridiculous, but made immediate and total sense. It’s usually not a compliment to tell an actor they did a tremendous job being an inanimate object, but what Ben did so well was illustrate that a home, while not “alive”, does indeed have a life to it. And if that life occasionally fixes the audience with Ben’s particular brand of “scary actor stare” why… all the better.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Brandice Marie Thompson (Georgia Potts in “First”)
Oh, this was a tough one. As usual, the actresses of the Bay Area are kicking ass and taking names no matter what their role, and my decision to pick Brandice above the rest is because I think she best exemplified that thing which so many actresses have to do, which is take a relatively underwritten role in a play about men and turn it into a rich, believable character who somehow manages to steal the show. Evelyn Jean Pine, who wrote “First”, is a fantastic writer and she writes women and men equitably well, and due credit must go to her for the creation and inclusion of this character in a story mostly about male egos, but in a lesser capable actresses hands, this role could have been annoying, or forgettable, or purely comical, and Brandice avoided all of these traps while making the character utterly charming at the same time. The truth is, her arc became much more interesting to me than that of the main character, and I think a strong argument could be made that “First” was just as much about Georgia as it was about Bill Gates. Director Michael French no doubt had a hand in this too, but in the end it’s a performer who makes or breaks a role and Brandice’s ability to combine mousy with spunky with unexpected and yet thoroughly authentic character turns was deeply satisfying to watch. Georgia kicked ass and took names, because Brandice does. Runners up: Melissa Carter (“Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”, Bigger Than A Breadbox), Allison Jean White (“Abigail’s Party”, SF Playhouse), Sam Jackson (“Oh Best Beloved!”, SF Fringe Festival), Courtney Merril (“Into the Woods”, Ray of Light), Elissa Beth Stebbins (“Peter/Wendy”, Custom Made Theatre Company).

BEST FUSION THEATER PIECE
“Nightingale” (Davis Shakespeare Ensemble/SF Fringe Festival)
This little gem at this year’s fringe festival was adapted from the myth of Philomel by Gia Battista, with music by Richard Chowenhill, directed by Rob Sals (with Battista), and staring Gabby Battista, April Fritz and Tracy Hazas as three remarkably similar looking women who each take a turn playing the heroine of a bizarre fairy tale (all the other characters in the story are played by them as well). Dance, pantomime, narration, song and traditional theater techniques all came together in a way that was astonishingly clean and charming in its simplicity. The black and white aesthetic used to unify the look of the show and performers gave the whole thing a quality both modern and timeless, and in its gentle, dreamy tone the sharp elements of social commentary and satire often seemed more brutal and impactful. Of everything I saw at the Fringe this past year, which included a number of excellent works, this piece has stayed with me the longest.

BEST SOLO SHOW
“Steve Seabrook: Better Than You” by Kurt Bodden (The Marsh)
I saw a lot more solo performance than usual this year (including works by Annette Roman, Laura Austin Wiley, Alexa Fitzpatrick, Jenny Newbry Waters, Rene Pena), and realizing how good it can be is, in and of itself, kind of a miracle because I used to say things like, “Theater begins with two people” and “If Aeschylus had wanted to write sermons he wouldn’t have added Electra”. Kurt’s show was not created this past year, it has a long history, but I only saw it in its most recent Marsh incarnation and I’m hoping he’s been able to find ways to keep it going (his Facebook feeds indicate this is so). A satire of motivational speakers and the cult of self-improvement, “Steve Seabrook” manages to be so much more by combining satirical fiction with moments of the kind of personal monologue (still fiction) that permeates solo shows. The result is a sense of development, of a story (Steve’s) unfolding in real time while another story, (Steve’s Seminar) plays itself out over the course of a weekend. Playing off the convention of a backstage comedy (we see the seminar, then we see Steve when he’s not “on”), Kurt’s brilliance as a performer is evident in the seamless transition from one to the other, again and again, carrying a throughline that shows us not only why Steve buys into his mantras, but why any of us buy into anything we’ve come up with (or adopted from someone else) to keep us moving through life’s ups and downs. At once very funny and cutting, while also moving and real (and yes, fuck it, kind of inspirational), Kurt’s show also gets a nod for its fantastic takeaway schwag: a keychain light with Steve’s name on it, with which every audience member is encouraged to shine their light in a dark world.

BEST DIRECTOR
Rebecca Longworth and Joan Howard, “Oh Best Beloved” (SF Fringe Festival)
“Oh Best Beloved” got a lot of attention and deservedly so- well acted, well designed, it was a genuinely fun piece of theater. Perhaps most deserving of being singled out in the project, however, are director Rebecca Longworth and partner Joan Howard, who share credit for conceptualizing the show (in which Joan also played a part and had, in my opinion, the single best moment in the show), and who lead the rest of the company in adapting the material from Ruyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories”. Anyone who saw the show could easily see that it had about a million moving parts, and Longworth and Howard’s ability to keep all those plates spinning on a small budget and under the strict conditions of the San Francisco Fringe Festival (they literally put up and pulled down a full set with each performance) is worthy of award in and of itself, but the level of commitment and craft they were able to pull from their design team and performers was equally as impressive. Everything about the show, even the parts that didn’t work as well as others, felt thought through and done with panache, making this ambitious and unique experience a delightful jewel in the SF Fringe Festival’s crown.

BEST DESIGNER
Bill English, “Abigail’s Party” (SF Playhouse)
Scenery in general doesn’t do much for me. I enjoy good scenery, but the best scenery should kind of vanish into the background, in my opinion, and be something you barely pay attention to. As a result, I’m often just as happy with a blank stage, or really well thought out minimal set, as I am with a full one, so long as the play I’m watching is good. That said, every now and then I will see a set I just adore, and this year it was Bill English’s set for SF Playhouse’s “Abigail’s Party”, by Mike Leigh, directed by Amy Glazer. Basically a living room/dining room/kitchenet combo, this fully realized “home” was very well crafted as a place, but more importantly, it really worked as a place where people lived. The 70s style was at once present without being overwhelming, evoking the time period without looking like it was a homage to the time period, or a museum dedicated to 70s kitch. I mean, it honestly reminded me of numerous homes I’d played in as a child (I was born in 1978) and all the wallpaper looked like wallpaper in my parents’ home before my mother completely re-did the house in 1990 because “we can admit this is ugly… now”. The amazing thing about English’s set is that it didn’t seem ugly, in spite of being made up entirely of patterns and colors we now find appalling. He made it all work together, the way people once did, and the final result was simultaneously comfortable and dazzling. I remember thinking, waiting for the play to begin, “I could live here.”

And last, but not least, every year I pick…

MY PERSONAL FAVORITE EXPERIENCE TO WORK ON
“The Age of Beauty” (No Nude Men Productions/The Exit Theatre)
I had taken a break from directing my own work, but with this nine performance workshop I allowed myself to re-discover that, as much as I like directing plays by others, there is nothing quite as satisfying as feeling like I’m telling a very personal story of my own and having the final say on how that happens. Of course, such experiences are only rewarding when you get to work with great actors, and I was lucky to have four amazing women (Megan Briggs, Emma Rose Shelton, Allison Page, Sylvia Hathaway) who were willing to go on this adventure with me, always keeping stride as I made cuts and changed lines, memorizing a mountain of material in Emma and Sylvia’s case, and crafting subtle characters who had to be both different from each other and relatively interchangeable at the same time. When I had a hard time articulating what I was going for, they would nod and smile and then show me what I meant by doing it better than I could describe it. When the show opened by the skin of its teeth it had one of those minor miracle opening nights, where even though you’re just a tiny bit unprepared (all my fault, I kept changing the script), it somehow all comes together and really works. Over the course of the show, as their performances grew and refined (our final two nights were simply perfect), I was able to see what flaws still remained in the script (two pages, middle of scene of scene two were cut the day after we closed), and any writer of new work will tell you that’s the best experience you can hope for on a first production. Shout outs to my awesome design team Cody Rishell, Jim Lively and Wil Turner IV! “The Age of Beauty” helped restore some of my lagging faith in the theater process, and made me commit to doing more of my own work in the coming year.

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

Theater Around The Bay: 16 Actors You Should Totally Cast

Stuart Bousel processes a callback that was an embarrassment of riches.

I recently had the awesome experience of sitting through the call-backs for Custom Made’s 2014 production of The Crucible, which I will be directing. I say “awesome” because it’s probably the first time in my career I gotten to watch 50+ actors audition their butts off for five hours and have literally all of them be really, really good. No lie: we honestly could have charged admission to the callbacks, they were that entertaining and engaging. I could have easily cast the show three times over with totally different people each time, and been perfectly happy with each version of the cast, that’s how good this pool of performers was.

Alas, as is often the case, I only had 16 slots available, not even a third of the excellent actors I had to choose from. When it came to decision time, I worked really hard to balance my final choices with familiar faces and new ones, people I loved working with along with people I’ve been wanting to work with, while also factoring in all those different things any director factors in when casting (like if certain actors make for a believable family, etc.), and yet of course at the end of the day I still ended up with a list of un-cast actors I couldn’t help but stare at and think, “Oh, but that person’s fantastic!” while also recognizing there just wasn’t a place for them in this show.

For me, the list of desired collaborations is always longer than the list of people I actually get to collaborate with on any given show, so, with an enormous desire to celebrate just how much talent we really have in this Bay Area theater scene of ours, here are 16 incredible folks from The Crucible callbacks that I didn’t cast this time around, which again still leaves out a whole lot of other great people who I saw that day. Next time, my friends. And in the meantime, to all my fellow directors, snatch these folks up while you can. They’re amongst the best of the best.

Sam Bertken. I’ve gotten to know Sam pretty well over the last year since I first met him at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, and he’s both a delightful person and a delightful actor. His strengths lie in physical comedy and exciting, larger-than-life characters, and so he’s perfect for stylized works, broad comedies and performances pieces. He played Tranio for me when I directed Taming of the Shrew this past year and he’s very easy to work with, very dedicated, and he comes into the room with a lot of ideas to contribute towards building a character. He also takes direction exceptionally well, pulling back and toning down when you need him to, opening up and making a character explode on stage when you let him run loose. He almost stole the show every night of our run and yet he’s undeniably a total team player. He’ll be playing Peter Pan this fall at Custom Made and I kind of can’t wait in an embarrassingly fanboy way.

Kat Bushnell. Kat and I have a long history of working together, ever since I cast her back in 2011 in my production of Giant Bones, the auditions for which were my first introduction to the bundle of warm support and talent that is Kat Bushnell. Funny, smart, friendly- and she can sing!- Kat Bushnell is a triple threat who pulls off one of the best British accents of any actress I’ve seen in the Bay and she works hard in any role you put her in, from minor character to lead: a perfect ensemble member (which was essential in Giant Bones). She’s also a great cold reader- playwrights take note!- and a lot of the work I’ve done with her has been script in hand because Kat’s good at making strong, immediate choices and she has a lovely, melodic speaking voice that makes all your lines sound good, hence making her a staple of the SF Olympians festival since year one.

Ben Calabrese. Never saw this guy before Crucible auditions, I sincerely hope to get a chance to work with him at some point in the future. An able reader and a jovial participant, I kept having him read partly because I enjoyed what he brought out in other actors and he had a really nice, open-to-anything vibe that I found myself enjoying regardless of what role I had him read for. Lots of energy and enthusiasm, my guess is he’s a total team player- you’d have to be to endure five hours of callbacks and still have a smile on your face.

Ashley Cowan. Ashley has played a lead for me twice now and I have to say, she is one dedicated actor and you can be sure, if you cast her, that she will work incredibly hard. She’s also a friendly, pro-team presence backstage, perpetually positive and good at rallying the troops even when you’re marching through that deathly terrible dress rehearsal where nothing goes right. She turns in thoughtful, layered performances with a particular penchant for anti-ingenues, those young women roles characterized by being just outside the normal, run-of-the-mill heroine variety, smarter and quirkier than the girl next door. As Viola in my Twelfth Night she had a heart-breaking reunion scene with her Sebastian that brought tears to the audience’s eyes every single time but she’s probably better known throughout the Bay Area as a comic actress and for very good reasons: she’s genuinely funny and has a dry, deadpan delivery that kills when aimed to do so.

Laura Domingo. A passionate, fiery performer, Laura does hysteria and agony like nobody else, but she’s also got a sexy, seductive side that revealed itself during the Olympians Festival last year when she played a femme fatale in a noire style play by Colin Johnson. In reality, she’s a sweet person who has been game for everything we’ve given her at the Olympians Festival and I love when she turns up again and again for consideration- demonstrating a positive, open attitude that characterizes the best variety of performer. One day, Laura, I just know we’re going to do a kick-ass show together. 

Matt Gunnison. Matt and I have done four full productions together and a play I wrote has, what I think, is the perfect leading role for him (now if only I could find a producer!). Talk about an actor with range, Matt can do funny, Matt can do scary, and Matt can do sympathetic, and in my ideal role for him he gets to do all of that and more in one night. He has an elastic body and an incredibly expressive face that evokes tremendous responses from audiences and he’s both absolutely solid and reliable while also being the sort of performer who can, when asked, surprise the hell out of you. On top of that he’s arguably the nicest guy in the Bay Area theater scene, soft-spoken and gently witty, astute and supportive and 100% there when you need him. He’s a cornerstone actor, the kind of presence that elevates your production both backstage and onstage, and it’s criminal that he’s not hugely famous.

April Green. Seriously, this woman is such a powerhouse and I never saw her or knew her name before these auditions and now I want to see whatever she gets cast in next because I sense she tears it up like few others can. She brought a deeply emotional weight to everything she read for and she has a grace and a kindness to her that I found very moving, especially for a cold read. I worry she’s gonna read this and think I’m a stalker. I swear, I’m not. Just a freshly converted fan to who was, for me, the best new face in this truly epic assortment of actors.

Ryan Hayes. My longest running collaborator in the Bay Area, Ryan was in the very first show I ever directed in the Bay Area (Edward II) and we’ve probably done ten shows together since, not to mention a ton of readings and other theatrical collaborations. An amazingly versatile and dedicated performer, Ryan is one of those people who can play a wide variety of roles, from over-the-top to incredibly subtle, and often times accessing both extremes of his range in the same evening. He loves big characters but he’s excellent at solid and subtle ones too and when he’s in your cast you can rely on him coming through on all fronts, being one of the first to get off book, and ready to lend a hand with any element of the production. He’s a team player and a team leader, and he just gets better and easier to work with as time goes on.

Neil Higgins. Neil can do flamboyant, acidic wit like nobody else and, interestingly enough, his other forte is charmingly insecure everymen. He has exceptionally good comic timing and the unique ability to go from brittle to endearing at the drop of a hat. Backstage he’s a solid addition to the mix, sure to make people laugh in the rehearsal process, always able and willing to buckle down and get work done when the time has come. During the production of Measure for Measure I cast in him (and in which he stole the show every night) he destroyed a bottle of beer mid-performance and totally made it work without missing a beat. It was pretty legendary. 

Sharon Huff Robinson. I only got to know Sharon a little bit through callbacks but she made a very good impression on me, striking me as a smart woman with a great sense of humor about herself and the whole show business thing, combining that with some really truly solid acting skills. What I loved the most about her audition is that she’s so obviously a strong, self-assured woman who wouldn’t put up with all the crap Miller subjects his female characters to in The Crucible. Side note: she kind of looks like mid-1980s Carrie Fisher.

Heather Kellogg. Yet another smart, enthusiastic and courageous actress, Heather always makes super daring choices during auditions that are a nice contrast to her very girl-next-door look and vibe. She can do a thoroughly believable Irish accent, has a good command of stylized language and classical text, and she’s at the perfect place to play a number of different ingénue roles, from flighty and delightful, to the “guarding secrets and plans” variety, to the brave and plucky kind. I kind of want to see her play Anne Shirley in a stage adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, and if you know how much I love Anne of Green Gables, you realize this is no joking matter.

Brian Martin. Of all the actors I have known over an extended period of time, Brian has evolved the most. He was always very watchable, a cute guy with a very natural acting style that makes him an excellent choice for modern theater, but in the last few years I have been using him for classical productions and he’s just as competent and comfortable with verse and poetry. He works hard, he takes himself and the art very seriously, but he’s never a wet blanket about anything and he has no ego at all, making him a great addition to the backstage environment of the show (seriously, is there anyone in the world who doesn’t like Brian?). He’s at the perfect age to play lots of male romantic leads and he’s one of the most non-awkward stage kissers I’ve ever directed. Seriously, he’s made out with somebody in every single play I’ve cast him in, and nobody ever complains about it. 

Theresa Miller. Speaking of inarguably lovable, Theresa Miller is another person I think we can all agree is just, well… utterly likable. Blessed with an inarguably endearing smile and a penchant for feckless comedy, my favorite roles I’ve seen her in are the ones where someone has noticed just how terrifying Theresa is when cast as evil. Evil Theresa is truly scary, because when she says horrible things there’s still an undertone of sweetness to her that somehow makes it just that much more psychotic sounding. She also nails victimized characters, at least partly because you never want to see anything bad happen to Theresa. A few years ago I produced a play she was in called Oily Replies where she played a kind of lost film noire ingénue and moments when the detective would manhandle her you really just wanted to punch him. A truly charming and dedicated actress who generates immediate emotional loyalty from audiences (when not creeping them out), I can’t recommend her more.

Allison Page. This just in: if you don’t know Allison Page, you need to, and now is your chance because I predict she will be beyond big time relatively soon. Everything about her is star quality. She’s funny, she’s smart, she’s sensitive, she’s articulate, she can take direction well and she likes to push herself to do new things and go places she hasn’t gone before. She’s a delight backstage- I thoroughly believe she has been blessed with the remarkable ability to be able to get along with virtually anybody- and audiences fall in love with her approximately 35 seconds after she first walks out on stage. Jennifer Lawrence whatever, Allison is the perfect ingénue for modern theater because she nails quirky without ever being precious or contrived and she’s also got a tough core that lends her characters a nice edge and some gravitas. She’s very beautiful in a throw-back to the Golden Age of Hollywood way, and her ability to knock both indie heroine roles and comedic love interest parts out of the park makes her usable in a variety of shows and contexts.

Jessica Rudholm. Ultra-professional backstage and a thoughtful, invested performer, the most unique and startling thing about Jessica is that she packs, into a small and delicate body, an unbelievable amount of power and strength. She has dancer and movement training that allows her to do physically astounding things on stage and her voice is deep, smoky and resonate. She’s so striking on stage she almost demands exceptional parts of the Queen, Sorceress, God Incarnate variety, and in the past she’s played unusual characters like Feste in Twelfth Night and the Moon in my play Twins because there is an ethereal, mesmerizing quality to her that allows her to pull off those kinds of roles without the tiniest bit of affectation. It’s just Jessica doing what she does best, namely being the most riveting presence in the room.

Paul Stout. I kind of feel like Paul can do almost any kind of character you throw at him, and is the apex of that solid, dependable performer you can use in a wide variety of roles, always knowing that whatever he’s been given he’ll make it a vital part of your production with strong and compelling storytelling. I’ve particularly liked Paul in lovable dickhead roles, though I think my favorite performance of his is still the first one I saw him in, as a drunk, pathetic factory foreman in Audience at Theater Pub. Paul nailed that perfect balance between irritating and impossible to not feel sorry for, and he repeatedly makes difficult characters accessible, show after show.

So there you go. Sixteen actors I won’t be using for my next show but you absolutely should. And you know what? I could list another 16, and still not have listed everyone at these call-backs who was worthy of note (which again, was pretty much everyone). What it really comes down to is this: there are a lot of things we can stand to improve in the Bay Area theater scene, but it’s important to also remember there are a lot of things which are right, which are un-beatable, and there’s nothing like five hours of watching talented, passionate performers perform to remind you that a lot of the good stuff about doing work out here starts with the people you get the chance to work with. Someone you love not on this list? Then by all means, tell us about them! Tell the world! Help open a door for them and by doing so continue to grow our scene into a better, brighter, more exciting place to be.

Stuart Bousel attends an abnormally large number of auditions over the course of any given year and does his best to pay really close attention to all of them. That said, he won’t be casting any shows for quite some time in the forsee-able future. Yes, it’s screwing with his brain. He hopes to one day talk a producer into funding his dream production of Clive Barker’s Colossus, in which he would be able to cast literally everybody who was at the Crucible auditions, and then some. You would want to see this show. It would be amazing.

Opening Tonight!

Pint Sized Plays returns for a fourth fabulous engagement this July!

Produced by the one and only Neil Higgins, this year’s line up of beer-themed short plays features the return of some of our favorite long-time collaborators (some of whom will be wearing new hats for the first time) as well as some fresh faces! In no particular order, the plays are:

Multitasking by Christian Simonsen, directed by Jonathan Carpenter

The Apotheosis of Grandma Shimkin by Sang Kim, directed by Charles Lewis III

200-Proof Robot by Kirk Shimano, directed by Neil Higgins

Tree by Peter Hsieh, directed by Colin Johnson

All Our Fathers by Carl Lucania, directed by Meghan O’Connor

The Last Beer in the World by Megan Cohen, directed by Tracy Held Potter

Mark +/- by Dan Ng, directed by Adam Sussman

Llama IV by Stuart Bousel, directed by Colin Johnson

Starring the acting talents of Annika Bergman, Jessica Chisum, Andrew Chung, AJ Davenport, Eli Diamond, Caitlin Evenson, Lara Gold, Matt Gunnison, Charles Lewis III, Melissa Keith, Brian Quakenbush, Rob Ready, Casey Robbins, Paul Rodrigues, and Jessica Rudholm.

The show plays five times: July 15th, 16th, 22nd, 29th, 30th, always at 8 PM, but get there early, because we will be packed to the gills every night! As usual, the show is free with a $5.00 suggested donation at the door.

Everything Is Already Something Week 8: My Favorite Bay Area Character Actors

Allison Page tells you who she likes. Don’t hate her for it.

If someone asked me what kind of an actor I am, I’d give it only the briefest pause and reply: “I’m a character actor.”

Dennie Moore as Olga in The Women from 1939 - one of Allison's absolute favorite lady-character-actor movie moments.

Dennie Moore as Olga in The Women from 1939 – one of Allison’s absolute favorite lady-character-actor movie moments.

I realize that sounds kind of silly, any actor is playing a character, so we’re all character actors, right? Not exactly.

Wikipedia (go ahead and admit that Wikipedia is your primary source for quick descriptions of things that aren’t earth shatteringly important) describes a character actor as someone who “predominantly plays unusual or eccentric characters”. There may be some people in the world who might not like being called a character actor, but those people are silly. I think it’s a wonderful thing to be. I say that because I think I am one, and I’m totally happy with that. I’ve never considered myself an ingénue even though I have played my fair share of young women in love. So, now, without further blahblah, I present to you: MY TOTALLY BIASED, COMPLETELY SUBJECTIVE, SHORT LIST OF PERSONAL FAVORITE BAY AREA THEATER CHARACTER ACTORS THAT I LOVE TO WATCH, BOTH MALE AND FEMALE. Vol I.

In no particular order:

CALUM GRANT

Cal is phenomenally hilarious. He’s got that grizzled voice, permanent 5 o’clock shadow, and wild look in his eyes that you want in a classic character actor. You need a crazed cowboy? Cal’s your man. You need a vagrant stockyard worker? Cal all the way. Psychotic murderer? Call Cal. Droopy the Dog? Nobody does it better. He manipulates his voice expertly and has caused me to fall over laughing several times, sometimes without actually saying anything.

JAN CARTY MARSH

Jan constantly elicits this feeling of complete safety. If I had two weeks to live, I’d want Jan to be the one to tell me about it, because I suspect it wouldn’t feel as scary. I saw Theater Pub’s production of TAMING OF THE SHREW, and though I really enjoyed it overall, I was surprised by Jan’s ability to sparkle in the role of Baptista. Not exactly the most glamorous part, Baptista is Katherina’s father, so naturally he is usually played by a man. I found myself always excited for Baptista to come back in because I just loved watching her in the part. As this list is already admittedly biased, I will say that she has now played my mother twice, and the characters were completely different, but both were so easy to connect to – both for me and for the audience. Funny, warm, heartbreaking, mother-licious: Jan’s the possessor of all these characteristics.

PAUL JENNINGS

If you missed YOU’RE GOING TO BLEED at the Exit as part of DIVAfest, I feel bad for you. It was brutal and fantastic. Paul played the husband in a discontent couple for the ages, who fantasized about a young woman who had been taking his one-on-one acting lessons. That character did some big, bad things. Made some big, bad choices. But somehow I found myself trying to empathize with him, which made it all the more shocking when he came running at a petite Margery Fairchild (who was amazing) and strangled her, screaming “YOU’RE ALL WHORES!”, I was not the only one who gasped, that’s for sure. Watching Paul, you feel like something really intense is lurking in there and then when it explodes, you’re caught off guard in a really interesting way. I’m not sure why Paul wasn’t in GOODFELLAS, but it was clearly an oversight.

KIRSTEN BROADBEAR

Oh man. That voice. It’s like a young Kathleen Turner with more oomph who’s always having a really fucking good time. Kirsten is boisterous, exciting, undeniably hilarious and seemingly fearless. I always get the feeling that her power can only be turned up to 7, because if it went up to 10 you might not live through it – but you’d go out happy. She played a beer (yes, her character was actually BEER), in Pint Sized Plays last year, who is trying to convince a man who has never had a drink, to start with her. Every time she said “Drink me!”, I just kept thinking “YES, DRINK HER! WHY WOULD YOU NOT DRINK HER?! COME ON!”, she’s always a joy to watch and I never know what she’s going to do next.

MARIE O’DONNELL

When I grow up – which I probably never will – but if I do, I want to be Marie. She spent years working for David Letterman, she’s lived and acted all over the country and (for now) she’s settled in the bay. I acted alongside her in BOOK OF LIZ, which is an odd show to say the least. She played the eponymous Liz, who is an odd character in an odd show, and she managed to make her feel grounded as a woman navigating a crazy world. You know what she has? She has pluck. She has all of the pluck. She radiates friendliness. You just want to be around her; take her to a carnival, buy her something alcoholic, and record your adventures on video. She’s mega talented and always up for a challenge.

MATT GUNNISON

One word: Sincerity. Matt is always sincere. Sometimes I’m not sure how he does that. It doesn’t matter if he’s playing a conflicted businessman or Jesus at an American Apparel photo shoot – you believe it. He doesn’t do anything that seems at all fake, exaggerated or pandering. He played the man being persuaded by Kirsten Broadbear’s beer, and I really believed how conflicted he was. I think it would be hard for me to suspend my disbelief watching many other actors in that role, but somehow Matt pulled it off – as he pulls off pretty much everything else. I think it might be related to his amazing ability to seem sort of meek or downtrodden without eliciting pity, but instead a sense of “Oh, I have so been there. I have SO felt that. I hope he gets out of it. I think he will. Will he? Yeah, I think he will. Man, I hope he does.” Secondarily, he’s HILARIOUS when he’s angry – like watching David Hyde Pierce try to assemble a bicycle or something.

SARAH MITCHELL

So, Sarah made me like something against my own will. That’s pretty impressive. I admittedly don’t like musicals about 85% of the time. They’re just not my jam, and that’s fine, but I went to a production of GUYS AND DOLLS at Berkeley Playhouse recently and she BLEW ME AWAY, and I know I’m not the only one. There were lots of things about that show that I didn’t like, which is fine because most of the audience was composed of parents taking large-ish groups of children to see a musical – which is great, you should do that – and I wasn’t really having a good time…until Sarah entered. Her take on Miss Adelaide was so spot-on perfect, I could have watched a one-woman show version of it all night and been extremely happy about it. You might say “Hey, hold on lady, Miss Adelaide? Sounds ingénue-ish to me, are you sure she’s a character actor?” And I’d say “Shut up” for several reasons, but the main point is – she put so much detail and oomph into her (fabulous sort of nasally but not irritating voice, and a way of carrying herself that just projected sparkle.) that I actually liked a show I didn’t even like. That’s a hell of a thing.

So, those are my first 7. A pretty diverse list, I think, but I’ll admit I haven’t seen every show and every actor in the bay area – SO, who am I forgetting? Who are you angry at me for leaving off the list? Give them the shout-outs they fully deserve!

If you’re angry at Allison for leaving someone off the list, you can find her at Custom Made Theatre Co.’s production of PRELUDE TO A KISS and throw a drink in her face. (But please don’t.)