In For A Penny: The All-Seeing Eye

Charles Lewis III SEES YOU.

Samsung-Galaxy-S4-Drama-Shot copy

“O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!”
– William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act I, Sc. 1

I was originally going to write this post about the similarities between professional sports and theatre – what with baseball season now in full swing, the Warriors kickin’ ass in the play-offs, and Wrestlemania a few weeks back (the latter would have included several nods to my ‘Pub colleague and fellow wrestling fan Anthony Miller). But as I took a peek back at my last entry, in which I pondered on-camera work vs. on-stage work, I found myself stuck on a lot of recent conversations about the two possibly converging in order to survive.

Let me start off by saying something we all know: theatre is neither dying nor dead. It’s been around longer than any of us and will still be around after we’re gone. The reason for that being the fact that in the end all one needs for theatre is at least one performer and an audience. That’s why you can’t look any changes to it the same way you look at recent changes to film (going digital), television (cord-cutting and Netflix binging), or radio (also transitioning to digital and competing with Pandora/Spotify/Rdio/etc.). All three of those of those formats are technologies first, performance art media second (if that). Theatre should never be wholly dependent on technology (despite the fact that tech people are super-amazing powerful wizards in whose hands we put our lives and whom I love dearly).

But what about when theatre does incorporate tech? Hell, going from soft blue to a spotlight to a blackout can mean the difference between a play being brilliant or just confusing. In recent years we’ve all seen a significant rise in theatre productions incorporating technology not traditionally associated with theatre, even here on the indie theatre scene. Some of them, when done right, can add a powerful new element to the story (video projection), whilst others are just a plain intrusion to the entire process (tweet seats). And of course, there’s technology that allows you to watch theatre when you’re nowhere near the theatre. And that, my friend, is what I’ll be focusing on today.

Recently, as I was scrolling Facebook, I came across this article posted on the wall of Melissa Hillman, Artistic Director of Impact Theatre in Berkeley. It’s an op-ed blog about two new apps – Periscope (owned by Twitter) and Meerkat – that allow you to live-stream events directly from your phone. Naturally this has led to heated discussion as to when using such an app would be appropriate, if ever. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to go to a play and sit behind someone holding up their phone or tablet like some concert-goer (something that actually has happened to me in recent years: once at a Thunderbird show and once at BOA). And that’s not even getting into the whole piracy question; the whole reason Google Glass is banned in American cinemas is for that very reason.

Still, I’m not opposed to the idea of live-streaming theatre. I mean, why not? The big guys are already doing it. I’ve been part of productions for the SF Opera that were either broadcast live or recorded to re-air on PBS. Fathom Events is a company specifically dedicated to transmitting live sporting events (like boxing and wrestling – I still mentioned wrestling this week) and performances into cinemas across the country; most notably those of New York’s Metropolitan Opera before they also re-air on PBS.

And we in the indie theatre scene have HowlRound TV. I’m sorry to say that I’ve never attended the One-Minute Play Festival (for which the ‘Pub’s own Marissa Skudlarek has written several plays), but I make it a point to watch HowlRound’s annual live-stream of the production. Now think of how many productions you’ve done that friends and family members wished they could attend, were they not halfway across the country. Before I inherited this piece of internet real estate from the esteemed Claire Rice, she made a Top 10 list of things she thinks theatre needs. After re-reading No.s 8 and 10 (and maybe even No. 5), I can see live-streaming of plays as something that could be a real boon to the indie theatre scene, if done right. In fact, in regards to No. 10, I’d love to see our friends at Theatre Bay Area take this under consideration, even if it meant teaming up with a company like HowlRound. Imagine the TBA Awards – which, incidentally, is now Claire’s jurisdiction – streamed across the country (nay, the world) for theatre-lovers all over?

And how, pray tell, do we do it “right”? I’m glad you asked. I happen to have a few suggestions that would appeal to both the folks at home and those with butts in seats:

1. Mic. The. Stage. I really should say “Use the best equipment” because this first suggestion comes from being told personally by a member of the 1MPF crew that they don’t have the capability to use HD camcorders, so the cameras they do use are archaic. I hope this is something they can solve soon, but I also hope they don’t resort to the mobile phone antics of Periscope or Meerkat. Still, I’ve always been able to see what’s happening on stage, even if it wasn’t always clear. But it can be a real pain in the ass to hear what’s going on. In a perfect set-up, there would be unseen mics either on or directly pointed at the stage, so as to not be drowned out by the ambient noise of the theatre. If live-streaming or recording for archives, tap into that audio. I’d like to actually hear a playwright’s words before I criticize them for using the word “irregardless”.

2. Good camera location. For the past few years now, me and Paul Anderson have been the officially unofficial chroniclers of the Olympians Festival. I take photos, he records video – not something we planned, just what happened. Both of us have to do these from rather static positions. When I saw the above article on Melissa’s wall, I immediately began thinking of exactly where I’d place cameras around Impact. Then I started thinking about The EXIT. PianoFight. Cutting Ball. Even the SF Playhouse. Each and every one of these venues could easily use some discreet, high-quality cameras that would transmit in crystal clarity whilst remaining invisible to the audience. Just be sure that your camera operator and sound person are part of the rehearsal process, so the folks at home don’t miss out on the moments that the live audience sees. Speaking of the live audience…

3. Audience quota. I’ve been in a couple different productions that had to cancel performances due small audiences. Let’s be real: with the average indie theatre ticket running somewhere between $15-$30, some folks would be tempted to never leave the house if they knew they could just watch it at home – that’s the “dying” aspect of theatre people fear. Now, I don’t know if services like HowlRound TV will always be free, but I certainly think live audiences should always take priority. Which is why I propose that live-streaming be done ONLY if a certain audience number is met each night. It doesn’t have to be a full house, but depending on the capacity of each theatre, there should be a minimum number of filled seats or no broadcast that night. This is less about the folks at home seeing the seats filled and more about the folks putting on the show being able to pay to keep the lights on. The actors can perform with a small live audience, but for the folks at home it should be a privilege.

And that, to me, is the point: this isn’t about taking away from live theatre, it’s about enhancing it for a wider audience. I’m not against the idea of apps for theatre. Hell, I get what apps like Periscope and Meerkat are trying to do, but they’re not solving a problem, they’re adding to it. But if a life of being a tech buff has taught me anything, it’s that’s folks will eventually choose low-quality convenience rather than having to wait for top-quality expense. That’s why VHS beat out Betamax and why people are losing their hearing with crappy digital music. Live-streaming represents a bold opportunity for indie theatre to get in on the ground floor of both a new technology and a new wider performance venue.

Technology in and of itself does not improve art; it’s just another tool of the artist. The most important thing to remember is that in the end, the folks at home and the folks in front of you are both hungry for the exact same thing: they want to see a good show.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Adapt and/or Die

Adaptable Dave Sikula lays it down in dire stakes.

“This is a revolution, dammit! We’ve got to offend somebody!” – John Adams, “1776”

Seems like I never have a topic for these little efforts until suddenly, at the last moment, Fate steps in and lends me a hand.

This time, it’s a twofer; two topics that are tangentially related, but ultimately make a similar point.

The first is the New York Times report from Manhattan (Manhattan!) that the “progressive” Dalton School had scheduled a production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” that had to be sanitized and Bowdlerized (look it up) in order to defend against offending the delicate sensibilities of “several members of the community.”

Now, let me hasten to say that, with some exceptions, I don’t think the purpose of the theatre is to offend. That said, if I’m directing a play by Joe Orton or Thomas Bradshaw, to name but two, and I don’t offend the audience, I’ve neither fulfilled the intentions of the playwright (about which, more later) nor done my job properly.

Let me further hasten to add that, although my personal politics are decidedly liberal, this is the kind of story that makes me hate liberals. H.L. Mencken, one of my personal heroes (and whose level of invective I can only aspire to), defined puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Similarly, I find too many of my brothers and sisters live with the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be offended by something, somewhere.

If I may take a step back here (and who’s going to stop me?), here are the facts of the case as I understand them. The school scheduled the show, which will be performed by sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and those “members of the community” (I love the euphemism, by the way) “had concerns about ‘the play’s use of racial stereotypes and references to human trafficking,’ and efforts to change the script proved ‘insufficient,’ leading administrators to make plans for the song revue as well as ‘a forum featuring leading academics and practitioners’ to discuss race and theater.”

While I applaud the administrators’ intentions to contextualize the issues in the show, which librettist Dick Scanlan defended as “a deliberate political choice that (director) Michael Mayer, (composer) Jeanine (Tesori), and I made years ago to portray Asian stereotypes and then challenge them in order to bust them,” I deplore the rest of their tactics. According to Scanlon, he and the other creators were deliberately playing off and embracing stereotypes prevalent in the media of the 1920s in order to force their audiences to confront them. As I wrote in my last column, I’m a believer in challenging audiences’ assumptions and preconceptions and making them defend their beliefs, rather than comforting them.

In the Times article, Ellen Stein, one of the school’s administrators, is quoted as saying “that the school would perform a new version ‘recrafted by some members of the cast, with the playwright’s permission and generous cooperation.’” Scanlan responded “that he and the show’s composer, Jeanine Tesori, had approved the school’s sanitized version of ‘Millie’ and suggested some new lyrics and other ideas.”

My takeaway from that is that the “members of the community” decided that the show they’d applied for and been licensed to perform didn’t meet their personal standards for (dare I say it?) political correctness, and rewrote the “offensive” material, and then – and only then – went to the creators (and for that, they deserve credit) to ask approval, an approval that was granted to prevent the kids from being disappointed.

Now, I don’t doubt that there are plot points raised in the show that some of the kids might not appreciate, either historically or as satire. But does that mean that they have to be protected from them rather than having them explained and contextualized? I’ve mentioned one of my favorite quotes before; that “euphemizing the past excuses it.” Some might even see the logical end of this mindset is censoring any book, movie, television show, or music that has politics or characters that don’t meet with current standards. Most movies of the 20s through the 80s probably portray women in a sexist manner – and don’t even get me started on the way minority groups are represented. There are any number of songs of the 1910s and ‘20s that modern ears would find incredibly racist. Books like “Huckleberry Finn” have already been sanitized into nonsense. All of this was done in order to prevent delicate sensibilities from having to confront the sins of the past. Please note: I’m not saying none of these works can be considered unoffensive. A lot of them are, but to discard them without trying to understand the cultural mindset that created and supported them is something that I find personally offensive.

All of this goes along (as I said, tangentially) with Melissa Hillman’s blog post of earlier this week that elegantly takes to task directors and producers who take it upon themselves to rewrite the works of playwrights whose work they’ve licensed to produce, without obtaining the prior approval of those creators. I consider the case Ms. Hillman cites (Frank Galati – who is usually a very good director – taking it upon himself to rewrite Brian Friel’s “Philadelphia, Here I Come!,” about which, more here…) to be different from the “Millie” case in that, with the Friel, the director chose to rewrite the play for artistic reasons (i.e., he knows better than the playwright how it should be presented) and the Dalton School changed the show to avoid giving offense.

My ultimate points are these: Firstly, if you can’t do a show without making wholesale changes, don’t produce it. If you think a show is so flawed that only your genius can rescue it, you’re probably doing the wrong show in the first place, and should write your own play that will showcase your brilliance. Or, if those ideas are burning a hole in your figurative artistic pocket, approach the writers or licensors in advance. If the alterations are as good as you think, they might go along with them. I know that when I’ve approached writers about changes or alternate versions of scripts, they’ve been very approachable and (mostly) amenable to small changes (lines, business, music cues, etc.). They haven’t always approved them, but they’ve been open to being approached. (I had a wonderful hour-long conversation with Jules Feiffer when I directed his “The White House Murder Case.” It was a political satire that didn’t need changing, but I wondered if he’d had any thoughts on it in the 35 years since he’d written it).

Secondly – and, to me, more importantly – give your audiences some credit. Don’t think they need to be protected. Challenge them. If you’re producing a show with members of minority groups who are portrayed unfortunately, help your audience understand why those portrayals exist and why you think that, in spite of the unfortunate elements, the work is still worthy of production. The only way to defeat the stereotypes is to confront and defeat them, not hide them away in fear.

Claire Rice’s Enemies List: Bloviating (An Interview with Dave Lankford)

Claire Rice interviews Dave Lankford, author of the (now) infamous “Dear Actor” article.

Writing on the Internet can feel like sending paper airplanes off into the night sky: it’s romantic, lonesome and often unrewarding.  That paper airplane will always exist out there somewhere, but you’ll never know who has stumbled across it or if they even cared. Of course, every now and again, you’ll write something that will fly out of your hands and into the darkness where it will hit a nerve. Hard.  Such was the case with Dave Lankford’s acting advice posting “Dear Actor (Sincerely Playwright)”.  The piece sets its sights on being inspirational and easily swallowed so it is a short list of obvious acting truths that are often taken for granted.

It is important to note that at the moment Dave hit “publish” a butterfly flapped its wings in Brazil, a drop of water danced down the back of Jeff Goldblum’s hand, the planets aligned and a character in a Dan Brown novel solved a puzzle before the reader did. Magical chaos. It is that moment social media marketing people get all excited about: it went viral. Picked up by theatre artists of all types it was passed around, shared, commented on, and debated. Just as Dave had intended, there were actors, teachers, directors and playwrights who were honestly inspired and generally pleased.

But not everyone was inspired.

I posted the piece on my Facebook page with this elegant and enlightening little bit of literary criticism comment: “Can I just say…ugh!!!!!! I’m sorry. I don’t like this. It’s so condescending.” (I know, I’m a charmer). I’ve said a great number of stupid and unkind things on the internet that I just can’t stand behind any more, but I’ll stand behind “condescending.” While I recognize it is a criticism that stings, it is how I honestly feel and I think I can back it up rationally without being unnecessarily catty. Other commenters on my Facebook page, on other pages, on Twitter, directly to Dave’s email and on the post itself vented their displeasure aggressively.

In response to this sudden internet fame (he had defenders in Scotland and Australia as well as deriders like Mike Daisey and Colin Mitchell) Dave posted a PostFace where he defended himself and spoke to his surprise at the sudden and entirely unexpected attention. I’ve seen other bloggers take similar steps after garnering a great deal of reaction. Stuart Bousel followed “Please Continue Your Conversation A Home” with “You’re Never Going To Work In This Town Again” . Melissa Hillman followed “A Common Problem I See With Female Playwrights (it’s not what you think)” with “Women Playwrights 2: Electric Boogaloo”.

What happens when a writer becomes not themselves, but only the five hundred or more words they created? As artists, we are all compelled to create. Our art must inevitably contain our opinions on the world, but we are able to sit safety in the back row. We are in our words, but we are cloaked in fictions and poetry. What happens when we put ourselves out there without the safety net of art? What happens behind the scenes when our work is suddenly and unexpectedly tossed around the internet like a beach ball? Who is Dave Lankford and why did he want to write a letter to actors at all?

So I interviewed Dave to find out more about his art, how he came to write “Dear Actor” and what this sudden spotlight on his existence has been like for him.

When did you found The Shelter and what was the initial impetus for its founding?

Dave Lankford: The Shelter was formed in 2009. And there was actually a short-lived company before The Shelter. The founders were all training at T. Schreiber Studio with a women named Sally Dunn. Sally decided to retire from teaching. Some of us stayed at the studio, others opted to leave. But a few of us desperately wanted to keep working together. We formed a company called Fallout, which was named after an exercise in the class. Our goal was to perform published works. In parallel, Michael Kingsbaker, one of the founders of Fallout had the idea for a workshop. He had trained in LA and was a member of The Actor’s Gym. He wanted to start something similar as part of Fallout. So we decided to call it The Fallout Shelter. The goal of The Fallout Shelter was to give people a place to experiment, hone their craft and form a community. Long story short, Fallout fell out. But in January of 2009, we had our first Shelter Sunday. And we’ve been going strong ever since. Ultimately, it was about working together with people we admired. People who we felt brought out the best in us and our work. Now, we produce original material. And while the founders all started out as “just actors”, we’ve all expanded into other disciplines. There are very few people at The Shelter that are just one thing. And we are always encouraging our members to experiment which different theatrical crafts.

Oh, and we changed our name to The Shelter (dropped Fallout). Obviously.

So you started out as an actor yourself before you became a playwright / producer / director?

Dave Lankford: Yes. When I came to New York, I had already worked in the DC area a performer. I had acted as a kid, but had to give it up due to sports (I swam through most of college). I got back into it somewhat sideways — I got really involved with the Slam Poetry scene and competed with the DC National Poetry Slam Team. From there, I developed a one-man show that I toured both regionally and nationally, and eventually started to broaden my pursuits into improv, theatre, TV and film. When I moved here, I was only focused on acting. My slam pieces were self-authored, but I never thought about writing for the stage until I started working with The Shelter.

The same goes for directing. Our very first staged production at The Shelter was titled 3:56AM. It was composed of 9 short plays, all taking place between 3 and 4 in the morning in a Lower East Side apartment building. I acted in one piece, wrote a second, and directed a third.

I bet. What where the kind of challenges you faced moving from a performer who wrote for yourself to writing and directing for other actors?

Dave Lankford: It was a process. But I took baby steps. My first piece was a one-hander, a monologue featuring a woman up late, caring for her newborn. I was a first time father, so I wrote from the heart. I wrote what I knew. Not that different from how I would write a slam piece. But after I wrote the first draft, I forced myself to rewrite it from the perspective of a woman. And that was how I started to experiment with different voices. I think the biggest challenge at first was finding voices that were not my own, I would say. And I think that’s a challenge for most writers: developing characters that do not sound like you. Characters that see the world differently that you do, at least by default.

Have you felt any of the pieces you’ve produced with The Shelter were break through pieces? Pieces that you felt successfully pushed you to a new level as a writer?

Dave Lankford: Each piece has been a breakthrough of sorts, as I always try to push myself to do something new. However, a few stand out. In a piece titled NIGHT OF THE LIVING, a two-hander, the characters rarely shared the stage. For portions, they were only able to communicate by two-way radio. One actor was backstage, the other on stage. As the writer, that meant my dialogue had to be strong. I had to understand how two people could communicate without certain visible cues. The interesting thing about that piece is: it was the only one of my pieces in which I have also acted. And that was a game changer for me. The director and I had an arrangement that when I was rehearsing, I was an actor. I was NOT the writer. And so I had to approach my own work as if it was someone else’s. It gave me the freedom to make new choices, ones I had not foreseen as the writer. But the director also forced me to respect the intentions of the writer. She would often point out things like, “Well, the writer put a pause there.” And I would say, “He did?! Why would he do that?!”Ironic. I have literally been fed my own medicine.

What inspired you to write “Dear Actor”?

Dave Lankford: The funny thing is, it wasn’t what I was going to write that day. I wanted to work on a Noir script I’m writing for a project The Shelter is currently developing. But I wasn’t feeling it that day. And I also work in product design and development, so I considered blogging some thoughts about that side of my life. But I wasn’t feeling that, either. So I decided to write a post about acting. Not because I wanted to tell the world something. Merely because I knew I should write something, even if it never saw the light of day. The post started as a collection of thoughts based on things I had seen repeatedly with actors, including myself. And I think the Noir prompt gave me a context in which to frame it. The influences I mentioned in the postface crept in, especially my memories of Meryl Streep describing the process of being a detective, of hunting for clues in the script. I don’t remember when she said it, but it stuck with me. The playwright became the obvious person to present the mystery.

Do you have a blog that you write on normally? Is this your first time using “Medium”?

Dave Lankford: It’s my first time on Medium. I chose it as I think it’s a beautifully designed product. There’s craftsmanship in the code. And that speaks to me as a product designer. But, I have blogged before. Back when blogging was a new thing, along with surfing the Internet, I started a blog chronicling my journey as a struggling actor. The blog eventually got the attention of Microsoft, who hired me to write the blog on their (at the time) new platform called MSN Spaces (which no longer exists). I eventually became an ambassador for MSN Spaces, and represented my blog at the Sundance Film Festival. There’s another ironic story there. When I was first writing, before the deal with MSN Spaces came through, I had been hired as an extra for an indie film being shot in DC. I worked for maybe a day or two, and I had opinions about how the director was handling the shoot. So, I blogged about the experience. And let’s just say that I was not kind to the director. Well, he happened to Google the name of his project and found my post. He was, of course, less than pleased. I’m sure he was hurt. And that ended up costing me for some time. I’m positive it cost me a number of jobs as an actor. When I contacted you, I also contacted the other people on the thread. Mind you, I didn’t contact everyone that disagreed with me, or who called me names. That would have been insane. But there was something about that thread. And the thing I wanted to tell everyone the most is “Be careful what you say on the Internet. Our industry is smaller than we realize, and some people hold grudges.” I certainly do not hold grudges, but I’ve also learned my lesson.

Is this experience causing you to have flash backs to that one?

Dave Lankford: It is. I think it’s given me pause as I see reactions to my piece — that’s part of it. But it’s also affected how I view the comments about “Dear Actor.” And not just the negative posts. Some of the positive posts come packed with just as much vitriol.

Right now, in American Theatre, the hot topics seem to be gender equality and colorblind casting. Why do you think your post got such a big reaction? I ask because it seems sort of innocuous, if you don’t mind me saying so.

Dave Lankford: I agree. I mean, first and foremost, there are much more important things in the world that deserve our energy. And in the world of theatre, I think you are absolutely correct. Equality and color blind casting should be championed. So much so, that I’ve taken personal inventory of my own ways. As for “Dear Actor”, most of the reactions that I’ve seen or been made aware of have been positive. And I feel that maybe it’s because theatre writing can become academic and dry. Some of the greatest books I’ve read as an actor were difficult reads. And “Dear Actor” gave a different spin, even if the things being said were not necessarily new. In some people’s eyes, I was covering acting 101. I also think that as “Dear Actor” gained stream and went “viral”, it gave people the opportunity to have an opinion on the subject. I think of it this way: no one I knew was screaming to the rafters about healthcare reform until healthcare reform was being debated in Washington. Obviously, healthcare reform is a subject worthy of people’s passions. But in general, I didn’t feel that many people were passionate about it until it was all over the news and a top subject of the media. Or, on a more superficial level, who cared about Paris Hilton until they saw Paris Hilton everywhere. The sure fact that she had mass visibility made her a lightning rod for people’s opinions. “Dear Actor” is no longer mine, though my experience is very personal and unique.

How have you weathered being a “lightning rod”?

Dave Lankford: I never expected anyone, save for maybe 200-300 people at most, to read “Dear Actor.” When I saw 1000 and then 10000 and then 50000 visits to the page, it was exciting. Thrilling. But, surprisingly, it also filled me with anxiety. The first reactions were all positive, and that was both wonderful and humbling. But as I began to read the critical and negative responses, I was put in my place. It forced me to question my writing. It forced me to understand how the piece was being interpreted. I saw a few people calling me names, mainly things like “tool”. And that stung, mainly because they didn’t know me and I didn’t feel were in a position to judge my character. But when I read the word “shitbag”, I realized that words can hurt. I knew when I read it that the comment was snarky, and it was not intended for my eyes (I was not mentioned in the tweet). But I did read it. I tried to put it past me. And that proved unusually hard. The second part of the “shitbag” story is that Mike Daisey, a well-known monologist, was also on the thread. He’s a success story in my eyes. And that somehow, no matter how illogical, lent credibility to her comment. I’ve had to come to terms with craziness of the Internet. And the fact that people do say hurtful things about people they have never and will never meet. And it’s taught me to look past it all. More importantly, it’s taught me to focus on the positive. I stopped reaching out to people who were being hurtful and started engaging people who were either giving critical or positive response. Mainly by thanking them. I started reaching out to people who found Dear Actor, even though they lived in England, Scotland, Australia, Canada, Italy or Japan. To know that something I wrote travelled that far is amazing. I received one tweet from an actress who has appeared in HBO’s Game of Thrones. She’s opening a play in London today. She tweeted to thank me, and she said she wished she has read it earlier in the rehearsal process. And that’s an incredible thing. To inspire a person, to receive their gratitude, is an extremely special gift. And I don’t take it for granted. I don’t know that I’m worthy of it, but I know you have to take in moments like this.

If one of the plays you had written received this polarizing of a response, do you think you would feel differently or the same?

Dave Lankford: I don’t know. Similar, but different. A lot of the negative comments were directed specifically at me. I think because it’s easy to assume that I am “the playwright”. People began to question if I was a good playwright, if I was lying about also being an actor. In others other words, people were making assumptions about my character. I guess people might do the same when it comes to a play. But at least the work has a better chance of standing on its own. At least people’s judgments of me as a playwright would come based on having seen my play. Then again, look at Neil LaBute. People have certainly made judgments about him as a person based solely on his plays.

As you continue to move forward in your career in theatre I assume you’ll have more public moments like this. Do you think that this has prepared you for the next time?

Dave Lankford: I do. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a moment like this again, writing online or for the stage. But I’ve learned an incredible amount about myself, about other people, and about how to deal with sudden visibility. This was really small potatoes when you compare it to bigger viral sensations, fame or politics. I don’t know how celebrities and politicians survive. But I’ve learned enough to know what’s important. To know who to listen to. And I’ve learned, much like the playwright says to the actor, to trust my instincts. I’ve also learned that there are some people out there who are trolls. They thrive on negativity. It brings them attention. And I’ve learned that giving them attention is like giving oxygen to fire.

So, what’s the next project for you?

My next project is for The Shelter. We have a quarterly series called The Shelter Peep Show. Each installment has a different theme or focus. This installment revolves around Noir. I’m submitting a piece that finds a man, the office nobody, stuck in a closet with the office femme fatale as the result of a game of Truth or Dare. And in true Noir style, he’s in deeper than he could ever imagine. I’ve been work shopping the piece at Shelter Sundays. Contrary to some opinions of me, I believe strongly in collaboration. It’s an amazing experience to have actors read the play early in the development process, and then to get notes from actors, writers and directors. All of my pieces, every play I have ever written, has been shaped by a community of artists. I’ve been tempted to write a letter, from actor to playwright, that touches upon this relationship. But I also have some other things I want to write about, so we’ll see what comes first.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

Dave Lankford: Let it happen. I’ve spent an unusual amount of time reading everything that people have written about the piece. And I wish I would have used more of that time to create. I still would have given time to reading reactions. And I’ve loved chatting with people who enjoyed the piece, especially folks in other countries. But I’ve missed out on time — something that is rare for me, in that I have a demanding job, plus I’m a husband and a father — and I could have used that time more productively. Then again, the experience itself is unique. And as an artist — be it actor, writer, etc — I see part of my job as collecting experiences. They are the building blocks of my imagination. The anxiety I felt is an insight, and I’m sure that will come in handy one day.

And advice for artists who want to take up blogging?

Dave Lankford: I highly encourage it — even if you make the post private so that no one can ever read it. I think part of the learning process is writing what you know. It solidifies the tacit knowledge swimming in your subconscious, making it something you can actually understand. It also makes you examine your own process, and I think taking personal inventory every once in a while is a positive thing. Plus: we should be sharing what we know. I feel that artists are generally protective of their ideas, as if sharing would give someone else the competitive advantage. But the fact is, when you share, other people share. And we all advance as artists. I also think artists are afraid of critique. But, so long as it is constructive, critique is incredibly valuable.

Great. I guess what came to mind, to keep it short is: write what you know and write what excites you. But above all: write.

Here we ended the interview, but he did go on to say these two things which I thought were worth putting in as well.

When we talked about my reaction to the tone:

Dave Lankford: As for the tone, I think it’s a matter of the voice we hear in our head. It’s why a character in a novel can be the favorite of one person, the least of another. We project our own imagination. In my mind, the playwright was the man or woman that presents a mystery to the person who’s just stumbled upon it. I think the juxtaposition forces as assumption of authority, but that was not my intent.

And lastly Dave said of the experience:

Dave Lankford: “Dear Actor” is no longer mine, though my experience is very personal and unique.

Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: You’re Doing It Wrong, You’re Doing It Wrong

Marissa Skudlarek brings us Part II of her article about the internet and its discontents.

In my last column, I wrote about the anxiety that “the endless stream of information on Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet in general” makes me feel. In this column, I want to focus on one particularly prevalent form of Internet writing, which I have come to think of as the “You’re Doing It Wrong” essay.

According to, “You’re Doing It Wrong” became a catchphrase circa 2007-2008, and has remained popular ever since. It was originally just a fun, slightly snarky photo-meme (“Running: You’re Doing It Wrong” above a photo of Italian race-walkers; “Governing: You’re Doing It Wrong” above a photo of George W. Bush), but it has become the guiding principle of a slew of online writings. The Internet is crawling with self-styled experts who just love to tell you what’s the matter with the pop culture you’re consuming and the sociocultural habits you’re unconsciously falling into.

That’s right: if my previous column was a 600-word piece freaking out about the sheer amount of stuff published online each day, this column is about how writers of You’re Doing It Wrong columns are, indeed, doing it wrong. I get the irony, OK?

Because condemnation and hyperbole generate more pageviews than praise or subtlety, a You’re Doing It Wrong essay frames its thesis as contentiously as possible – and thus goes viral. More reasonable voices, which point out nuances, or observe without condemning, get drowned out by louder, shriller voices. In this overheated Internet climate, it feels refreshing to read celebrations of people who are Doing It Right, rather than criticisms of people who are Doing It Wrong. Consider this a public plea to my editor, Stuart Bousel, to publish his crowd-sourced list of male playwrights who write good roles for women.

Of course, even if you do write a paean to someone you think is Doing It Right, be prepared for the backlash: someone will come along the next day and write a piece about how that person is Doing It Wrong after all. If Stuart publishes the list of male playwrights who write good female characters, I fully expect that it will generate a lively debate in the comments section. I also expect that someone will write a response saying that we shouldn’t celebrate male playwrights who write good female roles, because that simply reinforces the patriarchal structure of society, keeps women out of the spotlight, etc. It feels like we’re getting to the point where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t; where no matter what choice you make, someone will tell you that it exemplifies everything that’s wrong with modern society.

I keep bringing up gender because it’s something I think about a lot and feel qualified to discuss. But, in addition, our culture’s overwhelming anxiety about feminism and gender roles means that many You’re Doing It Wrong pieces are targeted toward women. There was another meme going around Twitter yesterday – the #EdgyHeadlines hashtag, which generated humor and social commentary by flipping the gender of magazine-type headlines. I recall examples like “Men, Do You Dress Too Provocatively at Work?” and “Do Male CEOs Spend Too Little Time With their Babies?” Of course, the point of #EdgyHeadlines is that we never actually see headlines like these. It’s women who get told they dress wrong for the office, women who are told to fret about work-life balance. Women bear the brunt of You’re Doing It Wrong attacks, and suffer the most anxiety from them.

I’ve witnessed this happening in our own community. A couple of months ago, local theater director/producer Melissa Hillman wrote a “You’re Doing it Wrong” blog post directed at young female playwrights, whom she claims are writing too many passive protagonists and focusing too much on heterosexual romantic relationships. Her stated intent was to encourage women to “own” their own stories and thereby write better, stronger plays. But I spoke to several women who said that this essay gave them anxiety and made them want to throw in the towel, instead of making them want to write more and better.

Full disclosure: I’m pretty sure that my play Pleiades is one of the plays that prompted Hillman to write her blog post. I’d submitted Pleiades to Impact Theatre last year, and received a kind but firm rejection from Hillman only a few days before she published her piece. And I’d always thought of Pleiades as a play that might be too feminist for mainstream American theaters – it has eight roles for women, after all – yet, evidently, it wasn’t feminist enough for Hillman. This made me feel a little bit trapped and discouraged, rather than empowered. I know very well that you can’t please everybody, but read enough “You’re Doing It Wrong” essays and you’ll start to feel like you can never please anybody.

At the same time, though, I felt kind of flattered that Hillman might’ve been thinking of one of my plays as she wrote her blog post. If so, it’s the first time anyone has written about my work in a serious, critical way, and it did prompt me to think harder about what messages I’m sending in the plays that I write. These days (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde), perhaps the only thing worse than being criticized is not being criticized. The Internet is an endless cycle of creation, reaction, backlash, and outrage. It can make your head dizzy — but don’t you want to go for a spin?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. So, come on, then, have at her in the comments section. She also welcomes additional criticisms on her blog at or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Falling With Style: A Professional Actor Prepares

Helen Laroche gives her take on the age-old question: what the hell does ‘professional actor’ mean, anyway?

Since my last post, I’ve spent a lot of time writing a grant proposal for Theatre Bay Area’s TITAN award. No, that’s overstating it. I’ve been *thinking* about writing. Alright, in truth I’ve just plain been avoiding.

I’ve been avoiding this yucky fear that’s snaked it’s way through my heart and risen to the surface of my mind: that we are never, ever, ever getting back together I may never, ever, ever be a professional actor.

Now, the definition of “professional actor” is nebulous. Loyal readers of this blog have read Stuart’s stab at defining it in the comments section of a previous SF Theatre Pub article by Marissa Skudlarek (who makes her own good points). Melissa Hillman talked about her proposed definition recently on her blog.

In the past few weeks, I’ve learned a sneaky thing about my definition. My definition changes to encompass whatever I’m not currently pursuing.

Am I trying to choose projects that are fulfilling, whether or not they pay? Ah, a professional actor must be someone who focuses on paid work, and therefore I am not one.

Am I trying to choose projects based on their ability to sustain me financially? Well, a professional actor must be someone who doesn’t sell out, and therefore I am not one.

Am I choosing projects which will give me an opportunity to practice my new acting tools in a community theatre-type environment? Gee, a professional actor would never use a live stage as a training ground, and therefore I am not one.

In other words, I’ve been using the fact that there is no single definition to cut myself down at every turn. Why you gotta do me like that, self?

So, with that realization in mind, I’m seeking yet another definition. Like porn, I know a professional actor when I see one, but it’s hard to put my finger on. (That’s what she said.)

The people I consider professional actors do not leave me wondering whether they’ll get it right tonight. I see the care in the work that they do, but only because I am inspecting it closely, looking for the seams. I see the connection they have with their work. They’ve done their homework.

I’m reminded of a quote that a beloved college professor shared with us often: “An amateur practices until he gets it right; a professional practices until he can’t get it wrong.”

If that’s not my definition, it’s pretty damn close.

Helen is currently practicing for Sunday at the Bar with Steve, coming up on Sunday, March 24 at 7pm at Martuni’s. Learn more here.