Theater Around the Bay: James Nelson and Neil Higgins of “Beer Culture”

The final performance of the Pint-Sized Plays is tonight at 8 PM and we’re concluding our interview series by talking with writer James Nelson and director Neil Higgins of “Beer Culture”!

“Beer Culture” offers some of the biggest laughs in the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays festival. When San Francisco hipster Annie (Caitlin Evenson) introduces her Stella-drinking Midwestern friend Billy (Paul Rodrigues) to her bow-tied beer-snob friend Charlie (Kyle McReddie), the stage is set for an uproarious satire of hipster snobbery and West Coast microbrew culture.

James headshot

Playwright James Nelson knows beer culture.

How did you hear about Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival, or if you’re returning, why did you come back?

James: I generally keep tabs on what Theater Pub is up to — they were the first group to welcome me in when I first was starting out in the Bay, and I’ve always admired the volume and variety of work that’s produced! I submitted to Pint-Sized this time because I was out of practice as a playwright, and wanted to use the festival as an excuse to churn something out.

Neil: I came back for the money.

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

James: Establishing a world with rules.

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

James: Honestly, they’re very quick to write. And they let you tell stories that are only interesting for a few pages.

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

Neil: Seeing my actors scream about, and orgasm over, beer.

What’s been most troublesome?

Neil: Scheduling. Dear god, scheduling.

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

James: Brian Friel, Peter Shaffer, Martin McDonagh, Anton Chekhov, Street Fighter (1994 film), and Benvenuto Cellini.

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

James: Patrick Stewart. It wouldn’t make any sense but he’s just that good.

Neil: Jesse Eisenberg because he seems like such a douche, which is exactly what my script calls for.

Neil Headshot copy

Director Neil Higgins prefers wine.

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

Neil: When Darren Criss isn’t in town, definitely Megan Cohen.

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

James: I just moved to Indiana to start a MFA in Directing, so I’m knee-deep in grad school at the moment. I do hope I’ll have a chance to write while I’m here — I’ve got a lot of stuff brewing and a school setting is so rich in resources.

Neil: I’m writing for SF Olympians this year, and am directing and acting in Left Coast Theatre’s next show, Left Coast News.

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

James: I don’t want to think about it, I’m gonna cry.

Neil: Seeing if the Llama comes back.

What’s your favorite beer?

James: I’ll give you a top five in no particular order: Evil Twin (Heretic); Brother Thelonious (North Coast); Back in Black (21st Amendment); Wookey Jack (Firestone Walker); and Ruthless Rye (Sierra Nevada). Also, if you like beer but haven’t visited Fieldwork Brewing in Berkeley, you need to go right now. They’re going to be the most important brewery in the Bay Area within a few years.

Neil: Wine.

See the FINAL performance of “Beer Culture” and the rest of the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays tonight at 8 PM at PianoFight!

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The Real World – Theater Edition: An Interview with Savannah Reich

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews Savannah Reich about her upcoming Bay Area production.

Savannah Reich is the type of playwright that when you read and hear and see her work, you’re like, “I want to do that! That’s so cool! Theater’s so cool!” I met her while in the second year of the MFA Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University, headed by Rob Handel, and was blown away by her humor, theatricality, and the moving moments of human connection and confusion she creates within her writing. So, of course, I was very happy to learn that her play, Six Monsters, A Seven Monster Play was being produced by All Terrain Theater in the summer of 2015.

The show opens next Thursday, July 30th at 8:00 PM and runs on Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays until August 8th at the EXIT Theatre in downtown San Francisco. I had a chance to chat with Savannah about playwriting, the inspiration behind Six Monsters, and her creative impulses.

Savannah Reich, probably driving to California as we speak.

Savannah Reich, probably driving to California as we speak.

Babs: Very excited to interview you!

Savannah: Thank you! I am so excited to be interviewed!

Babs: To begin, could you tell me about your background? How did you get involved with theater and writing?

Savannah: I wrote my first play in the second grade. I’m not sure where I got the idea. My parents were both doing theater when I was a kid, as a prop-master and scenic artist at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, so I’m sure I had already seen plays? I am counting this as “my first play” because it was more elaborate than a show I did with friends in the basement or whatever- it had a typed script, which went through several drafts, and I think I forced my entire second grade class to be in it, although I don’t remember that part.

So as long as I can remember I had this incredibly specific compulsion to write plays. I briefly went to NYU for the undergraduate playwriting program, which I was not really prepared for at eighteen. I dropped out after a year and decided I would never write a play again- I was just going to be wild and free and be in punk bands and experience real life. But then I started writing plays again probably six months after that.

I recently found the script for my first play in a box at my parent’s house; it was about two witches who turn people into chickens and serve them to children at an orphanage, which actually sounds like something that I might be working on now.

Babs: How would you describe your style and what interests you?

Savannah: The way I’m thinking about it these days is that I am interested in taking inexplicable emotional processes and making them into something concrete and mechanical. I am obsessed with the Charlie Kaufman movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” because it does this so nicely- it takes this very gooey personal feeling, the grief about losing a shared past when you end a relationship, and makes it into this action story. It literally ends with a chase scene. So that’s a really nice way to create ways to talk about things that maybe don’t fall into the cultural shorthand.

More concretely, my plays tend to be removed from true-to-life situations- as Sarah Ruhl says, “my characters have no last names.” They are animals or ghosts or subhuman beasts. They tend to be suffering greatly in some neurotic, cyclical way and they all talk on rotary dial telephones.

Also, I am interested in structure because it is the essential relationship between the play and the audience, which for me is at least as interesting as the relationships between the characters.

Babs: I think Six Monsters, A Seven Monster Play has an interesting origin story – do you mind sharing and then how it developed from its inception?

Savannah: Yes! You were there! It was very early on in my first year at CMU, maybe the second or third week, and Rob Handel had us do a writing exercise that involved beginning a 60 page play at nine am and finishing it by midnight. The exercise was so great, but I feel like I don’t want to give it away in case he is going to do it again next year- part of what was great about it for me was the surprise. I had all these ideas for plays that had been percolating for a long time, and I was fussing over them and trying to make them “good”, and then we got this exercise that said, “Okay, forget about all those plays- here’s a prompt, now write this play. Write this play today.” It was totally liberating for me.

Before grad school, I had been writing plays and producing them myself, so I think that I had gotten into this trap of keeping my producer’s hat on while I was writing. I would think about making props affordable, stuff like that. It was dumb. This exercise broke me out of that. The original opening stage direction for “Six Monsters” was something like, “There are six audience members seated on a wooden cart. The wooden cart rolls through an infinite darkness.”

I also think I put a bunch of things that felt really vulnerable and revealing to me in this play, and maybe I wouldn’t have if I had been imagining that it would ever be performed. I write much better when I am able to convince myself that no one I know will ever see it.

After I finished the play, I co-produced a one night workshop performance of it with our fellow MFA writer Dan Giles, with him directing, me as the skeleton, and six amazing CMU undergrad acting students as the chorus, which I will get to brag about when they are all famous in like twenty-five minutes.

Babs: When I last saw this piece, you were actually performing in it as the Skeleton. How do you think performing/not performing in your own work influences how you see the play, what to develop/not develop next?

Savannah Reich as the Skeleton carrying Jeremy Hois as the Baby in the Pittsburgh performance workshop at the Irma Freeman Center for the Imagination directed by Dan Giles in February 2014.

Savannah Reich as the Skeleton carrying Jeremy Hois as the Baby in the Pittsburgh performance workshop at the Irma Freeman Center for the Imagination directed by Dan Giles in February 2014.

Savannah: I’m not sure how I feel about this anymore! I am worrying about it a lot in a neurotic and cyclical way! I have performed in my own work a fair amount, and sometimes I think I don’t want to do it anymore, because probably it would be better with real actors who are good at acting. But then I recently saw the performance artist Dynasty Handbag in New York, and I love her, and I thought that maybe I should always perform my own work. Not that I am a performer like she is- I tend to be visibly thinking on stage in that way that playwrights do when they try to act- but I do think there is something special about seeing someone perform their own words, there is a kind of specificity to it.

But I’m not going to be a performance artist because I love actors so much. They are my favorite thing to look at, especially when they are in my plays being hilarious. It’s great to be a playwright because we get to see all these very attractive people pretending to be us, pretending to have our same anxieties about capitalism or intimacy or whatever, which feels deeply healing in some probably very messed up way. Also good collaboration makes the show better, of course. The actor can see a lot of things about the show that I can’t.

I don’t know that I learn anything much from being in my own plays. I played the part of the skeleton in the workshop mostly because it felt too personal to turn it over to an actor. But now I have a little more distance, and I’m so excited to see what Laura Peterson does with it.

Babs: In the San Francisco production, is there anything that you are most looking forward to seeing or experiencing?

Savannah: I was just talking about how much variability actors bring to the table but of course that’s also very much true of directors. I haven’t worked with Sydney Painter before, and seeing her take on the piece is probably what I’m the most excited about. I haven’t been in town for rehearsals yet, and I’m looking forward to seeing the ways that this crew has interpreted the show in different ways than I would have imagined.

Babs: Any advice for playwrights in creating new work or getting it produced?

Savannah: For me the simplest way to get your play produced is to do it yourself. It is only very recently that other people have wanted to produce my plays, and that is a new and exciting thing, but it’s important to me to always know that I can make my own work, and that I never need to get picked out of the pile or get the grant or win the contest to make my art.

Babs: Any shout-outs for shows, events, or other things going on around the Bay Area that you might check out while you’re here?

Savannah: If you come to Six Monsters; A Seven Monster Play you will also get to see a short play by the fabulous Tracy Held Potter called Texting. And we should probably all get on a plane to New York to see Dan Giles’ play How You Kiss Me is Not How I Like To Be Kissed at the New York Fringe Festival.

Also, this.

Learn more about Savannah Reich, her screenplays, plays, and upcoming artistic projects from her website, http://savannahreich.com/.

The Real World, Theater Edition: A Playwright’s Guide to Grad School, Part Two

Barbara Jwanouskos brings you the second half of her guide to grad school.

Last time, I gave you a couple suggestions about things to think about when considering graduate school I added my own personal journey to the comments/my own blog as well. This time around, I’m hoping to continue the conversation by presenting various different playwriting programs and going into more detail on what to watch out for.

I want to start by saying that I realize that this is an incredibly personal choice and no one piece of advice is going to work for everyone. Anything I list is certainly not new and by no means the end-point to the resources available out there. I mainly share all these things because like I said in my personal account, I wished that I had something to read that was specifically about playwriting programs when I had been going through the process. All that said, let’s talk about programs.

I probably don’t need to necessarily convince you of the benefits of going back to school for an MFA. You have a degree that you can use to teach playwriting at a colleges and universities. You end up being connected to a wide pool of talent from their alumni network. You meet like-minded people and can solely concentrate on playwriting and theater for two to three years. When you submit plays to opportunities around the country, you may get placed on the top of the pile or be given a second read if they see you have an MFA from particular schools (or so I’ve been told). And you get to work very closely with an experienced playwright who often has a lot of skill and knowledge that you can benefit from.

Of course, there are ways to access all of the above things (except for maybe an alumni network) without going to school too. But here, I’m going to assume that you are still planning on applying and that you’ve considered some of the aspects about grad school I brought up in my last post.

You have this list already, but I’ll present it again. I would start here and start digging around. You’re going to end up needing to use some research-ninja skills to glean all the info you need, but things to note when reading up on a program are:

• How much is tuition and do they pay for some or all of it?
• Where is the program located?
• Who is the head of playwriting or part of the playwriting faculty?
• How many people do they accept into the program?
• How long is the program?
• What is the curriculum right?
• Do you get production opportunities? (Or, what is their involvement with the
theater department?)
• What alumni have come out of the program?
• What do people say about the school, faculty, program, etc.?

From this, you can start to winnow down the programs that most grab your focus. For instance, if production opportunities are extremely important to you while in school, then programs that don’t offer that might be lower or off your list. You also want to get a sense of how competitive it is to get into the program and have alternative choices to your top one or two.

Once you have a list of schools, one thing I did that was very helpful, was I made a spreadsheet that noted some of the info above in addition to info about the application deadline and process. Sometimes the process alone might be reason to/not to apply. Take the New School for example, which has a very interesting process in which you fly out for an interview, and from that group of finalists, you are put into teams to create a short play in 24 hours. Super fun to do, but the problem is that it’s not really listed on the site. So, unless you know someone in the program or who had applied, you’re not going to get that information until you get to that last round. Believe me, I was super surprised when I got the news a couple years ago that we weren’t actually done for the night…

Honestly, one of the best ways to learn about a program is to go through the application process, especially the interview or school visit process. At this point, you will start to notice things that you didn’t before. Perhaps one school is terrible at getting back to you. Maybe another just gives you a form rejection letter. Or on more of the positive end, maybe another interviews you via phone or Skype rather than have you fly out, which can be a little easier on the pocketbook.

I have more thoughts on programs and the application process, but for now, I’ll leave it here and continue on my own site. Good luck to you and add your own tips below!

Barbara Jwanouskos is a playwright and recent graduate of the Dramatic Writing MFA program at Carnegie Mellon University. You can follow her on twitter @bjwany and continue this series on her site, The Dynamics of Groove.

Higher Education: Grappling for Writers

Barbara Jwanouskos, working on keeping up.

So, last week I talked about the benefits of pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. And I guess I’m still having feelings about that, so I thought I’d wrestle with them a bit more in this article.

This is the second week of New Works rehearsals where a couple of my fellow Dramatic Writing candidates and I are now seeing these thesis plays launch off the page. It’s been such an interesting process so far. My thesis play is called “The Imaginary Opponent” and deals with how a kung fu school’s community responds when violence breaks out between its students. So, obviously, there’s a lot of martial arts in it and also stage combat/violence.

I’m working with MFA Directing candidate, Quin Gordon, who has stressed from the beginning that because the physicality of the play, it’s important that the we engage in physical activities like running, kung fu and tai chi. Folks who read the Theater Pub blog frequently probably already know that I train in these martial arts disciplines, so that aspect of it, is not a problem. Running, however, is a whole different mental battle.

I’m an active person, but I’ve never been a great runner. When we go out as a group, I am huffing and puffing away, while the others zoom up ahead.

Wait for me, guys!

Wait for me, guys!

My stress over running doesn’t come from a physical standpoint, I get out of breath, but other than that, it doesn’t hurt me to run. In fact, it feels surprisingly great! And it’s not over being competitive. I mean come on, these guys are in their early 20s and are active from sun up to beyond sun down. There’s no need to compete. I’m just happy that I can even DO the route we do.

I think it comes from a place of feeling as if I should be able to do more. AHHH! But there, you see? It’s this whole ego perception thing because I know I’m working hard. I am trying my best. Maybe it’s easily bested by others, but it really is no big deal in the long run because probably the only thing I should be doing is what I already am minus the mental self-flagellation.

I could swim faster if we weren't on land!

I could swim faster if we weren’t on land!

I thought of the mental battle I’m having with running today while in a playwriting workshop with guest artist, Madeleine George. We were doing a lot of intellectual and creative writing/story generation exercises that gave me the same uncomfortable feeling at points that running does. I’d think, “Oh, I can’t write that down, that doesn’t make sense!” And yet, one of the things Madeleine wanted us to work with is not censoring ourselves.

I even feel fairly good at this when it comes to writing. It’s part of how I understand my process. I’ve built it into the way I teach playwriting to undergraduates. My first drafts are messy and don’t really make sense and have way too much stuff in them. But I can let the writing just pour out of me. I’ve been struggling with this a bit more this week however. I spent so long trying to write something new to bring to workshop on Monday, and that really came out was a bunch of non-plays and non-scenes and then about 16 pages of something new.

So, Madeleine’s exercise took a bit of mental grappling for me to stick to task. I found myself asking questions that I would know the answer to had I been leading others in writing. In the moment, I started to feel self-doubt creeping up on me. All the questions really centered around self-consciousness.

Am I doing it right?

Yep. There’s no wrong way.

The more that I pushed myself to keep going with the writing exercises, you could feel things changing and growing. That’s what I’m starting to really dig about running. For me, there are a lot of moments where I feel physically uncomfortable, but ultimately, I get into a groove while I’m doing it, and things just start to flow. It’s the same with writing by working with ideas and strategies beyond my comfort level. I come across pieces of my brain I never knew about.

And that can sometimes be really beautiful.

Where will this path lead?

Where will this path lead?