Theater Around The Bay: The 2016 Stueys

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

Well, here we are again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The right people always will.

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

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Theater Around The Bay: Year End Round Up, Act 4, The Stueys (Again)

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2014 list. Finally. We know it’s long, but read the whole thing. Seriously. If he was Tony Kushner you’d do it.

So if there is anything I learned last week it’s that one can have spent too much time thinking about Into The Woods.

No, but seriously, in the time since I published last week’s avante garde explanation for why I wasn’t going to do the Stueys, ironically, as these things often happen, I rediscovered why I want to do the Stueys. Blame it on a couple of supportive emails I got, a text of a friend reading my blog from inside a security fort and identifying too much, and a chat on a bay-side bench with a young, hopeful playwright, but my heart started to heal from the poison I was bleeding out of it and then one night, quite spontaneously, I just sat down and wrote them. And it just felt dumb not to share them. Before I do though, I wanted to briefly (for me) revisit the three things I wanted to get across in last week’s article. In 2015 it’s my goal to create space both for what I want to say, and what I need to say.

1) I kind of hate the Internet. But seriously, after the last year or so, does anybody not? I mean, I love what it can do but I’m starting to truly hate what it brings out in people, including myself. To be honest, while I am still quick with the quippy comments on Facebook and such, you may have noticed I am much quieter on the debates and controversy front than I once was and this is because I’ve just reached my limit of getting into fights that started out as conversations but then devolved into people just trying to outshout one another. It’s amazing to realize that a silent medium requires a volume dial but it really does, and the truth is, there are days I fear to be anything but funny on the internet, or ubiquitously positive, and so I ironically don’t want to talk in what is supposed to be a forum, not because I fear critique or debate, but because I’m not looking to start any wars. Too bad the Internet is pretty much a 24/7 war zone.

2) I kind of hate awards. I always kind of have, but this became more apparent to me after I won a TBA Award this year and I know that sounds ungrateful but believe me, I am honored and flattered to have received it, and I understand why awards are important, or at least necessary, and I can’t state enough, especially as someone who got to discuss the process and purpose behind the awards extensively with the folks running them, that I do believe the TBA awards are both well intentioned and super inclusive in their attempt to create an even playing field for theater makers coming from a diverse level of resources. What I dislike so strongly about awards is how many people, in the broader sense, use them as shorthand to designate the value of art, artists, and organizations. And no, they’re not supposed to do this, I know, but they do, and we as artists are not supposed to internalize this, I know, but we do. And I became really aware of that standing in a room with my fellow nominees that night, who didn’t win an award, all of whom were good sports about it but I could tell it made them sad. Which made me feel kind of miserable. And now my award lives in the back of my closet because as proud as I am of it, I’m also weirded out about it, and what it might mean to people, the expectations it might create about me or my work. And awards are nice but they can’t be why we’re in this, and I know that sounds kind of bullshit from somebody who has a few but it’s true and we have to remember that.

3) I kind of hate theater. Okay, that is an exaggeration but I am going through a phase of being sort of disenchanted with theater and some of the theater community. I know this is hardly a first for anybody in the community, and I suspect it’s a particularly common feeling when you’re feeling overworked- which I definitely was in 2014. 2015, however, doesn’t promise to be any less work, in fact the opposite, and so that’s got me down. And yes, I know it’s my choice to work as much as I do, but it’s also kind of not. A lot of what I do won’t happen without me and that makes me want to keep working because I believe in it and all the people it serves or creates opportunities for, but my inability to really escape the theater scene for more than a day or two before my inbox fills and my phone rings reached epic proportions in 2014 and lead to some intense moments of resenting the thing I love for needing me so very much while not always feeling like it needs me, Stuart, so much as anybody dumb enough to work this hard for this little pay. Which is a nasty thing to say but sometimes… sometimes it’s also kind of the truth. Feeling taken for granted sucks; feeling enslaved to passion has a dark side. So it goes. It balances out all the times I feel rescued and redeemed by it.

So, hopefully, you can see how all this could make for a mood not suited for creating the Stueys. Considering my general ambivalence/anxiety about awards, but recognizing that some people take the Stueys seriously enough to put them on resumes and websites, I really have been struggling with how ethical, not to mention hypocritical, it is for me, as an artist, to be handing out awards, no matter how playfully, to my fellow artists, when the only thing determining those awards is… me. Who no one should take seriously. But who apparently some people really do. Cue paralysis inducing terror and suddenly I couldn’t remember why I was doing this or what it was all about, but I felt I had to say something because I had all this stuff to say. But it can be hard for me to talk about myself, what I’m personally going through, and even harder for me to advocate for myself. I hate disappointing people. But I hate being insincere more. And I wanted to begin to understand why I was feeling all this dread.

Anyway, without more ado, and much, much later than intended, here they are, 14 awards for the 2014 Stueys.

BEST ADDITION TO THE BAY AREA THEATRE SCENE
The Bay Area Theatre Awards

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, and when we celebrate that whole community, regardless of budget or house size, Equity relationship or ticket price, we are celebrating our Art, ourselves as Artists, and Artists as contributors to and saviors of the World. Of course, no one organization or 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. No matter how far we cast our net, there is always more to see and more to explore and we’re fortunate to have it that way, so for a moment, let’s just celebrate what an incredible delight it is to now have an official awards system for our community that appears to be on the same page as that sentiment of inclusivity and casting a wide net, regardless of whatever other kinks may still need to be ironed out. And for those of you who feel the TBA Awards are not enough, or still missing the boat in some regards, you are correct. And you should do something about it, whatever that means to you. To me, it means keeping the SEBATAs going, because in my mind, Heaven is a place where at last we are all recognized for what we bring to the table, and I dream of a Bay Area filled with organizations and individuals proudly recognizing one another at every possible turn, for as many reasons as can be found, as many times as it pleases us to do so. And so I am giving the first Stuey this year to TBA, and specifically Robert Sokol, for having completed a Herculean task that they will now have to complete all over again. And then again. And then again. And again. Good luck everybody!

BEST NEW VENUE
PianoFight

Is there anyone who isn’t excited about all the potential here? Rob Ready and company have been building this space for years now, and walking into it you see why it has taken so long- it is just beautiful. From the mural by Molly Benson to the floors and the furniture, they have been seeking to create not just another black box or just another dive bar, but something truly magnificent, welcoming, inspiring, and everything a venue dedicated to a community art should be. Best thing of all? They’ve asked Theater Pub to perform there, and so we will be performing there, starting in January, at least twice a month going forward. Which makes us excited and scared. Something we’re sure they understand. This whole year looks to be exciting and scary.

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
San Francisco Fringe Festival (EXIT Theatre)

Dear San Francisco: this amazing thing happens right in the middle of you every year and not enough of you know about it and not enough of you make the time to visit it. And like… really visit it, not just duck in to see your friend’s show and then run out. And I understand why you do that because I used to do the same thing but now, having worked there for three years, I have to say, you are robbing yourself of an amazing opportunity to see theater from all over the country and the world, and to meet and talk with the most diverse collection of artists any one event assembles at any given point in the year, and to be a part of something bigger than you and bigger than just this venue or this theater scene for that matter. Do yourself a favor, serious theater goer, serious theater maker, and commit to seeing at least three shows at the Fringe this next year. Pick one by someone you know, one by someone you have heard of, and one by a total stranger. See them all, bring a friend, hang out in the Café and the Green Room between shows (on almost any night of the Fringe you can see 2-3 shows in one visit to the venue, and all the tickets are super cheap), introduce yourself to the staff and artists, tip the Fringe, and see if it doesn’t inspire you to want to see more, know more, do more. If the Bay Area Theatre scene is a garden, this is one of our most vital vegetable beds. Tend this garden, and then come get fed.

BEST SHOW
“Our Town” (Shotgun Players)

Won’t lie… it kind of kills me that this was my favorite show of the year. But it was, so much so that my boyfriend, afterwards, said, “Let’s not see anything else this year- let’s let this be where we stop” and he was right and I agreed, but that’s part of what worries me: for far too many people I think theater starts and stops with “Our Town”, or its equivalent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good theater because it is, and I have long defended Thornton Wilder as being one of the great playwrights whose work is often undermined by having been overdone. This production, directed by Susannah Martin with assistance from Katja Rivera, was anything but overdone, it was subtle and lovely and elegantly realized, from the costumes and lighting, to the music and the performances, and it all came together in a way that, while nostalgic and dramatically safe (which aren’t necessarily bad things, but important to recognize), still felt fresh and sincere, like the gesture of laying down in the rain on the grave of a loved one. There was really nothing I didn’t love. Though if I had to pick favorites I’ll say very little is more entertaining than watching Michelle Talgarow and Don Wood play off each other, even during the intermission raffle. The night I was there they got some very chatty audience feedback and they handled it Grover’s Corners style: graciously and politely and in a way that warmed your heart.

BEST READING
“Hydra” by Tonya Narvaez (SF Olympians Festival)

God, there is very little better in life than a really good reading, and possibly nothing more frustrating than watching people shoot themselves in the foot on what should be the simplest, easiest theatrical event to pull off. And yet… again and again we see it at the SF Olympians Festival, the full range of dramatic readings, from the simple but impafctful, to the overdone and done to death. This year we had a number of excellent readings, but my favorite standout was “Hydra”, written and directed by Tonya Narvaez. A ghost story, a comedy, a conundrum, the piece was elevated to a new level by Tonya shrouding the stage in total darkness except for reading lights for her cast who, illuminated in the stark and eerie glow, were uniformly excellent- not in the least because they were relieved of having to worry about blocking and forced by the light to focus only on the text. Such a simple, elegant choice, but so effective. She won that night of the festival, and wins this Stuey for Best Reading.

BEST SHORT PLAY
“Mars One Project” by Jennifer Roberts (part of “Super Heroes” at Wily West Productions)

Jennifer Robert’s play, about a female astronaut who is denied her chance to go to Mars because she has a daughter and the Powers That Be don’t think the world can stomach or root for a woman who would leave her child, even in an attempt to create a role model for that child, was by far the best piece in this evening of shorts. There was plenty of fine writing, but this is the one that transcended its own subject matter to present that ever elusive thing: an issue play in which both sides of the argument are presented with pathos. The tragedy of the piece is less that “we’re not there yet” and more, “is what it will take to be there always going to require sacrifice on this level”, to me a much more interesting, more human question. In an evening of mostly sketches, it was the one piece that could not only stand on its own, but really stood for something, and it’s a near perfect short play- which as an author of short plays, I assure you, is a near impossibility.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Amanda Ortmayer (EXIT Theatre Technical Director)

Amanda Ortmayer has let me cry on her shoulder so many times this year it’s astounding she doesn’t just keep a towel on hand. Only she probably does, since she’s seemingly prepared for anything, she just probably keeps it out of sight, since she also knows the value of never revealing your bag of tricks, or the exact location of your wishing tree. Something has to keep us in ballgowns and slippers and it’s probably not going to be wishes alone. But Amanda likes to encourage wishes too, and that rare combination of pragmatism and dreaming is why she is just generally… awesome. If you haven’t had a chance to work with her, I hope, one day, you do. It’ll remind you why we’re all in this, or at least, why we should all be in this: for the people.

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Marissa Skudlarek, “Pleiades”

One of my biggest pet peeves is listening to people complain about how there are not enough opportunities, while refusing to ever create those opportunities themselves. For the record I agree, there aren’t enough opportunities, but at some point we need to realize that if we have our health and a clear sense of our dreams, we’ve already been given more than most people get so it’s really just about figuring out how to see your dream materialize. Watching Marissa Skudlarek as she put together her first production as a producer (she wrote the script too, but we’re giving her recognition for the producer hat here), I was blown away by how organized and focused she was, how determined she was to do it as best she could even the first time out. Which is more than I can say for me. Even now, I feel like I mostly just take a deep breath, pick up my sword, and rush into battle blindly, while Marissa strategized and planned, gathered information, raised funds, and was just in general super smart about it all. Was anyone surprised? Not really. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take one more moment to tell her she did an amazing job. Everyone looking to produce a show in 2015- call Marissa. She knows what she’s doing.

BEST CHEMISTRY
Michaela Greeley, Katherine Otis, Terry Bamberger (“Three Tall Women”, Custom Made Theater Company)

It is not easy to play three versions of the same woman but this trio of ladies, under the direction of Custom Made veteran Katjia Rivera, brought so much magic to the stage that the leap of faith required for Act Two of Edward Albee’s classic was not only easy to make, you made it with a song in your heart! This is a lovely show, but one I rarely feel enthusiastic about, energized by, and these three performers, working so well together, in such total tandem with one another, sold me on this show in a way it’s never been sold to me before. Michaela Greeley was uncomfortably good at playing the frailty of her character in Act One and the fierce stubborn vitality in Act Two; while Terry Bamberger was an edgy warmth in Act One that ballooned into an explosion of heat and fire in Act Two; Katherine Otis, in the part with the least to work with in both acts, managed to strike the aloof brittleness required in the first act while still laying the foundations for the insecure idealist the second act tears to pieces. But what I may have loved the most was the way these ladies moved, always circling one another, always creating triangles on the stage, each one so aware of the other, having to fill the space one vacated, or rushing to claim a spot before the other could. It was like a dance, like a motorized portrait of the Three Fates and they wove a spell together that was frightening and enchanting all at once.

BEST RISK
Kat Evasco, “Mommie Queerest” (Guerilla Rep/DIVAfest)

Kat Evasco knows how to work an audience, but the audience at her show might not have been ready to get worked so hard. Bravely darting in and out of us, throwing herself around the stage in gleeful and breathless abandon, Kat unravels a personal story about the struggle to discover not only who she is- but who her mother is. And why she needs her mother to know who she is before she can finally accept herself. Co-written with John Caldon, who also directed, the show avoids the bulk of solo show clichés, feeling more like a play where Kat has just been tasked with playing all the roles to the best of her ability, and the audience isn’t really asked to come along so long as commandeered by her at the beginning and let go only when she sees fit. The piece is courageously risky, not only because of the controversial elements within it, but because Kat leaves no fourth wall standing between herself and the audience, and if they don’t run with her on it, her show is kind of screwed. Both times I saw this though, that wasn’t a problem; it’s hard not to jump in both feet at a time with a performer who is so ready and eager to do it.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
Justin Gillman (“The Pain And The Itch”, Custom Made Theater Company; “Blood Wedding” Bigger Than A Breadbox Theatre Company; “Pastorella” No Nude Men; and like a billion other things)

So… how many plays was Justin Gillman in this past year? It seemed like every time you turned around he was being cast in something, including by me, and every time he was pretty amazing in it. I don’t know how he does it. Like seriously, I don’t know how he memorizes all his lines, let alone doesn’t burn out from the constant rehearsal and yet somehow he shows up every night, fresh and ready to perform. Generous with everyone, onstage and off, it’s rare I don’t find him the highlight of a cast, usually finding a way to balance being a somewhat over-the-top character with a deeply human core that is achingly vulnerable when not just a tiny bit scary. In each of the three roles highlighted above, this was the common thread- men at first dismissable, who at sudden turns revealled their fangs, and then wept as they ripped your throat out. Delicious.

The ladies have gotten a lot of attention on this year’s list, which is great, but we like to keep things balanced here at the Stueys so we’re giving two more nods out: Kenny Toll (“Dracula Inquest”, Central Works) and Sam Tillis (“Slaughterhouse Five”, Custom Made Theater Company). In my opinion, both of these gentlemen were the best thing about these two shows, which were solid enough theatrical productions but elevated by fully committed actors. In both cases, both men also played characters who were… well, committed. As in insane. Though the insanity characterizations couldn’t have been more night and day than the plays were (Toll’s was of the by turns wimpering, by turns screeching Bedlam variety, Tillis was the diamond hard, lethally cold, slow burn sociopath kind), both managed to be believable and unsettling without being melodramatic or over-the-top. Toll even managed to be sympathetic, while Tillis managed to be mesmerizing. Either way, it was endlessly watchable, haunting, and impressive.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Cat Luedtke in Anything

Seriously, once upon a time there was no Cat Leudtke and then one morning we woke up and she was everywhere. I think I might have seen her in like six shows this year and in each case she was the walk away discovery, the revelation performance. The tremendous skill of this woman is matched only by her tremendous range, as every role I saw her in this year was different, though perhaps none so piercing and breathtaking as her role in Custom Made’s “Top Girls” as England’s most done-with-it-but-not-lying-down-about-it mother. I’ve also seen her sing and dance, act Lorca, play the 19th century adventurer, the dutiful wife, and more (probably helps that one of the things I saw her in was a collection of one-acts), bringing to each role a personal touch and a universal power, a sincerity and openness of heart that made you feel like you were watching a real person. She’s very much a “real actress”, whatever we mean by that when we say it. I know that what I tend to mean is somebody so good at throwing themselves into something, they transcend and turn into someone else, each and every time.

There is always an embarrassment of brilliant female performances in the Bay Area, so I feel a few other honorable mentions are in order: Mikka Bonel in “At The White Rabbit Burlesque” (DIVAfest), giving a performance as a rabbit that was unlike any performance of anything I’ve ever seen; Ariel Irula in “Blood Wedding” (Bigger Than A Breadbox), whose deeply passionate performance was matched only by the soul of her singing voice; Jean Forsman in “The Pain And The Itch” (Custom Made Theater Company), nailing well-meaning but vapid liberal mom as only someone like Jean could, walking perfectly that line of endearing and annoying; Stephanie Ann Foster in “Slaughterhouse Five” (Custom Made Theater Company), who played both a woman and a man in the show, and was lovely, heartbreaking, deeply sympathetic in each role.

BEST FUSION THEATER PIECE
Now And At The Hour (Christian Cagigal, H.P. Mendoza)

The fusion of theater and film is a tricky one, and I can only imagine how filming a stage show without destroying the magic of live theater must require an excellent understanding of both mediums. Now make that live theater a magic show too and you are truly setting yourself up to fall flat on your face, but H.P. Mendoza’s film of Christian Cagigal’s “Now And At The Hour” flies, it is magical and touching, the decision to interrupt the narrative of the stage show with the narrative of Christian’s life and the important players in it only adding to the emotional punch of this unique variation on “the artist and his work” formula. Beautifully shot, entertaining, unexpectedly poignant, this is a stellar example of a collaboration between artists and mediums.

BEST SOLO SHOW
Kevin Rolston, “Deal With The Dragon” (SF Fringe Festival)

Remember my earlier bit about the Fringe? Here is a glowing example of why going into something blind at the Fringe can sometimes result in stumbling across something truly excellent. I didn’t know anything about this show. It had a fun premise in the Fringe guide (Man moves in with Dragon) and a bad flier design (sorry, it can’t all be hugs and snuggles here) and while I had no expectations what I wasn’t expecting was to be so thoroughly moved and entertained. It does not hurt that Kevin Rolston is an incredibly talented performer with an ability to switch between his three narrators with glass-like smoothness, or that each of the three stories he tells, each with a different take on the idea of a “dragon”, are all funny and unsettling portraits of our tenous relationship with self-control and those things inside us that scare us. An unsettling fable about how our potential for violence and indulgence can also be our potential for strength and transformation, Rolston’s notes in the program claimed the piece is unfinished, but it could actually already stand as is. Here’s hoping the final product is as good as the draft.

And as for Me…

So Usually I end the awards with something about the show I personally worked on that affected me the most, but in all honesty I got so much out of all of them it would be hard to pick one so I kind of just want to take a final look at last year as a whole so I can both make sense of it and kiss it goodbye.

For me, it was an incredible year, but that doesn’t mean I loved every second of it. Far from it. It was as demanding as it was rewarding and at times it also seemed… endless. Like there was just always one more thing to do, to get through and then… two more. And then nine. I got to work with material by the incredible Kristin Hersh this year and that will forever be a highlight of my life but the production itself was a rough process, and the reception was rough, it all kind of placed too much strain on an important relationship in my life and I walked away feeling very differently than I had when I walked in- which was hopeful and desirous to bring a project that meant a lot to me to people I loved who I thought could benefit from it, but by the end I was wondering if I had ultimately done more harm than good by bringing such tremendous attention to something so natal. Then I directed a stellar production of “The Crucible” that made me acutely aware of how resistant critics and audiences can be to seeing a familiar play in a new way, and also how embracing they can be, but by that point I was having a hard time hearing the love and found it easier to focus on the detrimental views. I worked to let it all go, focused on feeling proud of the work my actors and designers had done, which was stupendous, and then just as I was feeling more balanced again, Wily West’s production of my play “Everybody Here Says Hello!”, after a whirlwind of a production process, opened to unexpectedly and ubiquitously positive reception. Suddenly, I was a guy with a hit show on my hands- technically my third this year since “Rat Girl” and “The Crucible”, despite whatever misgivings critics were having, were also big audience successes. For the first time in my career though my writing was the center of attention (I often feel I am mostly known as a director who writes, though I am actually a writer who directs), partly because Rik Lopes, not I, had directed “EHSH”, and so critics had to speak about our separate contributions separately, and that was wonderful but the moment was short-lived: we ended up having two performances canceled and the show only ran 7 times and it became my play everybody “really wished they had made it out to see.” Me too! Though one should never shake a stick at houses full of strangers. But oh… we do this partly because of the friends we hope to show something personal to, don’t we? And, again, I was having a year where it was hard not to keep adding things up in the negative, no matter how well they were actually going.

Anyway, this was then followed by the Fringe, as rewarding and as demanding as ever, which was then followed by the fast and furious (yet incredibly smooth) rehearsal process for my play “Pastorella”, which was the only piece I both wrote and directed last year, and which was well received, actually pretty much adored by audiences, but played to 2/3rds full houses or less its entire run after opening to an audience of 11- my second smallest audience in the history of my theater life in San Francisco (not my whole life- I once played to an audience of 2 in Tucson). The result was a show that, though very economically produced, still ended in the red, something which shouldn’t affect one personally as much as it does. But if you haven’t gathered yet, I’m being truthful here, even if it makes me seem a little petty. So yeah, my final passion project of the year was probably my personal favorite artistic accomplishment but it also cleaned out my bank account, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that 2014 was the year I went freelance/contractor and believe me- it’s been an adjustment. One I’m still adjusting to. Finally we had the fifth installment of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which was wonderful if perhaps more draining than usual, and fraught with an abnormal amount of backstage drama, from some diva moves on the part of some of our participants, to a failure to meet our fundraising goals (first time ever), and then the pique of which, of course, was having our dressing room robbed on, naturally, the night of my reading, which was successful in that it was well done by my trooper cast, but again, sort of middling attended, and a bit anti-climactic as an artist considering it had taken me all year to write it. And did I mention that some of my favorite actors kind of hated the script? Disappointing, but less so than having a “colleague” tell me that working with me was basically bad for businesses because of my strong opinions and tendency to carve my own way, nonsense that nobody who was actually a friend would have bothered to bring up- especially not when I was in the midst of trying to find a way to help them realize their own plans for the local theater scene. But I have occasionally been told my Achilles heel is caring about the band as much as I care about myself.

And somewhere in there I won a TBA Award for “EHSH”, had two works of mine garner bids for film adaptations, threw a delightful birthday party and another successful Easter brunch, but had to cancel a major social event because I got pink eye. Which is only worth mentioning again because in retrospect, it really is kind of funny. I wanted to get more reading done and much more writing, but it just didn’t happen. Best laid plans of mice and men…

So yes, 2014 was amazing but it was also, definitely, a mixed bag. Rewarding to no end, but unforgiving in many ways, most of all in that I had a hard time forgiving myself for just… well… doing my best but not always getting everything the way I wanted it or hoped for. The problem is, when you’re burnt out, stuff that you’d normally brush off or accept as the breaks of the business or just how life is get harder to be blasé about, and I found myself at the end of 2014 feeling accomplished but bruised, lucky but kind of cursed, exhausted and not excited so much as terrified about the future and yet… hopeful. Cause I am hopeful. And I want to stress that and more or less end there, and tell you it was amazing to have 800+ people applaud me for winning an award (even if it was for a play I always considered a bit of a “minor work” and never guessed would be so defining), and it was incredible to walk up those stairs that night, all alone, and think, even as my thoughts came crashing down around me, “Well, you certainly don’t do anything half-assed, do you Stuart?” (even if that means sometimes I paint myself into an intellectual corner with the same gusto I pull myself out of it). Though I definitely experienced a lot in 2014, I often felt like I wasn’t actually learning so much as surviving, and oh, by the way, I had massive writer’s block, and it was writing all that out last Monday that finally cured it… and got us here. And here is not a bad place to be: hopeful, and weirdly confident that whatever happens next, I can probably handle it. I just kind of wish I had a clearer idea of what “it” was. But then we all wish that, don’t we?

Ah well. C’est la vie.

Deep breath.

Happy New 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: Save the Empire

Stuart Bousel, subbing for Barbara Jwanouskos.

Is it just me or does the week after Labor Day always kind of suck?

It didn’t in school. But that’s because the week after Labor Day was really the week things started to kick into gear, whether you had started classes that Tuesday or had started the week before in August. Labor Day meant new beginnings, a new year, and the countdown to everything I love in life- the start of autumn, Halloween, my birthday, Thanksgiving, the start of winter, Christmas, New Year! Labor Day meant making new friends, catching up with old ones, and taking a bit of a breather after a long summer that, because of its lack of class, was always distinct from the rest of the year. Maybe because I usually hadn’t been working much all summer, Labor Day ironically was like, “Back to work day!” Something I used to love because I used to love the work I was doing (school) and in college that only became a more pronounced and exciting feeling.

As an adult though, progressively, Labor Day has often ended up feeling like a grim reminder that, as the character of Max says in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking And Screaming (one of my favorite movies ever), “What I used to able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life.” It’s not just that it’s become a bit of a mockery of the very people it was supposed to honor and salt in the wound for the many people who are either out of work or struggling to make ends meet with substantially less than they used to have, but for many I think it’s also just a day off thrown in at precisely the right moment to remind you that you didn’t get done a lot of what you wanted to get done, probably never had much of a “real summer” unless you were lucky enough to be able to take a vacation, and ultimately that the year you were convinced was going to be “Your Year” now has a mere four months left to go, and still sort of seems a lot like… well… just another year. Oh, and, of course: you’re not getting any younger either.

The last few weeks seem to have been super tough on a lot of people I know in this theater scene. On this blog alone we’ve had two people lose a dear friend, one lose her gall bladder, one discover a project she’s been working on is a dead end, and another texted me this morning with that “shit is hitting the fan” text that translates to me writing this ad. Me, who blew off his own attempt at taking back Labor Day and hid in his room all weekend because… drum roll… I got pink eye. Yes… pink eye. Something children usually get because there kind of dirty but since I’m a pretty clean guy I can pretty much chalk this one up to some bad decision making somewhere  and/or divine smack down. It’s okay, I’m laughing about it now because it’s mostly gone and I’m no longer contagious but you know what is even more mortifying than calling off your Labor Day event because you’re so hungover you can’t run it? It’s finding out that the reason why your eyes have been hurting and feeling feverish since you woke up that Sunday were because you have Pink Eye.

And this is after what one director friend of mine has dubbbed, “A white knuckle year”. In other words, not a bad year (it certainly hasn’t been a bad year for me) but a year of tremendous shift and change, rarely comfortable, even when good, and so constant one starts to feel less like they are growing so much as holding on for dear life while the roller coaster heads straight for… well, who can say, right? I, for one, have found it to be incredibly up and down, so much so that I become suspicious of things when they start to seem too quiet, (my summer, by the way, had been pretty quiet), and I’ve found it’s also been one of extreme self-scrutiny and re-evaluation, public scrutiny and re-evaluation, new understandings, new ideals, new heights, new lows, new triumphs and new problems. On one level, I can say with sincerity I have felt very alive this year, and like I am moving, generally speaking, in more or less the right direction- certainly compared to last year, and definitely compared to the year before it. But is that momentum not terrifying in its own right? And do I feel like I am in control of it so much as being swept along? And am I actually ready for whatever tomorrow brings, even if it brings flowers and money and wedding bells? These are all entirely different questions. Depending on the day… no, let’s be honest here, depending on the minute… the answer is a resounding and eviscerating “no.” But such is life, so what am I going to do?

I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, actually: for the next two weeks, starting tonight, I’m, going to basically live my non-working hours at the EXIT Theatre, the place that has emerged above all others as my home in this city, in any city, on the planet, really, in this era of my life. It’s the place where I’ve most frequently been allowed to be myself, where the people there before me made room for me too, where I’ve been embraced and challenged and scolded and pushed and rewarded and empowered and it starts with the artistic director (Christina Augello) but the truth is everyone there contributes to that feeling, whether it’s by doing far more than any one person should ever have to do to keep things running (Amanda Ortmayer), or ensuring that someone remans relatively sane (Richard Livingston), or making sure we’re all fed (Donna Fujita), or sitting around the Cafe during off hours gossiping the way we used to hang out in the theater or the humanities buildings at college and just… talk to one another (this list is a long one, but usually includes some combination of Christian Cagigal, Michelle Talgarow, Alexia Staniotes, Mark Weddle, Ariel Craft, Dot Janson, Margery Fairchild, Happy Hyder, Mikka Bonel, Dylan West, and most recently, this year’s Fringe intern, Florian Bdn). Though I love my apartment and I love my friend’s homes, Le Zinc on 24th and the Pilsner on Church, the Sutro Baths for strolling, Jupiter when in Berkeley and the White Horse on Sutter, everything about North Beach and a good deal about the Richmond, I don’t know that anyplace in the Bay Area feels more home to me than sitting in the EXIT Cafe eating Indian Take out or making popcorn in the Green Room microwave.

Earlier this year I made my boyfriend watch “Empire Records“, a movie I loved to hate when it came out because it was an attempt at corporatizing everything I loved… and now I kind of hate to love it, because time has ultimately shown it to be a lasting relic of the fantasy of the mid-90s, and what it lacks in nuance, subtlety, or, to be truthful, quality, it by far makes up for in heart and sincerity, which somehow shine through despite the best efforts of the studio to both destroy the film and then bury it. This amazing article can tell you pretty much everything I would want to say about Empire Records, except this last part, which is unique to me: basically, about halfway through his first viewing, my boyfriend said, “So, if this was a theater instead of a record store, it would basically be the EXIT, wouldn’t it?” and I couldn’t not argue otherwise. And while I’m not saying that my deep desire to create a stage version of “Empire Records” is due to its amazingly similar dynamic and function in our lives, I would say that it’s my continued experience at the EXIT which allows me to fully understand the sentiment screenwriter Carol Heikkinen was attempting to capture in her film when she told the BuzzFeed article linked above that, “I wanted to show how the employees were a family, and how, for some of them, this minimum-wage job would be the best job they ever had.”

This will be my third year running the Hospitality Room at the Fringe and I’ve started looking forward to the Fringe in a way that I once used to look forward to school starting. Just like school, there are people who I never see except at the Fringe- artists, of course, bringing work, but also techs and volunteers, who return year after year, for not much money or no money at all, simply to be a part of this event that is arguably the jewel in the EXIT’s crown and makes indisputable its place at the top of the independent theater scene in San Francisco. For two weeks we form our own little society, gathering around the craft table (did you know there was a craft table?) after hours or during slow times, going on errands together, playing pranks on one another, and of course seeing shows together. And talking about the shows. And talking about shows in general. It’s a ton of work and make no mistake about that, but for two weeks it’s also kind of this crazy vacation in indy theater land, a sort of small town version of theater school and summer camp rolled together and plopped into the Tenderloin for a brief but valiant moment each year when the object of the game is not to compete as artists but to play together, to be a community. And the heart of this is the Hospitality Room, if I say so myself, and this year it’s better than ever, so you should definitely put down whatever that heavy load you’re carrying is and come say hello as we celebrate these last weeks of summer and move into the autumn, a time I’ve personally always found to be more enchanted and generally saner too. There will be snacks, and you can make some crafts, and Clyde the Cyclops is on the walls so the room feels like a hug.

Oh, and, my Pink Eye has totally cleared up. So don’t worry about that.

Come visit Stuart and hang out in the Hospitality Room this Fringe! Make crafts, take photos, eat snacks, and be a part of the community. www.sffringe.org.

Theater Around The Bay: Burlesque, Creating New Art by Reaching Back to Old Traditions

Today’s guest blogger is Red Velvet, a Bay Area Burlesque goddess who will has been performing at the EXIT Theatre for over a year now, and will be tearing it up this May as part of DIVAfest.

“Burlesque?” I am often asked. “Don’t you take your clothes off with that?” How to answer – maybe, sometimes, frequently, only when I want to? So, if burlesque isn’t just about taking off clothing, what is it about?

Let’s start with the definition of burlesque. Burlesque: 1. an absurd or comically exaggerated imitation of something, esp. in a literary or dramatic work; a parody. 2. a variety show, typically including striptease.

Burlesque has a long and varied history, but many people historically attribute the art form we consider “burlesque” to Lydia Thompson and her London Blondes which arrived in New York in the late 1860’s with shows consisting of a variety of music, comedy, social satire, and the shocking sensation of women playing men’s roles while wearing tights. While women in tights seems pedantic today, in the 1860’s female legs were a hot commodity.

Lydia Thompson

Lydia Thompson

Another offering of the same genre, The Black Crook, has been both attributed to a “burlesque” tradition, as well as to the first “musical theatre.” It certainly involved dance, music, and some element of dialogue, but was also considered by many to be demoralizing and outrageous due to the exposure of the female leg.

Regardless of the potentially sinful nature of the female form, these theatrical offerings were exactly that – theatre. Despite shocking some people’s sensibilities of the era, the productions involved more than just prurient diversions, but actual entertainment.

In the early 20th century, burlesque was typically a variety show with singers, comics, and dancers. Risqué comic sketches and bumps and grinds kept away the “family atmosphere” associated with Vaudeville and, burlesque was often considered “low class.” Burlesque has most often appealed to the working-class audiences, many of whom felt overlooked by the offerings (and often expense) of attending the “legitimate” theatre. Burlesque may have been the “lowest branch” of the theatre, according to Ann Corio, burlesque performer and author of This Was Burlesque, but it was also “the limb nearest the people.”

burlesque fan dancer

burlesque fan dancer

With all of its variety acts, stripping in burlesque shows didn’t actually begin until the 1930’s. Stripping at the time often involved taking off clothes off stage and appearing in less on stage. Burlesque shows, with the bawdy bumps and grinds, required performers to be in a minimum of g-strings and pasties, sometimes more, which could include net bras and panties, which would give the appearance of nudity. Meanwhile, “real” theatre, including Ziegfeld and other (comparatively) expensive Broadway shows could have women appearing in nothing, as long as they were considered to be part of the “scenery” or “staging.” At that time, being nude and holding a candelabra while the holder remained as still as a statue was apparently considered a fine art fit to be shown in the legitimate theatre: While burlesque houses of the time were often raided and Mayor Fiorella La Guardia deemed them a “corrupting moral influence,” Ziegfeld never had a show raided or deemed corrupt.

The 1940’s was often considered to be the “beginning of the end” for burlesque, the start of the slow decline which culminated in what many thought was to be the “death” of burlesque in the 1970’s, when nudity was commonplace and sexual gratification was often expected.

However, burlesque is having a resurgence, slowly starting back up in the late 1990’s, with burlesque variety shows, typically featuring “neo-burlesque” stripping acts, but also singing, comedy, dance, aerial, acrobatics, you name it. Modern acts are frequently classical in nature, and may emulate prior burlesque “legends.” However, most acts tend to put emphasis on style and sensuality rather than sexuality. Performer self-expression and self-esteem is often a big focus of acts, and the act itself (even striptease acts) can be used to challenge stereotypes, including sexual objectification, orientation, and other social taboos or pressures. Striptease acts in the neo-burlesque scene are often mini theatrical events in themselves, with a story plot wholly encompassed within the act. As such, neo-burlesque has gone back to the burlesque of the early 1920’s to refine, expand, and create a new art from that which previously existed.

Neo-burlesque star Dirty Martini

Neo-burlesque star Dirty Martini

But, we are going even farther back than that. Last year, DIVAfest produced, as part of its 2013 festival Rebel Without A Bra, which was a combination of burlesque, cabaret, and theatre. With that show, we went back once again, to cull from the burlesque theatrical experience of the 1860’s to combine elements of the stage into a more cohesive program and create a show that was a connected whole, not just a variety show or similarly themed acts. That show traced (albeit in a nonlinear fashion) the history of women in burlesque (a theatrical version of the treatise above, if you will). We combined the theatrical expertise of director Amanda Ortmayer and our key narratrix Sean Owens, with a bevy of burlesquers including co-creators If-N-Whendy and myself, Bunny Von Tail, Josie Starre, Laika Fox, Shimmies Galore, and Dee Os’Mios. We managed to go back to the beginnings of burlesque and once again combine song, dance, dialogue, (and some clothing removal) to lovely, insightful, and hilarious effect.

The theatre and the theatrical environment was a very supportive venue for burlesque – both in the performance aspect as well as the creation aspect. The theatrical process, including very extensive rehearsing; directorial advice, guidance, and input; costuming guidance and creation; stage sets; etc. made the individual neo-burlesque acts stronger as well as providing the crucial cohesion to tie the entire show into a whole. Bringing burlesque back into the theatre provides burlesque performers the opportunity to grow and expand our capabilities and capacities – bringing more to our personas, our caricatures, and broadening the horizons of what is possible on stage, both internally and externally. Burlesque also brings something back to the theatre – aspects which have always been in the theatre, but sometimes are forgotten – musicality, humor (sometimes downright slapstick and juvenile), irreverence, and that ability to take a serious subject and make people address it without lecturing or alienating the audience. For some reason, an act addressing a serious subject such as feminine equality or spousal abuse can relay the message but doesn’t create quite so much angst when clothing removal is involved.

This year, we are again hitting the DIVAfest stage in another new burlesque/theatrical production entitled At The White Rabbit Burlesque… We are again directed by the ever-patient, persevering, and inspirational Amanda Ortmayer, and joined by local theatre maven Mikka Bonel. The burlesque cast this year includes co-creators If-N-Whendy and myself (Red Velvet), Laika Fox, Tornado Supertrouble, and Ophelia Coeur de Noir. The audience will be attending a somewhat surreal burlesque show run by the White Rabbit with the assistance of stage hand and general gopher, Alice. The show features the on-and off-stage antics of the two aforementioned plus the rest of the cast, representing the familiar Alice tropes, including the diva-like Queen of Hearts, the jocular Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the perplexing Duchess, the Hare, the Hatter, and more! We are working to create individual acts as well as develop the characters and interactions which create context and story-line. It is a challenging, but fun, process and we are excited about our upcoming production. While creating a burlesque variety show is certainly applause-worthy, combining burlesque into an overall theatrical experience is a more complex level of creation and, we hope, audience enjoyment.

If this intrigues you and you are interested in joining us for this experience, you can find out more and get tickets at www.DIVAfest.info.

For more information go to www.DIVAfest.info.

For more information go to http://www.DIVAfest.info.

Red Velvet, a life-long dancer, began studying dance at the age of 2. Proficient in tap, ballet, and jazz, Red Velvet continues to study new forms of dance such as samba and flamenco. Ms. Velvet currently performs Isadora Duncan dance, she has performed with the Hot Pink Feathers, Bombshell Betty’s Burlesqueteers, and Alegria Samba Dance Company. She is a co-artistic director of the “DIVA or Die” burlesque show (a production of DIVAfest) at the Exit Theatre, and the co-creator of the burlesque play “Rebel Without a Bra: A Burlesque Cabaret” which was presented as part of DIVAfest 2013. Ms. Velvet has performed solo acts at various burlesque festivals in North America and won an award for “Most Humorous” at the Great Burlesque Expo 2014. Red Velvet currently teaches Can-can, Duncan dance, and burlesque classes.

Theater Around The Bay: Why I Love When Things Go Wrong

Today’s guest blog is appropriately titled since Barbara Jwanouskos is too slammed this week to get her blog in. Luckily, Meg Trowbridge, a local actress, writer, improver and director, is ready to fill in the gap with a testimony to just why it’s sometimes good that bad things happen.

My husband and I were at the SFJazz Center last month to see Bill Frisell and the Big Sur Quintet. The music was wonderful, the vibe was mellow, and the audience was digging it. With the amps and speakers, you were fully immersed in the music and transported to a path on a ridge in Big Sur, looking out over an expanse of rolling hills covered with shrubs, pines, and charred Redwoods. The lighting followed the mood of each song, delicately shifting from warm orange when the violin and viola were in a playful duet, to a soft blue when it was quiet and thoughtful. A fast-paced piece started and each member of the band looked to be having the time of their life – the violist was alternating between rapidly plucking strings to accenting staccato notes with his bow, the drummer had traded in his brushes for sticks and was moving a mile a minute, and the cellist was energetically playing his instrument like an over-sized guitar, swaying his head and wearing an enormous grin – with Bill Frisell in the center, looping riffs with his electric guitar. And then the power went out.

Here is why I love when things go wrong in live performance: it is that rare moment when you can truly connect with the person on stage, and share with them one experience. I go to movies to escape or to appreciate great performances (or to bitch about how it was all wrong), but I go to live performances for connection – to feel something.

I studied music in college with Rebecca Seaman (a wonderful vocal coach and conductor in the Bay Area), and one semester she was flush with vocal students. This meant we all had the pleasure of singing two songs at the student show case at the end of the semester. My friend, no stranger to the stage, was discovering her voice, surprised to learn that despite her husky speaking timbre, she was a Soprano – who knew?! She was also discovering stage fright for the first time: she had never sung alone to an audience before, and when her time came, she squashed those fears down and started her song. About one verse in, there was a catch in her throat, just enough to allow all the fears and anxiety to rise up and paralyze her. She stopped singing. The piano repeated the same few bars, waiting for her to come back in. The audience held their breath. The world stopped on its axis. Then, she quietly said, “I can’t do this.” Without a beat, Rebecca loudly proclaimed “Yes you can” and the entire audience chimed in with shouts of affirmation and support. She took a breath, and continued her song, and the audience was riveted. She received the most enthusiastic applause for the whole showcase, and every single person in that house shared the same pride and excitement for her.

I was also privileged to be in the audience of Giant Bones by Stuart Bousel (based on stories by Peter S. Beagle) on the night of the infamous ‘Cockroach Performance.” Allow me to take you back there: the scene opens on a dark, moonlit evening, the stage is bare, the lights are dim, everyone is hushed. Slowly, Mikka Bonel enters the stage, walking backwards and looking off stage and all around to ensure she’s alone. Simultaneously, Paul Rodrigues enters, mirroring her. As they slowly walk on stage, unaware of each other’s presence, the audience becomes very aware of another presence – there is a sizable cockroach crawling on Mikka’s shawl, making its way down from her shoulder towards her hand. We all see it – she doesn’t. The next moments are like a perfectly choreographed ballet: the cockroach is slowly making its descent to Mikka’s hand; Mike begins to lift her hands, sensing something is behind her; Paul and Mikka inch closer; they begin to turn, about to discover each other; the cockroach comes into Mikka’s sight; her face, only for a moment, reveals her horror; she flicks the roach off of her hand at the same moment she faces Paul and they both let out an electric gasp of surprise, as did the audience. Every hair on my body stood upright, adrenaline rushing through me, as I watched the scene continue without missing a beat, and with renewed energy.

So what does Bill Frisell, accomplished Jazz guitarist and consummate professional, do when there is no power to amp his electric guitar? He picks up his acoustic, they all unplug, and the show goes on in the emergency lighting of the SFJAZZ Center. The first plugged-in hour of the show was wonderful, but I realized that it was easy. The music surrounded us, so I could sneak a look at my phone, I could whisper something to my husband, I could get lost in my thoughts about the day, and still hear and experience the music. But when the set went acoustic, we all had to lean in, be quiet, and focus – and it was magic. We could hear them speak to each other about the next song, we could hear the happy moans from the audience when there was a particularly satisfying harmony or solo, and we all, together, were hanging from every note.

It is a performer’s nightmare when something goes wrong, and you have to improvise, or hope no one notices, or bear through it until it sorts itself out, but aren’t those the memories we keep and the stories we tell afterwards? And when we’re put under that pressure, and we rise to the occasion, isn’t that when we learn something about ourselves?

As I sat in the dark stall of the powerless restroom after the show, humming a motif from the violin in the last song, I could hear other women doing the same, and we created our own quintet in the dim light of the SFJAZZ Center bathroom, which happened to have pretty great acoustics.

Next Up At Theater Pub!

Something is Rotten at the Café Royale!

A one night only event celebrating all things HAMLET, “Hamlet and Cheese on Post” combines the Hamlet we’ve come to know and love with a riotous dose of comedy and fun.The evening features a staged reading of Richard Curtis’ “Skinhead Hamlet” and Shel Silverstein’s “Hamlet: As Told on the Street”, (famously penned for Playboy Magazine back in 1998), plus original songs from dynamic duo McPuzo & Trotsky and other musical surprises.

To be there or not to be there? That is the question.

We think you know the answer!

Directed by: Molly Benson and Karen Offereins, starring: Mikka Bonel, Jaime Lee Currier, Nick Dickson, Michelle Jasso, Rik Lopes, Nathan Tucker and Geoffrey Nolan as Hamlet.

The show starts at 8 PM on Monday, September 17th, only at the Cafe Royale (800 Post Street, San Francisco), and as usual the event is FREE, with a five dollar suggested donation. Our friends at Hideaway BBQ will be serving up plenty of southern style treats starting at 6:30, so get there early as we expect to fill up and it’s the best way to ensure a seat.