Theater Around The Bay: Cowan Palace Goes Portal

Ashley may be 3000 miles away but it’s like she’s right next to you, singing in your ear about her interview with Kirk Shimano and Sang Kim, who prepare to rock San Francisco Theater Pub with Portal: The Musical!

Hello there, my San Francisco friends! Wow, what a few weeks it’s been, huh? Lots going on all over the world but I have to say getting the chance to interview writer Kirk Shimano and director Sang Kim was a real treat. This dynamic duo is currently working on San Francisco Theater Pub’s latest show, Portal: The Musical.

The cast features Alan Coyne, Jamie Lee Currier, Dan Kurtz, Courtney Merrell, and Karen Offereins with musical direction by Liz Baker, voice direction and production design by Renee LeVesque, and Paul Anderson and Spencer Bainbridge rounding out this rockin’ team as the band. The show is set to the music of Jonathan Coulton and this theatrical piece is sure to be unlike any other production you’ve seen this millennium.

Kirk Laughing!

AC: So firstly, what are audiences in store for when they sit down for Portal: The Musical?

KS: I think the experience will be pretty different based on what the audience member is bringing in. Fans of the video game are going to get to see the story they love brought to life in a totally different way. Jonathan Coulton fans will get to hear their favorite songs for the first time again when they’re sung by our characters. And people who don’t know anything about either are going to discover a whole new world that they never knew they were missing.

SK: A lot more feeling and earnestness than you’d expect for a video game based on dimensional rifts and psychotic artificial intelligence. Also – this show passed the Bechdel Test with extra credit! Good Job sticker for us!

AC: So, how did this project come to be?

KS: I played through the original Portal in one sitting and it’s been a favorite ever since. And when I found out the guy who wrote “Still Alive” had a whole repertoire of other work, I got my hands on all the Jonathan Coulton music I could find. But this all really gelled for me when I heard the song “Code Monkey” on the Best. Concert. Ever. album. As soon as I heard that, I immediately knew there was a character behind this song and wanted to bring it to life in a full musical.

SK: Kirk emailed me back in June 2013 after he punched out a first draft during his stay-cation. I replied back and said yes to working on this. I wish it was more dramatic and suspenseful, but there it is. How about we just pretend Kirk threw the script into a Thunderdome death pit and I emerged the victor and claimed the musical as my prize.

Sang Directing!

AC: What’s been the biggest surprise you’ve experienced while rehearsing a musical about a video game?

KS: I’d say it’s just seeing all the passion that people have for this source material. There’s always a great level of support among other members of the theater community, but it’s been wonderful to also see friends who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves “theater people” get really excited about this project because of their connection to the source material.

SK: Agree with Kirk. It’s gotten to the point where rehearsals are going long because there’s too many ideas and too much fun being had. And, oh Lord, the spontaneous singing. Always with the spontaneous singing. People singing and making up lyrics and breaking into song. It’s like witnessing a karaoke playlist for ADHD show choir students on meth.

AC: What’s been your favorite moment so far while working on the show?

KS: I’d have to say it’s those moments in rehearsal where we’ve had everyone sing along together. Our cast and creative team has been wonderful to work with in general, but that’s the moment when I just feel we’re all the most connected.

SK: Yes. This.

I played viola in the orchestra so the power of group singing has never made an impact on me until this show. I finally understand why the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day.

AC: What drink do you think would pair best with the production?

KS: Maybe one of those novelty drinks that comes in a beaker and has some dry ice to make fog spill out over the sides? Because something that is fun and a little creepy with a chance of killing you is basically the character of GLaDOS.

SK: Anything garnished with olives – just one olive so your drink is looking back at you which reminds me of all our little robot friends from the game.

The Creative Portal  Team

AC: What’s been the hardest challenge you and the cast/crew have faced while bringing this story to life (and song!)?

KS: I feel very fortunate in that Sang has been taking on the HUGE task of all the scheduling and coordination of bringing together all of the talent need to bring this together, and I just get to watch. But one challenge that comes to mind was having to cut a couple songs from the script that I really like but that weren’t serving the story (sorry “I Crush Everything”).

SK: Kirk is gracious but having this specific group of talent has been worth all the wrangling. The hardest thing is to pull the show back for a staged musical setting at Theater Pub. I think a lot of past contributors have excelled in presenting fantastic shows in such an unconventional setting. But the scope and creativity of Kirk’s musical, the Portal universe, Coulton’s songs,along with the talent involved have actually been an embarrassment of riches. Having limited time and resources means picking and discarding your darlings.

AC: Tell us more about what you’re up to after this show! Any fun new projects on deck?

KS: Next up for me will be the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which I’m happy to be returning to for the sixth year in a row. I’m looking forward to sharing a night with three other playwrights (Barbara Jwanouskos, Julianne Jigour, and Alan Coyne) as we present three very stylistically different approaches to the gods of sleep and dreams.

SK: After some rest, I’ll be helping co-write Thunderbird Theatre’s next original play. It’ll be a creative collaboration with The Mess sketch comedy, which also has a show up this November.

AC: What Bay Area show (other than this) are you most excited to see this summer?

KS: I’m a big fan of musicals in general, so I can’t wait to see City of Angels at the San Francisco Playhouse and Chess at the Custom Made Theatre Company. I’ve been a big fan of the cast albums of both and neither is a show that you see performed all the time.

SK: I was glad to see The Rules and the Loud and Unladylike Festival, but they both closed this past weekend. After that, probably my usual summer and fall diet of Pint Sized Plays and the Olympians Festival before I hibernate for the winter.

AC: Using only emoticons, how would you describe Portal?

KIRK: — 0 0– >

SANG: 🍰🤔

AC: If your directing/writing style was a song, what would it be?

SK: For this show? “Bizarre Love Triangle.” You’ll see.

KS: Want to be: “Everything is AWESOME!!!” But, actually: “Still Alive.”

See Portal: The Musical only at PIANOFIGHT (144 Taylor Street):, July 18, 19, 25, and 26 @ 8 PM.

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Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: No, I Don’t Want to Take Five

Marissa Skudlarek declines the cliche.

On Saturday, I went to see the Custom Made Theatre’s production of Sam and Dede, or My Dinner With André the Giant. During the final scene transition in the show, as we waited in the dark while the stagehands finished their work, the melancholy strains of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1 flowed from the theater speakers.

I first heard this music when I was fourteen years old and acting in a student one-act play festival – it was used as a piece of transition music there, too. Hearing it on Saturday night, I was transported back in time: I was waiting in the wings of my high school auditorium, in the velvety darkness, listening to that poignant piano music, acutely aware of being a sensitive teenage artist with an unspoken crush on somebody else in the show. Then I shook myself out of my reverie and remembered that Satie’s solo piano works are a cliché of theatrical scene-transition music.

This was only reinforced for me when, three nights later, I saw The Nether at San Francisco Playhouse. This complex play takes place half in a future dystopia, half in a virtual realm that resembles the late 1800s. As such, the sound design during the scene transitions mixes cold modern noise with elegant classical music. And within it, my ear definitely caught the strains of Satie’s mega-famous Gymnopédie No. 1.

I’m not immune to the lure of clichéd transition music. I still cringe when I think about how, the very first time I directed a play, I requested that the transition music be “Take Five.” (In my defense: I was fifteen, the characters were in a waiting room, my drama teacher had requested that our transition music not have any lyrics, and I didn’t know what else to pick.) Since then, I feel like I’ve heard “Take Five” in far too many small black-box theaters, all convinced they’d found music that set just the right tone (hip, sophisticated, laid-back-but-upbeat) to keep the audience’s attention during a transition.

Yesterday I polled my Facebook friends to learn which shopworn pieces of transition music bother them the most. Many people cited lite-classical pieces that premiered in the late 1800s and early 1900s – “cultured” but catchy music that influenced the great film composers of the 20th century. Orff’s “O Fortuna” (this might be more of a film cliché than a theater cliché, because the apocalyptic battle scenes it most often accompanies are found more frequently in film than theater). Holst’s The Planets. Ravel’s “Bolero.” Don’t get me wrong: over-familiar as they are, I like these pieces of music! Ravel’s “Bolero” is the absolute best thing to listen to when you are doing data entry or other busy work, and want to vanquish it in triumph. But it took me right out of the play when I went to see Cyrano de Bergerac at the venerable Comédie Française and heard “Bolero” underscoring the battle scene in Act IV.

Other pieces of music are clichés only within a certain context, to evoke a certain mood. The song I think of as “cliché French accordion music” (and don’t even know the real title of) for scenes set in Paris. “White Rabbit” for anything that has to do with the ‘60s counterculture – this gets bonus points because Alice in Wonderland allusions are already kind of a cliché on their own. “How Soon is Now” or “The Safety Dance” for anything to do with being a teenager in the ‘80s.

Believe it or not, just like Gnossienne No. 1 and “Take Five,” “The Safety Dance” also made an appearance at my high-school one-act festival. (A dude in the class above me wrote a play that referenced it and its bizarre music video.) And I guess that’s what it comes down to: it’s forgivable when high-schoolers make clichéd choices, but I kind of expect local professional theaters, or the Comédie Française, to be more inventive. Thinking about clichés in scene-transition music is a useful reminder to all of us not to reach for the easy choice; to keep expanding our knowledge of the art and music of the past and present; to forge new associations rather than relying on preexisting ideas.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Despite her quibbles about their scene-transition music, she very much recommends you see both Sam and Dede and The Nether before they close this weekend.

In For a Penny: Life on Mars

Charles Lewis on Bowie.

Yes, he was on Soul Train.

Yes, he was on Soul Train.

“It’s only forever. Not long at all.”
– David Bowie, “Underground”

It was about this time last year that I wrote an entry about how much I don’t like my birthday. It isn’t for the sake of being dour, nor is it a day when I walk around full of self-pity (self-deprecation, maybe), I just don’t see the big deal of causing a fuss over my waking up another day. I’ll gladly celebrate the birthdays of others because I love when my friends are happy, but I never mention to them when mine comes up.

It’s only rarely that I let the day bog me down with thoughts of mortality – not even I am that morbid. But this past weekend, I found myself unable to escape those thoughts. It was this past weekend that someone with whom I share a birthday passed away. No, it wasn’t Sarah Polley, Stephen Hawking, or Elvis Presley (who I’m sure has been dead for quite some time), but the incomparable David Bowie. Even if I didn’t share a birth date with someone I admire – who died days later, no less – the fact that I turned 35 and he 69 caught my eye. I’m literally one year away from being half his age.

But again, rather than dwell on the tragedy of his passing, I became fascinated by the ways he chose to spend his final days. Apparently, he was composing the songs for a theatrical musical… about SpongeBob SquarePants. I didn’t see that coming. But what else should we have expected from a man whose life and career were defined by unabashed theatricality?

Bowie-Tesla-lighting copy

When someone I admire dies, I tend to feel a sense of shame that I didn’t know more about them before reading about it, but I’m glad when they put a lot of things into perspective. That’s why I was thrilled to learn that Bowie’s aforementioned theatricality is a direct result of his training in theatre. He actually began training as a mime under Lindsay Kemp and would later take the title role in a critically-acclaimed performance of The Elephant Man. I say this puts things into perspective, because the man was a capable actor. Usually a musician will take the leap into acting (and vice versa) just as way to expand their public profile. Bowie brought a confidence and self-awareness to the roles he played.

Like most people my age and younger, I was introduced to him as the spandex-wearing Goblin King of Jim Henson’s musical, Labyrinth. Yet, when I think of the role of his that truly left an impression on me as a young man, it was his single scene as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Most portrayals of Pilate that I’d seen – both before and after – often portray him as a moustache-twirling who takes a lot of pleasure in flogging this somehow-special Jew in public. Scorsese and Bowie took a different approach. Their Pilate is calculating and intelligent, but he recognizes that this Christ fellow (Willem Dafoe) is also intelligent, if not calculating. Pilate slowly takes steps towards him in an attempt to unravel the enigma of this man who oddly has the public up in arms. When he sits beside him, it’s a subtle way of showing equality between them, despite their official stations, but the scene ends with Pilate acknowledging that he wouldn’t want to be in Christ’s shoes.

For a man defined by grand flamboyance, it’s a wonderful showcase of nuanced characterization. As a budding teenaged actor who was in the middle of his own spiritual crisis, both the scene and the performance left their mark on me. And as that same teen began to ask more and more questions about his sexuality, there was something comforting about figures like Bowie and Prince who showed me that the well-worn tropes of masculinity and femininity were really just costumes in the theatrical production of life. In Theater Pub’s upcoming Morrissey Plays (opening this Monday at PianoFight), one of my characters – who, by all other indications, is hetero – proudly declares that he’d have sex with the eponymous singer because “Heteronormative gender rules don’t apply.” I learned that by watching Bowie.

As you read this, you’ve probably all come across the news that actor Alan Rickman just passed away. If you have any connection to Bay Area theatre, then you already know that Impact Theatre in Berkeley will be closing its doors later this year. We all know that nothing lasts forever, be it a cherished sanctuary or even life itself. As cliché as it may be, it really does come down to how your living days are spent, rather than constantly dwelling on when the end will come at last.

We might not all be able to be groundbreaking musicians, talented actors, parents of award-winning film-makers, and married to supermodels, but those things wouldn’t be unique if everyone could do them. You don’t have to worry about sharing a birthday with someone more accomplished than you, just celebrate you. A guy named David Jones taught me that.

Charles Lewis III takes solace in the fact that he still shares a birthday with Sarah Polley, an actor and director he’s always admired.

Everything Is Already Something Week 43: Kander And Flubb or Don’t Make Me Sing

Allison Page, mistress of horror. And singing. 

Gather ‘round the campfire, young’uns— for here comes the tale of the most foolish of ideas which have so far come to pass on this great earth. YES, this is the tale of Allison singing “Cabaret” with piano accompaniment.

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The year is 2006. I had just finished my first paid acting gig, as Myrtle Mae in a summer stock production of HARVEY several months before. I got that part by way of auditioning with the least age-appropriate monologue for a 21 year old – Martha from WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and when they asked me to sing my song as part of the general audition, I said proudly, “No. I will not be singing a song for you today, for I do not wish to waste your time or mine. I am an actor, but I am not a singer.” I thought perhaps that would mean they wouldn’t even consider me for something, being that I was a weirdo and didn’t do everything they asked. So when I got a part, I was beyond thrilled and surprised and delighted and all that shit. Being paid to act was some super cool bragging rights for me, particularly because I’m not sure I had ever known anyone who’d gotten paid to act before. (This is a good time to remind you that I’m from a tiny town which might as well be on the moon.)

So much was my confidence boosted, that when I scheduled my audition for the same company’s next season, I decided I would sing. It would be magnificent. I chose the song “Cabaret” because…I like that movie, Liza Minnelli made it look so easy, and it didn’t seem as crazy high and complicated as some songs that I had heard in my life.

Definitely exactly how Allison looked in her living room.

Definitely exactly how Allison looked in her living room.

I took a voice lesson. That’s right, a voice lesson. We worked on the song for an afternoon. I was what I like to call Diet Confident. It’s sort of like being cautiously optimistic but pretending not to be cautious even though you are.

On the day of the audition, I drove the 90 minutes to the theater. Sure, there was some wringing of hands, some clenching of teeth, but I considered myself ready to go. I went in and said hello to the person working the door, waited until I was called, went into the theater and greeted the people I had worked with last season. So far, so good. I handed my music to the pianist.

I was probably sweating. I had to be. I don’t like singing. And obviously I don’t like it because I’m not good at it and it makes me nervous. But today would be the day! Today I would crush my own feelings down – pack them in hard like potato chips that have settled to the very bottom of the bag after riding in a truck. I showed the pianist where I wanted to start in the song. I had a specific place I wanted to go from because there was a note I was avoiding. An awful, awful note that I just knew I couldn’t hit. I was avoiding “What good is sitting” because it just felt too low and I didn’t want to start on it for fear of falling apart when it inevitably went awry. All was planned for. All was right.

“Uh, I’m Allison, obviously, you guys know that…and I’m gonna sing Cabaret, from…well, from Cabaret. Heh.”

I look to the pianist, the pianist looks back at me, smiling. I do a big old inhale so I don’t run out of breath. Aaaaaaaand…

“Put down the knitting, the book and…the…UHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”

The pianist is not playing the same thing as I’m singing. I can’t be sure where the pianist was in relation to where I was but it wasn’t the same place, I can tell you that. It fell apart so quickly. All that practice and thought and the whole things collapsed. At some point it just petered out and we didn’t address it. I just paused and then went into my monologue, which – SHOCKER – didn’t go very well because I was freakin’ panicking like the last Tickle Me Elmo was snatched out from under my nose on Christmas Eve 1996 and Tiny Tim was waiting back at home for the last gift he’d ever receive which would now have to be a tube of toothpaste and a necktie. It was a disaster. I piled myself into my ’87 Dodge 600 and drove the 90 minutes back home, crying all the way.

…And that is why I don’t sing, kids. Now eat your s’mores and go make out in your tents, Miss Page has to watch puppy videos on her phone to forget the torment of the past.

What good’s permitting some prophet of doom
To wipe every smile away
Life is a cabaret, old chum
So come to the cabaret

SLEEP TIGHT!

Allison Page is an actor/writer/director/comedy person. You can find her on Twitter @allisonlynnpage

Cowan Palace: A Heart to Heart with THE HEART PLAYS

Ashley Cowan asks producer, Annie Paladino, a few questions about the upcoming February Theater Pub.

Just after you’ve survived the holidays, Blue Monday, and trying to keep up with 2013 resolutions, Valentine’s Day arrives ready to play with your heart. Whether it’s in the form of eating more than your body weight of cupid-shaped goodies, spending the evening with that special someone, or rebelling against another Hallmark driven day in powerful solitude, Theater Pub returns on Monday, February 18th to nurse those candy hangovers and keep the sentiment alive.

THE HEART PLAYS, produced by Annie Paladino, promises eight interpretations of Heiner Müller’s play, HEART PLAY; a 10-line piece of postmodern insight. Known for being one of the top German dramatists of the 20th century, much of Müller’s work is often considered welcoming to multiple understandings rather than held to one linear storyline; developing characters that can disregard the structures of time and space. Keeping with the essence of his style, Annie’s concept explores the openness of Muller’s work by incorporating other art forms (including music and dance) to unravel new meaning.

I had the chance to ask Annie a few questions about the upcoming show while learning a bit more behind her vision for the evening.

What are you most excited about in bringing THE HEART PLAYS to Theater Pub?

I have been wanting to bring this project to San Francisco audiences pretty much ever since moving here in 2009; one of my favorite things about the production is that it really benefits from (and, in fact, relies upon) a cadre of unique and fiercely inventive directors. I’ve been so inspired by the DIY spirit of Bay Area theater makers, and I felt that this piece would really fit that vibe. Ever since attending the first Pint Sized Plays, which I felt was incredibly successful as a full-on production, taking advantage of the physical space and audience relationship in some really exciting ways, I’ve been slowly percolating the idea of Theater Pub as a venue for THE HEART PLAYS, since it follows a similar structure (many very short plays smushed together into an evening, happening ALL AROUND YOU as you sip/chug your Monday night beverage of choice).

How were you first introduced to Heiner Müller and his10-line play, HEART PLAY?

I encountered HEART PLAY in college. This project is the brainchild of Jessica Chayes of The Assembly (NYC), who produced HEART PLAY as an evening of several different interpretations at Wesleyan University in 2006 — “Heart Play(s)”. I was an actor in that performance and it was just an incredible experience, for everyone involved. Then, in 2008, the stage manager of the original production, Rachel Silverman, and I produced “Heart Playz,” using the model that Jess had established two years prior. Both productions were site-specific: the first one took place in various corners of a black box-type theater, and the second one was outdoors. And now we move into a bar!

What do you hope the audience leaves with after attending February 18th’s performance?

A pile of bricks. Or a new lover?

I kid, I kid.

But seriously, I hope that the audience leaves Cafe Royale on the 18th brimming with a slew of contradictions: happiness and sadness, fulfillment and emptiness, enlightenment and existential dread, deep understanding and utter confusion. The text is very open, and each director is likely to project onto it their own feelings about love, connections, selflessness, codependency, you name it.

In ten words or less, could you leave us with a preview of what we can look forward to seeing?

I wrote you a haiku about it, squeezing in at 10 words total:

Backstreet Boys, clowns, blood;
Concertina, opera, dance;
Improv, silent film.

Annie, you had me at “haiku”.

When I was reading up on Mr. Müller, I kept coming across a statement he made regarding his writing. “All art, including mine, is a remembrance of the dead.” It’s a striking sentence and I find it strangely appropriate for this post-Valentine’s Day lovefest. A new group breathes life into a play while the rest of us can reflect on past and present relationships over a beverage and in the company of friends. Most likely you’ll find me with a chocolate smeared face from all the discounted holiday treats falling just a little more in love with Theater Pub. I hope to see you at Café Royale on the 18th for THE HEART PLAYS.