Theater Around the Bay: Elizabeth Gjelten and Jimmy Moore of “Don’t I Know You?”

The Pint-Sized Plays have one more performance, on Monday the 29th. We continue our series of interviews with the 2016 Pint-Sized folks by speaking to writer Elizabeth “Liz” Gjelten and director Jimmy Moore of “Don’t I Know You?”

“Don’t I Know You?” takes place in a dive bar frequented by expats from an unnamed, war-torn country. A conversation that begins with the cliched old pick-up line “Don’t I know you?” eventually takes a darker turn as the characters’ past actions come back to haunt them. The play features actors Daphne Dorman, Sarah Leight, and Alexander Marr.

Gjelten

Playwright Liz Gjelten is new to Pint-Sized this year.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized this year? 

Liz: I saw Marissa Skudlarek’s post about it on the “Yeah, I Said Feminist” Facebook group, especially noting that she wanted submissions from women playwrights with interesting roles for women. I’d had this idea knocking around in my head, and the bar setting gave me the impetus to see it out.

Jimmy: I heard about it after directing a short play for Theater Pub’s On the Spot in March, which I was welcomed to by Stuart Bousel! (Aren’t we all?)

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

Liz: Creating a full life for the characters in a brief period of time. Also, avoiding the temptation to squeeze too much in.

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

Liz: The chance to see something through from idea to completion in something less than two years! Also, the chance to play with form and ideas.

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

Jimmy: I love the collaboration between writer, director and actors as we move ink on paper to bodies in space with real stories.

What’s been most troublesome?

Jimmy: Nothing to speak of.

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Liz: The poet Diane di Prima. So many playwrights, but especially Suzan Lori-Parks, Naomi Wallace, Adrienne Kennedy, Erik Ehn, Caryl Churchill.

Jimmy Moore

Jimmy Moore returns to Theater Pub after directing for us in March.

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

Jimmy: Too new to the scene to have one other than…that guy with the eyes.

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

Liz: Sorry, I have a weird mental block about celebrities: They look familiar, but I almost never can remember who they are.

Jimmy: Angelina Jolie cause we have a kickass fight sequence.

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

Liz: I’ve got two full-lengths in later stages of drafting: One about the difficulties of cross-cultural marriage and the after-effects of torture on both the former detainee and the whole family, and a dark comedy set in 1967 about a pastor’s wife who kills her husband. Next up: A site-specific piece about people living in supportive housing in the Tenderloin.

Jimmy: I produce and direct a project called Drunk Drag Broadway. We take an entire Broadway musical and give it the “Drunk History” treatment in drag along with live musical performances boiled down to 30-45 minutes. Our next production will be at SF Oasis in December. We have already produced “Wicked-ish” and “Beauty Is a Beast.”

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

Liz: Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment at Crowded Fire this coming September. She’s always surprising and brilliant. And I know this is a ways away, but I’m super excited about seeing Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium at ACT next spring. It’s a rare and wonderful occurrence to have a Lepage piece staged in San Francisco.

Jimmy: Disastrous at SF Oasis! D’Arcy Drollinger is brilliant and hilarious.

What’s your favorite beer?

Liz: Any good IPA with fresh ginger juice added (I’ve been known to bring it to bars in a baggie).

Jimmy: The orange ones…. cause I don’t like beer much. 🙂

Remember, you have one more chance to see “Don’t I Know You?” and the rest of the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays! Monday, August 29, at 8 PM at PianoFight.

 

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The Real World- Theater Edition: An Interview With Star Finch

Barbara Jwanouskos brings you the author of H.O.M.E.

I heard the title first, H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually) and I thought, “okay, now, that’s gonna be good…” I see it and it’s this meld of worlds, ideas, curiosities, passions, and most importantly, issues I care about, so I was immediately drawn in. It’s speaking to something mythic and larger than life, but is what our every day is made of. When we think of what the future – or even the present – will be like and wonder who’s going to celebrate in the success and who will be left out? With people being pushed out of their homes and places around the Bay that they grew up, this is palpable and real. And the play opens that door. For me, it was the first time in a long time that I felt connected to something that I can only relate to the word, “spiritual”. It’s the type of theater that captures you and draws you into its share experience and shared space. It lets you be there and lets you listen as the ideas, the words, the characters come to life on stage. Gives you a place where you can share this with others.

Suffice it to say, I was moved deeply.

Campo Santo is currently putting on the production at The Strand Theater by playwright, Star Finch, who was born and raised in San Francisco. I was able to connect with her after seeing the show – thanks to Sean San Jose. I asked her about her process and how H.O.M.E. developed.

Star Finch

Star Finch

Barbara: Tell me about your artistic and writing background. What drew you to theater?

Star: I’ve always used writing as a way to make sense of the world or my experiences within it since I was a teen. It wasn’t until later in life that I found the courage to admit to myself that I wanted to be a writer and should actively pursue it rather than hide it away in notebooks. I found my way to theater specifically in grad school when I randomly took a course with Michelle Carter, despite my focus being in fiction. I immediately fell in love with the plays we went to see, the playwrights she introduced into my world, and the layers of energy that could be folded into great dialogue. Michelle Carter became a mentor and later a great friend who was instrumental in encouraging me to pursue my path.

Barbara: Do you have any influences – shows you saw that you were inspired by, books or essays, teachers, family, friends or mentors, etc. – that show up in your writing?

Star: I’m very much inspired/influenced by the playwrights Caryl Churchill and Suzan-Lori Parks. Everything David Lynch produced made a big impact on my childhood subconscious (why I was allowed to watch his work as a kid is its own mystery). Michelle Carter’s emphasis on the dance of beats and subtext within dialogue stays with me. Kara Walker and Wangechi Mutu’s work speak directly to the ghosts I carry. And lastly D. Scot Miller’s manifesto on AfroSurrealism was a revelation that gathered all the tiny fragments of my lived experiences and named/framed them into a whole.

Barbara: What’s your process like and did anything about it change in writing and developing H.O.M.E.?

Star: My process was always to write late at night after my kids and husband had gone to bed and the house was finally quiet. I would write by hand in notebooks until I felt like I had a solid chunk of scenes and then I’d type them up on my computer to get a view from a different angle. For the most part that remains my process in that I always begin by hand in a notebook. For whatever reason I can’t just jump onto a computer/laptop and take off. What was different with H.OM.E was that it was written within Campo Santo’s informal writing group, Clika. So in this case I was sharing scenes, hearing scenes read by actors, and getting feedback from the very beginning. Prior to that I had only written something all the way through on my own and then asked for feedback on the draft as a whole.

Barbara: I’m curious about your thoughts on how you engage with collaborators, for instance once you’re in the rehearsal room. What was it like to work with Campo Santo?

Star: Campo Santo is an amazing place to call home. Sean San Jose truly feels like a long lost brother. I don’t know if it’s because we’re both SF natives or what, but we just vibe really well and make each other laugh. There is a trust involved that speaks to our commitment to speak truth in matters of injustice, hypocrisy, or oppression within the stories we seek to tell in our work. In the rehearsal room we spent a good two weeks sitting around a table asking questions. Everyone at the table was given a voice to seek whatever answers they needed to best help them embody the text. In a way we were all sitting in the dark with a script and it was important to build the world collectively through conversation.

Barbara: Could you tell me about H.O.M.E. and what inspired or prompted you? Do you have a favorite moment or line in the play? What draws you to it?

Star: The original prompt for this play was a photograph, by Chris Arnade, of two sex workers in the Bronx looking through a telescope. The photo got me to wondering about space travel, access, privilege, and who would be “allowed” to travel to new worlds in the future. It’s difficult to pick a favorite line or moment in the play, but one of my favorite images is the idea of a mythological Tupac Amaru Shakur living as a prophet in a cave on Mars. That thread throughout the piece became even more poignant for me after the death of Afeni Shakur in May. I love the idea of writing the spirit of their names across the solar system.

Star's inspiration for H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually). Photo by Chris Arnade.

Star’s inspiration for H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually). Photo by Chris Arnade.

Barbara: What do you think about where San Francisco and the Bay Area is at now (theater scene or beyond) and where we’re going?

Star: In theater (and beyond) I think San Francisco and the Bay Area talks about wanting diversity and inclusion but it’s for the most part just talk. The word diversity is often a matter of using numbers to secure grants, create a “colored” brochure, or pat oneself on the back for being a progressive city. But true progress requires actively dismantling and rebuilding as an act of restoring normalcy, not feigning nobility. Organizations, neighborhoods, workplaces ought to be diverse because the very nature of Nature itself is diversity in abundance. The gap between the image the Bay Area projects and the reality of who is made to feel welcome here grows wider every day.

Barbara: Is there anything that drives you to write within (or out of) that context? How so?

Star: Yes! Because I know how diverse, vibrant, wild and open this city used to be. I’m always writing from a place that questions the sanity of what we’re conditioned to consider normal, and who benefits from said conditioning.

Barbara: Are there other theaters, writers, performance artists, artists of any media for that matter that you think are doing really something really interesting? Work you enjoy experiencing?

Star: I like how Ubuntu Theater Project and AlterTheater are putting on shows in unexpected spaces. Local artists like Paul Lewin and Lexx Valdez produce imagery that speaks to my soul. Over the last year I’ve been leaning heavily into reading women playwrights such as Naomi Wallace, Kia Corthron, Annie Baker, and Sarah Kane. And of course I have to again mention Michelle Carter and Sean San Jose. For some reason I tend to be most inspired and excited by documentaries about space, nature, creatives, and subcultures–the more wild and far out, the better. Foreign films are another source of inspiration. Is it odd for a writer to find most of her inspiration from visual art forms? LoL! I love all of the exhibits SOMArts puts on and the ways they engage with gentrification and its erasure.

Barbara: What do you love most about San Francisco?

Star: My old answer to the San Francisco question would be its diversity. I grew up around people who looked like me, in addition to having friends/neighbors from a wide variety of different cultural backgrounds, and sadly when I look at my children’s class photos that is no longer the case. My new answer to what I love most about San Francisco now would be the food. Whenever I take a trip out of town I quickly realize how unbelievably spoiled we are here. Not to mention its beauty. The city is gorgeous from every angle.

Barbara: Any words of wisdom or thoughts for people who want to do what you do?

Star: The most important bit of wisdom I can offer is Keep Writing!! (and sending your stuff out.) Even when it might seem pointless or as if no one is interested, press on. You never know when an opportunity might present itself and when it does you’ll want to have your best work on deck and ready to be read. It also helps immensely to be part of a community—so seek that out whether it comes from school, volunteering at a theater, taking acting classes, signing up for a workshop. Making authentic connections with your fellow creatives is a vital part of the process.

Barbara: Any upcoming projects you or friends are working on in the Bay Area?

Star: I have a play called Bondage that will be produced by AlterTheater next January. It’s a play that came about through my year long residency with them in AlterLab 2015. Campo Santo also has a bunch of cool collaborations on the horizon through their residency with Magic Theatre and beyond. First up is Nogales, written by Richard Montoya and directed by Sean San Jose. The best way to keep up with them is via their Facebook page: CampoSantoSF

Image by Lexx Valdez

Image by Lexx Valdez

You can check out H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually) at the Strand Theater through the weekend. Click here for more information.