Theater Around the Bay: Alan Coyne & Juliana Lustenader of “Bar Spies”

The Pint-Sized Plays begin their 2nd week of performances tonight! We continue our series of interviews with the folks behind the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays by speaking to writer Alan Coyne and director Juliana Lustenader of “Bar Spies”!

“Bar Spies” is a spy-fiction pastiche, full of false identities, double-crossings, and heightened tension. Actors Courtney Merrell and Andrew Chung show off an impressive array of accents and some slick trench-coated style as the two spies.

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Playwright Alan Coyne has a sense of humor.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized, or, if you’re returning to the festival, why did you come back?

Alan: I wrote a piece for Pint-Sized last year (“Relativity”), and this year I figured I’d have another go. I can’t write without a deadline, and this festival gives you that plus a setting, so it’s exactly what I need to write something.

Juliana: I first got involved with Pint-Sized last year as the writer of “To Be Blue,” directed by the wonderful Neil Higgins and featuring the hilarious duo of Eden Neuendorf and Tony Cirimele. The show was such a success last year, I knew I wanted to come back. I’m super excited to return as a director this time!

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

Alan: For me, the hardest thing about writing a short play (or anything) is getting started. And after that, it’s translating the amazing idea in your head into the least-clunky language possible.

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

Alan: Knowing that everything in it has to matter. That helps focus me on what I actually need to put in, and what I can do without.

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

Juliana: The most exciting moment for me so far this year was watching my actors read the script for the first time out loud while Alan and I watched. I couldn’t stop smiling as Courtney and Andrew took these two silly characters and brought them to life so easily despite the ridiculous accents we are making them do.

What’s been most troublesome?

Juliana: Scheduling! But that’s what I get for wanting to work with such talented folks.

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What are your biggest artistic influences?

Alan: P.G. Wodehouse and Douglas Adams. They are who I would want to write like, if I could. For this particular play, it’s John Le Carre, who wrote Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; “Bar Spies” is very much a parody of that genre, and he, for me, is the best spy writer. And I owe a little something to Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood, which is also a spy parody play. And Chess, which is the musical I’m rehearsing for at the moment, and is set during the Cold War.

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

Juliana: Sean Connery, because he is the best spy with the best accent.

Alan: Alec Guinness, who played the main character in the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and did so definitively. Luckily for me, Courtney Merrell pretty much is Alec Guinness, so that worked out.

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

Juliana: Brian Martin is the first to come to mind, though we did do a scene study project in college together. Still, I think it would be a treat to work with him in a more professional setting.

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

Alan: My next writing project is for the San Francisco Olympians Festival, it’s called Hypnos, and it’s an excerpt from Shakespeare’s lost play, Cardenio. It’ll be performed Saturday, October 15. And my next acting projects are the aforementioned Chess for Custom Made (September/October), in which I play The Arbiter, followed by Feste in Twelfth Night at the Metropolitan Club on Saturday, November 5, which Juliana is also directing.

Juliana: Up next, I’m directing Twelfth Night as part of Shakespeare at the Club. I’m also performing in Chess at Custom Made Theatre Company and Avenue Q at New Conservatory Theatre.

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

Juliana: The Fringe Festival at the Exit Theatre.

Alan: The Olympians Festival is always wonderful, everyone should check that out at the EXIT this October. I had the opportunity to participate in Musical Cafe this year, and they’re doing another showcase in November, I highly recommend keeping an eye out for that. And PianoFight always has something good going on, especially shows which feature Andrew Chung.

What’s your favorite beer?

Juliana: Right now it’s Old Rasputin’s Russian Imperial Stout, but I’ll drink whatever you buy me.

Alan: For this show, I recommend drinking a pint of (Alec) Guinness.

“Bar Spies” and the other Pint-Sized Plays have 3 performances remaining: August 22, 23, and 29 at PianoFight! 

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Theater Around the Bay: Marissa Skudlarek and Adam Odsess-Rubin of “Cemetery Gates”

We continue our series of interviews with the folks behind the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays by speaking to writer Marissa Skudlarek and director Adam Odsess-Rubin of “Cemetery Gates”!

Inspired by the classic Smiths song, “Cemetery Gates” is a vignette about two moody, pretentious high-school seniors who have snuck into a bar with fake IDs in order to try overpriced cocktails, quote poetry, and imagine a world in which they could be happy. Sailor Galaviz plays Theo and Amitis Rossoukh plays Flora.

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Writer Marissa Skudlarek goes for a moody-rainy-day aesthetic.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized, or, if you’re returning to the festival, why did you come back?

Marissa: I have a long history with Pint-Sized. The first edition of the festival, in 2010, was also the first time any theater in San Francisco had produced my work. I had a play in the 2012 festival as well, and then last year, I came back to serve as Tsarina (producer) of the entire festival, the first time that it was at PianoFight. I can’t resist the lure of an imperial title and a rhinestone tiara, so I signed on as Tsarina again for the 2016 festival. Meanwhile, I had originally written “Cemetery Gates” as a submission for The Morrissey Plays, Theater Pub’s January 2016 show. The producer of The Morrissey Plays, Stuart Bousel, didn’t end up picking my script, but he said “This is a good play, you should produce it in Pint-Sized this year.” And, well, the Tsarina gets to make those decisions for herself. It’s good to be the Queen!

Adam: I had been an actor at PianoFight in The SHIT Show and Oreo Carrot Danger with Faultline Theater, but I really wanted to break into directing. I studied directing at UC Santa Cruz, but no companies in the Bay Area seem to want to hire a 24-year-old to direct. I sent my resume to Theater Pub and I’m so grateful they are taking a chance on me.

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

Marissa: I feel like I allow myself to indulge my idiosyncrasies more because, hey, it’s only 10 minutes, right? Last night I was talking to Neil Higgins (a frequent Theater Pub collaborator who directed “Beer Culture” in this year’s Pint-Sized Plays), and he pointed out that both “Cemetery Gates” and my 2012 Pint-Sized Play “Beer Theory” are very “Marissa” plays. They are plays that I could show to people and say “This is what it’s like to live inside my head.” Writing a full-length often means seeking to understand the perspectives of people who don’t think or behave like me; writing a short play lets me burrow into my own obsessions.

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

Adam: I love creating theater outside of conventional theater spaces. I’ve worked with Israeli and Palestinian teenagers in Yosemite and taken Shakespeare to senior-citizen centers, but never done a play in a bar. PianoFight is my favorite bar in the Bay Area, so I’m thrilled to be creating theater in their cabaret space.

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

Marissa: Sometimes it can be complying with the length-limit, though that wasn’t a problem with “Cemetery Gates.” Creating vivid and complex characters while only having a limited space to define them.

What’s been most troublesome?

Adam: My script is six pages. Trying to create a full theatrical experience in under 10 minutes is a really creative challenge for a director. You want a full dramatic arc while also fleshing out your characters, which isn’t easy to do in such a short period of time. And yes, scheduling too. The actors in my piece are both very busy with other projects, so our rehearsal time was limited.

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Marissa: Ooh, that’s a daunting question, so I’m going to re-frame it as “What are the biggest artistic influences on ‘Cemetery Gates’?” Well, there’s the Smiths song, obviously, and the fact that I wish I’d discovered it when I was a teenager rather than when I was about 25. There’s my weird obsession with a clutch of Tumblr blogs run by teenage or early-twentysomething girls who post about what they call “The Aesthetic,” which seems to mean pictures of old buildings in moody light, marble statues, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, modern witchcraft, dried flowers, the idea of being this vaguely wistful girl writing in her journal in a coffee shop, etc. And, while I didn’t consciously realize it when I was writing the play, I think it’s probably influenced by one of my favorite recent films, Xavier Dolan’s HeartbeatsHeartbeats is the story of two very pretentious Montreal twentysomethings — a gay guy and a straight girl, like the characters in “Cemetery Gates” — who both fall in love with the same man. The movie is aesthetically lush and painfully funny. Dolan obviously loves his characters while at the same time acknowledging that they are completely ridiculous — which is exactly how I feel about the characters in “Cemetery Gates.”

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

Adam: I’d love to see Harry Styles from One Direction play Theo in Cemetery Gates. What can I say? He’s just so cute and pouty. It’d be great to see him play an alienated gay teen sneaking into a bar to wax poetic about Oscar Wilde. Molly Ringwald would be an excellent Flora — the ultimate angsty teenager who longs for something better in a world full of constant disappointments.

Marissa: Hmm, the trouble here is that both of my characters are 18 and I feel like I don’t know enough about who the good teenage actors are these days. Maybe Kiernan Shipka as the girl? I loved her as Sally Draper on Mad Men.

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Director Adam Odsess-Rubin is also looking very aesthetic here.

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

Adam: I’m very jealous of anyone who has had the opportunity to be on stage with Radhika Rao. She blows me away as an actor and teacher. She’s such a light in the Bay Area theater community, and such a talented artist. Her passion to create change through her art is what every theater artist in the Bay Area should strive for.

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

Adam: I’ll be directing three pieces for the SF Olympians Festival this year, which I am so excited about. My parents gave me a picture book of Greek mythology when I was very little, and so I can’t wait to bring some of these tales to life in a new way on stage. Anne Bogart talks about the importance of mythology in theater, and Anne Washburn touches on this in a big way in Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, which I assistant-directed at A.C.T. and the Guthrie Theater under the late, great Mark Rucker. I was so moved by Washburn’s unique argument for theater as this invincible storytelling form.

Beyond that, I’d love to direct a full-length show next year at a theater company in the area. Artistic Directors, you’ll be hearing from me soon.

Marissa: Revising my long one-act play You’ll Not Feel the Drowning for a staged reading on September 13, part of Custom Made Theatre’s Undiscovered Works program. Finishing a one-act play based on the story of Macaria, Hades and Persephone’s daughter, for an Olympians Festival staged reading on October 14. Planning and hosting a celebration of the Romantic era to take place over Labor Day Weekend. Attending a friend’s wedding in Oregon in mid-September. Trying to keep my sanity in the midst of all this (seriously, it’s a lot right now).

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

Adam: I saw Eric Ting’s production of We Are Proud to Present… at SoHo Rep in NYC in 2012 and it was the single greatest production I’ve seen, period. I can’t wait to see his production of An Octoroon at Berkeley Rep next season. I love Annie Baker and am looking forward to John at A.C.T. And Hamilton – my God! I’m not original in saying this, but that show is brilliant.  I’m so glad SHN is bringing it to SF. I don’t know what the smaller theaters have planned for next season yet, but Campo Santo and Z Space produce great work. New Conservatory Theatre Center is an artistic home for me. I’ll see anything they produce.

Marissa: The Olympians Festival, of course! The theme this year is myths of death and the underworld, and I’ve been writing a lot of weird death-haunted plays this year (including “Cemetery Gates”) so that fits right in. Also, a bunch of my friends and I read or reread Pride and Prejudice this year, so I want to plan a field trip to see Lauren Gunderson’s P&P sequel play, Miss Bennet, at Marin Theatre Co. this Christmas.

What’s your favorite beer?

Adam: Moscow mule.

Marissa: The Goldrush at PianoFight — bourbon, honey, and lemon, good for what ails ya.

“Cemetery Gates” and the other Pint-Sized Plays have 3 performances remaining: August 22, 23, and 29 at PianoFight! 

Pansy Blog #3: A “Pansy” Progress Report!

Evan Johnson updates us on his show as it steadily moves towards production.

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

The “Pansy” Progress Report continues and we’re thinking happy thoughts!

Pansy Program Print Ad

At a production meeting a couple weeks ago, Rene Vasquez (NCTC’s lovely and smart publicist) was talking with Ben Randle (Director of “Pansy”) and myself about various things we could do to “engage audiences and invite participation”, especially after the performance ends, which is when all the juicy stuff is still sinking in (hopefully). We talked about dressing up the lobby space to allow for after show discussions to happen, which would be kinda cute…maybe a wall that people pin their stories onto, or a giant image that might somehow invite participation..Since our show deals so much with queer history and it is happening during Pride Month, it was a good conversation to have.

We also discussed inviting 6 Guest Speakers to come see “Pansy” and open some topics for greater dialogue, live, onstage, following the performance. Doing so, we thought, might contextualize the piece with factual accounts and jumpstart even more intergenerational dialogue. At the meeting, I got really excited about this prospect.

Side note: I started working as a Barista at Spike’s Coffee in the Castro in 2009. Since then, I’ve become more curious about history, about my time now, about queer lineage and the city I live in. The shadows here. Small chit chat while making lattes can add up over time and I know there’s a lot of rich CONTENT that I can now give to queer storytelling and queer playmaking because of it. I thank Spike’s’ owner Mike Delgado, for keeping me around this long and supporting me artistically, SO MUCH. I interviewed customers from Spike’s while writing “Pansy” and I know that the person I’ve turned into since moving to San Francisco (Evan 2.0?) is certainly due to my time at Spike’s shootin’ the shit and being social.

At the tail end our our meeting, Ben, Rene and I compiled a list of local queer legends (our dream list) and I’ve already begun contacting people. Actually, as of today, we have 5 of the 6 slots filled and we will be releasing all 6 of our Guest Speakers’ names once we have the full list confirmed. 🙂

In other news, our photo shoot with nightlife photographer Cabure Bonugli (Shot in the City) was splendid – his photographs are so rad and appropriately sleazy and we couldn’t be happier with our flier art by Ernesto Sopprani! The image I shared above, was cooked up for an ad space in NCTC’s current production’s program! Stay tuned for more images!

In the coming weeks I will be meeting more with Rene and Ben to flush out the details of the Guest Speakers and how we’re going to structure that, promote the concept, etc. Also, we need to capture some video soon (for the video segments), we’ll be getting the fabulous Zack Kasten involved with that. Like I’ve previously mentioned, Zack’s work is so closely aligned tonally with the “Pansy” text and story, we’re just so thrilled to be collaborating with him.

I am also busying myself with line learning (7,700 words!) in preparation for when we start officially rehearsing the play mid-May. A 5 week intense rehearsal schedule like you’ve never seen! I’ve got lots to do and I’m just trying to keep swimming…er..flying! At the moment..I think I’ll make a sandwich.

Hope everyone is enjoying this beautiful San Francisco weather! Stay tuned for more updates as we prepare for the big World Premiere Run of “Pansy” June 14-29th at New Conservatory Theatre.

XOXO
Evan

P.S. Holler at me! I’m on Twitter! @EvanLJohnson

Pansy Blog Post #1: Make Believe A Little

Today we launch a new semi-monthly guest blog by Bay Area writer/actor Evan Johnson, who will be chronicling his process as he brings his new show, Pansy, to life at the New Conservatory.

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I must’ve known already, at least on some level, that the Boy Who Never Grew Up was actually a middle aged woman with a pixie haircut, strapped down breasts and a pouch full of plastic glitter confetti. But it was 1993 and I was 7 years old and that whole “suspension of disbelief thing” still really worked because I clapped harder than anyone during Tinker Bell’s near-death scene; it was my clapping, I felt, that helped save her life.

PANSY opens in June. 3 years in the making. It’s the most ambitious project I’ve ever worked on. What started as an investigation of the queer shadow aspects of Sir James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan story has eventually transformed itself into something more immediate, more local and more magical. I have been working with the ingenious Ben Randle, a local theatre director who was introduced to me by Ed Decker, producing Artistic Director at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, where PANSY has been in development since 2010.

Ben and I were set adrift, making this script, on our metaphoric raft of make believe, escape, sex, shadows, time and growing up. On these themes we rode till we arrived at the second star from the right.

Peter Pan was the first play I ever saw. I spent years after first seeing Cathy Rigby fly above my head, bent over lit birthday cakes and wishing for one thing only, as I extinguished each little flame: to fly. It was cheesy, impossible and sensationally sentimental. That was my childhood, though, hours and hours of playtime spent making myself believe in things beyond all doubt. I was Peter Pan and everyone else was everyone else. I deluded myself on purpose, for what purpose?

I grew up in the shadows of giant redwood trees, where I’d chase moving specks of light in the forest as a favorite pastime. I was lucky to have a truly gorgeous palette of colors to amuse and inspire me, rich earthy browns with green moss and ferns everywhere.

THE GAY 90’s

In the same “wrinkle in time”, also in San Francisco, as I was being sprinkled with confetti pixie dust, a lot of people were dealing with loss on a scale so horrific I can only imagine. Hidden from me of course, as a child, somewhere in the shadows, AIDS deaths were severely on the rise globally; reality for many was a tangled mess of pharmaceutical legislation and social stigmas.

Also in 1993, exactly 20 years ago now, queer punk fashions, music and culture were in full swing. Pansy Division, a local sex-positive “queercore” band, had just released their first LP. Parties like Club Uranus and Klubstitute provided escape and revelry to “femmes” in black leather jackets. Drugs, sex and music were escape from the harsh realities of funerals and fundraising for survival. Punk and club-kid aesthetics gave a lot of newcomers to the city a new community to be proud of.

Fast forward to the present. And to my play PANSY. See, I’m 27 years old and still writing plays and playing make believe.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary describes “Juxtaposition” as “the act or an instance of placing two or more things side by side; also : the state of being so placed.”

In crafting PANSY, I’ve created a “2-character/split-timeframe solo play” in which a modern day lost boy homosexual connects with a deceased lost boy homosexual via artifacts left behind on VHS tapes.

Actually my elevator pitch is this: “In Evan Johnson’s new solo play PANSY shadows stir in modern day San Francisco when Michael discovers a time capsule in his basement. As Michael looks through VHS tapes, audio cassettes and wrinkled party fliers, parallels begin to emerge between his life and that of 90’s gay club kid Peter Pansy.”

The script, to put it simply, has gone through quite a few changes or “stages of development”. And my mind of course, has been plagued with doubts and reservations. Is this too big a project for me? Am I getting it right? Will the work be flimsy or stale, overwrought or under-researched? I guess THAT’S WHY IT’S TAKEN SO LONG – in case you’re thinking, “3 years, geez! I could write a play in 3 years!” It is however now (mostly) finally complete in a very polished-feeling “rehearsal draft” and we will be putting it up on it’s feet- in front of a real paying audience- in a short matter of months. 3 months to be exact.

I THINK I CAN, I THINK I CAN

Early in the writing process, I was driven by a nostalgic fascination with Peter Pan and by my own feelings of “stunted growth” both internally and externally. The gay community and places like the Castro seemed to be stuck in a state of deep freeze. I had to take stock of these feelings, we made lists and I wrote rants. I wrote “from my generation’s point of view.” Which was weird. But that’s what happened. I mean, we recycle the same liquor sponsored rainbow banners each year in June and we march with our various interest groups. We aren’t as angry as the queers were in the past, hell, maybe we aren’t even as liberated! It feels like we’re all Peter Pans, trying to stay young forever, just acting selfishly out of our own best interests. This was all great fodder for conversations about the piece we were making; so, with my rambling notes and whatnot, off we went to go write a play!

At first, I sought out intergenerational connections and would-be lost bits of insight. I wanted a greater sense of time and place. I wanted to grow up and feel connected to this place as a home.

I felt a tugging and personal sense of responsibility to say something meaningful, anything at all, which might speak to that initial feeling of being stuck in PAUSE mode.

PUSH PLAY

The origins of this piece included also a newfound sense of realism around making work. I guess I had been influenced by my peers, by performing friends of mine who were moving away from making “theatre”. There was a general drive away from making narrative work or work which was dubbed “populist.” People I knew were becoming increasingly preoccupied with performance as public act or witnessed act or contextualized theory. And, to be honest, I was bored at those shows, I was feeling frustrated and I wanted to see and feel something else.

The solo shows from the 80’s and 90’s, for instance, were seeping with cultural significance, that was back when “queer theatre” was radical and vital and images of survival and protest were necessary to our community’s growth and solidarity.

The desire to do so much with this project has at times weighed so heavily on my heart that typing one single line of text became next to impossible. It was too big and I was too small. I think this sense of being dwarfed by all of history and time was desperately wanting some stage time also. So that’s how some of the other threads became full on components of the piece.

THINK HAPPY THOUGHTS

Since June of 2010, we’ve hosted two official work in progress showings at NCTC, I have interviewed 17 local queer history keepers about “San Francisco-as-Neverland” and I have worked with two guests dramaturgs, Louis Jenkenson and Steve Yockey, respectively. I have many people to thank and a lot of people I am indebted to.

I will be writing weekly on this blog to chronicle the remaining 3 month process which will culminate in our big fancy World Premiere production. You can look forward to hearing all about how we (Ben and I) get our PANSY baby to fly!

I hope you’ll join me by reading this blog and seeing PANSY in June at NCTC. It should be an awfully big adventure.