The Real World – Theater Edition: Interview with Christine Keating

Barbara Jwanouskos brings us an inside look at this year’s Olympians Festival. 

This week, since the San Francisco Olympians Festival Indiegogo is at 8 days left, I thought I’d focus on one of the writers in this year’s festival, Harvest of Mysteries. The festival brings together a myriad of different people to create new work – this year, it’s inspired by the Greek and Egyptian gods of the dead. One of the best parts of the festival, from my perspective, is that you don’t need to have an extensive background or know someone in order for your proposal(s) to be seriously considered. All you need is a great idea. From there, the festival builds in small but manageable check-ins with writers, where you share what you’ve been working on and get feedback and encouragement from other writers in the room.

Operating on a very small budget yet still managing to acknowledge that everyone should be paid SOMETHING for their artistic work, this festival builds in a raffle whose proceeds are shared by the poster artists on the night of readings. By doing this, they give artists exposure and recognize that hard work goes into creating art.

As a writer for the festival this year, I’ve had the opportunity to hear short bursts of what Christine Keating is working on and I’m always excited to hear what she’s developed next. So, I thought I’d chat with her a bit more about her creative process and what she’s been up to.

 

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Colorful Christine

 

Barbara: What attracted you to theater? How did you get your start?

Christine: I’ve always been attracted to theatre because I am fascinated by the idea that a group of people can all be made to feel a feeling because of how words are put together by someone else.

I started by writing my own plays when I was about 7 years old, and they were all re-enactments of various horrible tortures people put other people through throughout history. I performed them for my horrified but supportive parents in my living room with my best friends. I acted in high school at the all-boys school in my town because I figured it was a great way to meet boys, and then I realized I actually like the theatre part better. I then realized I was a much better writer and director once I got to college, and have since then been attracted to the new-works scene because I love watching and being a part of the births of creative projects.

Barbara: This is a question borrowed from Mac Wellman – what is the first performance you remember seeing?

Christine: The first show I remember going to was Beauty and the Beast on Broadway – but I remember zero percent about the show, I only remember getting a cool sparkle wand afterwards. The first play I really remember seeing was Measure for Measure in London with my grandparents when I was about 7.

Barbara: How did you get involved in SF Olympians? What do you like?

Christine: I got involved when I wrote for The Sirens (The Sisters Sirene) with my friend Amelia Bethel two years ago. I was attracted to a Greek mythology festival, being someone who likes gore and torture and gossip. But I also was excited by the Olympians because it is a commission-based festival that really commits to nurturing its writers and their ideas.

Barbara: Tell me about how the festival nurtures writers. How is its model helpful for creating new work?

Christine: The writers’ meetings are a built-in community for people to make new connections and build on existing friendships. They’re so supportive of wherever you are in the process, and it’s nice to feel like we’re all struggling for the same thing. The whole festival also connects writers and directors and actors in this huge swirl of “wow this is my community, these are my people” which is such an invigorating experience for artists.

Barbara: Who’s your character and what’s your play about?

Christine: My play is about The River Styx, and while I’m still figuring out my play, I know it’s about being stuck and needing to cross something terrifying and not knowing how, or being afraid of it. It’s got a character who is forced to face all the things she’s messed up in her life, as well as all the things she’ll never get to do.

Barbara: What interesting challenges and/or opportunities have come up in the writing process?

Christine: I have never had writer’s block like I’ve had with this play. I’m normally one of those people who can shut myself up in a room and come out five hours later with the script I was supposed to write, plus 35 pages of another play I wrote by accident. Figuring out what Styx is about has taken me into doing a lot of really fascinating research, and immersing myself in the ideas I want to talk about in a way I haven’t done with other scripts.

Barbara: What stage is your script in currently and what are you excited to hear on the night of the reading?

Christine: It’s in the “I’ve had 15 versions of my first 15 pages” stage right now. I’m really excited to see what comes out of this struggle, and the audience reaction – the best part of theatre is being with other people when it happens!

Barbara: What writing/development do you anticipate having to do between now and the reading?

Christine: I love living-room readings, but I live in under 200 square feet, so I can really only have one if my cast is under 3 people and they’re willing to get cozy, or if someone else has a living room to donate…

Barbara: I’d love to hear your take on Bay Area theater. Why do it here and not in NY or someplace else? What do we have going for us? What could we stand to learn/put into practice?

Christine: Well, first off, I don’t like NYC because within ten seconds of getting into it, I become a huge jerk to everyone. It’s something in the air. I think what San Francisco has is many small groups of people who find that they need to work together and support each other in order to have a thriving arts scene, which means we come up with a lot of different kinds of performance, and new people are always discovering it. We’re also a community that recognises when someone is talented and then nurtures and encourages them to grow in a way I don’t hear my friends in New York talking about.

Barbara: What words of wisdom do you have for people who want to do what you do?

Christine: I think the best words of wisdom I ever received were just someone looking me in the eye and saying “You can do this. This is a hat, among many, that you can wear.”

Barbara: Any plugs for your work or friends’ work happening soon?

Christine: Of course! You should check out the Bay Area Playwrights Festival this weekend – my friend Logan Ellis directed Non-Player Character by Walt McGough. Also, Portal: The Musical is playing next week at Theater Pub, written by Kirk Shimano, whose play for Olympians I will be directing this year! I saw it this week and I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt the overwhelming urge to dedicate the next month of my life to re-playing Portals 1 and 2. And finally, my boyfriend Adam Magill will be in The Thrush and the Woodpecker at Custom Made Theatre coming up next month, and having read the script a few years ago, I am really excited to see what the excellent creative team does with it.

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For more about Christine Keating, check out her website. Her play, STYX, commissioned by the San Francisco Olympians Festival, will be read on Wednesday, October 12 at EXIT Theatre in San Francisco.

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The Real World – Theater Edition: Interview with Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song

Barbara Jwanouskos brings us a double interview with one of San Francisco’s most exciting writing teams.

When I heard about Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song’s idea for a play inspired by the god Oceanus, for the San Francisco Olympians Festival, I was very excited because it seemed like this really interesting meld of Greek mythology, technology and environmental issues. So when I heard that Dan and Siyu’s play had been selected for the New Play Development Program and the Undiscovered Works Series by Custom Made Theatre, I was jazzed for the play to get a further life at other Bay Area theaters. I’ve always been fascinated by writing collaboratively and have started to venture to do this myself as well. When I had the chance to ask Dan and Siyu how they came together, I couldn’t pass it up. Below is an interview with Dan and Siyu about their process and what to expect next Tuesday at the Gallery Cafe.

BJ: Could you each tell me about your artistic background/trajectory? How did you get into writing?

DH: I’ve been a theatre nerd since I had the ability to throw a towel around my shoulders and call it a cape— but veered towards prose and journalism in college. It was after I graduated that my longtime interest in writing, specifically nonfiction, and theater came together when I started to write plays. It’s my hope that my dramatic work has a journalistic quality and the journalism has a dramatic flair.

SS: I studied computer science in school and worked for a few animation/visual effects studios. I was always very interested in stories and storytelling but coming from a technical background, I was always intimidated by the “creative” side of storytelling. But, I took an improv class four years ago on a whim and haven’t looked back. With improv, I found ways to break down stories and characters to patterns and logic that was very conducive to my brain and the way I was trained to approach problems. After doing improv for a few years, the desire to tell more specific and nuanced stories led me naturally to want to do more writing.

BJ: Tell me how you came together to work on Oceanus — what was the idea?

DH: Siyu and I have been friends since we took a sketch comedy writing class way back when. And we’re both alums of the SF Olympians — a one of a kind new works festival that I’m sure your readers are familiar with. When a call for pitches for the 2015 “Wine Dark Sea” iteration of Olympians came around, we were talking and somehow decided that working together would be more fun than working alone. In discussing the possible prompt of Oceanus, a primordial sea god that controlled an underground river that circles the earth, we somehow got on the topic of underwater internet fiber optics cables. And we’re like, let’s write a play about that. Let’s write a play about what happens when a line gets cut and is somehow inspired by a Greek god. Is that how you remember it, Siyu?

SS: Yea that’s about right. When we were going through the topics for pitches, Oceanus stuck out to me because earlier that year my work had suffered a similar internet outage when a fiber optic line got cut and our provider had to send a boat out to the middle of the ocean to fix it. I am a classically trained engineer, so for me it was a nice reminder that while we regard the internet and “the cloud” as ephemeral, they are things that exist in the physical world and have tangible manifestations. We ran through many iterations of what the play would be, but the fiber optic line being cut was the central idea that we developed around.

BJ: How have you worked together to create the piece?

SS: We met in person in the beginning while we were figuring out how to build a play around the idea of a disconnect in the internet infrastructure. Those meetings were mostly just us hanging out and talking about things we wanted to write about. Data, relationships, talking sharks. There was a lot of agreeing. Partly because Dan and I are very polite humans but (hopefully?) more because we are very similar people with a lot of the same interests but we approach the world from slightly different perspectives so it’s always interesting for me to get Dan’s take on something.

DH: Also, lots of g-chatting! We’re actually both answering these questions via a Google Doc right now. One funny life imitating art thing about this process has been that while we were writing this play about people trying and failing to connect across great distances I moved a great distance— to Pittsburgh where I’m currently working on an MFA in dramatic writing at Carnegie Mellon. So as we’ve been working together writing scenes about friends trying to see each other on a video chat we too have been trying to video chat.

BJ: Any interesting discoveries along the way?

DH: I’ve learned a lot about collaborating and how you can share authorship with someone. I think we’re still figuring out our process and how we make collective decisions that reflect both people’s sensibilities. And I’m such an overbearing control freak, so that’s hard. Siyu, I hope I haven’t been a total pain in the ass to work with this whole time.

SS: Ha! No it’s great. I think for me when we landed on a sort of anthology piece with lots of vignettes that was when everything clicked. To Dan’s point about sharing authorship- there are threads that feel very much like Dan’s personality and threads that are very much Siyu’s but my feeling after the SF Olympians reading in November was that the ways the threads connected and the structure felt like something we created together.

BJ: Has the piece changed substantially since the SF Olympians reading? And what are you aiming for developmentally?

DH: It’s about 20 minutes longer. We’ve added several additional scenes to really flesh out the cast of characters we have and to make sure each vignette gets something like a full arc. I also think when we first started working on this we really only envisioned it as something that would be a staged reading. Now, as part of Custom Made’s Undiscovered Works series, we’re trying to envision this thing more as an actual play.

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BJ: What are you hoping to hear at the Custom Made reading next Tuesday?

DH: This play has so many different characters and plotlines, I’m just hoping to see if the audience can follow it all and that each of the vignettes lands in some fundamental way.

SS: We talked a lot about the world we were building to tell all the disparate stories. I’m interested in hearing about what worked for the audience and which characters or scenes didn’t quite sit in the world.

BJ: I’m curious about your creative process and artistic development personally– what do you do (or not do) to keep yourself, or at least feel, a forward momentum?

DH: Spreadsheets. Specifically, I keep a spreadsheet of all the plays I’m working on and where I’ve sent them out, where I’ve been rejected, etc… Accumulation of material feels like momentum.

SS: HA! I’m impressed and mortified at “spreadsheets”. I’m nowhere near that organized (but also not as prolific as Dan) I’m lucky to be an ensemble member with the SF Neo-Futurists, part of that means being in a weekly show for months at a time where we write/direct/perform pieces.

BJ: Tell me about the theater scene either here or more broadly — is there anything you are seeing/not seeing that makes you excited?

DH: All the current dialogue that’s happening about diversity and inclusivity in theatre feels positive. We could see a lot more representation of underrepresented communities out in the world and on our stages, but I’m glad there’s a sense of urgency about getting there.

SS: I echo all of what Dan said. I’m also acutely aware of how difficult it is to be an art maker in San Francisco. Hopefully I’m not setting the bar too low here, but seeing anyone put up original work these days, my reaction is “Yes. Please. More.”

BJ: Any advice that you have for others that would like to do what you do?

DH: Don’t take advice from people who aren’t qualified to give advice? Well, actually, the best piece of advice I heard recently from someone else is: finish things. I think that’s true for writing and life. You don’t know what you’ve got on your hands until you written— figuratively or literally— the words “the end.”

SS: Again, I echo everything Dan says. Just to be different though – I’ll say pursue lots of endeavors and don’t get bogged down in a specific form or medium. Sketch writing isn’t so different from dramatic plays isn’t so different from improv. Trying different forms will expose you to new ideas, new people, and new opportunities.

BJ: Any plugs and shout-outs for other work you have coming down the pike or friends’ work we should check out?

DH: Everyone should keep an eye on the rest of Custom Made’s Undiscovered Works series. On the second Tuesday of every month you can hear new plays by the talented likes of Marissa Skudlarek, Kirk Shimano, and Alina Trowbridge and us (we’re coming back in October with a new draft!). Also, Siyu is one of the members of the totally bad-ass SF Neo Futurists that perform weekly, you should check out their extra special Pride Show, Wednesday, June 15. I’m positive it will be exciting and surprising and very fun.

SS: Dan’s play Subtenant is premiering on June 17th at the Asylum Theater in Las Vegas. I got to see a reading of it a while back and it was so good it made me angry, it was like when Salieri hears Motzart’s symphony and goes into a fugue state. I haven’t tried to poison Dan yet, but it is that good. It will be playing until July 3rd so if you’re in Las Vegas you should definitely make an effort to see it.

DH: Salieri to my Mozart? More like Romy to my Michelle! By the way, rest in peace Peter Shaffer…

You can catch Oceanus this coming Tuesday, June 14th, at the Gallery Cafe at 1200 Mason Street in San Francisco. For more, click here.

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life (On A Friday): Good Talkback, No Backtalk

Good morning! Please enjoy some displaced Marissa Skudlarek to start your weekend!

On Tuesday night, I attended a developmental reading of my play You’ll Not Feel the Drowning. As one of the four plays that Custom Made Theatre Co. selected for the first year of its new-works development program, it is undergoing a process that includes public readings, talk-backs, written feedback — in short, lots of people whom I may or may not know have the chance to tell me their opinions about my still-in-process script. And considering that the last time I had a talk-back, several years ago, someone publicly accused me of slandering the memory and reputation of a good man… I was feeling a little nervous about the whole endeavor.

By their very nature, even the best-run developmental readings and talk-backs can leave you feeling incredibly vulnerable. Here are some thoughts and tips about how to offset that vulnerability. Note that this isn’t about putting your fingers in your ears and saying “I don’t want to hear your feedback!” Rather, it’s about learning how to accept the feedback from a place of grace and strength, so that you and your script can grow and improve.

First, be sure that you’re in a good head-space before the reading. This is something that I could have done better on Tuesday night. I had hoped to leave work on the dot of 5 PM, which would give me over an hour in which to drink a hot beverage, write in my journal, and examine my anxieties and try to set them aside. But, you know, life and the Day Job have a way of intervening, and I didn’t leave the office till after 6. I felt a bit rushed and un-prepared. I started babbling about random stuff on Twitter, as I do when I’m anxious, and then started worrying that all my Twitter-babbling would make me lose followers. Waiting for the bus would’ve compounded my anxieties, so I took a cab to the reading instead. I hoped that this would make me feel like a fancy glamorous playwright, and it didn’t quite do that, but it was still money well spent.

Plan your outfit carefully. This advice might be more relevant to women than to men: in our society, women have more types of clothing options than men do, and unfortunately, many female outfits that read as “pretty” or “dressed-up” do so by enhancing the wearer’s vulnerability. I’m not saying you can’t look pretty or be comfortable at your own talk-back, but I am saying that those qualities are not of primary importance. What should be your priority is to find an outfit that makes you feel powerful. I have a gray knit dress that I pull out whenever I need psychological armor. It’s flattering and comfortable, yes, but it has become my chain-mail. I wore it to a staged reading in 2014 where I had to stand up onstage in front of the guy who’d dumped me six weeks previously; I wore it in early March, when I was on my first assignment for American Theatre magazine and met producer Carole Shorenstein Hayes; and of course, I wore it on Tuesday night. With high heels and brazen bright-red lipstick, no less. It’s not a frivolous frippery; it’s war paint.

Take notes during the reading: this will focus your attention and give you something to do. Note when the audience laughs; note when they seem lost or distracted. Note the moments where you yourself get lost or bored, and ask yourself honestly: is it the actors’ fault, or is it a flaw in my writing? Remember that, just as your primary purpose is not to be pretty or likable, the actors’ primary purpose is not to be entertaining or virtuosic. Rather, they are there to interpret the script in such a way that you gain a better understanding of its virtues and flaws. Hopefully, your actors (like mine) will be talented and committed people who ask you good questions in rehearsal, but the point is that they are there to serve your work. Listen to your actors, and maybe at the reading, something will click for you, and you’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, that actor was totally right, this monologue is way too long and I need to rewrite it” (or whatever).

As for the talk-back itself, I hope you have a strong moderator who knows how to structure the session and lays out solid ground rules. (Stuart Bousel did a very good job of this on Tuesday night, structuring the talk-back in a focused and precise way that allowed for some give-and-take between me and the audience, but kept everyone’s power in balance.) The moderator should emphasize that while you are interested in hearing thoughts and reactions that may spark your imagination, you are not interested in hearing suggestions along the lines of “This is how I’d rewrite your play.” Continue to take notes during the talk-back, especially when audience members make comments that fire your imagination or reveal a new layer of the play to you. The paper and pen are your shield and sword here.

A word about self-deprecating humor. It’s a defense mechanism, and I use it frequently when I have to speak about my work in front of an audience, but I realize it’s not the strongest armor. Essentially, self-deprecation says “I am pointing out my weaknesses in a humorous way so that you don’t point them out in a vicious way.” Yes, self-deprecation fills awkward silences and can make people think that you are charming, but you’re not there to be charming, you’re there to write a fucking awesome play. I wish I were better at talking about my weaknesses honestly and humbly and without giggling. Or, perhaps, waiting for other people to mention them rather than doing it with my preemptive self-deprecation.

More dangerous than the actual talk-back is the informal discussion about your play that happens afterwards. Maybe someone comes up to you and offers unsolicited feedback, in a format that would never have flown with the talk-back’s moderator. Prefacing everything with “Well, this is just my opinion, but…”, this audience member decides it’s time to tell you everything that’s wrong with your play and how he would have done it better.

Perhaps the best strategy in this case is to say “I don’t want to hear it,” but it can be very hard to tell people to just shut up. An alternative strategy that I try to use is to put up a front. Mantras help: anything from “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” to “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds” – whatever makes you feel powerful. Chant that phrase to yourself as you listen to the criticisms. Smile and nod and say “okay,” like a sweet-natured robot. And let his words go in one ear and out the other, as you put up an invulnerable facade.

If that wasn’t quite effective and some of the criticism got through, niggling at you and sapping your writerly self-confidence, this where esprit de l’escalier comes in handy. Walking home, replay that conversation in your head. Feel the shame and anger. And, after having to listen to that “just my opinion” litany of everything that’s wrong with your play, imagine retorting: “Well, it’s just my opinion, but I think you are a tremendous jerk.”

After all, your words got you into this situation; your words can get you out again.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.

The Real World Theater Edition: Interview With Rob Ready

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews Rob Ready about PianoFight, Theater Pub, Short Lived, and $5,000 in prize money!

I caught up with Rob Ready, the Artistic Director of PianoFight, this week to talk about ShortLived, the short play festival that includes 36 pieces by “indy artists of all stripes”.

The competition brings a $5,000 cash prize on the line as competitors duke it out over six regular season rounds and then one championship road. Each round lasts a week and has four performances. The short plays are scored by audience members and the highest scoring piece of each round clinches a spot in the championship round. We’re currently in week five of ShortLived with the championship round right around the corner. The winner will receive a full-length production in addition to the $5,000 cash prize.

Rob gave me background on ShortLived, how it compares to other new play development programs out there, and some of his favorite moments.

Barbara: What’s your background in theater?

Rob: Performing since I was a kid, school and community theater growing up, BFA from NYU Tisch and artistic directoring PianoFight ever since. I had gigs at ODC in marketing and Z Space in biz dev and producing random shows. Oh and I play a drunk Llama every year for Theater Pub. And THAT’S IT.

Barbara: How did ShortLived come about?

Rob: We were coming to the end of our first year running Studio 250 at Off-Market (our old venue), and were talking to Point Break Live about renting three months. We were stoked because it was our first year and we ran a ton of shows and after nine months we were tired. But then they took a tour of the space, said, “This won’t work.” And they bailed. So we had to come up with something that could fill three months and that we actually wanted to do. So we came up with ShortLived, a show that changed each week, and that audiences had a hand in deciding, and where the prize was legit – a full-length production the following year. It’s definitely a slog, but the experience of putting on new plays every week for three months is one that has shaped me as a performer and producer.

Rob-Ready

Barbara: What is the thing you like most about ShortLived and how have audiences reacted?

Rob: The instant community. You bring together a ton of very different artists, and they compete creatively – basically you don’t get any phoned in performances, because there are only four shows per round and there’s money and resources and bragging rights on the line. Watching your peers work to actively be better every night is a cool thing to see. When everybody else is pushing to be better, you push to be better, and there’s an interesting bond that comes from that.

On the audience side too, the act of scoring elicits real opinions and discussion from audience members who have a natural instinct to compare notes during and after the show. Because folks are directly asked to evaluate pieces critically, the chatter after shows tends to be pretty high level, so strangers who happened to sit next to each other in the show will end up having beers at a table after discussing why they scored one piece higher than another. Again, it’s another cool thing to see.

Barbara: How does it compare to other new play development opportunities/venues? What does it offer that others don’t?

Rob: I’m sure there are other festivals that do similar things to ShortLived, but seems like the main differences are that ShortLived:

– gets all 36 plays off book and on their feet
– provides critical audience feedback for artists
– has no submission fee =)
– is hyper local
– lets audiences decide the winner and which plays advance
– offers a legit grand prize of cash money AND a show

Barbara: Favorite moments – how about three, from ShortLived?

Rob: These are gonna be more personal for me, but here ya go:
– In ShortLived 2 or 3, Duncan Wold, Christy Crowley and I put together a 10-minute musical in one day. It didn’t win, but it did really well – and working that fast was very cool.

– Performing Kirk Shimano’s play Inner Dialogue in ShortLived 4. It took second place in ShortLived 3 in 2011, and because the rules were different, it performed every weekend for 13 weeks. So when we brought back the festival after 144 Taylor St opened, it felt like it was a good call to bring back that piece and enter it into the Wildcard Round. Hadn’t acted on stage with Dan Williams since we’d done the piece originally, so being able to perform with my friend and business partner in our new theater was pretty special.

– Producing Megan Cohen’s first play in ShortLived 1.

Barbara: Anything you’re looking forward to this time around?

Rob: The Finals. They are always amazing. They sell out like crazy, the plays are really strong, the crowds are amped, the performers are jacked too and the whole week is just really fun.

Barbara: Plugs/shout-outs for upcoming performances of friends’ work?

Rob: Adventures in Tech by Stuart Bousel and directed by Allison Page. Also Terro-Rama 2 by Anthony Miller and Claire Rice and directed by Colin Johnson. Maggie’s Riff, written by John Lipsky, adapted by his son Jonah with musical direction by his other son, Adam, directed by Faultline AD Cole Ferraiuolo. And yes – they are all here at PianoFight!

For more on ShortLived at PianoFight, click here!

The Real World, Theater Edition: Interview with Jonathan Spector of Just Theater

Barbara Jwanouskos chats up Jonathan Spector, Artistic Director of Just Theatre and a long-time new work advocate in the Bay Area.

Barbara Jwanouskos: What’s your connection with the Bay Area? How are you involved in its theater scene?

Jonathan Spector: I wear and have worn a lot of hats in the theater scene here – which is one of the things I love about this area, that it allows you to do that. I arrived in the Bay Area thinking of myself very much as a director, and still am, though increasingly my own artistic energies are put towards writing. I’m the co-artistic director of Just Theater, and if I’m actually measuring how I spend my time, the truth is the lion’s share these days is with the artistic directors hat on doing all manner of producing, grant-writing, development, marketing etc. I’m not entirely happy about that, but finding ways to make it work.

My company also runs a New Play Lab, which is developing a new play by, among other people, Barbara Jwanouskos.

For many years I was on staff at Playwrights Foundation, where I was a Literary Manager and dramaturg producer and general playwright advocate, and while I was there I was able to work with an endless stream of amazing writers, which was tremendously exciting and edifying.

Jonathan Spector

Babs: Do you think making theater in the San Francisco Bay Area is different than other places? (How so or how not so or both?)

JS: The only other area I know well is New York, where I lived for five years before coming here. I grew up in the DC area, and am familiar with that scene, but have never really been a part of it.

New York is kind of its own thing in terms of theater – I have the sense making theater in the Bay Area is much more like making theater in DC or Boston or Austin than it is in New York. There’s a whole bunch of complicated reasons why this is the case but the two that I think about the most are 1) that almost everyone I knew who made theater in New York (in the “downtown” theater world) was largely making it for other artists. That’s who they were in conversation with. And then if a show got a good Times review this huge other audience would just kind of materialize out of nowhere (at least this was my impression – I was in my early 20s, so probably missed a lot of what was actually happening). Out here, there’s a much more real and actual sense of having a conversation with an audience. You need to, if you’re going to survive as a theater. I mean the kind of relationship say, Shotgun has with its audience, that’s an amazing and special and real thing and so much more interesting and meaningful than just talking to other artists.

This cuts both ways. The richness of conversation amongst the artists, the sense of wanting to make something that all these other people you admire will think is exciting, because of how big and complex that downtown community is, is a large part of why there’s so much exciting work in NYC. But it’s also easy for that to tip into navel-gazing and solipsism if you don’t ever worry about the average non-artist person enjoying or getting anything out of your work.

The other big point is about opportunity and pressure. In New York, there was always a sense that maybe this thing would lead to that thing would lead to another. And it’s not a total fantasy – look at HAND TO GOD, which started as a little downtown show then got remounted at MCC and now is going to Broadway. It doesn’t happen often, but it can happen. And this sense of possibility contributes to a feeling that everyone is generally bringing their A-game into rehearsal.

Whereas here, there’s nowhere to go. I mean, our last show, A MAZE had just about the very best result one could have from a show – we did it in a lesser known venue, it got a great response, got remounted with a somewhat bigger company, got great reviews, sold out most of its run and then…that’s it. Good show, onto the next one. There’s never a possibility of a next step (although maybe this too is changing, with SF Playhouse starting to bring shows to New York…)

And all that other stuff being said, I’m much much happier being here. It’s just a much more livable place and I find deep satisfaction in being part of this community.

The last thing to say about the Bay Area is that it’s maybe unique in how spread out it is. I mean, we consider San Jose and Marin and Oakland to all be part of one community and in a sense we all are – we share many of the same artists who put many many miles on their cars. BUT, I’m also increasingly feeling like these communities are pretty separate. I’m embarrassed to admit that beyond the occasional TheatreWorks show, I’ve only seen one other South Bay show the whole time I’ve lived here. I’ll certainly make the trip into the city to see something at Crowded Fire or Z Space or Cutting Ball, but if I’m just going to go to a show on the spur of the moment, I’m much more likely to stay in the East Bay. Which is maybe a long-winded way of saying that there’s a way in which we’re actually a bunch of separate but connected communities, rather than one big one. I mean this whole SF Theater Pub community that you guys have is something that’s totally foreign to me because I just don’t venture into SF all that much. It seems like that’s one scene, and then we have an East Bay scene, and of course there’s lots of back and forth, but they’re not exactly all the same thing. And I think that’s true across a lot of different spectrums.

I’m also very curious about how this plays out over the next decade or so as San Francisco becomes completely unaffordable and anyone young and eager and new moves to the area.

Babs: How do you stay active as a playwright (or theater artist in general)?

JS: I think being able to shift off between things – so when the writing is going really terribly, I can just think about producing, or maybe directing or vice versa. And having regular opportunities to get to work on stuff with other people – readings or workshops are crucial since I can only really work effectively when I have a deadline.

Through Just Theater’s New Play Lab has lots of great deadlines, and I’m also a Resident Playwright at Playwrights Foundation, which has some as well. I submit to lots and lots of things, so some small percentage of those turn in to actual things I get to do, which give me more structure and deadlines.

Babs: How do you balance your theater/artistic goals with other life priorities?

JS: Not as well as I should.

Babs: What are you working on now?

JS: At the moment, I’m mostly consumed with producing IN FROM THE COLD, but I have two other plays in various stages. One is called ADULT SWIM and is a kind of magic realism play about teenage lifeguards that takes place at a swimming pool. We did a workshop of it this summer that Jon Tracy directed for PlayGround, and it was a lot of fun. I’d love to find a swimming pool where we could produce it. I’m also working on this piece called FTW, which sort of about female friendship and gentrification, with these three girls who just graduated from college and move into an apartment together and are very enthusiastic and idealistic and horrible. We did a reading of it in the Just Theater Lab, and it’ll have another reading soon.

Then there’s the play I’m supposed to be writing for the Lab this year, but have done absolutely no work on since our last meeting. Also I think I’m supposed to write a one-minute play by tomorrow, so I should get on that.

Two Guys

Babs: How did IN FROM THE COLD come to be?

JS: A couple years ago, I learned that this person who had been maybe the biggest spy in the cold war had lived for many years in secret in these townhouses across the street from my high school in the DC suburbs. He was literally #1 on the KGB hitlist for many years, and there was something very disorienting to me about the combination of this high-stakes life and death stuff overlapping with the kind of ultimate banality of the place I grew up. So that was sort of the jumping off point, and I wrote it over the course of about six months in the Just Theater Lab, and then it had a couple readings, in Aurora’s Global Age Project and at Playwrights Foundation, and then we got a grant for it so we decided to produce with my company.

I was a hesitant about us producing it, because it’s not exactly the kind of work that my company typically produces – it’s a little more of a regular play play, but everybody in the company wanted us to do it, so we did. It’s funny – a couple years ago I was having dinner with Thomas Bradshaw and sheepishly confessed that I had started writing plays. And he was like “so you’re gonna produce your work then, right?” And I said in all sincerity that I didn’t know if we would, since this thing I was writing wasn’t necessarily a typical Just Theater show. To which he said, “You’re a liar. You have a theater company. You’re gonna produce your own plays.” So maybe it was inevitable.

And then of course there is this strange lag time between writing a play and having it produced. This was only the second full length play I’d written, and I finished the first draft about three years ago. I think my writing has evolved a fair bit since then, so it’s very strange to sit in rehearsal and think, “I would never write something like this now”. But you also have to respect the thing that it is, and try to make the best version of that rather than trying to completely rewrite it to be something more like what you would write at this moment if you were starting from scratch, since that’s just an endless hamster wheel you can never get off of.

Babs: What is the best or worst advice you’ve been given as a playwright?

JS: One thing that an agent told me once that I think is very true is that theater is it’s a one to one business. That the way you build a career as a playwright isn’t by having a big hit show that everyone loves, but by one person reading your work and liking it and wanting to advocate for you and then another and then another. It’s a series of one on one relationships that develop over time.

This is great to remember because it takes a lot of the pressure off any individual show or reading being too important, because even if it’s a disaster, in the long run that’s not what matters. On the other hand, it also means that the thing that does matter – other people liking your writing – is almost completely out of your control. All you can do is write the plays and get them out there.

The other thing I think about a lot that I also thing is really true is the notion that writing is basically like exercising – the idea of doing it is horrible, actually doing it is okay, and you feel great once you’ve done it. I find it helpful to remember that for so many of us, including many writers I admire, writing is just this awful, painful, unnatural thing that part of your brain will do anything to avoid.

For instance, I sometimes get together with the other PF Resident Playwrights to ostensibly just sit together and write, but I’d say probably 50% of our time is spent talking about how much we procrastinate and avoid writing. There’s solace in remembering you’re not alone in this.

Babs: Any words of wisdom for other playwrights trying to develop their craft, get produced and make connections with other theater people?

JS: Find the work you like, and find ways to hang with the people making it – volunteer, assist, stuff envelopes, whatever. Read lots of plays and see lots of plays. Send your work out.

Babs: Anything else you would like to share, plug or shout-out?

JS: In From The Cold runs through November 23rd at Live Oak Theater in Berkeley. TBA members can get $15 tix. We have a stellar cast. Julian Lopez-Morillas, Harold Pierce, Sarah Moser, Seton Brown and David Saniako. Christine Young directed. Everybody’s doing terrific work.

The next Just Theater show comes up right after and is this completely jaw-dropping piece called We Are Proud to Present… by Jackie Sibblies Drury. This show is not to be missed. Seriously. It’s one of the best plays of the past ten years, and I think all the bigger theaters in town were kind of scared of it (with good reason – it completely terrifies me), so we ended up getting to do the Bay Area Premiere. We’re partnering with Shotgun on it, and it’ll run Feb – March.

Also in February, Anne Washburn’s play Mr. Burns is at ACT. It’s sheer genius. Go see it. And Peter Nachtrieb’s got a new show that’s about to open at Z Below, which is sure to be hilarious.

In From The Cold

You can find out more about Just Theater’s work on their website, http://www.justtheater.org. Jonathan’s play, IN FROM THE COLD will be at the Live Oak Theater in Berkeley for two more weekends.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a playwright and blogger. She is part of Just Theater’s New Play Lab this season and will be presenting a one-minute play during the 5th Annual One-Minute Play Festival on Dec. 15-16. Follow her on twitter @bjwany.

Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: Hostess with the Mostess

Marissa Skudlarek talks about that moment in every aspiring playwright’s life when they realize the importance of passed appetizers in their journey to fame and fortune. 

Last night, I invited some actors over to my living room so that I could hear how my new translation of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (Theater Pub’s April production!) sounds when read aloud. This is the second living-room reading I’ve hosted in the past few months, so I thought I’d use my column today to offer some advice about how to make your living-room reading a success.

  • If you’re both playwright and host, you are probably feeling understandably nervous about hearing your work read aloud. What if the actors don’t get it or don’t like it? What if they think you’re a loser? (The hilarious What Should We Call Playwrights tumblr features many jokes based on the premise that playwrights always feel nerdy/gawky/uncool next to actors – well, it’s funny ‘cause it’s true.) Therefore, it is imperative to find ways of distracting yourself and channeling your nervous energy in a more productive direction. While you’re waiting for the actors to show up, clean your kitchen, your bathroom, your living room. Then clean them some more. Think so much about cleaning that you don’t have time to worry about hearing your work read aloud for the first time.
  • When people show up, continue to distract yourself with trivia in order to avoid getting anxious and nervous. For me, this usually takes the form of bustling about, ensuring that my guests are comfortable, offering to get them drinks and food, etc. In trying to be the Perfect Hostess, I forget that I am also the Imperfect Playwright.
  • Food, food, glorious food! I cannot stress this enough. Actors are easily bribed by the prospect of getting food for free. You’d be amazed at how many actors you can convince to show up at your house just by promising to feed them dinner – even if they hardly know you or they live far away. And if you are a great cook or live near a popular restaurant or deli, point that out! I serve Arizmendi pizza at my living-room readings, and I shamelessly highlight that fact in my email invites. (Unless my reading is on a day when Arizmendi is closed, in which case I serve frozen spanakopita.)
  • So yes, there’s definite truth to the rumor that actors will do anything for a free meal. But don’t believe the rumors that actors are a bunch of boozer wastrels who’ll pitch a fit if alcohol isn’t available. Well, they’re not like that all the time, anyway. Most actors understand that a living-room reading is ultimately work, not fun, and that it doesn’t profit the playwright if people are tipsy. I never offer alcohol at my living-room readings, and no one seems to mind (though, when it’s over, there’s always a few people who ask if there are any good bars around where they can grab a nightcap before going home…)
  • Force yourself to get rid of your preconceived notions about your writing, and pay attention to what the actors are actually doing with the script as they encounter your words for the first time. You may be tempted to bury your nose in the script out of nervousness or embarrassment, but that’s not the best way to learn whether your play works or not.
  • Ask for feedback as honestly and genuinely as possible, and listen to what your actors have to say; it can be very helpful. I am perhaps guilty of a bit too much self-deprecation when asking for feedback (last night I kept talking about how my translation probably sounded very rough/stilted/awkward — it wasn’t actually that bad), but excessive arrogance is, of course, much worse than self-deprecation. I also often find it helpful to let my director lead the discussion of the script, rather than trying to lead the discussion myself.
  • Little problems may crop up when you’re hosting a living-room reading, but they’re not usually insurmountable. Last night, a wasp was buzzing around my living room, and when I opened my oven, it somehow set off my hair-trigger kitchen fire alarm. Fortunately, I was able to solve both problems by opening a window. And surmounting small crises together can be a kind of bonding experience – I was meeting some of the actors for the first time last night, and apologizing for the wasp/discussing how to shoo him away gave me something to talk about before the reading started. Moreover, I think my favorite line from Orphée is “Look in a mirror and you will see Death at work like bees in a glass hive.” So, by the end of the evening, it felt oddly appropriate that the wasp had decided to join us that night.

We playwrights often comment on how odd our process is: lots of solitary work, followed by a brief but intense period of collaboration with other artists. I think that’s why the living-room reading can feel so fraught: it’s the moment when playwriting goes from solitary to collaborative. You’re coming out of your cave and dealing with real, live human beings, not just characters on a page. But take a deep breath and try to enjoy it. After all, you became a playwright because you love the complexity of human interaction, right? So follow the above tips and your living-room reading will be like one of those plays that begins with a vague uneasiness, but ends with a sense of happiness and hope.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Writing this column has made her realize that she has the same initials as Martha Stewart. For more, find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.