Theater Around The Bay: The Great Blog Recap of 2015 Part II

Today we bring you three more annual round ups from three more of our core blogging team: Ashley Cowan, Will Leschber, and Dave Sikula! More tomorrow and the Stueys on Thursday!

The Top Five Thank Yous of 2015 by Ashley Cowan

1) You’re inspirational, Molly Benson
Aside from the incredible PianoFight mosaic we all continue to marvel at each time we’re in its proximity, you’ve managed to continue bursting through the creative scene while balancing parenting a small child (which I’ve personally found to be an incredibly difficult thing to do). You’re acting, you’re lending your voice to various projects, you’re making art, and you’re out there inspiring me to keep trying. So thank you and please keep it up!

2) You’re so great to work with, San Francisco Fringe Festival
2015 was the second year I had the chance to be a part of the SF Fringe Festival alongside Banal+ with Nick and Lisa Gentile, Warden Lawlor, Dan Kurtz, Tavis Kammet, and Will Leschber. (And this year, Eden Davis and Katrina Bushnell joined the cast making it even stronger!) Now, I always love working with this dynamic bunch but this time around, I was returning to the stage after a two year hiatus and straight off of having a baby and returning to work full time. Thankfully, everyone was so flexible and kind that when I had to leave a show immediately after my performance (skipping the other pieces in the lineup and curtain call) to relieve our babysitter, I was greeted with support and understanding. It made all the difference so thank you again.

3) You trusted me to be a 90’s (Rose McGowan inspired) teenager, Anthony Miller
Last year when I had to back out of TERROR-RAMA, I was pretty crushed. I don’t totally know how I lucked out in getting a second chance with this October’s reading of TERROR-RAMA 2: PROM NIGHT but oh, man, I loved it. After feeling a bit rusty and uncomfortable in my post baby body, Anthony Miller and Colin Johnson let me play this sexy queen vampire 90’s teen. And I had the best time. Anthony’s script is truly hilarious and under Colin’s direction, the reading was a great success. But I was also left with that electric, “yes! This is why I do this!” feeling after I had the chance to be involved and for that, I’m super grateful. Thank you, Anthony. And thank you Rose McGowan.

4) You Made Me Love Being an Audience Member Again, In Love and Warcraft
One of my theatrical regrets from this past year was not singing praises or appropriately applauding creative teams when I had the chance. In this case, I didn’t really take the opportunity to give a shout out to all involved in Custom Made’s recent show, In Love And Warcraft. I was unfamiliar with most of the cast but, wow, they were delightful. The script was smart, sweet, and funny (and totally played to my nerdy romantic sensibilities) and the whole thing came together into such an enjoyable theater experience. I had such fun being in the audience and invited into a world of warcraft and new love. Thank you, thank you.

5) You Make Me Feel Tall and Proud, Marissa Skudlarek
In our two part Theater Pub blog series, Embracing the Mirror, Marissa and I uncovered new heights. Or, really, uncovered the heights that had been there all along and allowed us to kind of honor them. I’m so thankful that Marissa suggested this collaboration because the topic allowed me to reconnect with tall actress friends from my past while reevaluating my own relationship to my height. Plus, getting to do it with Marissa was a treat in itself. So thank you, Marissa for continuing to positively push this blog forward and allowing me to stand next to you!

Thank-You-Someecard-2

Top Five 2015 Films That Should Be Adapted Into A Stage Play by Will Leschber

Hi all! Since I spend most of the year trying to smash together the space between theater and film, why not just come out with it and say which bright shining films of 2015 should end up on our great stages here in San Francisco. So here are the top 5 films of 2015 that should be adapted to a San Franciscan stage production…and a Bay Area Actor who’d fit perfectly in a key role!

Now, since my knowledge of the vast pool of Bay Area creative performers isn’t what it used to be, lets just get fun and totally subjective and pull this recommendation list from a single show! And not just a single show… a single show that Theater Pub put up… AND I was in: Dick 3… Stuart Bousel’s bloody adaptation of Richard III. Yeah, talk about nepotism, right? Booyah… lets own this!

5) Room
This film adaption of the acclaimed book by Emma Donoghue would fit easily into a restricted stage production with the cloying enclosed location in which most of the action takes place. It’s a moving story dictated by creative perspective and wonderful acting, things that shine onstage. Brie Larson owns the film’s main performance but it if a bay area actress could give it a go, I’d love to see Jeunée Simon radiate in this role. Her youthful energy, subtle power, and soulful spirit would kick this one out of the park.

4) Steve Jobs
Regardless of the Aaron Sorkin lovers or haters out there, this film is written like a three-act play and would work supremely well on stage, as it does on screen. It’s talky and quick-paced as long as you keep up the clip of lip that the script demands. The perfect pairing to tackle this towering role of Steve Jobs and his “work wife” Joanna Hoffman (played respectively by Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet) would look excellent cast with Jessica Rudholm as Steve Jobs (Jessica is an unbelievably powerful performer and can command any room she steps into…perfect for Jobs) and Megan Briggs as the Joanna Hoffman character: resourceful, smart and can stand up to powerful chest-puffing men. Done!

3) Mistress America
This buoyant film by Noah Baumbach follows a New York pseudo-socialite, Brooke, embodied perfectly by Greta Gerwig, who has to fall a bit from her idealized youthful 20s phase of life towards something a bit more….self-realized…aka adulthood. At times a situation-farce houseguest comedy, and other times a story of searching for self discovery, the themes would read equally beautifully on stage. The second lead in this film is a bright-eyed, I-know-everything-in-the-world college freshman named Tracy, who befriends our beloved Brooke character. It’s a dual journey. Allison Page has more confidence than all the college freshman I know. She’d play the crap out of that! And for the main Greta Gerwig part… this is a hard role to fill with quirk and empathy, so I’d say let’s give Sam Bertken a shot at it! Sam as a performer has the whimsy of a confident yet lost late-20-something, but the charm and determination to persevere with her/his quirk intact.

2) Spotlight
This journalistic procedural which chronicles the story behind the Pulitzer-winning newspaper story of sexual abuse and the Catholic Church would be a heavy sit. But the story is powerful, the characters are true, and the setting lends itself to small scale theater. To play the stalwart Spotlight department newspaper lead editor, played by Michael Keaton in the film, lets go with Carl Lucania who’d give the role a nice imprint. AND to boot, the Mark Ruffalo character (who is the shoulder of the film, in my opinion) would be handled wonderfully by Paul Jennings. These two have the exact performing skills to juxtapose unrelenting determination and quiet, frustrated fury which fit perfectly for this story.

1) Inside Out
Now I hear you…animated films with complex imaginary landscapes and vistas filled with old memories might not immediately scream stage production. But if The Lion King, King Kong or even Beauty & the Beast can do it, I know some insanely talented set designers, costume designers and lighting specialists could bring this world to life. More importantly, the themes of passing away from youthful phases of life, how hard and lonely a childhood transition can be, plus learning that life isn’t simply divided into happy/sad/angry/scared memories. The complicated reality is that our selves and our memories are colored with a mad mix of many diverse emotions and characteristics. Coming of age with this palette of imagination would be glorious on stage. And who better to play the central character named Joy, than the joyful Brian Martin. He just adorable…all the time.

Five Things I Learned on My Last New York Trip by Dave Sikula

1) “Traditional” Casting Is Over
Well, not totally, obviously, but as Hamilton showed (among so many other things), anyone can play anything. I’m old enough to remember when musicals had all-white casts, then, little by little, there would be one African American male and one African American female in the ensemble, and they always danced together. Gradually, you began to see more and more people of color in choruses, and they were now free to interact with anyone. Now, of course, pretty much any role is up for grabs by any actor of any race or gender – or should be. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see an Asian female eventually playing Hamilton himself. Whether this – and the other innovations of Hamilton – percolates into more mainstream fare remains to be seen, but it’s certainly to be hoped.

2) A Good Director Can Make Even the Most Tired War-Horse Fresh and Vital
For my money, there aren’t many major playwrights whose work has aged more badly than Arthur Miller. Yeah, Death of Salesman is still powerful, but the rest of the canon isn’t faring so well. Years and years ago, I saw a lousy production of A View from the Bridge, and even then, it struck me as obvious, tired, and dull. Ivo van Hove’s production, then, had a couple of hurdles to overcome: 1) it’s a London import, and 2) it’s, well, it’s A View from the Bridge. Van Hove’s 2004 production of Hedda Gabler (surely one of the worst “important” plays ever written) was enough of a revelation that I wanted to see what he could do with this one, and boy, did he come through. Tough, powerful, and visceral, it’s nothing so much as what we hear Greek tragedy was so good at. It was so good, I’m anxious to see his upcoming production of The Crucible, and see if he can make another truly terrible play interesting.

3) Even a Good Director Can’t Make a Tired Old War-Horse Work
In 2008, Bartlett Sher directed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, a show I’d seen too much and from which (I’d thought) all the juice had long since been squeezed. By digging deep into the text and back story, though, Sher and company were able to make it vital, exciting, and relevant. Flash forward to last year and the reunion of some of the band to remount The King and I, another show whose time has all but passed. Despite breathtaking sets, more delving into two-dimensional characters by very good actors (Hoon Lee and Kelli O’Hara are doing superb work in the title parts), and marvelous staging, it just sits there. The problem to these tired old eyes is that musical dramaturgy of today doesn’t always fit well with that of the early 1950s, and the show itself just has too many fundamental flaws to work anymore. It’s a pity, because a lot of time and effort is being expended in a futile effort to make the unworkable work. In the words of Horace, “The mountain labors, and brings forth … a mouse!”

4) There Is No Show So Bad That No One Will See It
We’ve dealt with the awfulness of China Doll before. Despite barely having a script and offering audiences little more than the chance to watch Al Pacino alternately get fed his lines and chew scenery, it’s still drawing people. Sure, that attendance is falling week by week, but last week, it was still 72% full and took in more than $600,000. Running costs can’t be that much (two actors, one set), but even with what imagines is a monumental amount being paid Mr. Pacino, it’s probably still making money. If I may (correctly) quote the late Mr. Henry L. Mencken of Baltimore: “No one in this world, so far as I know – and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

5) It’s Still Magical
Despite the heavy lifting of New York theatre being done off- and off-Broadway and regionally, there’s still something that can’t be duplicated in seeing a really good show on Broadway that has a ton of money thrown at it – especially one you weren’t expecting anything from. I went into shows like An American in Paris or Something Rotten or – especially – Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 knowing next to nothing about them and came out enthralled and invigorated by what writers can create and actors can do. In the best cases, they give me something to shoot at. (And in the worst, multiple lessons on what to avoid … )

Ashley Cowan is an actress, playwright, director and general theater maker in the Bay Area, alongside writer/actor husband, Will Leschber. Dave Sikula is an actor, writer, director and general theater maker in the Bay Area who has been in plays with Ashley and Will, but never both at the same time.

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Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Male And Female, I Created Them

Marissa Skudlarek as Everybody.

Six years ago, for the first time, I wrote a male character that I felt really, truly proud of. He was the first male character I’d created that I felt like I understood — someone not cobbled together out of bits of other male characters from other works of fiction, but a real person with flaws and virtues. Furthermore, while I can sometimes go too far in thinking that male characters need to be possessed of a certain alpha-male masculinity, this character was not defined by his gender. He was a complex person who happened to be a dude.

The secret might be that, to a large extent, I based this character, Jon, on myself. In my very first plays, I’d started from an assumption that men are not like women; men are inherently different from me. (Hence, perhaps, the predilection for writing alpha-males.) But as I grew older, I came to understand that while there are many men out there who are nothing like me, there are also men who share many of the same qualities I do. It perhaps helped that this was one of my first plays where the conflict didn’t center around romance (I was pretty sure that men didn’t experience romance the same way I did), but around themes of self-actualization and escaping the daily grind.

Jon is frustrated; he feels bored, awkward, and out-of-place in his office. He is defensive and pedantic. He tries to be self-deprecating, but it backfires. He kind of thinks he’s better than everyone else. He’s more grouchy and angry than I tend to be (probably because it’s more socially acceptable for a man to be outspokenly angry than a woman) but, to a large extent, he’s me, with all the flaws I had when I was just out of college, only in a male body.

The play containing the character of Jon is no masterpiece. It will probably never be staged. And I realize that “just base all of your characters, male and female, on yourself” is no way to develop a varied and interesting body of work. But I’m bringing this up today because it’s my way of pushing back against those people who say that men can’t write women, or women can’t write men. This idea, however, seems predicated on an assumption that all men are one way and all women are another way. No man can understand the nature of being female; no woman can understand the nature of being male. But why throw up such walls in the name of ideology, when art is supposed to promote empathy and understanding?

Indeed, criticism these days can be very doctrinaire and ideological. In the new movie Mistress America (written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig), a college freshman, Tracy, writes a short story in which the central character is based upon her new friend Brooke, a 30-year-old New Yorker of limitless ambitions and limited means. Predictably, Brooke eventually lays eyes on the story, and becomes furious at how her teenage protégée Tracy has “betrayed” her by turning her into a character. Brooke’s friends take Tracy to task, too. Not only has she betrayed Brooke’s confidence, but also her story paints all its female characters in an unflattering light. One woman hurls questions like “Do you believe in a woman’s right to choose?” and “How do you feel about female genital mutilation?” at a bewildered Tracy.

This scene is over-the-top satire, but the reason it’s so funny is because it captures something about the way we evaluate art in the 2010s. Brooke’s friends think it’s more important for Tracy’s story to promote a feminist message than for it to be truthful, or interesting, or complex. You can also read this scene as Baumbach and Gerwig having a laugh at themselves, embedding a criticism of their own movie within the screenplay before anyone else can make that same criticism. Although they’ve written a very smart movie with two complex female characters at the center of it, an overly ideological critic could still take them to task for writing about women with messy lives who do some manipulative and underhanded things.

Taking women to task for depicting female characters in supposedly unflattering ways; insinuating that women can’t write male characters because men are too different… it’s all two sides of the same coin, and that coin is “letting ideological considerations become so overwhelming that it’s impossible to write anything at all.”

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Working Title: Lost in Transition

This week Will takes a look at Custom Made Theatre’s free reading series showcasing Dealing Dreams, a new play by Jeffrey Lo.

Transition. We all take notice of the big shifts like graduating college or getting a big job but the micro shifts (or lack of shift) in our daily lives comes to define who we will be. A work in progress, we all are. Anyone familiar with the creative process knows how integral change and refinement are to creating something of value. Custom Made Theatre is inviting you to a part of that process. Their Free Reading Series continues this month by showcasing a new work by local playwright Jeffrey Lo. Lo’s new play, Dealing Dreams, concerns itself with the myriad transitions that mark the lives of many modern mid-twenty-somethings.

These characters are smart, talented and college educated. Yet, they can’t quite shift away from the trapping nest of youth adulthood. Some cannot fly off to adult jobs, some cannot fly to adult relationships, some just cannot fly. It’s about many things: technology, adulthood, self identity (who am I without a job…who am I out of school…what’s my purpose…I was supposed to take over the world), who grows up, who needs to take steps back wards to step forwards.

The play reminds me of a thematic mash-up between Noah Baumbach’s 1995’s meandering college wit-fest Kicking and Screaming and David Fincher’s brooding, gaze into social alienation, The Social Network, (the best film of 2010, in my opinion). The former follows a group of friends who are about the leave college. They are smart, educated, and possibly terrified at the thought of life after college. They are witty enough to sharpen their tongues around campus circles but will that help post graduation? Is that a useful life skill or academic party trick? Which of them will be set adrift without class to attend? Kicking and Screaming spoke to me at a time when I was about to leave college unfinished and drift around my home town for a few years without purpose. You bet I identified with these intellectual loafers.

kicking_and_screaming

The Social Network is less about purpose and more about our place in the world. These characters do not loaf about parading out their witty words around for kicks. The characters in The Social Network wield their intelligence like a weapon and purposefully lash out with it to gain an upper hand, what they perceive as an upper hand at least. Though social warfare has consequences. The Kicking and Screaming crowd have a strong circle of friends with romantic possibilities but no where to go. As The Social Network fades to black our antihero has built the most far reaching and influential social site to date yet looks upon the vastness of it alone. Was it worth the cost?

social_network

Dealing Dreams lives around this playground; the youthful playground of purposeful ambitions, social fissures and ambling self-development. Like all good pieces surrounding technology, Jeffrey Lo’s new work also reminds us that these plays are not about technology; they are about how we use modern tools (social networking, online dating, genius playlists, etc) to navigate our world and how those tools affect how we define ourselves and relate to one another. Only when we look back can we see what was lost in transition.

Custom Made’s new free reading series piece will be directed by Christine Keating and will show Tuesday, Feburary 25th. For more information check the facebook event page, Free Reading Series – Jeffrey Lo’s “Dealing Dreams” http://www.facebook.com/events/253231238191609

Sources:

Kicking and Screaming (1995). N.d. Photograph. IMDB.comWeb. 18 Feb 2014.

The Social Network (2010). N.d. Photograph. IMDB.comWeb. 18 Feb 2014.