Theater Around The Bay: An Interview With Joan Howard and Rebecca Longworth

Sam Bertken steps in to guest write and interview Joan Howard and Rebecca Longworth, the producing/directing team behind “Aesop Amuck.”

A few weeks ago, I took some time after a weekend rehearsal to sit down with Rebecca Longworth and Joan Howard, the collaborative force that founded Samuel Peaches’ Peripatetic Players, winners of the 2013 Best of SF Fringe Award for “O Best Beloved,” a devised adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Sprawled cross-legged on the mats at the Main Street Theater in the Excelsior, I got to know more about what drove them to start the company, the source of their passion for children’s theater, and why audience participation might not be something to dread.

SB: What in particular draws you to staging children’s literature, adapting them for the stage?

RL: What draws me to children’s literature… I think, because it’s imaginative and kind of magical without necessarily having magic. Everything’s very dramatic and colorful and big and broad and also very funny.

JH: I like children’s literature because it always tells a story first. To me, it seems like the stories and the characters are the most important thing. For example, between that and adult literature. A lot of adult literature has, “I’m the author telling the story and I’m going to talk about myself as the author,” and I’m like, “I don’t want to hear about you, I want you to tell me a good story.”

Telling a good story! photo by Tim Guydish

Telling a good story! photo by Tim Guydish

SB: So the genre sort of naturally predisposes it to the stage?

RL: I mean, it depends on what the particular work of literature is but in this show in particular, in Aesop’s Fables, there’s actually a lot less color and detail which means that there’s more room for imagination.

JH: Yeah, with super colorful characters and a very clear story.

SB: Have you always done this kind of adaptation work with this specific genre or specific adaptation style? Or is this relatively new within the past few years?

RL: In terms of adapting children’s literature to the stage, it started in 2013 when the two of us wanted to do a show together and we were trying to figure out, “Well, what kind of show would we want to do?” And of course Joan was like, “It has to have a story! F**k this non-linear narrative b******t!” You can transcribe that as well.

SB: I totally will.

RL: And I was like, “Well, I’ve always wanted to adapt fairy tales and we were talking about what we like, shows that we really liked.”

JH: And stories we read as kids.

Nothing beats a good faerie tale, after all.

Nothing beats a good faerie tale, after all.

SB: What were those?

RL: The ones that are illustrated by Mercer Mayer that have the little monster. Little Critter’s Mother Goose was the one that I had and in it he’s putting on a show and all of the scenery are flats with stamps on them saying, “Rented From Joe’s Costume Rental.”

JH: Talking about like aesthetic visual also brought in the idea of medieval pageant wagons and Renaissance theater and how the scenery moved with simple mechanics.

RL: There’s also this more sophisticated sense of humor that kids actually get, which I see in The Muppets a lot. At first you’d think, “isn’t that a little a little sophisticated for a kid?” But it’s really not at all.

The complex discussions of the Muppets cater to all

The complex discussions of the Muppets cater to all

SB: Why children’s theater? Why is this art important to make?

RL: I think the reason it’s important is because of the way in which we’re doing it. By taking it on this wagon out to a park and setting it up and doing a show and then packing it away and leaving, this show has a higher percentage of people i’ve never met before that have seen it, so it means that like our work is being seen by entirely new audiences.

JH: Instead of our friends just coming to our show to support us.

RL: Right, which, as we all know, is something that plagues the theater community. In other shows, we’re doing it for our friends to come see on their off nights. I think this show is really important because we both have this love of public space.

JH: It’s this spontaneous delight. To me, it’s the magic that harkens back to when the circus came to town. People were like, “Oh my God, the circus is in town. There are the great tents and we’re actually going to make a date with our family to go out and do this thing that we don’t normally do, and experience our community and our town square or our field out next to the schoolhouse where they’ve set up.”

RL: I’m really interested in having interesting, fun, cool and also family accessible events happening in smaller parks. We could do a free Shakespeare show but those end up having hundreds of people, and that’s nice and all but there’s less intimacy between the actors and the audience. For sure, they’re accessible in that they’re free and you come with your picnic blanket and you can plop down but you can’t necessarily talk to the actors afterwards.

JH: And they don’t come off the stage.

SB: What’s really important for a children’s lit adaptation? What kind of theatrical tropes should be included?

RL: For me, it’s what i hear from kids that they want to see. They actually want to see how it’s done. They do want to answer questions when you directly look at them and ask them a question. I think it’s refusing to be like, “Oh, we have this fourth wall because we’ve all agreed on this fourth wall and I’m sorry if you didn’t get that memo, five year old.” We’re inviting it to happen.

JH: One of the things that is very important to me are the moments where people really bond as an audience. When you’re in the audience and you want to listen to what the little kid is suggesting. I feel like it really brings people together in a way where they’re actively engaged together as an audience, which is different than just watching.

Unpacking the FluxWagon can prove challenging! Photo by Serena Morelli

Unpacking the FluxWagon can prove challenging! Photo by Serena Morelli

SB: What is the biggest challenge of this work?

JH: There’s a lot of challenge in just the logistics of the wagon itself. The realities of having to tote a thing that unfolds into a stage on the back of a truck on a small trailer. The practicality of having something that’s out in the elements over time. I mean, the wood is warping and the floorboards are curling up and there’s this constant upkeep, which is why we changed over time to more durable and technologically advanced material, but it takes away a lot of the heart .

RL: It’s challenging to have a new location every time, too. It means that you don’t necessarily settle into the run. There’s always a problem like, “Oh, no one can actually hear us in this part of the world, the wind’s blowing a lot and there’s always like different—”

JH: There’s a dog under the stage! That’s the challenge, but it’s also the beauty.

RL: It’s the challenging beauty.

JH: As an audience member when i see performers who are genuinely engaged onstage dealing with what’s actually happening in real life, even if it’s not what’s scripted—especially when it’s not scripted—I find that utterly delightful.

Utter delight. Photo by Serena Morelli.

Utter delight. Photo by Serena Morelli.

For more information on the current show, Aesop Amuck, including performance times and locations, check out https://aesopamuck.wordpress.com.

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Introducing The Directors Of Pint Sized IV! (Part One)

Pint Sized Plays IV is back tonight for it’s third performance! This year our excellent line up of writers is supported by an equitably awesome line up of directors, so we thought we’d take a moment to introduce some of them and find out more about who they are, what they’re looking forward to, and how they brought so much magic to this year’s festival.

Tell the world who you are in 100 words or less.

Charles Lewis III: I’m one of those rare “San Francisco natives” you’ve heard about in folk tales. The combustible combination of Melvin van Peebles, Cyclops from X-Men, and a touch of Isadora Duncan for good measure. I love the machine gun-like clatter of my typewriter. I don’t drink coffee, so I’m considered weird… in San Francisco. I still buy all of my albums on CD. Bit of a tech geek. I love celluloid. Shakespeare made me want to act, direct, write, and bequeath “my second-best bed” to an ex after I die.

Meg O’Connor: By night, I am a playwright and improviser who occasionally directs and acts. By day, I am marketing and client-relations extraordinaire for an immigration law firm.

Adam Sussman: East Coast refugee from Boston enjoying the long-haired devil-may-care atmosphere of the Bay. I’m a director, writer, dramaturge and occasional performer who recently left a decade long career in community health/harm reduction to focus on theater. I work with Ragged Wing Ensemble in Oakland and produce work through my company “Parker Street Odditorium.” Like us on the Facebook!

Adam Sussman: Devil May Care

Adam Sussman: Devil May Care

How did you get involved with Theater Pub, or if you’re a returning director, why did you come back?

Charles Lewis III: Way back in January 2010 I was in a production of William Inge’s Bus Stop at the Altarena Playhouse. My co-star lovely and talented actress named Xanadu Bruggers. When the production ended she asked all of us in the cast to come see her in an “anti-Valentine’s Day show” taking place at a café in The City. I was hesitant as I had some bad memories of performances in bars and cafés, but I still went to see SF TheaterPub’s second-ever show: A Valentine’s Day Post-Mortem. I went back the next month and that summer I was in their multi-part Sophocles adaptation The Theban Chronicles. That Autumn I was in their Oscar Wilde and HP Lovecraft show and in December I both performed in and co-wrote their first Christmas show. And I’ve been a regular attendee ever since.

Adam Sussman: Stuart (Bousel) asked me, and after reading through the great scripts and being sweet-talked by the puckish Neil Higgins, how could I say no?

Meg O’Connor: I have known the artistic directors since they were dreaming Theater Pub up, and first directed with them for The Theban Chronicles. I have directed in every Pint Sized (and produced the very first). I guess you could say I’m addicted (but I can quit whenever I want).

Meg O'Connor Can't Quit You... Or Can She?

Meg O’Connor Can’t Quit You… Or Can She?

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

Meg O’Connor: Reading the scripts for the first time, and getting a sense of the vibe of this year’s festival is my favorite part. And getting to see each script realized is really rewarding.

Adam Sussman: Being able to see the piece come to life form page to stage. Typically this is a cop-out answer, but “Mark +/-” is so complicated that the script is literally in spreadsheet form since there’s so much overlapping dialogue and precision timing. So the metamorphosis from text to performance in this case had an extra element of difficulty and therefore excitement.

Charles Lewis III: No matter how sure you are about a production during rehearsal, there is always a way to be blind-sided by the audience. Being a director for one script (Sang Kim’s The Apotheosis of Grandma Shimkin) and actor in another (Megan Cohen’s The Last Beer in the World), it’s been trippy to hear the audience give a slight chuckle to one thing, but erupt with laughter at another.

What’s been the most troublesome?

Adam Sussman: I wanted a very specific set of gestures that all three Marks shared, but these gestures are only interesting if they are nearly identical rather than merely similar. So there was one rehearsal where I had to play “gesture cop,” calling out even small discrepancies from the agreed upon gestural choreography.

Charles Lewis III: I’ll just say that the recent BART strike made for a… unique experience in travelling to and from rehearsals.

Meg O’Connor: Rob Ready. What a diva.

Would you say putting together a show for Pint Sized is more skin of your teeth or seat of your pants and why?

Charles Lewis III: Apotheosis was definitely the latter. We had a very short turnaround from my coming on as director to the first performance. We only locked down the cast about a week before opening. Given the logistics and technical aspects of the piece – two actors who are seated through most of it, no major lighting cues – you might think it wouldn’t be all that much trouble. But when your first question to a potential actor is “Can you learn eleven pages in a week?” and you have only two rehearsals to get the verbal rhythm down, pick costumes, and more, then you realise it’s crunch time.
I just told myself that we were working with the same timetable as the average SNL episode, except our best writers aren’t talked about in past tense. I’m both pleasantly amazed by what everyone put together in such a short amount of time.

Adam Sussman: Seat of pants. Little time and no resources is always an exciting place to start with a theater piece. Skin of your teeth implies a close call, a bad mindset to begin a process with.

Meg O’Connor: Seat of your pants. Lots of last minute changes, lots of rolling with the punches. I’m lucky my cast were such bad-ass pros.

What’s next for you?

Adam Sussman: I’m directing (and appearing in) a beautiful piece for Fool’s Fury Factory Parts Festival written by Addie Ulrey. In the fall I’ll be directing a site specific ensemble piece written by Anthony Clarvoe for Ragged Wing Ensemble.

Meg O’Connor: I, intentionally, have very little going on until November – which is awesome. Two of my short plays (The Helmet and The Shield) will be featured in the Olympians Festival (http://www.sfolympians.com/) and I’m also getting hitched this November – eek! Also, my improv team, Chinese Ballroom, is included in the SF Improv Fest this year, the evening of Sept. 18th.

Charles Lewis III: Acting-wise, I’m pondering a couple offers and just accepted my first role for 2014. Writing-wise, my own blog (TheThinkingMansIdiot.wordpress.com) is up and running again. I’m also putting together some long-in-development scripts. And I plan on taking part in the 31 Plays in 31 Project this August. Directing-wise, I’ll once again be a writer and director for The SF Olympians Festival. Good stuff comin’ up.

What are you looking forward to in the larger Bay Area theater scene?

Charles Lewis III: “Transition” seems to be the word du jour and I can see why – it seems that everyone is making changes (hopefully for the best). I’m about to make one that’s been coming for some time. I think it’ll be beneficial to my theatre work in the long run and I’m looking towards the future with cautious optimism.

Charles Lewis III: Epitome of Optimistic

Charles Lewis III: Epitome of Optimistic

Meg O’Connor: No Man’s Land at Berkley Rep…mainly because I have a lady-boner for Ian McKellen AND Patrick Stewart.

Adam Sussman: So many things. I’m looking forward to seeing the other work at the Factory Parts festival including new pieces by Fool’s Fury, Joan Howard, Rapid Descent and Elizabeth Spreen. My good friend Nathaniel Justiniano is throwing an amazing benefit called “Cure Canada” for his fantastic group, Naked Empire Bouffon Company with a helluva line-up of performers, I’m also hoping he’ll do a homecoming production of his ingenious piece You Killed Hamlet or Guilty Creatures Sitting at a Play which has been touring Canada this summer. I’m excited to see Rebecca Longworth’s O Best Beloved at the Fringe this year, Bonnie and Clyde at Shotgun and Performing the Diaspora at Counterpulse.

Who in the Bay Area theater scene would you just love a chance to work with next?

Adam Sussman: Shotgun Theater, I’ve been lucky enough to have Artistic Director Patrick Dooley as a mentor through the TBA Atlas Program. I really love the work Shotgun does and how smart they are about building audiences while taking big artistic risks.

Meg O’Connor: I’m pretty excited about PianoFight’s new space and I get the sense that is going to be a fun group and space to work with.

Charles Lewis III: Too many to name. I wouldn’t mind if they answered with my name to the same question (hint, hint). TheaterPub has been a wonderful networking tool for all who attend; point in fact, it’s a contributing factor to my aforementioned transition. No matter what incarnation TheaterPub takes after this, I value the relationships I’ve made here and look forward to continuing them for some time to come.

What’s your favorite thing to order at the Cafe Royale?

Meg O’Connor: You’ll typically find me with a Boont Amber Ale in my hand, but I’ve been having a fling on the side with Hitachino Nest White Ale.

Adam Sussman: Duvel.

Charles Lewis III: Red Stripe. Crispin. Pilsner. Stella, back in the early days. Whatever glass of wine I’ve bought for Cody (Rishell) in the past. In fact, whatever drinks I’ve bought for folks at the Royale. ‘Cause in the end, the drink isn’t nearly as important as raising your glass in a toast with great people.

Don’t miss Pint Sized Plays IV, playing tonight and two more times this month: July 29 and 30, always at 8 PM, only at the Cafe Royale! The show is free and no reservations are necessary, but we encourage you to get there early because we will be full!