An Interview With Marissa Skudlarek

We’re one week away from the staged reading of Marissa Skudlarek’s new translation of Jean Cocteau’s Orphee. A well-known local writer, actress, blogger and (most recently) director, Marissa has been part of many Theater Pub nights, but this is her first time taking the reins for an entire show.

So, you’ve been a part of Theater Pub from the early days. Want to tell us how it all began and what you’ve been involved with?

I vividly remember being present at the first Theater Pub show, Cyclops, in January 2010! I was friends with co-founder Bennett Fisher at the time, and seeking to become more involved in San Francisco theater, so he suggested that I should support his new theater-in-a-bar venture. My first real involvement with Theater Pub — also the first time one of my plays was produced in San Francisco — came when my play “Drinking for Two” was selected for the inaugural Pint-Sized Plays festival in August 2010. Since then, I’ve had another play produced in Pint-Sized (“Beer Theory,” 2012), and written poetry in praise of props masters and costume designers for the Odes of March show. I’ve also appeared onstage at Theater Pub several times in several silly costumes: a fake beard and toga for Congresswomen, reindeer antlers and smudged mascara for Code Red, pajamas and a dressing gown for Pajanuary. Additionally, for the last year, I’ve been writing a biweekly column about Bay Area indie theater, “Hi-Ho the Glamorous Life,” for Theater Pub’s blog.

What made you first want to translate Orphée?

At college, I double-majored in Drama and French, which led to a lot of people saying “Oh, are you going to write plays in French?” (To which I would reply “Who do you think I am — Samuel Beckett?”) Then, the summer I was 19, I won a national youth playwriting competition, which flew me to New York City for a whirlwind two weeks of theater-making and theater-creating. When the competition’s Literary Manager, a guy called Lucas Hnath, found out that I was a Drama-French double major, he asked me if I had ever read Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. “I haven’t read it,” Lucas told me, “but a friend of mine says that the script is based around an untranslatable French pun, so that made me curious, and I wondered if you’d read it.” Well, when someone tells me a script contains an untranslatable French pun, I become curious, too — though I didn’t actually get around to reading Orphée until the spring of 2010. And, indeed, there’s a pun that’s deeply woven into the fabric of the script and poses problems for the translator. Carl Wildman’s translation makes a decent effort at dealing with it, but is less than satisfactory; John Savacool’s translation doesn’t even try. I looked up what the phrase is in the original French, and was turning it over in my head one day, when I came up with, dare I say, a brilliant solution to the problem. I don’t want to give too much away, but let me just say that the pun involves a curse word, which makes it all the more fun. My solution was so brilliant that I decided I might as well translate the whole play — to place this jewel in an appropriate setting, as it were. Also, I have the same birthday as Jean Cocteau (July 5). As far as I know, he’s the only playwright born on this day, so I’ve always been interested in his art for this, somewhat selfish, reason.

Marissa Skudlarek: Cocteau Incarnate?

Marissa Skudlarek: Cocteau Incarnate?

There are a lot of different versions of the Orpheus myth- what makes this one unique?

Cocteau’s take on the Orpheus myth is pretty wild — it’s like no other version I’ve seen. It all takes place in Orphée’s living room, so you don’t actually get to witness Orphée’s trip to the Underworld or how he pleads to get Eurydice back. Death appears as a beautiful young woman, attended by two servants named Azrael and Raphael (which are names of angels in Christian theology), rather than as the Greek god Hades. Moreover, Orphée himself has a guardian angel, a character called Heurtebise. Yet, although the play takes place all in one room, a lot of crazy and quasi-surreal stuff goes on — we’re going to have someone reading the stage directions because there’s no way we could possibly stage everything at the Cafe Royale! Cocteau also pays a lot of attention to Orphée’s death: the myths tell us that Orpheus was torn apart by the Bacchantes (Dionysus’ followers), but most adaptations ignore this part of the story. However, this sacrificial death is central to Cocteau’s vision, which focuses much more on Orpheus as a poet than on Orpheus as a lover.

What’s your favorite version (aside from this one)?

I can’t pick just one, so I’m going to provide a sampler of Orpheus-related goodies. The aria “Che faro senza Eurydice?” (What shall I do without Eurydice?) from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice is simple but absolutely heartbreaking. Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld contains the most famous cancan music ever written as well as the hilarious “Fly Duet” (look up the YouTube video of Natalie Dessay and Laurent Naouri singing this — it is NSFW and very, very funny). The movie Black Orpheus has a bad rap nowadays because it’s problematic for a white writer-director to make a movie about black people in a Brazilian shantytown, but I really like some of the tricks it uses to translate the Orpheus story to the modern era. (It was also one of my grandfather’s favorite films, evidently.) Moulin Rouge was my favorite movie when I was a teenager and Baz Luhrmann is on record as saying that Christian’s attempt to rescue Satine from the “underworld” is inspired by the Orpheus legend. Finally, Cocteau’s 1950 film version of Orpheus is fascinating to compare to Orphée (which he wrote in 1925). There are some similarities between the two works and even some passages of dialogue that are the same, but also some really intriguing differences.

Assuming you’ve seen the current production of Eurydice at Custom Made Theater Company, how do you think Sarah Ruhl’s and Cocteau’s visions match up?

To my chagrin, I haven’t gotten around to seeing Katja’s production of Eurydice! In my defense, I’ve been really busy this month and, as soon as I complete these interview questions, I’m going to figure out when to go see Eurydice. But I’ve read Ruhl’s script, so I’ll take a stab at answering this question anyway. One major difference between Ruhl and Cocteau is that Ruhl is a feminist and I really don’t think that Cocteau was. (He depicts Orphée’s nemeses, the Bacchantes, as a mob of crazy lesbian bluestockings.) However, both of these playwrights are really drawn to magical realism, impossible stage directions, and breaking the laws of physics onstage. Moreover, both of them have found an intensely personal perspective on this ancient legend. Ruhl has said that she was inspired to write Eurydice because her father died when she was a young woman (hence the scenes of Eurydice meeting up with her father in the Underworld), while Cocteau used the Orpheus myth to showcase his ideas about the role of the poet/artist in society.

Well, one thing your Orphee and Custom Made’s Eurydice have in common is director Katja Rivera. What made you want to bring her in to direct this first reading?

I loved working with Katja when she directed my play “Beer Theory” for last summer’s Pint-Sized Play Festival. “Beer Theory” is an odd little script that is very close to my heart, and I was so happy to be paired up with Katja, who instinctively understood what the play was about and what I was going for when I wrote it. Then, as I thought about producing Orphée at Theater Pub, I knew I’d want to bring a director on board, because I don’t have confidence in my own directorial abilities. I roped Katja in by saying, basically, “I know you’re directing Eurydice in the spring — want to direct Orphée as well?” I figured she’d have a pretty hard time saying no to that…

Why bring Orphée to Theater Pub?

Thanks to the sensibilities of the folks who founded it, Theater Pub has always been interested in Greek mythology (producing Greek plays like The Theban Chronicles and Helen), and also in experimental European theater (with productions like Vaclav Havel’s The Memorandum and Evgeny Shvarts’ The Dragon). Cocteau’s Orphée is the perfect combination of these two sensibilities. Also, the script is approximately an hour long, it all takes place in one room, and it’s a “tragedy in one act, with an intermission” — so it fits Theater Pub’s time and space constraints pretty well, too.

Any plans for it in the future?

I don’t have any plans for Orphée in the future. However, I think my translation is better than either of the two published English translations that I have read, so it would be great to do something else with it… I’ll keep you informed.

And what’s next for you?

My short play “Horny” is going to be in the May Theater Pub show, The Pub From Another World. It’s about sex. And unicorns.

As a long time patron of Cafe Royale, what’s your favorite thing to order at the bar?

Red wine if I want to be sophisticated and bohemian, hard cider if I want to fool people into thinking that I’m drinking beer.

Don’t miss Marissa Skudlarek’s work this Monday, April 15, at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale. Like all Theater Pub events, it’s a free show and no reservations are necessary, but we encourage you to get there early to ensure a seat. Also, our pop-up restaurant friends, Hyde Away Blues BBQ will be there!

An Interview With Sang Kim About Pajanuary

Sang S. Kim, writer, director, actor and widely-know comedic-talent-about-town, took some time to answer a few questions about the upcoming Theater Pub event, Pajanuary, which will be happening on Monday, January 21st.

We know you’re not stranger to Theater Pub, but this is your first time running a Theater Pub event, isn’t it?

That’s right.  Hopefully won’t be the last.

What’s been the best part?

Getting to hang out with my uber talented friends and boss them around.

What’s been the biggest challenge?

Uber talented friends are also uber busy.  Trying to coordinate schedules is like trying to get monkeys to roller skate.

How did you get hooked up with this job?

I think I was the most sober person in the room [at the Retreat] so yeah… joke’s on me.

Tell us more about Pajanuary. First off… what is a Pajanuary?

You’d have to ask Maria Leigh, who I think came up with the actual word Pajanuary (editor’s note: yes, indeed, it was Maria Leigh, at the 2012 Theater Pub retreat).  We also thought up Pajamuary with an “M” but then we’d have to offer Jam and that would get too messy.  Anyway, I’m more of a perserves man myself.

Your press release mentions that it is a night of “comfort theater”- want to be more specific?

During the meeting where this idea formed, Ashley Cowan pointed out that most suicides happen in late January.  From that wondefully cheerful thought, we came up with Pajamas and Bedtime Stories because statistically speaking, most suicides don’t happen in pajamas.  Wait… what was the question again?

I mean, he looks comfortable, doesn't he?

I mean, he looks comfortable, doesn’t he?

What do you think are some of the highlights of the evening?

Re-imagining the stories you grew up with while cuddled up next to your nearest and dearest with a drink.  Also – anyone who hasn’t had time to get into Harry Potter will probably never have to after that night.

Your press release also says people should wear their pajamas- will you be in pajamas?

I’m ordering them online as we speak.  Word of advice – do not google leather pajamas.

Do bathrobes count as pajamas?

Sunil Patel is coming in hospital scrubs so anything is pajamas after that.

What remains, to this day, your favorite bedtime story?

No joke – the Bible.  Floods, Fratricide, and giant Fishes.  It has everything a confused child wants to hear right before he falls asleep.

Don’t miss PAJANUARY, this first Theater Pub of 2013, playing one night only on Monday, January 21, at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale. The event is free with a suggested five dollar donation at the door. And don’t forget, our friends at Hide Away Blues BBQ will be there too, so come hungry!  

Cowan Palace: Stories, Magic, and a Lesson in Life Savers

Ashley Cowan shares her love of bedtime stories and a family favorite tale.

Once upon a time there lived a girl who loved stories. Spoiler alert: it was me.

From a very early age, I fell in love with fairy tales, bedtime books, and the magical words that lent themselves to my imagination. Children between the ages of 2 and 6 are said to be in a stage of child development that can be the most suggestible making them incredibly receptive to their environment. Which makes bedtime stories told during that time even more influential; those tales will root themselves in their subconscious and continue to play. And as a child fortunate to have been introduced to many stories, I can attest to their legacies kept alive in my mind.

Luckily, I grew up in a household with natural storytellers. My mother is an educator and my father worked for the state of Connecticut as a disability claimer. Both had the opportunity to observe a variety of people on a daily basis. But the bedtime stories I treasured most were the ones about travels they had experienced. My mom was born in Portugal and my dad has been to more places than any group of people I’ve ever met combined. My favorite fascination was hearing about the years he spent living in rural African villages. I would beg my father almost every evening to tell me one of those stories (sorry Mom, you had some good ones too but how can you compete with that?).

And so I’d love to share a Cowan classic. It’s a true tale told much better by my father who lived it but here goes… My father, John, traveled through Africa on a path few may have been able to replicate. With only a backpack as a companion at times, he lived each day without a defined route. He was young, blond, and adventurous. Often, because he looked so different than some of the people he encountered, a variety of details about his background would be assumed. He once stayed at a village where the people called him “doctor” because he had a medical bag on him with very basic items (toothbrush, Band-Aids, etc.) and when they had asked him to ease their aches and pains he had administered painkillers from a small bottle. My father came upon the leader of the group who had seemed wary of him. And in a bit of a panic and after not finding much left to offer him, he handed the man the only thing he had left. One of the old Life Saver candies from the bottom of the bag. The man accepted it by immediately consuming the round colorful piece. The sweet treat proved to be a real item of interest as the man proceeded to ask my father for another with a bright smile. The Life Saver lived up to its name. He then declared that my dad was made of magic and to further thank him he gave him a simple gold bracelet. My father was reluctant to take such a gift but they all insisted and branded him with a piece of their home. That bracelet has never come off my dad’s wrist. Not after all the near death experiences he’d tackle later in his travels, or his wedding day, or even through any future medical procedures. It’s a representation of his countless adventures and the relationships that can form between strangers and he’s promised to remember that forever.

My father joins this effort to continue sharing experiences and stories; a timeless practice that has been recounted throughout human history. Within these tales are lessons of survival and morality. Bedtime stories can be an insight into a wide variety of human characteristics and behaviors. It appears that even a thousand years ago, we were still creatures capable of both gruesome violence and beautiful enduring faith that good can win out over evil. Be it for entertainment, education, religious purposes, we continue to invent the heroes, villains, and magic to reflect the pieces of ourselves we want to be remembered.

I once heard that truly wondrous stories happen to those who tell them and within each passed tale is a piece of magic just waiting to introduce itself to a new listener. So I hope you’ll join us for Pajanuary on Monday, January 21 as we revisit the land of wonder and imagination where so many of our beloved bedtime stories live. Get those pajamas pressed and look forward to spending the night between once upon a time and happily ever after.

Ashley Cowan is a writer, director, actress, and general theater maker in the Bay Area. She’s got lots of stuff to say, most of it pretty entertaining, so follow her here at

Announcing Our January Theater Pub!

Pa-January! – A Night of Bedtime Stories

The holidays are over but 2013 is now here with a New Year of Theater Pub!

With winter still ahead of us, we’re inviting everyone to cozy up in Café Royale for a Pajama Party and a night of Bedtime Stories.  We’re talking grade-A comfort theater, with stories old and new, a lullaby or two, crayons and coloring and of course booze – just like elementary school!

This Theater Pub will be brought to you by the Letter T for Talent, including Stuart Bousel , Megan Cohen, Jeremy Cole, Ashley Cowan, Jaime Lee Currier, Sang S. Kim, Dan Kurtz, William Leschber, Carl Luciana, Brian Markley, Jan Marsh, Karen Offereins, Sunil Patel and Marissa Skudlarek,

Pajamas are optional but whimsy is not. That said, if you come in your pajamas, we’ll totally enter you in a raffle to win a prize!

It all happens on January 21st, 2013 at the Cafe Royale in San Francisco! The show starts at 8, but get there early to support our friends the Hide-Away BBQ, who will be bringing pop-up deliciousness! Admission is, as always, free, with a suggested donation at the door!