Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Around the World with Life and Art

Marissa Skudlarek is tramping around Oxford, sending us missives of wisdom.

I embark on my longest vacation in several years, two full weeks, three wonderful cities: New York and then Paris and then Oxford. I pack light, but I do bring my laptop; despite my best efforts, there are some writing projects I need to finish, some tasks I must carry with me across the ocean.

My New York theater critic friend tells me that for a writer, there is no such thing as a non-working vacation.

Around eleven at night, my fourth day in Paris, I burst into tears due to guilt at time slipping away without me working on my writing, then dry my eyes and go to “Paris’s #1 Philosophical-Café” to sip linden-blossom tea and write for an hour before they close.

I do get some writing done when I’m in New York. I take my laptop to Shakespeare and Company on the Upper East Side (not to be confused with the more famous Parisian bookstore of the same name) and drink an iced tea and immerse myself in my work for two hours. “You’ve been here a long time! Writing the Great American Novel?” a man asks as I get up to leave. “The Great American Play, actually,” I say. He introduces himself as the theater editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “the oldest newspaper in New York. Walt Whitman was our first editor!”

I give the man my card and think about how none of that encounter would ever have happened in San Francisco.

Before I leave for vacation, my friends at PianoFight make a video taking The Bold Italic to task for proclaiming that there are no artists left in San Francisco. I laugh, I love it, I post it on social media. I am deeply invested in the idea that there is wonderful art being made in San Francisco and that this can continue. But sometimes I wonder if I am fooling myself, being blindly optimistic instead of realistic.

I see a beautiful production of La ménagerie de verre, that is, The Glass Menagerie, for fifteen euros. When it’s over, we applaud so much our arms and hands ache; we make the actors take five curtain calls. This is par for the course at French theater productions. The profession of the actor is noble in any society, but it seems so much nobler, so much more respected, in France.

I follow Rue Racine to the Place de l’Odéon, location of one of Paris’s oldest theaters, noting that there are an awful lot of gendarmes in the vicinity, only to discover that the Odéon has been occupied by theater artists and stagehands who are protesting cuts to their unemployment insurance.

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Sara Judge, Empress of On the Spot, comments that we ought to do the same thing in this country. I say “First we would actually need job security in order to protest when they try to remove it.” Touché, says Sara.

I overhear a Quebecois theater director, looking very much the Europhile artist in stylish scarf and overcoat, talking about his career while I have lunch at a French café.

I overhear some French youths loudly discussing art and sex over beers, as French youths, or really all youths, are wont to do. “I’m getting busy with Amandine,” says one. “No, you’re getting busy with your ass!” says the other. My back to them, I listen, I take notes, I swell with delight at understanding their slangy French gossip.

Over Shake Shack burgers in Madison Square Park, an Irish fantasy novelist tells me that in Ireland, writers and artists and musicians don’t have to pay tax on the money they earn from their artistic endeavors unless it’s over 50,000 euros a year.

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Outside Shakespeare and Company on the banks of the Seine, I meet another Irishwoman, a screenwriter, whose government has awarded her a fellowship to study and research for three weeks in Paris.

I meet a bearded Englishman about my own age who’s been happily living the expat life in Paris for the last seven years, writing and editing and running a theater festival.

I mentally review my own family tree and what I know about the immigration laws of various countries. Could I get European citizenship through a distant ancestor?

I think about how it seems like everyone I know in San Francisco has a well-defined escape plan in their back pocket for when they inevitably get evicted by a greedy landlord, and how over the last year or so, I’ve started to feel like an anomaly because I lack such a plan.

I wonder if those vague daydreams of getting European citizenship are actually the beginnings of my own back-pocket escape plan.

I see how many translated books are displayed for sale in the Paris bookshops, and think with envy of all the French people who can thereby earn a living as literary translators.

I stroll up and down the streets of Paris, the wide avenues lined with Haussmann limestone buildings six or seven stories tall, and think about how everyone always freaks out about building taller buildings in San Francisco (“Don’t turn it into Manhattan!”). But what if we could turn it into, not Manhattan, but Paris?

I think about how when I return to San Francisco, I’ll return to my nasty, petty habit of mentally demolishing any one-story building I see and imagining a five-story housing complex built in its place.

I stop and look at listings in the windows of real estate agents. Despite the dollar-to-euro or dollar-to-pounds exchange rate, the prices seem amazingly reasonable – or have I merely been living in the San Francisco real estate bubble for too long? A room in a shared flat for $750 a month. A three-bedroom Oxford house for $2000 a month. A small Paris one-bedroom, yours outright for $325,000.

The brick houses of Oxford are smaller and narrower and cozier than the painted ladies of San Francisco, but most of them have bay windows, too.

Paris Métro trains come, on average, every five minutes, and I nearly always get a seat, even when I take the busiest segment of the busiest line at rush hour.

San Francisco friends message me to say that a horrible breakdown on the N Judah ruined everyone’s commute. They invite me to feel schadenfreude, and I do, but I also start dreading, truly dreading, going back to BART and MUNI.

My friend Sunil Patel, a Twitter demi-celebrity with friends in every corner of the world (it’s because of him that I had that burger with that Irish novelist), “has a nice moment” with Lin-Manuel Miranda at a book signing. I giggle to myself on a late-night, near-empty Métro train when I see Sunil’s and LMM’s tweets about this momentous encounter. I remember that good things happen and people are doing good work in the USA as well.

My friend Lily Janiak is announced as the new lead theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and again, I remember that despite the many difficulties facing the theater business and the journalism business, sometimes we do get nice things.

In a hipster café on the Cowley Road in East Oxford, a young man tells a friend that his band has been invited to play at a BBC Introducing gig.

In an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side, another young man tells some friends about his attempts to make it as an indie rock artist and to recruit a sought-after young drummer for his band.

I try to remember when’s the last time I overheard such a conversation in San Francisco at a venue that wasn’t PianoFight.

A San Francisco friend messages me to say that she overheard two cute French people talking in a Hayes Valley café, but they were discussing how to get venture capital funding for a startup.

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

The Five: At the Intersection of Art and Politics

Anthony R. Miller checks in to see if he can just turn off his brain and like the dang show.

Hey you guys, so we all know SF is a liberal place, we just had an election where the Democratic mayor did not have a conservative opponent, just more liberal ones. We have naked parades and theatre companies whose ideals and personal politics play a big role in programming. Now, I consider myself a pretty progressive fella, but still a beneficiary of white male privilege. And lately there were some moment where I found myself almost in conflict with my personal politics and my ability to just enjoy the show I was watching. Naturally, I have some thoughts on it, and wouldn’t you know it, there are five.

Dare to Be Traditional

Last Friday, I attended the opening night for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. It was the inaugural production of SF’s newest company, Bay Area Musicals. Without doing anything resembling a review, what really stuck with me was how daring it all felt. I don’t mean it was daring because it applied some greater concept and turned the show on its head to make a stunning new interpretation, I mean the exact opposite. Here we are in SF, a city at war with itself and the looming shadow of large tech companies and corporate culture, and they put on a show about a guy who basically schemes his way to the top and relies on the privilege granted by the corporate patriarchy to get away with all of it. Let’s get something straight, I’m a fan of the show. It’s funny, the music is great, and it’s entertaining and nothing but. But man, is it dated. The female lead aspires to marry up, the boss is cheating on his wife and it’s basically fine, everybody hits on their secretary, and in the end when our hero is seemingly doomed, he simply relies on the notion of “Hey, c’mon, we’re all bros here.” So to put this show on in SF in 2015 felt daring. Because while the play is a fun satire of corporate culture in the early ’60s, it’s a fairly forgiving one. So in light of that, you would think in SF the play would be given some kind of political facelift, some kind of new angle that shows us why the play is still relevant. Nope, they just did the show exactly how it’s always been done; it was big, fun and unapologetic. It had a punk-rock-like defiance. In the cradle of liberalism and progressive politics and artists who strive to make theatre that has its own identity and relevance, they said “fuck it.” Here I was watching a traditional musical comedy performed as it was traditionally intended and apologized for none of it, and that felt non-traditional. To not re-invent the show, felt inventive. Now to be fair, BAM’s season also includes Hair and La Cage Aux Folles which are liberal as fuck, so it all balances out. Where the culture of SF did really sink in, was the exciting diversity of the casting, actors of all sizes and color were used in a show that traditionally would have white people with perfect bodies. Oh, and I really enjoyed it.

Art vs. the Artist

This one is a cheat, but go with me. I’ve been a longtime fan of the band Eagles of Death Metal, the band that was playing in Paris the night of the horrific attacks. With all the newfound attention on them, a dirty little secret (unless you’re an obsessed fan like me who reads everything about them) is that the lead singer is super conservative, like Trump-supporting. Here’s the problem, the band kicks ass, they’re fun, riffy, boogie-down rock and roll. There is no agenda in the music, just a rockin’ beat. So I ask myself, “Can I still like this band when the lead singer holds views I find abhorrent?” It is the notion of choosing the Art over the Artist, does the artist need to be a good person who is in compliance with my politics to create art I can enjoy? If the art has nothing to do with the artist’s political views, am I still allowed to like it? Does the artist need to comply with my personal politics in order for me to like their art?

Giving Tuesday

Ok, this one is a non-sequitur, but hey it’s for a good cause. Apparently we have a name for the 5 days after Thanksgiving, so after Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday, today is Giving Tuesday. Today we can put aside our frothy-mouthed consumerism and give our money to some great causes, and Bay Area Theatre has lots of them. Here’s a few suggestions, SF Sketch Troupe Killing My Lobster, who had an amazing 2015 and are doing some great educational partnerships. SF’s Ray of Light Theatre has begun its Illumination Campaign (speaking of musicals in SF) and the Diablo Regional Art Association, who are giving free theatre tickets to kids. Custom Made Theatre Company, who just moved to a much larger space, is recovering from a robbery, and is one of the Bay Area’s fastest growing companies, is also doing a drive, and will be launching a New Works Development program next year, amongst other exciting changes.

Feeling Bad for Laughing

I’ve been lucky enough to attend several productions that are part of the Curran: Under Construction series at the under-renovation Curran Theatre. It’s pretty awesome; the shows are performed with the audience onstage to create exciting, intimate and interesting new shows. I recently saw Steve Cuiffo is Lenny Bruce, a one-man note-for-note reenactment of the work of Lenny Bruce. And while the guy was incredible and I laughed a great deal, there were uncomfortable moments. There is a whole bit laden with racial epithets, a bit that uses lots of colorful language for homosexuals, and while Bruce’s work was daring, controversial and a brilliant examination of what we find offensive and why, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable at times. And I’m not here to say whether or not it’s OK to reenact this material, personally I enjoyed it for what it was, but MAN I couldn’t help but think that Lenny Bruce would be savaged for his work these days.

The Whyness of it All

A big question we like to ask ourselves in seeing theatre is “Why this show?” Why does it exist? Why is it being performed? Why am I watching it? When I think about all these things, I wonder about the conflict of theatre that exists just to entertain and theatre that is trying to say something. Is one more valid than the other? Is being entertaining enough? I would say yes, escapism is just as important as work that is critical of the world around us. Is it OK to like work that hasn’t kept up with our own progressive attitudes? Am I a bad liberal for appreciating Lenny Bruce or philandering bosses or music written by people I probably would dislike in person? Is it OK to not worry sometimes and just enjoy myself? That’s a lot of questions, and I don’t really have the answers, but if there is one thing that makes me think these plays are still important is that even though I enjoyed myself, I’m also asking myself all these questions. Which may be exactly why they’re important.

Anthony R. Miller is a writer and producer, and enjoys laughing as much as he enjoys thinking. Keep up with him at www.awesometheatre.org

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: The Outré Trappings of Outrapo

Resident Francophile Marissa Skudlarek continues her exploration of the Parisian avant-garde.

Last Friday, a co-worker challenged me to see if I could have five adventures over the weekend. My calendar was otherwise open, and the weather was lovely, so I eagerly embraced the constraint. After all, my experience as a playwright has taught me that you often have more fun, and are more creative, when you have a challenge or limitation to live up to. I’ve written before that “the blank page can be daunting” and I still believe that’s true. “Live life to the fullest” is an impossibly abstract maxim. “Have five adventures this weekend” is pleasantly concrete and tangible.

(And if you’re a playwright who agrees with me about the value of a challenge, why not write a play that follows the constraints for Theater Pub’s 2015 Pint-Sized Plays festival, and submit it before May 15? Full guidelines here.)

I ended up having four adventures this weekend. At least, I think I did. Because when you start counting your adventures, you also start making philosophical distinctions, asking ontological questions about the nature of adventure. If I rent a bike to go tooling around Golden Gate Park, and my phone flies out of my back pocket and pops out of its case when I coast down a hill (my phone’s fine, don’t worry), and I become so tired trying to pedal back up said hill that I get off the bike and walk it back to the rental shop, is that three small adventures, or one big one?

So constraints make you creative and philosophical and self-aware, which is to say, they make you feel rather French. Maybe that’s why the artistic movement that explores how art can be produced under various types of whimsical constraints started in Paris. Circa 1960, a group of French experimental writers formed the Oulipo (“Ouvroir de littérature potentielle,” or Workshop of Potential Literature). Oulipo writers have composed 300-page novels without the letter e and sequences of sonnets whose lines can be interchanged with one another. Artists in other fields then started to get in on the action, founding their own workshops. The workshop that deals with theater is known as the Outrapo, which stands for Workshop of Potential Tragicomedy. It’s a great name because it sounds like “outré” (Oulipians adore puns) and because the word “tragicomedy” is less neutral than a word like “drama” or “theater.” “Tragicomedy” evokes emotions, highs and lows, grandeur and farce, in a way that appeals to me very much. (Not to toot my own horn, but sobbing in an alley after a postmodern vaudeville show strikes me as very Outrapian.)

As soon as I heard about Oulipo and Outrapo, as a high-school student under the influence of an English teacher who loved everything “postmodern” and “meta,” I was intrigued. However, there’s not too much about these movements – Outrapo in particular – online, and the best sources seem to be in French, which I did not start studying till college. And not just any French: pataphysical French. Oulipians have their own calendars, codes, shibboleths, patron saints, heresies, and orthodoxies. Their overriding philosophy is called “pataphysics,” defined as “what comes after metaphysics.” (Don’t worry, I don’t quite get it either.)

For an example of pataphysical humor, here’s my translation of the opening text on the Outrapo website: “Stanley Chapman committed the gesture of dying, 9 Shritt 136 (May 26, 2009). Exit. Applause. Curtain. It was on Stanley Chapman’s initiative, thanks to his pataphysical spirit, his passion for theater, and his vital poetry, that the workshop was founded in London with Cosima Schmetterling and Milie von Bariter. Then Jean-Pierre Poisson, Anne Feillet, Félix Pruvost and Sir Tom Stoppard quickly joined the group. Stanley Chapman is therefore now excused from meetings and public presentations.”

Anyway, when I was studying in Paris in 2007, I was poking around the Outrapo website one night, and saw that the address of their headquarters was not far from the university where I went every Wednesday to take a course on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and not far from my favorite bistro. (Le Petit Cardinal, right by the Cardinal Lemoine metro stop. You can feel the trains rumble beneath your feet as you eat. I highly recommend it.) Instantly, I resolved to try to meet the Outrapians when I was next in the neighborhood. I had wanted to connect with French theater-makers when I was abroad, and what better group of theater-makers than these? I also thought that this could be a potential (no pun intended) way for me to achieve my life goal of meeting Tom Stoppard.

That Wednesday, I visited the building, which looked like an ordinary Parisian apartment house. There were no indications that pataphysical activity was taking place there. Nonetheless, I was undaunted. I waited for someone to come out of the building, slipped in the open door, went up the stairs, found the apartment in question, screwed up my courage, knocked… and received no response. So I sat on the narrow little staircase, ripped a page out of my cahier, and in my best schoolgirl French, wrote a brief letter to Milie von Bariter, the leader of Outrapo. This is the part of the adventure that embarrasses me the most in hindsight. I should have written a bizarre Outrapian letter, not a polite schoolgirl one. How the Outrapians must have laughed when they received my earnest missive! Yet perhaps, in its very absurdity, my letter fulfilled the Outrapian spirit. I slipped the letter under the door, then slipped out of the building.

In retrospect, I cannot believe my daring. Sneaking around apartment houses, trespassing where I should not have been! I think, too, about how I assumed that my privilege as a young white girl would protect me. It was unlikely that anyone would stop and question me; and even if they had, I could probably have gotten away with a white lie (e.g. “I am visiting a friend”). Even telling the truth (“I am a playwright trying to get in touch with Outrapo”) might’ve been OK. One likes to think that the French have such reverence for art and literature that even the gendarmerie couldn’t argue with such an excuse. Maybe they’d think I was weird, but they wouldn’t think I was dangerous or criminal.

I had provided my email address in my letter to von Bariter, and that evening, I did receive a response from him. He thanked me for the letter and I think there was some brief talk of meeting up for coffee, but that never came to anything. I didn’t want to bother him again. My courage started to fail me. The adventure petered out.

I’ve been thinking about Outrapo lately, not only because my attempt to get in touch with the movement is one of the most adventurous things I’ve ever done, but also because the show that we’re producing at Theater Pub come Monday sounds rather Outrapian. According to the blurb on our website, Steven and Megan in Megan and Steven Present a World Premiere by Steven and Megan deals with the nature of constraint. Steven Westdahl and Megan Cohen will be repeatedly presenting a new 5-minute play, while simultaneously adding more and more elements (props, costumes, blocking) and chugging booze. As the constraints get tougher, their minds will get foggier. And what could be more adventurous, what could be more pataphysical, than that?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, producer, and arts writer. She’s wonderign if we should start a branch of Outrapo in the Bay Area. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: Russell Blackwood’s Parisian Thrills

Marissa Skudlarek, our resident Francophile, reports on a new Paris-themed musical revue. And no, she isn’t moving to Fridays, our Editor in Chief just started rehearsals for his next show this week, and so everything’s a little behind right now.

The Thrillpeddlers have been peddling thrills – in the form of outrageous, only-in-San-Francisco theater – for over 20 years. They love the tattered, tawdry glamour of the stage, and have made a name for themselves by reviving older performance styles like Grand Guignol and Theatre of the Ridiculous. That attitude shines through in their new show, Jewels of Paris, as well. It’s a musical revue that celebrates the City of Light and its legacy of beauty, art, and revolution. Under the direction of Russell Blackwood (who is also Thrillpeddlers’ Producing Artistic Director), the cast sings Scrumbly Koldewyn’s catchy songs, sports gaudy barely-there costumes, celebrates freaks and innovators, and does their best to épater les bourgeois.

One sketch in Jewels of Paris features Jean Cocteau saying (as he did in real life), “An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture,” but fortunately for us, Russell Blackwood doesn’t subscribe to that philosophy. After seeing Jewels of Paris on Friday night, I got to interview him about how he brought bygone Paris to life onstage in 2015.

Animal lovers: Roxanne RedMeat and Steven Satyricon in Jewels of Paris. Photo by David Wilson.

Animal lovers: Roxanne RedMeat and Steven Satyricon in Jewels of Paris. Photo by David Wilson.

Marissa: Thrillpeddlers have met with great success reviving other Scrumbly Koldewyn musicals in recent years, but I believe this is the first new show of his that you’ve produced. Who had the original idea to create a Paris-themed musical revue and what was Thrillpeddlers’ role in the development process?

Russell: During the past seven years, Thrillpeddlers have worked with Scrumbly to revive and reinvent his musicals from the repertoire of the fabulous Cockettes, the queer counterculture theatre troupe from early 1970s San Francisco. The Cockettes created two Parisian-themed musical revues back in the day. They were comprised largely of published music that is not in the public domain, but included a few original numbers by Scrumbly and lyricist Martin Worman. Our title song “The Jewels of Paris” is among these. When Scrumbly began working with Cockette “Sweet Pam” Tent on a new show for Thrillpeddlers last year, the idea of a Parisian-themed musical revue excited the whole company into a flurry of group creation. Not unlike Shocktoberfest, Thrillpeddlers’ annual Grand Guignol horror theatre festival, I wanted our revue to have several playwrights contribute to the bill and use Parisian-born revolutions as our raw material.

Marissa: Revues and vaudeville shows often have acts written to showcase specific performers, and I know the Thrillpeddlers are a tight-knit troupe. Were any of the songs or sketches in Jewels of Paris created with a specific actor in mind?

Russell: Oh yes, about half the material was written after the production was cast. Then, once we were in rehearsal, group discussions led to more musical numbers like the “Quasihomo & Lesmerelda” duet for J Iness and Bruna Palmeiro. The song “Chic and Tragic” was definitely penned for the show’s Pierrot, Birdie-Bob Watt, well in advance; whereas the ballad “At the Sideshow” was written overnight for Roxanne RedMeat to sing as a precursor to a one-act sex farce about a bearded lady and her lover.

Marissa: You’re known for your impeccable research into historical theater and performance styles. For instance, just from a choreographic standpoint, Jewels of Paris features avant-garde ballet, a flirty cancan, a pugnacious Apache dance, and Josephine Baker’s Charleston Sauvage. As a director, what is your approach to bringing older performance traditions to 21st-century actors and audiences, who may not be so familiar with them?

Russell: Our long-time choreographer Noah Haydon did a fabulous job fulfilling Scrumbly’s and my desire to include French dance forms. YouTube, of course, came into play. Scrumbly and Roxanne RedMeat took their inspiration for our avant-garde ballet Façade from a video recreation of the 1916 choreography of the Ballets Russes’ Parade. Alex Kinney became our dramaturg and took on creating a 13-minute homage to neoclassical drama, Molière comedy and Jean de La Fontaine’s classic folk hero Renard the Fox, all in three short acts. We’re not slavishly recreating any of these performance genres. It’s more that we’re saying “What might that have been like?” and then spinning those elements that turn us on the most. We’ve got gusto and the best of our abilities going for us. We’ve also got a missionary’s zeal to save performance forms ending up forgotten footnotes.

Chic and Tragique: Birdie-Bob Watt as Pierrot. Photo by David Wilson.

Chic and Tragique: Birdie-Bob Watt as Pierrot. Photo by David Wilson.

Marissa: If I was describing Jewels of Paris to a friend, I’d call it a bawdy burlesque romp. But the show also has several torchy ballads and confronts some more serious issues: French racism and imperialism in the Josephine Baker sequence; gentrification and the passing of time in “Oh What a World.” What was your approach to handling this material so that these serious themes were given their due, yet would not overshadow the fundamentally upbeat nature of the show?

Russell: That is the very nature of revue. Music, dance, spectacle and satire play off one another to their mutual benefit. It makes the funny stuff funnier and the poignant stuff more poignant. Both of the ballads you mention, “But Underneath” and “Oh What a World” directly follow comic sketches written by Rob Keefe on related subjects. Pierrot’s tortured tune “Chic and Tragic” is witnessed by two Americans, in a sketch by Andy Wenger that tries to define what’s so funny about a sad clown. Answer: “He’s sad and you’re not.” These are examples of Scrumbly writing songs to be paired with playwrights’ companion pieces.

Marissa: Fantasy dinner party time: if you could have dinner with any 3 Paris-related historical figures, who would you choose and why?

Russell: Oscar Wilde for wit, Sarah Bernhardt for melodrama, and Jean Genet for filth.

Marissa: The finale of Jewels of Paris invokes San Francisco as the “Paris of the West” and exhorts the audience to express their creativity and individuality. In recent years, there have been countless articles fretting that all the artists are fleeing San Francisco and that we are becoming a stale, conformist city. Having led a niche-y theater company in San Francisco for over 20 years, do you agree with this characterization of S.F.? Do you have any advice for younger artists who want to keep San Francisco weird?

Russell: While some aspects of life here have become more difficult, we have new outrages to respond to and flames to keep burning. Thrillpeddlers is a multi-generational freak theatre. Man, that makes me proud! On our stage now are some of the hottest acts I’ve seen in a quarter century in this town. If you want to see what makes San Francisco theatre exciting – come see this show!

Jewels of Paris performs Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at the Hypnodrome, 575 10th St in San Francisco, through May 2. Tickets here.

The Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards for 2013

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2013 list. 

Three years ago I decided that I wanted to start my own Bay Area Theater Awards, because my opinions are just as legitimate as anyone else’s, the awards I give out are as valuable as any other critical awards, (recipients of the SEBATA, or the Stuey, if you prefer, get nothing but my admiration and some free publicity), and also because there’s a fairly good chance that I’ve seen a lot of theater the usual award givers haven’t seen. The best thing about the Bay Area theater scene is that there is a huge diversity in the offerings, and so much on the table to begin with. No one person can see it all, and therefore it’s important to share with one another the highlights of our time in the audience seat, if only to create a greater awareness of what and who is out there making stuff.

Also, there are some people who think I don’t like anything, and I feel a need to not only prove them wrong, but to do so by expressing how much of the local color I do love and admire, as opposed to just pointing out that the reason they think I don’t like anything is because I generally don’t like *their* work (oh… I guess I did just point that out, didn’t I?). Normally I post these “awards” on my Facebook page, but this year I decided to bring them to the blog because the mission statement of the SEBATA is pretty in-line with the mission statement of Theater Pub, and having come to the close of an amazing year of growth for the blog, it now has a much farther reach than my Facebook page could ever hope to have. Congratulations SF Theater Pub Blog- you just won a Stuey.

Anyway, because I am a product of the generation that grew up with the MTV Movie Awards- and, because I’m the only person on the voting committee and thus can do what I like- I have decided that my categories are purely arbitrary and can be stretched to allow me to write about anyone I feel like. The two limits are 1) I can’t give myself an award (though I can have been involved in the show on a limited level) and 2) I won’t go over thirteen (though there may be ties for some awards). Because seriously, how (more) self indulgent would this be without either of those rules? Oh, 3) I won’t give out awards for how bad something was. I’m here to be positive. And chances are those people were punished enough.

To all my friends and frenemies in the Bay Area Theater Scene… it’s been a great year. Let’s you and me do it again sometime. Well… most of you.

And now, presenting the Fourth Annual Stuey Awards…

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
“Pint Sized IV” (San Francisco Theater Pub)
Pint Sized Plays gets better each year, and it’s honestly one of two things I actually miss about working at the Cafe Royale (the other is the uniqueness of doing Shakespeare there, which for some reason works in a completely magical way I wish it worked more often on traditional stages). This year the festival was put together by Neil Higgins, who did an amazing job, and I think we had some of the best material yet. The evening as a whole felt incredibly cohesive, with a theme of forgiveness and letting go, archly reflective of our decision to leave the Cafe Royale, and I think incredibly relevant to a lot of our audience. We knew Pint Sized could be very funny, and very socially pointed, but I’m not sure we had ever conceived of it as moving and this year it was, thanks in no small part to our writers (Megan Cohen, Peter Hsieh, Sang S. Kim, Carl Lucania, Daniel Ng, Kirk Shimano and Christian Simonsen), directors (Jonathan Carpenter, Colin Johnson, Tracy Held Potter, Neil Higgins, Charles Lewis III, Meghan O’Connor, Adam L. Sussman) and actors (Annika Bergman, Jessica Chisum, Andrew Chung, AJ Davenport, Eli Diamond, Caitlin Evenson, Lara Gold, Matt Gunnison, Melissa Keith, Charles Lewis III, Brian Quakenbush, Rob Ready, Casey Robbins, Paul Rodrigues, Jessica Rudholm). The evening would start off with a magical performance by the Blue Diamond Bellydancers, whose combination of skill and spectacle got our audiences excited for what was to come. As we moved through the pieces, each by turns funny and poignant, each in some way or another about finding something, losing it, letting it go, and then coming back stronger, you could feel the audience grow warmer and closer each night. By the time Rob Ready gave the closing monologue, fixing each audience member in turn with a smile, you could feel everyone really listening and you could hear a pin drop in the room, and that’s saying something for the noisy by nature Cafe Royale. I think a lot of love went into the festival this year, and not just because it might be the last, and the product of that love was real magic and like the best theater- you had to be there. And if you weren’t, you really missed out.

BEST SHOW
“The Motherf**ker With The Hat” (San Francisco Playhouse)
I saw a lot of decent, solid, well done theater this year but I had a hard time connecting to a lot of it, which was rarely a flaw with the show and probably had more to do with where I was/am as a person (lots of change this year). Then again, something about really good theater is that it can get you out of your own head and into some other world, for a while. Towards the end of the year, I saw three shows I really really liked: “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake” at Bigger Than A Bread Box Theater Company, “Peter/Wendy” at Custom Made Theater Company, and “First” at Stage Werx, produced by Altair Productions/The Aluminous Collective and Playground. Still, San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The Motherf**ker With The Hat”, directed by Bill English, was probably my favorite show of the year. Who knows why it has an edge on the others? Maybe because as someone who spent most of their childhood weekends in New York it seemed oddly familiar, or maybe it was the deft handling by the universally excellent cast (Carl Lumbly, Gabriel Marin, Rudy Guerrero, Margo Hall, Isabelle Ortega) of the complex relationships and dialogue that Guirgis does so well, or maybe it was just refreshing to see such a simple, honest play in what, for me, was a year characterized by a lot of stylistically interesting but emotionally cold theater. There is something very passionate, scathing, bombastic and yet also humble and forgiving about Guirgis’ work that I think makes him such an important voice in modern American drama and English’s production brought all that out with an easy grace. The show really worked, and got me out of my head, and when I went back to my life I felt much better for the journey. What more can you ask of a theater experience?

BEST READING
“Paris/Hector” (San Francisco Olympians Festival)
I attend a lot of readings every year, and run a reading festival myself, so I’ve come to greatly value a really well done reading. This year, the award goes to director Katja Rivera and writers Kirk Shimano and Bridgette Dutta Portman, whose pair of one acts about the pair of Trojan princes Paris and Hector made for one of the best nights of this past year’s San Francisco Olympians Festival. Part of what I loved about it was that in one evening we saw the amazing variety the festival can offer: Kirk’s play was a comedy with a poignant moment or two, while Bridgette’s was a faux-classical drama- written in verse no less. Though the writers are the center of attention at the festival, credit really has to be given to Katja Rivera, who as the director of both pieces, made many simple but effective choices to highlight the best elements of both works and utilize the talents of her excellent cast: Yael Aranoff, Molly Benson, Jeremy Cole, Mackenszie Drae, Allison Fenner, Dana Goldberg, John Lennon Harrison, Michelle Talgarow, Alaric Toy. With the combined excellent story-telling of the performers (including beautiful and surprising singing from Yael, Molly and Dana), the thoughtfulness of the scripts, and the cohesiveness of the whole, this night of the festival stood out best in what was a consistently strong year at the Olympians.

BEST SHORT PLAY
“My Year” by Megan Cohen (Bay One Acts Festival)
Megan Cohen’s “My Year” is the kind of thing I wish more short plays would be: dynamic, personal, and complete. In a sea of short plays that are really fragments, or meet-cute plays, it’s always lovely to see something with a beginning, a middle, and end, and full-formed characters having actual interactions and not just feeling like Girl A and Guy B, thrown together by the whimsy of the playwright to make a point (though of course, the right playwright can pull that off- which is why so many people try to ape it). A friend of mine described “My Year” as “A fun little 90s indie film on stage” and my reaction when watching it was “Oh, Dear God, convince Meg to let me write a companion piece to this!” because let’s face it: at least a third of what I write is a 90s film on stage. My own vanity aside, what I loved about this play (directed by Siobhan Doherty, starring Emma Rose Shelton, Theresa Miller, Nkechi Live, Allene Hebert, Jaime Lee Currier, and Luna Malbroux) was that it felt constantly on the move, while still being mostly composed of intimate moments between a group of women at a birthday party. Like a lot of the theater that I really loved this year, it also just struck a personal chord, watching this young woman (Emma Rose Shelton) trying to enjoy the party her friends have thrown for her (though she doesn’t like surprise parties) despite there being no food and a random stranger (Theresa Miller) who worms her way in only to turn out to be the troublemaker she’s originally pegged for. Megan’s writing had its usual combination of smart and sentimental, but whereas a lot of her other work heads into absurdity and/or extreme quirkiness (not that this is bad), “My Year” stayed very grounded and found its meaning in that effort to stay grounded, making what might be a quiet little play in anyone else’s oeuvre, a nice change of pace in Cohen’s. The final moment, where the characters howl at the moon because what else are you going to do after a shitty birthday, felt like a communal sigh even the audience was in on, probably because we could all relate to Shelton’s character, and while having always loved and admired Meg’s work, this is probably the first time I related to it so wholeheartedly.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Linda Huang (Stage Manager, Tech, Box Office, Everything)
You know how the Oscars and Tonys give out Lifetime Achievement Awards for people whose contribution is so massive that it would kind of be criminal to pick one work or contribution so instead they just get an award for basically being themselves? You know, like how Peter O’Toole got that award because at some point somebody realized that he was pervasively brilliant and always in fashion and therefore easily forgotten because things like “Oh, well, he’ll win next year” often times factors in to who we recognize, meaning things like reliability and consistency do not? Well, for the first time ever in the history of the SEBATAs, I’m creating The Peter O’Toole Award for General Awesomeness and giving it to Linda Huang, without whom, in all seriousness, I believe that small theater in San Francisco would probably grind to a halt. Earlier this year, I got recognized by the Weekly as a “Ringmaster” of the theater scene, but frankly I (and people like me) could not do what we do without having Linda (and people like her) constantly coming to our aid despite being paid a fraction of what they’re worth and half the time being forgotten because what they do isn’t in the immediate eye of the audience. Linda is a total gem of the theater scene. She wears many hats, though she’s probably best known for running light boards, and one of my favorite things when attending the theater is running into her, usually working in some capacity I previously was unaware she was qualified to do (note: Linda is qualified to do everything). What I love best about Linda (aside from her cutting sense of humor and tell-it-like-it-is demeanor) is her incredible generosity: she does so much for local theater and rarely gets paid, and even when she does get paid she often says, “Pay me last.” A true team player, and one we don’t thank enough, especially as she’s the only person who seems to know how to get the air conditioning in the Exit Theatre to work.

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Atticus Rex, Open Mic Night In Support of the Lemonade Fund (SF Theater Pub/Theater Bay Area Individual Services Committee)
I never expected to include a note about someone who performed at an open mic/variety show, but I wanted to shout out to Atticus Rex, a young performer who literally made his performance debut at the San Francisco Theater Pub/ISC fundraiser for the Lemonade Fund this year. A last minute replacement, Atticus and a friend performed some original hip-hop for our audience of mostly performance professionals and their friends, and despite the formidable crowd and the first time nerves, he basically killed it. Even when he made a mistake it worked: he’d call himself out, apologize, and start again, somehow without ever missing a beat. His lyrics are very tight and poetic, and the contrast between the power in his words and his humbleness at approaching and leaving the stage works so well you’d almost think it was an act- except he later confessed he’d never performed live before, and it couldn’t have been more sincere. With genuine hope he never loses his sincerity, while also continuing to grow his confidence and experience, I wanted to take a moment to say congratulations once again, and thank you for reminding us all what it looks like to really take a risk onstage.

BEST CHEMISTRY
Genie Cartier and Audrey Spinazola (Genie and Audrey’s Dream Show, SF Fringe Festival)
What’s potentially cuter than “Clyde the Cyclops?” Very little, but these two ladies and their breathless, funny, and surreal little clown show come dangerously close to giving Clyde a run for his money, and it’s the only show I saw at the Fringe this year that I wished my boyfriend had also seen. Bravely straddling the bridge between performance artists and acrobats, this collage of monologues, poems, jokes, mime, clowning, puppetry, stunts, music, and children’s games, is like watching two hyper-articulate kids on pixie sticks go nuts in a club house, but only if those kids had an incredible sense of timing and arch senses of humor (not to mention very flexible bodies). I’ve never been a huge fan of circus stuff (I like it as an accent, sometimes, but as entertainment on its own it doesn’t tend to hold my interest long), but I think I’d be a fan of anything that had these two women in it. Their ability to play off each other is the key to making their show work, and when you watch it you have that sense of being let into the private make-believe world of people who have found kindred spirits in one another. It’s an utterly magic combination and from what I know of other people who saw it, it basically charmed the pants off everyone. Or at least, everyone who has a soul.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
Ben Calabrese (Apartment in “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”)
I saw a lot of great performances by men this year (Sam Bertken in “Peter/Wendy”, Tim Green and Gregory Knotts in “First”, Paul Rodrigues “Pint Sized Plays IV”, Will Hand “Dark Play”, Casey Robbins “Oh Best Beloved!”), but this one really took my breath away (though since Sam Bertken actually got me to sincerely clap for fairies in Peter/Wendy, he gets a second shout out). Ben’s role, which is to literally embody the voice of a neglected apartment, is the kind of role that could either be the best thing about the show, or the worst. Luckily for Bigger Than A Breadbox’s production of “Crumble, or Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake (written by Sheila Callaghan), Ben rocked it. Bouncing around the stage, dive bombing the furniture, all the while spouting, eloquently, Callaghan’s beautiful and complex monologues, Ben was so utterly watchable it was impossible not to buy the conceit of the role, and so moments when he has an orgasm from having the radiator turned on, or turns his fingers into loose electrical wires, don’t seem ridiculous, but made immediate and total sense. It’s usually not a compliment to tell an actor they did a tremendous job being an inanimate object, but what Ben did so well was illustrate that a home, while not “alive”, does indeed have a life to it. And if that life occasionally fixes the audience with Ben’s particular brand of “scary actor stare” why… all the better.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Brandice Marie Thompson (Georgia Potts in “First”)
Oh, this was a tough one. As usual, the actresses of the Bay Area are kicking ass and taking names no matter what their role, and my decision to pick Brandice above the rest is because I think she best exemplified that thing which so many actresses have to do, which is take a relatively underwritten role in a play about men and turn it into a rich, believable character who somehow manages to steal the show. Evelyn Jean Pine, who wrote “First”, is a fantastic writer and she writes women and men equitably well, and due credit must go to her for the creation and inclusion of this character in a story mostly about male egos, but in a lesser capable actresses hands, this role could have been annoying, or forgettable, or purely comical, and Brandice avoided all of these traps while making the character utterly charming at the same time. The truth is, her arc became much more interesting to me than that of the main character, and I think a strong argument could be made that “First” was just as much about Georgia as it was about Bill Gates. Director Michael French no doubt had a hand in this too, but in the end it’s a performer who makes or breaks a role and Brandice’s ability to combine mousy with spunky with unexpected and yet thoroughly authentic character turns was deeply satisfying to watch. Georgia kicked ass and took names, because Brandice does. Runners up: Melissa Carter (“Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”, Bigger Than A Breadbox), Allison Jean White (“Abigail’s Party”, SF Playhouse), Sam Jackson (“Oh Best Beloved!”, SF Fringe Festival), Courtney Merril (“Into the Woods”, Ray of Light), Elissa Beth Stebbins (“Peter/Wendy”, Custom Made Theatre Company).

BEST FUSION THEATER PIECE
“Nightingale” (Davis Shakespeare Ensemble/SF Fringe Festival)
This little gem at this year’s fringe festival was adapted from the myth of Philomel by Gia Battista, with music by Richard Chowenhill, directed by Rob Sals (with Battista), and staring Gabby Battista, April Fritz and Tracy Hazas as three remarkably similar looking women who each take a turn playing the heroine of a bizarre fairy tale (all the other characters in the story are played by them as well). Dance, pantomime, narration, song and traditional theater techniques all came together in a way that was astonishingly clean and charming in its simplicity. The black and white aesthetic used to unify the look of the show and performers gave the whole thing a quality both modern and timeless, and in its gentle, dreamy tone the sharp elements of social commentary and satire often seemed more brutal and impactful. Of everything I saw at the Fringe this past year, which included a number of excellent works, this piece has stayed with me the longest.

BEST SOLO SHOW
“Steve Seabrook: Better Than You” by Kurt Bodden (The Marsh)
I saw a lot more solo performance than usual this year (including works by Annette Roman, Laura Austin Wiley, Alexa Fitzpatrick, Jenny Newbry Waters, Rene Pena), and realizing how good it can be is, in and of itself, kind of a miracle because I used to say things like, “Theater begins with two people” and “If Aeschylus had wanted to write sermons he wouldn’t have added Electra”. Kurt’s show was not created this past year, it has a long history, but I only saw it in its most recent Marsh incarnation and I’m hoping he’s been able to find ways to keep it going (his Facebook feeds indicate this is so). A satire of motivational speakers and the cult of self-improvement, “Steve Seabrook” manages to be so much more by combining satirical fiction with moments of the kind of personal monologue (still fiction) that permeates solo shows. The result is a sense of development, of a story (Steve’s) unfolding in real time while another story, (Steve’s Seminar) plays itself out over the course of a weekend. Playing off the convention of a backstage comedy (we see the seminar, then we see Steve when he’s not “on”), Kurt’s brilliance as a performer is evident in the seamless transition from one to the other, again and again, carrying a throughline that shows us not only why Steve buys into his mantras, but why any of us buy into anything we’ve come up with (or adopted from someone else) to keep us moving through life’s ups and downs. At once very funny and cutting, while also moving and real (and yes, fuck it, kind of inspirational), Kurt’s show also gets a nod for its fantastic takeaway schwag: a keychain light with Steve’s name on it, with which every audience member is encouraged to shine their light in a dark world.

BEST DIRECTOR
Rebecca Longworth and Joan Howard, “Oh Best Beloved” (SF Fringe Festival)
“Oh Best Beloved” got a lot of attention and deservedly so- well acted, well designed, it was a genuinely fun piece of theater. Perhaps most deserving of being singled out in the project, however, are director Rebecca Longworth and partner Joan Howard, who share credit for conceptualizing the show (in which Joan also played a part and had, in my opinion, the single best moment in the show), and who lead the rest of the company in adapting the material from Ruyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories”. Anyone who saw the show could easily see that it had about a million moving parts, and Longworth and Howard’s ability to keep all those plates spinning on a small budget and under the strict conditions of the San Francisco Fringe Festival (they literally put up and pulled down a full set with each performance) is worthy of award in and of itself, but the level of commitment and craft they were able to pull from their design team and performers was equally as impressive. Everything about the show, even the parts that didn’t work as well as others, felt thought through and done with panache, making this ambitious and unique experience a delightful jewel in the SF Fringe Festival’s crown.

BEST DESIGNER
Bill English, “Abigail’s Party” (SF Playhouse)
Scenery in general doesn’t do much for me. I enjoy good scenery, but the best scenery should kind of vanish into the background, in my opinion, and be something you barely pay attention to. As a result, I’m often just as happy with a blank stage, or really well thought out minimal set, as I am with a full one, so long as the play I’m watching is good. That said, every now and then I will see a set I just adore, and this year it was Bill English’s set for SF Playhouse’s “Abigail’s Party”, by Mike Leigh, directed by Amy Glazer. Basically a living room/dining room/kitchenet combo, this fully realized “home” was very well crafted as a place, but more importantly, it really worked as a place where people lived. The 70s style was at once present without being overwhelming, evoking the time period without looking like it was a homage to the time period, or a museum dedicated to 70s kitch. I mean, it honestly reminded me of numerous homes I’d played in as a child (I was born in 1978) and all the wallpaper looked like wallpaper in my parents’ home before my mother completely re-did the house in 1990 because “we can admit this is ugly… now”. The amazing thing about English’s set is that it didn’t seem ugly, in spite of being made up entirely of patterns and colors we now find appalling. He made it all work together, the way people once did, and the final result was simultaneously comfortable and dazzling. I remember thinking, waiting for the play to begin, “I could live here.”

And last, but not least, every year I pick…

MY PERSONAL FAVORITE EXPERIENCE TO WORK ON
“The Age of Beauty” (No Nude Men Productions/The Exit Theatre)
I had taken a break from directing my own work, but with this nine performance workshop I allowed myself to re-discover that, as much as I like directing plays by others, there is nothing quite as satisfying as feeling like I’m telling a very personal story of my own and having the final say on how that happens. Of course, such experiences are only rewarding when you get to work with great actors, and I was lucky to have four amazing women (Megan Briggs, Emma Rose Shelton, Allison Page, Sylvia Hathaway) who were willing to go on this adventure with me, always keeping stride as I made cuts and changed lines, memorizing a mountain of material in Emma and Sylvia’s case, and crafting subtle characters who had to be both different from each other and relatively interchangeable at the same time. When I had a hard time articulating what I was going for, they would nod and smile and then show me what I meant by doing it better than I could describe it. When the show opened by the skin of its teeth it had one of those minor miracle opening nights, where even though you’re just a tiny bit unprepared (all my fault, I kept changing the script), it somehow all comes together and really works. Over the course of the show, as their performances grew and refined (our final two nights were simply perfect), I was able to see what flaws still remained in the script (two pages, middle of scene of scene two were cut the day after we closed), and any writer of new work will tell you that’s the best experience you can hope for on a first production. Shout outs to my awesome design team Cody Rishell, Jim Lively and Wil Turner IV! “The Age of Beauty” helped restore some of my lagging faith in the theater process, and made me commit to doing more of my own work in the coming year.

Stuart Bousel runs the San Francisco Theater Pub blog, and is a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. You can find out more about his work at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.

Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: The Van Ness Avenue Problem

Marissa Skudlarek continues her semi-monthly column on life and times in the Bay Area theater scene. Have your own story to tell? Let us know! We’re working towards having something new on the SF Theater Pub blog EVERY DAY, but we can’t do it without you! 

When I studied in Paris five years ago, I lived with a host family in the 16th arrondissement, a neighborhood that represented the best of walkable, cultured urbanism. A Metro station next door. A boulangerie two blocks away. And, most impressive of all, a theater down the street.

I had never before lived on the same block as a theater, and I doubt I ever will again.  Theaters in San Francisco – as in many American cities – do not tend to be located in the neighborhoods where I wish to live. Typically, urban American theaters fall into two distinct types:

  • Big institutional theaters, located in a “theater district” in the city center – here, Union Square
  • Small black box theaters, located in neglected neighborhoods – here, the Tenderloin

This division is a bit more complicated in San Francisco than elsewhere, as our city’s odd geography means that Union Square and the Tenderloin lie cheek by jowl and merge into one another – but let’s not get into that.

San Francisco theaters, therefore, cluster into just a few neighborhoods of our large and diverse city. I like to call this unequal geographic distribution  “the Van Ness Avenue problem.” As I see it, a line runs north-south and divides the city: east of the line, there are theaters; west of the line, there aren’t. And this line is located roughly at Van Ness Avenue. While you can quibble with my exact terminology (I can think of a few theaters located one or two blocks west of Van Ness, such as Custom Made on Gough Street or Stage Werx on Valencia Street), the point stands: close to 100% of the theaters in San Francisco are located in the eastern 30% of the city.

In practical terms, this means that the neighborhoods where artists live are often different from the neighborhoods where they make theater. I live in the Inner Sunset, as do many other stalwarts of the San Francisco independent theater scene – when coming home from theater events, I rarely lack for “MUNI buddies” to ride the N-Judah with me.  In the Inner Sunset, we have our boulangeries (shout-out to Arizmendi and Tart to Tart), we have transit connectivity, we have doctors’ offices and retail stores and an astounding number of restaurants. But we don’t have a theater. And this same pattern holds for many of the most lively and livable neighborhoods in San Francisco: the Haight, the Inner Richmond, the Castro. Neighborhoods like these are seemingly New Urbanist paradises, equipped with every amenity – except for a local theater.

What’s true for the artists is true for our audience as well. The challenge of getting people to come see theater is not merely convincing them that a certain show is worth their time and money. More than that, we must convince them to venture into some of the city’s most dilapidated areas. While the Tenderloin is easy to get to, it’s not very hospitable for theatergoers; for instance, it’s difficult to find a restaurant to dine at before the show. (I’ve been known to suggest dining at the Westfield Mall cafeteria, for lack of a better option.) And while we know that you won’t get robbed if you go to the Tenderloin, many other San Franciscans have a hard time believing that. Moreover, if you’re a woman, you won’t get robbed, but you’ll probably get catcalled.

Because the theaters where we work are often located on obscure streets in run-down areas, we also cannot take good advantage of foot traffic or spillover from other popular venues in the neighborhood. A theater on a main thoroughfare like Divisadero or Haight would be seen by thousands of people who stroll the street daily, plus the thousands more who travel down it by bus. Contrast that with a typical Tenderloin theater, the Boxcar – located on an alley off of a seedy part of 6th Street, it’s easy to overlook. I fear that by not catering to foot traffic, we ignore an important source of new audience members.

Theater Pub at the Café Royale avoids some of these pitfalls. Yes, it’s east of Van Ness, and on the map it might look like it’s in the Tenderloin, but it’s really in the quieter and more residential “Tendernob.” It does get foot traffic, and the big plate-glass windows of the Café Royale mean that passers-by can peer inside and wonder what’s going on. Several patrons have joined us for a show after spotting us from the street!

An example of the type of theater that I envision for San Francisco’s central and western neighborhoods is Thick House, on Potrero Hill. It’s a 100-seat proscenium stage, located in a nice mixed-use neighborhood, close to shops and restaurants. Because Thick House is one of the few small theaters that’s not in the Tenderloin, it’s a favorite of institutions like Playwrights Foundation and PlayGround. If a neighborhood like Potrero Hill can support Thick House, couldn’t a neighborhood like the Richmond or the Sunset support a small theater?

I don’t pretend that it will be easy to alleviate “the Van Ness problem” and open new theaters in different neighborhoods of San Francisco. I know that theater is not a moneymaking industry, that the Tenderloin offers cheap rent, that theaters require specific facilities and you can’t just open up a theater in any building. I know we’re in a recession and all businesses are struggling. Think of the late, lamented Red Vic Movie House, which had a great location on Haight Street and closed last summer after 30 years in business.

Nonetheless, I think it’s worth asking why we must go east of Van Ness Avenue if we want to see a show. Will I ever see a theater marquee lit up on Irving Street?

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

Director Stuart Bousel Talks About Helen of Troy: Part 3

The romantification (is that even a word?) of Helen begins with the Renaissance, specifically the poet Christopher Marlowe, who coined the term “The face that launched a thousand ships” in his play Doctor Faustus. But if Marlowe doesn’t condemn Helen, he also doesn’t do much to elevate her beyond the surface celebration of her beauty: Helen here is still a prop- a wordless image summoned by Mephistopheles, the Devil, to tempt Faustus, the wizard who would have it all. Even when she’s played by a young Elizabeth Taylor in the 1967 film version she remains essentially uninteresting aside from being beautiful. The most notable thing about Helen’s cameo in Marlowe’s play is that for the first time she is taken somewhat out of context and thus, by accident, de-fanged. Helen as a centerfold, really, which is a debatable improvement over Helen as the Anti-Christ.

It was post-medieval painters who popularized the idea that Helen was forcibly removed from Sparta by depicting the abduction as indisputably a rape. In these paintings, Paris is usually carrying Helen in his arms while she looks longingly backwards, reaching out towards her homeland and husband. Another interesting thing to note is that we start to get a lot of images of Helen as a blonde, even though her hair was much more likely to have been dark (provided she was a real human being at all) and usually was depicted as so in Greek paintings and pottery. Interestingly enough, her facial expression also becomes progressively more blank as Reformation and Enlightenment attitudes towards war shifted from aggrandizing military heroics, to embracing peace. Gustave Moreau famously painted an image of a Helen whose face is literally a blank canvas as she stands amidst the ruins of Troy.

German poet Goethe was the next person to give Helen’s image a new coat of paint. In the second part of his epic dramatic poem, Faust, Goethe has his adventuring medieval wizard marry the famous beauty and together they have a son, Euphorion, who eventually falls to his death when trying to climb a mountain (get it? it’s an allegory!). Helen, overcome with grief, evaporates into mist and Faust, devastated, continues on his adventures. Though symbolic of the marriage of classical and medieval aesthetics, Goethe is careful to give his lovers enough depth to make them sympathetic to his Romantic Era audience. Helen is depicted as a lovely, almost flawlessly adoring woman who becomes Faust’s wife after he saves her from being murdered by Menelaus (apparently he was over her by the time the 15th century had rolled around). A classical damsel in distress, Helen then becomes a doting mother to her spirited son, and following his death her mournful soliloquies are amongst the more heartfelt passages of Geothe’s masterpiece. While it’s hard to classify this Helen as human (she’s a little too perfect), she’s definitely a far cry from the two most common portrayals of antiquity: sad, listless pawn or sly, depraved temptress.

By the time the twentieth century rolls around we’ve started to get more complex visions of Helen, grounded in post-romantic realism that abandoned archetypes in favor of making even legendary characters believable human beings. The cult stage musical The Golden Apple (by Jerome Moross and John Latouche) reverts to a more traditional depiction of Helen, and here she’s written as a seductive housewife looking to skip town on a boring husband. Though at first glance one assumes this is business as usual for Helen, the authors go out of their way to ground her in the every day: she’s not the most beautiful woman in the world, just the most sexually aggressive in town, and her sexual aggression isn’t painted as unnatural or malicious so much as the natural conclusion of life in a dull, rural township where church and the local bake-off are the only entertainment options. Once in Troy with her new beau, Helen sings “My Picture In The Paper”, a delightfully self-important song capturing the fifteen-minutes of fame mentality and reducing Helen to pretty much every small town girl who ever tried running away to the Big City to be a showgirl. Helen isn’t exactly sympathetic in The Golden Apple, but she’s definitely someone you could know, and that hadn’t really happened before. Helen also gets the best song in the show, “Lazy Afternoon”, memorably recorded by Kaye Ballard on the original cast album. An interesting side note is how Paris is handled: he has no lines or songs, and is purely a dancing role. Personally, I think it’s a brilliant choice.

Humanizing Helen of Troy has been the goal of a number of other 20th century writers, particularly women writers. In 1961, modernist poet H.D. published the epic length Helen in Egypt, a meditation on heroism, secret messages, beauty, mortality and loss, all from Helen’s perspective. Somewhat ironically (and yet fittingly) this is hands down the most extensive attempt by any writer to get inside the head of Helen, but given H.D.’s tendency toward writing in complex code and heavy symbolism, it often serves to reinforce rather than overcome the distance and aloofness which is associated with Helen’s personality. Even in straight forward narrative Helen often comes off as indecipherable, be it in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Firebrand, where she is portrayed as an elegant and dignified yet emotionally cold woman, or Roger Zelazny’s If At Faust You Don’t Succeed, where her more spirited portrayal is still mostly relegated to a kind of slapdash feminist in-joke. In both these books, Helen is a supporting figure and we never get to really know her, so much as continue to see her through the eyes of the people whose lives she is thrust into, always against her will. Post-modern, post-feminist Helen of Troy is often still mystery and symbol than flesh and blood. But at least here we’re asked to abandon our preconceptions of her and to respect her as a woman in a tough situation. Firebrand and If At Faust You Don’t Succeed couldn’t be more different reads, but their revisionist core is the same when it comes to Helen: being the hot chick at the party has gotten exceedingly dull for her, and she’s tired of pretty much everything and everyone around her. Most importantly, she’s smart enough to articulate that, and she’s not looking to be either pitied or worshiped. She just wants to be left alone.

Movies have gone the opposite direction, and all three major films about the Trojan War have, interestingly enough, shared the same starting off point: Helen’s story as pure romance. This is an approach that would probably have been inconceivable to the Greeks because it requires something that we don’t see until literally the last hundred years: the transformation of Paris from pretty boy seducer into a handsome and heroic prince. The first major version of this take on the story comes in 1956 with Robert Wise’s film, Helen of Troy, staring Rossana Podesta as the titular queen. In this version we get new archetypes for the old characters that are later repeated in the 2004 Wolfgang Petersen film Troy: first, a brutish and abusive Menelaus, second, a dashing and heroic Paris, and third, a Helen who willfully runs away to fulfill a romantic fantasy the audience is expected to share with her because 1) her husband is terrible and 2) Paris is so good looking, kind and clearly it’s “meant to be.” It’s interesting to note that in both of these films, the Gods have been entirely removed as active forces in the lives of men, thus making everyone indisputably responsible for their own actions. Hence the demonization of Menelaus: otherwise, Helen would have to carry the stigma of being a cheating wife. In typical Hollywood shorthand, escaping a bad marriage absolves one of adultery, particularly if the husband is unattractive and older, and the lover is a young hottie.

John Kent Harrison’s 2003 version, Helen of Troy, continues in this vein with two interesting twists: his Menelaus (played quite well by James Callis) is not a brute but a well-intentioned if uninspiring weakling, and unlike the other two films, Helen’s decisions are still cast as short-sighted and destructive, despite being romantic and somewhat justified by a loveless married life in Sparta. The Gods are also present in this version, albeit in the background, but as a result there is no question that Paris and Helen are intended for one another and Menelaus has only ended up in the way by chance (he literally wins Helen in a lottery). It’s also interesting to note that the screenplay in this instance is written by a woman, Ronni Kern. One can’t help but wonder if that’s why virtually all the characters are sympathetically portrayed as people caught up in something bigger than themselves: women have spent most of history confined by social structures that probably feel a bit like “destiny.”

Without denying the film’s flaws (produced for television, it suffers from some shoddiness on the production and acting front), I actually find this version of the story, and Helen’s  character, the most interesting of the cinematic incarnations. Played by Sienna Guillory, who channels a kind of delicate, ethereal beauty at once womanly and girlish, the Helen of this film is more pro-active than other Helens.  She rescues Paris from an assassination attempt early in the film (the murder is planned by Menelaus and Agamemnon, thus ensuring Paris comes off as an acceptable romantic hero) and convinces him to leave without her, only at the last moment choosing to join him (literally, she swims out to his departing boat). She later gives herself up to the Greeks in an attempt to end the war. At the same time, her status as an object to be used and abused as men wish is underlined at various points. Her teenage abduction by Theseus (Stellan Skarsgaard) is dramatized and helps create a context for her as someone who the world takes liberties with and never apologizes to. When her husband makes her stand naked in the center of his feasting hall, as a way of asserting his power over everyone, Helen agrees to do it rather than cause trouble in her home. At the conclusion of the film she is raped by Agamemnon in an interesting twist that Rufus Sewell’s performance actually justifies; a horrified Menelaus looks on and, it’s implied by the end, recognizes how he’s played a part in bringing this about.

The other women in the story treat Helen with a mix of pity and disdain: Hecuba (Maryan D’Abo) barely glances at her; Clytemnestra (Katie Blake) is clearly jealous of her and threatened by her, but in the end acts to avenge and protect her sister; Cassandra (Emilia Fox) spits on her and demands her expulsion from Troy, but ultimately gives her the only counsel and comfort that’s worth anything. In the movie’s best scene, following the death of Paris, Helen begs to know why Paris was killed even though Helen gave herself up. Cassandra’s response, “You gave yourself up… but you didn’t surrender,” is chilling, especially when a few scenes later Helen is raped by one brother, and then left to follow the other wherever he will take her. He takes her back to Sparta, of course, but the beginning of their journey is a quiet, unsettling moment: Helen offers him her head to be cut off, and he declines; he in turn offers her shelter and she accepts, on the condition he recognizes she will never love him. He, in turn, accepts. Kern’s Helen, like Hesiod’s Helen, is Helen as Everywoman, but where as Hesiod’s Helen exists to destroy men willfully and maliciously, Kern’s Helen seems to exist to be broken by men, and yet in the breaking of her they break themselves.

In the end, Helen of Troy remains a tough figure to love or relate to. Even her most sympathetic portrayals fail to make her admirable so much as pitiable, and even when we’re asked to respect her it’s as an object of pity. Her name is synonymous with the dangers of being beautiful and its doubtful that she’ll ever be free of that taint- in part because that would require our society changing its perception of beauty and while fads and fashions do change, the general consensus that beautiful people are to be both adored and reviled seems pretty permanent. The truth is, our love-hate relationship with beauty is fundamentally tied in with a human desire to put people on pedestals- partly to worship them, but partly to knock them down when the right moment arrives. Helen of Troy, temptress and scapegoat, victim and war criminal, epitomizes the rise and fall of a symbol no matter what your take on that symbol is, and her legend is an unsettling reminder of that element within all of us that longs for beauty and fears beauty and revels in tearing beauty down.

Don’t miss SF Theater Pub’s dramatic reading of Helen by Euripedes, one night only, this Valentine’s Day at the Cafe Royale, 800 Post Street, San Francisco. The show starts at 8 PM and is a free event. Get there early to ensure seating!