Theater Around The Bay: The Audition and Casting Process (Stuart Bousel, Lana Russell)

Peter Hsieh brings us Part One of a two part interview series taking a director’s eye view of the casting and audition process.

Auditions. Casting. Been there, done that.

Auditions. Casting. Been there, done that.

Before I started seriously writing plays, I was an actor and the thing that baffled me the most, gave me the most palpitations were auditions. Part of what made me so nervous about them was that I didn’t really grow up doing theater and didn’t really have any friends in theater or any connections within a theater community. I also hadn’t the slightest idea about what the casting process was like from the director’s and producer’s stand point and in my ignorance and insecurity, attributed being successfully cast as to having connections, having an impressive resume stretching back twelve years to your stage debut as one of the kids in Children of Eden to your critically acclaimed performance as Romeo in last summer’s production of Romeo and Juliet, or being incredibly talented/having years of training. A few years later I found myself on the other side of the table, as a locally produced, playwright/director with whom people saw potential in and as a result got to take part in auditions and casting for some of my plays and became more familiar with this process that years ago was such a terrifying mystery to me.

Nowadays I rarely take part in auditions but I still have great respect for all the work that goes into auditions and castings from both sides of the table . As I’m writing this article, a lot of plays are being cast or already have been cast, from college productions (a lot of the UC’s have just had theirs cast I believe), to a few upcoming festivals like the San Francisco Olympians Festival, and I find myself thinking back to a younger version of myself worrying about auditions and how much better it would have been if I knew more about the process or if I had a few director friends I could talk to. In this article I talk to two very awesome directors, who go to auditions and are involved in the casting process, directors that I look up to and whose work I deeply admire: Stuart Bousel, the Director of New Work Development at Custom Made Theatre Company, the Executive Director of San Francisco Theater Pub, and the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, really, a man who needs no introduction in these parts (and on this blog), and who you’ve (if you do theater in San Francisco) probably auditioned for and my friend Lana Russell, a New York based freelance director and the artistic director of Story People Theater Group, whom I met (and auditioned in front of) at UC Irvine where we both matriculated. In addition to talking about the audition and casting process, Stuart and Lana, both involved in producing new works, also addresses what it’s like to work on new plays and how what it is like to cast a new play.

So to the actor who got nervous before their audition, or are thinking about auditioning, to anyone who has ever wondered about the casting process and what transpires after you leave that stage (or room, or wherever your audition takes place), to myself years back when I was auditioning for the first time as a college freshmen who decided to take a shot at theater, this one is for you.

Tell us about your experience with new works. What do you enjoy about them? Why is it important to support that avenue of theatre?

Bousel: I’m a playwright, so I create new work, so of course I think it’s important, but as a director and as an audience member I’m just really into stories- old ones, and new, so an interest in new work development stems from a desire to constantly be creating and listening to, seeing, new stories. Surprise is, to me, one of the key elements of good theater- revelation too- and while I think both of those things can be present in older works, obviously the potential is greater in new work, and it’s important to support new work for the same reasons it’s important to support learning new things or making new friends: it helps us grow as human beings, and we should never stop growing.

Lana Russell. Her workshop production of Gibraltar at UCI was one of the best plays I saw there. I saw A LOT of good plays there.

Lana Russell. Her workshop production of Gibraltar at UCI was one of the best plays I saw there. I saw A LOT of good plays there.

Russell: For me, there is nothing more exciting than getting to be a part of telling a story that has never been told in exactly that way ever before. A playwright creates this raw, beautiful, terrifying thing that has the power and potential to develop into a story so full of life it cannot help but be told. When a new work gets dropped into your hands as a director I truly believe that no matter what is on the page, there is this thrilling possibility of what it could become. Offering support to the playwright in early stages by giving them the space to hear their work aloud, in front of a supportive and inquisitive audience is immensely important. Plays aren’t written to sit in twenty drafts on a google drive, they are being written for people to hear, see, react to and empathize with.

While I’ve always had a passion for new plays, the work really began after moving to New York in 2010. I had the opportunity and great pleasure to work for Primary Stages as their literary assistant for almost three years. So in addition to building a freelance directing career I was reading a bajillion scripts, seeing readings all over the city and assisting in Primary Stages Dorothy Strelsin New American writers group. A literary position was a great fit for me and it allowed me to learn about the wealth of writers constantly putting their work out there in New York and regionally. The writer’s group would meet once a week while the playwrights (all RIDICULOUSLY AMAZING writers) brought in new pages of the play they were working on which would then have a reading at the end of the term. Primary Stages offers such a generous home to their writers and an opportunity for audiences to come and see a work that is brand spanking new. I offered dramaturgical advice and hopefully emotional support in addition to administrative tasks for the group, their reading series and our annual writers retreat in Bennington College. I also have held literary internships and producing fellowships at LCT3 at Lincoln Center and Naked Angels, both companies dedicated to the development and production of new and exciting works.

What are some of the challenges of casting new works, especially for a festival or evening of multiple plays?

Russell: The festival especially had its challenges because instead of producing one new play, there were seven each with its own writer, director and cast. For me, casting for a new play is actually easier than one that has a range of previous productions. It can be more difficult because no previous type has been set for who plays this role but that is what I find most creatively stimulating. For an actor this is a huge opportunity to lend your voice and help create the persona of a brand new character. Readings are also great opportunities to try certain casting ideas and actors out. It sounds silly to say but scheduling is another major challenge. Since so many readings of new plays are unpaid and based on the generous volunteering of time from the actors, casting can get down to the wire and it becomes a game of commitments and getting people in the right place at the right time. Actors, the quicker you respond to an email, the quicker we can cast you.

Stuart Bousel. I owe at least three of my plays being produced to him. For Reals.

Stuart Bousel. I owe at least three of my plays being produced to him. For Reals.

Bousel: The big challenge with casting new work is that many actors are really no different from producers, directors, or audiences, and are just partial to what is familiar, perhaps even slightly distrusting of new work. Ask an actor what roles they want to play and they all have a list, which is understandable, they’ve grown up reading and seeing shows they want to be a part of themselves, but I wish I heard more actors say, “A role that hasn’t been written yet” or “A role I don’t know”. The right actors get super excited when they come across something they haven’t gotten to do before and nobody else has either, and they recognize it as the opportunity it is: to really be part of the creation of that character, because they absolutely will be, all roles are influenced by the actor who originates them. But it definitely takes a creative, smart actor who is willing to do that, and many artists, like many audiences, play it safe when push comes to shove, or can just have a hard time seeing how an opportunity they didn’t anticipate is still an opportunity.

There are a lot of people for and against pre-casting. There are a lot of practical reasons it is done (i.e. Writer/ Director had a specific actor in mind), but a lot of people bring up the arguments against it as well. What are your thoughts on pre-casting, and as producer/directors what would you say to Directors and actors in regards to this?

Bousel: I think it really depends on the role and the production. As a playwright, I have written roles for certain actors and I’ve never regretted that. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s almost always an interesting result. That said, all roles should be able to be played by someone other than the person they were originally written for (assuming they were) so obviously pre-casting is going to postpone that test at least until a second production. Generally speaking, I think it’s okay though for a director to go into a production with some sense of what they want, so long as they remain open to having their mind changed. And so long as they haven’t promised a role to an actor ahead of time. Telling someone they have a role and then taking it away for purely “I found someone I like more” reasons is not at all classy and yes, I’ve done it, and so I’m speaking from experience when I say you just end up feeling like a giant douche bag when you do that- and it’s cause you are. Go into auditions with all the ideas in the world- but save the promises until you’re ready to make a real offer.

Russell: I don’t think there is a director out there (especially one who is also producing) who when planning to do a play doesn’t have some ideas in their head about who could play at least the major roles. In larger institutions, especially on Broadway, star names are many times attached first before the choosing of the actual play, or the play is only produced if there can be at least 1-2 “names” on board. I don’t love this but sadly it is necessary to help with financial instability. Most directors I know have a circle of actors in the back of their minds but I at least always ask other trusted director colleges for recommendations. Sometimes I do an “invited audition” based on recommendations only when something needs to be cast quickly. Yet, the hopeful artist in me also believes in the possibility of finding that right person amidst the crowd when least expecting it. The best thing actors can do to embrace the amount of pre-casting that does occur is to work with and get your name involved with as any circles of art makers as possible. Make it so that when considering a play, your work and reputation for the caliber of work that you do is something producers and directors cannot ignore. More often than not I cast someone based on recommendation or a show I saw them in as opposed to just a cold audition. Also, a good website with a range of material is SO helpful.

What are some things actors do that make you want to cast them, conversely what are some of the things they do that make you not want to cast them?

Russell: The best thing an actor can do is make a choice. Any choice. A bold choice. A choice that you have thought deeply about. This means really knowing the play you have pulled the audition piece from. Also, I love actors who are able to show me who they are in an audition. It sounds so cliché but be yourself, have fun, and have pride and confidence in who you are. The people behind the casting table (at least in my opinion) are not “above you” they aren’t to be feared or make you feel less than. The casting director, director, producer etc. need someone to fill a role the same way that you need a gig. Lastly, be flexible. Be open. And be kind to everyone involved in any creative process. That is what I look for. I don’t want to cast any actor with an ego, someone who is inflexible and cannot play or make adjustments, and as I said before someone who doesn’t make a passionate choice in one direction even if it is the “wrong” direction.

Bousel: I like working with smart people who have a solid sense of who they are, know their boundaries, and are able to politely communicate them, but are also willing to take risks, try something before they shoot it down, collaborate, and contribute to the conversation while we craft a piece together. They need to know we’re in it together- and that “we” means them too. Actors who turn me off are ones who only want to go by the book, so to speak, and say “no” instead of “okay, let’s try it and see”. Actors who are not team players, who think they are above anything or anyone involved in my production, from their fellow actors to the box office people, are also not welcome on my shows. They are always, always, always backstage poison and the damage they cause is never worth whatever talent they possess. I will take a solid, if not “incredible” actor who is friendly, on time, and game, over an exquisite asshole any day. Love your ensemble, not your diva, is my slogan.

Cate Blanchett is smart and makes bold choices. I’m pretty sure of that.

Cate Blanchett is smart and makes bold choices. I’m pretty sure of that.

Monologue you’d be okay never hearing again.

Bousel: None, really, but advice I’d give after seeing hundreds of auditions: never do a song from RENT or TICK TICK BOOM, and never do a monologue where your character is crazy, ranting, or telling a story that isn’t about them.

Russell: Any monologue that is vastly age inappropriate, or any monologue where you play an actor doing a play or even worse a monologue about an audition. Also, I’d love to put a ban to monologue books. Those speeches get overused and as an actor it helps you so much to have an entire play as a tool to understanding your character. A monologue on its own can be way too general.

Some higher power has made you Supreme Overlord of Theatre. Cast your favorite play with any cast you want. I’d do Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” starring Jessica Chastain as May, Sam Rockwell as Eddie, and Jeff Bridges as the Old Man.

Russell: Peter, do you know Sam Rockwell is in Fool for Love on Broadway right now! Your wish is the theater’s command. OH MAN this is tough. I would have to cross time periods and eras. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, has been and always will be my favorite play. I would keep Marlon Brando as Stanley, though in when she was age appropriate Meryl Streep, (great minds think alike) Jessica Chastain as Stella and again if we could jump to times in their life when they were age appropriate I’ve always wanted a young Robin Williams to take on Mitch.

OMG! My wish is theater’s command. Swag.

OMG! My wish is theater’s command. Swag.

Bousel: I can’t really answer this because I’m about to direct my favorite play, SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, for the first time in 2016, and I’ve just cast it and I love and am really excited about my cast. So… there you go. I suppose if we’re just playing the Hollywood game, I would really love to see Cate Blanchette and Tilda Swinton cast as rival sister queens in a fantasy epic. I don’t know why this hasn’t happened yet.

Lana, you have a new theater group through which you recently produced a festival of new plays, tell us about it.

RUSSELL: I have a theater company (in development) called Story People Theatre Group. Story People Theatre Group seeks to create bold, imaginative art inspired by the diverse stories of the people around us. We are focused on documenting stories and forming a conversation between an artist and their community. Story People produces the summer Rooftop Readings program where new plays are presented in outdoor spaces (if it’s in Brooklyn where we are located chances are the space is a roof) and following the reading, discussion and intermingle of artists conversation wine and snacks takes place. Additionally, this year we held our first annual “Strangers” New works festival of short plays. This was an open submission process where writers were given the prompt “Strangers”. All seven pieces were presented with simple staging or in a more traditional reading format for the first time in front of enthusiastic audiences. I was thrilled by the range of diverse and unique voices we produced (some of which I directed) and the hope is that these plays continue to have further lives.

Supreme Overlord of Theatre.

Supreme Overlord of Theatre.

The really exciting thing about this particular festival is that the plays are incredibly new, performed or read for the first time in front of an audience and openly embrace that they are in the first stage of a developmental process. There is no pressure for perfection, just an opportunity to listen, craft, think and question. Story People will continue its programming next summer 2016 with a soon to be announced full length play, devising workshop and the usual summer programming of Rooftop Readings and hopefully another “Strangers” style festival. Story People is always in search of new collaborators so if you consider yourself an artist or storyteller of any kind please get in touch!

Sadly a website is in development and is not up yet so please get a hold of us at storypeopletheatregroup@gmail.com or Lana at lanarosalind@gmail.com.

Tune in Next Week for Part Two where I ask the same questions to more awesome directors/producers.

Stuart Bousel is the Director of New Work Development at Custom Made Theatre Company, the Executive Director of San Francisco Theater Pub, and the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which opens on November 5th this year (www.sfolympians.com). He is also a playwright, and his play Pastorella is currently nominated for OUTSTANDING WORLD PREMIERE at this year’s TBA Awards, while his play Gone Dark is set to open at Otherworld Theatre Company in Chicago on Halloween.

Lana Russell is a New York based freelance director and the artistic director of Story People Theater Group. Selected credits include: The Offer by Bella Poynton (Sam French OOB Festival Finalist) Cloud Tectonics by Jose Rivera, (New School for Drama), The Coming World by Christopher Shinn (Under St. Marks), Pizza Man by Darlene Craviotto (Red Room Theater) and Gibraltar by Octavio Solis (Nixon Theater). Assistant directing: The Model Apartment and Poor Behavior (Evan Cabnet, Primary Stages.) Lana is a member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab and pursuing an MFA in Directing at The New School for Drama, 2017.

Peter Hsieh is a playwright from San Jose, California. Recent credits include his play Interstate at the Detroit Fringe Festival and T. Schreiber Studio, Argus at the San Francisco Olympians Festival, and Maybe at Brooklyn College as part of GI60 2015. Additionally, his works have been produced and developed by Hollywood Fringe Festival, Piney Fork Press, Douglas Morrisson Theatre, NYU Performing Arts Club, Nylon Fusion Collective, Actor’s Company, Brooklyn College, North Park Playwright’s Festival, Viaduct Theatre, SPROUT, San Francisco Theatre Pub, World Premiere Weekend, City Light’s Theater Company, GI60, San Jose Rep’s Emerging Artist Lab, West Valley College, and Fringe of Marin. Peter is a graduate from the University of California, Irvine.

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Theater Around The Bay: Talk Is Sheep

Charles Lewis III brings us a special report on the rebirth of Theater Pub’s performance branch.

Welcome back, old friend.

Welcome back, old friend.

Right now I have three distinct memories stuck in my head.

The first takes place a few years ago when I found myself crashing on the sofa of Clint Winder (tech guru for PianoFight) and his roommate, Rob Ready (the artistic director). It had been a wild night of inebriated debauchery in which I probably did one or two things I’d probably regret if I could remember them. Needless to say, I was grateful to Clint for taking mercy on me and letting me sleep it off at he and Rob’s Chinatown bachelor pad. When I woke up the next morning – throat scratchy from weed and head throbbing from drink – I’ll never forget the first thing my eyes focused on was the blueprint on the wall. For quite some time, the PianoFighters had been talking about having their own piece of real estate. Not just being renters like every other non-profit indie theatre company in the Bay Area; no, they this was going to be a full-blown theatre owned and operated by PianoFight. It would have, as was described to me, “an upstairs, a downstairs, a full bar, a cabaret space, and different stages going all at once”.

Of course there were quite a few naysayers. Several theatre people (who shall remain nameless) laughed at the idea that “the Delta House of Bay Area theatre” could pull their shit together long enough to even get this ridiculous idea off the ground, let alone actually succeed. They thought PF’s plans were just a bunch of talk and waiting patiently for them to fail spectacularly. Me? I couldn’t predict the future of the space one way or another. I just know that the blueprint and the idea behind it were a pleasant sight to see first thing on a Sunday morning. That, and I really needed a Tylenol.

The second memory is walking down Market St. over the past decade. Even as a born-native San Franciscan, I’d never been in Hollywood Billiards. I had nothing against it, I just never found my way inside. I usually met friends at bars of their choice and our pub crawls never went down Market. Maybe it was my lack of any tangible connection to the place that kept me from lamenting its passing. I mean, its front doors had been replaced with a cool psychedelic mural that, to me, actually improved the walk down Market. The changes in my city irk me more than most, but still… those eyes, man. Those eyes were where it was at.

The third memory takes place several times in 2014. I’m at a bar with other theatre folk, in a kitchen with other theatre folk, or at a backyard party with other theatre folk. We’re all drinking, as we are wont to do, and throwing out ideas for theatre ideas we each think would be pretty cool. A full-length adaptation here, a night of hilarious shorts there, the occasional suggestion for a one-(wo)man show – the usual stuff. None of us are as dismissive as we usually are, no matter how ridiculous the ideas. All we need is a place to put it on and some folks willing to sacrifice their dignity to make it happen. It’s only a matter of time before someone grips their drink tightly in one hand, yells “Fuck!” whilst swinging their other hand, and laments “This would be a perfect show for Theater Pub!”, at which point we all mourn the fact that at the time that name only applied to the very website you’re now reading.

All three of these memories are on my mind as I walk toward the former home of Hollywood Billiards this past December. The psychedelic eyes are long gone, there isn’t a pool table anywhere to be found, and the inside is full of local eateries. When I was in Stuart’s play Pastorella one of my co-stars had told me about the changes, so I began stopping by every now and then. The place is okay, I think. I can’t mentally compare it to what it was before, but I’m more interested in how it will look in the future. As this was December, we were a few weeks removed from both the Thanksgiving announcement that this would be one of Theater Pub’s two new homes, and the original staged reading [/LINK] of our first new show, Satyr Night Fever. I look around and don’t see any place for a stage or a band, but there’s lots of room to maneuver around the way we did in our old space. I have no idea how this is going to work and, now considered an “official” member of Theater Pub, I have the presumptive gall to think “What the hell has Stuart gotten us into?”

There’s been a lot of talk about when (if ever) Theater Pub would come back and what form it would take if it did. That’s the think about talk: there’s rarely any requirement for it to be more than just that. But as I sit in the newly-dubbed The Hall sipping boba tea and munching a fish taco, the idea of a staging a romantic comedy about a lovelorn goat-man and a walking tree spirit doesn’t seem so crazy. I don’t know how it’ll happen, but I’m glad to hear people talking about it.

PianoFight’s new Californicorn that hangs above the new space.

PianoFight’s new Californicorn that hangs above the new space.

Three months earlier I’m at SF SketchFest to see a show featuring PianoFight’s all-female troupe, Chardonnay. It was a really funny show. Afterwards we all head to a nearby bar and I catch up with everyone. Having known most of the members since 2009 at this point, it’s a bit of a trip to see how many of them have… I’m trying to think of a better term than “settled down”. That implies that they’ve somehow lost their edge and become a shadow of their former selves, and that sure as hell ain’t true. One thing I learned from the baudy show put on that night is that no one at the company is ready to give up on the raunchy satire that is their bread ‘n butter. But there’s definitely been changes in the PianoFighters themselves. Quite a few of them have gotten married, nearly all of them have gotten new jobs, and the new space is their base of operations after wandering through different venues. No, “settled down” isn’t the right term. “Grown up” fits better.

By December I’d toured the new space as it was a work in progress. Wires needs to be connected, walls needed painting, and pieces of wood were everywhere. But the Californicorn was up behind the bar. PianoFight’s logo is the California grizzly with added unicorn horns and angel wings. To christen their new place, they commissioned a mosaic of the logo by performer/artist extraordinaire Molly Benson. It’s really purrty. More importantly, it’s representative of how serious the company is to make this place work. They’ve planted their flag and staked their claim in the middle of the Tenderloin. Quite a few theatre people talk about what they’d do if they had their own space, but know they’ll always be at the whim of dickish landlords and a shrinking number of viable spaces. PianoFight decided to stop talking and actually make one of their own. Is it any surprise that we all thought “Wow, that place would make a great home for the new Theater Pub”?

That question was briefly on my mind last Saturday. This was the long-awaited day Satyr Night Fever made its debut at The Hall. It was the first ‘Pub show since December 2013 and the first ever “matinée” show, starting at 2pm. There was brunch, there were laughs, there were a few technical SNAFUs that were easily covered up by ecstatic moaning off-stage. Complete strangers who’d just stopped in for a quick snack wound up staying for mimosas and goat-man love. Familiar faces like such as Claire Rice, Marissa Skudlarek, Matt Gunnison, and Christian Simonsen could be seen all around. Most importantly, San Francisco Theater Pub was back and we were all happy to see it.

Yes, they made a stage.

Yes, they made a stage.

Two days later I was sitting in the new PianoFight space getting a drink from Les, the sweet old guy who served us many a pint in the ‘Pub original heyday. Now here he was, beneath the Californicorn as Tonya Narvaez, one of our new co-artistic directors, gave the crowd the rundown for the evening. The last time I was part of Theater Pub, I directing Eli Diamond to not give any attitude to his ornery old granny. Now I was watching him be hit on then berated by a vivacious tree nymph in a horrible Christmas sweater. By the time Meg Trowbridge, our other new co-AD, gave her closing speech and hit up our audience for money, rest assured that they’d the single best Greek mythology love story that one could ever find in the cabaret space of the theatre building owned by a raunchy San Francisco independent theatre company. They had something to talk about.

It gave us all the feels.

It gave us all the feels.

In case you couldn’t tell yet, lots of talk annoys me after a while. I say that as someone who does a great of talking all the time. That doesn’t change the fact that it annoys me. Maybe it’s the person talking that gets to me, maybe it’s what they’re saying, maybe it’s the time of day when it was said – those things can count for a lot when someone is expecting me to listen to them ramble on and on. Hell, I consider it an act of faith that you haven’t clicked away by this point. The reason I bring this up is because the thing I most remember about Theater Pub is what people said – before the show, after the show, and what was said during the performance. We’d talk dreams and talk shit with equal aplomb. That’s what I missed most about Theater Pub going away, talking with everyone. Talking about Theater Pub was what I most loved and hated about the time when it didn’t have a stage home. Talking about it is what I look forward to most in its new incarnation.

None of us are the same as we were back then. We’ve changed, we’ve grown, we’ve transformed into things that would hardly recognise the people we used to be. There’s no guarantee of where we’ll go from here, but I can’t wait talk about where we are now.

Charles Lewis III will be at the final performance of Satyr Night Fever tonight if you want to talk to him. He’ll understand if you don’t. It’s at 144 Taylor St. in San Francisco. The show starts at 8pm, with a $5.00 suggested donation at the door.

Theater Around The Bay: Year End Round Up, Act 4, The Stueys (Again)

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2014 list. Finally. We know it’s long, but read the whole thing. Seriously. If he was Tony Kushner you’d do it.

So if there is anything I learned last week it’s that one can have spent too much time thinking about Into The Woods.

No, but seriously, in the time since I published last week’s avante garde explanation for why I wasn’t going to do the Stueys, ironically, as these things often happen, I rediscovered why I want to do the Stueys. Blame it on a couple of supportive emails I got, a text of a friend reading my blog from inside a security fort and identifying too much, and a chat on a bay-side bench with a young, hopeful playwright, but my heart started to heal from the poison I was bleeding out of it and then one night, quite spontaneously, I just sat down and wrote them. And it just felt dumb not to share them. Before I do though, I wanted to briefly (for me) revisit the three things I wanted to get across in last week’s article. In 2015 it’s my goal to create space both for what I want to say, and what I need to say.

1) I kind of hate the Internet. But seriously, after the last year or so, does anybody not? I mean, I love what it can do but I’m starting to truly hate what it brings out in people, including myself. To be honest, while I am still quick with the quippy comments on Facebook and such, you may have noticed I am much quieter on the debates and controversy front than I once was and this is because I’ve just reached my limit of getting into fights that started out as conversations but then devolved into people just trying to outshout one another. It’s amazing to realize that a silent medium requires a volume dial but it really does, and the truth is, there are days I fear to be anything but funny on the internet, or ubiquitously positive, and so I ironically don’t want to talk in what is supposed to be a forum, not because I fear critique or debate, but because I’m not looking to start any wars. Too bad the Internet is pretty much a 24/7 war zone.

2) I kind of hate awards. I always kind of have, but this became more apparent to me after I won a TBA Award this year and I know that sounds ungrateful but believe me, I am honored and flattered to have received it, and I understand why awards are important, or at least necessary, and I can’t state enough, especially as someone who got to discuss the process and purpose behind the awards extensively with the folks running them, that I do believe the TBA awards are both well intentioned and super inclusive in their attempt to create an even playing field for theater makers coming from a diverse level of resources. What I dislike so strongly about awards is how many people, in the broader sense, use them as shorthand to designate the value of art, artists, and organizations. And no, they’re not supposed to do this, I know, but they do, and we as artists are not supposed to internalize this, I know, but we do. And I became really aware of that standing in a room with my fellow nominees that night, who didn’t win an award, all of whom were good sports about it but I could tell it made them sad. Which made me feel kind of miserable. And now my award lives in the back of my closet because as proud as I am of it, I’m also weirded out about it, and what it might mean to people, the expectations it might create about me or my work. And awards are nice but they can’t be why we’re in this, and I know that sounds kind of bullshit from somebody who has a few but it’s true and we have to remember that.

3) I kind of hate theater. Okay, that is an exaggeration but I am going through a phase of being sort of disenchanted with theater and some of the theater community. I know this is hardly a first for anybody in the community, and I suspect it’s a particularly common feeling when you’re feeling overworked- which I definitely was in 2014. 2015, however, doesn’t promise to be any less work, in fact the opposite, and so that’s got me down. And yes, I know it’s my choice to work as much as I do, but it’s also kind of not. A lot of what I do won’t happen without me and that makes me want to keep working because I believe in it and all the people it serves or creates opportunities for, but my inability to really escape the theater scene for more than a day or two before my inbox fills and my phone rings reached epic proportions in 2014 and lead to some intense moments of resenting the thing I love for needing me so very much while not always feeling like it needs me, Stuart, so much as anybody dumb enough to work this hard for this little pay. Which is a nasty thing to say but sometimes… sometimes it’s also kind of the truth. Feeling taken for granted sucks; feeling enslaved to passion has a dark side. So it goes. It balances out all the times I feel rescued and redeemed by it.

So, hopefully, you can see how all this could make for a mood not suited for creating the Stueys. Considering my general ambivalence/anxiety about awards, but recognizing that some people take the Stueys seriously enough to put them on resumes and websites, I really have been struggling with how ethical, not to mention hypocritical, it is for me, as an artist, to be handing out awards, no matter how playfully, to my fellow artists, when the only thing determining those awards is… me. Who no one should take seriously. But who apparently some people really do. Cue paralysis inducing terror and suddenly I couldn’t remember why I was doing this or what it was all about, but I felt I had to say something because I had all this stuff to say. But it can be hard for me to talk about myself, what I’m personally going through, and even harder for me to advocate for myself. I hate disappointing people. But I hate being insincere more. And I wanted to begin to understand why I was feeling all this dread.

Anyway, without more ado, and much, much later than intended, here they are, 14 awards for the 2014 Stueys.

BEST ADDITION TO THE BAY AREA THEATRE SCENE
The Bay Area Theatre Awards

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, and when we celebrate that whole community, regardless of budget or house size, Equity relationship or ticket price, we are celebrating our Art, ourselves as Artists, and Artists as contributors to and saviors of the World. Of course, no one organization or 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. No matter how far we cast our net, there is always more to see and more to explore and we’re fortunate to have it that way, so for a moment, let’s just celebrate what an incredible delight it is to now have an official awards system for our community that appears to be on the same page as that sentiment of inclusivity and casting a wide net, regardless of whatever other kinks may still need to be ironed out. And for those of you who feel the TBA Awards are not enough, or still missing the boat in some regards, you are correct. And you should do something about it, whatever that means to you. To me, it means keeping the SEBATAs going, because in my mind, Heaven is a place where at last we are all recognized for what we bring to the table, and I dream of a Bay Area filled with organizations and individuals proudly recognizing one another at every possible turn, for as many reasons as can be found, as many times as it pleases us to do so. And so I am giving the first Stuey this year to TBA, and specifically Robert Sokol, for having completed a Herculean task that they will now have to complete all over again. And then again. And then again. And again. Good luck everybody!

BEST NEW VENUE
PianoFight

Is there anyone who isn’t excited about all the potential here? Rob Ready and company have been building this space for years now, and walking into it you see why it has taken so long- it is just beautiful. From the mural by Molly Benson to the floors and the furniture, they have been seeking to create not just another black box or just another dive bar, but something truly magnificent, welcoming, inspiring, and everything a venue dedicated to a community art should be. Best thing of all? They’ve asked Theater Pub to perform there, and so we will be performing there, starting in January, at least twice a month going forward. Which makes us excited and scared. Something we’re sure they understand. This whole year looks to be exciting and scary.

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
San Francisco Fringe Festival (EXIT Theatre)

Dear San Francisco: this amazing thing happens right in the middle of you every year and not enough of you know about it and not enough of you make the time to visit it. And like… really visit it, not just duck in to see your friend’s show and then run out. And I understand why you do that because I used to do the same thing but now, having worked there for three years, I have to say, you are robbing yourself of an amazing opportunity to see theater from all over the country and the world, and to meet and talk with the most diverse collection of artists any one event assembles at any given point in the year, and to be a part of something bigger than you and bigger than just this venue or this theater scene for that matter. Do yourself a favor, serious theater goer, serious theater maker, and commit to seeing at least three shows at the Fringe this next year. Pick one by someone you know, one by someone you have heard of, and one by a total stranger. See them all, bring a friend, hang out in the Café and the Green Room between shows (on almost any night of the Fringe you can see 2-3 shows in one visit to the venue, and all the tickets are super cheap), introduce yourself to the staff and artists, tip the Fringe, and see if it doesn’t inspire you to want to see more, know more, do more. If the Bay Area Theatre scene is a garden, this is one of our most vital vegetable beds. Tend this garden, and then come get fed.

BEST SHOW
“Our Town” (Shotgun Players)

Won’t lie… it kind of kills me that this was my favorite show of the year. But it was, so much so that my boyfriend, afterwards, said, “Let’s not see anything else this year- let’s let this be where we stop” and he was right and I agreed, but that’s part of what worries me: for far too many people I think theater starts and stops with “Our Town”, or its equivalent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good theater because it is, and I have long defended Thornton Wilder as being one of the great playwrights whose work is often undermined by having been overdone. This production, directed by Susannah Martin with assistance from Katja Rivera, was anything but overdone, it was subtle and lovely and elegantly realized, from the costumes and lighting, to the music and the performances, and it all came together in a way that, while nostalgic and dramatically safe (which aren’t necessarily bad things, but important to recognize), still felt fresh and sincere, like the gesture of laying down in the rain on the grave of a loved one. There was really nothing I didn’t love. Though if I had to pick favorites I’ll say very little is more entertaining than watching Michelle Talgarow and Don Wood play off each other, even during the intermission raffle. The night I was there they got some very chatty audience feedback and they handled it Grover’s Corners style: graciously and politely and in a way that warmed your heart.

BEST READING
“Hydra” by Tonya Narvaez (SF Olympians Festival)

God, there is very little better in life than a really good reading, and possibly nothing more frustrating than watching people shoot themselves in the foot on what should be the simplest, easiest theatrical event to pull off. And yet… again and again we see it at the SF Olympians Festival, the full range of dramatic readings, from the simple but impafctful, to the overdone and done to death. This year we had a number of excellent readings, but my favorite standout was “Hydra”, written and directed by Tonya Narvaez. A ghost story, a comedy, a conundrum, the piece was elevated to a new level by Tonya shrouding the stage in total darkness except for reading lights for her cast who, illuminated in the stark and eerie glow, were uniformly excellent- not in the least because they were relieved of having to worry about blocking and forced by the light to focus only on the text. Such a simple, elegant choice, but so effective. She won that night of the festival, and wins this Stuey for Best Reading.

BEST SHORT PLAY
“Mars One Project” by Jennifer Roberts (part of “Super Heroes” at Wily West Productions)

Jennifer Robert’s play, about a female astronaut who is denied her chance to go to Mars because she has a daughter and the Powers That Be don’t think the world can stomach or root for a woman who would leave her child, even in an attempt to create a role model for that child, was by far the best piece in this evening of shorts. There was plenty of fine writing, but this is the one that transcended its own subject matter to present that ever elusive thing: an issue play in which both sides of the argument are presented with pathos. The tragedy of the piece is less that “we’re not there yet” and more, “is what it will take to be there always going to require sacrifice on this level”, to me a much more interesting, more human question. In an evening of mostly sketches, it was the one piece that could not only stand on its own, but really stood for something, and it’s a near perfect short play- which as an author of short plays, I assure you, is a near impossibility.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Amanda Ortmayer (EXIT Theatre Technical Director)

Amanda Ortmayer has let me cry on her shoulder so many times this year it’s astounding she doesn’t just keep a towel on hand. Only she probably does, since she’s seemingly prepared for anything, she just probably keeps it out of sight, since she also knows the value of never revealing your bag of tricks, or the exact location of your wishing tree. Something has to keep us in ballgowns and slippers and it’s probably not going to be wishes alone. But Amanda likes to encourage wishes too, and that rare combination of pragmatism and dreaming is why she is just generally… awesome. If you haven’t had a chance to work with her, I hope, one day, you do. It’ll remind you why we’re all in this, or at least, why we should all be in this: for the people.

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Marissa Skudlarek, “Pleiades”

One of my biggest pet peeves is listening to people complain about how there are not enough opportunities, while refusing to ever create those opportunities themselves. For the record I agree, there aren’t enough opportunities, but at some point we need to realize that if we have our health and a clear sense of our dreams, we’ve already been given more than most people get so it’s really just about figuring out how to see your dream materialize. Watching Marissa Skudlarek as she put together her first production as a producer (she wrote the script too, but we’re giving her recognition for the producer hat here), I was blown away by how organized and focused she was, how determined she was to do it as best she could even the first time out. Which is more than I can say for me. Even now, I feel like I mostly just take a deep breath, pick up my sword, and rush into battle blindly, while Marissa strategized and planned, gathered information, raised funds, and was just in general super smart about it all. Was anyone surprised? Not really. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take one more moment to tell her she did an amazing job. Everyone looking to produce a show in 2015- call Marissa. She knows what she’s doing.

BEST CHEMISTRY
Michaela Greeley, Katherine Otis, Terry Bamberger (“Three Tall Women”, Custom Made Theater Company)

It is not easy to play three versions of the same woman but this trio of ladies, under the direction of Custom Made veteran Katjia Rivera, brought so much magic to the stage that the leap of faith required for Act Two of Edward Albee’s classic was not only easy to make, you made it with a song in your heart! This is a lovely show, but one I rarely feel enthusiastic about, energized by, and these three performers, working so well together, in such total tandem with one another, sold me on this show in a way it’s never been sold to me before. Michaela Greeley was uncomfortably good at playing the frailty of her character in Act One and the fierce stubborn vitality in Act Two; while Terry Bamberger was an edgy warmth in Act One that ballooned into an explosion of heat and fire in Act Two; Katherine Otis, in the part with the least to work with in both acts, managed to strike the aloof brittleness required in the first act while still laying the foundations for the insecure idealist the second act tears to pieces. But what I may have loved the most was the way these ladies moved, always circling one another, always creating triangles on the stage, each one so aware of the other, having to fill the space one vacated, or rushing to claim a spot before the other could. It was like a dance, like a motorized portrait of the Three Fates and they wove a spell together that was frightening and enchanting all at once.

BEST RISK
Kat Evasco, “Mommie Queerest” (Guerilla Rep/DIVAfest)

Kat Evasco knows how to work an audience, but the audience at her show might not have been ready to get worked so hard. Bravely darting in and out of us, throwing herself around the stage in gleeful and breathless abandon, Kat unravels a personal story about the struggle to discover not only who she is- but who her mother is. And why she needs her mother to know who she is before she can finally accept herself. Co-written with John Caldon, who also directed, the show avoids the bulk of solo show clichés, feeling more like a play where Kat has just been tasked with playing all the roles to the best of her ability, and the audience isn’t really asked to come along so long as commandeered by her at the beginning and let go only when she sees fit. The piece is courageously risky, not only because of the controversial elements within it, but because Kat leaves no fourth wall standing between herself and the audience, and if they don’t run with her on it, her show is kind of screwed. Both times I saw this though, that wasn’t a problem; it’s hard not to jump in both feet at a time with a performer who is so ready and eager to do it.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
Justin Gillman (“The Pain And The Itch”, Custom Made Theater Company; “Blood Wedding” Bigger Than A Breadbox Theatre Company; “Pastorella” No Nude Men; and like a billion other things)

So… how many plays was Justin Gillman in this past year? It seemed like every time you turned around he was being cast in something, including by me, and every time he was pretty amazing in it. I don’t know how he does it. Like seriously, I don’t know how he memorizes all his lines, let alone doesn’t burn out from the constant rehearsal and yet somehow he shows up every night, fresh and ready to perform. Generous with everyone, onstage and off, it’s rare I don’t find him the highlight of a cast, usually finding a way to balance being a somewhat over-the-top character with a deeply human core that is achingly vulnerable when not just a tiny bit scary. In each of the three roles highlighted above, this was the common thread- men at first dismissable, who at sudden turns revealled their fangs, and then wept as they ripped your throat out. Delicious.

The ladies have gotten a lot of attention on this year’s list, which is great, but we like to keep things balanced here at the Stueys so we’re giving two more nods out: Kenny Toll (“Dracula Inquest”, Central Works) and Sam Tillis (“Slaughterhouse Five”, Custom Made Theater Company). In my opinion, both of these gentlemen were the best thing about these two shows, which were solid enough theatrical productions but elevated by fully committed actors. In both cases, both men also played characters who were… well, committed. As in insane. Though the insanity characterizations couldn’t have been more night and day than the plays were (Toll’s was of the by turns wimpering, by turns screeching Bedlam variety, Tillis was the diamond hard, lethally cold, slow burn sociopath kind), both managed to be believable and unsettling without being melodramatic or over-the-top. Toll even managed to be sympathetic, while Tillis managed to be mesmerizing. Either way, it was endlessly watchable, haunting, and impressive.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Cat Luedtke in Anything

Seriously, once upon a time there was no Cat Leudtke and then one morning we woke up and she was everywhere. I think I might have seen her in like six shows this year and in each case she was the walk away discovery, the revelation performance. The tremendous skill of this woman is matched only by her tremendous range, as every role I saw her in this year was different, though perhaps none so piercing and breathtaking as her role in Custom Made’s “Top Girls” as England’s most done-with-it-but-not-lying-down-about-it mother. I’ve also seen her sing and dance, act Lorca, play the 19th century adventurer, the dutiful wife, and more (probably helps that one of the things I saw her in was a collection of one-acts), bringing to each role a personal touch and a universal power, a sincerity and openness of heart that made you feel like you were watching a real person. She’s very much a “real actress”, whatever we mean by that when we say it. I know that what I tend to mean is somebody so good at throwing themselves into something, they transcend and turn into someone else, each and every time.

There is always an embarrassment of brilliant female performances in the Bay Area, so I feel a few other honorable mentions are in order: Mikka Bonel in “At The White Rabbit Burlesque” (DIVAfest), giving a performance as a rabbit that was unlike any performance of anything I’ve ever seen; Ariel Irula in “Blood Wedding” (Bigger Than A Breadbox), whose deeply passionate performance was matched only by the soul of her singing voice; Jean Forsman in “The Pain And The Itch” (Custom Made Theater Company), nailing well-meaning but vapid liberal mom as only someone like Jean could, walking perfectly that line of endearing and annoying; Stephanie Ann Foster in “Slaughterhouse Five” (Custom Made Theater Company), who played both a woman and a man in the show, and was lovely, heartbreaking, deeply sympathetic in each role.

BEST FUSION THEATER PIECE
Now And At The Hour (Christian Cagigal, H.P. Mendoza)

The fusion of theater and film is a tricky one, and I can only imagine how filming a stage show without destroying the magic of live theater must require an excellent understanding of both mediums. Now make that live theater a magic show too and you are truly setting yourself up to fall flat on your face, but H.P. Mendoza’s film of Christian Cagigal’s “Now And At The Hour” flies, it is magical and touching, the decision to interrupt the narrative of the stage show with the narrative of Christian’s life and the important players in it only adding to the emotional punch of this unique variation on “the artist and his work” formula. Beautifully shot, entertaining, unexpectedly poignant, this is a stellar example of a collaboration between artists and mediums.

BEST SOLO SHOW
Kevin Rolston, “Deal With The Dragon” (SF Fringe Festival)

Remember my earlier bit about the Fringe? Here is a glowing example of why going into something blind at the Fringe can sometimes result in stumbling across something truly excellent. I didn’t know anything about this show. It had a fun premise in the Fringe guide (Man moves in with Dragon) and a bad flier design (sorry, it can’t all be hugs and snuggles here) and while I had no expectations what I wasn’t expecting was to be so thoroughly moved and entertained. It does not hurt that Kevin Rolston is an incredibly talented performer with an ability to switch between his three narrators with glass-like smoothness, or that each of the three stories he tells, each with a different take on the idea of a “dragon”, are all funny and unsettling portraits of our tenous relationship with self-control and those things inside us that scare us. An unsettling fable about how our potential for violence and indulgence can also be our potential for strength and transformation, Rolston’s notes in the program claimed the piece is unfinished, but it could actually already stand as is. Here’s hoping the final product is as good as the draft.

And as for Me…

So Usually I end the awards with something about the show I personally worked on that affected me the most, but in all honesty I got so much out of all of them it would be hard to pick one so I kind of just want to take a final look at last year as a whole so I can both make sense of it and kiss it goodbye.

For me, it was an incredible year, but that doesn’t mean I loved every second of it. Far from it. It was as demanding as it was rewarding and at times it also seemed… endless. Like there was just always one more thing to do, to get through and then… two more. And then nine. I got to work with material by the incredible Kristin Hersh this year and that will forever be a highlight of my life but the production itself was a rough process, and the reception was rough, it all kind of placed too much strain on an important relationship in my life and I walked away feeling very differently than I had when I walked in- which was hopeful and desirous to bring a project that meant a lot to me to people I loved who I thought could benefit from it, but by the end I was wondering if I had ultimately done more harm than good by bringing such tremendous attention to something so natal. Then I directed a stellar production of “The Crucible” that made me acutely aware of how resistant critics and audiences can be to seeing a familiar play in a new way, and also how embracing they can be, but by that point I was having a hard time hearing the love and found it easier to focus on the detrimental views. I worked to let it all go, focused on feeling proud of the work my actors and designers had done, which was stupendous, and then just as I was feeling more balanced again, Wily West’s production of my play “Everybody Here Says Hello!”, after a whirlwind of a production process, opened to unexpectedly and ubiquitously positive reception. Suddenly, I was a guy with a hit show on my hands- technically my third this year since “Rat Girl” and “The Crucible”, despite whatever misgivings critics were having, were also big audience successes. For the first time in my career though my writing was the center of attention (I often feel I am mostly known as a director who writes, though I am actually a writer who directs), partly because Rik Lopes, not I, had directed “EHSH”, and so critics had to speak about our separate contributions separately, and that was wonderful but the moment was short-lived: we ended up having two performances canceled and the show only ran 7 times and it became my play everybody “really wished they had made it out to see.” Me too! Though one should never shake a stick at houses full of strangers. But oh… we do this partly because of the friends we hope to show something personal to, don’t we? And, again, I was having a year where it was hard not to keep adding things up in the negative, no matter how well they were actually going.

Anyway, this was then followed by the Fringe, as rewarding and as demanding as ever, which was then followed by the fast and furious (yet incredibly smooth) rehearsal process for my play “Pastorella”, which was the only piece I both wrote and directed last year, and which was well received, actually pretty much adored by audiences, but played to 2/3rds full houses or less its entire run after opening to an audience of 11- my second smallest audience in the history of my theater life in San Francisco (not my whole life- I once played to an audience of 2 in Tucson). The result was a show that, though very economically produced, still ended in the red, something which shouldn’t affect one personally as much as it does. But if you haven’t gathered yet, I’m being truthful here, even if it makes me seem a little petty. So yeah, my final passion project of the year was probably my personal favorite artistic accomplishment but it also cleaned out my bank account, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that 2014 was the year I went freelance/contractor and believe me- it’s been an adjustment. One I’m still adjusting to. Finally we had the fifth installment of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which was wonderful if perhaps more draining than usual, and fraught with an abnormal amount of backstage drama, from some diva moves on the part of some of our participants, to a failure to meet our fundraising goals (first time ever), and then the pique of which, of course, was having our dressing room robbed on, naturally, the night of my reading, which was successful in that it was well done by my trooper cast, but again, sort of middling attended, and a bit anti-climactic as an artist considering it had taken me all year to write it. And did I mention that some of my favorite actors kind of hated the script? Disappointing, but less so than having a “colleague” tell me that working with me was basically bad for businesses because of my strong opinions and tendency to carve my own way, nonsense that nobody who was actually a friend would have bothered to bring up- especially not when I was in the midst of trying to find a way to help them realize their own plans for the local theater scene. But I have occasionally been told my Achilles heel is caring about the band as much as I care about myself.

And somewhere in there I won a TBA Award for “EHSH”, had two works of mine garner bids for film adaptations, threw a delightful birthday party and another successful Easter brunch, but had to cancel a major social event because I got pink eye. Which is only worth mentioning again because in retrospect, it really is kind of funny. I wanted to get more reading done and much more writing, but it just didn’t happen. Best laid plans of mice and men…

So yes, 2014 was amazing but it was also, definitely, a mixed bag. Rewarding to no end, but unforgiving in many ways, most of all in that I had a hard time forgiving myself for just… well… doing my best but not always getting everything the way I wanted it or hoped for. The problem is, when you’re burnt out, stuff that you’d normally brush off or accept as the breaks of the business or just how life is get harder to be blasé about, and I found myself at the end of 2014 feeling accomplished but bruised, lucky but kind of cursed, exhausted and not excited so much as terrified about the future and yet… hopeful. Cause I am hopeful. And I want to stress that and more or less end there, and tell you it was amazing to have 800+ people applaud me for winning an award (even if it was for a play I always considered a bit of a “minor work” and never guessed would be so defining), and it was incredible to walk up those stairs that night, all alone, and think, even as my thoughts came crashing down around me, “Well, you certainly don’t do anything half-assed, do you Stuart?” (even if that means sometimes I paint myself into an intellectual corner with the same gusto I pull myself out of it). Though I definitely experienced a lot in 2014, I often felt like I wasn’t actually learning so much as surviving, and oh, by the way, I had massive writer’s block, and it was writing all that out last Monday that finally cured it… and got us here. And here is not a bad place to be: hopeful, and weirdly confident that whatever happens next, I can probably handle it. I just kind of wish I had a clearer idea of what “it” was. But then we all wish that, don’t we?

Ah well. C’est la vie.

Deep breath.

Happy New 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.

Theater Around The Bay: Year-End Round-Up Act 2, The Best of the Blog 2014

2014 was another year of change on multiple fronts and our website was no exception. We lost Claire Rice but gained Charles Lewis III, as well as bringing on Anthony Miller, making us a team of nine now. Everyone, including our lengthy list of occasional contributors, gets to share in the success of the blog, which has continued to increase its traffic over this past year. With 51,112 hits and counting in 2014 (compared to 45,819 in 2013, 27,998 in 2012, 11,716 in 2011, 8,435 in 2010), 228 subscribers, and 2814 Facebook followers, there can be no doubt that the San Francisco Theater Public (as we’ve taken to calling the blog amongst ourselves) continues to be “kind of a thing.” With our current all time total at 145,024 hits, we wanted to use the next to last blog entry of this year to celebrate the different voices that make our blog unique, while also paying homage to the vast and diverse world of online theater discussion. To everyone who makes our blog a success, a gigantic thank you for making 2014 the best year so far! Here’s hoping that 2015 is even better!

STUART BOUSEL by Dave Sikula 

I’ll admit I don’t know Stuart all that well. He’s directed me in one show, and is about to direct me in another, and we cross paths reasonably frequently, but if you work in Bay Area theatre at all, it’s almost impossible to escape him. He’s everywhere, and that’s something I really admire about him (despite his own admiration for the fatally-flawed Into the Woods). If I may indulge myself for just a moment, I’ll confess to massive inertia and procrastination in my personal and professional lives. It takes an external stimulus just short of an earthquake to get me out of my easy chair and into action. (For example, I’m using the writing of this as an excuse to not work on my translation of The Imaginary Invalid.) But Stuart should be studied by the people at the Department of Energy: He’s as close to a perpetual motion machine as I can think of. He is constantly either coming up with an idea for something, or writing it, or producing it, or all three simultaneously.

Stuart Bousel, alone at work... in the 40s. That's how dedicated he is.

Stuart Bousel, alone at work… in the 40s. That’s how dedicated he is.

Most of us are more comfortable sitting in a bar or a living room bitching about the lack of opportunity or parts or shows in the city, but Stuart isn’t there. He’s off writing yet another script or arranging a venue to produce it in or creating spaces for other people to be creative or seeing shows or directing someone else’s script or holding meetings or readings. If you haven’t worked with him yet, you will. He’s the Tasmanian Devil of Bay Area theatre. Meanwhile, this is my favorite of Stuart’s posts of the last year. It’s not particularly analytical or insightful, but is, perhaps more importantly, a reminder of a very pleasant occasion; the wedding of two good friends.

From the outside world I’d like highlight something from Mark Evanier’s blog. Mark is a writer who’s worked in comics, sitcoms, variety shows, animation, and any number of other areas. It’s not, strictly speaking, about the theatre or the arts, but is about the effect that a creative artist can have on others, how that creation is received, and (probably of most importance to me), the vital need for artists to know history and what has gone before them in order to have a foundation upon which to either build the future or knock the past down in an informed way.

ASHLEY COWAN by Stuart Bousel

My boyfriend and I often refer to Ashley, with tremendous affection, as “the cool babysitter you always wanted as a kid.” This is because Ashley is uniquely gifted with seemingly endless patience, bottomless love and forgiveness, incredible creativity, and a plethora of cookie recipes. Seriously, invite her over to stuff at your house, and make sure she knows she’s supposed to bring treats. She’s like a fairy tale princess who conquers through kindness and she sets a sterling example for anyone looking to be just a little bit sweeter, a little bit nicer, a little bit more understanding. Like all incredibly good people, she also struggles not to be a doormat, cause the truth is, we live in a world of witches, wolves, and humans, and those of us who aspire to be a force for light often radiate “I Will Help You!” and “Come Fuck With Me!” at the same time, whether we intend to or not. Learning to draw lines with others, learning to stand up for ourselves, learning to speak up even when it’s not polite, is just as important as setting a good example and taking the higher road. This year Ashley took a tremendous step as a human being and risked her “nice girl” reputation to stand by a statement she felt she had to make, something I wish I had the courage to do more often, and in typical Ashley fashion she both learned a lot from that action and shared it with the rest of us. This blog entry is like a song from Into The Woods, Ashley’s “I Know Things Now” and just like Little Red, I love how Ashley celebrates her knew understanding of herself, while at the same time admitting how it weirds her out. So real, so human. So Ashley.

Ashley Cowan: my favorite fairy tale bride.

Ashley Cowan: my favorite fairy tale bride.

Outside of Theater Pub, the article that gave me the most pause this year was this interview with Marsha Norman. I have long been a fan of Norman’s work: ‘Night Mother was the first really serious, non-musical play I saw as an adolescent and connected to, and The Secret Garden remains one of my top five musicals of all time, so it was wonderful to get Norman’s analysis of her own process as a writer. On the other hand, while I respect her opinions on new play development I found them to be suspiciously New York/Ivy-Leage Institution centric, out-of-touch with the larger reality of most playwright’s lives and the indie theater scene that I personally work in and advocate for. Additionally, while I respect and share her desire to advocate for more women playwrights and more exposure for their work, as a man it was disappointing to read that she thinks the formation of women-only teams is the solution, as I am more and more adamantly of the belief that mixed-gender teams are the key to a future that achieves actual progress instead of just recreating the problems of the past with a new mask. That said, I love that she recognizes the value of male allies, and that they often need to be invited in, rather than expected to show up of their own accord. So why am I sharing this article when I don’t agree with half of it? Because in the end, to me, our principal job as artists, writers, intellectuals, is to share ideas, including and especially ones we don’t entirely agree with. Comparing our beliefs is how we figure out who we are, how we form bonds with others, and how we continue our quest, as human beings, for meaning and truth. When an experienced and thoughtful practitioner of something (in this case playwrighting) speaks, you listen, because you will certainly hear something you want to respond to. Listen to Marsha. And then respond. The worst conversation is almost always the one you don’t have.

BARBARA JWANOUSKOS by Marissa Skudlarek

Barbara Jwanouskos has had quite a year! She finished up her MFA in Dramatic Writing at Carnegie Mellon, returned to the Bay Area, re-branded her Theater Pub column from “Higher Education” to “The Real World, Theater Edition,” got accepted into Just Theater’s New Play Lab, and discovered quite the talent for interviewing local theater-makers about how they develop new works. She’s also been admirably open about her own writing process and her doubts, fears, and struggles throughout this eventful year.

“Won’t you be my neighbor?” It’s great to have Barbara back in the Bay Area!

“Won’t you be my neighbor?” It’s great to have Barbara back in the Bay Area!

I especially want to highlight Barbara’s piece “Meeting the Fear Barrier,” from toward the end of her time at Carnegie Mellon. In the past few years, Barbara has committed herself to two very different, but intense and disciplined, pursuits: playwriting and kung fu. She combined these two passions in her thesis play this year, The Imaginary Opponent (which deals with violence at a kung fu studio), and some of her Theater Pub columns also draw on the way that these two activities often teach her complementary lessons. In writing about how kung fu can seem “completely masochistic and insane” to someone who doesn’t practice it, she allows us to draw the inference that producing indie theater can also seem like a masochistic, insane pursuit to outsiders. She also makes a connection that theater and kung fu require both vulnerability and strength, and can bring up unexpected emotions. I’m pretty much a couch potato, but I admire Barbara’s physical courage and drive. And even if I never learn how to break a board with my bare hand, I can at least try to emulate the way she strives to break through the mental barriers that can hold us back from making great art.

Favorite article elsewhere online: Frank Rich on Moss Hart, New York magazine, April 11, 2014. I’m recommending this partly because the absolute best theater-related thing I read this year was Moss Hart’s memoir Act One, but it was published in 1959, so I can’t exactly put it on this list. But I can tell you to read Rich’s article about Hart’s book! Act One is a tale of struggle that ends in triumph: Hart’s first Broadway production, at the age of 25. It’s glamorous and romantic and engaging and funny and inspirational. (My mother very thoughtfully gave it to me for my birthday this summer as I was producing Pleiades, and I intend to reread it every time I produce a play.) But Rich’s article reveals what Hart left out of his autobiography: he was bipolar and bisexual in an era when both of those things were considered shameful secrets. “The more we learn about the truth of Moss Hart, the more powerful Act One becomes, not just as a book but as a heroic act of generosity from a man whose heart and mind were breaking down even as he was writing it,” Rich writes.

2014 was a hard year for a lot of us. The headlines were alternately depressing and rage-inducing. In the span of two months (August-September), I produced a play, had a health crisis, and got dumped. I don’t understand people who are cheerful all the time, but I have the utmost respect and sympathy for people who are acquainted with the darker side of life and will themselves not to give into despair. They create joy and hope that is all the more profound for its proximity to sorrow. That’s what Moss Hart did in Act One, and what I strive to do in 2015.

WILL LESCHBER by Allison Page

It’s time to talk about Will Leschber, my friends. Yes, he is a writer here at the blog, but I knew him before that. We acted together in Prelude To A Kiss last year, where we spent the one chunk of the show where neither of us had anything to do chatting backstage on the couch every night, talking about life. That’s also where he told me about his plan to propose to his now wife, who also happens to be a close friend of mine. INTERTWINED, YA’LL. He’s a gentleman if there ever was one, manages to be the only dude I know who can pull off wearing a vest, and laughs all the time. These are solid, solid qualities.

Focus on Will Leschber. Literally.

Focus on Will Leschber. Literally.

He’s a thoughtful guy with thoughtful thoughts. And my favorite blog of his this year is on a topic ever-so-close to my tiny black heart: sad clowns. I’m caught up in my first full length production as a playwright and it’s about that very thing, so it’s crazy relevant to me right now (and let’s face it, always).

As for the rest of the internet, I’m having my own personal HOLY SHIT I’M FALLING IN LOVE WITH CHRIS ROCK AGAIN moment right now. I had heard about his new movie TOP FIVE and was interested but didn’t think much about it. Then this Vulture interview with him came out and I was then obsessed with seeing it and having more Chris Rock in my life. He didn’t/doesn’t shy away from talking about difficult, uneasy stuff (Ferguson, Cosby, etc) and still manages to be hilarious and personable. Also Top Five was magnificent and you should see it, but here’s the article.

CHARLES LEWIS III by Anthony Miller

As we were all assigned to write about a fellow T-Pub (That’s what I’m calling it now) Blogger, I am here to tell you all about our newest regular writer; Charles Lewis. Here’s why I like Charles, better yet, here’s why I think his existence is pivotal to the Indie Theatre Community; he is indisputably this scene’s flag bearer. His belief and passion for the SF Indie Theatre World is undeniable. He has the ability to talk about the people and the work involved with such reverence, he simply elevates the importance of it all. When you read Charles’ posts about the Olympians Festival it’s as if you’re getting a backstage look at The Humana Festival. His interview with Marissa Skudlarek reads like a New York Times in depth look at the career of Dame Judi Dench. He embodies the very feeling that we all have as we struggle to self-produce our work in Black Box Theatres in neighborhoods that smell like pee, the feeling that what we are doing is important. Nobody can articulate the importance we all place on our work as Charles does. He speaks about our work and experiences as we would speak of them, but he is also reverent, critical, and observant and unites the scene by saying “What we are doing counts, and here’s why”.

Easily my favorite quality about Charles is that he believes what he believes and worked real hard in figuring out why he believes it. So his thoughts and opinions are devoid of bullshit. His own confidence in what he thinks is immeasurably valuable. After the first reading of Terror-Rama, Charles quickly left the building. As I saw him leave, I thought; “Oh man, Charles must have HATED it, I gotta talk to him”. So I chase him down out front and ask him about the show. He takes a breath and says, “The first one has potential but the other is a misogynist piece of shit.” Boom. Honest, critical and to the point. It was my favorite comment the whole night because it gave me a clear notion of what I had to do in developing those two plays over the next year. It was a simple, no bullshit, State of the Union.

So the post by Charles I want to recommend is part of his ongoing series about the SF Olympians Festival. See how he paints such a clear picture of everything that goes on behind the scene. Most importantly, see how he so perfectly embodies the excitement we all have for this festival . The way he tells it shows just how important and special it is without just saying “This is very Important and Special to us”. That’s why Charles is a kick ass dude, he believes in the work we do, and he takes it seriously. He successfully embodies the collective excitement and passion the people in this scene feel for every project they do.

Here’s the link. Oh and read this one too, it’s awesome.

Charles Lewis III. What else is there to say?

Charles Lewis III. What else is there to say?

OK Part 2, here’s where I recommend a Theatre blog that isn’t T-Pub. A task in which I will fail miserably because I just don’t read a lot of theatre blogs that aren’t T-Pub. But I do listen to a shitload of podcasts. So go and check out the Podcast of Bret Easton Ellis (Ok not a theatre guy, but go with me.) What makes this show a must-listen for anyone who does something creative is the interviews he does with guests are fascinating explorations of how artists think. He doesn’t ask boilerplate questions, asking about their new project or their background. Usually he starts the show, with a monologue about whatever is on his mind that day, be it a play, film book or a celebrity (His observations on Miley Cyrus are fucking brilliant.) and then he engages the guest in a conversation about it. We get to know how artists we admire feel about their work, others work and their own feelings on their respective mediums. They feel like Master Class Lectures on the creation of art and those who create it. Check out the show here: And go to the interview with Michael Ian Black. Do it.

ANTHONY MILLER by Will Leschber

Anthony R Miller- With his brazen wit and ah-fuck-it attitude, Anthony weaves his endearing yet self-depreciating voice around many Bay Area theater issues in his column The Five. One of my particular favorites was his internal discussion surrounding his experience at the TBA Awards. The ragged thoughts he displays, sweetly gets to the heart of what many artistic folk and theater-makers have to balance: The opposing desire to turn inwards to replenish and the need to turn on social extroversion. Get out of my head Anthony! You see my pain! Also this article uses one subheading entitled, “I’m a loner Dottie, a rebel”. Anyone who uses a Get Up Kids song as a subheading just made my short list of bloggers I have to read. You the man, Anthony. You the man.

Anthony Miller: ah-fuck-it attitude

Anthony Miller: ah-fuck-it attitude

This was the year podcasts reached a new level of cultural awareness and breached the bubble of relevant pop culture. This mainly had to do with the runaway success of the Serial podcast. More importantly, the new attention paid to the medium of podcasting has ushered in a time where podcasting can be taken seriously as a creative / media outlet. The quality is higher than ever, the variety available is more diverse than before and the a la carte funding “from listeners like you” signals a shift in radio that looks something akin to the Netflix revolution. This all boils down to: there are a lot of great audio selections out there and it’s time to listen up. One of my favorites this year was the 99% Invisible podcast episode entitled “Three Records from Sundown“. It’s an award winning radio piece rebroadcast, that chronicles the music of Nick Drake. It reminds me why I love music, why I love good storytelling and why I love great radio.

ALLISON PAGE by Charles Lewis III

The thing that always gets me about Allison’s column is that it (often) eschews the normal “tears of a clown” shit. Oh, she’ll get personal and it can be heartbreaking, make no mistake, but what I love is that she doesn’t go for the easy route of “Yes, I want you to laugh, but more than that I want you to cry at the pain – oh, the pain – that my laughter covers up. Oh, the pain! The pain of it all!” No, Allison’s spiel is more of a “Remember we said someday we’ll look back on this and laugh? Today’s that day.” By taking the latter route, she earns our sympathy because she isn’t fishing for it. Her scars are no less prominent or legitimate, but she doesn’t feel the need to be solely defined by them. And yet the blog of hers I’m highlighting today is one of the less intimate: “How to Make Actors Never want to Work with You Again”. Sure, an argument can be made for the other side (and other blogs did just that), but she said things that needed saying in that piece. Just as performers are not above reproach, neither are the backstage folks who keep the wheels moving. Someday we’ll all look back on That One Bad Production and laugh…

Allison Page, one second away from flinging yet another brilliant witticism your way.

Allison Page, one second away from flinging yet another brilliant witticism your way.

This was a funny years for me, in terms of thinking of my “career” as a performer. When I wasn’t being rejected after auditions and – as I mentioned yesterday – burning bridges, I was acting in Sundance films, taking the stage at prominent Bay Area theatres, and being forced to seriously consider whether or not to join SAG and/or the AEA. I mean, union reps were mailing me paperwork. It got me thinking that maybe I actually could make a living out of this, but would it be a living I want? In the middle of all this, Theatre Bay Area re-tweeted this NY Post article about Broadway actors who have done the same role for over a decade. Normally the Post is only good for the bottom of a birdcage, but this article – combined with the fact that I acted in a play, Pastorella, about theatre-folk coming to terms with their careers – stuck with me. It would require major changes (most notably the geographical kind), but I’m certain I could make a living at this, and a comfortable living at that. But would I be happy if I wound up just another cog in the theatrical machine rather than the corporate one? Is it worth giving up all the control I’ve gotten for the guarantee of having rent on time? I haven’t stopped asking myself these questions, nor have I found any wholly satisfying answers. But I’m comforted by the fact that it wasn’t too late for me to consider that kind of life.

DAVE SIKULA by Barbara Jwanouskos

I don’t know Dave as well as the other TPub bloggers and was a little nervous when I selected his name at our last meeting because he always struck me as a more serious theater person than I was. In reading “It’s a Suggestion, Not a Review” however, I’m struck by Dave’s continuing discussion about very relevant themes in theater like censorship, copyright issues, controversy plays, and creator’s rights. It’s actually surprising his articles don’t illicit further discussion in the comments section because he brings up some very valid points in a direct, comprehensive way. With Dave, I always feel like I’m learning something – the way you would listening to your well-traveled uncle give his observations of what he’s seen out there. Beyond his series on directing choices vs. playwright intent using fascinating stories of productions of Endgame, Oleanna, and Hands on a Hardbody (which is extremely informative and worth a read), Dave is a phenomenal storyteller. It’s easy to get sucked in by his wit. One of his most recent posts, “Boo!” was particularly engaging for its discussion of theater ghosts and the other worldly nature of being in spaces that many, many others have passed through. I had goosebumps at the end because of Dave’s knack for turning a casual activity into something much more dramatically interesting.

Dave Sikula, not a man to mess with on Jeopardy or on stage

Dave Sikula, not a man to mess with on Jeopardy or on stage

There have been a lot of great blog articles and podcasts on theater this year, but I very much appreciated a recent article by Lisa Drostova (who is also a co-worker and desk buddy at Ragged Wing Ensemble!) because there is usually a dearth of quality writing on professional playwriting/dramatic writing programs. As someone who was on the other side of this a couple years ago, I found it inspiring and informative when I could find someone lay out what exactly was out there. I tried to write a bit about this back in August too, and would like to continue adding to that on my own blog, but what I appreciated about this article is how it gave an expansive look at the various different playwriting programs specifically in the Bay Area. We have phenomenal resources available to those wishing to sharpen their skills right at our fingertips and this article highlights the ways to find that in universities and community colleges around the Bay.

MARISSA SKUDLAREK by Ashley Cowan

Marissa Skudlarek had a pretty great year in the Theater Pub World. In reviewing her blogs it was nearly impossible to pick just one to celebrate. Should I go with her incredibly popular, https://sftheaterpub.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/hi-ho-the-glamorous-life-whos-a-horses-ass/, or https://sftheaterpub.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/hi-ho-the-glamorous-life-chestnut-tea-with-the-other-me/, which I found to be lovely and creative? Nah. Think outside the blackbox, Ashley. I’m going to go with: https://sftheaterpub.wordpress.com/2014/10/02/hi-ho-the-glamorous-life-things-of-darkness-and-of-light/. Did I love that my husband, unborn baby, and I got a shoutout? Duh. But I also loved reading Marissa’s honest discussion of certain challenges while still choosing to search for stars in seemingly dark skies. For me, I found this to be a relevant theme of this action packed year. We all had some ups and downs throughout the past twelve months, but what a beautiful way to stay positive.

It's always spring time when Marissa is in the room!

It’s always spring time when Marissa is in the room!

I’ll be honest, I’ve read way too many wedding and baby related online articles this year that I didn’t think would be appropriate to share. So the article I picked was one that made me laugh. if you’re involved in any theater community, I think you’ll appreciate this comic take on casting and the strong, critical nature such a group can occasionally possess when a cast list is revealed. My favorite line may be, “…but that at a big-boned 5’9”, she doesn’t exactly present the unique mixture of Dixie elegance and delicate vulnerability that ticket holders will expect to see come opening night.” As a 5’9’’ actress who would love to one day play Blanche Dubois, I found this piece for The Onion to be pretty great.

We’ve got one more act tomorrow! See you then! 

Theater Around The Bay: Year-End Round-Up Act 1

Well, we’ve made it- the end of 2014! It’s been a tremendous year of learning and change, tragedy and triumph, and our eight staff bloggers are here to share with you some of their own highlights from a year of working, writing and watching in the Bay Area Theater scene (and beyond)! Enjoy! We’ll have more highlights from 2014 tomorrow and Wednesday! 

Ashley Cowan’s Top 5 Actors I Met This Year (in random order!)

1) Heather Kellogg: I had seen Heather at auditions in the past but she always intimidated me with her talent, pretty looks, and bangin’ bangs. Luckily for me, I had the chance to meet her at a reading early in the year and I immediately started my campaign to be friends. She also just amazed me in Rat Girl.

2) Justin Gillman: I feel like I saw Justin in more roles than any other actor in 2014 but I was completely blown away by his performance in Pastorella. What I appreciated so much about his time on stage was that underneath an incredible, honest portrayal was an energy that simply longed to be; there’s something so beautiful about watching someone do what they love to do and do it so well.

3) Kitty Torres: I absolutely loved The Crucible at Custom Made and while so many of the actors deserve recognition for their work, I really wanted to commend Kitty for her part in an awesome show. She had to walk the fine line of being captivating, but still and silent, while also not taking attention away from the action and dialogue happening around her in the play’s opening scene. And she nailed it. I met her in person weeks later in person and my goodness, she’s also just delightful.

4) Vince Faso: I knew of Vince but we officially met at a party in February of this year. I enjoyed getting to know him both in person and on stage but it was his roles in Terror-Rama that made me realize that Vince is like a firework; while the sky may be beautiful on its own, when he walks on stage, he naturally lights it up in a new way.

5) Terry Bamberger: I met Terry at an audition and she’s the opposite of someone you’d expect to meet in such an environment. She was incredibly kind, supportive, and while you’re hoping you get into the play, you start to equally root for her to be in it too. And after seeing Terry in Three Tall Women, it’s clear that she’s also someone who deserves to be cast from her range and skills alone.

Barbara Jwanouskos’s Top 5 Moments in Bay Area Theater Where I Admired the Writer

This year has been one of momentous changes. I spent the first five months completing the last semester of the Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University and receiving my MFA. I moved back to Bay Area and since then, have tried to become enmeshed in the theater scene once again. I haven’t had the resources to see all the performances I would have liked, but this list puts together the top five moments since being back that I’ve not only enjoyed the performance, but I found myself stuck with an element of the show that made me appreciate what the playwright had put together. In no particular order…

1) The Late Wedding by Christopher Chen at Crowded Fire Theater: Chris is known for his meta-theatrical style and elements – often with great effect. I have admired the intricacy of Chris’s plays and how he is able to weave together a satisfying experience using untraditional narrative structures. While watching The Late Wedding, I found myself at first chuckling at the lines (I’m paraphrasing, but…), “You think to yourself, is this really how the whole play is going to be?” and then finding a deeper meaning beyond what was being said that revolved around the constructs we build around relationships and how we arbitrarily abdicate power to these structures. Then, of course, I noticed that thought and noted, “Man, that was some good writing…”

2) Superheroes by Sean San José at Cutting Ball Theater with Campo Santo: I was talking with another playwright friend once who said, “Sean can take anything and make it good – he’s a phenomenal editor,” and in the back of my head, I wondered what types of plays he would create if behind the wheel as playwright. In Superheroes, there is a moment where the mystery of how the government was involved in the distribution of crack unfolds and you’re suddenly in the druggy, sordid, deep personal space of actual lives affected by these shady undertakings. Seeing the powerlessness against addiction and the yearning to gain some kind of way out – I sat back and was just thinking, “Wow, I want to write with that kind of intense emotional rawness because that is striking.” I left that play with butterflies in my stomach that lasted at least two hours.

3) Fucked Up Chronicles of CIA Satan and Prison Industry Peter and Never Ending Story by Brit Frazier at the One Minute Play Festival (Playwrights Foundation): Clocking in at under a minute each – these two plays that opened the One Minute Play Festival’s Clump 6 after Intermission were among the most striking images and moments for me of that festival. Brit’s two plays were hard-hitting, pull-no-punches, extremely timely works that I just remember thinking, “Now that is how to tell a whole story in just one minute.” I was talking to a friend about the festival and he said, “Even though they were only a minute, it’s funny how you can tell who really knows how to write.” I totally agree, and the first plays that I thought of when he said that were Brit’s.

4) Millicent Scowlworthy by Rob Handel at 99 Stock Productions:
I was only familiar with Aphrodisiac and 13P on a most basic level when I decided to apply to Carnegie Mellon, but, of course, training with a working playwright and librettist, you can’t help but be curious about his other work. Though I hadn’t read Millicent Scowlworthy, the title alone was something that I figured I’d enjoy. Seeing the production this summer, I had another “So grateful I got to train with this guy” moment as I watched the plot swirl around the looming question that the characters kept on attacking, addressing, backing away from at every moment. The desperate need for the kids to act out the traumatic event from their past and from their community felt so powerfully moving. I understood, but didn’t know why – it was more of a feeling of “I know this. This is somewhere I’ve been.” And to me, what could be a better feeling to inspire out your audience with your writing?

5)
Year of the Rooster by Eric Dufault at Impact Theater: I’d met Eric at a La MaMa E.T.C. playwriting symposium in Italy a number of years ago. We all were working on group projects so you got less of a sense of what types of plays each person wrote and more of their sources of inspiration. I have to say, going to Impact to see Year of the Rooster was probably THE most enjoyable experience I’ve had in theater this year – just everything about it came together: the writing, the directing, the space, the performances… There was pizza and beer… But I was profoundly engaged in the story and also how Eric chose to tell it and it was another moment where I reflected, “where are the moments I can really grab my key audience and give them something meaty and fun?”

Will Leschber’s Top 5 Outlets That Brought You Bay Area Theater (outside of a theater)

5) Kickstarter: The Facebook account of everyone you know who crowd-funded a project this year. Sure, it got old being asked to donate once every other week to another mounting production or budding theater project. BUT, the great news is, with this new avenue of financial backing, many Bay Area theater projects that might have otherwise gone unproduced got their time in the sun. This could be viewed as equally positive or negative… I like to look on the bright side of this phenomenon.

4) Blogging: San Francisco Theater Pub Blog- I know, I know. It’s tacky to include this blog on our own top 5 list. But hey, just remember this isn’t a ranking of importance. It’s just a reminder of how Bay Area theater branches out in ways other than the stage. And I’m proud to say this is a decent example. There, I said it.

3) YouTube: A good number of independent theater performances are recorded for posterity. Theater Pub productions of yesteryear and past Olympians festival readings are no exception. I’d like to highlight Paul Anderson who tirelessly recorded this year’s Olympians Festival: Monsters Ball. Due to his efforts and the efforts of all involved, the wider community can access these readings. For a festival that highlights a springboard-process towards playwriting improvement, that can be a very valuable tool.

2) Hashtags: #Theater, #HowElseWouldWeFollowEachOther, #MyNewPlay, #YourNewPlay, #Hashtags, #KeywordsSellTickets

1) The Born Ready podcast: Each week Rob Ready and Ray Hobbs tear into the San Francisco theater scene with jokes and, dare I say it, thoughtful commentary. Looking for a wide spanning podcast that touches on the myriad levels of theater creation, production, performance and all things in between? Crack a beer and listen up! This is for you.

Charles Lewis III’s Top 5 Invaluable Lessons I Learned

This past year was a wild one; not fully good or bad. I achieved some career milestones AND failed to meet some goals. I got 86’d from some prominent companies AND formed new connections with others. With it all said and done, what have I got to show for it? Well, here are five things that stand out to me:

1) “Be mindful of what I say, but stand by every word.” I said in my very first official column piece that I had no intention of trolling – and I don’t – but when I start calling people “asshole” (no matter how accurate), it can run the risk of personal attack rather than constructive criticism. I’m trying to stick to the latter. And believe me, I have no shortage of criticism.

2) “Lucid dreams are the only way to go.” There are some projects, mostly dream roles, that I now know I’ll never do. What’s occurred to me recently is that I shouldn’t limit the creation of my dream projects to just acting. Lots of venues opened up to me recently, and they’ve set off cavalcade of ideas in my head. They might not be what I originally wanted, but it’s great to know I have more options than I first thought.

3) “It’s only ‘too late’ if you’ve decided to give up.” I don’t believe in destiny (“everything is preordained”), but I do believe in fate (the perfect alignment of seemingly random circumstance). I kinda took it for granted that the chances of me making a living at performance art had passed me by, then this year I was offered several more chances. Which ones I take is still in flux, it’s made me reassess what’s important to me about this art form.

4) “Burn a bridge or two. It’s nice to see a kingdom burn without you.” This year someone (whom I shall call “Hobgoblin”) tried to put a curse on me. Nothing magical, but more along the lines of a “You’ll never work in this town again” kinda curse. Years ago I might have been worried, but I knew his words were just that. Instead I threw back my head, started laughing, and said “Oh, Hobgoblin…”

Labyrinth_-_Sara_-_You_have_no_Power copy

5) “If you EVER have the chance to work with Alisha Ehrlich, take it.” If I had to pick a “Person of The Year” for Bay Area Theatre, she’d be it. I acted alongside her in The Crucible this year and when some of us were losing focus, she brought her A-game Every. Single. Night. Most of us can only hope to be as dedicated to our work.

Anthony Miller’s Top 5 People I Loved Working With This Year

There were way more than 5, but I just wanted these people to know how much I appreciated everything they did this year!

1) Colin Johnson: This fucking guy, he was a huge part of my year and the success of Terror-Rama. He’s a fantastic Director, resourceful as hell a never ending source of positivity and enthusiasm and a swell guy .

2) Alandra Hileman: The courageous Production Stage Manager of Terror-Rama. Smart, unafraid to give an opinion or tell an actor, designer director or producer “no”, in fact she’s fantastic at “No”.

3) Brendan West: Brendan is the Composer of Zombie! The Musical!, we had our first conversation about writing the show in 2007. Since then, it’s been produced a few times, but never with live music. Working with Brendan again to finally showcase the score live in concert was incredible.

4) Robin Bradford:  In the last 3 years, when no one believed in me, Robin Bradford believed in me. This year, I was lucky enough to direct staged readings of her plays, The Ghosts of Route 66 (Co-Written by Joe Wolff) and Low Hanging Fruit. I love getting to work with the amazing actors she wrangles and incredible work she trusts me with.

5) Natalie Ashodian: My partner in life, devoted cat mother and so much more, this year, she has been my Producer, Costume Designer, Graphic Designer, Film Crew Supervisor, Zombie Wrangler and Copy Editor. She is the best. The. Best.

Allison Page’s Top 5 Moments That Made Me Love Being A Theater Maker In The Bay Area

1) The Return Of Theater Pub: I just have to say it – I’m thrilled that Theater Pub’s monthly shows are starting up again in January. It’s such a unique theater-going experience and encourages a different type of relationship to theater which is essential to new audience bases who maybe think that it isn’t for them. It infuses life and a casual feel to our beloved dramatics and welcomes any and all to have a beer and take in some art. I look forward to seeing what the new year will bring for TPub and its artistic team! And obviously, we’ll be here with ye olde blog.

2) Adventures At The TBA Conference: That sounds more thrilling and wild than it actually is. What happened is that I found I had a bunch of opinions about things! WHO KNEW?! Opinions about things and shows and companies and ideals and art and the conference itself. Conferences aren’t a perfect thing – never will be, because they’re conferences – but it does shine a light on what it is we’re doing, and that’s a biggie. Also I had a lot of whiskey with some new and old theater faces before the final session so that was cool.

3) The Opening Of The New PianoFight Venue: This is clearly getting a lot of mention from bay area theater people, because it’s exciting. No, it’s not the first theater to open up in the Tenderloin (HEYYYY EXIT Theatre!) but another multi-stage space is really encouraging. This next year will be a big one for them. Any time you’re doing something big and new, that first year is a doozy. Here’s hopin’ people get out to see things in the TL and support this giant venture. I will most definitely be there – both as an audience member and as a theater maker. It’s poised to be a real theatrical hub if enough people get on board. GET SOME!

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4) Seeing The Crucible: Seeing Custom Made’s production of The Crucible was exciting for a bunch of reasons, starting with the fact that I’ve never seen a production of it filled with actors instead of high school students. IT WAS GREAT. Yes, surprise, it’s not a boring old standard. It can be vital and thrilling and new but somehow not new at the same time. It was so full of great performances in both the larger roles and the not so large ones, and it really felt like everyone was invested in this big wrenching story they believed in – thus getting the audience to believe in it, too. Maybe that sounds like it should be common, but it’s not as much as it should be.

5) Everything That Happens At SF Sketchfest: Man, I love Sketchfest. Not just participating in it, but seeing everything I can (you can’t see all the things because there are so many, but I do what I can do). It’s this great combination of local and national stand up, improv, sketch, tributes, talkbacks, and indefinable stuff which takes over the city and points to the bay area as a place able to sustain a gigantic festival of funny people. And audiences go bonkers for the big name acts who come to town. The performers themselves get in prime mingling time with each other – something funny people can be pretty awkward about, but in this case we all know it’s going to be weird and we just go for it.

Dave Sikula’s Five Theatre Events That Defined 2014 for Me

1) Slaughterhouse Five, Custom Made Theatre Company: I’ve previously mentioned the night we had to abort our performance because of an actor injury. (I insisted at the time that it was the first time that it had happened to me in 40 years of doing theatre. I’ve since been informed that, not only had it happened to me before, it happened at the same theatre only two years ago.) Regardless, it marked for me a lesson about the magic, and hazards, of live performance. The idea that, not only can anything happen on stage, but that, if the worst comes to the worst, a company of performers will do all they can to come together and make a show work even in the most altered of circumstances.

2) The Suit, ACT: A touring production, but one that provided an invaluable reminder about simplicity. In the 80s, I’d seen Peter Brook’s nine-hour production of The Mahabrarata, and what struck me at that time was how stunningly simple it was. Brook’s faith and trust in cutting away pretense and bullshit and concentrating on simple storytelling – in a manner that is unique to a live performance; that is to say, acknowledging that we’re in the theatre, and not watching television or a movie, was a lesson in stripping things down to their essence and letting the audience use their imaginations to fill in and intensify the story.

3) The Farnsworth Invention, Palo Alto Players: I’ve written at extreme length about the controversy over our production. I’m not going to rehash it again, but I mention it as another lesson; that, in the best circumstances, theatre should provoke our audiences. Not to anger them, but to challenge and defend their preconceptions; to make them defend and/or change their opinions.

4) The Nance, Century at Tanforan: Something else I’ve written about is my frustration at how, even though we’re finally getting “televised” presentations of plays in movie theatres, they’re almost always from London. I have nothing against British theatre (well, actually, I have plenty against it, but nothing I want to get into here …) I realize American producers don’t want to cut into their profits if they can help it, but not only did film versions of Phantom and Les Mis not seem to hurt their theatrical box office receipts, is there any reason to believe that shows like The Bridges of Madison County or even Side Show wouldn’t have benefitted from either the extra publicity or extra cash that national exposure would have given them? Similarly, would broadcasts of the Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellen Waiting for Godot or the Nathan Lane/Brian Dennehy The Iceman Cometh do any harm? I’ll stipulate they don’t have a lot of title recognition, but did The Nance or Company other than their star leading performers? And let’s not limit it to New York. I’d like to see what’s happening in Chicago or Denver or Ashland or San Diego or Dallas or DC or Atlanta or Charlotte or Louisville or Portland or Seattle or Boston or Cleveland – or even San Francisco. The shortsightedness of producers in not wanting to grow their audiences at the expense of some mythical boost to the road box office (and even that, only in major cities) is nothing short of idiotic.

5) The Cocoanuts, Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Another one I wrote about at the time. One of those frustratingly rare occasions when a production not only met my high expectations, but wildly surpassed them. Hilarious and spontaneous, it was another reminder of why a live theatrical performance is so exciting when the actors are willing to take chances in the moment and do anything and are skilled enough to pull them off.

Marissa Skudlarek’s Top 5 Design Moments in Bay Area Theater

1) Liz Ryder’s sound design for The Crucible at Custom Made Theatre Company: Mixing Baroque harpsichord sounds with the frightening laughter of teenage girls, it created an appropriately spooky atmosphere. The friend who I saw The Crucible with went from “What does a sound designer do, anyway?” to “Now I see what sound design can do!” thanks to this show. I also want to honor Liz for the work she did on my own show, Pleiades, composing delicate finger-picked guitar music for scene transitions and putting together a rockin’ pre-show/intermission mix.

2) The Time magazine prop in The Pain and the Itch at Custom Made Theatre Company:

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This play takes place on Thanksgiving 2006, and the subtle but real differences between 2006 and 2014 can be tricky to convey (after all, clothing and furniture haven’t changed much in these eight years). But the November 6, 2006 issue of Time, with President Bush on the cover, takes you right back to the middle of the last decade. Even better, actor Peter Townley flipped through the magazine and paused at an article about Borat. Since Townley’s character was dating a broadly accented, bigoted Russian, it felt just too perfect.

3) Eric Sinkkonen’s set design for Wittenberg at the Aurora Theatre: This clever comedy takes place in the 1500s, but features puns and allusions of a more recent vintage. The set design perfectly captured the play’s tone: sure, Martin Luther nails his 95 theses to the church door, but the door’s already covered with flyers advertising lute lessons, meetings of Wittenberg University’s Fencing Club, etc. — just like any bulletin board at any contemporary university.

4) The whirring fan in Hir, at the Magic Theatre: I am, somewhat notoriously, on record as disliking this show. But the holidays are a time for generosity, so let me highlight an element of Hir that I found very effective: at the start of the play, the sound design incorporates a whirring fan. (The monstrous mother, Paige, runs the air conditioning constantly because her disabled husband hates it.) You don’t necessarily notice the white noise at first, but the whole tone of the play changes when another character turns the AC off at a dramatic moment.

5) Whitehands’ costume in Tristan and Yseult, at Berkeley Rep:

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Technically, I saw this show in late 2013, but it ran into 2014, so I’m including it. Whitehands (played by Carly Bawden) is Tristan’s other, less-famous lover. Her little white gloves were a clever nod to her name – and, crooning “Perfidia” in a yellow Fifties suit, pillbox hat, cat-eye sunglasses, and handbag hanging perfectly in the crook of her arm, she made heartbreak look impossibly chic.

What are your top choices, picks, experiences from the last year? Let us know! 

Theater Around The Bay: Keep The Ghost Light On

Stuart Bousel, fading in and out of view. In your mirror. At night. When you say his name.

So, I was gonna do this whole collection of personal ghost stories related to the theater for today’s blog… but only two people got back to me and only one got back with a personal experience, so that idea kind of died. I will, however, publish Claire Rice’s contribution, partly because it’s cool, and partly because it really thematically ties in since Claire recently left the San Francisco Theater Pub, so this is kind of like the ghost of Claire speaking to us from another world.

The rehearsal room/dance room at Eastern New Mexico University is haunted. Students used to send each other in there alone in the dark to freak each other out. A full instructional skeleton hung on a pole that could be moved around the room and was often a source of fun and silly frightening games. One night some of us told each other “La Llorona” tales in front of the big mirrors in the dark and then dared each other to really look into their mirrored darkness. The skeleton caught whatever light was left in the room and glowed eerily in the corner back at us. We all focused on it and merrily screamed and ran out of the room. But there were stories of the stereo or the television turning themselves off and on. Of the doors closing suddenly and forcefully by themselves. Of odd drafts whispering in from nowhere in particular. One night, late after rehearsal, I went in to close up the room. I was alone in the building. I turned off the light and, just as I was about to close the door, I saw a prop left in a far corner under the skeleton. I turned the light back on and crossed the room. I picked up the prop and turned back around and saw a reflection of someone else in the mirror near the door where I had just been. I looked at the door and there was no one. I looked back in the mirror and there was no one. I never went into that room alone again.

One of the things that I have always found fascinating is just how superstitious theater people are. We don’t all have the same superstitions, but I’ve never met a theater person who hasn’t, over time, acquired a bunch of rituals and charms, even if they walked in claiming (usually pretty loudly) that such things were nonsense. I can’t say for sure if it’s the live/anything can happen element of theater combined with the unusually high number of Type-A/control freak personalities that tend to do theater, or the part where we generally experience more rejection than acceptance in our line of work, but either would naturally predispose us to a tacit reverence for the weird and a desire for the mystical. Show me an actor or producer or director or writer who doesn’t have a lucky warm up song or opening night underwear or a thing they say to the mirror in their dressing room (or never say) or closing night tradition or whatever and I will show you the phone number of the agency you called to hire that fake actor/producer/writer/director, who will then reveal, because they are an actor/producer/writer/director, all of their superstitions. For better or worse, we have always been a people uniquely sensitive to Luck and the role Luck plays in the world and it’s because we know how quickly awesome can turn to crap- or crap to awesome. And we also know how much we really can and can’t control that.

The complication is that belief in Luck (or really, an awareness of Chance) tends to also indicate both a creative mind and an active imagination. Combine that with the part where we spend our lives convincing ourselves the Audience is Listening and after a while that can absolutely lead to a vague but constant feeling of always being watched. Additionally, we masquerade as other people and thus are acutely aware of how everyone else, theater person or not, is a masquerade to one extent or another, thus leading to a general perspective of “nothing is as it seems” and “everything is a sign/clue”. Lying, embellishment, fantasy weaving, and just being flat out delusional run rampant in the theater community and thank God because it generally makes for much better storytelling but sometimes it can even be hard for US to know where the illusion ends and the truth begins. Assuming there is such a thing as “the Truth”. The older I get, the more I understand why artists tend to be more interested in being “true” than “truthful.” Being true is about fully buying into the world around you both as it is but also as it could be or should be; being truthful is generally boring or disappointing, really only matters in life and death situations, and frequently requires one to be self-righteous in a way that doesn’t allow for much compassion or understanding- which is sort of the antithesis of good storytelling. Sure, we’d probably cut down on the drama if we were more truthful, but it would probably be at the cost of the Drama.

None of which should have anything to do with the long-standing tradition of theaters and rehearsal spaces being haunted, but then again, if this is the general psychology of the people spending their lives there- how could they not be? Particularly if you subscribe to the idea that ghosts are not so much the spirits of the dead, as residual energy left from profound, violent, or devastating occurrences. Aside from hospitals and prisons, it’s hard to think of a building that could match a theater when it comes to the number of arguments, passions, revelations, disappointments, and ecstasies having occurred within its walls, not to mention all the secrets, gossip, thwarted schemes, scandals and triumphs- practically a gothic novel behind each curtain. And while the death and violence of theater is rarely for real, the constant re-enactment of terrible things, and the frequent invocation of terrible people, is bound to be feeding the atmosphere if not the energy of whatever beings or memories become trapped behind the backdrops. As someone who subscribes to the belief that joy can be just as disturbing (and therefore residual) as pain, all the comedies and romances only contribute to the haunting of a theater, something I find comforting as I’d like to believe that love and laughter leave just as much of an impression as violence and fear. Either way, if you’ve never walked around a theater late at night, locking up, checking the bathrooms, I suggest it if only for the creepy/comforting sensation that you are not alone, no matter how much your footsteps echo. In fact, the more they echo the more you become aware of how they shouldn’t, because normally there is so much going on you would never have heard them and it is that sudden and obscene absence of furor that triggers sensations by turn nostalgic, bittersweet, melancholy, and unsettling. The quiet of a theater is not a comforting quiet because it is not natural, and for that matter neither is the darkness of a theater: both are the result of extensive steps to sound and light proof spaces, expressly to focus your attention on what’s happening in the theater. And it’s when nothing is happening that the sensation we call “haunting” tends to hit us most powerfully. Which is why nobody likes to linger in the theater once The Ghost Light is on and everything else is shut off.

And yes, I know the pragmatic reason for the existence of The Ghost Light is to keep people from falling off the stage when wandering in the absolute pitch dark of a vacant theater trying to find the light switches, but come on: we called it “The Ghost Light.” I mean, we could have called it a “The Service Light” or “The Stagehand’s Guide” or “The Blue Light” or any number of unromantic things (apparently at some point there was an attempt to call it “The Equity Light”) but we called it (and continue to call it) a Ghost Light for one reason and one reason only: because we are fundamentally romantic creatures and it tickles us to think we have somewhere to go when we die and it’ll probably be a theater full of our friends putting on all our favorite shows, only this time nobody fucks up their lines, the person you’re secretly sleeping with doesn’t freak out mid-run, and nobody is worried about making rent at the end of the run. Also because secretly we all know that any theater that’s seen at least one generation of theater artists pass through it is saturated in ghosts and if you didn’t leave that light on they would probably burn the place down in your absence- or perhaps in the middle of your show. If they’re actors, it’s definitely going to be the later. Actors know all about the importance of timing.

Luckily, theater ghosts seem to be primarily benign, and are usually fans or artists who haven’t moved on because they love a life in the theater so much. As proof I offer this tidbit sent to me by Christian Simonsen, who emailed it when he heard I was looking for theater ghost stories:

One of the most talked about haunted theaters in the United States is the Bristol Opera House in Bristol, Indiana. Built in 1896, it is currently managed by the Elkhart Civic Theatre Company. Over its century-long history, this building has managed to collect three ghosts, which actors and stage crew have assigned names to. There is a little girl (“Beth”), who has been seen peeking out of the stage left curtain, as if counting the number of filled seats. A handyman (“Percival”) has frequently been spotted by the women’s dressingroom, and has been known to tug on actors’ costumes right when they make an entrance. The third ghost is a middle-aged woman (“Helen”), a “protective presence” that is often simply “felt”. Unlike the other two spirits, it is quite rare for Helen to actually be seen. Apparently, even in the afterlife, theaters are unwilling to give a woman over forty any decent amount of stage time.

At the end of my play PASTORELLA, which just closed on Saturday, there is a little moment when the lead male character, Warren, shares with the female lead, Gwen, his own bit of superstition, and this seems like a good place to end because last night, ducking into the EXIT Theatre, I experienced one of those sensations that is, for me, the quintessential haunting of the theater maker. My play is a slice of life tragicomedy that works best if viewed as a direct look into the backstage ups and downs of a small theater company (as opposed to a traditional backstage comedy, which is usually actually about the onstage ups and downs of a production). The play is unrepentantly nostalgic, bittersweet, melancholy, and unsettling, and that’s appropriate because it’s largely based on my life and experience in the small theater, perhaps the most personal thing I have ever put on stage, and as a result filled with memories and masks and terrible people and events, passions and schemes and delusional episodes, revelations, dopplegangers, missing people and… ghosts. Ghosts everywhere. Ghosts with monologues and ghosts in the props and ghosts in the costumes and ghosts in the transition music and ghosts in the words and ghosts in the blocking and ghosts in the rawness and artifice alike, right down to the part where the play in a play the company is doing is Tom Stoppard’s ARCADIA- a play about ghosts, code, and the inescapable past. Many of the people who loved the show the most were part of the small theater community and it was always wonderful and disturbing to talk to them afterwards and hear them share their own memories, their own versions of the play’s events and characters, all of which seemed familiar- too familiar in some cases. Encountering a ghost usually results in a mix of sorrow and fear: sorrow for what was lost, fear that the past isn’t done with us yet. Warren, actor and director, small theater champion to a fault, sums it up best when he looks at the empty dressing room and says, “This place always freaks me out when it’s this clean” and because it’s a spooky truism of theater that the show you’re working on always seems to permeate your life and turn everything symbolic it makes perfect sense that, while ducking into the theater last night to retrieve a mirror that was used in PASTORELLA, out of the corner of my eye I saw Justin Gillman, the actor who had played Warren, standing in the wings of the stage. Of course, that’s because he’s there rehearsing another show (Bigger Than A Breadbox’s BLOOD WEDDING), but for one whole second I had the terrifying thought that I had somehow forgotten we had a show that night. And then the sad sensation of knowing that the show was gone.

WARREN: Well, here the new life begineth.
GWEN: What?
WARREN: Forster quote. E. M. Forster. You might not know who he is because he never wrote any plays.
GWEN: I know who E.M. Forster is. I read real books too, not just scripts.
WARREN: Well we got that in common. (beat) It’s what I say whenever I stand in a room I need to expel demons from so that tomorrow I can walk into said room as if I hadn’t had my heart broken into a billion pieces there. This room, however, probably needs a full on exorcism. Typical.

Sleep well. Happy Halloween.

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

In for a Penny: Introduction – Moment of Claire-ity

Charles Lewis steps up to become our semi-monthly columnist on Thursdays.

“I had an inheritance from my father,
It was the moon and the sun.
And though I roam all over the world,
The spending of it’s never done.”
– Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Claire Rice scares me. Let me explain…

I’ve been considered for a regular Theater Pub column for some time now. As interested as I always was, I often declined as I constantly ran into a few obstacles. For instance, what would be my regular topic of discussion? How do I make sure my write-ups don’t retread well-worn territory? How would I distinguish myself from the unique personalities of the regular writers (the erudite, refined Marissa; the jocular, relatable Allison; the unapologetically acerbic Dave; and… Stuart)? Most importantly: who the hell cares what I have to say about a given topic?

I’m always surprised to find anyone actually paying attention to what I say. Just as another ‘Pub columnist once wrote, I’m acutely aware that I’m the least-educated person in the room – no grad school; no BA; no AA. I don’t have any dorm room memories, I was never assigned a term paper on Proust, and I’m not $200,000 in debt. As such, I’m aware of when my opinions on a topic are dismissed as nothing more than lowbrow attempts at sounding worldly. Frankly I think it’s afforded me a lot of freedom: since no one seems to care what I have to say, I tend to say things that will raise a lot of curious eyebrows or meet a lot of condescending nods.

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That’s why I’m always taken aback when someone not only shows they were listening to what I said, but they have a serious reaction to it. Last year I made a joke to a local playwright, only to find out the next day that said playwright didn’t want to talk to me anymore. Twice this year, my negative comments about Cracked articles have spawned unexpected responses from the writers of said articles. Why just earlier this month I voiced my opinion on a frequently-shared article by a well-known playwright, and once again the author decided to respond to me directly. (To his credit, said playwright was much more even-tempered and cordial than the cry-babies from Cracked. We both responded respectfully and he even offered me tickets to his show. I couldn’t go because I was in PASTORELLA – which I’m still in and which you should all see, ‘cause it’s our closing weekend and everyone loves it.)

And those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Now I stand by each and every word I said in the aforementioned exchanges, but when you Twitter is unexpectedly responded to by writers of one of the most popular sites on the internet and a guy who’s been regularly written up in The New York Times, then it’s a refreshing lessons that what one writes on the internet does not exist in a vacuum. I’m not a troll – never have been, never will be. I don’t say things just to get a reaction, I don’t get off on people squirming at my opinions, and I don’t butt in to other people’s conversations thinking my words are the only ones that matter. I’ve been on the receiving end of that shit plenty of times in my life: people who feel the need to give me their unsolicited opinions on race, on politics, on the economics of theatre, on why my particular opinion of a certain film/play/book/sandwich makes me ignorant, on how my making a slip of the tongue (which I am wont to do) must mean I never knew what I was talking about in the first place.

Hey, if you want to engage me in about a topic I’ve posted or spoken about in public, on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr, or even here – I’m all for it. Those are the appropriate venues for those types of discussions and I wouldn’t have voiced my opinions if I hadn’t expected some sort of response. As I take on this position at this rapidly-growing-in-prominence website, I do so with the understanding that, whether I like it or not, I’m making myself a target. It’s something I’m not used to, nor would I intentionally seek it out, but I know it comes with the job.

Which leads us back to Claire Rice…

She’s twice the artist I’ll ever be.

She’s twice the artist I’ll ever be.

Like most, if not all, ‘Pub-related things, I met Claire in 2010. I can’t quite remember which ‘Pub event it was, but I remember her easy-going demeanor and the way it seemed as if she was instinctually aware what was happening in the room at all times. It didn’t take long for me to grasp that she was one of the people I should get to know – great writer, ever-present actor, on-point producer, and hands-down one of the best indie directors in the Bay Area. In the time since first being introduced to her, I’ve had the pleasure of working with her several times over and she never ceases to impress me.

And yet there’s an aspect of Claire that’s always seemed mysterious to me; probably because I’ve never gotten to know her on the same personal level as I have other theatre colleagues. Oh, I’ve chatted her up at parties and what-have-you. I’ve even heard some of her best anecdotes (I first heard the Princess Leia story after opening night of Why Torture is Wrong (And the People Who Love Them), which she directed), but there’s always been something elusive about her. When Stuart first announced that she and I would be competing against one another in Year 3 of the Olympians Festival, I remember him throwing back his head and cackling like The Joker when he said “She is gonna kick your ass!” Which she did.

And you know what? I was glad to lose to her. I admire Claire. She’s done more in – and for – theatre than I have. I could easily list off how her achievements considerably dwarf mine (I’m the Homer Simpson to her Thomas Edison), but then that would take away time better spent using her as an inspiration as I move further into directing and producing.

For the month of October, Theater Pub is encouraging its writers to share things that scare them. When I say “Claire Rice scares me”, I mean that in the most admirable way possible. She scares me because she isn’t afraid of voicing an opinion that isn’t popular. She scares me because as she has the talent to back up her artistic vision. She scares me because she’s willing to make her art personal if it means it will have greater resonance, yet it will still be entertaining (look no further than her superhero parody “Occupy Man!” for the Jan. 2012 Theater Pub). She scares me because she’s gone off on many prominent people – writers, artistic directors, etc. – the very sort of people who love to say “I will ruin you!”, but they haven’t ruined her. So aware was she of her power that she made it the central theme of her column. It was called “Enemy’s List”, as she later explained on FB, because she knew that she was on someone else’s shit list.

Claire Rice scares me because if I didn’t know better I’d say she’s absolutely fearless. When I did go against Claire in Olympians, I was also required to give her an intro/bio. I will say now what I said then “When people ask me what’s best about Bay Area theatre, I always find a way to work in ‘Let me tell you about Claire Rice…’.”

She’s the kinda gal that brings a spoon to a gunfight.

She’s the kinda gal that brings a spoon to a gunfight.

But what about me, you ask? What the hell can one expect from my regular ramblings in my newly-alotted ‘Pub space? Quite a lot actually. I’ve decided to follow the example of my new ‘Pub colleagues and use my particular perspective (Black American theatre artist in his early-30s moving through the rapidly changing scene of San Francisco, of which he is a native) as a jump-off point. I’ll occasionally rant about things outside of theatre, so long as I can connect them somehow (Why did everyone crowdfund Le Video, but almost none of those people helped Marcus Books – and what does that mean for closing theatres?). I’ll ruminate on the way my opinion of theatre has changed as I’ve been exposed to more of it firsthand (as one playwright wrote: “People in the theatre are cray, but people in the opera are super-cray!”). And I’ll keep you all as up-to-date as possible as I slowly climb up the theatre ladder and find myself in a position to exert greater influence. I might even do a few more interviews and the like.

Most of all, I will practice that most rudimentary of on-stage rules: I will be present. This is the place where I will voice my unapologetic opinion. This is the place where you will respond. I won’t start on a topic I have no interest in engaging, even when it’s commenting on the posts of my fellow ‘Pub columnists. One needn’t make cryptic comments toward me on Twitter; you can comment below and tell me where I’m wrong in front of the entire Bay Area (and more) theatre community. I’m not promising anything groundbreaking, but I’m as curious as you are to see what actually comes of this.

In for a penny, in for a pound.

Charles really does think you should use your pennies to buy a super-cheap ticket to the closing weekend of Pastorella. Said tickets can be purchased here.