Theater Around The Bay: Cowan Palace Goes Portal

Ashley may be 3000 miles away but it’s like she’s right next to you, singing in your ear about her interview with Kirk Shimano and Sang Kim, who prepare to rock San Francisco Theater Pub with Portal: The Musical!

Hello there, my San Francisco friends! Wow, what a few weeks it’s been, huh? Lots going on all over the world but I have to say getting the chance to interview writer Kirk Shimano and director Sang Kim was a real treat. This dynamic duo is currently working on San Francisco Theater Pub’s latest show, Portal: The Musical.

The cast features Alan Coyne, Jamie Lee Currier, Dan Kurtz, Courtney Merrell, and Karen Offereins with musical direction by Liz Baker, voice direction and production design by Renee LeVesque, and Paul Anderson and Spencer Bainbridge rounding out this rockin’ team as the band. The show is set to the music of Jonathan Coulton and this theatrical piece is sure to be unlike any other production you’ve seen this millennium.

Kirk Laughing!

AC: So firstly, what are audiences in store for when they sit down for Portal: The Musical?

KS: I think the experience will be pretty different based on what the audience member is bringing in. Fans of the video game are going to get to see the story they love brought to life in a totally different way. Jonathan Coulton fans will get to hear their favorite songs for the first time again when they’re sung by our characters. And people who don’t know anything about either are going to discover a whole new world that they never knew they were missing.

SK: A lot more feeling and earnestness than you’d expect for a video game based on dimensional rifts and psychotic artificial intelligence. Also – this show passed the Bechdel Test with extra credit! Good Job sticker for us!

AC: So, how did this project come to be?

KS: I played through the original Portal in one sitting and it’s been a favorite ever since. And when I found out the guy who wrote “Still Alive” had a whole repertoire of other work, I got my hands on all the Jonathan Coulton music I could find. But this all really gelled for me when I heard the song “Code Monkey” on the Best. Concert. Ever. album. As soon as I heard that, I immediately knew there was a character behind this song and wanted to bring it to life in a full musical.

SK: Kirk emailed me back in June 2013 after he punched out a first draft during his stay-cation. I replied back and said yes to working on this. I wish it was more dramatic and suspenseful, but there it is. How about we just pretend Kirk threw the script into a Thunderdome death pit and I emerged the victor and claimed the musical as my prize.

Sang Directing!

AC: What’s been the biggest surprise you’ve experienced while rehearsing a musical about a video game?

KS: I’d say it’s just seeing all the passion that people have for this source material. There’s always a great level of support among other members of the theater community, but it’s been wonderful to also see friends who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves “theater people” get really excited about this project because of their connection to the source material.

SK: Agree with Kirk. It’s gotten to the point where rehearsals are going long because there’s too many ideas and too much fun being had. And, oh Lord, the spontaneous singing. Always with the spontaneous singing. People singing and making up lyrics and breaking into song. It’s like witnessing a karaoke playlist for ADHD show choir students on meth.

AC: What’s been your favorite moment so far while working on the show?

KS: I’d have to say it’s those moments in rehearsal where we’ve had everyone sing along together. Our cast and creative team has been wonderful to work with in general, but that’s the moment when I just feel we’re all the most connected.

SK: Yes. This.

I played viola in the orchestra so the power of group singing has never made an impact on me until this show. I finally understand why the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day.

AC: What drink do you think would pair best with the production?

KS: Maybe one of those novelty drinks that comes in a beaker and has some dry ice to make fog spill out over the sides? Because something that is fun and a little creepy with a chance of killing you is basically the character of GLaDOS.

SK: Anything garnished with olives – just one olive so your drink is looking back at you which reminds me of all our little robot friends from the game.

The Creative Portal  Team

AC: What’s been the hardest challenge you and the cast/crew have faced while bringing this story to life (and song!)?

KS: I feel very fortunate in that Sang has been taking on the HUGE task of all the scheduling and coordination of bringing together all of the talent need to bring this together, and I just get to watch. But one challenge that comes to mind was having to cut a couple songs from the script that I really like but that weren’t serving the story (sorry “I Crush Everything”).

SK: Kirk is gracious but having this specific group of talent has been worth all the wrangling. The hardest thing is to pull the show back for a staged musical setting at Theater Pub. I think a lot of past contributors have excelled in presenting fantastic shows in such an unconventional setting. But the scope and creativity of Kirk’s musical, the Portal universe, Coulton’s songs,along with the talent involved have actually been an embarrassment of riches. Having limited time and resources means picking and discarding your darlings.

AC: Tell us more about what you’re up to after this show! Any fun new projects on deck?

KS: Next up for me will be the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which I’m happy to be returning to for the sixth year in a row. I’m looking forward to sharing a night with three other playwrights (Barbara Jwanouskos, Julianne Jigour, and Alan Coyne) as we present three very stylistically different approaches to the gods of sleep and dreams.

SK: After some rest, I’ll be helping co-write Thunderbird Theatre’s next original play. It’ll be a creative collaboration with The Mess sketch comedy, which also has a show up this November.

AC: What Bay Area show (other than this) are you most excited to see this summer?

KS: I’m a big fan of musicals in general, so I can’t wait to see City of Angels at the San Francisco Playhouse and Chess at the Custom Made Theatre Company. I’ve been a big fan of the cast albums of both and neither is a show that you see performed all the time.

SK: I was glad to see The Rules and the Loud and Unladylike Festival, but they both closed this past weekend. After that, probably my usual summer and fall diet of Pint Sized Plays and the Olympians Festival before I hibernate for the winter.

AC: Using only emoticons, how would you describe Portal?

KIRK: — 0 0– >

SANG: 🍰🤔

AC: If your directing/writing style was a song, what would it be?

SK: For this show? “Bizarre Love Triangle.” You’ll see.

KS: Want to be: “Everything is AWESOME!!!” But, actually: “Still Alive.”

See Portal: The Musical only at PIANOFIGHT (144 Taylor Street):, July 18, 19, 25, and 26 @ 8 PM.

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Theater Around The Bay: Announcing PORTAL the MUSICAL!

The award winning 2007 video game becomes a full fledged MUSICAL adventure!

Watch Chell, and her dimension destroying portal gun, brave the tests of GLaDOS, a homicidal artificial intelligence whose infatuation hides a…deeper interest! Featuring an original script by Kirk Shimano, set to the music of Jonathan Coulton (www.jonathancoulton.com) – come and see a one of a kind Theater Pub event!

Directed by Sang S. Kim, with Liz Baker on Music Direction, Renee LeVesque on Voice Direction and Production Design, and Paul Anderson and Spencer Bainbridge as the Band.

Featuring Alan Coyne, Jaime Lee Currier, Dan Kurtz, Courtney Merrell, and Karen Offereins.

See “Portal: The Musical” only at PIANOFIGHT (144 Taylor Street):

Monday, July 18 @ 8:00pm
Tuesday, July 19 @ 8:00pm
Monday, July 25 @ 8:00pm
Tuesday, July 26 @ 8:00pm

As always, admission is FREE, with a $10 donation suggested at the door. No reservations required, but we suggest getting there early to get a good seat and enjoy PianoFight’s full bar and dinner menu!

See you at the Pub!

Theater Around The Bay: Get Ready For Better Than Television!

Our next show, Better Than Television, is going to turn your world upside down! Before the adventure begins, we figured it was time to check in with regular TP contributor, Megan Cohen, who is the brains behind this crazy new show!

TP: Megan Cohen- you’re back again! What keeps you coming back to Theater Pub?

MC: Every mad scientist needs a lab.

TP: Every show you do is different, but how is this show particularly unique?

MC: As a swirling “live channel” programmed with serial shows and commercials, Better Than Television is bigger AND smaller than anything I’ve done at Pub. The plays are tiny; micro-episodes of just a few minutes each, for short attention spans. The evening is huge, with lots of characters, genres, theme songs, commercials. I’ve got about 25 artists on the team: writers, actors, musicians. That’s a lot of talent for a free show in a bar.

TP: Explain your process behind this one- there was some kind of writing party?

MC: Over a weekend, 17 writers came to my house. We drank 2 flats of Diet Coke, I made 16 pizzas, and between us all, on that Saturday and Sunday we wrote 59 brand new micro-plays. We created the soap opera All My Feels, the sci-fi adventure Space Bitch, and everything else you’ll see onstage.

Megan Cohen is sort of like what would happen if Orson Welles had a better childhood.

Megan Cohen is sort of like what would happen if Orson Welles had a better childhood.

I love to do things myself; I’ll write a whole show and mix the soundtrack and make the props with a glue gun; heck, as a performance artist, I’m working on a 12-hour durational solo show right now. I love doing things myself, but I wanted Better Than Television to be about teamwork, friendship, and celebrating the incredible wealth of talent in our community. I built a structure, gave some prompts, gave a format, and then the crew of writers really made the episodes and commercials their own! A fabulous array of voices. I am surprised, thrilled, delighted, and definitely entertained by what people wrote in this format, and I hope you will be too.

TP: What is it about television that makes it a suitable topic for its perceived nemesis- The Theater?

MC: I’m part of The Broadcast Television Generation. The generation before me didn’t have TV on all the time in the house growing up, and the generation after me has everything online and on-demand, where they can curate it themselves. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, tuning in for “Nick at Night” and “TGIF,” at the blissful mercy of a machine that fed me dreams on its own schedule. Going to theater is not so different from trusting a Broadcast Network. You show up, and it takes you somewhere you didn’t know you wanted to go. You just stay tuned. I think we all need that. We all make a lot of decisions every day, and sometimes you want to relax and let someone you trust take the reins. That’s what I’m planning for these shows to do. People want to be entertained, and I think they want to be a bit surprised.

TP: So, ideally someone comes to all four nights of this, yes?

MC: Better Than Television is a different show each night! New episodes of each micro-serial, a rotating cast of actors, twists and turns all the time; I hope that if you come once, you’ll get hooked, and will want to come back and see what happens next. If you get addicted to the channel and binge-watch the whole 4-night series, you’ll have a lot of fun. More fun than a cat in a banana.

This is the second-most-fun thing in the world.

This is the second-most-fun thing in the world.

TP: And what if someone can only come one night? How does it change their experience?

MC: Each night stands alone. If you tune in with us at Theater Pub for one night, you won’t see the complete run of any series, but you will see enough episodes of each micro-show to get the gist, so you can fall in love briefly with the characters and the story. Especially Space Bitch. Everyone loves Space Bitch.

TP: If you could work on any real-life TV show, what it would be and what would you bring to the table?

MC: Any TV show ever? Deadwood. Any current TV show? Orphan Black. What would I bring to the table? Wit, courage, small pores, and the chops I’ve built in an energetic and dedicated writing career where, at age 32, I’ve shared almost 100 of my scripts with audiences around the world.

TP: What if a network approached you and said, “Anything you want?” What does your ideal TV show look like?

MC: It’s kind of a Deadwood-meets-Orphan-Black mashup in a comic vein with a supernatural slant, where everyone in a small frontier town is played by the ghost of Madeline Khan.

(For real, though, if anyone wants to rep me, I can send you an hour-long TV pilot that’s not that.)

TP: Any shout outs for other stuff going on in the community?

MC: Along with Theater Pub, KML and Faultline are 2 resident companies at PianoFight that are having strong seasons this year, with lots of good artists involved. See them, see everything, see Theater Pub every month. See anything by any of the artists who are part of making Better Than Television: Paul Anderson, Scott Baker, Sam Bertken, Stuart Bousel, Jeremy Cole, Barry Eitel, Valerie Fachman, Fenner Fenner, Danielle Gray, Kenneth Heaton, Paul Jennings, Colin Johnson, Dan Kurtz, Rebecca Longworth, Carl Lucania, Becky Raeta, Samantha Ricci, Cassie Rosenbrock, Heather Shaw, Jeunee Simon, Marissa Skudlarek, Peter Townley, Steven Westdahl, Indiia Wilmott, Marlene Yarosh, wow that’s a mouthful. Keep an eye on those people. Also, of course you should see everything that I personally am doing everywhere always.

TP: What’s next for you?

MC: On the closing day of this show, I’m heading for the “Ground Floor” new works program at Berkeley Rep. We’re doing some development there on my new full-length play Truest. It’s about a pair of sisters who love and fight each other, kind of a Thelma-and-Louise-meets-Sam-Shepard vibe. For news on that and other projects, keep in touch with me on Twitter: @WayBetterThanTV or on my website www.MeganCohen.com.

Better than Television starts on June 20 and plays through June 28, only at San Francisco Theater Pub! 

In For A Penny: The All-Seeing Eye

Charles Lewis III SEES YOU.

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“O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!”
– William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act I, Sc. 1

I was originally going to write this post about the similarities between professional sports and theatre – what with baseball season now in full swing, the Warriors kickin’ ass in the play-offs, and Wrestlemania a few weeks back (the latter would have included several nods to my ‘Pub colleague and fellow wrestling fan Anthony Miller). But as I took a peek back at my last entry, in which I pondered on-camera work vs. on-stage work, I found myself stuck on a lot of recent conversations about the two possibly converging in order to survive.

Let me start off by saying something we all know: theatre is neither dying nor dead. It’s been around longer than any of us and will still be around after we’re gone. The reason for that being the fact that in the end all one needs for theatre is at least one performer and an audience. That’s why you can’t look any changes to it the same way you look at recent changes to film (going digital), television (cord-cutting and Netflix binging), or radio (also transitioning to digital and competing with Pandora/Spotify/Rdio/etc.). All three of those of those formats are technologies first, performance art media second (if that). Theatre should never be wholly dependent on technology (despite the fact that tech people are super-amazing powerful wizards in whose hands we put our lives and whom I love dearly).

But what about when theatre does incorporate tech? Hell, going from soft blue to a spotlight to a blackout can mean the difference between a play being brilliant or just confusing. In recent years we’ve all seen a significant rise in theatre productions incorporating technology not traditionally associated with theatre, even here on the indie theatre scene. Some of them, when done right, can add a powerful new element to the story (video projection), whilst others are just a plain intrusion to the entire process (tweet seats). And of course, there’s technology that allows you to watch theatre when you’re nowhere near the theatre. And that, my friend, is what I’ll be focusing on today.

Recently, as I was scrolling Facebook, I came across this article posted on the wall of Melissa Hillman, Artistic Director of Impact Theatre in Berkeley. It’s an op-ed blog about two new apps – Periscope (owned by Twitter) and Meerkat – that allow you to live-stream events directly from your phone. Naturally this has led to heated discussion as to when using such an app would be appropriate, if ever. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to go to a play and sit behind someone holding up their phone or tablet like some concert-goer (something that actually has happened to me in recent years: once at a Thunderbird show and once at BOA). And that’s not even getting into the whole piracy question; the whole reason Google Glass is banned in American cinemas is for that very reason.

Still, I’m not opposed to the idea of live-streaming theatre. I mean, why not? The big guys are already doing it. I’ve been part of productions for the SF Opera that were either broadcast live or recorded to re-air on PBS. Fathom Events is a company specifically dedicated to transmitting live sporting events (like boxing and wrestling – I still mentioned wrestling this week) and performances into cinemas across the country; most notably those of New York’s Metropolitan Opera before they also re-air on PBS.

And we in the indie theatre scene have HowlRound TV. I’m sorry to say that I’ve never attended the One-Minute Play Festival (for which the ‘Pub’s own Marissa Skudlarek has written several plays), but I make it a point to watch HowlRound’s annual live-stream of the production. Now think of how many productions you’ve done that friends and family members wished they could attend, were they not halfway across the country. Before I inherited this piece of internet real estate from the esteemed Claire Rice, she made a Top 10 list of things she thinks theatre needs. After re-reading No.s 8 and 10 (and maybe even No. 5), I can see live-streaming of plays as something that could be a real boon to the indie theatre scene, if done right. In fact, in regards to No. 10, I’d love to see our friends at Theatre Bay Area take this under consideration, even if it meant teaming up with a company like HowlRound. Imagine the TBA Awards – which, incidentally, is now Claire’s jurisdiction – streamed across the country (nay, the world) for theatre-lovers all over?

And how, pray tell, do we do it “right”? I’m glad you asked. I happen to have a few suggestions that would appeal to both the folks at home and those with butts in seats:

1. Mic. The. Stage. I really should say “Use the best equipment” because this first suggestion comes from being told personally by a member of the 1MPF crew that they don’t have the capability to use HD camcorders, so the cameras they do use are archaic. I hope this is something they can solve soon, but I also hope they don’t resort to the mobile phone antics of Periscope or Meerkat. Still, I’ve always been able to see what’s happening on stage, even if it wasn’t always clear. But it can be a real pain in the ass to hear what’s going on. In a perfect set-up, there would be unseen mics either on or directly pointed at the stage, so as to not be drowned out by the ambient noise of the theatre. If live-streaming or recording for archives, tap into that audio. I’d like to actually hear a playwright’s words before I criticize them for using the word “irregardless”.

2. Good camera location. For the past few years now, me and Paul Anderson have been the officially unofficial chroniclers of the Olympians Festival. I take photos, he records video – not something we planned, just what happened. Both of us have to do these from rather static positions. When I saw the above article on Melissa’s wall, I immediately began thinking of exactly where I’d place cameras around Impact. Then I started thinking about The EXIT. PianoFight. Cutting Ball. Even the SF Playhouse. Each and every one of these venues could easily use some discreet, high-quality cameras that would transmit in crystal clarity whilst remaining invisible to the audience. Just be sure that your camera operator and sound person are part of the rehearsal process, so the folks at home don’t miss out on the moments that the live audience sees. Speaking of the live audience…

3. Audience quota. I’ve been in a couple different productions that had to cancel performances due small audiences. Let’s be real: with the average indie theatre ticket running somewhere between $15-$30, some folks would be tempted to never leave the house if they knew they could just watch it at home – that’s the “dying” aspect of theatre people fear. Now, I don’t know if services like HowlRound TV will always be free, but I certainly think live audiences should always take priority. Which is why I propose that live-streaming be done ONLY if a certain audience number is met each night. It doesn’t have to be a full house, but depending on the capacity of each theatre, there should be a minimum number of filled seats or no broadcast that night. This is less about the folks at home seeing the seats filled and more about the folks putting on the show being able to pay to keep the lights on. The actors can perform with a small live audience, but for the folks at home it should be a privilege.

And that, to me, is the point: this isn’t about taking away from live theatre, it’s about enhancing it for a wider audience. I’m not against the idea of apps for theatre. Hell, I get what apps like Periscope and Meerkat are trying to do, but they’re not solving a problem, they’re adding to it. But if a life of being a tech buff has taught me anything, it’s that’s folks will eventually choose low-quality convenience rather than having to wait for top-quality expense. That’s why VHS beat out Betamax and why people are losing their hearing with crappy digital music. Live-streaming represents a bold opportunity for indie theatre to get in on the ground floor of both a new technology and a new wider performance venue.

Technology in and of itself does not improve art; it’s just another tool of the artist. The most important thing to remember is that in the end, the folks at home and the folks in front of you are both hungry for the exact same thing: they want to see a good show.