Cowan Palace: Yeah, What DO You Say To An Actor Who Just Bombed On Stage?

This week Ashley interviews herself.

Earlier this week, the Chicago Tribune ran an article titled, What do you say to an actor who just bombed on stage?

Oh, juicy topic, right?! What DO you say?! The piece explored the thoughts of a few local artists and while San Francisco may be miles away from Chicago’s scene, many of the opinions of those interviewed are universal and quite relatable. Whether you’re the actor in a show that may be more “bomb” than “da bomb” or whether you’re sitting in the audience as a friend watching an explosion, talking about the experience afterward can be awkward, uncomfortable, and unpleasant.

What are the expectations of those in your creative circle? Are you on the side of, “if you don’t have anything nice, don’t say anything at all”? or are you “Team Nice Guy Even If I Gotta Lie”?

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I decided I’d answer some of the questions in the Chicago Tribune article because I’m sure they would love that. Here are my thoughts:

What’s going through your head when you’re watching a terrible show?

Sometimes I’m thinking, “Yikes. I’m glad I didn’t get cast in this.” or to be even less humble about it, I’m thinking, “Huh. Would I have been this bad?” But most of the time I’m hopeful until the very end. I’m one of those people who can not turn off a bad TV movie until the very last second. Even if I HATE it. And I’ve never left a play until curtain call either because I honestly have hope until it’s really over that there’s still time for it to magically come together. Even though it almost never does.

While I’m a terrible liar, I’m also a known “nice girl” but it’s not usually that hard for me to find something that I enjoyed from a performance. Usually, after I show, I’ll say something like, “wow that was something! I don’t know if it’s the script for me but I liked _______” and then fill in the blank. If I’m there supporting my actor friend, I’ll find a moment of their performance that I liked and focus on that. So if I’m in the middle of a terrible show, I purposely try to seek out those moments of good so that I can use them as discussion points later.

When you’re the one performing in a show.

Yeah, been there, done that, will inevitably do it again. As much as I’d like to have tougher skin, I’m still sensitive and super vulnerable after any performance. And when I know I have friends in the audience, I’m even more aware of it. It does break my heart when I know I have a pal attending the show and then that person conveniently disappears immediately after curtain call and I don’t hear from them. That cold silence sometimes feels quite cruel. While I don’t want to make them uncomfortable or force them to say harsher words for the sake of being honest, sometimes you just want your friends to quietly hug you and simply appreciate your attempt, your work; regardless of how they felt about the show.

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Ever skipped the hellos?

I’m sure I have! Sometimes I have to catch a bus! But if I do leave, I try to reach out to my friend in the show and leave them with some kind thought. This year though, I challenged myself to stay around after a show to say those kind thoughts in person. Considering I don’t get a ton of social nights out anymore, I also relish these hellos because often it’s a chance to talk to a friend I haven’t seen for awhile.

As an actor, I have stayed in the dressing long a little too long after a show because I’ve been scared of facing certain audience members, assuming they hated it and not feeling brave enough to meet their eyes. I’d like to keep working on that.

Do you have a go-to line that you rely on?

I don’t. And I kind of encourage you not to because each performance is a different, unique thing. My advice is this, if you’re in the audience, allow yourself to have an honest opinion but give the show a chance. Try, try, try, to find something good. Even if it’s teeny tiny. I get it, sometimes shows are trash! But as a member of a small creative community, it’s a nice thing to try.

What do you guys think? How do you handle “terrible” shows? Do you think San Francisco fosters a different post-show environment than Chicago? As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts!

Cowan Palace: Why Closing A Show Is The Worst

As Ashley prepares for Closing Night, she reflects on the hardest parts of the process.

Back in early February, closing Middletown seemed so far away. 2016 had only just started and I was feeling both anxious and excited to dive into my first full length show in three years. Rehearsals were only just starting, lines were still new and not memorized, and I hadn’t even met the entire cast yet. It seemed like we had a long road ahead.

I’m a believer that sometimes plays find you. They grab a hold of you before you even realize it and strive to teach you something, leave you with something, before that grasp is forced to let go. It could be the language in the text, an emotion it brings out, or simply, just a shared quiet moment between you and an audience member. And so, here we are. Months later. The long road approaches its finish line. Our last four performance of Will Eno’s Middletown at Custom Made Theatre start tonight and by Saturday evening our show will be closed.

Sure. We’ll all get some more personal time to catch up on our poor neglected friend, TV and maybe get a little more sleep to dream about TV. But there’s a lot of stuff that sucks about ending a show, too. Here’s just a few things I’ll miss

1.) Justifying a dinner consisting of those delicious individual sized Sabra hummus and pretzel cups, a Quest bar, and a venti Starbucks caffeinated beverage

Oh, hummus. I think I’ll miss you most of all. Nothing compares to you. Certainly, not a bigger hummus container of the same flavor at home.

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2.) The cast and crew
I mean, duh.

3.) Big Booty
Okay, I love cast warm ups. They’re such a great way to connect with your team before you’re out together on stage and sometimes they offer enough physical activity for me to sort of feel like I’m at the gym! Big Booty. Whenever someone suggests we play it, I’m filled with an incredible anxiety and excitement that can not be matched! If you don’t know the game, look it up. It’s a crazy rush!

4.) The play within the play
There’s a lot of beautiful stuff that happens backstage. Between the very tight quarters and our large set pieces and some creaky floor boards and a big cast, there’s a delicate dance that goes on each night that the audience never gets to see. Sometimes it’s not so delicate and suppressing some of the giggles that result from those more difficult maneuvers can be a challenge but that just makes it all more fun.

The cast (and stage managers) of Middletown snuggling in the Green Room!)

The cast (and stage managers) of Middletown snuggling in the Green Room!)

5.) The constant stream of lines running through my mind
When I hear a certain word or phrase that is either in the show or reminds me of the script, I’m immediately transported to where I am when that moment of the play is happening. I know when the show closes, this feature will start to fade away as it always does, which makes my heart ache just a bit.

6.) Those moments when you’re putting your makeup and first costume on while someone else bares a life story you’ve never heard before or shares a secret.
Like I said earlier, I think plays find you. And sometimes that’s to bring new cast mates together. When I think back on this production of Middletown, I know I’ll remember those surprising moments in the girls dressing room (lovingly called, “The Boudoir” when we’re in the middle of a show) when we sat putting on makeup and someone told a wondrous story from their past or quietly offered a truly honest, bare event from their life and how it’s shaped them. Mainly we laugh together, but we’ve also created this space that allows us to explore some other colorful feelings, as well. Those moments have made me so thankful and emotional, which I think is a big lesson from Middletown and I know I’ll forever miss it.

So many feelings, only so much hummus to sustain them all.

So many feelings, only so much hummus to sustain them all.

7.) Taking a moment to dedicate each show to a past me
As part of my own personal, pre show ritual, I take a moment before each performance and “dedicate” the show to a past version of myself. To the 4 year old who told her parents she wanted to be an actress, to the 12 year old who hated looking in the mirror and longed to grow up, to the senior in college scared that she’d never be cast in anything in the real world, to the young twenty something living in NYC waiting hours just to sing her 16 bars at an audition, to the woman who moved to San Francisco on a whim, to the February Ashley who worried that it’d be impossible to manage being in a play again with a baby at home, etc. The ritual helps me to focus and be grateful to be exactly where I am.

Closing a show always makes me cry. Even thinking of closing a show gets me teary eyed. Not gonna lie, I’m probably crying as you read this. Closing a show is the worst. But the journey, the whole experience, is as beautiful and wonderful as you allow it to be. So, to the cast and crew, those that shared this story with us, and to the folks we hope to see in these final four performances – thank you. While closing is the worst, I think you’re all the best.

You can see Ashley either crying or not crying at Custom Made Theatre’s Middletown playing tonight at 7:30 and Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm!

Cowan Palace: Embracing The Mirror, Part One: Ashley, Plain and Tall

In part one of this two-part blog (featuring Marissa and Ashley’s tall tales) Ashley considers the height hype.

“You’re like that book. Sarah, Plain and Tall? But, like, it’s you. Ashley, Plain and Tall!”

I let his words linger in the air like they were bubbles about to pop. I forced the look on my face to go from “shocked and hurt” to “playfully shocked and hurt.” This was not exactly the sentiment I was looking for from the guy I kind of had a crush on after a performance.

I had just finished playing my first “romantic lead.” Sure. It was a ten minute play directed by my classmates for a student run production. But it was the first time I got to do a stage kiss! And wear something that didn’t resemble a bag! Plus, I didn’t have to cover my face in old age makeup (fun fact: old age makeup is still pretty much the only makeup style I feel like I can “do” well) or cover my hair with baby powder and gray hairspray. Ah, college. The actor I was paired with was slightly shorter than I was so I had been costumed in a modest heel but since I barely noticed, I didn’t think anyone in the audience would care.

And, duh, I knew I was tall. By that point (at age 18), I had already been told that I couldn’t convincingly play a high school student and that I was really more of a Nurse and/or Mrs. Capulet than a Juliet. At 5’9’’ I also knew I was ineligible to ever become a Disney princess (as they do not allow their ladies to be over 5’8’’) so my dreams of playing Belle fell short (ohhh, punny, huh?).

But let’s get back to my crush! Why was “tall” now synonymous with “plain”?! That hardly seemed fair. I went home and listened to a Coldplay mix CD trying to make sense of it all.

I continued college scoring great roles meant for older actresses and when I graduated, I moved to New York and began auditioning. I’ll never forget getting a callback for a role in a short play and being the tallest person in the room. The scene I was reading for was for the role of “daughter” and the actors playing my mother, father, and brother were all several inches smaller than I was. I was the only actor that managed to get a laugh out of the audition panel but sadly, I never heard from them again.

After that, I packed flats to every audition. And tried to practice hairstyles that could maybe make me appear a little shorter (yuck, I hate admitting that). When I reached out to my tall theatre friends, I loved hearing the stories they encountered in their theatrical pursuits because it meant I was not alone. Colleen Egan told me, “I had to wear flats once while my male counterpart was put in lifts because the director was so distracted by our height difference.” Which I find so fascinating! Why are we so uncomfortable with a woman being taller than the guy she’s with?

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Luckily for me, when I found myself in San Francisco with a role in “Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding”, my perception of height and my relation to it completely changed. Suddenly, I was in a show surrounded by beautiful Amazons. I was no longer the tallest one in the play! Yes, for the most part, our male counterparts were shorter. Sometimes, much shorter. But we learned to embrace it and play it up. We wore ridiculously tall high heels and made our hair as big as possible. When we had to kiss our fictional boyfriends, we thought it was hilarious and usually, the audience did, too.

I reached out to some of my past castmates in TNT regarding being tall in the theatre and they had these gems to share:

Mariah Castle (who was our original Tina) said, “I do remember being worried that audiences wouldn’t believe the casting when I was paired with a Tony who was significantly shorter than me. But it always seemed to turn out fine. I actually loved being paired with one short Tony in particular because he was such a strong performer. He owned his role and the room, so I felt proud to perform opposite him and pretend to be his “wife” for a night.”

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Sarah Rose Kistner added, “There were also some pretty ridiculous pairings (in terms of height) in TNT that I definitely worried about looking legit. I would have to tell myself little stories like “Okay, maybe Dom is just seriously into tall chicks!” or “Maybe Dom is just seriously into chicks… any chicks.” In the end, I don’t know if any of those relationships appeared authentic, but they at least appeared funny. I will say that my height probably helped me get cast as Amazon Hippolyta in Impact’s 80’s version of Midsummer Night’s Dream, where I was paired with a tragically, tiny Theseus. I think the dramatic height difference added a certain amount of inherent physical comedy. I did always have a sense that, if I were to continue with my acting career, I’d probably have an easier time being tall on film than on stage.”

Lastly, the lovely Stephanie Renee Wozniak left us with this wonderful wisdom:

“Okay, Tall Girl Theatre problems:

1. ALWAYS being in the back row in musical theatre productions. No matter how well you know the steps, you’re gonna have to be in the back because you’re a giant. And forget about partner dancing! If it’s a show where there’s a bunch of partner work, well, then congratulations! You’ll be playing a dude!
2. Playing dudes! I’ve literally played more male roles than female roles. Which it totally cool because some of the best roles out there are for men. I mean I got to play Hamlet so what am I complaining about?
3. NEVER playing the ingenue because the leading men are too short. Which is okay because the sassy best friend has all the best lines anyway.
4. Playing ALL of the adult roles from the time you’re 12. I played M’Lynne in Steel Mags when I was 23. My roommate was Shelby. And we rocked it.

Yes, there are challenges with being an Amazon actress, but on the other had, these long legs have been solely responsible for getting me cast in several productions. Incidentally, come see me in Sweet Charity this Spring at Hillbarn!”

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Obviously, I’m quite proud to have shared a stage with those women. Being around other tall actresses and performing the show for years made my height feel “normal”, sometimes humorous, and something I should absolutely stop apologizing for.

Now when I get to an audition, I still pack flats if I’m wearing heels and I still consider my hair (I have no problem cutting bangs into my look hours before if I think it’ll help get a part) but I’ve stopped thinking so much about being taller than many of the actors around me – I’ve convinced myself that I just have more height to store talent.

Things never went anywhere with that college crush. But I did get cast in a romantic lead with my now husband who is also taller than me! So things worked out okay there! No Coldplay mixes were needed. And lastly, “tall” is not synonymous with “plain” so I’d greatly appreciate it if you could all call me, “Ashley, Tall and Excited By Froyo” from here on out. Until tomorrow, my friends! I look forward to continuing this discussion with Marissa!

Everything Is Already Something Week 62: What If Plays Were Like Prom Dresses?

Allison Page is storming the barn.

This year there were three separate productions of Glengarry Glen Ross in the Bay Area meaning the play was running for four months straight: one production in San Francisco, one in Berkeley, and one in Alameda. I should say there was one ten day stretch where GGR wasn’t playing, but there was also one ten day stretch wherein two were happening at the same time, 11 miles apart, so they sort of cancel each other out in my non-scientific mind. I wonder if both of those Ricky Romas were looking up at the same moon.

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Eurydice is playing right now in Berkeley, and played earlier this year in Palo Alto, as well as two years ago in both San Francisco and Hayward, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I were missing some.

There’s a company who does Book of Liz every year in San Francisco, and another company has upcoming auditions for that same show in the East Bay.

Company is playing right now in San Francisco, and auditions were just held for another production of it in the Bay Area.

Where am I going with this? (It isn’t that I’m dying to get hate mail, and it’s not that these productions can’t be good) The point is — why is this happening? I’ve heard many people say that they don’t know what other companies’ seasons are like, and that it happens out of pure coincidence. I’m sure that’s true a lot of times. Though naturally, Samuel French will tell you which other companies have a show like Glengarry Glen Ross in their line-up. Looking at it now, if you manage to miss it here, head on over to Attleboro, Massachusetts to hear some old white men yell “Cunt!” this October or wander into Cincinnati, Ohio in April of 2016 to get your Roma fix!

Now you probably think I hate GGR because I just said that. I don’t. I like it, and I actually saw one of those productions. It’s not like someone’s about to surprise anyone with it, though. “Come see our new and inventive production of Glengarry Glen Ross set in a basement sex dungeon in Quebec!” Okay, maybe I’d be into that, I don’t know.

There’s also that whole thing about how the theater community at large, and definitely the Bay Area theater community, have done much buzzing about gender parity, and clearly having three of those things happening at one time means, uh…well, something not great. I think what it actually means is not willful constant dude-choosing over lady-choosing because SCREW ‘EM, on ANY of those companies’ or directors’ or producers’ parts, but actually just the age old problem that we tend to assume it’s someone else’s job. We’ve all talked about the issue together, and now everyone will do better because we did that…so we’ll just to stick to the old white men yelling “CUNT!” train and wait for someone else to produce Top Girls to balance us out. (Also, there are other plays featuring many women at once that aren’t Top Girls. I just have to say that twice a year to remind myself that it’s true.) And then we’ll hop onto another panel next year and nod our heads while everyone complains about how there aren’t roles for women and how awful that is.

BE it, not talk about it.

BE it, not talk about it.

While I totally understand that super common impulse, it’s also how we keep things exactly the same and never ever change them: by thinking someone else will do it or that we’ll get to it later. That’s why my dad still hasn’t invented any of the weird gadgets he doodles on scratch paper, like the little water-filled windshield dog who turns to look in whatever direction you’re about to turn the car. (Sorry, pops, should’ve gotten a patent.)

At the Theater Bay Area Conference in April of this year, I was struck HARD by something Martha Richards said about parity at the opening panel. (I had to search through the billion #TBACon15 tweets from April to find this — already more research than I’ve ever put into any other blogs.)

“The numbers haven’t budged in years, there’s just more conversation about it.”

Woof. Ouch. We talk about it and then almost 5 months later I’m writing this blog about how it feels like instead of being the change — Be The Change was actually the tagline for TBACon15 — we’re just looking for the change from other people.

Okay, parity is not actually the point of this blog, I’m heading back to my original point.

I’ve heard many times over that the most offensive theater is the boring kind, and — to me — there is nothing more boring than the same shows over and over again. I like a classic as much as the next guy. I like a 90s romcom, or an 80s feminist play, or a 50s drama, or old white guys yelling “CUUUUNT!” but I like them to be mixed in with a representation of NOW. Or at least something I didn’t just see last month. We live in a time of instant entertainment. A movie comes out and it’s up on iTunes nearly immediately…or sometimes even before it’s out in theaters. We want the now, we want the here, there, and everywhere and we want it immediately. Why does Bay Area theater often feel so far behind? New works are being given readings which is…good? Sometimes I’m not sure. I want those FULL productions. I want to see what the new blood has to say before it resigns itself to being produced 25 years from now and buys a warm cardigan to settle in for the cold spell. TV shows and movies take time to make. Movies can take years. Plays take time too, but they can also go up really quickly. So, to me, theater can be the most vital, fast, furious beast around, but it often isn’t. It doesn’t feel like that right now.

And yes, I KNOW PEOPLE LIKED MAD MEN, BUT GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS ISN’T MAD MEN. I’m glad we cleared that up. Also, guys, Mad Men isn’t even on anymore. You’re way fucking behind. If you wanna tap into that vibe, there have got be other plays about businesspeople/assholes so that we don’t all have to do this at one time, but seriously, Mad Men is over. It feels like we’re teaching the emerging voices of what could be a flourishing generation of theater makers that their art isn’t going to matter until they’re either in New York or have been dead for 40 years. Or until our marketing campaigns for said art can align with a TV show. That feels shitty.

What does all this have to do with prom dresses? I don’t know how it was for you, but where I grew up, no one was allowed to buy a prom dress someone else had purchased, for either a certain mile radius, or based on which school they were going to. I’m aware that rights givers could themselves crack down on this the most easily, but I don’t see that happening. I know sometimes companies try to get the rights to a play and they can’t, because that’s the hot new play at the moment and everyone wants it. That’ll happen. But why, then, is the fallback not something equally as new and exciting? I want someone to get a beautiful new prom dress, and the next person in the store is told they can’t have it, and gets an equally beautiful new prom dress — not the dress off the person working the register. There’s more than just one new great play in one hand, and one that’s been done a hundred thousand times and has no parts for women in the other.

Listen, everyone wants to sell tickets. Everyone needs to sell tickets. And get new audiences. Ohhhh the elusive New Audiences moving around in hungry clusters, passing us by. We’re all trying to hook them into our atmosphere and get them to stay there, orbiting with us. It’s not like I’ve cracked the code, but I know what doesn’t crack it. I know what they don’t want — the 21 year old, hip, fun audience members companies are salivating over, the ones you want to hop aboard the theater train — they don’t want to see something they’ve already seen. Or something so far removed from themselves (old white men yelling “CUUUUUUNT!”) that they have no real connection to it. They need to look up there, and connect. I don’t see them connecting to that. This isn’t really about Glengarry, it’s just such a good fucking example I couldn’t not use it. No, I’m not worried about Mamet alienating me. He does not now, nor will he ever know I’m alive, so it’s fine. But if you do try to move GGR into a sex basement in Quebec, I’m sure you’ll hear from him. Meanwhile you could have just commissioned a new play about Quebecois sex dungeon lovers for less than or equal to the royalties of GGR, depending on the writer.

One could argue that those theaters are in different parts of the Bay Area and that their audiences are not necessarily shared. That stance doesn’t really do it for me. I go to all those cities and see theater. And I keep thinking it wouldn’t be terrible if somebody missed something some time. Maybe next time something they want to see is showing a 20 minute drive away, they’ll suck it up and go there because it’s not coming directly to their living room (if it’s interesting enough). Training audiences about what to expect from you is something I think about a lot. If your shows start late, the audience will assume the next show will start late, and they’re not going to be on time. And now you’re starting shows late for the rest of your life because you did it twice. Teach people that theater here can be missed because it’ll just be back 10 miles away next month, and there’s no urgency to see it now. The Bay Area also shares a creative pool. Actors from Vallejo perform in San Francisco, actors in San Jose perform in Berkeley, so at least keep your collaborators excited by offering something that every other town isn’t offering. Because we’re getting paid peanuts anyway, ya might as well create something.

I can’t solve this whole thing, clearly, but I have to put out there that it feels like we’re not taking risks as a community right now, and playing it safe doesn’t work forever. Eventually we’ll play it so safe that everyone will forget we’re here. Hell, maybe they already have. And then they’ll just watch Glengarry Glen Ross on Netflix because Jack Lemmon is in it and he’s the man and theater doesn’t feel like it’s for their generation. There are definitely some groups and companies that are making really interesting, cool, risky stuff. But there are so many more who aren’t doing that. Or are relegating those projects to readings. I often want to take a company’s reading series and swap it with their actual season.

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So, I started writing this a couple of weeks ago and wanted to sleep on it. Then I went to New York City for a vacation. While I was there I saw two extremely popular shows: HAMILTION, and HAND TO GOD. They were so exciting, unfamiliar, wild, creative, new, unexpected, and VITAL. The houses were packed (Yes, they’re on Broadway so pretty much automatically they’re going to be selling tickets like hotcakes, but there was an excitement there that can’t be explained away with flashing lights.) They felt really risky in a good way, and you could tell that everyone working on them was invested in something they believed in. Maybe that’s what I’m really talking about. I want to see something and say to myself, “These people really believe in this. They really feel they’re doing something here. It feels important and necessary to them.” Even if I don’t like it, even if I think it’s poorly executed or just straight up isn’t to my tastes, I can get behind people who get behind their stuff and feel that it’s got urgency.

When you look at HAMILTON, you see a runaway hit, a game-changing hip hop musical with as diverse a cast as I’ve ever seen on stage at one time, based on Alexander Hamilton of all people. It’s a big idea. It’s a big, seemingly risky idea.

The diverse and talented and good looking and magnificent and swinging-for-the-fences cast of HAMILTON.

The diverse and talented and good looking and magnificent and swinging-for-the-fences cast of HAMILTON.

HAND TO GOD is a comedy about a man with a demonic sock puppet. It’s weird. It’s brash. It takes everything to 11, and knocks it out of the park.

“Yeah,” you’re thinking, “Those are amazing plays. Amazing plays like that don’t come around every day. My company needs to produce good stuff and most new plays aren’t going to be as good as that.” and to that I say, look harder. Or find a writer you believe in and commission something.

What do we want people to think theater IS? I want to ask myself that more often. I want us all to ask ourselves that more often. Because right now I’ll tell you what they think it is: outdated. And we’re not doing enough to show them otherwise. We’re too often giving them what they expect us to give them. And few things are less interesting to me than walking out of a theater saying, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I thought it’d be.” I’m not shitting on Shakespeare or O’Neill. I’m doing Richard III next month (a cut version in a bar, and as a Sid Vicious-lookin’ murderer named Ham, with an eye patch, but still Richard III.)

Maybe we just need to be more aware of each other. We’re not disparate entities floating in the ocean. We’re part of a larger whole as much as we may try to pretend otherwise. We are all theater, and the choices we make for our companies impact what this person or that person thinks of theater. What message are you sending? Is it the message you want to send?

Is it “CUUUUUUUUNT!”

Allison Page is a writer/actor/creative director of Killing My Lobster, a sketch comedy company with gender parity across both writers and actors with a new show written in two weeks, rehearsed in two weeks, and then performed live, every month at PianoFight in San Francisco. Ya know, in case you were wondering if she sticks to her own nonsense ideals, the answer is that she tries. And sometimes fails, of course.

Cowan Palace: So You Wanna Marry A Theatre Person

Ashley Cowan tells it like it is.

Well, more power to you! Here are some pointers!

In ten days, Will and I will be celebrating one year of married life. So in honor of our 355 days of husband and wife stuff, I thought it’d be fun to reflect on ten pearls of wisdom I’ve gained in being a “theatre person” matched with a fellow “theatre person”. Plus, “paper” is the anniversary gift inspiration for the first year and like I always say, blogs are basically just electronic paper (someone hurry and put that on a t-shirt and/or sexy tank top).

Yes, And

Theatre people know the value of a script. If they’re any good, hopefully they’re also good with lines. And when you’re in a relationship, there are certainly times when you put into practice those cues that your partner needs to hear before they can move on to their next bit. (For us, a big crowd pleasing line is usually something like, “I’m bringing home dinner.”) But you also need some sweet improv skillz to up your game. Be ready to be spontaneous, give a well timed compliment, or simply change the subject; just keep that scene going!

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Free Entertainment

Every night is a show with The Leschbers! Well, kind of. We do a lot of silly solo performances and we also have rocked many a kitchen duet for fun. We make each other laugh, we’re natural storytellers, and we simply take joy from being able to entertain each other. When something like doing dishes on a Monday night suddenly becomes an impromptu dance party, you’re doing that something right.

The Stakes Are Higher!

Being involved with a creative person often means their sense of urgency and secret desire for drama can often be the third wheel to the relationship. But that also means things can be pretty exciting. Suddenly what to watch next on Netflix becomes a deeply invested adventure and where to order food from is a real heated dialogue.

Creating Space

Yes, you’re a couple and you have a lot of similarities. But sometimes you gotta work on your solo act and encourage your partner to do the same. If you guys were in every scene together, all the time, that would be a boring play. And us theatre folk did not come here to be boring. So book an extra rehearsal room and polish that personal performance (hmm, that sounds a bit dirtier than intended, but you get the drift). It makes the scenes together a whole lot stronger and more interesting to watch.

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Food Is Important

Yes. Your spouse is always worth the ridiculous $4 charge for meat on their breakfast bagel sandwich and yes, you are worth the guacamole fee. While we both love our food, it has also become a vehicle for appreciation and thoughtfulness. Though, I guess this isn’t so much of a theatre person thing necessarily, it may be an all person, universal thing. (Pro tip: I’ve also learned that sometimes part of love is offering the other person a bite of your food and secretly hoping they’ll say no.)

The Laws Of Rejection

Whether it’s not getting a coveted part, desired job, or creative opportunity, rejection is a known presence in any theatre person’s world. And, I have to say, it’s a whole lot easier to have someone to share it with. Even if it’s just bitching about how unfair it is that you were turned down or getting a hug after you cried your eyes out or someone to put a scarf on the cat to distract you, rejection is a whole lot easier with the acceptance of a loved one.

Hello, All The Feelings!

I wear emotions better than I wear black yoga pants to almost everywhere but an actual exercise class. I have a closet full of feelings and can get pretty creative with accessorizing a bunch of those emotions into one memorable outfit. Finding someone who can appreciate those colors and encourage them is awesome and being with a partner that says, “no, you don’t look fat in that feeling, you look sexy!” is just wonderful.

Know Your Part

Sometimes you get cast as the lead and sometimes you’re in the chorus. No small parts, only small actors and all that. This is true in relationship stuff, too. It’s all about balance and knowing your audience. Will and I have a rule that we can get big and emotional but not always at the same time. To be fair, it’s usually me who is overreacting and needing a calm presence to talk me down or ensure that I’ve had a snack but when he needs to steal a scene, I do my best to support it.

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Finding Your Light

Theatre people know light. Whether they’re under it or observing it, they tend to gravitate to it. Find someone who pushes you into the light and out of a dark shadow. When you find someone who can see you for what you are and who encourages you to be seen by others, you should keep that someone and try to return the favor.

The Show Must Go On

Being with a fellow theatre nerd means you both believe in the show, this crazy act of love. Even with questionable production elements or mixed reviews, you keep going because you don’t know another way. You wear your heart on every costume and stay up late reworking Act One. But it’s awesome and it makes you happy. So you eagerly continue, excited for what surprises await in Act Two.

So to all our kindred spirits out there, being in a relationship with a “theatre person” is great! You may not even realize all you bring to the table but keep bringing it because it’s delicious! And to my scene partner, Will, I love you more than I did 355 days ago. Here’s to our wonderful production!

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Performance Anxiety

Dave Sikula… is nervous?

Last Saturday, I went to the San Francisco Silent Movie Festival to see The Donovan Affair, a 1929 movie that was both silent and not. “How is this possible?,” I hear you not asking. The answer is simple. The Donovan Affair was the first talking picture directed by Frank Capra (he of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life fame). While the film itself is intact (unlike so many movies from that period), the problem is that, in the 75 years since it was made, the soundtrack has vanished.

Considering it’s a movie about a murder investigation with an incredibly complicated plot (a ne’er-do-well is murdered when the lights are turned out during a birthday party – a stunt that is repeated twice, leading to both a second murder and the apprehension of the murderer), without dialogue, any viewer of the film is going to be stymied. Being that sound was recent to the movies in 1929, Capra and company packed it to the gills with talk, especially during the scenes where the lights are turned out and all the viewer sees is a black screen.

The Donovan Affair

The Donovan Affair

Bruce Goldstein, the legendary programmer at New York’s Film Forum, wanted to show The Donovan Affair as part of a Capra retrospective and hit upon the idea of taking the script and having a cast live-dub the movie in real time. The problem was that, not only has the screenplay also been lost to the mists of time, so has the script to the stage play the movie was based on.

While some of the dialogue could be intuited though lip reading, there are plenty of scenes with off-stage characters, actors with their backs to the camera, and the aforementioned blacked-out scenes. After a long, long search, Goldstein located a transcript in the by-then-defunct New York State Film Censorship Board’s archives that, while incomplete and obviously wrong in some places, was complete enough to allow him to proceed. The film was presented to great acclaim, and Goldstein had repeated the stunt a few times (I saw it at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2013), the most recent being the screening at the Castro, where, once again, a cast of live actors, a sound-effects man, and a pianist did the work.

The whole experience is great fun. The actors are skilled enough to tread the fine line of playing things deadpan while simultaneously being just over the top enough to acknowledge both the absurdity of the plot and the peculiarities of early sound film acting. (There are few things on the planet with less animation to them than Wheeler Oakman in The Lights of New York, the first all-talking feature. Coincidentally, Oakman appears in Donovan.)

That's not a still. That's Oakman's actual performance.

That’s not a still. That’s Oakman’s actual performance.

And that, at long last, brings me to this week’s topic: the ways in which we’re influenced by the performances of actors who have preceded us. Now, as good as Donovan’s modern-day cast was (and they were very good, indeed), they had to approximate – if not outright duplicate — the rhythms, cadences, and acting styles of their 1929 equivalents. If they did anything else – commenting on the performances, mocking them, sending them up – the whole thing would fall apart. The joke would be good for about 15 minutes before it stopped being funny. It’s the commitment of the voice actors to emulating the originals that makes it work at all.

All that said, it can’t help but be a little frustrating for those voice actors. Rather than having the freedom to pause a little here or emphasize or downplay something a little more, if they’re going to be faithful to the lip movements and actions of the original cast, they have to color within the lines, so to speak. There’s a certain creativity that is sparked for me (maybe even a freedom) when being restricted as to what I can do in a case like that. I don’t want to say I like directing with a small budget (because having an impressive physical production is nice), but when I’m forced to come up with a theatrical equivalent for something we just can’t afford, that’s when the creativity really starts.

I’m also reminded of this because of my current show, Grey Gardens, which I’ll mention again that you really should see (and that tickets are almost gone – even for our recently-announced extension). Anyone who is a fan of musical theatre has collected more than a few cast albums and listened to them over and over until the songs – and, more importantly, the performances of those songs – get locked into our brains. While this provides entertainment, it also provides a template that’s hard to break out of. Not that there’s only “one way” to perform a number (any more than there’s only “one way” to perform Hamlet or Hedda Gabler or Oscar Madison), but we get those voices and rhythms in our heads and it’s sometimes tough to break away. That said, anyone doing The Music Man, My Fair Lady, or Sweeney Todd is going to labor in the shadows of Robert Preston, Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, and Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou or George Hearn.

No, I don't have my lines written on my hand.

No, I don’t have my lines written on my hand.

I should note here that this is really a condition that’s more applicable to musicals than plays; the number of original casts of non-musical plays that have been immortalized on record (or even film) and listened to repeated times is miniscule. And the nature of musical theatre, with numbers written to be performed at certain tempos in more or less the same timespan as the originals kind of limits the options for later performers. I’m currently singing more or less the same notes John McMartin did in more or less the same tempos and times. I’m not duplicating what he did, but I’m working in a pretty tight structure.

Yes, we all want– and need – to bring our own unique qualities to the roles we play, but the originals are always lurking in the backs of our heads somewhere. Even if we specifically decide to not do what was done of the original cast album, that very reaction is a response. “I’m not going to sing ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right out of My Hair’ like Mary Martin; I’m just not.” That very denial of the template is an acknowledgment of it. Am I saying it’s impossible to bring fresh takes to old roles? Of course not. If that were the case, all you’d need to do is put a CD player on stage and save the expense of hiring actors. There are scores of brilliant Evitas and Roses and John Adamses every year doing things Patti LuPone and Ethel Merman and William Daniels never thought of. But, even if we’re working on original material, we’re either working within the frameworks that our predecessors have established or from the people and things we’re observed in our lives, and it’s that unique synthesis that brings new life to even the most tired and familiar material.

The Five: Allison and Anthony Get Drunk and Go To HOODSLAM- PART ONE

Today we’re crossing over THE FIVE and EVERYTHING IS ALREADY SOMETHING, as Anthony Miller explains below. Think of it like when characters from one TV show, guest star on another: wackiness ensues. Enjoy watching worlds collide, and let us know if you want more!

This week, we’re doing something a little different. Allison and I are eschewing our usual formats to periodically take you on theatergoing adventures, with liquor. For our inaugural article, we decided to head out to the Oakland Metro for the “Accidental Phenomenon” known as HOODSLAM. A Pro-wrestling show that makes itself unique by a self-awareness, performance art approach and a remarkable bond with their fans. There are also three bars inside the venue, an ideal location.
The following is an attempted oral history of the events of May 1st, 2015. They are based on notes, recorded interviews, and extremely hazy recollections.

6:45 PM

Anthony Miller: We roll up to the Oakland Metro fashionably late, because traffic.

Allison Page: And because I was being carefully packaged into a very tight dress, which was totally worth it, otherwise, why even go?

Anthony: We’d been rushing the whole time, with no time for pre-gaming, we arrive stone cold sober. We get in with no problems and are taken backstage, where a lot of dudes are changing. Everyone seems to be cool with it.

Allison: AND SOME LADIES. But most importantly, there was a man with a giant wrench for an arm back there. Peter runs off to find Broseph Joe Brody (Also known as AJ Kirsch), because there’s nothing my male friends take more delight in than humiliating me in the vicinity of muscular men. I start darting around trying to look like I’m doing something – and failing. Damn it. Bar’s not open yet. I disappear for a while and hide behind tables and chairs.

Anthony: I chat with Khan Abadi one of Hoodslam’s founders (Wrestling as The Dark Sheik), while he was changing, totally not awkward. He speaks about pro wrestling not as a sport but an art form:

“When it’s done correctly it’s an all-encompassing performance, the best wrestlers are the one who can improvise, have a character, connect with the crowd in the moment, while being athletically impressive” It’s definitely a performance. If anyone thinks it’s just guys hitting each other, they’re highly mistaken.”

“Wrestling tells a story just like anything tells a story, whether it’s a movie, or a tv show, a book, a song, a poem, whatever. It’s all the same thing, it’s characters taking you on a ride and putting you somewhere you weren’t…we’re putting these characters in motion and ideally we want you to see them as alive, full 3-D, real entities, if not real people.”

Talking to Khan isn’t like talking to a Football player about his sport, this feels like speaking to an artist who takes his work seriously. “It’s just the underlying feeling of wanting to be artistic, wanting to do what we want to do in way that is true to us and organic, we’re not trying to imitate anything or recreate anything.”

Allison: This is about the time I spotted Ultra Girl Brittany Wonder for the first time and fled the room because she’s my favorite and WHY ISN’T THE BAR OPEN YET?! GET YOUR DICKS IN A ROW. Okay, calm down.

Anthony: The birth of Hoodslam sounds more like an art movement than a wrestling show. One that came from Oakland’s DIY nature. “A lot of us have been wrestling for a lot of years and we’ve been doing it with companies…how do you wanna say it? We were working for companies that wanted to be WWE but with one millionth the budget, and WWE is great entertainment for those who like it but, it isn’t the highest of brow or the most challenging; it’s for a broad audience. We want to do things that are a little more challenging, a little more niche, maybe a lot more niche.”

He emphasizes that non wrestling fans can still love Hoodslam, and that’s the idea. “We don’t want just the wrestling audience, they’re already there, if they see us and like us, that’s great. We want to introduce us to new people, to show this is just another medium for Storytelling, another form of art…I’d consider us Performance Art.”

7:05 PM

Anthony: Perhaps the most important achievement of the night came early, we are in the presence of Hoodslam host, “Broseph” Joe Brody, he is a marble statue of a man and Allison loves him.

Allison: I think a did a cartoon wolf tongue thing. Also I think my face was purple. I was a purple-faced cartoon wolf but I had FABULOUS posture because my dress was so fucking tight.

Anthony: Peter arranges for Allison’s dream to come true.

Allison: What he said was “Can you please lift my friend up so we can just get a picture of you carrying her?” and then I squawked “YOU DON’T HAVE TO! YOU DON’T HAVE TO, REALLY!” while secretly mind-whispering “Do it. Do it now. Cradle me like bundle of fruit in the desert.”

Anthony: He picks her up with one arm and they take the picture. We never did get to ask any questions, but I think the photo says it all.

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Allison: I had an actual out of body experience. He’s like a stack of bricks with a face. I mean that in the most positive way, believe me. He’s like if the Sistine Chapel was just a guy…in a tank top.

7:15 PM

Anthony: The bar in the venue isn’t open yet and we’re getting antsy. Talking to strangers sober is hard. There’s a guy walking around who looks like he’s not busy, and he’s definitely a wrestler, because he’s wearing his wrestler pants. As he walked by I stopped him, introduced ourselves and we started to chat. Usually wrestling by the name Alexis Darevko, tonight he goes by Zangeif.

He regails us with stories of times he almost threw up in ring. They involve cottage cheese, hot dogs and fake placenta. “Surprises happen, but usually not surprises that make me puke”.

Allison: I bring up that it’s terrifying to me that they jump out of the ring and fight on the ground — right there on the concrete floor in the audience. You don’t know what’s on the floor! It could be anything! It could be more cottage cheese and hot dogs! Alexis agrees: it’s truly disgusting and he wipes all the toxic possibilities off the bottom of his shoes later.

Anthony: Alexis gives a lot of credit to the fans for Hoodslam’s success. “The fans are really the biggest character in the show.” It’s true, the audience has a deep connection with the show, for many of them it’s the highlight of their month. Alexis adds; “For the Wrestlers too, it’s like Vacation.” Most of the Wrestlers in Hoodslam make their living (or at least try to) on the indie wrestling circuit. But Hoodslam is different. “It’s our way of saying ‘Hey, I don’t have to deal with usual bullshit politics of wrestling…and we have fun with our friends.” But Alexis can’t thank the fans enough, he shares stories about so many great interactions he had with them. It’s clear we picked an awesome guy to talk to.

Allison: PS he hates the term indie wrestling. You can tell the bar still isn’t open at this point, because I can actually remember him saying that.

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7:45 PM

Anthony: Post interview, we ran into my friend Jeanine, she pulled us aside and gave us…our first drink. She hands us a chilled flask and says “Here you go, Ice Cold Fireball”. It was warming and delightful, and Allison’s hands stopped shaking. Just kidding (Not Really)

Allison: You’ll never know the truth.

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7:48 PM

Anthony: CAN THE BAR FRIGGIN OPEN ALREADY? We can’t have drunken hijinks if we aren’t drunken. You know what happens when your blog has no drunken hijinks? No page hits. I see my friend Krystal, who is one of the bartenders there, so I run over and get an update. She says soon, when the lights go down,” That sounds like a long time. Since I’m there, I ask her what she thinks about the show. She replies: “I think Hoodslam is the most awesome, original event anyone can come to in the bay, probably the whole country. “

Allison: I spot Brittany again. I can’t bring myself to interview her, but I manage to go up and buy one of her “Turn Down for Butt” t-shirts (she’s known for attacking her opponents with her butt — an idea I can really get behind) then I sheepishly lumber off to put it in the car.

7:51 PM

Anthony: I go back to Peter and Allison by the front door and-HEY! That guy just got a beer! That means the bar is open, kind of — exact change only. That’ll do. We have our second drink, cheap shitty beer for me, cheap shitty Whiskey for Allison.

Allison: Go cheap or go home.

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8:11 PM

Anthony: Game on, bars are open, round 3 is Whiskey and Ginger Ales.

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8:15 PM

Anthony: We’re all ringside, the show won’t be starting for another 45 minutes, because if you want to start the show at nine, tell everyone 8. We got a few cool interviews but not enough. I tell Allison she should go outside and interview folks, she’s still hesitant, I cajole her, lead her to the door, psych her up and she’s off to interview wrestlers, I’m very proud, now back to drinking.

Allison: This is it. I have her in my sights: Ultra Girl Brittany Wonder. She’s laughing with some friends, it’s all I can do to keep myself from doing that weird sitcom thing where you wander up next to a group of laughing people and also start laughing, pretending you know what the fuck they’re talking about. Instead I tap her on the shoulder like a real person would. She’s happy to talk to me. She talks about the beginnings of Hoodslam. 5 minutes in I finally get around to asking if it’s cool if I record the conversation. Oops. She talks about how it feels like they’re a family.

Brittany: When we started out it was like 100 people, and then 200 people, 400 people, 600 people, 800 til now — we sell out. We have to turn like 400 people away at the door. It’s amazing, we’re one of the biggest wrestling companies in the United States and we started out just doing something that we love. All these companies are so serious. You can tell a lot of the guys just don’t wanna be there. And to be a pro wrestler you have to go through way too much bullshit to not have fun and to not want it. It was heartbreaking to see — but WE always had fun. A lot of us have known each other for 10+ years and we really do call ourselves a family.

This is where I started babbling a lot about how she’s really great. I’ll spare you most of that, but basically I geeked out about how the only other time I’ve been to Hoodslam, I saw Brittany fight Charlie Chaplin…who is invisible. So she’s just fighting no one. It was amazing.

Back to me being an okay interviewer: “What’s it like…I mean, there aren’t a lot of women in wrestling.”

Brittany: It was weird cuz, like, I trained with guys, my trainer was a male…so when people say ‘oh, intergender wrestling is wrong–

Allison: Wait, do people say that?

Brittany: All the time, dude, all the time.

Allison: Because, what, they feel like the men are just gonna overpower the women?

Brittany: Exactly. And then when it’s like ‘Oh man she’s kicking his ass!’ either they get really into it or they’re like ‘Oh that’s not believable.’ And it’s funny because…I mean, I’ve had women come to me in tears that have been in like abusive relationships and shit and they’re like ‘You are amazing. Thank you so much.’ and that’s the most amazing thing ever.

I’m going to interject with my own commentary here and say that when we got to this part of the conversation it felt very…sort of emotional. I mean, we’re both pretty tough chicks but that’s a really powerful thing to have happen — for someone to tell you that the thing you do or make — the art of your performance (because it IS an art) spoke to them when they were really dealing with something. That’s a big deal. I’ve seen lots of plays that didn’t do that for me. Here’s something I love about her in the ring, and love about Hoodslam: yes, she’s a woman, but there is nothing about how her opponents are responding to her, that ever makes you feel like the men don’t think of her as an equal. If it did feel that way…I probably wouldn’t have loved it so much. Okay, back to Brittany.

Brittany: I don’t understand people can’t see that stuff. It’s the underdog story. That’s why I’m so popular, I really am the ultimate underdog. I’m one of the smallest people on this roster, but I have a lot of heart.

Allison: A lot of the women here aren’t physically very large.”

Brittany: Yeah, but we’re a lot faster, we’re more flexible, we have different avenues. It doesn’t have to just be brute strength.

Then we hugged. That was a fucking great interview.

8:48 PM

Anthony: She’s back, Round 4. More whiskey and ginger ale.

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8:52 PM

Anthony: The crowd is getting feisty; clouds of pot smoke pop up through the crowd all drifting upward and towards the ring. The crowd gather around three sides of the ring. Behind the ring is a stage with a coffin on it surrounded with flowers. There is a funeral tonight to honor a wrestler who died last month. That wrestlers name was Butternuts, and he was a large stuffed horse. The pre-show music is all songs about death and remembrance, and now they’re playing “Freebird”, that’s sound design people, that’s creating a mood.

9:05 PM

Anthony: The show begins with the funeral procession and a video plays with The Sundays cover of “Wild Horses” provides background. This is is the funniest shit ever, it’s smart and dumb all at once. Now the audience is chanting “This is Tragic (Clap Clap ClapClapClap)”. After the video tribute, three women dressed in black enter the ring and begin to sing a soulful rendition of “Pony” by Genuine. (Cause he was a stuffed horse, get it? ) They are almost like goth Libation Bearers. Also, these drinks are really strong.

Allison: Holy shit that Pony rendition was amazing.

Anthony: Oddly enough its not the first cover of “Pony” I’ve ever heard, obviously we’ve all underestimated the songs relevance. I should also note we will see all three of these women later in the night as wrestlers. Oh lord, hot lady wrestlers with tattoos, if you looked up “out of my league” in the dictionary, there would be a picture of them waving.

9:10 PM

Anthony: At some point we got a fifth drink, I’m not sure what happened, things are a little hard to remember. Although the place is absolutely packed, so going to the bar involves swimming through a dense sea of humanity, sweaty humanity. It’s not a forgettable experience. Then it occurs to us, we forgot to eat.

Allison: Uh ohhhhh…

STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO, TOMORROW!

Spoiler alert – Allison starts to get really forgetful, someone’s testicles come out to play, and a man’s giant wrench arm gets chopped off.

Anthony Miller is a theater-making wrestling enthusiast.
Allison Page has a big butt she is considering using to attack her opponents. She’s also a writer.

Extra special thanks to Peter Townley who took most if not all of these photos and moved Allison out of the way every time she was in the line of fire.