Theater Around The Bay: The Audition and Casting Process (Emilio Rodriguez, Janet Bentley)

Part Two of Peter Hsieh’s interview with some of his favorite directors.

Last Time I interviewed Lana Russell and Stuart Bousel about the casting and audition process in regards to new works; here is part two with Emilio Rodriguez and Janet Bentley. I met Emilio while we were at the University of California, Irvine and the pleasure of working with him a year ago when he directed my play Interstate at the Detroit Fringe Festival. I met Janet when she directed the New York premiere of Interstate at T. Schreiber Studio theater. I had a great time working with both these theatre makers and they continue to be at the helm of new works in their respective art communities.

My play Interstate as directed by Janet Bentley.

My play Interstate as directed by Janet Bentley.

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

Rodriguez: My love of new works didn’t really happen until I started writing. This is why I agree with Paula Vogel, that we need to encourage more people to write; because it changes the way one goes to the theatre and their investment in it.
Now, I not only write and direct new plays but I also curate several new play festivals. I am always excited when I open a new script. There is a spectrum of reactions I can have based on the writing. My favorite is finding something that makes me feel like the wind got knocked out of me. That moment where time stops for a second as you absorb the ending line or stage direction. The beauty of reading new works is that I do not have a cap on how many times I’ll feel that in my lifetime because there will always be more plays to read.

To me, new plays are just as exciting as new music. It’s counterintuitive to me that people will break the internet to buy Beyonce’s newest CD and stand outside in the pouring rain to wait for Best Buy to release Taylor Swift’s newest CD, but when a new play is produced, there is this skepticism; it’s as if everyone is waiting for the new work to have approval of the Pulitzer or a Tony. We need new work. We need new voices. Society is constantly evolving, so our stories need to change with us, just as our music does.

Emilio Rodriguez. Doesn’t want to hear Viola’s Ring monologue anymore.

Emilio Rodriguez. Doesn’t want to hear Viola’s Ring monologue anymore.

Bentley: I started my work in theatre, like most people, in acting. I was raised by an acting teacher who taught me everything I needed to know about The Method and I remember desperately loving text analysis for the actor when I was in my undergrad. Writing character biographies felt like a collaboration with my deepest self and the playwright and that always excited me. When I was accepted into the Iowa Playwright’s Workshop, I was introduced to the exciting process of working alongside living writers of various backgrounds and I was even more charged by the process because I could work together with these writers using active empathy in action – a most satisfying step beyond the silent investigation of works codified by a published final draft and/or the long since deceased and absent writer whose voice had been interpreted many times.

While many theatres often select the “tried and true” classic and/or contemporary well-known play or musical because they are financially looking for a “safe bet”, I am dedicated to the pursuit of new voices, new stories, and new perspectives to support and fulfill into new works because I feel that this is the only way to progress as a species.

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

Bentley: Since festivals of new works are often bravely put up by organizations that may or may not have funding to pay the actors, the first challenge is to casting good actors willing to work for free/practically nothing. Of course, I have been working on building a network of smart, collaborative actors who are willing to donate their time to the promotion of new work. I often look for new play development-specific entries on actors’ resumes when casting because this does help me with my decisions. (On that note, I always advocate for some kind of stipend for actors whenever possible because everyone’s work should receive some kind of gesture of thanks).

Janet Bentley. Don’t ‘Sharon Stone’ her at auditions.

Janet Bentley. Don’t ‘Sharon Stone’ her at auditions.

Rodriguez: I try to do auditions for most of the festivals I manage, but this inevitably leads to a few stand out actors who all of the directors want to cast. Because of time constraints, our actors can only commit to so many shows which means that directors often have to compromise on casting. This changes the chemistry between the actors and sometimes the ideal actor that a director fought for doesn’t give the same performance when cast opposite another actor. This is why I sometimes think it’s better to not do auditions for festivals. If all of the directors are comfortable casting on their own, as was the case with the Detroit Fringe festival this year, then I skip the audition process.

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?

Rodriguez: When I was primarily an actor, I was adamantly against pre-casting. I felt it was unfair to never be given a shot. I just wanted to be seen and have an unbiased opportunity to share my craft. Now that I work more as a playwright and director, I have changed my mind. To me the most important thing is that the best person is cast, whether I find them or they find me. I think it is important that people have the chance to be seen, but also, in order to best honor the playwright, I believe that seeking out talent in advance is sometimes necessary. I try not to precast but I do need to make sure I can cast properly. I usually hold an audition, but I also ask actors who I’m strongly considering for the parts to audition so that I have options if I don’t find the appropriate new talent at the audition. I hope that’s a fair compromise because I do see the validity in both sides of the argument.

Bentley: I think that having people in mind is a natural, inevitable part of the process, but officially pre-casting is a “safe-guard” that can seriously stifle my favorite part of directing: being surprised and inspired by actors. There have been two instances when pre-casting proved to be unwise: once I had someone in mind for the role of Baal, I precast him, and then he moved to Chicago before the show so I held auditions. I saw an actor that I never thought would work and he surprised me – the role brought something out of him that was dying to get out and I was relieved that the other actor had actually left town. The other time, an actress was precast in a short play by the artistic director and though she delivered a decent performance in the end, I was haunted by the audition of another actress who just nailed it. (Yes, they actually made me hold auditions for the role in order to “keep up appearances” – something I would implore other artistic directors never to enforce on their directors).

On the flip side of this: when playwrights write something for a specific actor, this is a different sort of animal. I have a number of actors whose unique qualities are so inspiring that I am entertaining a couple of playwrights with the idea of writing something for these actors (also, I sympathize greatly with the predicament of some actors who are often passed over because they are so unique and specific a type that there are either no roles for them or no directors creative enough to embrace an unconventional interpretation of the production).

Pre-casting. This is the girl.

Pre-casting. This is the girl.

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?

Rodriguez: I love working with actors who will try anything and make it work. The skeptical actors, the ones who say “I feel like my character wouldn’t do that” are the ones I tend not to work with again. That’s actually my least favorite phrase and usually a red flag for me in the rehearsal process. I think it’s great that they have a sense of their character, but when they negate choices too early it makes their characters one dimensional. In my opinion, whether it’s a new work or a published script, every character needs to do something unexpected or “out of character” at least once in the play. If an actor truly feels like my direction or my dialogue is detrimental to the performance, we can settle that after they give me a good, fully-committed stab at it.

Bentley: Things that get you cast: being prepared, making choices, being in the moment, punctuality, flexibility, helpfulness, openness, hunger for the process, and courtesy. Conversely, if the actor hasn’t worked on the material and at least googled for definitions and pronunciations, if s/he doesn’t take an adjustment, if s/he is late, or if any of these examples of disregard for the process, I am not interested in casting such an actor.

The minute you walk into the building, you’re “onstage”. If you come to a studio and there is a production SM/audition monitor receiving you and handing you paperwork, which is the beginning of your audition. If you are rude to her/him, the casting directors, etc, will know about it. If you are courteous, organized, and awesome, we will know. If you are to audition with a reader and the scene calls for touching, don’t just touch the reader. Smile, introduce yourself, and politely ask if it is okay to touch their hand or shoulder and accept their answer.

If you are performing a monologue, most audition books warn against using the casting directors and say to find an eye-line above their heads. However, if the text suggests a direct address to the audience, ask the casting directors what their preference is.
What you wear: Example: if you are auditioning for Doubt, don’t buy a nun or priest’s costume and wear it to the audition. Wear something that suggests the tone of the characters like black and white. If you do feel compelled to put on a veil, check what kind of nun you’re going out for before depicting the wrong order (Sisters of Charity wore bonnets and a certain kind of dress similar to their founder in the 19th century so do the research before making the assumption that Sister Aloysis looks like she’s about to sing “Climb Every Mountain”). If you’re going out for the perfect housewife, don’t dress like a 1970s punk. If you’re going out for a slick lawyer, don’t dress like a plumber. Why am I saying this? These things have happened! Neutral and professional is best: darker colors on the feet and pants or skirt / lighter on top. You don’t want the casting directors staring at your feet.

Oh and please do not Sharon Stone the readers and casting directors. Remember Basic Instinct? Don’t do it.

Head Shot: if you don’t look like your head shot, get new ones.
Resume: Please keep it on one page and make sure it is formatted in a professional way (Google templates for entertainment/actor resumes).

Remember Basic Instinct? Newman does.

Remember Basic Instinct? Newman does.

Monologue you’d be okay never hearing again.

Bentley: Bridal Registry from A…My Name Is Alice, The Tuna monologue from Laughing Wild, Anything from Steel Magnolias, Crimes of the Heart, and Star-Spangled Girl.

Rodriguez: Viola’s ring monologue. I hear it every time I direct a Shakespeare show. For contemporary monologues, there is one about a woman eating her ex-husband’s divorce papers and dipping them in Ketchup. It’s a great monologue, but I’ve heard it done by a phenomenal actress so now every time other people do it, I automatically remember how great the first actress was and I tune out as I reminisce.

Some higher power has made you Supreme Overlord of Theatre. Cast your favorite play with any cast you want.

Rodriguez: This is such a fun question! I really want to direct a new play called The Living Life of the Daughter Mira by Matthew Paul Olmos. My dream cast would be Tony Revolori as Lazaro, Aimee Carrero as Luna/Mira, Gina Rodriguez as Maya, Rosie Perez as Lupe, and Raul Esparza as Efren.

Bentley: A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee with John Noble (Fringe TV Show) as Tobias, Helen Mirren as Agnes, Kristine Sutherland as Edna, Anthony Stewart Head as Harry, and Parker Posey as Julia.

Kristine Sutherland and Anthony Stewart Head. Probably familiar if you watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Kristine Sutherland and Anthony Stewart Head. Probably familiar if you watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Emilio Rodriguez is a theatre artist nomad currently residing in Detroit. His most recent play “Swimming While Drowning” was part of the Activate Midwest Festival and the Latino Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Work. It also earned him a residency with UMS, Djerassi, and the Mitten Lab. As a producer, he has worked on the Detroit Fringe Festival, The Michigan Playwrights Festival at Theatre Nova and The Women’s Play Fest at Two Muses Theatre. Women’s Play Fest at Two Muses; Detroit Free Press on Detroit Fringe.

Janet Bentley is a freelance theatre director, actor, writer, dramaturg, literary manager, composer, sound designer, singer, amateur photographer, and company member for the New York-based Nylon Fusion Theatre Company. Janet holds an MFA in dramaturgy from the University of Iowa and a BA in theatre from the University of South Florida (Tampa). She currently lives in New York, NY. Now Playing: http://www.nylonfusion.org/#!comes-a-faery/c1q11 (Sound and original music)
Updates: https://janeturgy.wordpress.com/theatre/.

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.

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.

Theater Around The Bay: They say that “Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal” , but like…don’t actually Steal Stuff, that is Bad

Playwright Peter Hsieh weighs in on content theft and trying to be a good member of the creation community.

I like Jessie Eisenberg. I can’t explain why but I always have. There was an interview he did on a late night show, something like Letterman or maybe Leno, where he talks about his acting debut in a grade school production of Annie/Oliver Twist. He explains that they did half of Annie and half of Oliver Twist in order to avoid paying royalties and goes on about the line changes and random additional characters courtesy of the drama teacher so that all of the kids had parts. The interview was funny, they laughed about it, the audience laughed, I laughed.

I like Jessie Eisenberg.

I like Jessie Eisenberg.

I’m sure Jessie Eisenberg’s school didn’t make a killing off ticket sales, his drama teacher isn’t wasn’t lauded as some sort of visionary who changed the landscape of theatre, and the victims, the creators of Annie and Oliver Twist, will probably be okay. So is this right? No. As much as I’d love to see a Sunday in the park/Grease, this isn’t right and it should not be condoned (however small the damages).

Josh Ostrovsky: Instagram screenshot clown and content thief.

Josh Ostrovsky: Instagram screenshot clown and content thief.

Enter Josh Ostrovsky aka TheFatJewish of Instagram fame who has recently been put on blast for stealing other people’s jokes and passing it off as his own. When I first caught wind of this I didn’t really know who he was and like most people thought ‘what’s the big deal?’ The nature of social media in great part sharing and reposting things, most people do it. So what’s the big deal if somebody gets a few more likes and follows because they’re the Meryl Streep Swag Lord of finding funny stuff on the internet and reposting it? In the case of Ostrovsky ‘a few more likes and follows’ equates to 5.7 million Instagram followers, a book deal, a modeling contract, numerous brand sponsorships , recently a deal with Hollywood mega talent firm, Creative Artists Agency; all this from blatantly ripping off other people’s material and passing it off as his own. His Instagram account is composed almost exclusively of comedic text and memes that he copy, cropped, and pasted from other people’s accounts sans credit or compensation. He is valued at 6000 dollars a post while a majority of the people he steals from don’t get paid for their original material and aren’t represented by CAA.

Original Joke.

Original Joke.

I’m not going to go into detail about what a talentless, unoriginal, piece of filth Ostrovsky is or give examples of his theft because Gawker and Rolling Stone both have really well written articles that do, and you should check it out if you are curious, but what I will say is that there should definitely be repercussions to dissuade others from following suit. According to Splitsider, Comedy Central has canceled a Television deal with Ostrovsky and in my opinion others involved with him should do the same in order to send a message loud and clear that stealing other people’s work is wrong and should not be rewarded.

…and this

…and this

I recently talked with a fellow playwright who mentioned she will never submit her plays to any competition that requires blind submissions, which is the play with the author’s identifying information wiped, because she is afraid someone might steal her play. I’ve been pretty fortuitous as a playwright and sometimes director. I have never had (or at least found of about) my play stolen or performed without my consent and I’ve only had my one of my plays butchered and one production that blew up in my face over the 50+ that I’ve had the pleasure of being part of. Personally, I’m okay with submitting to festivals and competitions that require blind submissions. Most of the submissions I find on the internet through NYCPlaywrights blog and Play Submission Helper and I also make these submissions via the internet. I’ve heard stories from playwrights who have had their plays performed and even published without their consent and of instances where writers, directors, or actors have failed to get credited. It’s tough.

Social Media allows emerging artists a lot of great opportunities, opportunities to share and promote their works to new audiences, to connect and collaborate with other artists; but with great opportunity comes great (or rather vary levels of) peril. The internet is like the Wild West but with a lot more stupid people and pictures of pets and stuff. Even something as trivial as posting funny pictures and jokes has become a topic of controversy. That someone like Ostrovsky is able to parlay his ill-gotten social media fame into a lucrative comedy career while the people he ripped off receive no credit is something to worry about. Concluding my rant, what can we do to be socially responsible artists? I’m going to close with a few of the basics:

1) Be original. Produce awesome, challenging work that you can call your own.
2) Don’t steal other people’s work. Just don’t do it.
3) Don’t be a dick on the internet. It’s not cool.
4) Community. Be part of it. Create it. Having a positive community of artists is invaluable.
5) Give Credit when it’s due. Do it. Just do it.
6) If you run talent firm, don’t represent content thieves.
7) Support your fellow artists. When you see something awesome tell your friends, share via social media, the artist(s) will appreciate it.

Peter Hsieh is a playwright from San Jose, CA. Currently he is drinking coffee and editing a new feature length play.

Peter Hsieh is a playwright from San Jose, CA. Currently he is drinking coffee and editing a new feature length play.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Chestnut Tea with the Other Me

Marissa Skudlarek rebuts Peter Hsieh in a move we shall call, from this moment on, “The Double Skudlarek.”

The Palm Court of the Palace Hotel, downtown San Francisco. Marissa and Other Marissa sit at a table drinking tea. They are wearing beautiful floral-print sundresses and really fantastic hats.

MARISSA: So, Other Marissa. Thanks for joining me.

OTHER MARISSA: My pleasure!

MARISSA: It’s nice to be able to argue with myself out in the open.

OTHER MARISSA: Indeed, because as Tom Stoppard once said—

MARISSA & OTHER MARISSA (simultaneously): “I write plays because dialogue is the most respectable way of contradicting myself.”

MARISSA: Of course we would both know that quote.

OTHER MARISSA: Of course. After all, I’m you.

MARISSA: But, like, the other me.

OTHER MARISSA: Yeah. So, whatcha drinkin’?

MARISSA: Earl Grey – my usual. And yourself?

OTHER MARISSA: Chestnut tea!

MARISSA: Chestnut tea?

OTHER MARISSA: No really you have to try it, it’s amazing.

Marissa takes a sip of Other Marissa’s tea.

MARISSA: It’s good!

OTHER MARISSA: I know, right?

MARISSA: So this means that this is a scene with “two women having tea and talking.”

OTHER MARISSA: OH NO SOMEONE ALERT PETER HSIEH.

MARISSA: But that’s why I invited you here today, Other Marissa. If Peter can have drinks with his doppelganger, why can’t I?

OTHER MARISSA: Why not, indeed?

The_two_Marissas copy

MARISSA: I read Peter’s article on Monday and I thought he made some good points, but they got buried under a lot of, um, how to put this—

OTHER MARISSA: Macho posturing?

MARISSA: You don’t mince words, Other Marissa; I like that about you.

OTHER MARISSA: I do my best.

MARISSA: But, anyway, I liked what Peter had to say about producibility and how much we should – or shouldn’t – take it into account when writing.

OTHER MARISSA: Yeah, I feel like if you and I sat down with Peter and Other Peter, we’d all pretty much agree about that. It’s deadly to theater, as an art form, if every newbie playwright feels like the only thing she can write is short plays with small cast sizes and simple sets. Where’s the fun in that?

MARISSA: Although I’d probably interject that some constraints and limits can actually spur creativity. A blank page can be daunting, and you don’t always have to color outside the lines to make great art.

OTHER MARISSA: Also, Marissa, I’ve noticed that you strive for balance in your craftsmanship – a play of yours might contain one “unproducible” element, but not four or five.

MARISSA: You know me so well. Yes, I did that on purpose in my play Pleiades. I realized that it required a large cast, nine actors – and I wasn’t going to compromise on that. But I could make sure that the technical aspects of it were as simple as possible. There are only two sets, the costumes and lights don’t need to be complicated, there aren’t any crazy special effects… and I still told the story I wanted to tell.

OTHER MARISSA: That’s the play you’re producing this summer, right?

MARISSA: You are such a shill. But yes, I’m producing it this summer. It doesn’t have two women drinking tea, it has eight women drinking tea! And it’s fucking awesome.

OTHER MARISSA: And then a tennis ball bounces onstage and smashes into the tea service.

MARISSA: Yeah – I still don’t know how we’re going to stage that, night after night.

OTHER MARISSA: But didn’t you say that you “kept the technical aspects as simple as possible”…?

MARISSA: Anyway, the reason I keep harping on the “women drinking tea” phrase from Peter’s article is that, when I read it, it felt like a subtly gendered insult. Why women drinking tea? Why couldn’t he have said “people drinking tea”?

OTHER MARISSA: Or “bros drinking brews”! Those kinds of plays can be just as boring.

MARISSA: Right! But they never come in for the same criticism. Guys with beers are “cool”; women with tea are “boring.”

OTHER MARISSA: And that wasn’t the only weird gender issue at play in Peter’s article. For instance, he tried to start a dick-measuring contest with himself—

MARISSA: Which is not something I would ever do with you, Other Marissa—

OTHER MARISSA: —and not just because we don’t have dicks—

MARISSA: Or, how he has the “hot twins” walk into the cafe at the end of the scene – that is such a male fantasy…

OTHER MARISSA: Oh come on, everyone likes hot twins!

MARISSA: Do they?

OTHER MARISSA: Admit it, you wouldn’t mind if the Winklevoss twins walked in here right now.

MARISSA: Yes I would. The Winklevosses are doofuses.

OTHER MARISSA: Don’t you mean “the Winklevii are doofii”?

MARISSA: And then I worry that complaining about Peter’s article makes me seem like a humorless feminist scold.

OTHER MARISSA: I think that we are being rather humorous scolds.

MARISSA: I worry sometimes that I’m uptight and no fun. I worry that Other Peter’s drink of choice, the “Pink Panty Dropper,” is a date-rape reference, and then I worry that I’m being silly and overanalyzing things. I worry that my drinking Earl Grey tea is racist, colonialist, patriarchal, classist, and Anglophilic; and that I ought to be drinking fair-trade shade-grown coffee. I worry that the setting I’ve chosen for this imaginary conversation, the Palace Hotel, marks me as an inveterate elitist. I worry that at this very moment, buildings are burning and people are dying in the streets of Kiev and Caracas, while you and I drink tea and chat about art. I worry—

OTHER MARISSA: Marissa. Marissa. Calm down.

MARISSA: I’m sorry.

OTHER MARISSA: It’s OK.

MARISSA: I can get into these moods of spiraling anxiety—

OTHER MARISSA: I know. I know.

Pause. Marissa takes some deep breaths. Sips her tea.

MARISSA: If I prefer to write from a female perspective, or discuss women’s lives, or whatever—

OTHER MARISSA: —and maybe you do, and that’s fine—

MARISSA: –then why am I annoyed when Peter prefers to write from a masculine perspective? I mean, he’s entitled to write what he wants to write. He said it himself, and I agree.

OTHER MARISSA: Because there has never been an era in Western history that privileged female perspectives over male ones? Because you’re worried that other people, dudes particularly, will find Peter’s style more attractive than yours? Because you know how important it is, in this culture, to be perceived as cool, and you feel like you’ve never been cool?

MARISSA: Yeah, I feel like, if you’re a dude who says that plays about female things turn you off, people say “Oh, that’s fine, that’s understandable,” but if you’re a woman who admits that plays about dudely things turn you off, people are like “You should try to be more open-minded, flamethrowers are awesome!”

OTHER MARISSA: Aren’t they kind of awesome?

MARISSA: See? Proves my point.

OTHER MARISSA: Marissa, I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone. I’m going to tell you the real reason I drink chestnut tea.

MARISSA: OK. Why are you drinking chestnut tea?

OTHER MARISSA: Because great writing requires you to write both from your chest and from your nuts. OK, so the stereotype is that female writers are tender-hearted, compassionate, their pillowy breasts overflowing with the milk of human kindness. And male writers are bold, ballsy, Bukowskian bad boys. But truly great writing will combine those two modes. It will be compassionate but not cloying; courageous but not callous. It will speak truth to power, but it will do so from a place of empathy.

MARISSA: That was… really beautiful, Other Marissa. But I think you forgot something. A good writer doesn’t just need a big chest and big nuts. She also needs a gimlet eye.

OTHER MARISSA: I think I know what that means.

MARISSA: You’re damn right you do.

Marissa and Other Marissa get up and walk from the Palm Court to the Pied Piper Bar. Marissa catches the bartender’s eye.

MARISSA: A gin gimlet, please.

OTHER MARISSA: Make that two.

End of play.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. There aren’t actually two of her, but if there were, she could get a lot more stuff done. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Theater Around The Bay: Mischief. Mayhem. Playwriting.

Peter Hsieh brings us this theater/alcoholism as blog entry as part of our ongoing series of guest bloggers. Enjoy!

It’s a warm, windy Saturday night. Downtown Campbell. Girls in black dresses with guys in candy colored button ups, walking around in groups of four and five. Playwright Peter Hsieh sits down with Other Peter Hsieh to talk playwriting and writing producible plays over a few rounds of drinks.

There are two of me. I am not Special. I am not a beautiful and unique snowflake.

There are two of me. I am not Special. I am not a beautiful and unique snowflake.

Round One: Peter – Long Island Iced Tea. Other Peter – Jack and Coke.

Other Peter: How’ve you been?

Peter: Great.

OP: Keepin’ busy then? Got any plays opening?

P: Yeah I got a few, one in Ohio and two in New York.

OP: No Bay Area productions?

P: No.

OP: That’s because everyone hates you here.

P: What?

OP: You’re on the ‘do not work with list’.

P: Says who?

OP: Everybody.

Peter laughs and rolls his eyes.

P: Whatever. Aren’t you supposed to talk to me about probability or something?

OP: Producibility.

P: Producibility? Is that even a word.

OP: I think so, and if it isn’t it should be…what?

P: Nothing. Just go on with the thing.

OP: Alright but first I gotta tell you this funny story.

Round Two: Peter – Long Island Iced Tea. Other Peter – Margarita

OP: Bro, another Long Island?

P: I need to wash the taste of that story out of my mouth.

OP: C’mon, it was funny.

P: Not really.

OP: To each his own. Anyway, I want to talk to you about writing “producible” plays. For emerging playwrights there is sort of a, uh…pressure I guess to have your plays produced, and to have more plays produced.

P: Yeah, of course, and I’d say that pressure exists for all playwrights though it’s probably easier for David Mamet to be produced than…

OP: Everyone else.

P: Basically.

OP: So for all the emerging and indie playwrights out there with less swag than Mamet, I’d imagine that production opportunities are harder to come by and in order to get their plays produced they write more producible plays.

P: One of the things I’ve noticed when looking through play submission opportunities is that a lot of them are looking for world premiere plays with small casts, simple staging, easy technical demands, unit sets, etc.

OP: For sure.

P: Length is a big one too. There are a lot more opportunities for shorter plays to be produced, for obvious reasons, so that’s definitely a factor in uh, in determining what kinds of plays people write. And I understand that it’s a time and money issue for most theaters and that for a theater, especially a smaller theater, to be producing new works is definitely a risk. The fact that there are so many theaters out there putting out calls for new works is something to be really happy about.

OP: I’ll drink to that.

P: Cheers.

They clink drinks and drink to that.

P: I guess the problem comes from the idea that if your plays are getting produced, you’re a good writer and that the more productions you have the more successful you are, so in order to get more productions they write those plays with the small casts, simple sets, and what not.

OP: So basically a fuck load of plays featuring two women having tea and talking.

P: I guess.

OP: Good grief.

Round Three: Peter – Vodka Redbull. Other Peter – Pink Panty Dropper

Peter smiles at Other Peter and shakes his head.

OP: What?

P: You know, instead of ordering a pink lemonade with double shots of Everclear and Tequila with a Corona on the side you could’ve just had them bring you a pink panty dropper, because that is exactly the same thing.

OP: I know, I just…

P: Couldn’t bring yourself to order that.

OP: So what are your thoughts on playwrights writing more “producible” plays in order to get more productions?

P: Personally I’m kinda against it. I mean, I would never hold it against anyone for doing so and I’ve done it too but it feels a little bit like selling out. People should write what they want to write and encourage others to do the same. They shouldn’t worry about whether or not it’s going to get produced a bunch. You are not your plays. You are not the number of times you get produced. You are not the length of your resume. And you are not the reviews you get for your plays. You wanna write a play about time traveling dinosaur hunters, go for it. You wanna write a play featuring trendy vampires and a toy bunny rabbit come to life, go wild because there is somebody, some director or theatre company that will love it and produce it and they are gonna do it right. You might not get a whole lotta productions, you might just get the one, and it might take years but that’s all you need.

OP: I like how you referenced one of your own plays. That’s very Tarantino of you.

P: What is?

OP: To reference yourself. Anyway back to- Peter interrupts Other Peter

P: Hang on. I gotta use the restroom. I’ll be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

Peter smiles and finishes the rest of his beer before getting up and walking over to the restroom. He returns a few minutes later with a toothpick in his mouth.

OP: Where did you get the toothpick?

P: I carry them, around. They are green tea flavored. But after ten seconds they just taste like regular toothpicks. So what were you going to ask me?

OP: So you are part of two different playwriting groups, Asian American Theater Company’s New Works Incubator and City Light Source New Play Development Series, and within those groups playwrights give feedback on each other’s plays.

P: Yeah.

OP: Based on your experiences within those groups and outside, do you think that playwrights are being told to write more producible plays and do you think that is a prevalent problem?

P: No I don’t think it’s a prevalent problem, but here and there people will give feedback in regards to producibility rather than content or quality of writing. I personally find the latter more helpful but I understand that producibility is very important to a lot of playwrights and that they would like to know if people did not think that their play was producible and what they can do to change that.

OP: Right, who wants to spend time writing a play that never sees the light of stage?

P: Exactly. Feedback is there to help you and you take what you can from it.

Round Four: Peter – Gin & Tonic. Other Peter – Diet Coke.

P: Throwing in the towel already?

OP: Taking a break. The Pink Panty Dropper is really hittin’ me.

P: So I had my full length play Super Turbo Overdrive read at Incubator back in October and it’s got flamethrowers, gatling guns, fast cars, and stuff. And the story itself is pretty out there too, it’s a coming of age dark comedy about two high school friends and the trouble that ensues when one tries to take the other’s mom out on a date because of a video game based wager.

OP: Really?

P: Yeah.

OP: And does he?

P: Take her out on a date? Yeah, and part of the play is set in the future and it follows a bounty hunter driving around through the desert.

OP: You just don’t give a fuck about producibility do you?

P: I guess not. I mean I do but I really love flamethrowers and fast cars, and I feel that theatre can benefit from having more of that.

OP: What you just described to me sounds more like it’d work better as a film.

P: If I got a nickel every time I heard someone say one of my plays would work better as a film I’d have a stack of nickels tall as my dick.

OP: So how many nickels is that?

P: A lot.

OP: Let me rephrase that. How tall is your dick?

Round Five: Peter – Blue Moon. Other Peter – Shock Top.

P: The message I’m trying to get across is to write what is in your heart and don’t be afraid to go against convention. Try to have fun with it, otherwise what’s the point. Especially if you’re an emerging playwright. And all that stuff I said earlier about the flamethrowers and stuff, that’s just me – that’s just what I am into, find what inspires you to write and go for it. At the end of the day it’s good writing that counts. Does your story move people? Does it feature complex and well developed characters? Is it interesting? Does it have good dialogue? No amount of explosions, werewolves, and high tech weaponry will save a bad story. I would take ‘Before Sunrise’ any day over The Avengers or any of the fuckin’ Marvel movies.

OP: Scarlett Johansson though.

P: Good dialogue and dynamic characters though.

OP: And that’s why you don’t have a girlfriend.

P: Currently. But when I find one she will be smart and beautiful and fun and we’d stay up late drinking wine, talking about movies, planning weekend trips, while listening to Francoise Hardy on repeat.

OP: That’s weirdly specific.

P: I have insomnia so I find the time to be weirdly specific.

OP: Insomnia actually explains a lot about you…who are you texting?

P: This girl I know.

OP: Yeah?

P: I’m trying to see if she wants to come have a drink or something.

OP: What did she say?

P: Nothing yet, I just texted her.

OP: Does she also like ‘Before Sunrise’?

P: Yeah, actually she does.

OP: I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.

Round Six: Peter: Trenta Iced Green tea with 2 pumps classic. Other Peter – Venti Coffee.

Peter and Other Peter decide to go to a Starbucks, because the caffeine in Peter’s system is running low.

P: I’d like to give a shout out to some really great work I saw recently that I feel exemplifies what I’ve been talking about.

OP: Cool. P: My favorite show that I saw during the 2012-2013 season was Spacebar: A Broadway Play by Kyle Sugarman by Michael Mitnick at City Lights Theater Company. Lisa Mallette directed it, it was a world premiere and it’s got jet packs, futuristic stuff, outer space, drunk Keith Marshall in outer space, Morgan Voellger on rollerblades, and at the center of it all, it was a very beautiful written play about a teenager with big dreams trying to reconcile and make peace with the things in the life that aren’t going so well. And like…it was so good. Just fucking excellent like…I dunno.

OP: I know. I saw it. It was excellent.

P: Right? Another awesome play was Stuart Bousel’s play for this past year’s Olympians festival See Also All, which covered like the entire Trojan War like some sort of magnum opus compendium, it’s got a big cast and more characters than the fuckin’ Simpsons and it’s violent and sexy and funny and like there was this game show section too. And it’s not grandeur for grandeur’s sake either, it made sense and it was good story telling. I brought my buddy Pastor Fred Gilham to the show and we were talking about it on the way back, and about how refreshing it was you know? Most of the time when you see a bigger show it’s usually like a kid’s play or musical so it’s good to have something like this. Something with teeth. And balls.

OP: There were balls? At a staged reading?

P: I’m talking figuratively. And on the topic of big casts I gotta give one last shout of to my friend Steve Boyle and the work he’s done with San Jose Rep’s Emerging Artist Lab. He’s worked with big casts, brought out dry ice and buckets of water, had live musicians and stuff. One of my favorite shows he put on was a modern retelling of Macbeth set amidst the Arab Spring conflicts and he beautifully blends the two to create something fresh, new, and edgy. The adaptation he did was definitely not playing it safe and being the director, he brought out the big guns and killed it – which just goes to show, that if you write it, there will be someone out there to direct it.

OP: Dude, hot twins just walked in.

Peter turns to see that indeed hot twins have walk in.

P: Nice.

OP: Do you think we should see if they wanna sit with us?

P: Sure, if you want to.

OP: Did that girl text back?

P: Yeah, she’s busy.

OP: For sure. So anything you’d like to say in closing?

P: Yeah. I’d like to share a quote from one of my favorite authors of all time, Mr. Chuck Palahniuk. He said “The first step – especially for young people with energy and drive and talent, but not money – the first step to controlling your world is to control your culture. To model and demonstrate the kind of world you demand to live in. To write the books. Make the music. Shoot the films. Paint the art.”, and this is something I believe in strongly and with every beat of my heart.

OP: That was the smartest thing you said all night.

P: What about all that stuff on producibility?

OP: Anyway, the twins are looking this way, I’m gonna go ask them to come over. They can be our Marla Singers.

P: Why, cause you’re my Tyler Durden?

OP: That’s funny because I always thought you were my Tyler Durden.

P: Conceited much?

OP: Oh, the irony of that statement.

P: Just go.

OP: Let’s get together yeah yeah yeah…

Other Peter gets up and walks over to the twins while Peter smiles and shakes his head.

Peter Hsieh is a playwright from San Jose, California. Like him on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/peterhsiehplaywright. Other Peter Hsieh is a soap salesman.

The Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards for 2013

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2013 list. 

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

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

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

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

And now, presenting the Fourth Annual Stuey Awards…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opening Tonight!

Pint Sized Plays returns for a fourth fabulous engagement this July!

Produced by the one and only Neil Higgins, this year’s line up of beer-themed short plays features the return of some of our favorite long-time collaborators (some of whom will be wearing new hats for the first time) as well as some fresh faces! In no particular order, the plays are:

Multitasking by Christian Simonsen, directed by Jonathan Carpenter

The Apotheosis of Grandma Shimkin by Sang Kim, directed by Charles Lewis III

200-Proof Robot by Kirk Shimano, directed by Neil Higgins

Tree by Peter Hsieh, directed by Colin Johnson

All Our Fathers by Carl Lucania, directed by Meghan O’Connor

The Last Beer in the World by Megan Cohen, directed by Tracy Held Potter

Mark +/- by Dan Ng, directed by Adam Sussman

Llama IV by Stuart Bousel, directed by Colin Johnson

Starring the acting talents of Annika Bergman, Jessica Chisum, Andrew Chung, AJ Davenport, Eli Diamond, Caitlin Evenson, Lara Gold, Matt Gunnison, Charles Lewis III, Melissa Keith, Brian Quakenbush, Rob Ready, Casey Robbins, Paul Rodrigues, and Jessica Rudholm.

The show plays five times: July 15th, 16th, 22nd, 29th, 30th, always at 8 PM, but get there early, because we will be packed to the gills every night! As usual, the show is free with a $5.00 suggested donation at the door.