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

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

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

MC: Every mad scientist needs a lab.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: What’s next for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Lewis III’s Top 5 Invaluable Lessons I Learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working Title: The Forging Power of Witch Trial

This week Will looks back and marvels at the The Crucible.

A curious thing happens when you see a new production of a show you once worked on. An uncanny fusing of auditory time travel and welcome familiarity stacks upon the material. In the most recent case, I took in The Custom Made Theatre’s production of The Crucible directed by Stuart Bousel. This Arthur Miller masterpiece happens to be the first play in which I had the pleasure to act. I played the small part of Frances Nurse. I had 18 lines. I know because I counted them. Boy, was I proud of those 18 lines. I was also proud to have found a home amongst the odd, hodge-podge, theatre kids in my high school. Anyone within the theatre community can tell you their origin play and when they felt the bite of the theatre bug. What is nice, all these years later, is when I see a production that reminds me what good theatre feels like and possibly why I got into this creative madhouse in the first place.

The San Francisco theatre scene is very proud of it’s new works. More new plays are premiered here than anywhere else in the country, or so I’ve heard. So why do The Crucible? Why now? We have a 1996 film version with Daniel Day-Lewis and Joan Allen. It’s hard to get better leads than those two. Often when discussing film and theatre, I can favor the best of the film offerings when placed against the average production here in the bay area. That may be an unfair fight, but we all have our biases. But this case is different. Why do The Crucible? Why now? Well, it’s never a bad time to put up a great play with outstanding actors and a clear vision of direction. More directly, there is a potency built within this play that unfolds more powerfully when performed in a close space. The 3/4 thrust staging of this current production refuses to allow the audience an emotional escape. We are locked in the closed courtrooms and cloying country houses as the world falls around these characters. In the best theatrical experiences, you, as an onlooking audience member, become a part of something. You are not separate. You are more than a mere watcher. You are entwined. Your experience wraps in the actions of the actors on stage and the fellow audience around. All become one, living the drama before us.

The cast is large and I’ll admit, in the past, I might have thought it possibly too large for the performance space. But this is not the case. Due to the precise direction, I never felt that the cast was overwhelming the space or the audience. It just fits. In the film, the realism afforded in the setting also allows the dark clothes and the dark hair and the plentiful drab town-people to blend together. It’s easy to mix up one Goody from another Goody or one old grey haired judge from another grey haired judge. There are many admirable things about Nicholas Hytner’s film but the realistic breadth of the town may be a detriment that distracts from the emotional core of the story. The play does not suffer from this problem.

One would think that the long scenes written into the structure of the play could create a pacing issue. With a less apt cast this might be true but the play clips by with speed and intensity. Film, in general, has the ability the solve pacing issues through editing tools or the ability to cut to new locations and new scenes without pause. However, this trick also can carry along an audience whether they are invested or not. In this case, The Crucible film races over increased stakes and plot developments as Abigail cries witch, more towns folk are hanged and our dear Goody Proctor is accused. The way Arthur Miller writes the lengthy scenes of his play, the revelations have time to breathe and then impact the audience fully. The film covers all the same notes yet undercuts the emotional impact with truncated script choices. Arthur Miller, who wrote both the original and the adapted 1996 screenplay, would probably dislike my saying so of his screenplay. But the play simply works in a way the film does not.

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The film gives a fuller sense of the rampant chaos when Salem is turning with the witching upheaval yet it is from a more distant point of view. When John Proctor gets the news of towns disruptions from Mary Warren, it’s more personal news. As if a friend is dolling out town gossip to the audience personally. We overhear this news as if it were local gossip. The intimate space rounds out much atmospheric emotion.

The production aspects that excel throughout are the costumes, acting and sound design. While the film matches the quality acting and costumes, the sound doesn’t achieve the disconcerting heights of the production’s original music and sound design by Liz Ryder. The soundscape is both haunting and moving. It folds the audience in the maddening world of Miller’s Salem, echoing the longing desire and futile separation inherent in every character.

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The silver screen can offer a personal journey that rings a unique bell in our being. I love the art of film and will always return there. But there is something individual about those journeys. Less communal. It’s personal. Great theatre is both personal and communal. Instead of “I see”, it’s “we experience”. We must not underestimate the power of sitting in a small space together screaming at witchcraft birds and the tragedy of prideful poppet pins. This production is a reminder of that power.

The Crucible runs the next few weeks at Custom Made Theatre Co. You can get more info and tickets at http://www.custommade.org.

Photo Credits:

Yamada, Jay. Proctor’s Final Embrace. 2014. Photograph. Www.custommade.org, San Francisco. Web. 27 May 2014.

Everything Is Already Something Week 9: The Post-Production Blues

Allison Page is so sincere we forgive her for all the formatting this blog required. 

I’m sitting backstage with my castmate, Will, during the second act of our last performance of PRELUDE TO A KISS and he whispers to me, “So are you sad that it’s over?” – and I find that hard to answer. I’d say the answer is yes, but it’s really a mixed bag of feelings. I mean, isn’t it always? Particularly if it’s been a great show, or a great cast, or a great director or a great part or a great overall experience or God forbid – ALL OF THOSE THINGS. (Which this has been, for me.) And it got me to thinking – how do I really feel when something is over? And how do other people feel? Are my feelings unique or shared? Am I doing this wrong? So, I decided to ask a bunch of actors how they feel when that final curtain closes (not that there are always curtains. Come on, this is independent theater, sometimes it’s just in a room – but I digress.) Their amazing responses will be sprinkled throughout.

When a show closes, I feel a slump. I always have. Like someone’s carefully lowering an Acme anvil down on top of me, and I’m moving in slow motion to get out of the way. Okay, maybe that’s dramatic, but I am a fucking actor after all. Do you have a post-production slump?

PETER TOWNLEY – “I like post-production slumps, they encourage me to rest.”

Well, that was a really good way to look at that. That’s probably what I should be doing. Maybe I dwell for no reason.

JAN CARTY MARSH – “Nope, life goes on, and I have one (outside of theatre).”

Ohhh, yeah. Life…am I the only one who really slumps?

DAVE SIKULA – “…after doing this for 40 years, it doesn’t get old or routine, but it’s nothing unusual.”

Hm. Okay. It’s possible that I just need a drink or something. I’m probably over-thinking this.

PAUL JENNINGS – “I don’t slump.”

OKAY, I GET IT, I’M A SENTAMENTALIST WEIRDO. Well, I guess I’ll just pack up my stuff and —

This is what happens when you google "sad actor". Legit.

This is what happens when you google “sad actor”. Legit.

ASHLEY COWAN – “Yes, I certainly do feel a slump. I can’t imagine avoiding feeling a void when something you’ve put a lot of love and time into suddenly disappears.”

…oh yeah? Okay, well, maybe –

TONYA NARVAEZ – “Typically I do have a post-production slump of some sort. Sometimes it’s pretty horrible, where I am perfectly content to sit around at home and stare at the ceiling.”

(Setting suitcase down)…I’m listening…

STEPHANIE WOZNIAK – “Every now and then there’s a show that really makes me sad when it ends. Steel Magnolias was hard. I still miss that production and we closed 6 years ago.”

I hear ya. (Allison reminisces in her brain about a production of a radio play she did in college…)

SAM BERTKEN – “If the show and cast were 100% awesome the whole way through, closing is usually rather bittersweet. There’s usually the promise of seeing and working with people again, which is somewhat of a relief. Plus, I usually focus more on the next project to distract myself from my feelings! Hooray!”

Okay – stop. We just hit on two big things there. Two things that run through almost everyone’s responses to my questions at some point: bittersweetness and something else, too…

PETER TOWNLEY – “I really need to throw myself into another creative project.”

XANADU BRUGGERS – “I always kept doing show after show so I wouldn’t have to worry about having that feeling.”

DAVE SIKULA –  “I’m getting ready for the next thing.”

ALISHA EHRLICH – “I have…been able to stave off slump-y feelings longer by going from one production to the next, if possible, and continuously working on new shows/projects.”

STEPHANIE WOZNIAK – “Get yourself into a new gig ASAP so you don’t dwell.”

AH-HA! That’s the ticket. Never stop moving, like a fucking shark. Even before PRELUDE closed last Sunday, apart from having a billion things already lined up, I threw myself into a completely crazy and overly ambitious writing project (more on that another time.) because that’s what keeps me sane. No. Actually, I think a sane person might be okay with having down time. Like, actual down time. Oh man. My poor boyfriend. He never, ever sees me – and he LIVES with me. I’ve already started rehearsals for another show, performed in something last night, get up at 7am to work on that aforementioned nutty writing project every morning before I go to my intense writing job all day and – it’s only Wednesday. It’s been three days since closing and I’ve already done those things and there are just going to be more of them. Why can’t I slow down? Aren’t there roses to smell somewhere?…Where are they? And what’s so great about them? And are they better than the roses you might get from someone who comes to the show?

JAN CARTY MARSH – “When I started acting, I had two kids – 5 and 3 years old, it just meant I had more time with them. Now, it means my dishes get washed, I can ride my bike, and my friends have a chance to remember who I am.”

The second I finished typing that just now, I looked around my apartment…it’s a nightmare. Piles of clothing, empty boxes from deliveries that I haven’t bothered to take out to the recycling bin, empty bottles of Tazo iced tea, dirty dishes – but what’s so great about the dirty dishes, is that in every single case, they were only used to set take-out on top of. I haven’t cooked anything in months. And my friends? I mean…I don’t know. I see them…I think. Do I? I mean…I’ll go to a bar with them after a rehearsal or a performance, but it’s not like I’m going to the park or actually anywhere that I don’t HAVE to be while the sun is up. I’m usually free at about 11pm. If I were free evenings earlier than that, I’d just go do stand up somewhere. None of this is as sad as it sounds, it’s just – I don’t know – my reality.

Shit. I’m a workaholic. Shit.

This is going in a direction I did not predict. Let’s just go back to what other people think for a minute, because I’m not sure what just happened.

I asked them how they dealt with their slumps, if they have them. Here are some answers that are NOT “I do another show!”, just so we know that’s a possibility.

TONYA NARVAEZ – “Starting West Wing is how I got over MERCHANT OF VENICE last year.”

MOLLY BENSON – “Wine, and music jam sessions tend to do the trick. Or watching Game of Thrones or Mad Men, or something to that effect for hours on end.”

Good one. I LOVE drinking and TV! It’s like she knew!

ASHLEY COWAN – “…make plans with castmates immediately so we can try to keep the bond alive.”

PAUL JENNINGS – “…at least in one case, kept myself thoroughly stoned and distracted for like a month.”

SAM BERTKEN – “Chocolate?”

Right?

XANADU BRUGGERS – “I find other artistic endeavors that I have always wanted to explore. Art, music, writing etc…even sports or dance helps me.”

Sports are not my jam, but there’s that damned writing project popping up again…

LORMAREV JONES – “I try to read things I wasn’t able to, catch up on shows I watch, see friends I had to blow off due to the show – go back to ‘business as usual’ in a sense.”

Business as usual…business as usual…what does that mean to me? What is my business as usual? That’s a hell of a question. If I’m being honest, the answer is probably “sandwiches”.

STEPHANIE WOZNIAK – “…one must first obsess about the show for about a week. Look through photos, stalk the FB accounts of castmates, burst into songs or monologues several times a day. Then, cut yourself off.”

I miss my sweet 90s costumes. Did you see that black beaded choker? It was fabulous. I miss the people, they were wonderful. And I miss something weird and stupid that it’s a little hard for me to admit. Or a lot hard, I guess. I miss having pretend parents. My real parents are in Minnesota, where I’m from. I’ve been in San Francisco 5 years and they’ve never come to visit me, and I really don’t think they ever will. My mother hates to travel, and my father will not go anywhere without my mother. They are this wonderful pair of extremely linked people and they’re always together. I see them twice a year (unless it’s only once, at Christmas.) and having two people stand in as my parents was so oddly comforting. Especially because they shared so many characteristics with my real parents: my father is a war veteran who is charismatic, funny, charming, tough and believes in having a cold beer at the end of the day. My mother is SUCH a mother. She’s sweet, nurturing, concerned, wants what’s best for me, and has a tendency to meddle at times. 

If you didn’t see PRELUDE, Rita and Peter get married onstage. Dave Sikula, who played my father, walked me down the aisle. I handed my pretend mother – played by Jan Carty Marsh – my bouquet, then Dave smiled, kissed me on the cheek, and I walked away to greet my groom. It was a lovely thing I’ve never gotten to do in real life. I’ve been engaged twice but never married and…well, who knows. The point is, it was a lovely moment. And even Dave admitted that though he doesn’t have kids, and doesn’t want them, he really enjoyed being parental in that moment.

Okay, calm down, let’s get away from all this sentimental bullshit. I was just sort of curious – do you read reviews of your show? Do you wait ‘til it’s over?

SAM BERTKEN – “I really, really, really, really think it’s a good idea not to read reviews until the show is over…I always end up hearing it from someone, and then the whole intention of not reading the review is moot so I let morbid curiosity take over.”

MOLLY BENSON – “I used to read them during the show, but I’ve stopped that. I feel like whether a review is good or bad, it can alter how you feel about your performance and self worth, in a positive or a negative way, and take the focus away from the performance itself.”

XANADU BRUGGERS – “I try not to read reviews during a show. I think it is bad luck. Also, they can totally get in my head.”

Yeah, but…sometimes you sneak a little peek, right? In your darker moments?

LORMAREV JONES – “I always read reviews. I want to be the person that doesn’t need them, but I’m not that mature yet. Someday, perhaps.”

ALISHA EHRLICH – “I read reviews during the production with one eye closed or hiding behind my fingers.”

Testify!

STEPHANIE WOZNIAK – “I read reviews. All of them. I actively seek them out. I like to know where I stand. And if they are icky, it kind of fuels me and I work harder.”

DAVE SIKULA – “I always read reviews and long ago learned to not take them either seriously or personally.”

KAI MORRISON – “I almost always read reviews during the run, if any exist. It’s about ego-stroking.”

PETER TOWNLEY – “I think reviews are basically useless and approximately zero people should read them.”

But what if they say something really nice about my hair?

PETER TOWNLEY – “If I want to hear another person’s opinion about a show, I will start a conversation with someone who is good at discussion and whose opinion I respect.”

Oh, fine.

Listen, I know this has been a long column for me, but that’s because I find it to be an interesting discussion. Thanks for taking the ride with me. Everyone has their own opinion on these particular matters, but when it comes down to it, I mostly agree with what Will said to me on that backstage couch Sunday night, 30 minutes before our beautiful little show took its final bow, so I’ll leave you with his words:

WILL LESCHBER – “It’s like immediate nostalgia. It’s not like one of those things where you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone – it’s like you know exactly what you’ve got as it’s going.”

You can follow Allison on Twitter @allisonlynnpage or accost her on the street on the way to whatever it is she’s on the way to all the time.

The Pub From Another World Arrives Tonight!

Tonight, for one night only, Cafe Royale transforms into THE PUB FROM ANOTHER WORLD, an inter-dimensional crossroads where theater is not bound by the constraints of reality! It’s a world where time travel is possible, where unicorns exist! From the minds of eight Bay Area playwrights—including a four-year-old girl featured on Boing Boing (http://boingboing.net/2013/03/02/horrorsf-play-by-a-four-year.html)—come imaginative tales of everything from superheroes to surrogates, monsters to mad scientists, and other flights of fancy. This night of staged readings will be talked about for all eternity by those afflicted with immortality, so don’t miss it!

This strange brew of stories was concocted by Timothy Kay, Audrey Kessinger, Sang Kim, Allison Page, Sunil Patel, Bridgette Dutta Portman, Kirk Shimano, and Marissa Skudlarek. The intrepid troupe of actors includes Giovanna Arietta, Sam Bertken, Andrew Chung, AJ Davenport, Colleen Egan, Caitlin Evenson, Paul Jennings, Timothy Kay, Dan Kurtz, Meg O’Connor, Sunil Patel, Peter Townley, and Olivia Youngers.

The wormhole will be open for one night only: Monday, May 20, at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale. Admission is free and no reservations are required for this journey, but we recommend you come early for the best seats. Hyde Away Blues BBQ will provide food for all human guests.

The Producer From Another World

In preparation for this month’s Theater Pub, The Pub From Another World, we interviewed producer Sunil Patel about his vision and process for this show.

Take Me To Your Leader

Take Me To Your Leader

Who are you, in a hundred words or less.

I am a voracious consumer of stories in any medium—television, film, video game, book, comic, music, anecdote—who loves words more than anything. I love to create new stories, but I also love introducing people to stories I love. I’m a pop culture fan, a geek, a nerd, and when I love something, my first instinct is to share it. As of this night, I am a writer/actor/director/producer. By day, I work in drug safety and write about people with explosive diarrhea.

How did you get involved in Theater Pub?

I made my Bay Area theater debut with the Thunderbirds in 2010, and it was my first time onstage in seven years, so I was excited to get back into theater. And lo and behold, Theater Pub was holding auditions for The Theban Chronicles, and they didn’t even need monologues! I had gone to the February Theater Pub (the Valentine’s Day show), and it looked like a fun group to work with. I was in three of the four plays, and I got a death scene, and I’ve become more and more involved since then.

So, where did this idea come from?

At the Theater Pub retreat, we were asked to come up with pitches for the next year of Theater Pub. I was excited to be a producer, as I had previously only produced halftime shows, but I didn’t know what to suggest. I didn’t know any obscure plays I wanted to put on. I’ve had an idea for a murder-mystery Theater Pub for a couple years, but I hadn’t gotten it off the ground and I wasn’t going to pitch it if I didn’t think I could write it in time. We had talked a lot about inclusivity, though, and it suddenly hit me: I could create a space for new work. I’m a genre fan and a theater fan, but I don’t see a lot of genre theater, so why not give genre writers an opportunity to write for theater and playwrights an opportunity to write genre? I had the sense that the plays I wanted to see—whether or not they were being written—were not being produced because people look down on genre, so I was going to stand up say, “I will produce your genre plays! Let your geek flag fly!”

What defines something as “genre” and specific to these genres, what defines something as Horror, Sci-Fi and Fantasy?

I am by no means an expert and trying to define “genre” will result in hours of heated conversation in the company I keep, but I see “genre” work as work that uses or is informed by established tropes—which is sort of saying that genre is genre. In general, however, when someone refers to “genre” work, they usually mean the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genres, which are the genres that least resemble the real world. These works tend to take place in a world that is definitely not our own for one reason or another: hence The Pub from Another World.

Defining each genre is just as tricky as defining “genre.” To me, horror is not just about the obvious elements—ghosts, vampires, serial killers, etc.—but about evoking that visceral, primal fear. And in the best horror, the scary thing isn’t just a scary thing but a manifestation of a real, relatable fear. Similarly, sci-fi is not just about spaceships and time travel and aliens but about taking real science and extrapolating the implications. Some people prefer the term “speculative fiction,” which handily eliminates the need for science and brings in more dystopic fiction. These imagined futures can tell us a lot about our present.

Fantasy may be the easiest genre to identify thanks to its long, long history; today, the stories of Greek mythology can seem like fantasy, what with gods transforming into animals and people being magically brought back to life. Fantasy can be speculative as well, but, unlike science fiction, it has less basis in reality. My goal with this project was to tell unreal stories that have real emotion.

We don’t often think of these genres as applying to the theater, but there are many examples of each. What are your favorites in each category?

The first horror play that springs to mind is Nathan Tucker’s Dionysus, which kicked off the first Olympians festival. It really captured that sense of visceral horror. Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman had one of the most horrifying jump-scares I’ve ever experienced in a theater. And, although they’re a bit more comedic, I love Tim Bauer’s Zombie Town and Kirk Shimano’s Love in the Time of Zombies; both are great examples of the sort of genre theater I’d like to see more of.

I haven’t seen a lot of sci-fi theater, but I read a lot of great sci-fi scripts on the reading committee for Cutting Ball’s RISK IS THIS experimental theater festival a couple years ago. Consider for a second the fact that sci-fi theater is considered “experimental”; could that be why we see so little of it? Two of my favorite scripts—which have received readings but no full productions, to my knowledge—were Garret Groenveld’s The Hummingbirds, a wickedly funny Brazil-esque tale set in a bureaucratic dystopia, and Richard Manley’s This Rough Magic, which uses science fiction ideas to examine basic human truths about how we interact with our families and people in general. I also think Josh Costello’s Little Brother (adapted from the Cory Doctorow novel, produced at Custom Made Theater Company)—one of my favorite plays in recent years—counts as near-future dystopian sci-fi.

I also haven’t seen a lot of fantasy theater, although one of my favorite theater experiences was a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The best example of the sort of fantasy theater I’d like to see was Stuart Bousel’s Giant Bones (adapted from Peter S. Beagle short stories), as it transported the audience to a fantasy world and told stories as compelling as any in the real world.

As the producer, you have a lot of inside knowledge of this event- what are some things you’re really looking forward to sharing with the audience.

Personally, I’m just looking forward to sharing all eight plays with the audience, since they’re all very different and I think there’s something for everyone. I’m also very excited about my cast, since most actors play multiple roles, and I think it will be a real treat for the audience. AJ Davenport, Colleen Egan, Peter Townley, and Olivia Youngers all play three roles, no two alike. But with regards to inside knowledge…in Audrey Scare People Play, the monster, Scare People, is described as being “an octopus monster with wings,” and Meg O’Connor is attempting to make that costume. So I can’t wait to see it myself.

Did the unusual subject matter pose any particular challenges to the process?

See above re: octopus monster with wings. For the most part, however, no one wrote anything too outrageous because they were conscious of the limitations of theater and Cafe Royale specifically. You can do genre theater without a lot of special effects!

This show has a teaser at a bookstore. Tell us more about that and how you made that happen.

I have a good relationship with the people at Borderlands, and my original pitch included the preview reading because people who shop at a genre bookstore are more likely to see a night of genre theater, and vice-versa. It was a way to benefit my favorite bookstore and my favorite theater-in-a-bar. I floated the idea past Alan Beatts, the owner, and he was very receptive. And, to my surprise, he immediately suggested using microphones to broadcast throughout the store and draw people toward the reading and recording the reading as a podcast, which I hadn’t even considered. He wanted to make this the event it deserved to be.

We know you don’t drink, so what’s your favorite thing to order at the Cafe Royale on Theater Pub nights?

Coke. It’s the nectar of the gods. Not the Elder Gods, just the regular gods.

Don’t miss The Pub From Another World, playing one night only on May 20th, at 8 PM, for FREE, at the Cafe Royale!