Theater Around the Bay: Tanya Grove, Caitlin Kenney, & Vince Faso of “Where There’s a Will” & “Why Go With Olivia?”

The Pint-Sized Plays just got a great review (complete with Clapping Man) from SF Chronicle theater critic Lily Janiak, and they have 1 more performance, next Monday the 29th. In the meantime, here’s another in our interview series with Pint-Sized folks.

Vince Faso is directing 2 shows in Pint-Sized this year: “Where There’s a Will” by Tanya Grove, and “Why Go With Olivia?” by Caitlin Kenney. In “Where There’s a Will,” Will Shakespeare  (Nick Dickson) visits a contemporary bar and finds inspiration in an unlikely source: a young woman named Cordelia (Layne Austin), whose dad is about to draw up his will. Meanwhile, Lily’s review aptly describes “Why Go With Olivia?”  as “an epistolary monologue from perhaps the world’s most ruthless email writer, played by Jessica Rudholm.”

Here’s our conversation with Caitlin, Vince, and Tanya!

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Caitlin Kenney at Crater Lake.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized this year?

Caitlin: I live with someone wrapped in the SF theater community, who has attempted submitting before, and thought I had as good a chance as any of piecing something together.

Vince: I’ve been an SF Theater Pub fan for a long time, been in a few productions, directed a little, but Pint-Sized was one I have always been interested in being a part of, and as I seem to be transitioning to more directing, I seized the opportunity, and am excited to be involved.

Tanya: I have two friends who’d had their plays in the festival last year, so I went to support them and had so much fun that I wanted to take part myself!

What’s the best thing about writing a short play?

Caitlin: Drinking several beers while making a verbal list of pie-in-the-sky ideas with no judgement.

Tanya: While I’m writing, I’m also imagining the performance in my head, so it’s like going to the theater all the time, which is my favorite thing to do!

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Vince: I’m probably not alone in saying that the actors I’m working with make it special. I’ve always loved seeing Jessica Rudholm perform, and practically jumped out of my chair at the chance to direct her for a second time. And I’ve worked on several shows with Nick Dickson and Layne Austin, and it doesn’t hurt that they live around the corner and we get to rehearse in my living room. Also, the pieces I’m directing are brilliant in their simplicity, and clever in the flexibility they lend the actors.

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Tanya Grove has a head full of ideas.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Tanya:  I often have lots of ideas going in many directions, and I have to remind myself to simplify. You can usually get across the same message whether you have a cast of two or twenty, ten minutes or two hours, one scene or three acts. Because one of my day jobs is being an editor, I’ve learned to pare ruthlessly to get to the essence of text.

Caitlin: Personally, I think it’s planting the first seed. For me this means to stop poo-pooing every idea I have and actually start typing something.

What’s been most troublesome?

Vince: Finding rehearsal time for a festival like this is always a challenge.

What are your biggest artistic influences?

Tanya: My current playwriting hero is Lauren Gunderson. I think she’s brilliant. But my style is more William Shakespeare meets Tina Fey…

Caitlin: Richard Brautigan, Joni Mitchell, Sense and Sensibility, and Google (to answer my formatting questions).

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

Vince: Meryl Streep, because while she is arguably the best around, she seems like she’d be a very giving actor to work with.

Tanya: When I was in high school I had a crush on Richard Dreyfuss, so I guess I would cast 1977 Richard Dreyfuss as my Will. That’s as good a reason as any, right?

Caitlin: Any sparkle-charming person with insecure confidence…how about Zoe Kazan? I’ve been watching the Olive Kitteridge miniseries and she’s hard not to watch.

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush? That is… what actor would you love a chance to work with?

Vince: Such a hard question! At the risk of straying off topic: I’ve worked with them before, but Scott Baker and Performers Under Stress always give me an intellectual and emotional challenge.

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What other projects are you working on and/or what’s next for you?

Vince: As an actor I’m excited to get started on a production of King Lear for Theater Pub that goes up in November. As a director, I’m been gearing up for a production of Hamlet with my 7th and 8th graders at Redwood Day in Oakland where I teach. That will also go up in November.

Caitlin: I‘ve got a one-act for middle-schoolers going about a mindfulness-based therapy group with participants vaguely reminiscent of Hamlet characters. I’m finding it really hard to sit down and “crank it out,” but if I do, it will probably be entertaining.

Tanya: In September I begin my fourth season as a playwright for PlayGround, so I’m gearing up to write a short play each month. I’m more productive when I have an assignment and a deadline, so the challenge of writing a play in four days based on a prompt works well for me.

What upcoming shows or events in the Bay Area theater scene are you most excited about?

Caitlin: I went to the Oakland BeastLit Crawl and fell hard for spontaneous storytelling, so I am looking forward to one day spitting in the mic at StorySlam.

Tanya: I’m looking forward to seeing what Josh Kornbluth ultimately creates from his time volunteering at Zen Hospice. I’m a Josh fan from way back.

Vince: Events like Pint-Sized and the Olympians Festival that allow original works to be read or staged are a must for keeping the independent theater scene in San Francisco alive.

What’s your favorite beer?

Vince: I’m a sucker for a good IPA, but if a bar is serving Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale then I have to get it.

Caitlin: The Barley Brown Hot Blonde – spiciest, sexiest beer around. Though not around, because it’s brewed in Northeastern Oregon and they don’t distribute anywhere good for me or you.

Tanya: I used to drink a lot of Corona, but I think I’m more of a Hefeweizen gal now. I don’t have a favorite brand, though. Any recommendations?

Your final chance to see “Where There’s a Will,” “Why Go With Olivia?” and the other Pint-Sized Plays is on Monday August 29th at PianoFight at 8 PM! Don’t miss it!

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Theater Around The Bay: An Interview With Colin Johnson

In honor of STICKY ICKY, opening May 23rd, we’re interviewing writer/director Colin Johnson about this latest joint.

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Give us your elevator pitch for yourself- WHO IS Colin Johnson?

CJ: It depends on how long I had in the elevator. If we went all the way to the top floor, I feel I’d have enough time to do an interpretative dance displaying my many passions for film, theater, storytelling, writing, directing, performing and editing, and my experience with many notable enterprises, including SF Olympians, SF Playground, SF Fringe, SF Shotz, San Diego and New York Comic-Con, Image Comics and Awesome Theater. The dance would be tasteful but provocative; informative but challenging. If we were only going up one floor, I’d just reach my hand out and say, “come with me if you wanna have a great time making some weird art”

And this isn’t your first time at Theater Pub, is it?

CJ: I have been playing with the good folks at TP for the past three years or so. Or maybe 4. When was the last Pint-Sized at Cafe Royale? That was when I started. I’ve done like 5 or 6 shows in various capacities.

What keeps you coming back?

CJ: The challenge of setting a piece of theater amidst an open, functioning, busy bar. It’s harder than it looks, and a great many types of shows that would flourish in a traditional venue have struggled with the format. It forces you to be blunt, loud, fast and not rely on tech elements or, to a degree, audience engagement. I tend to go into a show as if I’m entering a combat field with my platoon, but like in elementary school, where the imagination was running wild and role-playing was cool (because that’s what we essentially still do, we are the role-playing holdouts from childhood). X factors will be flung at you left and right and you have to duck and dodge to pull it together. Theater Pub harkens back to the days without polite theater etiquette, where performers and crew members need to be on their toes to overcome any and every obstacle that the outside world will throw at them, from passing sirens to drunk idiots at the bar. It keeps them present and focused, but also flexible. They also let me do pretty much anything I want.

Tell us more about Sticky Icky- what can we expect?

CJ: You can expect a loud, fast, funny romp through classical zombie-film tropes and tireless research from my years of being a high-functioning pothead. We got the archetypes, we got the paranoia, the in-fighting, the snacks, the doomsday radio broadcasts, the external menace, and even a couple original songs.

What’s got you most excited about this project?

CJ: The idea of uncoordinated, easily-distracted-yet-dangerous and relentless antagonists was too funny to pass up. It was actually developed as a feature-film several years ago in Eastern Washington State, a place where you either smoked or you HATED THOSE DIRTBAG HIPPIE NO-GOODNICKS. It was originally much more violent and dealt with marijuana legislation and its respective sides. Over the years, it has remained on the back burner, mutating into whatever avenue suited it best. When I was asked to come back to Theater Pub this year, I wanted to make a serious, intense play. But then I remembered my dormant idea for Sticky Icky and giggled the way a selfish blowhard laughs at his own shit.
Needless to say, it’s a play now, and although it doesn’t try to take itself seriously anymore, the overriding themes of both sides of the debate being equally stupid for different reasons is still very much there.

Marijuana has a colorful history as a subject in film and theater- any influences you wanna point to?

CJ: Most of the direct references come from the horror genre — John Carpenter (The Thing, Assault on Precinct 13, Prince of Darkness) and, of course, George A. Romero were major influences, as were numerous smaller, stranger zombie movies (Shaun of the Dead, Pontypool, 28 Days Later, Undead). In our play the weed is used more as a catalyst in the style of Danny Boyle’s genre-busting classic, only instead of blood or saliva transmission, it’s second-hand smoke (invisible of course due to indoor smoking laws). That said, it’s much closer in tone to Reefer Madness or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (I love idiots screaming over each other). The plot is horror, the dialogue and performances are comedy.

Should or should not people show up to this stoned?

CJ: It definitely wouldn’t hurt if folks got a bit blazed. Unfortunately, there won’t be an intermission to “freshen up”. I promise no one will be bored. We want to create the illusion of chaos, so stoned lightweights should maybe sit a bit farther back from the action.

Let’s say they do- what food served at the bar do you most recommend?

CJ: I’m a devoted pulled-pork guy. And the fries are perfect to keep you going when you’re rocking a long day.

And for the non-stoners in the house- what beverage?

CJ: I’m a pretty no-frills drinker. I like beer and whiskey. My little brother turned me onto whiskey-gingers, those are good. If I’m working I’ll drink the Kolsch or Tecate (the classy stuff). If my wits are not needed as much, I’ll usually go for an IPA.

Any shout-outs for stuff going on in the Bay Area?

CJ: Be sure to check out the SF Shotz shows, performed (usually) the second Wednesday of each month at Pianofight. Six new five minute plays, fully produced. Good rowdy fun. Also Loud and Unladylike has a great lineup this year! As does Olympians! And Best of Playground! Also Saturday Write Fever is always a good bit of creative cardio! The Circus Center is doing crazy cool stuff in their Cabaret Series and various showcases. Jaw-dropping. So much good stuff. All the freakin’ time. Very alive and well. (insert uplifting San Francisco song. Maybe the Foxygen one)

And what’s next for you?

CJ: I got a full slate coming up. I wrote a new show for Longshotz (the one-act offshoot of Shotz) that’s opening in early June. I will also be guest-producing the regular Shotz performance on June 8th. I have a few original short plays being published in August. In October I’ll be directing Terror-Rama 2: Prom Night for Awesome Theater at Pianofight. And I’m lobbying for a big directing gig in December that would expose me to a whole new style of performance. Fingers crossed. I’m also currently producing a web series in collaboration with the new Clown Conservatory. My partner in that endeavor and Director of the Conservatory, the immensely talented Sara Moore, is featured in Sticky Icky as the salty barfly Donelda.

Don’t miss STICKY ICKY- opening at Theater Pub on Monday May 23rd!

The Real World, Theater Edition: A Playwright’s Guide to Grad School, Part One

Barbara Jwanouskos won’t be going back to school this fall, but she’s got some advice for all you playwrighting grad students out there.

Summer’s coming to a close and many are headed back to school. You may be toying with the idea of going back to school to get a degree in a theater-related field. If you’re a playwright, you may be looking at grad schools and thinking about applying. Well, as a recent graduate, I can give you some of what I’ve learned not only in the process of applying, but also what my experience was like while in it. I’m putting together at least a two part guide to the schools to look at, things to consider (for instance, is there a need to go back to school all together? SPOILER ALERT: No, but we’ll get to that), and ideas on where you might want to focus your attention while wandering through application land.

So, you wanna go to grad school… The first thing to consider is the reason (or reasons) why you want to go back. I will tell you right now, even if you end up being accepted into a program that pays for you, you will end up spending a lot of money in order to do this. Perhaps this does not seem daunting to you… but, trust me, when you get the bill, it will settle in. It also ends up meaning putting a hold on other theatrical pursuits while you’re there. It can often mean a big move. And, if nothing else, even if you have just recently graduated from undergrad, it can be a huge learning curve to be in a new environment with new demands placed on you.

To help you on this quest, here is my handy dandy check list of things to consider before making the decision to go back to schools:

Write out your goals as a theater artist. Is there a field that you are most attracted to? What kinds of plays/performances do you want to be involved in? What kinds of audiences do you want to have? Do you want to get paid to write, or do you not care? Why do you do theater? What kinds of theater are you interested in? Where do you want to be five years from now in your playwriting career?

Honestly answering all these questions and more will help you figure out what you truly value. And even before we get to the question “why grad school now”? I would look at all the possible alternatives. Make sure to literally write this all out because 1) you’ll be writing a lot in school, so start getting used to it 2) when you write something out, you’re engaging other parts of your brain so that you are very thoughtfully considering this decision from lots of different angles 3) if you do ultimately decide to apply to schools almost every program asks what your goals are as an artist (and even if not here, you usually get asked what they are in the interviews), so it’s worth it to feel very solid with what you want to achieve.

Ask yourself, if you can possibly make any of these goals happen in other ways. If you think you would be happier without making the sacrifices (financial, social, geographical, etc.) that are required to be a part of an MFA program, you should seriously reconsider the decision to go back to school. Or, at least, start reevaluating your goals and seeing if you can be more specific.

For instance, if one of your goals is to continue to hone your craft and add to your tool kit, there are a variety of resources out there that aren’t always free, but are more financially viable (and fun!) than a graduate program can be. In the Bay Area, the Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco, in addition to a variety of other organizations, offers classes to community members that are reasonably priced and taught by master playwrights. Theatre Bay Area offers the ATLAS program to playwrights and other theater artists to develop their career maps and goals. PlayGround has a Monday night writers’ pool for members of the community to share their work.

In other parts of the country, you have the Playwright’s Center and well-respected regional theaters that offer master classes, developmental opportunities, and writer’s groups to the public. These are great ways to continue to polish your skills, develop your voice, and network with other playwrights (incidentally, these are also some of the goals that could have been on your list!). The other thing to consider are some of the playwriting retreats (the one at La Mama Umbria is a fantastic one) where you can take a week or two to learn under an experienced playwriting instructor in the company of other writers, and often in a beautiful locale.

Another common goal is to have more development opportunities, which is often a part of an MFA playwriting program. Keep in mind, however, that not every program offers the same types of resources (some DO NOT offer development opportunities) and that by connecting with your theater community, you may be able to go through the development and production process quicker than you are able to in school. The added benefits are that you will have more experience putting your plays on their feet and meet new friends/colleagues!

Make these things happen! The reality is that such a small number of people get accepted to graduate programs across the country every year. You can’t wait until you get into a program to make things happen with your writing. If you see a class in your home town, take it. If you have a couple friends who will read your work, do it. Don’t be precious about your writing or your goals. Now’s the time to make sure other people know what you’re working towards. You have to be unapologetic about being a writer or artist of any kind. And if you’re doing it to make money, just stop now and start looking into other processions where you can be creative, but are more lucrative. A career in playwriting will never be enough to live off of completely. I repeat, you will make little to no money doing this (and a lot of times, you will spend money so that you can participate in something you think is worth your time as an artist). This may not be the case for screenwriting or TV writing, but it certainly is for playwriting. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

If you’re still on the graduate school path, you still need to be active in the theater scene. As previously mentioned, these programs are highly competitive and often times only take a handful of playwrights each year. Your experience in theater is going to help you. So, if someone offers to do a staged reading of your play, do it! Write that play! Volunteer at a festival (speaking of which, the San Francisco Fringe Festival is coming up…)!

Do your research. Again, even before you make the decision to apply, look through the various programs out there. They come in all shapes and sizes. You’ll want to find the ones that most align with your aesthetic, your learning style, and your financial resources. The Playwrights’ Center has a fantastic list of the playwriting programs offered across the nation, here. In the second part of my series I will go into more depth about what to look for in these programs, but make sure you are hunting for information on who the head of the program is, what plays they’ve written (read or see them!), how much it will cost, how many people they accept, what the curriculum is like, and where it is (at the bare minimum). More on this in the next column.

Make a plan of attack. After you’ve considered why school and why now and have still remained active in the theater scene and have done your research, now’s the time to plan ahead. What will it truly take for you to go back to school? Look into all the ancillary things that come with being involved in a program. Talk to people in programs if you know anyone. Reach out to the school and see if you can talk to a current student, if you don’t know someone. Make a list of the deadlines for each school and what they require (they don’t all require the same things) and put them into some calendar, to do list, or organization mechanism. Plan ahead if any want you to take the GRE, since that is a whole other beast. Visit the schools if you can. And look ahead to the deadline time to see what your life will be like around then. Try to minimize the amount of activities you’re involved in around that time. The most important thing is your writing sample (keep in mind, some programs ask for two full length plays), but don’t discount the other materials needed, for instance your letters of recommendation (ask three to four people who know you and your work) and your personal statement. You should be about one to two months ahead of the deadline with prepping all these materials. Start with the letters of recommendation because you DO NOT want to ask your champions at the last minute. Ask them at least two months before the deadline. They are probably being asked by a lot of people.

Read, see, and write plays. Above all, immerse yourself in theater. Read the classics you haven’t gotten to and the new playwrights that are being talked about. Read the plays by the heads of programs you’re thinking of applying to. Read up on theater news and opinions. Go to see performances regularly. Even if (especially if) it’s not your cup of tea because you will be exposed to a lot of things you love and hate while in school. Find ways to appreciate and respectfully talk about performances you didn’t care for. I know a lot of folks will disagree with this, but my reasoning is that you will see so much theater done by your friends while in and out of school, that it’s a good thing to open your mind to new forms and even try new things yourself. And if nothing else, to learn how to talk about what you connected/didn’t connect to in a way that maintains a working relationship with the colleague that’s responsible for the performance. It’s fine to have your opinions and tastes, but there’s nothing wrong with moving outside of your comfort zone every now and again. If nothing else, at least you may be able to articulate more clearly why it’s not your thing.

And make sure to continue to play with your writing! There’s a fantastic playwriting challenge going on to write 31 plays over the span of August (Check out 31 Plays in 31 Days). It’s a great way to produce a lot of writing without judgment. And writing something on the page is the absolute first step in writing a new play.

Theatre Around The Bay: From Stage To Screen

Just in time for the Oscars, guest blogger Kirk Shimano muses on the differences between writing for the stage and screen.

Last year, with the help of PlayGround, I had the opportunity to adapt my short play, “Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos,” into a short film. It’s the story of a downtrodden school librarian who changes her life by entrusting all her decisions to the flips of a coin.

Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos at the 16th Annual Best of Playground Festival, with Lisa Morse, Cathleen Riddley, Roselyn Hallett, Michael Asberry, Lauren English and Maryssa Wanlass.

Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos at the 16th Annual Best of Playground Festival, with Lisa Morse, Cathleen Riddley, Roselyn Hallett, Michael Asberry, Lauren English and Maryssa Wanlass.

I had written short films before (including my student film opus, “Shoe and Rock: The Adventures of Shoe and Rock,” starring a shoe and a rock), but this was my first experience in adapting a short play. It’s been nearly a year since our film was first shown to audiences, but I still find myself mulling over the experience, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to share four of the most memorable lessons I learned along the way.

1. LOCATION. LOCATION? LOCATION!

If you take a look at any screenplay, you’ll find that the pages are filled with “slug lines” that tell you where and when each scene takes place. A page will start with:

EXT. GOLDEN GATE PARK – MORNING

or…

INT. ABANDONED WALMART – EVENING – FIVE MINUTES AFTER THE RAPTURE

I used to think that the prominence of these slug lines was just an organizational tidbit that helps the assistant director keep on track, but it turns out they can have a big influence on all of the writing that follows.

My original script began Miss Finknagle’s journey in her home (on stage, this amounted to a nondescript table and a chair). My earlier drafts kept the same location for the film, but thankfully our intrepid director, Amy Harrison (more on her later), suggested that we instead move the opening to the school library.

Director Amy Harrison and Production Designer Alex Dixon putting far more thought into the library location than I had.

Director Amy Harrison and Production Designer Alex Dixon putting far more thought into the library location than I had.

What I had forgotten was that our movie audience would be seeing more than just a table and a chair. Picking a unique location was the first step to putting the audience in a unique world and got me thinking more about how our characters would interact with the world around them.

2. THINGS SHOULDN’T BE, YOU KNOW, HAND-WAVEY…OR SOMETHING

My stage script opened up with this:

(The stage is divided into two areas. Although MISS FINKNAGLE often enacts the events described by the teens, the two spaces remain distinct throughout the play)

It was intentionally ambiguous, because in the space of ten minutes I didn’t want to spend too much time establishing specific locations.

It turns out, in a movie it’s pretty difficult to keep that level of ambiguity. The actors aren’t walking into a blue-tinged spotlight that represents the outdoors – they’re walking past actual trees and actual cars in actual streets (well, for those of us productions that can’t afford soundstages and green screens, at any rate).

Jessica Hecker and Haley Anderson as BFF's Kaylee & Tiffany in a real life, non hand-wavey cafeteria. Set photos taken by Leo Robertson

Jessica Hecker and Haley Anderson as BFF’s Kaylee & Tiffany in a real life, non hand-wavey cafeteria. Set photos taken by Leo Robertson

The point is that movies have a certain literal quality to them, which provides the immediate you-are-there magic of omigod-I’m-with-Sandy-Bullock-on-a-space-station but also makes it more difficult to leave amorphous images for the audience to decipher on its own.

I found that I had to tool my script to make the relationships between the scenes more concrete. Where we used to have two ambiguously connected locations, we now had the teens definitively driving a narrative that had cutaways to support their descriptions. It did mean sacrificing a bit of the fairy tale feel I had liked about the original script, but it made for a much smoother flowing audience experience that I’m glad we adopted.

3. EVERYONE NEEDS TO SHUT UP

Here’s how the original stageplay started:

KAYLEE
So, like, Miss Finknagle was home alone.

TIFFANY
Well, duh, she’s always alone.

KAYLEE
That’s not the point of the story dork-face.

TIFFANY
Does she even have a home? I heard that when all the kids leave school she just stays in the library and sleeps between the computers and the encyclopedias.

Here’s how the screenplay starts:

KAYLEE
Oh. My God.

Kaylee takes something from her purse and SLAMS it on the table. It is a COSMO-LIKE MAGAZINE.

TIFFANY
Omigod Kaylee –

What used to be a few lines of dialogue became just a few words. I think there are a lot of reasons for this. One is that movies provide the ability to replace character-establishing dialogue with a single reaction shot. Another is that stage dialogue has to carry more of the expositional weight, explaining that the nondescript table on stage is supposed to represent a house. I also suspect that audiences in a theater are more willing to listen to long stretches of conversation, because you’re watching two people talk in front of you instead of light flickering on a screen.

But whatever the explanation, I found that long passages of dialogue that used to sound breezy on stage now seemed leaden on film. Of course, it could just be that those lines were always a drag and everyone was too polite to tell me, but I’m choosing to interpret this as a life lesson to keep movie dialogue short and to the point.

4. IT’S THE DIRECTOR’S MOVIE

As a playwright, I can’t help but notice that plays tend to belong to the playwright (as in John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar) while movies tend to belong to the director (Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street). Of course, any production is the result of a collaboration between many people, but screenwriters seem to have less ownership than playwrights.

I can’t speak for every movie, but ours definitely belongs to our director / producer Amy Harrison.

In a small film like this, the director is called upon to do a host of tasks that would be delegated in a Hollywood studio film – things like negotiating for locations or keeping a constant eye on the budget – but even if you remove all of those additional responsibilities the director’s contribution is by far the one that makes the biggest impact.

On stage, the audience watches the actors bring the script to life, giving them a direct line to experiencing what was originally written on the page. But in a movie, every moment is filtered through a thousand more directorial decisions. Do we watch the person speaking or see a reaction shot instead? Does the music quietly underscore the entire scene? Is the entire world viewed through a warm haze of soft focus?

Camera Op. Tyler Cushing readies the shot as Production Designer Alex Dixon and Design Assistant Roary Racquel set the stage

Camera Op. Tyler Cushing readies the shot as Production Designer Alex Dixon and Design Assistant Roary Racquel set the stage

I was amazed at the difference between our first rough cut and our final version and the script didn’t change at all – just the directorial and editorial decisions. I’ve had the privilege of great relationships with directors in theater who have helped to shape the script and bring the cast and crew together, but in a movie every second of the audience’s experience has been crafted by the director.

Of course, that might be undervaluing the contribution of the editor, the sound designer, the cinematographer, or any number of other people I haven’t thought to mention. So maybe trying to figure out who “owns” a film is the wrong approach altogether. What’s important is to appreciate how many collaborators put their stamp on bringing this story to life. The end product was better than what I had initially tried to put on the page. I’m glad I had the chance to be part of a moviemaking team and would recommend it to any playwright given the opportunity.

Lisa Morse as Miss Finknagle, ready for the camera.

Lisa Morse as Miss Finknagle, ready for the camera.

‘Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos’ will next be screened at the Portland Oregon’s Women Film Fest, March 6-9, 2014. For all the latest information, follow https://www.facebook.com/missfinknagle

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.