Hi-Ho the Glamorous Life: Some Thoughts After a Successful Crowdfunding Campaign

Marissa Skudlarek, running on producer time.

I read Allison Page’s and Anthony Miller’s recent critiques of crowdfunding with interest, because at the time they were posted, I was running a crowdfunding campaign for my show Pleiades, which opens in two weeks.

Now that the campaign’s concluded and we made our goal, I feel compelled to chime in with some additional thoughts about the experience of crowdfunding.

Anthony mentions the idea that “people are more likely to support an all-or-nothing Kickstarter campaign than a you-get-whatever-money-you-raise Indiegogo campaign,” but to me, that feels like it’s largely a rumor. (Perhaps Kickstarter is spreading this myth in order to prevent people from defecting to Indiegogo?)

Instead, in my experience, crowdfunding campaigns often fail when the perks they offer don’t seem appealing enough. Working in theater, we have the opportunity to offer a really great perk that, unlike T-shirts or coffee mugs, doesn’t cost anything to manufacture: a ticket to our play. Thus, when I see theater crowdfunding pleas that don’t offer a ticket as one of the rewards, or offer tickets only to the most high-rolling funders (say, requiring you to donate $100 in order to receive a ticket that normally costs $25), I think that the people running the campaign have been shortsighted. Your most enticing perk should be offered at a level where it seems like a good deal, not outrageously overpriced. For Pleiades, we offered a pair of tickets for a donation of $70, which ended up being our most popular perk (and our average donation was just above that, at $79).

I’m really glad that crowdfunding websites exist. Had Indiegogo or Kickstarter not been invented, I’m not sure if I would have had the confidence to self-produce a play, because I wouldn’t have known how to raise the money. And if I didn’t have the $5,000 from my Indiegogo campaign in the production budget and had to subsist on ticket sales alone, I’d really be panicking right now.

But, like Allison and Anthony and other intelligent people who are feeling a little burnt-out after the onslaught of crowdfunding projects this year, I see some dark sides, some discontents, to this trend as well. Although crowdfunding likes to associate itself with virtues like charity and altruism, I found myself becoming less altruistic while my campaign was running. It made me greedy – I checked my email more compulsively than ever, hoping each time to see an email from Indiegogo saying that there was a new contribution to my campaign.

It also made me think about the fine line between asking your friends to support your dreams, and monetizing your personal relationships. I found myself having evil, mercenary thoughts like “If only I was close friends with this person rather than mere acquaintances, if only I’d been better at keeping in touch with my friends from high school and college, they might donate to my campaign!”

There’s also a problem with the way that crowdfunding taps into the larger societal trend of Instant Gratification, and for all I know, exacerbates it. As I mentioned above, I do choose to support campaigns based on the perks that they offer – and while part of me feels like this is being a smart shopper, part of me feels like it is antithetical to the spirit of giving. I should donate to a campaign because of what it will offer to the world, rather than what it will offer to me. And I realize that I can become easily seduced by a campaign that seems especially shiny or flashy, or that gets media attention. No, I did not donate to that damn potato-salad Kickstarter, but I did donate to Amanda Palmer’s a few years ago, mostly out of curiosity and a desire to be part of the zeitgeist (I was not really familiar with Palmer’s music).

And in an instant-gratification, Instagram world of hipper-than-thou hipsters, the less-flashy crowdfunding campaigns can have a problem. It’s especially acute for campaigns that aren’t one-shot endeavors, but are yearly and recurring. The San Francisco Olympians Festival, for instance. We believe that this festival is an important part of the community; it’s been around for five years and we want it to be around for a dozen more. But for that to happen, the festival will also need steady contributions from regular donors.

Start using phrases like “steady contributions” and “regular donors,” though, and the whole thing starts to sound boring and adult and institutional. Loyalty to a cause used to be a virtue; now I fear that loyalty is seen as synonymous with naivete or dullness. Crowdfunding has made it so that anyone can ask for anything at any time; perhaps now it’s time to remember that we should be careful what we wish for.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Her play Pleiades runs from August 7 to 30; tickets are available here. And if she hasn’t used up her “give me money” karma this year, she also encourages you to donate to the San Francisco Olympians Festival Indiegogo.

 

The Five: Five Crowdsourcing Campaigns You Should Check Out

Local Playwright, Director, and Ticket-Shiller Anthony R. Miller returns with a 2 Parter on the rise of Crowdsourcing in Bay Area Theatre.

It’s been quite the two weeks since my last post; the closing of my hometown theatre company, San Jose Rep, a double whammy of bullshit from the Tony Awards (Seriously, instead of hearing the speech from the winner of “Best Book from a Musical” I get a special performance by Sting?”), there’s really no shortage of lists. But another event this last week was a personal one for me, the show I am producing and co-writing; TERROR-RAMA, made its Kickstarter goal. Thanks to the support of friends, family, and the Bay Area Theatre Community, we have enough money to pay everyone who works on the show, not have to charge a ridiculous amount of money to break even, and perhaps even a smidge of production value. One thing that struck me was just how many campaigns went on at the same time as us; The Lost Church, Diva-Fest, friggin Reading Rainbow. So I did a little research, and if you add up every theatre campaign in SF alone for 2014 (finished, current, and projected), almost $450,000 has been, is, and will be asked for via crowdsourcing. Sure, there are people living in the city right now that could fund all of those projects at once and still manage to have a sweet vacation, but it’s a big sum none the less, and it’s only destined to rise. Even now, you can easily find 10 different arts campaign just for the Bay Area. This inspired not one, but two lists. This week, I present: Five Bay Area Arts Crowdsourcing Campaigns You Should Check Out and in two weeks; Five Questions About The Future of Arts Crowd Sourcing. One thing crowd sourcing has allowed is that any once can at least try now. Sure, they might not make it, but they have the opportunity to even ask. This means there’s a whole crap-load of incredible companies looking for help; here are a few current campaigns you should check out.

Do It Lives’ 2014 Season

Ambition, ambition, and a big dose of moxie are the words I use to describe this young SF theatre company. They’re raising money to fund their, that’s right, ambitious season of 7 plays from writers all over the world. On top of that they’re doing them in repertory, a rotating line up of plays for 8 months. This group is dedicated to doing active, visceral, and challenging theatre. I hear they also plan to build a theatre in space, not because it is easy, but because it is hard. This group is worth looking at, they’re different, focus like a laser on a younger audience, and give the artists they work with a lot of freedom.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/do-it-live-s-2014-season

Great Star Theater

Nestled in Chinatown is the Great Star Theater, I have seen some crazy shows here. It’s a classic 1920’s theater that hosts a variety of exciting theatre. They are currently raising money to restore it to its former glory. 90 years of dust, old ass ropes that people dangle from and a million burnt out light bulbs are just a few of the things they’re trying to tackle. This place is worth checking out. Last I checked, we need all the venues we can get, and this one is rad.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1927498591/great-star-theater?ref=discovery

2014 FURY Factory Festival of Ensemble Theatre

From July 6-20, The FURY Factory festival will bring 24 ground-breaking theatre companies from around the country to The Mission District. This festival has an incredible line-up and promises to be 2 weeks of really exciting theatre. They are raising money to pay all the artists and personnel of the festival. This is worth checking out, because bringing some of the most innovative companies in America to SF is one thing, but paying them too is a darn fine cause.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/2014-fury-factory-festival-of-ensemble-theater

Pleiades

Birthed from the loins of the SF Olympians Fest (They have a campaign coming up too.) writer Marissa Skudlarek is DOIN’ IT and self-producing her play about 7 sisters coming of age in the early 70’s at the height of second-wave feminism. And to top it off, its very production addresses a situation in Bay Area Theatre, a lack of women writers, directors and roles. Pleiades features a female writer, director, lead-producer and 8 female roles. Check this out if you’re ready to see more talented women doing theatre.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/pleiades-world-premiere-female-driven-play-in-san-francisco

Mugwumpin 10

With just a day and half left, this company gets and A for urgency. These bad-asses of Theatre are raising money specifically to pay the performers and directors of their two revivals; This is All I Need and Super:Anti:Reluctant, both plays are audience favorites that creatively question American ideals. You should check them out because they’re very close to goal (and their deadline) and these guys have been doing incredible work for ten years and changing the relationship between audience and performer.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/mugwumpin10-celebrate-a-decade-of-live-art

Anthony R. Miller is a Writer, Director, Producer, and that guy who won’t stop calling currently living in Berkeley, Ca. His show: TERROR-RAMA opens in October 2014.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Saying “I Do” to Self-Production

Leave it to Marissa to find the tie-in between all the Big Days…. 

You’ve rented the venue, you’ve taken care of every detail, you’ve dealt with unexpected crises, and now the crowd is filing in, excited to witness the fruition of your plans…

Wait. Am I talking about planning a wedding — or producing a play?

Both of these things have been much on my mind of late. As my fellow Theater Pub bloggers Ashley Cowan and Will Leschber have reminded you, they’re getting married on June 20. Two days after I attend their wedding, I’ll be officiating at the wedding of two other dear friends, Rachel Sadler and Will Knox-Davies. (Their second date was at Theater Pub!) The day after that, rehearsals for my production of Pleiades start. It’s going to be a crazy weekend.

Doing the pre-production for Pleiades as Rachel and Ashley do the “pre-production” for their weddings has made me realize just how similar the two processes are. Here are what I see as the biggest parallels.

The proposal: It must be scary to ask someone to marry you. In this day and age, though, a marriage proposal is rarely a complete surprise — often the couple has discussed marriage before the official proposal takes place, and conventional wisdom says that you shouldn’t ask anyone to marry you unless you’re sure they’ll say yes. Asking Katja Rivera to direct Pleiades was scary, too — she was my first choice director, and I had no idea whether or not she’d say yes. I knew she liked the script, but would she want to direct it — devoting months of her life to my play, with very little compensation? Sure, it’s not a “till death do us part” commitment like marriage, but I still felt like I was asking a lot of her.

The venue: After Katja agreed to direct Pleiades, I knew that the next step would be to find and rent a theater. From there, lots of other things (e.g. our production schedule) would fall into place. We quickly learned that we had to be flexible. For a long time, I was attached to the idea of opening the show in July (Pleiades takes place over Fourth of July weekend, and my birthday is July 5), but theaters just didn’t seem to have July availability. We ended up booking the Phoenix Theatre for a four-week run in August, and are very happy with the way things ended up — but it meant that I had to get rid of some of my pet, preconceived notions. Similarly, the top wedding venues get booked months in advance, and the first step after the engagement takes place is to pick a date and book a venue. I assume that brides and grooms have to be flexible, too, when it comes to locations and venues.

The collaboration: Wedding planning can stress out a lot of couples. There are so many decisions to be made, and what happens when you and your sweetheart disagree about an important aspect of your wedding? You want a sophisticated evening wedding in the city — he wants a folksy outdoor wedding in the countryside. Does this mean the marriage is doomed? At the same time, collaborating and compromising during the wedding planning process can bring a couple closer together. And if you both agree on something without needing to argue about it — well, that just proves that you’re truly meant to be together, right? After Katja and I watched two nights of auditions, we were pleased to discover that we had very similar ideas of which actors we wanted to cast in which roles. Sometimes, writers and directors have very different conceptions of which actor is right for a role — and if that had happened with Pleiades, I think I would have experienced a soul-searching moment of “is this collaboration doomed?” Discovering that Katja and I had a similar perspective on the play and its characters, though, confirmed my belief that she’s the right person for me to work with on this project.

There are some big differences between producing a play and planning a wedding, of course. I envy my wedding-planning friends the fact that weddings are a bigger part of our culture than theater is — and thus, there are more resources, handbooks, websites, etc. available to engaged couples than to aspiring theater producers. Also, most wedding expenses are typically covered by the married couple and their families — but if you’re a self-producing playwright, there’s a stigma around putting your own money into the play, as well as a stigma around having Mommy and Daddy give you the money to produce a play. Both weddings and plays require smart budgeting, but theater requires fundraising to a much greater extent.

My mom tells me that after successfully planning her wedding on a short time frame (6 months from proposal to ceremony), she felt like she could do anything. The odd thing about planning a wedding, though, is that you really only get one shot at it — unless you plan to divorce and remarry someday, and who goes into a marriage thinking that it won’t last forever? Whereas, one of the things that’s sustaining me through the difficulties of producing Pleiades is the understanding that every lesson I learn, every mistake I make, will make producing the next play that much easier. And maybe, if I ever find myself in the position of planning a wedding, my theater-production experience will make that easier for me, too.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, producer, and arts writer. She sends all her love and best wishes to Ashley, Will, Rachel and Will as they get married this month — and wishes a happy 30th anniversary to her mom and dad. Find out more about Marissa’s play Pleiades at pleiadessf.wordpress.com

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: App Happy

Marissa Skudlarek gets technical.

As a twentysomething San Franciscan, I have a duty and a prerogative to come up with ideas for mobile phone apps that will harness the power of crowdsourcing/social media/cloud computing/Big Data to disrupt outmoded paradigms. Yes, everyone in this town has a couple of app ideas in their back pocket, and I’m no exception. Here are three theater-related apps that I’ve dreamed up and wish were real.

Cute app name: Anachorrect

The pitch: Spellcheck for anachronisms.

What it would do: Many of our decade’s most-discussed TV series – Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Masters of Sex – take place in prior eras, and there are online commentators devoted to pointing out their inaccuracies or anachronisms. One of the most interesting of these is Prochronisms, or Downton Crabbey – in which a digital-humanities professor named Ben Schmidt uses the Google Ngram text corpus and a computer algorithm to find anachronistically modern phrases in the dialogue of historical dramas. The algorithm reveals fascinating information about the way our language changes over time; I made a few tweaks to my script Pleiades, which takes place in 1971, after reading Schmidt’s post about how the phrase “ought to” was much more common than “need to,” even in the 1960s. Unfortunately, though, there’s no way for you to run your own writing through Schmidt’s algorithm. I would pay good money for that app – and I bet a lot of other writers would, too.

Cute app name: Venuse

The pitch: OpenTable for venues.

What it would do: There’s an amazing resource here called Bay Area Spaces that allows you to search for performing arts venues according to a huge range of factors: location, size, cost, hours, and more. I used this site a lot when I was seeking a venue for Pleiades, and it was really helpful, but it’s not perfect. Some venues post detailed information, including their availability calendar; other venues post the bare minimum. And, in all cases, you need to email or phone the venue manager to get more information and to book the space. With just a few tweaks, this site could become an OpenTable-like app that enabled you to search for venues, see their availability, and immediately submit a request to book the space. Introducing Venuse: helping renters and tenants more effectively use venues. (It’s pronounced “VEN-yuse,” by the way. The allusion to Venus is a bonus.)

Cute app name: StageSeen

The pitch: Goodreads for theater.

What it would do: For years, I’ve been keeping detailed lists of the books I read and the plays I see. I finally wised up and joined Goodreads last summer, and have found it an extremely well-designed, user-friendly app that makes keeping track of my reading even better! I seriously love it, and that’s a big deal for me to say, because Goodreads is owned by Amazon and I hate Amazon. So why can’t someone rip off the Goodreads interface and create a similar site for theatergoers? Sure, Goldstar tries to do that with its “Event Journal” feature, but the obvious flaw there is that it only works for shows where you purchase the tickets via Goldstar. Like Goldstar (and Goodreads), my proposed StageSeen app could offer discounts, giveaways, and other perks, but the important thing is that it’d be free and open to all theater fans, functioning more as a place for discussion and appreciation than a place for selling tickets.

Do any of these pitches grab you? Of course, as the person who came up with the concept, I will take a controlling interest in the new startup, but if you get in on the ground floor, you, too, could become a millionaire when we strike it rich and list on NASDAQ! Who wants to be my CTO?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. One of the reasons she wrote this post is that she’d like more friends on Goodreads. Find her there, on the web at marissabidilla.blogspot.com, or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Be Regular and Orderly in Your Inbox

Marissa Skudlarek: quoting Flaubert because she can.

What attributes make a person a successful theatrical producer? Do you need to have a keen eye for new talent? The ability to raise buckets of money from wealthy investors? The larger-than-life showbiz flair of a Florenz Ziegfeld or a David Merrick?

All of those things may indeed be useful to an aspiring producer, but I propose that the real answer is far more humble. What you really need, if you’re going to produce a play in the 21st century, is a compulsion to read and respond to your emails as quickly as possible. Oh, and a fanatical love for Excel spreadsheets doesn’t hurt, either.

Auditions for my play Pleiades are happening next Monday and Tuesday, and already I’m fielding six or seven Pleiades-related emails a day, a number that I can only expect to increase as the production process goes on. I’m having actors email me to schedule an audition slot, and I vowed to myself that I’d do my best to respond to all of their emails within 24 hours of receipt. The people that I will potentially be working with deserve my respect and my prompt response — they don’t deserve to be left hanging. But I also instituted this 24-hour rule as a way of ensuring my own sanity. Because you know what’s the only thing worse than having seven un-answered emails in your inbox at the end of a day? Having fifty un-answered emails in your inbox at the end of a week.

I derive satisfaction from my obsessive email-management habits: responding promptly and professionally, categorizing and then archiving every email I send. Still, while I say that I do these things in order to reduce my stress level, I sometimes wonder if instead, it’s only causing me more stress. When I’m working on a big, email-heavy project like this, I become preoccupied and easily distracted. My thoughts race and I always have a vague, nagging feeling that I’m forgetting something important and will suffer the consequences. I also become irrationally annoyed with people who are more lackadaisical when it comes to email and online communications. If you’re no longer using a certain email address, shut it down entirely. If you’re an actor and you have a Facebook account, check your messages regularly, and don’t forget that elusive “Other” inbox, because someone could be using Facebook to offer you a part or to gauge your interest in a project. If you need a few days to think about something, a brief “I got your message; let me respond more fully in a few days” email is never unwelcome or amiss.

Sometimes I feel like my relationship with email is healthier than it’s ever been before, because I’m always getting better at managing my inbox and quickly responding to messages. And sometimes I wonder if I’m developing some kind of disordered, addictive relationship to my inbox. Just as an anorexic feels that no matter how skinny she gets, she’s never thin enough; so I feel that no matter how promptly I send and respond to emails, it can never be quick enough.

In thinking about my email management habits, I feel most keenly the divide between me-as-playwright and me-as-producer. The way I write when I compose plays is so different from the way I write and respond to emails, it’s like they’re coming from two different people. Playwright-Marissa takes her time, lets her mind wander, sets aside lengthy chunks of time to work on a specific scene or problem. Producer-Marissa is all business, a machine almost, copying and pasting and categorizing and making entries on spreadsheets and trying not to let the effort get to me.

Maybe that’s the right way to handle things. Maybe it’s good to create a divide between the dreamy, messy artist part of me and the methodical, efficient producer part of me. (I am a Cancer with Capricorn rising: outwardly businesslike, inwardly sensitive.) Other artists have done the same; as Flaubert put it, “Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire comme un bourgeois, afin d’être violent et original dans vos oeuvres” — that is, “Be regular and ordinary in your life like a bourgeois, in order to be violent and original in your work.”

That aphorism comes from a letter Flaubert wrote to Gertrude Tennant. If only my emails were that wise and elegant.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and compulsive emailer. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or follow @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

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

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

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

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

OTHER MARISSA: My pleasure!

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

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

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

MARISSA: Of course we would both know that quote.

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

MARISSA: But, like, the other me.

OTHER MARISSA: Yeah. So, whatcha drinkin’?

MARISSA: Earl Grey – my usual. And yourself?

OTHER MARISSA: Chestnut tea!

MARISSA: Chestnut tea?

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

Marissa takes a sip of Other Marissa’s tea.

MARISSA: It’s good!

OTHER MARISSA: I know, right?

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

OTHER MARISSA: OH NO SOMEONE ALERT PETER HSIEH.

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

OTHER MARISSA: Why not, indeed?

The_two_Marissas copy

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

OTHER MARISSA: Macho posturing?

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

OTHER MARISSA: I do my best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MARISSA: Do they?

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

MARISSA: Yes I would. The Winklevosses are doofuses.

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

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

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

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

OTHER MARISSA: Marissa. Marissa. Calm down.

MARISSA: I’m sorry.

OTHER MARISSA: It’s OK.

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

OTHER MARISSA: I know. I know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

OTHER MARISSA: Aren’t they kind of awesome?

MARISSA: See? Proves my point.

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

MARISSA: OK. Why are you drinking chestnut tea?

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

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

OTHER MARISSA: I think I know what that means.

MARISSA: You’re damn right you do.

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

MARISSA: A gin gimlet, please.

OTHER MARISSA: Make that two.

End of play.

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

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Less than the Minimum

Marissa Skudlarek wrestles with some big questions about how we make art and uphold out political/fiscal ideals in a society where funding for the arts is so hard to come by.

Conservatives sometimes condescend to liberals by telling them that their idealistic sentiments are very noble and all, but they’re impractical for the real world. “If you’re a conservative at twenty, you have no heart; if you’re a liberal at fifty, you have no brain,” they say. Isn’t it precious that these sweet young things want to raise the minimum wage and implement universal health care? Isn’t it adorably naïve that they don’t know the harm that that would cause?

Such condescension has always irritated me, as it’s designed to do. It’s so cynical and defeatist, telling us that society just naturally chews up and spits out its poorest and weakest citizens, and nothing can be done to stop this.

Like all young idealists, then, I vowed that I would do better. If I were ever in a position of power, if I ever became an entrepreneur or a “job creator,” I would prove that you can run a successful business on liberal principles. In the meantime, I would stand in solidarity with all those individuals working to promote fairer wages and less inequality: the fast-food workers across America, the airport workers at SEA-TAC, the unpaid interns whose bushy-tailed enthusiasm is so frequently abused.

But now, I’m in a position where I need to get a lot of people to sign on to a project that I’m putting together: the play that I am self-producing this summer. And, well, I’m not revising my larger political views, but I’ve discovered that I need to make compromises, and abandon some of my most fiercely held (but most naïve) beliefs.

The play I’m producing requires nine actors, which is considered a large cast these days. (As a playwright, I love writing large-cast plays and hate that the economics of the American theater discourage this. As a producer, I’m starting to see why “smaller is better.”) Nine actors, plus a director, set and lighting designers, a stage manager, possibly other techies… that’s a lot of people, working long hours to put this show together. So, in doing my initial back-of-the-envelope budget calculations, I quickly realized that I cannot afford to pay my collaborators minimum wage. I can pay them a stipend of a few hundred dollars, which is in line with what other indie theaters pay. But to pay minimum wage would amount to about $1000 per actor, once all rehearsals and performances are factored in.

I had a mini-crisis upon seeing these cruel numbers and realizing the impossibility of changing the system single-handedly. I had honestly thought that I could succeed where others had failed! I had thought that I could support labor, support the arts, support fairness and justice, by following my ideals and paying minimum wage.

In distress, I asked some of my more experienced friends what I should do. One replied, basically, “Is this the hill you want to die on?” He suggested that if I were founding a theater company that regularly produced shows, I might have reason to be concerned about actor salaries; but because the play I’m producing is a one-off, I shouldn’t make “minimum wage” my primary concern.

Another friend tried to get me to see the distinction between McDonalds or Wal-Mart, on the one hand, and myself on the other hand. It is immoral for a CEO to refuse to pay workers a living wage when the company is raking in millions of dollars in profit; but it is not immoral for a self-producing theater artist, who certainly isn’t getting rich from this endeavor, to pay her collaborators a stipend in line with what she can afford. My paying my collaborators minimum wage won’t do anything to solve the larger problem of how to afford to make art in an expensive city like San Francisco. It would be a grand gesture, but it wouldn’t have a real effect on the overall system.

As I was writing this column, someone I follow on Twitter posted a quote by Jessica Mitford: “You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.” It was exactly what I needed to see at this moment. Mitford was a remarkable woman: born into the English aristocracy, she ran away from home to support the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and eventually ended up in the Bay Area, working as a muckraking journalist. Yet even she realized that one needs to balance idealism and pragmatism. I may not be able to change the world, but I can use this column to start a conversation, and I can continue to advocate in other ways for a fairer society. It’s the least that I can do.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She’s putting together a production of her play “Pleiades” for summer 2014. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Confessions of a Copy-Editor

Marissa Skudlarek is an editing tornado. 

“Eagle eyes,” my mother used to call me. This nickname may sound odd, because I’ve worn thick glasses since I was five years old, but she was referring to my talent for observation, and especially for spotting errors. I’d be reading some kids’ book, notice a typo and, frowning, show the error to my mother. “Why don’t you write a nice letter to the publisher, sweetie, and tell them what you found?” she’d say.

With a background like that – observational skills, perfectionism, and a mother who encouraged those traits – I suppose I was bound to become a copy-editor. And while I’ve tried to relax my standards a bit in this Internet age of casual communication (I don’t use capital letters on Gchat), errors in more venerable publications still bother me. Twice, I have witnessed The New Yorker print “vocal chords” instead of “vocal cords,” and each time, this makes me think that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

I have now copy-edited four books in two years: two volumes of the Bay One-Acts anthology, and two volumes of the Olympians Festival anthology. Copy-editing plays, especially anthologies of plays from multiple authors, must be one of the most challenging editorial tasks there is. If you’re copy-editing, say, a nonfiction article or an academic essay, you can generally trust that the piece will be in paragraphs of several sentences each, that the author wants to adhere to standards of English grammar and punctuation, that pretty much every sentence will end with a period, etc. (Well, I don’t envy the person who had to copy-edit David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster – but most essayists are not DFW.)

Plays, though, are descriptivist, rather than prescriptivist – they reflect the way people actually talk, not the way that grammarians tell us we should talk. Before you can correct a grammatical mistake in a play, you have to determine whether it’s the author’s mistake or the character’s. When a playwright forgets the punctuation mark on the end of a line of dialogue, you can’t just assume that she wants a period to go there – what if the line should end in an ellipsis, or a dash, or an exclamation point?

Then, imagine doing that for twelve different playwrights, who all have their own idiosyncrasies and tics. For instance, some playwrights favor en-dashes and some favor the longer em-dash – both are acceptable in American English. And every playwright has her own method of dealing with stage directions (italicized and tabbed, parenthetical, or a mixture of both) and as long as the reader doesn’t get confused, that’s usually OK. But an anthology ought to have internal consistency between the plays. More than half of my job as a copy-editor involves converting parenthetical stage directions into italicized ones, or en-dashes into em-dashes. And don’t get me started on the writers who like to use hyphens instead of dashes…

I feel like copy-editing allows me to develop an incredibly intimate relationship with a writer’s words. Actors, directors, and scholars may all do in-depth analyses of the plays they work on, but do they scrutinize them at the level I do, considering every apostrophe, every comma? I hear the writer’s voice, I discern her personality in the placement of every punctuation mark. I learn which writers favor elaborate stage directions and which are minimalists; which writers sit at their computers and pound out dialogue so fast that they neglect punctuation, and which ones meticulously place every semicolon.

Because of my perfectionism, I also find that I’m a de facto fact checker in addition to being a copy-editor. I love this part of the job, since it lets me make use of some of the random knowledge that clutters up my head. All information is useful for a copy-editor. For the second volume of the Olympians book, I was editing a play where a character said that Election Day 2008 was on November 2. But I remembered that I donated to the Obama campaign in 2008 and, in return, got a T-shirt that said “VOTE NOV 4TH” in big letters. I emailed the playwright and asked him if he wanted me to change the date in the text to “November 4.”

Or you could decry me for wasting time on fashion and pop-culture websites, but if I didn’t pay attention to stuff like that, how would I know that Zooey Deschanel spells her first name in that Salingeresque fashion, rather than the more common “Zoe”? (“Zoe” to “Zooey” is another mistake I can recall correcting in the course of my copy-editing projects.)

I even find that being a copy-editor has made me a better writer. The book designers/layout editors I work with always claim that it’s necessary to strip all formatting (e.g. italics) from a play before they do the layout and make the proof copy. Therefore, one necessary evil of copy-editing is going through the proof copy, comparing it to the playwright’s draft, and replacing the italics that were removed. This exercise has convinced me that playwrights don’t need italics half as often as they think they do. Sure, sometimes the italics provide much-needed clarification by indicating which word the actor should stress. But most of the time, the italics don’t seem to serve any discernable purpose and the line isn’t measurably improved by adding them back.

So, copy-editing my play Pleiades for the Olympians anthology, I’ve elected not to replace some of the italics that got stripped away. The climactic scene of the play is dramatic enough as it is – littering it with italics just makes it looks like I don’t trust the actors to play the scene with the appropriate intensity. Italics, punctuation, formatting, and all of those other details only get you so far. At some point, the words have to stand on their own.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and copy-editor. If you found any spelling or grammatical mistakes in this column, please tell her about them in the comments.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Branding Upon the Brain

Marissa Skudlarek contemplates picking her own brand.

“You can’t write songs if you’re thinking about Where Does This Album Belong In The Universe,” says a character in Rob Handel’s play A Maze. “You’re trying to fit it into, like, our life story as a band before it exists. You’re overthinking.”

This line wrung a wry smile from me when I saw Just Theater’s excellent production of A Maze last week. Because I can fall prey to this kind of overthinking (as well as many other kinds). I can be more concerned with Where Does This Play Fit Into My Oeuvre than with, you know, actually sitting down to write it – more preoccupied with “does this feel like a Marissa Skudlarek play?” than with perfecting the plot or characterization.

But we live in an era of “personal branding,” which makes it easy to get caught up in such thoughts. The market for playwrights is oversaturated, so we think we must develop a unique angle to make our work stand out. Literary managers and producers always say that what attracts them to new writers is “their fresh creative voice,” so we worry that our voices aren’t fresh enough, original enough. Besides, whenever I tell people that I’m a playwright, their first question is “What kind of plays do you write?” So I ought to have a smart, memorable reply.

I used to hedge when asked this question. I’d make excuses. I’d say, with a winsome bright-eyed smile, “Oh, I think I’m still probably finding my voice.” But what’s charming when you’re fresh out of college becomes far less so when you’re a mid-twenties adult who ought to know better. (See Frances Ha for a cinematic depiction of this.)

I’ll be thinking about my personal brand a lot in the coming weeks, as well as other facets of my writing career, because I’ve been selected for Theatre Bay Area’s ATLAS Program for Playwrights. Along with 19 other writers, I will attend classes in setting professional goals and taking my writing to the next level; I will also draw up a career roadmap. As such, I will probably need to come up with real answers to “What kinds of plays do I write?” and “Where do I belong in the universe?”

Some of my fellow ATLAS writers seem to have better-defined personal brands than I do, at least judging by the statements they supplied for their bios. Paul Heller “writes plays to make sense of cultural and political differences and how other people perceive the U.S.” Theo Miller’s work “pays tribute to historical business dealings and economic phenomena” and “credibly dramatizes entrepreneurialism.”

I think I would love to have such a strong sense of purpose; I would love to sense that there is a through-line that connects all of my plays, and sum it up in twenty words. But what would happen if Heller suddenly got the urge to write a sci-fi drama, or Miller got the urge to write a romantic comedy? Would they follow that impulse, or would they say “No, that’s off-brand for me, I shouldn’t write it”?

Indeed, as much as I want to have a recognizable brand and voice as a writer, I also worry about constraining or limiting myself. For instance, I realize that I often explore different historical eras in my writing: several of my full-length plays are set in various decades of the 20th century (The Rose of Youth in 1934, Aphrodite in the early 1940s, Pleiades in 1971). But after writing all of those, I am really looking forward to writing a full-length play that takes place in a contemporary setting! And one reason that I scaled back my involvement with the Olympians Festival this year – I’m writing two ten-minute plays, rather than anything more elaborate – is because I don’t want to become “that girl who always writes plays based on Greek mythology.”

A brand can make you stand out – but that means it can also make you a target. The playwrights who have the most recognizable brands tend to be the most polarizing writers, and the ones who are easiest to stereotype and parody.

And, you know, originally, a brand was what you seared into a cow’s flesh with a hot iron in order to mark your ownership of it. It sounds painful and alarming and not something that any cow would choose for itself. Maybe, therefore, we should let the world brand us, rather than working to brand ourselves. (I’ve never even wanted to get a tattoo!) I’d like the freedom to be full of contradictions and possibilities, rather than limiting myself to a narrow brief. If I write well and honestly enough, I will develop a voice and, therefore, a brand of my own. But, as Rob Handel suggests in the unclassifiable, un-brandable A Maze, it’s not something that I should overthink.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer (is that enough of a brand for you?). Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: You’re Doing It Wrong, You’re Doing It Wrong

Marissa Skudlarek brings us Part II of her article about the internet and its discontents.

In my last column, I wrote about the anxiety that “the endless stream of information on Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet in general” makes me feel. In this column, I want to focus on one particularly prevalent form of Internet writing, which I have come to think of as the “You’re Doing It Wrong” essay.

According to KnowYourMeme.com, “You’re Doing It Wrong” became a catchphrase circa 2007-2008, and has remained popular ever since. It was originally just a fun, slightly snarky photo-meme (“Running: You’re Doing It Wrong” above a photo of Italian race-walkers; “Governing: You’re Doing It Wrong” above a photo of George W. Bush), but it has become the guiding principle of a slew of online writings. The Internet is crawling with self-styled experts who just love to tell you what’s the matter with the pop culture you’re consuming and the sociocultural habits you’re unconsciously falling into.

That’s right: if my previous column was a 600-word piece freaking out about the sheer amount of stuff published online each day, this column is about how writers of You’re Doing It Wrong columns are, indeed, doing it wrong. I get the irony, OK?

Because condemnation and hyperbole generate more pageviews than praise or subtlety, a You’re Doing It Wrong essay frames its thesis as contentiously as possible – and thus goes viral. More reasonable voices, which point out nuances, or observe without condemning, get drowned out by louder, shriller voices. In this overheated Internet climate, it feels refreshing to read celebrations of people who are Doing It Right, rather than criticisms of people who are Doing It Wrong. Consider this a public plea to my editor, Stuart Bousel, to publish his crowd-sourced list of male playwrights who write good roles for women.

Of course, even if you do write a paean to someone you think is Doing It Right, be prepared for the backlash: someone will come along the next day and write a piece about how that person is Doing It Wrong after all. If Stuart publishes the list of male playwrights who write good female characters, I fully expect that it will generate a lively debate in the comments section. I also expect that someone will write a response saying that we shouldn’t celebrate male playwrights who write good female roles, because that simply reinforces the patriarchal structure of society, keeps women out of the spotlight, etc. It feels like we’re getting to the point where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t; where no matter what choice you make, someone will tell you that it exemplifies everything that’s wrong with modern society.

I keep bringing up gender because it’s something I think about a lot and feel qualified to discuss. But, in addition, our culture’s overwhelming anxiety about feminism and gender roles means that many You’re Doing It Wrong pieces are targeted toward women. There was another meme going around Twitter yesterday – the #EdgyHeadlines hashtag, which generated humor and social commentary by flipping the gender of magazine-type headlines. I recall examples like “Men, Do You Dress Too Provocatively at Work?” and “Do Male CEOs Spend Too Little Time With their Babies?” Of course, the point of #EdgyHeadlines is that we never actually see headlines like these. It’s women who get told they dress wrong for the office, women who are told to fret about work-life balance. Women bear the brunt of You’re Doing It Wrong attacks, and suffer the most anxiety from them.

I’ve witnessed this happening in our own community. A couple of months ago, local theater director/producer Melissa Hillman wrote a “You’re Doing it Wrong” blog post directed at young female playwrights, whom she claims are writing too many passive protagonists and focusing too much on heterosexual romantic relationships. Her stated intent was to encourage women to “own” their own stories and thereby write better, stronger plays. But I spoke to several women who said that this essay gave them anxiety and made them want to throw in the towel, instead of making them want to write more and better.

Full disclosure: I’m pretty sure that my play Pleiades is one of the plays that prompted Hillman to write her blog post. I’d submitted Pleiades to Impact Theatre last year, and received a kind but firm rejection from Hillman only a few days before she published her piece. And I’d always thought of Pleiades as a play that might be too feminist for mainstream American theaters – it has eight roles for women, after all – yet, evidently, it wasn’t feminist enough for Hillman. This made me feel a little bit trapped and discouraged, rather than empowered. I know very well that you can’t please everybody, but read enough “You’re Doing It Wrong” essays and you’ll start to feel like you can never please anybody.

At the same time, though, I felt kind of flattered that Hillman might’ve been thinking of one of my plays as she wrote her blog post. If so, it’s the first time anyone has written about my work in a serious, critical way, and it did prompt me to think harder about what messages I’m sending in the plays that I write. These days (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde), perhaps the only thing worse than being criticized is not being criticized. The Internet is an endless cycle of creation, reaction, backlash, and outrage. It can make your head dizzy — but don’t you want to go for a spin?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. So, come on, then, have at her in the comments section. She also welcomes additional criticisms on her blog at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.