Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: 588 if We’re Lucky

Claire Rice has luck on her side.. hopefully.

For whatever sins I have committed, I consider a recent show I sat through punishment enough. The slate is clean and I can start all over again. It feels good.

And, though it may seem contrary, it has made me remember why I love theatre.

In this day and age we are fatted on entertainment all day every day everywhere we go. We have games to while away the hour before the bus comes. We have libraries of books are at our beck and call. Every movie ever made and all the television shows can be watched and shared and commented on. Magazines and news sources are at every click of the mouse. And is it any wonder that we argue so strongly about the stupidest points when we have entertainment news programs yelling at each other 24 hours a day and when every website thrives on user comments as a kind of content. I swear I only read SFGate for the stupid fucking things its ugly minded commenters say. We can stalk our friends and loved ones for fun without the need to tell them we love them and wish them well. Porn can always always always be had. Entertainment is everywhere all the time. No experience dies entirely, it can all be recalled and dulled down to a nub of a memory until it becomes so inconsequential it might as well have not even happened and we must search again for the next entertainment.

But a theatrical performance is a finite and unique experience that can only exist in its form in single moment. It takes effort to participate in. The experience can be relocated, but never truly copied. The seventh viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life will change only because of all the outside forces around it, but that movie will be the same. The seventh viewing of Romeo and Juliet will never be the same as the first even if it is the same production. If you watch a recorded version of that performance, it will no longer be theatre. Not really. And I love that. Nothing can beat that.

I am directing a production of RAT GIRL that will go up in May. If we sell every seat every night, about 588 people will see it. And then it will be over. Gone. That is less than 0.07 of the population of San Francisco. That is an terribly small percentage of humanity. The chances of this show being almost a puff of nothing in the history of the art, of the world, is so high that when asked why I do what I do I am forced to stay that it must be I do it only for myself. And yet, I remember moments (big and small) that have utterly changed who I am as a person and an artist. These seemingly insignificant moments of theatre sent shockwaves through my mind and have brought me here to this moment. It isn’t that I would be happy or lucky if one among 588 feels the impact that I felt. It is that I hope to create a thing that each of those 588 people carry with them as they move out into the world and into their lives and into everything else they do.

Becca Kinskey Brown Bag Theatre

I spent about six years at San Francisco State University as a graduate student and then as an administrator and lecturer. (Yeah, they let me tech people and my mother fucking Oedipus lecture was both a joy to give and totally mother fucking interesting.) And over the years there I’ve seen many things that were both remarkable and beautiful. The Brown Bag Theatre had many of those moments. Brown Bag Theatre is a small black box semester long repertory company that produces hour long shows from 12-1 for free almost all semester. The shows are entirely student produced and range from work-in-progress to ready to tour. But, there was no more foundational moment for me than watching Becca Kinskey in a cameo performance.

Memory is a tricky thing. I’m going to put this up here and someone is going to tell me I got it all wrong and none of it even happened. I don’t remember the show. I don’t remember anything else that happened. But I remember Becca Kinskey. I don’t think she was even a student at the time, but I think she was acting technical director. She was a favorite among the students for her calm and friendly demeanor, her whip smart mind, and her youth. She herself may have only just graduated from the program. How she got talked into do the show I don’t know.

Her performance was a comedy set. Her character was a first time nervous comedian. I don’t remember Becca telling a single joke, but I do remember that she became that character. The comedian was so nervous she began to tell sad and horrible truths about her own life. She cried, wept, as she lived out the nightmare scenario of being up onstage with nothing to say and an audience having all the wrong reactions. But, the odd thing was that we laughed. There were none of the normal cues for laughter, but the audience was played like a harp by the director and by Becca. We were unwitting participants in the sad fragmented story of the woman on stage. We laughed at every motion. Every tear. It was ridiculous. It was horrific. And through it all, Becca was not Becca. She was that frail and broken woman sighing behind the microphone. It was so good.

Frank Wood as Lucky in Waiting for Godot at American Conservatory Theatre

I am a vocal critic of American Conservatory Theatre and I expect I will only get louder. But I do what to put it on record that my heart hasn’t turned absolutely black against A.C.T. There are more than a few memorable moments that I’ve had there that could easily end up on this list.

But Frank Wood as Lucky beats them all by a long shot.

Frank Wood (downstage) as  Lucky, and Steven Anthony Jones as Pozzo.

Frank Wood (downstage) as Lucky, and Steven Anthony Jones as Pozzo.

I love Waiting for Godot. It is a piece of theatre that was integral to my development as an artist. The production at A.C.T. was fine. I remember little about Didi and Gogo. Gregory Wallace was in his usual form, putting his strange voice through a sort of auditory acrobatics that is beautiful in its singular nature, but I can never be sure if I like his acting or find his voice so unique that I think I enjoy his acting. At any rate, I had been waiting to hear Lucky’s monologue. I didn’t think they would cut any of it, but I couldn’t be sure. It is a rambling, stream of consciousness word purge that lasts five or more minutes. It is a plague of nothing and it is a poetry of the working mind; it is a parody of critique and acting and class and anything and everything. It is the thing that comes out of a slave’s mouth when he is demanded to “think” for no other purpose then as a sport. Sports of all kinds. Namely concurrently.

Frank Wood’s performance was naked and dangerous and drooling and violent in the pain he lived on stage. He was a man who is full of things to say, but can only say them when ordered to. He stared directly out into the audience and into nothing as his body shook itself so hard I thought his bones would come loose and he would puddle onto the floor. If I had seen him on the street I would have called an ambulance. I believed him to be in pain because I could see he was in pain. He was delirious and with every word further and further out of control. When I see this performance in my mind, he towers above me and I look up into his red-rimmed eyes and I am overwhelmed.

Next Time on Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List…

“588 if We’re Lucky Part II – One Is The Loneliest Number”

An ode to every production that has had to go on for a single audience member.

Everything is Already Something Week 25: But What if They Hate It?!

Allison Page, talking about what she knows best: being an object of derision.

I was every kind of nervous. I realized too late that I hadn’t eaten enough. I started filling up on mimosas instead of food – what else could I do? I don’t know what I was so anxious about; it was exactly this moment that I had been building up to the last few months, and now that I was faced with it, it was really freaking me out! Yes, it was the actor read through of the first draft of my new play. This little baby nugget had to be tossed out of the nest. There was no more waiting, the day had come.

I’m not prone to nervousness. In fact, it’s an extreme rarity for me. I get that from my dad. He’s a pretty calm and cool dude, and so am I. EXCEPT THIS TIME. Sure, I’ve written all kinds of stuff. Plays, even. But they’re not usually full length, and they’re not usually this important to me. And this was a first draft! Actors were coming over to read my FIRST DRAFT out loud! What if they hated it? What if they walked around shouting about how much they hated it? Here are some things I seriously worried about:

1) Do too many people in the play exit to the bathroom?! Everyone’s going to think the characters have digestive problems!

Even the cat's on the can.

Even the cat’s on the can.

2) This seems like Mamet-level swearing. What if they don’t like the swearing? What if they think it’s like…HBO swearing? Do I care?!

3) I wonder if everyone’s going to feel really weird about the sex scene. I mean, I feel a little weird about it myself. It’s SEX, after all.

4) I bet at least one person will think that I have my character picked up and carried around just because I love being picked up and carried around – because I do. But that’s not why I wrote it!…is it?!

5) What if the director lights the script on fire in the middle of the reading in a blaze of un-glory?

Once we sat down and actually started reading it, I calmed down. Well, I stopped being nervous, anyway…and I started being excited! I think I was twirling a pen around the whole time because I didn’t know what to do with my hands. And I ate a lot of handfuls of cheese puffs. (Sorry, diet.)

Mamet: Probably Not Impressed With My Swearing

Mamet: Probably Not Impressed With My Swearing

This play has been brewing in my head for nearly 3 years. To put it down in typed words had its bouts of ease and of difficulty. Naturally, the day before the reading I sat at my computer from 7:30am until after midnight in order to finish it. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do. And even then…there’s no last scene. I have everything else, but there’s no last scene. Ending things is always difficult, I think. It’s so…final! Part of it is that I’m a little afraid of leaving these beloved characters in a not-necessarily-happy state. But I’m also hesitant to tie everything up neatly in a pretty bow. That just doesn’t seem a fitting end to their story; it’s too clean. It seems like I know I don’t want that good old fairytale ending, but I’m scared to do what might be necessary. It’s probably a “DO IT FAST, LIKE TEARING OFF A BANDAID!” situation…but I can’t seem to do that.

I told the actors at the reading that the final scene hadn’t been written yet. Even so, when we got to the last page, they all wanted to know what happens! I told them I had a few different ideas about how the last scene could go, but didn’t really tell them what those ideas are. They had their own suspicions. Deep down, a lot of people want a story with a happy ending – or as happy an ending as possible. But when that doesn’t serve the story – I’m not into it. If Ingrid Bergman had stayed with Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca, the story wouldn’t feel the same.

Forget that other guy, let's run away together! To hell with the fate of the world! Then let's make Casablanca 2: Lost in New York!

Forget that other guy, let’s run away together! To hell with the fate of the world! Then let’s make Casablanca 2: Lost in New York!

(Um, not that HILARITY is as important as CASABLANCA, but you know what I mean. Different endings have different effects.) Actually, many of the most enduring stories I can think of don’t have happy endings. I’m lookin’ at YOU, Romeo and Juliet! It’s not something I want to make a quick, impulsive decision about. I’m going to give it some time. I have a little time on my side at the moment, so I’m going to take advantage of that. Am I worried that I’ll choose an ending the audience won’t like? Mmm…yeah, a little. But mostly I want to make sure *I* like it. It’s my ending, after all. I don’t want to regret it. And I want to do right by the fake people who swim around in my brain. (Wow, that sounded delusional. Whatever.)

Oh, and no one noticed the characters going to the bathroom too much. Thank goodness, otherwise I’d be forced to put in a line about them having eaten a lot of spicy food or something.

You can witness Allison’s delusions live at SF Sketchfest on Monday, February 3rd at the Eureka Theater with Killing My Lobster.

Theater Around The Bay: A Play In 60 Seconds or Less? Seriously? Yeah, Seriously.

Carol Lashof on the process of creating something very, very short.

I was slow to warm up to the ten-minute play genre, thinking it gimmicky and more conducive to sketch comedy than serious drama. But eventually I succumbed to the lure of submission opportunities and began to write ten-minute plays. I found that they were fun and that, yes, it is possible to create nuanced characters and make high-stakes drama unfold in a mere 8-10 minutes of stage time. Even so, when I first heard that one-minute plays were a thing, I thought … No.

Then Dominic D’Andrea invited me to participate in the 4th annual One-Minute Play Festival at the Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco. Whatever is the inverse of sour grapes, that’s what I experienced. I was honored to be asked to join the party. Besides, a production is a production, no matter how short the play. I squelched my skepticism in under a minute. And after reading several examples of successful one-minute plays from other festivals, I knew my doubts about the potential of the genre were unfounded. Still, the question remained: Could I write one? (Or two, actually, since the call was to submit exactly two.)

I cast about for a structure, a form in which every breath counts, and lighted upon the sonnet: 140 syllables and a thing complete in itself. Drawing inspiration from Romeo and Juliet—who meet and fall in love in the course of a shared sonnet—I wrote Come Live With Me, a play about star-crossed lovers for whom the impediment to a life together is not the enmity of their families, but the high cost of rent.

The rules of constructing a sonnet provided me with a sense of safety in my first attempt at writing a one-minute play. For my second attempt, I abandoned the training wheels. I heeded the advice in the festival “Writers’ Pack” to build from a “seed image” and pursue “deep specificity.” My seed image for Be Yourself was a wife questioning whether her spouse would, by another name and gender, still be the person she has always loved. The first drafts ran long, so I kept cutting the beginning, starting later and later in the action, so as to allow the characters time to move deeper into the conflict—which is a useful habit to adopt when writing any play, no matter how long.

Carol Lashoff is a playwright whose work has been featured all around the Bay Area and beyond. The complete scripts of “Come Live With Me” and “Be Yourself” are posted here: Running time for each play is about 50 seconds.

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: The Flowers of Youth

Marissa Skudlarek is forever young.

Jean Cocteau disowned his first two books of poetry. Fortunately for him, his lifetime artistic output was so vast that, even if he disowned two of his books, he was still left with a remarkable body of work. Cocteau was an artistic prodigy. His first books of poems, Aladdin’s Lamp and The Frivolous Prince, came out when he was barely twenty years old and made him the delight of Parisian literary circles. Other people were less charmed, and thanks to the title of his second book, they nicknamed Cocteau himself “the frivolous prince.” That’s not exactly a flattering name, nor one that you’d like to keep into adulthood, so I suppose I can see why Cocteau came to disown that book of poems.

At the same time, it always makes me uncomfortable when artists disown their early works. I guess I can understand disowning one of your books if it promotes ideas and beliefs that you no longer hold, especially if you now consider those ideas downright dangerous or wrong. But if you’re disowning something just because you think it’s poorly written or too juvenile or not up to your usual standards… that, to me, seems like a cruel rejection of your younger self. Despite its flaws, that work was part of your artistic development. Maybe you had to write that ludicrous, melodramatic story at the age of 15 in order to write a subtle, nuanced story at the age of 30. Our juvenilia can be embarrassing to read — artless and awkward, or else pretentious and striving too hard to impress. But that’s often because it reflects who we were at the time we wrote it. I strive to embrace my younger self, with her pretensions, her awkwardness, her bad taste in music. I might still laugh at some of the things I wrote when I was younger, but it’s an affectionate, indulgent laugh, not a mocking one.

Some people think that they look smarter when they disdain their younger selves but, in fact, this can make them do and say foolish things. Recently, in Slate, Alyssa Rosenberg published a screed denouncing Romeo and Juliet as “horribly depressing” and “full of terrible, deeply childish ideas about love.” To be fair, Rosenberg doesn’t exactly misinterpret Romeo and Juliet: she understands very well that it is a play about heedless teenage infatuation, and she makes a good point that the play can fall apart when the actors playing Romeo and Juliet seem too adult. (She is not looking forward to the upcoming Broadway production starring 36-year-old Orlando Bloom as Romeo.) But rather than praising the play for how well it captures the grandiose “us against the world” feeling of teenage romance, she believes that it’s dangerous to promote this idea of love. Reading her piece, I hear a subtext of “I was so stupid when I was a teenager and had those intense, heedless crushes and relationships! Why would I ever want to go back to that time? I’m so much more mature now.” The thing is, I don’t think that Rosenberg’s dislike of Romeo and Juliet makes her look intelligent and mature. Instead, she seems full of self-loathing and bitterness, lacking compassion for her younger self.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, because I just produced a staged reading of a play, The Rose of Youth, that I wrote five years ago. Perhaps there’s not a huge difference between a 20-year-old and a 25-year-old, yet my writing has improved in the past five years, and there are definitely sections of the play that feel characteristic of a younger, less skilled writer. I introduced the male romantic lead in the most boring possible way, for instance; and the play is full of moments that made me sigh and go, “Oh, Marissa, you were just trying so hard to impress your professors there, weren’t you?” (The play was my senior thesis at college.) However, I didn’t have the time or the inclination to revise the play; I left the script as I had left it five years ago, awkward moments and all. I had to put my theory into practice, and embrace my younger self. I acknowledged that I’d learned a lot from writing The Rose of Youth, and that it was exactly the play that I needed to write as a college senior. But I also realized that my artistic development has continued, and I’ve now moved to another level as a writer.

Yes, it’s possible to develop as an artist without feeling the need to disown your earlier work. Indeed, in another respect, that’s what Jean Cocteau did. Fascinated by the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, he wrote his play Orphee in 1925 — but that didn’t end his engagement with this story. Twenty-five years later, he made a film called Orphee, which bears some similarities to the 1925 play — for instance, both depict Death as a beautiful and imperious woman — yet develops the story in a different direction. Orphee the film is now better known than Orphee the play, and perhaps it is a better, more mature work. (I, for one, find the film more emotionally affecting.) Yet Cocteau did not disown his earlier play. He let both works coexist with each other — a testament to his artistic development and his fruitful, ever-active imagination.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. See her new translation of Jean Cocteau’s Orphee (the play) on April 15 at Theater Pub. For more, you can follow her on Twitter @MarissaSkud or visit