Theater Around the Bay: Christian Simonsen & Alejandro Torres of “No Fault”

The Pint-Sized Plays have their 4th performance tonight! We continue our series of interviews with the festival’s writers and directors by speaking to writer Christian Simonsen and director Alejandro Torres of “No Fault”! (Alejandro also served as the Deputy Producer of Pint-Sized this year.)

“No Fault” introduces us to Jack and Kate, a divorcing couple with an 8-year-old daughter, who’ve scheduled a quick meeting in a corner bar to sign their divorce papers, make it official, and try to put the past to rest. Colin Hussey and Lisa Darter play the couple.

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Christian Simonsen, a writer returning to Pint-Sized.

What made you get involved with Pint-Sized this year or, if you’re returning to the festival, why did you come back?

Christian: I have been a fan of the Pint-Sized Play Festival since the beginning, and I was honored to have an earlier short play of mine, the comedy “Multitasking,” produced by this festival in 2013. I love immersive, site-specific theater like this, where the actors rub shoulders with the audience. That’s not just an expression… if you come to this show, a drunk llama may literally rub your shoulders!

Alejandro: I love this theater company and all the fresh work they bring to San Francisco (and on a monthly basis too). I’ve directed and performed with them before and have also met some great and talented folks that keep me coming back.

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

Christian: The challenge to writing a short play is to remember that it’s not a full-length play crammed into a few pages. That may sound obvious, but it’s tempting during the writing process to forget that. It generally can only be about one thing. Every word of dialogue, every prop, every stage direction must earn its keep. A full-length play can survive three or four weak scenes. A short play has trouble recovering from three or four weak lines of dialogue. As a general rule, a short script can’t really handle numerous subplots crisscrossing each other, but it should also avoid being a “mood piece” that just sits there.

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

Christian: Its purity. Audience members rarely walk away from a short play with mixed feelings; it either worked or it didn’t. As a writer, I’m most productive when I’m given boundaries and limitations, and the short play format fits the bill perfectly. For example, in “No Fault,” a separated couple are going through the awkward, tense ordeal of signing their divorce papers in a pub that they used to frequent during happier times. The stage directions have both actors sitting at a table for most of the script. But when the woman delivers the most intimate line of dialogue to her now ex-husband, she is standing away from the table while the man remains seated. The ironic contrast of their emotional closeness and their physical distance would be lost (or at least watered down) in a longer play where the actors would be moving around for two hours, willy-nilly.

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

Alejandro: Simply getting it all together as producer and table work as a director.

What’s been most troublesome?

Alejandro: Scheduling!

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Christian: For scriptwriting in general (short and long, stage and screen), they would include Richard Matheson, Elaine May, Ernest Lehman, Preston Sturges, John Guare, Tina Fey, Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, Ben Hecht, Tom Stoppard, Horton Foote, Monty Python.

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

Christian: That’s tough, because I try and make it a point not to picture celebrities, whether world-famous or local, when I create characters. My goal is always to write a character that is solid and fully-formed on the page, while still leaving enough wiggle room where an actor can put their own spin on him or her. That being said, for this script I could picture actors Mark Ruffalo, Elden Henson, John Hawkes, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Amy Poehler, Sandra Oh.

Alejandro: Hmm… Maggie Cheung and Joaquin Phoenix. I they would make for an interesting dynamic.

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Director Alejandro Torres shows off his dramatic side.

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

Alejandro: This is cheating as I have worked with these two before but have never directed them: Genevieve Perdue and Alan Coyne.

What are you currently working on/what’s next for you?

Christian: I was one of the staff writers on Killing My Lobster’s August sketch comedy show Game of Nerds, which was a lot of fun to work on. My next project is a collaboration with the multi-talented Sean Owens. We are developing a comedy web series called Under the Covers, which will be both hysterical and educational (or at least one of the two).

Alejandro: The SF Fringe Festival this September will be my next project. I will be remounting an original piece called Projected Voyages about dreams, nightmares, and passing thoughts.

What Bay Area theater events or shows are you excited about this summer/fall?

Christian: I want to see Barry Eitel’s The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident. I’ve always admired Barry as an actor, and I’m anxious to see what he does as a playwright. It also stars two of my favorite local actors, Becky Hirschfeld and Paul Rodrigues. And producer Stuart Bousel’s San Francisco Olympians Festival in October is always an exciting event that features new plays by Bay Area writers.

Alejandro: Killing My Lobster’s August show Game of Nerds. [ed: this closed last weekend! Apologies for not posting this interview sooner!]

What’s your favorite beer?

Christian: Stella Artois, but I will happily endorse another brewery if they give me their product or money or both.

Alejandro: IPAs that pair well with whiskey.

“No Fault” and the other Pint-Sized Plays have 2 performances remaining: August 23 and 29 at 8 PM at PianoFight! 

 

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Theater Around the Bay: Alan Coyne & Juliana Lustenader of “Bar Spies”

The Pint-Sized Plays begin their 2nd week of performances tonight! We continue our series of interviews with the folks behind the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays by speaking to writer Alan Coyne and director Juliana Lustenader of “Bar Spies”!

“Bar Spies” is a spy-fiction pastiche, full of false identities, double-crossings, and heightened tension. Actors Courtney Merrell and Andrew Chung show off an impressive array of accents and some slick trench-coated style as the two spies.

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Playwright Alan Coyne has a sense of humor.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized, or, if you’re returning to the festival, why did you come back?

Alan: I wrote a piece for Pint-Sized last year (“Relativity”), and this year I figured I’d have another go. I can’t write without a deadline, and this festival gives you that plus a setting, so it’s exactly what I need to write something.

Juliana: I first got involved with Pint-Sized last year as the writer of “To Be Blue,” directed by the wonderful Neil Higgins and featuring the hilarious duo of Eden Neuendorf and Tony Cirimele. The show was such a success last year, I knew I wanted to come back. I’m super excited to return as a director this time!

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

Alan: For me, the hardest thing about writing a short play (or anything) is getting started. And after that, it’s translating the amazing idea in your head into the least-clunky language possible.

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

Alan: Knowing that everything in it has to matter. That helps focus me on what I actually need to put in, and what I can do without.

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

Juliana: The most exciting moment for me so far this year was watching my actors read the script for the first time out loud while Alan and I watched. I couldn’t stop smiling as Courtney and Andrew took these two silly characters and brought them to life so easily despite the ridiculous accents we are making them do.

What’s been most troublesome?

Juliana: Scheduling! But that’s what I get for wanting to work with such talented folks.

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What are your biggest artistic influences?

Alan: P.G. Wodehouse and Douglas Adams. They are who I would want to write like, if I could. For this particular play, it’s John Le Carre, who wrote Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; “Bar Spies” is very much a parody of that genre, and he, for me, is the best spy writer. And I owe a little something to Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood, which is also a spy parody play. And Chess, which is the musical I’m rehearsing for at the moment, and is set during the Cold War.

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

Juliana: Sean Connery, because he is the best spy with the best accent.

Alan: Alec Guinness, who played the main character in the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and did so definitively. Luckily for me, Courtney Merrell pretty much is Alec Guinness, so that worked out.

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

Juliana: Brian Martin is the first to come to mind, though we did do a scene study project in college together. Still, I think it would be a treat to work with him in a more professional setting.

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

Alan: My next writing project is for the San Francisco Olympians Festival, it’s called Hypnos, and it’s an excerpt from Shakespeare’s lost play, Cardenio. It’ll be performed Saturday, October 15. And my next acting projects are the aforementioned Chess for Custom Made (September/October), in which I play The Arbiter, followed by Feste in Twelfth Night at the Metropolitan Club on Saturday, November 5, which Juliana is also directing.

Juliana: Up next, I’m directing Twelfth Night as part of Shakespeare at the Club. I’m also performing in Chess at Custom Made Theatre Company and Avenue Q at New Conservatory Theatre.

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

Juliana: The Fringe Festival at the Exit Theatre.

Alan: The Olympians Festival is always wonderful, everyone should check that out at the EXIT this October. I had the opportunity to participate in Musical Cafe this year, and they’re doing another showcase in November, I highly recommend keeping an eye out for that. And PianoFight always has something good going on, especially shows which feature Andrew Chung.

What’s your favorite beer?

Juliana: Right now it’s Old Rasputin’s Russian Imperial Stout, but I’ll drink whatever you buy me.

Alan: For this show, I recommend drinking a pint of (Alec) Guinness.

“Bar Spies” and the other Pint-Sized Plays have 3 performances remaining: August 22, 23, and 29 at PianoFight! 

Theater Around the Bay: Shirley Issel & Jamie Harkin of “Angel of Darkness”

From now through the end of August, we’ll be bringing you interviews with the writers and directors of the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays. First up: writer Shirley Issel and director Jamie Harkin of “Angel of Darkness”!

“Angel of Darkness” is a modern mystery play set in a contemporary bar. Death is the barman, and he informs Everyman that as soon as another patron, Fellowship, finishes his beer, Everyman will die… 

Brett Mermer plays Death, James F. Ross plays Fellowship, and Jamie Harkin pulls double duty by playing Everyman as well as directing the show.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized?

Shirley: I am part of a playwriting class at Stagebridge, taught by Anthony Clarvoe. Anthony gave us your Pint-Sized Play Festival call for submission and rules as a weekly assignment. The rules captured my imagination and I really liked the results, so I submitted.

Jamie: My dear friend Alejandro Torres, who is the deputy producer of Pint-Sized this year, knows me and recommended me.

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

Shirley: Coming up with a good idea.

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

Shirley: It is clear very quickly if you have something good.

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

Jamie: The idea of performing in front of such a huge crowd.

What’s been most troublesome?

Jamie: Finding actors.

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Shirley Issel, Pint-Sized Playwright.

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Shirley: I am in love with Shakespeare, especially the way one character in each play sets the ball rolling and in doing so calls in his own fate. “Angel of Darkness” takes place on Halloween. When the bartender/Death asks Everyman if he wants a “trick or treat,” Everyman asks for a trick, inviting Death to do his thing.

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

Jamie: Anthony Hopkins, Derek Jacobi, Benedict Cumberbatch or Alan Rickman (if I could bring him back I totally would). Cause, you know, I love me some Brits.

Shirley: I would cast Matthew McConaughey as the bartender. He’s naughty, playful and smart with a killer smile. I can just hear him with his Southern accent asking his customers, “Alright, Alright, Alright! What’ll you have, trick or treat?”

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Jamie Harkin, actor AND director!

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

Jamie: Hmm… I’d have to say James Carpenter. I’ve met him a couple times. He’s really really nice.

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

Jamie: I’m in the SF Fringe Festival this year as part of Alejandro’s show Projected Voyages, which is being remounted. I was an original cast member back in 2013.

Shirley: I’m sticking with my playwriting class at Stagebridge and I’m curious myself about what will happen next. One thing new I’m eager to pursue is a class on directing.

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

Shirley: I’m looking forward to seeing Dear Master come back to the Aurora in September. Joy Carlin is directing and she makes sure good material gets a good production.

Jamie: I really wanna see John Leguizamo’s show at Berkeley Rep.

What’s your favorite beer?

Jamie: Milk!

Shirley: Right now, I like Death and Taxes.

See “Angel of Darkness” and the other Pint-Sized Plays at PianoFight on August 15, 16, 22, 23, and 29!

 

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!

Theater Around The Bay: The Great Blog Recap of 2015 Part II

Today we bring you three more annual round ups from three more of our core blogging team: Ashley Cowan, Will Leschber, and Dave Sikula! More tomorrow and the Stueys on Thursday!

The Top Five Thank Yous of 2015 by Ashley Cowan

1) You’re inspirational, Molly Benson
Aside from the incredible PianoFight mosaic we all continue to marvel at each time we’re in its proximity, you’ve managed to continue bursting through the creative scene while balancing parenting a small child (which I’ve personally found to be an incredibly difficult thing to do). You’re acting, you’re lending your voice to various projects, you’re making art, and you’re out there inspiring me to keep trying. So thank you and please keep it up!

2) You’re so great to work with, San Francisco Fringe Festival
2015 was the second year I had the chance to be a part of the SF Fringe Festival alongside Banal+ with Nick and Lisa Gentile, Warden Lawlor, Dan Kurtz, Tavis Kammet, and Will Leschber. (And this year, Eden Davis and Katrina Bushnell joined the cast making it even stronger!) Now, I always love working with this dynamic bunch but this time around, I was returning to the stage after a two year hiatus and straight off of having a baby and returning to work full time. Thankfully, everyone was so flexible and kind that when I had to leave a show immediately after my performance (skipping the other pieces in the lineup and curtain call) to relieve our babysitter, I was greeted with support and understanding. It made all the difference so thank you again.

3) You trusted me to be a 90’s (Rose McGowan inspired) teenager, Anthony Miller
Last year when I had to back out of TERROR-RAMA, I was pretty crushed. I don’t totally know how I lucked out in getting a second chance with this October’s reading of TERROR-RAMA 2: PROM NIGHT but oh, man, I loved it. After feeling a bit rusty and uncomfortable in my post baby body, Anthony Miller and Colin Johnson let me play this sexy queen vampire 90’s teen. And I had the best time. Anthony’s script is truly hilarious and under Colin’s direction, the reading was a great success. But I was also left with that electric, “yes! This is why I do this!” feeling after I had the chance to be involved and for that, I’m super grateful. Thank you, Anthony. And thank you Rose McGowan.

4) You Made Me Love Being an Audience Member Again, In Love and Warcraft
One of my theatrical regrets from this past year was not singing praises or appropriately applauding creative teams when I had the chance. In this case, I didn’t really take the opportunity to give a shout out to all involved in Custom Made’s recent show, In Love And Warcraft. I was unfamiliar with most of the cast but, wow, they were delightful. The script was smart, sweet, and funny (and totally played to my nerdy romantic sensibilities) and the whole thing came together into such an enjoyable theater experience. I had such fun being in the audience and invited into a world of warcraft and new love. Thank you, thank you.

5) You Make Me Feel Tall and Proud, Marissa Skudlarek
In our two part Theater Pub blog series, Embracing the Mirror, Marissa and I uncovered new heights. Or, really, uncovered the heights that had been there all along and allowed us to kind of honor them. I’m so thankful that Marissa suggested this collaboration because the topic allowed me to reconnect with tall actress friends from my past while reevaluating my own relationship to my height. Plus, getting to do it with Marissa was a treat in itself. So thank you, Marissa for continuing to positively push this blog forward and allowing me to stand next to you!

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Top Five 2015 Films That Should Be Adapted Into A Stage Play by Will Leschber

Hi all! Since I spend most of the year trying to smash together the space between theater and film, why not just come out with it and say which bright shining films of 2015 should end up on our great stages here in San Francisco. So here are the top 5 films of 2015 that should be adapted to a San Franciscan stage production…and a Bay Area Actor who’d fit perfectly in a key role!

Now, since my knowledge of the vast pool of Bay Area creative performers isn’t what it used to be, lets just get fun and totally subjective and pull this recommendation list from a single show! And not just a single show… a single show that Theater Pub put up… AND I was in: Dick 3… Stuart Bousel’s bloody adaptation of Richard III. Yeah, talk about nepotism, right? Booyah… lets own this!

5) Room
This film adaption of the acclaimed book by Emma Donoghue would fit easily into a restricted stage production with the cloying enclosed location in which most of the action takes place. It’s a moving story dictated by creative perspective and wonderful acting, things that shine onstage. Brie Larson owns the film’s main performance but it if a bay area actress could give it a go, I’d love to see Jeunée Simon radiate in this role. Her youthful energy, subtle power, and soulful spirit would kick this one out of the park.

4) Steve Jobs
Regardless of the Aaron Sorkin lovers or haters out there, this film is written like a three-act play and would work supremely well on stage, as it does on screen. It’s talky and quick-paced as long as you keep up the clip of lip that the script demands. The perfect pairing to tackle this towering role of Steve Jobs and his “work wife” Joanna Hoffman (played respectively by Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet) would look excellent cast with Jessica Rudholm as Steve Jobs (Jessica is an unbelievably powerful performer and can command any room she steps into…perfect for Jobs) and Megan Briggs as the Joanna Hoffman character: resourceful, smart and can stand up to powerful chest-puffing men. Done!

3) Mistress America
This buoyant film by Noah Baumbach follows a New York pseudo-socialite, Brooke, embodied perfectly by Greta Gerwig, who has to fall a bit from her idealized youthful 20s phase of life towards something a bit more….self-realized…aka adulthood. At times a situation-farce houseguest comedy, and other times a story of searching for self discovery, the themes would read equally beautifully on stage. The second lead in this film is a bright-eyed, I-know-everything-in-the-world college freshman named Tracy, who befriends our beloved Brooke character. It’s a dual journey. Allison Page has more confidence than all the college freshman I know. She’d play the crap out of that! And for the main Greta Gerwig part… this is a hard role to fill with quirk and empathy, so I’d say let’s give Sam Bertken a shot at it! Sam as a performer has the whimsy of a confident yet lost late-20-something, but the charm and determination to persevere with her/his quirk intact.

2) Spotlight
This journalistic procedural which chronicles the story behind the Pulitzer-winning newspaper story of sexual abuse and the Catholic Church would be a heavy sit. But the story is powerful, the characters are true, and the setting lends itself to small scale theater. To play the stalwart Spotlight department newspaper lead editor, played by Michael Keaton in the film, lets go with Carl Lucania who’d give the role a nice imprint. AND to boot, the Mark Ruffalo character (who is the shoulder of the film, in my opinion) would be handled wonderfully by Paul Jennings. These two have the exact performing skills to juxtapose unrelenting determination and quiet, frustrated fury which fit perfectly for this story.

1) Inside Out
Now I hear you…animated films with complex imaginary landscapes and vistas filled with old memories might not immediately scream stage production. But if The Lion King, King Kong or even Beauty & the Beast can do it, I know some insanely talented set designers, costume designers and lighting specialists could bring this world to life. More importantly, the themes of passing away from youthful phases of life, how hard and lonely a childhood transition can be, plus learning that life isn’t simply divided into happy/sad/angry/scared memories. The complicated reality is that our selves and our memories are colored with a mad mix of many diverse emotions and characteristics. Coming of age with this palette of imagination would be glorious on stage. And who better to play the central character named Joy, than the joyful Brian Martin. He just adorable…all the time.

Five Things I Learned on My Last New York Trip by Dave Sikula

1) “Traditional” Casting Is Over
Well, not totally, obviously, but as Hamilton showed (among so many other things), anyone can play anything. I’m old enough to remember when musicals had all-white casts, then, little by little, there would be one African American male and one African American female in the ensemble, and they always danced together. Gradually, you began to see more and more people of color in choruses, and they were now free to interact with anyone. Now, of course, pretty much any role is up for grabs by any actor of any race or gender – or should be. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see an Asian female eventually playing Hamilton himself. Whether this – and the other innovations of Hamilton – percolates into more mainstream fare remains to be seen, but it’s certainly to be hoped.

2) A Good Director Can Make Even the Most Tired War-Horse Fresh and Vital
For my money, there aren’t many major playwrights whose work has aged more badly than Arthur Miller. Yeah, Death of Salesman is still powerful, but the rest of the canon isn’t faring so well. Years and years ago, I saw a lousy production of A View from the Bridge, and even then, it struck me as obvious, tired, and dull. Ivo van Hove’s production, then, had a couple of hurdles to overcome: 1) it’s a London import, and 2) it’s, well, it’s A View from the Bridge. Van Hove’s 2004 production of Hedda Gabler (surely one of the worst “important” plays ever written) was enough of a revelation that I wanted to see what he could do with this one, and boy, did he come through. Tough, powerful, and visceral, it’s nothing so much as what we hear Greek tragedy was so good at. It was so good, I’m anxious to see his upcoming production of The Crucible, and see if he can make another truly terrible play interesting.

3) Even a Good Director Can’t Make a Tired Old War-Horse Work
In 2008, Bartlett Sher directed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, a show I’d seen too much and from which (I’d thought) all the juice had long since been squeezed. By digging deep into the text and back story, though, Sher and company were able to make it vital, exciting, and relevant. Flash forward to last year and the reunion of some of the band to remount The King and I, another show whose time has all but passed. Despite breathtaking sets, more delving into two-dimensional characters by very good actors (Hoon Lee and Kelli O’Hara are doing superb work in the title parts), and marvelous staging, it just sits there. The problem to these tired old eyes is that musical dramaturgy of today doesn’t always fit well with that of the early 1950s, and the show itself just has too many fundamental flaws to work anymore. It’s a pity, because a lot of time and effort is being expended in a futile effort to make the unworkable work. In the words of Horace, “The mountain labors, and brings forth … a mouse!”

4) There Is No Show So Bad That No One Will See It
We’ve dealt with the awfulness of China Doll before. Despite barely having a script and offering audiences little more than the chance to watch Al Pacino alternately get fed his lines and chew scenery, it’s still drawing people. Sure, that attendance is falling week by week, but last week, it was still 72% full and took in more than $600,000. Running costs can’t be that much (two actors, one set), but even with what imagines is a monumental amount being paid Mr. Pacino, it’s probably still making money. If I may (correctly) quote the late Mr. Henry L. Mencken of Baltimore: “No one in this world, so far as I know – and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

5) It’s Still Magical
Despite the heavy lifting of New York theatre being done off- and off-Broadway and regionally, there’s still something that can’t be duplicated in seeing a really good show on Broadway that has a ton of money thrown at it – especially one you weren’t expecting anything from. I went into shows like An American in Paris or Something Rotten or – especially – Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 knowing next to nothing about them and came out enthralled and invigorated by what writers can create and actors can do. In the best cases, they give me something to shoot at. (And in the worst, multiple lessons on what to avoid … )

Ashley Cowan is an actress, playwright, director and general theater maker in the Bay Area, alongside writer/actor husband, Will Leschber. Dave Sikula is an actor, writer, director and general theater maker in the Bay Area who has been in plays with Ashley and Will, but never both at the same time.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Rah-Rah for Dada

Marissa Skudlarek mingles with some Fringe elements.

Last Saturday, spending an evening at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, I saw two pieces in a row that mentioned the French surrealist André Breton, which has to be some kind of bizarre record. In Sebastian Boswell III’s mentalist act “The Ineffable Experience of Impossible Achievements,” he plays a game of Exquisite Corpse with the audience, claiming to have learned the game from Breton himself, in the 1920s. Following that, I saw Breton (portrayed by Ignacio Zulueta) as a featured character in Zurich Plays, “a Dada history of Dada.”

I like to think Breton would be pleased by this coincidence. After all, at its best, Exquisite Corpse is a game that allows you to find deeper meaning in the products of chance. And the SF Fringe Festival itself is a product of chance: as a member of the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals, it is required to choose its lineup via lottery, rather than curating it based on ideas of what is “good” or “worthy.” This accords with Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, in which he wrote of wishing to make art “in the absence of any control exercised by reason.”

The production of Zurich Plays at the Fringe Festival is spearheaded by Steven Westdahl, who directed the show and plays Tristan Tzara. (Steven and his partner Megan Cohen – who also appears in Zurich Plays, portraying Man Ray – were the forces behind Theater Pub’s April 2015 show, Steven & Megan in “Megan and Steven Present a World Premiere by Steven & Megan.”)

There’s something strange but wonderful about seeing 21st-century artists in a Fringe Festival in California paying homage to a revolutionary avant-garde arts movement that took place 100 years ago in Switzerland. After I saw Zurich Plays, Steven kindly agreed to have a brief conversation with me about the show and about the Dada movement (with Megan adding some pithy comments).

Hugo Ball performing at Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. (This costume gets re-created in ZURICH PLAYS!)

Hugo Ball performing at Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. (This costume gets re-created in ZURICH PLAYS!)

Marissa: From my research, it looks like you were involved in a previous production of Zurich Plays in Atlanta. Can you talk a little about your decision to bring this show to the SF Fringe?

Steven: One of the ways I was “paid” for my work on the 2001 production in Atlanta was with no-fee rights to the script for future production. With less than an hour left before the deadline to submit for the SF Fringe, I hastily threw together a proposal for Zurich Plays. I knew the 100th anniversary of Dada was around the corner, it is a script that I knew had never been seen outside of Atlanta, and it was so much fun to see and then work on. Once it was chosen out of the lottery for a slot in the festival, it finally dawned on me that I had to cast, design, rehearse, and produce a full-length play in a few months. With the help of my partner, Megan Cohen, I got some of the best Dada-minded actors in the Bay Area to agree to work with me for two months for next to nothing.

Marissa: It’s been nearly 100 years since the Dadaists presented their revolutionary performances at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Are there any lessons you think contemporary artists can learn from them?

Steven: Depends on which Dadaists you turn to for your lessons… Hugo Ball would teach you that it is OK to walk away from a group that you founded if you no longer agree with the direction that it is heading. Marcel Duchamp would teach you have no fear in recontextualizing your surroundings and the products that you are being sold. Man Ray would teach you to brand your work with a unique and identifiable name. André Breton would teach you to see and name what other artists are doing, if even just for yourself.

Megan: I think they teach you Y.O.L.O.

Marissa: Do you think there are any artistic movements in our own time that, similar to Dada, are upsetting the status quo and rewriting the rules of what art can be?

Steven: The territorial pissings of graffiti, stencil, and wheatpaste street art; the 4chan-esque corners of the internet; self-taught artists who break the rules without knowing them. Bansky might consider ‘themselves’ to be Dada. But also Banksy isn’t Dada.

Marissa: If the Dadaists were transported 100 years into the future and saw your production of Zurich Plays, what do you think their reaction would be?

Steven: Zurich Plays might be too safe. We cut the real onstage urination in favor of stage magic and a piss-rig. We bought a few things from prop stores and use them as what they were intended to be used for. We test the patience, focus, and stamina of the audience but never really offend them. I think the Dadaists would want more people stirred towards riot or, at least, a few walk-outs. No one is going to protest Zurich Plays. It’s an experience but not a revolution. It is art about anti-art without being anti-art itself.

Megan: I hope they would say it made them hungry.

Zurich Plays has 3 more performances at the San Francisco Fringe Festival: Saturday Sept. 19 at 2:30 PM, Wednesday Sept. 23 at 7 PM, and Friday Sept. 25 at 7 PM. Advance tickets available here.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She realizes that the Dadaists would probably denounce her as hopelessly bourgeois. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Working Title: I Love the Smell of Crappy Holidays in the Morning

This week Will Leschber talks madness and holidays with Lisa and Nick Gentiles…the holidays…the holidays.

Apocalypse Wow. I’m sure everyone has their own story about trying to wrestle greatness. Was it an occasion where you had a single solitary moment to shine? Where the spotlight was on you and the play has built to this? When the coach called your play? What careful words did you choose as your child had a their first emotional crisis? Was it just surviving the holidays? Was it a season long slog towards a a project that may have been bigger than you? Were your limits tested? Did you emerge fractured or more sane that you ever thought before?

I used to see these moment of grasping towards greatness as single defining tests: the moment you had the lead; the moment you walked across that stage, shook his hand and took your diploma; the moment that culminated after arduous wedding planning; the moment of moving away; the moment you faced Death; the moment they gave you the award; the moment she took her first step. Now I think wrestling greatness may just be closer to an endurance test that a moment of strength.

How long can you rage unphased through the chaos? Some people thrive in havoc. It’s a bit extreme for my taste but to each his own. My god, how many people do you know who just gel when the chips are down, the curtain is up and the final dress is now? I feel like we must be a little mad to want to be constantly part of the process of tumultuous creation and destruction.

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One beautiful mad event that pull together variant strings of creation and chaos is the San Francisco Fringe Festival. 150 performances by 34 Indie theater companies. I was lucky enough to bend the ear of two great writers who are returning to the Fringe this year with another set of short plays. Nick and Lisa Gentile are the warped, beautiful minds behind Crappy Holidays. Crappy Holidays is a trio of dark comedies showcasing the cynical side of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Nothing sounds more like a warzone than holidays with Death, your family and a cursing Santa Claus, am I right?!

Since I have an incessant need to know what film pairing would perfectly with their play, I asked them. What film would send you up the thematic river and get you in the perfect unsound mindset to enjoy their play, I asked. Here’s what they had to say:

There are a lot of holiday movies, but we have a different recommendation: Apocalypse Now. We think this movie can be seen as a kind of twisted metaphor for what a lot of us go through during the holiday season.

We feel obligated to enjoy the holidays, as if it’s a mission. But a family gathering can feel like a journey into a heart of darkness. We often end up face to face with someone who’s methods have become … unsound. Sometimes, you eat that green bean casserole at Thanksgiving, or unwrap that Christmas sweater and you can only say “the horror…the horror.”

I can think of nothing that fits better on top of the yule log than a big ol’ helping of the horror…the horror. Makes me want to sing Carol of the Bells immediately. Yeeesh. Apocalypse Now, more like Apocalypse Wow. Am I right?

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If you are looking to cut through the chaos and get an early serving of holiday fruitcake, go see Crappy Holidays and any number of the other SF Fringe Festival shows. Greatness…and pumpkin pie…await.

The 2015 San Francisco Fringe Festival, 150 performances by 34 Indie theater companies,
September 11 through September 26. For more info visit: www.sffringe.org Apocalypse Now can be found for rent on many of the usual platforms (iTunes, Vudu, ect)