The Five- SF Fringe Edition

Anthony R. Miller checks in reflecting on his experience at the 2014 Fringe Festival.

I was lucky enough to spend a few days at The Exit Theater and experience the 2014 San Francisco Fringe festival, it was an absolute blast. I saw tons of shows and had a million awesome conversations. Here are five takeaways.

Fringe-Binge

If you see just one or two shows at Fringe, you’re selling yourself short. There are 35 different productions to see and when else are you going to have them all in one building? In one day I got to see 4 shows in a row (But you could feasibly do up to 7.) Now before you say “Four shows? That’s like four hours of seeing plays!”, think to yourself; is it any different than watching four hours of Breaking bad on Netflix? (Authors note: While writing this, I am on my 3rd hour of Breaking Bad’s final season). You can bingewatch TV anytime, but it’s only once a year you can mainline Theatre. I did it, and you know what? It was freaking fun. I saw shows I loved, shows I hated and shows that were OK. But every show was different from the last, I walked away exhausted sure, but also inspired. Make a day of it, buy a multi-show pass, pick a show, any show, you’ll see something you like I promise. And if this is a little out of your price range…

Volunteer!

There is no better way to support your scene. The SF Fringe is a beast, three theaters all with a different show running simultaneously several times a day. It takes not just meticulous planning, but a crew of bad-asses to execute it. Make no mistake, these guys rock. Shows start on time, there is always someone to help you pick a show, and these are the people who make this event happen. Not everybody can afford to see a bunch of different plays, but as a volunteer, you can get into everything for free. Not to mention, by volunteering, you can be part of something awesome. For two weeks, everything awesome about the SF Indie Theatre scene is under one roof. Carve out a few days and help out, be part of it, it’s worth it.

The Hospitality Room

In between shows, hanging out in the Hospitality room was super fun. Stuart Bousel and his amazing staff of friendly volunteers are there to suggest shows, make you feel welcome and give you a seemingly endless supply of cucumber infused water. (Which may be my new favorite thing.) If you need something a little more sustainable than popcorn and water, check out the cafe for booze and all awesome snacks. The best part is that in either room, you can sit down and be surrounded a diverse mix of local and traveling actors, writers and performers. In one day, I spoke to Artistic directors of local Indie Theatre groups, a writer from New York, clowns, actors, every kind of theatrical artist you can think of. It is a show within itself. And seriously, the cucumber water.

All By Myself

This year, 22 out of 35 of the shows at the Fringe are Solo Shows. After doing a little asking around, I found out this was an all-time record. Every year the number grows, so who knows what the ratio will be next year. The main reason seems to be economic. Fortunately, these shows are all wildly different. From subjects like dating, to interpretations of the Jack the Ripper story, to battles with IRS, there is no shortage of fascinating, engaging and diverse stories to be told. That said, in order to make sure the fringe doesn’t become the San Francisco Solo-Show Festival, make sure you balance things out by seeing some of the amazing acting troupes performing here.

What kinds of people go there?

All kinds! The Fringe isn’t for just one type of Theatre-goer. It’s not even just for Theatre goers. I saw all sorts of folks milling about. This is bigger than a festival, it’s a cultural event. There’s not only Bay Area artists involved, acts from all over America are performing. For the cost of one ticket to the latest price gouging SHN touring musical, you can have an incredible experience, see something new and different and support art and artists. So next year, do yourself a favor; pause Netflix and spend a day at the EXIT. You’ll be part of something fun and different. Walter White will be waiting when you get home.

Anthony R. Miller is a Writer, Director, Producer and that jerk who won’t let you buy a glass of wine at concessions after showing up ten minutes late and demanding to be seated. His show, TERROR-RAMA opens October 17th at the Exit Theatre

Theater Around the Bay: First Time A-Fringin’

Charles Lewis III returns to talk about his first time working behind the scenes at the SF Fringe Festival.

Fringe-official

Fringe-official

“Clowns are the pegs on which a circus is hung.”
– PT Barnum

We’re always told that first impressions count for a lot; that you can’t make them twice; that they will forever define you in the eyes of the other person, whether they admit it to you or not. So naturally I wanted to make the best impression as a new house manager at SF Fringe. I’ve always been one of those folks who believes that I don’t just represent myself, but also the company whose logo adorns my shirt/name tag/pay stub. I mean, they don’t just give this bright yellow shirt and laminated badge to just anyone, do they?

So as I stood in front of an anxious, impatient audience, I can only imagine what they thought of the stammering schmuck in front of them. I’m an actor, I thought. Talking in front of audiences is what I do. I should thank them for coming, right? Now what? Something about “the State of California” and fire exits? Oh, oh – phones! I’ll take out my phone… and I dropped it. It broke apart. “But as you can all clearly see: it’s off.” Oh God, I’m dyin’ here. What next? Why am I holding this bucket again? Oh yeah, we want them to donate! Tell them I’ll be out there when they’re done. Or someone will be out there. Someone with a yellow shirt and a laminated badge. One would hope. Damn, I’m cutting into performance time, aren’t I? Just say “Thanks for coming” and chase your dignity out the door.

I raced out the door now fully aware that the “acting” part of the brain is separate from the “curtain speech” part. I felt like slapping my forehead so hard that it would be heard three states away. Instead I shuffled into the greenroom/hospitality suite and shoved a handful of microwave popcorn into my face. The pictures of Clyde the Cyclops on the wall helped. Thus began my tenure at the 2014 SF Fringe Fest.

But then, Clyde makes all things better

But then, Clyde makes all things better

It’s kinda odd that when I eventually wound up at SF Fringe, it was in this capacity. I was actually supposed to be in a show in (I think) 2007. It meant a lot to me I’d just gotten back into acting two years earlier with film work and this was to be my first theatre experience since school. I didn’t see eye-to-eye with the director and wound up quitting over the phone, something I haven’t done before or since. Even though one of my would-be fellow actors was an actress I’ve gone on to admire, I didn’t bother to see the actual show or anything at the festival that year. I actually haven’t even been to the festival since as I’m always knee-deep into a show at the time. It seems like everyone I know has encouraged me to see certain shows and skip others; some have even offered to cast me. Alas it took about seven years for me to finally get my Fringe on.

And hoo-boy, was I thrown into the deep end on my first day. In fact, I’d say I was blindfolded, handcuffed, and kicked off the plank into shark-infested waters after receiving fresh cuts on my arms and legs. But then, I’m fond of analogies. Nevertheless, as someone who has done front-of-house work at countless theatres, cinemas, and concert venues, not even I was prepared for the onslaught of countless indie theatre patrons clamoring to get into a theatre for which 80% of the tickets are already pre-sold and half of those patrons haven’t arrived 10 min. before curtain. People get angry. They get impatient. They look for an excuse to take their frustrations out on someone and, as house manager, that someone will be you.

Now these folks have my empathy, every single one of them. After a pretty disastrous first day, I quickly got into the swing of things and made it my priority to communicate that above all else, we are trying to help YOU. The final day of this year’s festival I had to deny entry to show to that show’s director. She’d travelled “all the way from Santa Cruz” with her boyfriend and was told by the show’s performer to just give her name at the door. Well the only names we have at the door are on the will call list and this one was packed. The show completely sold out and I told the director how sorry I was. “If anything,” I said, “this should be a testament to how good your show is.” Directors have been shut out of their own films at Sundance. Is it more important that you see your work or that the audience does?

But we do have an arts ‘n crafts section you can use.

But we do have an arts ‘n crafts section you can use.

Thankfully, as the song says, you get by with a little help from your friends that served me well. Stuart has already mentioned Christina and the wonderful folks who keep the EXIT and Fringe gears moving as smooth as a Swiss watch, and bless them for that. When you’re an apple-green newb trying to figure the best way to tell someone the “No Late Seating” rule is in full effect, it really helps to have an even-tempered Ariel Craft standing near to back you up. And what I would have done without Florian on-hand, I don’t know.

And let us thank the Theatre Gods for the aforementioned hospitality room. Not just a place for patrons to chew popcorn, sip lemon water, paint domino masks, and have their photos taken as “Fringe Royalty” (yes really) – the area might be most valuable to Fringe staff. When not in the middle of the mad rush of patrons, the near-silence of green room makes it almost seem like 30-minute day spa. I don’t know of many day spas that play The Cranberries over their speakers, but more should. Taking time out to chat with Stuart, Barbara, Tonya, and Quinn about… whatever, I remembered just how valuable such moments are, and have been for me over the past year. Having spent most of the summer sequestered from both Facebook and most of my regular theatre friends, the time I’ve spent reconnecting, reminiscing, and, yes, gossiping have been invaluable.

What, did you think I was kidding about the throne?

What, did you think I was kidding about the throne?

I arrived really, really late to the Fringe closing party this past Saturday. I’d gone to a friend’s party in Oakland, which was a lot of fun. By the time I caught up with my fellow Fringers at Emperor Norton’s, most of them had already left and the others were on their way out the door. I had a few of the leftover hors d’œuvres before heading out myself. Still, the Fringe has left its mark on me. Though I might not necessarily agree that The EXIT is akin to a used record store, I do agree – and have been saying aloud for years – that it is the true heart of the San Francisco theatre community. The ACT and Berkeley Rep might be akin to fancy hotels, but The EXIT is home. And the SF Fringe Fest is akin to opening one’s home to both regular friends and out-of-town guests. Or at least a decent hostel. There might not be an Olympic-sized swimming pool, but the activities are fun, the guests are… unique, and you’ll definitely tell all your friends when you get back home.

Charles is happy to be a part of Fringe royalty. He shall be calling The EXIT his home for at least the next month as he begins rehearsals for Stuart’s new play Pastorella.

Theater Around The Bay: Save the Empire

Stuart Bousel, subbing for Barbara Jwanouskos.

Is it just me or does the week after Labor Day always kind of suck?

It didn’t in school. But that’s because the week after Labor Day was really the week things started to kick into gear, whether you had started classes that Tuesday or had started the week before in August. Labor Day meant new beginnings, a new year, and the countdown to everything I love in life- the start of autumn, Halloween, my birthday, Thanksgiving, the start of winter, Christmas, New Year! Labor Day meant making new friends, catching up with old ones, and taking a bit of a breather after a long summer that, because of its lack of class, was always distinct from the rest of the year. Maybe because I usually hadn’t been working much all summer, Labor Day ironically was like, “Back to work day!” Something I used to love because I used to love the work I was doing (school) and in college that only became a more pronounced and exciting feeling.

As an adult though, progressively, Labor Day has often ended up feeling like a grim reminder that, as the character of Max says in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking And Screaming (one of my favorite movies ever), “What I used to able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life.” It’s not just that it’s become a bit of a mockery of the very people it was supposed to honor and salt in the wound for the many people who are either out of work or struggling to make ends meet with substantially less than they used to have, but for many I think it’s also just a day off thrown in at precisely the right moment to remind you that you didn’t get done a lot of what you wanted to get done, probably never had much of a “real summer” unless you were lucky enough to be able to take a vacation, and ultimately that the year you were convinced was going to be “Your Year” now has a mere four months left to go, and still sort of seems a lot like… well… just another year. Oh, and, of course: you’re not getting any younger either.

The last few weeks seem to have been super tough on a lot of people I know in this theater scene. On this blog alone we’ve had two people lose a dear friend, one lose her gall bladder, one discover a project she’s been working on is a dead end, and another texted me this morning with that “shit is hitting the fan” text that translates to me writing this ad. Me, who blew off his own attempt at taking back Labor Day and hid in his room all weekend because… drum roll… I got pink eye. Yes… pink eye. Something children usually get because there kind of dirty but since I’m a pretty clean guy I can pretty much chalk this one up to some bad decision making somewhere  and/or divine smack down. It’s okay, I’m laughing about it now because it’s mostly gone and I’m no longer contagious but you know what is even more mortifying than calling off your Labor Day event because you’re so hungover you can’t run it? It’s finding out that the reason why your eyes have been hurting and feeling feverish since you woke up that Sunday were because you have Pink Eye.

And this is after what one director friend of mine has dubbbed, “A white knuckle year”. In other words, not a bad year (it certainly hasn’t been a bad year for me) but a year of tremendous shift and change, rarely comfortable, even when good, and so constant one starts to feel less like they are growing so much as holding on for dear life while the roller coaster heads straight for… well, who can say, right? I, for one, have found it to be incredibly up and down, so much so that I become suspicious of things when they start to seem too quiet, (my summer, by the way, had been pretty quiet), and I’ve found it’s also been one of extreme self-scrutiny and re-evaluation, public scrutiny and re-evaluation, new understandings, new ideals, new heights, new lows, new triumphs and new problems. On one level, I can say with sincerity I have felt very alive this year, and like I am moving, generally speaking, in more or less the right direction- certainly compared to last year, and definitely compared to the year before it. But is that momentum not terrifying in its own right? And do I feel like I am in control of it so much as being swept along? And am I actually ready for whatever tomorrow brings, even if it brings flowers and money and wedding bells? These are all entirely different questions. Depending on the day… no, let’s be honest here, depending on the minute… the answer is a resounding and eviscerating “no.” But such is life, so what am I going to do?

I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, actually: for the next two weeks, starting tonight, I’m, going to basically live my non-working hours at the EXIT Theatre, the place that has emerged above all others as my home in this city, in any city, on the planet, really, in this era of my life. It’s the place where I’ve most frequently been allowed to be myself, where the people there before me made room for me too, where I’ve been embraced and challenged and scolded and pushed and rewarded and empowered and it starts with the artistic director (Christina Augello) but the truth is everyone there contributes to that feeling, whether it’s by doing far more than any one person should ever have to do to keep things running (Amanda Ortmayer), or ensuring that someone remans relatively sane (Richard Livingston), or making sure we’re all fed (Donna Fujita), or sitting around the Cafe during off hours gossiping the way we used to hang out in the theater or the humanities buildings at college and just… talk to one another (this list is a long one, but usually includes some combination of Christian Cagigal, Michelle Talgarow, Alexia Staniotes, Mark Weddle, Ariel Craft, Dot Janson, Margery Fairchild, Happy Hyder, Mikka Bonel, Dylan West, and most recently, this year’s Fringe intern, Florian Bdn). Though I love my apartment and I love my friend’s homes, Le Zinc on 24th and the Pilsner on Church, the Sutro Baths for strolling, Jupiter when in Berkeley and the White Horse on Sutter, everything about North Beach and a good deal about the Richmond, I don’t know that anyplace in the Bay Area feels more home to me than sitting in the EXIT Cafe eating Indian Take out or making popcorn in the Green Room microwave.

Earlier this year I made my boyfriend watch “Empire Records“, a movie I loved to hate when it came out because it was an attempt at corporatizing everything I loved… and now I kind of hate to love it, because time has ultimately shown it to be a lasting relic of the fantasy of the mid-90s, and what it lacks in nuance, subtlety, or, to be truthful, quality, it by far makes up for in heart and sincerity, which somehow shine through despite the best efforts of the studio to both destroy the film and then bury it. This amazing article can tell you pretty much everything I would want to say about Empire Records, except this last part, which is unique to me: basically, about halfway through his first viewing, my boyfriend said, “So, if this was a theater instead of a record store, it would basically be the EXIT, wouldn’t it?” and I couldn’t not argue otherwise. And while I’m not saying that my deep desire to create a stage version of “Empire Records” is due to its amazingly similar dynamic and function in our lives, I would say that it’s my continued experience at the EXIT which allows me to fully understand the sentiment screenwriter Carol Heikkinen was attempting to capture in her film when she told the BuzzFeed article linked above that, “I wanted to show how the employees were a family, and how, for some of them, this minimum-wage job would be the best job they ever had.”

This will be my third year running the Hospitality Room at the Fringe and I’ve started looking forward to the Fringe in a way that I once used to look forward to school starting. Just like school, there are people who I never see except at the Fringe- artists, of course, bringing work, but also techs and volunteers, who return year after year, for not much money or no money at all, simply to be a part of this event that is arguably the jewel in the EXIT’s crown and makes indisputable its place at the top of the independent theater scene in San Francisco. For two weeks we form our own little society, gathering around the craft table (did you know there was a craft table?) after hours or during slow times, going on errands together, playing pranks on one another, and of course seeing shows together. And talking about the shows. And talking about shows in general. It’s a ton of work and make no mistake about that, but for two weeks it’s also kind of this crazy vacation in indy theater land, a sort of small town version of theater school and summer camp rolled together and plopped into the Tenderloin for a brief but valiant moment each year when the object of the game is not to compete as artists but to play together, to be a community. And the heart of this is the Hospitality Room, if I say so myself, and this year it’s better than ever, so you should definitely put down whatever that heavy load you’re carrying is and come say hello as we celebrate these last weeks of summer and move into the autumn, a time I’ve personally always found to be more enchanted and generally saner too. There will be snacks, and you can make some crafts, and Clyde the Cyclops is on the walls so the room feels like a hug.

Oh, and, my Pink Eye has totally cleared up. So don’t worry about that.

Come visit Stuart and hang out in the Hospitality Room this Fringe! Make crafts, take photos, eat snacks, and be a part of the community. www.sffringe.org.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theater Around The Bay: Producing Your Own (circus) Show Is Hard, So Be Nice To People Handing You Postcards

Genie Cartier is our latest guest blogger. Anyone who knows her can’t imagine anyone being less than lovely to her, even if she does push the captions of her blog photos to the limit. 

Circus is a tricky, two-faced form. Most people have childhood memories of peanuts and sparkly leotards at Ringling Brothers, and associate it with overstimulation and scary clowns. A smaller group of people have seen one or two Cirque du Soleil shows and may have enjoyed them, but still find the form a bit overwhelming and difficult to judge. An even smaller group of people probably took gymnastics as a kid and therefore have some understanding of how difficult it is to reach a level of fitness that allows you to accomplish the type of feats in Cirque du Soleil, but may or may not go to see circus shows regularly. And an even smaller group has actually seen a circus besides the aforementioned two and both understands and appreciates the nuances of a truly amazing performance. Even avid theater-goers are often bored by the lack of narrative in most circus shows, despite the obvious athletic talent on display. I have come to be a part of a relatively recent and little known form called “circus theater:” the narrative quality of a theater show combined with the athleticism and skill of circus. The following is a true account of the humble beginnings of a circus theater show called Genie and Audrey’s Dream Show! Actually, the show is still in a state of humility, but I couldn’t figure out a way to convey that in the snappy tone I was going for.

To collapse a very long story into as short a paragraph as possible,

This is the internet, so you’ve probably already stopped reading this anyway and gone on to watch a video of a cat in a cheetah costume running on a treadmill to the “Chariots of Fire” soundtrack. If that didn’t exist already, it does now.

This is the internet, so you’ve probably already stopped reading this anyway and gone on to watch a video of a cat in a cheetah costume running on a treadmill to the “Chariots of Fire” soundtrack. If that didn’t exist already, it does now.

I started training at the San Francisco Circus Center when I was 6 years old, and have been performing in circus shows and cabarets ever since. I initially trained basic acrobatics, and eventually developed a love for aerial rope (and a resentment for the much more popular and recognizable apparatus known as aerial tissue). I loved circus, both performing and viewing, but often struggled with my training. My body was not ideal for acrobatics, and I had to work much harder than many of the other kids to be able to do the same things. If only I had inherited my father’s long lean body instead of my mother’s curvy sway-back. As difficult as this slow, agonizing realization was, it led me to another important realization: that circus, unlike gymnastics, is an extremely flexible form. It has two main elements: the athletic and the artistic. What I lacked in athleticism, I could make up for in creativity.

I first met Audrey in the summer of 2010, working at the same Circus Center summer camp that had introduced me to circus when I was a young girl. We quickly became friends. She had attended the Clown Conservatory, and after teaching summer camp, was working at the front desk. I passed by one day, and asked what music I should use for my aerial rope act. “How about live accordion?” she said. We put together an act where she played a waltz on her accordion, and I did my routine on the rope. At one part in the middle of the act, while I was hanging upside-down by one foot, she stopped playing and pretended to notice something on my face, handed me a compact so I could fix it, then continued playing. At some point during rehearsal, she said something like “you know, I bet we have enough skills between the two of us to make our own half-hour show.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a hugely important moment. You mean to tell me that I don’t have to give up my life to train 8 hours a day and get a contract performing with Cirque du Soleil in some gaudy unitard to their choreography and their music? I can just make my own show? It really had never occurred to me.

So we set out to make our own show. It was a totally ideal artistic environment—because it was just the two of us, nobody was telling us what to do except each other. We had complete creative freedom, besides the fact that we had no money, which actually forced us to be more creative. We made up our own little world, which we hoped, was a world the audience wanted to be in. At first we just came up with individual acts, and tested them out in local cabaret shows (and no, we did not get paid for any of them.) I would say to her one day “what if we had our own secret handshake that took ten minutes to do?” and we would get to work coming up with crazier and crazier things that could be included in the handshake. Or she would say “what if you were asleep and I made breakfast on your feet?” and we would spend hours figuring out ways for her to manipulate my body like a doll. I had created an acrobatics routine balancing and doing tricks on a folding chair, so we incorporated that into the show. Audrey had just bought a loop station, and really wanted to use it, so we made up an act around that. At some point, we just sat down and made a list with two columns documenting all of our skills. I had various things I had picked up after years in the circus, and Audrey, in addition to her clown training, could play about 10 instruments. We tried to include all of these things in the show. The problem was, how could we turn all of this into not just a talent show, but a real show with characters and a story? Most circus shows don’t really have either, because they have a high level of athletic talent and a huge cast, so who cares what the plot is, that dude’s hanging from one foot and flipping a tiny girl around!

There are a few circuses that I have seen which very successfully integrate circus skills with narrative, and they have been a huge inspiration to me. Sweet Can Circus, Seven Fingers, and Cirque Eloize all fall into that category. I recommend immediately buying tickets to any of these if they happen to be in town.

There are a few circuses that I have seen which very successfully integrate circus skills with narrative, and they have been a huge inspiration to me. Sweet Can Circus, Seven Fingers, and Cirque Eloize all fall into that category. I recommend immediately buying tickets to any of these if they happen to be in town.

We realized that the only way to put all of the elements we had come up with together was for the show to be a long dream sequence. Suddenly, in dream logic, the show made sense.

The first time we performed Genie and Audrey’s Dream Show! we were huge cowards. We had gotten our boyfriends, both musicians, to play the live soundtrack and sound effects, because we didn’t want the whole show to depend on the two of us. We were terrified that no one would show up if we charged even $10, so we only charged $7, and offered discounts. We made the show at 7:30pm, so people could still go see another show that evening afterwards if they wanted to. We were worried that nobody would get it. That nobody would laugh at the jokes that we thought were hilarious, and that the weird mix of circus and theater would leave the audience confused. We were wrong about all of that. We got about 30 people to come each night, they laughed in mostly the right places, and everyone hung around after the 30 minute performance schmoozing. Many people commented that we could easily have charged more, and that it would be funnier if we did our own sound effects and music. The only disaster was that on the first night, the loop station didn’t work, and we had to skip that part. It turned out that in the haze of nervousness Audrey had forgotten to turn it on. Only one person actually noticed, and it was because he himself often used a loop station on stage.

Our next step was applying for fringe festivals.

If you don’t know what a fringe festival is, it’s—wait, what am I doing? This is the 21st century and we all have the Google machine to tell us these things.

If you don’t know what a fringe festival is, it’s—wait, what am I doing? This is the 21st century and we all have the Google machine to tell us these things.

We applied to San Diego, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco. We somehow got into all of them. We did an indiegogo fundraiser so we didn’t have to pay for all the travel and costs ourselves, and made over our goal amount. The only disaster was the kickoff party for the indiegogo page, held in a brotastic Soma bar, where a fight broke out and Audrey ended up in tears, in two completely unrelated incidents. I’ll let your imagination fill in those blanks.

We re-vamped the show, now a solid 50 minutes, without the aid of musicians. Audrey supplied all of the music for the show, using the loop station when she needed her hands to juggle or dance or do acrobatics. The most meaningful addition to the show for me was an act that Audrey had been doing for years in which a little white cat puppet named Snowball plays the accordion. The addition of this act coincided with the death of my beloved family cat, Legolas. I have always felt like Snowball somehow embodies Legolas’ spirit, and many people have told me that watching the Snowball sequence is emotional for them in some way. I even forget that Snowball is Audrey’s hand inside a puppet when we perform that act. Snowball is my beloved childhood cat who has come back to sing me a song about dreams.

Audrey’s sister let us borrow her car to drive down to San Diego for the festival, which saved us an enormous amount of money on renting a car, especially since we were both under 25 at the time. The problem was that her car was a Wolkswagon Bug, and it had to hold Audrey and I, Audrey’s sister, and my sister who was coming along to be our stage manager. And all of our equipment and luggage. When we finally all piled in, it was literally a clown car. The ride down was very cramped and awkward.

San Diego Fringe was a consistent mixture of intense anxiety and total elation. We had no idea how to advertise our show, especially considering the unfamiliar mixed genre. Audrey and I are both naturally shy and awkward at parties and hated having to try to explain what our show was to people who had heard rehearsed tag lines for 30 other shows the same night. Luckily, not only was there a reassuring solidarity between all the performers, but the fringe had organized a seminar on marketing to clue us in. At the poorly-attended seminar, we made friends with the director of the SD Fringe, as well as the director of the Orlando Fringe, who was there advising, since SD Fringe was in its first year. We took their advice to heart, and managed to generate fairly substantial audiences for our show, mostly by flyering outside of other shows and making my sister walk around downtown San Diego with a big sparkly sign while Audrey and I meekly handed out postcards to passersby. This was the torturous part.

But there were ecstatic moments. I have always been an applause-junky, but when people compliment me on my athletic ability, I secretly roll my eyes because flexibility and strength are simply a function of training. Anyone can do it if they train enough. Hearing an audience clap and cheer for something truly original that you created is entirely different. At the end of the festival, we were awarded the “Fringe Crush” award, which is a bit like a “Miss Congeniality” award. Audrey and I were excited that we could now put “award-winning” on all our postcards.

The luck we had in San Diego ran out by the time we got to Santa Cruz Fringe, which was a week later. We were still exhausted from San Diego. SC Fringe did not have the same kind of community feeling, and it was much harder to advertise. People scoffed in our faces when we tried to hand them flyers, or complained that they had to pay a whole $10 to see it.

A quick word about this—advertising your own show with a budget of basically nothing is extremely hard. You are constantly in the position of having to beg people to please please please come and see my show instead of the other 30 shows playing right now and please pay the extremely low ticket price of $10 so I can at least break even on the $500 fee I had to pay to be in the Fringe— all the information is on this postcard which it cost me money I don’t have to print and which you will probably crumple up and throw in the gutter! Be nice to the people handing you flyers for their show.

A quick word about this—advertising your own show with a budget of basically nothing is extremely hard. You are constantly in the position of having to beg people to please please please come and see my show instead of the other 30 shows playing right now and please pay the extremely low ticket price of $10 so I can at least break even on the $500 fee I had to pay to be in the Fringe— all the information is on this postcard which it cost me money I don’t have to print and which you will probably crumple up and throw in the gutter! Be nice to the people handing you flyers for their show.

They put us in a huge 300-seat auditorium that we would never be able to fill, even half-way. We didn’t know anyone in Santa Cruz, so we had no audience besides those we could hustle into the seats, and, thank god, my and Audrey’s families who drove respectively from San Francisco and Boise to see the show. One night my sister and I went out to a bar and a guy flirted with me, so I convinced him to come see the show. My boyfriend wasn’t too happy about that. But hey, it was another $10 for us! It was especially humiliating that the other two shows in our venue were wildly popular. Audrey and I would come out of the theater after a show that 6 people had attended, only to have to elbow through a crowd of a hundred people lining up for the next show. On top of all of this, I was allergic to the theater. During one of the shows I had to wipe snot on the paper from which I read a poem as I turned around so no one would see it dripping from my nose. The epitome of our experience was a 12:30pm matinee attended by 4 people (two of which were Audrey’s boyfriend and his friend), during which the director of the festival came in half an hour late. We had another show that evening, and neither of us even wanted to do it. It was only after a sentimental pep talk from my sister that we lifted ourselves up by our bootstraps and did the best show of our Santa Cruz run.

There were two positives about Santa Cruz. The first one was that the theater had a fog machine, and we got to use it. The second one was this video, made by the Santa Cruz Muse after our last show, of which Audrey and I are glowingly proud (really could have used it after the first show, but who am I to complain): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbEabSnZF-c

Oh wait! There was another good thing that happened! The night after the 4-person-matinee-audience, my sister and I ran into one of the people who had been in the audience that day. She recognized me and told us she loved the show. Her friend asked her what the show was like, and she turned to him and said: “It was wonderful! It’s about these two girls who want to make a circus show, but realize that there’s no orchestra or back-up dancers, so they go to sleep and dream about doing a circus show. And one of them is really flexible and one is really musical, and they do these funny little routines and then sometimes it turns into kind of a nightmare, but it always end up ok.” Or something like that. The point is that she got it! We had reached one person! Plus, we had done a show for 4 people and survived. So it wasn’t the end of the world! Alright, math majors, I guess there were four positives.

After the Santa Cruz fiasco, we had about two months before San Francisco Fringe to tighten up the show. We really wanted it to be as good as it could be when we performed it again in our home base. We worked with Audrey’s roommate, Nikolas Strubbe—a local actor/director—who gave us extremely helpful directorial notes on how to better shape the show. We performed at the Fringe’s preview night and the audience seemed like they were with us. In San Diego, and especially Santa Cruz, I had felt like there was always a certain degree of confusion because of our unconventional take on clowning and circus. Among San Francisco’s many virtues is its ability to appreciate quirkiness and thinking outside the box.

Then, an old circus friend of mine who happened to work at SF Weekly, saw our press release, and wrote a tiny little 1/8th of a page article about our show. I was on the bus, and Audrey texted me saying that we were in the paper. I got off the bus the second I saw a newsstand and grabbed a copy of SF Weekly, scanning the pages. The first time I flipped through, I missed the tiny article. Disappointed, I looked through it again, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw our picture. I started to cry behind my sunglasses on the corner of Haight and Stanyan. I walked down Haight Street holding up the paper, proudly smiling and crying at the same time telling random street kids “I’m in the paper!” As it turned out, this tiny article afforded us a minute level of celebrity; in other words a few people that weren’t related to me and that I had never met before told me they had seen me in SF Weekly. But I’m convinced that it helped us enormously.

Backstage, our first night performing in SF Fringe, we asked our tech person—a cheery, sweet woman named Teresa—if there were people in the audience. She shrugged and said “yeah. It’s a full house.” Audrey and I looked at each other with a mixture of nerves and excitement. All these people came to see our show without us badgering them until they gave in? The best show we did was on a Tuesday night, with many of our friends in attendance.

Some of said friends sat stoned out of their minds in the front row, and told me it was a fantastic experience. Just an FYI, if you ever see the show.

Some of said friends sat stoned out of their minds in the front row, and told me it was a fantastic experience. Just an FYI, if you ever see the show.

From the very start of the pre-show, where Audrey and I go around blowing bubbles and getting people to pop them, everyone was laughing. People exploded into applause when Snowball played the accordion. At the end, the audience cheered for so long that Audrey and I started to feel awkward and tried to quiet them down. “Santa Cruz can suck it!” I said after the show as we were peeling our sweaty costumes off our wet skin.

To me, the most wonderful thing that happened at the San Francisco Fringe was that we gained the respect of the Fringe staff. I know that these people see a lot of shows, and the feedback we got from them was so positive that sometimes I thought they were putting me on. But at the end of the festival, they gave us the “Techie’s Choice Award,” so I chose to believe it was all real.

Somehow our weird little show with neither a straightforward narrative nor a high level of athleticism has survived, and is still going strong. Audrey and I are continuing to apply to Fringe Festivals. Audrey has been trying to figure out a way for us to bring the show to her hometown of Boise, Idaho. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to perform the show for children at my old high school, so that all my teachers will think I’m successful now despite my bad SAT scores. We’ve learned a lot about producing our own show. Mainly that it sucks and if we had the money to pay someone to promote for us so we could just do the creative stuff, we would. But it can also be extremely satisfying, when all of your hard work leads to cheering audiences.

This is probably where I should make a grand conclusion about the power of believing in yourself and use a terrible pun about dreams. (Get it? Because it’s Genie and Audrey’s DREAM Show!) I’m not going to because I hate reading articles that end like that, so I’m just going to let you make your own conclusions about whether based on our experience it’s worth it to produce your own show (it’s not, money-wise, at least in the beginning— we’ve barely broken even), whether you should give circus another chance (you should) and whether I’m doing anyone a service by telling you this whole story or just being a wild egomaniac who wants to brag about getting an eighth of a page article written about her show in SF Weekly. But please please please come and see my next show and pay the modest price for it—the information is on the back of this expensive postcard!

Genie Cartier is a local circus performer and creator. Find out more about her and Audrey at http://www.genieaudrey.com.

The Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards for 2013

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2013 list. 

Three years ago I decided that I wanted to start my own Bay Area Theater Awards, because my opinions are just as legitimate as anyone else’s, the awards I give out are as valuable as any other critical awards, (recipients of the SEBATA, or the Stuey, if you prefer, get nothing but my admiration and some free publicity), and also because there’s a fairly good chance that I’ve seen a lot of theater the usual award givers haven’t seen. The best thing about the Bay Area theater scene is that there is a huge diversity in the offerings, and so much on the table to begin with. No one person can see it all, and therefore it’s important to share with one another the highlights of our time in the audience seat, if only to create a greater awareness of what and who is out there making stuff.

Also, there are some people who think I don’t like anything, and I feel a need to not only prove them wrong, but to do so by expressing how much of the local color I do love and admire, as opposed to just pointing out that the reason they think I don’t like anything is because I generally don’t like *their* work (oh… I guess I did just point that out, didn’t I?). Normally I post these “awards” on my Facebook page, but this year I decided to bring them to the blog because the mission statement of the SEBATA is pretty in-line with the mission statement of Theater Pub, and having come to the close of an amazing year of growth for the blog, it now has a much farther reach than my Facebook page could ever hope to have. Congratulations SF Theater Pub Blog- you just won a Stuey.

Anyway, because I am a product of the generation that grew up with the MTV Movie Awards- and, because I’m the only person on the voting committee and thus can do what I like- I have decided that my categories are purely arbitrary and can be stretched to allow me to write about anyone I feel like. The two limits are 1) I can’t give myself an award (though I can have been involved in the show on a limited level) and 2) I won’t go over thirteen (though there may be ties for some awards). Because seriously, how (more) self indulgent would this be without either of those rules? Oh, 3) I won’t give out awards for how bad something was. I’m here to be positive. And chances are those people were punished enough.

To all my friends and frenemies in the Bay Area Theater Scene… it’s been a great year. Let’s you and me do it again sometime. Well… most of you.

And now, presenting the Fourth Annual Stuey Awards…

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
“Pint Sized IV” (San Francisco Theater Pub)
Pint Sized Plays gets better each year, and it’s honestly one of two things I actually miss about working at the Cafe Royale (the other is the uniqueness of doing Shakespeare there, which for some reason works in a completely magical way I wish it worked more often on traditional stages). This year the festival was put together by Neil Higgins, who did an amazing job, and I think we had some of the best material yet. The evening as a whole felt incredibly cohesive, with a theme of forgiveness and letting go, archly reflective of our decision to leave the Cafe Royale, and I think incredibly relevant to a lot of our audience. We knew Pint Sized could be very funny, and very socially pointed, but I’m not sure we had ever conceived of it as moving and this year it was, thanks in no small part to our writers (Megan Cohen, Peter Hsieh, Sang S. Kim, Carl Lucania, Daniel Ng, Kirk Shimano and Christian Simonsen), directors (Jonathan Carpenter, Colin Johnson, Tracy Held Potter, Neil Higgins, Charles Lewis III, Meghan O’Connor, Adam L. Sussman) and actors (Annika Bergman, Jessica Chisum, Andrew Chung, AJ Davenport, Eli Diamond, Caitlin Evenson, Lara Gold, Matt Gunnison, Melissa Keith, Charles Lewis III, Brian Quakenbush, Rob Ready, Casey Robbins, Paul Rodrigues, Jessica Rudholm). The evening would start off with a magical performance by the Blue Diamond Bellydancers, whose combination of skill and spectacle got our audiences excited for what was to come. As we moved through the pieces, each by turns funny and poignant, each in some way or another about finding something, losing it, letting it go, and then coming back stronger, you could feel the audience grow warmer and closer each night. By the time Rob Ready gave the closing monologue, fixing each audience member in turn with a smile, you could feel everyone really listening and you could hear a pin drop in the room, and that’s saying something for the noisy by nature Cafe Royale. I think a lot of love went into the festival this year, and not just because it might be the last, and the product of that love was real magic and like the best theater- you had to be there. And if you weren’t, you really missed out.

BEST SHOW
“The Motherf**ker With The Hat” (San Francisco Playhouse)
I saw a lot of decent, solid, well done theater this year but I had a hard time connecting to a lot of it, which was rarely a flaw with the show and probably had more to do with where I was/am as a person (lots of change this year). Then again, something about really good theater is that it can get you out of your own head and into some other world, for a while. Towards the end of the year, I saw three shows I really really liked: “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake” at Bigger Than A Bread Box Theater Company, “Peter/Wendy” at Custom Made Theater Company, and “First” at Stage Werx, produced by Altair Productions/The Aluminous Collective and Playground. Still, San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The Motherf**ker With The Hat”, directed by Bill English, was probably my favorite show of the year. Who knows why it has an edge on the others? Maybe because as someone who spent most of their childhood weekends in New York it seemed oddly familiar, or maybe it was the deft handling by the universally excellent cast (Carl Lumbly, Gabriel Marin, Rudy Guerrero, Margo Hall, Isabelle Ortega) of the complex relationships and dialogue that Guirgis does so well, or maybe it was just refreshing to see such a simple, honest play in what, for me, was a year characterized by a lot of stylistically interesting but emotionally cold theater. There is something very passionate, scathing, bombastic and yet also humble and forgiving about Guirgis’ work that I think makes him such an important voice in modern American drama and English’s production brought all that out with an easy grace. The show really worked, and got me out of my head, and when I went back to my life I felt much better for the journey. What more can you ask of a theater experience?

BEST READING
“Paris/Hector” (San Francisco Olympians Festival)
I attend a lot of readings every year, and run a reading festival myself, so I’ve come to greatly value a really well done reading. This year, the award goes to director Katja Rivera and writers Kirk Shimano and Bridgette Dutta Portman, whose pair of one acts about the pair of Trojan princes Paris and Hector made for one of the best nights of this past year’s San Francisco Olympians Festival. Part of what I loved about it was that in one evening we saw the amazing variety the festival can offer: Kirk’s play was a comedy with a poignant moment or two, while Bridgette’s was a faux-classical drama- written in verse no less. Though the writers are the center of attention at the festival, credit really has to be given to Katja Rivera, who as the director of both pieces, made many simple but effective choices to highlight the best elements of both works and utilize the talents of her excellent cast: Yael Aranoff, Molly Benson, Jeremy Cole, Mackenszie Drae, Allison Fenner, Dana Goldberg, John Lennon Harrison, Michelle Talgarow, Alaric Toy. With the combined excellent story-telling of the performers (including beautiful and surprising singing from Yael, Molly and Dana), the thoughtfulness of the scripts, and the cohesiveness of the whole, this night of the festival stood out best in what was a consistently strong year at the Olympians.

BEST SHORT PLAY
“My Year” by Megan Cohen (Bay One Acts Festival)
Megan Cohen’s “My Year” is the kind of thing I wish more short plays would be: dynamic, personal, and complete. In a sea of short plays that are really fragments, or meet-cute plays, it’s always lovely to see something with a beginning, a middle, and end, and full-formed characters having actual interactions and not just feeling like Girl A and Guy B, thrown together by the whimsy of the playwright to make a point (though of course, the right playwright can pull that off- which is why so many people try to ape it). A friend of mine described “My Year” as “A fun little 90s indie film on stage” and my reaction when watching it was “Oh, Dear God, convince Meg to let me write a companion piece to this!” because let’s face it: at least a third of what I write is a 90s film on stage. My own vanity aside, what I loved about this play (directed by Siobhan Doherty, starring Emma Rose Shelton, Theresa Miller, Nkechi Live, Allene Hebert, Jaime Lee Currier, and Luna Malbroux) was that it felt constantly on the move, while still being mostly composed of intimate moments between a group of women at a birthday party. Like a lot of the theater that I really loved this year, it also just struck a personal chord, watching this young woman (Emma Rose Shelton) trying to enjoy the party her friends have thrown for her (though she doesn’t like surprise parties) despite there being no food and a random stranger (Theresa Miller) who worms her way in only to turn out to be the troublemaker she’s originally pegged for. Megan’s writing had its usual combination of smart and sentimental, but whereas a lot of her other work heads into absurdity and/or extreme quirkiness (not that this is bad), “My Year” stayed very grounded and found its meaning in that effort to stay grounded, making what might be a quiet little play in anyone else’s oeuvre, a nice change of pace in Cohen’s. The final moment, where the characters howl at the moon because what else are you going to do after a shitty birthday, felt like a communal sigh even the audience was in on, probably because we could all relate to Shelton’s character, and while having always loved and admired Meg’s work, this is probably the first time I related to it so wholeheartedly.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Linda Huang (Stage Manager, Tech, Box Office, Everything)
You know how the Oscars and Tonys give out Lifetime Achievement Awards for people whose contribution is so massive that it would kind of be criminal to pick one work or contribution so instead they just get an award for basically being themselves? You know, like how Peter O’Toole got that award because at some point somebody realized that he was pervasively brilliant and always in fashion and therefore easily forgotten because things like “Oh, well, he’ll win next year” often times factors in to who we recognize, meaning things like reliability and consistency do not? Well, for the first time ever in the history of the SEBATAs, I’m creating The Peter O’Toole Award for General Awesomeness and giving it to Linda Huang, without whom, in all seriousness, I believe that small theater in San Francisco would probably grind to a halt. Earlier this year, I got recognized by the Weekly as a “Ringmaster” of the theater scene, but frankly I (and people like me) could not do what we do without having Linda (and people like her) constantly coming to our aid despite being paid a fraction of what they’re worth and half the time being forgotten because what they do isn’t in the immediate eye of the audience. Linda is a total gem of the theater scene. She wears many hats, though she’s probably best known for running light boards, and one of my favorite things when attending the theater is running into her, usually working in some capacity I previously was unaware she was qualified to do (note: Linda is qualified to do everything). What I love best about Linda (aside from her cutting sense of humor and tell-it-like-it-is demeanor) is her incredible generosity: she does so much for local theater and rarely gets paid, and even when she does get paid she often says, “Pay me last.” A true team player, and one we don’t thank enough, especially as she’s the only person who seems to know how to get the air conditioning in the Exit Theatre to work.

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Atticus Rex, Open Mic Night In Support of the Lemonade Fund (SF Theater Pub/Theater Bay Area Individual Services Committee)
I never expected to include a note about someone who performed at an open mic/variety show, but I wanted to shout out to Atticus Rex, a young performer who literally made his performance debut at the San Francisco Theater Pub/ISC fundraiser for the Lemonade Fund this year. A last minute replacement, Atticus and a friend performed some original hip-hop for our audience of mostly performance professionals and their friends, and despite the formidable crowd and the first time nerves, he basically killed it. Even when he made a mistake it worked: he’d call himself out, apologize, and start again, somehow without ever missing a beat. His lyrics are very tight and poetic, and the contrast between the power in his words and his humbleness at approaching and leaving the stage works so well you’d almost think it was an act- except he later confessed he’d never performed live before, and it couldn’t have been more sincere. With genuine hope he never loses his sincerity, while also continuing to grow his confidence and experience, I wanted to take a moment to say congratulations once again, and thank you for reminding us all what it looks like to really take a risk onstage.

BEST CHEMISTRY
Genie Cartier and Audrey Spinazola (Genie and Audrey’s Dream Show, SF Fringe Festival)
What’s potentially cuter than “Clyde the Cyclops?” Very little, but these two ladies and their breathless, funny, and surreal little clown show come dangerously close to giving Clyde a run for his money, and it’s the only show I saw at the Fringe this year that I wished my boyfriend had also seen. Bravely straddling the bridge between performance artists and acrobats, this collage of monologues, poems, jokes, mime, clowning, puppetry, stunts, music, and children’s games, is like watching two hyper-articulate kids on pixie sticks go nuts in a club house, but only if those kids had an incredible sense of timing and arch senses of humor (not to mention very flexible bodies). I’ve never been a huge fan of circus stuff (I like it as an accent, sometimes, but as entertainment on its own it doesn’t tend to hold my interest long), but I think I’d be a fan of anything that had these two women in it. Their ability to play off each other is the key to making their show work, and when you watch it you have that sense of being let into the private make-believe world of people who have found kindred spirits in one another. It’s an utterly magic combination and from what I know of other people who saw it, it basically charmed the pants off everyone. Or at least, everyone who has a soul.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
Ben Calabrese (Apartment in “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”)
I saw a lot of great performances by men this year (Sam Bertken in “Peter/Wendy”, Tim Green and Gregory Knotts in “First”, Paul Rodrigues “Pint Sized Plays IV”, Will Hand “Dark Play”, Casey Robbins “Oh Best Beloved!”), but this one really took my breath away (though since Sam Bertken actually got me to sincerely clap for fairies in Peter/Wendy, he gets a second shout out). Ben’s role, which is to literally embody the voice of a neglected apartment, is the kind of role that could either be the best thing about the show, or the worst. Luckily for Bigger Than A Breadbox’s production of “Crumble, or Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake (written by Sheila Callaghan), Ben rocked it. Bouncing around the stage, dive bombing the furniture, all the while spouting, eloquently, Callaghan’s beautiful and complex monologues, Ben was so utterly watchable it was impossible not to buy the conceit of the role, and so moments when he has an orgasm from having the radiator turned on, or turns his fingers into loose electrical wires, don’t seem ridiculous, but made immediate and total sense. It’s usually not a compliment to tell an actor they did a tremendous job being an inanimate object, but what Ben did so well was illustrate that a home, while not “alive”, does indeed have a life to it. And if that life occasionally fixes the audience with Ben’s particular brand of “scary actor stare” why… all the better.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Brandice Marie Thompson (Georgia Potts in “First”)
Oh, this was a tough one. As usual, the actresses of the Bay Area are kicking ass and taking names no matter what their role, and my decision to pick Brandice above the rest is because I think she best exemplified that thing which so many actresses have to do, which is take a relatively underwritten role in a play about men and turn it into a rich, believable character who somehow manages to steal the show. Evelyn Jean Pine, who wrote “First”, is a fantastic writer and she writes women and men equitably well, and due credit must go to her for the creation and inclusion of this character in a story mostly about male egos, but in a lesser capable actresses hands, this role could have been annoying, or forgettable, or purely comical, and Brandice avoided all of these traps while making the character utterly charming at the same time. The truth is, her arc became much more interesting to me than that of the main character, and I think a strong argument could be made that “First” was just as much about Georgia as it was about Bill Gates. Director Michael French no doubt had a hand in this too, but in the end it’s a performer who makes or breaks a role and Brandice’s ability to combine mousy with spunky with unexpected and yet thoroughly authentic character turns was deeply satisfying to watch. Georgia kicked ass and took names, because Brandice does. Runners up: Melissa Carter (“Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”, Bigger Than A Breadbox), Allison Jean White (“Abigail’s Party”, SF Playhouse), Sam Jackson (“Oh Best Beloved!”, SF Fringe Festival), Courtney Merril (“Into the Woods”, Ray of Light), Elissa Beth Stebbins (“Peter/Wendy”, Custom Made Theatre Company).

BEST FUSION THEATER PIECE
“Nightingale” (Davis Shakespeare Ensemble/SF Fringe Festival)
This little gem at this year’s fringe festival was adapted from the myth of Philomel by Gia Battista, with music by Richard Chowenhill, directed by Rob Sals (with Battista), and staring Gabby Battista, April Fritz and Tracy Hazas as three remarkably similar looking women who each take a turn playing the heroine of a bizarre fairy tale (all the other characters in the story are played by them as well). Dance, pantomime, narration, song and traditional theater techniques all came together in a way that was astonishingly clean and charming in its simplicity. The black and white aesthetic used to unify the look of the show and performers gave the whole thing a quality both modern and timeless, and in its gentle, dreamy tone the sharp elements of social commentary and satire often seemed more brutal and impactful. Of everything I saw at the Fringe this past year, which included a number of excellent works, this piece has stayed with me the longest.

BEST SOLO SHOW
“Steve Seabrook: Better Than You” by Kurt Bodden (The Marsh)
I saw a lot more solo performance than usual this year (including works by Annette Roman, Laura Austin Wiley, Alexa Fitzpatrick, Jenny Newbry Waters, Rene Pena), and realizing how good it can be is, in and of itself, kind of a miracle because I used to say things like, “Theater begins with two people” and “If Aeschylus had wanted to write sermons he wouldn’t have added Electra”. Kurt’s show was not created this past year, it has a long history, but I only saw it in its most recent Marsh incarnation and I’m hoping he’s been able to find ways to keep it going (his Facebook feeds indicate this is so). A satire of motivational speakers and the cult of self-improvement, “Steve Seabrook” manages to be so much more by combining satirical fiction with moments of the kind of personal monologue (still fiction) that permeates solo shows. The result is a sense of development, of a story (Steve’s) unfolding in real time while another story, (Steve’s Seminar) plays itself out over the course of a weekend. Playing off the convention of a backstage comedy (we see the seminar, then we see Steve when he’s not “on”), Kurt’s brilliance as a performer is evident in the seamless transition from one to the other, again and again, carrying a throughline that shows us not only why Steve buys into his mantras, but why any of us buy into anything we’ve come up with (or adopted from someone else) to keep us moving through life’s ups and downs. At once very funny and cutting, while also moving and real (and yes, fuck it, kind of inspirational), Kurt’s show also gets a nod for its fantastic takeaway schwag: a keychain light with Steve’s name on it, with which every audience member is encouraged to shine their light in a dark world.

BEST DIRECTOR
Rebecca Longworth and Joan Howard, “Oh Best Beloved” (SF Fringe Festival)
“Oh Best Beloved” got a lot of attention and deservedly so- well acted, well designed, it was a genuinely fun piece of theater. Perhaps most deserving of being singled out in the project, however, are director Rebecca Longworth and partner Joan Howard, who share credit for conceptualizing the show (in which Joan also played a part and had, in my opinion, the single best moment in the show), and who lead the rest of the company in adapting the material from Ruyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories”. Anyone who saw the show could easily see that it had about a million moving parts, and Longworth and Howard’s ability to keep all those plates spinning on a small budget and under the strict conditions of the San Francisco Fringe Festival (they literally put up and pulled down a full set with each performance) is worthy of award in and of itself, but the level of commitment and craft they were able to pull from their design team and performers was equally as impressive. Everything about the show, even the parts that didn’t work as well as others, felt thought through and done with panache, making this ambitious and unique experience a delightful jewel in the SF Fringe Festival’s crown.

BEST DESIGNER
Bill English, “Abigail’s Party” (SF Playhouse)
Scenery in general doesn’t do much for me. I enjoy good scenery, but the best scenery should kind of vanish into the background, in my opinion, and be something you barely pay attention to. As a result, I’m often just as happy with a blank stage, or really well thought out minimal set, as I am with a full one, so long as the play I’m watching is good. That said, every now and then I will see a set I just adore, and this year it was Bill English’s set for SF Playhouse’s “Abigail’s Party”, by Mike Leigh, directed by Amy Glazer. Basically a living room/dining room/kitchenet combo, this fully realized “home” was very well crafted as a place, but more importantly, it really worked as a place where people lived. The 70s style was at once present without being overwhelming, evoking the time period without looking like it was a homage to the time period, or a museum dedicated to 70s kitch. I mean, it honestly reminded me of numerous homes I’d played in as a child (I was born in 1978) and all the wallpaper looked like wallpaper in my parents’ home before my mother completely re-did the house in 1990 because “we can admit this is ugly… now”. The amazing thing about English’s set is that it didn’t seem ugly, in spite of being made up entirely of patterns and colors we now find appalling. He made it all work together, the way people once did, and the final result was simultaneously comfortable and dazzling. I remember thinking, waiting for the play to begin, “I could live here.”

And last, but not least, every year I pick…

MY PERSONAL FAVORITE EXPERIENCE TO WORK ON
“The Age of Beauty” (No Nude Men Productions/The Exit Theatre)
I had taken a break from directing my own work, but with this nine performance workshop I allowed myself to re-discover that, as much as I like directing plays by others, there is nothing quite as satisfying as feeling like I’m telling a very personal story of my own and having the final say on how that happens. Of course, such experiences are only rewarding when you get to work with great actors, and I was lucky to have four amazing women (Megan Briggs, Emma Rose Shelton, Allison Page, Sylvia Hathaway) who were willing to go on this adventure with me, always keeping stride as I made cuts and changed lines, memorizing a mountain of material in Emma and Sylvia’s case, and crafting subtle characters who had to be both different from each other and relatively interchangeable at the same time. When I had a hard time articulating what I was going for, they would nod and smile and then show me what I meant by doing it better than I could describe it. When the show opened by the skin of its teeth it had one of those minor miracle opening nights, where even though you’re just a tiny bit unprepared (all my fault, I kept changing the script), it somehow all comes together and really works. Over the course of the show, as their performances grew and refined (our final two nights were simply perfect), I was able to see what flaws still remained in the script (two pages, middle of scene of scene two were cut the day after we closed), and any writer of new work will tell you that’s the best experience you can hope for on a first production. Shout outs to my awesome design team Cody Rishell, Jim Lively and Wil Turner IV! “The Age of Beauty” helped restore some of my lagging faith in the theater process, and made me commit to doing more of my own work in the coming year.

Stuart Bousel runs the San Francisco Theater Pub blog, and is a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. You can find out more about his work at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.

Working Title: The Unexpected Routine

Will Leschber gives us his second article in an on-going series of comparisons between local theater and the endless horizon of the film world.

One free evening last week, I had the chance to catch one of the many running shows in this years SF Fringe festival. Beforehand I asked the opinions of friends in the Bay Area Theatre scene in an effort to find a show of quality. This was my local equivalent of checking Rotten Tomatoes. Neither of these methods is by any means fool-proof but they do usually provide a general gauge of quality that can help point one in the right direction. I settled on “Serving Bait to Rich People”, a one woman show about a bartender in a high-end sushi restaurant.

S_F_Fringe_blog_image_#1

While very entertaining with quite the charismatic performer, this Fringe Festival entry by Alexa Fitzpatrick was more stand-up comedy than a traditional play. Here was a challenge. Since there were no theatrical design aspects, this unexpected routine made for a hard comparison when attempting to dissect at how the tools of the Theatre stack up against the tools of Film.

The story elements could easily be drawn upon for comparison but is that enough? Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film Waitress might make a great juxtaposition. 2005’s Waiting… starring Ryan Reynolds may well work if we were to draw upon the comedy instead of highlighting the romantic entanglements. Then again since this is a stand-up comedy story why not talk about last year’s Sleepwalk with Me that focuses all about the process of an up and coming stand up comedian, Mike Birbiglia. All of these films are worth checking out but in the end none of them seemed exactly right for a side by side assessment. However, this presented an opportunity to take step back and look at a different aspect of what made the evening a unique theatrical experience: short form theatre.

The prevalence of short form theatre in the Bay Area may not seem quite the unique thing, but ask yourself, when was the last time you saw a short play and when was the last time you saw a short film in the theatre? We are graced with a number of short form play festivals here: The SF Fringe Festival, Bay Area One Act Festival, The San Francisco Olympians Festival, Pint Size Plays to name of few. All of these showcase short plays in part or in full. These can be premium in and out experiences. They don’t waste time. They showcase a lot of talent. And if you don’t care for the piece, it’ll be over soon. The access to short form film, on the other hand, is entirely different. A theatrically released short film is quite a rare thing. You get the occasional Pixar short that is released to the masses but mostly wide release short films are relegated to the arena of animation tacked on to a larger full length feature.

pixar_short_films_blog_image_#2

Short film is simultaneously harder to see and easier. Viewing one on the big screen is uncommon but one can find a myriad of them online. But then does that change the film watching experience into something else if we can only access what we are watching at home on a computer screen? I think it does.

Watching theatre live is intrinsic to the experience. Similarly, something is lost when you take film out of its natural environment. I’m not saying that there is no place for film outside of a movie theatre. Obviously films need a life outside the big screen. But I am saying that viewing film outside of a movie theatre alters the experience. I think it a shame that it’s so hard to find short film in theatres. Every year creative teams win Oscars for making a live action or animated shorts but who is ever able see these things? The Oscar Nominated Short Films are normally bundled together during Oscar season and released in a limited theatrical engagement. It’s a wonderful change of pace to see high quality short film on the big screen. I recommend it.

Oscar_shorts_2011_blog_image_#3

In the business of film, the main-stream market for this is almost non-existent. No one makes money off short film so they are left to the internet. Just like in short form theatre, short films can be a brilliant experience. Take a chance, seek them out.

Theater Around The Bay: Lisa and Nick Gentile Discuss Writing as a Couple

We recently got a great submission from Nick and Lisa Gentile, a husband/wife writing team from the East Bay who have been participants and supporters of Theater Pub for years. Here in all its glory, is their funny and insightful look into life as an artistic duo. Enjoy!

People often ask us what it’s like writing as a couple. We usually give a glib answer, because we haven’t really thought about it. We thought we could try to answer the question by interviewing each other.

Nick: So, Lisa, when did we first start writing?

Lisa: 2004. Your birthday. I took you to see 8 Tens at 8 in Santa Cruz. Remember that?

Nick: I remember we both thought that some were good and some were . . . not inimitable. I never thought that I could write a full-length play, but after that we both thought that we could do ten minutes. I didn’t realize before then that there was an entry-level length. I thought you had to write this big honking thing like Long Days Journey into Night right off the bat. Do you remember where the idea for our first play, Ten Minutes to Burn, came from? Or anything about its origins? Because, to tell you the truth, I don’t remember any of it.

Lisa: We were at that little surf film fest at the Roxy and we ran to Arinell Pizza during intermission. We had only a few minutes and I complained that I knew the dude behind the counter was going to say, “this is all I have for ten minutes.” And he did! And that other guy came in and went on and on about death metal versus black metal. Funny how people never ask us whether that play is autobiographical.

Nick: Probably because the characters are all dead. Now our second play, Russian Roulette for Lovers – I know where that came from. Our only real argument as a couple, about the philosophical meaning of The Godfather. I was going on and on about it, and you thought I was ignoring your opinion due to a sexist belief that women cannot truly understand the movie due to its hyper-masculine subject matter. I’m glad you realized that wasn’t true. I was just in some strange oblivious testosterone-fueled movie-analyzing reverie.

Lisa: Yeah, once I gave up interrupting you to defend the position that I actually had a position I just watched, stunned, as you lectured the imaginary crowd.

Nick: You yelled, “Who are you having this conversation with?” which became a line in the play.

Lisa: Then I saw potential, both for our relationship to continue and for the new play. How would you describe our writing process?

Nick: Well, what I think goes on is we both throw out half-baked ideas, and we both try not to say anything critical until it becomes too painful to bite back our sarcasm. Then we try to come up with some plot that threads together the ideas or bits of dialog we really like, even if that plot doesn’t contain the other person’s ideas. And finally we both try to come up with something that melds both sets of ideas into something semi-coherent. So what does it look like from your perspective?

Lisa: So I’m not far off when I tell people that we take turns assuming the fetal position under the desk. One of us is usually willing to carry on the work if the other has fallen into the pit of despair. I know I whine a lot over story arcs. But I think it’s your way with dialogue, your inner Mamet or Stoppard, that really gets us through.

Nick: Stop. I should rend my garments. Nobody gets compared to Tom Stoppard. Now, the Mamet comparison I can live with, because I share one thing in particular with him, which is observing the way people express ideas in the vernacular. I mean the way that people express complex ideas and emotions with ungrammatically correct phrases and metaphors. And by swearing. Who influences you?

Lisa: Chekhov. And it’s not just about the gun, seriously. I think his work shows the tension and suspense that are inherent in relationship. I love how the service of tea can be wrought with anguish.

Nick: Is that grammatically correct? What do you mean “relationship”?

Lisa: It’s a poet thing. To explain it would kill it. What’s your favorite idea that we developed?

Nick: When our friend Kate Owen said to us, “You should write a play about mumble-mumble”, and we both though she said “maggots.” I don’t remember what she really said, but I remember talking about it on our drive home, trying to figure out what kind of play you could write about maggots. We decided that they should be philosophers, because they have mouths but no limbs.

Lisa: Metamorphosize, mon Amour sent us back to the college textbooks night after night. Remember that big chart that we made to outline coherent arguments for the three characters?

Nick: I think that chart shows how you take the lead role in providing the structure for our works, while I concern myself with coming up with amusing lines. Our different strengths merge synergistically. Or something. I’m getting points for saying this stuff, right? Pookie, would you say that playwriting together has been an extension of our love? I sure hope so, because this Fringe Festival show is going to be stressful. We’ll need all our love to make it through.

Lisa:
That’s sweet. But I have to confess something. I needed that chart because around that time I started spiking my mochas with rum. Speaking of booze (hint, hint), what’s your favorite production so far?

Nick: Why, God, Satan Beer, of course, at San Francisco Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Plays in August 2011. It’s obligatory that we mention that this was a great opportunity to get involved with a bunch of talented people through that production. And it’s also true, because we are working with some those people at the SF Fringe.

Lisa: I wouldn’t change a thing about Pint-Sized. Warden Lawlor, Dan Kurtz, and Ashley Cowan made the crowd laugh. That’s what it’s all about.

Nick and Lisa Gentile’s show “Weird Romance” will be performed at the SF Fringe Festival on September 8, 9, 11, and 14. http://www.sffringe.org/wordpress/