The Real World Theater Edition: An Interview with Evangeline Crittenden

Barbara Jwanouskos brings us an interview with the mind behind a new musical being developed in the Bay Area.

This week I had the honor of interviewing local writer and performer, Evangeline Crittenden about the new musical she created along with composer, Nick Rattray, called Philia. I have always been fascinated by musicals and the use of song in theatrical performances, so I was very much intrigued when asking Evangeline her thoughts on process, especially as it pertains to incorporating music into the world of the play.

For more information on Phila, check out their website at http://www.philiasf.com/#about-marquee where you can find videos and previews of the songs, themes, and inspiration behind the work.

Barbara: How did you get involved in theater? And specifically writing musicals?

Evangeline: I’ve been doing theater since I was a wee one. I grew up primarily acting but I’ve come to realize that actors often are puppeted around the stage, exploring themes that other people project on them, rather than themes that they are interested in exploring for themselves. I want to have my voice heard, and I want a say in what I create.

Musicals specifically? I’ve always loved music and singing. If you look at human history, it’s actually strangely anomalous of our current time to divorce storytelling from song. Mostly, these two things have gone hand in hand. But, modern musicals are, for me, largely disappointing. There is a certain plastic aesthetic that I find emotionally impermeable, and the style of the music doesn’t resonate with me. Philia is my first fully-fledged musical, in a more conventional sense, but every project I’ve ever directed has used music in some form. Music touches deeper parts of story and emotion that are often untapped by words alone. (When I saw Banana, Bag and Bodice did Beowulf at Shotgun Players, I realized how rad a play with music can actually be.)

Evangeline Crittenden and the composer Nick Rattray, performing an excerpt from the show at Tuesdays with Writing, a monthly salon for new works, hosted by Elena Marx at the Clock Factory in Berkeley. Photo credit: Wesley Newfarmer.

Evangeline Crittenden and the composer Nick Rattray, performing an excerpt from the show at Tuesdays with Writing, a monthly salon for new works, hosted by Elena Marx at the Clock Factory in Berkeley. Photo credit: Wesley Newfarmer.

Barbara: What was the inspiration behind Philia and what drew you to wanting to explore it in this medium?

Evangeline: Philia is based on a short story by Traci Chee, entitled “Philematophilia,” which was published in her short story collection Consonant Sounds for Fish Songs. Traci had the idea of connecting and collaborating with various artists (filmmakers, illustrators, etc.) to create work that was connected to and inspired by her stories. When she told me the premise of “Philematophilia,” I fell in love. It’s brilliant: a young woman’s magical kisses transform everyone she meets, but she gets labeled and criticized for kissing too many people. Traci called it a kind of “King Midas” story; a magical ability to transform or alchemize one’s surroundings ultimately backfires.

I love the story because it shines a light on the paradoxical reality that transformation can drive people away from each other, even if that transformation occurred through their relationship. I also love that Traci’s story is divided into smaller sections with different ‘philias,’ or loves for things. But if you look up these words, many of them are pure invention, based on words for fears (or, ‘phobias.’) I am deeply inspired by the idea that our language supports articulating fear but not love.

I wanted to make this project a musical rather than a regular play because the imagery in the short story is colorful and variegated and fanciful. It skips from fairytale imagery to a modern high school to a dream world; this, to me, demanded music in order to be fully embodied in performance.

Barbara: How is writing a musical different (or the same!) as writing a new play?

Evangeline: Writing a musical is tricky because the collaborative effort of writing is spread between more than one mind. In working with the composer and lyricist for the project, Nick Rattray, I have been grateful to discover how many ways our artistic values overlap. But we had many necessary conversations about how to best weave the music through the story, and what function the music serves in a given scene.

Barbara: What has been your process of creation with your collaborators?

Evangeline: Perfect segue! So, the process started three years ago, and I began by simply adapting the text of the short story for the stage. I cut certain parts, added others, and re-arranged the order, but the bulk of the text (aside from the lyrics, which Nick wrote) was Traci’s words. She handed me the story wholesale to make whatever I wanted out of it.

Then, in the summer of 2014, I began adding more scenes (and Nick added more songs) to expand the story and more deeply explore the scenes. We performed this version of the show as a workshop and received a lot of useful audience feedback. Through this, Wesley Newfarmer (the Associate Director) has been there to offer critique and to direct the scenes I’m in. (I perform in the play as the Witch, an omniscient, narrator character.)

I have spent the past year honing the script with Traci’s dramaturgical help and continued input, and listening to various drafts of Nick’s songs. We began rehearsals with a somewhat finalized script in June, and have continued to refine it through the rehearsal process.

Barbara: Anything in the process of creating the piece, performing during Fringe, or the staged readings that was a challenge? An opportunity to explore something you didn’t necessarily think of initially?

Evangeline: The challenge has been for me, choosing which direction to go: do I succumb to my desire for the abstract, or do I tell a clear story? The very first version of the play, at Fringe 2013, was fragmented and abstract, mimicking the patchwork tone of the short story. As I’ve moved forward, however, a clearer narrative has emerged. I never would have imagined this. But, in deepening the characters, it became clear that narrative was a way for the audience to invest more deeply in the story.

Barbara: What are you looking forward to most about this production?

Evangeline: Seeing the cast take ownership of the world of the play, and enrich it with their own rich imaginations. (We’ve been running for two weekends already, and it’s already happening!)

Barbara: Any advice for others that would like to write new musicals?

Evangeline: Hah. Um, find people who speak your language, who love the same things you do. If your collaborators understand where you’re coming from, you’ll have the freedom to stumble and experiment, which is a necessary part of the process.

Also, allowing ample time for workshopping is crucial. This project took three years to develop, and if we’d tried to do it on any shorter of a timeline, it just wouldn’t be as rich and complex and developed as it is. Music takes time to create, plays also take time, and it takes time to find effective ways to meld them together.

Derricka Smith (currently playing Helena) and Tim Silva (who was in the first two versions of the show). Photo credit: Wesley Newfarmer.

Derricka Smith (currently playing Helena) and Tim Silva (who was in the first two versions of the show). Photo credit: Wesley Newfarmer.

Barbara: Any shows around the Bay Area that you’d like to shout out or check out?

Evangeline: I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m excited about Trixxie Carr‘s performance at NCTC, Salome, Dance for Me. It looks like it will be imaginative and sensual, and I’ve met her once and she seems rad.

Cowan Palace: Please Don’t Make Me Prepare A Monologue

Ashley Cowan just really doesn’t want to prepare a monologue.

It’s possible I’ve become one of those actors that gives other actors a bad name. Sorry (/#sorrynotsorry, #IStillLoveHashtags). Then again, I haven’t really lived up to my “actor” title over the past year so maybe I’m just stupidly giving myself a bad name and pushing myself further away from the casting pool. The Greek tragedy of my acting career.

However, I’ll be reclaiming my actor status later this year with the San Francisco Fringe Festival. As a result, I’ve slowly started to dip a curious toe into the audition notice waters and I realized this week that as soon as I see something regarding a prepared monologue I abandon my interest.

That’s terrible! And maybe you’re thinking, anyone who doesn’t have a few monologues ready/isn’t willing to workshop some doesn’t deserve an audition spot. And that’s cool, I guess. But we’re in Cowan Palace today so I’m keeping my handmade crown (consisting of double chocolate chip cookie dough and dreams) and maintaining my reign! In my opinion, monologues suck! I just hate them! They’re the absolute worst!

This is the headshot I’ll be bringing to all future auditions asking me for a monologue.

This is the headshot I’ll be bringing to all future auditions asking me for a monologue.

Sure, I could be a lazy brat with this mindset. Honestly, these days, I really don’t want to spend my free time memorizing new material that I can cut into two minutes, 90 seconds, or 60 seconds depending on the need. I’m still trying to balance a full plate. Also, I believe pretty strongly that it’s not going to prove to you whether I deserve the part or not.

See, I almost never feel like I’ve found the perfect piece to showcase my goods. And then on the rare occurrence that I have a monologue that I feel great about, I have to trade it in when I’m auditioning for someone who has already seen it. Plus, even if I have great material ready, how in the world is it going to be the best piece for every part I’m going for? That’d be like writing one generic cover letter and expecting to land your dream job without really ever catering to the company.

C’mon, Tina. Hear me out.

C’mon, Tina. Hear me out.

I can feel you rolling your eyes. Go for it. How is this lazy brat even blogging, right?! Well, I still hate having to prepare a monologue. I get that part of the process is the chance to showcase your own personality and give the casting director a little taste of your skill set. Fine, fine, fine. But why not just jump right into some material from the actual play? Or ask me to cold read something with a certain direction (holla, San Francisco Olympians Festival!) to test my instincts. Make me read with other people. Make me move around the space in a certain way, heck – in several ways! Make me do anything but recite some memorized material from a play we’re not doing that I’m already regretting as a the wrong selection.

I know there are plenty of actors who can rock a monologue enough to show that they’re capable of more. I’ve seen it while on the other side of the table. But for the majority of us who are working non-actor jobs so we can support our dreams, finding the time to prepare for an audition isn’t always easy. At least that’s how I feel. I want to spend that time getting to know the play I’m auditioning for or memorizing lines for your show!

Maybe what it comes down to for me is that I don’t think I’m great at many things but acting has always been an area that I feel slightly more confident about; perhaps because I’m very passionate about it. But I also know that it’s hard for me to leave an audition room feeling confident in my monologue and if I do a less than awesome job with it, I’d hate that to get in the way of whether I’m right or wrong for the role.

Serious headshot picture from almost ten (!) years ago. This gal could handle some monologues.

Serious headshot picture from almost ten (!) years ago. This gal could handle some monologues.

I’d love to get some additional thoughts on this idea. What’s the best way to cast a play? Am I sabotaging myself? And if you’re a casting director, what kind of monologues tend to have the best success and what’s the stuff that usually fails? Granted there are like a bazillion actors out there that may be more talented and deserving than I am (they’re probably working on a new monologue right now!) but I’d still love to open the discussion and find a way to be a part of that theatre magic!

Theater Around The Bay: Year End Round Up, Act 4, The Stueys (Again)

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2014 list. Finally. We know it’s long, but read the whole thing. Seriously. If he was Tony Kushner you’d do it.

So if there is anything I learned last week it’s that one can have spent too much time thinking about Into The Woods.

No, but seriously, in the time since I published last week’s avante garde explanation for why I wasn’t going to do the Stueys, ironically, as these things often happen, I rediscovered why I want to do the Stueys. Blame it on a couple of supportive emails I got, a text of a friend reading my blog from inside a security fort and identifying too much, and a chat on a bay-side bench with a young, hopeful playwright, but my heart started to heal from the poison I was bleeding out of it and then one night, quite spontaneously, I just sat down and wrote them. And it just felt dumb not to share them. Before I do though, I wanted to briefly (for me) revisit the three things I wanted to get across in last week’s article. In 2015 it’s my goal to create space both for what I want to say, and what I need to say.

1) I kind of hate the Internet. But seriously, after the last year or so, does anybody not? I mean, I love what it can do but I’m starting to truly hate what it brings out in people, including myself. To be honest, while I am still quick with the quippy comments on Facebook and such, you may have noticed I am much quieter on the debates and controversy front than I once was and this is because I’ve just reached my limit of getting into fights that started out as conversations but then devolved into people just trying to outshout one another. It’s amazing to realize that a silent medium requires a volume dial but it really does, and the truth is, there are days I fear to be anything but funny on the internet, or ubiquitously positive, and so I ironically don’t want to talk in what is supposed to be a forum, not because I fear critique or debate, but because I’m not looking to start any wars. Too bad the Internet is pretty much a 24/7 war zone.

2) I kind of hate awards. I always kind of have, but this became more apparent to me after I won a TBA Award this year and I know that sounds ungrateful but believe me, I am honored and flattered to have received it, and I understand why awards are important, or at least necessary, and I can’t state enough, especially as someone who got to discuss the process and purpose behind the awards extensively with the folks running them, that I do believe the TBA awards are both well intentioned and super inclusive in their attempt to create an even playing field for theater makers coming from a diverse level of resources. What I dislike so strongly about awards is how many people, in the broader sense, use them as shorthand to designate the value of art, artists, and organizations. And no, they’re not supposed to do this, I know, but they do, and we as artists are not supposed to internalize this, I know, but we do. And I became really aware of that standing in a room with my fellow nominees that night, who didn’t win an award, all of whom were good sports about it but I could tell it made them sad. Which made me feel kind of miserable. And now my award lives in the back of my closet because as proud as I am of it, I’m also weirded out about it, and what it might mean to people, the expectations it might create about me or my work. And awards are nice but they can’t be why we’re in this, and I know that sounds kind of bullshit from somebody who has a few but it’s true and we have to remember that.

3) I kind of hate theater. Okay, that is an exaggeration but I am going through a phase of being sort of disenchanted with theater and some of the theater community. I know this is hardly a first for anybody in the community, and I suspect it’s a particularly common feeling when you’re feeling overworked- which I definitely was in 2014. 2015, however, doesn’t promise to be any less work, in fact the opposite, and so that’s got me down. And yes, I know it’s my choice to work as much as I do, but it’s also kind of not. A lot of what I do won’t happen without me and that makes me want to keep working because I believe in it and all the people it serves or creates opportunities for, but my inability to really escape the theater scene for more than a day or two before my inbox fills and my phone rings reached epic proportions in 2014 and lead to some intense moments of resenting the thing I love for needing me so very much while not always feeling like it needs me, Stuart, so much as anybody dumb enough to work this hard for this little pay. Which is a nasty thing to say but sometimes… sometimes it’s also kind of the truth. Feeling taken for granted sucks; feeling enslaved to passion has a dark side. So it goes. It balances out all the times I feel rescued and redeemed by it.

So, hopefully, you can see how all this could make for a mood not suited for creating the Stueys. Considering my general ambivalence/anxiety about awards, but recognizing that some people take the Stueys seriously enough to put them on resumes and websites, I really have been struggling with how ethical, not to mention hypocritical, it is for me, as an artist, to be handing out awards, no matter how playfully, to my fellow artists, when the only thing determining those awards is… me. Who no one should take seriously. But who apparently some people really do. Cue paralysis inducing terror and suddenly I couldn’t remember why I was doing this or what it was all about, but I felt I had to say something because I had all this stuff to say. But it can be hard for me to talk about myself, what I’m personally going through, and even harder for me to advocate for myself. I hate disappointing people. But I hate being insincere more. And I wanted to begin to understand why I was feeling all this dread.

Anyway, without more ado, and much, much later than intended, here they are, 14 awards for the 2014 Stueys.

BEST ADDITION TO THE BAY AREA THEATRE SCENE
The Bay Area Theatre Awards

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, and when we celebrate that whole community, regardless of budget or house size, Equity relationship or ticket price, we are celebrating our Art, ourselves as Artists, and Artists as contributors to and saviors of the World. Of course, no one organization or 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. No matter how far we cast our net, there is always more to see and more to explore and we’re fortunate to have it that way, so for a moment, let’s just celebrate what an incredible delight it is to now have an official awards system for our community that appears to be on the same page as that sentiment of inclusivity and casting a wide net, regardless of whatever other kinks may still need to be ironed out. And for those of you who feel the TBA Awards are not enough, or still missing the boat in some regards, you are correct. And you should do something about it, whatever that means to you. To me, it means keeping the SEBATAs going, because in my mind, Heaven is a place where at last we are all recognized for what we bring to the table, and I dream of a Bay Area filled with organizations and individuals proudly recognizing one another at every possible turn, for as many reasons as can be found, as many times as it pleases us to do so. And so I am giving the first Stuey this year to TBA, and specifically Robert Sokol, for having completed a Herculean task that they will now have to complete all over again. And then again. And then again. And again. Good luck everybody!

BEST NEW VENUE
PianoFight

Is there anyone who isn’t excited about all the potential here? Rob Ready and company have been building this space for years now, and walking into it you see why it has taken so long- it is just beautiful. From the mural by Molly Benson to the floors and the furniture, they have been seeking to create not just another black box or just another dive bar, but something truly magnificent, welcoming, inspiring, and everything a venue dedicated to a community art should be. Best thing of all? They’ve asked Theater Pub to perform there, and so we will be performing there, starting in January, at least twice a month going forward. Which makes us excited and scared. Something we’re sure they understand. This whole year looks to be exciting and scary.

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
San Francisco Fringe Festival (EXIT Theatre)

Dear San Francisco: this amazing thing happens right in the middle of you every year and not enough of you know about it and not enough of you make the time to visit it. And like… really visit it, not just duck in to see your friend’s show and then run out. And I understand why you do that because I used to do the same thing but now, having worked there for three years, I have to say, you are robbing yourself of an amazing opportunity to see theater from all over the country and the world, and to meet and talk with the most diverse collection of artists any one event assembles at any given point in the year, and to be a part of something bigger than you and bigger than just this venue or this theater scene for that matter. Do yourself a favor, serious theater goer, serious theater maker, and commit to seeing at least three shows at the Fringe this next year. Pick one by someone you know, one by someone you have heard of, and one by a total stranger. See them all, bring a friend, hang out in the Café and the Green Room between shows (on almost any night of the Fringe you can see 2-3 shows in one visit to the venue, and all the tickets are super cheap), introduce yourself to the staff and artists, tip the Fringe, and see if it doesn’t inspire you to want to see more, know more, do more. If the Bay Area Theatre scene is a garden, this is one of our most vital vegetable beds. Tend this garden, and then come get fed.

BEST SHOW
“Our Town” (Shotgun Players)

Won’t lie… it kind of kills me that this was my favorite show of the year. But it was, so much so that my boyfriend, afterwards, said, “Let’s not see anything else this year- let’s let this be where we stop” and he was right and I agreed, but that’s part of what worries me: for far too many people I think theater starts and stops with “Our Town”, or its equivalent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good theater because it is, and I have long defended Thornton Wilder as being one of the great playwrights whose work is often undermined by having been overdone. This production, directed by Susannah Martin with assistance from Katja Rivera, was anything but overdone, it was subtle and lovely and elegantly realized, from the costumes and lighting, to the music and the performances, and it all came together in a way that, while nostalgic and dramatically safe (which aren’t necessarily bad things, but important to recognize), still felt fresh and sincere, like the gesture of laying down in the rain on the grave of a loved one. There was really nothing I didn’t love. Though if I had to pick favorites I’ll say very little is more entertaining than watching Michelle Talgarow and Don Wood play off each other, even during the intermission raffle. The night I was there they got some very chatty audience feedback and they handled it Grover’s Corners style: graciously and politely and in a way that warmed your heart.

BEST READING
“Hydra” by Tonya Narvaez (SF Olympians Festival)

God, there is very little better in life than a really good reading, and possibly nothing more frustrating than watching people shoot themselves in the foot on what should be the simplest, easiest theatrical event to pull off. And yet… again and again we see it at the SF Olympians Festival, the full range of dramatic readings, from the simple but impafctful, to the overdone and done to death. This year we had a number of excellent readings, but my favorite standout was “Hydra”, written and directed by Tonya Narvaez. A ghost story, a comedy, a conundrum, the piece was elevated to a new level by Tonya shrouding the stage in total darkness except for reading lights for her cast who, illuminated in the stark and eerie glow, were uniformly excellent- not in the least because they were relieved of having to worry about blocking and forced by the light to focus only on the text. Such a simple, elegant choice, but so effective. She won that night of the festival, and wins this Stuey for Best Reading.

BEST SHORT PLAY
“Mars One Project” by Jennifer Roberts (part of “Super Heroes” at Wily West Productions)

Jennifer Robert’s play, about a female astronaut who is denied her chance to go to Mars because she has a daughter and the Powers That Be don’t think the world can stomach or root for a woman who would leave her child, even in an attempt to create a role model for that child, was by far the best piece in this evening of shorts. There was plenty of fine writing, but this is the one that transcended its own subject matter to present that ever elusive thing: an issue play in which both sides of the argument are presented with pathos. The tragedy of the piece is less that “we’re not there yet” and more, “is what it will take to be there always going to require sacrifice on this level”, to me a much more interesting, more human question. In an evening of mostly sketches, it was the one piece that could not only stand on its own, but really stood for something, and it’s a near perfect short play- which as an author of short plays, I assure you, is a near impossibility.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Amanda Ortmayer (EXIT Theatre Technical Director)

Amanda Ortmayer has let me cry on her shoulder so many times this year it’s astounding she doesn’t just keep a towel on hand. Only she probably does, since she’s seemingly prepared for anything, she just probably keeps it out of sight, since she also knows the value of never revealing your bag of tricks, or the exact location of your wishing tree. Something has to keep us in ballgowns and slippers and it’s probably not going to be wishes alone. But Amanda likes to encourage wishes too, and that rare combination of pragmatism and dreaming is why she is just generally… awesome. If you haven’t had a chance to work with her, I hope, one day, you do. It’ll remind you why we’re all in this, or at least, why we should all be in this: for the people.

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Marissa Skudlarek, “Pleiades”

One of my biggest pet peeves is listening to people complain about how there are not enough opportunities, while refusing to ever create those opportunities themselves. For the record I agree, there aren’t enough opportunities, but at some point we need to realize that if we have our health and a clear sense of our dreams, we’ve already been given more than most people get so it’s really just about figuring out how to see your dream materialize. Watching Marissa Skudlarek as she put together her first production as a producer (she wrote the script too, but we’re giving her recognition for the producer hat here), I was blown away by how organized and focused she was, how determined she was to do it as best she could even the first time out. Which is more than I can say for me. Even now, I feel like I mostly just take a deep breath, pick up my sword, and rush into battle blindly, while Marissa strategized and planned, gathered information, raised funds, and was just in general super smart about it all. Was anyone surprised? Not really. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take one more moment to tell her she did an amazing job. Everyone looking to produce a show in 2015- call Marissa. She knows what she’s doing.

BEST CHEMISTRY
Michaela Greeley, Katherine Otis, Terry Bamberger (“Three Tall Women”, Custom Made Theater Company)

It is not easy to play three versions of the same woman but this trio of ladies, under the direction of Custom Made veteran Katjia Rivera, brought so much magic to the stage that the leap of faith required for Act Two of Edward Albee’s classic was not only easy to make, you made it with a song in your heart! This is a lovely show, but one I rarely feel enthusiastic about, energized by, and these three performers, working so well together, in such total tandem with one another, sold me on this show in a way it’s never been sold to me before. Michaela Greeley was uncomfortably good at playing the frailty of her character in Act One and the fierce stubborn vitality in Act Two; while Terry Bamberger was an edgy warmth in Act One that ballooned into an explosion of heat and fire in Act Two; Katherine Otis, in the part with the least to work with in both acts, managed to strike the aloof brittleness required in the first act while still laying the foundations for the insecure idealist the second act tears to pieces. But what I may have loved the most was the way these ladies moved, always circling one another, always creating triangles on the stage, each one so aware of the other, having to fill the space one vacated, or rushing to claim a spot before the other could. It was like a dance, like a motorized portrait of the Three Fates and they wove a spell together that was frightening and enchanting all at once.

BEST RISK
Kat Evasco, “Mommie Queerest” (Guerilla Rep/DIVAfest)

Kat Evasco knows how to work an audience, but the audience at her show might not have been ready to get worked so hard. Bravely darting in and out of us, throwing herself around the stage in gleeful and breathless abandon, Kat unravels a personal story about the struggle to discover not only who she is- but who her mother is. And why she needs her mother to know who she is before she can finally accept herself. Co-written with John Caldon, who also directed, the show avoids the bulk of solo show clichés, feeling more like a play where Kat has just been tasked with playing all the roles to the best of her ability, and the audience isn’t really asked to come along so long as commandeered by her at the beginning and let go only when she sees fit. The piece is courageously risky, not only because of the controversial elements within it, but because Kat leaves no fourth wall standing between herself and the audience, and if they don’t run with her on it, her show is kind of screwed. Both times I saw this though, that wasn’t a problem; it’s hard not to jump in both feet at a time with a performer who is so ready and eager to do it.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
Justin Gillman (“The Pain And The Itch”, Custom Made Theater Company; “Blood Wedding” Bigger Than A Breadbox Theatre Company; “Pastorella” No Nude Men; and like a billion other things)

So… how many plays was Justin Gillman in this past year? It seemed like every time you turned around he was being cast in something, including by me, and every time he was pretty amazing in it. I don’t know how he does it. Like seriously, I don’t know how he memorizes all his lines, let alone doesn’t burn out from the constant rehearsal and yet somehow he shows up every night, fresh and ready to perform. Generous with everyone, onstage and off, it’s rare I don’t find him the highlight of a cast, usually finding a way to balance being a somewhat over-the-top character with a deeply human core that is achingly vulnerable when not just a tiny bit scary. In each of the three roles highlighted above, this was the common thread- men at first dismissable, who at sudden turns revealled their fangs, and then wept as they ripped your throat out. Delicious.

The ladies have gotten a lot of attention on this year’s list, which is great, but we like to keep things balanced here at the Stueys so we’re giving two more nods out: Kenny Toll (“Dracula Inquest”, Central Works) and Sam Tillis (“Slaughterhouse Five”, Custom Made Theater Company). In my opinion, both of these gentlemen were the best thing about these two shows, which were solid enough theatrical productions but elevated by fully committed actors. In both cases, both men also played characters who were… well, committed. As in insane. Though the insanity characterizations couldn’t have been more night and day than the plays were (Toll’s was of the by turns wimpering, by turns screeching Bedlam variety, Tillis was the diamond hard, lethally cold, slow burn sociopath kind), both managed to be believable and unsettling without being melodramatic or over-the-top. Toll even managed to be sympathetic, while Tillis managed to be mesmerizing. Either way, it was endlessly watchable, haunting, and impressive.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Cat Luedtke in Anything

Seriously, once upon a time there was no Cat Leudtke and then one morning we woke up and she was everywhere. I think I might have seen her in like six shows this year and in each case she was the walk away discovery, the revelation performance. The tremendous skill of this woman is matched only by her tremendous range, as every role I saw her in this year was different, though perhaps none so piercing and breathtaking as her role in Custom Made’s “Top Girls” as England’s most done-with-it-but-not-lying-down-about-it mother. I’ve also seen her sing and dance, act Lorca, play the 19th century adventurer, the dutiful wife, and more (probably helps that one of the things I saw her in was a collection of one-acts), bringing to each role a personal touch and a universal power, a sincerity and openness of heart that made you feel like you were watching a real person. She’s very much a “real actress”, whatever we mean by that when we say it. I know that what I tend to mean is somebody so good at throwing themselves into something, they transcend and turn into someone else, each and every time.

There is always an embarrassment of brilliant female performances in the Bay Area, so I feel a few other honorable mentions are in order: Mikka Bonel in “At The White Rabbit Burlesque” (DIVAfest), giving a performance as a rabbit that was unlike any performance of anything I’ve ever seen; Ariel Irula in “Blood Wedding” (Bigger Than A Breadbox), whose deeply passionate performance was matched only by the soul of her singing voice; Jean Forsman in “The Pain And The Itch” (Custom Made Theater Company), nailing well-meaning but vapid liberal mom as only someone like Jean could, walking perfectly that line of endearing and annoying; Stephanie Ann Foster in “Slaughterhouse Five” (Custom Made Theater Company), who played both a woman and a man in the show, and was lovely, heartbreaking, deeply sympathetic in each role.

BEST FUSION THEATER PIECE
Now And At The Hour (Christian Cagigal, H.P. Mendoza)

The fusion of theater and film is a tricky one, and I can only imagine how filming a stage show without destroying the magic of live theater must require an excellent understanding of both mediums. Now make that live theater a magic show too and you are truly setting yourself up to fall flat on your face, but H.P. Mendoza’s film of Christian Cagigal’s “Now And At The Hour” flies, it is magical and touching, the decision to interrupt the narrative of the stage show with the narrative of Christian’s life and the important players in it only adding to the emotional punch of this unique variation on “the artist and his work” formula. Beautifully shot, entertaining, unexpectedly poignant, this is a stellar example of a collaboration between artists and mediums.

BEST SOLO SHOW
Kevin Rolston, “Deal With The Dragon” (SF Fringe Festival)

Remember my earlier bit about the Fringe? Here is a glowing example of why going into something blind at the Fringe can sometimes result in stumbling across something truly excellent. I didn’t know anything about this show. It had a fun premise in the Fringe guide (Man moves in with Dragon) and a bad flier design (sorry, it can’t all be hugs and snuggles here) and while I had no expectations what I wasn’t expecting was to be so thoroughly moved and entertained. It does not hurt that Kevin Rolston is an incredibly talented performer with an ability to switch between his three narrators with glass-like smoothness, or that each of the three stories he tells, each with a different take on the idea of a “dragon”, are all funny and unsettling portraits of our tenous relationship with self-control and those things inside us that scare us. An unsettling fable about how our potential for violence and indulgence can also be our potential for strength and transformation, Rolston’s notes in the program claimed the piece is unfinished, but it could actually already stand as is. Here’s hoping the final product is as good as the draft.

And as for Me…

So Usually I end the awards with something about the show I personally worked on that affected me the most, but in all honesty I got so much out of all of them it would be hard to pick one so I kind of just want to take a final look at last year as a whole so I can both make sense of it and kiss it goodbye.

For me, it was an incredible year, but that doesn’t mean I loved every second of it. Far from it. It was as demanding as it was rewarding and at times it also seemed… endless. Like there was just always one more thing to do, to get through and then… two more. And then nine. I got to work with material by the incredible Kristin Hersh this year and that will forever be a highlight of my life but the production itself was a rough process, and the reception was rough, it all kind of placed too much strain on an important relationship in my life and I walked away feeling very differently than I had when I walked in- which was hopeful and desirous to bring a project that meant a lot to me to people I loved who I thought could benefit from it, but by the end I was wondering if I had ultimately done more harm than good by bringing such tremendous attention to something so natal. Then I directed a stellar production of “The Crucible” that made me acutely aware of how resistant critics and audiences can be to seeing a familiar play in a new way, and also how embracing they can be, but by that point I was having a hard time hearing the love and found it easier to focus on the detrimental views. I worked to let it all go, focused on feeling proud of the work my actors and designers had done, which was stupendous, and then just as I was feeling more balanced again, Wily West’s production of my play “Everybody Here Says Hello!”, after a whirlwind of a production process, opened to unexpectedly and ubiquitously positive reception. Suddenly, I was a guy with a hit show on my hands- technically my third this year since “Rat Girl” and “The Crucible”, despite whatever misgivings critics were having, were also big audience successes. For the first time in my career though my writing was the center of attention (I often feel I am mostly known as a director who writes, though I am actually a writer who directs), partly because Rik Lopes, not I, had directed “EHSH”, and so critics had to speak about our separate contributions separately, and that was wonderful but the moment was short-lived: we ended up having two performances canceled and the show only ran 7 times and it became my play everybody “really wished they had made it out to see.” Me too! Though one should never shake a stick at houses full of strangers. But oh… we do this partly because of the friends we hope to show something personal to, don’t we? And, again, I was having a year where it was hard not to keep adding things up in the negative, no matter how well they were actually going.

Anyway, this was then followed by the Fringe, as rewarding and as demanding as ever, which was then followed by the fast and furious (yet incredibly smooth) rehearsal process for my play “Pastorella”, which was the only piece I both wrote and directed last year, and which was well received, actually pretty much adored by audiences, but played to 2/3rds full houses or less its entire run after opening to an audience of 11- my second smallest audience in the history of my theater life in San Francisco (not my whole life- I once played to an audience of 2 in Tucson). The result was a show that, though very economically produced, still ended in the red, something which shouldn’t affect one personally as much as it does. But if you haven’t gathered yet, I’m being truthful here, even if it makes me seem a little petty. So yeah, my final passion project of the year was probably my personal favorite artistic accomplishment but it also cleaned out my bank account, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that 2014 was the year I went freelance/contractor and believe me- it’s been an adjustment. One I’m still adjusting to. Finally we had the fifth installment of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which was wonderful if perhaps more draining than usual, and fraught with an abnormal amount of backstage drama, from some diva moves on the part of some of our participants, to a failure to meet our fundraising goals (first time ever), and then the pique of which, of course, was having our dressing room robbed on, naturally, the night of my reading, which was successful in that it was well done by my trooper cast, but again, sort of middling attended, and a bit anti-climactic as an artist considering it had taken me all year to write it. And did I mention that some of my favorite actors kind of hated the script? Disappointing, but less so than having a “colleague” tell me that working with me was basically bad for businesses because of my strong opinions and tendency to carve my own way, nonsense that nobody who was actually a friend would have bothered to bring up- especially not when I was in the midst of trying to find a way to help them realize their own plans for the local theater scene. But I have occasionally been told my Achilles heel is caring about the band as much as I care about myself.

And somewhere in there I won a TBA Award for “EHSH”, had two works of mine garner bids for film adaptations, threw a delightful birthday party and another successful Easter brunch, but had to cancel a major social event because I got pink eye. Which is only worth mentioning again because in retrospect, it really is kind of funny. I wanted to get more reading done and much more writing, but it just didn’t happen. Best laid plans of mice and men…

So yes, 2014 was amazing but it was also, definitely, a mixed bag. Rewarding to no end, but unforgiving in many ways, most of all in that I had a hard time forgiving myself for just… well… doing my best but not always getting everything the way I wanted it or hoped for. The problem is, when you’re burnt out, stuff that you’d normally brush off or accept as the breaks of the business or just how life is get harder to be blasé about, and I found myself at the end of 2014 feeling accomplished but bruised, lucky but kind of cursed, exhausted and not excited so much as terrified about the future and yet… hopeful. Cause I am hopeful. And I want to stress that and more or less end there, and tell you it was amazing to have 800+ people applaud me for winning an award (even if it was for a play I always considered a bit of a “minor work” and never guessed would be so defining), and it was incredible to walk up those stairs that night, all alone, and think, even as my thoughts came crashing down around me, “Well, you certainly don’t do anything half-assed, do you Stuart?” (even if that means sometimes I paint myself into an intellectual corner with the same gusto I pull myself out of it). Though I definitely experienced a lot in 2014, I often felt like I wasn’t actually learning so much as surviving, and oh, by the way, I had massive writer’s block, and it was writing all that out last Monday that finally cured it… and got us here. And here is not a bad place to be: hopeful, and weirdly confident that whatever happens next, I can probably handle it. I just kind of wish I had a clearer idea of what “it” was. But then we all wish that, don’t we?

Ah well. C’est la vie.

Deep breath.

Happy New 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.

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.