Follow the Vodka: Everyday Theatricality!

Robert Estes, theater’s super-tailgater.

White Chapel copy

Ah, the dedication of the night columnist! Late on a Monday night, I’m still diligently laboring at the newest gin joint in the city, White Chapel (600 Polk Street). This place is a fantastical recreation of an abandoned tube station in London; well, except that the station in question, White Chapel is actually still operating. Here, though, the imaginary abandoned station has become a lovingly rendered 1890s gin palace.

When I first looked at White Chapel’s extensive drink menu, I fell in love with the two page listing of twenty-two drinks under the heading “The Martini Family.” Who knows if the dates and descriptions given to all the drinks are academically accurate; I’m not interested in fact-checking the menu, only drink-checking it. So, tonight I began my ginventure by having the first drink on the list, the Pink Gin (dated 1840s), composed of Plymouth Gin and angostura bitters.

I love that the early reviews for this place kept mentioning all the “fake” things about the recreation, such as fake water damage. My theater self couldn’t help but say, it’s not fake, it’s distressed, it’s Theater!

Indeed, it’s fascinating to realize how many bars in the city have become insanely popular by creating an immersive theatrical experience for their drinkers, I mean patrons. An entity called Future Bars now owns nine different local bars, all theatrically presented, ranging from the just opened Pagan Idol tiki bar to the old-standby Bourbon and Branch speakeasy.

It makes me think that so often in theater we wonder how to attract an audience, yet somehow people outside of us, use our rough magic to create very popular events. Even real estate agents know in their bones how important it is to the sale price of a property for it to be properly “staged” at the open house.

On a much greater scale, the mass popularity of sports rests on a ham-handed strict adherence to the principle of dramatic conflict. The “classic matchup” between this team and that one or this player and that one sells all! And franchises encourage theatricality on the part of their fans. One of the joys of going to a sporting event in person is to experience the unconscious theatricality of everyday people as they come to cheer on their team.

I always laugh to myself when I happen to be on a Sunday morning BART train on the day of a Oakland Raiders home game. Raiders fans are legendary for their elaborate costumes, intricate makeup, and outlandish accessories! I would love to compliment them on their detailed and beautiful theatricality, but I also wish to retain my front teeth, so I just smile to myself. But if you ever get the chance, I highly recommend surreptitiously checking out the character-specific costuming choices of the rebel/pirate/Star Wars/Hells’s Angel’s Raider Nation.

And on a smaller, humbler, yet just as faithful way, please notice the down-scale yet touching outfits of the long-suffering A’s fan. They still wear player jerseys from the 1970s. Being the team of my single-digit -year days (oh the love of an 8 -and-a-half-year-old for his team), I still am, on the inside, a fan wearing my Dad’s San Francisco Giants cap inside-out in shame in the bleachers in 1969, when that area was known as Reggie’s Regiment. It was a cold night and my dad would not let me go bare-headed.

Just the other day, after spending the last ten months indoors in rehearsal and performance for five consecutive shows, I happily returned to the Coliseum for a day game. Once again, I couldn’t help but feel the connection in so many ways between baseball and theater. Both are places of memories. There are ghosts on the playing field just as on the playing stage. Looking out at the infield where the shortstop plays, I see Campy Campaneris, Rob Picciolo, Alfredo Griffin, Walt Weiss, just as when I look at various Bay Area stages, I see Tony Amedola, Lorri Holt, John Bellucci, Michelle Morain, Sarah Moser.

I still remember the first that I saw James Carpenter. He was a young man in Otherwise Engaged at the Berkeley Rep in 1984. Like most theatergoers, I’ve seen him so many times since then, all the way from his nervous comic performance in Paint it Red at the Rep to a slithery Stanley in The Birthday Party at the Aurora. It was kind of a shock when he started playing the older, patriarchal “ravenous Earls” in Shakespeare. (Maybe we’ve both gotten older!) Still, it’s been fun to follow his career. Just like it’s been fun to follow my favorite baseball players as a fan.

kind of wish that theater had more of the “true fans” just like baseball. The true fan attends the game even if their team isn’t doing very well. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a devoted group of people who rooted for us! Let’s go, PianoFight! Three-peat! Well, maybe PF does have those fans! Seriously, though, as my previous night column touched on, it would be great if we could support theater without it always having to be (allegedly) amazing.

Yet we’re kind of lucky in theater when compared to athletes, because everything we do is subjective. Pity the poor baseball player who’s having a bad year! Could you see your worst review being highlighted every day by the theater company where you perform? In baseball, every team shows the player’s statistics before every at-bat. “Now standing at the plate to deliver To Be or Not to Be, the actor with the .198 batting average for the season!” Shudder.

Perhaps perversely, I admit that I actually enjoy going to baseball games when my team isn’t doing as well. It’s almost like going to an audition as the marginal players engage in a Darwinian struggle to remain alive in the show (major leagues). I remember one actor saying that he thought certain audience members deliberately chose to attend the first preview of every show because they wanted to see a trainwreck. Of course, life-long humiliation is one of darker sides to sports…who will ever forget the name of the Boston Red Sox’s first baseman who let the ground ball go through his legs in a World Series game thirty years ago?

In the make-believe of theater, where every corpse arises for a joyful linking of hands for the curtain call, we all live for another day, I hope without humiliation. Still, it takes bravery for actors to be absolutely vulnerable in front of so many people. The nerves of the athlete under pressure must surely be like the nerves of the actor. And for the fans, it is their personal nerves in watching that bind them to the emotional event of the game or the play.

Personally, baseball has influenced my work in theater. Last summer, I directed an adapted version of Henry IV parts 1 and 2 called Falstaff! in which the great rogue was played by six different women. The women would also play other roles and the men changed roles as well, so Prince Hal could be Poins and vice versa. The first performance or two was kind of confusing as we worked out the switches, but as the production moved forward, I was pleased that the show developed a great feeling of generosity as everyone had an equal part in carrying the whole play. By the end it was actually like a baseball game where everyone gets their turn at the plate. And for the audience, it was exciting because they weren’t quite sure who they would see playing what role next.

I’ve often thought that the advantage of sports over theater is that we don’t know what will happen in sports. Why couldn’t we, just one time, with no announcement, alter the ending to one of Shakespeare’s plays? Wouldn’t it be great if Emilia said, “Hey, wait a minute, I gave that handkerchief to my husband”? Could you imagine the gasps from the audience at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival if they did that? There could be riots!

Perhaps the appeal of the Shotgun Players’ current Hamlet (running for the next year!), where everyone in the cast learned the entire show and each actor is assigned their part for a particular performance only 5 minutes before show time, comes from each show being part theater and part sports. You really don’t know what will happen each night. And, being honest, there’s a higher chance of a trainwreck on stage each night, which again, is part of the appeal of sports. I wonder if each show seems to the actors like an athletic game, where nightly success or failure is a more open question than in a conventional production.

But then in baseball, we see success and failure in every game. We also see practice. Yes, go the park two hours before game time and you can see batting practice. I wonder if it would be possible to open our theater houses early and let our fans (oh again, how I would love to have fans) see the vocal warm-ups or fight call. For the true fans that would really make attending theater like attending a baseball game!

Well, how much of all of this found synchronicity between baseball and theater is just fine Plymouth gin speaking? This 1840s-era drink is fiery and it’s numbing my tongue! Now as the bar closes and my rambling thoughts on the connections between baseball and theater grow ever more tenuous, I’ll just say Play Theater!

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Horror Vacui

Marissa Skudlarek abhors a vacuum.

This blog just got named one of Theatre Bay Area’s “Blogs We Love” and in response, I am going to write my worst column ever.

When Charles Lewis, our newest columnist (welcome to the blog, Chuck!) interviewed me over the summer about my play Pleiades, he concluded by asking me about my future plans, and I responded by quoting a line from a Claire Rice play: “What a great burden an open and unknown future is.” I’m feeling that sentiment, now more than ever. Pleiades closed eight weeks ago, I finally got my script for my Olympians Festival “Dryads” play in a good place, and I don’t have any artistic projects lined up for the first half of 2015. There are some things bubbling under the surface — I’m not dead, after all — but they’re either things I’ve promised not to talk about, or things I don’t feel ready to talk about, or things I’ve talked about in previous columns.

Plus, I had planned to have a lovely, quiet evening last night in which to write a column — and then the Giants won the World Series and I got stuck downtown as revelers blocked off Market Street and MUNI stopped running. I walked two miles down Market Street, stopped off for a cocktail at the Orbit Room, and finally caught a MUNI train to take me the rest of the way home, whereupon I collapsed into bed. Despite the way it upset my plans, it was a fun night, and it felt good to be out among the cheering, high-fiving crowds. And I feel that taking part in such experiences will probably be good for me as a writer and as a human being, in the long term. But in the short term, it means that I have a deadline and nothing to show for it.

So today, I’m feeling weirdly uninspired. And feeling panicked and anxious and afraid — and not the good, Halloweeny kind of fear. Sometimes, I think that in order to be truly scary, a haunted house shouldn’t feature ghosts or vampires or things that go bump in the night. Instead, maybe all that’s needed is a mirror in which you are forced to confront your own feelings of shame and inadequacy. A mirror which is also a blank page.

I know I should love the blank page, rather than fear it. I am a devotee of the musical Sunday in the Park with George, which concludes with the line “White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities” — and I want to take that lesson to heart. But the thing is, Seurat wasn’t a minimalist. His pointillism was obsessive — covering every square inch of the canvas with tiny dots! Was it love or fear that prompted him to cover over the blank space this way?

I wonder, too, if my writing a biweekly column is harmful to my art, rather than beneficial. Perhaps, if I want to make great art rather than feuilleton chatter, I should let my thoughts live in my head for months and years before committing them to paper — instead of writing and publishing everything as soon as I think it. This summer, I read the justly acclaimed memoir Act One by Moss Hart, where he describes his early experiences in theater, leading up to his first Broadway production at the age of 25. And I’m currently reading another amazing, acclaimed memoir, A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, which recounts a trip he took, on foot, all the way across Europe (Holland to Istanbul) at the age of 18. Both men waited decades to write about these incredible experiences they had in their youth — Hart was in his fifties, and Leigh Fermor in his sixties, when his book was published. And I think that both of these books derive a great deal of their power from the fact that they are a middle-aged man’s recollections of his youthful adventures. The boyish exuberance bubbles off the page, but it’s counter-balanced by the adult’s deeper knowledge of suffering and hardship and the ways in which the world has subsequently changed. Perhaps it is the young person’s duty to live life and the middle-aged person’s duty to write and reflect on previous adventures. But in the twenty-first century, the social media era with its horror vacui, where we must either publish or perish, such a leisurely output seems like an unaffordable luxury.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Her short play The Dryad of Suburbia will have a staged reading on Wednesday November 5 as part of the San Francisco Olympians Festival. Find her online at or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.