Hi-Ho the Glamorous Life: How Theater Became a Good-Girl Pursuit

Marissa Skudlarek, always ahead of her time.

Last Saturday, I read a New York Times story about how the Ziegfeld Club is transitioning from an institution that will support down-on-their-luck aging showgirls to one that will support women who are creating new works of musical theater. It’s a fun story, mixing human interest, glamorous New York theater history, and upbeat modern-day feminism. But it also seems to epitomize something I was talking about earlier that day with my editor, Stuart Bousel: the way that theater went from being perceived as disreputable, to being a hobby that “nice girls” could participate in.

This point came up in a larger conversation that Stuart and I were having about the lack of roles for actresses. We know that there are more male roles than female ones in theater and yet, per anecdotal evidence, many more women show up to auditions than men do. Also, though there are always exceptions, severely male-heavy casts seem more prevalent in older (but still post-Renaissance) plays than in newer ones. Stuart and I wondered if perhaps, back in the day, there weren’t more women than men auditioning. Is the oversupply of women in theater a contemporary phenomenon?

Well, we Anglophones do come from a tradition that didn’t even allow women onstage till the late 1600s, and for hundreds of years after that, considered actresses one step above prostitutes. (For a play that deals with many of these themes, see Compleat Female Stage Beauty, opening this weekend at the New Conservatory Theatre Center.) If Shakespeare had had adult women in his company, if acting had been a more respectable pursuit in the centuries that followed, would classic plays feature more gender-balanced casts?

And then, Stuart and I continued our speculations, what happened to change the perceived respectability of being an actress? It’s reasonable to suppose that in the past, many women who might have been interested in theater were dissuaded from pursuing it, due to the stigma it might bring upon them and their families. Theater represented a step up in fame and prestige for women from poor families (Sarah Bernhardt was the daughter of a prostitute), but bourgeois women would see it as a comedown. In older plays and novels there’s a frequent trope where a respectable family’s playboy son brings home his new wife to meet the parents and – gasp! horror! – she is an actress!

That’s all in the past, though. Now, American bourgeois families might dissuade their daughters from pursuing theater because it’s not a lucrative profession, but not because they consider theater immoral. If anything, girls who do high-school theater these days are considered a bit nerdy and uncool (viz. the term “theater geek”), not as temptresses and home-wreckers in training. As Stuart put it, “Theater went from being considered on par with prostitution, to being considered on par with the chess club.”

What’s less clear to us is exactly when, and why, this shift occurred. When did actresses become respectable; when did theater become something that middle-class “good girls” could freely pursue? Can it, along with so much else about modern society, be traced to the sexual revolution? Perhaps one reason that actresses were not considered respectable is that, in the past, very few women other than actresses earned their own money and dictated the terms of their own lives. But when it became socially acceptable for women to join the workforce, earn money, live alone in the big city, date multiple people, etc., one could no longer condemn actresses for doing those things.

I realize that there’s still something inherently misogynistic about dividing women into “good girls” and “bad girls.” And that there are still many problems with the way that women are represented in theater, both onstage and offstage. At the same time, I do think it’s a sign of progress that we’ve gotten rid of the association between actresses and immorality.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote “The only thing worth loving is an actress,” and I can’t help hearing that as another one of Wilde’s famous paradoxes, turning the conventional wisdom of Victorian society on its head. Wilde wrote “The only thing worth loving is an actress” because that idea affronted the mores of his day. But even Wilde, progressive and defiant though he was, was still somewhat stuck in the Victorian era: his actress character, Sibyl Vane, primarily functions as a love interest. She is virtuous, but she is also tragic and doomed, in a melodramatic fashion. Again, I don’t dispute that there are still problems with gender parity and misogyny in theater, and in the world at large. But I’m glad we’ve reached a point where the conversation about actresses has expanded to include far more than just whether they are “worth loving.”

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, producer, and arts writer. She’s pretty sure that if theater were still popularly associated with prostitution, she’d never have had the courage to pursue it. Find Marissa at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: Russell Blackwood’s Parisian Thrills

Marissa Skudlarek, our resident Francophile, reports on a new Paris-themed musical revue. And no, she isn’t moving to Fridays, our Editor in Chief just started rehearsals for his next show this week, and so everything’s a little behind right now.

The Thrillpeddlers have been peddling thrills – in the form of outrageous, only-in-San-Francisco theater – for over 20 years. They love the tattered, tawdry glamour of the stage, and have made a name for themselves by reviving older performance styles like Grand Guignol and Theatre of the Ridiculous. That attitude shines through in their new show, Jewels of Paris, as well. It’s a musical revue that celebrates the City of Light and its legacy of beauty, art, and revolution. Under the direction of Russell Blackwood (who is also Thrillpeddlers’ Producing Artistic Director), the cast sings Scrumbly Koldewyn’s catchy songs, sports gaudy barely-there costumes, celebrates freaks and innovators, and does their best to épater les bourgeois.

One sketch in Jewels of Paris features Jean Cocteau saying (as he did in real life), “An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture,” but fortunately for us, Russell Blackwood doesn’t subscribe to that philosophy. After seeing Jewels of Paris on Friday night, I got to interview him about how he brought bygone Paris to life onstage in 2015.

Animal lovers: Roxanne RedMeat and Steven Satyricon in Jewels of Paris. Photo by David Wilson.

Animal lovers: Roxanne RedMeat and Steven Satyricon in Jewels of Paris. Photo by David Wilson.

Marissa: Thrillpeddlers have met with great success reviving other Scrumbly Koldewyn musicals in recent years, but I believe this is the first new show of his that you’ve produced. Who had the original idea to create a Paris-themed musical revue and what was Thrillpeddlers’ role in the development process?

Russell: During the past seven years, Thrillpeddlers have worked with Scrumbly to revive and reinvent his musicals from the repertoire of the fabulous Cockettes, the queer counterculture theatre troupe from early 1970s San Francisco. The Cockettes created two Parisian-themed musical revues back in the day. They were comprised largely of published music that is not in the public domain, but included a few original numbers by Scrumbly and lyricist Martin Worman. Our title song “The Jewels of Paris” is among these. When Scrumbly began working with Cockette “Sweet Pam” Tent on a new show for Thrillpeddlers last year, the idea of a Parisian-themed musical revue excited the whole company into a flurry of group creation. Not unlike Shocktoberfest, Thrillpeddlers’ annual Grand Guignol horror theatre festival, I wanted our revue to have several playwrights contribute to the bill and use Parisian-born revolutions as our raw material.

Marissa: Revues and vaudeville shows often have acts written to showcase specific performers, and I know the Thrillpeddlers are a tight-knit troupe. Were any of the songs or sketches in Jewels of Paris created with a specific actor in mind?

Russell: Oh yes, about half the material was written after the production was cast. Then, once we were in rehearsal, group discussions led to more musical numbers like the “Quasihomo & Lesmerelda” duet for J Iness and Bruna Palmeiro. The song “Chic and Tragic” was definitely penned for the show’s Pierrot, Birdie-Bob Watt, well in advance; whereas the ballad “At the Sideshow” was written overnight for Roxanne RedMeat to sing as a precursor to a one-act sex farce about a bearded lady and her lover.

Marissa: You’re known for your impeccable research into historical theater and performance styles. For instance, just from a choreographic standpoint, Jewels of Paris features avant-garde ballet, a flirty cancan, a pugnacious Apache dance, and Josephine Baker’s Charleston Sauvage. As a director, what is your approach to bringing older performance traditions to 21st-century actors and audiences, who may not be so familiar with them?

Russell: Our long-time choreographer Noah Haydon did a fabulous job fulfilling Scrumbly’s and my desire to include French dance forms. YouTube, of course, came into play. Scrumbly and Roxanne RedMeat took their inspiration for our avant-garde ballet Façade from a video recreation of the 1916 choreography of the Ballets Russes’ Parade. Alex Kinney became our dramaturg and took on creating a 13-minute homage to neoclassical drama, Molière comedy and Jean de La Fontaine’s classic folk hero Renard the Fox, all in three short acts. We’re not slavishly recreating any of these performance genres. It’s more that we’re saying “What might that have been like?” and then spinning those elements that turn us on the most. We’ve got gusto and the best of our abilities going for us. We’ve also got a missionary’s zeal to save performance forms ending up forgotten footnotes.

Chic and Tragique: Birdie-Bob Watt as Pierrot. Photo by David Wilson.

Chic and Tragique: Birdie-Bob Watt as Pierrot. Photo by David Wilson.

Marissa: If I was describing Jewels of Paris to a friend, I’d call it a bawdy burlesque romp. But the show also has several torchy ballads and confronts some more serious issues: French racism and imperialism in the Josephine Baker sequence; gentrification and the passing of time in “Oh What a World.” What was your approach to handling this material so that these serious themes were given their due, yet would not overshadow the fundamentally upbeat nature of the show?

Russell: That is the very nature of revue. Music, dance, spectacle and satire play off one another to their mutual benefit. It makes the funny stuff funnier and the poignant stuff more poignant. Both of the ballads you mention, “But Underneath” and “Oh What a World” directly follow comic sketches written by Rob Keefe on related subjects. Pierrot’s tortured tune “Chic and Tragic” is witnessed by two Americans, in a sketch by Andy Wenger that tries to define what’s so funny about a sad clown. Answer: “He’s sad and you’re not.” These are examples of Scrumbly writing songs to be paired with playwrights’ companion pieces.

Marissa: Fantasy dinner party time: if you could have dinner with any 3 Paris-related historical figures, who would you choose and why?

Russell: Oscar Wilde for wit, Sarah Bernhardt for melodrama, and Jean Genet for filth.

Marissa: The finale of Jewels of Paris invokes San Francisco as the “Paris of the West” and exhorts the audience to express their creativity and individuality. In recent years, there have been countless articles fretting that all the artists are fleeing San Francisco and that we are becoming a stale, conformist city. Having led a niche-y theater company in San Francisco for over 20 years, do you agree with this characterization of S.F.? Do you have any advice for younger artists who want to keep San Francisco weird?

Russell: While some aspects of life here have become more difficult, we have new outrages to respond to and flames to keep burning. Thrillpeddlers is a multi-generational freak theatre. Man, that makes me proud! On our stage now are some of the hottest acts I’ve seen in a quarter century in this town. If you want to see what makes San Francisco theatre exciting – come see this show!

Jewels of Paris performs Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at the Hypnodrome, 575 10th St in San Francisco, through May 2. Tickets here.