Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Through the Fog, Step by Step

Marissa Skudlarek wrote this on four hours of sleep and we’re very proud of her.

It feels like everyone is ready for this summer to be over. Not just because we have the plays and movies of the Fall Arts Season to look forward to, but because the news this summer has been so spectacularly awful. Environmental catastrophe, disease, war, unrest, injustice – sometimes it feels like the four horsemen of the apocalypse are stalking the four corners of the earth. California’s in a dire drought, but here in San Francisco it’s grey, dreary “Fogust.”

I’ve been having “I want this summer to be over” feelings since mid-to-late July, when the experience of producing a show stopped feeling like an exciting adventure and started feeling like an endurance test. Sure, I was still working hard and getting things done, and I was super proud of my cast and crew, and looked forward to showing their work to an audience. And I took great pride in responding to emails quickly and keeping my nerdy budget spreadsheet up-to-date. But secretly, I longed for the day when the show would not only be open but closed, and I’d have free time again, and my life could go back to normal.

And then I berated myself for having these yearnings, which felt like the height of ingratitude. A “normal” life – who needs that? Didn’t I realize how lucky I was to be making theater in San Francisco, pursuing my dreams, “following my bliss” as the mantra goes? I was doing something big this summer, something special. I should be “enjoying the journey,” waking up each morning to inhale the fresh air and feel the red blood pumping through my body, working long, hard hours and falling asleep exhausted, and loving! every! minute! of! it! And when I failed to achieve that kind of ecstatic, blissful flow, I sank into a funk. I couldn’t appreciate the magnitude of what I had achieved. My efforts might look successful to the outside world, but they had failed to transfigure me, and thus, I discounted them.

Hard lessons come with being a producer, and I’m not just talking about the practical stuff here (like “buy paper towels if your theater venue only has hand-dryers in the bathrooms”). I learned that my perfectionism runs far deeper than I thought, and also started to come to a better understanding of its roots. I learned that taking the time out to pamper myself, as I did the day before load-in, was so delightful that I should be that good to myself every Saturday, load-in or not!

I learned the reason why people advise you to “enjoy the journey”: because you can’t speed up time so that this fucked-up summer will be over sooner, and because you can’t wish your problems away, the only thing you can do is find happiness along the path. It’s not about bliss; it’s about endurance.

I learned that I should be grateful for my health, my friends, my artistic community. Grateful for the goodwill that exists even in a summer when so many people are lost, sad, or angry.

I learned that sometimes, “enjoying the journey” and “putting one foot in front of another” are one and the same thing.

Marissa Skudlarek’s show, Pleiades, has six more performances, Thursdays through Saturdays from tonight through August 30. For more information, visit pleiadessf.wordpress.com.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Less than the Minimum

Marissa Skudlarek wrestles with some big questions about how we make art and uphold out political/fiscal ideals in a society where funding for the arts is so hard to come by.

Conservatives sometimes condescend to liberals by telling them that their idealistic sentiments are very noble and all, but they’re impractical for the real world. “If you’re a conservative at twenty, you have no heart; if you’re a liberal at fifty, you have no brain,” they say. Isn’t it precious that these sweet young things want to raise the minimum wage and implement universal health care? Isn’t it adorably naïve that they don’t know the harm that that would cause?

Such condescension has always irritated me, as it’s designed to do. It’s so cynical and defeatist, telling us that society just naturally chews up and spits out its poorest and weakest citizens, and nothing can be done to stop this.

Like all young idealists, then, I vowed that I would do better. If I were ever in a position of power, if I ever became an entrepreneur or a “job creator,” I would prove that you can run a successful business on liberal principles. In the meantime, I would stand in solidarity with all those individuals working to promote fairer wages and less inequality: the fast-food workers across America, the airport workers at SEA-TAC, the unpaid interns whose bushy-tailed enthusiasm is so frequently abused.

But now, I’m in a position where I need to get a lot of people to sign on to a project that I’m putting together: the play that I am self-producing this summer. And, well, I’m not revising my larger political views, but I’ve discovered that I need to make compromises, and abandon some of my most fiercely held (but most naïve) beliefs.

The play I’m producing requires nine actors, which is considered a large cast these days. (As a playwright, I love writing large-cast plays and hate that the economics of the American theater discourage this. As a producer, I’m starting to see why “smaller is better.”) Nine actors, plus a director, set and lighting designers, a stage manager, possibly other techies… that’s a lot of people, working long hours to put this show together. So, in doing my initial back-of-the-envelope budget calculations, I quickly realized that I cannot afford to pay my collaborators minimum wage. I can pay them a stipend of a few hundred dollars, which is in line with what other indie theaters pay. But to pay minimum wage would amount to about $1000 per actor, once all rehearsals and performances are factored in.

I had a mini-crisis upon seeing these cruel numbers and realizing the impossibility of changing the system single-handedly. I had honestly thought that I could succeed where others had failed! I had thought that I could support labor, support the arts, support fairness and justice, by following my ideals and paying minimum wage.

In distress, I asked some of my more experienced friends what I should do. One replied, basically, “Is this the hill you want to die on?” He suggested that if I were founding a theater company that regularly produced shows, I might have reason to be concerned about actor salaries; but because the play I’m producing is a one-off, I shouldn’t make “minimum wage” my primary concern.

Another friend tried to get me to see the distinction between McDonalds or Wal-Mart, on the one hand, and myself on the other hand. It is immoral for a CEO to refuse to pay workers a living wage when the company is raking in millions of dollars in profit; but it is not immoral for a self-producing theater artist, who certainly isn’t getting rich from this endeavor, to pay her collaborators a stipend in line with what she can afford. My paying my collaborators minimum wage won’t do anything to solve the larger problem of how to afford to make art in an expensive city like San Francisco. It would be a grand gesture, but it wouldn’t have a real effect on the overall system.

As I was writing this column, someone I follow on Twitter posted a quote by Jessica Mitford: “You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.” It was exactly what I needed to see at this moment. Mitford was a remarkable woman: born into the English aristocracy, she ran away from home to support the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and eventually ended up in the Bay Area, working as a muckraking journalist. Yet even she realized that one needs to balance idealism and pragmatism. I may not be able to change the world, but I can use this column to start a conversation, and I can continue to advocate in other ways for a fairer society. It’s the least that I can do.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She’s putting together a production of her play “Pleiades” for summer 2014. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.