Theater Around the Bay: Tanya Grove, Caitlin Kenney, & Vince Faso of “Where There’s a Will” & “Why Go With Olivia?”

The Pint-Sized Plays just got a great review (complete with Clapping Man) from SF Chronicle theater critic Lily Janiak, and they have 1 more performance, next Monday the 29th. In the meantime, here’s another in our interview series with Pint-Sized folks.

Vince Faso is directing 2 shows in Pint-Sized this year: “Where There’s a Will” by Tanya Grove, and “Why Go With Olivia?” by Caitlin Kenney. In “Where There’s a Will,” Will Shakespeare  (Nick Dickson) visits a contemporary bar and finds inspiration in an unlikely source: a young woman named Cordelia (Layne Austin), whose dad is about to draw up his will. Meanwhile, Lily’s review aptly describes “Why Go With Olivia?”  as “an epistolary monologue from perhaps the world’s most ruthless email writer, played by Jessica Rudholm.”

Here’s our conversation with Caitlin, Vince, and Tanya!

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Caitlin Kenney at Crater Lake.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized this year?

Caitlin: I live with someone wrapped in the SF theater community, who has attempted submitting before, and thought I had as good a chance as any of piecing something together.

Vince: I’ve been an SF Theater Pub fan for a long time, been in a few productions, directed a little, but Pint-Sized was one I have always been interested in being a part of, and as I seem to be transitioning to more directing, I seized the opportunity, and am excited to be involved.

Tanya: I have two friends who’d had their plays in the festival last year, so I went to support them and had so much fun that I wanted to take part myself!

What’s the best thing about writing a short play?

Caitlin: Drinking several beers while making a verbal list of pie-in-the-sky ideas with no judgement.

Tanya: While I’m writing, I’m also imagining the performance in my head, so it’s like going to the theater all the time, which is my favorite thing to do!

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Vince: I’m probably not alone in saying that the actors I’m working with make it special. I’ve always loved seeing Jessica Rudholm perform, and practically jumped out of my chair at the chance to direct her for a second time. And I’ve worked on several shows with Nick Dickson and Layne Austin, and it doesn’t hurt that they live around the corner and we get to rehearse in my living room. Also, the pieces I’m directing are brilliant in their simplicity, and clever in the flexibility they lend the actors.

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Tanya Grove has a head full of ideas.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Tanya:  I often have lots of ideas going in many directions, and I have to remind myself to simplify. You can usually get across the same message whether you have a cast of two or twenty, ten minutes or two hours, one scene or three acts. Because one of my day jobs is being an editor, I’ve learned to pare ruthlessly to get to the essence of text.

Caitlin: Personally, I think it’s planting the first seed. For me this means to stop poo-pooing every idea I have and actually start typing something.

What’s been most troublesome?

Vince: Finding rehearsal time for a festival like this is always a challenge.

What are your biggest artistic influences?

Tanya: My current playwriting hero is Lauren Gunderson. I think she’s brilliant. But my style is more William Shakespeare meets Tina Fey…

Caitlin: Richard Brautigan, Joni Mitchell, Sense and Sensibility, and Google (to answer my formatting questions).

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

Vince: Meryl Streep, because while she is arguably the best around, she seems like she’d be a very giving actor to work with.

Tanya: When I was in high school I had a crush on Richard Dreyfuss, so I guess I would cast 1977 Richard Dreyfuss as my Will. That’s as good a reason as any, right?

Caitlin: Any sparkle-charming person with insecure confidence…how about Zoe Kazan? I’ve been watching the Olive Kitteridge miniseries and she’s hard not to watch.

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush? That is… what actor would you love a chance to work with?

Vince: Such a hard question! At the risk of straying off topic: I’ve worked with them before, but Scott Baker and Performers Under Stress always give me an intellectual and emotional challenge.

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What other projects are you working on and/or what’s next for you?

Vince: As an actor I’m excited to get started on a production of King Lear for Theater Pub that goes up in November. As a director, I’m been gearing up for a production of Hamlet with my 7th and 8th graders at Redwood Day in Oakland where I teach. That will also go up in November.

Caitlin: I‘ve got a one-act for middle-schoolers going about a mindfulness-based therapy group with participants vaguely reminiscent of Hamlet characters. I’m finding it really hard to sit down and “crank it out,” but if I do, it will probably be entertaining.

Tanya: In September I begin my fourth season as a playwright for PlayGround, so I’m gearing up to write a short play each month. I’m more productive when I have an assignment and a deadline, so the challenge of writing a play in four days based on a prompt works well for me.

What upcoming shows or events in the Bay Area theater scene are you most excited about?

Caitlin: I went to the Oakland BeastLit Crawl and fell hard for spontaneous storytelling, so I am looking forward to one day spitting in the mic at StorySlam.

Tanya: I’m looking forward to seeing what Josh Kornbluth ultimately creates from his time volunteering at Zen Hospice. I’m a Josh fan from way back.

Vince: Events like Pint-Sized and the Olympians Festival that allow original works to be read or staged are a must for keeping the independent theater scene in San Francisco alive.

What’s your favorite beer?

Vince: I’m a sucker for a good IPA, but if a bar is serving Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale then I have to get it.

Caitlin: The Barley Brown Hot Blonde – spiciest, sexiest beer around. Though not around, because it’s brewed in Northeastern Oregon and they don’t distribute anywhere good for me or you.

Tanya: I used to drink a lot of Corona, but I think I’m more of a Hefeweizen gal now. I don’t have a favorite brand, though. Any recommendations?

Your final chance to see “Where There’s a Will,” “Why Go With Olivia?” and the other Pint-Sized Plays is on Monday August 29th at PianoFight at 8 PM! Don’t miss it!

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Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Tears, Idle Tears

Marissa Skudlarek packs a hankie for the acapella bridge.

Here’s a fun game you can play with me: ask me to read W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” aloud, and see how long I can hold out without bursting into tears. Or play me a recording of “Make Our Garden Grow,” the finale of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, and see how long it takes me to start crying. This past weekend, seeing a live performance of Candide for the first time, my heart started to beat faster and my face grew hot as Candide and Cunegonde sang their solo verses… and when the chorus started singing in soaring harmony and the orchestra dropped out, the tears predictably sprang to my eyes.

I’ve loved the score of Candide since I was in high school, so that song has been making me burst into tears for over ten years. I am both surprised and pleased that its power has not diminished for me. While I love art that makes me feel intense emotions, I always worry that over-indulging in it will ruin it. Besides, is it quite healthy to wallow in melancholy, to become an emotional thrill-seeker? Basically, I feel torn between the Enlightenment and Romantic definitions of art: is it meant to be experienced rationally, or irrationally? Should we value it more for how it makes us think, or how it makes us feel? (Maybe this is one reason I love Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia so much: it deals with the conflict between Enlightenment and Romantic values. And its final scene has the power to make me cry in much the same way as the finale of Candide does: both feature the moral that we must strive to “do the best we know” in a harsh and unforgiving world.)

Still, I’m enough of a Romantic that plenty of works of art make my eyes well up. This might come as a surprise, since people don’t tend to think of me as a weepy person. When, a few months ago, I wrote about a staged reading that left me sobbing in the back courtyard of the EXIT Theatre, several friends expressed surprise that it was me who had cried. I have always admired my blog-colleague Ashley Cowan Leschber for so openly admitting that she is an emotional person, easily moved to laughter and tears. Me, I keep my emotions closer to my chest. When I read or watch Sense and Sensibility (there’s that Enlightenment-versus-Romanticism conflict again!), it is stoic Elinor whom I identify with, not the passionate Marianne.

When it comes to tears, though, no work of art has ever made me cry as much as the movie of The King and I did, when I saw it as a five-year-old. I’d seen death in movies before, but it was the simplified, Disney kind of death, where Gaston dies by falling off a tower and Belle’s love heals and transforms the Beast. Come to think of it, The King and I plays like a live-action version of Beauty and the Beast for most of its running time – but its final scene offers no such salvation.

Consider the parallels: in both movies, a gruff and moody nobleman shuts a woman up in his luxurious palace, where she quickly befriends the other inhabitants. Though the man dislikes the woman’s feistiness at first, he eventually warms to her and gives her property (a house for Anna; a library for Belle) as a token of his esteem. Then comes a gorgeous scene where the man and woman dance together in an otherwise empty ballroom, his big hands on her narrowly corseted waist.

Even as a five-year-old, I had seen enough movies to assume that this indicated that Anna and the King were falling in love and were destined to end up together. Instead, jarringly, the next scene shows the King on his deathbed, and nothing can save him: not Anna’s love, not the love of his wives and children and subjects, not medical science, not the rule that Rodgers and Hammerstein musical comedies need to have uplifting endings. For perhaps the first time, I was witnessing a character die onscreen whom I desperately wanted to live… and when the movie ended, I was inconsolable. Never have I cried so much at a film, and I doubt any film will ever make me cry so much again.

Nowadays, the playwright in me thinks that the ending of The King and I is just bad dramaturgy – sure, Oscar Hammerstein hints that the King is internally tormented, but this foreshadowing wasn’t strong enough for a child to pick up on. (Besides, lots of people are anguished; very few of them die from it.) I cried so hard at the King’s death because it came as such a shock; but now I feel like this shock is a cheap and manipulative way of ending the story.

All the same, The King and I made me cry even though I had never experienced the death of a loved one (or even a beloved pet) in real life. Somehow, this seems like more of an accomplishment than making someone cry who is already susceptible to pain. They say that when you have a child, it means that forevermore you will have a part of your heart walking around outside of your body – and the grief of losing a child may be the worst grief of all. Such is the theme of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole. When I saw this play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I think I was the only person in the audience who wasn’t crying by the end. I could tell it was a good play, the actors were skillful, the story was certainly sad… but it did not touch me at a profound, tear-jerking level. With the arrogance of youth, I decided that you probably have to be a parent in order to cry at Rabbit Hole – and that this indicated a certain weakness in Lindsay-Abaire’s writing. If he were a great playwright instead of a good one, I thought, he’d have been able to make me cry even though I did not have a child.

But these thoughts reflect an ultra-Romantic ideal: that the only real emotions are universal, and anything else is selfishness. If Rabbit Hole makes parents cry because it makes them imagine what they’d do if their own child died, but (because I am not a parent) it does not make me cry, is that so bad? Which are better: the tears we cry for rational reasons, or the tears that arise from emotions we do not understand?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and emotional thrill-seeker. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.