Theater Around the Bay: Dylan Waite on Gravedigger: The Musical

Gravedigger: The Musical opens tonight! Learn more about the show and how the script came to be from the writer Dylan Waite.

Tell us about yourself. What brought you to San Francisco?
I’m originally from Fresno, CA. I went to school in the Bay Area and eventually succumbed to San Francisco’s gravity.

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When and how did “Gravedigger: The Musical” come about?
I had written a musical in college, called The Pelican House, sort of as a joke (it was about a group of male prostitutes) and it ended up going fairly well. Gravedigger was take two on the irreverent musical idea.

How has the show evolved over the years?
It was originally supposed to have some shitpunk music, but Casey Robbins got his hands on it and came up with some stuff that’s actually really good. As a result of Casey’s composition, the collective brow of the piece had to be raised by a couple of notches.

What is this story about? Why is it unique?
It’s about love and how sometimes you can be in love and still be an asshole. It’s mostly also about a bunch of people who really want to do something with a corpse. I guess in musicals there’s this sense that our sympathies are aligned with whoever’s in love and this musical challenges that. Is that unique? Maybe not anymore.

Any shoutouts for stuff going on in the community?
Which community? Probably not.

Any current or future projects we should keep an eye out for?
I perform in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind with the San Francisco Neo-Futurists on the regular. That happens most Fridays and Saturdays at Safe House Arts, whether or not I’m in it. It’s good.

Catch Gravedigger: The Musical only at PIANOFIGHT (144 Taylor Street):

Monday, October 17 @ 8:00pm – TONIGHT
Tuesday, October 18 @ 8:00pm
Monday, October 24 @ 8:00pm
Tuesday, October 25 @ 8:00pm

As always, admission is FREE, with a $10 donation suggested at the door. No reservations required, but we get there early to get a good seat and enjoy PianoFight’s full bar and delicious dinner menu. Remember to show your appreciation to our hosts

See you at the Pub!

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The Real World – Theater Edition: Interview with Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song

Barbara Jwanouskos brings us a double interview with one of San Francisco’s most exciting writing teams.

When I heard about Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song’s idea for a play inspired by the god Oceanus, for the San Francisco Olympians Festival, I was very excited because it seemed like this really interesting meld of Greek mythology, technology and environmental issues. So when I heard that Dan and Siyu’s play had been selected for the New Play Development Program and the Undiscovered Works Series by Custom Made Theatre, I was jazzed for the play to get a further life at other Bay Area theaters. I’ve always been fascinated by writing collaboratively and have started to venture to do this myself as well. When I had the chance to ask Dan and Siyu how they came together, I couldn’t pass it up. Below is an interview with Dan and Siyu about their process and what to expect next Tuesday at the Gallery Cafe.

BJ: Could you each tell me about your artistic background/trajectory? How did you get into writing?

DH: I’ve been a theatre nerd since I had the ability to throw a towel around my shoulders and call it a cape— but veered towards prose and journalism in college. It was after I graduated that my longtime interest in writing, specifically nonfiction, and theater came together when I started to write plays. It’s my hope that my dramatic work has a journalistic quality and the journalism has a dramatic flair.

SS: I studied computer science in school and worked for a few animation/visual effects studios. I was always very interested in stories and storytelling but coming from a technical background, I was always intimidated by the “creative” side of storytelling. But, I took an improv class four years ago on a whim and haven’t looked back. With improv, I found ways to break down stories and characters to patterns and logic that was very conducive to my brain and the way I was trained to approach problems. After doing improv for a few years, the desire to tell more specific and nuanced stories led me naturally to want to do more writing.

BJ: Tell me how you came together to work on Oceanus — what was the idea?

DH: Siyu and I have been friends since we took a sketch comedy writing class way back when. And we’re both alums of the SF Olympians — a one of a kind new works festival that I’m sure your readers are familiar with. When a call for pitches for the 2015 “Wine Dark Sea” iteration of Olympians came around, we were talking and somehow decided that working together would be more fun than working alone. In discussing the possible prompt of Oceanus, a primordial sea god that controlled an underground river that circles the earth, we somehow got on the topic of underwater internet fiber optics cables. And we’re like, let’s write a play about that. Let’s write a play about what happens when a line gets cut and is somehow inspired by a Greek god. Is that how you remember it, Siyu?

SS: Yea that’s about right. When we were going through the topics for pitches, Oceanus stuck out to me because earlier that year my work had suffered a similar internet outage when a fiber optic line got cut and our provider had to send a boat out to the middle of the ocean to fix it. I am a classically trained engineer, so for me it was a nice reminder that while we regard the internet and “the cloud” as ephemeral, they are things that exist in the physical world and have tangible manifestations. We ran through many iterations of what the play would be, but the fiber optic line being cut was the central idea that we developed around.

BJ: How have you worked together to create the piece?

SS: We met in person in the beginning while we were figuring out how to build a play around the idea of a disconnect in the internet infrastructure. Those meetings were mostly just us hanging out and talking about things we wanted to write about. Data, relationships, talking sharks. There was a lot of agreeing. Partly because Dan and I are very polite humans but (hopefully?) more because we are very similar people with a lot of the same interests but we approach the world from slightly different perspectives so it’s always interesting for me to get Dan’s take on something.

DH: Also, lots of g-chatting! We’re actually both answering these questions via a Google Doc right now. One funny life imitating art thing about this process has been that while we were writing this play about people trying and failing to connect across great distances I moved a great distance— to Pittsburgh where I’m currently working on an MFA in dramatic writing at Carnegie Mellon. So as we’ve been working together writing scenes about friends trying to see each other on a video chat we too have been trying to video chat.

BJ: Any interesting discoveries along the way?

DH: I’ve learned a lot about collaborating and how you can share authorship with someone. I think we’re still figuring out our process and how we make collective decisions that reflect both people’s sensibilities. And I’m such an overbearing control freak, so that’s hard. Siyu, I hope I haven’t been a total pain in the ass to work with this whole time.

SS: Ha! No it’s great. I think for me when we landed on a sort of anthology piece with lots of vignettes that was when everything clicked. To Dan’s point about sharing authorship- there are threads that feel very much like Dan’s personality and threads that are very much Siyu’s but my feeling after the SF Olympians reading in November was that the ways the threads connected and the structure felt like something we created together.

BJ: Has the piece changed substantially since the SF Olympians reading? And what are you aiming for developmentally?

DH: It’s about 20 minutes longer. We’ve added several additional scenes to really flesh out the cast of characters we have and to make sure each vignette gets something like a full arc. I also think when we first started working on this we really only envisioned it as something that would be a staged reading. Now, as part of Custom Made’s Undiscovered Works series, we’re trying to envision this thing more as an actual play.

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BJ: What are you hoping to hear at the Custom Made reading next Tuesday?

DH: This play has so many different characters and plotlines, I’m just hoping to see if the audience can follow it all and that each of the vignettes lands in some fundamental way.

SS: We talked a lot about the world we were building to tell all the disparate stories. I’m interested in hearing about what worked for the audience and which characters or scenes didn’t quite sit in the world.

BJ: I’m curious about your creative process and artistic development personally– what do you do (or not do) to keep yourself, or at least feel, a forward momentum?

DH: Spreadsheets. Specifically, I keep a spreadsheet of all the plays I’m working on and where I’ve sent them out, where I’ve been rejected, etc… Accumulation of material feels like momentum.

SS: HA! I’m impressed and mortified at “spreadsheets”. I’m nowhere near that organized (but also not as prolific as Dan) I’m lucky to be an ensemble member with the SF Neo-Futurists, part of that means being in a weekly show for months at a time where we write/direct/perform pieces.

BJ: Tell me about the theater scene either here or more broadly — is there anything you are seeing/not seeing that makes you excited?

DH: All the current dialogue that’s happening about diversity and inclusivity in theatre feels positive. We could see a lot more representation of underrepresented communities out in the world and on our stages, but I’m glad there’s a sense of urgency about getting there.

SS: I echo all of what Dan said. I’m also acutely aware of how difficult it is to be an art maker in San Francisco. Hopefully I’m not setting the bar too low here, but seeing anyone put up original work these days, my reaction is “Yes. Please. More.”

BJ: Any advice that you have for others that would like to do what you do?

DH: Don’t take advice from people who aren’t qualified to give advice? Well, actually, the best piece of advice I heard recently from someone else is: finish things. I think that’s true for writing and life. You don’t know what you’ve got on your hands until you written— figuratively or literally— the words “the end.”

SS: Again, I echo everything Dan says. Just to be different though – I’ll say pursue lots of endeavors and don’t get bogged down in a specific form or medium. Sketch writing isn’t so different from dramatic plays isn’t so different from improv. Trying different forms will expose you to new ideas, new people, and new opportunities.

BJ: Any plugs and shout-outs for other work you have coming down the pike or friends’ work we should check out?

DH: Everyone should keep an eye on the rest of Custom Made’s Undiscovered Works series. On the second Tuesday of every month you can hear new plays by the talented likes of Marissa Skudlarek, Kirk Shimano, and Alina Trowbridge and us (we’re coming back in October with a new draft!). Also, Siyu is one of the members of the totally bad-ass SF Neo Futurists that perform weekly, you should check out their extra special Pride Show, Wednesday, June 15. I’m positive it will be exciting and surprising and very fun.

SS: Dan’s play Subtenant is premiering on June 17th at the Asylum Theater in Las Vegas. I got to see a reading of it a while back and it was so good it made me angry, it was like when Salieri hears Motzart’s symphony and goes into a fugue state. I haven’t tried to poison Dan yet, but it is that good. It will be playing until July 3rd so if you’re in Las Vegas you should definitely make an effort to see it.

DH: Salieri to my Mozart? More like Romy to my Michelle! By the way, rest in peace Peter Shaffer…

You can catch Oceanus this coming Tuesday, June 14th, at the Gallery Cafe at 1200 Mason Street in San Francisco. For more, click here.

Theater Around The Bay: Tossing the Baby and Bathwater

Today’s guest blog is by Charles Lewis III, who returns with a record number of links in one article.

In olden times they had to make their own fun.

In olden times they had to make their own fun.

“So the conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it — perhaps as much more as the roots are more vital than grafts. It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race. It is good that the old should resist the young, and that the young should prod the old; out of this tension, as out of the strife of the sexes and the classes, comes a creative tensile strength, a stimulated development, a secret and basic unity and movement of the whole.”

– Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History (co-authored with Will Durant – 1965)

I didn’t attend the recent Theatre Bay Area convention (aka TBAcon14 or “T-bacon”), so you’ll forgive me if today’s topic well-worn territory for any attendee who might be reading. Still, though I was not present, there was a topic of discussion rattling around in my brain.

If you’re reading this, you likely have a connection to the theatre community – most likely that of the Bay Area. As such, in the past few months, I’m willing to bet you or your connections have seen this Brendan Kiley article floating around social media. It’s from 2008, but it’s reignited the same passion now that it did then. I’ll be honest, when I first thought of writing this piece, I didn’t want to link to the article at all; I thought I’d just refer to it as “that article” and everyone would know what I was talking about. But that would have made it sound like some anonymous internet comment that should be easily dismissed. Since the article – or rather, the topic it covers – being something about which we all feel so strongly, I offer you the chance to (re-)read it and decide for yourself on which side of the debate you fall.

Me? I have a major fucking problem with it article and it starts with the very first sentence: “1. Enough with the goddamned Shakespeare already.” From the get-go he dismisses the greatest playwright in history as someone whose work is archaic and obsolete. Shakespeare’s work, he infers, has no place outside of high school – and he doesn’t want to see it there either. As such, if one wishes to “save” theatre from going the way of the 8-track tape, Rule 1 is to eschew the work of the very man from whose work nearly all modern drama draws its inspiration.

And he’s not the only one. Nary a week goes by when I don’t see some new article stating how all traditional forms of art – theatre, opera, poetry, painting, etc. – are just pageantry for the bourgeoisie and in need of the sort of upheaval more often seen in a coup d’état. But whilst these artistic “revolutionaries” argue over whose head to fit in the guillotine, I find myself equally disturbed and amused by their myopic thinking. Disturbed by the way they so easily wish to dismiss history; amused by the way they’re so blatantly repeating it. “Isn’t this something every young person says?” I think to myself. “Hell, isn’t it something I used to say?”

Thankfully I did no major damage in my youth before coming across the phrase “das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten”. If you’re German’s a li’l rusty, just look at the title of this article and the accompanying woodcarving.

Now let me start by saying I don’t think anyone’s heart is in the wrong place here. I get what everyone is going for: as we keep our ears peeled for the latest news relating to our most cherished art form, we’re easily disheartened by news that the forum for said art – be it theatre, gallery, or even bookstore – appears to be dwindling. You’re not ready to see it disappear and neither am I. So we’re kicking around a series of ideas to make it more appealing to this newly-discovered agoraphobe of the Digital Era: the one less likely to venture out into the real world (with its weather, traffic, and people) and more likely to huddle in a dark room with their digital device watching reruns of Say ‘Yes’ to the Dress.

Friends, I’m not here to slam you for trying out new ideas, I’m just here to give those ideas a little perspective. For instance…

1 – Yes, it’s okay to hate a classic.

Remember that South Park episode where all the kids (8 and 9 years old) are falsely diagnosed with ADHD because none of them can sit through a reading of The Great Gatsby in its entirety? That wasn’t the first or last sacred lamb to be skewered by their show: they’ve fired off on such beloved classics as Catcher in the Rye and A Charlie Brown Christmas. While one’s tastes are entirely subjective, the fact that something has been labeled a classic doesn’t make it invulnerable to criticism. Quite the contrary: being labeled a classic means a work must face even harder scrutiny because it represents the highest of standards.

My personal tastes are pretty eclectic: I get the same thrill from the cinematic majesty of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis that I do from the chuckle-inducing sight of Sting in a blue speedo in Dune. When recommending musicals, I’ll mention Jon Waters’ Cry-Baby with the same enthusiasm with which I’d mention West Side Story. I love the exploitation films of Larry Cohen just as much as the masterpieces of Alfred Hitchcock.

But I fucking hate Vertigo.

I’m not kidding, I hate it. I find every character unlikable, I find every action unbelievable, and instead of appealing to my suspension of disbelief, I find the film an insult to my intelligence. I think the critics of its time were right in calling it Hitchcock’s failure. I think it’s bullshit that one list recently named it “Greatest Film of All Time”. I think the only good to come from the film was Brian De Palma ripping it off for Body Double. Seriously, fuck Vertigo.

And it’s perfectly all right to feel that way. Not every work is for everyone. It’s okay for someone to say they don’t like the work of Shakespeare, Euripedes, or Lorraine Hansberry. Each one of their works was composed a long time ago in places unfamiliar with characters and dialogue that don’t quite fit today. They’re old. They’re ancient. But being old doesn’t mean something is obsolete.

And it’s perfectly all right to feel that way. Not every work is for everyone. It’s okay for someone to say they don’t like the work of Shakespeare, Euripedes, or Lorraine Hansberry. Each one of their works was composed a long time ago in places unfamiliar with characters and dialogue that don’t quite fit today. They’re old. They’re ancient. But being old doesn’t mean something is obsolete.

You can argue that Shakespeare is taught in schools only because of outdated curricula; you can also argue that the reason Romeo & Juliet continues to resonate with youngsters is because it’s about two horny teens [/LINK] whose over-the-top emotions lead to disaster. You can say Raisin in the Sun is a quaint piece from the pre-Civil Rights Era; you can also say that in this time of racist headlines and record evictions, that it could have been written yesterday. TheaterPub’s own Stuart Bousel is currently directing a production of the quintessential “American high school play,” Arthur Miller’s The Crucible [/LINK]; a play that takes place in a time (1692 – Salem, Mass.) that was outmoded when it was written (the 1950s). Do you think of it as a heavy-handed – and sexist – anti-McCarthyist parable of Good vs. Evil? Would you believe me if I told you that it’s a complex meditation on three-dimensional characters not speaking up when they should? That the women are the strongest characters because they exercise the most control, whilst the men spend the entire playing trying (and failing) to catch up? That its themes of paranoia are even more powerful in this age of surveillance?

You don’t have to like a classic, but when you call for its removal from regular academia, you’d better prove its obsolescence. Nobody likes a cry-baby who whines “I don’t get it, so it must be worthless.”

They give new meaning to the phrase ‘What fools these mortals be’

They give new meaning to the phrase ‘What fools these mortals be’

2 – What’s really “new”?

This past February I got to see The SF Neo-Futurists’ weekly show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Though I’d heard about from a good friend – troupe member and ‘Pub regular Megan Cohen – and from Will Leschber’s ‘Pub write-up of the Chicago branch, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Everyone kept describing it in such mythic terms (“A whole new form of theatre!”) that I wondered what frame of reference my mind would even have for what I was about to see. No sooner had the show begun when I immediately identified their type of performance: Sketch.

That’s not at all criticism of the work I saw (some pieces were brilliant), but it was still Sketch. Yeah, they “don’t do characters” and pieces can be dramatic, comedic, insightful, and everything in between – but it’s still Sketch. Hell, I went to the show as the +1 guest of a member of Killing My Lobster – one of the Bay Area’s best sketch groups (one of their Creative Directors is ‘Pub’s own Allison Page) – and y’know what? He was the one who kept insisting to me that it wasn’t sketch; that the Neos’ intense workshops are what distinguish it. Having never taken one of those workshops, I can’t speak on them. All I know is that what I saw that night was part of a long tradition that goes as far back as Vaudeville and is as recent as Key & Peele.

And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with acknowledging that you’re part of a long, great tradition? I know everybody wants to sell their products and services by saying “This isn’t your grandfather’s whatchamacallit!”, but our grandparents had some really cool shit. Sure, we have a more enlightened socio-economic perspective (or so we think), but they had things that were built to last – that’s why they still do.

And I can see the ancestry of classic formats in all of these “new” productions that have popped up recently: the much-lauded “interactive theatre” show Speakeasy, the popular Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding, and even the upcoming SF Dungeons Tours are part of a trend that extends back as far as the 1930s and ‘40s. Even the new so-called [LINK: http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/top-5-participatory-opera-experiences/%5D “Participatory Opera Experiences” [/LINK] (including [LINK: http://www.operaontap.org%5D Opera on Tap [/LINK], which I’ve attended several times) owe their history to fourth-wall-breaking that took place long before any of us were born. Hell, I performed Sarah Kane’s Blasted in an actual hotel room with the audience mere inches away.

The only difference between the aforementioned productions and elementary school history tours is that the former allow – nay, encourage – heavy drinking. But that’s great because there’s just as much room for these experiments as there is for a traditional theatre setting; especially when they recreate history. It’s easy to laugh at Renaissance Faires and Civil War re-enactments, but they bring you face-to-face with a piece of history you otherwise wouldn’t experience. And history will always be necessary, even when it isn’t trendy. Remember the “Kissing Cousin” episode of Frasier, where Zooey Daschanel played Roz’s young cousin? Roz tries to keep up with the early-20s party gal, but soon realises she can’t. When said cousin gives her lip about Roz’s songs all being on the “Classic Rock” station, Roz replies “For your information, Classic Rock is both classic and it rocks!”

Kudos to you for experimenting. Just ask yourself this question from time to time: Are you performing in front of an audience? If you answered “yes”, then very little of what you’re doing is “new”. But that doesn’t mean you can’t distinguish yourself. Speaking of which…

3 – Innovation vs. Gimmick

Four or five years ago I got into a very heated on-line debate with the social media admin. (possibly the artistic director) of a highly-renowned SF theatre company. I was voicing my displeasure at their new implementation of “Tweet seats” – a trend where a certain section of audience members spend the entire show dividing their attention between the action on stage and commenting on said action via social media. The admin and a few supporters said it was somehow more immersive with the show, even if the actors don’t always have their undivided attention. As I said then: the action on stage should always have your undivided attention! What the fuck do you think all the lights, costumes, make-up, and who-knows-how-long rehearsal period was for? To be ignored? It’s one thing to zone out during boring show, it’s another to pay admission just to look at the glowing box in your hand.

Technology will always be a double-edged sword in the arts: on the one hand, it opens up a host of new possibilities for both the creation of work and the promotion/distribution of said work; on the other hand, it can become a crutch to distract from a creatively bankrupt production. Tweet seats remind me of someone going through a mid-life crisis: so desperate to maintain relevance that he or she will adopt the most ridiculous contemporary fad in an attempt follow the zeitgeist. The only thing missing is cheap hair dye, plastic surgery, and an expensive sports car. Tweet seats don’t compliment a performance, they contradict it.

Can those people up there be quiet? I’m trying to update my Pinterest board

Can those people up there be quiet? I’m trying to update my Pinterest board

But there are many great strides in the marriage of classic theatre and modern technology. From its inception, PBS has been bringing theatre and opera into the homes of millions. The rise of digital projection cinema has allowed this idea to flourish into full high definition presentations on giant screens. And now independent theatres are getting in on the game with live-streaming outlets, including HowlRound TV. As this trend grows, everyone will have to keep up-to-date with things like internet access, internet speed, and how to get cameras and microphones in key places to best capture the performance, yet not be noticed by the audience. None of which is impossible. None of which takes away from what the performers fought so hard to put together.

I’ve been a tech buff since I was four years old and the only one in the house who knew how to set the clock on the VCR. I’ve seen “the next big thing” come and go without so much as a blip on the national radar (does anyone even remember MiniDisc? CD-i? HD-DVD?). It’s near-impossible to predict which new technology will most influence the future, but as artists there is one thing we can do. When we come across some new tech – be it a new shade of blue to add to an illustrator’s palette, or the ability to project on the side of a skyscraper – we can ask ourselves “How will this make it easier for me to say what I want to say?” Hitchcock and Kubrick were always innovative in the technology used in their films, using bluescreen, matte paintings, etc. Do you honestly think they wouldn’t have used CGI, had they lived? Terence Malick uses it. To an artist, everything is a potential tool. Everything.

Similarly, right now you’re reading this on the internet. Chances are you came to this article by clicking over from a social networking site. I currently do part-time work for a company that handles the outsourced social media for corporations. A single headline can make or break a casual patron’s entire impression of a company. It has to short, to the point, and intriguing. We all hate Upworthy’s click-bait headlines, but those fuckers know how to dangle a worm somethin’ fierce, y’all. The impact of social media on the arts cannot be understated. When you work thrives by word-of-mouth, you have to keep track of the words about you that are instantly published and can be seen by thousands a day. Print reviews and postcard advertising are still a part of what we do, but few of those make the impact of someone taking to Facebook to say how much they loved/hated a show, how long the show playing, and where you can donate funds to the producers. These are things that all add to experience.

It shouldn’t be about keeping up with the Joneses, it should be about telling the story the best way possible. Something else to keep in mind…

4 – Scorched Earth

Before I go on, I think it prudent to issue a mild DISCLAIMER: I’m going to address a topic that is very sensitive and stirs up passions for those on both sides. I’d like to say that I’m not trying to throw fuel on the fire, just that I see an unmistakable parallel.

You still there? Okay then…

This idea of dispatching the old to make way for the new is not only a problem with theatre, but with the city of San Francisco in particular. I say that with many good friends in the tech industry. Said friends are good, hard-working people who actually would like to be part the unique culture for which this city is known. Unfortunately, they find themselves employed by companies who have torn down century-old building for the sake of erecting a new Starbucks in its place. When the art galleries on Geary Blvd. are evicted to make way for a new headquarters of a-company-that-might-not-be-around-in-two-years, then that’s a problem. The loss of an artistic outlet is a problem, in no short part because the identities – those of the artists and the town that welcomed them into their gallery – will be lost. History repeatedly tells us the cost of destroying something ancient just to make way the new invaders: something truly invaluable is always lost. And once the new owners of these buildings have no use for them, they’ll just leave the damaged remains behind.

On the plus side: I have a Mad Max fanfic for just this occasion.

On the plus side: I have a Mad Max fanfic for just this occasion.

But I’m not here to blame anyone. Really, I’m not. No good comes from misguided blame. In fact, you might find this hard to believe, but I’m actually pretty optimistic. I really am. I know what you’re thinking: how can I, an independent theatre artist, be remotely optimistic about the future of theatre when even Broadway and The Metropolitan Opera [/LINK] are tearing their hair out over how to save their “dying industries.” ?

I’m glad you asked, and the reason is…

5 – Conclusion: We’re all in this together.

The reason I don’t freak out about the future of theatre is that all of the ideas mentioned above, including the ones I don’t like, mean that there will be a future for theatre. You know what literature, television, painting, and film all have in common? They’re all dependent upon technology. Every one of those great artistic and entertainment format would be impossible without some great technological advancement to make them possible: the printing press, the cathode ray, the feathered brush, and the photochemical process – all of them an inextricably linked with the advanced that bore them. Theatre requires only two things: a performer and an audience. It’s been like that since the beginning of time.

As much as I abhor some of the ideas to “save” theatre, it comforts me to know that it still stirs that kind of passion within people. It’s okay to hate a classic, because it became a classic by being scrutinised over the years. Citizen Kane wasn’t called “Greatest Film of All Time” until the 1960s. Y’know which film held the title before that? Birth of a Nation. Seriously. Hate as many classics as you like. I happen to know of a local theatre company that “produces re-imagined classics and scripted original works, as well as creative and social events, preferably in a casual bar environment or other non-traditional venue, emphasizing collaboration and connection between new and established theater artists and audiences.” What was their name again?

As much as we worry over finding that audience of One , new innovations allow for a wider net to find that audience, no matter where they are. I was there the night my good friends at PianoFight Productions raised all the funds for their new Taylor Street headquarters. After having heard them talk about it for so long, it was amazing to actually walk through the space: multiple stages, a full restaurant & bar, a film/video studio, and a recording studio. There will be full plays, improv shows, stand-up, and live-streaming capabilities. All of the classic qualities of live performance successfully merged with cutting edge technology in a venue where there are no limits. That is how one creates “new theatre”.

I’m optimistic about theatre because I know theatre isn’t dying, it’s evolving. It’s getting more perspectives from women and people of color . It’s thriving in places, even when you can’t find it. It’s refusing live or die by outdated definitions of what it is or isn’t.

Whatever old-school theatre folk think of the new upstarts (and vice versa), the point is that we’re all after the exact same thing. Know how I know? We chose theatre. No one goes into theatre to be cool. They go into theatre because they know there’s nothing like an audience and a performer breathing the same air; nothing like connecting with someone, even when there’s distance between you; nothing like truly losing yourself in the experience of something that you logically know is make believe. I recently read an article of polled theatre audiences who say that attending a live show is just as invigorating as getting a pay raise. And that is what we do, what we have done, what we will continue to do until the end of time: make everyone’s life a little richer, one performance at a time.

But seriously, fuck Vertigo.

Charles Lewis is a local actor, writer and director who is equally adept at mending fences and burning bridges.

Theater Around The Bay: It’s Alright, You Can Take Your Foot Off The Clutch Now

Our guest posts continue with a piece by Sam Bertken. Enjoy!

I hear you, I hear you—“Help, Internet! I am really nervous about this new thing that I’m going to start trying out, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle it! Can you please provide me with witty repartee and insight from people that have ‘been there’ so I feel less overwhelmingly nervous?”

Alright, alright, sure, I wasn’t doing anything, anyway.

Okay, let’s play a game: close your eyes. No, wait, actually, open them. You’re going to need to read this in order to see where I’m going. Sorry.

Alright, low start, but we can come back from it, because I got an ace in my back pocket:

Do you guys like Kermit the Frog?

Yeah, there we go, everyone’s on board now. Who doesn’t love a gangly, felted frog with weirdly-shaped pupils, opining for the greener grass on other side of that oft-ode’d rainbow? I mean, when you put it that way the list gets a little longer, but for the most part I’d say there’s a collective nod of recognition when anyone listens to The Rainbow Connection. It’s about achieving a dream, it’s a promise to strike out for one’s self. It’s not a lament about the lilypad upon which you currently find yourself, but more of a love song that’s about the one right over there.

If only it wasn’t out of hop’s reach…

But it isn’t! Not always, anyways. And sometimes, with the right wind current and enough hamstring training, you might land easily in a wholly different context, catching new flies, writing new love songs to different sorts of weather phenomena; sometimes you’re widely considered a performer and then suddenly you find yourself in the director’s chair. Sometimes you’re part of a group ensemble making decisions collectively for your art and then you’re leading a group as the even-keeled captain to achieve that same aesthetic. Sometimes you get really bored while taking time to do some tech work, but when you’re back in a performing role, the whole world behind the lights has turned itself on its head. It’s a lot to wrap your head around, sort of like a long, pink, sticky tongue primed for catching passing insects.

Let’s leave the frog metaphors behind from here on out, shall we?

As someone who recently sat down with his accomplishments from 2013, I came to a few realizations, all of which primarily oriented around trying out new paths, to see if I wanted to explore them a little bit further: Write more (here I am)! Try directiong, somehow! Produce something! But where does that impetus lie? How do you get off the couch and start making calls, writing manifestos and making it happen for yourself?

I interviewed a few of my acquaintances about their experiences shifting gears, so to speak, in their creative lives, to help you—YOU!—make a decision on whether that impossible dream may not be so impossible as you may think.

Adam Smith is the Artistic Director of the newly-formed San Francisco Neo-Futurists, and was active for years prior in their New York chapter. Siobhan Doherty is a local performer (also originally hailing from New York), who recently took a gig directing for the Bay One Acts and is running with the same wild abandon as a preschooler holding scissors. Eli Diamond was a high school performer who, for college requisites, spent some time in the lighting booth and painting sets, and has since returned to the limelight with a different take on what makes him look so good.

To get at the impetus, that tipping point where things start to really come together for someone whose just shifted gears that these fine folks share, I asked our group about the origin story behind their decision to make a creative change. Adam Smith had this to say about the new run of the SF Neo-Futurists’ ongoing production, Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind:

AS: I learned I was going to move out here in the middle of my last New York Neo-Futurist production called “On the Future.” The immediate thought was, “Oh the Bay would be a great place to start another Neo-Futurist company,” but didn’t really think much of it. A few months later Lucy Tafler (now our Managing Director) and Ryan Good (one of our bi-coastal Neo-Futurists) were out for an extended vacation. We saw a couple of shows in the Bay, and eventually came to the conclusion that there was room in the scene here for Too Much Light.

SB: Yes, I can definitely see how having an established structure and group of experts working with you can make things start happening at a nice, easy clip.

AS: Needless to say Ryan and Lucy’s vacation has been extended even longer.

SB: Okay, no need to start crowing about it, okay? Congratulations. But what if you’re not motivated to break borders creatively just because you’re breaking them geographically? Siobhan has been performing around the Bay Area for years now—where did this itch to sit in the director’s seat come from?

SD: After acting for so many years, I started to form opinions about what makes successful theater. My impulse to direct sprung from my desire to see how those opinions would play out in performance. Also, morally, I longed to have more ownership of the overall messages I was putting out into the world.

SB: I hear ya! The more experience receiving direction on the actual stage, the more your own ideas percolate, is that it?

SD: I have experienced many, many times as an actor when I think a scene could have been more effective if a director had used more active, actor-centric language. For example, instead of “do that section faster”, saying something along the lines of “let the excitement of each new idea build and carry this section forward”, would have made a world of difference.

SB: Who better to know how to direct an actor than just another actor? I’m following your train of logic so far.

SD: Lastly, I would say about 80% of the theater I see is TOO SLOW. I hope to counter-act that instinct. I also hope to explore new formats for an old medium. Site specific theatre, and one on one performance, are two arenas in which I think there is lots of contemporary and relevant fun to be had.

SB: As a creative person, wacky-awesome ideas are always pulling you in different directions, like an unfortuante medieval criminal and his quartet of horses (perhaps an overstatement to the uninitiated, but just you wait—it can feel this intense.) Eventually, it seems, it just becomes too much, and you have to use the experience and the connection and the artistic will you’ve been cultivating to make your dreams finally happen, darn it!
What about you, Eli? What prompted your brief time dangling from catwalks, hanging gels and focusing lights?

ED: Well, the tech work mostly started at NYU. First year students have to run tech on all the shows. I did lots of lighting and set design. Set design was far more my thing than lighting. There’s something that feels really powerful in creating the world the characters live in, plus I feel like a MAN with my powertools.

SB: No arguments there, that’s for sure. Also interesting that your creative change, like Adam, didn’t really come from a place of internal need, but from a source of external compulsion (such as a degree requirement, or a job offer). Or maybe just a need to make screwguns make that awesome “WHIRRRRR” sound, in this case.

SB: So once you pick up the manly powertools and you find yourself other side, what’s happening now? It’s all started, sure, in a boring, general way, but once you’re in the thick of it, that’s exciting, right? Or does the floor open up beneath you, and you’re dangling above an entire universe of new opportunity? Is it breathtaking in a good way or a pants-shitting way?

AS: Ask me again in a year. It’s too early. The real test will be after about 3-4 months when everyone is really acclimated to the performance schedule and we’re trying to do gigs and workshops, and making big decisions about direction.

SB: This sounds like the dangly feeling I mentioned earlier.

AS: As Artistic Director, there are more tasks to accomplish, and there is more pressure to meaningfully contribute to the local, national and international art conversation.

SB: Yikes.

AS: I’d say it’s largely positive. As an artist, I’m creating work that I might never have created if I stayed in New York. Between the life experience of picking up and moving, and being in a role of leadership, it has been pushing me to re-think my artistic choices and impulses.

SB: Not so yikes. That actually sounds pretty compelling to any artist out there whose eyeing some fresh new challenge. I’d say that’s the dream a lot of people hope for when they do jump into something new. A different perspective, a more nuanced view of the work you were creating before—it’s like a boot camp for better artistic expression! What do you think, Sio?

SD: Directing has been satisfying in new ways. It forces me to find a succinct, verbal way to express the meaning of a scene. It may even force me to find several ways of doing so if an actor is not comprehending my message. I must understand the piece extremely well in order to do that successfully.

SB: Yeah, like, you gotta read the whole script, definitely.

SD: Also, it is a great feeling to be surprised by your actors with their own ideas about a scene. In many ways, I think a great deal of good direction depends on casting actors that are willing to experiment and then just helping them to shape what they are naturally drawn toward. Not top-down, but bottom-up. If it comes from them, or (a la Inception) feels as though it comes from them, the results are more connected and resonant for the actor, and therefore, the audience.

SB: It must be kind of weird to have these thoughts about molding people who are in the position you were once in. I mean, you can’t have been the first, right? But that’s a whole ‘nother blog topic, isn’t it?

SD: The ego-centric part of me misses some of the focused praise afterward, since people often have no idea that you are the director. Although, that anonymity does give you excellent opportunities to overhear unfiltered audience opinions…

SB: Sneaky! Would you consider abandoning directing for acting, or vice-versa?

SD: No.

SB: Oh. Well. That’s, actually, liberating, and a good reminder for folks hoping to make a switch in the near future. It’s not like a door closes behind you—nothing’s that dramatic. You can sort of skip between them as your mood shifts. That’s a comfort, to find one other form you really rise to, find great satisfaction from, isn’t it, Eli?

ED: Lighting’s a little bit more monotonous and tricky to pin down. Lots of the work involves changing minor details. The lens of the light, the filter, etc. Things that wouldn’t really be noticed by the common person watching.

SB: I can see how going from creating a work of art, a character, that’s the center of everyone’s focus, a part of the show that, to the general audience member, makes-or-breaks the production in a certain sense, is a little more interesting than picking between Light or regular Amber for a general wash.

ED: The satisfaction is just different for me. I’ve never been an artist in that regard, so when I do scenic work or lighting, ther’es a detachment. I simply don’t get as attached to my work there the same way I do when I’m spillig my guts, sometimes literally, onstage. When a sets onstage, the sets on display, not the designer, or his intention, or his inner life so much.

SB: I see where you’re coming from here, yes. I’m sure the opposite is true for the artist’s who end up making their actors look and sound as good as they do. And now that you’re on the other end, in the role that you presently inhabit, I’m sure things are different. Your world’s opened up! The hue of everything is this crazy, LSD-neon shade of blue, AM I RIGHT?

AS: I think the main difference is, if you’re cast in a company that already exists, it has a history and a wealth of knowledge to pull from. You can see different writing styles and how each ensemble member’s fits with each other. As a new company we’re establishing that with each other. As someone who has done it before, I want to support the expansion of ideas, but without being prescriptive to define what we do as being only one or two people’s perspectives.

SB: Okay, so perhaps switching your creative role isn’t completely earth-shattering. But it certainly isn’t back-tracking, from what I can tell here. Especially in the case where you’re adopting greater responsibilities and taking performers less experienced in your style and collective vision under your wing, there’s a lot of almost paternal excitement to see it grow.

SD: It has helped me as an actor empathize with directors. I have a first-hand understanding of just how difficult it is to juggle a mountain of variables when it comes to casting and scheduling.

SB: So now there’s this whole side-wink to every director you’ll be working with from here on out, now that you understand their pain.

SD: Also, it can be a blessing and a cruse to work with actors that you know from past projects. On the one hand, you can cut to the chase and you know what they are capable of, and on the other hand, they may not have fully made the mental adjustment that you are now in a position of authority.

SB: Directing friends. Another lengthy topic—let’s go get beers and hash it out!

ED: Doing these jobs gave me far more respect for them as an actor. I’m not going to lie. I was a dick in high school to some of the techies. When you haven’t been fully exposed to what it takes to make a show, you fail to realize – they are working.

SB: What was that far of chorus of “Finally, they realize!” I just heard from the stage manager’s box?

ED: Not to say that actor’s don’t work, but there’s a huge element of play in our profession that, for me, was lost in technical work. I’m sure there’s someone out there who gets the same thrill form changing filters in a light as I do from being on stage, but it’s not me.

SB: I’m not going to ask you to describe what the “thrill” feels like. Entrapment and everything, ya know?

ED: There’s also the respect you have to give when you’re working and you realize, “My job is to make this guy on stage look good. “ When I just acted, I didn’t even think about that. Now, I hope to make the techie I’m working with WANT to make me look good.

SB: And then spill in the chocolates, the roses, the invitations to dinner… But for real, it seems to me that, even if a creative role didn’t “do it” for you, there’s a whole different world that has opened up to you. One becomes less of a high school dick and more of a compassionate theatre professional who is sometimes a dick to high schoolers (but just the ones who deserve it, of course). That’s important for professional development, but as an artist, entering a new world, having everything turned upside-down, that’s only going to add to your empathy engines. And while that alone may not make you a better actor, or artistic director, or director, or writer, or stage manager, or blessed box office volunteer, it’s going to make you a better person to work with.

So there it is! The lilypad is in clear sight, and you don’t need to stay over there for the rest of your damned life. Why not leap and take the plunge? From what I can tell, the benefits speak for themselves.

Adam Smith and the other Neo-Futurists have begun their sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic, always edifyingly personal run of Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, which runs every Friday and Saturday.

Siobhan Doherty is going to be lending her new-found love of direction to an exciting Rough Readings piece for Playwrights Foundation by Anthony Clarvoe called Early Romantics, and it plays at Thick House 2/10. In addition, she is directing a solo-performance festival called Modern Lovers: Women & Technology for All Terrain Theater in the spring.

Eli Diamond is going to be laying low until DivaFest mounts Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl in May. He’ll be playing the role of Dave- and the drums.

Sam Bertken is an actor and a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. A company member with Naked Empire Bouffon Company and an intern for the SF Neo-Futurists, he has performed with various companies, such as SF Theatre Pub, Custom Made Theatre Co. and the Exit Theatre.