Working Title: The Move, The Packing, The Thrush and The Woodpecker

This week Will Leschber barely makes it out of his moving truck to speak to Custom Made Theatre about The Thrush & The Woodpecker.

Hello there dear readers! You all are a dedicated bunch. I gotta give you props. Not only are you here now reading away, but we even tried to trick you all by saying that the last Working Title blog entry was a goodbye blog! Well, as you may know, it was a farewell Bay Area blog but it is not the last Working Title blog, no siree bob blog… we can’t trick you! Tricks are for kids. Let’s keep this party going from across the country!

So I can’t tear myself away. Even after the 3500-mile journey from San Francisco to Phoenix to Austin then Kansas and on to Connecticut in a 26’ box truck towing a car, even after unloading a ridiculous amount of moving boxes, even after getting my bearings and loosing sleep and battling landlords and praising new daycare workers and thanking in-laws and parents…even after all that, I can’t tear myself away from San Francisco indie theater. You guys deserve the best. So I have a few more suggestions to help wet your whistles and prep your brains as you dive into the new offerings from Bay Area theater.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Brian Katz, Artistic Director at Custom Made Theater about The Thrush & the Woodpecker, a new play by Steve Yockey that has its rolling world premiere beginning in a few short weeks. If you think that driving cross-country with a dog and a dad sounds dramatic and surprising, that has nothing on this revenge play. Starring local legend Stacy Ross, Shotgun Players Company Member Fontana Butterfield, and hot up-and-coming actor Adam Magill (Berkeley Rep’s Macbeth, SF Playhouse’s Stupid Fucking Bird), The Thrush and the Woodpecker tells the engaging story of a mysterious stranger who arrives to turn the world upside down for Brenda Hendricks and her son Noah, who’s recently returned from college unexpectedly. What avian secrets lie in wait?! We’ll see…

The Thrush and the Woodpecker copy

I asked Brian Katz the best film to pair with the new and unusual Thrush/Woodpecker and like a good Artistic Director, he offered up the question to his wonderful production team to get a myriad of opinions. Here’s a sampling of recommendations:

Kitty Torres (costumer) suggests: Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Since the play and the film definitely share the same levels of obsession and deceit.

Liz Ryder (sound) concisely recommends: The Birds!

Leah Abrams (Custom Made Theater Company’s Executive Director) offers up: The 2006 thriller Notes on a Scandal because its two female characters strike me in a similar way, a mix of perfectly normal/really off-kilter in their own way. AND Hitchcock’s The Birds. I think it’s the film that terrifies me most – there’s the obvious havoc wreaked by said birds, and also just that sense of the supernatural invading seemingly normal people in the real world.

The Birds copy

With the uncanny, supernatural, deceitful, unnerving recommendations Thrush/Woodpecker sounds to be quite an intriguing experience. The play opens August 4th and runs until August 20th. More info can be found at www.custommade.org.

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!

The Real World- Theater Edition: An Interview With Christopher Chen

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews one of San Francisco’s notable playwrights, Christopher Chen.

I was lucky enough to see one of Christopher Chen’s staged readings a couple of years ago and remember thinking, “Whoa, I didn’t know you could do that in plays?!” Christopher has this great style, which he describes as having “a maximalist approach.” He’s definitely another writer who inspires me to explore and play with form and theatricality in my own writing, while still focusing on the topic or issue or idea that the play was responding to in the first place.

I’d been wanting to chat with Christopher for some time about playwriting, his style, and his upcoming projects. And as it turned out, we were able to connect and talk about Home Invasion, which is 6NewPlays’ first production.

What follows is the interview I had with Christopher Chen about his work.

Christopher Chen

Christopher Chen

Barbara: How did you get into writing plays? And tell me about your writing style?

Christopher: Before I landed on playwriting I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I was all over the place in terms of what kind of artist I wanted to be. In elementary school I wrote stories and made puppets; in middle school I was obsessed with movies (Malcolm X was the movie that got me; I watched five movies a week); in high school I got into novels (Virginia Woolf, Paul Bowles) and music (the minimalists, grunge). I entered college as a music major, on the music composition track. But I also wanted to be a film director so I took film classes. And I took English classes because I wanted to be a novelist or poet. Or a sociologist or psychologist. And I also took acting classes and was in Theatre Rice, an Asian American theater group that mainly did/does sketch comedy. But they also had space for drama, and I wrote my first short play with them. I wrote my first play because I wanted something to direct, and I didn’t want to direct somebody else’s work. I think I was using theater directing to scratch my film directing itch. But then I found that playwriting was actually the thing that fulfilled all my creative impulses simultaneously: It combines literature with musicality with visual spectacle. It’s also a discipline tailor-made for my introvert (with extrovert impulses) personality. I love the process… a period of introverted writing followed by organized collaboration where I can still sort of be a wallflower.

In terms of my writing, I’ll cut and paste something I’ve written for grants: “My work as a playwright deals foremost with systems of power: how they are structured, perpetuated and how they wend their way into even the most intimate psychological spaces. My primary interest is the very scope of a system’s complexity, and to capture this, I use an all-cylinders-firing approach to theater making. It is a maximalist approach that combines elements of fable with up-to-the-moment political discourse; absurdist humor with subtle naturalism; and intimate spaces with multi-media spectacle. All of these elements are situated within kaleidoscopic, shifting structures designed to continuously challenge an audience’s expectations. The idea behind these multi-faceted constructions is to reflect the complexity of the system I’m exploring.” That sounds a little pretentious, but that’s fine.

Barbara: Tell me about 6NewPlays and how Home Invasion came to be?

Christopher: 6NewPlays is Erin Bregman, Eugenie Chan, myself, Barry Eitel, Andrea Hart and Brian Thorstenson. We are a producing playwrights’ collective inspired by 13P, the New York playwrights’ collective whose whole thing was putting the production directly into the hands of the playwright. We wanted to do that too, and produce plays of ours that might be a little riskier, might be cast aside by established theater companies. We liked the idea of bypassing the whole institutional machine of theater-making that so often creates DOA products. Our plays are going to be high-quality, formally inventive, and low-cost.

Home Invasion is a surreal murder mystery that is being performed in actual private living rooms around the Bay Area. We decided to have this be our inaugural production because it was something we could pull off relatively easily and because it embodies our scrappy, nimble get-it-done ethos. Most of the budget is going to artist stipends. I was excited to take this on because I’ve been increasingly gravitating towards more subtle character-driven writing, and having actors perform in real living rooms, just feet away from the audience’s faces, allows a level of intimacy and nuance you can’t get outside of movies or TV. It’s like writing for the screen… but it’s live.

Barbara: What has your experience as a SF playwright been like?

Christopher: I’ve lost steam after the first two answers.

Barbara: What’s your take on the current theater scene?

Christopher: There’s a lot of different facets to it.

Barbara: Is there anything you would change or see an opportunity for within the scene?

Christopher: Doing Home Invasion with 6NewPlays was very inspiring for me because it really drilled home a Bay Area truism: where there’s a will there’s a way. It’s not as cut-throat here as it is in New York or Chicago, so there’s no reason NOT to gather really good people together who share your passions and instincts, and then just make theater at relatively low risk. Everyone will be glad to pitch in if everyone likes and respects each other and shares common goals. THEN THEATER WILL HAPPEN. In the group development phase of 6NewPlays we all pitched in. As a group we collaboratively tackled all practical matters: finances, grantwriting, budget-making, etc. etc. These things would be overwhelming if you were doing it all by yourself for the first time. That’s why you need a team. And then, during the artistic phase of Home Invasion, I’m once again experiencing the joys and ease of collaborating with a dedicated, passionate and professional team, all pulling together in a DIY way. Where there’s a will there’s a way. I was able to snag my dream director: Matthew Graham Smith, and my dream cast: Kat Zdan, Lisa Anne Porter, Matthew Hannon. And they’re going to go into private living rooms, big and small, for audience sizes ranging from 15-40, and put on a full-length play. I’m losing sight of the original question, but the bottom line is: In this community there’s room to make your own opportunity.

Barbara: What can we expect from Home Invasion?

Christopher: I was originally inspired by Dial M For Murder. ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES EVER AND IT ONLY TAKES PLACE IN ONE ROOM. (Mostly.) I was also inspired by The Maltese Falcon, Vertigo, and The Twilight Zone. The play goes into some strange places. I was inspired by a mysterious book my story collaborator Hannah Birch Carl found at Urban Ore. This mysterious book was a big inspiration.

Home Invasion, running April 16-30th in various Bay Area living rooms.

Home Invasion, running April 16-30th in various Bay Area living rooms.

Barbara: Any advice for people who would like to do what you do?

Christopher: Gather good people together and just make the work. Don’t listen to too much feedback– double down on your own instincts. In fact, push your instincts to their logical conclusions. Explore many other artistic influences other than theater. If you’re starting out in this community, start by saying yes to everything. Before I gained any traction as a playwright I worked box office and house managed and interned at the Magic Theatre, I acted at Impact Theatre (Horatio) and Shotgun Players (a tiny tiny role in a Marcus Gardley world premiere!), and did all kinds of staged readings and development workshops.

Barbara: Any projects coming up you can talk about?

Christopher: I am working on commissions with A.C.T., Crowded Fire, S.F. Playhouse and O.S.F. (that controversial Play On! translation project— I’m doing Antony and Cleopatra). My play Caught will be at Shotgun Players this Fall, along with productions in Seattle, Chicago and New York.

Barbara: Any plugs for your own work or friends’ work?

Christopher: I wish I’d gotten tickets to Peter Nachtrieb’s House Tour, but it’s all sold out.

For more on Christopher Chen, check out his website at http://www.christopherchen.org. Home Invasion runs April 16-30 at selected living rooms across the Bay Area, including a barebones performance at The Flight Deck in Oakland in collaboration with Just Theater. For more info, go here.

Theater Around The Bay: The Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards for 2015

Stuart Bousel ends the year with 6,000 words. Which you know… is actually less than usual. 

You may not have noticed it, but until my recent interview by Barbara Jwanouskos, I took a year off from writing for the blog.

This was for a number of reasons, including wanting to make more space for others, and having to use some of our space for promoting shows since Theater Pub returned to putting out 12 shows a year, thanks entirely to Rob Ready, Dan Williams, and Kevin Fink at PianoFight for both providing and insisting we take them up on their offer of a new venue, and my incredible support staff who put this year together by the skin of their teeth: Megan Cohen, James Grady, Sara Judge, Cody Rishell, Marissa Skudlarek, and most of all Tonya Narvaez and Meghan Trowbridge. Additionally, I just kind of took a general break from both writing and publicly postulating, partly for my own sanity and mostly because I wanted to do a lot of listening. At the end of last year, as was apparent to many, I was sort of drowning in the overwhelm of too many voices, from adulatory to disparaging, plaintive to dismissive. I made a decision to stand still and listen, in the hopes I’d eventually find my way back to my voice. For the record, it worked, thanks in large part of a few really good friends- but more on that later.

So, Awards… do I feel better about them than I did last year? Eh, more or less. I’ve come to accept them for what they are, and I’m thankful we have an awards system, helmed by Theater Bay Area, that is more or less transparent, and based on a peer adjudication pool that is more or less quantifiable (certainly identifiable), tiered into a system that more or less recognizes the need to evaluate artists with their resources and limitations taken into account. I think it’s a tremendous loss that Robert Sokol, who did the bulk of the grunt work to make these Awards a reality, from vetting each ballot last year to making the rounds of every committee to ensure the concerns of TBA members were actually heard, is no longer with the Awards or TBA- and anyone who knows how hard I grilled Robert in meetings last year knows that I am not saying that lightly or affectionately. There are moments I have starred daggers into Robert across a conference table and meant each and every one of them, but at the end of the day, he brought a great deal of integrity to the Awards- as much as any awards system can have- and he was devoted to them and he has not been adequately replaced. Which is not to say the folks running things now are doing a bad job necessarily- but the job changed and nobody has really moved into his place, duties have just been sort of parceled out, and while I don’t feel this has necessarily compromised the integrity of the Awards themselves, yeah, some things and people are falling through the cracks. Like my whole committee, for instance, which was given no chance to have input on the Awards this year. But then, being forgotten is, sadly, sort of par for the course of the Individual Services Committee.

Speaking of… so I have left the ISC and the Board of TBA. It happened weeks ago, right after the last meeting of the year, so I feel like it’s okay to talk about it publicly now. Or if it’s not, well… somebody should have sent me an email about that. Oh well.

Anyway, yes, I stepped down. After three years on the ISC- which I loved- and one year on the Board- which I hated every second of- I decided that TBA and I were not a good fit for one another. This does not mean I think TBA is a bad organization or anything like that- I am still a member, as is San Francisco Theater Pub, and I believe that TBA has the potential to be a great service organization and an ally to the artists of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater scene, and an advocate for the arts in general. In some ways, it already is all of those things. In some ways- it’s got a long ways to go, and to TBA’s credit no one there is unaware of that and there is a lot of energy being expended in trying to improve. In the end, my decision to leave is a combination of many things, like all decisions, but it comes down this: the organization’s priorities are not my own, and while I joined the org in a volunteer capacity to understand it better, I also wanted to help create positive changes in the Bay Area theater scene. And the fact is, I wasn’t really being tapped for that, despite having been invited in. Boards are really all about raising money, when it comes right down to it. And like, I get that. But I’m an artist. A Struggling Artist. I got enough of that headache in my life already, you know?

So, hey, everybody, back to Awards as subject (and yes, don’t worry, the Stueys). Clearly I had some really heavy misgivings about whether or not I was, through well-intentioned silliness, perpetuating this kind of social ill, something I had never really thought about until I started winning awards myself, and experiencing all the highs (random theater companies suddenly being interested in my writing, feeling validated by my peers) and lows (friends telling me all the reasons I didn’t deserve recognition, or just sucked in general) that come with success of any kind. This year I was nominated for two more awards, and a show I directed was nominated for nine total, and I didn’t win any and neither did the show and you know what: I kind of enjoyed it more. Yes, I loved winning last year- I ADMIT IT. But not winning (which is not the same as “losing”, by the way) meant I could get drunk with my friends and dance and kiss people at the party and not worry about what this all meant and was I worthy and was I accidentally doing anything to offend all the people who didn’t win, and was I supposed to react a certain way and what if I did or didn’t? Plus some people I really adore and respect won awards this year and that was lovely because they deserve recognition.

Which by the way is all an award/Award is- some people saying you did a good job. Which only means something if you think it does. And if you think you did a good job.

Cut to me, having drinks with a local writer whose brain is my favorite critical brain in the Bay Area and at some point she says/I paraphrase, “I’m so glad you have made peace with all that. You do so much and you do it well and it is okay to be proud of that- and haters be damned.”

I reply/paraphrase, “Thank you. I am a deeply insecure human being in an industry that battens on insecurity. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say, with assurity, that I deserve anything, let alone an Award. But I am glad that play won one, because all said and done- I am really proud of that play.”

The Bay Area Theater Scene, friends/haters. So much insecurity. So much to be proud of.

The 2015 Stuart Excellence in Bay Area Theatre Awards

1. The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness- Dale Albright

True story: a couple of weeks ago I was a few egg nogs in and chatting with a co-worker while net surfing and lazily, without thinking, reposted Peter O’Toole’s death notice on Facebook, as if it was news. How embarrassing! Especially as I created this award the year Peter died (the first time) with the idea that it would be all about recognizing the people we often fail to recognize because they are so consistently awesome. Way to prove my own point, huh? Well, regardless, I couldn’t be more earnest this year when I give the award to Dale Albright, who may be the Bay Area Theater scene’s most unsung, unsung hero (he is the Program Director for TBA, if you didn’t know). Seriously, this man is earning his keep and then some and I would not have spent three years giving up my time if it wasn’t for Dale’s passion and commitment to TBA and everything it is and could be. And sure, he’s also a damn fine actor and director, but whatever: he a phenomenal human. He really and truly cares, he works himself to the bone on our behalf, and he does it all with a kind of insane but sincere modesty. No one I have ever spoken to about Dale has anything but incredible admiration for him and I’m not talking about a handful of people- I’m talking about hundreds of them. I know a lot of people.

2. Best Short Play- “Sparse Pubic Hair” by Lorraine Midanik, directed by Laylah Muran de Assereto, produced by the Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco, starring Rick Homan and Miyoko Sakatani with Louel Senores and Amber Glasgow, choreography by Wesley Cayabyab.

It’s always kind of funny what really makes a short play work and stand out. It’s usually this nearly impossible combination of big idea, simple but impactful execution, and charm. This piece, the capper of the last-ever Sheherezade Festival (PCSF’s annual short play collection) took the complex idea of aging and becoming obsolete and all the insecurity and fear attached to that, and reduced it to the very concrete but relatable fear of losing one’s sex appeal before one has lost the appetite for sex, without falling into the traps of being preachy, cutesy, smarmy, or vulgar. The result: an actually romantic, totally poignant tale of two grown ups having to learn how to be grown ups long after they thought they were done learning to be grown ups, complete with facing fears, getting over themselves, and forgiving one another’s human fallings- sparse pubic hair and all.

3. Best Show- “The Miraculous Journey Of Edward Tulane”, adapted by Dwayne Hartford from the book by Kate DiCamillo, directed by Doyle Ott, produced by the Bay Area Children’s Theatre, starring Terry Bamberger, Darek Burkowski, James Grady, Carlye Pollack

Okay, if you didn’t know it, some of the best theater being made in the Bay Area is consistently being made by Bay Area Children’s Theatre. Yes, it’s intended for kids and yes you will be looked at by amused/hyper-protective parents if you don’t show up without your own children, but the fact is, there’s some really excellent stuff happening here, high-quality entertainment being made and you’re probably missing it. Because it’s made for kids it’s also, in addition to being well done, often edifying and thought-provoking without hitting you over the head about it the way a great deal of theater for adults feels it needs to. The stories are also just unapologetically magical, because kids both believe in magic, and unlike most adults, feel no shame in admitting that or owning their need for it. No show, for me, better optimized this this year than “Edward Tulane”. Beautifully acted from top to bottom, gorgeously staged and directed as a kind of caravan theater meets medieval panto mash-up with songs, the tale of a toy that passes through many owners, becoming something uniquely valued by each, was FUCKING TEARING MY HEART OUT EVERY SECOND I WAS WATCHING IT. I barely held it together, my boyfriend cried continuously from twenty minutes in till the end, and we walked out wanting to make the world a kinder place. The restorative powers of forgiveness and the transformative aspect of service being subtley but unapologetically presented as the inevitable solutions to anger and vanity were so well nuanced that it was impossible to remain unmoved by a piece that comforted even as it kicked you in the face. And yeah, not all theater has to make you do that- but your chances of getting a Stuey are way higher if your theater does.

4. Best Ambitious Failure- “We Are Proud To Present A Presentation About The Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known As Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrkia, Between the Years 1884-1915” by Jackie Sibblies-Drury, directed by Molly Aaronson-Gelb, produced by Shotgun Players in association with Just Theater, starring Rotimi Agbabiaka, Lucas Hatton, Kehinde Keyoejo, Patrick Kelly Jones, David Moore, and Megan Trout.

Okay, before anyone gets offended please understand: I love Ambitious Failures, and no it’s not a backhanded compliment. In many respects, while I love a perfect gem of a show and it’ll make me love the world and theater, an ambitious failure gets me excited and makes me think in a way that gems big or little often fail to do. Also, it’ll stick with me for a long time to come, resulting in multiple conversations, extra mileage in the idea mill, good debates, etc. “Well then,” you say, “is it really a failure?” I mean, I guess not- but yes, no, it didn’t work, at least for me. And like, this show totally didn’t work for me, I walked out feeling I had seen something that couldn’t actually decide what it was trying to do or say and collapsed in on itself like a whirlpool that was more interesting than engaging, but oh how much I admired the fearlessness and commitment of the script, the actors, the director, whoever it was who had to make that title work on a poster. I knew I had seen something important and real, even if I had failed to get much out of it beyond what I felt was obvious and a result of statement, not storytelling, but the parts that sang, sang so well that I could not be dismissive either. In many ways, I felt the play was epitomizing its own impossible conversation, that its hot messiness was a statement about how no one in the world seems to be qualified or articulate enough to truly communicate with anyone else in the world AND THAT’S WHY WE’LL NEVER HAVE NICE THINGS… but then that reading doesn’t satisfy me either and the play didn’t corroborate it and I was back at square one feeling like I was asking aesthetic questions instead of struggling with the plethora of social ones the play was ostensibly about. It’s frustrating… but intriguing, and it has kept me intrigued. This is the one show from this year I would see again, if I could, no caveats. And that deserves a Stuey.

5. Best SF Olympians Reading- “Tethys/Oceanus” by Marissa Skudlarek/Daniel Hirsch and Siyu Song, directed by Marissak Skudlarek/Sara Staley, starring Diana Brown, Alan Coyne, Theresa Miller, Jacinta Sutphin, Aaron Tworek, Kendra Webb, Steven Westdahl, Janice Wright

So, usually I do a “Best Reading” award but every year I’ve chosen something from Olympians (because it’s where readings go to ascend) so let’s just call a spade a spade and admit I’m really going to just pick the best Olympians reading from the past year. This year was a strong year for the festival, and there was a lot of good material, but one night shone above the rest in terms of great material + perfect performances + random magic, and that was a pair of one acts, “Tethys” by Marissa Skudlarek, who also directed, and “Oceanus” by Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song, directed by Sara Staley. Between the two pieces the evening was the perfect blend of somber intellect (Marissa’s) and giddy theatricality (Dan and Siyu’s). Marissa’s quiet and subtle piece about defining and obtaining security in a perilous world was beautifully echoed in Dan and Siyu’s mini-epic about what happens in the handful of moments during an global internet outage when all of our distractions vanish and we’re forced to listen to the sound of our own lives again. Both had a wicked humor tempered with compassion for the stories being told and the characters portrayed were done so by an excellent group of actors clearly relishing their roles. Like all “best nights” of the Olympians, I walked out of that one going, “This is what this festival can do- this is the kind of stuff that happens here!” which makes for such an easier time at the bar afterwards. And while the object of the festival is not to create a final product but to instead be the start of a journey, both these plays felt like they could be lifted and fully produced as was- which only makes me more excited to see where they will go.

6. Best Director- Ariel Craft, “The Pillowman”, The Breadbox

“Really? Ariel again?” you ask me. Um, well, what can I say- I’ll stop saying Ariel’s the best director in the Bay Area when she stops being the best director in the Bay Area. Or at least when she wins a TBA Award. No, but seriously, Ariel continues to win my admiration for a combination of reasons: she is not only exceptionally skilled and incredibly hard working, but she consistently chooses incredibly challenging work and sometimes does exceedingly risky things with it and sometimes those things fail but it never seems to stop her from trying again- and usually shooting even higher. Pillowman was not a failure but was, in fact, the best production of this play I could possibly imagine. Each individual part and performance was spot on- but the sum of the whole was brilliant and that is Ariel’s great strength. Her vision has a signature that is unmistakably hers, making her unquestionably an artist, and as she continues to grow it’s becoming more and more exciting to see her hallmarks across a variety of works. Best part: I don’t even really like this play all that much. But I loved this production of it.

7. Best Actor – Jason Wong (Creon, “Antigone”, at Cutting Ball)

Jason Wong has always been an interesting and very watchable actor, and having known him and worked with him before, I also know he’s a pretty nice guy, hard-working, risk-taking, and smart. Very smart. It sort of killed me when he didn’t try out for my production of M. Butterfly (though I would never trade the brilliance of Sean Fenton in that show FOR THE WORLD), but he’s forgiven now for having been the jewel in the crown of Cutting Ball’s production of Antigone. Though the heroine of the story is the center of the piece, Creon is the meat of the drama, his arc the one we follow, his lesson the one that must be learned, his soul the one that must be broken and, if you’re Creon is well-played, redeemed. Jason walked on stage chewing the scenery like a madman, spilling Creon’s pompous but phony self-love all over the place and then slowly, systematically, cracking the façade one doubt and disaster at a time until he was just bones and then just a pile of bones. Ending the play as a forlorn echo of himself that you wanted to protect in spite of everything, you realize that Antigone has triumphed and the tragedy has and always was Creon. Jason, with his remarkable ability to play wounded and outraged at the same time, took me from sinister to pathetic so forcibly but fluidly that like the proverbial frog in a cauldron, I almost didn’t feel the burn until I was suddenly, fataly, scalded.

8. Best Actress- Michelle Drexler (Kathy, “Company”, SF Playhouse)

One of the advantages of seeing a play many times (and I have seen Company many many times) is that you can see a variety of actors tackle a role and approach its pros and cons differently, with different levels of success. Most people who see Company will walk away having an opinion on the Robert, the Joanne, the Amy, maybe the Marta and April, and that’s usually kind of it. Part of the fun (and point) of the show is that most of the characters are kind of fun but flat stereotypes, 2-D impressions of people that Robert is ultimately sort of short-changing because it helps him feel like it’s okay to lack what they have (and he actually wants), but in can be tough for the actor handed the role of Larry or Susan or Paul to both honor the restraints of the piece and make an impression. Of all the parts in Company (except maybe Paul), I think Kathy is the most thankless, “the nice girl” archetype who epitomizes the “one that got away” but who we kind of let get away because, nice as she was… we weren’t really all that into her. The whole point of Kathy is that she wasn’t really all that interesting to Robert until THE SECOND before she walked out of his life… and then even then, he let her do it, because she wasn’t all that interesting. The problem with Kathy is that she is often played as if Robert’s view of her is who she actually is. The brilliance of Michelle Drexler’s performance as Kathy in the SF Playhouse production of Company and why she’s getting this year’s Best Actress Stuey, in a year of amazing performances by women, for a five minute scene? I’m not sure, to be honest, exactly what it was. A fierceness, perhaps? A depth of performance that conveyed her Kathy was MUCH MORE than Robert ever knew her to be, and that Kathy not only knew she was much more but knew Robert would never see it- and loved him anyway? An implication that she wasn’t a wall-flower going back home to settle for less but maybe even a Robert herself, maybe someone who had been mistaking waiting for living and was finally making a choice knowing that breaking your own heart is an awful but certain way to remember you have one? I don’t know. We’ll never know. The whole point of Kathy is that she’s a mystery we feel sort of sad about never solving. And it was nice to see someone finally play her that way.

9. Best Surprise- Teri Whipple (“Harbour”, NCTC, “Dead Dog’s Bone”, Faultline)

So, I’ve known Teri Whipple for a few years, she being a company member of Custom Made and a frequent actor in the SF Olympians, but this year I caught her in two very different shows at two very different companies playing… well, a kind of hippy-dippy mom in both plays, truth be told- but she did it really differently each time!- and perhaps more importantly, incredibly convincingly, displaying a versatility and charisma that elevated her performances past cliché and to something quite startling and previously unseen in her (at least by me). Teri has always been someone I’ve enjoyed watching, but I find myself excited when I find out I’m seeing something she’s in because I feel like I’m watching a performer really come into their own. I totally get that the “Mom” roles are rarely something a woman is excited about having cornered the market on, but if you keep playing interesting moms in unexpected ways- I can think of worse fates. Do I hope to see Teri in non-Mom roles? Absolutely. Which means, directors and writers- get to work.

10. Best Laugh- “It Wasn’t Meat!” by Carolyn Racine, choreography Liz Tenuto, directed by Paul Charney, produced by Killing My Lobster, starring Ron Chapman and Sam Bertken

Due to Killing My Lobster drastically upping their game in the last year (yeah, I said it- it’s like Night and Day, truth be told), I’ve actually made it to more of their shows than usual. I’m not huge into sketch, but when it’s well done, it’s a good time and since I saw so much I enjoyed this year I figured it was about time the Stueys included a sketch award of some kind. This year it goes to a little nugget of gold that landed in the happy Christmas Stocking that was this year’s holiday KML show at Z Space: “It Wasn’t Meat”, a parody of “It Wasn’t Me”, written by Carolyn Racine, directed by Paul Charney, choreographed by Liz Tenuto, and featuring Ron Chapman and Sam Bertken in the most hilarious send up of relationship enforced vegetarianism I’ve ever seen. To me, the best comedy is fun because it’s true, and if it’s painfully true that’s often even better. In the Bay Area, in particular, I think laughing at ourselves may be the only cure for our chronic case of smugness and what’s more true (and Bay Area) than taking a song about sexual infidelity (which so many people here, myself included, would go to great lengths to downplay as unimportant in today’s sexually progressive relationships) and revamping it as struggling to remain true to your partner’s tyrannical diet restrictions (which so many people here, not including me, would go to great lengths to tell you is far more important and not at all tyrannical… even though you are literally requiring someone to eat the way you do like they are your child). The perfect balance of delivery volleying between Ron Chapman’s cool confidence in denial and Sam Bertken’s anxious self-flaggelation for having “wrapped bacon around more bacon” turned a fun idea into a little bit of biting social commentary that got quite literal at the end when meat-starved Sam started biting his own mentor. Truly funny, truly arch, truly a reason to see even more KML in the coming year.

11. Best Designer- Brooke Jennings, Everything

Okay, so you may have noticed as I’m listing Best Play and such I’m failing to list all the designers and crew. Designers and crew- PLEASE FORGIVE ME! I’m trying to keep to a word limit I am already so way over, and the fact is, unless your show is all about the design, the mark of good design (in my opinion) is that it kind of fades into the background and becomes THE WORLD OF THE PLAY- outstanding in its seamlessness, natural, un-intrusive, and therefore… easy to fail to appreciate. Right now, the local designer who epitomizes this the most for me is costumer Brooke Jennings, who I have been lucky enough to work with several times, and whose work has been seen on a vast variety of Bay Area stages this past year. Often times, when looking at a show, I will be struck by how quietly, subtly, and yet perfectly everything on the actors is working together, creating a color and texture palate that tells a story without being the story, adhering to the world of the play while creating the world of the play, helping define everything from the time period to the climate, with stops on the personality and motives of the character along the way. Often I will then think, “Huh. Did Brooke design this show too?” And then I’ll look in the program and she did. What else is there to say?

12. Best Musical- “Heathers: The Musical” by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, directed by Erik Scanlon, musical direction by Ben Prince, choreography by Alex Rodriguez, produced by Ray of Light Theatre, starring Laura Arthur, Teresa Attridge, Jordon Bridges, Melinda Campero, Samantha Rose Cardenas, Jessica Fisher, Paul Hovannes, James Mayagoitia, Zachariah Mohammed, Lizzie Moss, Abby Peterson, Jocelyn Pickett, Jessica Quarles, Nick Quintell, Andy Rotchadl, Mishca Stephens, Jon Toussaint.

So, I’m not a die-hard fan of Heathers: The Musical. I’m a die hard fan of the movie. The musical’s got some great songs and some fun moments, but I think it suffers from not deciding if it’s trying to be for the fans, or a work of art unto itself, and the truth is, it soft-pedals the darker, edgier aspects of the film, while loosing a great deal of the humor, and also coming off… vaguely homophobic and comparatively sexist? Yeah, no, I mean that, but I’m surprised by it because it’s a pretty entertaining and even profound show as long as you don’t really think about any of those things, and more pertinent to now, Ray of Light’s production was fantastic, probably the best thing I’ve seen them do yet, from the costumes (by Katie Dowse, shamelessly and amazingly recreating many of the looks from the film), to the tight direction, to the spot on impressions of the film cast and the startling moments of canonical departure intelligently woven between the bones throne to the audience- who clearly loved it. The humor and bite of the show was undeniably carried by Samantha Rose Cardenas, Lizzie Moss, and Jocelyn Pickett in the title roles, but the heart was provided by Jessica Quarles as Veronica and Laura Arthur as Martha Dunnstock, with Jordon Bridges bringing some much needed darkness as Jason Dean. The best song of the show, “Seventeen”, a kind of high school reject version of “Suddenly Seymour” (listen to it… hear it?), was stuck in my head for days afterward, infinitely more poignant when I watched Bridges and Quarles belt it at the Victoria than when I downloaded it on iTunes, as if they were channeling everything about the movie that made it my personal Bible in high school. The production as a whole deserved every single one of the 11 nominations it received at this year’s TBA Awards and seems to have been an all around hit with most audiences, doing what I think Ray of Light does best- making musicals not just accessible and entertaining, but an event that reminds people they’re also still a very relevant and multi-faceted art form.

13. Best Ensemble- “The Horses’ Ass and Friends” by Megan Cohen, directed by Ellery Schaar, produced by Repurposed Theatre, starring Danielle Gray, Ryan Hayes, Evan Johnson, Katharine Otis, Becky Raeta, Paul Rodrigues, Indiia Wilmott, Marlene Yarosh

Megan Cohen’s shows are always worth seeing- from the interesting failures, to the perfect little gems- but this particular show- directed by Ellery Scharr at the EXIT Theatre- was blessed by a truly excellent ensemble of players who managed to take an evening of individual experiments and weave them into a performative whole, the connective tissue of which was their own enthusiasm for the work and each other. Maybe it’s starting the show with a group dance party that bonds people, or just being a part of something you all believe in, but you can tell a good ensemble when you see them and it was obvious from the moment you walked in that the friends of the title were in the house and ready to show you what they had with everything they had. Watchable, charming, creative, smart, brave- Danielle, Ryan, Evan, Katharine, Becky, Paul, Indiia, and Marlene (okay, maybe a little extra gold star for Marlene)- are all excellent storytellers and were all tasked with the sometimes intimidating feat of telling a story written by the inimitable Meg Cohen. Each one rose to the occasion, each one succeeded in their own right, but best and brightest when together, as a troupe.

Well, there you go. To all my friends and frenemies in the Bay Area Theater Scene… it’s been a great year. Let’s you and me do it again sometime. Well… most of you.

One last bit. More than anything else that I’m aware of right now, it’s this: last year around this time I was dreading the new year. I was afraid it would be more of the same, and the truth is… it kind of was. But something happened over the course of the year, slowly at first, and then with gaining momentum: essentially, I found my way back to me. I started reading again. I started writing again. I made new connections and I let go of the ones that were turning sour and poisoning my self-esteem, or just taking up a lot of my time and not giving anything back in return. I had a lot of amazing conversations and I made some fantastic art. I broke a pattern of getting sick during my own production process, which had been going on for 2+ years. I got hit in the head… and I got back up and moved on. I stopped taking responsibility for things which aren’t mine to take responsibility for and started taking responsibility for something I rarely make room for: my own happiness. I remembered that even if I am a Sad King… I’m still a King. Surrounded by Kings. And Queens. Or whatever title you want to give yourself. You just be you, okay, whatever that is. I might not always like it, but we’ll probably figure out a way to get along in the long run. Meantime…

Five Collaborations With Old Friends But In Amazing New Ways

1) Marissa Skudlarek- Marissa Skudlarek has been the most consistent editorial force behind both Olympians and Theater Pub for years now, often acting as a second pair of eyes and a second opinion on everything from grammar to content and tone standards, but this year we did something we never thought we’d do before: sing harmony on a rock song together. Yup, our cameos as the Specialist and his Assistant in Guess Who? might not go down in rock history, but it’s definitely going down as a benchmark in our personal history. And Who Knows? (get it?) You might not have heard the last of us.

2) Megan Briggs and Allison Page- Megan Briggs is my muse and Allison Page has frequently been my leading lady, but this year they were also my co-producers on The Desk Set and let me tell you: you could not ask for a better team. Between Megan’s organizational skills and Allison’s marketing savvy, Desk Set was one of the best promoted, most tightly run ships I’ve worked on in a really long time, and the show’s tremendous success in spite of a myriad of hiccups (from the world’s biggest set to ever go into the EXIT Stage Left, to the longest props list of my directing career), not to mention the casts’ continued devotion to our Facebook chat thread, are a testimony to just what this dynamic duo can do. Let’s do it again (but better)!

3) Morgan Ludlow- Morgan has been an incredible advocate for my work over the years, producing four plays of mine, and letting me direct two of his. A few years ago he moved to Seattle, but he still returns to SF a few times a year to assist with local productions and this past autumn I had the honor of him stepping into directing shoes to bring the Seattle production of my play, Everybody Here Says Hello! to life. A truly excellent rendering, Morgan confessed (after I’d seen and liked the show) that he actually hadn’t directed in years and had only taken the risk because it was me.

4) Rob Ready– Rob has been in a number of things I’ve written, most notably playing the Llama in the Llamalogues for several years now, but this year Rob became our venue manager when TheaterPub resumed performances at his space starting in January. For all intents and purposes, this has made Rob our Executive Producer, and it’s been a truly rewarding experience. There are few people in the theater scene whose vision and love for the art exceed Rob’s, and it’s been a real honor having him as our patron saint and champion, even when we took some serious mis-steps this past year. Rob never stopped telling us we were doing a good job and because of that- we did.

5) Kim Saunders and David Brown– my choreographer and music director, respectively, on Grey Gardens: the Musical at Custom Made Theater. Never before had I shared the helm with two co-pilots, and while I consider myself a collaborative director, it’s one thing to be a gracious guy in charge, and another to be one of the three. It wasn’t always easy, but it was ultimately incredibly redwarding, and I learned a lot from my intrepid co-creators and would work with either, or both, again, in a heartbeat because damn our show was fantastic and it would not have been the same without each of us being the incredibly talented, passionate, invested and only occasionally egotistical maniacs we are… I mean… were.

Finally, finally, one last shout out- to a non-Bay Area person who took a huge risk by producing my not-quite finished, totally bizarre vampire melodrama, Gone Dark, in a sinking 19th century church in Chicago this past Halloween: Otherworld Theatre Company’s artistic director Tiffany Keane. She’s not local, so I can’t give her a Stuey, but I wish she was local so I could- and believe me, you also wish she was local. A gifted visionary, I was lucky enough to see my show rendered in a world so real you could sink your teeth into it… but my favorite moment will remain her innovative staging of a direct address monologue written entirely in French. Designed to scare off all but the most intrepid directors, Tiffany indulged me and made it work and watching her (and the remarkable actress in the role, Mary-Kate Arnold) spin that moment into gold, was the most breath-taking moment of a most breath-taking year.

All the best, everyone. And thank you.

Note: In an effort to get this posted before the end of the year, it was decided to post the draft version. Spelling, grammar, and minor aspects of content thus may be edited over the course of the next few days.

Theater Around The Bay: The Great Blog Recap of 2015 Part III

Our final round of recaps from our core blogging team brings you top five lists from Alandra Hileman, Allison Page, and Marissa Skudlarek. Enjoy! And join us for our last blog of the year with The Stueys tomorrow.

Five Underwhelming Behind-the-Scenes Job that Deserve Awards for Surviving 2015 by Alandra Hileman

As someone who regularly gets paid to be as invisible as possible in theatre, I wanted to shine a little light on a few of the unsung heroes of 2015 theatre, both local and global.

1) The Ushers
Look, being an usher is such a massively underrated job that, below a certain operating budget, most places either use community volunteers or ask technicians/theatre staff to double-up on their other duties to do it. And true, usually it’s an incredibly boring task of helping patrons remember the alphabet. But sometimes you get weird situations like the infamous incident at Broadway’s Hand to God in July where a patron climbed on stage to attempt to charge a cell phone in the fake scenic outlet. And that is when the ushers, like true theatre-ninjas, swoop in en masse to preserve the sanctity of the show. Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean. I salute you, ushers!

2) The Prompters
I think very few of my fellow stage managers will disagree when I say being on book for actors in that weird nebulous time between “first day with no script in hand” and “opening night” is one of the worst parts of the job. Line notes are tediously painful. But, it’s a necessary part of the process…or at least it was until this year, when apparently everyone just gave up trying and just wore earpieces so they could be prompted when they went up. Guys, what happened? I get that this happens sometimes in previews; I’ve been on book during previews of local shows, but the entire run, folks? Well, regardless on me feelings about the overall practice, my hat is off to the invisible voices on the other end of the earpiece who are, apparently, just as responsible for keeping the show going as the big-name star who graces the marquee.

3) The Managers
Has Rob Ready slept this year? When was the last time Natalie Ashodian saw her house? How long has Stuart Bousel been working his way through Great Expectations? There are hundreds more folks in the SF Bay Area, and all over the country, who I could shout out for taking on the very unsexy titles of administrator, coordinator, production manager, program director, and other boring-sounding things that have to do with Excel spreadsheets and web design and mountains of paperwork, and all so that beautiful, fascinating, innovative art can blossom in spite of everything working against theatre right now, and in so doing have paved the way for the upward swing

4) The Techblr Community
Did you know that there’s a huge community of stage managers, designers, and technicians on Tumblr? While it’s not a “job” per se, one of the things that is the most amazing about the folks who use this tag is how willing they are to dive in and help each other out. Possibly the coolest coming together of the tech theater community I’ve ever seen have been instances where a frantic high school student makes a post begging for help with how to rig a prop, or run a certain kind of light board, and dozens of professional theatre worked have joined forces to offer help and advice.

5) The Bloggers
My 5th award was always going to be to “the guy who films so many of the #Ham4Ham shows,” because those tiny snippets of silliness are full of joy and talent and delight, and the fact that somebody is filming them and putting them on YouTube fills my West Coast grounded heart with warm fuzzies. But then, as I was scrolling mindlessly through Twitter, I happened to discover that one of the primary sources of these delightful Broadway nuggets is actually none other than Howard Sherman, currently director of the new Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama, Senior Strategy Director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts in New York, and one of the most influential theatre advocates in the country, who is very well known for his blog. And I realized that the theatre bloggers of the world do deserve a shout-out, because most of us will never be as famous as Mr. Sherman, but we do it anyway, just so we can share out thoughts, insights, advice, opinions and love of this crazy world of the stage. Sometimes only one person may read a post…but sometimes our post is the only review a show gets, or serves as a reminder to that one read why they love theatre. And I think that’s pretty cool.

5 Things I Can See From My Couch That Remind Me Of This Year In Theater by Allison Page

It’s the end of the year, and most theaters wrapped something up around Christmas, and will start something new up in January. It’s a time to sit on your couch and think about the past year. And if you’re me, and who says you aren’t, you might be parked in your apartment, looking around at the things you haven’t taken care of. In honor of the theatrical downtime at the end of 2015, here are 5 things I can see from my couch that remind me of my year in theater:

1) A BOTTLE OF SRIRACHA MY BOYFRIEND LEFT ON THE COFFEE TABLE
Sriracha is a hot sauce many people are pretty dedicated to. It goes well on/with a number of things: tacos, pad thai, soup, dips, sandwiches, or if you’re my boyfriend, just slathered on some bread. What does this errant bottle of Sriracha remind me of? Easy. Megan Cohen’s THE HORSE’S ASS & FRIENDS, which I saw just a couple of weeks ago. Actually, it might even remind me of Megan’s work in general: always a good idea, no matter the vehicle.

2) A DIRTY PLATE WHICH USED TO INCLUDE FRENCH TOAST
2015 was, by far, the craziest, busiest year of my theatrical life. I counted myself as a produced playwright for the first time, in March. By the end of the year, I was involved in some way or another with 19 different productions, as producer, director, actor, writer, artistic director, or some combination of those titles. So there have literally been a lot of dirty plates in my apartment, because I didn’t have time to clean them. Worth it.

3) THREE BOTTLES OF CONTACT SOLUTION ON MY TV STAND
I’ve seen a lot of stuff this year. A LOT of stuff. Having been an adjudicator for the TBA awards allowed/forced me to see stuff I would never have seen otherwise. I went to a kids’ show. I went to some theatres for the first time EVER. I saw comedies, dramas, shows with expensive sets, shows without any sets, period pieces, modern tales, and it was an eye opening experience because it reminded me of the variety the Bay Area actually has. I think we forget that sometimes. It was a good reminder.

4) A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS TREE
Simple. Humble. Has a button you can push to play Charlie Brown Christmas music. Not big and showy. Not overcomplicated. Flashy though, in its way. Gloriously brilliant when the timing is just right. Gets to the point: HERE IS A SMALL TREE. YOU WILL LOVE THIS SMALL TREE. It does what it does and it does it well. That’s how I feel about the parts of the theater community that sometimes aren’t considered theater, ya know, by idiots. The Bay Area has a steadily growing community of improv and sketch performers and companies. We (yeah, I’m saying we) perform in traditional and non-traditional spaces alike. Great, big, beautiful theaters and teeny tiny stages meant for one person with a guitar. From Endgames to The Mess to BATS to Killing My Lobster (had to) to every small group of people who took one class together and then created their own thing in a basement, there has been significant growth in the last several years, and with the opening of PianoFight, there are more stages to occupy than ever. Here’s to the scrappy people with stick-on mustaches and open hearts, sometimes performing well after everyone’s gone to bed. Keep pushing that button.

5) A STACK OF BIOGRAPHIES ABOUT FAMOUS WOMEN
Ingrid Bergman. Lillian Hellman. Sophie Tucker. Gloria Swanson. Pola Negri. Carole Lombard. Elizabeth Taylor. (Okay, yes, I have a lot of old timey lady biographies) There were a lot of bright moments for women in theater this year. An obvious one is the outcry of theater artists everywhere that we just need MORE WOMEN IN THEATER. It can be hard, sometimes, to not just focus on that problem, instead of taking a minute for game to recognize game and point out people, places, companies, organizations that are doin’ it right. Here are some moments from 2015 that had me pumpin’ my fists in joy for women in theater, some of them shamelessly to do with my own stuff, some more broad: Mina Morita became Artistic Director of Crowded Fire, I saw Phillipa Soo in Hamilton and cried REAL HARD, Marissa Skudlarek produced SF Theater Pub’s Pint Sized Plays to PACKED, PACKED, PACKED houses, all the women in SF Playhouse’s Stage Kiss killed it: Carrie Paff, Millie DeBenedet, Taylor Jones (it’s still playing, you can see it!) Lauren Yee’s Hookman at Z Space, Heather Orth’s portrayal of Little Edie in Custom Made’s Grey Gardens: The Musical, Jessica Roux was the best stage manager in the entire world for multiple Killing My Lobster shows, Geneva Carr and Sarah Stiles being absolutely fearless in Hand to God on Broadway, Kaeli Quick became Artistic Director of Endgames Improv, Linda Huang once again stage managed the SF Olympians Festival at the EXIT dealing with just a HUGE quanitity of people and needs, Beth Cockrell’s beautiful lighting of gross things for Hilarity, Shanice Williams in The Wiz Live…I could go on and on but I’ll go way over the character limit.

Top 5 Surprising Performances of 2015 by Marissa Skudlarek
2015 marked my return to the stage after a long absence, in a role that I never expected to play (dizzy blonde secretary), so I’ve been thinking a lot about typecasting versus, shall we say, counter-intuitive casting. Moreover, I’m not always comfortable opining on what’s the absolute “best” acting I saw in a given year, but I do like writing about performances I admire. So here are five skillful performances that each involved something a bit out-of-the-ordinary. They are in chronological order according to when I saw each play.

1) Madeline H.D. Brown as the Stage Manager in Our Town at Shotgun Players

It was a bit of a surprise to hear that Shotgun Players had cast a woman in her 30s as a character that’s typically played by a middle-aged or elderly man, but it’s not at all surprising that Madeline triumphed in the role. She is deeply attuned to the spiritual cycles and undercurrents that run beneath our daily existence (check out her new tarot-reading business, You Are Magick) and she brought this intuition to her role of Our Town‘s narrator and guide. This was the Stage Manager not as folksy patriarch, but as androgynous angel of death: infinitely full of wisdom, with an unearthly tenderness that tempered the harsh truths she revealed to Emily, and to us.

2) Adam Magill as Con in Stupid Fucking Bird at San Francisco Playhouse

I’d hung out with Adam several times at Theater Pub and other events before I ever saw him onstage, which is always a little weird: what would I do if I liked him as a person but didn’t like his acting? Fortunately, I liked him a lot in the role of Con, the Constantine analogue in this postmodern riff on The Seagull. And in the surprising moment where Con breaks the fourth wall and asks the audience what he can do to get Nina to love him again, Adam employed his natural charisma and humor to make friends with the whole audience. The night I saw it, some wiseacre in the balcony shouted “Why don’t you kill a bird and lay it at her feet?” Without missing a beat, Adam retorted, “You know, some people here haven’t seen The Seagull, and you had to go and ruin it for them.” I was amazed at Adam’s ability to think on his feet, creating a moment that can only exist in live performance.

3) Heather Orth as Big Edie and Little Edie in Grey Gardens at Custom Made Theatre Co.

Heather Orth has made a career of playing musical-theater leading ladies who are several decades older than she actually is. The complex and emotionally demanding role of Big Edie/Little Edie in Grey Gardens is written for a woman of about fifty: in Act One, she plays a demanding socialite mother whose world is shattered; in Act Two, an eccentric daughter still dealing with the fallout from that shatter. Both women are indomitable yet fragile; they must register as separate individuals and also as mirror images. I was a bit surprised that someone as young as Heather would be cast in this role (and the fifty-year-old musical-theater actresses of the Bay Area must be gnashing their teeth that the role went to her) but as she hit every note with her clarion voice, paraded around in Brooke Jennings’ increasingly outlandish costumes, and embodied the two halves of this toxic mother–daughter dyad that has entered into American mythology, her calendar age became totally irrelevant.

4) Thomas Gorrebeeck as Posthumus and Cloten in Cymbeline at Marin Shakespeare

I was intrigued by Marin Shakespeare’s decision to stage the rarely-seen Cymbeline and further intrigued by their choice to have Thomas Gorrebeeck double as noble hero Posthumus and his silly rival Cloten. It didn’t seem to be for economic reasons – they had a big cast with plenty of extras. Instead, the doubling highlights how these characters are foils to one another – and also provides an opportunity for an acting tour de force. (Later, I learned that this is a rather common practice when staging Cymbeline: this year’s Central Park production had Hamish Linklater double as Posthumus and Cloten, and Tom Hiddleston won an Olivier for playing this dual role in London in 2007.) As Posthumus, Gorrebeeck was sincere and anguished; he also made the smart choice to play Posthumus as extremely drunk when he agrees to a wager on his wife’s fidelity — perhaps the only way that a modern audience will accept that plot point. As Cloten, he was a sublimely ridiculous, strutting, preening fool in a silly blond wig. It’s a cliché to praise an actor in a dual role by saying “the audience didn’t realize it was the same guy.” But in this case it would also be true.

As an aside, if any young men out there are interested in playing one of these roles in 2016, I hear Theater of Others is quite desperate for a Posthumus for their upcoming Cymbeline production. Write to sffct@yahoo.com for more info.

5) Siobhan Doherty as Florinda in The Rover at Shotgun Players

Florinda is a tricky role because, especially for modern audiences, she can come across as too nicey-nice and boring when compared with the other female leads of The Rover. Hellena is bold, witty, and sexually forward; Angellica Bianca is an elegant and passionate courtesan; but Florinda is a virginal young lady who wants to marry her true love. With a generic ingénue in the role of Florinda, she’d be a forgettable or even an annoying character, but Siobhan is a quirky ingénue. She played Florinda without overdoing the sweetness and sighs, concentrating on the truth of her situation and the actions she takes to get the man she loves. She was brave and spunky and a heroine in her own right.

Alandra Hileman, Allison Page, and Marissa Skudlarek are San Francisco Theater Pub bloggers who each wear many many other hats and look good in all of them.

The Real World – Theater Edition: An Interview With Stuart Bousel

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews the guy who writes all these bylines… amongst other stuff.

When I was thinking of people to interview for the last installment of this column in 2015, I immediately thought of Stuart Bousel, who is a writer, director, producer and leader of the Bay Area theater community. I’ve always been interested in what Stuart has to say about the future and where he sees the tide turning. I had to convince him that what he had to say would be interesting to others as well, but rest assured, he does not disappoint. What follows is an interview where Stuart shares his thoughts on where we’re at and where we could go. I find it inspiring as we look to 2016 and all of the projects on the horizon, the seeds that we planted that have now germinated, perhaps collectively we can move forward into a collaborative, thriving scene with lots of wonderfully imaginative new feats.

Stuart Bousel, winning the 2014 Outstanding World Premiere Award from TBA.

Stuart Bousel, winning the 2014 Outstanding World Premiere Award from TBA.

Barbara: What do you think the defining aspect of this year in Bay Area theater was and how it differed from years past?

Stuart: Okay, this is about to sound a little mystical and hokey, but I think we’ve been going through a sort of five year period of difficult but rewarding growth. Or maybe that’s just me projecting my personal life onto the theater scene, which I do all the time because I have a hard time drawing boundaries between my art and pretty much everything else on the planet.

Anyway, I think 2014 was a lot about new beginnings, things ending but also things starting and new relationships forming, and this year has been a lot about the difficulties of new beginnings once they are no longer “new”. Especially the realization that you often have to confront the past or various present issues AGAIN before you can really move on and really, truly emerge into some new and better place. So it’s been a difficult year, but a rewarding one, and I really think next year is going to be all about reaping the rewards because we’re finally gonna have shaken off the pretty intense crap we were carrying around but kept telling ourselves we were too busy to deal with (especially back in 2012, which I will always call “the Year of Treading Water”).

This year, finally knowing where we want to be, I think we finally started actually dealing with our crap and it was a bloodbath. But we’re emerging survivors and not just people who run away from our issues or hide behind constant rehearsal. We’re throwing away our crutches but we’re also throwing away our polite opera fans, as I like to call them, and I feel like I’m seeing more real conversations between people out there. There’s a lot of people starting to create new bridges to cross and ladders to climb, and that’s been born in a great deal of sweat, blood, and tears, but I think that’s going to create a period of immense freedom, creativity, and benevolence within the Bay Area theater community FOR the Bay Area Theater community. I think we’re getting better at wanting to see all of us succeed.

Barbara: Were there new or emerging developments in theater production, writing, directing, acting, etc. that struck you as interesting? How so?

Stuart: The biggest development for the theater community of the Bay Area, regardless of what your title is, has been the opening of the PianoFight space, hands down. Opening a two stage space with a cabaret bar and rehearsal studios attached is really such a huge thing to begin with but we’re only now, a year later, really seeing the impact.

One aspect is that the amount of theatre being done in San Francisco seems to have doubled. I’m not sure if statistically that’s true, but it seems like everyone I know is constantly in a show, going back and forth between the EXIT and PianoFight, both of which make creating small theater so much easier. The fact that both venues, with multiple stages, have been booked out for the whole year and well into next year demonstrates that not only is there a lot of activity going on in the small theater world, but it’s supported both by the artist community and the audiences. The demand is very high for new work, small productions with cheaper tickets, locally grown productions, and productions which are more than a theater experience, but also a night out, a place to discuss the work and engage with the community, and to watch both communities engage.

On the other hand, the greater impact might be as simple as we finally have a bar where everybody knows our names and now you know where to go if you need inspiration, or a sympathetic ear, or to just relax with people who get what you do. The only other place that’s ever felt that way, to me, is the hallways of the EXIT and the Green Room during the Fringe, but in the case of the former you have to be in or seeing a show at the EXIT to be part of that community, and in the case of the later it’s only for three weeks of the year. With PianoFight, even when you’re not in a show, the bar space is an open stomping ground where stimulating things are constantly happening and the people you want to work with are always hanging out or passing through. In the past when people have asked me to show them the local scene I’ve taken them to a show at the EXIT because it generally doesn’t get more San Francisco Real Theater than that. Afterwards, I now take them to the PianoFight bar because it provides the thing the Bay Area theater scene has always lacked in spades outside of specific events: common ground and social context.

Barbara: Reflecting back on trends that pop up in theater – anything that you saw a lot of? What are your thoughts on it?

Stuart: Without meaning disrespect to anyone or their work, I have to be honest… we seem to be coming to the end of the devised theater trend and I’m really happy to see it go. Not as happy as I was to see the puppets trend die (remember when like… everybody’s play had to have puppets?), or the requisite full frontal male nudity trend, but as a playwright I was really getting tired of being vaguely belittled by people who didn’t identify as playwrights and had never really studied the form, but felt that they and their troupe could more or less do what I do, and that I should basically consider myself a scribe whose artistic ambitions should be satisfied by typing up their notes.

I’m not saying you can’t make good devised theater because you can- A CHORUS LINE is devised theatre and it’s amazing- there is a ton of devised work out there that is fantastic- but for the last five years or so people have been acting like it’s the only theater worthy of doing. There’s a narrow perspective that it’s the last truly innovative form and people who fall into that mentality are often writing themselves a blank check for whatever they throw on stage on the premise that it’s innovative, while also upholding it as this sort of edgy revolution against the tyranny of the text (read: playwrights) and that’s just ridiculous. First because a playwright should be treated as a collaborator too, in any production devised or otherwise, and respecting a text doesn’t mean you have to be enslaved to it but finding that balance would require, you know, flexibility on all sides and many devised theatre makers seem to be ironically kind of stuck in their own process; second, the hoopla around the form feels ridiculous because a lot of devised work isn’t edgy or innovative, it’s just bad. Like truly bad. Not entertaining, relying heavily on experimental theatre cliches from three decades ago, taking itself far too seriously while also failing to be coherent. Granted, you could say that about a lot of text-based theatre too. There’s always a good version and a bad version of everything, but when a trend floods the marketplace, so to speak, it’s usually, and unfortunately, the hastily, poorly made crap cashing in on the trend that becomes pervasive.

I enjoy good devised work and I look forward to seeing more of it now that a whole bunch of people who shouldn’t be making it will have moved on to other stuff that they also probably shouldn’t be making and will probably make me feel oddly nostalgic for the devised theater trend. If I was to hazard a guess as to what that next trend will be… probably something like the Hunger Games. Just kidding, it’ll probably be something retro like masks.

Barbara: What do you wish we’d talk about more in the theater scene and why?

Stuart: Oh, where to begin. But I’ll just pick one: I wish we’d talk more about our failures.

I feel like so many people I know, good people, smart people, are struggling- especially producers and directors, who struggle with how to be good artists but also how to be good leaders- and the struggle is really real but we don’t talk about it.

Sure, we talk about how hard it can be to find affordable space, or to get cast, or to balance our art schedules with our day jobs, but I feel like all those things, while important, are also very much the superficial struggles of what do and we never talk about the deep dark things that trouble us like the shows that are born dead on arrival, or the real impact of artistic compromise, particularly over time in a career, or the value of what we do at all beyond keeping us off the streets. Though sometimes, I can be found on the streets, driven there by what I do- and I wish we talked about that too.

For an art form that is obsessed with truth (stupidly so, I think, because the truth is usually dull and almost never the truth anyway) it’s outstanding how much we, as artists, lie to one another, and for the same reasons pretty much everyone else lies: because we don’t want to deal with most stuff so we lie to make it easier. And sometimes it does make things easier, I don’t think lies in and of themselves are necessarily bad (and in our art itself I actually think people should lie as much as they can), but over time, cumulatively and constantly, it eventually creates a culture of superficiality that isn’t remotely supportive and is in fact quite alienating because suddenly you can’t be someone whose show is terrible, who doesn’t always say the right thing, or isn’t constantly excelling, and if you just happen to be someone going through that the expectation is that you are going to suck it up and go through it alone- EVEN THOUGH EVERYONE GOES THROUGH PERIODS LIKE THIS, especially if they have a career of substantial length.

I know that the fear regarding honesty is that people will suddenly just say whatever the fuck they like, whenever and wherever they can, and that suddenly we’ll know the truth about one another and how nobody really knows what they’re doing or why, and that a bunch of us really do hate one another’s work, and half of us have been lying to everybody about our actual qualifications or motivations to run theater companies and such, and there will be some of that, but in reality I think most people will remain polite and compassionate with one another and it’ll really be about finally asking for help, admitting our own shortcomings or limitations, and learning to be compassionate to ourselves once we realize that failure in this industry isn’t the anomaly- it’s the norm. Which means we’re all just normal people, and not the utterly delusional losers many of us secretly think we are.

Barbara: And what do you think we need to move past and why?

Stuart: We need to get over equating “success” in art with “financial success.” Like seriously- it’s so bourgeois and counter-visionary and I hate how many discussions and meetings and panels I find myself in where everyone is talking about what we do using the same matrix of success that WalMart does.

I am not saying money isn’t important or that artists shouldn’t be paid, and paid more/sufficiently. But too much, it seems, we let Money determine Art: from our seasons, to our collaborators, to the kinds of projects we pick or the extent to which we realize them. Money is a necessary evil, but it should never be our motivation or our conscience and it especially shouldn’t determine our value. The value of Art isn’t material even when the art itself is material- and it definitely shouldn’t be quantifiable and put on a spreadsheet so we can have a board meeting where we talk about who is ahead and who is lagging behind and decide if they’re a worthwhile person with a “real career” based on the percentage.

It kills my soul when I’ve heard “top performer” used the way a CFO would say it, by an Artistic Director or aspiring performer or whoever to talk about a popular actor, or trending writer, or designer, or whatever. And I bet it really murders the souls of all the non “top performer” artists listening in.

Barbara: Beyond discussion – what sort of action seems ripe for the scene to take now?

Stuart: I think now is the time for the Bay Area theater companies and artists (and it would be lovely if our Theater Support Organization would help with this) to make it clear to the regional theaters that they are not part of the community if they are not hiring the bulk of their artists locally. I’m not saying they should stop hiring from other places- we should always be open to and creating opportunities for guest artists- actors, directors, playwrights, whatever- because we have so much to learn from other artists working in other places- but we also need to start saying “and hey, you could learn from us too”, not to mention saying to our local artists, “what you do does indeed have merit and is good- even if you haven’t had it done in New York.”

Some prominent individuals aside, there is this general tendency to act like, and even occasionally vocalize, that there is “nobody good” in the Bay Area theater scene, the implied subtext being that anyone who might choose to stay and work here is doing so because they are not capable of making it anywhere else- usually LA or New York. The truth is, most the artists I know working here consider themselves on par with colonists attempting to form a new community with its own unique strengths and merits. And like colonists we are generally working in less than great conditions, impoverished for resources, and having to improvise, but we’re doing it because we believe in what we do and we’re trying to make a positive impact with our art on the world. Not because we like to be dirty, poor, and figuring out how to unclog the toilet before the audience shows up, and certainly not because we have no other options.

So having the fine ladies and gentlemen with Yale degrees and hoity-toity internships on their resumes give us the sneer because the pipes rattle in our theater we built by hand or because they have never heard of us since our work hasn’t been performed in the one city they think gets to determine artistic value, is neither endearing nor of value, it enriches none of us as individuals or our theater scene as a whole. There is so much local resentment towards the big houses but much of that resentment could be done away with, easily, if a lot of those Bay Area arts orgs who seem to be principally hiring anywhere BUT San Francisco and the Bay Area would make doing so their priority. I think the “the talent isn’t out there” lie would evaporate extremely quickly once the prejudice was overcome and if there WAS found to be some truth to it: well, what an excellent opportunity for our flagship companies to show their leadership skills and investment in the community by CULTIVATING the potential instead of just turning their nose up at whatever isn’t what they think they need to keep being whatever it is they they think they are.

What will save theater in the Bay Area is creating a culture of abundance and opportunities for those who are invested in creating a life here.

I look around and I see that happening in our small theater scene all the time, with people making stuff happen, as much as they can, on very little. But like most local artists I look at our flagship theater companies and I see… a crumbling fortress made of the same names and baggage that one often sees there, surrounded by a wall with a sign on it that makes it clear you’re welcome to buy tickets and that’s pretty much the only way you can ever expect to get in. Especially without that Yale degree.

And it’s frustrating because in addition to being shut out of the castle, you can also see- it’s falling apart. They are barely keeping it together. Which sucks- it used to be a really nice castle. And I get that they probably think we’re resentful punks who are part the problem. But you can’t expect the local peasants to tend a garden where only the imported ruling class gets to stroll.

Barbara: Overall, what’s your outlook for the future of the Bay Area theater?

Stuart: Honestly, I do think we’re at the beginning of a really good era. It’s been a ton of struggle the last few years because so many people I know have been building, burning, building again. But now these things have been built, the doors are open, plans are made and we’re finally smart enough to know we’ll need more than one plan.

I think it’s going to be a great time for small theater. The population of the city is young and while I know everybody likes to claim tech workers are not invested in local culture the truth is, they are, many of them are, but like most young people they want to see themselves and the things they care about in that culture- which is not an unreasonable request, nor does honoring that request mean a company can’t still do challenging or edifying work.

The small theater scene has been the best, I think, at rising to the new populace and inviting them in, creating work and spaces that appeal to them, while still also holding on to their old supporters and audiences. Small theater is so much about finding a good working paradigm and being flexible and this is a good time to be a pioneer and even better one to be a local trading post that stocks its larder with pioneers in mind. Recognizing and honoring both who your community is and who it will become is tricky, but we’re in a good place and time to do it or learn how to.

Barbara: Any words of wisdom for those who want to do what you do?

Stuart: Don’t compare yourself to other people. It really is the root of all problems. So don’t do it. And please tell me how you manage to not do it so I can learn how not to do it.

Only make art you want to make. Don’t ever do anything for the money or the exposure or because you’re bored or because you think this will be easier than getting “a real job”, or because other people think you should do it. Do it because you want to and you feel you can say something or learn something by doing it.

Also, stop “telling the truth” and stop “thinking small.” So much American theatre has gotten so small and weirdly obsessed with the truth (I blame social activists who think the arts are a tool of activism; real artists know it’s the other way around) and there should be more, big, grand theater. Even “small” theater can be huge- remember that. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of people to tell big stories, and small stories can be told in big ways. The point is, tell the stories, any way you want but with as much imagination as possible. And screw realism. Theatre is a medium of miracles.

Barbara: And plugs for shows, friends’ work, and just overall awesome things coming down the pike?

Stuart: Well, I’m seeing the KML Christmas show tonight, I hear it is delightful.

And I’m in the Theater Pub Christmas sing along on Monday- you should come, neither of my solos are in my range so it will be an amazing exercise in humbling myself before my peers but it’s also a lot of fun beyond that.

I’m really looking forward to seeing The Mousetrap at Shotgun later this month and everyone should keep their eye on Custom Made. They’re having an amazing season so far, and they have a lot of cool programing about to begin in the next year.

Also, I’m excited for the next season of Theater Pub. We have lots of new people coming in- writers, directors, actors. The goal really is to get Theater Pub back to what it was best at: being a people’s theater, a community theater for the theater community. We have a lot of cool stuff coming up that creates more opportunities for that and I can’t wait to see it come to fruition in the next year.

Stuart Bousel with the cast and crew of Grey Gardens- our own little community- including Jerry Torre- the real life "Marble Faun!"

Stuart Bousel with the cast and crew of Grey Gardens- our own little community- including Jerry Torre- the real life “Marble Faun!”

Working Title: Sex, Shotgun & Rovers

This week Will Leschber discussses Aphra Behn, sexual symbolism and Shotgun Players’ current production of The Rover. It’s time to transport it all to the Carnival!!

When I think of Aphra Behn I think of English Lit in college and my firecracker of a professor who always had a penchant for pointing out the sexual aspects of the various stories we were required to read. What made it funnier was that Professor Firecracker looked like she walked off the set of Golden Girls and into the classroom. Picture Blanche Devereaux teaching you about the underlying sexual nature of Keats.

Blance Meme

Like a beautiful misleading costume, she cloaked herself in the veneer of a sweet older lady, but never failed to make sure everyone student was titillated by the unsavory nature of William Blake’s “The Sick Rose” or Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us” or Lord Byron’s “When we two parted”. I’m not sure I ever wanted to read between the lines of a symbolic Sick Rose but I can’t unsee the crimson symbolism now. Thanks Blanche!! Along with these old white dudes of the Romantic Era, a pillar of female Restoration writing was plenty discussed as well. English lit! You gotta cover everything! In the end, Professor Blanche was right… linking Aphra Behn to using a lens of sexuality and gender politics isn’t that far off base, considering her work still invites a discussion of gender roles and stereotypes 300 odd years after it was initially written.

That’s all well and good and boring for us not enrolled in ENG 205, you say. I hear ya! But this is where it gets contemporary. Wait for it…

Shotgun Players, which is celebrating it’s all female playwright season, gets into the Halloween spirit through all manner of costume and mask, with Aphra Behn’s Restoration Era classic, The Rover. The play follows three women pushing on masked gender expectations in this comic romp that takes place in Naples during the Carnival masquerade. Boom, I told ya! The play is on and it’s just as funny as it was when it premiered back in 1677. What’s that now? You need some movie recommendations to wet your abridged attention span before going to check out The Rover? Alright…here goes.

Siobhan Marie Doherty as Florinda and Caitlyn Louchard as Hellena, photo by Pak Han

Siobhan Marie Doherty as Florinda and Caitlyn Louchard as Hellena, photo by Pak Han

I had the pleasure of speaking with Siobhan Marie Doherty (Bay Area actor, director, teacher, rapscallion, and voiceover artist) who plays Florinda in Shotgun Player’s The Rover. When asked for the perfect film pairing for their play, Siobhan had this to say…

“A fabulous movie to get primed for gigantic passions and the powerful spirit of Carnival would be Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) from 1959. It is a re-telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth set in Rio de Janeiro, that has many, many parallels to our play: the use of mask, the threat of death, desperate lovers, scorned lovers, seduction, transgression, etc. I haven’t seen it since high school, but it made a big impression on me. Between the stunning photography and the excellent soundtrack, the movie has been described by many as a sensual feast.”

“…the most sensuous use of color I have ever seen on film…it is not so much dressed in color as created out of color.”
~Paul Beckley, New York Herald Tribune

Black Orpheus won a slew of awards in it’s day, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign film. It’s a classic of world cinema and glorious to behold. If one excellent classic recommendation wasn’t enough, Siobhan threw in something a little bit more contemporary for our sampling as well. She continues…

“Another movie to activate your spirit of transgressive adventure would be Thelma and Louise. It parallels the play in that there are two sisterly women determined to better their lives in a dangerous world. While the men they know well, or encounter on the journey, may sometimes present temptation, they always present a very real threat to their spirits, finances, and/or their bodies. However, even in the face of great danger, the women continue to help each other, and they fight hard. Also, if you haven’t seen it, uh, you’re seriously missing out. If you have seen it, watch it again!”

thelma & Louise pic

There you have it folks; something old, something new, something sexual and something to do. If you aren’t into the scares this Halloween but still want to get into the carnival costumed spirit, check out The Rover at Shotgun Players; It runs now until November 15th. Black Orpheus can be found on Youtube. Watch at your own pleasure. And Thelma & Louise can be found at all video stores circa 1992. Enjoy!