Theater Around The Bay: INTO THE WOODS- A Prologue

Starting next week, Theater Pub will be running a three-part commentary panel doing a retrospective on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s INTO THE WOODS, featuring the thoughts of Bay Area theater makers Stuart Bousel, Brian Katz, Marissa Skudlarek, Oren Stevens, Corinne Proctor, and Nick Trengove, each of whom have their own special connection to the seminal Broadway musical. To whet your appetite, we’re running a review (taboo for us, we know, but this is special) of the new film version of the show, from New York based actor/dancer Tommy Stefanek (who, by the way, in 2000 originated the role of Hugo in the very first production of THE EXILED, back in Tucson). Tommy caught an advance screening of the film on Sunday, this is his response. Oh, and *#*SPOILERS*#*. 

Okay, here are my thoughts about Into The Woods and some comments about tonight because it is not often that after seeing an amazing movie I get to hear Rob Marshall, Meryl Streep, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick talk about the experience of making the film.

So, if you are a fan of the musical Into the Woods I am pretty sure that you will LOVE this movie. The film had me at the edge of my seat from beginning to end. And yes, there are some things that I didn’t like and some numbers that I missed, but overall I thought the movie was fantastic.

And as they brought up in the Q&A they were able to do many things in the film that you can’t do on stage. For example, how they filmed ‘Steps of the Palace’ was brilliant! All the special effects made you feel the magic so much more! I mean you really get to go into the woods.

Huge stands outs are the kids: Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and Little Red (Lilla Crawford). They knocked it out of the park. Meryl is even better than you are thinking she will be. And I loved Anna as Cinderella, Emily as the Baker’s Wife, Tracey as Jack’s Mom and Christine Baranski was fantastic as the stepmother. Oh, and the 2 Princes (Chris Pine, Billy Magnussen) singing “Agony” will be a laugh out loud moment for you. We were ‪#‎DYING‬. And yes, both Princes DELIVER. ‪#‎sweetbabyjesus‬

Now, Johnny Depp’s costume is the worst thing in the film. And maybe the second worst thing for me was the fact that I just wanted him to play the wolf but he was playing Johnny Depp as ‘The Wolf’ and I was just like ‪#‎overit‬. But again I am being very picky.

The Baker (James Corden) didn’t connect for me but he had awesome moments and somebody else might really like him so I will leave it at that. I just wanted him to play it more like Chip Zien, the original Baker, but that’s probably just me.

The thing that I mentioned to my partner after the film was that I just feel the original material is so perfect, every lyric, every verse – it is structured so perfectly. And when you trim (which you HAVE to do for film) you lose some of the depth. So, some of the moments near the end don’t have the impact that you need because you had to short change some of the earlier scenes.

And then some of the more “violent” moments were lessened or rather done off screen and I thought that was a poor choice. I think the dark tones of Act 2 really build when you see the Steward hit Jack’s Mom over the head which kills her. The stakes are raised immediately in that unexpectedly violent action and you need to see it. In the film they cheapen the whole moment so it isn’t as dark but I think you need the darkness…

But let me be clear I am being picky right now because the film is that good. We all remember what a piece of shit Les Mis was and this brings us right back to the Chicago days. If you’re a theater person (or not), this movie should be at the top of your list this holiday season and I think you will really love it.

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The Five: 5 Shows in the 2014/15 Season I can’t wait to see Pt: 1

Anthony R. Miller brings you part 1 of a 2 part series about some incredible shows coming in the 2014/15 season, this week he focuses on formal subscription based seasons:

In spirit of this month’s Theater Pub theme of preparing for the new theatre season, I decided to make a list of shows I was really excited to see. Not soon after beginning my research, I encountered a problem. I found myself with ten shows I was pretty excited about and half of them were part of a formal subscription based season and half were independent productions that were stand-alone events. So once again, I made this a two part series. Part 1 is five shows that are part of a formal subscription based season and in two weeks; Part 2 will cover independent standalone shows in 2014/15. To be clear, this list is written from the perspective of not a critic or prognosticator (Lord knows not as a journalist), but as a fan. Here are 5 shows in the formal 2014/15 that I’m really excited to see.

Slaughterhouse 5-Custom Made Theatre Co.
Sept 16-Oct 12, 2014

In 1996, playwright Eric Simonsen adapted and directed Kurt Vonnegut’s time jumping, dark comedy, absurdist war novel for the stage at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. This play is being performed in the Bay Area for the first time and is being directed by Custom Made’s Artistic Director Brian Katz. As a longtime fan of the book, I have often wondered how this could translate to the stage, and thanks to awesome folks at Custom Made, I shall wonder no longer.

Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life)-Ray of Light Theatre
October 3rd-November 1st, 2014

The last few years, Ray of Light Theatre has been making a name for itself as one of the few companies in the Bay that focus exclusively on musicals. After years of doing well known contemporary classics and some cult faves as well, Ray of Light made a gutsy move and scheduled two shows that were practically unknown. The first was Triassic Parq, the next is; Yeast Nation, a new Musical by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann of Urinetown fame. Now what makes this production super cool is that under the direction of Artistic Director Jason Hoover, the writers themselves have been here work shopping the piece. This is a fantastic opportunity for a local company that is still very much on its way up. And we get to see a brand spanking new show by the guys who wrote everyone’s favorite musical in college.

Our Town-Shotgun Players
December 4-January 11, 2014

Fact: The Ashby Stage is three blocks from my house; it’s ridiculous that I don’t see everything they do. That said, I will definitely be making the treacherous five minute walk from one end of the Ashby Bart to the other to see this show. I can’t entirely explain my fondness for Our Town, its schmaltz, but it’s really well written and often profound schmaltz. And in a time such as now when our lives are a Facebook status roulette of bad news, Our Town is a bastion of simplistic comfort. The Ashby stage is a great place for it and I’m excited to see what Shotgunny twists they put on it. (ie how many mandolins will be used) Consider me already in one of their church pews watching what Award winning Director Susannah Martin and co. does with this even-when-it’s-bad-it’s-still-pretty-good chestnut.

X’s and O’s (A Gridiron Love Story)-Berkeley Rep
January 16–March 1, 2015

For the minority of theatre folk who also love football, we’ve long lamented the lack of plays about Football, because it’d be ridiculous. Now Berkeley Rep brings us, the always lively topic of traumatic head injuries suffered by Football players. For reals though, these stories are heartbreaking. And it’s an amazing examination of the very-men portrayed as god-like gladiators on TV every Sunday. Based on real interviews with players and their families, I’m excited to see these tragic stories brought to light and given a voice. I will probably cry. Playwright K.J. Sanchez just had a huge hit Off-Broadway called ReEntry which focused on the stories of Marines returning from combat. Another completely rad thing about this production is it was commissioned and developed right here in the Bay as part of Berkeley Reps Ground Floor program, which is dedicated the creation and development of New Work.

A Little Night Music -ACT
May 20-June 14, 2015

It would seem we are at a Sondheim saturation point here in the Bay Area. Last year, Ray of Light gave us Into the Woods (following up last year’s production of Sweeney Todd), and this year, SF Playhouse followed up by producing… Into the Woods and for good measure next season they are producing Company. Throw in a big screen adaptation of Into the Woods that nobody has seen but everyone already hates, and you’d gotta be crazy to jump into the Sondheim mosh-pit that is Bay Area theatre, but that’s just what ACT (The Company We Love to Hate) has done. Now let’s make something clear, I love the shit out of this show. It’s the Pitchfork Magazine pick of the Sondheim catalog, not his most commercially successful, but arguably his biggest artistic triumph. It’s sophisticated, dripping with subtext (There’s a 17 minute trio of songs about sex for god’s sake) and easily my favorite of Sondheim’s work. The fact that it is written completely in Waltz beat makes it stand out not only amongst his work but amongst most popular musical theatre. It’s grand and majestic but with remarkably vulnerable characters. Not to mention, “The Quintet” that acts as a brilliant narrative device and actually sings the overture. (Authors Note: this went on for 17 more pages and included a story about how I explained the song “Send in the Clowns” to my Dad, but was omitted for brevity.) ACT has a golden opportunity to do a not-as-famous Sondheim piece and stand out amongst the glut of audience friendly Sondheim shows by knocking this out of the park, let’s see what they do with it.

See you in two weeks with my picks for Standalone/Independent production of the 2014/15 season!

Anthony R. Miller is Writer, Director, Producer and the guy who won’t stop calling you about renewing your theatre subscription. His show, TERROR-RAMA opens in October.

Theater Around The Bay: A Blank Page?

A word of inspiration- and invitation- from one of our founding artistic directors, Stuart Bousel.

Yes, it’s true, for the first time in quite a while, we have nothing to run today.

This is partly my fault. I was supposed to have something written for today, but I’ve been interviewing for jobs, helping a company producing a play I wrote find a replacement director, prepping for the production of The Crucible I will be directing this year, promoting the DIVAfest at the EXIT Theatre, and diving into the pre-production process of RAT GIRL. I really wanted to write something about a recent experience I had at a “young theater professionals” night at a major Bay Area Theatre Company, but I kind of burnt out the subject talking about it on Facebook and amongst my friends and now I don’t care anymore either. Additionally, having done something like fifteen job interviews in the last three weeks, I’m reaching a point where my own voice is somewhat irritating to me. To those who find me an objectionable vocal presence- I am, for this exact moment, not entirely unsympathetic to your perspective.

Between the fatigue that comes from juggling many things and the mid-process place I find myself with most of my projects, I’m just not feeling very inspired to write anything, let alone a blog entry about how artistic directors of companies who hold “young theater professional nights” should make it a point to be there and shake each of our hands and introduce themselves- not just rely on the rather irritating but widely held belief that all “young professionals” need is artisanal appetizers and booze- as much as I like both of those things- to qualify an event as “an event.” Please, please, please, Theater Company, I respect your attempt to get with the new culture of engagement that permeates the youth these days but take a cue from other industries and recognize that it only works when the leadership of an organization is on the front line of that engagement endeavor. A room full of people who make theater companies are not showing up to an event to help you play restaurant for a night- they’re there to network and get involved, and your event should find a way to facilitate that if it wants to truly fill a need and not just be a cheap way to package dinner onto a play (which, granted, I appreciated).

Anyway, regarding the lack of inspiration: I’m not worried about it. One of the best things about being 35 is that I no longer worry that my well will run dry, that I won’t ever get around to writing everything I want to write, that my glory days as a writer are done. This is because I know there is no such thing as glory days, or rather that glory days happen all the time, but they definitely come and go. Having a more mature understanding of my own art and ability allows me to create less fear around the “go” and place more emphasis on the “come” (how is that for an art as spooj double entendre? Another great thing about 35 is embracing being 14 at heart!). Having long accepted that I will die with projects unfinished, no matter how many I knock out between now and then, has also relieved that pressure and guilt I used to feel whenever I wasn’t actively pushing forward or marking things off the list of ideas and titles I’ve carried with me for decades. That list is just too long and it keeps growing, because the well will never run dry so long as life continues to be interesting, and I keep being interested in life.

“White. A blank page of canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities,” is the last line of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday In The Park With George, one of my favorite shows ever, and it brings tears to my eyes whenever I hear it on the recording or in performance, and it resonates very deeply inside of me. In Craig Zadan’s book about Sondheim, Sondheim & Co, the final chapter ends with a quote from the man himself, “Probably one of the most frightening things in the world is staring at a blank sheet of paper wondering how you’re going to fill it… but somehow you do.” He’s exactly right, and the reason why you’re able to do it is because there is no such thing as writer’s block- the lack of inspiration- there is just the fear of getting started. True, that can be a daunting hurdle, but the truth is, anyone who knows how to scribble or babble (and we all know how to do both) will stumble their way into coherency someday, and “give us more to see” (that’s a quote from Sunday too). The moment you understand that, and truly understand it, is the moment you are done with writers block forever. It’s also the moment you learn it’s okay to walk away from the blank page for a bit. Not because you’re afraid of it, but because it’s just not all that interesting today. Outside is beckoning, with all its delicious things and experiences to write about… later.

The reason we took this blog to a new level with regular columnists and an on-going series of guest writers was because there was a recognition of how diverse and unique the community here is. Few other major cities can boast such a wealth of micro-theater, indy artists and theater makers, while also having and admirable number of larger houses and a bona-fide regional theater presence. But the diversity of practices and productions in the Bay Area only makes us great if it is putting itself out there and declaring its presence, and creating platforms for that voice and those people has been SF Theater Pub’s goal from the beginning- first with the stage, and now with the page (including, but not limited to, the Allison Page).

In light of that, and looking at our March calendar with the idea of sparing you more meandering entries like these, I once again invite folks to send in proposals for articles, either one shot, or short series (1-4 articles), detailing their experiences in our theater scene, sharing their advice, or profiling elements, places, people, companies, or work that is interesting to them, teaching them something new, or they feel has been ignored or misunderstood by the larger community.

Please submit your proposals to theaterpub@atmostheatre.com. Not all are approved, but all are read and considered.

Give us more to see.

Theater Around The Bay: The Best of the Blog

2013 was a year of change on multiple fronts and our website was no exception. Though Marissa Skudlarek, as our first “official” blogger, began her semi-monthly contributions in 2012, the eight-writer line up that currently composes the blog’s core writing team wasn’t solidified until October of this year, when Claire Rice was brought on to replace Helen Laroche, who, along with Eli Diamond, stepped away as a regular contributor earlier this year. Eli and Helen, along with the current eight and our lengthy list of occasional contributors (most notably Annie Paladino), all get to share in the success of the blog, which steadily and dramatically increased its traffic over this past year. With 45,611 hits in 2013 (compared to 27,998 in 2012, 11,716 in 2011, and 8,435 in 2010), there can be no doubt that the San Francisco Theater Public (as we’ve taken to calling the blog amongst ourselves) is “kind of a thing.” With our current all time total just shy of 100,000 hits, we wanted to use the last blog entry of this year to celebrate the different voices that make our blog unique, while also paying homage to the vast and diverse world of online theater discussion. To everyone who makes our blog a success, including our dedicated readers and Julia Heitner, our Twitter-mistress who brings every installment to the Twitter-sphere, a gigantic thank you for making 2013 the best year so far! Here’s hoping that 2014 is even better!

STUART BOUSEL by William Leschber 

Whether it be Shakespeare, Ancient Greece, Celtic Myth, or the plight of the contemporary 30 something, Stuart Bousel always has something intelligent to say about it, and if you’ve read any of  his blogs over the past year you’ll know he has an ample array of in-depth thoughts about these things and so much more. I’m proud to have known Stuart for a number of years and the plentiful hours of intelligent conversation are invaluable to me, but my favorite 2013 blog entry of his is one that offers both a larger social insight and something very personal as well. The Year of the Snake blog isn’t afraid to be vulnerable, and offers the perfect mix of two brands of self awareness: the satisfaction that comes at being proud of one’s achievements, juxtaposed with the self doubt that comes whenever we embark on something new and challenging. These traits are heightened by a particularly uncertain year for myself and so many others who have had an odd go of it in 2013, the Year of the Snake, and maybe that is why this particular blog resonated so strongly. Although this year is possibly the most challenging some of us have had in recent memory, what Stuart articulates so well here is that sometimes we have to pass through the fire to come out stronger from the forge. The process of wriggling into new skin in due time…aye, there’s the rub: “…the truth is, the changes tend to kind of happen while you’re not looking, almost as a side result of trying to change.”

There's Stuart, emerging from his security blanket just like 2013 emerged from the crap year known as 2012.

There’s Stuart, emerging from his security blanket just like 2013 emerged from the crap year known as 2012.

In other favorites-of-the-year news, I present you the Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith. For those in constant transit and who have an easier time taking in a podcast over reading articles online, this is for you. Now my favorite podcast surrounding film would fall to Filmspotting where new and old films are discussed weekly with humor and insight. But if I had to choose the single best episode  I heard this year it would be Jeff Goldsmith’s interview with writer/director Ed Burns. In the words of the host, the Q&A podcast aims to “bring you in-depth insight into the creative process of storytelling”. He interviews screenwriters specifically (often writer/directors) about how they go about their personal process. Not only are the insights into the writer’s process wonderful to hear but the peeks into their role in the film industry are also fascinating. The Ed Burns episode ranges in topic from 90’s indie films, to his writing process, then on to making micro budget films, and his thought on how the industry is changing and what he’s doing to work in the grain of the dawn of steaming entertainment. It’s great. And here it is: http://www.theqandapodcast.com/2012/12/edward-burns-fitzgerald-familiy.html

ASHLEY COWAN by Claire Rice

Ashley Cowan’s posts often feel like sitting on the couch with your best friend and chatting late into the night with a mug of hot coco.  Every post  is heartfelt and full of a kind of determined enthusiasm that is infectious.  Her post abouttheatre traditions/ superstitions was very funny (if I had known that thing about peacock feathers I might have made different choices with my life.) And her post about her grandmother and goodbyes was touching and beautiful.  But my favorite post would have to be Why Being A Theatre Person with a Day Job is the Best…and the Worst.  She beautifully lays out the complex and heart breaking experience of knowing a “the show must go on” mentality is an imminently transferable job skill, but a skill hard to sell to non-theatre perspective employers.

I read Dear Sugar’s advice column for the first time on September 1, 2013, my thirty second birthday.  The piece I read was Write Like Motherfucker  It was surprising, honest and full of so many of the things I had been thinking and feeling.  It was and is full of all the things I needed to hear. “We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor.  I know it’s hard to write, darling.  But it’s harder not to.”

Ashley Cowan and Dear Sugar - You've just made two new best friends.  You're welcome.

Ashley Cowan and Dear Sugar – You’ve just made two new best friends. You’re welcome.

BARBARA JWANOUSKOS by Stuart Bousel 

Barbara Jwanouskos is the kind of theater person who figured out long ago what many of us take much longer to figure out: namely that one can balance theater with the rest of their life (she’s a pretty amazing martial artist in addition to being a playwright, blogger, grad student, and non-profit development expert), and that nothing happens if you sit and wait for it, you have to go after your dreams actively. Smart, generous, good-natured, Barbara’s writing reflects a serious mind and soul you might not immediately pick up on when you first meet her, though her bad-ass-ness is definitely apparent in her punk rock haircuts and straight forward conversation style. Her “calls it as see sees it” voice is still developing in her blog, but with “Young Beautiful Woman” she had a bit of a breakthrough, giving us a story both personally meaningful to her while also showing us where the issue of pigeon-holing women in theater and films begins: that most double-sided of backyards, the fine arts masters’ program. This blog had the greatest reader impact of all the contributions Barbara has made for us this year, and it’s the kind of thing I want to see more of from her. It’s with incredible eagerness I look forward to her 2014 contributions, knowing she plans to really hit our readers, black belt style, with more ideas like these.

Barbara Jwanouskos is so intense she needs to be photographed in Dutch Angles.

Barbara Jwanouskos is so intense she needs to be photographed in Dutch Angles.

Outside of our humble little blog, I have read a number of interesting theater related articles this year, but this one from HowlRound seems to have stayed with me the longest. Though when I first read this I kind of had a reaction of, “Well, duh, it’s just part of the process- stop whining!”, I also admire that what Morgan is saying is that a life in the arts is pretty always a heartbreaking business, even when you do finally find your niche, your project, your collaborators. And it’s heartbreaking not just because of the lack of opportunities, or the difficulty in making a living, or all the other things we also talk about, but just from the sheer fact that if you’re doing it right you’re ALWAYS putting your heart into it and the nature of the business rarely appreciates or honors that- while, of course, still expecting you to throw your whole heart into it every time! I, and most of the theater people I know, spend a lot of time talking about sustainability in the theater community, funding and payroll, audience demographics and marketability, etc. and sometimes I can’t help but wonder when theater started to quantify and qualify itself the way I expect Wal-Mart too. When did it become about numbers and money and conventional ideas of success as represented through big numbers, and not about coming together with people of vision and making cool stuff because the world really needs that? Morgan’s article is a bittersweet plea to remember we’re all artists here and artists are delicate creatures in many ways, even if it’s probably through their strength that, ultimately, the world will be saved.

WILLIAM LESCHBER by Marissa Skudlarek

It has been a pleasure to read Will Leschber’s “Working Title” column since it debuted in September 2013. Theater can sometimes feel like an insular, inward-looking art; it’s not  a part of the mainstream cultural conversation in the way that movies, music or TV are (though we Theater Pub bloggers are doing our best to change that!) Even worse, theater people sometimes take a perverse pride in their own insularity, looking down on movies and TV as lesser, more commercial art forms. So I love Will’s idea of writing a column that places theater in dialogue with film. He acknowledges the virtues of each art form without belittling either of them and, in so doing, seeks to bring theater into the larger cultural conversation. Nowhere is this more evident than in his piece “To Dance Defiant” about one-man dramas Underneath the Lintel and All is Lost. The play is language-based and the film is image-based, says Will, but both confront stark, essential truths: “What decisions in life remain the most important? How do we measure it all? What significant artifacts do we leave behind? Is anything we leave behind significant? Or is the struggle and the suffering and the joyous dance in spite of all the dark, the only significance we are afforded?” Will’s column is about the importance of the art we make, be it on stage or on film — and therefore, is about the importance of our humanity.

William Leschber, proving saucy minx comes in a wide variety of hats.

William Leschber, proving saucy minx comes in a wide variety of hats.

In one of my earliest Theater Pub columns, I wrote about how much I liked local critic Lily Janiak’s willingness to publicly critique her own criticism and question her own assumptions. So it was great news this year that Lily was selected as one of HowlRound’s inaugural NewCrit critics, bringing her work to a national audience and allowing her to write longer, more in-depth pieces. Even better, Lily has continued to question her assumptions and acknowledge her biases, approaching criticism in a spirit of open-minded inquiry. I particularly liked her piece “Our Own Best Judges: Young Female Characters Onstage” because, if I may admit my own biases, Lily and I are both extremely interested in the depiction of young women in plays. And then we ask ourselves: are we right to be so concerned, or does it mean that we are (wrongly) holding female characters to a higher standard than we hold male ones? “Critics are supposed to be objective, to approach a work with no agenda, but in this case, I have one. […] It’s impossible to separate one’s politics from one’s aesthetics (aesthetics are never pure!), but sometimes I worry that my politics have too much control over my critical criteria,” Lily writes. The whole piece is well worth reading for its thoughtfulness and honesty. That it happened to discuss three plays that I saw myself, got my friends’ names published on a national theater website, and spurred a response from Stuart Bousel on our own blog is just icing on the cake.

Lily Janiak: Because This Picture Is Just Too Good Not To Include

Lily Janiak: Because This Picture Is Just Too Good Not To Include

ALLISON PAGE by Dave Sikula

Let me tell you about Allison Page.

I met her this year when I played her father. I had no idea who she was. I had friended her on Facebook and, looking at her posts, thought we might get along. We had some similar interests, and despite her terrible taste in other things (I mean, seriously, “Ghost Dad,” “Daria,” and Kristen Wiig?), there was enough overlap that I thought we might become friends.

Then we met and she instantly drove me crazy.

I have every reason to hate her. There are things she does and writes about that just annoy the bejeezus out of me – BUT, that’s what I love about her. Her pieces for this here blog combine the miracle of being confessional and personal without being self-indulgent. Obviously, I don’t agree with everything she says (she accuses me of not liking anything, but oh, how wrong she is), but even when she irritates me, it’s in a way that makes me need to defend my own positions – and that’s what the best art does for me. If I had to pick one post of hers that really spoke to me, it was this one on how we need and create nemeses. I find you’ve got to have someone or something to fight against or do better than in order to do your own best work.

But don’t tell her I like anything of hers or she’ll just hold that over me.

Allison Page: because this photo never gets old.

Allison Page: because this photo never gets old.

Moving on to something online that I found of interest was this, Frank Rich’s latest profile of Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim is one of those people my feelings for whom, words like “reverence” are far too mild. I know that if I were ever somehow to get a chance to meet him, I’d fall over in a dead faint, or at the very least, be utterly tongue-tied to the point where I’d sound like an episode of “The Chris Farley Show:” “You know when you did ‘Sweeney Todd?’ That was great.” But any chance to read about what he’s really like is fascinating.

CLAIRE RICE by Barbara Jwanouskos

What I love most about reading Claire Rice’s Enemy List is how Claire seems to pick up on an uncanny wave-length of theater topics that happen to be populating my brain (and others), like why there were so many plays dealing with rape this year. The post I particularly enjoyed was her interview with Dave Lankford, Executive Director of The Shelter and author of the internet famous blog post, “Dear Actor”. Claire’s interview gave a clear insight into Lankford, his background as a theater artist (playwright, actor, director, etc.) and what prompted the writing of the post. More so, her interview demonstrated through Lankford’s response, what it is like today to be a theater artist where so many of us are also using the internet as a means of communication, discourse and criticism about theater in general. For whatever reason, “Dear Actor” seemed to resonate with many people in a way that was surprising, but Claire’s interview presented Lankford at a more more meta level, which was fascinating to consider.

Claire Rice: just who exactly is the enemy?

Claire Rice: just who exactly is the enemy?

I love tracking HowlRound essays by some of my favorite playwrights – especially when they write about things I’m actually dealing with… like teaching playwriting! “Teaching in the 21st Century” by Anne García-Romero and Alice Tuan was a blessing to me sent from the heavenly gods of playwriting. I constantly flip back to this essay when I need to recalibrate my goals as a new teacher. García-Romero and Tuan’s approach mirrors what they had learned from the great Maria Irene Fornes. I appreciate their innovative approaches to get writers of all kinds jazzed about writing plays and how they deviate from strict adhearance to teaching structure versus other traits that good plays have – like voice and liveness.

DAVE SIKULA by Ashley Cowan

I met Dave Sikula earlier this year while working on BOOK OF LIZ at Custom Made Theatre. A project that inspired a blog or two on Cowan Palace and also provided a chance to get to know the guy who is now behind the column, “It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review”. After kindly driving me home after numerous performances and being graced with many Broadway songs on his impressive car sound system, I soon got to know Dave as a incredibly smart, insightful, and experienced theatre enthusiast. I’ve come to enjoy his contributions to the Theater Pub blog for the same reason. One of my personal favorites to read was his last piece, The Ritual Business. Ten years ago when I studied in London, I had the chance to see TWELFTH NIGHT starring Mark Rylance at the Globe and it’s a performance that’s forever stuck by me. I loved reading about Dave’s time in New York and his vivid description as an attentive audience member. I felt like I was there again reliving a magical moment of the theatrical experience of my past while also connecting to his observations and reactions.

Dave Sikula: suggesting you eat this cheesecake instead of reviewing it.

Dave Sikula: suggesting you eat this cheesecake instead of reviewing it.

Aside from Dave’s contributions, it’s been an interesting year for the Internet, huh? I fell for every hoax imaginable and had my spirits crushed when I learned that no, there would not be a new season of Full House or an 8th Harry Potter book to look forward to in 2014. With all that going on, one article that weaseled under my skin came from The Onion, believe it or not, and was entitled: Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life. I found it to be a humorous and honest piece about how many of us (in this artistic community) tend to balance our time. But the thing I truly want to share with you guys is this video, because at the end of the day (or year) sometimes you just need to watch some cute animals do some cute stuff.

MARISSA SKUDLAREK by Allison Page

Marissa Skudlarek and I communicate differently, but we think about a lot of the same things. If I’m a grilled cheese sandwich, she’s duck confit. She has the ability to say things that I know I’m also feeling, but haven’t brought myself to express properly without the use of a lot of F-bombs and references to Murder, She Wrote. Generally speaking, I like to accentuate the positive rather than wallow in a pool of the negative, so when her article “You’re Doing It Wrong, You’re Doing It Wrong” (Technically the second half of a two part article. The first one is also worth reading, but the second really drove it home for me.) The internet, and the world, can be a dark and dismal place. Some days it feels like there’s nothing to be happy about; nothing that’s going right. In a world that seeks to find the worst in everything, Marissa seeks out the subtle nuances of her theatrical experiences, and of the world around her. It’s refreshing and thoughtful, and a big reason I love reading her posts. Not everyone is doing it right wrong. I like to think Marissa is striving to do it right; for women in general and for herself.

Marissa Skudlarek: you bet your sweet ass she'll make that dinosaur chair look classy.

Marissa Skudlarek: you bet your sweet ass she’ll make that dinosaur chair look classy.

Outside of the Theater Pub Blog, there are always a lot of conversations stirring up interest. Every writer, every playwright – hell, every person has a different way they like to work. This last year I’ve been focusing more on writing and I’m always trying to find new ways to keep myself excited about the writing process. That can be hard to do, seeing as you still need to sit down and fuckin’ write at some point. That part is unavoidable. Though this article is actually from the end of 2012, I didn’t read it until this year, so I’m counting it! It’s an interesting collection of the daily routines and writing habits of famous writers. Hemingway wrote standing up? Well, that’s weird.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Why I Won’t Be Seeing “Porgy and Bess”

Dave Sikula’s isn’t going going to see “Porgy and Bess”.

Over the past week or so, I’ve had a number of friends either post on Facebook – or actually mention in person (imagine!) – that they had seen or were going to see “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” at the Golden Gate. No one has asked me if I was going – and why should they? – but if they did, I’d give them a firm “No.”

On its face, this would be an odd answer to anyone who knows me. I love musicals, I love Gershwin’s music, and tickets seem plentiful (and how could they not be, given the barns the SHN shows play in?). But there’s not a chance in hell I’ll be anywhere near the theatre – unless it’s on my nightly walk to rehearsal in the heart of the Tenderloin.

You may ask “Why?,” and I’ll tell you. (Which will come as a surprise, I’m sure, given this piece’s title.) First of all, let me state my firm belief that “Porgy and Bess” is the greatest achievement of both the musical theatre and the creators of the show – half of whom seem to have mysteriously vanished. I consider “Porgy” to be one the three towering achievements in the musical theatre. (The others are Hammerstein and Kern’s “Show Boat” and Sondheim and Wheeler’s “Sweeney Todd.” Nothing else, in my opinion, comes close. Maybe Goldman and Sondheim’s “Follies,” but that’s it.) And I find “Oh Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?” to be the most powerful number in a brilliant score.

I was first exposed to the show in the late 70s, when the tour of the Houston Grand Opera production played the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. (Side note #1: For those who consider the Oakland Paramount the ne plus ultra of movie palace style and décor, the Pantages makes the Paramount look like a local cineplex that hasn’t been remodeled since the late 80s. But I digress …) Jack O’Brien’s production was the first to present the entire score (there were a number of cuts made in 1935 because of time and technical issues) and it was the first time that a director had been hired to bring new blood into the show. All previous productions had been replications the original, directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Mamoulian was a great, great director (I highly recommend a number of his films, especially the 1932 “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and the 1939 “The Mark of Zorro”) – but what worked for one cast in 1935 was not a one-size-fits-all solution. (Side note #2: Jack O’Brien himself goes into this issue in great detail in his new book “Jack Be Nimble,” which I also highly recommend.)

Anyway, O’Brien took the script and score and turned what many considered a tired and too-long warhorse and turned it into one of the most powerful and gripping evenings I’ve ever spent in a theatre. When the show ended, even sitting in the far reaches of the Pantages’s balcony, I was too spent to leave immediately. It was utterly overwhelming, and I had to sit a while to absorb what I’d just seen. Even now, listening to the cast recording of that production will give me chills.

So, if I love the show so much, why won’t I go? When discussing this production, the controversy raised over it (mainly by Stephen Sondheim) would seem to inevitably follow. For those of you who don’t remember or are too lazy to click, Sondheim preemptively dismissed the “revisals” of the show devised by its artistic team. This team sought, at the request of the Gershwin estate (the people who decided that DuBose Hayward should be excised from any billing, despite writing the play the opera is based on, as well as contributing the libretto and most of the lyrics – despite the billing, Ira Gershwin contributed the lyrics to only some of the songs) to make the show more palatable to the apparently delicate sensibilities of modern audiences by “strengthening” the characters, cutting down the cast, and cutting down George Gershwin’s own orchestrations.

Now, the wisdom of these changes can be debated. Personally, like Sondheim, I think they’re wrong-headed and unnecessary. (Especially if Suzan-Lori Parks, who may be America’s worst famous playwright, is responsible for them.) I’m not saying plays or opera libretti are sacred and inviolate when it comes to change. The books of old musicals are rewritten all the time, if only because, until 1943’s “Oklahoma!” most musical books (with a few exceptions) were flimsy excuses to string together lousy jokes in scenes that took up time until it was time to sing another number. What I am saying is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.”

Are some of the aspects of “Porgy and Bess” troubling to modern audiences? Certainly. But to try to edit them out denies the realities that went into the research and creation of the play and the opera. Yes, some of the dialects may seem troubling, but they’re authentic to the time and place. The characters themselves, with the exceptions of the villains – Crown and Sportin’ Life – are hard-working, honest, and, if not always admirable, at least understandable. To alter them simply because some in the audience may find them uncomfortable is to A) sacrifice thoughtfulness and controversy for comfort and B) ignore the stereotypes that are presented. (O’Brien’s book deals with this, as well. As a white director, his comfort level in dealing with an almost-exclusively African-American cast was low until he and the company started discussing the stereotypes and dialect in honest discourse. There was no thought of tempering the libretto. Overcoming it took thought and communication.)

One of my favorite quotes – and unfortunately, a web search doesn’t reveal its source – is “To euphemize the past excuses it.” That is to say, while we can pretend that racial, sexual, and other stereotypes didn’t exist in old movies, songs, books, and television shows, or feel superior to our ancestors because we’re more enlightened, to cover them up denies us the chance to wrestle with them and make us defend our own beliefs (and prejudices – we all have them; yours are just different from mine …). If everything we see is squeaky clean and lacking in controversy, how is that art? It’s comfort and reassurance; it’s not challenging. (Side note #3: This is one of the reasons I lament there are few prominent conservative writers for the theatre. I’d like to have my preconceptions challenged once in a while to sharpen my beliefs by having to defend them.)

Finally, it’s not just the blanderizing of “Porgy and Bess” that makes me want to avoid it. In the few clips, excerpts, and songs I’ve heard show me that the current creative team have taken what I think is the richest and most powerful score in the musical canon and turned it into a series of pop hits; a concert of badly-orchestrated and performed ditties. If I want to hear that, I can find plenty of dull and ill-conceived versions of the show’s best-known numbers. (Side note #4: Recommended pop versions of the score: those featuring Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Cleo Laine, and Miles Davis playing the orchestrations of Gil Evans.)

Ultimately, I place the blame for the whole farrago on the Gershwin estate. Sensing that one day the U.S. Congress may one day actually revise this country’s corporate-friendly copyright laws, they wanted to create a version of the show they can control for decades to come. It’s hard to think of any benefit these copyright laws have given American culture. Locking up plays, books, movies, songs, and characters benefits only corporate entities and does nothing to inspire new and creative works. (Ironically, the same companies that fight tooth and nail to have copyright extended indefinitely – most notably Disney – are the very ones that have most benefitted from creating new works based on concepts in the public domain.)

And that’s why I’m not going to see “Porgy and Bess.”

(Side note #5: I hadn’t intended to go on this long, and was actually going to touch on two other topics this week: artistic depictions of the creative process and the tacit contract an audience enters into by purchasing tickets, but I’ve taken up enough of your time and will, hopefully, deal with those next time.)

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: I’m In an Ill Humour

Dave Sikula is bitching about British Theatre.

The misspelling above is intentional and the smallest of protests against what I see as a creeping Anglophilia in the theatre and, well, in general.

My wife and I saw the broadcast of the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Merrily We Roll Along” tonight, and my dislike of the show and the production aside, it reminded me of something I wanted to discuss after seeing the broadcast of the National Theatre’s production of “Othello” last week; namely, why the hell are the only productions seen in this format direct from London? *

Now, to make things clear from the start, I have nothing against the RSC, the National Theatre, the Chocolate Factory, or any other production company or entity (Okay; there are some companies who have burned me often enough that I’ll steer clear of them, but in general, I wish everyone all the best). I mean, I’ve seen their productions in person on numerous occasions and have obviously paid good (American) money to see the broadcasts. Some of them (John Lithgow in “The Magistrate;” “All’s Well That Ends Well”) I’ve enjoyed immensely; some of them were just dull (Derek Jacobi in “Cyrano” and “Much Ado About Nothing”); and some of them were just puzzling (the recent “Othello”). That said, anything that brings theatre into the consciousness of the mass public is to be welcomed.

But why is it always the Brits? What is it about that accent that turns otherwise-sensible Americans weak at the knees? I was going to say “discerning Americans,” but that would mean leaving out New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who seemingly spends as much time in the West End as he does in Times Square. This self-congratulatory article deals with it. (London’s “theatre scene … is the best in the world”? Yeah, it doesn’t get much better than “Grease 2 in Concert” or “The Mousetrap.”) But now I’m just getting petty. My point is, though, other than London and Broadway, Mr. Brantley doesn’t seem to think any other theatre is worth his time; nothing in Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, or even San Francisco seems worthy of his notice.

I found the production of “Merrily” pretty dull (an opinion in which I seem to be in the minority), but that’s not the point. If the exact same production had been mounted at, say, the St. Louis Muny or the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, only Sondheim buffs would have heard of it, and it certainly wouldn’t have been shown in American cinemas.

Now, I realize a good portion of this lack of American product is due to commercial considerations. Producers on Broadway are trying to sell tickets and make a profit. Road producers (I’m lookin’ at you, SHN!) probably think it would cramp their ticket sales. (Though it seems to me like exposure would increase, rather than diminish, audiences’ interest in seeing live shows.)

I wouldn’t expect to see “The Book of Mormon” or “The Lion King” at my local movie house (although that didn’t seem to be a consideration when the National’s “One Man, Two Guvnors” or “War Horse” were screened in advance of their runs on Broadway. For that matter, the films of “Les Mis” and “Phantom” didn’t seem to daunt their popularity as live attractions). But that doesn’t explain why we don’t see productions from seeming “non-profits” as the Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club, Lincoln Center Theater, or Playwright’s Horizons. Hell, national exposure might actually help these companies’ revenue stream. And those are just companies in New York. That barely scratches the surface of what’s being done in the rest of the country.

As a reader of American Theatre, I’m exposed on a monthly basis to shows I’ll never see in person. I’m not saying that every production across America needs broadcasting, but surely Steppenwolf’s production of Nina Raines’s “Tribes” or the Guthrie’s “Uncle Vanya” or the Magic’s “Buried Child” (to name just three) are as worthy of a national audience as Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art” from the National. But somehow the imprimatur of “London” makes it a must-see for some.

And it’s not just broadcasts of plays. How many times, especially in recent years, have we had to suffer through the lousy “American” accents of British actors? (It was actually a shock for me to see Nicole Holofcener’s “Enough Said” and hear Toni Collette play with her own Australian accent, so used was I to hearing foreigners play characters who were American despite no real reasons in the script.) Sure, there are actors (Collette herself, Hugh Laurie. Alfred Molina) who can do superb dialects, but there are just as many (such as the cast of “Merrily”) whose attempts are cringe-worthy. But they’re British, so the assumption is that they’re better trained and better actors solely because of their nationality.

(I’ve also noticed the creeping use of British English subject/verb agreement. I always find myself making mental corrections when a singular entity, such as a corporation or company is said to do something with a “have,” as in “BART have announced the strike has been settled.” It’s “has,” dammit. Or when someone is said to be “in hospital” or there’s some kind of scandal in “sport.” It just sets my teeth on edge.)

Anyway, my point isn’t that we shouldn’t be exposed to British theatre; what they show us is usually worth seeing.” What I am saying is that I’d like to see American companies, as well; or even Russian, Brazilian, Malaysian, or French (the greatest thing I ever saw on stage was Théâtre du Soleil’s “Richard II.”) Why should audiences be deprived of great theatre just because it didn’t originate in the West End? In Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (the Berkeley Rep production of which I so raved about in this space last time), Vanya has a long rant about what he sees as the debasement of American popular culture (a rant I – and a good portion of the audience – agreed with, by the way). The rant includes this complaint: “The Ed Sullivan Show was before Bishop Sheen, and he had opera singers on, and performers from current Broadway shows. Richard Burton and Julie Andrews would sing songs from Camelot. It was wonderful. It helped theater be a part of the national consciousness, which it isn’t anymore.” As much as we all love the theatre – either as participant or spectator – unless we do something to restore that awareness among the public at large, we’re talking to ourselves – and a dwindling “ourselves” at that. I don’t know if the Americanization of televised theatre would change that awareness, but I’d sure like to see someone try it.

* Okay, there were the broadcast of the production of Sondheim and Furth’s “Company” that starred Neil Patrick Harris, and Christopher Plummer in “Barrymore” and “The Tempest,” but those were rarities.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: On Applause

Dave Sikula ponders Standing Ovations and other ways we tell the artists that we like their work.

Like many of you, I’ve seen “No Man’s Land” at Berkeley Rep. Unlike many of you, I’ll be seeing it again this week. My wife and I were originally scheduled to see it for her birthday, but family matters took her out of town early. She was able to catch it last week, though, and of course, once she’d seen it, I had to go.

I was struck by a few things about the performance. The first was, while it’s a fine, fine production of an enigmatic play, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “revelatory” as have some. Years ago, I was lucky enough to see Pinter himself (with Liv Ullmann, of all people) in a production of “Old Times.” That production was revelatory. After years of reading how Pinter should be played, it was fascinating to watch the man himself practice what he preached. It was a superb production – and would have been so even if he hadn’t been Harold Pinter. Pauses were just that; brief hiatuses just calling attention to themselves before moving on, rather than import-filled breaks in the dialogue. As with so much of Pinter, it was creepy and atmospheric, but in just the right amounts. (And let me hasten to add, so is the current offering. It’s just I’ve already been there …)

But the two things that interested me most were these:

As the curtain rose with both Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen on stage, there was no entrance applause. I don’t know if it was because the former was wearing a toupe and the latter was facing upstage (and by the time they were more or less recognizable, the show was well underway) or if the Berkeley audience has just achieved a gratifying level of sophistication. Regardless, I was glad to not be met with that most interruptive of rituals.

In my time (he said, sounding like his grandfather – who never talked like that anyway), I’ve been lucky enough to see a goodly number of important stage actors – Katharine Hepburn (even met her backstage), Christopher Plummer, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Rex Harrison, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, Jerry Orbach, Ben Kingsley, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robards, Alan Bates, Frank Langella, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline – but I can’t think of more than a handful of people I’d want to give entrance applause to. Why people do it at all puzzles me. Sure, they’re great artists, but you’re basically applauding them because you recognize them and they’ve shown up for work. Unless directors and writers have anticipated the situation, you’ve placed everyone on stage in the awkward position of stopping the show cold, holding, and waiting until things die down. (In a way, it strikes me as the same thing as people applauding a singer when they hear a hit song they recognize. I’m reminded of a story I heard about Tony Bennett rehearsing in an empty auditorium. He started singing the verse of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and it went like this: “The loveliness of Pari – thank you for remembering.” He knew that’s where the inexplicable applause would come.)

Now here’s where I make sure you realize I think all of these people are more than deserving of applause, accolades, and any laurels that come their way. It just strikes me as an odd ritual that, in America at least (I hear they don’t do it in London), people start clapping the second they see a big name on stage.

Similarly, at the end of the show, people leaped to their feet to give the show a standing ovation. (That is, most everyone; the older woman next to me could barely wait for the lights to come down before bounding from her seat and getting out of the theatre.) Now, I understand how, when people are profoundly moved, they want to give a standing O. I’ve done it on many occasions, but I’m more interested in the peer pressure of the act – not to mention the unintentional standing ovation. In the former case, as with “No Man’s Land,” while I felt it was an excellent production, I wasn’t moved by it. As much as I enjoyed it (which was significantly), I didn’t feel compelled to stand to show that enjoyment. A good portion of that, though, can be chalked up to my having a seat that was in an inconspicuous location. No one would see if I stood or sat. On my next viewing, though, I’ll be in the front row, visible to both the cast and the house as a whole, and will feel the need to stand, whether I feel the performance deserved it or not. I’ll admit it will neither be a strain nor a compromise to do so, but the impetus will come more from a desire to avoid “what’s wrong with him?” than a genuine expression of being deeply touched. Actually, last week, I was nearly forced into standing by the latter occurrence, the unintentional standing O; that is to say, when during the applause, poor sightlines force one to stand simply to see who’s on stage. I may not have even liked the show, but circumstances have made me stand just so I can find out what’s happening up there.

Stephen Sondheim (for whom I have given both entrance applause and a standing ovation) has speculated that it’s high ticket prices that have created the automatic standing O; that audiences have spent so much money on tickets, parking, babysitters, meals, souvenirs, etc., that standing at the end of the performance is a way to convince themselves that the expense was worth it. “I may have spent a lot, but look at what I got!” There may be something in that, but I’ve seen shows in venues ranging from community theatres to some of our better-known professional houses that got standers even when the results were neither particularly expensive nor good. Even when I’ve been on the receiving end of them, I’m grateful, but (more often than not) think “We were good, but we weren’t that good.” Conversely, I’ve seen shows that were deeply moving and/or entertaining that no one has risen for. (And on one occasion on Broadway – “The Pirates of Penzance” – I was the only one standing. One of the single-most entertaining evenings of my life, and I was determined to show it.)

Ultimately, I don’t know what my point in raising this is. Maybe it’s just an expression of my observation; maybe it’s just my contrary psychology. All I know is, come Saturday, I will rise to my feet at the end of the performance, but it may not be because I want to, but just because I ought to.

Dave Sikula has been acting and directing in Los Angeles and the Bay Area for more than 30 years. He’s worked with such companies as American Conservatory Theatre, South Coast Repertory, the Grove Shakespeare Festival, Dragon Productions, Palo Alto Players, and 42nd Street Moon. As a writer and dramaturg, he’s translated the plays of Anton Chekhov and had work produced by ANTA West.