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.

Falling With Style: Five Bay Area Shows I’m Excited About This Season

Helen Laroche is excited about what’s to come. 

As I become less and less inclined to audition these days, I’m happy to find that I’m still interested in the thing that got me to theater and storytelling in the first place — watching it. Because really, isn’t the best part of being an artist (nay, a person!) getting to share in a well-told story, whether you’re telling it or hearing it?

With that in mind, I decided to put together a list of shows I’m excited to see this upcoming season. For fairness’ sake, I didn’t put any shows that Theater Pub People(TM) are directly involved with (although you should know that they are the nonpareil of quality, and you should definitely check out The Age of Beauty which closes this Saturday at the EXIT; the SF Fringe Festival which runs the month of September 2013 at the EXIT; and the SF Olympians Festival, which goes up in November 2013 at … any wild guesses? The EXIT.)

So without further ado, here is the completely-personal, your-own-opinion-is-totally-valued-but-will-not-sway-me list of 5 Bay Area shows I’m looking forward to this season.

1. No Man’s Land at Berkeley Rep (Berkeley), by Harold Pinter; runs now through August 31, 2013.

Yeah, let’s get this one out of the way. I’m excited, and I think it will ruffle some small-theater feathers to put this first on the list, but here it is. Berkeley Rep’s marketing ploy worked perfectly on my household: I bought season tickets to Berkeley Rep just to get tickets to this show. My husband, the non-theatre guy of our household, is excited to see “Dr. Xavier and Magneto be in love.” I’m excited because I’ve never seen a Pinter play, and I’ve never seen these guys live. And it’s just been fun to watch the jolt this has given the whole theater community.

2. Road Show at The Rhino (San Francisco), by Stephen Sondheim; runs January 2 – 19, 2014 at the Eureka Theatre

When I saw the Rhino’s season announcement email, with the last names of all their playwrights, and saw “Sondheim” among them, I high tailed it to their website to learn more. What Sondheim piece would fit into their “queer theater” credo? Turns out it’s a piece I can almost guarantee you’ve never seen — his most recent show, Road Show (formerly Bounce), which was first produced in 2003 and re-mounted with major revisions in 2008. It involves two brothers, one brother’s (male) lover, and their luck as they mine for gold in the Wild West.

3. Silent Sky at TheatreWorks (Mountain View), by Lauren Gunderson; runs January 15—February 9, 2014

Lauren Gunderson has been so hot these past couple seasons, and I have to admit that I haven’t seen a show of hers mounted yet. But I have read one of her plays, and the story is such that I will be a fan of hers for life: I was setting up a Shakespearean parlor reading at my apartment, and when it was clear we weren’t going to have the minimum number of people necessary to read All’s Well That Ends Well, I remembered that Lauren had a series of Shakespeare-inspired plays. (The first, Exit, Pursued By a Bear, had a rolling premiere last season (two seasons ago?) that included a staging at Impact Theater.) I went to her website, saw her list of works, and emailed her to ask if my friends and I could read the fourth in the series, called We Are Denmark. AND SHE SAID YES AND SENT OVER A PDF THAT STILL SAID DRAFT ON IT. It was so freakin’ cool. (And the play was great, to boot.)

So, she’s got a groupie in me now, for a number of reasons. But yeah, We Are Denmark centers in some part around astronomy, which Silent Sky also does. So I expect greatness. Also, TheatreWorks proved themselves to be awesome at night sky stage dressings in their awesome production of Fly By Night. So that’s another point in this production’s favor.

4. Top Girls at Custom Made Theatre Company (San Francisco), by Caryl Churchill; runs March 18 – April 13, 2014

When I first saw the audition notice go out for Custom Made’s upcoming season, I did my homework and read through all their shows. (For someone who calls herself a “theatre person,” I have read a woefully small number of plays in my life. So whenever I hear of a new season, it usually involves a lot of reading.) Top Girls is the one that stood out to me in the season, for two reasons: (1) it not only passes the Bechdel test, it blows it to smithereens; and (2) the amount of overlapping talking in the play makes for very difficult reading, to say nothing of how it’ll be staged and presented. Have you ever read Glengarry Glen Ross? That’s sort of stilted speech, with constant interruption, yet with each character maintaining her own line of thought. I’m interested in seeing this show for intellectual reasons as much as anything else.

5. The Color Purple at Hillbarn Theatre (Foster City), adapted from the book by Alice Walker; runs May 9 – June 1, 2014

When I first saw this musical done professionally, I was so moved I saw it twice. Sure, it had its moments of being over the top (just like any musical should!), but Alice Walker’s story was all still there, and Celie’s transformation into a self-confident woman was mirrored so compellingly in the actress’ soaring gospel voice. (I’ve always been a sucker for gospel.)

Doing this show at the community theatre level is a gamble on many levels, and it’s the first non-Equity presentation I’m aware of, anywhere. And you gotta hand it to Hillbarn for taking the leap and producing this show — I hope it gets the talent turnout they need to cast a 40+ person, nearly all-minority show. (We all know the talent’s out there; it’s just a matter of getting people to Foster City. And hey, they did it with Ragtime last season, to great effect. So if anyone can do it, Hillbarn can.)

(Auditions are early 2014, guys!)

Bonus: Camelot at SF Playhouse (San Francisco), by Lerner and Lowe; runs now through September 21, 2013.

So I lied. Had to tack this one on, playing now through late September. Honestly, I’ve never been a big fan of this musical. No amount of Robert Goulet and Julie Andrews could save it.

But maybe Angel from RENT could.

That’s right. This production stars Wilson Jermaine Heredia, the Tony Award-winning actor who originated the role of Angel, as Sir Lancelot. HOW is it halfway through the run and I haven’t heard about this?? WHO is running the marketing over there??

Other actors in the cast include a hodge-podge of Bay Area actors, Equity and non-Equity, including Bay Area favorite Monique Hafen as Guenevere. 

So. Now you know which shows (some, guilty pleasures; others, intellectually stimulating) that I’m looking forward to this season. How about you? Are you going to come see these with me? Do you have others on your mental list that you want to share?

Leave it all in the comments!

Helen Laroche is a Bay Area theatre-type, currently doing her thing at www.sayshelen.com

Introducing The Writers of Pint Sized Plays IV! (Part Three)

We’re continuing our series of profiles of this year’s writers and this time we have two very old friends who have been contributing to Theater Pub for years: Megan Cohen and Sang S. Kim. Both prolific and highly respected local writers, Sang and Megan have been strong supporters of Theater Pub throughout the years and so we’re very excited to have them be a part of the festival this year. In some ways, they also have an unfair advantage on everyone else when it comes to this interview- namely because they’ve already done it before!

So how did you hear about Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival and what possessed you to send something in?

Sang S. Kim: I hear about Theater Pub all the time. Every social gathering, the two things that come up are Pint Size and Olympians. It’s the Equinox and Solstice of the Bay Area theater community. It’s like your life is measured in relationship to these events.

“How old’s your kid?”
“Two Pint Sizes and half an Olympian.”

What possessed me to submit? The spirit of Carol Channing. I know she’s still alive but that’s how awesome she is.

Megan Cohen: I’ve had a play in every Pint-Sized Festival so far– this is my fourth Pint-Sized Play. You’d think I’d be over the format by now, but I’m not! After writing a monologue (“BEEEEAAR!”) for last year’s festival, where it’s just one character hanging out at a table, I wanted to swing the pendulum way in the other direction and do a sweeping epic with a lot of action and movement, and see how far I could push that in the Pub setting. A situation only gets old if you stop trying new things.

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

Sang Kim: Who say’s its hard. It’s not hard. Have you ever ridden the BART between Oakland and Embarcadero around midnight? A lot can happen in 10 minutes or less.

Megan Cohen: Remembering that it’s a short play, not a small play. It doesn’t have to be about small ideas or small themes, and it doesn’t have to be simple or cute. You can give the audience a real experience, a complex experience; you can make those ten minutes important.

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

Megan Cohen:They’re easier to get produced. We’re all working with such limited resources in the arts, and it’s really a huge financial investment for a company to rehearse, produce, and promote a full evening-length play; one major failure can pretty much bankrupt a small theater company, and even if they survive, it can damage their reputation and credibility. Short play festivals are cheaper, faster, and more casual, and they usually draw an adventurous audience who don’t mind if they haven’t heard of the writer, the director, or the actors before, which means companies can take risks on new and emerging artists. It’s still really competitive to get a short script chosen for production, (there are so many playwrights in the world!), but it’s much less competitive than getting a long script accepted. So, the best thing about writing short plays is knowing that they’re easier to get produced, and there’s a better chance the play will get to an audience instead of sitting in a drawer.

Sang Kim: I like to get in late and leave early. This is not good advice outside short plays though.

Who do you think is a major influence on your work?

Sang Kim: David Ives. He really ought to sue me for how much he influences my writing.

This is Sang S. Kim, David. Remember His Face.

This is Sang S. Kim, David. Remember His Face.

Megan Cohen:Right now in general, I’m actively trying to steal as much as I can from David Lynch, Alan Ball, and JJ Abrams. I’ve read too much Shakespeare for that influence not to be present in everything I write; same goes for Tom Stoppard; same goes for Sondheim; couldn’t turn those formative influences off if I tried. This specific play, “The Last Beer In The World,” is an Arthurian grail quest written in rhyme. So, obviously, you’re gonna get some Monty Python in there!!! We’re talking about a whole tradition of quest stories behind this kind of format, though, which are like 100% absorbed by all of us through cultural osmosis, even if we’ve never read any Arthurian literature on purpose. Star Wars? Yeah. Harold and Kumar? Sure. Some book I read as a 12-year-old about flying cars? Probably.

If you could pick one celebrity to be cast in your show, who would it be and why?

Megan Cohen: I always say (you can check, it’s on my website at MeganCohen.com) that all the roles in all my plays are written for Madeline Kahn. I would love to see her as all three roles in “Last Beer!” If you mean a living celebrity… Michelle Obama. Imagine the publicity, plus you just know she’d be so nice to work with. Anyone who says they don’t want Michelle Obama in their play is lying.

Sang Kim: Daniel Day Lewis. He’s absolutely wrong for either a college kid or grandmother but I would just love to watch him prepare for the role.

What is a writing project you are currently working on?

Megan Cohen: I am prepping my solo adaptation of Homer’s “Odyssey,” and I hope you will come see the first sneak peek of it at the SF Olympians Festival on Nov 8th! I’m going to perform it myself, as a kind of bard from the very-near future, as though I’m speaking to you from tomorrow about one of the oldest stories humans have ever told! The Olympians showing will be an evening-length “highlight reel,” but I’m working towards eventually creating a 12-hour durational piece where I tell the entire story, beginning to end, over the course of a single waking day! It’s all in rhymed verse! It’s a very long-term project! I’m calling it “A Totally Epic Odyssey!” I’m very excited! You can tell how excited I am by all these exclamation marks!

Sang Kim: Finishing these 10 Questions. I’m really close to spending as much time on these questions as I did writing my Pint Size submission.

What’s next for you?

Megan Cohen: Yeah, you can get in on my NEXT thing at BetterThanTelevision.Com. I’m building a “transmedia” story experience where a GHOST haunts your SMARTPHONE for the month of October, leading up to Halloween. I’ve got a great cast, and I’m completely enthralled with this amazing new software platform called Conductrr, which we’re using to make it an interactive story, so that you can communicate with the characters by text and email and stuff like that. It’s a sort of spooky narrative about a Victorian-era magician’s assistant who haunts you until you help her restless spirit cross peacefully into the next world! It’s part game, part film, but it’s really a whole new kind of story experience; it’s social, and modern, lives in your pocket, and should have lots of surprises; hopefully it will actually be “Better Than Television!” Dot com. Better Than Television Dot Com. BetterThanTelevision.Com. BETTERTHANTELEVISION.COM. Ok, I’m done.

Megan Cohen: Better Than Everything

Megan Cohen: Better Than Everything

Sang Kim: I’m helping the people at Bay Area One Acts this year and I’ll probably contribute here and there but I’m actually thinking of taking a break for a while. I find I’m repeating myself and running out of things to write about. Seriously – I’ve been staring at the last two sentences for 10 minutes before I wrote this sentence.

So what upcoming shows or events are you most excited about in the Bay Area Theater Scene?

Megan Cohen: “The SF Olympians Festival: Trojan Requiem” (not just because my Odyssey is in it, I promise), and “Strangers, Babies” at Shotgun in Oct/Nov. I’m stoked for that, because “Any Given Day” by the same team (Dir Jon Tracy and Playwright Linda McLean) at the Magic was soooooo unique, it had this kind of delicacy that really wasn’t like anything else I’d ever seen.

Sang S. Kim: I just looked at my Facebook Event page so I’ll go ahead and plug the next two shows I’m seeing which are “Book of Liz” at Custom Made and “Age of Beauty” at Exit.

What’s your favorite beer?

Sang Kim: I’m actually drinking cider these days. I’ve been having the worse dreams when I drink beer. Like Lars Von Trier directed dreams.

Megan Cohen: If I’m buying, PBR. If you’re buying, two PBRs. If you are buying and have a good job, Russian River’s “Consecration.”

You may have heard it’s our last show at Cafe Royale. What do you look forward to for the future of Theater Pub?

Sang Kim: I’m looking forward to taking advantage of the move to bring even more new people. Also, I look forward to not having to worry about drinks falling on my head because someone forgot how gravity works.

Megan Cohen: Keeping the dream alive with “SATURDAY WRITE FEVER!” It’s a free monthly playmaking party at the Exit Theater Cafe, co-produced by Theater Pub and the Exit, and co-hosted by me and Pub founder Stuart Bousel. On the third Saturday of the month, everyone comes at 8:30pm to hang out and get a drink, then at 9pm, writers pull prompts from a hat and take a 30 minute “playwrighting sprint” to each write a new original monologue! At 9:30pm, brave actors read the monologues for the crowd. It’s fun, you should come, the writing is good, the acting is good, it’s friendly and lively, there are cheap beers or champagne cocktails, and absolutely everyone’s attractive and well-dressed. If you follow SF Theater Pub on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll hear about it when it’s happening. You should follow SF Theater Pub on face so you can know about SATURDAY WRITE FEVER, and about other such things, because I can tell from the fact that you’re still reading this article that you are definitely someone who likes to know about things.

Don’t miss Pint Sized Plays IV, playing five times this month: July 15, 16, 22, 29 and 30, always at 8 PM, only at the Cafe Royale! The show is free and no reservations are necessary, but we encourage you to get there early because we will be full!

Introducing The Writers Of Pint Sized Plays IV! (Part Two)

With Pint Sized plays just around the corner, we’re continuing our series of profiles of this year’s writers. This time we have one Theater Pub first-timer, Daniel Ng, one writer who has developed his piece with Theater Pub, Christian Simonsen, and a returning collaborator, Kirk Shimano, who authored last year’s world premiere production of Love In A Time Of Zombies, but makes his Pint Sized Plays debut this year. 

So how did you hear about Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival and what possessed you to send something in?

Kirk Shimano: I’ve been fortunate to work with Theater Pub in the past and have seen previous iterations of the Pint-Sized Play Festival, so it’s something that’s been on my radar for awhile. I happened upon an NPR story about a robot that vomits…for science! (his name is “Vomiting Larry”, in case you’re curious) and suddenly I had the perfect beer drinking robot play idea to submit.

Christian Simonsen: My short script “Last Man Sitting” was part of “Occupy Theater Pub!” back in 2012, and that was an awesome experience. So I always have wanted to work with this group again.

Daniel Ng: I was introduced to Theater Pub by friends Karen Offereins and Brian Markley and have enjoyed many Pint-Sized and other Theater Pub performances. Pint-Sized is the perfect venue for newcomers like me, so I’ve wanted to submit something for a while.

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

Kirk Shimano: It’s a challenge to get the audience up to speed and ready to start the story in as short a time as possible. If you’ve spent a page in exposition you’ve already wasted too much of your audience’s time.

Daniel Ng: I mainly write short fiction and memoir, so everything about playwriting is a new challenge. The hardest part is envisioning the physical interactions of the actors and then giving the director and actors enough information to make it work, while allowing them freedom to bring it to life in their own way.

Christian Simonsen: The tangible limitations. The script’s length, obviously, and most short play festivals also limit the number the actors, props, etc. You are forced to get to the point, both intellectually and dramatically, as quickly as possible. The monologue you write in the first draft will often be replaced by one well-chosen word or gesture. Sometimes I pass the medium’s limitations on to my characters: If my script can only be five minutes long, It helps to make it clear right away to my protagonist that the Sea Monster or Jealous Boyfriend is ON HIS WAY!

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

Christian Simonsen: The best thing is also the hardest thing… the limitations! They keep me focused, and force me to decide what my script is really, truly about. Also, modern audiences tend to respond well to short plays. Perhaps they reflect our fast-paced society; Drama-On-The-Run.

Daniel Ng: The short length forces you to get to the point and stick to it–there’s no room for fat or fluff.

Daniel Ng: More Matter, Less Art

Daniel Ng: More Matter, Less Art

Kirk Shimano: I think that you really just need one strong idea to sustain a short play. It makes for a very immediate writing experience, where I just need to find one exciting concept and then run with it.

Who do you think is a major influence on your work?

Daniel Ng: My major influences are from sci-fi and speculative fiction–J. G. Ballard and Borges for their abstract, metaphorical psychodrama. Also Samuel Delaney for combining poetic narration and earthy dialogue.

Kirk Shimano: I have a much thumbed through copy of David Ives’s “Time Flies and Other Short Plays” that taught me a lot about how imaginative you can be in a very short time. I always find myself thinking about Stephen Sondheim songs as well, because a lot of his best songs are as deep as any short play I could hope to write.

Christian Simonsen: Sadly, one of the writers who influenced me the most died recently: Richard Matheson. He was a crowd-pleaser, so academics ignored him. But his fiction exposed my own fears of mortality, alienation and loneliness far better than many so-called High Brow authors ever could.

If you could pick one celebrity to be cast in your show, who would it be and why? 

Daniel Ng: Simon Pegg, no question. He does nerdy, manic, and exasperated so well and he has perfect comedic timing.

Christian Simonsen: Amy Poehler; there’s a darkness underneath her comic energy that’s often unsettling. In a previous era, I would have gone with Madeline Kahn.

Christian Simonsen, carrying the torch for Mad.

Christian Simonsen, carrying the torch for Mad.

Kirk Shimano: This is going to be a bit of here-and-now bandwagon jumping, but I’m going to say Melissa McCarthy because she just makes anything she’s in ten times better to watch.

What is a writing project you are currently working on?

Kirk Shimano: For a few years, I’ve been working on a full length play that uses Japanese fairy tales as a way of exploring online dating, Japanese-American history, and a bunch of other topics that I’m not yet sure are connected, but that I think might work together. I’ve been letting it marinate for a few months and I’m eager to return to that world soon.

Christian Simonsen: I’m finishing up another short stage play, and I’m co-writing a multi-media project. Then I plan on writing my second feature length screenplay, which will be in my favorite genre, Horror.

Daniel Ng: A short story, but *stage whisper* it’s top secret. The idea is so original that I am worried someone from Hollywood might steal it from me. It’s about zombies. Okay, not so original there. But seriously, it’s a zombie story, but with a twist that I don’t think has been done before.

What’s next for you?

Kirk Shimano: I have a short play in “Lawfully Wedded” by Wily West Productions. Morgan Ludlow has interwoven work by Alina Trowbridge and me with his own stories about the state of marriage equality. It runs from July 25 to August 17, in repertory with “Gorgeous Hussy.”

Kirk Shimano, just gorgeous.

Kirk Shimano, just gorgeous.

Christian Simonsen: I’ll be acting in “The Twilight Zone Live: Season X” at The Darkroom in San Francisco on July 12th and 13th.

Daniel Ng: I’m planning some pieces for my friend Martin Azevedo’s next Musical Emergency in September. He puts on these brilliant musical theater events that are a combination of open-mic and collaborative musical potlatch. They are wildly creative and just a ton of fun.

So what upcoming shows or events are you most excited about in the Bay Area Theater Scene?

Christian Simonsen: Many, including The SF Olympians Festival, and All Terrain Theater’s “Babies: The Ultimate Birth Control”.

Kirk Shimano: I’m always excited about the San Francisco Olympians festival – and not just because I have a play about drag queens to present this year. It’s always great to see how much of the community supports it and I can’t wait to see the final versions of the bits and pieces that I’ve already gotten to hear.

Daniel Ng: It’s a little ways off, but I’m really looking forward to Custom Made Theatre’s production of “The Pain and the Itch” opening January 2014. The Gough Street Playhouse is such a wonderful space.

What’s your favorite beer?

Daniel Ng: Guinness–at some bars it’s the only thing to eat.

Krik Shimano: I wasn’t really a beer drinker until I spent a semester studying overseas in Japan, so I always enjoy sipping a Sapporo and thinking of that time.

Christian Simonsen: Corona, but don’t tell my British friends.

You may have heard it’s our last show at Cafe Royale. What do you look forward to for the future of Theater Pub? 

Christian Simonsen: I will miss Café Royale; it has been a near perfect setting for a large variety of productions. But I’m sure there are a lot of odd nooks and crannies in the city that can be transformed into live theater!

Daniel Ng: I hope that a new venue or even multiple venues will attract new people to join Theater Pub’s loyal fans. I’m pretty excited about the possibilities of different kinds of spaces that will allow Theater Pub to evolve and expand in unpredictable ways, not unlike a slime mold or exotic parasite.

Kirk Shimano: I’ve always enjoyed the freedom and innovation of Theater Pub, so I’m looking forward to seeing how the change of venue opens up the possibility of even more new opportunities.

Don’t miss Pint Sized Plays IV, playing five times this month: July 15, 16, 22, 29 and 30, always at 8 PM, only at the Cafe Royale! The show is free and no reservations are necessary, but we encourage you to get there early because we will be full! 

Ma Vie Boheme

Co-Artistic Director Stuart Bousel talks about RENT, and why this year’s Theater Pub Christmas concert, “Christmas Bells Are Ringing”, is bringing his love-hate relationship with this show full circle.

Maureen, I’m not a RENT person.

No seriously… I liked it for about two weeks when I was a freshman in college, and then I stopped liking it.

I never owned my own copy of the soundtrack. My friend Jessica loaned it to me the first time, over my freshman year Christmas Break, and then I borrowed it from my sister a couple of times in the years that followed. I remember that by the summer after my sophomore year of college I was already dis-enchanted enough to declare in the car to a friend that I thought it was “banal.” I held that opinion for a long time.

My sister really liked RENT. I bought her the behind-the-scenes book for Christmas one year. She sang “Seasons Of Love” at her high school graduation (the speaker at the event charmingly called it “rock music”) and she saw it on Broadway and on tour. I saw… the movie. And I kind of liked it. Which is the surest proof I’m not a RENThead. All those people apparently hate that movie.

So why am I singing a major role in our cover band version of it, specially whipped up for Christmas?

Well, I’m an artistic director of Theater Pub and to some extent I feel an obligation to be in the show and Mark was the better fit of any of the other roles (I mean, I suppose I could have been in the chorus… but fuck that, I’m not running myself into the ground for Theater Pub so I can not cop the occasional lead). I also love working with James Grady and Kat Bushnell, who have spearheaded this project (for the record- I wanted to do Les Mis this year) and fine, okay, on some level some part of me wants to recapture my eighteen year old self that bought into the idea that being bohemian was cool and we could all be bohemian- even if in reality the show implies we can all only be bohemian by being bohemian the same way.

Which is what really rubs me wrong about RENT. I think the irony of its “hey man, don’t sell out!” message is that RENT is like the epitome of the show that sold out. Jonathan Larson’s tragic and untimely death made him the poster child of the bo-ho movement of the late ‘90s, but when you look at his career he was clearly always vying for Broadway, desperately looking to “make it”. Yes, he didn’t sell out and get a job working in an office (he famously kept his waiter job all the way up till RENT’s workshop went into previews), but how is praying every day to get picked up by the theatrical equivalent of Hollywood not selling out? Maybe I’m too much the product of the generation that Kurt Cobain killed himself to stay cool for, but something about Larson and his work (especially his first musical, Tick-Tick-Boom) has always struck me as precious and phony.

Plus, the artists in RENT never seem to make any art (or any good art). Maureen’s protest song, which I think is one of the three truly brilliant moments in RENT (and yes, I do think there are moments of brilliance), is really the only time we see one of these “artists” making art. I mean, sure, there’s Roger’s song but… the less said the better, right? By the time RENT came into my life I’d already discovered Sondheim’s SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, which I still think is the most honest, brutal and accurate portrait of what the artistic process and life is like for many of us. People talk about all the parts of RENT that move them, but nothing in RENT comes close to the choking-back-tears sensation I get every time Dot and George’s final scene in SUNDAY culminates with her finishing the part of the lesson book he can’t read. But ultimately these are such different shows with such different objectives- SUNDAY is about making art; RENT is about being part of a scene.

And yet these two shows are compared all the time. Larson himself references SUNDAY, directly, with a whole song, in Tick-Tick-Boom. It’s probably that show’s best moment (naturally, because it’s Sondheim), and he nods to it again in “La Vie Boheme” in RENT. The nods are nice (Larson is a good boy who thanks his influences, something I admire about him) and yet to me it’s also a painfully obvious reminder of how sincere and brave SUNDAY was compared to how pandering and drama-club fantastic RENT would become. Not that I think Larson intended that, or could have predicted it even if he wanted to, but while SUNDAY remains timeless (artists will always struggle with alienation and frustration over a world ill-equipped to support and understand them), RENT has aged badly: the story is now riddled with clichés, some of which are kind of offensive (like the humor derived from Maureen having left Mark for a woman), and the bo-ho scene that was so edgy in 1996 (with it’s bisexuality, drug use and post-modern irony) now seems passé, twee and, let’s face it my friends- about as charming as when our parents talk about the 1960s and ‘70s and how cool they were. But what is shocking to discover as I’ve learned this material now, at the age of 34, is that what holds RENT back is not its temporal setting (SUNDAY, set in the 1880s was never current, yet feels more fresh) but its lack of depth.

Yeah, I said it: RENT isn’t deep. It’s got a lot of heart. More heart than 525,600 productions of Damn Yankees put together. But that’s not the same as depth. Depth requires self-awareness, including self-celebration and also self-mockery, and RENT has moments of both (it’s when the show shines brightest), but they are eclipsed by a deluge of self-projection and self-proclomation, and like most pop culture phenomena, it’s the naive earnestness that appeals to teenagers, but grates when you grow past that moment in your life (and start actually paying rent). It’s like a number of yearbook messages I have from people I didn’t know all that well in high school, who left very nice sentiments about how this was the best time of our lives and I should never change. At the time it seemed sweet, but now I think, “Really? The best time in our lives? Who hopes they pique at eighteen?” But RENT is all about capturing and defining a moment, not looking to the future. After all, the closest it comes to a defining philosophy is “No Day But Today.”

The problem is, once you capture a scene- who is in it and what they value and what they wear and what they listen to, read, etc.- you have essentially killed it. And yes, I do think RENT helped kill the 1990s. It turned moving downtown, being sexually and politically progressive, and pursuing your artistic dreams, into something trendy. Over the decade RENT was on Broadway it went from being a show staring nobodies, many of whom were not trained singers and actors, but rather aspiring performance artists and rock stars, to being just another Broadway tourist trap, with technically perfect singers coming out of various prestigious musical theater programs, sleepwalking their way through the role to entertain legions of mid-west show choir kids on their first NYC visit. When the movie came out it was lapped up by the same America that RENT was ostensibly rejecting. The songs became showtunes, sung by hopeful kids everywhere whose dream was less bohemia and more being famous on American Idol or worse, Glee. I remember the first time I heard a former friend of mine, now a Bible-thumping Christian who voted against gay marriage in her state, go off about how much she loved RENT, and what a cynic I was not to find Angel’s death from AIDS moving. My response was, “Yeah, I’d find it much more moving if he and Collins could get married.” The problem with RENT is that it made bohemia palatable for the non-bohemians of the world- and then they didn’t have to take it or its people seriously. And yes, the flaw lies within the material. RENT is so busy proclaiming “this is who we are” that it fails to ever say, “and this is why you should care.” It’s all sentiment, but no real ideas, and it mistakes sentiment for passion. I commend the show on not apologizing for itself, but I scowl at its lack of anything to say besides its own name.

So here’s my big confession: despite all of this I am excited that for one night, I get to sing Mark. But unlike many people I know who would love to be in my shoes, or one day will be, it’s not because I like RENT. I still don’t really like RENT, though I do think I appreciate it more (that “Christmas Bells” song is a real piece of craftsmanship). It has a lot of corny lyrics and crappy songs, the majority of which seem to be mine. But for better or worse I have managed to dig up that guy who used to wear three layers of shirts and army boots and in his pretentious teenager way he’s reclaiming RENT for my generation, taking it back from all the post-Spring Awakening Gleeks who don’t know anything about the AIDS crisis and all the fear it created in people, or the clean-up of NYC that displaced legions of homeless, or that being an artist is more than a wardrobe and the desire to be an internet meme. I don’t believe RENT really does justice to any of these issues, but I’m going to sing Mark as the person he thinks he is, not the person I see him as. Now.

Which is easier than it sounds because secretly, deep down, I relate to Mark. Still. He strikes me as the kind of guy who listened to SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE over and over again (as Larson apparently did, and as I used to), hoping against hope that he would grow up to be the next Seurat. Yes, he should have aspired to create the next Island of Le Grande Jatte, but mistaking the trappings for the content is something we do when we’re young.

Our self-proclomation is an incredibly catchy tune.

But since we all have to sing it at some point, let’s at least do it in a bar full of all our self-proclaimed bohemian friends.

Don’t miss “Christmas Bells Are Ringing!” our one night only Christmas concert, tonight at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale in San Francisco. Get there early- it’s going to be packed!

Pint Sized Plays Interviews 3: Marissa Skudlarek and Nancy Cooper Frank

We thought we’d start your weekend off right with a pair of interviews from two returning Pint-Sized playwrights. Marissa Skudlarek was part of Pint Sized 1 and Nancy Cooper Frank was part of Pint Sized 2. Now they’re both back for more!

How did you hear about Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival and what possessed you to send something in?

Marissa Skudlarek: I’m a longtime friend of Theater Pub and had a play, Drinking for Two, in the inaugural Pint-Sized Play Festival in August 2010. (Otherwise known as “the play about the pregnant lady.”) This year, as the submission deadline for Pint-Sized approached, I had a cluster of ideas in my head that seemed to want to coalesce into a short play, and I realized that this play could easily take place in a bar. So I sat down and wrote Beer Theory.

Nancy Cooper Frank: This is my third collaboration with Theater Pub. The first was way back in 2010, so I can’t remember how I first heard of this creative bunch of people. I’m tickled by the way the action in a Theater Pub production can move from table to table, through the audience, across the pool table, along the bar, up to the balcony.

Nancy Cooper Frank

What is the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Nancy Cooper Frank: You can’t waste time setting things up. You have to dive right in.

Marissa Skudlarek: Because short plays have to be so concise, so precise, they live or die by their initial concept. Even more than a full-length play, a short play needs a zesty or sparky or intriguing idea behind it. I have written so many bad short plays for school assignments — plays that were doomed from birth with no hope of salvage, because the ideas behind them were so weak. (Which is why I doubt that the best way to teach someone playwriting is to make her write a lot of short plays… but that’s another story.)

What is the best thing about writing a short play?

Marissa Skudlarek: The freedom to experiment and to be as weird as you want to be. For instance, I could never see how to make direct-address monologues work in my plays, and thus hated and feared direct address. But in “Beer Theory,” my characters talk to the audience and I’m OK with it! Moreover, the whole time I was writing this play, I was thinking “This is weird, it’s bizarre, it probably won’t make sense to anyone but me.” But I was willing to take the risk and write it because, hey, it’s a short play, it’s not a full-length.

Nancy Cooper Frank:
See answer to question 2.

Who do you think is a major influence on your work?

Marissa Skudlarek:
The answer to this question might be more apparent after you see “Beer Theory,” which is in a sense my attempt to articulate my artistic credo in the form of a seven-minute quasi-romantic comedy… so I’ll just say, I have always felt far more affinity with Apollonian modes of art than with Dionysian. In particular, this year I have been paying special attention to the dictum “content dictates form,” recently popularized (though not coined) by my hero Stephen Sondheim.

Nancy Cooper Frank: My Uncle Albert, whose stash of ’60s era Mad magazines I discovered as a six year old. It’s pretty much my first memory of myself reading. Of course, it meant I was reading parodies of books and movies I’d never read or seen, or even heard of.

If you could pick one celebrity to be cast in your show, who would it be and why?

Marissa Skudlarek: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I think he would be a good fit as the male character in my play, a guy in his late 20s who loves indie rock but hates going to concerts. And, more to the point, I’ve had a crush on him ever since I saw that insanely charming YouTube video of him singing in French.

Nancy Cooper Frank: Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench. Because they’re great and if they were cast in my show, I would not be the Oldest Living Collaborator with Theater Pub. (Oh, you said pick one.)

Marissa Skudlarek

What is a writing project you are currently working on?

Marissa Skudlarek: This is going to be a busy and Olympians-focused summer for me. I will be revising my 2011 Olympians play, Pleiades, for publication in the upcoming anthology. Plus, I will be writing my 2012 Olympians contribution, The Love Goddess, based on the Aphrodite myth — it will be my first screenplay!

Nancy Cooper Frank: I’m revising my Daniil Kharms: A Life in One Act and Several Dozen Eggs. (based on the life and work of the Russian experimental writer) and also working on a longer play with fairy tale elements set in Russia.

What’s next for you?

Nancy Cooper Frank: I guess I’ll just keep on writing and reading plays and going to plays.

Marissa Skudlarek: Other than “Pleiades” and “The Love Goddess”? Well, I’ll also continue to write my “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life” column for the San Francisco Theater Pub blog every two weeks… watch this space!

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

Marissa Skudlarek: I’m looking forward to Shotgun Players’ next two shows. They reliably do strong and interesting work, and this summer they are offering Truffaldino Says No, a world premiere by witty local playwright Ken Slattery, and Precious Little, a script that I have heard amazing things about (it’s had some productions on the East Coast) but didn’t know if I would ever get to see staged.

Nancy Cooper Frank: Circle Mirror Transformation at Marin. Custom Made Theater’s Merchant of Venice.

What’s your favorite beer?

Nancy Cooper Frank: Any decent Pilsner. Love those hops.

Marissa Skudlarek: I don’t drink beer — that’s why they kicked me out of Portland, Oregon when I turned 21. OK, I do love Belgian fruit beer (Lindemans Framboise) but that doesn’t really count as beer, does it? I stick to wine when I’m at the Cafe Royale… and cocktails or cider at other bars.

Don’t miss the Pint Sized plays, opening July 16 and playing July 17, 23, 30 and 31 with a special performance at the Plough and the Stars on July 18. All the rest are at our usual stomping grounds, Cafe Royale, located at the corner of Post and Leavenworth in San Francisco’s lovely Tendernob neighborhood. Performances are free, no reservations necessary, but show up early and stay late- we’re bound to be sold out and the crowd is always the best part of Theater Pub!

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: An Introduction

Marissa Skudlarek, one of our favorite gals-about-town in the SF Theater scene, kicks off her regular guest spot on the SF Theater Pub blog. 

If you are raised, as I was, on a steady diet of old-fashioned Broadway musicals and Fred & Ginger movies, you will come to believe that the theater is the most glamorous profession in the world.  Producers lavish money on glittering costumes, huge orchestras, and shiny Art Deco scenery. Both onstage and backstage, charismatic performers speak with wit and behave with flair. And you can go out a chorus girl, but come back a star.

Even after I grew up, learned how hard it is to make a living as an artist, and resigned myself to the reality that no one wears gowns or tuxedos to opening nights, the theater still retained a residual glamor. I remember two years ago, when Theater Pub was just starting and I was making my first tentative forays into the San Francisco theater community. I’d meet people like Theater Pub founders Stuart Bousel and Ben Fisher and marvel at how they seemed to know everyone, be everywhere, and work on a million projects at once.  This was, I thought, a real-world kind of glamor: these men were busy, talked-about, in-demand. I wondered whether I would ever be in the same position.

Well, now it’s two years later and I’ve become one of those perpetually overscheduled theater people. In the last week alone, I’ve done the following:

  • Helped organize, and spent an evening at, a fundraiser for the Bay One Acts (BOA) Kickstarter campaign
  • Edited and posted several interviews with BOA playwrights on the BOA blog (bayoneacts.org)
  • Copy-edited the BOA program
  • Copy-edited the final proof of a forthcoming book of plays from the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  • Attended an Olympians writers’ meeting and realized I should completely overhaul the play I am working on
  • Figured out how to use Twitter
  • Got an email from an actor I used to know, asking for my help with French pronunciation for an audition
  • Saw three plays at major Bay Area theaters

And that doesn’t include the non-theater stuff I’ve had to deal with this week (hectic times at my day job; finding a roommate; taxes).  Nor does it include writing this column. Which I am doing at midnight, in my pajamas, after seeing a three-hour Tom Stoppard play about Russian intellectuals. Last night I fell asleep with the light on and woke up with pain in my jaw.

In times like these, the song “The Glamorous Life,” from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, comes to mind. The heroine of the show, Desiree Armfeldt, is a famous actress in turn-of-the-century Sweden.  “Desiree Armfeldt! I just know she’ll wear the most glamorous gowns,” exclaims Anne, a naïve younger character.  Well, Desiree may be soignée, but she’s also a single mother who spends most of her time on tour in the provinces.  In “The Glamorous Life,” Desiree and the chorus wryly comment on the life of a theater professional: “Run for the carriage, la-la-la / Wolf down the sandwich, la-la-la / Which town is this one, la-la-la / Hi-ho, the glamorous life.”

So when Stuart Bousel asked if I would write a twice-monthly column about the San Francisco indie-theater lifestyle for the Theater Pub blog, I knew that I wanted the assignment and that I wanted to title the column “Hi-ho, the Glamorous Life.”

In upcoming columns, I hope to investigate, explain, praise, and critique different aspects of independent theater in the Bay Area.  If you’re a fellow theater artist, I want to find the words to describe our experiences, and if you’re not a theater-maker, I want to acquaint you with my world.

This world can be cash-strapped. It can be competitive. It forces you to spend more time than you’d like in seedy neighborhoods. It requires lots of humdrum behind-the-scenes effort to bring even a small black-box show to life.  But it’s busy and fast-paced and challenging. It values hard work and strong opinions. It has made me happy beyond measure. And yes, it is glamorous.

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