Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Around the World with Life and Art

Marissa Skudlarek is tramping around Oxford, sending us missives of wisdom.

I embark on my longest vacation in several years, two full weeks, three wonderful cities: New York and then Paris and then Oxford. I pack light, but I do bring my laptop; despite my best efforts, there are some writing projects I need to finish, some tasks I must carry with me across the ocean.

My New York theater critic friend tells me that for a writer, there is no such thing as a non-working vacation.

Around eleven at night, my fourth day in Paris, I burst into tears due to guilt at time slipping away without me working on my writing, then dry my eyes and go to “Paris’s #1 Philosophical-Café” to sip linden-blossom tea and write for an hour before they close.

I do get some writing done when I’m in New York. I take my laptop to Shakespeare and Company on the Upper East Side (not to be confused with the more famous Parisian bookstore of the same name) and drink an iced tea and immerse myself in my work for two hours. “You’ve been here a long time! Writing the Great American Novel?” a man asks as I get up to leave. “The Great American Play, actually,” I say. He introduces himself as the theater editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “the oldest newspaper in New York. Walt Whitman was our first editor!”

I give the man my card and think about how none of that encounter would ever have happened in San Francisco.

Before I leave for vacation, my friends at PianoFight make a video taking The Bold Italic to task for proclaiming that there are no artists left in San Francisco. I laugh, I love it, I post it on social media. I am deeply invested in the idea that there is wonderful art being made in San Francisco and that this can continue. But sometimes I wonder if I am fooling myself, being blindly optimistic instead of realistic.

I see a beautiful production of La ménagerie de verre, that is, The Glass Menagerie, for fifteen euros. When it’s over, we applaud so much our arms and hands ache; we make the actors take five curtain calls. This is par for the course at French theater productions. The profession of the actor is noble in any society, but it seems so much nobler, so much more respected, in France.

I follow Rue Racine to the Place de l’Odéon, location of one of Paris’s oldest theaters, noting that there are an awful lot of gendarmes in the vicinity, only to discover that the Odéon has been occupied by theater artists and stagehands who are protesting cuts to their unemployment insurance.

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Sara Judge, Empress of On the Spot, comments that we ought to do the same thing in this country. I say “First we would actually need job security in order to protest when they try to remove it.” Touché, says Sara.

I overhear a Quebecois theater director, looking very much the Europhile artist in stylish scarf and overcoat, talking about his career while I have lunch at a French café.

I overhear some French youths loudly discussing art and sex over beers, as French youths, or really all youths, are wont to do. “I’m getting busy with Amandine,” says one. “No, you’re getting busy with your ass!” says the other. My back to them, I listen, I take notes, I swell with delight at understanding their slangy French gossip.

Over Shake Shack burgers in Madison Square Park, an Irish fantasy novelist tells me that in Ireland, writers and artists and musicians don’t have to pay tax on the money they earn from their artistic endeavors unless it’s over 50,000 euros a year.

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Outside Shakespeare and Company on the banks of the Seine, I meet another Irishwoman, a screenwriter, whose government has awarded her a fellowship to study and research for three weeks in Paris.

I meet a bearded Englishman about my own age who’s been happily living the expat life in Paris for the last seven years, writing and editing and running a theater festival.

I mentally review my own family tree and what I know about the immigration laws of various countries. Could I get European citizenship through a distant ancestor?

I think about how it seems like everyone I know in San Francisco has a well-defined escape plan in their back pocket for when they inevitably get evicted by a greedy landlord, and how over the last year or so, I’ve started to feel like an anomaly because I lack such a plan.

I wonder if those vague daydreams of getting European citizenship are actually the beginnings of my own back-pocket escape plan.

I see how many translated books are displayed for sale in the Paris bookshops, and think with envy of all the French people who can thereby earn a living as literary translators.

I stroll up and down the streets of Paris, the wide avenues lined with Haussmann limestone buildings six or seven stories tall, and think about how everyone always freaks out about building taller buildings in San Francisco (“Don’t turn it into Manhattan!”). But what if we could turn it into, not Manhattan, but Paris?

I think about how when I return to San Francisco, I’ll return to my nasty, petty habit of mentally demolishing any one-story building I see and imagining a five-story housing complex built in its place.

I stop and look at listings in the windows of real estate agents. Despite the dollar-to-euro or dollar-to-pounds exchange rate, the prices seem amazingly reasonable – or have I merely been living in the San Francisco real estate bubble for too long? A room in a shared flat for $750 a month. A three-bedroom Oxford house for $2000 a month. A small Paris one-bedroom, yours outright for $325,000.

The brick houses of Oxford are smaller and narrower and cozier than the painted ladies of San Francisco, but most of them have bay windows, too.

Paris Métro trains come, on average, every five minutes, and I nearly always get a seat, even when I take the busiest segment of the busiest line at rush hour.

San Francisco friends message me to say that a horrible breakdown on the N Judah ruined everyone’s commute. They invite me to feel schadenfreude, and I do, but I also start dreading, truly dreading, going back to BART and MUNI.

My friend Sunil Patel, a Twitter demi-celebrity with friends in every corner of the world (it’s because of him that I had that burger with that Irish novelist), “has a nice moment” with Lin-Manuel Miranda at a book signing. I giggle to myself on a late-night, near-empty Métro train when I see Sunil’s and LMM’s tweets about this momentous encounter. I remember that good things happen and people are doing good work in the USA as well.

My friend Lily Janiak is announced as the new lead theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and again, I remember that despite the many difficulties facing the theater business and the journalism business, sometimes we do get nice things.

In a hipster café on the Cowley Road in East Oxford, a young man tells a friend that his band has been invited to play at a BBC Introducing gig.

In an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side, another young man tells some friends about his attempts to make it as an indie rock artist and to recruit a sought-after young drummer for his band.

I try to remember when’s the last time I overheard such a conversation in San Francisco at a venue that wasn’t PianoFight.

A San Francisco friend messages me to say that she overheard two cute French people talking in a Hayes Valley café, but they were discussing how to get venture capital funding for a startup.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – With a li’l Help from your Friends

Charles Lewis III checking in from the most recent Olympians meeting.

For last year’s fest Steve wore a dog collar. What has he got planned THIS time?

For last year’s fest Steve wore a dog collar. What has he got planned THIS time?

“I had been alone more than I could have been, had I gone by myself.”
– The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

In all of the year’s I’ve been involved in the active production of the Olympians Fest (Years 3, 4, and now 6), I think I’ve only ever missed a single meeting. I believe it was during Year 4. I actually had planned on attending, but as the day wore on, I got so ridiculously sick that I eventually expected a CDC “Quarantine” tent to go up over the house. I’m pretty sure that once one agrees to write for the festival, the only excuse for missing a meeting is to be dead – at least that’s the impression we get from Jeremy’s e-mails. He’ll only accept actual death because being “on the brink of death” means you’re still alive and therefore should be at the meeting.

Granted, the folks who missed out on the most recent meeting had pretty good reasons: one was rehearsing his new show; one was acting, producing, and hosting this month’s Theater Pub; and one was actually having a baby. I… guess those are valid-sounding reasons, what do you think?

So as we all settle in, stuff our faces, and gossip about actors who have burned too many bridges, I really begin to notice that the meetings for this year’s fest carry a significance that wasn’t there in meetings for previous years. I don’t just mean the fact that Rachel Kessinger’s veggie lasagna has raised the bar on the food we bring, or that an entire cantaloupe-sized bottle of wine was finished off before the meeting proper even started. No, what I’m noticing is that this year’s meetings really do point toward a shift in the way that the festival is put together. There are fewer meetings this year than there were in previous years. As such, a lot has been packed into each one, so if you miss it, you’re missing something significant about how this year’s festival will differ from the last five.

Someone actual wrote on blue pages. What sorcery is this?

Someone actual wrote on blue pages. What sorcery is this?

We cover the normal bases: stating how much of the play has been written so far, if at all; mentioning how the premise has changed from the original pitch, if at all; finding a director, if you haven’t yet; and the reading of pages from the script-in-progress. As before, I pass my pages off to other writers in the room, tilt my head to the side, and try to just listen. I hear flaws, lots of them. Not in the way it’s read, per se, but the readings give the characters a different interpretations that what I’d conceived. One joke I wrote crashes and burns like the toilet seat of a Russian space station, so I know it’s not likely to be in the next draft. I will say that the back-and-forth aspect I wrote for this scene sounds better spoken than it did as I wrote it, so that’s good. All in all, I’m not entirely pleased, but I have an idea of what to work on.

That was a major topic of the meeting. Not my shitty pages, but the topic of collaboration. The simultaneous gift and curse of writing is its solitary nature: it often requires you to block out the white noise of the outside world so as to let your Id run free, but doing intentionally requires cutting yourself off from those to whom you look for support, solace, or even a few quick laughs. Writing means translating billions of mental synapses into finger movements that will somehow paint a verbal picture meant to be interpreted by someone other than you. But although the writing process can be solitary, it doesn’t mean that means to get the wheels moving have to be.

This meeting was about asking everyone in the room “What do you need?” and trying our best to make sure they got it. Maybe they have writer’s block, maybe they forgot the dates, maybe they wrote for a specific actor whom they now know they won’t get (FYI: pre-casting in the festival is frowned upon, and with damn good reason). As such, we threw out not only our frustrations, but also our solutions – particularly those of us who have done the festival before. A lot of emphasis is put on the importance of having the scripts read aloud. You might think this was a no-brainer – what with it being the entire point of the festival – but it’s how past entries that were meant to 10-15 min. shorts wound up being around 30 min. or more; it’s how a festival that starts every night at 8pm and expects to be out by 10pm (if not earlier) winds up having nights that go as late as 11:30pm. To this conversation I contribute “Just remember that it’ll always sound different out loud than it does in your head, ‘cause the voice in your head will lie to you. Every. Single. Time.”

Suggestions are thrown out for setting up writing sessions and readings. It reminds me of when I went to such a meeting with fellow Olympians writers during Year 3. I wrote the first full draft of my one-act about Atlas longhand in that café. I wound up drastically rewriting it when I finally typed it up, but that session in the café really got the ball rolling.

See that bottle on the floor? That was the SECOND one of those opened.

See that bottle on the floor? That was the SECOND one of those opened.

Before we conclude for the evening, we touch on the other major necessary evil of art: funding. The fundraising template for the festival will be one of the most notable changes from years past. It’s a bit too early to say what it will be exactly, but it seems assured that it won’t resemble the campaigns from previous years. Of course, once your fundraiser video features creepy photo-bombing by Allison Page – 9:35 in the video – where else is there to go with it?

But the one thing of which we are sure is that it will require the effort of every single person who was in the room that night, as well as many more who weren’t there. If there was an overall message of this last meeting, it was that it only works when all of the pieces are in sync. Those of us who have been part of it from the beginning (in one capacity or another) know this to be absolutely true. Writers must communicate with directors, directors with actors, everyone with friends and family to see this new work and others like it. Once someone gets in their head that their way – and ONLY their way – is what will happen… well, there’s a reason each year’s festival has That One Play. Hell, it’s usually not even one – I tend to count two or three, depending on the year. It’s the play or plays that clearly had a communication breakdown and wind up being complete and utter train wrecks. Not even the good kind with some redeeming element of camp; no, they’re the ones that make audiences want to chew off their own limbs in an attempt to escape. There’s at least one every year. I sure as hell hope it isn’t mine.

So as we began to leave for the evening, encouraging all present to see this month’s ‘Pub show (that includes you reading this, it runs again this coming Monday and Tuesday), I dare say the one word on everyone’s lips is “collaboration”. That and Rachel’s lasagna.

Charles Lewis III is planning to once again direct his own Olympians piece on Poseidon this year. As to how that’s still collaborative, he plans to elaborate in the next “Of Olympic Proportions” entry. To read his and every writer’s proposal, and to learn more about the festival’s past and present, please visit the official SF Olympians Fest website.

In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – The End is the Beginning is The End

“My royal lord,
You do not give the cheer: the feast is sold
That is not often vouch’d, while ’tis a-making,
‘Tis given with welcome; to feed were best at home;
From thence the sauce to meat is ceremony;
Meeting were bare without it.”
– Lady MacBeth, MacBeth Act III Sc. 4, William Shakespeare

For all of us who have been there, it’s no surprise that Stuart’s apartment is often referred to as “The White Tower”. I honestly can’t recall what color the exterior really is, but I do know how exhausting it is to hike up those stone steps from one street to another, followed by another two flights of steps once you get inside – all for the sake of looking out over his balcony at one of the most enviable views of the San Francisco skyline without riding in a helicopter. Of course it’s The White Tower. What else would we expect from a self-proclaimed “Tolkien-nerd” who produces a festival based around ancient Greek mythology?

There’s a special something in the air for the first writers meeting of the annual SF Olympians Festival. If you’ve worked in the previous year’s festival, you’ve (hopefully) had time to decompress from that madness and have replaced your anxiety with excitement for the new fest, which is a good whole year away. If you’re new to the game, you probably have a walking-on-eggshells feeling of not wanting to look ridiculous in front of a bunch of folks who put on a festival where last year The Judgment of Paris was made to resemble RuPaul’s Drag Race. Don’t worry about it: before the night is over, you’ll be so stuffed with wine, cheese, and chocolate that you won’t think your idea is ridiculous – you’ll wonder if it’s ridiculous enough.

A typical Olympians meeting usually starts with a round of introductions, in which we all clumsily try to remember our names, our subjects, and our proposals for this coming festival. Even without alcohol, that’s a lot harder than you think – we didn’t become writers so that we’d have to, y’know, talk.

We then explain the logistics and mechanics of the festival. Again, those of us who have been through it before know that it’s nothing to be taken for granted, especially as the festival continues to expand – both in size and influence – with each successive year. There are going to be some major changes to the festival, come 2015. The fundamentals will remain the same, but the necessity for streamlining has presented itself. For all the new achievements, there’s also been the accumulation of a lot of dead weight that has slowed down what-should-be a rather expeditious process. That dead weight will have to be cut loose. The only folks likely to complain are those who have been letting others do their work anyway.

Which leads the meeting to another touchy subject: communication. It’s importance cannot be over-stressed. There were problems that sprung up in the last festival (and a few festivals before) that were the result of people not properly communicating with one another. As such, some of those people have become persona non grata with the festival. It’s not something anyone likes to do, but when people ignore repeated warnings, then action has to be taken. We want to be invitational, not exclusive. The idea of anyone feeling like they don’t belong is something we won’t tolerate.

So… after we’ve discussed scheduling, fundraising, and where to find cheap (or free) rehearsal venues all over the Bay Area, we finally come around to the main event of the evening: the writing samples. Every writer is (barring unforeseen circumstances) expected to attend every meeting, and every writer in attendance is expected to bring along two sample pages of their script as proof they’ve actually been, y’know, writing it. It’s not uncommon for pages to be written the day of the meeting (God knows I’ve done it plenty of times). Hell, some folks will actually write them during a lull in the meeting. So long as you aren’t doing this once the festival is up and running, we’re just glad to hear a sample.

I love reading for everyone else’s samples, but hate hearing my own. I mean, I know Allison will bring pages to have us on the floor holding our sides, that Rachel’s will make us all envious of her fertile mind, and that Bridgette will somehow, someway find a way to work iambic pentameter into her dialogue. I’m nowhere near as reliable with my writing, but I will at least try my best not to butcher the words of the fellow writer whose words I’m reciting.

My subject this year is a one-act based on the myth of Poseidon. I’ve always had a soft spot for Poseidon because I think he’s entitled to nearly as much fame (or infamy) as his brother Zeus. I mean, both of them had the tendency to be complete dicks, but somehow Zeus is the more revered dick. My play, in short, is actually pretty timely. I submitted it months ago, but thanks to certain recent revelations about one “Mr. Cosby”, my play has become topical in a way even I didn’t expect. Whether it will remain so in the coming year, remains to be seen.

Stuart calls my subject. I pass my type-written pages off to Sunil and Tonya. I turn my head away, but tilt it in their direction so as to take in every word. I keep my eyes to the ground because I don’t wanna know what everyone else thinks of it – not yet. The two readers keep a good pace with my pages. Two of my jokes even elicit laughs from the room. There’s a chunk about the modern world needing myths more than ever. I genuinely feel that the gravitas of the moment is working. For once in my self-deprecating life, I allow myself think that maybe – just maybe – people actually like the stuff I write. In about two minutes it’s over. I take my pages back, fold them into my bag with my red pen (for adjustments), and consider my work done for the night. I can breathe again.

I'm not saying this is the poster for my play, but I'm not saying it isn't.

I’m not saying this is the poster for my play, but I’m not saying it isn’t.

After all the pages are read, most of the wine has been drunk, and Rachel’s mac ‘n cheese has been completely devoured, we’re all dismissed for the evening. It’s a slow and steady process: phone numbers and e-mails are exchanged, last-minute bites of food are taken, Lyfts are ordered, what-have you. One thing we all take away from this meeting is the fact that the festival is changing. It has to. Everything does. It’s just a question of whether that change is one of a relic falling into decay or an organism evolving with its time and environment. I definitely think the latter is occurring. As I’ve said before, what I love about this festival is that it never ceases to surprise me. It’s almost irrelevant to try to explain certain things to newcomers because there’s something new for all of us. Now we’ve officially begun our yearlong journey into the Wine Dark Sea. And, as the name implies, just sailing out into it is an adventure in and of itself.

Also there’s gonna be a lotta dolphin sex. I mean, a LOT. You don’t even know…

Charles Lewis III can’t wait to make a splash with the upcoming festival. For more information about the history of the festival and next year’s readings, please visit http://www.SFOlympians.com.

Theater Around The Bay: The Rise of Geek Theater

Sunil Patel returns in another guest blog.

Last year I produced a Theater Pub night of sci-fi/fantasy/horror theater called The Pub from Another World. In one night, we saw plays about superheroes, clones, unicorns, time travel, and monsters. Theater Pub was no stranger to genre theater, having put on Lovecraft adaptations, Love in the Time of Zombies, and a Pint-Sized Play about a genie, but I wanted to see more, being a fan of both SFF and theater. It seemed a rare beast to me, especially given that we owe the word “robot” to Karel Čapek’s 1920 play, R.U.R. I made it to my mission to bring more genre theater to the Bay Area…and then two days after The Pub from Another World, Shotgun Players premiered Lauren Gunderson’s cloning drama, By and By. Perhaps genre theater wasn’t as rare a beast as I thought.

As Hardison from Leverage frequently proclaims, it is the Age of the Geek, and geek culture and theater are intersecting more than ever before. In February David Dean Bottrell raised over $80,000 to produce the 1st Annual Sci-Fest, a science fiction one-act play festival in Los Angeles boasting actors from shows like The X-Files, Lost, and Supernatural. The festival alternated two evenings featuring works by sci-fi greats Ursula K. LeGuin and Ray Bradbury in addition to new works. I enthusiastically backed the project and was fortunate enough to attend one show in May, where I got to see Ando from Heroes give a hell of a nonverbal performance and Langly from The X-Files deliver philosophical monologues while floating in space. The festival received many positive reviews, and submissions are now being accepted for the 2nd Annual Sci-Fest!

The Sci-Fest Kickstarter declared that apart from Ray Bradbury, “few writers have ever experimented with presenting compelling science fiction stories on stage.” As if responding to that very statement, a couple months later Jen Gunnels and Erin Underwood launched a Kickstarter for Geek Theater, an anthology of science fiction and fantasy plays, and raised nearly $4,000. The anthology collects over a dozen plays of various lengths (and one monologue) from current playwrights, bringing more visibility to theater about zombies and robots. I’m only familiar with a couple of the authors, one from comics and one from short stories, so I’m excited to discover new SFF playwrights.

Jen Gunnels is no stranger to sci-fi theater, though, as in April she was the keynote speaker at Stage the Future: The First International Conference on Science Fiction Theatre, an academic conference focusing on topics ranging from Ancient Speculative Theatre to Performing the Non-Human and the Post-Human. “This conference is the first of its kind and hopes to raise awareness of the need for a new theatre that is already here; a theatre that has its roots in the past and its eyes on the future,” the description reads, echoing my own desires. And like the first Sci-Fest, the first Stage the Future found success and is now accepting proposals for its second year.

Like her co-editor, Erin Underwood’s passion for sci-fi theater also took her to England this year, as in August she spoke at the World Science Fiction Convention in London (also known as Loncon). Staging the Fantastic, a panel that also included Geek Theater contributor James Patrick Kelley, asked “Is this a golden age for genre theatre?” In fact, Loncon itself featured seven stage productions, including an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s The Anubis Gates by World Fantasy Award winner Tim Powers and a hilarious production of The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) with jokes about Babylon 5 and the Joss Whedon oeuvre.

While it’s clear that traditional geek theater is alive and well, recently I’ve noticed another form that truly marries a love of geekery with the power of theater: the live reading. This July at San Diego Comic-Con, voice actors from Adventure Time performed an original radio play written by current head writer, Kent Osborne. Although the Adventure Time panel in 2012 also featured a live reading, this event was both separate from the official panel and a ticketed event, speaking to the popularity and appeal of the performance. A few days later, Naughty Dog hosted The Last of Us: One Night Live, with live performances of the score and key cut scenes from the acclaimed survival horror game. While the idea was met with some skepticism, reviews of the event were positive—the music and voice acting were praised in the game itself, after all, and I’d buy tickets to The Walking Dead: One Night Live in a heartbeat—and attendees were treated to a special epilogue scene written and directed by Neil Druckmann (writer/director of the game).

No one has embraced the theatricality of the live reading quite like Welcome to Night Vale, however. The weird, surreal podcast about a radio show in the strangest town in America has developed a massive following, and last year they began doing live shows. These shows sell out in minutes, and I’ve been lucky enough to attend two, one at the Booksmith and one at the Victoria Theater. Creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor met via the New York Neo-Futurists, and lead actor Cecil Baldwin performs with the New York Neos (I also saw him perform with the inaugural San Francisco Neo-Futurists). The influence is evident in the live shows, which similarly pay no attention to the fourth wall and bring the audience into the show. For one night, the audience is in Night Vale and part of the story. At the Booksmith we collectively killed a man with our minds. In the Victoria Theater we feared for our lives as an escaped Librarian slithered in our midst. A live reading can simply be actors reading from a script or it can be a transformative, transportive experience.

Is it just me or is this an actual trend? Science fiction theater festivals! Science fiction theater academic conferences! Live performances of video game cut scenes! I can’t wait to see where the intersection of geek culture and theater takes us next.

Sunil Patel is a Bay Area writer and actor. See his work at http://ghostwritingcow.com or follow him on Twitter @ghostwritingcow.

Theatre Around The Bay: Our Story Was Epic

Our guest blogger series continues with a piece by Sunil Patel, a Bay Area writer and actor, who recounts a recent night of inspiration.

Veronica Mars changed my life. I don’t mean that as hyperbole: I can trace my recent commitment to becoming a published writer to Veronica Mars. While that decision was directly inspired by attending the World Science Fiction Convention, I only became aware of that convention because of a friend I met through Veronica Mars fandom. Everything awesome that has ever happened to me at Comic-Con can also be attributed to Veronica Mars, including the opportunity to tell Joss Whedon that Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed my life—which was partly because it was a precursor to Veronica Mars.

I love the show. I have written thousands of words about why I love the show. It’s a fantastic neo-noir teen drama with a compelling protagonist and supporting characters, a strong father-daughter relationship, and, yes, a smoldering romance. I love the story, but it wasn’t the story alone that changed my life. It was the community that formed around that story.

Television fandom is a curious but beautiful thing: thousands of people absorbed in a story, collectively experiencing joy and heartbreak from week to week. And this story leads them to generate their own stories, claiming characters and imagining new narratives for them. I helped orchestrate HelpMeVeronica.com, a mini-ARG, which taught me a lot about storytelling and managing audience expectations. As a writer, I had to balance what I wanted to create with what our audience needed. A subcommunity had formed around our story-within-a-story. But the larger community plays a role in the metanarrative of the show.

The tale of Veronica Mars is this: on May 22, 2007, the story ended. The community, however, remained. And on March 13, 2013, by the power of Kickstarter, that community enabled the creation of more story. We hungered for more, and we made it happen. Stories matter because they connect people and through the power of fictional narrative influence the real-world narrative. Stories have power, and we bestow it upon them.

At a recent Borderlands event, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson said that writing the book was only 80% of the job of creating the story. The reader supplied the final 20% by imagining it in their heads. He used this analogy as a way to distinguish books from television and movies, which show you the images and sounds, but the concept extends to all forms of storytelling. The audience is an essential part of the story, and 20% of the experience is how they respond to it. A hundred people can see a production of play and come away with a hundred different interpretations, a hundred different emotional responses. The story fractures into a hundred versions of itself and finds new life in the lives it touches. The audience carries their own personal version of it with them always.

Stories have always needed an audience to come alive, but now an audience’s need for stories matters a significant amount. We live in a world where a passionate audience can show their appreciation for the types of stories they want to see by willing them into existence. San Francisco Theater Pub’s The Odes of March ended with “Ode to the Audience,” acknowledging their importance, but I see untapped potential.

Everything I’ve described above regarding the passion for stories and sense of community that I experienced in television fandom applies to my experience in theater as well, but as a creator. The Bay Area theater community is incredibly supportive of new work, and many times I have seen people put up a play on sheer pluck and gumption alone. Several times, I’ve seen them turn to crowdfunding as well. Maybe it’s because I mainly associate with people in theater, but I have not personally encountered theater fandom to the same degree. Theater is as collaborative a medium as television or film, and I think it has the ability to foster a similar, vibrant community centered on stories. The audience is physically present, already together, when they see a play. The San Francisco Olympians Festival does a wonderful job bridging the gap between creators and audience members, encouraging the intermingling of the two and discussion of the works. Talking about stories is an essential part of the storytelling process. It’s that 20% that truly cements their place in the collective consciousness.

I look at the success of the Veronica Mars movie and realize that a story is far more than what’s contained within it. It’s a message, a force of nature, a reality-warping behemoth of narrative power. As a writer, you cannot forget that. You must understand that it’s bigger than you.

Because you never know when what you write will change someone’s life.

Sunil Patel is a Bay Area writer and actor. See his work at http://ghostwritingcow.com or follow him on Twitter @ghostwritingcow.

Write-Side Up: An Introduction to Saturday Write Fever

In honor of our first Saturday Write Fever of 2014, fast approaching this Saturday, January 11, and our switch to every second Saturday of the month going forward, we asked frequent SWF attendee and honorary assistant Charles Lewis III to do a re-cap of last year. Enjoy, and see you on Saturday night!

“I love deadlines. I love the ‘whooshing’ noise they make as they fly by.”
– Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

DISCLAIMER: Attendance at Saturday Write Fever is no guarantee of facial caress by Cary Grant’s cheeks.

DISCLAIMER: Attendance at Saturday Write Fever is no guarantee of facial caress by Cary Grant’s cheeks.

Allison Page has done lots of cool things in her life. She acts, she writes, she does stand-up, she’s travelled the world, she founded her own theatre company, she’s a black belt martial artist, she started a comedy duo, she moved from the snow-covered-and-cold-as-a-witch’s-teat tundra of Minnesota to the snow-free-but-cold-as-a-witch’s-teat hills of San Francisco. Plus, for shits ‘n giggles, she has her own regular TheaterPub column called “Everything is Already Something”. She’ll probably accomplish a lot more before she’s shuffled off this mortal coil. And yet… if the task of writing her obituary were charged to anyone who sat in The EXIT Theatre café last year, there are three words that would be guaranteed to appear: “BLACK. TAR. HEROIN.”

That, dear reader, is the result of unpredictable creative exercise known as Saturday Write Fever.

The collaborative brainchild of TheaterPub co-founder Stuart Bousel and frequent ‘Pub collaborator Megan Cohen, SWF – as it’s known to cool kids, gang members, and fans of pro wrestling – is the first regular ‘Pub spin-off.

Stuart and Megan… givin’ you Fevah! (photo by Rachel Bublitz)

Stuart and Megan… givin’ you Fevah! (photo by Rachel Bublitz)

It can sometimes seem like the erratic Mr. Hyde to the ‘Pub’s Dr. Jekyll: both inhabit the same skin, but couldn’t represent a greater dichotomy. Whereas a typical ‘Pub show is staged during the traditional “dark nights” of theatre (usually Mon. – Wed.), Fever is put on during one of the most competitive performance nights of the week (especially for The EXIT, which is often running two or three other shows at the same time). Though a ‘Pub show is the end result of days or weeks of rehearsing after who-knows-how-long-it-took to write, SWF is entirely written, practiced, and read, all in the same night. ‘Pub shows occasionally have cast members hiding amongst the audience; Fever’s participants are whomever volunteers from that evening’s audience. A ‘Pub show is (hopefully) memorized back-and-forth; a Fever gives you a Post-It, a pen, paper, and lets you go to town.

There is a sense of order to the implied chaos. From the very first night (23rd March 2013) the plan for the evening was simple: 8:30 is considered the official opening of the “mixer”. During this time prospective writers and actors add their names to Stuart and Megan’s list. At about 9pm each writer is called to the stage to pick a prompt out of the bucket. From there the writers are sent to the EXIT’s green room with the writing materials of their choice – pencil, paper, laptop – and given 30 minutes to knock out a page-long monologue. At the end of the half-hour, the writers go back to the stage to pick actor names from a different bucket (buckets play a vital role in the whole process). After five or ten minutes of reading over the pages and discussing them with the writers, the actors take to the stage to read material that didn’t exist one hour earlier.

The sirens that call to us.

The sirens that call to us.

As simple as that sounds, it can be maddening for the writer. You might know this about us – what with all the drinking and neuroses associated with writers – but the idea of filling a blank page terrifies us. It’s no easier when you’re stuck in a room full of both complete strangers AND familiar colleagues. Of the 30 minutes allotted, I’d say I often spend 20 of those looking around the room, the next five writing the first two paragraphs, and the final five rewriting the entire piece from scratch. Oh, and I have to work in the phrase “It’s a good thing I brought my own”, as that was my prompt opening night. How it translated into a piece about the prophylactic use of dental dams, I still don’t know?

And that’s the thing with those prompts: as innocuous as they are, they serve as an amazing Rorschach test into minds of the writers. Whether or not Stuart and Megan theme the prompts for the evening (4/20, Xmas, etc.), they seem fully aware that making the words on those Post-Its as broad as possible will lead to the most unexpected results. Still, one has to wonder how Sunil Patel could take a phrase like “Okay, but I want to go first this time” and write a heartbreaking piece about reincarnated lovers whose respective deaths never get any easier for each other? What inspired Marissa Skudlarek, Claire Rice, and Rachel Bublitz to write pieces about introverted office workers, cat-sitters, and regretful young brides, respectively? And, for the love of God, who drew the mental road map that lead Allison Page from the phrase “let’s spend some money” to “Black. Tar. Heroin.”?!

But that’s the beauty of it all. One of the greatest feelings is when we pick actors, take them out into the hall, hand them the pages, and watch as they glance up at us from the page, unable to believe what they’ve just read. It’s reassuring to a writer that they have the ability to surprise someone. With the actors chosen at random, it never ceases to amaze us how well the words still work, even when the writer is the opposite of what was envisioned. Women read for men, young people read old characters, everyone eventually reads as an animal.

No one knows EXACTLY what to expect. From the very beginning TheaterPub has prided itself on, amongst other things, creating new work and smudging the audience/performer barrier. Now the flagship of its “second era” is spending the second Saturday of every month. So now you – yes, you – can spend your Saturday nights mingling with creative new people AND taking part in the madness that is the creative process.

It’s true, I tells ya! Cure your writer’s block and stage fright in 30 simple minutes! It’s fun! It’s free! No experience? No problem! All ya gotta do is come catch the fever! Just look at these satisfied customers: tragedy, comedy, and pure Insanity! This and more can be yours!

Julia Heitner, photo by Colin Hussey.

Julia Heitner, photo by Colin Hussey.

Jeunee Simon, photo by Colin Hussey

Jeunee Simon, photo by Colin Hussey

Sam Bertken, photo by Colin Hussey

Sam Bertken, photo by Colin Hussey

The first Saturday Write Fever of 2014 will take place on Saturday – Jan. 11 at The EXIT Theatre on 156 Eddy St., San Francisco. No reservations needed. Admission is free. Participation is voluntary and subject to number of prompts.

Charles Lewis III is prone to spontaneous one-man karaoke sessions in the middle of BART stations.

Cowan Palace: Rob Ready, The Man Behind the Llama

Ashley Cowan talks with a Llama.

This week I had the wonderful opportunity to connect with a fictional fiancé from four years ago; a Pint Sized regular, the infamous Rob Ready.

He’s certainly a leader among the San Francisco theater community and he’s become a bit of a local legend. As a llama. Oh, and other things, sure. But today we’re here to talk about all things llama! Rob has taken on what has become a mascot for Theater Pub and as the past four years have changed us all, the Llama has gone through his own transformations as well.

Rob Ready, Putting The Charm Back Into Charming

Rob Ready, Putting The Charm Back Into Charming

What has been your favorite Llama development as he’s grown throughout the years?

When Stuart (Bousel) started writing the Llama pieces he made the character this sad, drunk, funny, bumbling, lovable ass and he just nailed it. Also, having the Llama on the Theater Pub t-shirt is pretty cool. And the fact that we’re actually doing a blog post with questions and answers about a sad drunk Llama. All of those things are awesome.

Yes, Rob. I am totally awesome. Thank you for that. These past few years have been busy for you outside your Llama persona; if you could tell the Rob of four years ago one piece of advice, what would it be?

Go grocery shopping you fat drunken idiot.

Sure. Food is important. So what has been your process taking on this role? And has it changed from year to year?

Yes. These past two years I’ve actually had to prep and memorize and rehearse a little. The first two years the Llama just walked on like an ass hole and pounded a beer while shouting something about pigs and left. Given my personal experience behaving in a similar way, those first two years were pretty simple.

What’s the most challenging part of being a Llama?

I really want to spit a lot more than I do, but I’m afraid it’ll land on people’s shoes.

Where do you find the best inspiration?

Friends.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?

Drink a beer. Run through the lines. Talk to whoever is bartending and let them know I’ll be screaming at them for booze later on.

What’s your favorite memory from working on this festival since it began? Is it pretending to be engaged to me in Queen Mab in Drag? Is it?!

Queen Mab was awesome, though despite appearances, I’m still a little uneasy wearing a dress.

Rob Ready (with Ashley Cowan) in Queen Mab In Drag, proving that a true man knows how to wear a dress.

Rob Ready (with Ashley Cowan) in Queen Mab In Drag, proving that a true man knows how to wear a dress.

Playing the Llama opposite Alison Page as the Bear last year was a blast. She was lights out hilarious. Like, she had the audience giggle farting in joy. So every night I just went out and tried to be as funny as she was and also make her laugh.

The script called for the Llama to resuscitate the lifeless Bear and it was so fun. Alison’s trying to stay dead while I’m working overtime to get her to break. One night, the CPR bit turned into me just blowing spittle on her face. She lost it, I lost it and then the audience really lost it.

Having her be so good really motivated me and that bit of competitiveness ended up pushing the whole piece a lot further. (Megan) Cohen and Stuart had written these amazing characters and then Alison and I got just go be goofballs together and by the fifth show we’d added in all manner of physical bits, audience interaction and some new text and were just having way too much fun on stage.

Rob and Allison Page, making history together.

Rob and Allison Page, making history together.

Where do you hope the Llama goes next?

Broadway, baby.

If the Llama could share a pint with one person, who would it be?

Probably himself. He’s a loner. Or a random stranger. Or that fucking Bear.

What’s next for you? What fun project is on the horizon?

GET RIGHT ALL NIGHT is PianoFight’s first ever hybrid music music – comedy – dance party featuring live surf and soul music from the PianoFight Music Department and the show features ForePlays, Imaginary Radio, Anna & The Annadroids, The Lazy Susans, DJ Short Shorts and a big sweaty dance party. It’s this Saturday, July 27 at 8pm at Inner Mission and it’s gonna be awesome.

Then BOA is coming up in September which is always rad.

And PianoFight has been building a space for a thousand years but it’s actually going to open this year. So that’s exciting.

It is exciting. I think your fans will be happy to keep the party going. So, in five words, how would you capture this year’s Pint Sized Festival?

Bittersweet end of an era.

Ah, poetic. Okay, on a different note, if you could set up characters from the last four Pint Sized productions on a date, which two folks would you put together?

Deb O Rah the dildo saleswoman (from Tom Bruett’s play) and a character Sunil Patel played a couple years ago in Nancy Cooper Frank’s play. That would be hilarious.

And just for the record, people can find out about PianoFight at http://www.PianoFight.com or follow us on Twitter @pianofight or on Facebook.

Thank you to Rob Ready for not only being an incredible Llama Hero but for taking the time to talk about Theater Pub. Cheers to you! You can buy Rob a beer next Monday and Tuesday at Cafe Royale as Pint Sized takes over for two more evenings. Get those Llama snuggles while you can!

You can catch Ashley on Twitter @ashcows posting a lot of pictures of her dog or on stage with Custom Made Theatre’s production of Book of Liz playing every weekend until August 18.