Theater Around The Bay: Year End Round Up, Act 4, The Stueys (Again)

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2014 list. Finally. We know it’s long, but read the whole thing. Seriously. If he was Tony Kushner you’d do it.

So if there is anything I learned last week it’s that one can have spent too much time thinking about Into The Woods.

No, but seriously, in the time since I published last week’s avante garde explanation for why I wasn’t going to do the Stueys, ironically, as these things often happen, I rediscovered why I want to do the Stueys. Blame it on a couple of supportive emails I got, a text of a friend reading my blog from inside a security fort and identifying too much, and a chat on a bay-side bench with a young, hopeful playwright, but my heart started to heal from the poison I was bleeding out of it and then one night, quite spontaneously, I just sat down and wrote them. And it just felt dumb not to share them. Before I do though, I wanted to briefly (for me) revisit the three things I wanted to get across in last week’s article. In 2015 it’s my goal to create space both for what I want to say, and what I need to say.

1) I kind of hate the Internet. But seriously, after the last year or so, does anybody not? I mean, I love what it can do but I’m starting to truly hate what it brings out in people, including myself. To be honest, while I am still quick with the quippy comments on Facebook and such, you may have noticed I am much quieter on the debates and controversy front than I once was and this is because I’ve just reached my limit of getting into fights that started out as conversations but then devolved into people just trying to outshout one another. It’s amazing to realize that a silent medium requires a volume dial but it really does, and the truth is, there are days I fear to be anything but funny on the internet, or ubiquitously positive, and so I ironically don’t want to talk in what is supposed to be a forum, not because I fear critique or debate, but because I’m not looking to start any wars. Too bad the Internet is pretty much a 24/7 war zone.

2) I kind of hate awards. I always kind of have, but this became more apparent to me after I won a TBA Award this year and I know that sounds ungrateful but believe me, I am honored and flattered to have received it, and I understand why awards are important, or at least necessary, and I can’t state enough, especially as someone who got to discuss the process and purpose behind the awards extensively with the folks running them, that I do believe the TBA awards are both well intentioned and super inclusive in their attempt to create an even playing field for theater makers coming from a diverse level of resources. What I dislike so strongly about awards is how many people, in the broader sense, use them as shorthand to designate the value of art, artists, and organizations. And no, they’re not supposed to do this, I know, but they do, and we as artists are not supposed to internalize this, I know, but we do. And I became really aware of that standing in a room with my fellow nominees that night, who didn’t win an award, all of whom were good sports about it but I could tell it made them sad. Which made me feel kind of miserable. And now my award lives in the back of my closet because as proud as I am of it, I’m also weirded out about it, and what it might mean to people, the expectations it might create about me or my work. And awards are nice but they can’t be why we’re in this, and I know that sounds kind of bullshit from somebody who has a few but it’s true and we have to remember that.

3) I kind of hate theater. Okay, that is an exaggeration but I am going through a phase of being sort of disenchanted with theater and some of the theater community. I know this is hardly a first for anybody in the community, and I suspect it’s a particularly common feeling when you’re feeling overworked- which I definitely was in 2014. 2015, however, doesn’t promise to be any less work, in fact the opposite, and so that’s got me down. And yes, I know it’s my choice to work as much as I do, but it’s also kind of not. A lot of what I do won’t happen without me and that makes me want to keep working because I believe in it and all the people it serves or creates opportunities for, but my inability to really escape the theater scene for more than a day or two before my inbox fills and my phone rings reached epic proportions in 2014 and lead to some intense moments of resenting the thing I love for needing me so very much while not always feeling like it needs me, Stuart, so much as anybody dumb enough to work this hard for this little pay. Which is a nasty thing to say but sometimes… sometimes it’s also kind of the truth. Feeling taken for granted sucks; feeling enslaved to passion has a dark side. So it goes. It balances out all the times I feel rescued and redeemed by it.

So, hopefully, you can see how all this could make for a mood not suited for creating the Stueys. Considering my general ambivalence/anxiety about awards, but recognizing that some people take the Stueys seriously enough to put them on resumes and websites, I really have been struggling with how ethical, not to mention hypocritical, it is for me, as an artist, to be handing out awards, no matter how playfully, to my fellow artists, when the only thing determining those awards is… me. Who no one should take seriously. But who apparently some people really do. Cue paralysis inducing terror and suddenly I couldn’t remember why I was doing this or what it was all about, but I felt I had to say something because I had all this stuff to say. But it can be hard for me to talk about myself, what I’m personally going through, and even harder for me to advocate for myself. I hate disappointing people. But I hate being insincere more. And I wanted to begin to understand why I was feeling all this dread.

Anyway, without more ado, and much, much later than intended, here they are, 14 awards for the 2014 Stueys.

BEST ADDITION TO THE BAY AREA THEATRE SCENE
The Bay Area Theatre Awards

The best thing about the Bay Area theater scene is that there is a huge diversity in the offerings, and so much on the table to begin with, and when we celebrate that whole community, regardless of budget or house size, Equity relationship or ticket price, we are celebrating our Art, ourselves as Artists, and Artists as contributors to and saviors of the World. Of course, no one organization or person can see it all, and therefore it’s important to share with one another the highlights of our time in the audience seat, if only to create a greater awareness of what and who is out there making stuff. No matter how far we cast our net, there is always more to see and more to explore and we’re fortunate to have it that way, so for a moment, let’s just celebrate what an incredible delight it is to now have an official awards system for our community that appears to be on the same page as that sentiment of inclusivity and casting a wide net, regardless of whatever other kinks may still need to be ironed out. And for those of you who feel the TBA Awards are not enough, or still missing the boat in some regards, you are correct. And you should do something about it, whatever that means to you. To me, it means keeping the SEBATAs going, because in my mind, Heaven is a place where at last we are all recognized for what we bring to the table, and I dream of a Bay Area filled with organizations and individuals proudly recognizing one another at every possible turn, for as many reasons as can be found, as many times as it pleases us to do so. And so I am giving the first Stuey this year to TBA, and specifically Robert Sokol, for having completed a Herculean task that they will now have to complete all over again. And then again. And then again. And again. Good luck everybody!

BEST NEW VENUE
PianoFight

Is there anyone who isn’t excited about all the potential here? Rob Ready and company have been building this space for years now, and walking into it you see why it has taken so long- it is just beautiful. From the mural by Molly Benson to the floors and the furniture, they have been seeking to create not just another black box or just another dive bar, but something truly magnificent, welcoming, inspiring, and everything a venue dedicated to a community art should be. Best thing of all? They’ve asked Theater Pub to perform there, and so we will be performing there, starting in January, at least twice a month going forward. Which makes us excited and scared. Something we’re sure they understand. This whole year looks to be exciting and scary.

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
San Francisco Fringe Festival (EXIT Theatre)

Dear San Francisco: this amazing thing happens right in the middle of you every year and not enough of you know about it and not enough of you make the time to visit it. And like… really visit it, not just duck in to see your friend’s show and then run out. And I understand why you do that because I used to do the same thing but now, having worked there for three years, I have to say, you are robbing yourself of an amazing opportunity to see theater from all over the country and the world, and to meet and talk with the most diverse collection of artists any one event assembles at any given point in the year, and to be a part of something bigger than you and bigger than just this venue or this theater scene for that matter. Do yourself a favor, serious theater goer, serious theater maker, and commit to seeing at least three shows at the Fringe this next year. Pick one by someone you know, one by someone you have heard of, and one by a total stranger. See them all, bring a friend, hang out in the Café and the Green Room between shows (on almost any night of the Fringe you can see 2-3 shows in one visit to the venue, and all the tickets are super cheap), introduce yourself to the staff and artists, tip the Fringe, and see if it doesn’t inspire you to want to see more, know more, do more. If the Bay Area Theatre scene is a garden, this is one of our most vital vegetable beds. Tend this garden, and then come get fed.

BEST SHOW
“Our Town” (Shotgun Players)

Won’t lie… it kind of kills me that this was my favorite show of the year. But it was, so much so that my boyfriend, afterwards, said, “Let’s not see anything else this year- let’s let this be where we stop” and he was right and I agreed, but that’s part of what worries me: for far too many people I think theater starts and stops with “Our Town”, or its equivalent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good theater because it is, and I have long defended Thornton Wilder as being one of the great playwrights whose work is often undermined by having been overdone. This production, directed by Susannah Martin with assistance from Katja Rivera, was anything but overdone, it was subtle and lovely and elegantly realized, from the costumes and lighting, to the music and the performances, and it all came together in a way that, while nostalgic and dramatically safe (which aren’t necessarily bad things, but important to recognize), still felt fresh and sincere, like the gesture of laying down in the rain on the grave of a loved one. There was really nothing I didn’t love. Though if I had to pick favorites I’ll say very little is more entertaining than watching Michelle Talgarow and Don Wood play off each other, even during the intermission raffle. The night I was there they got some very chatty audience feedback and they handled it Grover’s Corners style: graciously and politely and in a way that warmed your heart.

BEST READING
“Hydra” by Tonya Narvaez (SF Olympians Festival)

God, there is very little better in life than a really good reading, and possibly nothing more frustrating than watching people shoot themselves in the foot on what should be the simplest, easiest theatrical event to pull off. And yet… again and again we see it at the SF Olympians Festival, the full range of dramatic readings, from the simple but impafctful, to the overdone and done to death. This year we had a number of excellent readings, but my favorite standout was “Hydra”, written and directed by Tonya Narvaez. A ghost story, a comedy, a conundrum, the piece was elevated to a new level by Tonya shrouding the stage in total darkness except for reading lights for her cast who, illuminated in the stark and eerie glow, were uniformly excellent- not in the least because they were relieved of having to worry about blocking and forced by the light to focus only on the text. Such a simple, elegant choice, but so effective. She won that night of the festival, and wins this Stuey for Best Reading.

BEST SHORT PLAY
“Mars One Project” by Jennifer Roberts (part of “Super Heroes” at Wily West Productions)

Jennifer Robert’s play, about a female astronaut who is denied her chance to go to Mars because she has a daughter and the Powers That Be don’t think the world can stomach or root for a woman who would leave her child, even in an attempt to create a role model for that child, was by far the best piece in this evening of shorts. There was plenty of fine writing, but this is the one that transcended its own subject matter to present that ever elusive thing: an issue play in which both sides of the argument are presented with pathos. The tragedy of the piece is less that “we’re not there yet” and more, “is what it will take to be there always going to require sacrifice on this level”, to me a much more interesting, more human question. In an evening of mostly sketches, it was the one piece that could not only stand on its own, but really stood for something, and it’s a near perfect short play- which as an author of short plays, I assure you, is a near impossibility.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Amanda Ortmayer (EXIT Theatre Technical Director)

Amanda Ortmayer has let me cry on her shoulder so many times this year it’s astounding she doesn’t just keep a towel on hand. Only she probably does, since she’s seemingly prepared for anything, she just probably keeps it out of sight, since she also knows the value of never revealing your bag of tricks, or the exact location of your wishing tree. Something has to keep us in ballgowns and slippers and it’s probably not going to be wishes alone. But Amanda likes to encourage wishes too, and that rare combination of pragmatism and dreaming is why she is just generally… awesome. If you haven’t had a chance to work with her, I hope, one day, you do. It’ll remind you why we’re all in this, or at least, why we should all be in this: for the people.

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Marissa Skudlarek, “Pleiades”

One of my biggest pet peeves is listening to people complain about how there are not enough opportunities, while refusing to ever create those opportunities themselves. For the record I agree, there aren’t enough opportunities, but at some point we need to realize that if we have our health and a clear sense of our dreams, we’ve already been given more than most people get so it’s really just about figuring out how to see your dream materialize. Watching Marissa Skudlarek as she put together her first production as a producer (she wrote the script too, but we’re giving her recognition for the producer hat here), I was blown away by how organized and focused she was, how determined she was to do it as best she could even the first time out. Which is more than I can say for me. Even now, I feel like I mostly just take a deep breath, pick up my sword, and rush into battle blindly, while Marissa strategized and planned, gathered information, raised funds, and was just in general super smart about it all. Was anyone surprised? Not really. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take one more moment to tell her she did an amazing job. Everyone looking to produce a show in 2015- call Marissa. She knows what she’s doing.

BEST CHEMISTRY
Michaela Greeley, Katherine Otis, Terry Bamberger (“Three Tall Women”, Custom Made Theater Company)

It is not easy to play three versions of the same woman but this trio of ladies, under the direction of Custom Made veteran Katjia Rivera, brought so much magic to the stage that the leap of faith required for Act Two of Edward Albee’s classic was not only easy to make, you made it with a song in your heart! This is a lovely show, but one I rarely feel enthusiastic about, energized by, and these three performers, working so well together, in such total tandem with one another, sold me on this show in a way it’s never been sold to me before. Michaela Greeley was uncomfortably good at playing the frailty of her character in Act One and the fierce stubborn vitality in Act Two; while Terry Bamberger was an edgy warmth in Act One that ballooned into an explosion of heat and fire in Act Two; Katherine Otis, in the part with the least to work with in both acts, managed to strike the aloof brittleness required in the first act while still laying the foundations for the insecure idealist the second act tears to pieces. But what I may have loved the most was the way these ladies moved, always circling one another, always creating triangles on the stage, each one so aware of the other, having to fill the space one vacated, or rushing to claim a spot before the other could. It was like a dance, like a motorized portrait of the Three Fates and they wove a spell together that was frightening and enchanting all at once.

BEST RISK
Kat Evasco, “Mommie Queerest” (Guerilla Rep/DIVAfest)

Kat Evasco knows how to work an audience, but the audience at her show might not have been ready to get worked so hard. Bravely darting in and out of us, throwing herself around the stage in gleeful and breathless abandon, Kat unravels a personal story about the struggle to discover not only who she is- but who her mother is. And why she needs her mother to know who she is before she can finally accept herself. Co-written with John Caldon, who also directed, the show avoids the bulk of solo show clichés, feeling more like a play where Kat has just been tasked with playing all the roles to the best of her ability, and the audience isn’t really asked to come along so long as commandeered by her at the beginning and let go only when she sees fit. The piece is courageously risky, not only because of the controversial elements within it, but because Kat leaves no fourth wall standing between herself and the audience, and if they don’t run with her on it, her show is kind of screwed. Both times I saw this though, that wasn’t a problem; it’s hard not to jump in both feet at a time with a performer who is so ready and eager to do it.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
Justin Gillman (“The Pain And The Itch”, Custom Made Theater Company; “Blood Wedding” Bigger Than A Breadbox Theatre Company; “Pastorella” No Nude Men; and like a billion other things)

So… how many plays was Justin Gillman in this past year? It seemed like every time you turned around he was being cast in something, including by me, and every time he was pretty amazing in it. I don’t know how he does it. Like seriously, I don’t know how he memorizes all his lines, let alone doesn’t burn out from the constant rehearsal and yet somehow he shows up every night, fresh and ready to perform. Generous with everyone, onstage and off, it’s rare I don’t find him the highlight of a cast, usually finding a way to balance being a somewhat over-the-top character with a deeply human core that is achingly vulnerable when not just a tiny bit scary. In each of the three roles highlighted above, this was the common thread- men at first dismissable, who at sudden turns revealled their fangs, and then wept as they ripped your throat out. Delicious.

The ladies have gotten a lot of attention on this year’s list, which is great, but we like to keep things balanced here at the Stueys so we’re giving two more nods out: Kenny Toll (“Dracula Inquest”, Central Works) and Sam Tillis (“Slaughterhouse Five”, Custom Made Theater Company). In my opinion, both of these gentlemen were the best thing about these two shows, which were solid enough theatrical productions but elevated by fully committed actors. In both cases, both men also played characters who were… well, committed. As in insane. Though the insanity characterizations couldn’t have been more night and day than the plays were (Toll’s was of the by turns wimpering, by turns screeching Bedlam variety, Tillis was the diamond hard, lethally cold, slow burn sociopath kind), both managed to be believable and unsettling without being melodramatic or over-the-top. Toll even managed to be sympathetic, while Tillis managed to be mesmerizing. Either way, it was endlessly watchable, haunting, and impressive.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Cat Luedtke in Anything

Seriously, once upon a time there was no Cat Leudtke and then one morning we woke up and she was everywhere. I think I might have seen her in like six shows this year and in each case she was the walk away discovery, the revelation performance. The tremendous skill of this woman is matched only by her tremendous range, as every role I saw her in this year was different, though perhaps none so piercing and breathtaking as her role in Custom Made’s “Top Girls” as England’s most done-with-it-but-not-lying-down-about-it mother. I’ve also seen her sing and dance, act Lorca, play the 19th century adventurer, the dutiful wife, and more (probably helps that one of the things I saw her in was a collection of one-acts), bringing to each role a personal touch and a universal power, a sincerity and openness of heart that made you feel like you were watching a real person. She’s very much a “real actress”, whatever we mean by that when we say it. I know that what I tend to mean is somebody so good at throwing themselves into something, they transcend and turn into someone else, each and every time.

There is always an embarrassment of brilliant female performances in the Bay Area, so I feel a few other honorable mentions are in order: Mikka Bonel in “At The White Rabbit Burlesque” (DIVAfest), giving a performance as a rabbit that was unlike any performance of anything I’ve ever seen; Ariel Irula in “Blood Wedding” (Bigger Than A Breadbox), whose deeply passionate performance was matched only by the soul of her singing voice; Jean Forsman in “The Pain And The Itch” (Custom Made Theater Company), nailing well-meaning but vapid liberal mom as only someone like Jean could, walking perfectly that line of endearing and annoying; Stephanie Ann Foster in “Slaughterhouse Five” (Custom Made Theater Company), who played both a woman and a man in the show, and was lovely, heartbreaking, deeply sympathetic in each role.

BEST FUSION THEATER PIECE
Now And At The Hour (Christian Cagigal, H.P. Mendoza)

The fusion of theater and film is a tricky one, and I can only imagine how filming a stage show without destroying the magic of live theater must require an excellent understanding of both mediums. Now make that live theater a magic show too and you are truly setting yourself up to fall flat on your face, but H.P. Mendoza’s film of Christian Cagigal’s “Now And At The Hour” flies, it is magical and touching, the decision to interrupt the narrative of the stage show with the narrative of Christian’s life and the important players in it only adding to the emotional punch of this unique variation on “the artist and his work” formula. Beautifully shot, entertaining, unexpectedly poignant, this is a stellar example of a collaboration between artists and mediums.

BEST SOLO SHOW
Kevin Rolston, “Deal With The Dragon” (SF Fringe Festival)

Remember my earlier bit about the Fringe? Here is a glowing example of why going into something blind at the Fringe can sometimes result in stumbling across something truly excellent. I didn’t know anything about this show. It had a fun premise in the Fringe guide (Man moves in with Dragon) and a bad flier design (sorry, it can’t all be hugs and snuggles here) and while I had no expectations what I wasn’t expecting was to be so thoroughly moved and entertained. It does not hurt that Kevin Rolston is an incredibly talented performer with an ability to switch between his three narrators with glass-like smoothness, or that each of the three stories he tells, each with a different take on the idea of a “dragon”, are all funny and unsettling portraits of our tenous relationship with self-control and those things inside us that scare us. An unsettling fable about how our potential for violence and indulgence can also be our potential for strength and transformation, Rolston’s notes in the program claimed the piece is unfinished, but it could actually already stand as is. Here’s hoping the final product is as good as the draft.

And as for Me…

So Usually I end the awards with something about the show I personally worked on that affected me the most, but in all honesty I got so much out of all of them it would be hard to pick one so I kind of just want to take a final look at last year as a whole so I can both make sense of it and kiss it goodbye.

For me, it was an incredible year, but that doesn’t mean I loved every second of it. Far from it. It was as demanding as it was rewarding and at times it also seemed… endless. Like there was just always one more thing to do, to get through and then… two more. And then nine. I got to work with material by the incredible Kristin Hersh this year and that will forever be a highlight of my life but the production itself was a rough process, and the reception was rough, it all kind of placed too much strain on an important relationship in my life and I walked away feeling very differently than I had when I walked in- which was hopeful and desirous to bring a project that meant a lot to me to people I loved who I thought could benefit from it, but by the end I was wondering if I had ultimately done more harm than good by bringing such tremendous attention to something so natal. Then I directed a stellar production of “The Crucible” that made me acutely aware of how resistant critics and audiences can be to seeing a familiar play in a new way, and also how embracing they can be, but by that point I was having a hard time hearing the love and found it easier to focus on the detrimental views. I worked to let it all go, focused on feeling proud of the work my actors and designers had done, which was stupendous, and then just as I was feeling more balanced again, Wily West’s production of my play “Everybody Here Says Hello!”, after a whirlwind of a production process, opened to unexpectedly and ubiquitously positive reception. Suddenly, I was a guy with a hit show on my hands- technically my third this year since “Rat Girl” and “The Crucible”, despite whatever misgivings critics were having, were also big audience successes. For the first time in my career though my writing was the center of attention (I often feel I am mostly known as a director who writes, though I am actually a writer who directs), partly because Rik Lopes, not I, had directed “EHSH”, and so critics had to speak about our separate contributions separately, and that was wonderful but the moment was short-lived: we ended up having two performances canceled and the show only ran 7 times and it became my play everybody “really wished they had made it out to see.” Me too! Though one should never shake a stick at houses full of strangers. But oh… we do this partly because of the friends we hope to show something personal to, don’t we? And, again, I was having a year where it was hard not to keep adding things up in the negative, no matter how well they were actually going.

Anyway, this was then followed by the Fringe, as rewarding and as demanding as ever, which was then followed by the fast and furious (yet incredibly smooth) rehearsal process for my play “Pastorella”, which was the only piece I both wrote and directed last year, and which was well received, actually pretty much adored by audiences, but played to 2/3rds full houses or less its entire run after opening to an audience of 11- my second smallest audience in the history of my theater life in San Francisco (not my whole life- I once played to an audience of 2 in Tucson). The result was a show that, though very economically produced, still ended in the red, something which shouldn’t affect one personally as much as it does. But if you haven’t gathered yet, I’m being truthful here, even if it makes me seem a little petty. So yeah, my final passion project of the year was probably my personal favorite artistic accomplishment but it also cleaned out my bank account, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that 2014 was the year I went freelance/contractor and believe me- it’s been an adjustment. One I’m still adjusting to. Finally we had the fifth installment of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which was wonderful if perhaps more draining than usual, and fraught with an abnormal amount of backstage drama, from some diva moves on the part of some of our participants, to a failure to meet our fundraising goals (first time ever), and then the pique of which, of course, was having our dressing room robbed on, naturally, the night of my reading, which was successful in that it was well done by my trooper cast, but again, sort of middling attended, and a bit anti-climactic as an artist considering it had taken me all year to write it. And did I mention that some of my favorite actors kind of hated the script? Disappointing, but less so than having a “colleague” tell me that working with me was basically bad for businesses because of my strong opinions and tendency to carve my own way, nonsense that nobody who was actually a friend would have bothered to bring up- especially not when I was in the midst of trying to find a way to help them realize their own plans for the local theater scene. But I have occasionally been told my Achilles heel is caring about the band as much as I care about myself.

And somewhere in there I won a TBA Award for “EHSH”, had two works of mine garner bids for film adaptations, threw a delightful birthday party and another successful Easter brunch, but had to cancel a major social event because I got pink eye. Which is only worth mentioning again because in retrospect, it really is kind of funny. I wanted to get more reading done and much more writing, but it just didn’t happen. Best laid plans of mice and men…

So yes, 2014 was amazing but it was also, definitely, a mixed bag. Rewarding to no end, but unforgiving in many ways, most of all in that I had a hard time forgiving myself for just… well… doing my best but not always getting everything the way I wanted it or hoped for. The problem is, when you’re burnt out, stuff that you’d normally brush off or accept as the breaks of the business or just how life is get harder to be blasé about, and I found myself at the end of 2014 feeling accomplished but bruised, lucky but kind of cursed, exhausted and not excited so much as terrified about the future and yet… hopeful. Cause I am hopeful. And I want to stress that and more or less end there, and tell you it was amazing to have 800+ people applaud me for winning an award (even if it was for a play I always considered a bit of a “minor work” and never guessed would be so defining), and it was incredible to walk up those stairs that night, all alone, and think, even as my thoughts came crashing down around me, “Well, you certainly don’t do anything half-assed, do you Stuart?” (even if that means sometimes I paint myself into an intellectual corner with the same gusto I pull myself out of it). Though I definitely experienced a lot in 2014, I often felt like I wasn’t actually learning so much as surviving, and oh, by the way, I had massive writer’s block, and it was writing all that out last Monday that finally cured it… and got us here. And here is not a bad place to be: hopeful, and weirdly confident that whatever happens next, I can probably handle it. I just kind of wish I had a clearer idea of what “it” was. But then we all wish that, don’t we?

Ah well. C’est la vie.

Deep breath.

Happy New Year.


Stuart Bousel runs the San Francisco Theater Pub blog, and is a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. You can find out more about his work at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.

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Theater Around The Bay: Year-End Round-Up Act 1

Well, we’ve made it- the end of 2014! It’s been a tremendous year of learning and change, tragedy and triumph, and our eight staff bloggers are here to share with you some of their own highlights from a year of working, writing and watching in the Bay Area Theater scene (and beyond)! Enjoy! We’ll have more highlights from 2014 tomorrow and Wednesday! 

Ashley Cowan’s Top 5 Actors I Met This Year (in random order!)

1) Heather Kellogg: I had seen Heather at auditions in the past but she always intimidated me with her talent, pretty looks, and bangin’ bangs. Luckily for me, I had the chance to meet her at a reading early in the year and I immediately started my campaign to be friends. She also just amazed me in Rat Girl.

2) Justin Gillman: I feel like I saw Justin in more roles than any other actor in 2014 but I was completely blown away by his performance in Pastorella. What I appreciated so much about his time on stage was that underneath an incredible, honest portrayal was an energy that simply longed to be; there’s something so beautiful about watching someone do what they love to do and do it so well.

3) Kitty Torres: I absolutely loved The Crucible at Custom Made and while so many of the actors deserve recognition for their work, I really wanted to commend Kitty for her part in an awesome show. She had to walk the fine line of being captivating, but still and silent, while also not taking attention away from the action and dialogue happening around her in the play’s opening scene. And she nailed it. I met her in person weeks later in person and my goodness, she’s also just delightful.

4) Vince Faso: I knew of Vince but we officially met at a party in February of this year. I enjoyed getting to know him both in person and on stage but it was his roles in Terror-Rama that made me realize that Vince is like a firework; while the sky may be beautiful on its own, when he walks on stage, he naturally lights it up in a new way.

5) Terry Bamberger: I met Terry at an audition and she’s the opposite of someone you’d expect to meet in such an environment. She was incredibly kind, supportive, and while you’re hoping you get into the play, you start to equally root for her to be in it too. And after seeing Terry in Three Tall Women, it’s clear that she’s also someone who deserves to be cast from her range and skills alone.

Barbara Jwanouskos’s Top 5 Moments in Bay Area Theater Where I Admired the Writer

This year has been one of momentous changes. I spent the first five months completing the last semester of the Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University and receiving my MFA. I moved back to Bay Area and since then, have tried to become enmeshed in the theater scene once again. I haven’t had the resources to see all the performances I would have liked, but this list puts together the top five moments since being back that I’ve not only enjoyed the performance, but I found myself stuck with an element of the show that made me appreciate what the playwright had put together. In no particular order…

1) The Late Wedding by Christopher Chen at Crowded Fire Theater: Chris is known for his meta-theatrical style and elements – often with great effect. I have admired the intricacy of Chris’s plays and how he is able to weave together a satisfying experience using untraditional narrative structures. While watching The Late Wedding, I found myself at first chuckling at the lines (I’m paraphrasing, but…), “You think to yourself, is this really how the whole play is going to be?” and then finding a deeper meaning beyond what was being said that revolved around the constructs we build around relationships and how we arbitrarily abdicate power to these structures. Then, of course, I noticed that thought and noted, “Man, that was some good writing…”

2) Superheroes by Sean San José at Cutting Ball Theater with Campo Santo: I was talking with another playwright friend once who said, “Sean can take anything and make it good – he’s a phenomenal editor,” and in the back of my head, I wondered what types of plays he would create if behind the wheel as playwright. In Superheroes, there is a moment where the mystery of how the government was involved in the distribution of crack unfolds and you’re suddenly in the druggy, sordid, deep personal space of actual lives affected by these shady undertakings. Seeing the powerlessness against addiction and the yearning to gain some kind of way out – I sat back and was just thinking, “Wow, I want to write with that kind of intense emotional rawness because that is striking.” I left that play with butterflies in my stomach that lasted at least two hours.

3) Fucked Up Chronicles of CIA Satan and Prison Industry Peter and Never Ending Story by Brit Frazier at the One Minute Play Festival (Playwrights Foundation): Clocking in at under a minute each – these two plays that opened the One Minute Play Festival’s Clump 6 after Intermission were among the most striking images and moments for me of that festival. Brit’s two plays were hard-hitting, pull-no-punches, extremely timely works that I just remember thinking, “Now that is how to tell a whole story in just one minute.” I was talking to a friend about the festival and he said, “Even though they were only a minute, it’s funny how you can tell who really knows how to write.” I totally agree, and the first plays that I thought of when he said that were Brit’s.

4) Millicent Scowlworthy by Rob Handel at 99 Stock Productions:
I was only familiar with Aphrodisiac and 13P on a most basic level when I decided to apply to Carnegie Mellon, but, of course, training with a working playwright and librettist, you can’t help but be curious about his other work. Though I hadn’t read Millicent Scowlworthy, the title alone was something that I figured I’d enjoy. Seeing the production this summer, I had another “So grateful I got to train with this guy” moment as I watched the plot swirl around the looming question that the characters kept on attacking, addressing, backing away from at every moment. The desperate need for the kids to act out the traumatic event from their past and from their community felt so powerfully moving. I understood, but didn’t know why – it was more of a feeling of “I know this. This is somewhere I’ve been.” And to me, what could be a better feeling to inspire out your audience with your writing?

5)
Year of the Rooster by Eric Dufault at Impact Theater: I’d met Eric at a La MaMa E.T.C. playwriting symposium in Italy a number of years ago. We all were working on group projects so you got less of a sense of what types of plays each person wrote and more of their sources of inspiration. I have to say, going to Impact to see Year of the Rooster was probably THE most enjoyable experience I’ve had in theater this year – just everything about it came together: the writing, the directing, the space, the performances… There was pizza and beer… But I was profoundly engaged in the story and also how Eric chose to tell it and it was another moment where I reflected, “where are the moments I can really grab my key audience and give them something meaty and fun?”

Will Leschber’s Top 5 Outlets That Brought You Bay Area Theater (outside of a theater)

5) Kickstarter: The Facebook account of everyone you know who crowd-funded a project this year. Sure, it got old being asked to donate once every other week to another mounting production or budding theater project. BUT, the great news is, with this new avenue of financial backing, many Bay Area theater projects that might have otherwise gone unproduced got their time in the sun. This could be viewed as equally positive or negative… I like to look on the bright side of this phenomenon.

4) Blogging: San Francisco Theater Pub Blog- I know, I know. It’s tacky to include this blog on our own top 5 list. But hey, just remember this isn’t a ranking of importance. It’s just a reminder of how Bay Area theater branches out in ways other than the stage. And I’m proud to say this is a decent example. There, I said it.

3) YouTube: A good number of independent theater performances are recorded for posterity. Theater Pub productions of yesteryear and past Olympians festival readings are no exception. I’d like to highlight Paul Anderson who tirelessly recorded this year’s Olympians Festival: Monsters Ball. Due to his efforts and the efforts of all involved, the wider community can access these readings. For a festival that highlights a springboard-process towards playwriting improvement, that can be a very valuable tool.

2) Hashtags: #Theater, #HowElseWouldWeFollowEachOther, #MyNewPlay, #YourNewPlay, #Hashtags, #KeywordsSellTickets

1) The Born Ready podcast: Each week Rob Ready and Ray Hobbs tear into the San Francisco theater scene with jokes and, dare I say it, thoughtful commentary. Looking for a wide spanning podcast that touches on the myriad levels of theater creation, production, performance and all things in between? Crack a beer and listen up! This is for you.

Charles Lewis III’s Top 5 Invaluable Lessons I Learned

This past year was a wild one; not fully good or bad. I achieved some career milestones AND failed to meet some goals. I got 86’d from some prominent companies AND formed new connections with others. With it all said and done, what have I got to show for it? Well, here are five things that stand out to me:

1) “Be mindful of what I say, but stand by every word.” I said in my very first official column piece that I had no intention of trolling – and I don’t – but when I start calling people “asshole” (no matter how accurate), it can run the risk of personal attack rather than constructive criticism. I’m trying to stick to the latter. And believe me, I have no shortage of criticism.

2) “Lucid dreams are the only way to go.” There are some projects, mostly dream roles, that I now know I’ll never do. What’s occurred to me recently is that I shouldn’t limit the creation of my dream projects to just acting. Lots of venues opened up to me recently, and they’ve set off cavalcade of ideas in my head. They might not be what I originally wanted, but it’s great to know I have more options than I first thought.

3) “It’s only ‘too late’ if you’ve decided to give up.” I don’t believe in destiny (“everything is preordained”), but I do believe in fate (the perfect alignment of seemingly random circumstance). I kinda took it for granted that the chances of me making a living at performance art had passed me by, then this year I was offered several more chances. Which ones I take is still in flux, it’s made me reassess what’s important to me about this art form.

4) “Burn a bridge or two. It’s nice to see a kingdom burn without you.” This year someone (whom I shall call “Hobgoblin”) tried to put a curse on me. Nothing magical, but more along the lines of a “You’ll never work in this town again” kinda curse. Years ago I might have been worried, but I knew his words were just that. Instead I threw back my head, started laughing, and said “Oh, Hobgoblin…”

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5) “If you EVER have the chance to work with Alisha Ehrlich, take it.” If I had to pick a “Person of The Year” for Bay Area Theatre, she’d be it. I acted alongside her in The Crucible this year and when some of us were losing focus, she brought her A-game Every. Single. Night. Most of us can only hope to be as dedicated to our work.

Anthony Miller’s Top 5 People I Loved Working With This Year

There were way more than 5, but I just wanted these people to know how much I appreciated everything they did this year!

1) Colin Johnson: This fucking guy, he was a huge part of my year and the success of Terror-Rama. He’s a fantastic Director, resourceful as hell a never ending source of positivity and enthusiasm and a swell guy .

2) Alandra Hileman: The courageous Production Stage Manager of Terror-Rama. Smart, unafraid to give an opinion or tell an actor, designer director or producer “no”, in fact she’s fantastic at “No”.

3) Brendan West: Brendan is the Composer of Zombie! The Musical!, we had our first conversation about writing the show in 2007. Since then, it’s been produced a few times, but never with live music. Working with Brendan again to finally showcase the score live in concert was incredible.

4) Robin Bradford:  In the last 3 years, when no one believed in me, Robin Bradford believed in me. This year, I was lucky enough to direct staged readings of her plays, The Ghosts of Route 66 (Co-Written by Joe Wolff) and Low Hanging Fruit. I love getting to work with the amazing actors she wrangles and incredible work she trusts me with.

5) Natalie Ashodian: My partner in life, devoted cat mother and so much more, this year, she has been my Producer, Costume Designer, Graphic Designer, Film Crew Supervisor, Zombie Wrangler and Copy Editor. She is the best. The. Best.

Allison Page’s Top 5 Moments That Made Me Love Being A Theater Maker In The Bay Area

1) The Return Of Theater Pub: I just have to say it – I’m thrilled that Theater Pub’s monthly shows are starting up again in January. It’s such a unique theater-going experience and encourages a different type of relationship to theater which is essential to new audience bases who maybe think that it isn’t for them. It infuses life and a casual feel to our beloved dramatics and welcomes any and all to have a beer and take in some art. I look forward to seeing what the new year will bring for TPub and its artistic team! And obviously, we’ll be here with ye olde blog.

2) Adventures At The TBA Conference: That sounds more thrilling and wild than it actually is. What happened is that I found I had a bunch of opinions about things! WHO KNEW?! Opinions about things and shows and companies and ideals and art and the conference itself. Conferences aren’t a perfect thing – never will be, because they’re conferences – but it does shine a light on what it is we’re doing, and that’s a biggie. Also I had a lot of whiskey with some new and old theater faces before the final session so that was cool.

3) The Opening Of The New PianoFight Venue: This is clearly getting a lot of mention from bay area theater people, because it’s exciting. No, it’s not the first theater to open up in the Tenderloin (HEYYYY EXIT Theatre!) but another multi-stage space is really encouraging. This next year will be a big one for them. Any time you’re doing something big and new, that first year is a doozy. Here’s hopin’ people get out to see things in the TL and support this giant venture. I will most definitely be there – both as an audience member and as a theater maker. It’s poised to be a real theatrical hub if enough people get on board. GET SOME!

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4) Seeing The Crucible: Seeing Custom Made’s production of The Crucible was exciting for a bunch of reasons, starting with the fact that I’ve never seen a production of it filled with actors instead of high school students. IT WAS GREAT. Yes, surprise, it’s not a boring old standard. It can be vital and thrilling and new but somehow not new at the same time. It was so full of great performances in both the larger roles and the not so large ones, and it really felt like everyone was invested in this big wrenching story they believed in – thus getting the audience to believe in it, too. Maybe that sounds like it should be common, but it’s not as much as it should be.

5) Everything That Happens At SF Sketchfest: Man, I love Sketchfest. Not just participating in it, but seeing everything I can (you can’t see all the things because there are so many, but I do what I can do). It’s this great combination of local and national stand up, improv, sketch, tributes, talkbacks, and indefinable stuff which takes over the city and points to the bay area as a place able to sustain a gigantic festival of funny people. And audiences go bonkers for the big name acts who come to town. The performers themselves get in prime mingling time with each other – something funny people can be pretty awkward about, but in this case we all know it’s going to be weird and we just go for it.

Dave Sikula’s Five Theatre Events That Defined 2014 for Me

1) Slaughterhouse Five, Custom Made Theatre Company: I’ve previously mentioned the night we had to abort our performance because of an actor injury. (I insisted at the time that it was the first time that it had happened to me in 40 years of doing theatre. I’ve since been informed that, not only had it happened to me before, it happened at the same theatre only two years ago.) Regardless, it marked for me a lesson about the magic, and hazards, of live performance. The idea that, not only can anything happen on stage, but that, if the worst comes to the worst, a company of performers will do all they can to come together and make a show work even in the most altered of circumstances.

2) The Suit, ACT: A touring production, but one that provided an invaluable reminder about simplicity. In the 80s, I’d seen Peter Brook’s nine-hour production of The Mahabrarata, and what struck me at that time was how stunningly simple it was. Brook’s faith and trust in cutting away pretense and bullshit and concentrating on simple storytelling – in a manner that is unique to a live performance; that is to say, acknowledging that we’re in the theatre, and not watching television or a movie, was a lesson in stripping things down to their essence and letting the audience use their imaginations to fill in and intensify the story.

3) The Farnsworth Invention, Palo Alto Players: I’ve written at extreme length about the controversy over our production. I’m not going to rehash it again, but I mention it as another lesson; that, in the best circumstances, theatre should provoke our audiences. Not to anger them, but to challenge and defend their preconceptions; to make them defend and/or change their opinions.

4) The Nance, Century at Tanforan: Something else I’ve written about is my frustration at how, even though we’re finally getting “televised” presentations of plays in movie theatres, they’re almost always from London. I have nothing against British theatre (well, actually, I have plenty against it, but nothing I want to get into here …) I realize American producers don’t want to cut into their profits if they can help it, but not only did film versions of Phantom and Les Mis not seem to hurt their theatrical box office receipts, is there any reason to believe that shows like The Bridges of Madison County or even Side Show wouldn’t have benefitted from either the extra publicity or extra cash that national exposure would have given them? Similarly, would broadcasts of the Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellen Waiting for Godot or the Nathan Lane/Brian Dennehy The Iceman Cometh do any harm? I’ll stipulate they don’t have a lot of title recognition, but did The Nance or Company other than their star leading performers? And let’s not limit it to New York. I’d like to see what’s happening in Chicago or Denver or Ashland or San Diego or Dallas or DC or Atlanta or Charlotte or Louisville or Portland or Seattle or Boston or Cleveland – or even San Francisco. The shortsightedness of producers in not wanting to grow their audiences at the expense of some mythical boost to the road box office (and even that, only in major cities) is nothing short of idiotic.

5) The Cocoanuts, Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Another one I wrote about at the time. One of those frustratingly rare occasions when a production not only met my high expectations, but wildly surpassed them. Hilarious and spontaneous, it was another reminder of why a live theatrical performance is so exciting when the actors are willing to take chances in the moment and do anything and are skilled enough to pull them off.

Marissa Skudlarek’s Top 5 Design Moments in Bay Area Theater

1) Liz Ryder’s sound design for The Crucible at Custom Made Theatre Company: Mixing Baroque harpsichord sounds with the frightening laughter of teenage girls, it created an appropriately spooky atmosphere. The friend who I saw The Crucible with went from “What does a sound designer do, anyway?” to “Now I see what sound design can do!” thanks to this show. I also want to honor Liz for the work she did on my own show, Pleiades, composing delicate finger-picked guitar music for scene transitions and putting together a rockin’ pre-show/intermission mix.

2) The Time magazine prop in The Pain and the Itch at Custom Made Theatre Company:

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This play takes place on Thanksgiving 2006, and the subtle but real differences between 2006 and 2014 can be tricky to convey (after all, clothing and furniture haven’t changed much in these eight years). But the November 6, 2006 issue of Time, with President Bush on the cover, takes you right back to the middle of the last decade. Even better, actor Peter Townley flipped through the magazine and paused at an article about Borat. Since Townley’s character was dating a broadly accented, bigoted Russian, it felt just too perfect.

3) Eric Sinkkonen’s set design for Wittenberg at the Aurora Theatre: This clever comedy takes place in the 1500s, but features puns and allusions of a more recent vintage. The set design perfectly captured the play’s tone: sure, Martin Luther nails his 95 theses to the church door, but the door’s already covered with flyers advertising lute lessons, meetings of Wittenberg University’s Fencing Club, etc. — just like any bulletin board at any contemporary university.

4) The whirring fan in Hir, at the Magic Theatre: I am, somewhat notoriously, on record as disliking this show. But the holidays are a time for generosity, so let me highlight an element of Hir that I found very effective: at the start of the play, the sound design incorporates a whirring fan. (The monstrous mother, Paige, runs the air conditioning constantly because her disabled husband hates it.) You don’t necessarily notice the white noise at first, but the whole tone of the play changes when another character turns the AC off at a dramatic moment.

5) Whitehands’ costume in Tristan and Yseult, at Berkeley Rep:

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Technically, I saw this show in late 2013, but it ran into 2014, so I’m including it. Whitehands (played by Carly Bawden) is Tristan’s other, less-famous lover. Her little white gloves were a clever nod to her name – and, crooning “Perfidia” in a yellow Fifties suit, pillbox hat, cat-eye sunglasses, and handbag hanging perfectly in the crook of her arm, she made heartbreak look impossibly chic.

What are your top choices, picks, experiences from the last year? Let us know!