Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Melo(dy) Drama

Marissa Skudlarek, la-la-la!

Since Theater Pub’s January show consists of short plays inspired by indie-rock artist Morrissey’s songs, I thought I’d flip that idea around and share some indie-rock songs inspired by theater.

“I Was Meant for the Stage” by the Decemberists

A lovely and tender ballad about feeling like you’ve found your home in the theater, though not without some wry touches. “Mother, please be proud / Father, be forgiving / Even though you told me, ‘Son / You’ll never make a living,’” Colin Meloy begs, and the joke is all the funnier because you can hear it coming. The chorus also acknowledges the darker side of finding your calling as an actor: you might start to feel like you’re superior to the hoi polloi. “You will resume your callow ways / But I was meant for the stage!” Meloy sings – and, responding to his pretentiousness, the band finishes off the track with some parodically self-indulgent noodling.

“Promises of Eternity” by the Magnetic Fields

Stephin Merritt, frontman and songwriter of the Magnetic Fields, is known for his odd lyrical conceits, but even by his standards, “Promises of Eternity” is pretty kooky. The premise of the song is that if he and his lover broke up, it would be as awful as if “no show ever happened again,” as if there were never any more theater in the world! Perhaps to match the drama-themed subject matter, Merritt sings this song in a much more melodramatic style than his typical deadpan vocals. My favorite line, both in terms of the wordplay and his vocal delivery: “What if the clowns couldn’t be clooowns / And all those painted smiles gave in to plaintive frowns?” (And is this possibly an allusion to Sondheim’s “Send In the Clowns?”)

“Actor Out of Work” by St. Vincent

The people on Genius.com posit this as a song about a woman who’s learned to see through her boyfriend’s lies, but you can also read it as just what the title says: the internal monologue of an out-of-work actor. There’s plenty of self-loathing – “You’re an actor out of work / You’re a liar and that’s the truth / You’re an extra lost in the scene” – mixed with the kinds of mantras you might say to psych yourself up before an audition: “You’re a boxer in the ring / With brass knuckles underneath.” The music is appropriately anxious and jittery, though when the soaring backing vocals come in, sounding like something from an old Broadway musical, it lends a nice theatrical touch.

“Benediction” by the Weakerthans

Songwriters continue to exploit “all the world’s a stage,” theater-as-a-metaphor-for-life imagery hundreds of years after Shakespeare did it. The lovely middle verse of this song begins “All the actors broke their legs” and goes on to describe a failing stage production, but it isn’t meant to be taken literally — as a whole, the song seems to be about either a breakup or a death. So it’s a song about theater, but you don’t have to be a theater person to relate to it. That slide-guitar, alt-country sound is so early-2000s-indie that it kind of hurts, and “Let the rain be your applause” is a line that Morrissey himself would be proud to have written.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer with a terrible weakness for any pop music that is described as “wry” or “literate.” Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: ShortLived, but Long in Memory

Marissa Skudlarek, romancing the past.

I didn’t realize how deeply I had romanticized PianoFight Productions’ 2010 edition of ShortLived, their audience-judged playwriting competition, nor how short half a decade can feel, until I learned that PianoFight is bringing ShortLived back this month. Of course I’ll go see at least a couple of the shows, vote for Theater Pub’s contribution (“This Is Why We Broke Up,” playing the weekend of March 13), root for my friends and hopefully be introduced to the work of impressive new writers and actors.

But—and I feel prematurely old saying this—I know it won’t be the way it was. It couldn’t possibly be the way it was.

In 2010, I was a hungry upstart; now, I’m someone who’s been referred to as “an established playwright” in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2010, I had limitless energy and enthusiasm but was a bit lacking in tact; now, I think, the balance has shifted. In 2010, I was a girl; now, I am an adult.

It was only (only?) half a decade ago, but we were all so much younger then.

When ShortLived happened in 2010, I’d been living in San Francisco for a year and a half. My period of post-college instability was over, I had a decent job and great roommates and some friends to do things with, and I was ready to plunge into the local indie theater scene. However, I was also in a low-grade panic over my inability to write a good short play.

This may sound like an odd problem to have, but when I first started writing plays as a teenager, I found it much easier to write long than to write short. I knocked out three full-length plays before I was 21, and two of them won awards; but the short plays I wrote for my high school and college playwriting classes were weak, trivial efforts. Trouble is, after you leave college and are trying to get your plays seen, most of the opportunities for newbie playwrights are for short plays, not full-lengths. I knew that in order to have a fighting chance at this whole playwriting thing, I’d have to learn how to write shorts.

I decided that I found it easier to write long than short simply because, as a teen, I was exposed to more good full-length theater than to good short plays. So, in order to teach myself how to write a one-act, I’d need to expose myself to as many short plays as possible and figure out for myself what worked and what didn’t.

Enter ShortLived: a festival of sixty ten-minute plays by local writers. The tickets were cheap, the audience was vocal, and the voting component made it crystal-clear which plays worked and which plays failed. By the end of the competition, I’d been introduced to the work of playwrights who I’d come to know much better in the intervening years: Ashley Cowan, Megan Cohen, Kirk Shimano (and I’m still miffed that Kirk’s charming play “Inner Dialogue” got robbed in the final round). Best of all, somewhere in there, I figured out how to write short plays that I felt proud of, and that other people seemed to like, too. In May 2010, I wrote a play called “Drinking For Two,” which was accepted into Theater Pub’s first series of Pint-Sized Plays. It was my first production in San Francisco.

The thing is, though, that ShortLived was tied up with everything else that happened to me in the spring of 2010, the springtime of my early twenties. I burned through life like a dynamo. I was working long hours at my day job. I was running all over town, seeing plays like crazy. I was reading books like crazy, writing in my diary like crazy. I was in the throes of a feverish crush that felt like the most important thing in the world at the time but now seems half incomprehensible. After the March 2010 Theater Pub, I vomited from excessive drinking for the first time in my life. I read The Secret History for the first time. I listened to the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs for the first time. It was a second adolescence, a time of limitless possibility, and I don’t know how I managed to absorb it all.

After the ShortLived plays performed, we’d all go drinking at the Tempest, an exceptionally seedy bar whose Shakespearean name nonetheless lent it an air of ragged glamour. The Tempest still allowed people to (illegally) smoke cigarettes indoors in those days, and I remember carefully planning my Tempest outfits, trying both to look hot and to wear clothes that could be thrown in the wash immediately after I got home, reeking of cigarette smoke. I made some major decisions those nights in the Tempest, and briefly regretted them six or twelve months later (why had I thought it a good idea to plot the course of my life in such a seedy bar?). And later my perspective shifted again: from the perspective of five years on, there doesn’t seem to be anything to regret.

One night when we theater folks trouped into the Tempest after a ShortLived show, one of the Tenderloin regulars in the bar took a glance at us and said, “Oh, it’s the yuppies.” We had a good laugh about that. Of course we weren’t yuppies! We were artists and rebels! Though we were, for the most part, young and white and clean-cut, we were not the Establishment, we were upstart kids making theater on a shoestring.

But here we are in 2015, and ShortLived is coming back, taking place in PianoFight’s own purpose-built venue rather than a strange black-box theater in an office building on Fifth and Mission. PianoFight’s new space is gorgeous, sleek and clean. Yet it is also, I must admit, kind of yuppie. (Or “bougie.” Isn’t that what the kids are saying these days?) The people who run PianoFight are still fun, unpretentious guys, but they’re no longer as footloose as they were – they’re landlords now. We all still enjoy a good drink, but we’d prefer to get it from the solicitous PianoFight bartenders rather than the somewhat intimidating guys at the Tempest. Ashley Cowan wrote a play about modern-day dating for ShortLived in 2010 and has written another play about modern-day dating for ShortLived in 2015, but in those five years, she met her husband, got married, and is about to have a child. And, while my external circumstances haven’t changed so drastically, I feel exponentially more settled and stable – which is both a boon and a curse.

Even though I didn’t have a play in ShortLived 2010, I feel like it marked the beginning of my participation in the indie theater community here in San Francisco. I hope that ShortLived 2015 may do the same for some other early-twenties writers and actors and directors who burn with the same eagerness and energy that I once burned with.

I hope it’ll be like that for them. Because I know it won’t be that way for me again.

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

The Five: That Time I Met A Famous Person

Anthony R. Miller checks in with stories of hobnobbing with the stars while selling them cookies and finding their seats.

Hey you guys, so I know December is about Wrap-ups and looks back and forward. But I looked at the calendar and it turns out, I have 3 articles this month, with the final one on Dec 30th. So I decided to keep it light this week, and save my wrap-ups for a two-parter on the 16th and the 30th. Today I share 5 times my random theatre jobs ended up with me meeting cool people, mostly.

Stephin Merritt

I was working for a company in SF that had acquired the rights to produce the musical adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. This being the West Coast premiere, both the Writer and Composer would be there. The Composer being Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields, the band who basically provided the soundtrack for my sad, sad mid-20’s. The fateful night came as I worked concessions and a very regular looking guy comes up to the bar. At first glance, you would not think this is the man who sang “The cactus where your heart should be/has lovely little flowers/So though it’s always pricking me/My ardor never sours” was short, wore a faded baseball cap, an old brown leather jacket and was eyeing the cookie tray. NO Stephin Merrit would be in a long cloak, with a rain cloud over him and would have his own personal tea service, because he takes that shit seriously and can’t just order any Earl Grey. But when he ordered an oatmeal cookie in that oh so familiar baritone, I knew it was him. So yes my every pre conceived notion I had about him was flat wrong. One of the most brilliant artists in America today, and he’s also a pretty normal guy, who really likes Oatmeal Cookies.

Rita Moreno

House Managing for another Bay Area Company on their closing night, the lead in the show, who was a very nice lady, introduced me to her friend, Rita Moreno. You know, Rita Friggin Moreno, she was Anita dammit. Fun Fact about me, I watched the Shit out of the West Side Story movie. When I was kid, I could basically recite the thing starting with the overture. Earlier that evening, I had actually already met her while helping find her seat. But there she was, friggin Anita. A woman who’s performance in a film meant so many memories of watching that movie and forgetting the outside world. The conversation went like this.

“Anthony, have you met Miss Rita Moreno?”

“Earlier yes, but I’ve been a fan of hers since I was like eight.”

To Rita, “Well did you hear that?”

To which Rita replied,

“Oh I don’t give a shit.” And then she turned away.

Whoa. Rita Friggin’ Moreno just told me to fuck off. Now in the grand scheme of things, Rita Moreno telling me to fuck off is a little more interesting and a lot more honest than putting on a show for me. In the end she’s not obligated to be gracious. In the end, she was backstage at a closing night pizza party for her friend, not to be noticed. For the record, I kinda understand. Not really.

Billy Aronson

So I was working on a show in SF that was a World Premiere by Billy Aronson. Billy was the Dramaturg and wrote the Book for RENT. For Nerds, this is huge. This is the guy who said “Have you considered basing it on La Boheme?”. And despite the fact that I had long lost my passion for RENT, I was still pretty dang excited to meet the guy.

One night during Tech, I was asked to make sure Billy got on the right MUNi and got to his stop. Oh shit yeah, I was gonna ride on MUNI with Billy Aronson. It was Powell to Outer Sunset, so it was gonna be a WHILE. HE was pretty rad, I asked him a million questions, writer questions, RENT questions, I got to ask what Jonathan Larson was like (THE Answer: “Intense, all he cared about was making his musical happen”). I may have drove him crazy, but he was super nice about it. He did in fact, make his stop.

Bill Ayers

I worked a production of Reborning by Zayd Dorn, son of Bernadine Dorn and Bill Ayers. You remember Bill Ayers, the man who threw a “party” for Senator Barack Obama. The guy who started the Weather Underground, a Left wing radical group, technically classified as domestic terrorists. As in Sarah Palin’s “Palling around with terrorists”, yeah that guy.

So on opening night, the writers’ parents were there. Eventually, I was introduced to Bill Ayers and Bernandine Dorn, the people who Declared war on America, who bombed government buildings, to protest American Imperialism. Real Activist Shit. Not to mention, these days Bill Ayers is one of the foremost experts on Education Reform. In every picture of Bill Ayers I have ever seen, he is wearing a puffy red Marty McFly vest, he was wearing that vest. In typical Anthony fashion, I talked too much. But he didn’t seem to mind, in fact he kept asking me questions. We went on for a while talking about the 2012 GOP crop and other topics. I was totally palling around with terrorists. Before they left, Bill complimented me.

“You’re really passionate and knowledgeable about politics, why don’t you do something with it?”

I laugh, and say “I should run for Feinsteins Senate seat.”

He says, “Let me know, I’ll throw you a fundraiser”

I say, “Don’t you mean a coffee?”

He laughs and walks away.

Henry Rollins

It was a lot of luck this one. Back in my hometown of San Jose, a buddy of mine wanted to book spoken word and poetry acts at a large strip mall night club he worked for. Despite it’s odd location, the place was amazing, it was a huge venue decorated like the 80’s never ended. We had produced a show together that was absolutely great but horribly under attended, but it got the attention of another buddy of mine who had booked the San Jose leg of Henry Rollin’s Spoken Word tour. Because I knew the guy who booked the venue and I knew the guy who booked Rollins, I got the plum position of “Producer”. Holy crap, I was producing a Henry Rollins Show, I would be able to quit my job at the mall for sure. Not really.

On the night of the show, Henry Arrived in a large tour bus and I got to take him to his dressing room (Which was actually a private lounge, but today it was a dressing room.) I gave his call time and ran off. I was trying to stay cool, I had just taken a personal hero of mine to his dang dressing room. Luckily, there was plenty to do. Before the show I pop in and give 30 minutes and say I’d come back to give a ten.His agent replied,

“We don’t need any updates, thanks”

Dude, Henry Rollins just told me to Fuck Off, Ok not really, but that’s how I felt for a second. I was kinda embarrassed; I had stumbled into this situation and probably didn’t belong there. But fuck it, I was a Producer. Five minutes before the show, I got to escort Henry to the stage entrance, that was kinda rad. But I didn’t think it would go beyond that, so once the show started, I sat with my friends and watched the show we made happen, and we drank. We drank a lot.

As the show ended, I ran backstage to take Henry back to the dressing room, but this time there was a crowd being held back. So now, I got to escort Henry Rollins to his dressing room while protecting him from fans, THIS WAS TOTALLY MY LIFE. And then it happened, I was back stage with him and we just started chatting. And for 15 minutes I just sat around and talked about performing with one of my heroes. Here’s the problem, I was still drunk, and every bit of effort was to come off not wasted. The moral here is, if you can’t drink with your heroes, wait till they leave.

Anthony R. Miller is a Writer, Director, Producer and that guy who keeps calling to convince you to bring a group of ten or more to see The Music Man. His show, Zombie! The Musical! Live in Concert! Is on Dec 14th at Terra Gallery.