The Real World- Theater Edition: One More Interview

Barbara Jwanouskos- one more interview for the road.

As my last post to The Real World – Theater Edition, I’d like to first thank all the readers out there who have gotten some enjoyment from following this column. I am extremely grateful to Theater Pub to have been able to have the space to reflect on art, theater-making, and the creative process. Thank you to all the people I’ve interviewed for being so heartfelt and expressing your passion for art. Your dedication is such an inspiration and so needed. Please, all artists and people, keep creating and building. If this column has taught me anything, it’s that perseverance and commitment to craft and vision can be momentous. The creative power that we have can do so much. I guess I keep distilling the words of wisdom from the past two years of interviews and I come up with —

don’t be discouraged
what you do is important, powerful, and beautiful
stay connected
keep going even (especially) when it’s hard, even if only a baby step

I was fortunate enough to connect with local playwright-director Andrea Hart and dramaturge Heather Helinsky for this last interview on Andrea’s new play, dark is a different beast. We talked about collaboration and the creative process, how they work together, and how they fit into a broader theater ecosystem.

Thank you for reading.

BJ: Tell me a story of how you got into theater. How did you know this was it for you?

AH: I studied theater at college in upstate New York and had an amazing advisor and theater director, Robert Gross. His experimental ethos pervaded the theater program there, including an amazing student-run theater program. One year I performed at midnight in sunken gardens that were part of our art building. The audience was loud and raucous and huge…they were as much a part of the performance as we were. I loved that. And we were in an unusual place at an unusual time and all of that was part of the performance too. All my work tries to capture that essence of creating something that doesn’t conform to expectations, but that takes everyone involved on a unique journey.

HH: Oh, many reasons, but one of the most compelling things for me is what happens in the room together, when we’re all breathing in and responding to the same story. It’s important in our divided culture to find ways of talking and really listening to each other. I learned that in 2008 when I was dramaturging a long run of August Wilson’s Radio Golf in Pittsburgh right up until the eve of Obama’s first election. It was like a town hall meeting every night! So much energy and electric conversations. It brought so many neighbors together and everyone had an opinion about what August was saying about the challenges of a black man running for elected office, roughly ten years before Obama showed up on the national scene. August’s play helped us all process the daily news cycle. Well, Andrea’s play is a response to this year’s national election. We need to keep talking, not shut down. Theatre forces us to stay engaged instead of being cynical about it; artists try their best to show the way.

Heather Helinsky, dramaturge.

Heather Helinsky, dramaturge.

BJ: How did you get involved with 6NewPlays and what has the development experience been like?

AH: I started talking about creating a West Coast version of 13P in 2010 with an L.A. playwright I met at the Great Plains Theatre Conference. Our goal was to find a way to make West Coast theater vital and relevant and combat the feeling that if we weren’t doing it in New York or Chicago we were somehow less committed. Over the next couple years we kept finding other playwrights who resonated with the idea. Originally we tried to do an L.A./S.F. group, but it became too unmanageable, so the SF contingent kept meeting and discovering the shape we would take. It took about 3 years of meeting pretty regularly to get ourselves up and running, but the conversations we had those 3 years were a lifeline for me as I continued to try to figure out what it means to be a playwright in this area. Or at all!

HH: Andrea and I are colleagues through Great Plains Theatre Conference, which is a residency that allows playwrights the time and creative space to dream their next project into existence. That’s not hyperbole, that’s just the relaxed environment we nurture in Omaha: a place for writers all over the country to push conversations forward. I’m not surprised that 6NewPlays started there. In Philly, where I’m based, Orbiter3 has been successfully keeping this playwright-centered process going. We need more of this organic energy where playwrights get to drive the process, but every theatre community has its challenges, here in San Francisco no exception. I’m excited by the warehouse space Andrea has chosen, it gives the storytelling a uniquely Bay Area sense of place, but that’s my outsider opinion. I hope this 6NewPlay movement helps the artist community here find their own unique spaces that help add to another part of the conversation to the production.

BJ: What is dark is a different beast about?

AH: dark is a different beast is about finding connection in a disconnected world. I think it’s ultimately a meditation about what living during this time, and watching the news and being aware of what’s going on in the world and living through various catastrophes—either personally or via your experience of watching it unfold on the news or through a friend or loved one—what that does to our ability to love ourselves and each other. Sometimes it feels like authentic connection with others is a process of cutting through layers and layers of padding and protection before finally revealing and seeing the soft core of someone else, and discovering the strength in that place. The play is basically that image played out on a large scale.

HH: Great answer, playwright Andrea! I encourage playwrights on principle not to over-explain your play, let the audience come up with their own interpretation. It’s that and many other things, including the elemental forces in this country, the conflicts between fire and wind, water and earth. We’re living in a time where all of those elements are fueling a big bonfire of issues, and the play mines those metaphors. We’ll see what resonates the most when the audience shows up!

BJ: How are you both working together in this production? What are your roles? Do they have boundaries? What’s your working style?

AH: I asked Heather to work with me on this script after the script had been around for almost 5 years. I wish I had asked her 3 years ago! She has been amazing at helping me find the structure and make the actual “plot line” clearer, without sacrificing the imagery or fantastical elements of the piece.

She came out to see a few rehearsals in October. I had never had a dramaturg working with me during the production, and wasn’t quite sure what to expect. She was able to describe the play to the cast in ways I hadn’t yet. She gave them direct feedback about how the story was coming across and where it wasn’t. She and I stayed up until midnight discussing the ending and she talked me through how to present script changes to the cast. She is basically like a script doula…she holds my hand and encourages me to make the tough choices. She helps me put the script first even when all the production concerns are making me want to do the opposite. She was even counseling me through some actor notes last night via text when it was after midnight her time.

Andrea Hart, playwright-director.

Andrea Hart, playwright-director.

HH: Thanks, all kind of you to say, Andrea. One of the hardest things for a playwright to do is be a playwright-slash-director. Andrea came to me while we were in rehearsals at GPTC for a very poetic play by Chicago playwright/director/producer Bonnie Metzgar. We talked there of the challenges of self-producing and decided to set deadlines over the summer so the actors and designers didn’t feel unnecessary stress if Andrea did any major rewrites. Her focus right now should be directing and nurturing the actors. But the reality of writing is sometimes you discover things in the rehearsal room along the way, so we had a very calculated strategy for me to come in midway and take a hard look at the ending. I’ll miss being there for opening night and I would have loved to see the designers tech this show. I’m sure we could learn more if I wasn’t based on the east coast, but there’s always limitations in theatre-making. Sometimes a limitation can be freeing and have its own advantages. Andrea and I can work well long-distance because there’s a strong bond that has been built over the years working together at GPTC. We’ve been through fire there too, I know Andrea’s aesthetic preferences, we know how to make a quick but tough decision and keep moving forward. Onwards!

BJ: Has working with the story in film changed or opened up how you see dark is a different beast as a play?

AH: The film came out of the need to have better footage of my work to use in grant applications. The cinematographer was a friend and he suggested making it into something that could stand on its own as a film. The process, I think, taught me more about film then it did about theater. It did make me realize that this is definitely a theatrical piece. It helped me know when the language was working or not working—after editing the same line multiple times! The film also only included a few short scenes from the full play, so ultimately the play is an entirely different beast (har har!). And I think how the piece ultimately needs to be seen.

HH: Film is not my medium. As a dramaturg, I work purely in theatre. I read about 300 new plays a season for different national new play organizations and my job is often to sniff out a submission that is really a film script trying to pass as a play. But when a writer like Andrea comes to me and has the experience of making her script as a film first, I love hearing what she learned and what’s she’s already willing to throw away for the sake of a making it a play. There’s always a lesson from crossing over, but you have to be willing to rip it apart and potentially throw away the things that worked best on screen. My training came from the American Repertory Theatre, under AD Robert Woodruff, where we were always encouraged to search for new forms. Woodruff loved Fellini, so we did several exercises ripping apart Fellini’s films and finding the values that were purely theatrical and repurposed them. Like ripping apart a historic house and turning it into a hipster contemporary apartment.

BJ: What challenges and opportunities have come up in the process?

AH: Challenges: How do you have enough time with actors in the room to work the script, discover the design, etc? Really, that’s the biggest challenge. How do you have the space/time/resources to develop the play in the way that it needs before being seen by an audience? I think that’s especially important working with a piece that is this visual and design oriented.

Opportunities: The actors have all brought a lot of interesting knowledge to this piece, from the 3rd Face of Power, to Native American ritual, to comic-book imagery…everyone in the room is constantly introducing me to something I wouldn’t have known about before that is completely relevant to the piece. That makes the piece so much richer and fuller.

HH: Yes. All of the above. Just telling your truth in the form of a play is a challenge, and communicating with a room full of collaborators, and making sure we’re all on the same page with the playwright, and not spinning too far in other directions.

BJ: Have you had any moments of being stuck? How did you get out of it? Or are you still there?

AH: The ending was a big sticking point. I always sort of hated it and kept telling the actors…”We’ll figure that out soon.” Heather was a huge help in talking me through why it wasn’t working and what might work better. It took both of us only getting 3 hours of sleep and me trusting actors to deal with a major change. I’m still not sure it’s the right one, but I know it’s much closer to being right than what we had.

HH: Yep. Out of the 300 new scripts I read a year, a majority of them haven’t figured out the ending yet. Part of my job is to get the writer there. You have to see the potential and keep pressing after hard questions. But then, think about Shakespeare. How many contemporary directors cut the heck out of Shakespeare’s Act 4 & 5? We revere him, but we also get frustrated and cut his last acts to say what we want to say now. For a world premiere, you also have to respect and trust the writer, not force changes to the text until you absolutely have to. My philosophy is to treat a new play like a classic and a classic like a new play. Respect the writer’s first impulse, maybe even go back to an early draft to find the answer. Something hidden in there is closer to the truth.

BJ: What is your take on Bay Area theater vs. other places? What does it look like or how does it differ? Do you see any opportunities to grow the scene?

AH: One thing we’ve talked a lot about with 6NP is that in the Bay Area you really have audiences that are ready and willing to watch anything. What I would love to see is an expansion of support for local theater makers to have the time and space to develop more risky ideas BEFORE inviting the audience in. I think there are some amazing organizations offering this (CounterPulse comes to mind), but with the size of the artist pool, we need more. Ideally, artists shouldn’t have to use the production process to flesh out their work. I think when a workshop showing of a piece has to charge $30 for tickets, something in the ecosystem is not healthy.

HH: I work all over the country in many different theatre ecosystems and this is the first time I’ve been invited to the Bay Area. I’m happy to be here with Andrea, but our collaboration started outside of this city. It takes a lot of respect and trust to invite a dramaturg into the room. Our origin story is taking a critic and throwing an outsider’s critical opinion into the process. Do you want a Kenneth Tynan in the middle of your rehearsal process? Many people don’t.

BJ: What words of wisdom do you have for people that want to do what you do?

AH: I’m at the stage of the process where it’s really hard to feel wise. But I would say…as much as the audience showing up on opening night terrifies you, still make the risky choices. Do what you need to do to drown out the chorus of advisors and critics who get louder as you get closer to opening. Everyone is scared about their part in the final piece. Do what you need to do to get past the fear and find the essence of the story you’re trying to tell. Stick with that.

HH: Pay attention to the playwrights that are part of this 6NewPlays collaboration. In Philly, Christopher Chen’s production of Caught at Interact blew us all away and many Philly playwrights wrote their own new plays in response. I also love Eugenie’s work. Take care of the playwrights making work in your own backyard. The city has many stories to tell, there’s a unique ecosystem here and on a national level, we need to hear your voice just as much as playwrights in NYC, Austin, or Chicago. Give them grants so every once in awhile they can mix it up with writers in other cities, like Philly or Omaha, then bring them home. Don’t lose them.

BJ: Where can we find more info on dark is a different beast and do you have any other projects or friends’ projects coming up we should check out?

AH: Check out 6NewPlays’ website: 6newplays.com. You can find out about dark and also about the next show coming up by Erin Bregman. I also have to put a plug in for Ochlos Theatre Lab, where I create devised work with my collaborator, Carol Ellis. We are slowly working on a new project that we’re hoping will emerge toward the end of next summer: http://ochlostheatrelab.org/. I also pretty much always love what CounterPulse is doing and the education department at ACT—specifically director Tyrone Davis. (Every 28 Hours!)

HH: Playwrights of San Francisco, send your work out bravely to these places, because I work there: Great Plains Theatre Conference, Sundance Theatre Lab (November 15th deadline!), PlayPenn, Jewish Plays Project in NYC, the O’Neill. Or if you’re still in college, the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival’s playwriting division. I hope our creative paths cross again. Thanks for my first experience in the Bay Area! Looking forward to getting to know your community more. Andrea did a fantastic job in hosting me and introducing me to how things work here. A sincere thank you.

dark is a different beast is playing at Light Rail Studios in San Francisco on Nov. 11, 12, 18, and 19. For more information, please visit http://m.bpt.me/event/269658.

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The Real World – Theater Edition: Get It Out

Barbara Jwanouskos, putting it out there.

My mind races constantly. From what I’ve gathered, this is pretty normal. It’s filled with so much stuff that I can have trouble focusing on any one thing. I think some would say that they’re good at multi-tasking when they have this quality – I not sure I believe in the concept of multi-tasking. To me, that means spreading your attention over a wide variety of tasks, projects, ideas, and thoughts equally.

No, instead, I think how it works is you work quickly on one thing at a time and, let’s be honest, sometimes you half-ass it. That’s okay. I’m not saying don’t do that. What if you could be less scatter brained and give most gusto? What if you could get some of what’s inside out?

This is about writing and doing and creating theater or any other type of project. This is about how to start. This points to some elements of how to keep going. It’s more observation than advice. It’s not even a real essay with the best structure or syntax. This is an idea that needed to get out.

I hear and I have SO MANY good ideas. Brilliant ones. Things that shatter your mind into a million pieces and make you go, “this changes everything.”

I see less of this actualized. I guess it’s to be expected. It takes a lot of effort to get things going.

I’m just going to point to one thing that may help in this process of turning an idea to a reality – write it out. Get it out. Badly if need be. Repeatedly. Using really bad jargon-y, clunky turns of phrase. With bad grammar or no grammar. *gasp!*

I know, I get it. It’s scary. But at some point the idea needs to get out so we can shape it and mold it. It has to be spoken aloud. Written out. It has to come out, not stay in for a huge change to occur.

I do believe in the power of transformation. It sounds so new age-y, but whatever, my thing is, hey, do you want to keep living the same old life you’ve been living? Or would you be willing to put it out there and maybe have someone scoff, but so what?

The result is a new play.

The result is a new play that moves people.

The result is a new play that changes people’s perception.

The result is a new play that inspires someone to take their own courageous step.

It ripples out.

But it has to start somewhere. This is a small way. Easily overlooked. Easily shooed as a given. Yet it’s so essential. And sometimes putting a little intention into it goes a long way. Keeps things moving forward.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a local writer who writes all kinds of things. She co-wrote a play with Julie Jigour, THANATOS, for the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which will be read this Saturday at EXIT Theatre at 8 PM. For more and to experience her creative writing, go to https://dynamicsofgroove.com/.

Theater Around The Bay: In Every Ending, A Beginning

Barbara Jwanouskos, thinking, remembering.

My first teacher in playwriting – really, the first teacher that taught me how to write and parse out creative thought – was Naomi Iizuka. Among many things that have stuck with me over time is how she would describe beginnings and endings. She asked us to take notice and reflect on how every ending within our play was also a beginning – and vice versa. I think about this frequently. How the end of one period of life can welcome a new stage and moment, which is exciting.

I’m thinking about this in the context of the news about Theater Pub’s closure. How this space, company, and group of people has given us confidence and joy in making art and exploring its edges together. And I’m thinking about the ways in which an ending of Theater Pub means a beginning of something else. Something new and exciting and that we don’t know anything about yet.

I’ve written before about relishing in the space of the unknown and how in this realm, anything is possible. That it’s all about ideas and trying them out and learning from them. I think this is one of those times again. Where we can allow ourselves the time to ask questions that get to something deeper than probably a lot of us realized we were capable of. The start of those questions resulted in the closure of Theater Pub, but this is just the beginning. This means that artists and thinkers of all types now can go out trying things on their own or with new people, old friends, whomever. It gives us all space to put on stage exactly what we want to see and really make it a project we truly care about. It’s not that we didn’t have that with Theater Pub – quite the opposite, Theater Pub taught us how to do this. How it was possible.

So, I’m looking at this moment and looking beyond the foreground to what’s on the horizon. We may not be able to fully see it yet, but I am confident with the experiences we had from doing things together under this umbrella, we will be making some great art for our communities to share in. Thank you for reading, seeing, and supporting us! There is always more to come though maybe it looks a little different than in the past.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a local writer. For more, check out her blog, The Dynamics of Groove.

The Real World – Theater Edition: Imagination as Power

The other day I had the good fortune to join local playwright, Veronica Tjioe, in being interviewed by Jovelyn Richards on her radio program, Jovelyn’s Bistro. We talked about the SF Olympians Festival and the plays we were writing as a part of it. I had a fantastic time being a part of the conversation, which you’ll be able to check out on KPFA’s website, under the Cover to Cover archives.

One of Jovelyn’s questions really got me thinking about our role as writers and creators and the power we have to invent new worlds, new language, new characters, relationships, and modes of being. I’m paraphrasing, but she asked our thoughts on the importance of inventing new language and constructing new narratives in order to respond to what we’re not seeing represented. If I could underline, highlight, put in bold, and make 64 font anything, it’d be this idea. And the heart of it, for me, is within the question Jovelyn asked.

As writers (but honestly this could span to the other roles we play as well), it’s more than just the recognition that we have this ability to see and imagine new worlds and possibilities — I would say we have a responsibility to promote and enact them to the fullest of our capacity. And — good news! — if you are creating, dreaming, and envisioning, you are already doing that. Here’s one step further, if you have articulated this vision to another person or written the idea down, you are already working towards implementation. This is a huge step closer to seeing a new possibility as a reality and creating it.

When I started writing plays some of it was a response to things about the world that I found more nuanced than what the mainstream version of that idea was. I see these unspoken rules that are often hypocritical, yet we’re expected to live by them. For instance, with one of the first full length plays I wrote, It’s All in the Mix, I really just wanted to create a play about DJs because I wanted to see that on stage. Rob Handel of CMU would often tell us to write the play you would go see. But in this world I was seeing these rules and ideas that tended to collide and overpower each other.

Everyone can be a DJ if you learn how and pursue it with passion and skill.

Skill and technique talks.

Okay, well, what about women are they good DJs?

I feel like all I hear is no, but I’m a woman and I like DJing so am I doomed to being bad?

Oh, I saw this DJ who’s a woman and she was really good!

But other male friends didn’t think so? Can’t articulate why?

I don’t get it.

For me in this instance, it starts with this feeling like something I’m experiencing isn’t being represented, or is minimized, shut down, and ignored. So I want to test if this is true. I started with using plays in order to see the characters relate to each other and how it unraveled. I’m using gender in this example, but this extends into race, ethnicity, income level, backgrounds and abilities of all types, who you love, what you look like, how you live your life, and what you believe. There is so much out there beyond what has become a standard for a protagonist or story. We just need to create it and if people aren’t going to make it – then we need to help each other make it.

I think now I’m in a different space with writing – I see gaps in what characters or stories the entertainment world and I’m looking to fill that gap if I can. And if I can’t, I want to support someone (or multiple people!) who can. It starts with the recognition that I can do something. One of my gifts may be writing or storytelling. Others have other gifts or other ways they express those gifts. We can all learn so much from each other as we continue to imagine different worlds than what we’re seeing and support each other in making them real.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a local writer. Blog’s over here. THANATOS, the play she is writing with Julie Jigour and directed by Christine Keating, is being read on October 15 at EXIT Theatre in San Francisco.

Incidentally, if you want to put that imagination into practice – check out the SF Olympians Festival’s call for submissions! The Real World – Theater Edition: Imagination as Power

The Real World – Theater Edition: A Couple Words

Barbara Jwanouskos, speaking up.

So, it’s been a while since I’ve written more of an editorial for San Francisco Theater Pub instead of conducting an interview with a local theater maker, but I thought I’d write down a couple words this week because I’ve been thinking.

I’ve been thinking about how our artistic systems are set-up and how we engage in them. I’ve been thinking about how we develop our craft and make connections across communities. I’ve also been thinking about all the barriers that come about when you’re trying to make art. And why even make art in the first place and not something useful like a chair? Though it seems even chair-making is a becoming a lost art.

Barbara: Writing is hard!

Barbara: Writing is hard!

I have been extremely fortunate to have been able to connect with other people making theater, help them out, get them to read my stuff and give me their feedback, submit to stuff, have people I don’t know give me recognition, have my writing bolstered by being a part of development groups. Not everyone gets these chances. And I feel very lucky that they’ve come my way.

At the same time, I’m writing my plays and as much as I can I go see theater and be a part of my community (though it’s not been nearly as much as when I was younger since I had less that I was responsible for then). And then something happened. I stopped doing that as much as I was.

Why?

When you look at how we put on plays, you usually have three choices:

1) do it yourself – self-produce
2) make friends with people who can put on your play, like a theater company
3) send it into the ether and hope that your writing holds weight against anyone else out there doing the same

(We haven’t even gotten into the question of how to get people who are not your family or friends to see your plays or pay attention to you in anyway.)

So, these things are hard, which is not a reason not to do them, but something about this process felt icky and off. I felt overly attached to the idea that someone else knew more about what I should create, why I should create it, and whether it was any good. Everyone needs feedback – you can’t live in a vacuum. BUT.

I was thinking to myself at some point this year – why do I do this? It’s extremely painful. There are so many other things I could do with that time that may be more enjoyable and relaxing. Maybe even more rewarding. Why do I keep coming back to this? And the simplest answer that I could come up with is that I do it because I have to do it.

I don’t have a deeper answer than that. I wish I did. Because then I could keep reminding myself of that when it gets hard, when I feel like my writing sucks, that I suck, and that it will probably always be that way. It’d make it so much easier. Maybe this is why I can’t be motivated by money or even pushing to a greater good – though I do think my role in that realm is partly enacted through writing.

A couple months ago, I started looking for ways that I could get in between 5 minutes to 1 hour of writing regularly. Everything that I did was based off a deadline, but it usually went something like, do nothing, do nothing, do nothing, deadline approaches – note that, do nothing, freak out, do nothing, freak out to the point of breakdown, turn inward, do nothing, start doing some mindless task that has nothing to do with writing, deadline is around the corner, freak out, and then finally write something. Suffice it to say, I procrastinate. And I’m a perfectionist. It’s a winning combination. ☺

Anyway, I was trying to break that cycle so I figured, well hey, if I can do a little tai chi every day and get after what I want, then I should just shut up already and figure out a way to do it with writing.

I had this blog that I wasn’t using. Guys, it was the equivalent of a rundown old warehouse that had bug problems or something. Totally useable space that needed some work.

At first, the idea was, “Oh, I’ll just share these short plays and snippets of scenes I write”. But it gradually morphed into a space and time where I could very casually explore creativity through writing without boundaries or rules. I made a goal – write and post something on there every day – so it’s been mostly poems and short stories (WHICH I NEVER WRITE) and then most recently, a little scene popped out the other day.

I was like, “Oh, hello, friend. What’s this?”

The whole shift towards devoting time to this space was to take the power to create back in my own hands. To say, hey, I don’t need anyone to give me a grant for this, welcome me into a development program, say I’m a good writer, buy a ticket to see a play of mine, or pay attention to me in any way at all – and I can STILL write good shit every so often. Honestly, I personally find something of value in everything I put down in words. Some resonate with me more than others, but everything has helped.

A strange thing happened – a small group of people started paying attention to me. No really, like 10 people. But, even though it’s a small group – I don’t know any of them personally. Not a one. All of them live all over the world. Occasionally I get a comment that I restored their faith in online poetry or something – which real Barbara is like, “wtf, me? Really? Are you sure? Cuz I’m just winging it and going with the flow…” And online Barbara is like, “omg thank you for reading!”

My point is that in being able to remove my attachment to any sort of outcome with where my writing should go or what it should do or whether it should make me money or open up any doors, it is in some small way giving people a little joy or inspiration in their day and for me, it’s opened up a huge door of possibility. I’d never fully considered/believed before that I could write a book, or even in theater – that I could get that fellowship or teaching appointment or have my play produced and developed by X, and now, I’m like, “Oh, well, I would just need to set it up as a goal and start training.”

I want to share this because so often as artists we are told no or that we’re missing the mark or that we’re confusing and people aren’t going to get it or that we’re not going to make any money and survive by our art alone. And I just want to say, I think that’s all bullshit and that if you burn with a desire to write, then just write stuff and fuck everyone else who will give you a prize or a pat on the back. They’re cool too sometimes, but it starts – it ALWAYS starts – with what you love. Do that and then if you have a goal you can chip away in some small way every day.

Eventually you will reach a height you hadn’t dreamed of. And eventually you will be working with such speed and proficiency that you wouldn’t recognize yourself five years ago or even five months ago.

And for the people out there that have keys to doors we don’t have – remember why it is that you do what you do. You have the power to open up opportunities for lots of people who are very passionate about what they do. All it takes is a second to listen and a little patience as someone reveals what they are capable of. Know that they have to reveal it to themselves before they can reveal it to anyone else.

Official Babs Headshot

Official Babs Headshot

Barbara Jwanouskos is a local writer. She has a blog called the Dynamics of Groove, which if you go to, know that the bio is still under construction. She is co-writing a play about the Greek god, Thanatos (think the Grim Reaper only less scary) with her friend and fellow writer, Julie Jigour. It will be presented through the San Francisco Olympians Festival on October 15, 2016 at EXIT Theatre. For more information, click here.

The Real World- Theater Edition: An Interview With Star Finch

Barbara Jwanouskos brings you the author of H.O.M.E.

I heard the title first, H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually) and I thought, “okay, now, that’s gonna be good…” I see it and it’s this meld of worlds, ideas, curiosities, passions, and most importantly, issues I care about, so I was immediately drawn in. It’s speaking to something mythic and larger than life, but is what our every day is made of. When we think of what the future – or even the present – will be like and wonder who’s going to celebrate in the success and who will be left out? With people being pushed out of their homes and places around the Bay that they grew up, this is palpable and real. And the play opens that door. For me, it was the first time in a long time that I felt connected to something that I can only relate to the word, “spiritual”. It’s the type of theater that captures you and draws you into its share experience and shared space. It lets you be there and lets you listen as the ideas, the words, the characters come to life on stage. Gives you a place where you can share this with others.

Suffice it to say, I was moved deeply.

Campo Santo is currently putting on the production at The Strand Theater by playwright, Star Finch, who was born and raised in San Francisco. I was able to connect with her after seeing the show – thanks to Sean San Jose. I asked her about her process and how H.O.M.E. developed.

Star Finch

Star Finch

Barbara: Tell me about your artistic and writing background. What drew you to theater?

Star: I’ve always used writing as a way to make sense of the world or my experiences within it since I was a teen. It wasn’t until later in life that I found the courage to admit to myself that I wanted to be a writer and should actively pursue it rather than hide it away in notebooks. I found my way to theater specifically in grad school when I randomly took a course with Michelle Carter, despite my focus being in fiction. I immediately fell in love with the plays we went to see, the playwrights she introduced into my world, and the layers of energy that could be folded into great dialogue. Michelle Carter became a mentor and later a great friend who was instrumental in encouraging me to pursue my path.

Barbara: Do you have any influences – shows you saw that you were inspired by, books or essays, teachers, family, friends or mentors, etc. – that show up in your writing?

Star: I’m very much inspired/influenced by the playwrights Caryl Churchill and Suzan-Lori Parks. Everything David Lynch produced made a big impact on my childhood subconscious (why I was allowed to watch his work as a kid is its own mystery). Michelle Carter’s emphasis on the dance of beats and subtext within dialogue stays with me. Kara Walker and Wangechi Mutu’s work speak directly to the ghosts I carry. And lastly D. Scot Miller’s manifesto on AfroSurrealism was a revelation that gathered all the tiny fragments of my lived experiences and named/framed them into a whole.

Barbara: What’s your process like and did anything about it change in writing and developing H.O.M.E.?

Star: My process was always to write late at night after my kids and husband had gone to bed and the house was finally quiet. I would write by hand in notebooks until I felt like I had a solid chunk of scenes and then I’d type them up on my computer to get a view from a different angle. For the most part that remains my process in that I always begin by hand in a notebook. For whatever reason I can’t just jump onto a computer/laptop and take off. What was different with H.OM.E was that it was written within Campo Santo’s informal writing group, Clika. So in this case I was sharing scenes, hearing scenes read by actors, and getting feedback from the very beginning. Prior to that I had only written something all the way through on my own and then asked for feedback on the draft as a whole.

Barbara: I’m curious about your thoughts on how you engage with collaborators, for instance once you’re in the rehearsal room. What was it like to work with Campo Santo?

Star: Campo Santo is an amazing place to call home. Sean San Jose truly feels like a long lost brother. I don’t know if it’s because we’re both SF natives or what, but we just vibe really well and make each other laugh. There is a trust involved that speaks to our commitment to speak truth in matters of injustice, hypocrisy, or oppression within the stories we seek to tell in our work. In the rehearsal room we spent a good two weeks sitting around a table asking questions. Everyone at the table was given a voice to seek whatever answers they needed to best help them embody the text. In a way we were all sitting in the dark with a script and it was important to build the world collectively through conversation.

Barbara: Could you tell me about H.O.M.E. and what inspired or prompted you? Do you have a favorite moment or line in the play? What draws you to it?

Star: The original prompt for this play was a photograph, by Chris Arnade, of two sex workers in the Bronx looking through a telescope. The photo got me to wondering about space travel, access, privilege, and who would be “allowed” to travel to new worlds in the future. It’s difficult to pick a favorite line or moment in the play, but one of my favorite images is the idea of a mythological Tupac Amaru Shakur living as a prophet in a cave on Mars. That thread throughout the piece became even more poignant for me after the death of Afeni Shakur in May. I love the idea of writing the spirit of their names across the solar system.

Star's inspiration for H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually). Photo by Chris Arnade.

Star’s inspiration for H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually). Photo by Chris Arnade.

Barbara: What do you think about where San Francisco and the Bay Area is at now (theater scene or beyond) and where we’re going?

Star: In theater (and beyond) I think San Francisco and the Bay Area talks about wanting diversity and inclusion but it’s for the most part just talk. The word diversity is often a matter of using numbers to secure grants, create a “colored” brochure, or pat oneself on the back for being a progressive city. But true progress requires actively dismantling and rebuilding as an act of restoring normalcy, not feigning nobility. Organizations, neighborhoods, workplaces ought to be diverse because the very nature of Nature itself is diversity in abundance. The gap between the image the Bay Area projects and the reality of who is made to feel welcome here grows wider every day.

Barbara: Is there anything that drives you to write within (or out of) that context? How so?

Star: Yes! Because I know how diverse, vibrant, wild and open this city used to be. I’m always writing from a place that questions the sanity of what we’re conditioned to consider normal, and who benefits from said conditioning.

Barbara: Are there other theaters, writers, performance artists, artists of any media for that matter that you think are doing really something really interesting? Work you enjoy experiencing?

Star: I like how Ubuntu Theater Project and AlterTheater are putting on shows in unexpected spaces. Local artists like Paul Lewin and Lexx Valdez produce imagery that speaks to my soul. Over the last year I’ve been leaning heavily into reading women playwrights such as Naomi Wallace, Kia Corthron, Annie Baker, and Sarah Kane. And of course I have to again mention Michelle Carter and Sean San Jose. For some reason I tend to be most inspired and excited by documentaries about space, nature, creatives, and subcultures–the more wild and far out, the better. Foreign films are another source of inspiration. Is it odd for a writer to find most of her inspiration from visual art forms? LoL! I love all of the exhibits SOMArts puts on and the ways they engage with gentrification and its erasure.

Barbara: What do you love most about San Francisco?

Star: My old answer to the San Francisco question would be its diversity. I grew up around people who looked like me, in addition to having friends/neighbors from a wide variety of different cultural backgrounds, and sadly when I look at my children’s class photos that is no longer the case. My new answer to what I love most about San Francisco now would be the food. Whenever I take a trip out of town I quickly realize how unbelievably spoiled we are here. Not to mention its beauty. The city is gorgeous from every angle.

Barbara: Any words of wisdom or thoughts for people who want to do what you do?

Star: The most important bit of wisdom I can offer is Keep Writing!! (and sending your stuff out.) Even when it might seem pointless or as if no one is interested, press on. You never know when an opportunity might present itself and when it does you’ll want to have your best work on deck and ready to be read. It also helps immensely to be part of a community—so seek that out whether it comes from school, volunteering at a theater, taking acting classes, signing up for a workshop. Making authentic connections with your fellow creatives is a vital part of the process.

Barbara: Any upcoming projects you or friends are working on in the Bay Area?

Star: I have a play called Bondage that will be produced by AlterTheater next January. It’s a play that came about through my year long residency with them in AlterLab 2015. Campo Santo also has a bunch of cool collaborations on the horizon through their residency with Magic Theatre and beyond. First up is Nogales, written by Richard Montoya and directed by Sean San Jose. The best way to keep up with them is via their Facebook page: CampoSantoSF

Image by Lexx Valdez

Image by Lexx Valdez

You can check out H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually) at the Strand Theater through the weekend. Click here for more information.

The Real World – Theater Edition: Interview With Alex Spieth

Barbara Jwanouskos starts your Pride Weekend with an interview with Alex Spieth!

I met Alex Spieth at Carnegie Mellon. She was one of the BFA actors in her senior year and was in a collaborative class in TV Writing/Acting/Directing. Although the class, at the time, was mainly focused on the classic three-camera sitcom format, it was still interesting in that it started to develop a nuanced skill of creating serial work for the camera for students taking the class.

Flash forward, around a year or so ago, Alex and other artists came together to create a web series called [Blank] My Life. It is a low-budget comedy that is self-produced. When I heard that Alex was trying to spread the word, I thought about this space and how we could explore the idea of creating your own work in this interview. After talking initially, she brought up some very good points about theater artists moving to the digital space.

Below is our interview for your enjoyment.

Alex Spieth: The Greatest Unknown Force on the Internet

Alex Spieth: The Greatest Unknown Force on the Internet

BJ: Tell me about your background as a theater artist and how you got where you are now. Is there any aspect of your personality that has helped you get where you are now and into the arts?

AS: One time I was begging my mom for something and she said, “Lexie! You’re so dramatic! You should be an actor!” And I remember it so clearly, because I thought: This is the finest compliment I could ever receive…I must enter…the craft.

So, I started acting in the 6th grade, and would say I became serious about it in high school. I grew up in Nashville, and had the good fortune of getting to work with the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts in Acting, and (through a scholarship through my high school) Interlochen Arts Camp. These three experiences shaped my formative years as an artist so clearly and made me very comfortable taking risks at a young age.

When I approached my senior year of high school, I protested that I did not want a BFA, because ACTING SHOULD BE FOR THE MASSES NOT THE FEW. However, after I was rejected early decision from my top B.A. choice, I was like, Fuck my former principles…and auditioned at all the BFAs minus Juilliard (the reason I told everyone was “There wasn’t enough sunlight in the classrooms!”…but I was just scared of rejection? Much food for thought…). I got into Carnegie Mellon, and made the ultimate decision that this was absolutely where I was gonna go and I’d been ridiculous to want anything else.

Carnegie Mellon University was the best. I loved every inch of the four years: the training, neurosis, panic, return to Christianity, departure from Christianity, fun, scenes, and people. While I am sometimes depressed to not be Super Fucking Famous Already, every opportunity I have had since college has come from the relationships I fostered at CMU. Currently, I work a lot with Tele-Violet and Irondale Ensemble (most recently doing a 5-hour production of the 4 Shakespeare plays written in 1599).

I think the aspects of my personality that have helped me get where I am are that I refuse to not work. I want to be working 24/7, and I’m good at creating work and getting in work. Additionally, I have a sense of humor. My sense of humor has helped me when I felt depressed that I am not Super Fucking Famous Already and, In Fact, Have Not Done Much Regionally Either.

BJ: I know you had vigorous training at CMU’s School of Drama since that’s how we met! Can you give people an idea of what it was like? Is there anything that particularly prepared you?

AS: CMU is the best. It really is a completely comprehensive program that will equip you to work in your field. The thing that is hard is that the process of learning often messes you up for practically being able to ACT. Many of my classmates and, certainly myself, seemed to take a few steps backward in getting better. One time at a Bible Study (sophomore year I reclaimed religion before slowly letting it drift away junior year), I said, “I feel like I’ve lost my ability to act!” Which is very dramatic and not true long-term, but it can feel pretty crippling to have a constant “What do I do with my hands?!?!?” thought running through your head.

Carnegie prepares its students to act, collaborate, and perform incredibly well. They accept a student body that is not only talented, but also smart, giving, vibrant, and largely funny. The only change I would suggest for my time there (reiterate: I left 3 years ago, so times may have changed) is to incorporate crowdfunding/a basic DSLR camera utility session into Business of Acting (taken senior year).

BJ: Tell me about [Blank] My Life. How did it come about?

AS: I started writing the pre-season of [Blank] My Life after I got dropped by my agency the first year out of college. It was the first time that the Adelyne Roth Levine Memorial Scholar (aka me) felt like she had Publicly Failed. The options became: Ugh, god, I guess I could continue to do things that will make me feel even worse about myself (sleeping with Evil Playwrights, trying to trap newly single boys into thinking I was The Love of Their Life, etc.) or I could start writing.

If you watch the first few episodes of the pre-season, they are very rudimentary because it was literally my friends and I getting together for a few hours on Saturdays to film. We started in a guess and check kind of manner: making a video, editing it, sending it to YouTube. By the summer of 2015, we had 9 episodes and had gotten the quality and team to a level that I was proud of. I wrote the proper first season of [Blank] in the summer of 2015, and we started filming in October.

Over the year of 2015-2016, we filmed, edited, and released [Blank] My Life‘s first season on no budget. I’m incredibly proud of the product and think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I am lucky to work a fair amount in the theatre although I am tragically not Already Super Fucking Famous. However, creating and producing my own work has given me back the confidence I felt like I lost when I got dropped.

When I first got out, I spent a lot of time and money doing pay-to-play classes and workshops, and I would advise anyone who feels powerless in their career to NOT DO PAY-TO-PLAY CLASSES and spend the money on a rehearsal room, or a venue, or Final Cut Pro, or a DSLR, or knitting material, or a book on gardening, or anything in the world that will grow who you are as a person and a performer. In my experience, it has made all the difference.

BJ: For those perhaps unfamiliar, tell us about the premise of [Blank] My Life. What’s it about? Were you inspired by or responding to anything in particular?

AS: [Blank] My Life is an insecure comedy that just wants to make a connection that follows Susan, an NYC millennial, on her quest to find love and simultaneously not end her life. It’s like Louie if Louie was written by a young lady, it’s like Girls because it features a young lady with more elements of magical realism. While the series is based off of my thoughts/interactions, it’s also just as really based on nothing. It wasn’t in response to anything other than my need to keep creating work for myself.

Promo Shot from 'Ex-BF. Susan goes on a date with the devil in 'Ex-B

Promo Shot from ‘Ex-BF. Susan goes on a date with the devil in ‘Ex-B

BJ: What has been your process of writing and creating the series?

AS: In the summer of 2015, I got up every morning, and I wrote enough until I felt like I had a season (we axed 6 episodes, so I guess it was more than a season). Before I begin proper, I go through a “culling” period where I talk to People Who May Have Insights. Before the pre-season, I talked to a lot of people about the rudimentary natures of Cameras and What They Do, and before the first season I talked to a lot of web series creators about fundraising, location scouting, and SAG queries. All the time spent acting advice is great and often very useful; however, eventually you must kick yourself into high gear and just do the thing.

This time around, the project has a SAG New Media Agreement but wasn’t funded through anything other than myself and the generous donations of my team to the project. This was intentional as I wanted to created a fully-fleshed product before we started asking for money for the next endeavor.

A shoot would usually be planned 2-3 weeks in advance, we would get everyone there, and DO IT. We only went overtime once and we were only late to release an episode once WHICH IS PRETTY COOL.

BJ: What are some of the exciting discoveries or interesting/unexpected challenges that have come from creating the series?

AS: Exciting Discoveries:
–Interesting Casting Choices are Always the Best
–People Turn Up Every Time
–Actors appear to not know their lines and then magically get on set and WILL KNOW THEM ALL.
–NYC will not give a fuck where you film
–You can ask the NYC Parks Department for a waiver but they will nearly 100% not check it.
–People WILL give you space for Free!
–People WILL act for Free!
–There is literally always a Plan B when things fall through. Plan B will be just fine.

Unexpected Challenges:
–Technology will often die unexpectedly (One day after shooting 7 hours, a camera died and we’d thought we’d lost it all and it was all very Jack and Rose from Titanic)
–How to get 1,000,000 million views (or anything above 6K)

–A personal challenge for me was learning how to be a leader. It’s hard to be a leader and have a stick up your ass (which I CERTAINLY do at many times). It’s easier for yourself and everyone else if you let most things be relaxed, keep the vibe generally chill, and only put your foot down when it really matters.

BJ: How many people are typically involved?

AS: Each episode involved me, a director, a DP, a PA/ Boom Operator, and 2-3 cast members; so per episode it’s about 6-7 people total. Overall we’ve had likely 30-35 people work on the first series.

BJ: And do you ever put money into promoting it on Facebook or YouTube (you know like the sponsored/promoted content?

AS: I have put money into sponsored content and am trying to find the algorithm for the greatest yield! We’ve also submitted to a fair amount of web fests, and I’m trying to see what will stick.

BJ: I’m curious about your thoughts on theater artists inhabiting and playing in the digital space. Tell me what you see.

AS: I think all actors should have web series other than maybe the few, few who are gainfully employed most of the time (I Release and Destroy The Need to be Super Fucking Famous Already!) I do not say this because it will lead to lots of dollars and/or success, but it’s a better and cheaper “Acting for the Camera” class than anyone you can take in NYC! One of your friends likely has an iPhone or Android you could borrow.

The digital space is really exciting because it can cut out the middleman. I’ve def not discovered how to get teenagers on my side (and this is where the power is….the power is in the teens), but if you can figure out how to be a tastemaker you can be your own agent, be your own boss, and LIVE YOUR OWN LIFE.

BJ: How has creating your own work opened up other opportunities for you?

AS: It’s made me more confident. When I walk into a room for an audition, I used to feel painfully alone, but now I have [Blank] with me. Wherever I go, I’m not just Alex-Looking-for-Next-Job-Spieth, I’m Alex-the-Person-Who-didn’t-Take-No-for-an-Answer.

It’s hard because I have no tangible proof that this will necessarily lead to anything, but I feel much better day to day. Which is kind of all that matters.

BJ: What are you looking forward to next within the series?

AS: I want to get as many eyes on this as possible. LITERALLY, SF, if you know anyone interested in the quirky musings of a vague Greta Gerwig, send them to [Blank]! If you know anyone that has a taste for female-driven comedy at a no-budget level, send them to [Blank]! If someone ever again says the phrase, “I am bored”, send them to [Blank]!!!!!

And I’m writing the next season. Let us pray for the future.

BJ: Any words of wisdom you have for people that want to do what you do?

AS: Do it. Do it really badly, because it will get better rapidly.

BJ: Any shout-outs or plugs for other projects or friends’ work (especially in the Bay?)?

AS: Yes!!! This summer, My friends Rodney Earl Jackson Jr. (CMU classmate) and Marcelo Pereira run San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company (Sfbatco) and are collaborating with a young group called YPTMTC (Young People Teen Musical Theater Company) which is an arts education company. They will be creating a new way for youth to get engaged in heightened text in a program called “Not Yo Mama’s Shakespeare”.

Rodney’s one of my great friends, and you should always catch his butt on the Motown tour (for….there….is….no…town…like…Motown…..).

For more on [Blank] My Life, check out Alex Spieth’s website.