The Real World – Theater Edition: Interview with Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song

Barbara Jwanouskos brings us a double interview with one of San Francisco’s most exciting writing teams.

When I heard about Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song’s idea for a play inspired by the god Oceanus, for the San Francisco Olympians Festival, I was very excited because it seemed like this really interesting meld of Greek mythology, technology and environmental issues. So when I heard that Dan and Siyu’s play had been selected for the New Play Development Program and the Undiscovered Works Series by Custom Made Theatre, I was jazzed for the play to get a further life at other Bay Area theaters. I’ve always been fascinated by writing collaboratively and have started to venture to do this myself as well. When I had the chance to ask Dan and Siyu how they came together, I couldn’t pass it up. Below is an interview with Dan and Siyu about their process and what to expect next Tuesday at the Gallery Cafe.

BJ: Could you each tell me about your artistic background/trajectory? How did you get into writing?

DH: I’ve been a theatre nerd since I had the ability to throw a towel around my shoulders and call it a cape— but veered towards prose and journalism in college. It was after I graduated that my longtime interest in writing, specifically nonfiction, and theater came together when I started to write plays. It’s my hope that my dramatic work has a journalistic quality and the journalism has a dramatic flair.

SS: I studied computer science in school and worked for a few animation/visual effects studios. I was always very interested in stories and storytelling but coming from a technical background, I was always intimidated by the “creative” side of storytelling. But, I took an improv class four years ago on a whim and haven’t looked back. With improv, I found ways to break down stories and characters to patterns and logic that was very conducive to my brain and the way I was trained to approach problems. After doing improv for a few years, the desire to tell more specific and nuanced stories led me naturally to want to do more writing.

BJ: Tell me how you came together to work on Oceanus — what was the idea?

DH: Siyu and I have been friends since we took a sketch comedy writing class way back when. And we’re both alums of the SF Olympians — a one of a kind new works festival that I’m sure your readers are familiar with. When a call for pitches for the 2015 “Wine Dark Sea” iteration of Olympians came around, we were talking and somehow decided that working together would be more fun than working alone. In discussing the possible prompt of Oceanus, a primordial sea god that controlled an underground river that circles the earth, we somehow got on the topic of underwater internet fiber optics cables. And we’re like, let’s write a play about that. Let’s write a play about what happens when a line gets cut and is somehow inspired by a Greek god. Is that how you remember it, Siyu?

SS: Yea that’s about right. When we were going through the topics for pitches, Oceanus stuck out to me because earlier that year my work had suffered a similar internet outage when a fiber optic line got cut and our provider had to send a boat out to the middle of the ocean to fix it. I am a classically trained engineer, so for me it was a nice reminder that while we regard the internet and “the cloud” as ephemeral, they are things that exist in the physical world and have tangible manifestations. We ran through many iterations of what the play would be, but the fiber optic line being cut was the central idea that we developed around.

BJ: How have you worked together to create the piece?

SS: We met in person in the beginning while we were figuring out how to build a play around the idea of a disconnect in the internet infrastructure. Those meetings were mostly just us hanging out and talking about things we wanted to write about. Data, relationships, talking sharks. There was a lot of agreeing. Partly because Dan and I are very polite humans but (hopefully?) more because we are very similar people with a lot of the same interests but we approach the world from slightly different perspectives so it’s always interesting for me to get Dan’s take on something.

DH: Also, lots of g-chatting! We’re actually both answering these questions via a Google Doc right now. One funny life imitating art thing about this process has been that while we were writing this play about people trying and failing to connect across great distances I moved a great distance— to Pittsburgh where I’m currently working on an MFA in dramatic writing at Carnegie Mellon. So as we’ve been working together writing scenes about friends trying to see each other on a video chat we too have been trying to video chat.

BJ: Any interesting discoveries along the way?

DH: I’ve learned a lot about collaborating and how you can share authorship with someone. I think we’re still figuring out our process and how we make collective decisions that reflect both people’s sensibilities. And I’m such an overbearing control freak, so that’s hard. Siyu, I hope I haven’t been a total pain in the ass to work with this whole time.

SS: Ha! No it’s great. I think for me when we landed on a sort of anthology piece with lots of vignettes that was when everything clicked. To Dan’s point about sharing authorship- there are threads that feel very much like Dan’s personality and threads that are very much Siyu’s but my feeling after the SF Olympians reading in November was that the ways the threads connected and the structure felt like something we created together.

BJ: Has the piece changed substantially since the SF Olympians reading? And what are you aiming for developmentally?

DH: It’s about 20 minutes longer. We’ve added several additional scenes to really flesh out the cast of characters we have and to make sure each vignette gets something like a full arc. I also think when we first started working on this we really only envisioned it as something that would be a staged reading. Now, as part of Custom Made’s Undiscovered Works series, we’re trying to envision this thing more as an actual play.

dansiyu copy

BJ: What are you hoping to hear at the Custom Made reading next Tuesday?

DH: This play has so many different characters and plotlines, I’m just hoping to see if the audience can follow it all and that each of the vignettes lands in some fundamental way.

SS: We talked a lot about the world we were building to tell all the disparate stories. I’m interested in hearing about what worked for the audience and which characters or scenes didn’t quite sit in the world.

BJ: I’m curious about your creative process and artistic development personally– what do you do (or not do) to keep yourself, or at least feel, a forward momentum?

DH: Spreadsheets. Specifically, I keep a spreadsheet of all the plays I’m working on and where I’ve sent them out, where I’ve been rejected, etc… Accumulation of material feels like momentum.

SS: HA! I’m impressed and mortified at “spreadsheets”. I’m nowhere near that organized (but also not as prolific as Dan) I’m lucky to be an ensemble member with the SF Neo-Futurists, part of that means being in a weekly show for months at a time where we write/direct/perform pieces.

BJ: Tell me about the theater scene either here or more broadly — is there anything you are seeing/not seeing that makes you excited?

DH: All the current dialogue that’s happening about diversity and inclusivity in theatre feels positive. We could see a lot more representation of underrepresented communities out in the world and on our stages, but I’m glad there’s a sense of urgency about getting there.

SS: I echo all of what Dan said. I’m also acutely aware of how difficult it is to be an art maker in San Francisco. Hopefully I’m not setting the bar too low here, but seeing anyone put up original work these days, my reaction is “Yes. Please. More.”

BJ: Any advice that you have for others that would like to do what you do?

DH: Don’t take advice from people who aren’t qualified to give advice? Well, actually, the best piece of advice I heard recently from someone else is: finish things. I think that’s true for writing and life. You don’t know what you’ve got on your hands until you written— figuratively or literally— the words “the end.”

SS: Again, I echo everything Dan says. Just to be different though – I’ll say pursue lots of endeavors and don’t get bogged down in a specific form or medium. Sketch writing isn’t so different from dramatic plays isn’t so different from improv. Trying different forms will expose you to new ideas, new people, and new opportunities.

BJ: Any plugs and shout-outs for other work you have coming down the pike or friends’ work we should check out?

DH: Everyone should keep an eye on the rest of Custom Made’s Undiscovered Works series. On the second Tuesday of every month you can hear new plays by the talented likes of Marissa Skudlarek, Kirk Shimano, and Alina Trowbridge and us (we’re coming back in October with a new draft!). Also, Siyu is one of the members of the totally bad-ass SF Neo Futurists that perform weekly, you should check out their extra special Pride Show, Wednesday, June 15. I’m positive it will be exciting and surprising and very fun.

SS: Dan’s play Subtenant is premiering on June 17th at the Asylum Theater in Las Vegas. I got to see a reading of it a while back and it was so good it made me angry, it was like when Salieri hears Motzart’s symphony and goes into a fugue state. I haven’t tried to poison Dan yet, but it is that good. It will be playing until July 3rd so if you’re in Las Vegas you should definitely make an effort to see it.

DH: Salieri to my Mozart? More like Romy to my Michelle! By the way, rest in peace Peter Shaffer…

You can catch Oceanus this coming Tuesday, June 14th, at the Gallery Cafe at 1200 Mason Street in San Francisco. For more, click here.

The Real World – Theater Edition: Interview with David Molina

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews David Molina, composer and sound designer.

I met David Molina a number of years ago when I’d first moved back to the Bay and had stumbled into doing sound tech after teaching myself how to dj. Yvette Jackson connected me when the production that David was working on needed a substitute tech for rehearsals. It was a paying gig, and I remember being like, “What? You can get money for doing this??” From just stumbling in so haphazardly into sound design, until I met Jackson and Molina, I was unaware of how much work, but how fascinating sound design could truly be. Even as a tech, it was hard not to get drawn into the world because of the sound. Anecdotally, David also had a way of documenting what he needed me to do as a tech with volume, fades, starting/stopping tracks, that was very specific using notation — it was like reading music — and it was extremely helpful in knowing exactly how the sound should be played at the specific moment in the play.

David has had his described as hauntingly beautiful, which I feel is a great description of what it’s like to hear his music, soundscapes, and creations. They are multi-layered, dense environments that draw from a wide variety of instruments, techniques, and collaborators, so that experiencing it feels very immersive.

I’ve kept up with David’s work and have been inspired by the multiple hats he wears and also how creatively productive he keeps himself. Definitely something I also aspire to strive for with my own craft. David has a couple performances coming up at the San Francisco International Arts Festival and I reached out to see if he’d be interested in an interview. I was lucky enough to catch him as he geared up for these next events. Here is the interview for your enjoyment.

David Molina

David Molina

Barbara: Tell me about your background as an artist. What’s your trajectory been like? And how did you get into creating sound and music? What’s your style?

David: I am a composer, multi-instrumentalist, sound artist/designer, recording engineer, music producer, and instrument inventor. I have created music and sound design for the performing arts, film, radio, video, and multimedia installations and productions for 20 years. I have played music since I was a child, and was a classical guitarist since age 12 through my mid to late 20’s. I have always loved music soundtracks and sound design in film. As a kid I dreamed of scoring a feature sci-fi film. While studying music at Sonoma State University I got into experimental music, music of the world, and studio production. In 1996 I ended up working in theater as a complete accident when I met director Roberto Gutierrez Varea. He was teaching theater at SSU. He needed a composer for a production, but didn’t want a student composer. He wanted a pro, but there was no budget. Someone passed off a tape of the music I was making at the time and he loved it. I figured theater would be a great way to learn scoring to a story, and I could transfer my skills to film scoring. Twenty years later I have been Roberto’s main composer and designer for almost every production he directs.

Barbara: I’m curious about the many hats you wear as a composer, performer, collaborator with theater, dance and performance art. How do you approach these various roles?

David: Every gig I do is a learning experience and a chance to do something new. If I really like a project, I am down for anything as long as my schedule allows, or if the compensation is equal to the workload. So yes, time and money is a factor in how many hats I can wear in a production. I think a lot of people, even in theater do not realize how much time and work goes into even making one minute of music, or sound design from scratch. This is particularly relevant with today’s download/instant gratification culture. I have to admit I hate the term, “Sound Design” in theater, and prefer the titles, “Composer” or “Sound Artist”, because often in theater, people think a sound designer is just collecting and editing found music and sound effects. I, and many other composers I know, make everything from scratch. So it’s always a dragged when an audience or especially a cast member says “Cool sound design, whose music did you use?” All hats I wear in production get equal weight. I like my sound design to also have a music quality, or character spirit to them. If I am performing live it is a lot more work, because I have to be a rehearsals a lot more. But I can also change things on the fly and improvise more during a show. Happy accidents happen that can be reused again on another show. In film, dance, performance art, I feel there is a lot more equal value for music, and more room for experimentation. In theater, or at least in traditional text based theater, music ends up in the background and has a lower priority amongst all the theatrical elements. This also depends on the director though. I enjoy working with the ones who like to take risks, and trust in my skills and craft.

Barbara: What are you thinking about when you collaborate with other artists? For instance, performance. How are you thinking of music and sound in this context and what is that you do to make it an active element of the experience?

David: When working with people who know and trust my work, or have a history with me, it is often a free flow of ideas back and forth. With these long time collaborators it feels like we can read each other minds. Working with new directors or artists can be a little nerve wracking, because we don’t know how each other works, what we both like, or don’t like. It’s kind of like going on a blind date, but you’re stuck with them for a month or more. Trust has to be established first. I prefer to work with people who have good music tastes or vocabulary. It helps communicate ideas before going into production. I hear music and sound as the invisible character of a play, or production. It is the heartbeat, emotional/psychological landscape, and the inner spirit of the production.

Barbara: You have a couple shows coming up and I’m hoping you can talk a little about them. What are you looking forward to?

David: I produced two shows for the 100th anniversary of the DADA movement, featured at this year’s SF International Arts Festival, in Gallery 308.

The first one is Dada Explodes: A Cluster of Sound, Light, and the Absurd, on May 28 at 8:30pm. It features:

-my experimental rock band Impuritan and filmmaker Anna Geyer with sonic and visual journey through life, death, love, hate, matter, space, evolution and extinction. Impuritan’s epic compositions blend psychedelic, ambient, punk, noise, shoegaze, and surf/post/space rock. Geyer creates kaleidoscopes of color and surreal landscapes with hand-processed 16mm film loops, mixed on three projectors.

-Sound artist Loach Fillet and video artist Flower Pattern emanate a wall of throbbing sound and visuals.

-Actor/Comedian, Edna Mira Raia, hosts the evening as Hillary’s Radio Show. Audience is encouraged to wear Dada Attire or costumes.

The second show is: Duets in The Key Of DADA, on June 2, at 8pm. It is an evening of improvised duets in the spirit of DADA. Opening will be composer, electronic musician, and trumpet player, Yvette Janine Jackson, with me on electric guitar and effects pedals. Second set features me on Rusting Souls, a modified, electromagnetic hammered dulcimer while Jackson loops and sonically manipulates my performance. Closing will be the Ackamoor/Molina Duo, featuring avant-spiritual jazz saxophonist Idris Ackamoor, founder of the legendary Pyramids. The duo performs ritualistic cleansing ceremonies in the form of music and play multitude of traditional and invented instruments, which are processed with electronics.

I look forward to both shows being mind bending, trance inducing, spiritual experiences. Each in their own unique way.

Barbara: What is it like to work with Idris Ackamoor and Yvette Janine Jackson? As musicians what are you looking for in the collaboration? And then does the performance aspect figure into what develops?

David: Working with Idris is always a deep experience. I am truly humbled to be working with him musically over the past two to three years. We both come from different music backgrounds and histories, but our sets intersect in experimental, ambient, free-jazz, blues, and global ethnic and indigenous music. Audience members say our live sets are “an intense, spiritual, meditative, ritualistic, trance-inducing musical journey”. We both play a multitude of traditional and invented instruments. I loop and process our instruments using the software Abelton Live to create sparse to dense layers, which range from hauntingly beautiful and meditative, to dark and unnerving soundscapes. Ackamoor uses his array of instruments anchored by his signature alto and tenor saxophones emphasizing extended range, explosive multi-phonics, lyrical beauty, and intense “outside” playing. The combination of our vast collection of instruments and technology makes us sound like four piece band, than just a duo. Because we mostly improvise, every show we do is different. Even when we plan a skeletal map, the spontaneity takes us into unknown territory. That’s when the magic happens.

The same is true with Yvette, though we both use more electronics. I have known and performed with her since the late 1990’s. We have played all kinds of music together, especially experimental and electronic music. She has been tearing it up in the music world (see second to the last question).

I am excited, and nervous, about our collaboration as we will literally have only one day to meet before the concert. It will be very Dada improvised, but beautiful as always.

Barbara: Tell me about being an artist in the Bay Area. What makes it unique?

David: It’s tough with this entitled rich techy environment. I find myself working twice as hard now to make ends meet. SF has turned into the playland of the young and rich. It has killed our arts music scene. We have lost many venues, and a lot of great artists I know have been evicted. Fortunately Oakland has it going on, but I hear that gentrification is happening there too.

Fortunately I also do work in other cities in the U.S.

Barbara: Is there any direction that you would like to scene grow into?

David: I would like Bay Area theater to take more risks and not be so word based. Theater is a multi-dimensional beast with many moving parts and creative elements that make a script live and breathe. If one only cares about the words then you snuff out all possibilities. You might as well produce novels if the words only matter to you. I also want to see young folks and people of color in the theater. This may be due to our lack of arts in the public school systems. But theater companies need to reach out and make productions that connect with youth and P.O.C. otherwise. The scene will die with the elderly audience.

Barbara: How about you – what interests you creatively as potential next projects or influences?

David: The majority of my work addresses social justice issues: ranging from racial profiling, police brutality, migration and immigrant rights, border crossing, the U.S. prison complex, the environment, and imperialism. I also love sound as music, music which breaks genres, and stuff that is psychedelic, hits an emotional nerve, or has spiritual element. I love working on productions that blur the line of theater, dance, and film. Immersive multimedia pieces that include video, or are audience interactive are right up my alley. Finally if time and funding allows, I am always thinking of new instruments to invent.

Barbara: I’m really interested in what you said about creating work that addresses social justice issues. Out of curiosity, or maybe just speaking logistically, what are you doing with the music to reflect these issues? I’m really curious about this especially since you are not using words and I’m maybe more familiar with how one could do this with that tool.

David: In the social justice aspect, I mean the productions I work on, or collaborators I work with, address these topics. Sometimes I interview and record people who are experiencing or have experienced some kind of social oppression, and then remix them into the music. I take the interview and edit them down into sound bites, or key statements. These are then triggered on the fly in a live performance on ABLETON LIVE, or used in a sound design with pre-recorded music in QLAB.

Barbara: You also alluded to instruments you’ve created – this is so cool. Can you describe one as an example?

David: Yes, I make instruments that are made all from salvaged and found material. I go to junk yards all around the bay area, and create massive instruments that live in Gallery settings; here is snippet from my bio:

“In 2010 he began inventing instruments from salvaged and discarded materials. These became interactive, multimedia pieces displayed at SF bay area galleries and festivals, including Mcloughlin Gallery (2015); a solo exhibit, Transience: The Work of David Molina; Asterisk Gallery SF (2013); and SOMArts (2012).”

Rusting Souls II  at Gallery 308

Rusting Souls II at Gallery 308

Here are links with photos and video, and descriptions of two of my instruments:
Memory Web: http://drmsound.com/memory-web

The latest is Rusting Sould II, on display at Gallery 308, Fort Mason, right now through June 5th.

Barbara: Any advice you would give to people who want to do what you do?

David: Sadly musicians can’t make a living the way we used to. Everybody wants it for free, and tech companies like Pandora and Spotify are literally stealing any royalties musicians and composers used to see. The only way to make a living is to tour, sell limited unique merch, and license your music to film or TV. I ended up doing live sound engineering, studio production, and sound design as a way to fund my artistic music endeavors. I also teach at Brava and private clients.

You got to hustle to survive in this expensive city. Don’t let anyone keep you down, or say you’re crazy. Most 9 to 5rs don’t get what it is like to be a full time artist. They think it is easy and not real work. They couldn’t handle two weeks of my busy schedule. But you got to be a little crazy to follow your passion, and make a lot of sacrifices. When it comes to theater (unless you are working with a cool director or tech staff) expect music and sound to be low on the totem pole. Any Sound Designer will tell you the same. Most people don’t realize how much work it takes to just produce one minute of music our sound.

Barbara: Any plugs for friends’ work or your own that’s coming up?

David: My band Impuritan is doing its first east coast tour from June 7 to the 18th! More info at www.impuritan.net.

Some of Yvette’s Jackson’s recent projects include: a residency at Stockholm’s Elektronmusikstudion (EMS); the premiere of This is Radio Opera at Audiorama Stockholm; Soldier, a 5-day immersive cinematic installation for the Recombinant Media Lab at Qualcomm Institute’s Calit2; and Invisible People (A Radio Opera). She was selected by the American Composers Orchestra to participate in the third Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute and awarded a reading of her composition Atlantic Crossing by the Naples Philharmonic.

Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids, (with whom I also perform with) have just received worldwide rave reviews for their latest album “We Be All Africans”. I also contributed to the album. Some reviews are in Spin, Rolling Stone Monocle, UnCut, BBC radio, NPR, MTV, The Wire, etc.!

I also co-produced “Cuba Ra” with Idris, for Gilles Peterson’s “Rumba” remix album!

Barbara: Is there a piece or music or sound you’ve created that you’ve created that we could listen to?

David: You can listen or see my work at http://www.drmsound.com. I been so busy that I haven’t had time to update new material. The stuff on my site is about two to three years old.

David is performing this weekend at the San Francisco International Arts Festival and has other projects in the works. For more information, see his website, here.

The Real World- Theater Edition: Interview with Paul S. Flores

Barbara Jwanouskos (on a different day) chats with Paul S. Flores about You’re Gonna Cry.

This week, I was lucky enough to coordinate with Eric Reid and Paul S. Flores to talk about You’re Gonna Cry, the new show that will be opening soon at Theater Madcap. Paul developed a play that sounds incredible and is in response to the gentrification of the Mission, which has lead to the displacement of communities of color. He is an artist that uses his gifts to direct and open conversations about events that have had devastating effects on the communities he cares about.

Paul works with, is influenced by, and grew as a theater artist with some of my mentors and heroes in the theater scene — people I consider to be extremely talented in their way to access parts of the soul and provide such depth and complexity to their art. Paul and I talk about You’re Gonna Cry, creative process, and Paul’s thoughts on theater and the Bay Area.

I hope you will enjoy the interview below and then, of course, experience the show he created that is coming up…

Paul S. Flores. Photo credit: Ramsey El Qare

Paul S. Flores. Photo credit: Ramsey El Qare

Barbara: How did you get interested in theater and especially in creating new work?

Paul: I came out of the Spoken Word scene of the 1990’s in San Francisco’s Mission District. My first group or performance ensemble was Los Delicados, a Latino hybrid of spoken word, song and dance, and AfroCuban drumming—kind of like the Latino version of The Last Poets meets Perez-Prado. I evolved from performance poetry into Hip-Hop Theater in 2001 collaborating with Marc Bamuthi Joseph on the first Hybrid Project at Intersection for the Arts. Then I got my first commissioned play in 2004 from Su Teatro (in Denver) and the National Performance Network; it was called Fear of a Brown Planet. We toured that all over the nation, mostly to Latino theaters. I have written four plays since that have all toured. I have only been interested in creating new original works. Voice is most important to me. I am a writer by training. So I only do original work.

Barbara: What’s your approach? Any particular stylistic tools/techniques you like using in your work? Why?

Paul: I have apprenticed as a theater artist with theater makers and directors like Sean San Jose, Guillermo Gomez Peña, Elia Arce, Danny Hoch, Kamilah Forbes, Michael John Garcés, Brian Freeman. I did not study theater in any institution. I’m a theater outsider. And I’m not loyal to any genre—I use them all. I am committed to experience and healing my community through whatever artistic and organizing methods I can channel. But I love theater for its live ritual. My approach is what I called social practice theater. I focus first to social issues—gang violence, immigrant struggles, racial profiling, male gender stereotypes—and apply interview research methods to development. I partner with social service organizations to base stories on experiences from their constituency. Language authenticity is number one. I’m not an actor in the sense of training. I’m an actor whose purpose is to realize the message in my writing as an immediate visceral experience—what I see and endure so does the audience. I’m not spoon feeding anyone a list of recommendations for social ills. I’m presenting people as they are, how I see them. And creating an opportunity for audiences to recognize the systemic problems around them. And I hope to offer a path to healing through the work I create.

Barbara: Tell me about You’re Gonna Cry. How did it come about? Anything you were responding to?

Paul: Initially I was responding to a call for creating work that addressed the connection of new technology and changing demographics. John Kilacky from the SF Foundation commissioned a short, initial iteration of You’re Gonna Cry in 2009. I lived in the Mission during the 1990s and saw the introduction of the dot-com tech industry tear apart my neighborhood with greed: greedy investors/venture capitalists created greedy landlords which created greedy new residents which altered the culture and community of The Mission District. I attended so many evictions parties then. My friends were forced out of the neighborhood. A vibrant community of collaboration and justice minded artist collectives and ensembles were disintegrated. Many who stuck around turned all our energy to telling the story of systemic oppression expressed in gentrification (begun with Willie Brown’s statement in 1998 “you need to make $80,000 a year to live in San Francisco” to Mayor Lee’s tax breaks for tech companies like Twitter and Zynga). We had to become political artists to survive. We had to tell the story as a record and as a means to organize. Gentrification is violence. Displacement is violence. Poverty is violence. Erasure of cultural memory is violence. Being priced out of your arts practice is violence. Homelessness is violence. Police bring violence. We see the effects of gentrification in the deaths of Alex Nieto and Luis Gongora. So when you think about the effect of gentrification, behind the façade improvements, the increased appearance of cafes and high priced boutiques, the “Urban Safari” truck painted like a zebra driving past Galeria de La Raza on 24th Street, stopping to take pictures of me while I rehearse in the studio, it’s a crying shame, a cause for rage. Painful.

Barbara: How did you and Eric Reid come to work together and what are your future plans?

Paul: Eric reached out to me a couple years ago to participate in a theater activity at his theater Inner Mission that was targeting theater makers and playwrights of color. Eric was recruiting playwrights on Facebook. I went to an event and was inspired by his vision to create space for Bay Area theater artists of color.

Then last year 2015 I had an opportunity to hire a manager, and I needed production support for the tour of my play PLACAS (www.placas.org) starring Ric Salinas of Culture Clash. I hired Eric to be my manager, and to help me produce the California tour of PLACAS. Working together we realized we both wanted SF Theater to represent the community that we are inspired by: the Mission and the Fillmore—both gentrified. In November I performed a one-off of You’re Gonna Cry at the White Privilege Conference at St. Ignatius High School. Eric also did production on that show. He thought bringing the show back for a new version would tie perfectly into the current activism to stop police violence and evictions. We are on the same wavelength. We want theater to advance the causes we believe in.

Barbara: How do you like being an artist in the Bay Area? What are the unique characteristics of living, working, developing art here?

Paul: The Bay Area, especially San Francisco and Oakland, inspires critical thinking, civic engagement and prolific creativity in modes of communication. Liberation not innovation is the primary theme here. I will not waiver on that. I don’t believe tech innovation defines us, not now and definitely not then.

I am a California loyalist. I chose San Francisco instead of New York to ground my art and represent California culture nationally, globally. I am San Francisco. The Bay Area has nurtured me since 1995. We created Los Delicados in The Mission. Around the same time we also created Youth Speaks in the Mission, and I used to teach writing workshops for teenagers at Southern Exposure Gallery when it was part of Project Artaud. My fundamental voice as a writer/performer is informed by the Mission District—culturally rooted, community based performance that connects indigenous, Latino and African diasporic arts traditions. This urban indigenous ecosystem is the foundation of the Mission arts venues that cultivated my work: Galeria de La Raza, Mission Cultural Center, CellSpace, Intersection for The Arts, Youth Speaks, Red Poppy, Brava, Project Artaud…so many. Even when I am integrating technology into my shows it’s always from the perspective of “How does the Latino community relate to it?” I almost always collaborate with Mission-based musicians and visual artists in my work—Marcus Shelby, Rio Yañez, Culture Clash, Greg Landau, Norman Zelaya, Dj Sake-1, Eric Norberg. I also have a lot of love for Oakland, which is grounded in roots culture, community organizing, polyculturalism, and immigrant co-existence. Bamuthi and I both lived together and created plays for a couple years in Oakland. My first docu-theater project was called “Fruitvale Project” directed by Elia Arce, and produced by La Peña. I shadowed a Cambodian immigrant refugee named Kong, who escaped the Khmer Rouge, while he documented damage after the “Raider Riots,” in Oakland’s Fruitvale District. I performed as Kong. At the same time Bamuthi was working on Word Becomes Flesh, and Scourge about Black and Haitian identity through the lense of hip-hop theater. We informed each other in the early years of our growth. So to be an artist in the Bay Area is to be immersed in culture, conflict, tradition and prolific social and political interaction.

Barbara: I want to ask you about gentrification and the Mission — your thoughts and how it’s reflected in the show — what you are exploring?

Paul: You’re Gonna Cry specifically tears the façade off the Mission of the 1990s and lets the audience see inside the homes and lives of Mission natives, immigrants, techies and artists. The piece contextualizes the concept of gentrification—economically motivated culture shift of a neighborhood—by highlighting what is powerful about the culture of the neighborhood. Which also reveals how such a place like the Mission can be vulnerable to gentrification and evictions. We see how violent gentrification really is as new residents from a different economic class use real estate to impose their will on the neighborhood’s already existing social relations which creates massive conflict. When the dot-com industry of the 1990s was introduced, newly monied tech industry workers and venture capitalists from Wisconsin and Michigan fell in love with the physical beauty and vibrant action of the Mission District, but they didn’t try to get to the know the lives of its native population: people who were born and raised in The Mission. Instead internet business people wanted to appropriate what was already thriving, and then change it to fit their needs. It’s like this real estate trend of maintaining original classic external of a building but gutting the inside to make it modern. Gentrification is American post-colonialism. It is late 20th century capitalist culture. In the name of new experiences for the wealthy (lofts, bars, restaurants, doggy hotels, indoor mini-golf), it leaves immigrants and poorer people behind without a care for their well-being.

I play about 12 characters from different generations, genders, races, interests on the block of 24th and York St. The characters reveal the neighborhood. I don’t spell anything out for you. I use music, spoken word, dance, monologue, puppets, video. This is an impressionistic portrait. Nothing is obvious. You must listen and feel what each character says to understand all the connections between them and their stake in the neighborhood.

Barbara: Can you tell me your creative influences, heroes, and things you would love to do but haven’t (yet!)?

Paul: My heroes are Jean-Michel Basquiat, Amy Winehouse, Miguel Piñero, Miles Davis, Suzan-Lori Parks, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Oliver Mayer, Leon Ichaso. My influences are my colleagues and friends Norman Zelaya, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Danny Hoch, Culture Clash, Mayda del Valle, Elia Arce, Saul Williams, Tanya Saracho.

I want to work with Rosalba Rolon from Pregones Theater and musician Yosvanny Terry on a musical theater piece about Cuban emigres of the 1990s. I want to write a story of folks who came to the US during Cuba’s Special Period, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when financial sponsorship of Cuba was halted. I want to write about their story in the US. I am a big fan of Cuban music and of Pregones.

I want to write TV. I want to create a show like The Wire but about the Oakland school district from state take-over to the current push to turn all the schools into charters. Oakland Unified is the American public school system. It is ripe with drama and characters, and I want to write the TV. Make the heroes teachers on TV instead of fucking cops.

Barbara: What are your thoughts on the Bay Area theater scene and anything you would change?

Paul: Bay Area theater is small, exciting and functioning at a certain level. There is good work out here: Michael Torres directed MAS at Laney College, Sean San Jose recently directed Chavez Ravine at UC Berkeley, the Magic did Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters. Ubuntu Theater is very interesting. I am sad we lost Octavio Solis to Oregon Shakes. I’m not happy Campo Santo doesn’t have a home theater. I was excited to see Between Riverside and Crazy at ACT. But I wonder why they didn’t do Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Hudes. Maybe one day Berkeley Rep will invest in new Latino playwrights from the Bay Area… I just came out of a 10 year partnership with the San Francisco International Arts Festival who commissioned two of my plays (PLACAS, and Representa!). It was very fruitful, and I am thankful to Andrew Wood’s support. And I am entering into theater commissions with Loco Bloco and Youth Speaks on two plays about police violence and gentrification—which I just received the Gerbode Playwriting Commission for, and for which Sean San Jose will direct my play Arresting Life. I’ve also been in the Tenderloin rehearsing more, and I wonder what theaters like the Exit, PianoFight and Cutting Ball will do to develop artists from that neighborhood. I don’t think the current state of Equity makes anything any better when no one can afford to own a building. National theater networks are growing. A lot of talk about White Privilege. A lot of talk about making theater more diverse. I don’t really see it though. A lot of smart talk. Very little smart action on the part of regional theaters. They are worried about legacy and job hoarding. I was recently at South Coast Rep. I met the entire “Artistic” creative wing of their massive theater. All of them white. Nice people. But not a single black or brown leader in the artistic division. That is typical to me. So I keep working with non-traditional theaters, or non-traditional partners, making work that matters to the empowerment of our people. I will not beg regional theaters to include me, nor will I conform to their cultural standards of what they think good theater is. Not while theater critics keep describing Latinos as “spicy” or “hot.” I do love the conflict though. It helps create meaning. You find purpose, and can be inspired to be a mentor to other artists. The imbalance of resources in theater forces us to address history. I will work with individuals whose work I admire. Wherever they are.

Barbara: Thoughts/words of wisdom for others out there who want to do what you do?

Paul: Work your networks. Cultivate community. Believe in your friends. Donate time and money to your friends’ work. When the work is hard, you are doing the thing you were meant to be doing. Nothing happens overnight. Take time when creating theater. Do not rush it. Nothing worthwhile should come easy. Take risks: reach out to people you don’t know that well but who you are interested in. Practice compassion. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Find love in all the interactions you have. Try to identify with people who are in pain. Ask them who their family is. Ask: Tell me who loves you? Lead with healing.

Barbara: Plugs for friends’ things or anything else we should check out?

Paul: Check out On The Hill, my next production about the death of Alex Nieto at the hands of the San Francisco Police. I am collaborating with Loco Bloco and Eric Reid. Coming to Brava Theater in October 2016.

"You're Gonna Cry" by Paul S. Flores

You’re Gonna Cry by Paul S. Flores

You’re Gonna Cry by Paul S. Flores and produced by Theater MadCap, is playing May 6-28th at the Phoenix Theater. For more information, go here.

The Real World- Theater Edition: An Interview With Christopher Chen

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews one of San Francisco’s notable playwrights, Christopher Chen.

I was lucky enough to see one of Christopher Chen’s staged readings a couple of years ago and remember thinking, “Whoa, I didn’t know you could do that in plays?!” Christopher has this great style, which he describes as having “a maximalist approach.” He’s definitely another writer who inspires me to explore and play with form and theatricality in my own writing, while still focusing on the topic or issue or idea that the play was responding to in the first place.

I’d been wanting to chat with Christopher for some time about playwriting, his style, and his upcoming projects. And as it turned out, we were able to connect and talk about Home Invasion, which is 6NewPlays’ first production.

What follows is the interview I had with Christopher Chen about his work.

Christopher Chen

Christopher Chen

Barbara: How did you get into writing plays? And tell me about your writing style?

Christopher: Before I landed on playwriting I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I was all over the place in terms of what kind of artist I wanted to be. In elementary school I wrote stories and made puppets; in middle school I was obsessed with movies (Malcolm X was the movie that got me; I watched five movies a week); in high school I got into novels (Virginia Woolf, Paul Bowles) and music (the minimalists, grunge). I entered college as a music major, on the music composition track. But I also wanted to be a film director so I took film classes. And I took English classes because I wanted to be a novelist or poet. Or a sociologist or psychologist. And I also took acting classes and was in Theatre Rice, an Asian American theater group that mainly did/does sketch comedy. But they also had space for drama, and I wrote my first short play with them. I wrote my first play because I wanted something to direct, and I didn’t want to direct somebody else’s work. I think I was using theater directing to scratch my film directing itch. But then I found that playwriting was actually the thing that fulfilled all my creative impulses simultaneously: It combines literature with musicality with visual spectacle. It’s also a discipline tailor-made for my introvert (with extrovert impulses) personality. I love the process… a period of introverted writing followed by organized collaboration where I can still sort of be a wallflower.

In terms of my writing, I’ll cut and paste something I’ve written for grants: “My work as a playwright deals foremost with systems of power: how they are structured, perpetuated and how they wend their way into even the most intimate psychological spaces. My primary interest is the very scope of a system’s complexity, and to capture this, I use an all-cylinders-firing approach to theater making. It is a maximalist approach that combines elements of fable with up-to-the-moment political discourse; absurdist humor with subtle naturalism; and intimate spaces with multi-media spectacle. All of these elements are situated within kaleidoscopic, shifting structures designed to continuously challenge an audience’s expectations. The idea behind these multi-faceted constructions is to reflect the complexity of the system I’m exploring.” That sounds a little pretentious, but that’s fine.

Barbara: Tell me about 6NewPlays and how Home Invasion came to be?

Christopher: 6NewPlays is Erin Bregman, Eugenie Chan, myself, Barry Eitel, Andrea Hart and Brian Thorstenson. We are a producing playwrights’ collective inspired by 13P, the New York playwrights’ collective whose whole thing was putting the production directly into the hands of the playwright. We wanted to do that too, and produce plays of ours that might be a little riskier, might be cast aside by established theater companies. We liked the idea of bypassing the whole institutional machine of theater-making that so often creates DOA products. Our plays are going to be high-quality, formally inventive, and low-cost.

Home Invasion is a surreal murder mystery that is being performed in actual private living rooms around the Bay Area. We decided to have this be our inaugural production because it was something we could pull off relatively easily and because it embodies our scrappy, nimble get-it-done ethos. Most of the budget is going to artist stipends. I was excited to take this on because I’ve been increasingly gravitating towards more subtle character-driven writing, and having actors perform in real living rooms, just feet away from the audience’s faces, allows a level of intimacy and nuance you can’t get outside of movies or TV. It’s like writing for the screen… but it’s live.

Barbara: What has your experience as a SF playwright been like?

Christopher: I’ve lost steam after the first two answers.

Barbara: What’s your take on the current theater scene?

Christopher: There’s a lot of different facets to it.

Barbara: Is there anything you would change or see an opportunity for within the scene?

Christopher: Doing Home Invasion with 6NewPlays was very inspiring for me because it really drilled home a Bay Area truism: where there’s a will there’s a way. It’s not as cut-throat here as it is in New York or Chicago, so there’s no reason NOT to gather really good people together who share your passions and instincts, and then just make theater at relatively low risk. Everyone will be glad to pitch in if everyone likes and respects each other and shares common goals. THEN THEATER WILL HAPPEN. In the group development phase of 6NewPlays we all pitched in. As a group we collaboratively tackled all practical matters: finances, grantwriting, budget-making, etc. etc. These things would be overwhelming if you were doing it all by yourself for the first time. That’s why you need a team. And then, during the artistic phase of Home Invasion, I’m once again experiencing the joys and ease of collaborating with a dedicated, passionate and professional team, all pulling together in a DIY way. Where there’s a will there’s a way. I was able to snag my dream director: Matthew Graham Smith, and my dream cast: Kat Zdan, Lisa Anne Porter, Matthew Hannon. And they’re going to go into private living rooms, big and small, for audience sizes ranging from 15-40, and put on a full-length play. I’m losing sight of the original question, but the bottom line is: In this community there’s room to make your own opportunity.

Barbara: What can we expect from Home Invasion?

Christopher: I was originally inspired by Dial M For Murder. ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES EVER AND IT ONLY TAKES PLACE IN ONE ROOM. (Mostly.) I was also inspired by The Maltese Falcon, Vertigo, and The Twilight Zone. The play goes into some strange places. I was inspired by a mysterious book my story collaborator Hannah Birch Carl found at Urban Ore. This mysterious book was a big inspiration.

Home Invasion, running April 16-30th in various Bay Area living rooms.

Home Invasion, running April 16-30th in various Bay Area living rooms.

Barbara: Any advice for people who would like to do what you do?

Christopher: Gather good people together and just make the work. Don’t listen to too much feedback– double down on your own instincts. In fact, push your instincts to their logical conclusions. Explore many other artistic influences other than theater. If you’re starting out in this community, start by saying yes to everything. Before I gained any traction as a playwright I worked box office and house managed and interned at the Magic Theatre, I acted at Impact Theatre (Horatio) and Shotgun Players (a tiny tiny role in a Marcus Gardley world premiere!), and did all kinds of staged readings and development workshops.

Barbara: Any projects coming up you can talk about?

Christopher: I am working on commissions with A.C.T., Crowded Fire, S.F. Playhouse and O.S.F. (that controversial Play On! translation project— I’m doing Antony and Cleopatra). My play Caught will be at Shotgun Players this Fall, along with productions in Seattle, Chicago and New York.

Barbara: Any plugs for your own work or friends’ work?

Christopher: I wish I’d gotten tickets to Peter Nachtrieb’s House Tour, but it’s all sold out.

For more on Christopher Chen, check out his website at http://www.christopherchen.org. Home Invasion runs April 16-30 at selected living rooms across the Bay Area, including a barebones performance at The Flight Deck in Oakland in collaboration with Just Theater. For more info, go here.

The Real World Theater Edition: Interview With Rob Ready

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews Rob Ready about PianoFight, Theater Pub, Short Lived, and $5,000 in prize money!

I caught up with Rob Ready, the Artistic Director of PianoFight, this week to talk about ShortLived, the short play festival that includes 36 pieces by “indy artists of all stripes”.

The competition brings a $5,000 cash prize on the line as competitors duke it out over six regular season rounds and then one championship road. Each round lasts a week and has four performances. The short plays are scored by audience members and the highest scoring piece of each round clinches a spot in the championship round. We’re currently in week five of ShortLived with the championship round right around the corner. The winner will receive a full-length production in addition to the $5,000 cash prize.

Rob gave me background on ShortLived, how it compares to other new play development programs out there, and some of his favorite moments.

Barbara: What’s your background in theater?

Rob: Performing since I was a kid, school and community theater growing up, BFA from NYU Tisch and artistic directoring PianoFight ever since. I had gigs at ODC in marketing and Z Space in biz dev and producing random shows. Oh and I play a drunk Llama every year for Theater Pub. And THAT’S IT.

Barbara: How did ShortLived come about?

Rob: We were coming to the end of our first year running Studio 250 at Off-Market (our old venue), and were talking to Point Break Live about renting three months. We were stoked because it was our first year and we ran a ton of shows and after nine months we were tired. But then they took a tour of the space, said, “This won’t work.” And they bailed. So we had to come up with something that could fill three months and that we actually wanted to do. So we came up with ShortLived, a show that changed each week, and that audiences had a hand in deciding, and where the prize was legit – a full-length production the following year. It’s definitely a slog, but the experience of putting on new plays every week for three months is one that has shaped me as a performer and producer.

Rob-Ready

Barbara: What is the thing you like most about ShortLived and how have audiences reacted?

Rob: The instant community. You bring together a ton of very different artists, and they compete creatively – basically you don’t get any phoned in performances, because there are only four shows per round and there’s money and resources and bragging rights on the line. Watching your peers work to actively be better every night is a cool thing to see. When everybody else is pushing to be better, you push to be better, and there’s an interesting bond that comes from that.

On the audience side too, the act of scoring elicits real opinions and discussion from audience members who have a natural instinct to compare notes during and after the show. Because folks are directly asked to evaluate pieces critically, the chatter after shows tends to be pretty high level, so strangers who happened to sit next to each other in the show will end up having beers at a table after discussing why they scored one piece higher than another. Again, it’s another cool thing to see.

Barbara: How does it compare to other new play development opportunities/venues? What does it offer that others don’t?

Rob: I’m sure there are other festivals that do similar things to ShortLived, but seems like the main differences are that ShortLived:

– gets all 36 plays off book and on their feet
– provides critical audience feedback for artists
– has no submission fee =)
– is hyper local
– lets audiences decide the winner and which plays advance
– offers a legit grand prize of cash money AND a show

Barbara: Favorite moments – how about three, from ShortLived?

Rob: These are gonna be more personal for me, but here ya go:
– In ShortLived 2 or 3, Duncan Wold, Christy Crowley and I put together a 10-minute musical in one day. It didn’t win, but it did really well – and working that fast was very cool.

– Performing Kirk Shimano’s play Inner Dialogue in ShortLived 4. It took second place in ShortLived 3 in 2011, and because the rules were different, it performed every weekend for 13 weeks. So when we brought back the festival after 144 Taylor St opened, it felt like it was a good call to bring back that piece and enter it into the Wildcard Round. Hadn’t acted on stage with Dan Williams since we’d done the piece originally, so being able to perform with my friend and business partner in our new theater was pretty special.

– Producing Megan Cohen’s first play in ShortLived 1.

Barbara: Anything you’re looking forward to this time around?

Rob: The Finals. They are always amazing. They sell out like crazy, the plays are really strong, the crowds are amped, the performers are jacked too and the whole week is just really fun.

Barbara: Plugs/shout-outs for upcoming performances of friends’ work?

Rob: Adventures in Tech by Stuart Bousel and directed by Allison Page. Also Terro-Rama 2 by Anthony Miller and Claire Rice and directed by Colin Johnson. Maggie’s Riff, written by John Lipsky, adapted by his son Jonah with musical direction by his other son, Adam, directed by Faultline AD Cole Ferraiuolo. And yes – they are all here at PianoFight!

For more on ShortLived at PianoFight, click here!

The Real World, Theatre Edition: Interview with Edna Miroslava Raia

Barbara Jwanouskos talks to one of SF’s longest running local activist artists.

The day after Valentine’s, Justin Keller, Founder of Commando.io, penned an open letter to San Francisco’s Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr complaining of the city’s homeless problem leaving many questioning whether he understood the complexity of the issue and had any compassion for his fellow San Francisco residents. A few days later, Edna Miroslava Raia responded to Justin Keller in an open letter on Medium pointing out the hypocrisy and frustration many felt with Justin Keller’s original statements.

I learned Edna is also a local performer and comedian who has a company called Potatoes Mashed Comedy. I was very excited to have the chance to talk with her about social activism, performance art and comedy, as well as the creative process she embarks upon when she creates new characters. This is the interview I had with her about her work and how she sees the world.

Barbara: I’m curious about your background. What kind of performance art and/or theater do you make? What’s the experience like for audience members?

Edna: I am a character actor/adult clown. I mostly perform comedic monologues although I also write sketch comedy. Every single one of my characters is an extension of myself so being the social justice graduate that I am, all of them carry social messages.

The feedback is always bewilderment because I am not particularly funny as myself; people are always surprised to learn what’s underneath. When I produced and performed in ‘Spaghetti Monologues,’ the response from everybody was ‘do it again.’ But it was an exhausting show to produce…coordinating, cooking, swimming in, cleaning and composting 120 lbs of spaghetti and red sauce was a venture I’m very hesitant to repeat. I’m told a lot that I should seek fame, which I ignore because I’m not sure that’s what I would like to achieve. I don’t want to move; this feels like home, despite all the newness.

Cilla, the texter, in a car accident at Little Boxes Theater

Cilla, the texter, in a car accident at Little Boxes Theater

Barbara: So you wrote an open letter to Justin Keller. Tell me about the moment that sparked you to put pen to paper—what did you feel the need to respond to in that moment?

Edna: When people with lots of money, and seemingly an elite education, parade their ignorance publicly, I want to throw tomatoes at their face in the center of town for all to see. His air of entitlement and clear lack of empathy made me so angry I immediately looked him up on facebook and wrote him my letter in a personal message. All I wanted to communicate was the phrase, “how dare you,” but I felt like expanding on that so it turned into a longer rant than originally intended. Most angry letters do.

Barbara: How did you know it was something you should share publicly? I ask since many times people have something to say but then the moment leaves them or they feel they missed their chance or maybe went too far/not far enough?

Edna: After I wrote Mr. Keller the personal letter, I thought he might not read it and had been told in the past that the place to get the tech industry’s attention was Medium.com. Just in case, I signed up with Svbtle.com, where he originally posted his open letter and I posted mine there. I found him on twitter and tagged him with the link of the letter and sought him out on LinkedIn. All I wanted was for him to respond, but he never did. With all the attention it received, I’m almost positive he at least read part of it so I don’t regret making it public. I tried to mirror some of his rhetoric in my letter too, to make him realize how stupid he sounded. Hopefully he learned something.

Barbara: What about the “open letter” format– it’s super popular these days. Do you have any thoughts on why? Its strengths and limitations?

Edna: If this had happened before the Internet, I would have had to mail my letter or publish it in the newspaper and wait weeks for any kind of response. I like the immediacy of an open letter, and in this instance, I was happy to have others read it because I knew so many people agreed with me and would feel like they were given a voice. The rumor mill about Justin Keller and people who shared his opinion was already stirring loudly. I just fed the conversation into a microphone.

Barbara: What has the response to your open letter been like and I’m curious if you had any next steps or further inspiration to write, talk or create something about homelessness and displacement? Or any other aspects of the letter?

Edna: My letter’s response was overwhelming; it consumed my life for a full week. I gained about 300 new friends on facebook, was quoted in four different publications online and interviewed on a radio station in 24 hours after the open letter was released. One journalist even wanted to print t-shirts of my diatribe! It was the craziest day in a while.

Because so many people were writing me (to agree and debate), I felt the need to give the most informed opinions I was capable of, so I began researching everything I was discussing. In doing so, I stumbled upon news of City Hall’s meeting to discuss the homeless situation on February 25th. I encouraged others to attend and I went myself to take notes. I wrote another entry on Medium.com about the 4 hr. experience. It’s a very long, detailed revelation, called ‘All You Need to Know about City Hall’s Discussion of Homelessness.’ I learned a lot and I felt like an advocate, but after hearing how poorly the homeless help system has been run and will continue to run, I’m not sure what difference I can make. I did say during public comment that they should be tapping into the obvious resources we have in the city-the tech companies. The homeless departments kept complaining about not having updated technology to run any kind of cohesive system to catalogue our homeless population. If I was trying to make a bigger splash, I would start there, I suppose. Justin Keller, would you like to donate some of your company’s profits towards this cause?

As for the inspiration, I instantly wanted to create a show based on this whole experience. I could Anna Deavere Smith-it, impersonate all these San Francisco characters. I’m also curious what would come out if I flipped the script and gave gadgets and apps the same stigmas that heroin needles and tents carry, or showed homeless people being ostracized for wearing Google glasses and ordering from UberEats. Ooooo, interesting! When you’re inspired, the possibilities are endless.

Barbara: Tell me about your creative process and how you go about working on something? How do you know it’s complete?

Edna: This is something I’ve been ruminating on lately. My characters usually begin from a phrase in my head or an idea of a person, usually based on someone I’ve seen or something I’ve always wanted to try.

As I said, my characters are extensions of myself so as I write scenarios, subtleties about me are revealed in them. But all of my characters would all react differently to the same scenario, based on their faults or stereotypes. For example, this latest character I’m working on is an imposter who holds no real job but pretends to work places and wreaks havoc. As a bartender she makes a drink with onions in it; I am personally repulsed by onions, but this character loves them. As I wrote her lines, I realized the reason was because she has a deep fear of vampires, which is now taking the character in a whole new direction.

Regina Pickel, born in The Bronx in 1952

Regina Pickel, born in The Bronx in 1952

My characters are never, ever complete because they become their own people with backstories and personalities that transcend schticks and quirks. They always have something new to say. I used to think I would retire them when I performed them too much, but they’ve become like friends. You don’t retire friends when you see them too much; you just hang out with other friends until you miss them again. That sounds awful. Haha.

Barbara: What’s your take on theater and performance as it is now? What is the current state? Opportunities that are lacking? Places it could improve?

Edna: I am happy with the new play-writing scene! I was growing frustrated for years, watching companies produce repeats of ‘classics,’ and wondering how we would ever create more classics for the future if we didn’t allow new voices to be heard. I especially love all the new urban plays that touch on diversity in classes and lower income struggles and add other genres of media into their shows.

Contrastingly, in the comedy circuit, I’m disappointed with the fear of mixing genres. I personally feel stuck between realms of funny. Most people who watch comedy want to see standup comedians; I want to tap into that audience but am not funny as Edna. I think the world of standup needs more diversity in their format. I miss Andy Kaufman. One of these days, I’m just going to book a standup gig and be in full character, maybe Regina Pickel, my Jewish lady. If they don’t like her, they can throw her out by her old lady pants; it’ll be a fantastic scene!

Barbara: Any low-hanging fruit ideas of how to change the scene –tech vs. artists– that we, and people who have power and influence, could take?

Edna: Some have told me that ceasing the use of the argument ‘Us vs. Them’ will fix everything. I don’t completely agree. I think we have to realize where we all stand. We ARE on different sides of the fence, financially especially. I would like to see the new SF residents come out to public gatherings more and see what San Francisco really stands for–diversity, freedom of expression, sanctuary. Maybe it would inspire them to make more apps that help their communities.

Barbara: Advice for people who want to do what you do?

Edna: Try harder. Do it better. Be funnier. If you constantly scrutinize your art and keep challenging yourself, somebody will notice a change and then people will stop faking, ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you,’ just to be nice. They’ll actually start calling you. But only if you’re ready.

Barbara: Plugs for upcoming work, art, or shows?

Edna: I am performing two characters at Safehouse for the Arts on April 24th for ‘The Crow Show.’ And in May, I’m hosting one night at the SF International Arts Festival with amazing musicians, Impuritan and Loachfillet and visual artist/filmmaker, Anna Geyer. For that show, I’ll take on one of my most memorable characters, Hillary Like, the depressed goth teenager, hosting her own radio show. The night is called ‘Dada Explodes: A Cluster of Sound, Light and the Absurd’ on May 28th, at Gallery 308 in Fort Mason, at 8:30 pm.

Marina bitch, Chloe, in her plastic ocean

Marina bitch, Chloe, in her plastic ocean

For more on Edna Mira Raia, check out her company, Potatoes Mashed Comedy.

The Real World – Theater Edition: Britney Frazier

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews Britney Frazier.

I heard about Britney Frazier before I ever met her, when taking acting classes at Laney College under Michael Anthony Torres’ direction. I knew that she was an amazing actor — and then I got to see her in a play. Wow, blown away. As an actor, Britney brings so much depth of feeling to her work and the same can be said of her writing.

Her one minute plays packed a lot of punch both in 2015 and 2014 at the Playwright’s Foundation benefit and were smong my favorites of the evening. When I learned that she was having a reading and I had to talk with her. The subject matter couldn’t be more timely.

From the media blurb:
There is a myth that persists that “black folks don’t get depressed, we get the blues,” and as a result, too often, the opportunities to talk about mental illness and suicide in African diasporic communities are missed as our loved ones continue to take their own lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that suicide claims one African American every 4.5 hours. The top three factors that contribute to suicide in communities of African descent which go unaddressed are: untreated mental illness, homophobic bullying and religion.

olokun6

Dysphoria: An Apache Dance is the confabulation of two drunks in a “dive bar” under the waves contemplating gender roles and the trials, tribulations, bonds and breaks of a mother, daughter narrative, and an inquiry into whether genetically inherited predispositions lead to depression, PTSD and suicide, or if ancestral memories passed from the “hanging rope” to the umbilical cord are the culprit.

What follows is an interview with Britney Frazier about her creative process and Dysphoria: An Apache Dance.

Barbara: Tell me about your background. What got you interested in writing and theater?

Britney: I started my career in the arts as an actor and acting is extremely unpredictable. In order to preserve my sanity in the uncertainty, I decided to take a month long writing workshop with Marcus Gardley at the Playwright’s Foundation. Gardley did this cool exercise where we, as a group, brainstormed play concepts and types of main characters and then put our ideas in a hat to then randomly pick. The concept I picked was, love is blind and my character type was female protagonist, and I hit the ground running. In a month’s time, with the guidance of Mr. Gardley, I came up with my first play, Obeah, about a two-headed seer falling in love with Shango, Orisha of male virility and fire. Shortly after that workshop, I got my first directing gig, Assistant Directing for Ellen Sebastian Chang.

Barbara: How does acting influence how you write a play?

Britney: As an actor and playwright, I really love plays where the characters are emotionally bold and stories themselves are taboo or obscure. I feel like because I’m an actor who also directs, I write with the whole story in mind, considering the design and transitions along with the plot and characters.

Barbara: Where did you find inspiration for Dysphoria: An Apache Dance?

Britney: I started the path to creating Dysphoria as a writing challenge to myself. I decided to look through the current events in the media at that time and write a play. I ended up finding this article about two women in Salinas California who were lovers and helped one another play out one of the worst child abuse cases in Salinas. The children were emaciated, locked in rooms and chained to the floor for days. As I read the story , horrified, I began to wonder what would compel two women to these extremes. In society, women are “supposed to” be nurturing caregivers, but “supposed to ” is a difficult phrase…I wondered what happened to these women before this incident, that lead them to commit this crime. At first, I decided to write the twisted love story of these two women leading up to the crime, and that was cool, but still felt very surface. Also I love Apache dances, which are violent Parisian dance of the underworld, because they are emotional, sensual, spiritual are rarely used in plays that include dance.

Barbara: What has been the most challenging aspect of writing the play and what got you through it?

Britney: I think the hardest part for me writing Dysphoria was the decision to scrap the facts in the article and write the story from the heart. Originally, I was trying to stay true to the events and facts but the moment I decided to claim the story creatively, as my own, was the moment my own personal connections to the theme became clear and ideas for how to weave in folklore came flooding in. The story opened up when I did.

Barbara: Any interesting discoveries or trajectories you went down that you didn’t expect?

Britney: After a few rewrites and staged readings, I decided to explore mother daughter relationships, alongside romantic relationships because the way one is raised, the experiences/relationships one has as a child influence and affect one’s experience, relationships and perception of the world as an adult. The whole play changed drastically after that.

Barbara: Tell me about the current state of theater — what do you see happening?

Britney: Well, I hear a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion and sometimes I see some of it on stage. It’s a new and trendy thing to add women, people of color and color-blind casting to a season….really? Don’t get me wrong, I support the venues where the work is being done, I just think it’s sad that in 2016 we are still figuring out the how’s of diversity and inclusion in Bay Area theatre.

Barbara: What aspect would you change and do you see any ripe opportunities that we could take now to move us forward?

Britney: I think great theater should be for everyone, not just the people who can pay. I’d like to see a theatre structure where the experience is affordable, reflects the diversity of the communities they serve, creates opportunities for social commentary and healing, makes a real effort to support local artists and includes stories for, about and by women and people of color in every season.

Barbara: What advice do you have for people who want to do what you do?

Britney: Lol. This is the advice I give myself: Keep the faith. Believe in you. People say sh*t, good and bad people say sh*t. Don’t let it make or break your spirit. Please yourself first and no matter what, keep writing. Pay attention to what feelings come up when you are writing. When you as the writer are feeling sensitive about something in your piece, explore it, it’s gold.

Barbara: And also, any bad advice that might be good? or simply something to avoid/ignore.

Britney: See above.

LA Vouge

For more on the reading–visit the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) located at 685 Mission Street at 3rd St. in San Francisco, www.MoADSF.org. The reading is tomorrow, February 20th from 2-5 PM.

LHT’s staged reading is FREE with full day General Admission to MoAD – $10 Adults/$5 Seniors & Students. MoAD admission is FREE for LHT Subscribers and MoAD members with an RSVP to (415) 318-7140 or egessel@moadsf.org.

For more on Britney Frazier, check out Britfrazier.tumblr.com.