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.

The Real World – Theater Edition: Gino DiIorio

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Gino DiIorio, the writer of SAM AND DEDE (OR MY DINNER WITH ANDRE THE GIANT), opening at Custom Made Theatre on February 11th.

On his website, Gino describes the play as such —

True story: 12-year old Andre the Giant, already over 6 feet tall and 240 pounds, didn’t fit on the school bus. Andre’s neighbor, as a kind gesture of returning a favor, offered to drive him to school in his truck. The neighbor was Samuel Beckett. Out of that bit of trivia comes “Sam and Dede, or My Dinner with Andre the Giant,” imagining three scenes between a giant – a man who cannot hide, and a writer obsessed with silence.

So of course, I was intrigued. I mean lately I’ve been obsessed with silence and subtlety and how it’s theatricalized. Gino and I talked about that and also his influences and creative process.

Enjoy the interview below!

Gino Dilario

Gino DiIorio

Barbara: First off — your premise for SAM AND DEDE sounds amazing — a man obsessed with silence and a giant who cannot hide — how did you come to the idea for this play? What intrigued you?

Gino: My son was very interested in professional wrestling. And I mentioned that when I was his age, I was as well and he asked who were my favorites. And I mentioned Bruno Sammartino and the British Bulldogs and of course, Andre the Giant. He had never heard of him so we Wikied him and that’s where I found out he knew Sam Beckett. And I thought if anyone can write this play, it’s me. Cause I love Beckett as well.

It was great fun to write because once I got them in the room together, I couldn’t shut up them up. They just had great takes on the world, such different experiences and in a way, (not to be too egotistical) but they’re extensions of me. And I guess that’s true of all writers, every character we write is just an extension of ourselves. But Andre is the part of me that thinks I can do everything and that everything is simple and nothing matters and so what if it did? And just have a good time and live life to the fullest. And theatre is about being big and over the top and crazy. Beckett is the part of me that doubts everything, my ability to do anything, the reason to get out of bed in the morning, the weight of the world, the heaviness of existence, the inability to construct a sentence. In this regard I suppose they’re probably like everyone else on the planet!

Barbara: Tell me about your creative process. Is each play unique or do you generally approach new work in a similar way?

Gino: I try to put the characters in a room and let them talk. And if it’s going well, they do things that surprise me.

Barbara: Anything that you’ve come across in your trajectory as a theater artist that made you question or overhaul what you do? What happened? What changed?

Gino: Good question. I sometimes think I’m a bit of an anachronism. I tend to write stuff that’s very linear, straightforward plot lines, etc. I think it’s harder to write a play with a plot. Most writers avoid plot because it’s so damned difficult. But then again, it’s good to try to write something that perhaps doesn’t follow a traditional line and I guess Sam and Dede is just that. It’s a play where I didn’t feel to urge to have anything happen. Kind of like a Beckett play I suppose. Nothing happens. and in turn, things begin to happen in that absence. If that makes sense.

Barbara: How did you get into theater and writing in particular?

Gino: I began as an actor. I did a lot of Shakespeare, regional stuff, commercials, etc. I did it in high school mostly cause I was good at it. And I liked losing myself in the role.

Barbara: Tell me about the current state of theater. Where are we going?

Gino: Oy. In some ways,there’s a lot of good going on. I see a lot of focus on new play development. The problem is it’s too expensive to produce new plays on Broadway and Off Broadway. So it’s hard for plays to get their New York pedigree,if you will. If i could snap my fingers and change one thing about theatre, it’d be that. I’d make it easier to produce new works on the New York stage. it’s just too cost prohibitive. Negotiating a new deal with the technical unions would be a good first start.

But here’s the good news, people still love writing for the theatre. And going to the theatre. It’s wonderfully atavistic and despite the cost and the assault from new technologies, it still remains unique and vibrant.

Barbara: Anything about it that scares you or makes you dream big?

Gino: Wow. I don’t know. I think I get scared that I’ll die before I finish all these play ideas I have in my head! I don’t dream that big. I dream of small honest moments on stage. If I get a lot of those, I’m happy.

Barbara: What’s next for you?

Gino: I’m researching a historical piece on slavery in the 18th century. Yeah, I know. Good luck getting that produced! But it’s what I’m interested in.

Barbara: Words of wisdom for people who want to do what you do?

Gino: If you can do anything else, do it. If you must write or be in the theatre, don’t think you can make a living at it. Remember what makes it great, what you love about it, and judge your success by how much you live in that.

Barbara: Any bad advice that might actually be good?

Gino: Wow, good question. I’ve been lucky, I haven’t gotten that much bad advice. But I will share something my good friend Gary Garrison told me, it’s good to listen to lots of people but reserve the right to ignore all of it. Or some of it. You can pick and choose your advice. Ultimately the piece has to mean something to you. It’s why you wrote the thing in the first place.

Barbara: Shout outs and plugs for your things (theater and otherwise), friends’ things or just anything you thought was rad?

Gino: New Jersey Rep is the greatest. Suzanne and Gabe Barabbas, great people. Clark University rocks. Which is where I met Leah Abrams and Brian Katz of Custom Made!

Dave Sikula and Brendan Everett in rehearsal at Custom Made for SAM AND DEDE.

Dave Sikula and Brendan Averett in rehearsal at Custom Made for SAM AND DEDE.

You can catch SAM AND DEDE at Custom Made Theatre from February 11 through March 5.

The Real World – Theater Edition: An Interview with Libby Emmons

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews Libby Emmons.

Kicking off the first interview of 2016 is Libby Emmons who starts us off right by talking about indie theater and the importance of creating your own opportunities. Libby is a playwright as well as a producer and has a similar theater in pubs type of play series going with others in NYC.

We talked a bit about the current state of theater and what are some things people could do that would make a significant difference in changing it for the better. And we talked about Morrissey. Because Morrissey.

So, here it is! The interview for you to enjoy!

In Peggy Guggenheim's garden in Venice, Italy, where I took a trip with my mom in 2013. A life-long dream was realized when we went to the Venice Bienniale.

In Peggy Guggenheim’s garden in Venice, Italy, where I took a trip with my mom in 2013. A life-long dream was realized when we went to the Venice Bienniale.

Barbara: Could you tell me about your background– what kind of position(s) do you inhabit in the theater world?

Libby: I make theatre because whenever I try to switch and do something else I find myself writing a new play or planning a new show, and I think “alright, let’s give this thing another go.” I studied playwriting and producing in undergrad (Sarah Lawrence) and grad (Columbia), and that’s mostly what I do now, write and produce.

Barbara: How did you get your theater company started? Was there an opportunity you saw?

Libby: I started a theatre company (Blue Box World) not because I saw an opportunity but because I saw a lack of them. I got a lot of rejections from existing theatre production companies and organizations, so I was like “fuck it, I’ll just do it myself.”

Barbara: Do you have a website for your theater company? Would love to check it out!

Libby: blueboxworld.com is the original, but for a few years now we’ve been focusing on the short bar play series Sticky, www.stickyseries.live.

Barbara: What was the first show you produced through them?

Libby: Our first show was two one acts of mine on one bill, Firetop and Overnight, and we produced them at Second Stage at The Adrienne on Sansom Street in Philadelphia. As luck would have it, I also had a short piece going up at InterAct Theater Co. on the mainstage in the same theater building, running at the same time, so that was fun.

During this process we met loads of great artists, and wanted to keep working with them. But we’d blown all our cash on that big show. Our next show was Sticky, 10-minute plays set in Bar Noir, where we were regulars anyway. Sticky has been our main show now for years, even though we do other stuff here and there.

Barbara: How do you get people to come out for shows?

Libby: Every time we do a show I think “how the hell are we gonna get people to come out for this thing?” Our first show was before everyone had communicators in their hands at all times, so what we did was actually call everyone we know on the actual telephone and ask them to come, in addition to postcards, flyers, etc. I think the best approach is personal, but honestly marketing and how to keeps me up at night. Audiences always come, but I don’t know where they come from or why.

Barbara: Do you do theater around the country or mainly in NYC? I was curious if you thought there were differences in the way theater is engaged in within the different regions/places, if so.

My grandfather and I have never been close, and now he's very sick, so I went to visit him at his home in Florida. I surprised myself in that I really treasure the time spent. It's never too late to know someone.

My grandfather and I have never been close, and now he’s very sick, so I went to visit him at his home in Florida. I surprised myself in that I really treasure the time spent. It’s never too late to know someone.

Libby: We worked in Philly when we lived there, but have been in NYC since 2002. I always want to do theatre around the country, but short of getting an RV and winning the lotto, that plan has not been manifest. If I were to tour a show, my top choice would be How to Sell Your Gang Rape Baby for Parts, which is a two-hander that I wrote for my friend Ali and I, where we play office workers who plan to sell the intern’s gang rape baby at a steep profit, and when that plan goes awry, come up with even crazier ideas. It runs 40 minutes; big laughs.

Barbara: What is one thing you’d like to change about theater currently?

Libby: I would like to change the funding and producing models for theatre. What we’ve got going now are these models:

  • commercial producer who has or gets the funding, the most traditional model
  • not-for-profit producer who gets donations and grants then operates at a loss
  • indie producer who has to get money from friends/family/credit cards
  • festival producer who charges the participating artists for every small detail

I hate all of these, and the kind of theatre they create is the kind of theatre where the audience is in their chairs and the lights go down and the actors step onto the stage and it’s this ‘sacred’ experience. I prefer the profane. I want the audience onstage with me; I want them to sit on my lap while I whisper my stories in their ears. I want them to support the show by buying a cheap ticket to that show. I want us all to experience these moments together, and not in our own separate spaces. I want them to let me love them.

Barbara: Do you see any low-hanging fruit opportunities that would make a difference?

Libby: Yes. The shows I make create budgets entirely from projected ticket sales. Then we try to surpass that, in order to pay artists more than the initial offer. I believe fully that the only low-hanging fruit opportunities are the ones we make for ourselves. There’s no waiting around to ask permission, there’s just making art.

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

Libby: Do it. There’s no trick but to get your friends together and ask them to make brand new art with you. The ones who feel as much ownership over the work as you do will stick around, and it will be awesome. I’ve had a day job this whole time, and I’ve been producing my own work, and I stay up real late and wake up too early. I once got the advice from Suzan-Lori Parks that I should quit my day job and focus on making work full time. I was too freaked by finances to do that, and still am. Maybe it was advice I should have taken, or maybe it wasn’t, but it’s the advice I wish I’d tried out.

Barbara: And I hear you are in the Morrissey play fest! How cool is that? Want to give any hint about what to expect from your play or what your inspiration was?

Libby: Interestingly I was asked by Stuart Bousel to write a Morrissey monologue for a man. The initial submission guidelines talked about extra points for plays that could justify any song on Kill Uncle, and I love that album! So I went with “Sing Your Life,” which is what my man does, without singing.

Barbara: Anything to say about Morrissey and a play festival inspired by him?

Libby: I was so turned on by this idea. First off: bar plays, which come on, I’ve been making and loving the bar play for over a decade. And Morrissey, please. The man got me through my teenage years as unscathed as possible, although still with enough sublime contusions for me to have a true understanding of the word. When I listen to Morrissey it’s like the air outside my body suddenly matches the emotions and whimsies on the inside. It’s like listening to Morrissey makes me feel big enough to inhabit the air that I breathe.

Barbara: Plugs for shows in (or out of) the area or other art we should take a look at?

Libby: First off: The Morrissey Plays. If I were anywhere near I would be there every night.

After that I have two projects coming up that I am jumping out of my chair about I’m so excited. I Am Not an Allegory (these are people i know) is a full length coming up at Under Saint Marks in NYC, running from March 10-26.

The Sticky series is coming to Lovecraft Bar in NYC from with 4 new shows from April 7-May 26, www.stickyseries.live, and our Normal, IL offshoot, under impresario J. Michael Grey, runs at the Firehouse Brew Pub.

Barbara: And a Morrissey song to leave us with?

Libby: Sing Your Life https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6BOZ8gcT6c

This is me and my son who is almost 6 and the best ever. I never wanted to have children, but when it came down to it, I couldn't say no, and I'm so glad I said yes to life.

This is me and my son who is almost 6 and the best ever. I never wanted to have children, but when it came down to it, I couldn’t say no, and I’m so glad I said yes to life.

You can catch Libby Emmons’ short play in The Morrissey Plays on Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 25-26. And as always, tweet @bjwany or email us for interview suggestions!

The Real World – Theater Edition: Putting It Out There

Barbara Jwanouskos need your help to make 2016 the best year yet!

This past year and some change, I shifted “The Real World –Theater Edition” to be mainly interview based. The idea was to focus on the creative process by interviewing mainly playwrights, but also theater and performance creators of all kinds, to get their informal thoughts on something they’d been working on. I asked questions about moments of inspiration and obstacles that came up and listened to their words of wisdom for like-minded artists. I probed into what their thoughts on theater were – the current state, what they would change if they could, and where they see opportunities for growth.

Now it’s time to expand the circuit out and hear from artists of all kinds, but still with a focus on mainly new work.

I’m interested in interviewing the people who run companies – new and long-established. The people who develop local playwrights – I want to know why this is important to you and hear about your passion. The directors that work with living playwrights – how do you work together? How do you see your role? Actors involved in the development process – is this an interesting part of the creative process? Local theater makers – are there ways we can collaborate? Bring even more enthusiasm back to going to theater? And playwrights. Playwrights. Playwrights!

So, please send us (or comment below!) your thoughts. Whether they be points to particular artists or companies or questions you’d love to hear from artists interviewed about the creative process. Looming curiosities and things you’ve always wondered. Now’s the chance to look forward and learn more about our local theater community. Feel free to tweet @bjwany too! I’m listening.

Theater Around The Bay: The Great Blog Re-Cap Of 2015 Part I

Today is the first of our three installments of 2015 recaps from each of our nine staff bloggers. Each has their own unique angle on this past year, so make sure you come back for the rest tomorrow and Wednesday. The Stueys will post on New Year’s Eve.

Top Five “Words of Wisdom” From Folks I’ve Interviewed by Barbara Jwanouskos

2015 marked the first year of shifting “The Real World – Theater Edition” to a mostly interview-based column mainly focused on generative theater artists, new work, and playwrights. As I reflected on the year, five “words of wisdom” moments sprung to mind that I would love to set as an intention moving forward into 2016. They resonated with me when I initially interviewed each of the people below and then again as I reviewed the interviews of the past year.

I think it’s best to let these words stand alone without any framing or reasons why I chose them. After all, when something resonates for you personally, it just does. There’s not much more to it than that. Hopefully, though, highlighting these five artists will also bring new ideas and wonder to the forefront of everyone reading too!
In no particular order, here are their words again:

1) Ariel Craft, director
“Don’t be afraid of not knowing, and don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know. You can’t be expected to have all the answers in the beginning and, if you think that you do, be cautious of those answers.”

2) Donald E. Lacy, Jr., comedian, radio DJ, performer, writer, director, and community leader
“For other writers and artists I can’t tell them what to write or how they should address social ills, but the first advice I would give is to say you have to feel passionately about what you are writing about, whatever that may be. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, but for me, I have to care. Especially as it relates to social issues and or injustices. I despise injustice. I despise racism, so having such strong feelings about those issues, it makes it easy for me to tap into what I want to say about those particular issues. But for me, I like to support my point of view with facts.”

3) Alan Olejniczak, playwright, librettist
“You must also really love the subject of your play as it may take years to develop.”

4) Savannah Reich, playwright, performer, and producer
“For me the simplest way to get your play produced is to do it yourself. It is only very recently that other people have wanted to produce my plays, and that is a new and exciting thing, but it’s important to me to always know that I can make my own work, and that I never need to get picked out of the pile or get the grant or win the contest to make my art.”

5) Marisela Treviño Orta, playwright
“I make a point to wait until I’ve gotten a play into several drafts before sharing the script with anyone. I need that time to really get to know what the story so that when people have notes for me I’m able to determine if those notes help me realize the narrative I’m trying to write or if they are going in another direction.”

The 5 Most Surprising Things that Happened to Me This Year by Charles Lewis III

I wouldn’t call 2015 my favorite year, but it was an interesting one theatrically. Some of it was by design, some of it was happenstance, but all of it taught me something. With all the moments I now recall, here are five that came out of left-field.

1) I sang. I’ve auditioned for so many musicals over the years that I’d long-since stopped holding my breath about actually being cast in one, let alone two in one year (one of which also required me to dance). But between appearing in a brand new musical and singing “Pinball Wizard” at the top of my lungs, I finally got over a stage-based fear that’s been with me since high school.

2) I saw the Red Planet. I was part of the writers’ pool for this year’s two rep shows by Wily West Productions. It was my first time being part of a group, this one led by Jennifer Roberts. One of the two scripts, Zero Hour: The Mars Experiment, had a performance attended by actual candidates of the Mars One project and got a reading at the Otherworld Theatre in Chicago.

3) I learned to like costumes. Not that I ever hated them (although I’ve worn a few horrendous ones in my time), I just didn’t ever want to be the one making the decisions about them. But a director kinda has to make those decisions and I wound up directing a lot this year. To my pleasant surprise, I wound up liking the things my actors wore: I created a cartoonish burger-place cap for On the Spot; I got my Olympians cast to look like a pack of scented markers; and as for Texting

4) I made a skimpy man-thong into a prop. A proud moment for me. Nothing I put on my resume will ever top it. Speaking of which…

5) I gave up my reluctance in calling myself a director. I only acted in two projects, which would normally lead me to calling this a slow year. But I felt envigorated after doing them. This occurred in the same year that I found myself at the proverbial “helm” of so many projects that I finally felt confident enough to put “Director” on my theatrical CV and told people to consider me for projects – which they have.

Oh yeah – I also ran into Colin Firth on the streets of San Francisco, but no one wants to hear about that, do they?

The Top Five Venues of 2015 by Anthony Miller

Hey you guys, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, when my Top 5 format becomes everyone’s format. It’s much like the 90’s, when what I already wore became fashionable. At the beginning of the year I made 2 resolutions, 1) Read The Great Gatsby and 2) Leave the house more often. As we come to the end of the year, only one of those really worked out. As it stands, I have read 17 pages of The Great Gatsby, it took all of 2014 just to finish the introduction. So we’ll table this one again. However, I did manage to get out more, consequently I got to see a lot of different shows in a whole bunch of places. So let’s look at my five favorite venues of 2015.

1) Pianofight
Wasn’t this everyone’s favorite venue of 2015? I’m not the first person to say it, but what Rob Ready and everyone at Pianofight has accomplished is amazing. It’s always fun to be there, the bar is great, the fried chicken sandwiches are the best, and it’s provided a clubhouse of sorts for SF theatre. With three stages, it’s hosting shows from every facet of the Bay Area performing arts scene. All the mini-scenes in the bay are getting together in one place and it’s resulting in more shows and bigger audiences. Whether I’m seeing a show or producing a show there, it’s always fun. I see a huge 2016 for this place, and they deserve it.

2) The Curran
While the 100 year-old Curran Theater is going under renovations, it has been hosting an exciting new series of plays called Curran: Under Construction. I was lucky enough to see a lot of these this year, and because I knew most of the house staff, I got to see not only a lot of cool theatre; I got to explore the place like crazy. By putting the audience on stage with the show, it turns the historic Curran stage into an intimate 150 seat venue that just happens to overlook a 1600 seat theatre and a giant chandelier. The sheer variety of shows I saw was vast There were immersive theater pieces like The Object Lesson, one man tributes to Lenny Bruce, and the Theatre Rock awesomeness of Ghost Quartet and Stew’s Notes of A Native Song. Add that to hanging out on a stage that has hosted hundreds of theatre legends, exploring their basement, fly rails and sneaking into a box seat and drinking a beer, and it makes for an awesome experience every time. And entering through the star door is pretty fun; It’s a really nice stage door.

3) Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater
For purely sentimental reasons, The ol’ Roda Theater makes my list. After roughly 3 years of House Managing for them, I left for greener pastures. Sure, the Roda can be aptly described much like Ferris Beuller described Cameron’s house; “It’s like a museum it’s very beautiful and very cold, and you not allowed to touch anything”. But I did have a lot of fun there. My co-workers were great, and as nerdy as it sounds, there is something absolutely thrilling about getting 600 people seated and giving the house away on time. Not to mention, I saw Tartuffe there, which was easily my favorite show of 2015.

4) The Grand Lake Theater
OK, this is a movie theater, but it is noteworthy. The historic Grand Lake Theater in Oakland is my favorite movie theater in the world. I saw Star Wars Episode 7 in classic 2 projector 3D there and whenever I can see a movie here, I do. It’s a beautiful old fashioned theater that still raises a curtain when the movie starts; an organist plays before the show, and it’s got a pretty ceiling. Not to mention the fiercely liberal views that are often displayed on the marquee. Let me be clear, this is best movie theater in the Bay Area. They’re currently hosting the “Roadshow” Version of The Hateful Eight in glorious 70mm, You’re doing it no justice by seeing it at the Kabuki AMC, Go to Oakland, see a movie there. You won’t be sorry

5) The EXIT
I just can’t quit you EXIT Theater, I love you and your pee-pee smelling sidewalk. I don’t see a world where I don’t see shows here. It still remains a place where independent theatre artists can find a home or just get started. It’s the home of SF Fringe, The Olympians Festival, DivaFest and everybody’s first show in San Francisco. With great new venues like Pianofight and the Strand opening up, the Exit is still the Exit, the CBGB’s of SF Indie Theater.

Charles Lewis is an actor and a director and a writer. Barbara Jwanouskos is a playwright. Anthony R. Miller is writer and producer, he’s a got a very busy 2016 coming up, keep up with it at http://www.awesometheatre.org.

The Real World – Theater Edition: An Interview With Stuart Bousel

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews the guy who writes all these bylines… amongst other stuff.

When I was thinking of people to interview for the last installment of this column in 2015, I immediately thought of Stuart Bousel, who is a writer, director, producer and leader of the Bay Area theater community. I’ve always been interested in what Stuart has to say about the future and where he sees the tide turning. I had to convince him that what he had to say would be interesting to others as well, but rest assured, he does not disappoint. What follows is an interview where Stuart shares his thoughts on where we’re at and where we could go. I find it inspiring as we look to 2016 and all of the projects on the horizon, the seeds that we planted that have now germinated, perhaps collectively we can move forward into a collaborative, thriving scene with lots of wonderfully imaginative new feats.

Stuart Bousel, winning the 2014 Outstanding World Premiere Award from TBA.

Stuart Bousel, winning the 2014 Outstanding World Premiere Award from TBA.

Barbara: What do you think the defining aspect of this year in Bay Area theater was and how it differed from years past?

Stuart: Okay, this is about to sound a little mystical and hokey, but I think we’ve been going through a sort of five year period of difficult but rewarding growth. Or maybe that’s just me projecting my personal life onto the theater scene, which I do all the time because I have a hard time drawing boundaries between my art and pretty much everything else on the planet.

Anyway, I think 2014 was a lot about new beginnings, things ending but also things starting and new relationships forming, and this year has been a lot about the difficulties of new beginnings once they are no longer “new”. Especially the realization that you often have to confront the past or various present issues AGAIN before you can really move on and really, truly emerge into some new and better place. So it’s been a difficult year, but a rewarding one, and I really think next year is going to be all about reaping the rewards because we’re finally gonna have shaken off the pretty intense crap we were carrying around but kept telling ourselves we were too busy to deal with (especially back in 2012, which I will always call “the Year of Treading Water”).

This year, finally knowing where we want to be, I think we finally started actually dealing with our crap and it was a bloodbath. But we’re emerging survivors and not just people who run away from our issues or hide behind constant rehearsal. We’re throwing away our crutches but we’re also throwing away our polite opera fans, as I like to call them, and I feel like I’m seeing more real conversations between people out there. There’s a lot of people starting to create new bridges to cross and ladders to climb, and that’s been born in a great deal of sweat, blood, and tears, but I think that’s going to create a period of immense freedom, creativity, and benevolence within the Bay Area theater community FOR the Bay Area Theater community. I think we’re getting better at wanting to see all of us succeed.

Barbara: Were there new or emerging developments in theater production, writing, directing, acting, etc. that struck you as interesting? How so?

Stuart: The biggest development for the theater community of the Bay Area, regardless of what your title is, has been the opening of the PianoFight space, hands down. Opening a two stage space with a cabaret bar and rehearsal studios attached is really such a huge thing to begin with but we’re only now, a year later, really seeing the impact.

One aspect is that the amount of theatre being done in San Francisco seems to have doubled. I’m not sure if statistically that’s true, but it seems like everyone I know is constantly in a show, going back and forth between the EXIT and PianoFight, both of which make creating small theater so much easier. The fact that both venues, with multiple stages, have been booked out for the whole year and well into next year demonstrates that not only is there a lot of activity going on in the small theater world, but it’s supported both by the artist community and the audiences. The demand is very high for new work, small productions with cheaper tickets, locally grown productions, and productions which are more than a theater experience, but also a night out, a place to discuss the work and engage with the community, and to watch both communities engage.

On the other hand, the greater impact might be as simple as we finally have a bar where everybody knows our names and now you know where to go if you need inspiration, or a sympathetic ear, or to just relax with people who get what you do. The only other place that’s ever felt that way, to me, is the hallways of the EXIT and the Green Room during the Fringe, but in the case of the former you have to be in or seeing a show at the EXIT to be part of that community, and in the case of the later it’s only for three weeks of the year. With PianoFight, even when you’re not in a show, the bar space is an open stomping ground where stimulating things are constantly happening and the people you want to work with are always hanging out or passing through. In the past when people have asked me to show them the local scene I’ve taken them to a show at the EXIT because it generally doesn’t get more San Francisco Real Theater than that. Afterwards, I now take them to the PianoFight bar because it provides the thing the Bay Area theater scene has always lacked in spades outside of specific events: common ground and social context.

Barbara: Reflecting back on trends that pop up in theater – anything that you saw a lot of? What are your thoughts on it?

Stuart: Without meaning disrespect to anyone or their work, I have to be honest… we seem to be coming to the end of the devised theater trend and I’m really happy to see it go. Not as happy as I was to see the puppets trend die (remember when like… everybody’s play had to have puppets?), or the requisite full frontal male nudity trend, but as a playwright I was really getting tired of being vaguely belittled by people who didn’t identify as playwrights and had never really studied the form, but felt that they and their troupe could more or less do what I do, and that I should basically consider myself a scribe whose artistic ambitions should be satisfied by typing up their notes.

I’m not saying you can’t make good devised theater because you can- A CHORUS LINE is devised theatre and it’s amazing- there is a ton of devised work out there that is fantastic- but for the last five years or so people have been acting like it’s the only theater worthy of doing. There’s a narrow perspective that it’s the last truly innovative form and people who fall into that mentality are often writing themselves a blank check for whatever they throw on stage on the premise that it’s innovative, while also upholding it as this sort of edgy revolution against the tyranny of the text (read: playwrights) and that’s just ridiculous. First because a playwright should be treated as a collaborator too, in any production devised or otherwise, and respecting a text doesn’t mean you have to be enslaved to it but finding that balance would require, you know, flexibility on all sides and many devised theatre makers seem to be ironically kind of stuck in their own process; second, the hoopla around the form feels ridiculous because a lot of devised work isn’t edgy or innovative, it’s just bad. Like truly bad. Not entertaining, relying heavily on experimental theatre cliches from three decades ago, taking itself far too seriously while also failing to be coherent. Granted, you could say that about a lot of text-based theatre too. There’s always a good version and a bad version of everything, but when a trend floods the marketplace, so to speak, it’s usually, and unfortunately, the hastily, poorly made crap cashing in on the trend that becomes pervasive.

I enjoy good devised work and I look forward to seeing more of it now that a whole bunch of people who shouldn’t be making it will have moved on to other stuff that they also probably shouldn’t be making and will probably make me feel oddly nostalgic for the devised theater trend. If I was to hazard a guess as to what that next trend will be… probably something like the Hunger Games. Just kidding, it’ll probably be something retro like masks.

Barbara: What do you wish we’d talk about more in the theater scene and why?

Stuart: Oh, where to begin. But I’ll just pick one: I wish we’d talk more about our failures.

I feel like so many people I know, good people, smart people, are struggling- especially producers and directors, who struggle with how to be good artists but also how to be good leaders- and the struggle is really real but we don’t talk about it.

Sure, we talk about how hard it can be to find affordable space, or to get cast, or to balance our art schedules with our day jobs, but I feel like all those things, while important, are also very much the superficial struggles of what do and we never talk about the deep dark things that trouble us like the shows that are born dead on arrival, or the real impact of artistic compromise, particularly over time in a career, or the value of what we do at all beyond keeping us off the streets. Though sometimes, I can be found on the streets, driven there by what I do- and I wish we talked about that too.

For an art form that is obsessed with truth (stupidly so, I think, because the truth is usually dull and almost never the truth anyway) it’s outstanding how much we, as artists, lie to one another, and for the same reasons pretty much everyone else lies: because we don’t want to deal with most stuff so we lie to make it easier. And sometimes it does make things easier, I don’t think lies in and of themselves are necessarily bad (and in our art itself I actually think people should lie as much as they can), but over time, cumulatively and constantly, it eventually creates a culture of superficiality that isn’t remotely supportive and is in fact quite alienating because suddenly you can’t be someone whose show is terrible, who doesn’t always say the right thing, or isn’t constantly excelling, and if you just happen to be someone going through that the expectation is that you are going to suck it up and go through it alone- EVEN THOUGH EVERYONE GOES THROUGH PERIODS LIKE THIS, especially if they have a career of substantial length.

I know that the fear regarding honesty is that people will suddenly just say whatever the fuck they like, whenever and wherever they can, and that suddenly we’ll know the truth about one another and how nobody really knows what they’re doing or why, and that a bunch of us really do hate one another’s work, and half of us have been lying to everybody about our actual qualifications or motivations to run theater companies and such, and there will be some of that, but in reality I think most people will remain polite and compassionate with one another and it’ll really be about finally asking for help, admitting our own shortcomings or limitations, and learning to be compassionate to ourselves once we realize that failure in this industry isn’t the anomaly- it’s the norm. Which means we’re all just normal people, and not the utterly delusional losers many of us secretly think we are.

Barbara: And what do you think we need to move past and why?

Stuart: We need to get over equating “success” in art with “financial success.” Like seriously- it’s so bourgeois and counter-visionary and I hate how many discussions and meetings and panels I find myself in where everyone is talking about what we do using the same matrix of success that WalMart does.

I am not saying money isn’t important or that artists shouldn’t be paid, and paid more/sufficiently. But too much, it seems, we let Money determine Art: from our seasons, to our collaborators, to the kinds of projects we pick or the extent to which we realize them. Money is a necessary evil, but it should never be our motivation or our conscience and it especially shouldn’t determine our value. The value of Art isn’t material even when the art itself is material- and it definitely shouldn’t be quantifiable and put on a spreadsheet so we can have a board meeting where we talk about who is ahead and who is lagging behind and decide if they’re a worthwhile person with a “real career” based on the percentage.

It kills my soul when I’ve heard “top performer” used the way a CFO would say it, by an Artistic Director or aspiring performer or whoever to talk about a popular actor, or trending writer, or designer, or whatever. And I bet it really murders the souls of all the non “top performer” artists listening in.

Barbara: Beyond discussion – what sort of action seems ripe for the scene to take now?

Stuart: I think now is the time for the Bay Area theater companies and artists (and it would be lovely if our Theater Support Organization would help with this) to make it clear to the regional theaters that they are not part of the community if they are not hiring the bulk of their artists locally. I’m not saying they should stop hiring from other places- we should always be open to and creating opportunities for guest artists- actors, directors, playwrights, whatever- because we have so much to learn from other artists working in other places- but we also need to start saying “and hey, you could learn from us too”, not to mention saying to our local artists, “what you do does indeed have merit and is good- even if you haven’t had it done in New York.”

Some prominent individuals aside, there is this general tendency to act like, and even occasionally vocalize, that there is “nobody good” in the Bay Area theater scene, the implied subtext being that anyone who might choose to stay and work here is doing so because they are not capable of making it anywhere else- usually LA or New York. The truth is, most the artists I know working here consider themselves on par with colonists attempting to form a new community with its own unique strengths and merits. And like colonists we are generally working in less than great conditions, impoverished for resources, and having to improvise, but we’re doing it because we believe in what we do and we’re trying to make a positive impact with our art on the world. Not because we like to be dirty, poor, and figuring out how to unclog the toilet before the audience shows up, and certainly not because we have no other options.

So having the fine ladies and gentlemen with Yale degrees and hoity-toity internships on their resumes give us the sneer because the pipes rattle in our theater we built by hand or because they have never heard of us since our work hasn’t been performed in the one city they think gets to determine artistic value, is neither endearing nor of value, it enriches none of us as individuals or our theater scene as a whole. There is so much local resentment towards the big houses but much of that resentment could be done away with, easily, if a lot of those Bay Area arts orgs who seem to be principally hiring anywhere BUT San Francisco and the Bay Area would make doing so their priority. I think the “the talent isn’t out there” lie would evaporate extremely quickly once the prejudice was overcome and if there WAS found to be some truth to it: well, what an excellent opportunity for our flagship companies to show their leadership skills and investment in the community by CULTIVATING the potential instead of just turning their nose up at whatever isn’t what they think they need to keep being whatever it is they they think they are.

What will save theater in the Bay Area is creating a culture of abundance and opportunities for those who are invested in creating a life here.

I look around and I see that happening in our small theater scene all the time, with people making stuff happen, as much as they can, on very little. But like most local artists I look at our flagship theater companies and I see… a crumbling fortress made of the same names and baggage that one often sees there, surrounded by a wall with a sign on it that makes it clear you’re welcome to buy tickets and that’s pretty much the only way you can ever expect to get in. Especially without that Yale degree.

And it’s frustrating because in addition to being shut out of the castle, you can also see- it’s falling apart. They are barely keeping it together. Which sucks- it used to be a really nice castle. And I get that they probably think we’re resentful punks who are part the problem. But you can’t expect the local peasants to tend a garden where only the imported ruling class gets to stroll.

Barbara: Overall, what’s your outlook for the future of the Bay Area theater?

Stuart: Honestly, I do think we’re at the beginning of a really good era. It’s been a ton of struggle the last few years because so many people I know have been building, burning, building again. But now these things have been built, the doors are open, plans are made and we’re finally smart enough to know we’ll need more than one plan.

I think it’s going to be a great time for small theater. The population of the city is young and while I know everybody likes to claim tech workers are not invested in local culture the truth is, they are, many of them are, but like most young people they want to see themselves and the things they care about in that culture- which is not an unreasonable request, nor does honoring that request mean a company can’t still do challenging or edifying work.

The small theater scene has been the best, I think, at rising to the new populace and inviting them in, creating work and spaces that appeal to them, while still also holding on to their old supporters and audiences. Small theater is so much about finding a good working paradigm and being flexible and this is a good time to be a pioneer and even better one to be a local trading post that stocks its larder with pioneers in mind. Recognizing and honoring both who your community is and who it will become is tricky, but we’re in a good place and time to do it or learn how to.

Barbara: Any words of wisdom for those who want to do what you do?

Stuart: Don’t compare yourself to other people. It really is the root of all problems. So don’t do it. And please tell me how you manage to not do it so I can learn how not to do it.

Only make art you want to make. Don’t ever do anything for the money or the exposure or because you’re bored or because you think this will be easier than getting “a real job”, or because other people think you should do it. Do it because you want to and you feel you can say something or learn something by doing it.

Also, stop “telling the truth” and stop “thinking small.” So much American theatre has gotten so small and weirdly obsessed with the truth (I blame social activists who think the arts are a tool of activism; real artists know it’s the other way around) and there should be more, big, grand theater. Even “small” theater can be huge- remember that. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of people to tell big stories, and small stories can be told in big ways. The point is, tell the stories, any way you want but with as much imagination as possible. And screw realism. Theatre is a medium of miracles.

Barbara: And plugs for shows, friends’ work, and just overall awesome things coming down the pike?

Stuart: Well, I’m seeing the KML Christmas show tonight, I hear it is delightful.

And I’m in the Theater Pub Christmas sing along on Monday- you should come, neither of my solos are in my range so it will be an amazing exercise in humbling myself before my peers but it’s also a lot of fun beyond that.

I’m really looking forward to seeing The Mousetrap at Shotgun later this month and everyone should keep their eye on Custom Made. They’re having an amazing season so far, and they have a lot of cool programing about to begin in the next year.

Also, I’m excited for the next season of Theater Pub. We have lots of new people coming in- writers, directors, actors. The goal really is to get Theater Pub back to what it was best at: being a people’s theater, a community theater for the theater community. We have a lot of cool stuff coming up that creates more opportunities for that and I can’t wait to see it come to fruition in the next year.

Stuart Bousel with the cast and crew of Grey Gardens- our own little community- including Jerry Torre- the real life "Marble Faun!"

Stuart Bousel with the cast and crew of Grey Gardens- our own little community- including Jerry Torre- the real life “Marble Faun!”

The Real World Theatre Edition: An Interview With Dhaya Lakshminarayanan

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews someone with an even more intimidating last name.

This week, I had the chance to chat with Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, a comedian, storyteller and self-described nerd, who created a one person show influenced by some of her experiences called Nerd Nation. If you haven’t already checked out her website, http://dhayacomedy.com/, it has a lot of great clips that will get you pumped to see Dhaya in action. Here’s a little interview we did where I got to ask Dhaya about her influences, creative process and hopes for the future of theater and comedy.

Photo by Diana LiDhaya Lakshminarayanan. Photo credit: Diana Li.

Photo by Diana LiDhaya Lakshminarayanan. Photo credit: Diana Li.

BJ: Okay, so I’m reading here from your bio that before this you were a venture capitalist and have two degrees from MIT – first of all, what??! How did you make this turn? Or do you lead a double-life?

DL: My solo show, “Nerd Nation” draws on all aspects of my life: the nerdy, the humorous, the socially awkward, the feminine, even the hardcore gangsta (ok well, only in my imagination).  For a long time on stage as a stand-up comedian, I could not talk about being a nerdy smart person. I felt like I was distancing myself and audiences wouldn’t like that. I slowly started to find a way to be more ME.  But I still felt I was hiding.  And this show allows me to be 100% me: laughs, jokes, and even painful to talk about stuff. And you don’t have to be a hardcore physics nerd (like my dad) to love the show.  Anyone who has ever hid who they were to fit in will enjoy it.

BJ: Was there a turning point in your growth as an artist and comedian that compelled you to begin working on a one person show?

DL: What I love about stand-up is I am always learning: from my comics I respect, from audiences, from socio-political trends.  And I am always learning how to be honest and myself on stage.  But stand-up is fundamentally about eliciting laughter.  There were things I wanted to talk about on stage that weren’t “ha ha” so I started becoming involved in storytelling.  I have been on NPR’s Snap Judgment several times.  I host the Moth StorySLAMs in SF (always sold out at Public Works). I have performed storytelling to sold out theater crowds (Nourse Theater, Castro Theater etc.).  Those experiences allowed me to sit with the more serious or painful parts of the human experience.  And “Nerd Nation” brings my wit and sarcasm of my stand up, the emotion of storytelling, and also multimedia elements. Yes because I AM A NERD there is multimedia.

BJ: What was the process of creating it like? Any snafus or interesting challenges along the way?

DL: It took years of asking myself questions that two-year olds might ask of their parents: Why? How come? But why not?. I first started reflecting on why I was hiding being a smart nerd.  Was it social acceptance? Did I feel bullied even as an adult?  Would being smart be a detriment in the entertainment industry?  Then I started asking my nerdy friends, “Have you ever hid who you are, your intelligence, in a social situation or to get something?”  And these fellow nerds didn’t just respond yes.  They could recall vivid moments: purposely getting lower scores to avoid being bullied.  Failing at sports. Getting dates by hiding their college degrees in math. Lying about awards even well into adulthood.  That’s when I knew I had to interview “subjects” and be very faithful to telling their stories word for word on stage.  So there are parts of Nerd Nation which are directly from the mouths of other nerds.  I disguise their identity.  But I am glad they are with me on stage. They help me tell my story.
 
BJ: What are you most excited for people to see in the show?

DL: I’m excited for people to laugh and be lively! A solo show is an evolving process.  I talk about contemporary issues in some parts.  The next time people see the show it will be different again. I want folks to feel like they get to see something weird and new being created that is also entertaining and hopefully moving and informative.
 
BJ: Was there a particular part that you really loved writing? Is it the same as a part you really love performing? (And if different, tell me more!)

DL: Most of my “writing” was done on stage.  I took pieces of the show and would perform them in front of an audience at storytelling shows, solo performance one nighters, even nerdy lecture series.  Marga Gomez in particular gave me stage time at her shows.  So writing was performing. And that comes from my stand up background. Creating was awesome.  It’s editing that is hard!
 
BJ: Any elements of the performance/theater/comedy world you would change for the better? If so, what and how so?

DL: Oh definitely.  I come from a nerdy business background.  My parents are immigrants and they literally came from third world poverty and became middle class because of hard work and pragmatism.  I bring my pragmatism and my business sense to every endeavor. Each workshop version I did of this was sold out.  I made money. That is how art can meet commerce.  I believe artists should be paid better and if we could unionize or have some set rate we would not undercut each other for gigs.  I spent a few years as a management consultant and sometimes I can’t turn off the part of my nerd brain that says “OMG, I could definitely help this person with the business side of things.” In order for American Theater to survive we have to start embracing new ways of monetizing, social media, and bringing in more diverse audiences (age, race, identity). But never ever ever have cell phones on during a performance.  That is my old skool values coming through. A guy’s cell phone went off in one of the workshop versions of the show and I stepped out of character to school him. Nerds need to be taught social skills sometime. And I feel like I have to cred to do it.
 
BJ: Any words of wisdom for those of us who would love to do something similar?

DL: Speaking of business-savvy, I teach and coach.  So hit me up on my website for advice
http://dhayacomedy.com/teaching-coaching.html
 
BJ: Shout-outs for shows around the Bay (or anything else cool) we should check out?

DL: I will be doing a ton of stand up after my run of solo shows is over.  I’m opening for Greg Proops (Whose Line is it Anyway) at the San Francisco Punch Line on New Year’s Eve (and then two shows on January 2nd).  I will also have a show I produce focused on socio political issues.  Check out my website: www.dhayacomedy.com because shows are always added.  

“Nerd Nation at the EXIT Theatre