Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Branding Upon the Brain

Marissa Skudlarek contemplates picking her own brand.

“You can’t write songs if you’re thinking about Where Does This Album Belong In The Universe,” says a character in Rob Handel’s play A Maze. “You’re trying to fit it into, like, our life story as a band before it exists. You’re overthinking.”

This line wrung a wry smile from me when I saw Just Theater’s excellent production of A Maze last week. Because I can fall prey to this kind of overthinking (as well as many other kinds). I can be more concerned with Where Does This Play Fit Into My Oeuvre than with, you know, actually sitting down to write it – more preoccupied with “does this feel like a Marissa Skudlarek play?” than with perfecting the plot or characterization.

But we live in an era of “personal branding,” which makes it easy to get caught up in such thoughts. The market for playwrights is oversaturated, so we think we must develop a unique angle to make our work stand out. Literary managers and producers always say that what attracts them to new writers is “their fresh creative voice,” so we worry that our voices aren’t fresh enough, original enough. Besides, whenever I tell people that I’m a playwright, their first question is “What kind of plays do you write?” So I ought to have a smart, memorable reply.

I used to hedge when asked this question. I’d make excuses. I’d say, with a winsome bright-eyed smile, “Oh, I think I’m still probably finding my voice.” But what’s charming when you’re fresh out of college becomes far less so when you’re a mid-twenties adult who ought to know better. (See Frances Ha for a cinematic depiction of this.)

I’ll be thinking about my personal brand a lot in the coming weeks, as well as other facets of my writing career, because I’ve been selected for Theatre Bay Area’s ATLAS Program for Playwrights. Along with 19 other writers, I will attend classes in setting professional goals and taking my writing to the next level; I will also draw up a career roadmap. As such, I will probably need to come up with real answers to “What kinds of plays do I write?” and “Where do I belong in the universe?”

Some of my fellow ATLAS writers seem to have better-defined personal brands than I do, at least judging by the statements they supplied for their bios. Paul Heller “writes plays to make sense of cultural and political differences and how other people perceive the U.S.” Theo Miller’s work “pays tribute to historical business dealings and economic phenomena” and “credibly dramatizes entrepreneurialism.”

I think I would love to have such a strong sense of purpose; I would love to sense that there is a through-line that connects all of my plays, and sum it up in twenty words. But what would happen if Heller suddenly got the urge to write a sci-fi drama, or Miller got the urge to write a romantic comedy? Would they follow that impulse, or would they say “No, that’s off-brand for me, I shouldn’t write it”?

Indeed, as much as I want to have a recognizable brand and voice as a writer, I also worry about constraining or limiting myself. For instance, I realize that I often explore different historical eras in my writing: several of my full-length plays are set in various decades of the 20th century (The Rose of Youth in 1934, Aphrodite in the early 1940s, Pleiades in 1971). But after writing all of those, I am really looking forward to writing a full-length play that takes place in a contemporary setting! And one reason that I scaled back my involvement with the Olympians Festival this year – I’m writing two ten-minute plays, rather than anything more elaborate – is because I don’t want to become “that girl who always writes plays based on Greek mythology.”

A brand can make you stand out – but that means it can also make you a target. The playwrights who have the most recognizable brands tend to be the most polarizing writers, and the ones who are easiest to stereotype and parody.

And, you know, originally, a brand was what you seared into a cow’s flesh with a hot iron in order to mark your ownership of it. It sounds painful and alarming and not something that any cow would choose for itself. Maybe, therefore, we should let the world brand us, rather than working to brand ourselves. (I’ve never even wanted to get a tattoo!) I’d like the freedom to be full of contradictions and possibilities, rather than limiting myself to a narrow brief. If I write well and honestly enough, I will develop a voice and, therefore, a brand of my own. But, as Rob Handel suggests in the unclassifiable, un-brandable A Maze, it’s not something that I should overthink.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer (is that enough of a brand for you?). Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: The Flowers of Youth

Marissa Skudlarek is forever young.

Jean Cocteau disowned his first two books of poetry. Fortunately for him, his lifetime artistic output was so vast that, even if he disowned two of his books, he was still left with a remarkable body of work. Cocteau was an artistic prodigy. His first books of poems, Aladdin’s Lamp and The Frivolous Prince, came out when he was barely twenty years old and made him the delight of Parisian literary circles. Other people were less charmed, and thanks to the title of his second book, they nicknamed Cocteau himself “the frivolous prince.” That’s not exactly a flattering name, nor one that you’d like to keep into adulthood, so I suppose I can see why Cocteau came to disown that book of poems.

At the same time, it always makes me uncomfortable when artists disown their early works. I guess I can understand disowning one of your books if it promotes ideas and beliefs that you no longer hold, especially if you now consider those ideas downright dangerous or wrong. But if you’re disowning something just because you think it’s poorly written or too juvenile or not up to your usual standards… that, to me, seems like a cruel rejection of your younger self. Despite its flaws, that work was part of your artistic development. Maybe you had to write that ludicrous, melodramatic story at the age of 15 in order to write a subtle, nuanced story at the age of 30. Our juvenilia can be embarrassing to read — artless and awkward, or else pretentious and striving too hard to impress. But that’s often because it reflects who we were at the time we wrote it. I strive to embrace my younger self, with her pretensions, her awkwardness, her bad taste in music. I might still laugh at some of the things I wrote when I was younger, but it’s an affectionate, indulgent laugh, not a mocking one.

Some people think that they look smarter when they disdain their younger selves but, in fact, this can make them do and say foolish things. Recently, in Slate, Alyssa Rosenberg published a screed denouncing Romeo and Juliet as “horribly depressing” and “full of terrible, deeply childish ideas about love.” To be fair, Rosenberg doesn’t exactly misinterpret Romeo and Juliet: she understands very well that it is a play about heedless teenage infatuation, and she makes a good point that the play can fall apart when the actors playing Romeo and Juliet seem too adult. (She is not looking forward to the upcoming Broadway production starring 36-year-old Orlando Bloom as Romeo.) But rather than praising the play for how well it captures the grandiose “us against the world” feeling of teenage romance, she believes that it’s dangerous to promote this idea of love. Reading her piece, I hear a subtext of “I was so stupid when I was a teenager and had those intense, heedless crushes and relationships! Why would I ever want to go back to that time? I’m so much more mature now.” The thing is, I don’t think that Rosenberg’s dislike of Romeo and Juliet makes her look intelligent and mature. Instead, she seems full of self-loathing and bitterness, lacking compassion for her younger self.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, because I just produced a staged reading of a play, The Rose of Youth, that I wrote five years ago. Perhaps there’s not a huge difference between a 20-year-old and a 25-year-old, yet my writing has improved in the past five years, and there are definitely sections of the play that feel characteristic of a younger, less skilled writer. I introduced the male romantic lead in the most boring possible way, for instance; and the play is full of moments that made me sigh and go, “Oh, Marissa, you were just trying so hard to impress your professors there, weren’t you?” (The play was my senior thesis at college.) However, I didn’t have the time or the inclination to revise the play; I left the script as I had left it five years ago, awkward moments and all. I had to put my theory into practice, and embrace my younger self. I acknowledged that I’d learned a lot from writing The Rose of Youth, and that it was exactly the play that I needed to write as a college senior. But I also realized that my artistic development has continued, and I’ve now moved to another level as a writer.

Yes, it’s possible to develop as an artist without feeling the need to disown your earlier work. Indeed, in another respect, that’s what Jean Cocteau did. Fascinated by the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, he wrote his play Orphee in 1925 — but that didn’t end his engagement with this story. Twenty-five years later, he made a film called Orphee, which bears some similarities to the 1925 play — for instance, both depict Death as a beautiful and imperious woman — yet develops the story in a different direction. Orphee the film is now better known than Orphee the play, and perhaps it is a better, more mature work. (I, for one, find the film more emotionally affecting.) Yet Cocteau did not disown his earlier play. He let both works coexist with each other — a testament to his artistic development and his fruitful, ever-active imagination.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. See her new translation of Jean Cocteau’s Orphee (the play) on April 15 at Theater Pub. For more, you can follow her on Twitter @MarissaSkud or visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com.

Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: Sur Moi, Le Deluge

Marissa Skudlarek brings us part one of a large article, and hence we’ve decided to let her have a week out of turn. We think you’ll agree, it’s worth it.  

I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. Sure, I’ve got a busy month ahead of me: I’m directing a staged reading of my play The Rose of Youth on March 29, and my new translation of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée performs at Theater Pub on April 15. But I think what’s really pushing me over the edge of sanity is that, in addition to working on my artistic projects, I feel a compulsion to keep up with the endless stream of information that appears on Twitter, Facebook, and the internet in general.

That’s why I suspect that, even if you’re not as outwardly busy as I am, you might be feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, too. Do you, also, suffer from the Fear of Missing Out? Are you, also, caught up in the cycle of reading the essay about the topic du jour, and then reading what other people are saying in response to the essay about the topic du jour, and then feeling like you should prepare your own brilliant, incisive critique of the topic du jour? Do you feel like it’s impossible to merely enjoy things anymore – that if you enjoy something, you should broadcast your appreciation by writing an essay about why you like it so much? And, moreover, if you find something at all offensive or problematic, do you feel like you have a grave moral duty to write an impassioned-verging-on-hysterical condemnation of it?

Because I feel all of these things, and more. Briefly put, we’re living in an information deluge, and the salt water is starting to fill my lungs. Indeed, the physical sensation of feeling overwhelmed is similar to that of drowning: a shortness of breath, a clenching in the chest, a mad desire to run or escape or just flail around. (Otherwise known as “the precursors to a panic attack.”)

At other times, my reaction to the information deluge is not panic but paralysis, verging on despair. In part, my despair is that I’ll never catch up with everything, never read all I want to read, never know enough. But I also wonder if our addiction to cultural commentary and over-analysis directly leads to a sense of despair. I think about how I was a brooding, unhappy teenager; in my diary, I overanalyzed every detail of my high-school drama. Only years later did I come to understand that my brooding exacerbated my unhappiness, rather than assuaged it.

Could the same thing be happening now? Whenever something becomes successful or popular, cultural commentators tear it to shreds, analyzing its every detail and using that as the basis for sweeping judgments about The Way We Live Now. Or they’ll seek to undermine it, telling you why it isn’t very good or shouldn’t be popular in the first place. But after something’s been torn apart or undermined, what’s left of it? That’s right: messy shreds and fragments.

And then, if information overload is driving me half-mad, why the hell am I calling myself an arts writer, hoping that you will read my column, telling you to visit my personal blog and my Twitter feed? I worry that unless I have something brilliant to say, my writing will just waste your time and contribute to the cacophony of the world. This thought, in turn, only causes me to feel more desperate, more panicked, more paralyzed.

These days, there’s more information and commentary out there than ever before. Computers have made it easier for people to share their bright ideas and live the life of the mind, should they be so inclined. Still, I feel that I’m living cerebrally, which is far different from living mindfully. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the over-examined life can make you feel like there’s nothing to live for.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. If you’re handling the information deluge better than she is, you can find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: I Am My Own Director

Marissa Skudlarek is knee deep in an exciting- and stressful- new theatrical role. 

On March 29, I’m having a staged reading of my play The Rose of Youth as part of the EXIT Theatre’s Behind the Curtain festival, and I’m directing it myself — which is a new experience for me. It’s also a fairly stressful one. A one-night-only reading would seem to be low-stakes, as far as these things go — I don’t have to deal with tech or design or blocking — butThe Rose of Youth is the biggest play I’ve ever written. Casting twelve actors and getting them all in the same room to rehearse a few times is challenge enough!

Whenever possible, I’ve shied away from directing my own work. We all know that theater is a collaborative artform, and my feeling is, the more the merrier. I’ve never studied directing, and I lack a director’s eye and instincts. Moreover, as a playwright, I like to be in the room with the director, see how the play is coming together, answer any questions, and make sure that the script is working. But in order to do that, I need to hang back and observe, rather than actively stage and direct the play.

The Behind the Curtain festival came together so quickly, though, that it wasn’t really practical to seek out a director. Besides, I already know that the script works — it was produced five years ago, at my college. Assisting with that production is what gave me the confidence (the brash foolhardiness, more like) to say that I would direct the upcoming staged reading myself.

And now, it’s stressing me out. I’ve already decided that the reading will be very simple — just actors at music stands — which has helped me overcome my concern that I don’t have a good sense for staging and blocking. What really frightens me is that the lack of a director gives me sole responsibility for orchestrating the evening and making sure that it turns out all right. In the other shows I’ve done, I’ve been fortunate to have great directors who’ve made me really happy; nonetheless, in the back of my mind, I’ve always thought “If this turns out badly, I can blame the director.” If you’re a playwright, a director gives you plausible deniability. Then, if an audience member tells you that one scene fell flat? “It was the director’s fault! Totally not my problem!” you say. And then you rush home to re-write the offending scene.

But, with the upcoming reading, I bear all the responsibility for its success — and have no way to make excuses for myself. And that’s scary. Coward that I am, I find myself craving the plausible deniability that a director would afford me. But why, exactly, do I crave this? Why am I so scared of taking accountability for my own work? Shouldn’t I be proud of what I’ve written, grateful for the opportunity to share it with an audience? It’s not very pleasant to admit that I’d rather have someone else to blame if things go wrong. So I am nobly trying to accept the challenge of shouldering all the credit or the censure, whichever it is that I merit.

I also wonder if there’s a gendered component to all of this. Being a director feels like a more public, active (hence, masculine) role than being a playwright. And even though I’m a feminist, maybe I still have an internal discomfort with the idea of taking on a directorial role. I recently came across a quote from Lena Dunham that seems to have a bearing on this: she says that in 2012, she learned that “it’s possible to feel like a creepy, pervy producer even if you are a 26-year-old girl.” I suppose this must be in regards to casting people on her show Girls and asking them to do nudity and sex scenes. While there won’t be any of that in The Rose of Youth (sorry to disappoint you), it still feels weird for me to email men I barely know and ask them to play the romantic lead in my staged reading. I worry that they’ll think I’m coming onto them, because “I want you to play a romantic lead in my show” is exactly the kind of line that creepy casting-couch producers have used on young women for centuries. Plus, I can’t deny that I’m judging these actors on the basis of their appearance and persona, in addition to their acting talent. And it still feels socially unacceptable for a woman to judge, to choose, to solicit a man in this fashion.

But, like it or not, in four weeks’ time, I am directing a staged reading of The Rose of Youth. So I’ve got to stop thinking about cowardice and excuses, and I’ve got to get to work. The Rose of Youth, by the way, is a backstage dramedy about a group of Vassar students and their professors putting on a production of Antony and Cleopatra in 1934. Hey, that’s a good motto for the weeks ahead: less thinking about deniability, more thinking about de Nile.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and sometime director. She graciously invites you all to come see her staged reading of The Rose of Youth, March 29 at 8 PM at the EXIT Theatre. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or follow her on Twitter @MarissaSkud.