Theater Around the Bay: Marissa Skudlarek and Adam Odsess-Rubin of “Cemetery Gates”

We continue our series of interviews with the folks behind the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays by speaking to writer Marissa Skudlarek and director Adam Odsess-Rubin of “Cemetery Gates”!

Inspired by the classic Smiths song, “Cemetery Gates” is a vignette about two moody, pretentious high-school seniors who have snuck into a bar with fake IDs in order to try overpriced cocktails, quote poetry, and imagine a world in which they could be happy. Sailor Galaviz plays Theo and Amitis Rossoukh plays Flora.

Skudlarek photo

Writer Marissa Skudlarek goes for a moody-rainy-day aesthetic.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized, or, if you’re returning to the festival, why did you come back?

Marissa: I have a long history with Pint-Sized. The first edition of the festival, in 2010, was also the first time any theater in San Francisco had produced my work. I had a play in the 2012 festival as well, and then last year, I came back to serve as Tsarina (producer) of the entire festival, the first time that it was at PianoFight. I can’t resist the lure of an imperial title and a rhinestone tiara, so I signed on as Tsarina again for the 2016 festival. Meanwhile, I had originally written “Cemetery Gates” as a submission for The Morrissey Plays, Theater Pub’s January 2016 show. The producer of The Morrissey Plays, Stuart Bousel, didn’t end up picking my script, but he said “This is a good play, you should produce it in Pint-Sized this year.” And, well, the Tsarina gets to make those decisions for herself. It’s good to be the Queen!

Adam: I had been an actor at PianoFight in The SHIT Show and Oreo Carrot Danger with Faultline Theater, but I really wanted to break into directing. I studied directing at UC Santa Cruz, but no companies in the Bay Area seem to want to hire a 24-year-old to direct. I sent my resume to Theater Pub and I’m so grateful they are taking a chance on me.

What’s the best thing about writing a short play?

Marissa: I feel like I allow myself to indulge my idiosyncrasies more because, hey, it’s only 10 minutes, right? Last night I was talking to Neil Higgins (a frequent Theater Pub collaborator who directed “Beer Culture” in this year’s Pint-Sized Plays), and he pointed out that both “Cemetery Gates” and my 2012 Pint-Sized Play “Beer Theory” are very “Marissa” plays. They are plays that I could show to people and say “This is what it’s like to live inside my head.” Writing a full-length often means seeking to understand the perspectives of people who don’t think or behave like me; writing a short play lets me burrow into my own obsessions.

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Adam: I love creating theater outside of conventional theater spaces. I’ve worked with Israeli and Palestinian teenagers in Yosemite and taken Shakespeare to senior-citizen centers, but never done a play in a bar. PianoFight is my favorite bar in the Bay Area, so I’m thrilled to be creating theater in their cabaret space.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Marissa: Sometimes it can be complying with the length-limit, though that wasn’t a problem with “Cemetery Gates.” Creating vivid and complex characters while only having a limited space to define them.

What’s been most troublesome?

Adam: My script is six pages. Trying to create a full theatrical experience in under 10 minutes is a really creative challenge for a director. You want a full dramatic arc while also fleshing out your characters, which isn’t easy to do in such a short period of time. And yes, scheduling too. The actors in my piece are both very busy with other projects, so our rehearsal time was limited.

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Marissa: Ooh, that’s a daunting question, so I’m going to re-frame it as “What are the biggest artistic influences on ‘Cemetery Gates’?” Well, there’s the Smiths song, obviously, and the fact that I wish I’d discovered it when I was a teenager rather than when I was about 25. There’s my weird obsession with a clutch of Tumblr blogs run by teenage or early-twentysomething girls who post about what they call “The Aesthetic,” which seems to mean pictures of old buildings in moody light, marble statues, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, modern witchcraft, dried flowers, the idea of being this vaguely wistful girl writing in her journal in a coffee shop, etc. And, while I didn’t consciously realize it when I was writing the play, I think it’s probably influenced by one of my favorite recent films, Xavier Dolan’s HeartbeatsHeartbeats is the story of two very pretentious Montreal twentysomethings — a gay guy and a straight girl, like the characters in “Cemetery Gates” — who both fall in love with the same man. The movie is aesthetically lush and painfully funny. Dolan obviously loves his characters while at the same time acknowledging that they are completely ridiculous — which is exactly how I feel about the characters in “Cemetery Gates.”

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

Adam: I’d love to see Harry Styles from One Direction play Theo in Cemetery Gates. What can I say? He’s just so cute and pouty. It’d be great to see him play an alienated gay teen sneaking into a bar to wax poetic about Oscar Wilde. Molly Ringwald would be an excellent Flora — the ultimate angsty teenager who longs for something better in a world full of constant disappointments.

Marissa: Hmm, the trouble here is that both of my characters are 18 and I feel like I don’t know enough about who the good teenage actors are these days. Maybe Kiernan Shipka as the girl? I loved her as Sally Draper on Mad Men.

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Director Adam Odsess-Rubin is also looking very aesthetic here.

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush? That is… what actor would you love a chance to work with?

Adam: I’m very jealous of anyone who has had the opportunity to be on stage with Radhika Rao. She blows me away as an actor and teacher. She’s such a light in the Bay Area theater community, and such a talented artist. Her passion to create change through her art is what every theater artist in the Bay Area should strive for.

What other projects are you working on and/or what’s next for you?

Adam: I’ll be directing three pieces for the SF Olympians Festival this year, which I am so excited about. My parents gave me a picture book of Greek mythology when I was very little, and so I can’t wait to bring some of these tales to life in a new way on stage. Anne Bogart talks about the importance of mythology in theater, and Anne Washburn touches on this in a big way in Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, which I assistant-directed at A.C.T. and the Guthrie Theater under the late, great Mark Rucker. I was so moved by Washburn’s unique argument for theater as this invincible storytelling form.

Beyond that, I’d love to direct a full-length show next year at a theater company in the area. Artistic Directors, you’ll be hearing from me soon.

Marissa: Revising my long one-act play You’ll Not Feel the Drowning for a staged reading on September 13, part of Custom Made Theatre’s Undiscovered Works program. Finishing a one-act play based on the story of Macaria, Hades and Persephone’s daughter, for an Olympians Festival staged reading on October 14. Planning and hosting a celebration of the Romantic era to take place over Labor Day Weekend. Attending a friend’s wedding in Oregon in mid-September. Trying to keep my sanity in the midst of all this (seriously, it’s a lot right now).

What upcoming shows or events in the Bay Area theater scene are you most excited about?

Adam: I saw Eric Ting’s production of We Are Proud to Present… at SoHo Rep in NYC in 2012 and it was the single greatest production I’ve seen, period. I can’t wait to see his production of An Octoroon at Berkeley Rep next season. I love Annie Baker and am looking forward to John at A.C.T. And Hamilton – my God! I’m not original in saying this, but that show is brilliant.  I’m so glad SHN is bringing it to SF. I don’t know what the smaller theaters have planned for next season yet, but Campo Santo and Z Space produce great work. New Conservatory Theatre Center is an artistic home for me. I’ll see anything they produce.

Marissa: The Olympians Festival, of course! The theme this year is myths of death and the underworld, and I’ve been writing a lot of weird death-haunted plays this year (including “Cemetery Gates”) so that fits right in. Also, a bunch of my friends and I read or reread Pride and Prejudice this year, so I want to plan a field trip to see Lauren Gunderson’s P&P sequel play, Miss Bennet, at Marin Theatre Co. this Christmas.

What’s your favorite beer?

Adam: Moscow mule.

Marissa: The Goldrush at PianoFight — bourbon, honey, and lemon, good for what ails ya.

“Cemetery Gates” and the other Pint-Sized Plays have 3 performances remaining: August 22, 23, and 29 at PianoFight! 

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

Marissa Skudlarek, romancing the past.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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