Theater Around The Bay: The Best of the Blog

2013 was a year of change on multiple fronts and our website was no exception. Though Marissa Skudlarek, as our first “official” blogger, began her semi-monthly contributions in 2012, the eight-writer line up that currently composes the blog’s core writing team wasn’t solidified until October of this year, when Claire Rice was brought on to replace Helen Laroche, who, along with Eli Diamond, stepped away as a regular contributor earlier this year. Eli and Helen, along with the current eight and our lengthy list of occasional contributors (most notably Annie Paladino), all get to share in the success of the blog, which steadily and dramatically increased its traffic over this past year. With 45,611 hits in 2013 (compared to 27,998 in 2012, 11,716 in 2011, and 8,435 in 2010), there can be no doubt that the San Francisco Theater Public (as we’ve taken to calling the blog amongst ourselves) is “kind of a thing.” With our current all time total just shy of 100,000 hits, we wanted to use the last blog entry of this year to celebrate the different voices that make our blog unique, while also paying homage to the vast and diverse world of online theater discussion. To everyone who makes our blog a success, including our dedicated readers and Julia Heitner, our Twitter-mistress who brings every installment to the Twitter-sphere, a gigantic thank you for making 2013 the best year so far! Here’s hoping that 2014 is even better!

STUART BOUSEL by William Leschber 

Whether it be Shakespeare, Ancient Greece, Celtic Myth, or the plight of the contemporary 30 something, Stuart Bousel always has something intelligent to say about it, and if you’ve read any of  his blogs over the past year you’ll know he has an ample array of in-depth thoughts about these things and so much more. I’m proud to have known Stuart for a number of years and the plentiful hours of intelligent conversation are invaluable to me, but my favorite 2013 blog entry of his is one that offers both a larger social insight and something very personal as well. The Year of the Snake blog isn’t afraid to be vulnerable, and offers the perfect mix of two brands of self awareness: the satisfaction that comes at being proud of one’s achievements, juxtaposed with the self doubt that comes whenever we embark on something new and challenging. These traits are heightened by a particularly uncertain year for myself and so many others who have had an odd go of it in 2013, the Year of the Snake, and maybe that is why this particular blog resonated so strongly. Although this year is possibly the most challenging some of us have had in recent memory, what Stuart articulates so well here is that sometimes we have to pass through the fire to come out stronger from the forge. The process of wriggling into new skin in due time…aye, there’s the rub: “…the truth is, the changes tend to kind of happen while you’re not looking, almost as a side result of trying to change.”

There's Stuart, emerging from his security blanket just like 2013 emerged from the crap year known as 2012.

There’s Stuart, emerging from his security blanket just like 2013 emerged from the crap year known as 2012.

In other favorites-of-the-year news, I present you the Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith. For those in constant transit and who have an easier time taking in a podcast over reading articles online, this is for you. Now my favorite podcast surrounding film would fall to Filmspotting where new and old films are discussed weekly with humor and insight. But if I had to choose the single best episode  I heard this year it would be Jeff Goldsmith’s interview with writer/director Ed Burns. In the words of the host, the Q&A podcast aims to “bring you in-depth insight into the creative process of storytelling”. He interviews screenwriters specifically (often writer/directors) about how they go about their personal process. Not only are the insights into the writer’s process wonderful to hear but the peeks into their role in the film industry are also fascinating. The Ed Burns episode ranges in topic from 90’s indie films, to his writing process, then on to making micro budget films, and his thought on how the industry is changing and what he’s doing to work in the grain of the dawn of steaming entertainment. It’s great. And here it is: http://www.theqandapodcast.com/2012/12/edward-burns-fitzgerald-familiy.html

ASHLEY COWAN by Claire Rice

Ashley Cowan’s posts often feel like sitting on the couch with your best friend and chatting late into the night with a mug of hot coco.  Every post  is heartfelt and full of a kind of determined enthusiasm that is infectious.  Her post abouttheatre traditions/ superstitions was very funny (if I had known that thing about peacock feathers I might have made different choices with my life.) And her post about her grandmother and goodbyes was touching and beautiful.  But my favorite post would have to be Why Being A Theatre Person with a Day Job is the Best…and the Worst.  She beautifully lays out the complex and heart breaking experience of knowing a “the show must go on” mentality is an imminently transferable job skill, but a skill hard to sell to non-theatre perspective employers.

I read Dear Sugar’s advice column for the first time on September 1, 2013, my thirty second birthday.  The piece I read was Write Like Motherfucker  It was surprising, honest and full of so many of the things I had been thinking and feeling.  It was and is full of all the things I needed to hear. “We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor.  I know it’s hard to write, darling.  But it’s harder not to.”

Ashley Cowan and Dear Sugar - You've just made two new best friends.  You're welcome.

Ashley Cowan and Dear Sugar – You’ve just made two new best friends. You’re welcome.

BARBARA JWANOUSKOS by Stuart Bousel 

Barbara Jwanouskos is the kind of theater person who figured out long ago what many of us take much longer to figure out: namely that one can balance theater with the rest of their life (she’s a pretty amazing martial artist in addition to being a playwright, blogger, grad student, and non-profit development expert), and that nothing happens if you sit and wait for it, you have to go after your dreams actively. Smart, generous, good-natured, Barbara’s writing reflects a serious mind and soul you might not immediately pick up on when you first meet her, though her bad-ass-ness is definitely apparent in her punk rock haircuts and straight forward conversation style. Her “calls it as see sees it” voice is still developing in her blog, but with “Young Beautiful Woman” she had a bit of a breakthrough, giving us a story both personally meaningful to her while also showing us where the issue of pigeon-holing women in theater and films begins: that most double-sided of backyards, the fine arts masters’ program. This blog had the greatest reader impact of all the contributions Barbara has made for us this year, and it’s the kind of thing I want to see more of from her. It’s with incredible eagerness I look forward to her 2014 contributions, knowing she plans to really hit our readers, black belt style, with more ideas like these.

Barbara Jwanouskos is so intense she needs to be photographed in Dutch Angles.

Barbara Jwanouskos is so intense she needs to be photographed in Dutch Angles.

Outside of our humble little blog, I have read a number of interesting theater related articles this year, but this one from HowlRound seems to have stayed with me the longest. Though when I first read this I kind of had a reaction of, “Well, duh, it’s just part of the process- stop whining!”, I also admire that what Morgan is saying is that a life in the arts is pretty always a heartbreaking business, even when you do finally find your niche, your project, your collaborators. And it’s heartbreaking not just because of the lack of opportunities, or the difficulty in making a living, or all the other things we also talk about, but just from the sheer fact that if you’re doing it right you’re ALWAYS putting your heart into it and the nature of the business rarely appreciates or honors that- while, of course, still expecting you to throw your whole heart into it every time! I, and most of the theater people I know, spend a lot of time talking about sustainability in the theater community, funding and payroll, audience demographics and marketability, etc. and sometimes I can’t help but wonder when theater started to quantify and qualify itself the way I expect Wal-Mart too. When did it become about numbers and money and conventional ideas of success as represented through big numbers, and not about coming together with people of vision and making cool stuff because the world really needs that? Morgan’s article is a bittersweet plea to remember we’re all artists here and artists are delicate creatures in many ways, even if it’s probably through their strength that, ultimately, the world will be saved.

WILLIAM LESCHBER by Marissa Skudlarek

It has been a pleasure to read Will Leschber’s “Working Title” column since it debuted in September 2013. Theater can sometimes feel like an insular, inward-looking art; it’s not  a part of the mainstream cultural conversation in the way that movies, music or TV are (though we Theater Pub bloggers are doing our best to change that!) Even worse, theater people sometimes take a perverse pride in their own insularity, looking down on movies and TV as lesser, more commercial art forms. So I love Will’s idea of writing a column that places theater in dialogue with film. He acknowledges the virtues of each art form without belittling either of them and, in so doing, seeks to bring theater into the larger cultural conversation. Nowhere is this more evident than in his piece “To Dance Defiant” about one-man dramas Underneath the Lintel and All is Lost. The play is language-based and the film is image-based, says Will, but both confront stark, essential truths: “What decisions in life remain the most important? How do we measure it all? What significant artifacts do we leave behind? Is anything we leave behind significant? Or is the struggle and the suffering and the joyous dance in spite of all the dark, the only significance we are afforded?” Will’s column is about the importance of the art we make, be it on stage or on film — and therefore, is about the importance of our humanity.

William Leschber, proving saucy minx comes in a wide variety of hats.

William Leschber, proving saucy minx comes in a wide variety of hats.

In one of my earliest Theater Pub columns, I wrote about how much I liked local critic Lily Janiak’s willingness to publicly critique her own criticism and question her own assumptions. So it was great news this year that Lily was selected as one of HowlRound’s inaugural NewCrit critics, bringing her work to a national audience and allowing her to write longer, more in-depth pieces. Even better, Lily has continued to question her assumptions and acknowledge her biases, approaching criticism in a spirit of open-minded inquiry. I particularly liked her piece “Our Own Best Judges: Young Female Characters Onstage” because, if I may admit my own biases, Lily and I are both extremely interested in the depiction of young women in plays. And then we ask ourselves: are we right to be so concerned, or does it mean that we are (wrongly) holding female characters to a higher standard than we hold male ones? “Critics are supposed to be objective, to approach a work with no agenda, but in this case, I have one. […] It’s impossible to separate one’s politics from one’s aesthetics (aesthetics are never pure!), but sometimes I worry that my politics have too much control over my critical criteria,” Lily writes. The whole piece is well worth reading for its thoughtfulness and honesty. That it happened to discuss three plays that I saw myself, got my friends’ names published on a national theater website, and spurred a response from Stuart Bousel on our own blog is just icing on the cake.

Lily Janiak: Because This Picture Is Just Too Good Not To Include

Lily Janiak: Because This Picture Is Just Too Good Not To Include

ALLISON PAGE by Dave Sikula

Let me tell you about Allison Page.

I met her this year when I played her father. I had no idea who she was. I had friended her on Facebook and, looking at her posts, thought we might get along. We had some similar interests, and despite her terrible taste in other things (I mean, seriously, “Ghost Dad,” “Daria,” and Kristen Wiig?), there was enough overlap that I thought we might become friends.

Then we met and she instantly drove me crazy.

I have every reason to hate her. There are things she does and writes about that just annoy the bejeezus out of me – BUT, that’s what I love about her. Her pieces for this here blog combine the miracle of being confessional and personal without being self-indulgent. Obviously, I don’t agree with everything she says (she accuses me of not liking anything, but oh, how wrong she is), but even when she irritates me, it’s in a way that makes me need to defend my own positions – and that’s what the best art does for me. If I had to pick one post of hers that really spoke to me, it was this one on how we need and create nemeses. I find you’ve got to have someone or something to fight against or do better than in order to do your own best work.

But don’t tell her I like anything of hers or she’ll just hold that over me.

Allison Page: because this photo never gets old.

Allison Page: because this photo never gets old.

Moving on to something online that I found of interest was this, Frank Rich’s latest profile of Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim is one of those people my feelings for whom, words like “reverence” are far too mild. I know that if I were ever somehow to get a chance to meet him, I’d fall over in a dead faint, or at the very least, be utterly tongue-tied to the point where I’d sound like an episode of “The Chris Farley Show:” “You know when you did ‘Sweeney Todd?’ That was great.” But any chance to read about what he’s really like is fascinating.

CLAIRE RICE by Barbara Jwanouskos

What I love most about reading Claire Rice’s Enemy List is how Claire seems to pick up on an uncanny wave-length of theater topics that happen to be populating my brain (and others), like why there were so many plays dealing with rape this year. The post I particularly enjoyed was her interview with Dave Lankford, Executive Director of The Shelter and author of the internet famous blog post, “Dear Actor”. Claire’s interview gave a clear insight into Lankford, his background as a theater artist (playwright, actor, director, etc.) and what prompted the writing of the post. More so, her interview demonstrated through Lankford’s response, what it is like today to be a theater artist where so many of us are also using the internet as a means of communication, discourse and criticism about theater in general. For whatever reason, “Dear Actor” seemed to resonate with many people in a way that was surprising, but Claire’s interview presented Lankford at a more more meta level, which was fascinating to consider.

Claire Rice: just who exactly is the enemy?

Claire Rice: just who exactly is the enemy?

I love tracking HowlRound essays by some of my favorite playwrights – especially when they write about things I’m actually dealing with… like teaching playwriting! “Teaching in the 21st Century” by Anne García-Romero and Alice Tuan was a blessing to me sent from the heavenly gods of playwriting. I constantly flip back to this essay when I need to recalibrate my goals as a new teacher. García-Romero and Tuan’s approach mirrors what they had learned from the great Maria Irene Fornes. I appreciate their innovative approaches to get writers of all kinds jazzed about writing plays and how they deviate from strict adhearance to teaching structure versus other traits that good plays have – like voice and liveness.

DAVE SIKULA by Ashley Cowan

I met Dave Sikula earlier this year while working on BOOK OF LIZ at Custom Made Theatre. A project that inspired a blog or two on Cowan Palace and also provided a chance to get to know the guy who is now behind the column, “It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review”. After kindly driving me home after numerous performances and being graced with many Broadway songs on his impressive car sound system, I soon got to know Dave as a incredibly smart, insightful, and experienced theatre enthusiast. I’ve come to enjoy his contributions to the Theater Pub blog for the same reason. One of my personal favorites to read was his last piece, The Ritual Business. Ten years ago when I studied in London, I had the chance to see TWELFTH NIGHT starring Mark Rylance at the Globe and it’s a performance that’s forever stuck by me. I loved reading about Dave’s time in New York and his vivid description as an attentive audience member. I felt like I was there again reliving a magical moment of the theatrical experience of my past while also connecting to his observations and reactions.

Dave Sikula: suggesting you eat this cheesecake instead of reviewing it.

Dave Sikula: suggesting you eat this cheesecake instead of reviewing it.

Aside from Dave’s contributions, it’s been an interesting year for the Internet, huh? I fell for every hoax imaginable and had my spirits crushed when I learned that no, there would not be a new season of Full House or an 8th Harry Potter book to look forward to in 2014. With all that going on, one article that weaseled under my skin came from The Onion, believe it or not, and was entitled: Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life. I found it to be a humorous and honest piece about how many of us (in this artistic community) tend to balance our time. But the thing I truly want to share with you guys is this video, because at the end of the day (or year) sometimes you just need to watch some cute animals do some cute stuff.

MARISSA SKUDLAREK by Allison Page

Marissa Skudlarek and I communicate differently, but we think about a lot of the same things. If I’m a grilled cheese sandwich, she’s duck confit. She has the ability to say things that I know I’m also feeling, but haven’t brought myself to express properly without the use of a lot of F-bombs and references to Murder, She Wrote. Generally speaking, I like to accentuate the positive rather than wallow in a pool of the negative, so when her article “You’re Doing It Wrong, You’re Doing It Wrong” (Technically the second half of a two part article. The first one is also worth reading, but the second really drove it home for me.) The internet, and the world, can be a dark and dismal place. Some days it feels like there’s nothing to be happy about; nothing that’s going right. In a world that seeks to find the worst in everything, Marissa seeks out the subtle nuances of her theatrical experiences, and of the world around her. It’s refreshing and thoughtful, and a big reason I love reading her posts. Not everyone is doing it right wrong. I like to think Marissa is striving to do it right; for women in general and for herself.

Marissa Skudlarek: you bet your sweet ass she'll make that dinosaur chair look classy.

Marissa Skudlarek: you bet your sweet ass she’ll make that dinosaur chair look classy.

Outside of the Theater Pub Blog, there are always a lot of conversations stirring up interest. Every writer, every playwright – hell, every person has a different way they like to work. This last year I’ve been focusing more on writing and I’m always trying to find new ways to keep myself excited about the writing process. That can be hard to do, seeing as you still need to sit down and fuckin’ write at some point. That part is unavoidable. Though this article is actually from the end of 2012, I didn’t read it until this year, so I’m counting it! It’s an interesting collection of the daily routines and writing habits of famous writers. Hemingway wrote standing up? Well, that’s weird.

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Claire Rice’s Enemies List: Bloviating (An Interview with Dave Lankford)

Claire Rice interviews Dave Lankford, author of the (now) infamous “Dear Actor” article.

Writing on the Internet can feel like sending paper airplanes off into the night sky: it’s romantic, lonesome and often unrewarding.  That paper airplane will always exist out there somewhere, but you’ll never know who has stumbled across it or if they even cared. Of course, every now and again, you’ll write something that will fly out of your hands and into the darkness where it will hit a nerve. Hard.  Such was the case with Dave Lankford’s acting advice posting “Dear Actor (Sincerely Playwright)”.  The piece sets its sights on being inspirational and easily swallowed so it is a short list of obvious acting truths that are often taken for granted.

It is important to note that at the moment Dave hit “publish” a butterfly flapped its wings in Brazil, a drop of water danced down the back of Jeff Goldblum’s hand, the planets aligned and a character in a Dan Brown novel solved a puzzle before the reader did. Magical chaos. It is that moment social media marketing people get all excited about: it went viral. Picked up by theatre artists of all types it was passed around, shared, commented on, and debated. Just as Dave had intended, there were actors, teachers, directors and playwrights who were honestly inspired and generally pleased.

But not everyone was inspired.

I posted the piece on my Facebook page with this elegant and enlightening little bit of literary criticism comment: “Can I just say…ugh!!!!!! I’m sorry. I don’t like this. It’s so condescending.” (I know, I’m a charmer). I’ve said a great number of stupid and unkind things on the internet that I just can’t stand behind any more, but I’ll stand behind “condescending.” While I recognize it is a criticism that stings, it is how I honestly feel and I think I can back it up rationally without being unnecessarily catty. Other commenters on my Facebook page, on other pages, on Twitter, directly to Dave’s email and on the post itself vented their displeasure aggressively.

In response to this sudden internet fame (he had defenders in Scotland and Australia as well as deriders like Mike Daisey and Colin Mitchell) Dave posted a PostFace where he defended himself and spoke to his surprise at the sudden and entirely unexpected attention. I’ve seen other bloggers take similar steps after garnering a great deal of reaction. Stuart Bousel followed “Please Continue Your Conversation A Home” with “You’re Never Going To Work In This Town Again” . Melissa Hillman followed “A Common Problem I See With Female Playwrights (it’s not what you think)” with “Women Playwrights 2: Electric Boogaloo”.

What happens when a writer becomes not themselves, but only the five hundred or more words they created? As artists, we are all compelled to create. Our art must inevitably contain our opinions on the world, but we are able to sit safety in the back row. We are in our words, but we are cloaked in fictions and poetry. What happens when we put ourselves out there without the safety net of art? What happens behind the scenes when our work is suddenly and unexpectedly tossed around the internet like a beach ball? Who is Dave Lankford and why did he want to write a letter to actors at all?

So I interviewed Dave to find out more about his art, how he came to write “Dear Actor” and what this sudden spotlight on his existence has been like for him.

When did you found The Shelter and what was the initial impetus for its founding?

Dave Lankford: The Shelter was formed in 2009. And there was actually a short-lived company before The Shelter. The founders were all training at T. Schreiber Studio with a women named Sally Dunn. Sally decided to retire from teaching. Some of us stayed at the studio, others opted to leave. But a few of us desperately wanted to keep working together. We formed a company called Fallout, which was named after an exercise in the class. Our goal was to perform published works. In parallel, Michael Kingsbaker, one of the founders of Fallout had the idea for a workshop. He had trained in LA and was a member of The Actor’s Gym. He wanted to start something similar as part of Fallout. So we decided to call it The Fallout Shelter. The goal of The Fallout Shelter was to give people a place to experiment, hone their craft and form a community. Long story short, Fallout fell out. But in January of 2009, we had our first Shelter Sunday. And we’ve been going strong ever since. Ultimately, it was about working together with people we admired. People who we felt brought out the best in us and our work. Now, we produce original material. And while the founders all started out as “just actors”, we’ve all expanded into other disciplines. There are very few people at The Shelter that are just one thing. And we are always encouraging our members to experiment which different theatrical crafts.

Oh, and we changed our name to The Shelter (dropped Fallout). Obviously.

So you started out as an actor yourself before you became a playwright / producer / director?

Dave Lankford: Yes. When I came to New York, I had already worked in the DC area a performer. I had acted as a kid, but had to give it up due to sports (I swam through most of college). I got back into it somewhat sideways — I got really involved with the Slam Poetry scene and competed with the DC National Poetry Slam Team. From there, I developed a one-man show that I toured both regionally and nationally, and eventually started to broaden my pursuits into improv, theatre, TV and film. When I moved here, I was only focused on acting. My slam pieces were self-authored, but I never thought about writing for the stage until I started working with The Shelter.

The same goes for directing. Our very first staged production at The Shelter was titled 3:56AM. It was composed of 9 short plays, all taking place between 3 and 4 in the morning in a Lower East Side apartment building. I acted in one piece, wrote a second, and directed a third.

I bet. What where the kind of challenges you faced moving from a performer who wrote for yourself to writing and directing for other actors?

Dave Lankford: It was a process. But I took baby steps. My first piece was a one-hander, a monologue featuring a woman up late, caring for her newborn. I was a first time father, so I wrote from the heart. I wrote what I knew. Not that different from how I would write a slam piece. But after I wrote the first draft, I forced myself to rewrite it from the perspective of a woman. And that was how I started to experiment with different voices. I think the biggest challenge at first was finding voices that were not my own, I would say. And I think that’s a challenge for most writers: developing characters that do not sound like you. Characters that see the world differently that you do, at least by default.

Have you felt any of the pieces you’ve produced with The Shelter were break through pieces? Pieces that you felt successfully pushed you to a new level as a writer?

Dave Lankford: Each piece has been a breakthrough of sorts, as I always try to push myself to do something new. However, a few stand out. In a piece titled NIGHT OF THE LIVING, a two-hander, the characters rarely shared the stage. For portions, they were only able to communicate by two-way radio. One actor was backstage, the other on stage. As the writer, that meant my dialogue had to be strong. I had to understand how two people could communicate without certain visible cues. The interesting thing about that piece is: it was the only one of my pieces in which I have also acted. And that was a game changer for me. The director and I had an arrangement that when I was rehearsing, I was an actor. I was NOT the writer. And so I had to approach my own work as if it was someone else’s. It gave me the freedom to make new choices, ones I had not foreseen as the writer. But the director also forced me to respect the intentions of the writer. She would often point out things like, “Well, the writer put a pause there.” And I would say, “He did?! Why would he do that?!”Ironic. I have literally been fed my own medicine.

What inspired you to write “Dear Actor”?

Dave Lankford: The funny thing is, it wasn’t what I was going to write that day. I wanted to work on a Noir script I’m writing for a project The Shelter is currently developing. But I wasn’t feeling it that day. And I also work in product design and development, so I considered blogging some thoughts about that side of my life. But I wasn’t feeling that, either. So I decided to write a post about acting. Not because I wanted to tell the world something. Merely because I knew I should write something, even if it never saw the light of day. The post started as a collection of thoughts based on things I had seen repeatedly with actors, including myself. And I think the Noir prompt gave me a context in which to frame it. The influences I mentioned in the postface crept in, especially my memories of Meryl Streep describing the process of being a detective, of hunting for clues in the script. I don’t remember when she said it, but it stuck with me. The playwright became the obvious person to present the mystery.

Do you have a blog that you write on normally? Is this your first time using “Medium”?

Dave Lankford: It’s my first time on Medium. I chose it as I think it’s a beautifully designed product. There’s craftsmanship in the code. And that speaks to me as a product designer. But, I have blogged before. Back when blogging was a new thing, along with surfing the Internet, I started a blog chronicling my journey as a struggling actor. The blog eventually got the attention of Microsoft, who hired me to write the blog on their (at the time) new platform called MSN Spaces (which no longer exists). I eventually became an ambassador for MSN Spaces, and represented my blog at the Sundance Film Festival. There’s another ironic story there. When I was first writing, before the deal with MSN Spaces came through, I had been hired as an extra for an indie film being shot in DC. I worked for maybe a day or two, and I had opinions about how the director was handling the shoot. So, I blogged about the experience. And let’s just say that I was not kind to the director. Well, he happened to Google the name of his project and found my post. He was, of course, less than pleased. I’m sure he was hurt. And that ended up costing me for some time. I’m positive it cost me a number of jobs as an actor. When I contacted you, I also contacted the other people on the thread. Mind you, I didn’t contact everyone that disagreed with me, or who called me names. That would have been insane. But there was something about that thread. And the thing I wanted to tell everyone the most is “Be careful what you say on the Internet. Our industry is smaller than we realize, and some people hold grudges.” I certainly do not hold grudges, but I’ve also learned my lesson.

Is this experience causing you to have flash backs to that one?

Dave Lankford: It is. I think it’s given me pause as I see reactions to my piece — that’s part of it. But it’s also affected how I view the comments about “Dear Actor.” And not just the negative posts. Some of the positive posts come packed with just as much vitriol.

Right now, in American Theatre, the hot topics seem to be gender equality and colorblind casting. Why do you think your post got such a big reaction? I ask because it seems sort of innocuous, if you don’t mind me saying so.

Dave Lankford: I agree. I mean, first and foremost, there are much more important things in the world that deserve our energy. And in the world of theatre, I think you are absolutely correct. Equality and color blind casting should be championed. So much so, that I’ve taken personal inventory of my own ways. As for “Dear Actor”, most of the reactions that I’ve seen or been made aware of have been positive. And I feel that maybe it’s because theatre writing can become academic and dry. Some of the greatest books I’ve read as an actor were difficult reads. And “Dear Actor” gave a different spin, even if the things being said were not necessarily new. In some people’s eyes, I was covering acting 101. I also think that as “Dear Actor” gained stream and went “viral”, it gave people the opportunity to have an opinion on the subject. I think of it this way: no one I knew was screaming to the rafters about healthcare reform until healthcare reform was being debated in Washington. Obviously, healthcare reform is a subject worthy of people’s passions. But in general, I didn’t feel that many people were passionate about it until it was all over the news and a top subject of the media. Or, on a more superficial level, who cared about Paris Hilton until they saw Paris Hilton everywhere. The sure fact that she had mass visibility made her a lightning rod for people’s opinions. “Dear Actor” is no longer mine, though my experience is very personal and unique.

How have you weathered being a “lightning rod”?

Dave Lankford: I never expected anyone, save for maybe 200-300 people at most, to read “Dear Actor.” When I saw 1000 and then 10000 and then 50000 visits to the page, it was exciting. Thrilling. But, surprisingly, it also filled me with anxiety. The first reactions were all positive, and that was both wonderful and humbling. But as I began to read the critical and negative responses, I was put in my place. It forced me to question my writing. It forced me to understand how the piece was being interpreted. I saw a few people calling me names, mainly things like “tool”. And that stung, mainly because they didn’t know me and I didn’t feel were in a position to judge my character. But when I read the word “shitbag”, I realized that words can hurt. I knew when I read it that the comment was snarky, and it was not intended for my eyes (I was not mentioned in the tweet). But I did read it. I tried to put it past me. And that proved unusually hard. The second part of the “shitbag” story is that Mike Daisey, a well-known monologist, was also on the thread. He’s a success story in my eyes. And that somehow, no matter how illogical, lent credibility to her comment. I’ve had to come to terms with craziness of the Internet. And the fact that people do say hurtful things about people they have never and will never meet. And it’s taught me to look past it all. More importantly, it’s taught me to focus on the positive. I stopped reaching out to people who were being hurtful and started engaging people who were either giving critical or positive response. Mainly by thanking them. I started reaching out to people who found Dear Actor, even though they lived in England, Scotland, Australia, Canada, Italy or Japan. To know that something I wrote travelled that far is amazing. I received one tweet from an actress who has appeared in HBO’s Game of Thrones. She’s opening a play in London today. She tweeted to thank me, and she said she wished she has read it earlier in the rehearsal process. And that’s an incredible thing. To inspire a person, to receive their gratitude, is an extremely special gift. And I don’t take it for granted. I don’t know that I’m worthy of it, but I know you have to take in moments like this.

If one of the plays you had written received this polarizing of a response, do you think you would feel differently or the same?

Dave Lankford: I don’t know. Similar, but different. A lot of the negative comments were directed specifically at me. I think because it’s easy to assume that I am “the playwright”. People began to question if I was a good playwright, if I was lying about also being an actor. In others other words, people were making assumptions about my character. I guess people might do the same when it comes to a play. But at least the work has a better chance of standing on its own. At least people’s judgments of me as a playwright would come based on having seen my play. Then again, look at Neil LaBute. People have certainly made judgments about him as a person based solely on his plays.

As you continue to move forward in your career in theatre I assume you’ll have more public moments like this. Do you think that this has prepared you for the next time?

Dave Lankford: I do. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a moment like this again, writing online or for the stage. But I’ve learned an incredible amount about myself, about other people, and about how to deal with sudden visibility. This was really small potatoes when you compare it to bigger viral sensations, fame or politics. I don’t know how celebrities and politicians survive. But I’ve learned enough to know what’s important. To know who to listen to. And I’ve learned, much like the playwright says to the actor, to trust my instincts. I’ve also learned that there are some people out there who are trolls. They thrive on negativity. It brings them attention. And I’ve learned that giving them attention is like giving oxygen to fire.

So, what’s the next project for you?

My next project is for The Shelter. We have a quarterly series called The Shelter Peep Show. Each installment has a different theme or focus. This installment revolves around Noir. I’m submitting a piece that finds a man, the office nobody, stuck in a closet with the office femme fatale as the result of a game of Truth or Dare. And in true Noir style, he’s in deeper than he could ever imagine. I’ve been work shopping the piece at Shelter Sundays. Contrary to some opinions of me, I believe strongly in collaboration. It’s an amazing experience to have actors read the play early in the development process, and then to get notes from actors, writers and directors. All of my pieces, every play I have ever written, has been shaped by a community of artists. I’ve been tempted to write a letter, from actor to playwright, that touches upon this relationship. But I also have some other things I want to write about, so we’ll see what comes first.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

Dave Lankford: Let it happen. I’ve spent an unusual amount of time reading everything that people have written about the piece. And I wish I would have used more of that time to create. I still would have given time to reading reactions. And I’ve loved chatting with people who enjoyed the piece, especially folks in other countries. But I’ve missed out on time — something that is rare for me, in that I have a demanding job, plus I’m a husband and a father — and I could have used that time more productively. Then again, the experience itself is unique. And as an artist — be it actor, writer, etc — I see part of my job as collecting experiences. They are the building blocks of my imagination. The anxiety I felt is an insight, and I’m sure that will come in handy one day.

And advice for artists who want to take up blogging?

Dave Lankford: I highly encourage it — even if you make the post private so that no one can ever read it. I think part of the learning process is writing what you know. It solidifies the tacit knowledge swimming in your subconscious, making it something you can actually understand. It also makes you examine your own process, and I think taking personal inventory every once in a while is a positive thing. Plus: we should be sharing what we know. I feel that artists are generally protective of their ideas, as if sharing would give someone else the competitive advantage. But the fact is, when you share, other people share. And we all advance as artists. I also think artists are afraid of critique. But, so long as it is constructive, critique is incredibly valuable.

Great. I guess what came to mind, to keep it short is: write what you know and write what excites you. But above all: write.

Here we ended the interview, but he did go on to say these two things which I thought were worth putting in as well.

When we talked about my reaction to the tone:

Dave Lankford: As for the tone, I think it’s a matter of the voice we hear in our head. It’s why a character in a novel can be the favorite of one person, the least of another. We project our own imagination. In my mind, the playwright was the man or woman that presents a mystery to the person who’s just stumbled upon it. I think the juxtaposition forces as assumption of authority, but that was not my intent.

And lastly Dave said of the experience:

Dave Lankford: “Dear Actor” is no longer mine, though my experience is very personal and unique.