Theater Around The Bay: The 2016 Stueys

Stuart Bousel wraps us up with a year-end wrap up. 

Well, here we are again.

Another year has passed here in the Bay Area theater scene, and while many are saying 2016 was a cursed year, I personally found it to be a rather relentless year of change, challenge, growth, and ultimately: reward. Which doesn’t mean I’d do it all over again, but I have a hard time just writing it off either. For better or worse, and for the most part it’s been better though maybe not immediately apparent how so, a lot of stuff that kind of needed to happen, happened this year, and I’m grateful. I think I’m a smarter, stronger, more centered person, and a superior artist to who I was. Which isn’t the same thing as happy, but there’s a price for everything, right?

One of the many things that happened this year was that I branched out, or rather, I branched back out, expanding my participation in the form beyond the writer/director status I had more or less relegated myself to (and embraced) to also include acting, once again. The result was being cast in two shows, one of which, the Custom Made Theatre Company production of CHESS, became so time consuming I actually didn’t see a play by anyone else from August through November of this year. Even then I only just managed to catch Rapture Blister Burn at Custom Made, and if I wasn’t a staff member there it is debatable if I would have done so. I missed all but two nights of the SF Olympians Festival, and one of the two I managed to attend… was my own. That 2016 has been a largely successful year for me on the theater front is undeniably true, and no where is it more apparent than now, writing the Stueys, and finding I have a mere 26 shows to consider. That may seem like a lot, but usually it’s more like 40-50. The fact is, I was at the theater just as much if not more so than usual, but in 2016 the show I was most often at was one of my own.

Many things finished their course this year, including Theater Pub and DIVAfest, two organizations that were quite energy and time-consuming for me, and were indeed the equivalent of part-time jobs (though only one of them was I actually paid for). I’ve debated if the STUEYS should do likewise and end their reign of terror, but I rather enjoy publishing a personal Best Of list, if only to remind people, annually, that I do in fact like quite a lot out there. And because if there’s one thing I’ve come to understand about the Bay Area Theatre scene over the years, it’s far more diverse than most of the accepted press is willing or able to agknowledge, and so an additional voice is not only welcome, but necessary. Hence, here we are again, with all the usual caveats that no awards here mean anything beyond my personal admiration for the named artist, and that no rules apply to this process aside from my own personal whimsy when it comes to determining categories and recipients, and my own personal promise to not give myself or anything I creatively worked on an award because my vanity is a mere 7 out of 10.

So without further ado, the Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards 2016, or the SEBATA, or The Stueys.

To all my friends and frenemies in the local rat race we call Art, let’s all do it again next year. But better. And maybe a little more paced out. Cause I am tired and I know I’m not the only one.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness: Jay Yamada
Do I really need to talk about how cool Jay Yamada is? I hope not. But then, if you haven’t worked with him, you might not know. The man is a saint, truly, and even better- he’s an artist, an excellent stage photographer who actually understands how to work with stage lighting and capture moments in shows you could never reproduce as posed shots. The Mohammed Ali of stage photogs, Jay is weaving around your actors at a final dress like a dancer, camera clicking away and sometimes inches from their faces, and yet amazingly unobtrusive. At the end of the night you know you’ll be walking away with at least 40 usable portfolio shots and press photos, and what’s more- your actors and designers will too, because Jay knows to get all that stuff and capture it in use, the way it should be captured. He often does this for dirt cheap or free if you’re a small company, and that’s just cool, providing the level of theater that needs it the most a touch of professionalism and gloss it might not otherwise get.

Best Thing I Saw But Didn’t Actually Like: The Lion (ACT)
I am a white guy who enjoys stories about white guys and acoustic guitar and I do not and will not apologize for it because some of that shit is gold. But man- you know a show is AGGRESSIVELY CAUCASIAN when even I am like, “Wow, this shit is white.” Still, Benjamin Scheuer does for white straight guys who make it through cancer what W;T did for white women who don’t, and if it’s a little Beaches in the mix to boot, all the better. His music is excellent, if utterly innocuous from the sampling in the show (I coined the term “innocurock” after seeing it), and he tells his story well, sincerely and without self-aggrandizement, owning where he comes from with everything from the Trunk Club wardrobe to the Lisa Loeb (™) brand bohemian apartment set, and it all works because the point is- even these guys die. Even these guys face a moment where they will be stripped of dignity and confronted with their insignificance and find out who they really are. When I say I didn’t actually like the show it’s because I found it low-stakes (I mean, we know it turns out okay, he’s sitting there performing it), a little saccharine (nobody in Ben’s life fails to find their place in his heart), and a little too polished (don’t tell us you were scared, Ben, show us, compromise that golden boy image you effortlessly project). But all that said, I found myself thinking, “I like this guy. He’s a good performer and a good spirit. I’m glad he’s okay. I hope he uses all this incredible talent and this second chance at life to make some really good art some day.” The Lion was, for me, all about potential- and realizing you have some. And that you shouldn’t waste it. Cause that clock is ticking, even if you’re a good looking heterosexual white kid whose life has been non-stop options (which, by the way, may actually make it easier to piss away your assets than someone whose daily existence is a reminder not to blow their shot), and I sincerely hope this was the prologue to something bigger in scope, and even better in execution.

The Best Thing I Saw Sans Qualifications: Colossal (SF Playhouse)
Against all odds, I loved this show. I say against all odds because I could care less about football. I don’t even hate it. I just don’t care. It’s like a thing that matters on another planet to people who in turn come from an even farther one from my daily reality and I just don’t get it. But man do I get falling stupidly in love with terrible people, hot gay sex, and the appeal of that which will probably destroy us, and playwright Andrew Hinderaker’s downright nasty, unapologetic, semen and sweat soaked script is one of the edgiest meditations on the mass appeal of self-destruction and its direct link to our urge to fuck one another that I’ve encountered in years. Beautifully directed by Jon Tracy, with some excellent performances (particularly the central character played by both Jason Stojanovski and Thomas Gorrebeeck, each bringing a distinct aspect to their interpretation of the role that highlights the disparity between who we are and who we perceive ourselves to be), the show managed to take some truly commendable risks and for the most part they all paid off in spades (the countdown clock behind the action at all times- brilliant! the relentless football drills- gorgeous!), somehow tricking me into accepting football not only as something people might genuinely want in their lives, but would like… make art about. And really good art at that.

Best Ambitious Failure: Cage (Performers Under Stress)
As usual, I feel like I first need to remind folks that I love very little as much as I love a Good Ambitious Failure. In fact, if pressed, I’d much rather watch a GAF than a Well Made Play any day of the week, because the former is much more likely to surprise me and one of the reasons I head to the theater is to be surprised. I feel like Performers Under Stress sort of specialize in the GAF, and Scott Baker’s continued forays into the realms unexplored and frequently ignored by the general theater community are worthy of a Stuey themselves, but this show in particular is a standout amongst their work that I have seen. Tar Gracesdóttir’s script is witty and interesting, though it borrows so heavily from the Joe Orton comedies that clearly influence it that it runs the risk of predictability and it devolves in to the sort of Facebook Status Update liberalism I’ve grown, as a liberal, to really detest. Still, Baker’s direction kept it moving, and Val Sinckler’s performance in the lead provided the perfect dose of skeptical every person required to make an otherwise alien group of characters at least contextually believable. It’s Valerie Fachman’s humane and sympathetic turn in a supporting role, however, that provided the evening with heart, and made me want to revisit the script again, and think about the production I’d just seen. Was it a perfect night? Far from it. But it got under my skin, and frankly that’s always the harder battle to win with an undeniably jaded audience member like myself.

Best Addition To The SF Theater Scene: Lily Janiak (SF Chronicle Critic)
Those of you wondering if this is me kissing ass in a very public way, rest assured, part of what I love about Lily as a critic is that she knows there are times I think she couldn’t be more spot on, and times I think she is full of pretentious nonsense, and my respect for her is in a large part due to my ability to express, publicly and privately, both of these perspectives at any given time, with the assurance that neither stance will influence her critique of my work, which has ranged from super flattering to just a shade less complimentary than that time the Guardian negatively compared my work to a Star Trek convention. Coming back onto the scene just a few months after she told me she was done with criticism, now bigger and bolder than ever, Lily has been shaking up the local theater scene in ways both admirable and terrifying, and I for one couldn’t be happier about it. Though she’s not my favorite local theater critic, she’s certainly one of my favorite local thinkers, and while some people will claim her importance as a wrench in the way we usually do things around here is the whole being female part, I would claim it’s got a lot more to do with being under 40 and not afraid to ask questions, particular of our very comfortable old guard who could use a little pointed poke in the grey matter now and then. If theater has a future in the Bay Area, it’s time we start getting some next generation (or really, this generation) perspectives and I can’t applaud the Chronicle more for going with someone exciting and fresh and smart and willing to put her mind out there. It’s not about kicking out the old, whose mentorship and legacy are invaluable, but we’re long past the point of making a place at the table for the new and this was an important step in the right direction. How excellent, as a director, to glance at the critic sector of the audience on opening night and see someone stuffing their bike helmet under the chair amidst that sea of venerable, adored, and largely white, gentlemanly heads. I might not always like what she’ll have to say, but then I can’t always predict what that’ll be either, and that, one artist to another, is delicious.

Best Synthesis of Tech and Action/Best Director: Cole Ferraiuolo/Maggie’s Riff (Faultline)
Look, I’ll be honest (cause that’s how I roll these days): I think Jack Kerouac sucks. I think he’s a shitty writer, and from what I’ve read he was a craptastic human being too, and yes I realize I’m basically telling you to revoke my San Francisco citizenship and my Reed College diploma. Jon Lipsky’s play didn’t do a thing to change my opinion, despite excellent performances from Paul Rodrigues, JD Scalzo, Nicole Odell, Rich Lesnik, and if anything it reinforced my assumption that having sex with Kerouac was probably like having sex with a bowling alley only less erudite, but what it did do was foster a new admiration for Cole Ferraiuolo’s abilities as a director, particularly in his ability to synthesize tech aspects of the show with the text aspects of the show to create an aesthetic whole that seemed almost seamless. In particular, the integration of shadow affects, by Alisa Javits, into the narrative highlighted the tension between truth and fiction, perception and reality, legacy and legend that provide the intellectual nut of the show. The piece felt like a fever dream, poetic and important, even if only to the dreamer, and the pacing, which is what kills so many shows for me, was pitch perfect from beginning to end.

Best Five Minutes: Justin Gillman and Cat Luedtke in Middletown (Custom Made Theatre Company)
Will Eno is a mixed bag for me. For everything I like and admire, from the language to the ideas, there’s a thing I’m twiddling my thumbs at, there’s a moment I’m wondering how something so bland can somehow inspire such passionate praise. Middletown epitomizes this for me, and is why if someone asked me “where to begin” with Eno, I would send them here, with the caveat of, “it’ll leave you unsatisfied- which I think is how it’s supposed to leave you- which means I think you’ll have successfully gotten it and him? I don’t know. It’s not really my thing. Even though it kind of is.” That said, my single favorite five minutes of theater this year was in the Brian Katz directed production at Custom Made Theatre Company, and it happened in the second act, when Cat Luedtke’s doctor encounters Justin Gillman’s lunatic and decides to help him out with some birthday drugs she “spills” from the supply of pain killers she apparently just wanders around with. If Brian excels at anything as a director, it’s a kind of stoic naturalism, and in a scene between two such archetypes, it’s his light hand that allows for two excellent actors to soak in the relationship and find the nuances that turn this five minute scene into a stand-alone one-act I’d award Best Short Play to if I could. No where else in the production was that theme of the extra-ordinary ordinariness of things better realized, and the moment was at once sad and funny and romantic and real, like a treasured scene of an early ‘aughts indie film I would have, at another point in my career, played on repeat to actors insisting “that’s how you do that.”

Best Actress In A Thankless Role: Melanie Marshall, Peer Gynt (ArtistsRepSF)
There are a lot of thankless roles out there, male and female, but women more often than not, through sheer numbers, end up in parts that, while not necessarily bad parts, are still just kind of thankless. For every regal queen role, or unrepentant murderess, or inspiring historical figure, or mold-breaking heroine who takes center stage or at least holds her own on the supporting side, there are like three times as many handmaidens, best-friends, random sexies, and blandly supportive mothers or love-interests. Solveig in Peer Gynt falls into the last category, though too his credit Ibsen attempts to give her some personality, he just also sort of forgets about her for 2/3rds of the play after she’s introduced, bringing her back at the end once his hero has learned an important lesson- one she embodies, thus rendering her not just a personified concept, but a kind of reward. That Solveig has a little more grit to her in the Artists’ Rep adaptation of Peer Gynt is no doubt partly due to Oren Steven’s revisioning and direction, but it’s hard to imagine anyone having brought to the role what actress Melanie Marshall was able to bring through a unique combination of earthiness and no bullshit deadpan. Often times Solveig feels beautiful and forgiving, but because she has to be (that’s how she was written to be). Melanie made it clear her Solveig was making it work as a choice- her choice- and that nobody, starting with Peer, should take it for granted. As a long time fan, for all its flaws, of the original work, it was impossible not to be charmed by this fresh take on the character, and even wish that a full spin-off revisioning, WICKED-style, was in the works somewhere, preferably with Melanie at the helm.

Best Surprise, The Big Hot Mess (DIVAfest)
To know Catherine Debon is to know a true San Francisco original, though Parisian in origin (but then, true SF Originals are almost always from somewhere else, right?). A femme fatale come to life, a dancer and performer, a writer and thinker, Catherine has been creating unusual and challenging performance work in the Bay Area for years, but with The Big Hot Mess, directed by Amanda Ortmayer and featuring Kevin Copps in a supporting role, she gave us something unique and unusual even for her. Part film noir, part performance art, this exploration of time and agency, and the relationship between the two, made use of duct tape and wall-clocks, movement and voiceover, one slinky black dress and one fedora to illustrate how our personal sense of control over our lives slips as we age and find ourselves progressively written out by the world around us. As the guy who had done some publicity work on this piece, I knew to expect something heady and stylish, but what I wasn’t expecting was to be utterly and thoroughly delighted by the end product, for it to be by turns elegantly self-aware and comically absurd, yet at its core a heroic journey, a depiction of one woman’s willingness and ability to stand up for what was right. A total inversion not only of the noir genre, but the medium of performance art in general, The Big Hot Mess was anything but, and the only time this year I found myself saying, “Yeah, I know I was paid to tell you to see this- but you really really should see it. It’s so good!”

Best Spirit: Terra Incognita: Through The Waves (DIVAfest/UpLift Physical Theatre)
I feel like it’s already a bit of a legend, how on opening night of this piece, created and performed by Juliana Frick, Hannah Gaff, and Nicholette Routhier, the soundtrack didn’t work and the show went on anyway, with all three women performing in absolute silence to an awestruck theater full of people wondering how you could pull off a movement piece without the music and soundscape it had been created to. As we sat rapt for thirty minutes, watching them tumble and lift and dance and roll with only the patter of their feet and the slap of their skin against the lone piece of scenery, a table, to accompany them, I remember thinking, “This is what it means to be an artist- and to be a small theater artist- this right here.” While a bigger company would have canceled the night, refunded the tickets, and maybe should have, that was not only not an option for these women, but ultimately an asset. When you’re in the business of making art that is raw and real, you know you can’t back down because the tech craps out. When your art gets better because you didn’t back down, that’s when you know you’re the part that’s raw and real.

Best Designer: Carlos Aceves, Scenery For The Awakening (The Breadbox)
The Breadbox’s production of The Awakening, adapted by Oren Stevens and directed by Ariel Craft, earned a tremendous amount of attention this past year, including a truckload of TBA Awards and critical praise, and all of it was, unquestionably, deserved. I could heap more praise myself, but decided that in the spirit of the Stueys, which try to highlight some stuff left off the other Best Of lists, I thought I would call attention to what was one of my favorite aspects: the simple and yet evocative set design that captured beautifully the turn of the century Gulf coast community in which the action was set. One of the more transformative sets I’ve seen in the EXIT Stage Left, Carlos Aceves’ combination of boardwalk and driftwood echoed with Louisiana elegance and bygone nostalgia, evoking not just the sea but the beach, specifically, and the cultures that grew up around The Shore. From the knots in the wood to the knots in the hammock, there was a graininess to it all that practically bled sepia-toned photographs, and sucked you into the world that had to be real before any of the conflicts happening inside of it could truly be understood in context. A precise blend of conceptual and literal, the set accented perfectly everything else the show so adeptly executed.

Image That Will Stay With Me The Most: Mikka Bonel/Amy Sass (A Whale’s Wake, The Flightdeck)
Amy Sass is an admirable theater artist for a number of reasons, but if I had to pick one, it’s this: girlfriend does not compromise her vision. Sometimes this is a wonderful thing, and sometimes it’s a questionable thing, but for what it’s worth, we don’t do art so the audience will be indifferent about it and Amy Sass seems to not only get that, but embody it. There was a lot about her play A Whale’s Wake that I admired, and some I sort of rolled my eyes at, but if I had to pick one moment from any show that I saw this year that best epitomizes this year it’s without doubt from Amy’s personal spin on the domestic drama, and that oldest of tropes in the domestic drama trope bag: the reluctant mother giving birth. In this case, because it’s Amy, she gives birth during a flood, as she’s swept out to sea, and said baby sort of ballet dances away on its umbilical cord, before said cord is severed by a Dude Who Fixes Everything trope. I know this sounds ridiculous, and it was, but somehow, thanks to Amy’s direction, and Mikka Bonel’s icy but graceful performance as the mother, it also worked, and seared itself into my imagination forever. What is life if not the wondrous and terrible moment of seeing your newborn hoisted out of you by forces beyond your control?

And so, there you go. Another year, another list. Hopefully you found it as amusing to read as it was for me to write.

Now, as I sit in the living room of my new apartment (I moved in October of this year, just one of many difficult changes that made me better), tying all this up, I suddenly find myself thinking that while in some ways I flew a little more under the community radar than usual this year (no TBA Award nominations, and I skipped the conference; lower attendance of shows than usual, and more stepping away from administrative roles than times past; and I went to virtually nobody’s parties), I still directed my favorite play, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation at Custom Made, had the honor of having my play Adventures in Tech directed by Allison Page at PianoFight, and ended the year directing the American premiere of Clive Barker’s gorgeous Paradise Street at the EXIT Theatre. A show of mine was done in Chicago, I mounted a collection of short plays about a pop star I idolize, Rob Ready slew another llamalogue I wrote, I had a reading in New York, I built a new works development program, I worked with awesome artists in a variety of ways, and I sang in front of paying customers for a month solid and nobody threw anything at me. Not every moment was perfect but in many ways, it was actually a bumper year as far as me doing what I wanted as an artist, though somewhat ironically, I also felt a little more on the outside of the community, for reasons I really can’t quite explain. At the back of my head, of course, I recognize it’s probably got something to do with having followed my own bliss a bit more whole-heartedly, un-appologetically, and occasionally at the sacrifice of passionate obligations and social politicking that at another point in my career would have called the shots more. I de-friended more of my fellow theater artists this year than ever before (albeit mostly due to the election), while at the same time expanding my collaborative circles exponentially, and though I suspect my approach to my own trajectory has always been complex if not outright paradoxical (can one be as diplomatic as I aspire to be, while also holding their integrity as close to the core as I also aspire to do?), I suppose what’s changed is that I’m no longer fighting that intrinsic tension, but rather embracing it. It’s about recognizing that everything is a mixed bag, including me, including everyone else, and sort of shrugging at the people who can’t accept that (or me) and letting them learn that without feeling the need to personally educate them- or apologize for not living up to their idea of what and who I’m supposed to be. Not everything is going to go according to plan, not everything battle is going to be won, not everything is going to be to your standards, but that’s okay. And also how it kind of has to be. Accept it, celebrate it, or let it go and celebrate that, but don’t let it stop you. If there’s one thing 2016 taught me, it’s that: don’t let it stop you. And don’t wait for people to catch up.

The right people always will.

Editor’s Note: In an effort to get this out before the end of the year, numerous grammatical and spelling mistakes have no doubt been made, and as such, will be edited in the future in an effort to uphold some kind of standard.

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Theater Around The Bay: Theatre of the Nerd

Sam Tillis announces a new addition to the Bay Area theater community.

By any objective measure, the Bay Area is positively overrun with theatre companies. Theatre Bay Area’s website lists 310 separate member groups, and while some of those may be defunct, there are undoubtably many other troupes in the area which have chosen not to list on that site. On Friday night, when I was watching The Rover at Shotgun, I could have been seeing Berkeley Rep’s Pirates of Penzance, Aurora’s The Monster-Builder– and those two were within walking distance from where I was– one of three possible shows at the EXIT Theatre, probably two or three options at PianoFight, and countless other live performances I couldn’t begin to catalogue. Given all this, starting a new theatre company, in this place and at this time, would seem to be indicative of pure insanity.

So why am I doing just that?

The idea first came to me, about a year ago, when I started wondering why there didn’t seem to be any plays about time travel. I was acting in a theatrical adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five at the time, and while that play has time travel as an element, it struck me that I had never seen nor heard of a play rooted firmly in the conventions of the classic time travel story, even though those conventions (branching timelines, paradoxes, and so on) have served as the basis for countless films, TV episodes, novels, and stories. A time travel story should be eminently stageable, since jumps in time would presumably be more important than jumps in locale, and could be quite appealing in terms of plot and theme. And yet, there existed this absence.

The thought branched out. Where were the plays set on space ships? Where was the urban fantasy, the Lovecraftian horror? The interplanetary romance, the post-apocalyptic survival story, the steampunk adventure, the quasi-medieval quest? Where, in short, was the nerdy stuff?

There isn’t a complete absence of nerd theatre, of course. The Bay Area theatre scene is robust and diverse, with offerings catered to a variety of tastes, including those that slant towards the Star Wars end of the spectrum. Just this week, I can watch In Love and Warcraft at Custom Made Theatre or the one-woman Nerd Nation at the EXIT. Wily West Productions did extraterrestrial colonization and psychological horror in rep this past summer and a superhero festival the summer before. And I’m sure there are others that I haven’t even heard of.

That being said, I want there to be a space that focuses specifically on the sorts of stories that can be told within the geekier genres. And, as the motivational posters on my highschool teachers’ classroom walls encouraged, I have decided to be the change I want to see in the world.

So: I’m pleased to announce Quantum Dragon Theatre, the Bay Area’s first and foremost science-fiction/fantasy theatre company.

I use the phrase ‘science-fiction/fantasy theatre company’ inclusively; rather than excluding edge cases from consideration, I hope to incorporate all of what makes up what we might call nerd culture. By focusing on these genres, we can ask the same question that all plays ask– what does it mean to be human?– in exciting new ways. And we can bring in new audiences, people who may feel that most live theatre is not relevant to their interests and lives. Those are the people I want to reach, along with the steadfast Bay Area audiences who may just discover the budding nerd within.

It’s possible you’ve heard of Quantum Dragon Theatre (QDT, among friends) already. Likely, even, if we’re Facebook friends or if you’ve had the misfortune of being somewhere within earshot of me within the last eight months– I talk about it a lot. The reason I’m (re)announcing it now is that the pedal has hit the metal. We have a season of three phenomenal plays– the first one, a courtroom drama set entirely within a virtual reality in a dystopian future, is nearly cast and will be going up this March. We have a program in the works designed to foster the creation new sci-fi/fantasy plays. And, right now, we have a fundraising campaign live on Indiegogo.

Yes, I know, you’ve heard this part before. You know that theatre cannot live on ticket sales alone, that it needs contributions from passionate supporters like yourself. You know that even small contributions can make a big difference. You know that we would be massively grateful for your involvement.

But, even if the Indiegogo fatigue is strong in you, I ask you to check out our campaign. We’ve got a fun video, some outside-of-the-box rewards, and, most importantly, an opportunity to help the Bay Area get its nerd on.

igg.me/at/quantumdragon

Theater Around The Bay: Talk Is Sheep

Charles Lewis III brings us a special report on the rebirth of Theater Pub’s performance branch.

Welcome back, old friend.

Welcome back, old friend.

Right now I have three distinct memories stuck in my head.

The first takes place a few years ago when I found myself crashing on the sofa of Clint Winder (tech guru for PianoFight) and his roommate, Rob Ready (the artistic director). It had been a wild night of inebriated debauchery in which I probably did one or two things I’d probably regret if I could remember them. Needless to say, I was grateful to Clint for taking mercy on me and letting me sleep it off at he and Rob’s Chinatown bachelor pad. When I woke up the next morning – throat scratchy from weed and head throbbing from drink – I’ll never forget the first thing my eyes focused on was the blueprint on the wall. For quite some time, the PianoFighters had been talking about having their own piece of real estate. Not just being renters like every other non-profit indie theatre company in the Bay Area; no, they this was going to be a full-blown theatre owned and operated by PianoFight. It would have, as was described to me, “an upstairs, a downstairs, a full bar, a cabaret space, and different stages going all at once”.

Of course there were quite a few naysayers. Several theatre people (who shall remain nameless) laughed at the idea that “the Delta House of Bay Area theatre” could pull their shit together long enough to even get this ridiculous idea off the ground, let alone actually succeed. They thought PF’s plans were just a bunch of talk and waiting patiently for them to fail spectacularly. Me? I couldn’t predict the future of the space one way or another. I just know that the blueprint and the idea behind it were a pleasant sight to see first thing on a Sunday morning. That, and I really needed a Tylenol.

The second memory is walking down Market St. over the past decade. Even as a born-native San Franciscan, I’d never been in Hollywood Billiards. I had nothing against it, I just never found my way inside. I usually met friends at bars of their choice and our pub crawls never went down Market. Maybe it was my lack of any tangible connection to the place that kept me from lamenting its passing. I mean, its front doors had been replaced with a cool psychedelic mural that, to me, actually improved the walk down Market. The changes in my city irk me more than most, but still… those eyes, man. Those eyes were where it was at.

The third memory takes place several times in 2014. I’m at a bar with other theatre folk, in a kitchen with other theatre folk, or at a backyard party with other theatre folk. We’re all drinking, as we are wont to do, and throwing out ideas for theatre ideas we each think would be pretty cool. A full-length adaptation here, a night of hilarious shorts there, the occasional suggestion for a one-(wo)man show – the usual stuff. None of us are as dismissive as we usually are, no matter how ridiculous the ideas. All we need is a place to put it on and some folks willing to sacrifice their dignity to make it happen. It’s only a matter of time before someone grips their drink tightly in one hand, yells “Fuck!” whilst swinging their other hand, and laments “This would be a perfect show for Theater Pub!”, at which point we all mourn the fact that at the time that name only applied to the very website you’re now reading.

All three of these memories are on my mind as I walk toward the former home of Hollywood Billiards this past December. The psychedelic eyes are long gone, there isn’t a pool table anywhere to be found, and the inside is full of local eateries. When I was in Stuart’s play Pastorella one of my co-stars had told me about the changes, so I began stopping by every now and then. The place is okay, I think. I can’t mentally compare it to what it was before, but I’m more interested in how it will look in the future. As this was December, we were a few weeks removed from both the Thanksgiving announcement that this would be one of Theater Pub’s two new homes, and the original staged reading [/LINK] of our first new show, Satyr Night Fever. I look around and don’t see any place for a stage or a band, but there’s lots of room to maneuver around the way we did in our old space. I have no idea how this is going to work and, now considered an “official” member of Theater Pub, I have the presumptive gall to think “What the hell has Stuart gotten us into?”

There’s been a lot of talk about when (if ever) Theater Pub would come back and what form it would take if it did. That’s the think about talk: there’s rarely any requirement for it to be more than just that. But as I sit in the newly-dubbed The Hall sipping boba tea and munching a fish taco, the idea of a staging a romantic comedy about a lovelorn goat-man and a walking tree spirit doesn’t seem so crazy. I don’t know how it’ll happen, but I’m glad to hear people talking about it.

PianoFight’s new Californicorn that hangs above the new space.

PianoFight’s new Californicorn that hangs above the new space.

Three months earlier I’m at SF SketchFest to see a show featuring PianoFight’s all-female troupe, Chardonnay. It was a really funny show. Afterwards we all head to a nearby bar and I catch up with everyone. Having known most of the members since 2009 at this point, it’s a bit of a trip to see how many of them have… I’m trying to think of a better term than “settled down”. That implies that they’ve somehow lost their edge and become a shadow of their former selves, and that sure as hell ain’t true. One thing I learned from the baudy show put on that night is that no one at the company is ready to give up on the raunchy satire that is their bread ‘n butter. But there’s definitely been changes in the PianoFighters themselves. Quite a few of them have gotten married, nearly all of them have gotten new jobs, and the new space is their base of operations after wandering through different venues. No, “settled down” isn’t the right term. “Grown up” fits better.

By December I’d toured the new space as it was a work in progress. Wires needs to be connected, walls needed painting, and pieces of wood were everywhere. But the Californicorn was up behind the bar. PianoFight’s logo is the California grizzly with added unicorn horns and angel wings. To christen their new place, they commissioned a mosaic of the logo by performer/artist extraordinaire Molly Benson. It’s really purrty. More importantly, it’s representative of how serious the company is to make this place work. They’ve planted their flag and staked their claim in the middle of the Tenderloin. Quite a few theatre people talk about what they’d do if they had their own space, but know they’ll always be at the whim of dickish landlords and a shrinking number of viable spaces. PianoFight decided to stop talking and actually make one of their own. Is it any surprise that we all thought “Wow, that place would make a great home for the new Theater Pub”?

That question was briefly on my mind last Saturday. This was the long-awaited day Satyr Night Fever made its debut at The Hall. It was the first ‘Pub show since December 2013 and the first ever “matinée” show, starting at 2pm. There was brunch, there were laughs, there were a few technical SNAFUs that were easily covered up by ecstatic moaning off-stage. Complete strangers who’d just stopped in for a quick snack wound up staying for mimosas and goat-man love. Familiar faces like such as Claire Rice, Marissa Skudlarek, Matt Gunnison, and Christian Simonsen could be seen all around. Most importantly, San Francisco Theater Pub was back and we were all happy to see it.

Yes, they made a stage.

Yes, they made a stage.

Two days later I was sitting in the new PianoFight space getting a drink from Les, the sweet old guy who served us many a pint in the ‘Pub original heyday. Now here he was, beneath the Californicorn as Tonya Narvaez, one of our new co-artistic directors, gave the crowd the rundown for the evening. The last time I was part of Theater Pub, I directing Eli Diamond to not give any attitude to his ornery old granny. Now I was watching him be hit on then berated by a vivacious tree nymph in a horrible Christmas sweater. By the time Meg Trowbridge, our other new co-AD, gave her closing speech and hit up our audience for money, rest assured that they’d the single best Greek mythology love story that one could ever find in the cabaret space of the theatre building owned by a raunchy San Francisco independent theatre company. They had something to talk about.

It gave us all the feels.

It gave us all the feels.

In case you couldn’t tell yet, lots of talk annoys me after a while. I say that as someone who does a great of talking all the time. That doesn’t change the fact that it annoys me. Maybe it’s the person talking that gets to me, maybe it’s what they’re saying, maybe it’s the time of day when it was said – those things can count for a lot when someone is expecting me to listen to them ramble on and on. Hell, I consider it an act of faith that you haven’t clicked away by this point. The reason I bring this up is because the thing I most remember about Theater Pub is what people said – before the show, after the show, and what was said during the performance. We’d talk dreams and talk shit with equal aplomb. That’s what I missed most about Theater Pub going away, talking with everyone. Talking about Theater Pub was what I most loved and hated about the time when it didn’t have a stage home. Talking about it is what I look forward to most in its new incarnation.

None of us are the same as we were back then. We’ve changed, we’ve grown, we’ve transformed into things that would hardly recognise the people we used to be. There’s no guarantee of where we’ll go from here, but I can’t wait talk about where we are now.

Charles Lewis III will be at the final performance of Satyr Night Fever tonight if you want to talk to him. He’ll understand if you don’t. It’s at 144 Taylor St. in San Francisco. The show starts at 8pm, with a $5.00 suggested donation at the door.

Theater Around The Bay: Isn’t it Showmantic?

Charles Lewis III returns to get romantic.

Taylor_and_Burton_-_Cleopatra

“I want you to lie to me just as sweetly as you know how for the rest of my life.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Offshore Pirate”, The Saturday Evening Post (29 May 1920)

I have no problem saying “MacBeth” in a theatre. I never have. I’ve done it in nearly every theatre I’ve performed. It’s just a name, and there’s no sense in fearing a name. It’s also the title of a play and I’ll be damned if I’m scared to say the title of a play – in a theatre, no less! But where I lack a sense of terror of the spoken word, I try to make up for it in a certain level of social grace. Though I have no problem saying it, I recognise that others feel differently. And given that those people are my collaborators, and that we rely on one another to perform our best in a comfortable work environment, I’m discreet with my relationship to MacBeth. I don’t flaunt it because doing so would affect the production. My fellow cast and crew likely suspect, perhaps it’s a major topic of post-show gossip each night. Regardless, MacBeth and I keep our thing on the down-low.

It’s just common courtesy. Some theatres or troupes might have specific rules in regards cast/crew behavior. As such, there will always be someone in the cast who takes this as a challenge and will immediately break the rule. Be it as trivial as “No reading reviews backstage” (seriously, just because we’re not hanging up a newspaper, you think we aren’t sharing links via smartphones?) or as sensitive as “No hook-ups with cast members”. And it is the latter, dear reader, to which I’d like to direct your attention today.

Try as you might, there’s only so much you can do to discourage a coupling amongst co-stars. You put two people together in a scenario where they have to express their deepest passions, eventually those passions will find their way off the stage or screen, and into someone’s bed. You add the specific nature of theatre – particularly independent theatre, where the entire cast will often share a single dressing room – then you’re just adding scantily-clad fuel to a very horny fire; to say nothing of the temptation of it being a taboo in some companies.

But is it taboo for a good reason or are some folks just envious of the fun these two are having? Have hooked-up actors found a healthy relief for built-up tension within the show, or are they putting the entire production in jeopardy? Ah, the tricky business of starting a “showmance”.

For the sake of argument, I’ve never been in a showmance myself. Not for a lack of interest, mind you, I’ve just never been the object of any actress, director, or crewmember’s affection. Nevertheless, I have at times (often inadvertently) set the wheels in motion for other cast members. Plus, I’m usually right in figuring out which folks are the ones trying a bit too hard to keep their hook-up under wraps: the two who are careful not to leave or arrive together, but always do so within minutes of one another and in/from the same direction; the two who know more about one another’s personal lives than any two cast members, despite weeks or months of us all being together; the two who constantly compliment one another’s work when the production is discussed. For Christ’s sake, folks, why don’t you just wave a frickin’ banner already?

But their discretion is understandable. The Bay Area theatre community, like all such communities, is full of gossips. Anyone who says they aren’t a gossip is just trying to hide the fact that they gossip about you. And showmance gossip is tastier than free wine & cake at an opening party.

“You know she only got cast ‘cause he wants to fuck her, right?”

“The reason she never comes to my shows anymore ‘cause she knows he’s gonna be there.”

“What? They’re a couple? When did he turn gay?”

“If she can keep a girlfriend for more than a week-and-a-half, I’ll be very impressed.”

Hell, during last year’s auditions for the Olympians Festival, there was a moment on the first day where I realised I knew far too much about these folks’ sex lives. I could positively identify one particular actor on whom a certain local actress had a crush. Said actress was in the very next group of auditionees – as was a past flings. And that was just the start of a two-day marathon that eventually became just as much about me matching actors with roles as it was about creating my own mental “Our Chart”. (Yes, I’ve seen every episode The ‘L’ Word and yes I know I will never get those hours of my life back.)

There are quite a few on-line articles about why one shouldn’t date an artist (actor, musician, painter, etc.). Those articles are written because the appeal of doing so is obvious: when they’re “on”, they can be whomever you want them to be. The downer is realising that for some of them, that’s all there is. But when the spark is there, it’s nothing but pure magic.

The best compliments actors receive is when they’re told they “come off so natural, so effortless”. Actually there’s a great deal of effort involved. I first started directing in highschool. An original piece (which I’d also written) my senior year had a kiss. It was then that I learned one indisputable truth about acting: be it a NorCal highschool or the Globe theatre, getting two actors to kiss is really fucking awkward. You try to tell yourself “They’re good-lookin’ folks who’ve probably kissed folks before; they’ll figure it out.” I’m not the best-looking guy, but I’ve done plenty of kissing scenes to know how awkward they are. Two years ago I was let go from a play because the director was incompetent, a fact made all the more apparent by the way she tried to direct rehearsals for my kissing scene.

Every first stage kiss. Ever.

Every first stage kiss. Ever.

That’s why successfully pulling off chemistry between actors is considered nothing short of a miracle. And, as anyone who’s been camping can tell you, once you’ve got the flame started, the trick is to keep it going for as long as possible so that everyone can feel the heat. This is why directors will turn a blind eye towards a none-too-subtle romance between actors. So what if Romeo and Tybalt are having “a word and a blow” when they aren’t on-stage? As long as Romeo can bring a fraction of that heat with Juliet, more power to ‘em, right?

Well that’s the thing: whether positively or negatively, a coupling between two people on the same production will always affect the production itself – ALWAYS. By bringing a real relationship into a production, you’re bringing with it all the baggage of said relationship. I once worked on a show where the director and lead actress were married. A simple conversation about using their coffee table as a prop in the show turned into a gritted-teeth argument where the tension could have been cut with a knife. I’ve seen the sort of jealousy that rears its ugly head when one castmember’s crush starts dating another castmember (hell, I’m as guilty of that as anyone). I’ve walked home from the bar after a post-show cast drink and tried to ignore the fact that two cast members are shouting at one another right next to my bus stop. I’ve even known an asshole in a long-term relationship who carried on a three-year affair with an actress, then actively prevented said actress from being cast in his company’s shows (I can’t stress enough how much of an asshole he is).

Last year I directed a wonderfully well-written piece about the relationships that truly define us at the end of our lives. When I divided a set of speeches between two actors, I gave the better actor the more loquacious parts. During our first or second rehearsal, I peeked ahead in the script to be sure of who was reading what. It was only then that I realised I’d given the aforementioned better actor the speech in which three months had passed since his painful break-up; which would have meant nothing, if not for the fact that a month or two had just passed since the actor went through a break-up. Needless to say, he was great with that speech (and given who was in the audience the night of the performance, my heart nearly stopped when he spoke it).

They always affect the show. We’re artists; even if our influences aren’t always obvious, rest assured that all of our life experiences will be reflected in our work one way or another. And it won’t always be pretty.

Yet, it’s no secret as to why folks in the same industry get together: they clearly have the same interests; their circles of friends no doubt intersect; they both understand that they have to plan their social lives around unpredictable performance schedules; and they probably both know how to read. Fuck Match.com, where’s the Natalie Cole-scored commercial for dating someone in your cast?

God forbid they date someone outside of the theatre community. You know them when you see them: those sad, pathetic creatures who show up at the party just to huddle in the corner with their wine; feeling horrifically underdressed in a party full of people who are friends with costumers; the ones who stick out like sore thumbs because they’re the only ones in the room who don’t know the full libretto to Into the Woods by heart. The poor bastards. They can feel everyone’s judgemental eyes on them and they just want to leave. You know that feeling because it’s the same one you feel when you go to one of their parties.

Awkward_Party

But at least dating an “outsider” will add some variety to your usual routine. They show you people outside of your usual circle, they expose you to things that aren’t part of your repertoire, they allow you to believe that there’s more to life than being able to recite Tom Stoppard ad nauseum. Y’know why showmances fall apart so quickly? Pure boredom.

But then, one has to wonder: what about those couples that do make it work? How do they stay together for so long? You know the ones I mean: the adorable sci-fi sweethearts that run a theatre out of a pizzeria; the sickeningly cute couple who spearhead The City’s most famous mime troupe (notably devoid of actual mimes); the consummate performers who never let the stress (see what I did there?) of the world crush their artistic drives or their feelings for one another. How the hell have they got it figured out when so many others fail? What do they know that we don’t?!

It’s simple, really: their relationships aren’t based solely on their work. Oh sure, they may or may not have met during some business-related function, they might be running the business together, the business itself might even be central to dinner conversation – this business is a major thing to them. It’s just not the only thing to them. Their devotion to one another doesn’t stop when the curtain goes down; their respect for one another isn’t based on acclaim or gross revenue; the passion they feel for one another lasts more than a single fleeting night of sweaty two-backed-beast-making. What’s more, they know that relationships – actual relationships – are a commitment, and a commitment takes work. There will be arguments, there will be miscommunications, there will be moments when they both just want to escape – but the truly committed folks have been around long enough to know which things (and people) are worth fighting for and which are best to let fall by the wayside.

They know there’s never a wrong time to say ‘I’m sorry."

They know there’s never a wrong time to say ‘I’m sorry.”

That’s what separates a relationship from a showmance: the latter is falling for someone based on who you want them to be; the former is loving them for who they really are. But when you’re caught up in the moment, who cares what happens in the long term? Who cares what damage is done to the show just so you can get your rocks off?

When all is said and done, the risks outweigh the rewards. The inevitable conclusion is that showmances aren’t worth the effort, right?

Right?

I have something to confess, dear reader. For someone who’s spent the majority of this piece showing off his unapologetic cynicism, those who have known me long enough will know that I am, in fact, a hopeless romantic. I don’t put emphasis on the negative because I want anyone to fail, I do so because the one thing I really love is when someone I know succeeds – it’s the greatest feeling in the world to me. Every scenario I’ve written about in this piece has been drawn from real life, so I’d like to conclude with a hypothetical for us to ponder.

Let’s say there’s a couple – in the tradition of TheaterPub pseudonyms, let’s call them, oh, Lilliam Weschber and Cashley Aowan. So Lil and Cash (I know, it sounds like a Country-Western duo) come from origins as opposite as can be: he from the dry desert of Arizona, she from the cold Connecticut wilderness. Somehow, someway they both make their to the greatest city in the Golden State in the hopes of pursuing their dreams. By an act of fate or pure chance, they wind up at the same fancy gala at the same time. They strike up a conversation. They click. Now this is the point in the Choose Your Own Adventure book where the story can go either way.

Maybe they choose the option neither really expected. Maybe that option winds up with both of them doing stints in Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding. Maybe they really hit it off. Maybe geography keeps them apart so they decide to cool things off. Maybe, through another inconceivable act of fate or chance, they both get cast in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night playing – get this – Orsino and Viola. Maybe the spark reignites. Maybe cast members start bumping into Lil and Cash (Depression-era bank robbers) a number of times outside of rehearsal. Maybe the other cast members of what-has-now-been-nicknamed-Twelfth-(M)ight start to take notice of the fact that Orsino and Viola seem very comfortable with their kiss scene. Maybe – in defiance of every unspoken showmance law since the beginning of the open stage – they drop all pretense and make a grand declaration of their love in front of the entire cast and crew. Maybe, just maybe, they decide to make it permanent.

But that’s just me thinking out loud. The simple truth is that although showmances involve (hopefully) only two people, it has repercussions for an entire group of people who have poured their hearts and souls into a work that has deep meaning for them. When a showmance goes right, it can mean great things for the show. When it goes wrong, the whole show could wrong, and that could just be the start of your problems. But if there’s something we can take away from the parable of Lil and Cash (Vaudeville Comedy Duo), it’s that sometimes it can be more than just one-show fling; that sometimes risk is worth the reward; sometimes auditioning for a show and all the effort in the director finding the most compatible pieces results in a union that can last for years and years.

Totally not the real Lil and Cash.

Totally not the real Lil and Cash.

Not always. But sometimes…

Charles Lewis doesn’t know if he’ll be able to make it to Lil and Cash’s San Frantastic June wedding, but he was there when they played Orsino and Viola. To say that he wishes them the best would be a gross understatement.