In For a Penny: What’s in a Name?

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“Well, that was bloody Shakespearean! D’ya know who Shakespeare is? He wrote the King James Bible!”
Gangs of New York, screenplay by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan

It’s a bit empty ‘round the ‘Pub offices these days. Yes, there are Theater Pub offices. They’re located within a classified, heavily-guarded location that may or may not resemble the ThunderCats’ Lair. Within the great hall – which bears a strong resemblance to the Childlike Empress’ throne room in The NeverEnding Story – we ‘Pubbers gather to feast on divine ambrosia, sip unicorn tears from The Holy Grail, and plot world domination. We also occasionally write plays.

But yes, these days our hallowed halls aren’t as occupied as they once were: no more dispatches from the rainbow over Cowan Palace; the Working Title now reads “Happily Ever After”; Everything has moved on to Something greater; The Five are too busy making every moment count; and I sincerely hope no one else has been Hit by a Bus – to name but a few written columns. There’s a genuine last-day-of-school feeling to it all. So as I pack up my monogrammed silken robes, my golden quill, and the two-headed axe given to me by Xangô himself, I decided my penultimate entry should cover something near and dear to we ‘Pub folk, so as to distract from its pending conclusion.

No, it’s not the incredibly thorough spreadsheet I’ve nearly completed (that’s not a joke: as I type these words I’ve got Excel open in another window as I try to finish the definitive ‘Pub factsheet titled “SF Theater Pub – By the Numbers”. It has every ‘Pub writer, actor, director, location, and guest musician cross-referenced by each and every show. Every. Single. One.), but rather our dear 452-year-old friend William Shakespeare. As some of you may have heard, the fine minds at Oxford have concluded that Shakespeare co-wrote his Henry VI trilogy with fellow playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe. As such, Marlowe and Shakespeare will now share credit in all future Oxford editions.

A shocking development to be sure – “scandalous,” some might say – but I’m not here to debate the evidence or credentials of some of the finest scholars in the western world. Having said that, I’d be remiss not to mention how this brings up the mosquito in the ear of every Shakespeare-lover (myself included): The Authorship Question.

What, you may ask, is “The Authorship Question”? Well, if you have 24 minutes to kill, you can watch a thorough (and hilarious) breakdown of it in this video. If you don’t have 24 minutes, here’s the TL;DR version: there are people who believe Shakespeare’s plays – with their magnificent turns-of-phrase and adventures in foreign lands – couldn’t possibly have been written by a poor kid from Stratford-upon-Avon with no higher education. These people, quite simply, are wrong. There is conclusive empirical evidence to show that they are wrong. This hasn’t stopped these folks (known as “non-Stratfordians” or “anti-Stratfordians”) from pushing this conspiracy theory since the 1800s.

Because everyone should have Rummy's worldview.

Because everyone should have Rummy’s worldview.

Still, the folks at Oxford say The Henry Trilogy was co-authored by Marlowe. Putting aside whatever fuel this adds to the non-/anti-Stratfordian fire, why is the idea of such a collaboration a bad thing? Shakespeare still likely wrote all of his other plays alone, so what’s wrong with him seeking help for his epic three-play cycle? Probably because most people don’t really know how art is created.

The public often knows of artists two ways: through the art they create and they mythology of that creation. Many a tale’s been told of how The Great Artist was one day struck with the lightning bolt of inspiration which lead him or her to immediately run back to the studio and create THE greatest thing the world has ever seen in merely a single draft. Right… Even more tales are told of aspiring artists who give up early because their first drafts are shit. They hear artists throw around phrases like “write what you know” and think all their work must be autobiographical and pristine from the get-go. Anyone who’s ever dared to take art seriously knows the terrible secret these folks don’t: all first drafts are shit.

Yet the legend of The Perfect First Draft is perpetuated, paradoxically enough, by other forms of art. If there’s one thing I hate about films, plays, or books about artists it’s how they oversimplify the artistic process. I know that for dramatizations they’re doing it for the sake of running time, but would it have hurt the film Frida to explain how Kahlo created her paintings rather than having them seem to appear by osmosis? One of my favorite films about the artistic process is Hustle & Flow because it shows that making art is a messy, exhausting process that has to be done over and over again. Hell, my favorite album of 2016, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, was more or less created in the public eye. West remixed songs, dropped some entirely, rewrote lyrics, constantly tweaked the tracklist, changed collaborators, and changed the title multiple times… all on his Twitter account. Sure, everyone thought he was crazy(-er than usual), but he showed the world what it’s like to tear up a drafts you hate and start over from scratch. And the result was fantastic.

And yes, he had collaborators. Just as the legend of The Perfect First Draft has little basis in reality, so too does that of The Lonely Artist. After all, if you can’t create art all by your lonesome, why even try, right? Quentin Tarantino tried to take sole credit for his screenplays Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Pulp Fiction, and the infamous Top Gun speech from the film Sleep with Me. Turns out those were all co-written (or, in the case of the latter speech, entirely written) by Tarantino’s collaborator Roger Avary. Avary successfully sued his former friend for proper credit and they both won Oscars for the Pulp Fiction screenplay. That’s just one of many stories about silent collaborators (trying looking up the making of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill sometime).
On the other hand, several great artists are open about how their greatest works were collaborations. Francis Ford Coppola – who’d already won an Oscar for the screenplay of Patton – credits Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne for writing one of the most important scenes of Coppola’s The Godfather. Steven Spielberg credits his friend John Milius with writing the USS Indianapolis scene from the film Jaws. And I’ve written before about my affinity for great artistic groups like The Inklings, The Algonquin Round Table, and Lorraine Hansberry’s group of fellow authors.

Art is not created in a vacuum, it’s the result of tireless destruction and recreation in the attempt to make an esoteric idea into something tangible. Even someone as skilled as Shakespeare would need someone as talented as Marlowe to be real with him and say “Will, this is shit.” (To which Shakespeare would likely respond “Yeah, well fuck you and your ‘thousand ships,’ Kit!” before calming down and asking Marlowe to elaborate.) These two became the greatest authors in the English language by bouncing their ideas off one another.

Unabashed Shakespeare fanboy Tom Stoppard imagined such a scene in his Oscar-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love. In one scene Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) runs into Marlowe (Rupert Everett) in a pub as the latter basks in the glow of his successful Doctor Faustus. Shakespeare mentions that he’s working on the unfortunately titled “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter”. Marlowe suggests setting the play in Italy because “Romeo” sounds Italian, and to have a scene where Romeo avenges the murder of his best friend Mercutio. And that’s it. That’s Marlowe’s only contribution. Shakespeare writes the rest of the retitled Romeo and Juliet on his own, and it’s great.

Huh. It’s almost as if Shakespeare was as human as the rest of us and needed help from time to time.

I've actually had this facial hair quite often. For I am Shakespeare.

I’ve actually had this facial hair quite often. For I am Shakespeare.

As you probably know, this month’s ‘Pub show will be King Lear as directed by Sam Bertken. He’s rounded up a helluva cast for what will be the ‘Pub’s sixth and final Shakespeare adaptation (the seventh Shakespeare-related when you include Molly Benson & Karen Offereins’ “Hamlet and Cheese on Post”). Shakespeare has often been invited to the ‘Pub because he means something to the ‘Pub, both to those who stage his plays and the audiences that see them. Hundreds of years after his death, the words he wrote – and yes, he did write them – resonate all over the world in a way few other works can. That’s why everyone takes The Authorship Question so seriously: they want to know by what process God created an artist so masterfully adept at writing the words to which so many can relate. Even if it was some poor kid from Stratford.

Shakespeare means a lot to the ‘Pub and it goes without saying that the ‘Pub means a lot to all of us. What does it mean to me exactly? Hmm… Maybe I’ve got one last thing to write from this golden quill.

Charles Lewis III’s favorite Shakespeare-related ‘Pub memory is when he witnessed first-hand how the amazing Neil Higgins took a potential disaster and flawlessly turn it into a live theatre triumph.

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Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Pet Peeves in Arts Journalism

Marissa Skudlarek pens her penultimate column.

We’re winding down Theater Pub and winding down the blog, so as the longest-serving blog contributor, I thought I would use my next-to-last column to complain about my biggest arts-journalism pet peeves.

(This is not meant as an indictment of anyone who has written for this blog, just of general trends and irksome phrases that bother me.)

“The Bard” — This nickname is just so corny, promotes a false idea of Shakespeare as some kind of Merrie England wandering minstrel, and contributes to the problematic belief that Shakespeare is the greatest genius who ever lived and we mere mortals are unworthy of him. (There’s a reason that overzealous admiration of Shakespeare is called “Bardolatry.”) And yet I feel like the use of this phrase is only becoming more common because “The Bard” is 8 characters while “Shakespeare” is 11. (Thanks, Twitter!) Can’t we just agree to call him “Shax”?

“Penned” — This is a pretentious, cutesy word to use as a synonym for “wrote.” When I hear the word “wrote,” with its grinding r and hard t, I picture someone laboring over a messy notebook with a sputtering pen, forcing the words out. When I hear “penned,” I picture a lady in a negligee, sitting at a dainty writing table with a quill pen poised in her hand. Authoresses pen. Writers write.

“The play’s the thing” — I have seen countless theater-related articles headlined “The Play’s the Thing” and if this was ever clever or funny, it no longer is. As a child, my parents once convinced me to use “The Play’s the Thing” as the title for some book report or essay that I wrote about theater. I am still ashamed of having done that.

“Unbelievable” — In slang, “unbelievable” is a compliment and a synonym for “amazing,” but I always find it ludicrous when it is used in theater reviews as a compliment. The goal of mainstream, realist theater is believability, so when a critic writes something like “John Doe was unbelievable in the role of Willy Loman!” and means it as praise, the critic just ends up sounding like an idiot.

“Kinetic,” “melodic” — Writing about theater really means writing about many different art forms that combine to create a show. A critic reviewing a new musical may find herself evaluating the story, the dialogue, the music, the lyrics, the singing, the acting, the dancing, the direction, the sets, the costumes, and the lighting. It’s hard to write about abstract art forms like dance and music, though, and many theater critics have no special training in those disciplines. (In his book, Sondheim complains that music critics never review Broadway scores and theater critics often know nothing about music.) So in order to say something and sound knowledgeable, critics often fall back on phrases like “kinetic choreography” or “melodic songs.” But do those phrases really tell you anything?

“Stoppard/Sondheim has a heart after all” — This has been a staple of theater criticism since the 1980s. Both of these writers (whom I admire immensely, if it wasn’t obvious) came to prominence in the ’60s with works of clever, glittering wit; then, in the ’80s, critics started to perceive a new emotional depth in their work. You can quibble with this reductive description of their careers, but, more to the point, it’s no longer news to point out that the men who wrote Arcadia or “Not A Day Goes By” are perfectly capable of breaking your heart.

Lack of knowledge of the past — Over the past year, I’ve read articles claiming that “the Schuyler Sisters are the best female musical-theater characters ever” and “Rey from Star Wars is the best movie heroine ever.” I like the Schuyler Sisters and Rey just fine, I am pleased at the increased attention paid to female representation in art, but to claim that these are the “best characters ever” is appallingly shortsighted. Yeah, yeah, the Internet demands hyperbole and most people could afford to be more wide-ranging in the art that they consume, but wanting to write about how much you love a recent work of art is no reason to put down all the art that came before it.

Too much knowledge of the past — At the same time, it really annoys me when older critics spend the bulk of their theater reviews reminiscing about how the original production did it. I feel like this reinforces the belief that theater is for old, rich people who’d rather look to past glories than attempt to push the art form forward. I was fortunate enough to see The Producers in 2001 starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, but when it’s revived in 2036 starring Lin-Manuel Miranda and Justin Bieber, I hope I can take their performances on their own merits.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. If she has ever committed any of these sins in her own writing, please feel free to point it out in the comments.

Theater Around the Bay: Christian Simonsen & Alejandro Torres of “No Fault”

The Pint-Sized Plays have their 4th performance tonight! We continue our series of interviews with the festival’s writers and directors by speaking to writer Christian Simonsen and director Alejandro Torres of “No Fault”! (Alejandro also served as the Deputy Producer of Pint-Sized this year.)

“No Fault” introduces us to Jack and Kate, a divorcing couple with an 8-year-old daughter, who’ve scheduled a quick meeting in a corner bar to sign their divorce papers, make it official, and try to put the past to rest. Colin Hussey and Lisa Darter play the couple.

CS Blue Striped Shirt

Christian Simonsen, a writer returning to Pint-Sized.

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

Christian: I have been a fan of the Pint-Sized Play Festival since the beginning, and I was honored to have an earlier short play of mine, the comedy “Multitasking,” produced by this festival in 2013. I love immersive, site-specific theater like this, where the actors rub shoulders with the audience. That’s not just an expression… if you come to this show, a drunk llama may literally rub your shoulders!

Alejandro: I love this theater company and all the fresh work they bring to San Francisco (and on a monthly basis too). I’ve directed and performed with them before and have also met some great and talented folks that keep me coming back.

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

Christian: The challenge to writing a short play is to remember that it’s not a full-length play crammed into a few pages. That may sound obvious, but it’s tempting during the writing process to forget that. It generally can only be about one thing. Every word of dialogue, every prop, every stage direction must earn its keep. A full-length play can survive three or four weak scenes. A short play has trouble recovering from three or four weak lines of dialogue. As a general rule, a short script can’t really handle numerous subplots crisscrossing each other, but it should also avoid being a “mood piece” that just sits there.

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

Christian: Its purity. Audience members rarely walk away from a short play with mixed feelings; it either worked or it didn’t. As a writer, I’m most productive when I’m given boundaries and limitations, and the short play format fits the bill perfectly. For example, in “No Fault,” a separated couple are going through the awkward, tense ordeal of signing their divorce papers in a pub that they used to frequent during happier times. The stage directions have both actors sitting at a table for most of the script. But when the woman delivers the most intimate line of dialogue to her now ex-husband, she is standing away from the table while the man remains seated. The ironic contrast of their emotional closeness and their physical distance would be lost (or at least watered down) in a longer play where the actors would be moving around for two hours, willy-nilly.

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

Alejandro: Simply getting it all together as producer and table work as a director.

What’s been most troublesome?

Alejandro: Scheduling!

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Christian: For scriptwriting in general (short and long, stage and screen), they would include Richard Matheson, Elaine May, Ernest Lehman, Preston Sturges, John Guare, Tina Fey, Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, Ben Hecht, Tom Stoppard, Horton Foote, Monty Python.

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

Christian: That’s tough, because I try and make it a point not to picture celebrities, whether world-famous or local, when I create characters. My goal is always to write a character that is solid and fully-formed on the page, while still leaving enough wiggle room where an actor can put their own spin on him or her. That being said, for this script I could picture actors Mark Ruffalo, Elden Henson, John Hawkes, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Amy Poehler, Sandra Oh.

Alejandro: Hmm… Maggie Cheung and Joaquin Phoenix. I they would make for an interesting dynamic.

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Director Alejandro Torres shows off his dramatic side.

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

Alejandro: This is cheating as I have worked with these two before but have never directed them: Genevieve Perdue and Alan Coyne.

What are you currently working on/what’s next for you?

Christian: I was one of the staff writers on Killing My Lobster’s August sketch comedy show Game of Nerds, which was a lot of fun to work on. My next project is a collaboration with the multi-talented Sean Owens. We are developing a comedy web series called Under the Covers, which will be both hysterical and educational (or at least one of the two).

Alejandro: The SF Fringe Festival this September will be my next project. I will be remounting an original piece called Projected Voyages about dreams, nightmares, and passing thoughts.

What Bay Area theater events or shows are you excited about this summer/fall?

Christian: I want to see Barry Eitel’s The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident. I’ve always admired Barry as an actor, and I’m anxious to see what he does as a playwright. It also stars two of my favorite local actors, Becky Hirschfeld and Paul Rodrigues. And producer Stuart Bousel’s San Francisco Olympians Festival in October is always an exciting event that features new plays by Bay Area writers.

Alejandro: Killing My Lobster’s August show Game of Nerds. [ed: this closed last weekend! Apologies for not posting this interview sooner!]

What’s your favorite beer?

Christian: Stella Artois, but I will happily endorse another brewery if they give me their product or money or both.

Alejandro: IPAs that pair well with whiskey.

“No Fault” and the other Pint-Sized Plays have 2 performances remaining: August 23 and 29 at 8 PM at PianoFight! 

 

Theater Around the Bay: Alan Coyne & Juliana Lustenader of “Bar Spies”

The Pint-Sized Plays begin their 2nd week of performances tonight! We continue our series of interviews with the folks behind the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays by speaking to writer Alan Coyne and director Juliana Lustenader of “Bar Spies”!

“Bar Spies” is a spy-fiction pastiche, full of false identities, double-crossings, and heightened tension. Actors Courtney Merrell and Andrew Chung show off an impressive array of accents and some slick trench-coated style as the two spies.

Alan Coyne clown

Playwright Alan Coyne has a sense of humor.

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

Alan: I wrote a piece for Pint-Sized last year (“Relativity”), and this year I figured I’d have another go. I can’t write without a deadline, and this festival gives you that plus a setting, so it’s exactly what I need to write something.

Juliana: I first got involved with Pint-Sized last year as the writer of “To Be Blue,” directed by the wonderful Neil Higgins and featuring the hilarious duo of Eden Neuendorf and Tony Cirimele. The show was such a success last year, I knew I wanted to come back. I’m super excited to return as a director this time!

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

Alan: For me, the hardest thing about writing a short play (or anything) is getting started. And after that, it’s translating the amazing idea in your head into the least-clunky language possible.

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

Alan: Knowing that everything in it has to matter. That helps focus me on what I actually need to put in, and what I can do without.

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

Juliana: The most exciting moment for me so far this year was watching my actors read the script for the first time out loud while Alan and I watched. I couldn’t stop smiling as Courtney and Andrew took these two silly characters and brought them to life so easily despite the ridiculous accents we are making them do.

What’s been most troublesome?

Juliana: Scheduling! But that’s what I get for wanting to work with such talented folks.

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What are your biggest artistic influences?

Alan: P.G. Wodehouse and Douglas Adams. They are who I would want to write like, if I could. For this particular play, it’s John Le Carre, who wrote Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; “Bar Spies” is very much a parody of that genre, and he, for me, is the best spy writer. And I owe a little something to Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood, which is also a spy parody play. And Chess, which is the musical I’m rehearsing for at the moment, and is set during the Cold War.

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

Juliana: Sean Connery, because he is the best spy with the best accent.

Alan: Alec Guinness, who played the main character in the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and did so definitively. Luckily for me, Courtney Merrell pretty much is Alec Guinness, so that worked out.

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

Juliana: Brian Martin is the first to come to mind, though we did do a scene study project in college together. Still, I think it would be a treat to work with him in a more professional setting.

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

Alan: My next writing project is for the San Francisco Olympians Festival, it’s called Hypnos, and it’s an excerpt from Shakespeare’s lost play, Cardenio. It’ll be performed Saturday, October 15. And my next acting projects are the aforementioned Chess for Custom Made (September/October), in which I play The Arbiter, followed by Feste in Twelfth Night at the Metropolitan Club on Saturday, November 5, which Juliana is also directing.

Juliana: Up next, I’m directing Twelfth Night as part of Shakespeare at the Club. I’m also performing in Chess at Custom Made Theatre Company and Avenue Q at New Conservatory Theatre.

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

Juliana: The Fringe Festival at the Exit Theatre.

Alan: The Olympians Festival is always wonderful, everyone should check that out at the EXIT this October. I had the opportunity to participate in Musical Cafe this year, and they’re doing another showcase in November, I highly recommend keeping an eye out for that. And PianoFight always has something good going on, especially shows which feature Andrew Chung.

What’s your favorite beer?

Juliana: Right now it’s Old Rasputin’s Russian Imperial Stout, but I’ll drink whatever you buy me.

Alan: For this show, I recommend drinking a pint of (Alec) Guinness.

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

Cowan Palace: Wizards of Words: Sorting our Favorite Playwrights into Hogwarts Houses

In this two-part blog series, Ashley Cowan and Marissa Skudlarek attempt to sort some notable playwrights into their proper Hogwarts House.

Anyone else needing an escape from the adult world of taxes and other miscellaneous boring stuff? I am! Which is why I was so delighted when Marissa reached out to me about writing a blog together involving placing playwrights into their respective Hogwarts House. I was like, Marissa, are you Sirius? That sounds prefect.

And we aren’t the only ones contemplating Harry Potter “types” in the theatre world these days. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 and II, a world premiere new play based on a story by J.K Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany, will be opening at the Palace Theatre in London later next month!

But in case you can’t quite afford a plane ticket to England (F you, evil taxes!), we will celebrate all this magical, theatrical fun Theater Pub blog style. So grab that sugary new Starbucks drink that’s supposed to taste like Butterbeer and read on!

HP Someecard Pic copy

Now, if you’re a muggle who hasn’t jumped aboard the glorious Hogwarts Express Train, here’s a quick rundown of the four Hogwarts Houses as told by the Sorting Hat himself in Book Four, The Goblet of Fire:

By Gryffindor, the bravest were

Prized far beyond the rest;

For Ravenclaw, the cleverest

Would always be the best;

For Hufflepuff, hard workers were

Most worthy of admission;

And power-hungry Slytherin

Loved those of great ambition.

–Sorting Hat (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)

In other words, we’ve got four houses: Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. Gryffindors are daring and bold folks who value a sense of honor. Ravenclaws are witty and steady minded and love academic achievements. Hufflepuffs are truth abiding, loyal friends who care for others often above all else. And Slytherins are cunning and passionate with a strong focus and drive. There’s so much more to say about each of their characteristics and attributes but I’ll leave that to JK Rowling for now.

If you had asked me a few years ago which house I best identified with, I would have told you I saw myself as “Gryffin-claw” (so, a hybrid between Gryffindor and Ravenclaw). It seemed like a good balance for someone who adamantly moved to California against the wishes of her friends and family at the time to follow a dream but who also spent a great deal of time alone reading whatever she could get her hands on while crafting detailed lists of new goals and color-coded schedules. But after researching the Houses a bit more for this blog, I gotta say, I think this Hugs and Cuddles blogger may be more of a Hufflepuff! I’m totally that person that stresses that I haven’t “liked” enough of someone’s Facebook content because I wants to make sure they feel loved and appreciated when I can’t see them in person.

And, this should come as no shocker, but Ravenclaws everywhere would be proud to have Marissa as a part of their crew. She’s totally that babe in the library casually taking in another book who will probably forget more facts than I’ll ever know. Marissa is the person you want on your debate team, your trivia team, and the gal you call for fashion advice when you want an authentic, beautiful look to wear to a themed party. So teaming up with her for this blog was a no-brainer.

Over a ginger-y cocktail in a dimly lit bar, we chatted about playwrights in between sharing select secrets from our earlier days as writers for the San Francisco theater scene and its residents. It was as delightful as it sounds. So without further ado, here are some of our thoughts as Sorting Hat Hotties.

Ashley and Marissa as Hats copy 2

Tom Stoppard
“It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter.”

Sorting Hat Marissa: Schoolboy wit, punster, lover of books and ideas, cramming his plays with erudite references, the favorite playwright of the academic classes: there’s no doubt about it, Tom Stoppard is the Head Boy of Ravenclaw House. “It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter,” from Arcadia, is the line that sums up Stoppard’s ethos, and also sums up the key values of Ravenclaw. He also once claimed to write plays because it’s the only socially acceptable way of arguing with himself, and of all the Houses, Ravenclaws are most likely to welcome a good debate and be swayed by a good argument.

Oscar Hammerstein II
“I know the world is filled with troubles and many injustices. But reality is as beautiful as it is ugly. I think it is just as important to sing about beautiful mornings as it is to talk about slums. I just couldn’t write anything without hope in it.”

Sorting Hat Ashley: When I brought up Hammerstein over drinks, Marissa knowingly said something along the lines of, “only a Hufflepuff could help create Oklahoma!” and as the Ravenclaw she is, I believe she’s correct! Hammerstein was a known collaborator, co-writing nearly 900 songs! He was involved with creating a community of artists that would go on to pave an encouraging path for future music makers and lovers. He was known for being fairly sentimental, which seems obvious given his musical theatre resume, but he was also a socially conscious spirit who wrote with sincerity. He guided and influenced countless collectives, filling their hearts with love and music. Well, mine is pretty full, anyway. As Hufflepuffs are thoughtful team players with a strong sense of justice, Hammerstein would be a cherished Hufflepuff alumnus.

Caryl Churchill
“What’s poetry? It’s not real but maybe it’s more than real. It’s dreaming while you’re awake.”

Sorting Hat Marissa: Another candidate for Greatest Living British Playwright, and another Ravenclaw, though of a less flashy variety than Stoppard. Her plays are coolly perceptive and draw inspiration from a wide range of sources; while they often deal with political themes and reflect her socialist and feminist beliefs, they do not feel polemical (as a Gryffindor’s plays might be). Her work has also gotten more, rather than less, experimental over the years, testifying to her Ravenclaw creativity and questing intelligence. Churchill shuns publicity and does not grant interviews, preferring to let her plays and their ideas speak for themselves – a very Ravenclaw thing to do.

Will Eno
“I think we’re born with questions, and the world is the answer.”
Sarah Ruhl
“This is what it is to love an artist: The moon is always rising above your house.”

Sorting Hat Ashley: I’m linking Eno and Ruhl on this thought bubble because I feel like they share some similarities in their House placements and I go back and forth between sorting both of them in either Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw. I think I’ve landed on Will Eno being a Ravenclaw (who probably marries a Hufflepuff) and Sarah Ruhl as a Hufflepuff with an endless stream of Ravenclaw crushes. Eno writes (and writes) questioning our roles and our humanity while forever swimming in this sea of existential thought and meaningful observations. And Ruhl’s writing often plays like a dreamy poem. Her work seeks to explore love’s communication style and it’s impact on relationships. If Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff had a love child House, I think these two would be in it. But for now, Eno’s wearing a Ravenclaw hoodie and Ruhl’s decked out in cozy Hufflepuff knits.

Tony Kushner
“The work of artists is to find what’s humanly possible – possibility’s furthest reaches.”

Sorting Hat Marissa: A very smart guy who writes verbose and encyclopedic plays, so there is a temptation to put him in Ravenclaw, but look closer, and you’ll see that he’d do better in Gryffindor. The most memorable moments in Kushner’s plays often revolve around the key Gryffindor trait of bravery: think of Baz’s monologue in A Bright Room Called Day about how he lacked the courage to kill Hitler; or the epilogue of Caroline or Change, where Emmie describes how she and her friends vandalized a Confederate statue. Kushner also values the Gryffindor traits of hope and optimism: he once said “It is an ethical obligation to look for hope; it is an ethical obligation not to despair.” And writing a fantastical seven-hour drama that climaxes with the protagonist going to heaven and arguing with the angels to give him “more life”? You can’t get much more Gryffindor than that.

Tennessee Williams
“A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.”

Sorting Hat Ashley: My goodness, y’all. I thought about this placement for awhile. Like four coffees and two episodes of Fixer Upper on Netflix worth of thought. I texted friends and chatted to castmates over it. Because it seems like he could almost go anywhere and nowhere at the same time! Williams was gifted with a beautiful grasp of language but vowed to write honestly, once stating, “I only write about what I experience – intuitively or existentially”, which could be a Ravenclaw thought but also seems like a Hufflepuff promise. And while his characters populate Slytherin and Gryffindor, as a writer destined to tell the truth about social realities and humanity, I think I’m going to keep Williams in Hufflepuff!

That’s our start to this glorious conversation; fun, right?! And we’d love your thoughts! Marissa will be discussing a well known writer within the Slytherin House tomorrow but if you have a playwright you think needs to be sorted, let us know so we can keep this Hogwarts party going! See you tomorrow, fellow witches and wizards!

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: The Outré Trappings of Outrapo

Resident Francophile Marissa Skudlarek continues her exploration of the Parisian avant-garde.

Last Friday, a co-worker challenged me to see if I could have five adventures over the weekend. My calendar was otherwise open, and the weather was lovely, so I eagerly embraced the constraint. After all, my experience as a playwright has taught me that you often have more fun, and are more creative, when you have a challenge or limitation to live up to. I’ve written before that “the blank page can be daunting” and I still believe that’s true. “Live life to the fullest” is an impossibly abstract maxim. “Have five adventures this weekend” is pleasantly concrete and tangible.

(And if you’re a playwright who agrees with me about the value of a challenge, why not write a play that follows the constraints for Theater Pub’s 2015 Pint-Sized Plays festival, and submit it before May 15? Full guidelines here.)

I ended up having four adventures this weekend. At least, I think I did. Because when you start counting your adventures, you also start making philosophical distinctions, asking ontological questions about the nature of adventure. If I rent a bike to go tooling around Golden Gate Park, and my phone flies out of my back pocket and pops out of its case when I coast down a hill (my phone’s fine, don’t worry), and I become so tired trying to pedal back up said hill that I get off the bike and walk it back to the rental shop, is that three small adventures, or one big one?

So constraints make you creative and philosophical and self-aware, which is to say, they make you feel rather French. Maybe that’s why the artistic movement that explores how art can be produced under various types of whimsical constraints started in Paris. Circa 1960, a group of French experimental writers formed the Oulipo (“Ouvroir de littérature potentielle,” or Workshop of Potential Literature). Oulipo writers have composed 300-page novels without the letter e and sequences of sonnets whose lines can be interchanged with one another. Artists in other fields then started to get in on the action, founding their own workshops. The workshop that deals with theater is known as the Outrapo, which stands for Workshop of Potential Tragicomedy. It’s a great name because it sounds like “outré” (Oulipians adore puns) and because the word “tragicomedy” is less neutral than a word like “drama” or “theater.” “Tragicomedy” evokes emotions, highs and lows, grandeur and farce, in a way that appeals to me very much. (Not to toot my own horn, but sobbing in an alley after a postmodern vaudeville show strikes me as very Outrapian.)

As soon as I heard about Oulipo and Outrapo, as a high-school student under the influence of an English teacher who loved everything “postmodern” and “meta,” I was intrigued. However, there’s not too much about these movements – Outrapo in particular – online, and the best sources seem to be in French, which I did not start studying till college. And not just any French: pataphysical French. Oulipians have their own calendars, codes, shibboleths, patron saints, heresies, and orthodoxies. Their overriding philosophy is called “pataphysics,” defined as “what comes after metaphysics.” (Don’t worry, I don’t quite get it either.)

For an example of pataphysical humor, here’s my translation of the opening text on the Outrapo website: “Stanley Chapman committed the gesture of dying, 9 Shritt 136 (May 26, 2009). Exit. Applause. Curtain. It was on Stanley Chapman’s initiative, thanks to his pataphysical spirit, his passion for theater, and his vital poetry, that the workshop was founded in London with Cosima Schmetterling and Milie von Bariter. Then Jean-Pierre Poisson, Anne Feillet, Félix Pruvost and Sir Tom Stoppard quickly joined the group. Stanley Chapman is therefore now excused from meetings and public presentations.”

Anyway, when I was studying in Paris in 2007, I was poking around the Outrapo website one night, and saw that the address of their headquarters was not far from the university where I went every Wednesday to take a course on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and not far from my favorite bistro. (Le Petit Cardinal, right by the Cardinal Lemoine metro stop. You can feel the trains rumble beneath your feet as you eat. I highly recommend it.) Instantly, I resolved to try to meet the Outrapians when I was next in the neighborhood. I had wanted to connect with French theater-makers when I was abroad, and what better group of theater-makers than these? I also thought that this could be a potential (no pun intended) way for me to achieve my life goal of meeting Tom Stoppard.

That Wednesday, I visited the building, which looked like an ordinary Parisian apartment house. There were no indications that pataphysical activity was taking place there. Nonetheless, I was undaunted. I waited for someone to come out of the building, slipped in the open door, went up the stairs, found the apartment in question, screwed up my courage, knocked… and received no response. So I sat on the narrow little staircase, ripped a page out of my cahier, and in my best schoolgirl French, wrote a brief letter to Milie von Bariter, the leader of Outrapo. This is the part of the adventure that embarrasses me the most in hindsight. I should have written a bizarre Outrapian letter, not a polite schoolgirl one. How the Outrapians must have laughed when they received my earnest missive! Yet perhaps, in its very absurdity, my letter fulfilled the Outrapian spirit. I slipped the letter under the door, then slipped out of the building.

In retrospect, I cannot believe my daring. Sneaking around apartment houses, trespassing where I should not have been! I think, too, about how I assumed that my privilege as a young white girl would protect me. It was unlikely that anyone would stop and question me; and even if they had, I could probably have gotten away with a white lie (e.g. “I am visiting a friend”). Even telling the truth (“I am a playwright trying to get in touch with Outrapo”) might’ve been OK. One likes to think that the French have such reverence for art and literature that even the gendarmerie couldn’t argue with such an excuse. Maybe they’d think I was weird, but they wouldn’t think I was dangerous or criminal.

I had provided my email address in my letter to von Bariter, and that evening, I did receive a response from him. He thanked me for the letter and I think there was some brief talk of meeting up for coffee, but that never came to anything. I didn’t want to bother him again. My courage started to fail me. The adventure petered out.

I’ve been thinking about Outrapo lately, not only because my attempt to get in touch with the movement is one of the most adventurous things I’ve ever done, but also because the show that we’re producing at Theater Pub come Monday sounds rather Outrapian. According to the blurb on our website, Steven and Megan in Megan and Steven Present a World Premiere by Steven and Megan deals with the nature of constraint. Steven Westdahl and Megan Cohen will be repeatedly presenting a new 5-minute play, while simultaneously adding more and more elements (props, costumes, blocking) and chugging booze. As the constraints get tougher, their minds will get foggier. And what could be more adventurous, what could be more pataphysical, than that?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, producer, and arts writer. She’s wonderign if we should start a branch of Outrapo in the Bay Area. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Theater Around The Bay: Keep The Ghost Light On

Stuart Bousel, fading in and out of view. In your mirror. At night. When you say his name.

So, I was gonna do this whole collection of personal ghost stories related to the theater for today’s blog… but only two people got back to me and only one got back with a personal experience, so that idea kind of died. I will, however, publish Claire Rice’s contribution, partly because it’s cool, and partly because it really thematically ties in since Claire recently left the San Francisco Theater Pub, so this is kind of like the ghost of Claire speaking to us from another world.

The rehearsal room/dance room at Eastern New Mexico University is haunted. Students used to send each other in there alone in the dark to freak each other out. A full instructional skeleton hung on a pole that could be moved around the room and was often a source of fun and silly frightening games. One night some of us told each other “La Llorona” tales in front of the big mirrors in the dark and then dared each other to really look into their mirrored darkness. The skeleton caught whatever light was left in the room and glowed eerily in the corner back at us. We all focused on it and merrily screamed and ran out of the room. But there were stories of the stereo or the television turning themselves off and on. Of the doors closing suddenly and forcefully by themselves. Of odd drafts whispering in from nowhere in particular. One night, late after rehearsal, I went in to close up the room. I was alone in the building. I turned off the light and, just as I was about to close the door, I saw a prop left in a far corner under the skeleton. I turned the light back on and crossed the room. I picked up the prop and turned back around and saw a reflection of someone else in the mirror near the door where I had just been. I looked at the door and there was no one. I looked back in the mirror and there was no one. I never went into that room alone again.

One of the things that I have always found fascinating is just how superstitious theater people are. We don’t all have the same superstitions, but I’ve never met a theater person who hasn’t, over time, acquired a bunch of rituals and charms, even if they walked in claiming (usually pretty loudly) that such things were nonsense. I can’t say for sure if it’s the live/anything can happen element of theater combined with the unusually high number of Type-A/control freak personalities that tend to do theater, or the part where we generally experience more rejection than acceptance in our line of work, but either would naturally predispose us to a tacit reverence for the weird and a desire for the mystical. Show me an actor or producer or director or writer who doesn’t have a lucky warm up song or opening night underwear or a thing they say to the mirror in their dressing room (or never say) or closing night tradition or whatever and I will show you the phone number of the agency you called to hire that fake actor/producer/writer/director, who will then reveal, because they are an actor/producer/writer/director, all of their superstitions. For better or worse, we have always been a people uniquely sensitive to Luck and the role Luck plays in the world and it’s because we know how quickly awesome can turn to crap- or crap to awesome. And we also know how much we really can and can’t control that.

The complication is that belief in Luck (or really, an awareness of Chance) tends to also indicate both a creative mind and an active imagination. Combine that with the part where we spend our lives convincing ourselves the Audience is Listening and after a while that can absolutely lead to a vague but constant feeling of always being watched. Additionally, we masquerade as other people and thus are acutely aware of how everyone else, theater person or not, is a masquerade to one extent or another, thus leading to a general perspective of “nothing is as it seems” and “everything is a sign/clue”. Lying, embellishment, fantasy weaving, and just being flat out delusional run rampant in the theater community and thank God because it generally makes for much better storytelling but sometimes it can even be hard for US to know where the illusion ends and the truth begins. Assuming there is such a thing as “the Truth”. The older I get, the more I understand why artists tend to be more interested in being “true” than “truthful.” Being true is about fully buying into the world around you both as it is but also as it could be or should be; being truthful is generally boring or disappointing, really only matters in life and death situations, and frequently requires one to be self-righteous in a way that doesn’t allow for much compassion or understanding- which is sort of the antithesis of good storytelling. Sure, we’d probably cut down on the drama if we were more truthful, but it would probably be at the cost of the Drama.

None of which should have anything to do with the long-standing tradition of theaters and rehearsal spaces being haunted, but then again, if this is the general psychology of the people spending their lives there- how could they not be? Particularly if you subscribe to the idea that ghosts are not so much the spirits of the dead, as residual energy left from profound, violent, or devastating occurrences. Aside from hospitals and prisons, it’s hard to think of a building that could match a theater when it comes to the number of arguments, passions, revelations, disappointments, and ecstasies having occurred within its walls, not to mention all the secrets, gossip, thwarted schemes, scandals and triumphs- practically a gothic novel behind each curtain. And while the death and violence of theater is rarely for real, the constant re-enactment of terrible things, and the frequent invocation of terrible people, is bound to be feeding the atmosphere if not the energy of whatever beings or memories become trapped behind the backdrops. As someone who subscribes to the belief that joy can be just as disturbing (and therefore residual) as pain, all the comedies and romances only contribute to the haunting of a theater, something I find comforting as I’d like to believe that love and laughter leave just as much of an impression as violence and fear. Either way, if you’ve never walked around a theater late at night, locking up, checking the bathrooms, I suggest it if only for the creepy/comforting sensation that you are not alone, no matter how much your footsteps echo. In fact, the more they echo the more you become aware of how they shouldn’t, because normally there is so much going on you would never have heard them and it is that sudden and obscene absence of furor that triggers sensations by turn nostalgic, bittersweet, melancholy, and unsettling. The quiet of a theater is not a comforting quiet because it is not natural, and for that matter neither is the darkness of a theater: both are the result of extensive steps to sound and light proof spaces, expressly to focus your attention on what’s happening in the theater. And it’s when nothing is happening that the sensation we call “haunting” tends to hit us most powerfully. Which is why nobody likes to linger in the theater once The Ghost Light is on and everything else is shut off.

And yes, I know the pragmatic reason for the existence of The Ghost Light is to keep people from falling off the stage when wandering in the absolute pitch dark of a vacant theater trying to find the light switches, but come on: we called it “The Ghost Light.” I mean, we could have called it a “The Service Light” or “The Stagehand’s Guide” or “The Blue Light” or any number of unromantic things (apparently at some point there was an attempt to call it “The Equity Light”) but we called it (and continue to call it) a Ghost Light for one reason and one reason only: because we are fundamentally romantic creatures and it tickles us to think we have somewhere to go when we die and it’ll probably be a theater full of our friends putting on all our favorite shows, only this time nobody fucks up their lines, the person you’re secretly sleeping with doesn’t freak out mid-run, and nobody is worried about making rent at the end of the run. Also because secretly we all know that any theater that’s seen at least one generation of theater artists pass through it is saturated in ghosts and if you didn’t leave that light on they would probably burn the place down in your absence- or perhaps in the middle of your show. If they’re actors, it’s definitely going to be the later. Actors know all about the importance of timing.

Luckily, theater ghosts seem to be primarily benign, and are usually fans or artists who haven’t moved on because they love a life in the theater so much. As proof I offer this tidbit sent to me by Christian Simonsen, who emailed it when he heard I was looking for theater ghost stories:

One of the most talked about haunted theaters in the United States is the Bristol Opera House in Bristol, Indiana. Built in 1896, it is currently managed by the Elkhart Civic Theatre Company. Over its century-long history, this building has managed to collect three ghosts, which actors and stage crew have assigned names to. There is a little girl (“Beth”), who has been seen peeking out of the stage left curtain, as if counting the number of filled seats. A handyman (“Percival”) has frequently been spotted by the women’s dressingroom, and has been known to tug on actors’ costumes right when they make an entrance. The third ghost is a middle-aged woman (“Helen”), a “protective presence” that is often simply “felt”. Unlike the other two spirits, it is quite rare for Helen to actually be seen. Apparently, even in the afterlife, theaters are unwilling to give a woman over forty any decent amount of stage time.

At the end of my play PASTORELLA, which just closed on Saturday, there is a little moment when the lead male character, Warren, shares with the female lead, Gwen, his own bit of superstition, and this seems like a good place to end because last night, ducking into the EXIT Theatre, I experienced one of those sensations that is, for me, the quintessential haunting of the theater maker. My play is a slice of life tragicomedy that works best if viewed as a direct look into the backstage ups and downs of a small theater company (as opposed to a traditional backstage comedy, which is usually actually about the onstage ups and downs of a production). The play is unrepentantly nostalgic, bittersweet, melancholy, and unsettling, and that’s appropriate because it’s largely based on my life and experience in the small theater, perhaps the most personal thing I have ever put on stage, and as a result filled with memories and masks and terrible people and events, passions and schemes and delusional episodes, revelations, dopplegangers, missing people and… ghosts. Ghosts everywhere. Ghosts with monologues and ghosts in the props and ghosts in the costumes and ghosts in the transition music and ghosts in the words and ghosts in the blocking and ghosts in the rawness and artifice alike, right down to the part where the play in a play the company is doing is Tom Stoppard’s ARCADIA- a play about ghosts, code, and the inescapable past. Many of the people who loved the show the most were part of the small theater community and it was always wonderful and disturbing to talk to them afterwards and hear them share their own memories, their own versions of the play’s events and characters, all of which seemed familiar- too familiar in some cases. Encountering a ghost usually results in a mix of sorrow and fear: sorrow for what was lost, fear that the past isn’t done with us yet. Warren, actor and director, small theater champion to a fault, sums it up best when he looks at the empty dressing room and says, “This place always freaks me out when it’s this clean” and because it’s a spooky truism of theater that the show you’re working on always seems to permeate your life and turn everything symbolic it makes perfect sense that, while ducking into the theater last night to retrieve a mirror that was used in PASTORELLA, out of the corner of my eye I saw Justin Gillman, the actor who had played Warren, standing in the wings of the stage. Of course, that’s because he’s there rehearsing another show (Bigger Than A Breadbox’s BLOOD WEDDING), but for one whole second I had the terrifying thought that I had somehow forgotten we had a show that night. And then the sad sensation of knowing that the show was gone.

WARREN: Well, here the new life begineth.
GWEN: What?
WARREN: Forster quote. E. M. Forster. You might not know who he is because he never wrote any plays.
GWEN: I know who E.M. Forster is. I read real books too, not just scripts.
WARREN: Well we got that in common. (beat) It’s what I say whenever I stand in a room I need to expel demons from so that tomorrow I can walk into said room as if I hadn’t had my heart broken into a billion pieces there. This room, however, probably needs a full on exorcism. Typical.

Sleep well. Happy Halloween.

Stuart Bousel is a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. You can find out more about him and his work at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.