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!

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Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Angels in an American Election Year

Marissa Skudlarek, on politics, history, and Angels In America.

One way you can tell a play is great is by how frequently other things remind you of it. And over the past year, I’ve been reminded of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America numerous times. When the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage is legal across the land, I thought of Prior Walter’s affirmation in the last scene of Angels: “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.” More recently, when I read that Roy Cohn was one of Donald Trump’s political mentors, I knew just why that’s so scary: Cohn was an unrepentant McCarthyite, a power-hungry liar, and, in Angels, one of the great stage villains of modern times. And last Friday, when Hillary Clinton made her gaffe about how the Reagans had “started a national conversation on AIDS,” I thought of Angels’ depiction of AIDS in the ‘80s, and how this play has educated me about an era that I am too young to remember.

This year also marks the silver anniversary of Angels: the world premiere of Millennium Approaches and the first public staged reading of Perestroika took place at San Francisco’s own Eureka Theater in May 1991. So how has the play aged, and what it’s like to perform it in our current political climate? As it happens, Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette is just finishing up an ambitious production of Angels – they produced Millennium Approaches around this time last year, then brought the whole cast back for Perestroika this year. My friend Alan Coyne is playing Joe Pitt in that production, and he, two of his castmates, and director Joel Roster agreed to talk with me by email. They all provided incredibly beautiful and thoughtful responses that I almost feel sad to have had to edit for length – which just goes to testify to the complexity and enduring power of Kushner’s play.

Marissa: What’s it like performing this big, complicated, American play during a contentious election year? Have the past year’s events shaped the way that you approach Perestroika?

Kerri Shawn (Hannah Pitt): The past year’s events have deepened this experience for me and everything about this journey has become even more meaningful and important. I do not usually talk about my political views openly. I listen a lot and pay attention to everything but I do not get into heated discussions or debates about the news. However, I have loved being with this particular group of artists during this time. We have had some wonderful discussions in the dressing room about all of the political issues the play brings up. I have also felt the audience’s reaction to our production has deepened because of current events, especially everything going on with the election.

Alan Coyne (Joe Pitt): The lead-up to the same-sex marriage ruling was a huge part of our lives during Millennium Approaches. I think we were pretty confident it was about to happen, so it made Prior’s assertions of his rights and the general theme of progress seem all the more prophetic. But of course, we still weren’t quite there, and there was some anxiety that it might not get through. Millennium Approaches demonstrates with painful clarity what happens when you deny same-sex couples their human rights: Louis’ secretive behavior with Prior at his grandmother’s funeral; the lack of official sanction for their relationship; Joe and Harper’s terribly damaging relationship, in part due to marriage between a man and a woman being the only available option. So it felt like we were fighting, in a small way, on the right side in that struggle.

Joel Roster (director): The music that permeates our soundtrack for both parts of Angels is from the late 1960s–a contentious, blood-sweat-and-tears time in our nation’s history, smack dab in the heart of civil rights and war. The reason for this (as opposed to using music from the 1980s) is that history does repeat itself for those who fail to acknowledge or learn from it. When a prominent Presidential candidate is fanning racial hatred and prejudice, there’s never been a more important time to learn from our own history. I wouldn’t say that today’s events have shaped our approach to the piece, but we’d be foolish not to acknowledge the startling similarities.

Alan: With Perestroika, Donald Trump has come up a lot in our dressing-room conversations. I first found out his ties to Roy Cohn right before we started rehearsal for Perestroika, from the epic Funny Or Die version of Art of the Deal, starring Johnny Depp. I highly recommend everyone watch it, because it is (horrifyingly) one of the few accurate and detailed accounts of Trump’s rise to power. We’ve made a point of bringing up Trump’s relationship to Cohn at every talkback, because once you know about it, it is terrifyingly obvious.

LaMont Ridgell (Belize): Our marvelous dramaturge Meg Honey helped us put the show and our characters in perspective by revealing to us what was actually happening during the time of the play, politically and historically. I believe the current election proceedings, make the play even more relevant — most, if not all of the themes are still true today. I was very disappointed in Hillary’s comments regarding Nancy Reagan – and while she apologized twice, she said very little about the Reagans and their indirect and sometimes direct responsibility for so many men and women dying of AIDS. They simply did nothing.

Alan: There was definitely a different energy on the night after Hillary Clinton’s comments at Nancy Reagan’s funeral, more anger in our performance. Perhaps it made us feel that what we were doing was more important, that people were starting to forget what it was like in the ‘80s, the silence that cost so many people their lives.

Marissa: Has the audience reaction been different this year, compared to last year?

LaMont: This year’s audience has been with us for the long haul, so after the time they invested in getting to know the characters and their stories, they get a huge payoff with Part 2. And the stories are very real… not wrapped up neatly with a nice, shiny bow. Also, in Part 2, you’re witness to more characters. Belize and Hannah aren’t as prominent in Part 1, but in Part 2, their characters are fleshed out more.

Joel: There’s a lot more laughter. Kushner stated that he framed Millennium Approaches as a tragedy and Perestroika more as a comedy. For a play where AIDS is such a prominent focus, only one character dies: the villain of the piece. I always think of it as one play, as does the cast, but the reaction has mostly been “I liked this even more than Part One.” Part One is mostly tragic exposition and set-up for the explosion that is Part Two, and I think that Part Two is far more hopeful; perhaps that’s why it’s been received even better than Part One has been. Millennium Approaches was the best-reviewed play in Town Hall’s history, but that was shattered this year by the overwhelming critical response to Perestroika.

Alan: I think we’ve had bigger crowds this year. This could be due to a number of factors; it seemed like a couple of people who came to Millennium Approaches last year didn’t know what to expect (I think they thought it was a nice play about angels like It’s a Wonderful Life, which Jerry Motta & I were in at Town Hall the previous December). Also, the first part gets done a lot more often (though that’s not doing the play justice at all!), so perhaps folks have come to see Perestroika because they haven’t had a chance to see it before. Millennium Approaches won a few Shellie Awards, including Best Production, so that could have had an effect. And perhaps the same-sex marriage ruling made more straight people realize that “gay theater” is actually the same thing as, you know, theater.

Kerri: So many audience members came last year and are now returning. Often they tell us that they enjoyed Perestroika in a deeper way and that they’ve loved seeing how the story resolves. Many companies only do Millennium but is clear after this experience that the two need to be done together. Both parts are brilliantly written! It is a very powerful story – and it still needs to be told!

Marissa: Are there any lines in the play that particularly stick out for you as having relevance to our current historical moment?

Alan: Everything Roy Cohn says sounds like Donald Trump, only smarter. His racist provocations, his absurd boastful posturing, his dismissal of “losers,” his gloating at being the “dragon sitting atop the golden horde.” In Perestroika he says “Half the time I just make it up, and it still turns out to be true” and “You feel bad that you beat somebody…everybody could use a good beating.” So it’s no surprise that Cohn was Trump’s mentor; the big surprise is that Kushner literally forgives Cohn. Of course, it’s easier to forgive the dead. But the best lines are the universal ones, because ultimately, Angels in America is a universal story. People frequently write it off as a “play about AIDS,” which is rather like calling Hamlet a “play about 12th-century Danish politics.” It’s hugely important that the ‘80s AIDS crisis is the setting, but this play is about so much more: love, loss, abandonment, hope, theology, progress, forgiveness… you know, Life. At the end of the play, when Prior addresses the audience — “You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life” — it hits. Every single time. But you have to live through it all for the magic to work.

Joel: In Prior’s final monologue, he also says “We will not die secret deaths anymore. We will be citizens. The time has come. The world only spins forward.” That sticks with me a lot, as does Belize’s diatribe about the state of America: “I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing sounds less like freedom to me.” The fact that in Part One Louis says that “Justice is God” and then we learn in Part Two that God has abandoned us, abandoned heaven and the angels… it says a great deal about where we are in America.

LaMont: Prior’s closing monologue and my (Belize’s) “I hate America” monologue, definitely. When I’m asking Louis to bless Roy: “It’s not easy… it doesn’t count if it’s easy. It’s the hardest thing. Forgiveness.” And my line regarding the angel’s visit: “That’s malevolent. Some of us didn’t exactly CHOOSE to migrate! You know what I’m sayin’?” Overall, it’s been kinda weird playing Belize because I’ve been him. More times than not feeling “trapped in a world of white people!” — so to speak.

Kerri: Prior’s speeches in both the Angels Council scene and at Bethesda will stay with me long after the play closes. In the council scene he says: “But still, bless me anyway. I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do… We live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough, so inadequate but… Bless me anyway. I want more life.” I have been acting for over 40 years and have had the privilege of working on the stories of many great playwrights including O’Neill, Williams, Miller, and Shakespeare. This is my first experience with Tony Kushner and I will forever be grateful for this profound experience of being a part of both Millennium and Perestroika. I am a better person for having worked on this project with this group of wonderfully talented artists. I feel so fortunate for the whole of it!

Marissa: This question is specifically for Alan: I know you were born in Ireland and came to this country with your family as a child, and now, you’re playing what seems to be the most stereotypically “All-American” character in a great American play. Do you have any thoughts about what it’s like to act in a quintessentially American play while being an immigrant to this country? Or is being an immigrant the most quintessentially American experience of all — and am I coming off as some kind of awful nativist Trump supporter for even asking you this question?

Alan: Well, as I mentioned, this is not so much an American play as a universal one. It begins with an immigrant, the rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, saying “You do not live in America… no such place exists.” Migration is a significant theme throughout the work; Joe says “I migrated across the breadth of the continent of North America, I ran all this way to get away.” And in Millennium Approaches, I got to play an ancestor of Prior’s from Yorkshire, which is where my father was born, and therefore a dialect I am very comfortable with (more so than Irish, actually). So my immigrant status has been an asset, if anything.

Joe may seem “all-American,” but as a Utah Mormon who has become a lawyer in New York City, he is an alien, an outsider. Roy points it out in their very first scene in Millennium; Louis repeatedly remarks on how strange it is; Prior and Belize gawp at him like he’s an exotic animal. More than that, as a gay Mormon, he’s a secret alien; in Millennium Approaches, he confesses to Roy, “I never stood out, on the outside, but inside, it was hard for me. To pass.” Similarly, my immigrant status is only visible because I insist on it. After living here for nearly 30 years, I don’t have an accent. And because I’m white, Americans only know I’m foreign because I keep telling them so. Unlike Joe, I don’t need to hide it; it’s infinitely easier to be Irish in the Bay Area today than it is to be a gay Mormon in the ‘80s. But perhaps my secret struggle is confronting how American I have actually become.

Marissa: I hope you’re still Irish enough that I can wish you a Happy St. Patrick’s Day today! Thank you so much, Alan, Joel, Kerri and LaMont for sharing your thoughts about the “great work” of performing Angels. Break legs this weekend!

The TBA-recommended production of Angels in America: Perestroika is in its final week of performances at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette. Visit http://www.townhalltheatre.com/main-stage-performances/angels-in-america-perestroika for more information.

In For a Penny: Speaking My Language

Charles Lewis III, with thoughts on writing and voice.

August Wilson writing CAPTION: via The Goodman Theatre

August Wilson writing
CAPTION: via The Goodman Theatre

“I have to confess that I’m not a big movie person; I don’t go to a lot of films and I don’t know very much about the history of stage-to-film adaptations. [..] The way I see it, the stage tells the story for the ear, and the screen for the eye.”
– August Wilson, 2002 interview with John C. Tibbets for Hallmark

I recall Tom Hanks appearing on Inside the Actor’s Studio many, many moons ago and giving a pretty good Q&A with the students gathered. When one asked what it’s like to work in so many different mediums, his response was something akin to “Film is a director’s medium, television is a producer’s medium, the stage is the actor’s medium.” As I write this, I’m having a hard time finding a clip of it and am basing that quote on memory, so please forgive me if I’ve misquoted.

Still, I get what that quote is going for, even if I don’t entirely agree: the former two speak of who wields artistic control over their medium, which is not what I’d call the actor’s role in theatre. Perhaps if he added literature, he’d have said the author, but writing a play is very much a form of literature and the preservation of the playwright’s voice is a priority. In film, the author’s voice is secondary (or twenty-secondary) to an appealing visual; in theatre, the voice informs the visuals.

So when I heard that August Wilson’s Fences – a play I revere by an author I admire – was finally getting a film adaptation, my interest was piqued. When I read that it would be directed by, and most likely star, Denzel Washington, my heart raced. (And just in time for Black History Month!) When I read that the screenplay would be written by Tony Kushner… I tilted my head and raised an eyebrow.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Kushner as much as the next theatre aficionado and think he’s written two fine screenplays – Munich and Lincoln – for Steven Spielberg. But those were historical events adapted into Kushner’s own voice, something he does all the time. How is he at adapting the voice of another author, let alone one as linguistically distinct as August Wilson?

Similar to Wilson in the quote above, I had only a passing knowledge plays adapted for film: I knew of many plays adapted by their playwrights for film (Prelude to a Kiss, A Streetcar Named Desire, Tape); playwrights who tried writing original screenplays (Girl 6 by Suzan-Lori Parks, The Object of My Affection by Wendy Wasserstein), and the countless adaptations of Shakespeare, Greek drama, and so on. Yet I didn’t know much about the history of playwrights adapting OTHER playwrights for film (minus the Shakespeare, et al). I just figured that a playwright would be so protective of their work that one living during the film era would be sensitive about a colleague/rival taking their work to an unfamiliar arena.

With this in mind, I decided to research this specific history. I immediately eliminated all films that fell into any of the three categories above and set a rule that the play and playwright HAD TO have existed during the film era, thus creating the possibility for the playwright to have seen it. Just compiling the list was an eye-opening that I couldn’t even complete by the time I wrote this.

It revealed some interesting experiments, some of which I was already aware (Mamet’s adaptation of The Winslow Boy, Harold Pinter’s screenplay for Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth), but many for which I wasn’t (Dorothy Parker writing Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, Hellman’s own adaptation of The Dark Angel). After looking over this still-incomplete list, I asked myself – regardless of the quality of the film itself – how well the playwright’s voice had been preserved, for better or worse. “How does this work as an adaptation?”

In some cases, the stage story (which will often be so long as to necessitate an intermission) was streamlined well for the shorter running time of a film, such as with John Logan’s adaptation of Sweeney Todd and Jay Allen’s screenplay for Cabaret. But there were a few cases in which the adapting playwright/screenwriter missed the point of the original work altogether, such as Tyler Perry’s screen version of For Colored Girls… and Jean-Paul Sartre’s screenplay for The Crucible. Again, regardless of how these films may act on their own merits, they represent what every author fears when they turn their work over to another. Of course, August Wilson is no longer around to express such concerns.

Which brings me to elephant in the room: there’s a natural concern Black people have when a White artist attempts to recreate Black voices or a White artist filters Black voices through their own point-of-view. I’m reminded of that scene from Spike Lee’s Girl 6 (again, an original screenplay by Pulitzer-winner Suzan-Lori Parks) in which hotshot White film director “QT” (played by Quentin Tarantino himself) condescendingly speaks down to the Black actress he’s auditioning. He boasts that he’s creating “the greatest African-American movie ever made… told from my perspective”. Given Tarantino’s history of tone-deaf recreations of specific non-White-male groups (including the early-20s women of Death Proof), it’s a surprisingly meta moment.

I wonder if Parks conceived that scene herself, or at Lee’s suggestion? Norman Jewison frequently recalls the years he attempted to make a film about Malcolm X with a screenplay by David Mamet. When Jewison felt he wasn’t hitting the mark, he asked Lee – then fresh off directing Do the Right Thing – for his opinion. Lee told him rather bluntly that Jewison was “telling the story a White man would tell”. Eventually Jewison dropped off the project and Lee took over.

It doesn’t mean that a White man should never adapt a non-WM male voice (or vice versa), it just means that those who are NOT White males have earned the right to be cautious whenever it does happen. If you hadn’t noticed, we have a bit of a bad history with that sort of thing.

Tony Kushner writing CAPTION: via PBS

Tony Kushner writing
CAPTION: via PBS

I’m very much a fan of Kushner and love that he’s doing this as a collaboration with Denzel Washington. I love that they’re working from Wilson’s own screenplay and believe that “[t]hey want to use everything Wilson has done. They want to use all of his words.”

And yet, as a theatre artist and film-lover (ethnicity aside for a moment), I wonder why an author with such a distinct voice would even bother with an adaptation if it’s only to preserve the original voice? I could only imagine what would happen if he ignored it, but it would still intrigue me as a Kushner experiment. Kushner is a great writer, but in a Tony Kushner way, not an August Wilson way.

When news of the collaboration broke, playwright Lynn Nottage took to her Twitter page to express skepticism similar to my own. She eventually deleted those tweets and wrote “#Replacejudgementwithcuriosity I’m enormously excited [..] Beauty must flourish”. I guess that’s the best any of us can hope for.

Charles Lewis III considers one of his proudest theatre accomplishments to be working with actors who worked with August Wilson.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: The Practical Magic of Props

Marissa Skudlarek, giving props to props.

Making theater means spending your life creating and re-creating other worlds onstage. Some of the tools we use to create these other worlds are abstract – language, gesture, spatial relationships. But there’s also a whole heap of tangible stuff that becomes part of the world of the play: sets, lighting, costumes, props. These items need to be carefully considered, and obtained, and maintained. October 2015 is Design Month on the Theater Pub blog, so, to kick things off, I asked friends and members of the community to share their favorite stories about props.

Playwrights have vivid imaginations, which means that scripts can sometimes require weirdly specific props. If a prop is mentioned in the stage directions but not the dialogue, you might be able to do without it, but if the characters discuss it, you’re probably on the hook for including it.

The Desk Set requires a plush rabbit that can conceal a bottle of champagne. In the production I was in this summer, we substituted a rabbit hand puppet, but it still caused some problems during a dress rehearsal.

Other shows require people to get more artsy-craftsy. Claudine Jones shared the following story on Facebook: “The plot of Angel Street literally hinges on a brooch that contains hidden jewels. The description in the script is so vivid, it’s almost impossible to fake. I set out to make a brooch that fit all these requirements: small enough to wear as an article of jewelry, easy to open and close, and able to hide “jewels” that are big enough to be recognized as such by the audience. A couple of weeks of trial and error, bizarre prototypes that went straight into the trash, and I finally succeeded. The main component was an old tuna fish can, painted gold, with a pin epoxied on the back and an overlapping series of metal triangles that formed a kind of iris that opened and closed. The “jewels”? 3mm ruby Swarovski crystals that shone like crazy. I think the playwright would have approved.”

 Oh, Tony Kushner and your weirdly specific, metaphorical props. Photo by Dale Ratner.

Oh, Tony Kushner and your weirdly specific, metaphorical props. Photo by Dale Ratner.

The play Slavs requires a Russian-style icon of St. Sergius of Radonezh with the face of Lenin. When Dale Ratner directed this play in graduate school, he commissioned someone to paint the icon on salvaged wood – and still has it in his living room. Alandra Hileman has a similar story from when she directed the short play Overtones, in which the characters discuss an “ugly but expensive” lamp. After searching in vain for a suitable 1910s-era lamp, Alandra “assembled this from a candlestick, a votive holder, and an LED tea light for like $5 total. It’s lived on our mantle since then because my mom thinks it’s adorable.”

Ugly but expensive? More like cute and $5! Photo by Alandra Hileman.

Ugly but expensive? More like cute and $5! Photo by Alandra Hileman.

Dale and Alandra aren’t the only people who’ve been known to take props home and use them as décor. For the last month or two of my freshman year of college, I lived with a stylized wrought-steel horse’s head hanging on the wall, because my roommate had been in a student production of Equus.

Theater is all about provoking emotion, and it can be either cathartic or harrowing to see something destroyed before your eyes. But what a nightmare it must cause for the props master! I’m thinking of plays like Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, where, at a climactic moment, the characters muss and dirty a pristine living room. Or, my friend Catherine Cusick shared the following story: “I did a play where a character pours a full bottle of vodka onto a MacBook laptop that we’ve seen working and being used for two hours onstage. My mom called me up out of nowhere during rehearsals asking if I still needed that. Turns out a neighbor had left a lookalike to the working laptop out on the side of her driveway. My mom walked right by and promptly swiped it.”

Speaking of finding props on the street… When I worked with director Katja Rivera on the production of my play Pleiades in summer 2014, I learned that she has what I call a “magpie superpower” – a preternatural ability to find cool and useful stuff on the sidewalks of Berkeley. This year, a record player that Katja found has starred in three productions in a row: Grey Gardens, at the Custom Made Theatre; The Desk Set, produced by No Nude Men; and The Real Thing, at Masquers Playhouse. You have to admit that’s a pretty snazzy resume – and such versatility too, going from the 1970s in the Hamptons to the 1950s in New York City to the 1980s in London without missing a beat! “Do I have an eye for talent, or what? I literally picked that baby up off the sidewalk, and he’s done three shows this year. Next stop Broadway!” Katja writes.

Katja’s record player got passed around between these three productions thanks to informal bartering and Katja’s generosity in loaning it out to friends. If a theater company maintains a proprietary stock of props and costumes, one can even more frequently see the same items appearing in multiple productions. Stuart Bousel recalls “a dress that appeared in five productions I directed in Tucson: a simple red ankle-length gown with a gathered bodice. It was made for a chorus member in Lysistrata, then used in the Oresteia, where it was worn by Clytemnestra. Then we used it in a comedy sketch about the Oresteia where it was worn by Cassandra, then in a production of Faust Part One, where it once again went back to the chorus, then a production of Salome, where it was worn by the Cappadocian (female in our version). I’m almost certain it was finally retired after that… but maybe not.”

In the first show I ever did in high school, I had a small role as a Russian noblewoman attending an opera, and got to wear a beautiful mink stole. I grew very attached to the stole and, later on in high school, basically insisted on wearing it again when I played Mrs. Luce in Little Shop of Horrors. It’s been over ten years, but in all likelihood, that stole is still being worn by teenage actresses at my high school. Though, if I’m honest with myself, I still think of it as “mine.”

Indeed, if you love a prop or a costume piece enough, you’ll find ways to keep reusing it. Catherine Cusick, again: “I worked with a theater in high school that made a papier-maché cow for a production of Into the Woods, but managed to slip it into any other show that could conceivably involve a cow on wheels.”

Marissa Skudlarek is a playwright, producer, and arts writer. She still wants a mink stole, especially now that it’s October. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Theater Around The Bay: Honor Their Mistakes

The INTO THE WOODS panel with Stuart Bousel, Brian Katz, Corinne Proctor, Marissa Skudlarek, Oren Stevens, and Nick Trengove continues. This week they tackle Giants, Witches, and Wolf penis.

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Okay, so last week we pretty firmly established one thing about this show: that we all more or less love it. So this week, let’s get a little harder on it for a moment and talk about it with a more critical eye, because as praised as the show often is, it’s also considered “problematic” or “flawed” by a considerable contingent of critics- including some of its most ardent supporters. What do you think are INTO THE WOODS’ “problems?”

Corinne: There are some significant flaws and inconsistencies in the storytelling. The two biggest problems in my view are: 1) the Baker’s arc doesn’t quite work. The idea that he begins the show as a coward/unsure is undermined by the fact that he’s ordering his wife to stay at home and to go home repeatedly. This feels awfully dominant for a character who is supposed to be reluctant and afraid before coming into his own and becoming “daring” and “sure”; 2) Rapunzel’s hair not being a functional ingredient in the spell because it has been touched by the Witch is seriously problematic for me. Actually, this is the number one cringe moment in the show for me. Apparently Lapine thought it was extremely important that there be a reason the witch doesn’t get the items herself, but for me that’s not a huge concern. In the land of fairytales witches order others to fetch items for them – that’s not something I need an explanation for. I’m willing to go with that as part of the ‘rules’ of fairytale land. But for me it makes ZERO sense that her hair isn’t a “real” ingredient and that it can just be substituted with the random ‘hair’ of the corn instead.

Brian: Oh Rapunzel, Rapunzel- why are you in this show? Okay, sure, the witch needed something to motivate her, and “Agony” would be boring if only sung by one prince, but she’s a plot point/sight-gag/sound-gag with a serious amount of hair that some poor props person has to deal with. Her death NEVER works, or I’ve never seen it solved, and we don’t really care about her, we care about her mother (if the witch is played well.) I’ve also now seen two productions where her death was so poorly staged I had to tell my companion it happened. Speaking of death, the off-stage giant battle just does not work. It’s not as bad as the jousting in Camelot, but it’s bad. The antagonist in the second act is a sound effect and the fight is narrated. It’s the main reason I am excited about the film: we finally get to see some epic giant fighting!

Oren: I think a lot of people find Into the Woods problematic because it can feel like two different shows. The first act is such a lighthearted review of all the stories we know, and then the second act is a dark and twisty assault on moral absolutism. I also think that some people are responding to the discomfort that the musical is supposed to make you feel. There’s something deeply unsettling about suspecting, whether it’s in the back of your mind or blatantly obvious, that maybe our hero Jack is a murderous larcenist, and maybe the monstrous giant actually has legitimate complaints. These stories are stones in the foundation of many people’s childhoods, and Into the Woods rattles that foundation. And just so I can be clear: Jack is a murderer, and he is a thief, and he is a dumb teenager who thought he was having an adventure, and in the court of the theater-going-public opinion, I think he should be tried as a minor. Personally, my only real problem is totally nitpicky: I love the song “Your Fault” to death, but it is ludicrous to blame Little Red for anything because she dared Jack to do it. You can feel how hard they’re reaching to find something to point the finger at her for, and it doesn’t quite work. I don’t think there aren’t any other tough spots in it, but my memory is that there isn’t anything a director can’t figure out somehow.

Marissa: Okay, this might seem really nitpicky, but it’s not: When Rapunzel says to the Witch, “You locked me in a tower for 14 years,” it sets up a backstory timeline that doesn’t make any sense. Rapunzel is the Baker’s younger sister, and the Witch stole her away as soon as she was born. The Baker doesn’t know any of this until he is an adult and the Witch tells him, which implies that he was a very small child when Rapunzel was born. (If he had been older, he’d surely remember his mother’s pregnancy, the Witch coming to the house and taking the baby, etc.) Now, it might be possible to portray Rapunzel as a 14-year-old (it makes her seduction by the Prince pretty icky, but also truer to Grimm reality) but it makes NO sense at all to think that the Baker is 16 or 18. He and his wife have been trying to have a baby for years. They have a successful business. They read as significantly older than Jack and Little Red. They are not teenagers — and thus, Rapunzel has to be older than 14. I really wish that Rapunzel’s line was something like “you locked me in a tower for years on end” instead of “for 14 years” so that we wouldn’t have to deal with this conundrum. Also… the second half of Act Two is sloooow — “No More,” followed by “No One Is Alone,” followed by “Children Will Listen,” is three ballads that are more about imparting lessons, than about advancing the plot or delineating character. It doesn’t help that often, the person who plays the Narrator/Mysterious Man is a character actor with a weak singing voice, which makes “No More” tedious rather than touching. I mean, I guess it makes a certain amount of sense that the show slows down at this point. The Narrator and the Witch (both outsider-figures who helped push the plot along) are dead or disappeared, so of course the remaining characters feel uncertain and lack direction. But “uncertainty and lack of direction” don’t make for a very exciting final half-hour of a musical.

Stuart: Ha- so, for the record, that’s kind of what I love the most about the second half. I agree, the Narrator and the Witch are two sides of the same coin: authority. Both are more or less the people in control or most desirous of being in control. Or as a friend of mine puts it, “They represent the best and worst aspects of both the patriarchy and the matriarchy” so when they’re gone the children (i.e. everyone else) are really alone in the woods. So then the story becomes about them finding direction, coming up with new things to be certain of themselves, and then bravely moving forward. Which to me is super exciting- both that moment of them moving forward, but watching that process of them finding their way back to the path. Most stories end on “happily ever after” or the opposite (“woefully never to be?”) but Into the Woods is about how life is an endless cycle of victories and tragedies, one often spurring the other. That said, while I have a soft spot for Rapunzel (as I said last week), I agree that she is woefully under-developed (even her nameless prince demonstrates more personality than her) and Corinne’s point about the hair not being a viable ingredient to the Act One potion doesn’t help make her feel as important as she actually really is. But she’s as colorful as Cleopatra compared to Cinderella’s Father… perhaps the most worthless role in a play ever written? I mean, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty only have one line but they’re at least a fun joke. Cinderella’s Father is like a character from a first draft they forgot to cut. Maybe that’s the point, that he’s completely obsolete, but talk about a character who is a prop… I mean, that’s just it- Milky White, the prop cow, is more of a presence than Cinderella’s Father.

Nick: Hmm… The show has a lot of characters, and a lot of subplots, so it can be hard to follow for audiences more interested in the current pop musical fare, but… I defy you to find a show with any amount of critical acclaim that is not also considered “problematic.” Personally, my qualms have always been production specific: bad prosthetic wolf penises, and I’ve never heard a voice-over for the Giantess voice that I didn’t think was super hokey. They always sound like overweight ghosts with reverb.

So going back to the stuff about the Narrator, and incorporating the discussion of the second act, which is often a target for criticism, both regarding its pace and tone, how do we feel about the Narrator, who sets so much of the pace and tone of Act One, as a device?

Corinne: The Narrator works really well for me. The show is about storytelling and how the stories we pass down to our children shape their lives, etc . The Narrator fits into that really well.

Oren: I’m not going to say the Narrator is itself a clever idea, so much as a crucial part of an idea that runs throughout the show. Into the Woods spends time setting up the traditional fairy tale narrative in act one, and then breaking it down in act two. The narrator being present and powerful, giving the story shape and direction in act one, and then being literally killed by the characters in act two as the fairy tale form breaks down really brings home the breakdown of structure and absolutes. We move from a world structured by story, to a world like our own — not structured at all. Also worth mentioning: I know I’m throwing back to high school, but the rule “show don’t tell” that Mrs. Lott-Pollack hammered into my head is still so apt. I never feel like the Narrator’s presence is used to tell us pieces of the story that should be shown, but instead used to rush us through the boring information so we can get to the juicy stuff. We don’t need Cinderella to tell us she’s coming home from the ball herself, we just need to see her geek out over the prince with the Baker’s Wife.

Marissa: The narrator of Into the Woods is one of the few narrators you will ever find me championing. I distinctly remember being in elementary school and assigned to create a skit with a group of other kids. One of them started off by asking “Okay, who’ll be the narrator?” and I was like “Why does there have to be a narrator?” I do think that often, the decision to have a narrator is a crutch or an unthinking choice — but I also feel like in this case, Sondheim and Lapine did think about it and figure out how to make it work. A narrator is a traditional component of fairy tale theater (“content dictates form” is one of Sondheim’s dicta) and then in Act Two, when the characters decide to kill the narrator and the story goes off the rails? That’s some pretty clever theatrical storytelling. I know that Pirandello was doing this kind of thing decades before Sondheim and Lapine, but Pirandello doesn’t get produced as frequently as Into the Woods, and I’m all for introducing young people to “meta” tricks and the idea of breaking the fourth wall.

Nick: I too love the Narrator. That little meta-moment when they kill him? Ach! The layers of significance! The sloughing off the authorial voice marks a post-modern shift the narrative!

Brian: I don’t have an issue with a narrator for fairy tales, per se. My problem with the narrator is, as already touched on, in Act Two, where the idea of the story spinning-out-of -control is, to me, not fully explored. When the crowd offers the Narrator up to the Giant, he warns them that they need him to keep structure; where would they be without his presence? This does not ring true at the time because the fairy tales have already started crumbling but okay, we think, “it could get worse, right?” However, it doesn’t become drastically different. The same chaos that is descending upon the story simply continues. The only time this concept gets a nod is the Baker’s Wife’s “What am I doing here?…/ I’m in the wrong story!” before her death. It is not enough, and it is a wasted opportunity- or one that should have been left alone.

Stuart: One of my favorite moments is the Witch to the Narrator: “Some of us don’t like the way you’ve been telling it.” Possibly the best line in the play as it’s funny as hell, but also scary, and it highlights the tension between individuals in a society and the restrictions of that society. It reveals so much about the Witch but also comments on the mentality of most people who fit that archetype: justified in their position, perhaps, but unforgiving, vindictive, and usually proposing irrational solutions to that tension. It’s actually the Witch who finally throws the Narrator to the Giant, after the others have realized that isn’t the right thing to do. But that’s the problem with the Witch: it’s not that she isn’t technically right- it’s that she always takes it too far.

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And speaking of the Witch- she’s also “problematic”, isn’t she?

Stuart: Yes. And I say that as someone who loves the Witch. But there’s been a fair amount of ink in various articles over the years about how the role, which is really a supporting role, has unduly captured the audience imagination and this is often “blamed”, for lack of a better word, on a star, Bernadette Peters, having originally been cast in the role, thus elevating the stature of a character who is not meant to be the main character, and is also essentially missing from the last act of the play. Interestingly enough, a similar observation is often made about Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, who I think has a lot in common with the Witch. Both are outsiders, both have daughters they treat as possessions to be hidden from the world, and both have legitimate gripes against the people they perceive as the insiders, but the intelligence and moral high-ground of both are undone by this unforgiving, embittered world view that doesn’t allow for much mercy or compassion, let alone acceptance of or appeal to whatever good qualities the perceived insiders might have. They have both lost the ability to listen, most likely because they have never felt listened to themselves, and while they speak truths they are incomplete truths, or these kind of law of the jungle/final solution truths that aren’t going to work in a world where humans are social creatures and the lines between right and wrong are blurry. But we all sometimes want to be right more than we want to be like… open to the possibility of a plan B… and that is why I think the Witch is such a fascinating character regardless of who plays her.

Corinne: “Witches can be right/Giants can be good” is such an important lyric in the show because there isn’t a clear answer. That song, “No One Is Alone”, expresses one of the strongest themes in the show – the elusive nature of right and wrong and how people have to find an individual path to moral understanding (“you decide what’s right/you decide what’s good.”) and that path is not straight or clear.

Nick: The Witch is right insofar as we can be expected to subscribe to her rather cut-and-dry personal philosophy. To appease the Giants, we need to set aside our sentimentality and sacrifice the culpable Jacks. In other words, making the rational decision is always the most correct decision. But look what happens at the end of the musical – the Witch, advocate of the Rational Approach, alienates the others and ends up alone. The others band together, forced to face the more dire consequences of their more sentimental, albeit less rational decision to save Jack. But they are together, and through their combined efforts, they succeed. So yes, the Witch is right in a sense, but at the cost of companionship and human connection. And Giants can certainly be good. They can also be evil. Giants are people, too. Duh.

Marissa: Well, the Witch is pretty much a strict utilitarian. She argues that unless they give up Jack to the Giant, it will only cause more suffering. She also suggests that everyone is complicit in getting into this mess. Both of these things are factually true but the question of the show is whether they are morally true. If everyone’s complicit, shouldn’t everyone work to make amends? As for Giants… it’s interesting that Into the Woods kind of glosses over the fact that the Giant tries to eat Jack, which is normally such a huge part of that fairy tale. (Jack sings “Something bigger than her comes along the hall to swallow you for lunch,” but that’s just one line in the song, and despite almost getting chewed up, he still calls them “wonderful giants in the sky.”) If it weren’t for that, I’d say that the Giants really were decent creatures, at least to start out, and Jack is being a jerk when he steals the Giants’ treasure and arouses their anger. But if the giant threatened to eat him, eh, they’re both to blame.

Brian: Again, to quote the show (and Corinne): “You decide what’s right/You decide what’s good.”

Oren: Exactly, that’s the real point: whether or not the Witch is right is impossible to objectively determine, but regardless: she thinks she is. The giant also absolutely believes that she is good as well. Ultimately, all this absolute morality nonsense fades away pretty quickly in the face of real problems, and people have to figure it out for themselves.

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Well, and since we’re on the subject of “No One Is Alone”, that song probably gets the most discussion outside of the show. It’s been called both “sentimental” and “a flat out lie.” What do we think?

Brian: I do not believe it is a lie, nor is it overly sentimental. There is a theme of interconnectedness in much of Sondheim’s work; it is also a theme in Tony Kushner’s plays, my other favorite playwright of the late 20th century. Feeling desperately alone is an emotion, but not a reality. Even if one feels abandoned, Woods says you are connected to your ancestors, your community, and the place your soul holds in our collective consciousness.

Stuart: There is a similar theme in E. M. Forster’s work- and Forster is a major influence for me, and I suspect also for Lapine and Sondheim, as George’s repeated wish of “Connect George” has got to be an allusion to Forster’s mantra of “Only Connect.” I personally believe that the meaning of life is essentially learning how to live together in a way that celebrates our common humanity while still honoring our personal struggles and allowing for the pursuit of our personal definitions of happiness. That is a tall order and in my eyes thats why humans have been given free will and hope and all these other things- opposable thumbs- that is the stuff of fairy tales and myths and religion and philosophy and everything else that essentially boils down to us trying to make sense of it all, find the meaning, find that path, which is, yes, not always straight and clear, but there is a path. And to me that is what “No One Is Alone” is about, but I have often been accused of being sentimental and occasionally of being a liar.

Marissa: I think the problem with “No One Is Alone” is that it’s muddled. The title has a double meaning — it means both “You are not alone: I am singing this song to comfort you in this scary time” and “You are not alone: you are a member of society and anything you do can have repercussions and consequences.” The latter idea, that of communal responsibility, is the one that Sondheim and Lapine really want to focus on. But the former idea, being simpler and more sentimental, is the one that the audience tends to hear.

Corinne: But the song is not a lie. Of course, there are times when a person is alone, physically or on the side of a conflict, but that’s not what the song is about. No one exists in a void; our lives are all part of the greater human story. To interpret the lyric in a literal way misses the larger point. When we are faced with a moral dilemma or challenge, we must choose how to act. Though we may feel isolated or abandoned in these moments, we are not truly alone. The struggle to know what is right is part of the human condition.

Oren: Is it sentimental? Absolutely! Is it a lie? A more complicated question. Since the song is really a paean to grey areas disguised as a comforting ballad, I think the important thing to remember is that halfway through the song they sing “they [giants and witches] are not alone,” a further reminder that just because some people back you up, it doesn’t mean you’re right. Ultimately (and ironically, given that so much of this show undoes some of the bowdlerizing and simplification that many fairy tales received to make them more child-appropriate) this complicated moral lesson is dressed up to make it more palatable to the two young children being instructed.

Nick: I think the worst that can be said about “No One is Alone” is that it’s ever so slightly sentimental. But the message of this song is something I think is espoused by the whole musical – we are all interconnected, for better or worse. We don’t act in vacuums. Our actions and choices are both our own, yes, and also products of our memories and our connections with people, and have repercussions on others as well.

Will this discussion have repercussions? We hope so! Join us next Monday for part three and in the meantime, let us know what your answers to these questions are, or if you’ve got questions of your own you’d like to ask us!

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: How the Bechdel Test Made Me a Better Playwright

Marissa Skudlarek demonstrates how a little bit of consciousness can go a long way.

This week in feminism-and-the-arts news: some cinemas in Sweden will let customers know whether or not the movies they show pass the Bechdel test. While it remains to be seen whether this policy will have any effect on box-office receipts or other such practical matters, it’s an intriguing idea. We feminists know that one of our most powerful arguments is data/statistics that show that yes, sexism still exists.

The Bechdel test, if you haven’t heard of it before, is a simple rubric originally devised by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In order to pass the test, a movie (or book, play, whatever) must contain a scene in which:

1. two named female characters

2. talk to one another

3. about something other than a man

(Note that the test does not state that women can never talk about men, the way that a more stringent school of feminist art-makers would have it. They can have men on their minds; they just need to have something else on their minds, too.)

The Bechdel test sounds simple, so it’s rather shocking to realize how many films — even good, acclaimed, intelligently made films — fail it. And, while awareness of the Bechdel test has skyrocketed in recent years among media-savvy people (which is pretty cool, right?) it does not seem to have made much of an impact on the art that’s actually getting produced.

I appreciate the Bechdel Test while also acknowledging its limitations; it’s not the Perfect Arbiter of All Feminist Wisdom that some make it out to be. It’s laughably easy to envision misogynistic works that pass the test and feminist works that fail it. And I find it most useful when used in the aggregate (“The majority of feature films fail the Bechdel Test, and that’s kind of disturbing”) rather than as a way of judging the quality of a specific work of art (“Movie X fails the Bechdel Test, so it is bad and you should refuse to see it”).

Not all works of art need to pass the Bechdel Test, but it does provide an elementary rubric for creating female characters who are interesting in their own right, and not just ancillary to men. As such, I do think it would be worthwhile if every writer, as he or she neared the completion of a first draft, asked him- or herself, “Does this work pass the Bechdel test? If not, is there a good reason that it’s failing the test? Or is there a way that I could revise it to strengthen the female characters and have it pass the test?”

I think about how Tony Kushner originally planned for Angels in America to have an all-male cast, but he was writing it thanks to a commission from (San Francisco’s own!) Eureka Theater. And the Eureka had three resident actresses, who insisted that he include roles for them. I’ve always felt that one of the things that makes Angels a great American play is that, even though its ostensible subject is the gay male experience, it also includes complex, interesting female characters in the roles of Hannah and Harper. Again, while a quota system for art (“all plays must include good female characters”) would be draconian, the example of Angels proves that sometimes, a nudge in the direction of “be more inclusive” can lead to great results, artistically speaking.

Used in this way, the Bechdel Test is not some kind of femi-nazi fascism, but a way of urging artists down the less-explored path. It’s an extra card in your deck of Oblique Strategies cards, a prompt to take your work in a direction you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise, or to get you out of a rut. I know, because I’ve used it that way in my own writing.

A year ago, I was working on my first screenplay, Aphrodite, or the Love Goddess, for the 2012 Olympians Festival. Greek mythology is wonderful in so many ways, but it is also the product of an ancient, highly patriarchal culture. My screenplay updated the story of the Aphrodite-Ares-Hephaestus love triangle to 1940s Hollywood, and employed the tropes and aesthetics of ’40s cinema to tell the story — but the ’40s weren’t exactly an enlightened era for sexual politics, either.

As such, I realized I had written nearly an entire 60-minute screenplay without including a scene that would make it pass the Bechdel test — and, I realized, there was not a “good reason” why my screenplay should fail the test. Maybe the story of Aphrodite will never be wholly feminist, but I could at least include a scene where two named female characters talk about something other than a man! And from that impulse, the concluding scene of Aphrodite, or the Love Goddess developed.

In this scene, the Aphrodite figure (here a film star called “Rosalie Seaborne”) encounters a bobby-soxer young woman who serves as her fan club president. This character had appeared in an earlier scene designated only as “Fan Club President,” but to make my screenplay pass the Bechdel test, I had to give her a name: thus, she introduces herself as “Janet.”

Rosalie has just made a film in which she plays “a woman who ensnares every man she meets in her net of deceitfulness and betrayal.” This role is close to Rosalie’s (Aphrodite’s) real personality, but it’s a far cry from the comedy-ingenue roles that made her famous. As such, she worries that her old fans, such as Janet, won’t like it. Their conversation plays out as follows:

JANET: I’m still a fan, Miss Seaborne! It’s the third time I’ve seen The Net.

ROSALIE: So you don’t hate me?

JANET: Hate you?

ROSALIE: Not the most likable character, is she?

JANET: Oh, I see. No, I mean, she’s an awful woman, but it’s only a movie, right?

ROSALIE: Right.

JANET: And she gets punished at the end.

ROSALIE: That’s what proves it’s only a movie.

In the staged reading of my screenplay at the Olympians Festival last year, this line got a huge response. I’d worried that it was too on-the-nose, but the audience loved it. It was the perfect ending. It pleased the crowd. And I wouldn’t have written it without the Bechdel Test.

Marissa Skudlarek is a playwright and arts writer. Her 2013 Olympians Festival plays “Teucer” (two male characters, doesn’t pass the Bechdel test) and “Laodike” (two women, one man, passes the Bechdel test) have already had their staged readings, but she encourages you to check out other Olympians shows, tonight through November 23. Find Marissa online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Theater Around The Bay: Llamalogue

Stuart Bousel will not be changing names to protect the innocent.

Last night at Theater Pub, the fourth installment of The Pint Sized Plays opened and you should make it a point not to miss this production because it will be our last show at the Cafe Royale.

Also, it’s a very enjoyable evening. After a magical prelude by the Blue Diamond Bellydancers you will be induced to much laughter by volley after volley of razor wit interspersed with life lessons and dramatic moments. At the end of the 80 minutes of drinking themed shorts we bring out the Llama, the un-official (who are we kidding- he’s official- we made t-shirts) mascot of the San Francisco Theater Pub, originally created for the Pub by Elana McKelahan, played for the fourth year in a row by Rob Ready and written, for the second year in a row, by me.

I have often said the Llama is the spirit of the Pub and this year he delivers a bittersweet speech. It’s part ode to Megan Cohen’s dancing bear (played, last year, by Allison Page) and part rumination on the nature of loss, milked as much for laughs as possible but with perhaps a bit more sting than in the past. He concludes the speech (and the evening) valiantly trying to bolster himself (and the audience) with some pop music, before wandering off into the night and the lights go out on the silent, empty space. It’s funny and sad and a fitting end to our time at the Cafe Royale, if perhaps a bit melancholy.

“My bear would never betray the Llama like he does in your play,” Megan Cohen said to me.

“This isn’t about your bear,” I replied, with a wink, “it’s about the idea the llama has attached to the bear.”

Here is my goal in life as a writer and as an artist: to make fun of shit, and to get you to think about and appreciate yourself and the world around you. For years I have been trying to create a new breed of romantic satire where I validate the meaning of it all, even as I validate the likelihood that everything is meaningless. On an individual basis, I want you to laugh, and then I want to rip your heart out and hand it back to you with tears in my eyes and a kiss on my lips, leaving you intact and healing but with a lot to think about. I love you painfully and I want you to know that. Also, I absolutely believe theater is a transformative art (otherwise, why bother), and I want to transform you, if not in the theater than sometime later when you’re sitting by yourself and suddenly it hits you what this was really all about. I have faith that this happens because I have seen it happen, I have had it reported back to me by people it’s happened to, and I have experienced it myself. And I genuinely feel sorry for anyone who hasn’t gone through this at least once in their life. It’s the same sadness I feel for people who tell me they don’t believe in Love. I always think “how gray the world must be for you,” and then I think, “but it will happen some day- and how exciting that will be for you too.” That’s me, putting the romance back into romantic satire. I want you to have your big moment even when you adamantly refuse to accept such a thing could occur. It almost matters more when it happens to people like you.

Speaking of big moments, today is the 16th anniversary of my older brother, Edwin, dying. This is not, generally speaking, something I advertise, but it’s never been something I hide either. I just find that it tends to make people uncomfortable, so I don’t bring it up unless I need to, and it happened so long ago now that many people who currently occupy my life don’t know I ever had a brother named Edwin, let alone that he died, tragically, at the age of 23. When I get asked by new friends, or even older friends who have never asked before, “Do you have any brothers and sisters?” I tend to reply that I do, indeed, have siblings, and leave it at that. Only if asked where they live, or what they do, do I ever mention that one is dead. At which point most people get very crestfallen, tell me how sorry they are, and then suddenly it’s my job to comfort them and let them know that it’s okay: it was a long time ago, and I dealt with it (therapy, an HIV scare, some really colorful drug experimentation) and there is nothing else they need to say or do. He’s gone and it’s sad because I was only 18 and never really got to know him, but it’s also life. Everything ends, including other people. Including you. Including me.

I recently told the cast of my new play, Age of Beauty, that I worship the idea of Light and I do, but it’s partly because I need something to balance a dark world view and aesthetic. And I don’t mean that kind of recent college graduate, post-modern, “I-totally-threw-in-a-rape-scene-following-a-baby-eating-scene-to-shock-you” type of dark. I’m dark like the Bronte Sisters, Arthurian legends and the Shakespeare comedies are all really dark and if you’re intrepid and open to it you can see it, but I also employ lots of little tricks to mitigate my darkness because I’m fundamentally a gentleman and I don’t enjoy awkward silences with people who would rather just glide on the surface. Humor, particularly self-depricating humor, is very present in my work and daily conversation as a way for me to say, “don’t take this too seriously” for fear of you doing so and we all suddenly end up on Intervention together (which I would just find amazingly tasteless). Symbolism is also a very big thing for me: I often say things very openly in my shows but in ways that make sense to virtually nobody else (in the form of, say, a character who constantly cuts black paper into strips, or a certain song that plays behind a monologue spoken by a character who can turn the lights on and off at will) so that the choice can be dismissed as weird instead of the quiet revelation of my inner turmoil that you’re actually seeing. I love the idea of “hidden in plain sight” emotions because I feel that most pain is like that: constantly surrounding us, but we’re blind to it, sometimes accidentally, but often willfully, often because it would just take too much work to understand it, so we’re better off just pretending it’s not there or not significant. Sometimes I revel in being misunderstood as much as I revel in being perceived clearly. Both states have their advantages.

It is no secret that I love the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and there are a number of reasons why but if I had to pick one thing, above all others, that I love, it would have to be his dark aesthetic of loss. The right people know what I’m talking about, how he threads through his encylopedic histories and silly hobbit antics a miasma of sorrow over the slow disintegration of a world that can never be gotten back, only glimpsed from a distance or heard in echoes. The great irony of the War of the Ring, which in Middle Earth marks the end of The Age of The Elves just as the Trojan War marked the end of The Age of Heroes in Greek mythology, is that it will be won by people who will come out of the dust only to find that they have lost the world they fought to preserve. This is because it either no longer exists, or because they have become different people in the course of the war, and even once restored to where they began they no longer fit in with the larger puzzle they were knocked out of. The Lord of the Rings is not so much a fantasy novel as it is an epitaph for Middle Earth and all that Middle Earth stood for in Tolkein’s mind. It is an epic rumination on the excruciating pain of moving from one era of your life into the next, the “painful progress” that Harper, in her final scene in Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, would so eloquently embrace as the only way for her to move on from her disaster marriage. For all it’s adventure and romance and humor and joy, Lord of the Rings remains one of the saddest books I know and yet also one of the most life affirmative because in the end of one age does lie the birth of another and at some point, like Samwise “I’m Back” Gamgee (or Harper Pitt if you prefer), if you’re lucky enough to survive the shit that happens to you there comes a moment you suck it up, shake off the remnants of shadow, say goodbye to the past and embrace where you are now because your only other choice is to lay down and die and that’s not really an option.

Though it is a temptation.

If the Llama is the spirit of the Pub then I think the reason this year’s speech is so bittersweet is because the Llama, like the Pub, has grown from a brash and confident celebrant staking his territory into a tired and battle-worn survivor of a long war who isn’t sure if he either lost or won, only that he has survived to see the end of an age. An age that was, for San Francisco Theater Pub, The First Age, and thus will always be truly significant, no matter what happens next. If my words, through the Llama, seem bittersweet it’s because the process of ending this age is both bitter and sweet, as almost any necessary process is. We have so much to be proud of, and so much to look forward to, and so much to mourn, all at the same time. I tried to capture that with the Llama, couching it in much symbolism and self-deprecating humor to make the pill easier to swallow, but yes, I also hope it sits uneasy in your stomach for some time after. We had something real, a home that was often times as much a curse as it was a gift but always an integral part of what we were doing, and for a while there will be a hole where it used to be, the same kind of hole left by an ended love affair or a lost object. Or a dead person.

Everything ends, including other people. Including you. Including me. Including projects we really care about, sanctuaries we’ve found, experiences we’ve cherished. That’s why it’s important to sing and dance while we can, even as we know it won’t be forever, because we know the singing and dancing must end, if only because both are very tiring activities. Only when we embrace the fundamental brevity and meaninglessness of life and all that life encompasses does it become meaningful and we transcend to something eternal: the recognition that nothing ends, it just changes. My brother was only here for a short time, but he made an impact on me I’ll have until I die, and through whatever I leave behind and the people I impact, he continues to influence the world and so in many ways I have never thought of him as gone even though I hardly ever talk about him now. I’m starting to sort of see the Pub’s time at the Cafe Royale the same way: as something slipping into the chronicle of my life, bound to influence me for many years to come, but also relegated to the past. Like my brother. Like the first theater company I ever ran. Like my youth, frankly. Which I really miss sometimes. But fairly certain I wouldn’t go back to, even if I could. But you can’t. Life only moves forward, and not everyone, or everything, is there for the whole ride. Something worth mourning, the value of which I get because I have a dark aesthetic that recognizes life is all about loss. Amongst other things.

“You had a really good, really impressive run of it,” Les Cowan, without whose patronage Theater Pub never would have existed, said to me last night, the two of us talking about Pub’s time at Cafe Royale like we were at a wake.

I couldn’t agree more, but I replied, “I kind of can’t wait to be done,” because that’s true too and that’s the angle I’m starting to focus on these days. Because I’ve reached the point where I kind of just want to sing one last song and then head off into the night looking for the next thing- knowing that there will be a next thing. Because there is always a next thing. Because having a dark aesthetic often means worshiping the Light, and believing very much that the end of one age is the birth of another.

And because I am a Llama, and that’s true wherever I go.

Stuart Bousel is one of the Founding Artistic Directors of the San Francisco Theater Pub and was recently named by the SF Weekly as “Best Ringmaster” of the San Francisco indie theater scene. His short play, Llamalogue, will be performed by Rob Ready four more times at Pint Sized Plays IV, which plays tonight and July 22, 29, and 30 at the Cafe Royale, always at 8 PM. Don’t miss it!