The Real World – Theater Edition: An Interview with Savannah Reich

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews Savannah Reich about her upcoming Bay Area production.

Savannah Reich is the type of playwright that when you read and hear and see her work, you’re like, “I want to do that! That’s so cool! Theater’s so cool!” I met her while in the second year of the MFA Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University, headed by Rob Handel, and was blown away by her humor, theatricality, and the moving moments of human connection and confusion she creates within her writing. So, of course, I was very happy to learn that her play, Six Monsters, A Seven Monster Play was being produced by All Terrain Theater in the summer of 2015.

The show opens next Thursday, July 30th at 8:00 PM and runs on Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays until August 8th at the EXIT Theatre in downtown San Francisco. I had a chance to chat with Savannah about playwriting, the inspiration behind Six Monsters, and her creative impulses.

Savannah Reich, probably driving to California as we speak.

Savannah Reich, probably driving to California as we speak.

Babs: Very excited to interview you!

Savannah: Thank you! I am so excited to be interviewed!

Babs: To begin, could you tell me about your background? How did you get involved with theater and writing?

Savannah: I wrote my first play in the second grade. I’m not sure where I got the idea. My parents were both doing theater when I was a kid, as a prop-master and scenic artist at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, so I’m sure I had already seen plays? I am counting this as “my first play” because it was more elaborate than a show I did with friends in the basement or whatever- it had a typed script, which went through several drafts, and I think I forced my entire second grade class to be in it, although I don’t remember that part.

So as long as I can remember I had this incredibly specific compulsion to write plays. I briefly went to NYU for the undergraduate playwriting program, which I was not really prepared for at eighteen. I dropped out after a year and decided I would never write a play again- I was just going to be wild and free and be in punk bands and experience real life. But then I started writing plays again probably six months after that.

I recently found the script for my first play in a box at my parent’s house; it was about two witches who turn people into chickens and serve them to children at an orphanage, which actually sounds like something that I might be working on now.

Babs: How would you describe your style and what interests you?

Savannah: The way I’m thinking about it these days is that I am interested in taking inexplicable emotional processes and making them into something concrete and mechanical. I am obsessed with the Charlie Kaufman movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” because it does this so nicely- it takes this very gooey personal feeling, the grief about losing a shared past when you end a relationship, and makes it into this action story. It literally ends with a chase scene. So that’s a really nice way to create ways to talk about things that maybe don’t fall into the cultural shorthand.

More concretely, my plays tend to be removed from true-to-life situations- as Sarah Ruhl says, “my characters have no last names.” They are animals or ghosts or subhuman beasts. They tend to be suffering greatly in some neurotic, cyclical way and they all talk on rotary dial telephones.

Also, I am interested in structure because it is the essential relationship between the play and the audience, which for me is at least as interesting as the relationships between the characters.

Babs: I think Six Monsters, A Seven Monster Play has an interesting origin story – do you mind sharing and then how it developed from its inception?

Savannah: Yes! You were there! It was very early on in my first year at CMU, maybe the second or third week, and Rob Handel had us do a writing exercise that involved beginning a 60 page play at nine am and finishing it by midnight. The exercise was so great, but I feel like I don’t want to give it away in case he is going to do it again next year- part of what was great about it for me was the surprise. I had all these ideas for plays that had been percolating for a long time, and I was fussing over them and trying to make them “good”, and then we got this exercise that said, “Okay, forget about all those plays- here’s a prompt, now write this play. Write this play today.” It was totally liberating for me.

Before grad school, I had been writing plays and producing them myself, so I think that I had gotten into this trap of keeping my producer’s hat on while I was writing. I would think about making props affordable, stuff like that. It was dumb. This exercise broke me out of that. The original opening stage direction for “Six Monsters” was something like, “There are six audience members seated on a wooden cart. The wooden cart rolls through an infinite darkness.”

I also think I put a bunch of things that felt really vulnerable and revealing to me in this play, and maybe I wouldn’t have if I had been imagining that it would ever be performed. I write much better when I am able to convince myself that no one I know will ever see it.

After I finished the play, I co-produced a one night workshop performance of it with our fellow MFA writer Dan Giles, with him directing, me as the skeleton, and six amazing CMU undergrad acting students as the chorus, which I will get to brag about when they are all famous in like twenty-five minutes.

Babs: When I last saw this piece, you were actually performing in it as the Skeleton. How do you think performing/not performing in your own work influences how you see the play, what to develop/not develop next?

Savannah Reich as the Skeleton carrying Jeremy Hois as the Baby in the Pittsburgh performance workshop at the Irma Freeman Center for the Imagination directed by Dan Giles in February 2014.

Savannah Reich as the Skeleton carrying Jeremy Hois as the Baby in the Pittsburgh performance workshop at the Irma Freeman Center for the Imagination directed by Dan Giles in February 2014.

Savannah: I’m not sure how I feel about this anymore! I am worrying about it a lot in a neurotic and cyclical way! I have performed in my own work a fair amount, and sometimes I think I don’t want to do it anymore, because probably it would be better with real actors who are good at acting. But then I recently saw the performance artist Dynasty Handbag in New York, and I love her, and I thought that maybe I should always perform my own work. Not that I am a performer like she is- I tend to be visibly thinking on stage in that way that playwrights do when they try to act- but I do think there is something special about seeing someone perform their own words, there is a kind of specificity to it.

But I’m not going to be a performance artist because I love actors so much. They are my favorite thing to look at, especially when they are in my plays being hilarious. It’s great to be a playwright because we get to see all these very attractive people pretending to be us, pretending to have our same anxieties about capitalism or intimacy or whatever, which feels deeply healing in some probably very messed up way. Also good collaboration makes the show better, of course. The actor can see a lot of things about the show that I can’t.

I don’t know that I learn anything much from being in my own plays. I played the part of the skeleton in the workshop mostly because it felt too personal to turn it over to an actor. But now I have a little more distance, and I’m so excited to see what Laura Peterson does with it.

Babs: In the San Francisco production, is there anything that you are most looking forward to seeing or experiencing?

Savannah: I was just talking about how much variability actors bring to the table but of course that’s also very much true of directors. I haven’t worked with Sydney Painter before, and seeing her take on the piece is probably what I’m the most excited about. I haven’t been in town for rehearsals yet, and I’m looking forward to seeing the ways that this crew has interpreted the show in different ways than I would have imagined.

Babs: Any advice for playwrights in creating new work or getting it produced?

Savannah: For me the simplest way to get your play produced is to do it yourself. It is only very recently that other people have wanted to produce my plays, and that is a new and exciting thing, but it’s important to me to always know that I can make my own work, and that I never need to get picked out of the pile or get the grant or win the contest to make my art.

Babs: Any shout-outs for shows, events, or other things going on around the Bay Area that you might check out while you’re here?

Savannah: If you come to Six Monsters; A Seven Monster Play you will also get to see a short play by the fabulous Tracy Held Potter called Texting. And we should probably all get on a plane to New York to see Dan Giles’ play How You Kiss Me is Not How I Like To Be Kissed at the New York Fringe Festival.

Also, this.

Learn more about Savannah Reich, her screenplays, plays, and upcoming artistic projects from her website, http://savannahreich.com/.

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The Real World Theater Edition: Interview With Rachel Bublitz

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews Rachel Bublitz.

Rachel Bublitz is one of those amazing people that you exemplifies what it means to be a supportive theater artist who is furthering her own artistic journey for theater and writing. I first met Rachel when she came to a performance of my first full length production by All Terrain Theater, It’s All in the Mix. Right away from her positive energy and enthusiastic attitude, you can tell that she is a playwright who will go far. She has a natural tenacity that some struggle to master, others just exude.

I was very excited to interview her about Loud and Unladylike, the new festival presented in partnership with DIVAfest, which highlights unknown, yet influential women in history by exploring their stories through a new works series. The festival started yesterday, June 25th, with Tracy Held Potter’s A is for Adeline (also showing on July 9th), continues with Claire Ann Rice’s The Effects of Ultravioliet Light on June 26th and July 11th, and Rachel’s own new work, Code Name: Brass Rose, presented on June 27th and July 10th. For more information, you can also check out the website at http://loudandunladylike.com/.

Babs: Tell me about Loud and Unladylike. How did it come about?

Rachel: One of my classes at State last Spring – I’m currently going for the MFA and MA combo from SFSU – had a final involving writing a script inspired from an outside source, and a classmate of mine did hers on a historical woman that I had never heard of. And I got a little mad, why hadn’t I heard of this kick-ass woman? That night I met Tracy and Claire to see a play, and I told them all about it and said there should be more plays about historical women, and they agreed, and so we did it. Something I love about having Claire and Tracy as close friends and collaborators is that we all agree that seeing a problem is only part of it, you have to then do something. This is our response to the lack of women’s plays being produced, and the lack of complex female characters in so many plays and films.

Claire then brought the idea to DIVAfest’s Artistic Director, Christina Augello, and she thought it would be a great addition DIVAfest’s season, and that was the start of Loud & Unladylike.

Babs: How did you choose your figure – Nancy Wake? When did you first learn about her?

Rachel: So we decided on the festival and that we’d be the guinea pigs and write for the first year. After that we had a meeting with lists and summaries of all the interesting lesser-known historical women we could find. Most of the women I had researched had been soldiers or spies; I’m drawn to the juxtaposition of war and what society tells us femininity should mean. Nancy was on a few different blogs that I came across, posts with titles like: “25 Badass Women You Don’t Know About.” That sent me off to Wikipedia, and before I knew it I was ordering her autobiography from Australia.

The whole cast of Code Name: Brass Rose. From left to right: Charles Lewis III, Veronica Tjioe, Matt Gunnison, Melinda Marshall, Neil Higgins, and Heather Kellogg. Photo: Rachel Bublitz.

The whole cast of Code Name: Brass Rose. From left to right: Charles Lewis III, Veronica Tjioe, Matt Gunnison, Melinda Marshall, Neil Higgins,
and Heather Kellogg. Photo: Rachel Bublitz.

I spent most of that meeting trying to convince Tracy and Claire that one of them should write about Nancy Wake, and finally, I think it was Claire, said to me, “Ya know, if you like her so much, maybe you should write about her.” And this blew my mind, how could anyone not want to write about this powerhouse? After they both assured me it was okay, I never looked back. We were meant to be, Nancy and me.

Babs: What has it been like collaborating with Claire and Tracy on building the festival?

Rachel: Collaborating has been a challenge, it’s not that it’s hard for the three of us to be on the same page, we are just all very busy ladies. Tracy just finished up her MFA from CMU and has her two boys, Claire directed Allison Page’s fantastic show HILARITY earlier this year and is working on a commission from Terror-Rama, and I have my rug-rats and school as well, and so finding time to get together has been hard to say the least. Somehow it’s worked so far. I think we owe a lot to the other ladies in Loud & Unladylike who support us so well; the very talented Tonya Narvaez and Roxana Sorooshian, our production manager and literary manager respectively.

This year has also found us to be on a very slow learning curve, well me at least. Running a festival is tricky. So many complications pop up every day! And there are also so many cool things you’d like to do but aren’t worth the trouble, especially in the first year when keeping things as simple as possible is key. Even the simple gets hard, trust me. But we are kicking around some exciting ideas for the 2017 festival, and we’re in the midst of selecting the plays for 2016, so a lot of exciting things are on the horizon.

Babs: I’m also curious to learn about the development process – how have you supported each other in the research and writing or has it been mostly solo? Any anecdotes you’d like to share?

Rachel: We’ve shared pages at meetings, and talked about the themes and questions we’d like to bring up in each of our plays. Something that surprised me, that I think we’ve all had to deal with, is getting over the reverence for the person the play is inspired by, so that you can actually get something written. Knowing that this was a real person and that you’ll be informing some amount of the population about them is a heavy task, and having Claire and Tracy wrestling with this same challenge all year has been a comfort.

Also, one of my most favorite parts of the festival, is that we each will have two readings with about two weeks in between to rewrite. We’ll be hosting talkbacks after each play, and Claire and I will be running those in week one. I’m excited to play that role and engage with my fellow writers and the audience in order to develop the plays further. The second week, which might have three totally different plays based on what happens in week one, will have talkbacks lead by our literary manager, Roxana.

Babs: What do you love about the Bay Area theater scene and what would you change?

Rachel: One of my favorite parts of the Bay Area theater scene is that I’m constantly discovering more of it. I’ll be out at a show, chatting with someone brand-new, and they’ll mention so-and-so theater that they work for, and more often than you’d think, it’s a theater company I’d never heard of. I’ll think, oh they must be new, but no! Usually they’ve been around 10 or 15 years. It’s insanity. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a theater company here and that’s pretty special. BUT, in a way that’s something that I’d like to change too. Not that I’d like to see less companies, I just wish there was more collaboration among them. I love seeing companies joining forces and I think everyone could stand a little more of that. If a project is too big for one company to take on, find another to duel produce it with! Let’s do big things and stretch ourselves, and help one another.

Babs: Any advice you have for aspiring playwrights and producers of new work?

Rachel: I think the most important thing you can do, other than of course the writing or the producing, is to go see shows. I have kids which makes it hard, but I try to make it out to as many plays as possible. Not only can you learn just from seeing other work, and all other work, good, bad, mediocre, all of it has lessons for those who are looking, but you go and see the work and then you talk to people after. Say hi to the director, the actors, the playwright. Tell them what you enjoyed (only of course, if you actually did), ask them about their inspiration, ask how you could get involved. Theaters take on a risk when producing local work, but if we all went out and saw one another’s work, that risk would be much less, so I especially try to make it out when a new work of a local playwright is being produced. We can’t demand it if we don’t ourselves support it.

Also, and this is what I think is the second most important thing, share your work. Submit plays to theaters, yes, but also have your friends over to read your drafts. Ask actors and directors you know to read what you’re working on, ask advice on where your work would fit best, and then reach out to them. You’re going to be ignored a lot, but I’ve found that if you keep it up, and you keep everything positive, they don’t ignore you forever. Also, true story, I’m still being ignored by plenty of folks, that’s just part of the business. Try not to take it personally, though I know that can be hard.

Babs: Plugs for upcoming work and shout-out for other plays to check out around the area?

Rachel: Yes! My full-length play Of Serpents & Sea Spray is getting a week-long workshop with a staged reading this July (the reading is on July 24th) and will be produced in Custom Made’s 2015/16 season this coming January, with Ariel Craft as the director.

As for other shows, I don’t think anyone here in the Bay Area is allowed to miss Desk Set presented by No Nude Men, it’s a power-house cast, and is being directed by Stuart Bousel, who might just be the most generous member of the Bay Area theater community and an all around excellent theater maker. It’s running July 9-25, and will probably fill up quick, so I’d jump on those tickets ASAP, if you know what’s good for you. And, the show I’m most excited for this summer, other than Loud & Unladylike of course, has to be SF Theater Pub’s Pint Sized Plays this August! Megan Cohen’s “BEEEEEAAR!”, performed by Allison Page back in 2012, is still at the top of my all-time-favorite theater experiences, and I have a hope we’ll see more of that beer loving bear this time around.

From left to right the ladies of Loud and Unladylike: Claire Rice, Rachel Bublitz, and Tracy Held Potter at a Custom Made production. Photo: Sam Bertken.

From left to right the ladies of Loud and Unladylike: Claire Rice, Rachel Bublitz, and Tracy Held Potter at a Custom Made production. Photo: Sam Bertken.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a Bay Area based playwright who can be found on twitter as well @bjwany. Tweet at her to point her to theater happenings around town!

The Real World, Theater Edition: Interview with Tracy Held Potter and Julie Jigour

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews some alums from the Higher Education days of her column.

This week I reconnected (well, via email for now at least) with my ole pals from CMU, Tracy Held Potter and Julie Jigour. Both are fabulous playwrights and theater and film makers about town who recently graduated from the program I was a part of last year AND are from the Bay area. I thought it would be nice for this blog series to sort of reflect a little on how far it’s come from starting while I was in school trying to figure shit out to now while I’m out of school trying to figure shit out. So, you see, a lot has changed in the past year.

As Julie and Tracy step out from school into the real world ready to put their training into action, I’m reminded of how I was feeling when graduating this same time last year. I thought it would be lovely to capture this moment, where the future is full of promise and also huge unknowns. Whenever you’re on the precipice of the Next Thing, it can always be a little dizzying, but while I was in school with these two, they showed such strength of character and distinct writing styles, that I thought it would be lovely to hear from them about what this moment in time is like.

For your enjoyment, the interview with Tracy Held Potter and Julie Jigour:

Barbara: What is/was your involvement in Bay Area theater?

Tracy: I had been very active in Bay Area theater before going to grad school. I received an A.A. in Theater Arts with Michael Torres at Laney College, formed my own theater company All Terrain Theater, which had already completed three seasons, ran the playwrights group Play Cafe, co-founded 31 Plays in 31 Days with Rachel Bublitz, was a member of the MondayNight PlayGround Writers Pool, and interned or worked for CalShakes, Marin Theatre Company, and the Playwrights Foundation. I also worked as a writer or director with Masquers Playhouse, Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco, and, of course, Theatre Pub!

Tracy Held Potter. Photo credit: Rob Reeves, wry toast photos

Tracy Held Potter. Photo credit: Rob Reeves, wry toast photos

Julie: When I finished undergrad, some of my fellow classmates and I started a small, do-it-yourself theater company called Cardboard Box Theatre Project. We did productions, staged readings, and workshops over the course of a few years in the South Bay. I also workshopped with the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre and Central Works Writers Workshop.

Julie Jigour

Julie Jigour

Barbara: What’s your style as a writer? What kinds of topics/ideas do you gravitate towards?

Tracy: I’m a mom so a lot of my work deals with feminist issues and parenting. I also love pop culture, science (especially as it relates to the environment), and technology, so those topics feature in a lot of my writing. My goal is always to entertain first and educate second, and when I’m really in the zone I try to present complex situations while advocating for all perspectives. I spend a lot of time trying to understand people who act or think in ways that I disagree with, and I put those scenarios into my work.

Julie: I consider myself a writer of dramas and dark comedies. I’m interested in how people struggle toward intimacy and human connection with the limitations of language and social convention.

Barbara: What was on your mind as you were making the decision to attend a graduate Dramatic Writing program?

Tracy: When I had my first son, I marveled at him and dreamed about what his future would be like. I wanted him to feel like he could do anything that he wanted with his life, and then I knew at the core of my being that I could only help him do this if I pursued my own dreams, too.

I had been jumping around all over the place–both professionally and artistically–and I realized that I was spreading myself too thin and not really mastering anything in particular. Before I took my first acting class, I was researching MBA programs, then I got hooked on theater and suddenly I had identities as an actor, producer, director, and writer. I had a heart to heart with myself and realized that writing had always been a part of my life and if I could become really good at any one thing, that was it.

I love being in school, so grad school was just a thing that I wanted to do at some point. I just needed to choose a focus, and writing seemed like something that I would keep doing and would be easier to pursue with kids than some of my other interests.

Regarding goals, I went to grad school so I could start the path toward mastery of writing and also to make it more possible to work as a writer professionally. I know that lots of people don’t need grad school to accomplish either of these goals. I could probably be one of those people. However, the truth is that I’m a mom, I have a lot of things that I’m responsible for, and I have a lot of disparate interests that compete for my attention. Going to grad school meant that I could stop working and focus just on my kids and my writing. It’s amazing how easy it is to focus on your writing when you’re on the other side of the country and (almost) everyone in your life knows that you can’t take on extra projects or attend certain events so they give you the space to do the work you’re trying to do.

One of the most tangible benefits of grad school is having the piece of paper at the end that says you’re “approved” by some entity. That paper means different things to different people, but at a minimum it shows a commitment to developing the craft, and it also opens a lot of doors to programs or people who only want to work with MFAs or only want to work with certain schools. Through my program, I was handed opportunities to meet with professionals from all areas of theater, film, and television. As you can see from what I was doing before grad school, I don’t have a problem finding opportunities, yet I still sought out this opportunity to join an instant network and I’m really glad I did.

Julie: I wanted to go to grad school for dramatic writing to strengthen my craft and to develop a stronger and more habitual writing practice. I also wanted to be surrounded by like-minded people to help foster my passion.

Barbara: Could you share an anecdote/story about your time at CMU and how it helped you with your writing trajectory?

Tracy: When I signed up for CMU’s Dramatic Writing program, I went in primarily with an interest in sticking with playwriting, but the program is designed to also cover film and television. During my first year of the two-year program, our teacher Rob Handel was working on opera, so he offered us a workshop on writing opera libretti. That turned into writing short commissioned mini-operas for the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh and 20-minute collaborations with composers in the MFA composing program.

Sometime during my first year, I decided to focus my energy on writing for television–something about the possibility of paying my bills through writing seemed very appealing to me–and I also developed a love of writing opera, which is amazing considering that until grad school, the only opera I’d seen was Moby Dick at SF Opera.

"Plastic Nest" by Tracy Held Potter at the CMU School of Drama. Photo credit: Louis Stein

“Plastic Nest” by Tracy Held Potter at the CMU School of Drama. Photo credit: Louis Stein

Julie: I had a fabulous experience rehearsing my New Works play—the final project for graduating writers—this spring. The process was a wonderful reminder of why I decided to pursue a collaborative art form. Everyone in the rehearsal room helped me make the play better over the course of our time together. I took improvisations the director and actors developed and brought them into the script to the absolute benefit of the text, and the production assistant offered valuable dramaturgical insight that influenced my revisions. I loved the teamwork and dedication that made my initial draft something we could all feel proud of influencing.

Barbara: Now that you’ve graduated, what are you looking to do next? Any fears? Any sources of inspiration?

Tracy: Right now, most of my energy is focused on revising work that I started or developed during my program, which includes a couple of full length plays, a spec for “Masters of Sex,” an original TV pilot, and a commissioned piece that’s due next month.

I’m also working on submitting the work that I’ve already completed, including my web series, Merritt Squad, with Colin Johnson, a short film that I self-produced called “Fashion Foes,” and I’m applying to TV writing fellowships, MondayNight PlayGround in LA, and a musical theater writing program in LA.

I don’t know if I’m really afraid of anything career-wise. I’m going head first into an industry that’s difficult to break into, but I have a game plan and am giving myself the time and space to make it happen.

I’m inspired by the fact that people are making a living being writers–maybe there’s not a lot of them, but they exist and I want to be one of them.

Julie: I plan to move to Los Angeles to try to get into TV writing. I think one of my biggest fears is that I won’t be able to keep up a consistent writing practice outside of school, but I believe that having gone to grad school, I’m better equipped than I was before to manage and overcome that fear. I’ve been inspired by my instructors and classmates to make bold choices and see what happens rather than reigning myself in from the start.

"Winnebago" by Julie Jigour at the CMU School of Drama. Photo credit: Louis Stein.

“Winnebago” by Julie Jigour at the CMU School of Drama. Photo credit: Louis Stein.

Barbara: If there’s anything that you wish you could change in theater what would it be?

Tracy: I would make funding a non-issue. If theater-makers could focus on creating the work and not the fundraising, then I think theater would be more accessible for audiences as well as for artists.

Julie: I wish theater were as popular a medium for art and entertainment as film. People from all communities watch TV and film, which are forms that I love. But theater is often attended by a smaller, more affluent, and older audience. With that and with many ticket prices, I think, comes the idea—and in many ways, the reality—that theater is a medium for the privileged. I wish theater were more accessible to everyone and less associated with class and education than I think it is now.

Barbara: Any words of wisdom for those interested in playwriting and for those thinking about graduate programs – whether applying or soon to be attending?

Tracy: Write a lot. Try to get produced, or self-produce your own work. If you still like writing plays, then talk to people you admire and respect and see which programs or opportunities nourished them and see if it makes sense for you. Not everyone thrives in academic environments. If you can’t stand artificial assignments and deadlines, and you don’t like receiving criticism, then grad school’s not an ideal place to be. However, if like the idea of collaborating with lots of different people and you want to hear advice and criticism from people who (hopefully) know what they’re talking about and you want to have that extra reassurance and structure that a program provides, then grad school may be a great option.

Julie: I feel very confident that my decision to go to grad school was the right choice for me. Grad school gave me the time and space to explore writing and gain confidence in both my writing and in my decision to pursue this field. I do think, however, that you can succeed in dramatic writing without going to grad school. It just depends on what suits your needs best.

Barbara: Any upcoming productions/projects of yours for us to look forward to?

Tracy: Yes! I am writing a full length commissioned play for the new Loud and Unladylike Festival with DivaFest at The EXIT Theatre called “A is for Adeline.” I’ll get two readings on June 25th and July 9th. I’m also producing two shows through my theater company, All Terrain Theater; “Women in Solodarity: Waking Up” which goes up in June and “Six Monsters: A Seven-Monster Play” which goes up July 31-August 15 and will open with a short play that I’m writing.

Julie: Nothing right now, but I’ll keep you posted!

Barbara Jwanouskos is a Bay Area playwright and blogger. You can follow her on twitter @bjwany.

Theater Around The Bay: Adventures in Site-Specific Theater

We continue our series of guest bloggers with another story by Tracy Held Potter, who has written for us in the past. This week she takes us beyond the black box and into the great wide world of site-specific theater.

Artists and audiences are always clamoring for something “new,” something just a little bit outside of what they expect, so when I decided to start self-producing and I had a budget of zero dollars, the idea of creating site-specific shows seemed like an obvious and brilliant strategy.

Going into my company All Terrain Theater’s (http://www.allterraintheater.org) fifth season of producing work, I started reflecting on some of the adventures that I’ve had producing site-specific theater.

The first play I wrote outside of school was a 10-minute motherhood nightmare called “Reality Checkout,” and it took place inside of a baby store. As an entrepreneurial person, I thought that I could create a fun and low-budget production inside an actual baby store, take advantage of a captive audience, create an audience for my work and for the young actors I was working with, and also introduce more customers and sales for the boutique baby store that I was collaborating with. Everything would be so perfect and everyone would walk away with more of everything that they wanted!

This introductory collaboration was actually very lovely. I did a little grant writing project in exchange for free rehearsal and performance space at a boutique baby store in the East Bay, I worked with actors who were willing to accept a share of donations as payment, I already owned all of the props, and all the scenery was built into the real-life store.

We did a three-show run one Saturday morning during the store’s regular business hours. We had maybe eight audience members total during the entire production. What happened to “if you build it, they will come?” Apparently, people don’t flock to inconvenient locations for a free performance of someone’s 10-minute play unless they’re really, really motivated to go. Lesson #1.

Our next production, which was happening about a week later, was a traveling 10-minute show called “The Spin Cycle” and it took place in a laundromat, so we decided to perform this show guerilla-style in laundromats all over the East Bay—in Berkeley, Oakland, and Alameda. The only laundromat where we asked for permission to perform was the one that I used to clean my own laundry, and that’s because I knew the people there and I really didn’t want them to get mad at me. It turns out that when you perform in a laundromat, the sound of washing machines and dryers makes it really hard to hear actors. Lesson #2.

Laundromat – Colin Potter, Pablo Vadillo, and Dee Dee Hilgeson sneak into an Oakland laundromat in an early All Terrain Theater performance.

Laundromat – Colin Potter, Pablo Vadillo, and Dee Dee Hilgeson sneak into an Oakland laundromat in an early All Terrain Theater performance.

Also, if your scene is spread across two locations—the dryers are on one side and the folding tables are on the other side—then people can not follow your play at all. The play then becomes performance art and not theater. Which is fine … if that’s what you wanted. Lesson #3.

Our next set of shows took place inside of apartments, which was fantastic because we had a lot more control over our space, and the audiences who came to those performances really intended to see theater. The drawback of doing theater inside a private residence is that sometimes potential audience members are skeptical that a show being performed in a residence is worth seeing. At least a laundromat is in a public space—it’s already legitimate because it’s a real business. However, anyone could just randomly put on a “show” in their livingroom and that’s supposed to be theater? Venues determine credibility. Lesson #4

Fortunately, by the time we got to the apartments, we had finally learned to reach out to the people who would be most receptive to our residential productions: close friends and family members. Lesson #5.

Our biggest site-specific production was Barbara Jwanouskos’ “It’s All in the Mix,” a play about three DJs that we performed inside of a record store in Oakland. Although the venue wasn’t that close to BART, it had the perfect feel for our show. The front of the building was a record shop and the interior of the building where we performed was a warehouse type space that felt like someone’s basement or garage. In other words, the type of place that a DJ might practice spinning.

Record Store – Johnny Manibusan, Kristoffer Barerra, Brady Brophy-Hilton, and Champagne Hughes figure out how to use a record store for Barbara Jwanouskos’ “It’s All in the Mix.”

Record Store – Johnny Manibusan, Kristoffer Barerra, Brady Brophy-Hilton, and Champagne Hughes figure out how to use a record store for Barbara Jwanouskos’ “It’s All in the Mix.”

In this production, I learned that doing large-scale site-specific work meant that I had to start fretting about things that producers take for granted in a traditional theater space, like seats and lights and sound equipment. Most traditional theaters happen to come with actual seats. We had to borrow ours from one of our sponsors. What about lighting and sound equipment? We had to import our equipment and figure out DIY ways to make it work. Small-scale site-specific work is super easy, but the bigger the production becomes, the more I consider taking the show to a space designed for theater. Lesson #6.

Producing work in non-theater locations helps make theater accessible to people who feel like “theater” is too stuffy for them (artists can’t be pretentious about their work when it’s performed next to a basket of someone’s dirty underwear), and it makes theater physically accessible to people who don’t live near theaters or who don’t live near theaters doing work that is relevant to them.

But mostly, creating theater in an alternative space is SUPER FUN. Site-specific work is for adventurers looking to mine treasure and overcome seemingly insurmountable—and extremely ridiculous—obstacles at every turn. Every performance becomes a triumph as a space that wasn’t originally meant for theater becomes a vehicle for creating collaborative art. And what’s more fun than saying that my baby store play was performed in an actual baby store?

Tracy Held Potter is a writer currently working as an MFA candidate in the Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University with Rob Handel. She is the Artistic Director of All Terrain Theater (www.allterraintheater.org), Executive Director of Play Cafe (www.playcafe.org), and Co-Founder of the 31 Plays in 31 Days Challenge (http://31plays31days.com). She’s looking forward to spending winter in San Francisco where she can start saying things like, “You think this is cold? Well, you clearly haven’t had to deal with a Polar Vortex.”

The Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards for 2013

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2013 list. 

Three years ago I decided that I wanted to start my own Bay Area Theater Awards, because my opinions are just as legitimate as anyone else’s, the awards I give out are as valuable as any other critical awards, (recipients of the SEBATA, or the Stuey, if you prefer, get nothing but my admiration and some free publicity), and also because there’s a fairly good chance that I’ve seen a lot of theater the usual award givers haven’t seen. The best thing about the Bay Area theater scene is that there is a huge diversity in the offerings, and so much on the table to begin with. No one person can see it all, and therefore it’s important to share with one another the highlights of our time in the audience seat, if only to create a greater awareness of what and who is out there making stuff.

Also, there are some people who think I don’t like anything, and I feel a need to not only prove them wrong, but to do so by expressing how much of the local color I do love and admire, as opposed to just pointing out that the reason they think I don’t like anything is because I generally don’t like *their* work (oh… I guess I did just point that out, didn’t I?). Normally I post these “awards” on my Facebook page, but this year I decided to bring them to the blog because the mission statement of the SEBATA is pretty in-line with the mission statement of Theater Pub, and having come to the close of an amazing year of growth for the blog, it now has a much farther reach than my Facebook page could ever hope to have. Congratulations SF Theater Pub Blog- you just won a Stuey.

Anyway, because I am a product of the generation that grew up with the MTV Movie Awards- and, because I’m the only person on the voting committee and thus can do what I like- I have decided that my categories are purely arbitrary and can be stretched to allow me to write about anyone I feel like. The two limits are 1) I can’t give myself an award (though I can have been involved in the show on a limited level) and 2) I won’t go over thirteen (though there may be ties for some awards). Because seriously, how (more) self indulgent would this be without either of those rules? Oh, 3) I won’t give out awards for how bad something was. I’m here to be positive. And chances are those people were punished enough.

To all my friends and frenemies in the Bay Area Theater Scene… it’s been a great year. Let’s you and me do it again sometime. Well… most of you.

And now, presenting the Fourth Annual Stuey Awards…

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
“Pint Sized IV” (San Francisco Theater Pub)
Pint Sized Plays gets better each year, and it’s honestly one of two things I actually miss about working at the Cafe Royale (the other is the uniqueness of doing Shakespeare there, which for some reason works in a completely magical way I wish it worked more often on traditional stages). This year the festival was put together by Neil Higgins, who did an amazing job, and I think we had some of the best material yet. The evening as a whole felt incredibly cohesive, with a theme of forgiveness and letting go, archly reflective of our decision to leave the Cafe Royale, and I think incredibly relevant to a lot of our audience. We knew Pint Sized could be very funny, and very socially pointed, but I’m not sure we had ever conceived of it as moving and this year it was, thanks in no small part to our writers (Megan Cohen, Peter Hsieh, Sang S. Kim, Carl Lucania, Daniel Ng, Kirk Shimano and Christian Simonsen), directors (Jonathan Carpenter, Colin Johnson, Tracy Held Potter, Neil Higgins, Charles Lewis III, Meghan O’Connor, Adam L. Sussman) and actors (Annika Bergman, Jessica Chisum, Andrew Chung, AJ Davenport, Eli Diamond, Caitlin Evenson, Lara Gold, Matt Gunnison, Melissa Keith, Charles Lewis III, Brian Quakenbush, Rob Ready, Casey Robbins, Paul Rodrigues, Jessica Rudholm). The evening would start off with a magical performance by the Blue Diamond Bellydancers, whose combination of skill and spectacle got our audiences excited for what was to come. As we moved through the pieces, each by turns funny and poignant, each in some way or another about finding something, losing it, letting it go, and then coming back stronger, you could feel the audience grow warmer and closer each night. By the time Rob Ready gave the closing monologue, fixing each audience member in turn with a smile, you could feel everyone really listening and you could hear a pin drop in the room, and that’s saying something for the noisy by nature Cafe Royale. I think a lot of love went into the festival this year, and not just because it might be the last, and the product of that love was real magic and like the best theater- you had to be there. And if you weren’t, you really missed out.

BEST SHOW
“The Motherf**ker With The Hat” (San Francisco Playhouse)
I saw a lot of decent, solid, well done theater this year but I had a hard time connecting to a lot of it, which was rarely a flaw with the show and probably had more to do with where I was/am as a person (lots of change this year). Then again, something about really good theater is that it can get you out of your own head and into some other world, for a while. Towards the end of the year, I saw three shows I really really liked: “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake” at Bigger Than A Bread Box Theater Company, “Peter/Wendy” at Custom Made Theater Company, and “First” at Stage Werx, produced by Altair Productions/The Aluminous Collective and Playground. Still, San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The Motherf**ker With The Hat”, directed by Bill English, was probably my favorite show of the year. Who knows why it has an edge on the others? Maybe because as someone who spent most of their childhood weekends in New York it seemed oddly familiar, or maybe it was the deft handling by the universally excellent cast (Carl Lumbly, Gabriel Marin, Rudy Guerrero, Margo Hall, Isabelle Ortega) of the complex relationships and dialogue that Guirgis does so well, or maybe it was just refreshing to see such a simple, honest play in what, for me, was a year characterized by a lot of stylistically interesting but emotionally cold theater. There is something very passionate, scathing, bombastic and yet also humble and forgiving about Guirgis’ work that I think makes him such an important voice in modern American drama and English’s production brought all that out with an easy grace. The show really worked, and got me out of my head, and when I went back to my life I felt much better for the journey. What more can you ask of a theater experience?

BEST READING
“Paris/Hector” (San Francisco Olympians Festival)
I attend a lot of readings every year, and run a reading festival myself, so I’ve come to greatly value a really well done reading. This year, the award goes to director Katja Rivera and writers Kirk Shimano and Bridgette Dutta Portman, whose pair of one acts about the pair of Trojan princes Paris and Hector made for one of the best nights of this past year’s San Francisco Olympians Festival. Part of what I loved about it was that in one evening we saw the amazing variety the festival can offer: Kirk’s play was a comedy with a poignant moment or two, while Bridgette’s was a faux-classical drama- written in verse no less. Though the writers are the center of attention at the festival, credit really has to be given to Katja Rivera, who as the director of both pieces, made many simple but effective choices to highlight the best elements of both works and utilize the talents of her excellent cast: Yael Aranoff, Molly Benson, Jeremy Cole, Mackenszie Drae, Allison Fenner, Dana Goldberg, John Lennon Harrison, Michelle Talgarow, Alaric Toy. With the combined excellent story-telling of the performers (including beautiful and surprising singing from Yael, Molly and Dana), the thoughtfulness of the scripts, and the cohesiveness of the whole, this night of the festival stood out best in what was a consistently strong year at the Olympians.

BEST SHORT PLAY
“My Year” by Megan Cohen (Bay One Acts Festival)
Megan Cohen’s “My Year” is the kind of thing I wish more short plays would be: dynamic, personal, and complete. In a sea of short plays that are really fragments, or meet-cute plays, it’s always lovely to see something with a beginning, a middle, and end, and full-formed characters having actual interactions and not just feeling like Girl A and Guy B, thrown together by the whimsy of the playwright to make a point (though of course, the right playwright can pull that off- which is why so many people try to ape it). A friend of mine described “My Year” as “A fun little 90s indie film on stage” and my reaction when watching it was “Oh, Dear God, convince Meg to let me write a companion piece to this!” because let’s face it: at least a third of what I write is a 90s film on stage. My own vanity aside, what I loved about this play (directed by Siobhan Doherty, starring Emma Rose Shelton, Theresa Miller, Nkechi Live, Allene Hebert, Jaime Lee Currier, and Luna Malbroux) was that it felt constantly on the move, while still being mostly composed of intimate moments between a group of women at a birthday party. Like a lot of the theater that I really loved this year, it also just struck a personal chord, watching this young woman (Emma Rose Shelton) trying to enjoy the party her friends have thrown for her (though she doesn’t like surprise parties) despite there being no food and a random stranger (Theresa Miller) who worms her way in only to turn out to be the troublemaker she’s originally pegged for. Megan’s writing had its usual combination of smart and sentimental, but whereas a lot of her other work heads into absurdity and/or extreme quirkiness (not that this is bad), “My Year” stayed very grounded and found its meaning in that effort to stay grounded, making what might be a quiet little play in anyone else’s oeuvre, a nice change of pace in Cohen’s. The final moment, where the characters howl at the moon because what else are you going to do after a shitty birthday, felt like a communal sigh even the audience was in on, probably because we could all relate to Shelton’s character, and while having always loved and admired Meg’s work, this is probably the first time I related to it so wholeheartedly.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Linda Huang (Stage Manager, Tech, Box Office, Everything)
You know how the Oscars and Tonys give out Lifetime Achievement Awards for people whose contribution is so massive that it would kind of be criminal to pick one work or contribution so instead they just get an award for basically being themselves? You know, like how Peter O’Toole got that award because at some point somebody realized that he was pervasively brilliant and always in fashion and therefore easily forgotten because things like “Oh, well, he’ll win next year” often times factors in to who we recognize, meaning things like reliability and consistency do not? Well, for the first time ever in the history of the SEBATAs, I’m creating The Peter O’Toole Award for General Awesomeness and giving it to Linda Huang, without whom, in all seriousness, I believe that small theater in San Francisco would probably grind to a halt. Earlier this year, I got recognized by the Weekly as a “Ringmaster” of the theater scene, but frankly I (and people like me) could not do what we do without having Linda (and people like her) constantly coming to our aid despite being paid a fraction of what they’re worth and half the time being forgotten because what they do isn’t in the immediate eye of the audience. Linda is a total gem of the theater scene. She wears many hats, though she’s probably best known for running light boards, and one of my favorite things when attending the theater is running into her, usually working in some capacity I previously was unaware she was qualified to do (note: Linda is qualified to do everything). What I love best about Linda (aside from her cutting sense of humor and tell-it-like-it-is demeanor) is her incredible generosity: she does so much for local theater and rarely gets paid, and even when she does get paid she often says, “Pay me last.” A true team player, and one we don’t thank enough, especially as she’s the only person who seems to know how to get the air conditioning in the Exit Theatre to work.

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Atticus Rex, Open Mic Night In Support of the Lemonade Fund (SF Theater Pub/Theater Bay Area Individual Services Committee)
I never expected to include a note about someone who performed at an open mic/variety show, but I wanted to shout out to Atticus Rex, a young performer who literally made his performance debut at the San Francisco Theater Pub/ISC fundraiser for the Lemonade Fund this year. A last minute replacement, Atticus and a friend performed some original hip-hop for our audience of mostly performance professionals and their friends, and despite the formidable crowd and the first time nerves, he basically killed it. Even when he made a mistake it worked: he’d call himself out, apologize, and start again, somehow without ever missing a beat. His lyrics are very tight and poetic, and the contrast between the power in his words and his humbleness at approaching and leaving the stage works so well you’d almost think it was an act- except he later confessed he’d never performed live before, and it couldn’t have been more sincere. With genuine hope he never loses his sincerity, while also continuing to grow his confidence and experience, I wanted to take a moment to say congratulations once again, and thank you for reminding us all what it looks like to really take a risk onstage.

BEST CHEMISTRY
Genie Cartier and Audrey Spinazola (Genie and Audrey’s Dream Show, SF Fringe Festival)
What’s potentially cuter than “Clyde the Cyclops?” Very little, but these two ladies and their breathless, funny, and surreal little clown show come dangerously close to giving Clyde a run for his money, and it’s the only show I saw at the Fringe this year that I wished my boyfriend had also seen. Bravely straddling the bridge between performance artists and acrobats, this collage of monologues, poems, jokes, mime, clowning, puppetry, stunts, music, and children’s games, is like watching two hyper-articulate kids on pixie sticks go nuts in a club house, but only if those kids had an incredible sense of timing and arch senses of humor (not to mention very flexible bodies). I’ve never been a huge fan of circus stuff (I like it as an accent, sometimes, but as entertainment on its own it doesn’t tend to hold my interest long), but I think I’d be a fan of anything that had these two women in it. Their ability to play off each other is the key to making their show work, and when you watch it you have that sense of being let into the private make-believe world of people who have found kindred spirits in one another. It’s an utterly magic combination and from what I know of other people who saw it, it basically charmed the pants off everyone. Or at least, everyone who has a soul.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
Ben Calabrese (Apartment in “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”)
I saw a lot of great performances by men this year (Sam Bertken in “Peter/Wendy”, Tim Green and Gregory Knotts in “First”, Paul Rodrigues “Pint Sized Plays IV”, Will Hand “Dark Play”, Casey Robbins “Oh Best Beloved!”), but this one really took my breath away (though since Sam Bertken actually got me to sincerely clap for fairies in Peter/Wendy, he gets a second shout out). Ben’s role, which is to literally embody the voice of a neglected apartment, is the kind of role that could either be the best thing about the show, or the worst. Luckily for Bigger Than A Breadbox’s production of “Crumble, or Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake (written by Sheila Callaghan), Ben rocked it. Bouncing around the stage, dive bombing the furniture, all the while spouting, eloquently, Callaghan’s beautiful and complex monologues, Ben was so utterly watchable it was impossible not to buy the conceit of the role, and so moments when he has an orgasm from having the radiator turned on, or turns his fingers into loose electrical wires, don’t seem ridiculous, but made immediate and total sense. It’s usually not a compliment to tell an actor they did a tremendous job being an inanimate object, but what Ben did so well was illustrate that a home, while not “alive”, does indeed have a life to it. And if that life occasionally fixes the audience with Ben’s particular brand of “scary actor stare” why… all the better.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Brandice Marie Thompson (Georgia Potts in “First”)
Oh, this was a tough one. As usual, the actresses of the Bay Area are kicking ass and taking names no matter what their role, and my decision to pick Brandice above the rest is because I think she best exemplified that thing which so many actresses have to do, which is take a relatively underwritten role in a play about men and turn it into a rich, believable character who somehow manages to steal the show. Evelyn Jean Pine, who wrote “First”, is a fantastic writer and she writes women and men equitably well, and due credit must go to her for the creation and inclusion of this character in a story mostly about male egos, but in a lesser capable actresses hands, this role could have been annoying, or forgettable, or purely comical, and Brandice avoided all of these traps while making the character utterly charming at the same time. The truth is, her arc became much more interesting to me than that of the main character, and I think a strong argument could be made that “First” was just as much about Georgia as it was about Bill Gates. Director Michael French no doubt had a hand in this too, but in the end it’s a performer who makes or breaks a role and Brandice’s ability to combine mousy with spunky with unexpected and yet thoroughly authentic character turns was deeply satisfying to watch. Georgia kicked ass and took names, because Brandice does. Runners up: Melissa Carter (“Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”, Bigger Than A Breadbox), Allison Jean White (“Abigail’s Party”, SF Playhouse), Sam Jackson (“Oh Best Beloved!”, SF Fringe Festival), Courtney Merril (“Into the Woods”, Ray of Light), Elissa Beth Stebbins (“Peter/Wendy”, Custom Made Theatre Company).

BEST FUSION THEATER PIECE
“Nightingale” (Davis Shakespeare Ensemble/SF Fringe Festival)
This little gem at this year’s fringe festival was adapted from the myth of Philomel by Gia Battista, with music by Richard Chowenhill, directed by Rob Sals (with Battista), and staring Gabby Battista, April Fritz and Tracy Hazas as three remarkably similar looking women who each take a turn playing the heroine of a bizarre fairy tale (all the other characters in the story are played by them as well). Dance, pantomime, narration, song and traditional theater techniques all came together in a way that was astonishingly clean and charming in its simplicity. The black and white aesthetic used to unify the look of the show and performers gave the whole thing a quality both modern and timeless, and in its gentle, dreamy tone the sharp elements of social commentary and satire often seemed more brutal and impactful. Of everything I saw at the Fringe this past year, which included a number of excellent works, this piece has stayed with me the longest.

BEST SOLO SHOW
“Steve Seabrook: Better Than You” by Kurt Bodden (The Marsh)
I saw a lot more solo performance than usual this year (including works by Annette Roman, Laura Austin Wiley, Alexa Fitzpatrick, Jenny Newbry Waters, Rene Pena), and realizing how good it can be is, in and of itself, kind of a miracle because I used to say things like, “Theater begins with two people” and “If Aeschylus had wanted to write sermons he wouldn’t have added Electra”. Kurt’s show was not created this past year, it has a long history, but I only saw it in its most recent Marsh incarnation and I’m hoping he’s been able to find ways to keep it going (his Facebook feeds indicate this is so). A satire of motivational speakers and the cult of self-improvement, “Steve Seabrook” manages to be so much more by combining satirical fiction with moments of the kind of personal monologue (still fiction) that permeates solo shows. The result is a sense of development, of a story (Steve’s) unfolding in real time while another story, (Steve’s Seminar) plays itself out over the course of a weekend. Playing off the convention of a backstage comedy (we see the seminar, then we see Steve when he’s not “on”), Kurt’s brilliance as a performer is evident in the seamless transition from one to the other, again and again, carrying a throughline that shows us not only why Steve buys into his mantras, but why any of us buy into anything we’ve come up with (or adopted from someone else) to keep us moving through life’s ups and downs. At once very funny and cutting, while also moving and real (and yes, fuck it, kind of inspirational), Kurt’s show also gets a nod for its fantastic takeaway schwag: a keychain light with Steve’s name on it, with which every audience member is encouraged to shine their light in a dark world.

BEST DIRECTOR
Rebecca Longworth and Joan Howard, “Oh Best Beloved” (SF Fringe Festival)
“Oh Best Beloved” got a lot of attention and deservedly so- well acted, well designed, it was a genuinely fun piece of theater. Perhaps most deserving of being singled out in the project, however, are director Rebecca Longworth and partner Joan Howard, who share credit for conceptualizing the show (in which Joan also played a part and had, in my opinion, the single best moment in the show), and who lead the rest of the company in adapting the material from Ruyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories”. Anyone who saw the show could easily see that it had about a million moving parts, and Longworth and Howard’s ability to keep all those plates spinning on a small budget and under the strict conditions of the San Francisco Fringe Festival (they literally put up and pulled down a full set with each performance) is worthy of award in and of itself, but the level of commitment and craft they were able to pull from their design team and performers was equally as impressive. Everything about the show, even the parts that didn’t work as well as others, felt thought through and done with panache, making this ambitious and unique experience a delightful jewel in the SF Fringe Festival’s crown.

BEST DESIGNER
Bill English, “Abigail’s Party” (SF Playhouse)
Scenery in general doesn’t do much for me. I enjoy good scenery, but the best scenery should kind of vanish into the background, in my opinion, and be something you barely pay attention to. As a result, I’m often just as happy with a blank stage, or really well thought out minimal set, as I am with a full one, so long as the play I’m watching is good. That said, every now and then I will see a set I just adore, and this year it was Bill English’s set for SF Playhouse’s “Abigail’s Party”, by Mike Leigh, directed by Amy Glazer. Basically a living room/dining room/kitchenet combo, this fully realized “home” was very well crafted as a place, but more importantly, it really worked as a place where people lived. The 70s style was at once present without being overwhelming, evoking the time period without looking like it was a homage to the time period, or a museum dedicated to 70s kitch. I mean, it honestly reminded me of numerous homes I’d played in as a child (I was born in 1978) and all the wallpaper looked like wallpaper in my parents’ home before my mother completely re-did the house in 1990 because “we can admit this is ugly… now”. The amazing thing about English’s set is that it didn’t seem ugly, in spite of being made up entirely of patterns and colors we now find appalling. He made it all work together, the way people once did, and the final result was simultaneously comfortable and dazzling. I remember thinking, waiting for the play to begin, “I could live here.”

And last, but not least, every year I pick…

MY PERSONAL FAVORITE EXPERIENCE TO WORK ON
“The Age of Beauty” (No Nude Men Productions/The Exit Theatre)
I had taken a break from directing my own work, but with this nine performance workshop I allowed myself to re-discover that, as much as I like directing plays by others, there is nothing quite as satisfying as feeling like I’m telling a very personal story of my own and having the final say on how that happens. Of course, such experiences are only rewarding when you get to work with great actors, and I was lucky to have four amazing women (Megan Briggs, Emma Rose Shelton, Allison Page, Sylvia Hathaway) who were willing to go on this adventure with me, always keeping stride as I made cuts and changed lines, memorizing a mountain of material in Emma and Sylvia’s case, and crafting subtle characters who had to be both different from each other and relatively interchangeable at the same time. When I had a hard time articulating what I was going for, they would nod and smile and then show me what I meant by doing it better than I could describe it. When the show opened by the skin of its teeth it had one of those minor miracle opening nights, where even though you’re just a tiny bit unprepared (all my fault, I kept changing the script), it somehow all comes together and really works. Over the course of the show, as their performances grew and refined (our final two nights were simply perfect), I was able to see what flaws still remained in the script (two pages, middle of scene of scene two were cut the day after we closed), and any writer of new work will tell you that’s the best experience you can hope for on a first production. Shout outs to my awesome design team Cody Rishell, Jim Lively and Wil Turner IV! “The Age of Beauty” helped restore some of my lagging faith in the theater process, and made me commit to doing more of my own work in the coming year.

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

Theater Around The Bay: Mom at Work (From Poopy Diapers to Producing Plays)

Tracy Held Potter tells us what it’s like to be the Theater Maker who “has it all.”

“The world must be peopled.”
-Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing

As a mom of two very, very active young boys, people sometimes marvel at my ability to work in theater while raising children and ask, “How do you do it?”

Well, I have to.

For one thing, I love my boys like crazy and yet I sometimes feel like I need to be around grown-ups, because I occasionally have to do something else besides getting that urine smell out of my bathroom … and clothes … and carpet.

I get stir-crazy being home and doing the same things all the time—the repetition that is so great for young children is hard on me, because I want to hop around and do different things all the time. I want to be swept up in a story and frantically run around trying to collect teams of people, rewrite pages, and sell tickets to shows. That’s why theater feeds my spirit so well: I get to be around grown-ups who like to play and I get to do something completely different every day.

When my first son Henry was born, I marveled at him and wondered what he would be like and what incredible things he would be doing someday. I asked myself what I could do to help him achieve his dreams. I knew immediately that I couldn’t help him achieve his dreams if I didn’t fight to achieve mine.

I actually wrote my first non-academic play within days of Henry’s birth. My post-partum experience was extremely overwhelming, and I was on bedrest for weeks. I wrote a short play called “Reality Checkout” about a new mom’s nightmare about being emotionally attacked in a baby store, and somehow that play helped me to feel a little less lonely.

Seven months after I wrote the play, and about a year after I completed my Theater Arts classes at Laney College, I gathered some friends and approached the owner of a local baby store about producing the play in her shop.

I fantasized about how great the production would be and how dozens of people would flock to this little baby store, how delighted they would be about the production, and how enthusiastically they would purchase products from this independent, mom-owned store. I was making the world a better place!

Within a couple of weeks, the project expanded to include a total of four short plays in various site-specific locations with a showcase of all of the plays at the end of the summer. I wrote three of the four plays, directed two of them, and produced all of them, while working part-time and caring for and nursing my eight-month-old.

We produced the first play at the baby store, but it was kind of a mess. In addition to losing half of our rehearsal time to events outside of my control, we had audiences of about two or three people at each of the three performances, and children who weren’t part of the show kept running through the stage.

Somehow, I managed to bring Henry to a number of rehearsals, and I got away with nursing him while the actors were running lines or practicing their staging. I also brought him to some of the performances, but that turned out to be extremely stressful for me because I would bristle every time he fussed during a scene, worrying that the audience was getting distracted or annoyed.

Despite all of the things that weren’t working, the production gave me the opportunity to break outside of my comfort level and showed me a world that I really wanted to be a part of, and I discovered that this world was accessible to me.

Since then, I have continued to write, direct, and produce plays through my company All Terrain Theater and I’ve tacked on a number of other projects as well.

I’ve found that any work is accessible to me as a parent if my collaborators are comfortable with my status as a parent. Small things like inviting me to bring my children to meetings, telecommuting, or giving me autonomy to generate my own schedule all make it more possible to work while raising small children.

My friend Rachel Bublitz and I created an international playwrights challenge called 31 Plays in 31 Days while each raising two children under the age of four, and I think we accomplished it because we could have meetings at the playground while our children were playing. We worked our schedules around preschool, naps, and making dinner, and we did a lot of the work online. Working with someone who “gets it” makes it possible to flow with the craziness of parenting without fighting against it.

My children are a great gift to my ability to be productive. Because my personal time is so limited, I have to maximize every moment of it. If I have thirty minutes because my kids happened to fall asleep in the car, then I’m writing or responding to important emails. If I have a script due, then I write it as soon as I can, because I never know when I’m going to need to keep my son home from school because he’s sick, or if it’s going to take three hours to put my kids to bed (which is a lie, because I do know, and it’s every single night).

I’ve talked with a number of women who run theater companies in the Bay Area in collaboration with other women, and it’s exciting to hear them create spaces for their children (or future children) within their theaters so that they can continue to be creative and productive in the arts while still being close to their children.

The more we can incorporate the needs and realities of parents in our creation of theater, the richer our stories will become, because we’ll be representing more of the world around us.

But, more importantly, we need children around to remind us what theater is about: creating a magical experience that transports us into another world.

Tracy Held Potter is a writer, director, and producer currently working as an MFA candidate in the Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University is Rob Handel. She is the Artistic Director of All Terrain Theater (www.allterraintheater.org), Executive Director of Play Cafe (www.playcafe.org), and Co-Founder of the 31 Plays in 31 Days Challenge (http://31plays31days.com). She changes a lot of diapers, dispenses many hugs, and is extremely grateful to her dad for caring for her two incredible boys while she runs off to pursue her dreams.

Theater Around The Bay: A Critic Isn’t Batman

Stuart Bousel talks about why he’s nowhere near as worked up about a bad review as some people think he should be… and why nobody probably ever should be.

So, over the weekend, as I was listening to a first reading of the first draft of a new play (my adaptation of Kristin Hersh’s memoir, RAT GIRL), an article on another theater website, HowlRound, was apparently causing some distress amongst my circle of theater associates, largely because the writer, Lily Janiak, had written less than flattering things about both my play and the play of a friend of mine, FANTASY CLUB by Rachel Bublitz Kessinger. To be fair, Rachel (and her director, Tracy Held Potter) got the worse end of the stick, but to be fair to Lily as well, her article was less a review of either of our plays (or a third play, WHAT EVERY GIRL SHOULD KNOW, by Monica Byrne) as it was a meditation on whether or not her ability to critique a show is influenced by her own personal aesthetics, taste, and (since this was a comparison of three plays “about women”) the social-political agenda that she personally, as a woman, wants to see satisfied by a theater experience ostensibly focused on women. As I read her article, she ultimately concludes that yes, of course, all these things factor in, but she still feels she can tell a “good” show from a “lacking” one. In light of all that (and regardless of whether or not I personally feel, based on her work, that Lily has reached the point where she can think outside of her own perspective), I really found her inclusion of my play in her article rather flattering, and my reaction to it directly can be summed up by the following post on Facebook:

Everyone keeps asking if I’m going to have a response to a play of mine being mentioned (somewhat negatively) in a HowlRound article and I have to keep telling people I just don’t really care. Ironically, I may now have to write a blog about how and why I just don’t really care… To me, that is a worthy topic: about how I long ago stopped putting much weight into criticism- even though I absolutely think criticism is valuable and I’m happy, as an artist, that my work gets talked about at all. But that’s just it- the goal here is to stimulate conversation, not like… be loved by everyone. And the truth is, the article isn’t really about my play, and to some extent the writer, who I know personally and think very highly of (even though I frequently disagree with her), is crediting my play with having made her think about what part her own personal taste plays in her review of what she sees. Which I take as a compliment. The whole part where she doesn’t like how some of my female characters talk too much about their ex-boyfriends is like… whatever. The point of the play isn’t about women who can’t get over men, it’s about how all people struggle with their past and what relationship it continues to play in their lives. But even if it had been a play about women who can’t get over men- THERE ARE WOMEN LIKE THAT, and while you may not be interested in that, it doesn’t mean their stories shouldn’t be told. Just means you should go see something else. As a gay man who is frequently sitting at shows where I see disappointing representations of gay life and gay people (frequently created by gay theater artists and gay theater companies, I might add), I long ago realized that my personal taste isn’t everyone else’s, and something isn’t bad or unworthy, just because it isn’t how I want it or would do it/say it. To me, her article is about her coming to realize that and I’m kind of just shrugging and thinking, “Good for you, and thanks for spelling my name right when you credited me as part of that process for you.” Job well done on both our parts, I say.

If you’re interested in reading Lily’s article, you can do so here. If you would like to read a different perspective on my show, you can do so here. It’s worth noting that both reviews are written by critics I know personally (Sam openly states that in his article, but the fact is Lily was in the same festival a year earlier), neither of whom I think has a particular personal bias towards me as an artist, as one thing I have really tried to establish about myself over the years is that I treat everyone the same, whether they’re into my work or not, so long as I feel they are coming at my work from a place of honesty and make a reasonable effort to speak their opinions coherently. Do I feel that Sam “got” this particular play and Lily did not? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean I think Lily’s perspective is wrong so much as it’s just hers and her perspective is one that is seeking an experience that isn’t the same as the experience I sought to create as an artist. Which obviously is disappointing to her, but the suggestion that my characters are not strong portrayals of women or speak like television characters is really just her opinion- and she’s entitled to it. I mean, I put the work out there, and if I’m allowed to do that (and I am, and should be), then she is allowed to have a reaction and articulate that reaction (and as a critic, she’s obligated to do so). The risk we all take, artist and audience, is that one half of that equation might not work for the other half of the equation. That doesn’t make either half wrong, in and of itself, merely unsuited for one another.

But again, talking about Lily’s review specifically, isn’t all that interesting to me, so much as talking about how I got messaged by fifteen or so people, over the course of Saturday and Sunday, asking me, “Did you see this yet?” and then “What do you think?” after I confirmed, yet again, that I had seen it and certainly have the ability to recognize my own name when it pops up. What I began to realize, however, is that what people really couldn’t understand was how I could have read the article and not had a strong reaction to it, and so the assumption was, as more and more time passed without me talking about the article, that I must have been in ignorance of it. A fair assumption, I suppose, especially as Tracy Potter and Rachel Kessinger had been talking about it on their Facebook pages and Tracy had gone so far as to post a response in the comments section on Lily’s article. Around person eleven or so to ask me what I thought, I finally replied, “Do you think I should be angry or upset? ‘Cause I’m not. I just find it all kind of amusing that more people are writing or calling to ask if I’m upset than to congratulate me on the good reviews I got when the show was up and running.” The friend in question (who for the record, is always very supportive) replied, “I think what makes this special is that being mentioned on HowlRound at all is kind of a big deal.” I wrote back, “Yeah, I guess it is. And then again, it sort of isn’t.” And there in lies the twist that, to me, makes for a more amusing blog post than anything I might have argued about this particular critic’s response to this particular play of mine.

Once upon a time, when I was 19 and a junior at Reed College, an early but cornerstone play of mine, THE EXILED, came very close to being made into an independent film. Well, as close as most films get, meaning it died on the table early in the process and nothing in regards to that effort has happened since. If you know anyone working in the film industry, you probably know that the number of never-made movies far outweighs the number of ones that get into the production phase (where many films also die), let alone the number that actually get finished and then released (the day you find out how many finished films sit forever in some studio storage space somewhere, never to be screened, is the day you really truly realize just how small a percentage of aspiring artists ever actually see their efforts presented to an audience on even the most humble level), but a never-made movie is still farther along than a never-considered screenplay and it’s astounding how traumatizing something that never actually happened, can be. And how it can really put into perspective, for the rest of my life, what any critic (professional or amateur) will ever say about my work.

So what exactly did happen? Well, I scrambled to write a screenplay after the boyfriend of an actress who liked the play (and wanted to play the female lead) rashly decided to finance a film of it. This happened in 1998, when making independent films was sort of the raison d’etre for my entire generation (besides going to the music store and spending all night in coffee shops), but what made this particular situation a little different is that the aspiring film producer in question was able to use his connections as a former alternative/extreme sports star (a la Jason Lee) to open a number of doors that led to rooms none of us was really experienced or equipped to walk into, let alone hold our own in. He teamed up with a co-producer who was the son of a prominent entertainment lawyer (and of course, an aspiring actor himself) who in turn pulled his own strings (namely, using his dad’s contacts to bypass agents and get my hastily assembled screenplay directly into the hands of celebrities), and the result was that my work was suddenly being read by some really famous people long before it should have been, and not even remotely in the right context or with the correct layers of agents, organizations and other protections that would have probably stopped, or at least mitigated, the level of direct correspondence that ultimately resulted in me being forwarded (by the co-producer/wanna-be actor) an outrageously nasty email where an actor who had been approached to play the male lead basically said I should be executed and my work should be mulched for toilet paper. I think I’m actually making him sound more polite than he was. Anyway, I was forwarded that email as an explanation for why the co-producer suddenly wanted me to completely re-write the script and then subsequently walked on the project once I refused to do so without some kind of contract promising me some kind of control and ownership of my screenplay and more importantly, my stage-play.

Now, real producers would not have let an actor’s bitchy email bother them, but I wasn’t working with real producers and I definitely was not working with artists: I was working with people who were looking to ride a cultural wave to fast fame and hopeful fortune and the whole thing had never been about me, my work, or film-making as an art form. If they had been interested in any of those things, they would have known that it is hard to make a movie, and that rejection is part of the game, particularly when you are doing something new or different or with people who don’t have enough celebrity clout to get a free pass on their “work” no matter how good or bad it is because everyone just wants to be associated with them. Real producers and real artists know that when the going gets rough, as it’s bound to, that’s when it’s most important to stand by your people and your work. Even at that age, I knew that, and I was prepared to dig my heels into the project and see it through to the end and the only reason I rationally walked away was because my agent at the time, bless her, calmly said to me over the phone, “You are young and this will not be your only opportunity, and you need to realize that if this movie even gets made, and I doubt it will, there is virtually no chance it will be something you want your name attached to because none of these people share your vision and that is the only thing that would make sticking this out worth doing.” I knew she was right and we killed the contract the next day. A year later, EXILED had its first small theater production and was well-received and has been periodically produced in small theaters across the country since. I’m happy every time it happens and almost never think about the debacle that was it’s three months in “pre-production”.

Except, sometimes, when I get a bad review.

I am very lucky, and generally speaking my work receives positive reviews. Even when it doesn’t, it’s rarely trashed (I can only think of one out-right pan I have ever received) and usually the critic appears to have at least taken it seriously, discussing the problems and merits of the piece, demonstrating that at the very least it gave them something to think about and was, thus, worthy of their time. I long ago realized that I do not create mainstream theater and I am okay with that. Actually, I’m proud of that. Sure, sometimes I feel unappreciated, unpopular, or like there is just no point in doing what I do, but I don’t know any artist who doesn’t feel that from time to time, and on the plus side I know that I am my own man, that my work has integrity and reflects my ambitions and beliefs and not someone else’s prescription for success, and on those rare occasions I do score a hit or a critic really gets what I do it’s all the more gratifying because I know they’re not just blowing sycophant smoke up my celebrity asshole. My former agent would frequently remind me that my work was “not-marketable”, “too esoteric”, “too smart”, “not trendy” and “difficult” and all that used to rankle me, but now I realize that all that boils down to her opinion and ability to sell me to people who probabably held similar perspectives. None of whom would do my work well anyway. On one level it does suck that I apparently have small hope of being a famous, oft-performed writer; but if the price of fame and fortune is that I change my art into something that doesn’t reflect my voice, then it comes at much too high a cost, and by the way, the majority is still not everybody and there is no shame in being a niche voice that speaks to a niche community. These days, a strong cult following appeals far more to me than universal acclaim ever did. The universe always finds something new to crow over; cults honor forever.  Similarly, the words of someone who gets my work, matter so much more than the words of someone who doesn’t; even when that someone is famous or is associated with some kind of “big deal”, be it a studio, a theater,  or a publication. Being successful at a business that is at least one third luck and one third who you know, doesn’t actually make you someone worth listening to any more so than someone who hasn’t achieved the same level of “success” but may have put in just as much (or more) work.

So who was that actor who wrote the nasty email proclaiming this was literally the worst thing he’d ever read? Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Let’s just call him “Batman”. The people who know me well know why and the rest of you can have fun thinking about it. Who he is honestly doesn’t matter because in the end all that did matter was that he was kind of a big deal then, and he’s an even bigger deal now, and regardless his opinion means nothing at all beyond being his opinion and the fact that he is famous adds no more weight to his words.

Or maybe it does, but not in the way that most people think.

See, when I got that email, I cried. I mean, seriously, I got to the first derogatory comment and burst into tears. And then I had to get through the rest of the e-mail and it just got worse and worse and worse. Where a simple “no” would have sufficed, Batman felt a need to go the extra mile and really just express over and over how it was basically insulting to him to have even been asked to consider the part he was being offered (which is amazing because honestly, even if a project is not for you, it’s always an honor to be asked and anyone who sees otherwise has a ridiculous ego that will only harm them one day and sure enough, Batman has developed a nasty reputation). The particulars of what he wrote do not matter, all that matters is that at this point in my life, though I had been bringing my writing to workshops for three years now and subjecting it to public viewing and review for just as long, nobody had ever just torn me to shreds so ruthlessly, so explicitly, and so comprehensively, tearing apart not just my work but me as a person, even though he knew nothing about me. In this actor’s defense, he had sent the email to the producer, not me, and maybe would not have been so nasty if he had known I’d end up reading it (maybe) but I was 19 and I just simply lacked the experience to react in any other way than total horror and sadness, taking entirely personally what was, in reality, the ridiculous ranting of an egomaniac actor who has most certainly made far worse films than the one I wrote. Anyway, I ran downstairs to a friend who lived on the floor below (at the time I was living in a dorm) and gushed out my sorrow and despair.

“Batman doesn’t like my work! Batman thinks I should be taken out of the gene pool! Batman couldn’t even finish his morning coffee because he hated it so much!”

Seriously, he’d said that in the e-mail.

My friend, who is herself an accomplished sci-fi/fantasy writer, listened to about five minutes of my wailing and then cut me off with the incredibly insightful, “Stuart… Batman… read your screenplay.”

Which, looking back, is the only part of the entire experience that matters.

I believe we need critics. As a producer, I need reviews to market my own shows and the work of the artists who create under my banner, whose work I believe in enough, be they writer or actor or other type of theater maker, to risk not only my finances but my reputation. As an artist, I like reviews (and I always read them and don’t believe people who say they don’t) because I like knowing my work is being seen and instigating reactions and conversations- whatever those reactions are and wherever those conversations may lead. Also, sometimes, a critic will show me something about myself and my work I didn’t see, and that’s always valuable, whether they illuminate a positive or negative aspect. Sometimes they are also just dead wrong and that’s valuable too as it documents how a work can be mis-perceived or fails to strike the proper chord with someone. I know that something needs to be fixed when I have been watching the show, night after night, silently feeling the same way, and a critic who nails the problem I already know is there is a jewel to be cherished. On the other hand, if I love my show, it kind of doesn’t matter to me what the critic says. And for the record, I have occasionally read really positive reviews of my work that made me roll my eyes because, as much as they liked it, they clearly didn’t “get it.” Being understood is actually, for me, way more important than being liked or loved. It’s certainly more gratifying. But I try not to begrudge any audience member their experience and just be grateful that they were there and had one at all. I’m not making art to be loved, but I am definitely not making it to be ignored.

Ever since I figured that out about myself it’s been much easier to absorb the bad reviews along with the good. Sure, it’s disappointing from time to time and as a producer it can be stressful if I feel like it’ll damage the financial success of a show. When someone I like and respect doesn’t like my work it’s not a happy thing, but it’s also not a requirement of knowing me or being my friend, and I’d rather an honest conversation about what I do than a dishonest one, and I do my best to engage people who I like and respect but don’t like my work because it can be valuable but also because at some point it’ll probably happen at least once with everybody I know since I chose not to surround myself with idiots and paid escorts. Honestly, part of being an artist is accepting that some people are just not going to be my audience, and that includes some of my friends and it definitely includes some critics, most of whom are no more bias free than anyone else who has ever seen more than one play, read more than one novel, heard more than one song. Once I figured all that out it really takes whatever sting was left out of whatever someone has to say, and on the rare occasion a habitual detractor or the perpetually unimpressed colleague does throw me a compliment I’m like, “Oh, thank you, what a pleasant surprise”. What’s nice about that is, since I’m not looking for approval from them, the compliment can be a good thing without becoming something I pin my identity as an artist upon. Far too many people I know, no matter what they say, are living for approval, be it from friends or critics or the audience or the industry, and that is a dangerous thing to base your art on because it’s entirely out of your control and entirely subjective.

The truth is, I’m not looking for approval from anybody except the artists I’m working with on a given project, who must buy into or share my vision for what we’re doing together to truly work. For them and they alone, on a case by case basis, am I still willing to put my ego into such a vulnerable position. Occasionally, I catch myself letting someone’s words get to me without any real validity to what they have to say, but when it comes right down to it, I recognize that I have to have confidence in my work and if I don’t that’s my issue to deal with, not the result of somebody else expressing their opinion. When it comes to your art, other people’s opinions are only as valuable as you let them be, and once you’ve been torn apart by Batman, it’s astounding how many people who are supposedly “a big deal” suddenly aren’t any more. Not because they are or aren’t Batman, but because in every situation, regardless of the critic, I am still me.

And time has proven that not even Batman can stop me.

Stuart Bousel is one of the founding artistic directors of the San Francisco Theatre Pub. You can find out more about him, AGE OF BEAUTY, THE EXILED and more of his work at http://www.stuartbousel.com.