Theater Around The Bay: From Theater Pub to the Castro Theater

Another Theater Pub success story, Christian Simonsen describes the journey of his short script “Multi-Tasking” as it went from stage to screen.

In July of this year, my short comedy play “Multitasking” was produced as part of Theatre Pub’s Pint Sized Plays IV at the Café Royale. My play (indeed, the whole festival under producer Neil Higgins’ guidance) was a huge success… although oddly enough, the compliment I heard most often from audience members was: “your play was my father’s favorite!” which is an interesting niche audience to explore.

Pint Sized Plays is a site-specific festival; all of the stories have to take place in a pub. My script was a farce about two strangers, Eric and Kathy, waiting for a blind date and job interviewer, respectively. Just as they start a mild flirtation, a yuppie woman, Tess, bursts in on them, and hilarity ensues.

A coworker from my day job, Michael Laird, had come to see my play. He said he liked it a lot… but then, I thought, that’s what coworkers are supposed to say. Near the end of September, Michael reminded me that he was a part of the local film collective called Scary Cow. He had already paid his dues working on the crews of several films in different capacities, and he now felt ready to make his own. “Would you be interested in letting me produce ‘Multitasking’ as my first film?” I thought about it for a while— who am I trying to kid, I immediately said Yes!

Pre-production begins.

Michael’s plan was to knock the film out real quick: find the easiest location, use the same actors, shoot it in one afternoon “sometime this weekend or the next” while the actors still had their characters (and lines) in their heads, download it to a yet-to-be –determined editor, give the editor three or four days, bing-bang-boom, we have a film we can enter into the Scary Cow Film Festival at the Castro Theater. The deadline to submit was October 19th.

I was hesitant. I told Michael it seemed unlikely we could pull it off that quickly. He shrugged. “Why not try?” If everything doesn’t all come together, he added, we can just regroup, and try again later. “If we miss the Festival, it can still be on YouTube!” He had a point, and I realized, not for the first time, that “hesitant” is too often my natural state. I asked Michael if he planned on directing it, but he said no, he wanted to focus on producing. In other words, he wanted to take on all the unglamorous dirty work, including picking up the tab… really, how could I say no?

I then suggested myself as the director. “Do you have any film directing experience?” my new producer asked. “Sure, I studied filmmaking in college!” I did not bother to mention that back when I made student films, Jimmy Carter was still President, and I had no clue how to access the camera on my cell phone.

So I got the gig (that’s what we used to say back in the ancient ‘70s). But then I thought about what an impressive job the stage director Jonathan Carpenter did with my script in the Pint Sized Plays production. (I was even more impressed when I later found out that Jonathan and his cast only had one rehearsal together before Opening Night!) Did I really want to submit the actors to a brand new director with such a rushed schedule? And where in tarnation would I find the [REC] button on these modern computer chip camera gizmos?

Michael agreed that it would be awesome if we could get Jonathan to direct. So I set about contacting him and the three actors: Andrew Chung (Eric), Lara Gold (Kathy) and Jessica Chisum (Tess). Everyone was excited to do it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one in the Bay Area interested in them; their dance cards were all filling up fast. So we had to find one full day in the next two weeks where the key participants, producer Michael, director Jonathan and the three actors, were all free. (I did not count myself in that lofty group because they already had my script, so really, if I got run over by a bus at that point, the show would still go on).

Via Facebook / email / texting / carrier pigeon, we found the one window where we were all free: Sunday October 13th.

Perfect. Now, where would we shoot? The script’s original setting was a pub, per the Pint Sized Plays script submission rules. But for the film, I rewrote the location as a coffeehouse (it’s the only change in the script I made). Using a real coffeehouse on such short notice was problematic. You never know if business owners are going to get cold feet at the last minute, and renege on their promise to allow you to shoot on their property. Michael, ever the cheerful optimist, said that the living room in his new apartment was fairly large… if he got the right tables and chairs, it could probably pass as a small corner of a coffeehouse.

He had a good point. Michael’s view was always that this film would be more like a Saturday Night Live comedy sketch, as opposed to a full blown film with realistic locations, etc. Although it would still be “cinematic” (using camera angles and editing to help convey the story), the main focus would be on the script and the acting, with just enough “production values” to sell the idea of the setting. In other words, we were okay with a living room that sorta kinda looking like a coffeehouse.

So, we had a time, and a location! With those variables locked down, and my script in his hand, our big shot producer Michael could go to the next Scary Cow meeting and pitch our project, and collect a crew. As soon as he recruited Alisha McMutcheon as our Director of Photography and Camera Operator, Michael set up a meeting so Jonathan and I could meet her once before the shoot.

Before the meeting, I asked Jonathan if it would be okay if I story boarded potential shots for the film. Story boards are drawings of the different camera compositions that will be shot; they basically look like a comic book version of the film. My compositions would be suggestions only. But if Jonathan liked them, it would free up his time to coach the actors. He agreed, so I created three sets of shots, four shots each. The first set was the Must Haves: the shots we definitely needed for the film to make any kind of narrative sense. The second set was the Nice to Haves: these shots would add enough variety to keep the film from looking too “stagey”. The third set was the Luxuries: in the unlikely event we were ahead of schedule, we could shoot those to make the film, as Stanley Kubrick would say, all fancy schmancy (okay, only I would say that).

One page of my storyboard artwork. Hey, I never said I was a Renaissance Man.

One page of my storyboard artwork. Hey, I never said I was a Renaissance Man.

We had a great meeting! Alisha obviously knows her stuff, and came across as a real team player. Everyone liked my story boards. I promised to avoid the stereotype of the neurotic scriptwriter by staying in the shadows and letting Jonathon run the shoot. And Michael promised to feed us breakfast and lunch! (Now that’s a producer!)

Michael started bringing more people on board that he had worked with on other films. Before we knew it, we had a film crew.

Then the bad news came from actor Jessica Chisum. In order to secure a major part in a stage production of Macbeth, she had to drop out of our shoot (this is not the first time William Shakespeare has stolen good actors from me. That guy’s a Prima donna!).

We had to find a new actor quick. It was decided that Jonathan alone should recast the part. Since he had the most experience with local actors, he would know which ones would most likely have the best chemistry with Andrew and Lara. Not to mention which candidates could learn their lines the fastest (my script was very dialogue heavy).

There is an invisible point with any theater or film production, where the momentum of everyone involved has taken it past the “what if?” stage, and it becomes its own animal; a living, breathing entity that seems to tangibly exist. At that point, any problem that comes up (such as losing an actor) seems to be one that was made to be solved. This project had reached that stage. That didn’t mean that this film was guaranteed to be made (living creatures can still die at any time). What it meant was that our director could confidently entice top notch actors on short notice with a “real project”.

In just a few days, Jonathan was able to snag Helen LaRoche. I knew the name rang a bell, so I googled her. Sure enough, back in 2012 I saw Helen give a moving performance in Stuart Bousel’s emotionally complex play “Artemis and Apollo or Twins”. I had made a mental note at the time that I wanted to someday work with her. Score!

Three days before the shoot, I meet Jonathan for coffee so we can discuss any issues about the script before his one and only rehearsal with the actors. I would not be at that rehearsal. With such a tight schedule, the actors cannot be subjected to a two-headed dragon; they need just one leader guiding them. The shoot was now Jonathan’s baby.

On the morning before the shoot, Jonathan had his two hour rehearsal with all three actors. He phoned me afterwards. He was very happy.

Production begins.

At 9:00am on the morning of the shoot, Jonathan, Alisha, myself, and the rest of the crew arrived: Tom Morrow the Gaffer, Ben Gallion the Production Assistant and Stuart Goldstein the Still Photographer (we lost our sound guy, so Alisha did triple duty). We did most of the set up before the actors arrive at 9:45am. Michael was the only person who had met everyone before today.

 I believe Michael told his roommates he was "having a few friends over."

I believe Michael told his roommates he was “having a few friends over.”

In the world of live theater, cast and crew work together for a long enough period of time to become a family. Granted, that “family” more often resembles the House of Atreus than the Little House on the Prairie… but whether they are stabbing each other or laughing together, they still know each other. In film production, you are usually thrown together with a group of mostly strangers, with a very narrow period of time to complete the production. Lucky for all of us, Michael chose everyone well. We worked together beautifully.

Director Jonothan Carpenter checks the monitor to frame a shot.

Director Jonothan Carpenter checks the monitor to frame a shot.

I was given the task of maintaining the script log, meaning I took down any notes Jonathan had on all of the shots recorded. What I noticed doing this task was the unique challenges film actors have. I know the common sentiment is that live theater separates the men/women from the boys/girls; while I would generally agree with that, film acting has its own challenges. Films are almost always shot out of order; so every time there is a new camera shot, the actors must realign themselves to a totally new place on their character arch. For instance, the final camera angle covered the characters Eric and Kathy at the first two pages of the script, and then at the very last two pages. After the beginning was shot and the director yelled “cut”, actors Andrew and Lara had to make a drastic change from being cuter than a box of kittens to looking like refugees from a Kafka story. You could see the immediate transition of time in their body language alone.

Our cast!  Andrew Chung, Helen LaRoche, Lara Gold

Our cast! Andrew Chung, Helen LaRoche, Lara Gold

Thanks to everyone’s’ professionalism, we got all twelve shots we wanted, plus one extra, an epilogue we all thought up during our lunch break.

Post-production begins.

Evan Rogers was recruited by Michael to edit our film. Editing is an art form all its own. In fact, it is the creative aspect of filmmaking that most separates cinema from live theater. An editor can make or break a film, so I was a little concerned that the whole post production of “Multitasking” would be in the hands of someone in another city that I never met (to this day I haven’t met him). But Michael vouched for him, and I read an email where Evan said he loved my script (I can be a tad vain).

And besides, Evan had almost four whole days to edit our six minute film before the October 19th deadline. No problem. Until there was a computer glitch, that caused the downloading of the files to take an entire three days. Which meant Evan had one day to edit. With Stuart Goldstein designing the Titles and credits, somehow Evan finished the entire edit in time to burn the DVD and summit it to Scary Cow on October 19th, before the 5:00pm deadline!

“Multitasking” was part of the Scary Cow Film Festival in November. It was a dream come true to hear a full crowd at the Castro Theater laughing at a comedy film I helped create.

So, here is the staged version (starting at the 12:25 mark).

And here is the filmed version.

Thanks to the creative input of all the artists involved, both versions manage to be totally faithful to my script (not a line of dialogue was ever changed).

Yet at the same time, they are distinctly different from each other.

Although I would like to think they are both, you know, funny.

Where are they now?

I feel very lucky that my script was produced in two different mediums, both times with such loving care. Here’s what all of the talented cast and crew members are up to now:

Andrew Chung is currently performing in Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” at the Impact Theatre through December 15th. Lara Gold is developing her own company, Exposure Theater, which will specialize in documentary and autobiographical theater. Helen LaRoche is work shopping Miranda Jones’ new musical, “The Precipice”. Jessica Chisum has joined the cast of Boxcar Theatre’s immersive drama “The Speakeasy” which opens January 10th.

Michael Laird, Alisha McCutcheon, Ben Gallion, Stuart Goldstein and Tom Morrow are donning multiple hats on upcoming Scary Cow films. Evan Rogers is now a VFX artist at Guerrilla Wanderer Films.

Jonathan Carpenter is returning to his hometown of Boston to develop several new projects with old thespian colleagues, but he did promise he would someday return to us.

Both Neil Higgins and yours truly have been commissioned to write new plays, “Echidna” and “Scylla” respectively, for The San Francisco Olympians Festival V: Monster Ball in 2014.

And of course all of us are available for future projects!

It takes a village to make a six minute comedy.

It takes a village to make a six minute comedy.



All photos by Stuart Goldstein.

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Working Title: The Interpretation of the Time or So Our Virtues Lie

Will Leschber discusses the merits of Shakespeare set in modern times.

It’s been near 400 years since William Shakespeare passed from this world and his works are in more supply than ever before. His reach is positively exhaustive: from home book shelves to the auditorium halls of high school onward to local community and professional theatre to the big screens of plentiful major motion picture adaptations and even globally to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2014 two-year tour that aims to take Hamlet to every country in the world. The influence spans to the far ends. Why does the Bard timelessly ring true after all the years come and gone? Any ordinary English teacher will tell you that the unearthed truths of the human experience are mined nowhere more deep than in Shakespeare. Hence, we still relate. We still need to see our tragic heroes die, for in their deaths we see the folly in ourselves. My question then is this: How much relevance does a contemporary setting lend to a Shakespeare adaptation?

Impact Theatre’s current production ofTroilus and Cressida sets their scene in modern war. Traditionally, the play takes place at the end of the Trojan war, but this production clads the heroes of history in American war garb reminiscent of Desert Storm and Vietnam.

Troilus_image_1

The setting is familiar and our characters look like young friends or acquaintances we’ve known who have gone to fight for their country. Is this enough reason for the setting change? For some, yes. More importantly though, does the change of setting bring us closer to the plight of our ever-true Troilus and kind-eyed Cressida ? Does the play resonate more because of the setting switch? In this case, the production would have played just as well in a classic setting. The Middle Eastern conflict connection didn’t detract from the themes built into the play but didn’t necessarily enhance either. One thing this conveys is that wars throughout time are alike. Our emotional maneuverings can play against any wartime backdrop. We must then ask, when it comes to stage adaptations does it matter since the human drama at the heart of the play is the same? Of course it does. Resetting a play is a tool for creation and that tool can be used adequately or excellently just like any other aspect of theatre creation.

Adapting Shakespeare can be a feat regardless of the medium. Academy Award nominated actor Ralph Fiennes made his film directorial debut with 2011’s modern retelling of Coriolanus. Coriolanus shares a number of themes with Troilus and Cressida (pride, hubris, vanity, arrogance, strength, submission) and both are set in times of war. But again I ask, is a modern adaptation about more than a setting shift? With this film at least, the answer is yes.

Coriolanus_image_#1-1

That being said Shakespearean film adaptation can be tricky. When modernizing a play 400 year old play, does one simply trim the length and let the scenes play long relying on the actors to carry the pace and weight of the scenes? Or does one trim and split the scenes to lay on top one another, supporting each other thematically and then allowing editing or camera work to create flow and pace. The answer is a creative choice and can go either way. In this case, Fiennes adapts Coriolanus as if it were conceived as a film to begin with. This is the way to go with any film adaptation. Film had its own rules and expectations. Often when audiences are watching a film adaptation of a play they want exactly that: a film. Not a filmed stage play… which has it’s own place and purpose. However, the best adaptations use the tools unique to the medium to enhance the story in a way that the stage cannot. Realistic locations, wartime scenarios played out in full desolation, a close-up that allows an intimate soliloquy to be whispered: Fiennes utilizes these tools while relying on the language to carry the narrative.

Where this adaptation shines the most is how Fiennes draws a parallel between modern news agencies/social media and their connection to the tenants of public rule within Ancient Rome. Coriolanus, who serves as such a perfect wartime weapon, is of little value in times of peace. His pride and arrogance call for scorn.

Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders; till at length
Your ignorance, which finds not till it feels,
Making not reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes, deliver you as most
Abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows!

Coriolanus, Act III, scene iii

His cursing lines here remind me of contemporary feeble rumors of facebook and overbearing media that fans our emotions. The times are similar and people will not put up with being called out on their ignorance! The voice of the people calls for banishment! Have we not seen public out cry fueled by media and social networking call for the downfall of a public figure? Do we not see soldiers return to an unwelcoming home country after their service? We see these things today as we saw them in the 60’s and as Shakespeare saw them four centuries ago.

When banished, Coriolanus is shown wandering through ravaged neighborhoods reminiscent of war torn Eastern Europe. On a small, trash-littered peninsula he sits. The upward reaching bare trees reflect in the still waters below him as if he were the middle of a world upturned. In the separate war worlds of Troilus and Coriolanus, tides turn in spite of what is right. Love and honor shift on the voiceless winds and settle uncertainly down in the ashes of war. Any generation who has known war knows the uncertain world that these Shakespearean characters inhabit. Both are relevant because of the human truth built within. However, the superior adaptation is one that ties modern aspects not present when the play was written to the human truths that were always there.

Troilus and Cressida plays at Impact Theatre until Dec. 15th. Coriolanus is available on Netflix and many other digital rental sites.

Photo Credits:

Isaacs, Cheshire. Consoled by his brother Paris. 2013. http://www.impacttheatre.com/press/Web. 3 Dec 2013.

Coriolanus. 2013. http://www.imdb.comWeb. 3 Dec 2013.

Theater Around The Bay: Please Continue Your Conversation At Home

Stuart Bousel comes clean about the real reasons he ultimately walked out of Berkeley Rep’s “The Wild Bride”.”

Yesterday afternoon, a friend whom we shall call “Wagner” (all the names in this rant will be changed so I won’t feel bad about whatever it is I’m about to say), dropped me an instant message saying he had an extra ticket to see The Wild Bride at Berkeley Rep that night, and since I’d heard some good stuff about this show (which is in its second incarnation) and I didn’t have anything else to do (which is a lie because I have so much else to do and I’m really enjoying David Wong’s John Dies At The End right now), I jumped on BART after work and headed over to the East Bay for an impromptu man-date, hoping to be blown away by a show the SF Chronicle deemed “The Best Show of the Year!” last year, and several friends of mine had waxed poetic about.

To say I was underwhelmed is putting it lightly – especially as this show was a creation of the British theater group Kneehigh, who were the folks behind the beautiful and moving Brief Encounter, a show that ACT hosted a few years back. Thankfully, I actually didn’t know they were the creators until I was flipping through the program and noticed the director’s bio. I say “thankfully” because I want to believe my opinions on this show are based on what I was watching, not just disappointment due to false expectations and artist loyalty. But what about all those good things I’d already heard from reviews and friends – couldn’t that have raised that bar too high? Honestly, no. One, because I hadn’t followed the reviews of The Wild Bride beyond the critics I regularly read and two, because I have learned to always take local buzz with a grain of salt. Frankly, I’ve been an active creator and appreciator of theater since I got here more than ten years ago (seriously, on day 6 after my move, I went to see – and greatly enjoyed – Shotgun’s Troilus and Cressida), and there is so much I love about this theater scene, but if I had a nickel for every show in the Bay Area that gets undeservedly called “genius” or gets a completely unwarranted standing ovation, I’d have enough money by now to move to New York, where I sometimes feel like the kind of theater I personally enjoy is more prevalent.

I recognize those are fighting words – particularly from someone who is as vocal (and active) in the local theater scene as I am. But what you’re ultimately going to discover is “the point” of this article, is not that I begrudge anyone their taste, but rather that I’m getting a little tired of being a complicit part of what another friend of mine (let’s call him “Valentine”) calls “the Yay-Bay”: basically the idea that as residents of the Bay Area (but particularly the Axis of Smug that is San Francisco, Berkeley and The New Republic of Oaksterdam), not only is our poop gold, but anyone else who shows up and takes a shit in our yard is automatically elevated to Golden Goose status so long as they tell us what we want to hear: namely that we’re edgy, smart, and nowhere near as disconnected from the harsh realities of the world as a great deal of the rest of the world perceives us to be.

From my own perspective, both as a creator and as an audience member with a critical eye, I will admit I have noticed there is a local tendency to respond, sometimes with real anger, to anyone who calls us on this, and to actively turn our attention away from things that would challenge us to be more thoughtful about our own lives, more considerate of perspectives “less enlightened” than our own, and more open to the possible rewards from letting ourselves experience the full range of intellectual and emotional experience- in art, and in our actual lives. My friend “Siebel” likes to say that the Bay Area is a terrible place to get your heart broken, because there’s a resentment of anyone who brings the party down; I know what he’s talking about (though most of my friends are amazing bastions of support in my low periods), and when it comes to the arts I tend to agree: this is not always a great place for self- or socially-reflective art about being in a bad situation, disillusioned, or heartbroken- unless that heartbreak is over Bush winning an election, in which case you’ve just pooped gold. See, we are allowed to be angry here, but preferably about stuff we can all agree upon. And yes, I feel like there is an enormous pressure for us all to agree here, or not speak if we don’t agree. Which is another way of agreeing.

I don’t want to imply that New York is some bastion of integrity in these regards because it’s not – it too suffers from an insular worldview that tends to place itself at the center of the universe and many New Yorkers I know are guilty of looking on the rest of the world as a place where handmaidens come from (any city that isn’t New York) and open space filled with peasants (any other place where people live). And New York theater is notoriously self-referential and a great deal of what is successful there follows the trifold agenda of 1) be about New York 2) reaffirm New York is the center of the universe 3) reflect the vast cultural and social diversity of New York, subtly underlining the idea that no one need ever come from anywhere else because New York, like Noah’s Ark, already has two of everything – and everyone. And I say this as someone whose favorite play, hands down, is John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. But the thing about New York is that for all its solipsism, it is a place where most people have embraced an undercurrent of constant change and aspiration and all the attendant fear and anxiety that comes with following your heart, while the Bay Area has often been pegged as being about attaining and maintaining a level of lifestyle best described as “laid-back, comfortable,” but detractors of the Bay Area see as “lazy and indulgent.” As a young local musician I recently had a drink with told me (we’ll call her “Margaret”), “In New York they ask, ‘What’s your passion?’, in Los Angeles they ask, ‘What’s your dream?’ and in San Francisco they ask, ‘What’s your pleasure?'” Not a bad question to ask, mind you, but if we accept this characterization (and I have to admit, I immediately agreed it was pretty accurate), then it is indicative of the heart of the problem I/we struggle with here: a certain culturally ingrained resistance towards anything that discomforts us or screws with our way of looking at the world.

Which is the real reason I walked out of last night’s performance of The Wild Bride.

The fact is, if anyone ever should have loved this show, it is ME. I am sucker for three things in this world, and the number one thing is mythology or fairy tales of any variety. The second is folk musicals – those shows which incorporate music and singing into their stories while actively avoiding the trappings of mainstream musical theater in an attempt to create something widely appealing and accessible as opposed to glittery or virtuosic (not that there isn’t a time and a place for that). The third thing, however, that I am a sucker for, is human feelings. Put some emotion on your stage, from screaming teenage raw to drawing-room repressed – and even if I hate your story or hate your characters, I’ll probably still find something to like about your show because honestly, I go to the theater to feel, it’s that simple. As much as I like to be intellectually stimulated, if there is no emotional hook I don’t see the point – of anything really. I personally believe it’s our emotions, and not our intelligence, that actually set us apart from the lesser animals. Or rather, what I really believe is that our emotions, and our attempt to understand our emotions, are the signs that we actually are intelligent, and not just the varying degrees of clever that we see demonstrated by birds and snakes and other critters that have learned to bash their food against a rock or play dead when a bigger critter comes along.

For me, The Wild Bride lacked an emotional center that conveyed to me why the story was one this theater troupe felt a need to tell. Throughout the first act, despite the obvious craft and skill on stage, I became progressively aware of the math of the show, of what the artists behind it were doing, and less and less interested in what was going on in the world of the play. By the time the glowing pears showed up, I was thinking things like, “Oh, that’s cool-looking, wish I had thought of that, and hey, that actress looks like she’s having fun trying to get the pear in her mouth” and not, “Awww, the trees are feeding this poor broken woman of their own accord – it’s a miracle!” Which means the show failed for me. Look, I love highly theatrical ideas and design – I get why Kushner wants you to see the strings on the Angel, and as a guy who has been in The Fantasticks three times and still cries at the end, I don’t need or desire realism and I value meta-theater enormously. My own writing is highly satirical – I make fun of everything, particularly myself, and I think irony, surrealism, absurdism, symbolism and all the other isms all have their place. But for heaven’s sake, is it so much to ask that by forty-five minutes in I should care about something or somebody on stage? I don’t have to like them, I don’t have to admire them – but I should feel like I am invested in them. I ALWAYS know I am watching a play when I am watching a play, because I am not delusional (that way). For me, suspension of disbelief begins the moment I sit down in the theater because I am a lifetime theatergoer and I know that’s my part of the game we’re all playing. I have never done acid because I don’t need to – I have an overly active imagination as it is. The one thing I need, and then I’ll do a great deal of the rest of the work myself, is an entry into the story you are telling me – and for me, that entry needs to be human. Not a design element. Not a cool idea. Good design and good ideas are what elevate the experience, but if there’s no humanity there, there is no experience for me – good or bad. And frankly, non-experience is the only thing I feel isn’t worth my time because life is too short to not be engaged. To me, The Wild Bride felt as cold and distant and as if someone was standing center stage reading me the light cues instead of telling me a story that was important to them, about people they felt I should care about.

Maybe it was an off night. I kind of doubt it, because I know what makes a good script and little of that was there, but I also can see how in hybrid theater where the songs and movement are a massive chunk of the script (arguably more important than the dialogue), something can work better on nights when the cast is really selling it. Then again, maybe they were selling it and all they had to sell was a flat story with undeveloped characters and no real stakes. Or maybe it was the best performance of the best show in the world and it just wasn’t my thing. Any of these things could be true but the result is the same: I wasn’t enjoying it. Yes, I politely applauded the end of Act One (which was an astounding example of anti-climax), but when Wagner turned to me and asked if I liked it I said, “No,” then laughed and said, “Honestly, good tech and performances aside, I feel like I’m watching bad college theater. It’s all concept but no content. Or really, it’s more like children’s theater, only with children’s theater it wouldn’t have a second act and we’d know at the end of an hour what the moral of the story was.” My friend piped in with his own opinions, which were not as damning, but equally as strong and less than enthusiastic. And that’s when the woman sitting in the row in front of us felt a need to step into our conversation.

I have come to accept that part of living in the Bay Area is that strangers feel they are allowed to talk to you whenever they want. You have to understand that this is not an easy thing for me to grasp – my parents are from New York, where strangers only talk to you because they are lost tourists or potential muggers, and I spent my formative years in Arizona, where there is a strong culture of “stay the fuck out of my business unless I invite you in.” In the Yay Bay, we have a lovely climate of friendliness and perennial smiles that when I first moved here actually confused the shit out of me because like a lot of newbies, I kept thinking I had made all these friends only to realize “friendly” and “friend” are not the same thing (my dad, as New York as they come, would frequently say, “when are you going to realize that nice people are usually liars?”). It took me two years, more or less, to understand that people here are people just like they are everywhere else, and some are good and some are bad and most are just trying to get through life, but because so many of us are comfortadores here (thanks Joss Wheedon, for coining the term), boldly on the lookout for our next good glass of wine and/or casual sex partner (and I am not saying that’s a bad thing), we have cultivated a culture of “it’s all good” and many have internalized it to mean “there are no boundaries” and that is bullshit. I have boundaries. You should too. One of those boundaries is that if I am not talking to you, and you don’t know me, then you ask to be part of my conversation. You don’t just walk in. I mean, the women in the row behind us were talking about their low blood sugar and how cold the theater was. Did I turn around and tell them there were cookies and possibly more heat in the lobby? No. And maybe I should have. But I didn’t get the impression they were sharing their woes with me and I personally consider it rude to rush in to help unless someone is bleeding on the sidewalk and nobody has called an ambulance.

This woman in front of us, however (we will call her “Martha” because I don’t know her actual name), obviously had no such sense of boundaries. Never mind that our conversation is in a different row – which to me is like a different table at a restaurant, where the idea that each conversation is an island not to be breached is inherent to good service – or that it is intermission and so we’re hardly disturbing the performance. Never mind that we’re talking about the play we’re watching and thus attempting to make the most of our night at a disappointing theatrical experience. Never mind that for all she knows, we’re actual theater critics, or agents, or potential producers, or students, and this is our job or in some other way we’re obligated to have an opinion and to articulate that opinion. Never mind that as normal audience members we have the right and the obligation to respond to the show as honestly as we can, so long as it’s not screaming our thoughts aloud while the actors are on stage. For some reason, Martha feels she has every right to turn and say, “Hey guys, please continue your conversation at home. People can hear you.”

At another point in my life I would have told this woman to go fuck herself and learn that being polite means not listening in on someone just because you can technically hear them. At another point in my life that wasn’t that point, I would have told her that it is our duty to express our opinions of the work as audience members, and doing that in the theater during intermission is perfectly fine as that’s kind of what intermission is for (contrary to popular belief, it’s not to get snacks or pee – in the olden days, people did that all throughout the show) – a moment to process what you’re seeing and to do so socially, as in theory that should heighten your enjoyment of the next act. At still another point in my life, I would have probably apologized to her, certain I had done something wrong, even though I hadn’t. But in the last few years I have started to follow the advice of a friend of mine (let’s call her “Gretchen”), and whenever these moments happen I now hear her voice in my head saying, “Is this your hill to die on?” And 90% of the time now, I say “no.” So, instead I turned to Wagner and said, “On that note, I’m out.”

“Seriously?”

“Yup. I don’t need to watch the second act, and I definitely don’t need this pretentious Martha’s attitude, and it’s a long BART ride home.”

“Oh, well, I’m not staying by myself.”

And that’s why two men in their early 30’s, perhaps the theater community’s most coveted demographic after two men in their mid 20’s, walked out during the intermission of The Wild Bride.

So here’s the thing… if Martha had turned and said, “You know, I really like this show,” I would have been taken aback (boundaries!), but I also would have probably said, “Well, to each their own… hey, why do you like it?” And maybe she would have responded and maybe we would have had an awkward conversation and maybe we would have ended up having a drink after the show to talk more. But instead, she basically tried to shame me for having an opinion, and for expressing that opinion, and that infuriated me so much I walked out on a show that I was otherwise willing to see through to the bitter end because I have only walked out of three other shows before in my life. My friend “Mephisto,” who is also a theater maker with much stronger and much more vocal opinions than I, likes to talk about how theater is dying predominantly, in his opinion, because people feel it’s a duty to attend and not a joy, that it’s exclusionary and not inclusive, and because you’re not really allowed to react to it but instead expected to act like good little boys and girls. Now I don’t quite agree with all that, or with some of Mephisto’s attempts to solve it (like, say, having vegetables thrown at the actors), but at moments like this I do see his point. I mean, honestly, if I’m not allowed to have and express a dissenting opinion at the show, no matter how much the local literati like something, then there really is no reason for me to bother showing up to a live performance. Because the fact is, the only reason to see something live is to have that “in the moment” response – be it joy, laughter, tears, or anger. Hating something is another way of enjoying the experience of experiencing it. Ironically, what Martha made me realize is that I didn’t hate The Wild Bride, but I was hating the lack of experience that was watching it. I was bored. Which is a legitimate response, and I was processing it in substantive way. But Martha, in full Yay Bay fashion, doesn’t want to hear anything that’s gonna harsh her buzz, and since I can’t prove otherwise, I kind of take it that it’s less that she cares what I think, so much as she objects to me expressing it.

On the BART home, Wagner confesses he has already seen the show once and doesn’t like it – and that it’s a relief to know he’s not alone (note to self: he fears the backlash of the Yay Bay as much as I do). In fact, the whole reason he asked me is that he wanted to see the show again, but also to have someone to talk about it with. Which is precisely the point of this epic rant: we go to the theater, or really any live event, to engage, not exist in a bubble unto ourselves. We have our living rooms and streaming Netflix for that. The thrill of witnessing a performance or even a film is due, in large part, to the energy of the people around us – and our inability to control that energy. I have been in the audience of a show that people hated knowing that I alone was cheering it on – and grateful for that experience. I have also sat in the audience of a show where all of us were taken in by that special magic that sometimes emerges and brings everyone together. Both experiences are valuable. Both experiences are what make going to the theater such a crapshoot, and so exciting.

My dear friend “Helen” has an awesome story about being the only person laughing at a comedy performance she genuinely and heartily adored (these weren’t pity laughs), while a bunch of stone-faced couples sat around her refusing to give the performer anything more than the occasional smile or titter. At the end of the show, the audience, practically silent the whole time, gave a standing ovation that mystified Helen. She had liked the show – a lot – but it was, after all, a light comedy. Afterwards, as the audience was filing out of the theater, a woman near her (“Lilybeth”) turned and said, “I can’t imagine how the performers could concentrate with you laughing like a hyena all night long.” Helen replied, “I think it’s a shame to come see a show and not express your enjoyment of it.” Lilybeth responded, “You are mildly retarded.” Yes, that happened in San Francisco. Yes, we still laugh about it. To this day, Helen refers to herself as “mildly retarded.” She now remembers that part of the evening more than she remembers the show itself. The irony of this is that the woman who probably thought she was defending these poor put-upon performers, has in Helen’s memory, managed to completely upstage them. But then, being called retarded by another adult who doesn’t approve of how you laugh is a pretty hard act to follow.

A few years ago I adapted and directed a stage version of a book of stories by Peter S. Beagle called Giant Bones, a show that, for the record, had reviews that ran the gamut from glowing, to telling me I should never put on a play again. We had a night of the show where literally half of the audience walked out at intermission, and we also had nights when people couldn’t stop gushing to us afterwards. But that’s not why I bring it up, the relevant part is that in Giant Bones there is a city where theater has been banned, and the main character of the play, who is the director of a traveling theater company, talks about how on the surface, everything in the city is good, life is calm and orderly and dignified, and no one seems to really have any objections to the way things are done. It’s an exceptionally comfortable place to live, known for its lovely gardens, its thriving markets, its good food. “But as for what its people really think or feel?” he asks, with a shrug. “Well, that’s what the theater is for” says his lead actress, and the implication is that the theater is not just a place for the artist to tell the truth, but for the audience to do so as well. Both about what’s happening outside the theater, and in the theater itself.

Any theater company worth its audience knows how valuable audience discussion is, and they know it starts in the theater. At Theater Pub, we close every show telling the audience to stick around and talk to us, and I have maintained from the beginning that it is precisely that element of Theater Pub, the part where the audience can so directly congregate afterwards to discuss what they’ve just seen, that has made us a success. I’m sure many theater companies wish they had such a built in salon so readily attached to their productions, but most of them don’t. For most of them, the one moment they really have to foster audience discussion before everyone races out the door, is intermission.

Unless you happen to be sitting behind Martha Yay Bay, in which case… is this your hill to die on?

Stuart Bousel is one of the founding artistic directors of the San Franciso Theater Pub, and a prolific writer and director. His website, http://www.horrorunspeakable.com, will tell you all about it.