Cowan Palace: A Story, a Stab, a Mess and a Yes

This week Ashley confronts demons from the past in the name of yes.

Yes. It’s a simple word, isn’t it? But it sure can pack a punch. And this week it beat my head in with a bat.

When I moved to San Francisco six years ago to act in Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, I had no friends and spent all my free time alone reading and walking through the city. After a string of failed romantic endeavors, the solitude was refreshing but soon became achingly lonely and I wondered if I had made a huge mistake leaving the comfort of friends and family 3,000 miles away.

Here I am in my first month of TNTing. Hang in there, kid.

Here I am in my first month of TNTing. Hang in there, kid.

While rehearsing TNT, a show heavily rooted in improvisation, we kept focusing on the infamous “yes, and” practice. There were no such things as negated choices; we were left only to contribute to moment. So to inspire a bit more courage and to push myself to be braver in my personal life, I challenged myself to experience “a month of yes”. Meaning, if given the choice, I couldn’t run from opportunity. Instead, I would be forced to embrace it.

Now before you jump in that this concept is dated, I’ll have you know it was before Yes Man came out or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia structured an episode around same idea. Throw a girl a bone, huh?

Yeah, I got it, Jim. You beat me to it. Enjoy that yes!

Yeah, I got it, Jim. You beat me to it. Enjoy that yes!

And honestly, it wasn’t a hugely dramatic month. Jim Carrey couldn’t have cared less. Mainly, it helped encourage me to socialize with my cast more than I would have done. But it certainly built new friendships with many people who are still in my life today. One is even a bridesmaid in my nonfictional upcoming wedding (holla, Allison Page!) and many others will be guests.

The month and the relationships formed in it gave me another idea though. I started to write a short web series entitled “Month of Yes” and took inspiration from the assumed character traits we had developed in our show and I created characters that were a combination of them and us. It was absolutely a reflection of my soul at the time and a genuine piece from my heart. But I was still scared. I was terrified that my words weren’t funny enough, or clever, or interesting, or anything worth trusting. And I allowed that fear to be seen and ultimately, taken advantage of.

I welcomed a collaborator who I believed could enhance my vision and strengthen it. Someone I could hide behind. And at times, the push was helpful. It got me in a creative mindset and the excitement for a joint project with someone I considered a true friend was inspiring and fun. But it also slowed my natural process, made me continue to question my abilities, and lose the grip of something that was once very personal and important to me.

Ultimately, the passion dimmed. It became something else. The title was dropped and replaced with something that never quite fit. New elements were introduced that constantly made me question the integrity. The heart of the project took on a different beat. The partnership suffered. The working relationship struggled. No one seemed happy. I didn’t say no.

Until I let go of my hold so I could grab onto other opportunities that satisfied my creative needs. I lived out a dream of playing Viola in Twelfth Night, I fell in love, I went skydiving, I traveled to Europe with my siblings, and I grew stronger.

Since then, I’ve attacked my fear of sharing my written work with new weapons. It’s still very scary but being able to writing for this column and having other works showcased proved to be an incredible tool to finally start trusting my own instincts and stop caring as much about getting things out there. I felt ready to be heard.

But over the weekend, I came across an online trailer for a project that mirrored my “Month of Yes” in one too many ways. Posted by my past collaborator. Suddenly, the familiar concept and ideas from my experience were being displayed in someone else’s voice. Was it a coincidence? Perhaps. It was a fairly basic idea, after all. But yet, I don’t believe that to be the complete truth.

My heart breaks to see something that was once so close to me, now feel so far away. I can’t help but cry for the girl who poured her feelings out into pages only to have them put into new hands. I mourn for her and her dream.

This is the industry, right? I shouldn’t be so surprised. Or naive. This is what happens all the time in the entertainment business. When you share your story with someone, you risk them taking it. And what can be done?

If I could do it differently, would I? I’d love to say yes. But I don’t know if that’s fair. I’ve always valued collaboration. I’ve always believed the project is more than the individual. And I’ve always trusted in the greater good of the art, even if it means forfeiting the credit. And I don’t want to lose that earnest belief because it’s a part of me.

But what I would suggest is learning to say yes to yourself. Be your own best friend. Tell the story you have to tell. Don’t let anyone stop you. Try not to endlessly question it. Or it may slip away from you.

Take feedback from others with a grain of salt… rimmed on a margarita. Sometimes other opinions can make or break how you feel about your own work; be brave to put it out there and strong enough to hold it tight in the process. Be careful with seeking an artistic partner. It’s almost never going to be an equal balance. Don’t go into it unless you’re fully prepared to let go of your vision. There’s a reason people say you shouldn’t go into business with friends. You have to be willing to risk the relationship and your work. Be open to yes. But don’t be afraid to say no.

Well, that’s my two cents, anyway. Anyone out there ever experience a similar tale? Did you lose your work to another? And how do you bounce back from it?

As always, I want you all to know how greatly I appreciate having the chance to be here. Writing and experiencing something with you. Conquering emotions one word at a time. And I’d love to continue this conversation in hope we can keep pushing each other to be stronger and to say yes to all the positive things that make the artistic community we’ve created continue to thrive.

And so with that and as an attempt to move forward, my first step was writing out some of my feelings in this blog. My second step is to share a piece from my original draft of the “Month of Yes” pilot episode. A script I was way too scared to share or work on alone. So here it is in total draft form. And golly, it’s dated now. Again, forgive the super “draftiness” of it, I haven’t touched this version since 2008!

A redhead, a brunette, and a blonde walk into a webseries. The original ladies who inspired Month of Yes.

A redhead, a brunette, and a blonde walk into a webseries. The original ladies who inspired Month of Yes.

Scene Three: Shot of Haley texting her love interest; waiting a beat. She gets a text back and shock fills her face.

Haley: Whoa, that’s really dirty. (Thinks a moment and then gives a smile and continues walking. She passes a coffee shop where she runs into a friend who is texting. The friend sees her and waves and Haley walks over.)

Friend: I’m sorry, just a little text sex to get the morning going.

Haley: You do that in public?

Friend (makes a confused face and then grabs her phone): Check out what he wrote.

Haley: (checks out the text and her face crumbles) Whoa. That’s really dirty.

Friend: I know, right?

Cuts to Haley with her friends (Scene Four)

Haley: He was texting us the same things.

Alexis: Horrible! (looking through the phone at the messages)

Haley: I know! I really liked him… I seriously thought he would make a great boyfriend. I just feel like such a fool.

Alexis: No, I mean these texts suck. They’re not even that sexy.

Haley: Really? I thought it was pretty dirty-

Alexis: Whatever. He was lame. There are plenty of other guys.

Haley: I guess… I mean, it would be nice to find a guy who could communicate with me by doing something other than just texting.

Katie: Yeah, phone sex can be way hotter. (catches the eye of a cute boy nearby and gives him a smile… within a few moments she gets up and goes to talk to him.)

Alexis: Way hotter.

Haley: Uh-huh. (notices that Katie is now talking to the guy
Alexis: What’s up, Haley? You still seem sad… and that’s really not good for your skin… you’re already so pale –

Haley: Oh, well, I posted a blog last night and it didn’t get that many views. I guess that kind of bummed me out.

Alexis: You’re not going to be the next Carrie Bradshaw if you don’t find more interesting things to write about. No one wants to hear about your allergies.

Haley: This has been a really tough season for-

Alexis: Just think like Carrie, okay? It’s not so hard.

Haley: But I’m not trying to be-

Alexis: Are you still going to be my bridesmaid?

Haley: Um, yeah of course.

Alexis: Great. I have some ideas for the dress.

Haley: Wait. Already? You don’t want to wait until you’re engaged to think about that?

Alexis: Duh, I am engaged.

Haley: What?! I didn’t know that! Tom asked you?!

Alexis: Oh, yeah, last night. You didn’t get my mass text?

Haley: No. Stupid Text Sex. My box must have been full last night.

Alexis: Oh, now THAT sounds dirty.

Haley: I can’t believe you’re engaged! Where’s the ring?

Alexis: On a chain around my neck.

Haley: Oh.

Alexis: Closer to my heart that way.

Haley: Oh. (beat) Oh, wait, are you quoting “Sex and the City” again?

Alexis: That’s what Carrie did with Aidan’s ring.

Haley: But she didn’t end up actually marrying him.

Alexis: Aidan is so hot.

Haley: Yeah.

Alexis: And so good with his hands. (she starts rubbing her neck)

Haley: Okay.

Alexis: And those –

Haley: So who else is going to be a bridesmaid?

Alexis: Well, Katie obvi (shoot to her flirting with the guy) Though, I don’t want that biatch stealing the show and looking hotter than me at my wedding. We’re going to have to make the dresses plain. And she can’t wear her hair all curly and beautiful, it’ll steal focus. Oh, and my sister Liz is going to be my maid of honor.

Haley: Great.

Alexis: But she’s really hoping you’ll want to do all the planning for like the showers and the bachelorette party. OMG, Haley, can we please go to Vegas?! Please! We could all get so f-ed up there and –

Haley: Wait, why would she think I would want to do all the planning? I mean isn’t that the part of the maid of honor stuff to do –

Alexis: I don’t know. She doesn’t want to do it.

Haley: Okay, but –

Alexis: You know you’re good at that party planning stuff. Look, I thought it would make you happy. I can’t believe you’re not more grateful about this-

Haley: I am happy! I’m so happy for you! And um, okay, if she needs help planning, I would love to do it-

Alexis: Just make it classy, okay? I don’t want any like pretzels around… that’s crap. I want like good stuff. Like dip. Chips with different kinds of dips. Did you get that? Dips. Maybe you could start writing this down.

Haley: I have a memory like an elephant.

Alexis: What’s that supposed to mean?

Haley: It’s an expression.

Alexis: You know I hate animals.

Haley: I’m sorry. I’ll start looking up dip.

Alexis: Thanks Hales. Oh hey, I’ll even let you make those cupcakes I like.

Haley: Thanks?

Alexis: No prob, sweetie. Just keep it moist.

Haley: Keep it moist?

Alexis: That’s what she said!

Haley: Oh. Gross.

Alexis: Hot. Anyway. I’m going to go meet the BF… aw, I guess I should just call him the F now, huh?

Haley: I guess.

Alexis: Well, I’ll talk to you later. Remember – dip! Oh, and don’t worry about that jerk… we’ll find you a hot date for the wedding. Hot! (She leaves; Haley makes the realization that she now needs a date.)

Haley: Ugh. A date. (She looks at Katie who is now making out with the guy in kind of an outlandish and ridiculous way considering they are still in public. Perhaps Katie’s legs are positioned above the table.)

(END OF SCENE/ Next Scene opens at Haley’s apartment)

Haley: Okay, so I color coded the list. The green tabs are the recipes that I think you’re really going to like, you know, like “green for go” (Shot of Alexis mouthing something like “loser” or “dork” to Katie) Um, yellow for the ones I wasn’t positive about – your opinions on garlic keep changing so (Alexis makes a disgusted face and then Haley continues) well, and the red ones… the red ones are the recipes that were really fancy but had at least one ingredient that I know you don’t like… but I just wanted you to read them anyway…

Alexis: Haley, what are you talking about? Recipes for what?

Haley: Dip.

Alexis: Dip?

Haley: Yeah… you know, the fancy dips you wanted for your party…

Alexis: Eh, I don’t know if I want them anymore. Maybe we should make it like Hawaii themed and serve margaritas.

Haley: Margaritas are more for a Mexican style party… and if you didn’t want dip, why did you make such a fuss about it?

Alexis: I didn’t!

Haley: You texted me three times… sent me an email… and then wrote “you biach, you better have some good dip recipes for me!” on my Facebook wall.

Alexis: Oh. Well, whatever. Let’s do something more fun. What do you think, Katie?

Katie: I like the margarita idea. I don’t want salt on my glass though, Hales.

Haley: Yeah. Okay. I’ll keep that in mind.

Alexis: Speaking of salt on your glass (Haley makes a confused face), who was that guy at breakfast today, Katie? He was kind of hot.

Haley: Is “salt on your glass” a phrase people say?

Katie: Yeah, he was hot, I guess. He had really small hands though.

Alexis: Oh, weird.

Katie: Yeah.

Alexis: Did you feel like you were getting with a carnee?

Katie: No… I’ve done that before. This was a little different. His hands were like pretty and small-

Alexis: Are you going to go out again?

Katie: Maybe.

Alexis: Haley, I’m hungry. What do you have?

Haley: What kind of food do you want, my fridge is pretty stocked, I think. Plus, I made all these brownies… remember when you also asked me to bake brownies earlier today so that you could “test drive them”? Well, I have like three different types in the kitchen, so-

Alexis: Om.

Haley: What?

Alexis: Om. I want an om.

Haley: I don’t even know what that means.

Katie: An omlette, Haley.

Haley: Sometimes your shortening of words confuses me-

Alexis: An OMLETTE then; that’s what I want.

Katie: Me too.

Haley: Yeah, I don’t have any of those just lying around-

Alexis: Duh, can’t you just whip one up-

Haley: I used all the eggs to make brownies-

Alexis: I really want an om… could you go pick some eggs up? Please, Hales? An om for your favorite bride to be?

Haley: Seriously?

Katie: And we need more Vitamin Water.

Alexis: Oh, totally. Please, Hales? You’re so sweet.

Haley: Yeah… I guess so.

Shoots to Haley outside with a grocery bag. She passes by a couple kissing and rolls her eyes; she passes by a girl on the phone (perhaps it was her “friend” in the first shot) saying something into a phone like “yeah, I know, Mom… I didn’t even really want to be a writer, but they picked up my blog and they’re going to turn it into a Lifetime movie, Haley makes a hurt face, she then passes some guys on the street with scratch tickets, one looks at her and smiles and says something like “Hey baby, you wanna scratch this?” She shakes her head, a moment later he takes a penny scratches it and screams out “OMG! I just won. I won! I won forty bucks! Forty bucks!! You missed out, babe! I could have taken you to dinner somewhere with this! Like down in Fisherman’s Wharf!” Haley keeps walking close to her apartment looking more and more upset. Suddenly her grocery bag rips and she tries to carry everything herself. She walks struggling and then trips on something dropping the items and the eggs shatter everywhere. She bursts into tears.

Shoots back to her inside with the girls

Alexis: I’m sorry, sweetie. That was really nice of you to go out for us… now, were any of the eggs okay?

Katie: You should have scratched that ticket!

Alexis: Yeah, next time you know, just take the scratch ticket, we could have used that money, you know?

Haley: I’m sorry you guys, I’m just not in a great mood. It’s been a long day… could we maybe just talk about this tomorrow? I’m going to go to bed.

Alexis: Are you sure?

Haley: Yeah. Congratulations, Alexis. I am really happy for you. (Haley is still weepy and she walks away)

Alexis: I really wanted an om.

The next day. Haley is on the couch watching TV and Alexis walks in.

Alexis: You haven’t moved all day.

Haley: I’m tired.

Alexis: Well, you should at least put on some real clothes. Oh, and some make-up. You could really use some make-up.

Haley: Why? There’s no reason, I’m not going out.

Alexis: Haley, you can’t stay here all night watching more of this Next Top Model Marathon.

Haley: I like it.

Alexis: Who doesn’t? But seriously, we’ve seen this season like three times. You need to go out. I thought you were going out with Katie tonight.

Katie: (comes out from a bathroom looking beautiful) She said she didn’t feel like it.

Alexis: Lame sauce. Haley, you’ve been a downer for too long now.

Haley: What do you mean? It’s been like one day.

Alexis: Too long! You need to go out. You need to start like getting out there. You need to get over stupid text boy by meeting a new guy… to text.

Haley: I just don’t feel like it.

Alexis: Stop saying no all the time.

Haley: What do you mean? I pretty much do whatever you need, Alexis. Don’t say that to me.

Alexis: But you’re saying ‘no’ to every potentially cool thing. Don’t you think so, Katie?

Katie: You don’t go out with me much, Hales. And you DID say no to that scratch ticket.

Alexis: Exactly!

Haley: Fine. Next time a scratch ticket is involved, I’ll say yes.

Alexis: What about going out?

Haley: Eh.

Alexis: Not an answer. Just say yes. (Haley just shrugs). I think we should make a bet. You need to say ‘yes’ to everything for a whole week.

Haley: What’s the prize?

Alexis: I don’t know. Who cares?

Haley: Then what’s the point of the bet?

Alexis: No, make it a month. Tomorrow’s the first anyway.

Haley: What do you mean, a month?

Alexis: Look, just do it. I saw it on TV or something, where this girl tried to just say yes to opportunity in her life.

Haley: What happened?

Alexis: I don’t know.

Haley: Nice case.

Alexis: It was probably on Oprah.

Katie: Hales, you got to do it. Ops knows what she’s talking about.

Alexis: Look, this is the perfect time. You’ve been bummed about so many lame guys lately… and you haven’t been writing a lot of sexy stuff in your blog, maybe this could help that too. Make you more interesting.

Haley: Yes to everything?

Alexis: When you want to say no to something… you should say yes. Like going out with Katie tonight.

Katie: Yeah, come on Haley, it could be fun.

Haley: I still don’t get what I win…

Alexis: It’s going to be awesome. It’s just a month. (Haley thinks about it)

Shot to Haley and Katie going out

Katie: See, aren’t you glad you went out?

Haley: I don’t know. I can’t believe Alexis just stayed home to watch America’s Next Top Model.

Katie: Well, I’m glad.

Haley: You’ve already been hit on by three different guys, of course you’re glad.

Katie: Well, none of them were cute.

Haley: Then why did you kiss one, agree to go out with one, and then talk to that other one’s mom on the phone about spending Thanksgiving in New England? (Katie shrugs)

Katie: His mom had an interesting recipe for stuffing.

Haley: I think if I have to have an entire month of ‘yes’, you need a month of ‘no’, Katie. (Katie contemplates it).

Katie: Has there been anything you’ve said ‘yes’ to that you normally would have said ‘no’ too?

Haley: Not really. I only agreed to this silly idea so that Alexis would leave me alone… I don’t think it’s going to have that much of an influence on me.

Katie: Come on Hales, it’s not a bad idea, this month could be great. Just open yourself up for new possibilities.

Haley: Yeah, yeah. We’ll see. (a couple of guys pass by and then stop, one looks at Katie and starts talking to her and another looks to Haley)

Guy #2: Hey.

Haley: Hi.

Guy #2: Want to make out?

Haley: Oh! You’re forward, huh?

Guy: Well, then can I just touch your boob? (Katie looks to her and smiles and shakes her head; Haley looks horrified)

Haley: Oh. God. (another look of horror and a close up of her face)

###END###

Theater Around The Bay: The Best of the Blog

2013 was a year of change on multiple fronts and our website was no exception. Though Marissa Skudlarek, as our first “official” blogger, began her semi-monthly contributions in 2012, the eight-writer line up that currently composes the blog’s core writing team wasn’t solidified until October of this year, when Claire Rice was brought on to replace Helen Laroche, who, along with Eli Diamond, stepped away as a regular contributor earlier this year. Eli and Helen, along with the current eight and our lengthy list of occasional contributors (most notably Annie Paladino), all get to share in the success of the blog, which steadily and dramatically increased its traffic over this past year. With 45,611 hits in 2013 (compared to 27,998 in 2012, 11,716 in 2011, and 8,435 in 2010), there can be no doubt that the San Francisco Theater Public (as we’ve taken to calling the blog amongst ourselves) is “kind of a thing.” With our current all time total just shy of 100,000 hits, we wanted to use the last blog entry of this year to celebrate the different voices that make our blog unique, while also paying homage to the vast and diverse world of online theater discussion. To everyone who makes our blog a success, including our dedicated readers and Julia Heitner, our Twitter-mistress who brings every installment to the Twitter-sphere, a gigantic thank you for making 2013 the best year so far! Here’s hoping that 2014 is even better!

STUART BOUSEL by William Leschber 

Whether it be Shakespeare, Ancient Greece, Celtic Myth, or the plight of the contemporary 30 something, Stuart Bousel always has something intelligent to say about it, and if you’ve read any of  his blogs over the past year you’ll know he has an ample array of in-depth thoughts about these things and so much more. I’m proud to have known Stuart for a number of years and the plentiful hours of intelligent conversation are invaluable to me, but my favorite 2013 blog entry of his is one that offers both a larger social insight and something very personal as well. The Year of the Snake blog isn’t afraid to be vulnerable, and offers the perfect mix of two brands of self awareness: the satisfaction that comes at being proud of one’s achievements, juxtaposed with the self doubt that comes whenever we embark on something new and challenging. These traits are heightened by a particularly uncertain year for myself and so many others who have had an odd go of it in 2013, the Year of the Snake, and maybe that is why this particular blog resonated so strongly. Although this year is possibly the most challenging some of us have had in recent memory, what Stuart articulates so well here is that sometimes we have to pass through the fire to come out stronger from the forge. The process of wriggling into new skin in due time…aye, there’s the rub: “…the truth is, the changes tend to kind of happen while you’re not looking, almost as a side result of trying to change.”

There's Stuart, emerging from his security blanket just like 2013 emerged from the crap year known as 2012.

There’s Stuart, emerging from his security blanket just like 2013 emerged from the crap year known as 2012.

In other favorites-of-the-year news, I present you the Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith. For those in constant transit and who have an easier time taking in a podcast over reading articles online, this is for you. Now my favorite podcast surrounding film would fall to Filmspotting where new and old films are discussed weekly with humor and insight. But if I had to choose the single best episode  I heard this year it would be Jeff Goldsmith’s interview with writer/director Ed Burns. In the words of the host, the Q&A podcast aims to “bring you in-depth insight into the creative process of storytelling”. He interviews screenwriters specifically (often writer/directors) about how they go about their personal process. Not only are the insights into the writer’s process wonderful to hear but the peeks into their role in the film industry are also fascinating. The Ed Burns episode ranges in topic from 90’s indie films, to his writing process, then on to making micro budget films, and his thought on how the industry is changing and what he’s doing to work in the grain of the dawn of steaming entertainment. It’s great. And here it is: http://www.theqandapodcast.com/2012/12/edward-burns-fitzgerald-familiy.html

ASHLEY COWAN by Claire Rice

Ashley Cowan’s posts often feel like sitting on the couch with your best friend and chatting late into the night with a mug of hot coco.  Every post  is heartfelt and full of a kind of determined enthusiasm that is infectious.  Her post abouttheatre traditions/ superstitions was very funny (if I had known that thing about peacock feathers I might have made different choices with my life.) And her post about her grandmother and goodbyes was touching and beautiful.  But my favorite post would have to be Why Being A Theatre Person with a Day Job is the Best…and the Worst.  She beautifully lays out the complex and heart breaking experience of knowing a “the show must go on” mentality is an imminently transferable job skill, but a skill hard to sell to non-theatre perspective employers.

I read Dear Sugar’s advice column for the first time on September 1, 2013, my thirty second birthday.  The piece I read was Write Like Motherfucker  It was surprising, honest and full of so many of the things I had been thinking and feeling.  It was and is full of all the things I needed to hear. “We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor.  I know it’s hard to write, darling.  But it’s harder not to.”

Ashley Cowan and Dear Sugar - You've just made two new best friends.  You're welcome.

Ashley Cowan and Dear Sugar – You’ve just made two new best friends. You’re welcome.

BARBARA JWANOUSKOS by Stuart Bousel 

Barbara Jwanouskos is the kind of theater person who figured out long ago what many of us take much longer to figure out: namely that one can balance theater with the rest of their life (she’s a pretty amazing martial artist in addition to being a playwright, blogger, grad student, and non-profit development expert), and that nothing happens if you sit and wait for it, you have to go after your dreams actively. Smart, generous, good-natured, Barbara’s writing reflects a serious mind and soul you might not immediately pick up on when you first meet her, though her bad-ass-ness is definitely apparent in her punk rock haircuts and straight forward conversation style. Her “calls it as see sees it” voice is still developing in her blog, but with “Young Beautiful Woman” she had a bit of a breakthrough, giving us a story both personally meaningful to her while also showing us where the issue of pigeon-holing women in theater and films begins: that most double-sided of backyards, the fine arts masters’ program. This blog had the greatest reader impact of all the contributions Barbara has made for us this year, and it’s the kind of thing I want to see more of from her. It’s with incredible eagerness I look forward to her 2014 contributions, knowing she plans to really hit our readers, black belt style, with more ideas like these.

Barbara Jwanouskos is so intense she needs to be photographed in Dutch Angles.

Barbara Jwanouskos is so intense she needs to be photographed in Dutch Angles.

Outside of our humble little blog, I have read a number of interesting theater related articles this year, but this one from HowlRound seems to have stayed with me the longest. Though when I first read this I kind of had a reaction of, “Well, duh, it’s just part of the process- stop whining!”, I also admire that what Morgan is saying is that a life in the arts is pretty always a heartbreaking business, even when you do finally find your niche, your project, your collaborators. And it’s heartbreaking not just because of the lack of opportunities, or the difficulty in making a living, or all the other things we also talk about, but just from the sheer fact that if you’re doing it right you’re ALWAYS putting your heart into it and the nature of the business rarely appreciates or honors that- while, of course, still expecting you to throw your whole heart into it every time! I, and most of the theater people I know, spend a lot of time talking about sustainability in the theater community, funding and payroll, audience demographics and marketability, etc. and sometimes I can’t help but wonder when theater started to quantify and qualify itself the way I expect Wal-Mart too. When did it become about numbers and money and conventional ideas of success as represented through big numbers, and not about coming together with people of vision and making cool stuff because the world really needs that? Morgan’s article is a bittersweet plea to remember we’re all artists here and artists are delicate creatures in many ways, even if it’s probably through their strength that, ultimately, the world will be saved.

WILLIAM LESCHBER by Marissa Skudlarek

It has been a pleasure to read Will Leschber’s “Working Title” column since it debuted in September 2013. Theater can sometimes feel like an insular, inward-looking art; it’s not  a part of the mainstream cultural conversation in the way that movies, music or TV are (though we Theater Pub bloggers are doing our best to change that!) Even worse, theater people sometimes take a perverse pride in their own insularity, looking down on movies and TV as lesser, more commercial art forms. So I love Will’s idea of writing a column that places theater in dialogue with film. He acknowledges the virtues of each art form without belittling either of them and, in so doing, seeks to bring theater into the larger cultural conversation. Nowhere is this more evident than in his piece “To Dance Defiant” about one-man dramas Underneath the Lintel and All is Lost. The play is language-based and the film is image-based, says Will, but both confront stark, essential truths: “What decisions in life remain the most important? How do we measure it all? What significant artifacts do we leave behind? Is anything we leave behind significant? Or is the struggle and the suffering and the joyous dance in spite of all the dark, the only significance we are afforded?” Will’s column is about the importance of the art we make, be it on stage or on film — and therefore, is about the importance of our humanity.

William Leschber, proving saucy minx comes in a wide variety of hats.

William Leschber, proving saucy minx comes in a wide variety of hats.

In one of my earliest Theater Pub columns, I wrote about how much I liked local critic Lily Janiak’s willingness to publicly critique her own criticism and question her own assumptions. So it was great news this year that Lily was selected as one of HowlRound’s inaugural NewCrit critics, bringing her work to a national audience and allowing her to write longer, more in-depth pieces. Even better, Lily has continued to question her assumptions and acknowledge her biases, approaching criticism in a spirit of open-minded inquiry. I particularly liked her piece “Our Own Best Judges: Young Female Characters Onstage” because, if I may admit my own biases, Lily and I are both extremely interested in the depiction of young women in plays. And then we ask ourselves: are we right to be so concerned, or does it mean that we are (wrongly) holding female characters to a higher standard than we hold male ones? “Critics are supposed to be objective, to approach a work with no agenda, but in this case, I have one. […] It’s impossible to separate one’s politics from one’s aesthetics (aesthetics are never pure!), but sometimes I worry that my politics have too much control over my critical criteria,” Lily writes. The whole piece is well worth reading for its thoughtfulness and honesty. That it happened to discuss three plays that I saw myself, got my friends’ names published on a national theater website, and spurred a response from Stuart Bousel on our own blog is just icing on the cake.

Lily Janiak: Because This Picture Is Just Too Good Not To Include

Lily Janiak: Because This Picture Is Just Too Good Not To Include

ALLISON PAGE by Dave Sikula

Let me tell you about Allison Page.

I met her this year when I played her father. I had no idea who she was. I had friended her on Facebook and, looking at her posts, thought we might get along. We had some similar interests, and despite her terrible taste in other things (I mean, seriously, “Ghost Dad,” “Daria,” and Kristen Wiig?), there was enough overlap that I thought we might become friends.

Then we met and she instantly drove me crazy.

I have every reason to hate her. There are things she does and writes about that just annoy the bejeezus out of me – BUT, that’s what I love about her. Her pieces for this here blog combine the miracle of being confessional and personal without being self-indulgent. Obviously, I don’t agree with everything she says (she accuses me of not liking anything, but oh, how wrong she is), but even when she irritates me, it’s in a way that makes me need to defend my own positions – and that’s what the best art does for me. If I had to pick one post of hers that really spoke to me, it was this one on how we need and create nemeses. I find you’ve got to have someone or something to fight against or do better than in order to do your own best work.

But don’t tell her I like anything of hers or she’ll just hold that over me.

Allison Page: because this photo never gets old.

Allison Page: because this photo never gets old.

Moving on to something online that I found of interest was this, Frank Rich’s latest profile of Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim is one of those people my feelings for whom, words like “reverence” are far too mild. I know that if I were ever somehow to get a chance to meet him, I’d fall over in a dead faint, or at the very least, be utterly tongue-tied to the point where I’d sound like an episode of “The Chris Farley Show:” “You know when you did ‘Sweeney Todd?’ That was great.” But any chance to read about what he’s really like is fascinating.

CLAIRE RICE by Barbara Jwanouskos

What I love most about reading Claire Rice’s Enemy List is how Claire seems to pick up on an uncanny wave-length of theater topics that happen to be populating my brain (and others), like why there were so many plays dealing with rape this year. The post I particularly enjoyed was her interview with Dave Lankford, Executive Director of The Shelter and author of the internet famous blog post, “Dear Actor”. Claire’s interview gave a clear insight into Lankford, his background as a theater artist (playwright, actor, director, etc.) and what prompted the writing of the post. More so, her interview demonstrated through Lankford’s response, what it is like today to be a theater artist where so many of us are also using the internet as a means of communication, discourse and criticism about theater in general. For whatever reason, “Dear Actor” seemed to resonate with many people in a way that was surprising, but Claire’s interview presented Lankford at a more more meta level, which was fascinating to consider.

Claire Rice: just who exactly is the enemy?

Claire Rice: just who exactly is the enemy?

I love tracking HowlRound essays by some of my favorite playwrights – especially when they write about things I’m actually dealing with… like teaching playwriting! “Teaching in the 21st Century” by Anne García-Romero and Alice Tuan was a blessing to me sent from the heavenly gods of playwriting. I constantly flip back to this essay when I need to recalibrate my goals as a new teacher. García-Romero and Tuan’s approach mirrors what they had learned from the great Maria Irene Fornes. I appreciate their innovative approaches to get writers of all kinds jazzed about writing plays and how they deviate from strict adhearance to teaching structure versus other traits that good plays have – like voice and liveness.

DAVE SIKULA by Ashley Cowan

I met Dave Sikula earlier this year while working on BOOK OF LIZ at Custom Made Theatre. A project that inspired a blog or two on Cowan Palace and also provided a chance to get to know the guy who is now behind the column, “It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review”. After kindly driving me home after numerous performances and being graced with many Broadway songs on his impressive car sound system, I soon got to know Dave as a incredibly smart, insightful, and experienced theatre enthusiast. I’ve come to enjoy his contributions to the Theater Pub blog for the same reason. One of my personal favorites to read was his last piece, The Ritual Business. Ten years ago when I studied in London, I had the chance to see TWELFTH NIGHT starring Mark Rylance at the Globe and it’s a performance that’s forever stuck by me. I loved reading about Dave’s time in New York and his vivid description as an attentive audience member. I felt like I was there again reliving a magical moment of the theatrical experience of my past while also connecting to his observations and reactions.

Dave Sikula: suggesting you eat this cheesecake instead of reviewing it.

Dave Sikula: suggesting you eat this cheesecake instead of reviewing it.

Aside from Dave’s contributions, it’s been an interesting year for the Internet, huh? I fell for every hoax imaginable and had my spirits crushed when I learned that no, there would not be a new season of Full House or an 8th Harry Potter book to look forward to in 2014. With all that going on, one article that weaseled under my skin came from The Onion, believe it or not, and was entitled: Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life. I found it to be a humorous and honest piece about how many of us (in this artistic community) tend to balance our time. But the thing I truly want to share with you guys is this video, because at the end of the day (or year) sometimes you just need to watch some cute animals do some cute stuff.

MARISSA SKUDLAREK by Allison Page

Marissa Skudlarek and I communicate differently, but we think about a lot of the same things. If I’m a grilled cheese sandwich, she’s duck confit. She has the ability to say things that I know I’m also feeling, but haven’t brought myself to express properly without the use of a lot of F-bombs and references to Murder, She Wrote. Generally speaking, I like to accentuate the positive rather than wallow in a pool of the negative, so when her article “You’re Doing It Wrong, You’re Doing It Wrong” (Technically the second half of a two part article. The first one is also worth reading, but the second really drove it home for me.) The internet, and the world, can be a dark and dismal place. Some days it feels like there’s nothing to be happy about; nothing that’s going right. In a world that seeks to find the worst in everything, Marissa seeks out the subtle nuances of her theatrical experiences, and of the world around her. It’s refreshing and thoughtful, and a big reason I love reading her posts. Not everyone is doing it right wrong. I like to think Marissa is striving to do it right; for women in general and for herself.

Marissa Skudlarek: you bet your sweet ass she'll make that dinosaur chair look classy.

Marissa Skudlarek: you bet your sweet ass she’ll make that dinosaur chair look classy.

Outside of the Theater Pub Blog, there are always a lot of conversations stirring up interest. Every writer, every playwright – hell, every person has a different way they like to work. This last year I’ve been focusing more on writing and I’m always trying to find new ways to keep myself excited about the writing process. That can be hard to do, seeing as you still need to sit down and fuckin’ write at some point. That part is unavoidable. Though this article is actually from the end of 2012, I didn’t read it until this year, so I’m counting it! It’s an interesting collection of the daily routines and writing habits of famous writers. Hemingway wrote standing up? Well, that’s weird.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: The Ritual Business

Dave Sikula writes us from New York, on Shakespeare, Broadway, and ritual.

Did you ever have something you were really looking forward to, and when it finally came, not only were your high expectations met, and wildly exceeded? Well, I had one of those afternoons.

I write this sitting in my hotel room in sunny New York (no kidding on that, either; in spite of the snow yesterday and the current temperature of 34 degrees, it’s supposed to get into the high 60s – if not 70s – this Sunday), having just returned from seeing Mark Rylance and the rest of the Globe company perform “Twelfe Night” (sic). The misspelling is part of the conceit of doing the show strictly in period. That is to say, authentically period costumes (no materials or conveniences that weren’t available in the 17th century – including [or not including, to be more accurate] zippers or Velcro; it’s all hand-stitched materials held together with buttons, straps, or ties); authentic period musical instruments (according to the program notes, these are the first shows in Broadway history to use authentic period instruments); no “artificial” stage lighting (they do use a general stage wash of lights, but there are no apparent cues from the time the audience arrives until they leave*, and real beeswax candles – which kept dripping onto the stage during the performance; I thought it was amazing nothing hit the actors); audience members in on-stage boxes; and men (or boys) playing all the roles.

I had heard that the pre-show was worth watching, and indeed it is. The actors (or most of them) are all over the stage before the show, being helped into their costumes (which seems no mean feat, given their complicated nature), talking to people in the front or in the boxes, warming up (Rylance was doing something that involved shaking his hands and moving his arms around – all while his dresser was adjusting his gown and undergarments [he plays Olivia in “Twelfe Night” and the title role in “Richard III”]), and generally being themselves. (In the evening performance, Angus Wright, who doubles as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the Earl of Buckingham, was talking to a couple in front of me about the inscription on his garter.) As far as I could tell, there was no pretense at them acting in character as 17th century actors (thank the gods), but were just being themselves, squeezing themselves into these clothes.

A few minutes before curtain – precisely at 2:00**, I was delighted to note – some costumed stagehands came out, and the candelabra chandeliers were lowered. The stagehands went to an upstage candelabrum at lit tapers which were used to light the other candelabra, which were flown back up once everything had been ignited.

I was sure how the performance would actually start. I imagined they might pound the stage to get our attention (which was concentrated on the stage, anyway). Even though that’s a French thing, I thought it might feel “period.” I even wondered if they’d “fire” a cannon, as they did in ye olde days of Ye Globe. But no, the houselights dimmed and they just started***. (Side note #1: In all of the three shows I’ve seen so far, there hasn’t been either one “shut off your cell phone” announcement [though there is a great running gag about it in the marvelously entertaining “Murder for Two”] – and I’ve only heard one ringing vaguely. Have audiences finally been trained?****)

In the middle of experiencing the whole thing, I was struck with how ritualistic it all was. This goes along with my column from last time. Not only have all these people agreed to meet in the same place at the same time, but in this case, the ritual was really driven home. We all had jobs to do this afternoon. The audience was there to listen and react – and, in some cases, to participate. The dressers were there to help the illusion. The stagehands were there to light the candles. The actors were there to tell the story.

But there was something almost ceremonial about it. Konstantin Treplyev in “The Sea Gull” disparages the theatre his mother performs in by saying “these High Priests of Sacred Art represent the way people are supposed to eat, drink, love, walk; wear their jackets.” But in this case, it really did feel like we were a congregation watching priests don their vestments, light the candles, and deliver a prepared text that would entertain us and illuminate what it means to be human in the 1600s. (That the message is still relevant in the 2000s is both a tribute to Shakespeare’s understanding of human psychology and that that psychology hasn’t really changed much in 400 years.) All in all, the afternoon was electrifying; funny, melancholy, and human.

I have to leave in a few minutes for “The Tragedie of King Richard the Third” (I don’t want to miss the next robing ceremonies), and am looking forward to it greatly. I’ll have more thoughts about all of it when I return in a few hours.

Just back – well, just back after a late night supper – and it “Richard” was just as good as “Twelfe Night.”

The thing I meant to mention earlier (and forgot) was the presentational nature of the day. That, as part of the story-telling ritual – and Shakespeare’s dramaturgy – there was no doubt that the plays were being presented for the benefit, and participation, of the audience. Rylance’s Richard was an interesting approach to the character. Giggly, almost seeming stupid (though ruthlessly intelligent underneath), and really seeking the approval of the audience in everything. For example, there were a lot of entrances and exits through the audience, up and down stairs at the downstage corners of the playing area, and Richard/Rylance came down the stairs, and without breaking stride, shook the hand of the guy next to me (it went unnoticed by virtually everyone, I’m sure) in a classic politician’s move. The actors in both plays interacted with the audience members in the onstage boxes, and in the scene (Act III, scene vii) where Richard appears with two clergymen in order to seem pious to the crowd, his henchmen made sure – through gestures and expressions that were simultaneously cheerleaderish and threatening – that all the audience shouted, “Long live Richard! England’s worthy king!” Something remarkable about Rylance is that he has the amazing knack of seeming to pull blank verse out of the air. That is to say, to seem to discover the speech even as he’s saying it; adding pauses and non-verbal interjections that make it all seem spontaneous. It really is a pair of marvelous performances; fully rounded and invested, completely different, but wholly original.

At the end of “Richard,” I joined in the standing ovation, not so much to honor the emotional values of the play – even though it was probably the clearest and most entertaining “Richard III” that I’ve seen and certainly the funniest overall “Twelfth Night,” it was not the best Shakespeare (though it’s way, way up there) – but to honor the effort and accomplishment; the thought and care that’s gone into the whole thing. It’s a huge undertaking and I felt it deserved the kudos. (Side note #2: Just for the record, as much as I loved both “Murder for Two” and “The Glass Menagerie” earlier in the week, I didn’t stand for either of those. In the latter, I was conspicuous by my remaining seated.) (Side note #3: As much as I enjoyed the “Twelfth Night,” I was constantly reminded of Benjamin Stewart, one of the best actors I ever worked with and who passed away earlier this year. His Lord Capulet is the gold standard, and his Toby Belch was phenomenal. I never saw him give less than a stellar performance.)

To return to my theme, though, I was more aware of the ritualistic aspects of the performance tonight – if only because a) I had just written the first part of this post, and b) I was looking for it. It was a bit of a paradigm shift for me; to really be aware of what we all agree to do when we participate in a play (in whatever role; audience, actor, writer, director, designer, technician). We all have assigned roles and parts to play in the process, and from here on in, I’m going to be much more aware of the part I’m fulfilling in the ritual.

(*There were at least a couple of light cues in “Richard;” it was noticeable in the evening scenes before the Battle of Bosworth Field when it grew dark, reflecting both the time of day and Richard’s mood.)

(**The evening performance also started precisely on time; at 8:00.)

(***There was a trumpet blare in “Richard” that started things off.)

(****I had my cell phone out during Intermission, and just before the second act started, an usher came by and told me to shut it off, so I guess they’ve gotten much better at policing these things.)

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Macbeth is a Middle-Aged White Guy

Marissa Skudlarek is not afraid to say “Macbeth” as many times as she’s worried she might have to see it.

“Do we really need another Macbeth right now?” Jason Zinoman wrote in last Sunday’s New York Times. “A new revival, this one starring Ethan Hawke, opened on Nov. 21, four months after the previous Broadway production, starring Alan Cumming, closed. If you fail to see Mr. Hawke reveal what life, which as we know is full of sound and fury, signifies, not to worry: Kenneth Branagh will fill you in next spring, when he brings his production of Macbeth to New York.”

And that’s not counting Patrick Stewart’s Broadway Macbeth from 2008, or Kelsey Grammer’s from 2000, or the Macbeth film that’s currently in production starring Michael Fassbender. Or the ultra-hip, Macbeth-riffing theater piece Sleep No More. Closer to home, there were two Macbeth productions in the Presidio in September of this year (SF Shakespeare Festival and We Players). While actual statistics are hard to come by, it wouldn’t surprise me if Macbeth were Shakespeare’s most frequently-produced tragedy in the 21st century. And I’m pretty sure that it’s the Shakespeare play I’ve seen most frequently (even though it’s not actually one of my favorites).

So what accounts for the play’s massive popularity? Some people will point out that it’s Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, and therefore suited to a short-attention-span modern audience. Others will argue that any play that features witches, apparitions, madness, and a big swordfight in the last scene is bound to be popular. (But Hamlet has all of those things except witches, and it isn’t produced nearly so often.) Others will propose that Macbeth’s “timeless themes” – ambition, corruption, guilt – explain its continued renown. But are its themes really more timeless, more worth hearing, than those of Shakespeare’s other great plays?

Instead, I want to propose a clean, practical explanation. Zinoman writes that “simple old-fashioned star power” lies behind many recent Shakespeare revivals: “The great Shakespeare roles still have the most cultural cachet for actors, who get taken more seriously and, in many cases, are energized by performing the parts they read or tackled in school.”

And what are the “great Shakespeare roles”? Conventional wisdom has it that Shakespeare’s tragedies are “greater” than his comedies and that, of his dozen or so tragedies, four stand out above the rest: Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth. So let’s examine the heroes of those four tragedies, and what characteristics an actor must have to portray them.

Hamlet’s age is a matter of some debate, but he’s clearly a young man, a student at the University of Wittenberg. He must appear young enough, untried enough, for it not to seem weird that the Danes have allowed Claudius to take the throne, rather than crowning Hamlet. People often talk about the difficulty of finding the right actor for the role: by the time you have the technique to tackle such a massive part, you look too old to do it. While it is rare for a man who’s literally college-aged to play Hamlet these days, it’s still a young man’s game. My sense is that once you get to be about 35, you’re too old to play Hamlet.

Meanwhile, King Lear is an old man: a white-haired king, giving up his throne and going senile. The text specifies that Lear is over eighty (“four score and upward”) but again, it can be difficult to imagine a real eighty-year-old with the stamina to tackle this massive role, not to mention the strength to carry Cordelia’s corpse onstage in the last scene. A too-youthful Lear, though, is equally ridiculous. Let’s say that, generally speaking, the role should be played by a man who’s at least 65.

Then we come to Othello. He’s middle-aged: a powerful general who has seen much adventure and is considerably older than his young bride Desdemona, but is still in the vigorous prime of life. And – oh, yeah – he’s black. Thankfully, our theater no longer finds it acceptable for actors of other races to put on blackface to play Othello; but what this means is that only a subset of actors can put this role on their wish list.

So what do you do if you want to play a great Shakespearean tragic hero, but you’re not old, not young, and not black? You play Macbeth. And who has the most power in the Anglo-American theater? What stars tend to be the biggest box-office draws? Middle-aged white men.

Michael Fassbender is 36; Ethan Hawke is 43; Alan Cumming is 48; Kenneth Branagh is 53. Of the four “great” Shakespearean heroes, Macbeth is the only one they can play, the only one that’s open to them at this stage in their lives. The window for playing Hamlet or Lear is narrow; Macbeth could be any age from 35 to 65. Certainly, there are other excellent Shakespearean roles for men in this age range – Richard III, say, or Brutus – but those plays don’t quite have the cultural cachet, or box-office appeal, of the Hamlet-Lear-Othello-Macbeth quartet.

And why are those considered Shakespeare’s four greatest plays, anyway? Why do we privilege tragedy over comedy? Could it be (at least in part) because tragedy is a more “masculine” genre, but Shakespeare’s greatest comedies tend to be female-dominated? Rosalind and Beatrice and Viola are amazing roles – yet we somehow consider it a far more daunting, courageous task for a young actor to play Hamlet than for a young actress to play Rosalind. People ooh and aah over Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Olivia in the all-male Twelfth Night that’s currently on Broadway; people never gush about female Olivias in the same way.

Our theater continues to privilege middle-aged white men over women and minorities; tragedy over comedy; Shakespeare over all other dramatists; familiarity over risk. That is the reason that Macbeth continues to haunt our stages. That is the play’s real curse.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She’s still a little irritated that she didn’t get cast as Witch #2 in her high-school production of Macbeth. For more about Marissa, check out marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

Cowan Palace: A Page from the Book of Theatre Fears

This week Ashley Cowan talks about taking on a role with some history.

It’s a question every actor faces when accepting a role that has been performed before: why me, why here, why now? Or at least I do. Because unless it’s a world premiere, the part has been played already and sometimes stepping into footsteps that are not your own can be a tricky business.

Maybe it’s been done just once before, maybe a million trillion gazillion times before (remember that summer in 2011 when everyone and their mom put on a production of Twelfth Night?) so it’s no secret that you run the inevitable risk of being compared to those who came before you.

And this summer, I’ve found myself having to embrace this idea. I’m beyond delighted to be performing in Custom Made’s Book of Liz with three talented and hilarious other actors (with a preview tomorrow night and our opening scheduled for Friday). But I have to admit; I’ve been a bit terrified of the role.

Not because the part is challenging; consisting of six different characters in a fast-pace, high energy, comedy. But because two years ago, a close friend of mine played it on the exact same stage. Let’s call her Gallison Gage! Crap, no. She’s much better at making up fun aliases than I am… Anyway, Allison’s performance was memorably dynamic and strong so my fear kicked in immediately, imagining audiences with rotting tomatoes waiting to be thrown at the dud who tried to live up to the past.

The interesting thing is, Allison and I have traveled this territory before. Kind of. We met over five years ago when she joined the cast of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. She was first hired to cover bridesmaid extraordinaire, Marina Galino; the role that I had been covering for the past few months. I was going on to play Terry, the nun-in-training, as she began making Marina memories. And I’ll admit, I had a hard time letting the part go! I had originated the current San Francisco role of Ms. Marina so I was very protective of it. But it was the nature of the show, and maybe the nature of show business in general, that you can’t be clingy for long and we were forced to learn quickly that each performance would be different. Everyone brought a new energy, a varying perspective, and their own “thing” to it. After a few months, we were both playing a series of different roles, and by the end of the run (years later) we had played virtually every female part and kissed many of the same people along the way (but that’s another blog all together). In the process of makeshift changing areas in stairwells, sharing costumes, and perfecting the use of hairspray and blue eye shadow, we became friends.

Here we are playing Tina and Terry. And Terry and Tina. When we switched parts a week later we wanted to capture the same picture as different characters for our selfish enjoyment alone. Friends forever!

Here we are playing Tina and Terry. And Terry and Tina. When we switched parts a week later we wanted to capture the same picture as different characters for our selfish enjoyment alone. Friends forever!

So when I was asked to audition for the 2013 production of Book of Liz, I went to Allison first. (Well, after I texted her about something Bachelorette related. We still can’t believe Mikey T. is no longer in the running! It’s so wrong!) And before accepting the part, I had to make sure that it wasn’t going to be weird for us considering she had just done it two years earlier (while I was in one of the many productions of Twelfth Night). Although sharing roles was something we had become acquainted to, I remember how much work Allison had put into her Book of Liz and the many conversations we had about it. When she offered her support in me taking the role, I was excited but the fear followed close behind. Fear that I couldn’t compete with the past.

And I’ll be truthful. We’re all friends here, right? That fear has weaseled its way into our rehearsals from time to time. It’s become a slightly sore subject for our current cast to be constantly compared to the last cast. Our production process has been fast and furious so often we’ll hear, “well, when this was done two years ago…” as means of figuring out how to solve a problem. Which unfortunately doesn’t always provide an appropriate answer for a group trying to create their own identity.

On top of that, since Allison and I can sometimes roughly fit into some similar costumes, I’ve been awarded many of her old pieces and I can’t help but worry that everyone will be expecting me to make all of the same choices she did and will end up disappointed when I don’t.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love having this opportunity and I am so grateful to be working with a cast and crew who make me laugh each day and push me to be better. But I can’t help but wonder if this is an obstacle many other actors are facing. How do you make your role special and unique when you’re following in someone’s footsteps? And how do you move beyond those thoughts to just get out there and try your best?

I think what I need to remember from my Tony n’ Tina days is that different doesn’t have to mean better or worse. It can simply just be different. The energy we’re bringing to the theater will undoubtedly be changed from the past production and that’s okay. We’re not aiming to be better than any other cast, we’re striving to run a solid show and make people laugh.

And I’m sure that’s the conclusion many other groups come to when they’re involved in a show that an audience may have seen numerous times before. We’re not inventing the wheel here but actors across stages everywhere still have the opportunity to pour their passion into a role as only they can and for that I couldn’t be more thankful. It’s so easy to get into the frame of mind that everything is a competition. In a competitive industry, I think it’s an easy leap. But if you get caught up in who is winning, you ultimately lose the chance to leave a footprint or two of your own.

And while I’m still battling my own private fears (well, I guess you now know about them reader, but you can keep a secret, right?) and trying to find my own way, I hope that Allison (and others!) will come see the show and allow this current cast to take them on a new journey of an old story. (And then we can go out to froyo as that’s something that Gallison Gage and I are great at!)

In any case, I’d love to know your thoughts. How do you go about acting/directing/producing/etc. a show with a history? Does it impact your choices during the process? Does it forever change you as an audience member when you see someone else doing a show you once worked on? And what’s your favorite flavor of froyo?! This gal needs to know! It would be swell to see you and discuss this further at Custom Made Theatre during the Book of Liz run or at Theater Pub’s newest installment of Pint Sized Plays. And I look forward to spending the rest of the summer in the company of San Francisco Theater.

From Tripple L to M4M: Stuart Bousel Talks About His Life With The Bard

In preparation for our next production, a scaled down version of Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure opening on Tuesday, August 14th, director Stuart Bousel talks about his previous tangles with the world’s most famous dead white male.  

Like many directors, I have a love-hate relationship with Shakespeare.

I love him in that he’s an amazing writer who has left us almost forty plays, many of which are masterpieces and all of which are eminently performable, and because these plays are the magical combination of incredibly universal and public domain, his work is a sort of lyrical playground for any director looking to put on a production where he or she can flaunt their innovative choices while still taking advantage of a several centuries long pedigree. Of course, there in lies the problem: these plays have been around for so long and are so well known that it’s somewhat impossible to just put them on as plays, and when you do so, inevitably, half your audience comes in with expectations that can have little to nothing to do with your production.

The first Shakespeare play I ever directed was his lesser-appreciated romantic comedy, Love’s Labors Lost, or as I like to call it, Tripple L, a play I adore, in part because it’s one of the rare, truly “original” plays Shakespeare wrote (most of them come from historical or mythological sources), and also because there’s something youthful and charming about it that makes me think it was, for Shakespeare, what SubUrbia was for Eric Bogosian or This Is Our Youth was for Kenneth Lonergan: that charming, quasi-autobiographical play you write about being good looking, reckless and having nothing to do but get wasted, flirt and act like you know everything about the world. Hence, when I directed my production in 2006, I re-set the show in a modern San Francisco nightclub, scored it with pop-music and costumed it with trendy clothes and an eye towards contemporary realism, making it about the people I knew. At the time, I figured this would be my one and only Shakespeare foray.

The trouble is, Shakespeare is sort of an addiction, and once you find your gateway play, it’s hard not to be tempted to do another one. And then another one. I did Hamlet next because, well, why the hell not, right? And that’s when I first figured out (as many people do on their first production of Hamlet) that there are some shows you do knowing virtually everyone who sees it is going to have “their version” in mind and that in their head it’s going to be superior to whatever you do. Which means you might as well go hog wild and that’s what I did, setting the show in modern times, once again, having actresses play the men and actors play the women and a terrifying seven foot tall ghost in what could best be described as Japanese horror flick drag. To date, it’s actually one of my favorite shows I’ve directed, being almost entirely wrapped in my own particular brand of experimentalism and cloaked in Bousel-ian touches: abrupt acts of violence, monochromatic color schemes, romantic suicides, homo-erotic undertones and surprise redemptions.

My next two Shakespeare productions were A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, both for Atmostheatre’s Theater in The Woods, an annual summer production staged in a Redwood preserve near Woodside, California. Both shows were exercises in charm and period theater, the first staged as a Regency era bittersweet romantic comedy, the second a more experimental foray into tragicomedy set in the early 18th century Massachusetts Bay Colony. Of the two, I personally think Midsummer was the more successful (you really just can’t beat setting that play in an actual forest) but on some level it’s virtually impossible to mess up that show unless you really try (and that said, I’ve seen it happen) and the fact is I learned more from Twelfth Night, which was a reminder that directors should play with these classics but never lose site of the story they are telling and what that story’s emotional core is for them.

Which set me up for directing Merchant of Venice, a production that, as of this writing, is still playing at the Gough Street Playhouse (home of the Custom Made Theater Company), having just been extended for another two weeks. In some ways a return to form for me, my Merchant is a sprawling commentary about the world of modern business and how its various social dramas of status and exploitation are played out in nightclubs and bars, break rooms and boardrooms. There is a light motif of pop music, drug and alcohol abuse, and retro fashion, setting the play in the 1960’s, 1980’s and contemporary world all at the same time, while preserving many of the antiquities of the text and finding numerous sight gags in the use of current day technology. To me, it’s the best Shakespeare I’ve done yet, using narrative to study the contrasts and comparisons between a time and society we think of as so removed from our own- and yet with which I think we have a lot in common. A lot we probably aren’t terribly proud of.

For the Pub’s Measure for Measure, however, I may be foraying back into the realm of charming, albeit this time with more edge than previously, as Measure packs a dirtier, nastier punch than Midsummer or Twelfth Night. Last year I had the honor of adapting Henry IV and V into The Boar’s Head, in which I also had the honor of playing Ned Poins. Something I loved about the show, directed by Jessica Richards, was how we moved throughout the Bar, which was transformed, through the text alone, into the Boar’s Head tavern from the plays, with only two moments of stepping away from that infamous East cheap locale so that Henry IV could bemoan his vanishing son and later die of unknown causes on the pool table. This time around I knew we shouldn’t do another show set in a pub. There are only so many times that could happen, even in Shakespeare’s vast canon, and the sooner we set a precedent that there were no precedents, the better it would be in the long run if, as it seems we intend to, there was to be an annual Shakespeare play at the Pub. When Measure for Measure was first suggested it seemed like an excellent fit because it would, like all Shakespeare plays, defy expectations even as it created them. Plus, it was an unusual choice, a play not frequently done or particularly well known, and so liberating myself and the cast to do with it what we would. Ironically, it’s going to be the first Shakespeare play I have ever directed that will be costumed in 16th century clothes, but the traditional take ends there.

Something I have discovered while putting together an 80 minute version of this show (that I now affectionately refer to as M4M) is that I’d actually love to do a full production sometime. We cut a lot of material and characters to make this play flow as smoothly and slickly as possible in the bar, and some of that is stuff I’d really like a chance to play with. But I’m also now completely hooked and going through a love phase with Shakespeare, so it may be a while before I allow myself the luxury of directing a second production of any of the shows I’ve done so far, when there are so many left I’d like to sink my teeth into.

In the back of my head, I’ve been considering both King John and Henry VIII for quite some time, and recently it was put into my head by a producer friend of mine to consider Romeo and Juliet. The pre-production phase for a production of The Tempest has been going on for about three years now and some part of me is always fantasizing about Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, Cymbeline. I have no real desire to direct Two Gentlemen of Verona or Much Ado About Nothing and yet if offered the chance, I wouldn’t turn them down because I see how both could be lovely shows and I have ideas. Which is the problem. I have ideas for all the shows. So do most directors.

And once you open that door for us, it can be a really difficult one to close. 

Don’t miss Theater Pub’s Measure for Measure, playing four nights at the Cafe Royale (August 14, 20, 21, 27) and one night at the Plough And Stars (August 22), always at 8 PM, always for free.