Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: An Interview with Danielle Gray

Marissa Skudlarek speaks with one of the Bay Area’s most exciting multi-hyphenate performers!

I don’t think I’d ever seen the actor-singer-musician-clown-fashionista Danielle Gray at this time last year, and then all of a sudden they burst upon the indie-theater scene. And, while I spend my days in a cubicle at a day job, Danielle always seems to be learning new circus skills, or singing torch songs in secret cabarets, and looking fabulous doing it. Currently, Danielle is acting in the new play Hunting Love in Oakland, which seemed as good an excuse as any to chat with them about their art and aesthetics.

HuntingLove

Nican Robinson as Narciso, Danielle Gray as Echo, Susan-Jane Harrison as Love.

Marissa: Tell me a little bit about Hunting Love and the character you play in it.

Danielle: Hunting Love is a new play by Susan-Jane Harrison. It’s kind of a reunion collaboration between Susan-Jane and director Erin Merritt, who used to work together at all-female Shakespeare company Woman’s Will. Hunting Love is being produced by a new company called Local Dystopia, which has produced shows here and in London, and is going up at the Flight Deck in downtown Oakland. The piece is fairly ambitious in its incorporation of dance/movement and sound/music. We have this amazingly talented three-person Greek chorus/band (Jed Parsario, Mia Pixley, Bruce Bennett) who play original music, provide atmospheric Foley sounds with their instruments, and act as minor characters. I am so impressed by them all the time.

Hunting Love is a new story, loosely using characters from Greek mythology. I play two characters who are inextricably connected in the story – Echo, a lovesick dryad who has willingly been turned into air so that she may follow Narciso (played by Nican Robinson) forever, and I also play Histrionia, daughter of Love (played by Susan-Jane Harrison). Character inspirations for my Echo include ballerinas, kittens who scratch you even when they’re trying to be affectionate, and baby velociraptors. She’s a bit feral, but in a lovable way. Histrionia is in her early twenties, but has had some emotional development setbacks… so she is a fully-grown woman with the emotional capacity and understanding of intimacy of a teenager. The play is about learning what intimacy and love even are — how do we go about this confusing business of loving one another?

Marissa: You’ve said that your audition for the 2015 San Francisco Olympians Festival (after which you were cast in a major role in the staged reading of Allison Page’s Jasons) is the reason you’ve been so busy with work over the last year.

Danielle: This is true! I auditioned on the advice of a friend who did it several years ago, and quickly found myself surrounded by excellent new friends and collaborators.

danielle-Theater Pub

Danielle as a mime in the March Theater Pub show, On the Spot. Photo by Tonya Narvaez.

Marissa: What were some of the artistic highlights of the last year for you?

Danielle: It sounds like I’m pandering, but sincerely, working with Theater Pub has been a major highlight of 2016. [Danielle played the Duke in Theater Pub’s February show Over the Rainbow, had roles in two short plays in our March show On the Spot, and also appeared in our June show Better Than Television –ed.] Theater Pub is the opposite of elitist, and everyone involved is engaged fully in the process of trying new things, both with existing texts and new work. It’s been really refreshing. However, my favorite show I only got because the director and writer saw me at Olympians was The Horse’s Ass & Friends, Megan Cohen’s delicious vaudevillian showcase of short works that played last December. It was a dream cast and crew and experience — everyone involved was a super talented pro and a lovely person, and I still count them all as friends I would recommend to anyone, or work with again in a second.

Marissa: Since so many good things came out of the Olympians Festival for you, it’s appropriate that you’re now acting in another play that is inspired by Greek mythology. What’s your favorite Greek myth or mythological figure?

Danielle: Oh, it is hard to pick. I like Medusa quite a bit, because she’s such an interesting, nuanced character who is often unfairly reduced to a Halloween monster. Her situation is fully unfair and she’s just trying to make the best of things by living up to her bad bitch reputation with no apologies, amirite? I’ve also always been fascinated by Hera, who is clearly the one keeping Mount Olympus running behind the scenes while Zeus is being a swan unconcerned with consent or whatever. I like complicated, imperfect female or non-binary characters in basically any mythology.

Marissa: You are making it as a working artist (sans day job) in the Bay Area, at a time when many people say that that’s no longer possible. What are your tips on how to make this work?

Danielle: So this is a popular rumor, and it’s only sometimes true, but I have been known to pull it off for months at a time. My situation changes frequently. I have anywhere from two to four part-time day jobs going at any given time. Nearly all are at least a little art-related, a rule I made for myself this year.  Right now I am teaching at an outdoor preschool for the summer, and I work at the front desk of a dance studio so I can get class credit, which is like… medium artistic, more about supplementing process expenses and doing research. Other arts work is contract-based and somewhat unpredictable, like cabaret or walk-around character acting for parties.

Tip #1: FOUR JOBS IS TOO MANY, don’t do this, I do this so you can see how crazy it can make a person.

Tip #2: Most artists I know have at least two things they love. My advice, for people who are willing to hustle like they will die tomorrow, is to do both of them. Don’t buy the advice that you have to pick. I love working with kids, so I keep my side job options open in five-and-under education, and luckily I live in the Bay Area, where when parents find out I also do cabaret they just think I am cool. They recognize that adults contain multitudes and are capable of being responsible, caring human beings AND doing weird circus sideshows for cash.

Tip #3: Accept help from trusted sources. It would be disingenuous for me to pretend that as an artist in a city with skyrocketing prices, I never hit a surprise financial wall and let my mom (a former costumer and lifelong artist/arts supporter herself) boost me with grocery money. I figure I’ll pay her back when she’s old and I’m successful by being Dorothy to her Sophia and making sure she gets to go on a vacation whenever she effing wants, just like she does for her mother.

Tip #4: This one is honestly the most important. Don’t work jobs that make you miserable. Don’t do it, it’s not worth it. Hold out if you can for a day job that has a team you love, or perks that are actually worth it (like training you in skills that will benefit your arts career), or a job that just makes you happy. Do not languish in industries you hate because you are afraid you won’t find something better in time to rescue yourself from late rent. You will manage. Believe in your own resourcefulness. Ask your network for help.

Marissa: You’ve also been getting into the cabaret scene as a singer, ukulele player, and clown. I am an amateur ukulele player myself so I have to ask: what are your favorite songs to play on the uke?

Danielle: I have been clowning and doing circus sideshow for a couple of years now, started teaching myself ukulele about four years ago but only started playing publicly last year, and I’ve been singing since I could open my mouth. But now I get paid to do it all in dark cabarets and variety shows, fulfilling my destiny of being Sally Bowles with (slightly) more sense in my head, and hopefully fewer Nazis. Lately I’ve been playing the following to relax: “I Wish I Was the Moon,” by Neko Case, “The Chain,” by Ingrid Michaelson, and “That Was Us,” by Julia Nunes. And I’m learning a duet with my dear friend Adam Magill which we will finish eventually: “To Die For Your Ideas,” Pierre de Gaillande’s English translation of a Georges Brassens song. I play so many broody songs on the ukulele I created a clown character centered around it just to lighten the mood. Triste is a sad, pretty clown, who sings pretty, sad songs.

danielle - fortune teller

Danielle as Gilda the Fortune-Teller. Photo by Ralph Boethling.

Marissa: What are your biggest influences or contributors to your aesthetic sensibility?

Danielle: I read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe as a kid, starting just about as soon as I could read a novel. That probably had a lot to do with what is happening here. I read Grimm’s fairy tales and the Anne of Green Gables series like a hundred times. My favorite book in high school was Lolita, because I am obsessed with Nabokov’s love letters to the English language, and the concept of playing with and manipulating audience sympathies. Lydia from Beetlejuice was a strong influence, though I only started wearing black in my late twenties: I didn’t have a “goth phase,” at least not where wardrobe is concerned, because I grew up in the desert. I also grew up in a very theatrical and musical household, so we watched a lot of TCM as a family and on our own. Old Hollywood films, musicals in particular, have had a huge impact on my aesthetic: Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Carol Burnett, Buster Keaton. Also the fashion of forgotten gems of 1990s cinema. Not the enduringly popular films, but the weird ones like With Honors, or Michael, or Truly, Madly, Deeply. Dad-jeans time capsules. I am enduringly obsessed with vaudeville aesthetics, magic, etc.

Marissa: What’s coming up next for you, and what shows are you most excited to see this summer/fall?

Danielle: So we just opened Hunting Love this past weekend, and it will run through August 21. Click here for tickets. We’ve also begun rehearsals for KML: The Musical, opening in September, which is SO EXCITING because it’s not just my first time working with Killing My Lobster, it’s my first foray into any sketch comedy since my high school cohort’s tragic but heartfelt attempt to form a troupe. I’m thrilled about the team for this show.

I haven’t booked anything at Panic & Give Up (a secret speakeasy cabaret I love) in the near future, but I am always haunting that joint and I’m sure I will turn up on their stage again eventually. It’s a good place to look for me. You can keep in the loop by using the form at www.daniellegray.com/booking, and requesting to be added to my email list. Or follow me on Facebook — I always do a public post when I have a show coming up.

The next show I’m going to see is The Thrush and the Woodpecker at Custom Made, and I’m pretty stoked about the space station they’re building over at PianoFight for Faultline Theater’s The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident.

Marissa: My column is called “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life” and you are a notably glamorous person, so I also have to ask: do you have any pointers (either practical or philosophical) for achieving glamor?

Danielle: Oh goodness, Marissa. Blush. I get asked about fashion advice a lot because I am not subtle about my evolving love affair with my wardrobe, and the best advice I have for anybody is to wear what you actually like. It is that simple. Honestly. If you want to wear a ball gown every day, just do it. I’m not at all exaggerating. If you like to wear yoga clothes, buy the ones you really like and rock them. The only thing stopping you from looking exactly the way you want is your hesitation – find photos that inspire you and replicate the items, scour thrift stores and department stores alike, be real about the colors you enjoy, don’t be snobby about brands (high end or low end). I think of every outfit as a costume, with a particular inspiration. Once a friend told me my outfit was “a pair of fishnets away from Bob Fosse Captain Hook,” which remains one of my most treasured compliments. Some days I’m “Andro Duckie.” Often, I get “80s New Wave/Boy George.” You know what makes you feel good, you know whose style you admire. There’s no reason you can’t do what they do. People like to see other people being unabashedly themselves.

Keep up with Danielle’s adventures at www.daniellegray.com.

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Everything Is Already Something: Allison & Anthony See Thunder From Down Under

When last we left our heroes, Allison Page & Anthony Miller, they had swilled down Fireball and countless other ill-advised beverages while watching Hoodslam, a wrestling event in Oakland, California. That was several months ago. (see Part 1, Part 2). They’ve grown so much. Or something.

Special crude illustrations by Peter Townley, based on awful descriptions by Allison, because they didn’t allow photos.

Allison: A little over a week ago I was alerted to the fact that a certain event pertaining to my interests – a show, if you will – a production…THUNDER FROM DOWN UNDER was coming to San Francisco. In case you’re unfamiliar, it’s a bunch of Australian male strippers dancing to routines set to music while wearing themed “costumes” that they eventually remove. Naturally, I immediately suggested Anthony come along for a second installment of glorious audience-membering. Anthony, you’re welcome.

Anthony: I had proposed a few different shows over the last few months, but the schedules never worked. After the third time I got grumpy and was “Grumble grumble, I’m tired of suggesting things grumble grumble.” But then I got very sad because maybe Allison secretly hated me. So when she did message me, there was a moment of girlish excitement, “Ooh Allison Page messaged me, I must be a likable person.” This is a real thing. Her message simply said “THUNDER FROM DOWN UNDER”, for whatever reason, I knew exactly what she meant. I have no idea why, but I immediately said yes, let’s go see male strippers.”

Excerpt from our pre-show fish ‘n chips convo:
Al: I don’t know how much storytelling we’ll see tonight.
Ant: No. None. But we’ll have to find some way to make it relate to theater.

Al: As you can see, we had our mission. We also had our first drinks. Anthony, a shot of well whiskey and a beer, I think. And I had a Cucumber Pimm’s Cup.
In line at Cobb’s Comedy Club (a fascinating venue choice) we noticed a distinct lack of men. In fact, Anthony’s the only one I saw. I took a photo of him in line in case I ever needed it for…some reason.

Ant: It was strange how comfortable I felt, standing in a line of a hundred people and they were all women. We would randomly start giggling about it because it was so apparent. But this was not a polite line, oh no, these ladies were there to party. People who didn’t regularly smoke cigarettes, were bumming smokes from their friends, they were swigging flasks of whiskey, smoking blunts and vape pens. It was awesome, it was as if the absence of men allowed them to be devoid of bullshit and cut loose. Turns out, I had seen nothing yet.

At one point, a nice old lady was pulled on stage. Not as old as this, but I really enjoy the addition of slippers in this drawing.

At one point, a nice old lady was pulled on stage. Not as old as this, but I really enjoy the addition of slippers in this drawing.

Al: We made our way through the line, into the theater, and were ushered up to the balcony at a small table in the back…with 4 chairs. 2 women sat with us a few moments later and we each tried to pretend the other duo wasn’t there, aware that we would all be looking at the same pecs.

Ant: Our seats were about as far back as possible, which was just fine. Better stay as far from the sweaty Australians and their feverish fans as we can. To me, the audience is part of the show. I will say this about the two ladies at our table, they were drinking kamikazes at a pretty impressive rate.

Al: Once the lights dimmed, the crowd start shrieking. A high squeal like a thousand semi trucks hitting their brakes at once. There’s a video montage. I can’t stop thinking that it was someone’s job to make it. The screen changes to a vision of digital rainfall. AC/DC plays. Nothing’s happening yet, it’s all fluffing, you could say. In fact, I just did.

Ant: I have seen a lot of crowd reactions in my life, I have seen grown men cry at a Paul McCartney concert. But nothing comes close to the the sound of 450 women going batshit. The shriek became lower, guttural, primal even. It was as if the audience immediately established that the men worked for them. I wonder if anyone else made the connection that AC/DC is an Australian band, I wonder if they just chose it because it had “Thunder” in the title.

Al: The opening number begins. We’re giggling with anticipation. I suddenly realize I have no idea what the Australian flag looks like. “Cry Me A River” plays. There are 5 guys, one seems to be the leader. He looks like Christian Slater 20 years ago. The men go out into the audience. So far, they’re still clothed.

Ant: My first thought is I’m a little dissapointed they’re not better dancers. Some of them are better than others, maybe I’m spoiled by musical theatre, but I wanted more precision. Not to take away from their sweaty, rippled bodies, but seriously, you know what’s sexy? Synchronicity.

Al: Then the butts come out. If you look at my scribbled notes, they say “HERE COME THE BUTTS” which I don’t think was code for anything. They’re pretty good butts, but they’re flexing them really hard and I don’t know if that’s the best strategy, you know? All tightened up like that? Is that the best display of a butt? Who am I to say. But I say no.

Ant: I made a mental note to renew my gym membership, because dang. I am not a fan of the butt flexing, why would you do all those squats just to make your ass narrow? Perhaps if they made their butt cheeks dance in time with the music.

Al: A host emerges. He proclaims that for all the things we’re about to see, there are two things we WILL NOT see: “YOUR STUPID HUSBANDS AND BOYFRIENDS”. This is a repeated theme throughout the night. This show is SO heavily aimed at women, it’s kind of amazing. It’s like Magic Mike but, ya know, no Channing. Or Joe. They constantly stress that it’s “Laaaadies niiiiight ouuuut!” and that these guys are nothing like your shitty partners/boyfriends/husbands who are very clearly not good enough for you. Ya gotta give it to ‘em in light of that packed house: it’s marketing that seems to work for them! I wonder who’s writing that copy. I am available for that gig, TFDU, if you need me.

Ant: It was profound in a way, to watch these women totally bro-out. They were yelling and screaming, they were slapping asses and high fiving. To me, this was equality. Men were being objectified and everyone was having a good time. I am willing to bet most of these women at some point that day had to take shit from a dude. Now was their chance to vent, to fight the ding dang patriarchy. To stand up and say “STATISTICALLY, I ONLY MAKE 73 CENTS TO YOUR DOLLAR, NOW DANCE, BITCH.” Perhaps i’m reading too much into this.

Al: By now we’ve got our second drink. For me, some Sweet Tea Filled With Liquor situation, and for Anthony a Moscow Mule. And I’ve started keeping track of things that could technically classify this as theater:

There’s an audience
There’s a stage
There’s music
There are costumes
And believe or not, there are kind of stories sort of? More on that later.
Anthony, what am I forgetting here?

Ant: (Puts on glasses) The closest theatrical comparison would be the popular theatre of the early 20th century. Specifically, Vaudeville, Burlesque and the Musical Revue. The dances have themes and costumes and it’s all tied together with a host. It is a theatrical production.

Al: There’s a fair amount of time killing going on. The host does 10 minutes of non-comedy and then ends up with this belter: “Are you ready to see some naked Australian men?” The crowd goes bananas. It’s like a Beatles concert but the fans are 25-50 year old women desiring tall muscular men who dance stiffly to “Welcome to the Jungle” while dressed as Tarzan…and then a man in a gorilla suit comes out. Interesting artistic choice, that. Can’t believe they bought a whole gorilla suit for that one 20 second bit but you do you, Thunder. You do you. I hope it was on sale.

Ant: Maybe I have a warped sense of morals, but it all seemed very harmless. It didn’t strike me as sleazy, but kinda good, clean, fun. I mean am I really supposed to feel threatened by dudes dancing in tacky costumes? It all seemed very silly, but in an entertaining way. It isn’t just sexy dudes dancing, it’s sexy dudes being very silly. They know they look ridiculous, but I assume women also appreciate a man willing to make an ass of himself.

Al: Soon after, the first shirt of the evening is shredded. Ya know, they grab it on both sides of the collar and tear it in two on their own bodies. You know. You’ve seen TV.

Ant: I think being able to do it while doing body rolls is pretty impressive.

Al: Agreed. I said, aloud, “If someone doesn’t do Pony I will burn this place to the ground.” Can’t remember if I meant it.

Ant: I had no doubt they would play “Pony”, if I was a stripper, I would dance to “Pony”. I also believed Allison would burn the place down if they didn’t.

Al: The first audience member of the night is pulled on stage and given a lap dance. I guess I was mesmerized for a moment because my notes stopped. Then picked back up with “He shoves her hand down his pants,” something which happened several times, the point of which I never quite grasped. (SEE WHAT I DID THERE) Then, as opposed to the brief showing of butts earlier, the pants FINALLY came off. I laughed really hard because I’m 12 years old I guess. The thong is Miami Vice colored, honestly.

Ant: It’s like what you think male stripper would wear in the 80’s, in a movie about this quiet, shy guy who is a sexy dancer by night. I wonder how many hands he’s shoved down his pants.

Al: There’s a “Spartan” bit. It’s a low point for me. Sword work leaves something to be desired. I mean, and they’re obviously plastic. But at least they’ve got capes.

Ant: The capes look heavy, you can’t properly dance in such heavy capes.

Al: This is when I notice that their dancing is more like a series of poses.

Ant: Totally! It was here I became a little disappointed. I mean I’ve heard of The Thunder From Down Under, they have a regular show in Vegas. I guess I expected something slightly more legit. Or at least really good dancers, clearly Magic Mike has misled me. It was if they were relying on the fact they were very attractive men. I should also note that if anyone else noticed this, they didn’t care. It was raining men god dammit.

Al: Another woman is brought onstage. I admit to probably woo-hooing during this bit. Wasn’t bad. There was a lot of carrying her around and tossing her over here or over there. Quite exciting. Ends with a guy pretending to perform oral sex on her while she’s still wearing pants? Sure, whatever.

Ant: I admit I clutched my proverbial pearls a few times, between the aggressive air humping, the assisted crotch grabbing, and the simulated oral sex. I feel like it would be horrifying to be this woman, having australian junk aggressively waved in my face. Again, it all seemed so silly. It was becoming clear that on the male stripper naughtiness spectrum, these fellas were on the tamer side. I have seen strippers two other times in my life, but those were lady strippers, the difference here is that I didn’t feel skeezy being there.

Al: The host comes out again while the dancers are presumably getting dressed for the next number so they have a new outfit to take off. The women start shouting for him to take his clothes off, like they want to eat the threads of his clothing to steal his soul or something. A woman in front of us starts pounding on her table and when he says “No, no ladies, I won’t be taking my clothes off, my mother might find out,” she suddenly shouts “I CAN SEE YOUR VAGINA FROM HERE!” Yeah, that absolutely made me laugh, won’t pretend otherwise.

"I CAN SEE YOUR VAGINA FROM HERE!" lady shouts as Allison & Anthony look on.

“I CAN SEE YOUR VAGINA FROM HERE!” lady shouts as Allison & Anthony look on.

Ant: To be fair, no one is there the hear his jokes. No one is advertising sexy naked Australian men AND witty repartee with the host. As I said before, I really appreciate watching women behave loud and boorish. I had no idea that I did, until tonight.

Al: “Uptown Funk” plays. The men wear bright silk jackets. They dance a bit and exit. The host then brings three women up for a fake orgasm contest. Again: KILLING TIME. He asks one of them, “Are you single?” her response…”I have cats.”

Ant: Those were some pretty crappy fake orgasms. I’ll say this about the “Uptown Funk” number, the pants and shirts removing cues were very well timed. The part of the show that never gets old is when the dancers go into the audience. The ladies go batshit every time.

Al: One of them climbs up the host. She wins. Next comes, and I need to stress that I’m not making this up, a SWAT team number. Yes, they all enter with fake guns and in SWAT team gear. It was pretty weird. I maybe cowered a bit. Then I got distracted thinking “Do they called it a SWAT team in Australia?” Then there’s a high concept lap dance Anthony appreciates.

Ant: This makes me re-think my feeling on “sexy” versions of costumes. Every Halloween we cringe at the bajillion costumes for women that are a sexy version of everything. Sexy jelly bean, sexy Dorothy, sexy United States Senator. This show brings a certain balance to it, they really do run the gamut. There were sexy firemen (A staple I assume,) Sexy jungle men and yes, sexy Swat Team. There was just something so right about the reversal of roles. Men were there and objectified for the specific entertainment of women. It was kind of glorious.

Al: Next, there are firemen and fire hose sound effects. I express disappointment that the bottom half of the firemen outfits look suspiciously like khakis. At some point we receive our third set of drinks, identical to the second. “Come Together” plays. An interesting musical choice, though soon we are blessed with “It’s Getting Hot In Here”, to which Anthony claps along. Finally, after waiting and hoping for this moment all evening, I hear the dulcet tones of Ginuwine’s “Pony”. It’s a dream come true. Except it isn’t. He kind of phones it in. Listen, I don’t know much, but I know that if you are stripping to “Pony” you need to 1) BRING IT and 2) HUMP THE FLOOR. If you don’t hump the floor during “Pony”, GTFO.

We end our evening with predictable cowboys “dancing” to “Sweet Home Alabama” in chaps, obviously.

I admit to having had a pretty great time. There were drinks, and we were far enough away that we didn’t get too close to any dangly parts. I couldn’t help but feel, as the host professed “THEY’RE ALL SINGLE, LADIES, AND YES, WE’RE REALLY AUSTRALIAN!” that they must get tired of all this pandering sometimes. And all that waxing. They were pretty stiff (HAR HAR) in the dancing department. And the routines weren’t anything that any guy I’ve ever met could accomplish just as, if not more, effectively. I think Anthony had a good point when he said “You know, I think it’s just about the confidence. They just have the confidence to be up there, and not be fully clothed, and that’s what the women are reacting to.”

I have to agree with this. They clearly DGAF about being nearly nude. And good for them. No one’s paying to see my clenched butt cheeks…that I’m aware of. Based on the audience reaction, and the fact that there’s no way these guys are ALWAYS in the mood to do this, I have to say it’s theater. They’re putting on a show. Sure, it ain’t Hamlet, but nothing is. Even Hamlet, sometimes.

Also, my favorite part of the whole evening was the “sexy” illusion completely being broken by the stage manager, Nicole, who had to run onstage at least a half dozen times to move a chair to a different position on stage, DURING A LAP DANCE. I laughed so hard every time she ran on in her all black backstage-y clothes, to assist in a sexy-time dance. That was the best theater of all.

Nicole, angelic stage manager, always ready to assist.

Nicole, angelic stage manager, always ready to assist.

Allison Page & Anthony Miller are both writers and theater-makers who saw nearly nude men together. Just Google them, it’s easier.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Who’s a Horse’s Ass?

Marissa Skudlarek discusses Megan Cohen’s most recent contribution to the SF Olympians Festival, and one local critic’s take on the show.

George Heymont begins his review of Centaurs and Satyrs, an Olympians Festival staged reading that happened last Thursday, by outlining the recent upsurge in feminist advocacy among theater-makers and in the culture at large. He notes that the Olympians Festival, while never explicitly framing itself as a feminist organization, has a better record of gender parity among its writers than many other theaters in town. So far, so good. Critics should be aware of the current sociopolitical issues and trends relating to their art form, and feminism is one of the loudest conversations happening right now. It’s nice to see a male critic acknowledge that.

Heymont then transitions into discussing the reading of Megan Cohen’s Centaurs, or The Horse’s Ass, a “postmodern vaudeville comedy” for two women. I was at the theater last Thursday, too, and I’d describe the play as a mix of traditional vaudeville tropes (soft-shoe routines, “Who’s on First”-style wordplay) and edgier elements (gross-out humor, dick jokes). And, starting with a joke about the difference between a “horse” and a “whore” and going on from there, the play also becomes more and more interested in issues of feminism and gender. It’s a scathing and provocative piece, whose feminism isn’t just “rah-rah, women are awesome” platitudes, but something much more complex and searching.

Heymont’s intro paragraphs about feminism led me to believe that he was gearing up to point out these aspects of The Horse’s Ass. Instead, Heymont writes, “Although Cohen and Bousel [sic] cast two women as their centaurs, the gender of the actors was not as important as the concept of two centaurs trying to tell corny jokes and perform bits of physical comedy onstage.”

Say what?

(You’ll have to imagine a record-scratching sound here, people.)

To say that the gender of the actors in The Horse’s Ass was “not important” or suggest the play would have been equally effective with male actors is frankly, incomprehensible.

First of all, it’s always a feminist statement when women get to be loud and messy and grotesque onstage. Gallagher may smash watermelons and the dudes of PianoFight may host “Throw Rotten Veggies at the Actors” Night, but when was the last time you saw two women onstage chewing up and spitting out carrots?

Second, the initial scenes of The Horse’s Ass might work OK with men in the roles, but when themes of gender and feminism explicitly enter the text, it wouldn’t work with anything but women. Megan is fascinated by the half-human, half-horse nature of the centaur, and situates that within a clearly female context: “Do you ever feel like the best and most noble parts of yourself are tied to the worst and most despicable things a human being can have inside them? Like, despite the fact that you are capable of love and of mercy, you’re also just a two-legged hatrack on which is hung a gaping, yearning hellmouth that spews blood and can never be satisfied?” Try imagining a man saying that!

The vaudeville also contains the following scenes, which wouldn’t work with male actors:

A discussion about whether you’d rather be raped or murdered (“I guess I’d rather be raped. Since 1 out of every 6 women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, it would at least give me something in common with a lot of people, so if I’m at a party or something I can be like ‘Hey, the funniest thing happened to me the other day, has this ever happened to you?’ and 1 out of every 6 women would be like ‘Oh my god, totally’”).

Use of carrots as substitute penises, which gets into that whole Freudian thing about female penis envy and wouldn’t work, y’know, if the actors had penises of their own.

An extended metaphor contrasting the discursive structure of a vaudeville act and the phallic-linear structure of a Hero’s Journey narrative, “the decadent last breath of a dying patriarchy obsessed with the dogmatic enforcement of their own sexual template as the dominant format for cultural pleasure.” Which is why you need women up on stage, saying that. Not representatives of the dying patriarchy.

I should admit here that I’m biased. For reasons that even I can’t fully understand, the staged reading of The Horse’s Ass cracked something in me wide open and left me feeling weird and vulnerable for the entire next day. About two-thirds of the way through watching it, I started feeling like I was about to cry – and not in the “laughing so hard you cry” way, but out of some combination of envy and discomfort and confusion and anguish. Gratitude toward Megan for writing such a trenchant play, mixed with despair at the world her play depicted.

Earlier that day, I’d already been in a weird mood. It seemed that if I separately considered each individual fact of my life and my existence, things seemed manageable, even forgivable. But when I thought about my life and the world as a giant, interconnected system, it seemed irrevocably fucked up. I had become preoccupied with the idea that the white race is the cancer of human history, as Susan Sontag said, and that even Western culture’s most stirring achievements (symphonies, cathedrals, Greek mythology) probably aren’t enough to redeem us. I had also been haunted by some comment I’d read online saying that if you are a heterosexual woman, if you wish to love a man and be loved by him in turn, you are merely a victim of Stockholm syndrome who’s been brainwashed into empathizing with your oppressor. I felt trapped by my race and gender and class and circumstances, doomed from birth to be a white oppressor and a self-deluding female, and not strong or brave enough to help overthrow society.

And then, after having such thoughts, I saw a play that asked, “Do you ever feel like the best and most noble parts of yourself are tied to the worst and most despicable things a human being can have inside them?” A play that reminded me that my attachment to linear storytelling is a symptom of how I’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy. And it’s no wonder that, after the play ended, I made a beeline for the EXIT Theatre’s back courtyard, sat on a bench, and sobbed.

Megan and I belong to a similar demographic: white, female, born in the 1980s, educated at fancy colleges, spending too much time on the Internet. For that reason, it makes sense that I’d feel a stronger connection to her play than George Heymont did. (And, conversely, it might be a fair criticism of her piece if it works for people in her own demographic but is incomprehensible to the older generation.) I’m not saying that Heymont is required to love or appreciate Megan’s writing. But, if he’s going to set himself up as a “legitimate” arts blogger, I do expect him to discuss the work he sees with accuracy and insight. I expect him to realize that, not only is feminism a big topic of discussion these days, but also that he’s got a blazingly insightful feminist vaudeville onstage in front of him.

If I look at Heymont’s review of The Horse’s Ass as an isolated event – just a bizarre misinterpretation of a single work of art – it seems manageable, even forgivable.

But if I look at his review in the context of a wider system – a system in which women’s art is devalued and even an explicitly, brutally feminist play is dismissed as “not really about gender” – it seems irrevocably fucked up.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer who is a combination of the noble and the despicable. Like you. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Everything Is Already Something Week 36: The Day The Theatre Died

Allison Page gets serious for a moment. Not really.

It’s hard out there for an artist. It’s even harder out there for a company of artists. If you were a theater company, and standing in a room with a bunch of other theater companies, I would get up on a collapsible stage and say, “Everyone look to your left. Now everyone look to your right. Some of these people will not survive the next few years.” and everyone would either go “Oooooo.” or “Uh oh” or roll their eyes, or laugh awkwardly, knowing it’s true. The theater community has been shaken up even more than usual lately. Intersection For The Arts, San Jose Rep…there are more fatalities and you’ve seen and read about them, I’m not going to go on about who they are, the point is – we’re dropping like fucking flies over here. And I really hate saying this, but the more I think about it, the less surprised I am.

Remember Vaudeville? No? Oh, that’s because it’s been gone since the early 1930s. People didn’t want to consume their entertainment the same way they had been, and with movies easily accessible everywhere, Vaudeville fell out of the interest of the public.

The ONLY Theatre In Los Angeles!

The ONLY Theatre In Los Angeles!

In a twist of fate, movies took the same blow they had dealt to Vaudeville when television came into play. People could be entertained in their own homes for free, and movies became a less frequent event in the lives of many. With the improvements made to all-things-internet, many people now don’t even bother with traditional television and watch things directly from their computers, tablets, phones, or have the images grafted directly to their eyeballs for all of eternity, or however the hell a google glass works.

I love theater, and I don’t think it’s dead, but I do think it has moved back into its parents’ basement much to the chagrin of the entire family. I feel frustrated that it can almost never sustain itself without resorting to asking for lunch money which it then uses to buy case after case of Miller High Life.

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I hate that even the most successful theater in the area, a theater with lots and lots of seats, shows and actors imported from New York and wherever else, still has to fundraise huge amounts of money (recently $100,000…a number I can’t even think about) to make things happen. But I guess that’s something that brings up a discussion about whether or not theater is both an art form AND a business (regardless of non-profit-ness). A business which requires yearly (or more frequently than that) gigantic gobs of money in the form of donations, doesn’t sound like a particularly well-run business to me. And I hate the thought of always scrambling, wondering if you’ll be open the next season, and knowing that if you don’t raise X amount of money with your elaborate Kickstarter campaign of relatively meaningless perks and rewards, that things could get very sticky for you and yours.

Maybe that sounds harsh, I don’t know. I feel frustrated with the state of things lately. I hate begging for money. More than that, I hate needing to do it. I hate that this thing that can bring a little happiness and magic to a bunch of lives all at once, doesn’t seem valuable enough to pay for itself. Obviously costs in the bay area aren’t helping anything. When I started a theater company in Minnesota, I did get a grant. A one time grant which was, I believe, around $1,000. I used it to buy a lot of basic things which we used to build a stage, build a set which could be moved around to create a different set, and generally to get things going. That’s the only grant I ever applied for. After that, I used the money earned from each show to put up the next one (supplemented by some of my own cash, for which I would try to reimburse myself later). I did that for five years. A theater company existing for five years having received only one grant? That’s pretty fucking great. But that would be really hard to make happen here. The cost of just renting the space in which to perform for a few days is more than the entirety of the grant I received in 2003.

Perform in our great new Abandoned Asylum - er - Brand New Theater Space for only $7,200 a week! WHAT A STEAL!...Extra $2,000 if you need someone to operate the light board. And you definitely need someone to operate the light board because it's made out of bones.

Perform in our great new Abandoned Asylum – er – Brand New Theater Space for only $7,200 a week! WHAT A STEAL!…Extra $2,000 if you need someone to operate the light board. And you definitely need someone to operate the light board because it’s made out of bones.

When Kickstarter became a thing, artists went bananas. Finally, a great way to crowdsource funds to make your dream happen. It was a revelation. Initially I think it felt like an amazing way to make someone’s biggest, most long-awaited aspiration come to life…and now it’s everyone’s biggest aspiration THIS MONTH. So instead of feeling like we’re supporting a one-time artistic dream project, it feels like everyone wants us all to pay for every single thing that they do. It’s overwhelming. I should mention that I contribute to Kickstarter and IndieGoGo campaigns all the time. When I see a project I like, or when a frequent collaborator or friend is working on something, I donate to it. But I’m definitely starting to feel like it’s going to be too much at some point. Particularly when the numbers start ticking up and up and up. I miss the scrappy days of yore. Scrappiness is a trait I really admire in others, and something I try to exercise in my own life. The pilot episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, shot by the guys who thought it up, was made for a famously small amount of money. Depending on who you ask, it was somewhere between $85 and $200. Meanwhile, I know a guy who just tried to crowdsource $60,000 for his independent film. I’m not suggesting he should make it for $200, but I am suggesting that $60,000 might be too much to as your friends to pay for. And as it turns out, I’m right. Because his campaign was unsuccessful and his donations added up to only $5,000 and because it was done on Kickstarter, I’m assuming that means he got a whopping $0. And this was a campaign which included some moderately fancy names.

I don’t know. This feels like a time of change and uncertainty in the performing arts. I’m not sure what the next chapter holds for us. I will continue to support the projects I care about (for example, the SF Olympians Festival, which supports the work of over 100 artists every year: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/san-francisco-olympians-festival-v-monsters-ball ) but I wonder what funding for theatrical projects will look like in even two years. When will people start to feel maxed out? Is there a better way to do this? Are we making things too big, too complicated, too expensive for their own good? For their own sustainability?

I don’t have the answers, but I am working on them in relation to my own projects in the next year. I’m spending lots of time and energy trying to find a way to not spend every available dime, and to be a nimble creator of nimble things. Because, at the end of the day, I don’t have any other choice. Money doesn’t grow on fake trees even if you spend $10,000 to build them.

Allison Page is an actor/writer/director, and Co-Creative Director of Killing My Lobster. You can find her on Twitter @allisonlynnpage.