Theater Around The Bay: The Great Blog Re-Cap Of 2015 Part I

Today is the first of our three installments of 2015 recaps from each of our nine staff bloggers. Each has their own unique angle on this past year, so make sure you come back for the rest tomorrow and Wednesday. The Stueys will post on New Year’s Eve.

Top Five “Words of Wisdom” From Folks I’ve Interviewed by Barbara Jwanouskos

2015 marked the first year of shifting “The Real World – Theater Edition” to a mostly interview-based column mainly focused on generative theater artists, new work, and playwrights. As I reflected on the year, five “words of wisdom” moments sprung to mind that I would love to set as an intention moving forward into 2016. They resonated with me when I initially interviewed each of the people below and then again as I reviewed the interviews of the past year.

I think it’s best to let these words stand alone without any framing or reasons why I chose them. After all, when something resonates for you personally, it just does. There’s not much more to it than that. Hopefully, though, highlighting these five artists will also bring new ideas and wonder to the forefront of everyone reading too!
In no particular order, here are their words again:

1) Ariel Craft, director
“Don’t be afraid of not knowing, and don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know. You can’t be expected to have all the answers in the beginning and, if you think that you do, be cautious of those answers.”

2) Donald E. Lacy, Jr., comedian, radio DJ, performer, writer, director, and community leader
“For other writers and artists I can’t tell them what to write or how they should address social ills, but the first advice I would give is to say you have to feel passionately about what you are writing about, whatever that may be. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, but for me, I have to care. Especially as it relates to social issues and or injustices. I despise injustice. I despise racism, so having such strong feelings about those issues, it makes it easy for me to tap into what I want to say about those particular issues. But for me, I like to support my point of view with facts.”

3) Alan Olejniczak, playwright, librettist
“You must also really love the subject of your play as it may take years to develop.”

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

5) Marisela Treviño Orta, playwright
“I make a point to wait until I’ve gotten a play into several drafts before sharing the script with anyone. I need that time to really get to know what the story so that when people have notes for me I’m able to determine if those notes help me realize the narrative I’m trying to write or if they are going in another direction.”

The 5 Most Surprising Things that Happened to Me This Year by Charles Lewis III

I wouldn’t call 2015 my favorite year, but it was an interesting one theatrically. Some of it was by design, some of it was happenstance, but all of it taught me something. With all the moments I now recall, here are five that came out of left-field.

1) I sang. I’ve auditioned for so many musicals over the years that I’d long-since stopped holding my breath about actually being cast in one, let alone two in one year (one of which also required me to dance). But between appearing in a brand new musical and singing “Pinball Wizard” at the top of my lungs, I finally got over a stage-based fear that’s been with me since high school.

2) I saw the Red Planet. I was part of the writers’ pool for this year’s two rep shows by Wily West Productions. It was my first time being part of a group, this one led by Jennifer Roberts. One of the two scripts, Zero Hour: The Mars Experiment, had a performance attended by actual candidates of the Mars One project and got a reading at the Otherworld Theatre in Chicago.

3) I learned to like costumes. Not that I ever hated them (although I’ve worn a few horrendous ones in my time), I just didn’t ever want to be the one making the decisions about them. But a director kinda has to make those decisions and I wound up directing a lot this year. To my pleasant surprise, I wound up liking the things my actors wore: I created a cartoonish burger-place cap for On the Spot; I got my Olympians cast to look like a pack of scented markers; and as for Texting

4) I made a skimpy man-thong into a prop. A proud moment for me. Nothing I put on my resume will ever top it. Speaking of which…

5) I gave up my reluctance in calling myself a director. I only acted in two projects, which would normally lead me to calling this a slow year. But I felt envigorated after doing them. This occurred in the same year that I found myself at the proverbial “helm” of so many projects that I finally felt confident enough to put “Director” on my theatrical CV and told people to consider me for projects – which they have.

Oh yeah – I also ran into Colin Firth on the streets of San Francisco, but no one wants to hear about that, do they?

The Top Five Venues of 2015 by Anthony Miller

Hey you guys, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, when my Top 5 format becomes everyone’s format. It’s much like the 90’s, when what I already wore became fashionable. At the beginning of the year I made 2 resolutions, 1) Read The Great Gatsby and 2) Leave the house more often. As we come to the end of the year, only one of those really worked out. As it stands, I have read 17 pages of The Great Gatsby, it took all of 2014 just to finish the introduction. So we’ll table this one again. However, I did manage to get out more, consequently I got to see a lot of different shows in a whole bunch of places. So let’s look at my five favorite venues of 2015.

1) Pianofight
Wasn’t this everyone’s favorite venue of 2015? I’m not the first person to say it, but what Rob Ready and everyone at Pianofight has accomplished is amazing. It’s always fun to be there, the bar is great, the fried chicken sandwiches are the best, and it’s provided a clubhouse of sorts for SF theatre. With three stages, it’s hosting shows from every facet of the Bay Area performing arts scene. All the mini-scenes in the bay are getting together in one place and it’s resulting in more shows and bigger audiences. Whether I’m seeing a show or producing a show there, it’s always fun. I see a huge 2016 for this place, and they deserve it.

2) The Curran
While the 100 year-old Curran Theater is going under renovations, it has been hosting an exciting new series of plays called Curran: Under Construction. I was lucky enough to see a lot of these this year, and because I knew most of the house staff, I got to see not only a lot of cool theatre; I got to explore the place like crazy. By putting the audience on stage with the show, it turns the historic Curran stage into an intimate 150 seat venue that just happens to overlook a 1600 seat theatre and a giant chandelier. The sheer variety of shows I saw was vast There were immersive theater pieces like The Object Lesson, one man tributes to Lenny Bruce, and the Theatre Rock awesomeness of Ghost Quartet and Stew’s Notes of A Native Song. Add that to hanging out on a stage that has hosted hundreds of theatre legends, exploring their basement, fly rails and sneaking into a box seat and drinking a beer, and it makes for an awesome experience every time. And entering through the star door is pretty fun; It’s a really nice stage door.

3) Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater
For purely sentimental reasons, The ol’ Roda Theater makes my list. After roughly 3 years of House Managing for them, I left for greener pastures. Sure, the Roda can be aptly described much like Ferris Beuller described Cameron’s house; “It’s like a museum it’s very beautiful and very cold, and you not allowed to touch anything”. But I did have a lot of fun there. My co-workers were great, and as nerdy as it sounds, there is something absolutely thrilling about getting 600 people seated and giving the house away on time. Not to mention, I saw Tartuffe there, which was easily my favorite show of 2015.

4) The Grand Lake Theater
OK, this is a movie theater, but it is noteworthy. The historic Grand Lake Theater in Oakland is my favorite movie theater in the world. I saw Star Wars Episode 7 in classic 2 projector 3D there and whenever I can see a movie here, I do. It’s a beautiful old fashioned theater that still raises a curtain when the movie starts; an organist plays before the show, and it’s got a pretty ceiling. Not to mention the fiercely liberal views that are often displayed on the marquee. Let me be clear, this is best movie theater in the Bay Area. They’re currently hosting the “Roadshow” Version of The Hateful Eight in glorious 70mm, You’re doing it no justice by seeing it at the Kabuki AMC, Go to Oakland, see a movie there. You won’t be sorry

5) The EXIT
I just can’t quit you EXIT Theater, I love you and your pee-pee smelling sidewalk. I don’t see a world where I don’t see shows here. It still remains a place where independent theatre artists can find a home or just get started. It’s the home of SF Fringe, The Olympians Festival, DivaFest and everybody’s first show in San Francisco. With great new venues like Pianofight and the Strand opening up, the Exit is still the Exit, the CBGB’s of SF Indie Theater.

Charles Lewis is an actor and a director and a writer. Barbara Jwanouskos is a playwright. Anthony R. Miller is writer and producer, he’s a got a very busy 2016 coming up, keep up with it at http://www.awesometheatre.org.

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Theater Around The Bay: SHEHEREZADE’S LAST TALES

Bridgette Dutta Portman, celebrating the close of a 15-year tradition.

How does one portray on octopus on stage?

I found myself grappling with this question in late 2010, amidst my joy over learning that the Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco had selected one of my scripts for its annual short play festival, Sheherezade. My comedy Paul der Krake (which also required a cricket bat) called for an actor to don an octopus costume. I knew this was not something that a typical actor would have in his or her wardrobe (or was it?) and so to increase my bizarre script’s chances of being selected I had included “playwright will provide” next to the description of the costume. They had called my bluff. Now I had to provide.

I ended up taking a red hooded sweatshirt, sewing shut the arms and forming several extra arms out of the lower portion, then stitching on white shower curtain rings to look like suckers. The result, when worn by Wesley Cayabyab, who portrayed Paul the psychic octopus with the perfect blend of sublimity and torpor, was delightful.

Wesley Cayabyab, Philip Goleman, and Charles Lewis III in Paul der Krake by Bridgette Dutta Portman, directed by Ann Thomas (photo by Colin Hussey).

Wesley Cayabyab, Philip Goleman, and Charles Lewis III in Paul der Krake by Bridgette Dutta Portman, directed by Ann Thomas (photo by Colin Hussey).

I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to Sheherezade. Now, five years later, I have the privilege of being co-producer for PCSF’s final iteration of Sheherezade, aptly titled Sheherezade’s Last Tales, which opens December 3 at EXIT Stage Left. And I’ve learned that putting together an entire production is kind of like stitching together 6,000 octopus costumes, with live octopuses inside them.

Sheherezade, which has evolved significantly over its fifteen-year history, was not always a full production. It began as a gala event in 2001 featuring thirteen staged readings by PCSF member playwrights, and was so well-received that an annual tradition was born. Beginning in 2004, with Jody Handley as producer, the festival would feature a “year in review” theme, whereby news stories and events from the previous year inspired each selected play. 2007 marked the first off-book production of the show (two nights only at the Exit Theatre). In subsequent years the run was expanded as the festival’s ambition and reputation grew. Wily West Productions came on board as producing partner from 2012 to 2014. Last year, 2014, was a highlight for Sheherezade; the show was critically acclaimed and was nominated for a TBA award for best anthology. This year, PCSF is proud to present eight world premiere short plays in the final installment of Sheherezade before we transition to something a bit different (more on that later).

The “year in review” theme was dropped in 2013, but I find it interesting that several themes have emerged organically to interconnect our plays this year – the most prominent of which is, I think, “deception and revelation.” Each of our plays, in some sense, explores what happens when facades break down and true identities and personalities are revealed. In The Stuff We Keep, for instance, a brother and sister discover a secret their deceased father left behind. By Any Other Name features a lesbian rights activist struggling to accept her partner’s decision to transition from female to male. The protagonist of A Comfortable Life is a woman whose conventional existence is disrupted by a figure from the past she tried to bury. Even our more humorous plays involve people presenting themselves to others in ways that are potentially counter to their true personalities; in Sparse Pubic Hair, for instance, an aging couple on a first date quickly discover that their expectations of each other are woefully mismatched.

Alexaendrai Bond and Louel Señores rehearsing The Stuff We Keep by Rod McFadden, directed by Laylah Muran de Assereto (photo by Colin Hussey).

Alexaendrai Bond and Louel Señores rehearsing The Stuff We Keep by Rod McFadden, directed by Laylah Muran de Assereto (photo by Colin Hussey).

I dove into producing with little expectation of what it would entail. As a playwright who has never acted or directed (unless playing a mouse extra in a fourth-grade production of An American Tail counts), my understanding of the process of production was something along these lines:

1. I write a script, which a theatre agrees to produce.
2. Directors materialize.
3. Actors audition and are hired.
4. There are rehearsals. I try to attend at least one.
5. Something called “Tech Week” happens. This is apparently when the people involved in
the show are most likely to lose their minds. I figure it’s something like Finals Week
in college. Or maybe Shark Week.
6. Divine intervention.
7. The play is produced!

As you might imagine, then, this experience was a bit of a baptism of fire. In the words of my tireless and talented co-producer, Jerome Joseph Gentes, it involved “a learning curve so steep it’s not a curve but a vertical line.” I am deeply grateful for Jerome’s help, as well as the support of our directors: Laylah Muran de Assereto, whose years of experience producing Sheherezade has been a tremendous asset, and Adam Sussman, whose patience, professionalism and skill have been greatly appreciated. We also have our excellent stage manager, Arashi Veronica Cesana, our talented designers, and, of course, our wonderful actors and playwrights. I’m fortunate to be part of this strong team.

Among the innumerable things I’ve learned over the past couple of months have been:

• How to tape a floor for rehearsal. (Tip: remember to bring tape.)
• Why lights have to be “hung” (I thought they were just already there?)
• The actual definition of a wing nut.
• The differences between “wet tech,” “dry tech” and “paper tech.”
• What a “costume parade” is (hint: sadly, it’s not actually a parade).
• How to create a promotional video using iMovie.
• How far I can hurl my laptop when iMovie refuses to cooperate.

If that last one makes me sound at all weary, please know that I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. I highly recommend that all playwrights involve themselves, at some point and in some capacity, in other elements of production – it gives one a new and broader perspective on all that goes into bringing a play to life, and a greater appreciation for everyone involved behind the scenes. Plus, using a drill is just plain fun.

The set – mid-construction – for Sheherezade’s Last Tales. (photo by Bridgette Dutta Portman)

The set – mid-construction – for Sheherezade’s Last Tales. (photo by Bridgette Dutta Portman)

Sheherezade is special to me, and to a lot of people, for a number of reasons. As many playwrights can attest, bridging the gulf between staged readings and full productions can be a challenge, and Sheherezade has provided that bridge for PCSF members. Paul der Krake, my octopus play, was among the first plays I ever had produced. Auto-Incorrect, my entry in the 2013 festival, went on to multiple productions in the UK and Wales and was published in an anthology. The connections I’ve made through my involvement with Sheherezade have been lasting. And I’m not alone. A number of participants had similar comments about their experiences with the festival:

“When Sheherezade 14 accepted my play, The Interview, I was elated. It was the play’s first full production, and it was a very steep and exhilarating learning curve for me. … The Interview was subsequently produced at Towne Street Theatre in L.A., and I’ve worked with my Sheherezade 14 ‘team’ in a number of local productions in the year since then.” Madeline Puccioni, playwright

“Red Rover Red Rover, Send Rocky Right Over [2006] was my first Sheherezade play and it was, in part, the basis for Believers, soon to be produced in Istanbul and in Monterey in the spring.” – Patricia Milton, playwright (multiple years)

“In all the years I’ve been involved in Sheherezade, the unifying thing, other than the passion everyone brings to it, has been the opportunities it provides. I’ve seen new directors, producers, designers, playwrights, and actors start with Sheherezade alongside veterans and am proud to see their continued successes. It’s been a profoundly rewarding experience.” — Laylah Muran de Assereto (producer 2009-2014, director 2015)

The format of Sheherezade has likely contributed to its success. The “year in review” theme throughout most of the festival’s history resulted in a number of plays that focused on contemporary politically and socially-relevant issues, both dramatic and satirical. Even in the years since the theme was dropped, most plays have retained this sense of immediacy. “The short play format also usually gives us the highest stakes moment on stage, which can be really engaging for audience and actor alike,” comments Sara Staley, who directed for the show in 2009 and 2010. She recalls,

“Two very timely, often funny plays I directed for Sheherezade that come to mind are Michael Jackson and Farrah Faucet arguing over the last hair appointment in heaven on the day they die … and a play that gave us Bernie Madoff and his wife doing their best, in their own way, to come to terms with the depth and consequences of their wrongdoings.”

Diana Brown, Jaimelee Roberts, and Wes Cayabyab in Head N the Clouds by Brian Tognotti, directed by Sara Staley (photo by Colin Hussey)

Diana Brown, Jaimelee Roberts, and Wes Cayabyab in Head N the Clouds by Brian Tognotti, directed by Sara Staley (photo by Colin Hussey)

Actors, too, have found their experiences with Sheherezade memorable. “One of the greatest acting challenges I’ve had was playing Allen Turing in Rod McFadden’s Of Machines and Men in Sheherezade in 2012,” recalls Edward Kimak. He continues:

“Here was a man who was a gay, brilliant, stuttering Brit with Aspergers syndrome. Balancing all those elements while still being ‘in the moment’ for each scene was very difficult—as was going through the arc of his life in under 20 minutes! Luckily I worked with director Ann Thomas who understood the challenge and helped me get just the right mix.”

While this year’s show is the last Sheherezade, it is by no means the end of PCSF’s short play festivals. In the works for next year is a new program that will culminate in a fully-produced short play festival in the spirit of Sheherezade, but whose plays will be selected in a new and very different way that will allow more of our member playwrights to be involved in the process. We’re excited about this new development and can’t wait to see what our members will come up with next year.

In the meantime, as we head into tech week (note to self: it’s not like Shark Week…but then again, it sort of is), and I see all the elements of our show coming together, and opening night is a few days away, I feel both pride and gratitude. I am grateful to PCSF as an organization, to our prior producing partner Wily West, and to everyone who has been involved in this festival since its birth in 2001.

Please join us for our last Sheherezade, so we can celebrate together all the talent and hard work that our playwrights, actors, directors and designers have brought to this special production for so many years.

SHEHEREZADE’S LAST TALES
Dec. 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 12 at Exit Stage Left
Tickets and information: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2462868

SLT poster

Theater Around The Bay: Year End Round Up, Act 4, The Stueys (Again)

Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2014 list. Finally. We know it’s long, but read the whole thing. Seriously. If he was Tony Kushner you’d do it.

So if there is anything I learned last week it’s that one can have spent too much time thinking about Into The Woods.

No, but seriously, in the time since I published last week’s avante garde explanation for why I wasn’t going to do the Stueys, ironically, as these things often happen, I rediscovered why I want to do the Stueys. Blame it on a couple of supportive emails I got, a text of a friend reading my blog from inside a security fort and identifying too much, and a chat on a bay-side bench with a young, hopeful playwright, but my heart started to heal from the poison I was bleeding out of it and then one night, quite spontaneously, I just sat down and wrote them. And it just felt dumb not to share them. Before I do though, I wanted to briefly (for me) revisit the three things I wanted to get across in last week’s article. In 2015 it’s my goal to create space both for what I want to say, and what I need to say.

1) I kind of hate the Internet. But seriously, after the last year or so, does anybody not? I mean, I love what it can do but I’m starting to truly hate what it brings out in people, including myself. To be honest, while I am still quick with the quippy comments on Facebook and such, you may have noticed I am much quieter on the debates and controversy front than I once was and this is because I’ve just reached my limit of getting into fights that started out as conversations but then devolved into people just trying to outshout one another. It’s amazing to realize that a silent medium requires a volume dial but it really does, and the truth is, there are days I fear to be anything but funny on the internet, or ubiquitously positive, and so I ironically don’t want to talk in what is supposed to be a forum, not because I fear critique or debate, but because I’m not looking to start any wars. Too bad the Internet is pretty much a 24/7 war zone.

2) I kind of hate awards. I always kind of have, but this became more apparent to me after I won a TBA Award this year and I know that sounds ungrateful but believe me, I am honored and flattered to have received it, and I understand why awards are important, or at least necessary, and I can’t state enough, especially as someone who got to discuss the process and purpose behind the awards extensively with the folks running them, that I do believe the TBA awards are both well intentioned and super inclusive in their attempt to create an even playing field for theater makers coming from a diverse level of resources. What I dislike so strongly about awards is how many people, in the broader sense, use them as shorthand to designate the value of art, artists, and organizations. And no, they’re not supposed to do this, I know, but they do, and we as artists are not supposed to internalize this, I know, but we do. And I became really aware of that standing in a room with my fellow nominees that night, who didn’t win an award, all of whom were good sports about it but I could tell it made them sad. Which made me feel kind of miserable. And now my award lives in the back of my closet because as proud as I am of it, I’m also weirded out about it, and what it might mean to people, the expectations it might create about me or my work. And awards are nice but they can’t be why we’re in this, and I know that sounds kind of bullshit from somebody who has a few but it’s true and we have to remember that.

3) I kind of hate theater. Okay, that is an exaggeration but I am going through a phase of being sort of disenchanted with theater and some of the theater community. I know this is hardly a first for anybody in the community, and I suspect it’s a particularly common feeling when you’re feeling overworked- which I definitely was in 2014. 2015, however, doesn’t promise to be any less work, in fact the opposite, and so that’s got me down. And yes, I know it’s my choice to work as much as I do, but it’s also kind of not. A lot of what I do won’t happen without me and that makes me want to keep working because I believe in it and all the people it serves or creates opportunities for, but my inability to really escape the theater scene for more than a day or two before my inbox fills and my phone rings reached epic proportions in 2014 and lead to some intense moments of resenting the thing I love for needing me so very much while not always feeling like it needs me, Stuart, so much as anybody dumb enough to work this hard for this little pay. Which is a nasty thing to say but sometimes… sometimes it’s also kind of the truth. Feeling taken for granted sucks; feeling enslaved to passion has a dark side. So it goes. It balances out all the times I feel rescued and redeemed by it.

So, hopefully, you can see how all this could make for a mood not suited for creating the Stueys. Considering my general ambivalence/anxiety about awards, but recognizing that some people take the Stueys seriously enough to put them on resumes and websites, I really have been struggling with how ethical, not to mention hypocritical, it is for me, as an artist, to be handing out awards, no matter how playfully, to my fellow artists, when the only thing determining those awards is… me. Who no one should take seriously. But who apparently some people really do. Cue paralysis inducing terror and suddenly I couldn’t remember why I was doing this or what it was all about, but I felt I had to say something because I had all this stuff to say. But it can be hard for me to talk about myself, what I’m personally going through, and even harder for me to advocate for myself. I hate disappointing people. But I hate being insincere more. And I wanted to begin to understand why I was feeling all this dread.

Anyway, without more ado, and much, much later than intended, here they are, 14 awards for the 2014 Stueys.

BEST ADDITION TO THE BAY AREA THEATRE SCENE
The Bay Area Theatre Awards

The best thing about the Bay Area theater scene is that there is a huge diversity in the offerings, and so much on the table to begin with, and when we celebrate that whole community, regardless of budget or house size, Equity relationship or ticket price, we are celebrating our Art, ourselves as Artists, and Artists as contributors to and saviors of the World. Of course, no one organization or person can see it all, and therefore it’s important to share with one another the highlights of our time in the audience seat, if only to create a greater awareness of what and who is out there making stuff. No matter how far we cast our net, there is always more to see and more to explore and we’re fortunate to have it that way, so for a moment, let’s just celebrate what an incredible delight it is to now have an official awards system for our community that appears to be on the same page as that sentiment of inclusivity and casting a wide net, regardless of whatever other kinks may still need to be ironed out. And for those of you who feel the TBA Awards are not enough, or still missing the boat in some regards, you are correct. And you should do something about it, whatever that means to you. To me, it means keeping the SEBATAs going, because in my mind, Heaven is a place where at last we are all recognized for what we bring to the table, and I dream of a Bay Area filled with organizations and individuals proudly recognizing one another at every possible turn, for as many reasons as can be found, as many times as it pleases us to do so. And so I am giving the first Stuey this year to TBA, and specifically Robert Sokol, for having completed a Herculean task that they will now have to complete all over again. And then again. And then again. And again. Good luck everybody!

BEST NEW VENUE
PianoFight

Is there anyone who isn’t excited about all the potential here? Rob Ready and company have been building this space for years now, and walking into it you see why it has taken so long- it is just beautiful. From the mural by Molly Benson to the floors and the furniture, they have been seeking to create not just another black box or just another dive bar, but something truly magnificent, welcoming, inspiring, and everything a venue dedicated to a community art should be. Best thing of all? They’ve asked Theater Pub to perform there, and so we will be performing there, starting in January, at least twice a month going forward. Which makes us excited and scared. Something we’re sure they understand. This whole year looks to be exciting and scary.

BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
San Francisco Fringe Festival (EXIT Theatre)

Dear San Francisco: this amazing thing happens right in the middle of you every year and not enough of you know about it and not enough of you make the time to visit it. And like… really visit it, not just duck in to see your friend’s show and then run out. And I understand why you do that because I used to do the same thing but now, having worked there for three years, I have to say, you are robbing yourself of an amazing opportunity to see theater from all over the country and the world, and to meet and talk with the most diverse collection of artists any one event assembles at any given point in the year, and to be a part of something bigger than you and bigger than just this venue or this theater scene for that matter. Do yourself a favor, serious theater goer, serious theater maker, and commit to seeing at least three shows at the Fringe this next year. Pick one by someone you know, one by someone you have heard of, and one by a total stranger. See them all, bring a friend, hang out in the Café and the Green Room between shows (on almost any night of the Fringe you can see 2-3 shows in one visit to the venue, and all the tickets are super cheap), introduce yourself to the staff and artists, tip the Fringe, and see if it doesn’t inspire you to want to see more, know more, do more. If the Bay Area Theatre scene is a garden, this is one of our most vital vegetable beds. Tend this garden, and then come get fed.

BEST SHOW
“Our Town” (Shotgun Players)

Won’t lie… it kind of kills me that this was my favorite show of the year. But it was, so much so that my boyfriend, afterwards, said, “Let’s not see anything else this year- let’s let this be where we stop” and he was right and I agreed, but that’s part of what worries me: for far too many people I think theater starts and stops with “Our Town”, or its equivalent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good theater because it is, and I have long defended Thornton Wilder as being one of the great playwrights whose work is often undermined by having been overdone. This production, directed by Susannah Martin with assistance from Katja Rivera, was anything but overdone, it was subtle and lovely and elegantly realized, from the costumes and lighting, to the music and the performances, and it all came together in a way that, while nostalgic and dramatically safe (which aren’t necessarily bad things, but important to recognize), still felt fresh and sincere, like the gesture of laying down in the rain on the grave of a loved one. There was really nothing I didn’t love. Though if I had to pick favorites I’ll say very little is more entertaining than watching Michelle Talgarow and Don Wood play off each other, even during the intermission raffle. The night I was there they got some very chatty audience feedback and they handled it Grover’s Corners style: graciously and politely and in a way that warmed your heart.

BEST READING
“Hydra” by Tonya Narvaez (SF Olympians Festival)

God, there is very little better in life than a really good reading, and possibly nothing more frustrating than watching people shoot themselves in the foot on what should be the simplest, easiest theatrical event to pull off. And yet… again and again we see it at the SF Olympians Festival, the full range of dramatic readings, from the simple but impafctful, to the overdone and done to death. This year we had a number of excellent readings, but my favorite standout was “Hydra”, written and directed by Tonya Narvaez. A ghost story, a comedy, a conundrum, the piece was elevated to a new level by Tonya shrouding the stage in total darkness except for reading lights for her cast who, illuminated in the stark and eerie glow, were uniformly excellent- not in the least because they were relieved of having to worry about blocking and forced by the light to focus only on the text. Such a simple, elegant choice, but so effective. She won that night of the festival, and wins this Stuey for Best Reading.

BEST SHORT PLAY
“Mars One Project” by Jennifer Roberts (part of “Super Heroes” at Wily West Productions)

Jennifer Robert’s play, about a female astronaut who is denied her chance to go to Mars because she has a daughter and the Powers That Be don’t think the world can stomach or root for a woman who would leave her child, even in an attempt to create a role model for that child, was by far the best piece in this evening of shorts. There was plenty of fine writing, but this is the one that transcended its own subject matter to present that ever elusive thing: an issue play in which both sides of the argument are presented with pathos. The tragedy of the piece is less that “we’re not there yet” and more, “is what it will take to be there always going to require sacrifice on this level”, to me a much more interesting, more human question. In an evening of mostly sketches, it was the one piece that could not only stand on its own, but really stood for something, and it’s a near perfect short play- which as an author of short plays, I assure you, is a near impossibility.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Amanda Ortmayer (EXIT Theatre Technical Director)

Amanda Ortmayer has let me cry on her shoulder so many times this year it’s astounding she doesn’t just keep a towel on hand. Only she probably does, since she’s seemingly prepared for anything, she just probably keeps it out of sight, since she also knows the value of never revealing your bag of tricks, or the exact location of your wishing tree. Something has to keep us in ballgowns and slippers and it’s probably not going to be wishes alone. But Amanda likes to encourage wishes too, and that rare combination of pragmatism and dreaming is why she is just generally… awesome. If you haven’t had a chance to work with her, I hope, one day, you do. It’ll remind you why we’re all in this, or at least, why we should all be in this: for the people.

BEST BREAK THROUGH
Marissa Skudlarek, “Pleiades”

One of my biggest pet peeves is listening to people complain about how there are not enough opportunities, while refusing to ever create those opportunities themselves. For the record I agree, there aren’t enough opportunities, but at some point we need to realize that if we have our health and a clear sense of our dreams, we’ve already been given more than most people get so it’s really just about figuring out how to see your dream materialize. Watching Marissa Skudlarek as she put together her first production as a producer (she wrote the script too, but we’re giving her recognition for the producer hat here), I was blown away by how organized and focused she was, how determined she was to do it as best she could even the first time out. Which is more than I can say for me. Even now, I feel like I mostly just take a deep breath, pick up my sword, and rush into battle blindly, while Marissa strategized and planned, gathered information, raised funds, and was just in general super smart about it all. Was anyone surprised? Not really. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take one more moment to tell her she did an amazing job. Everyone looking to produce a show in 2015- call Marissa. She knows what she’s doing.

BEST CHEMISTRY
Michaela Greeley, Katherine Otis, Terry Bamberger (“Three Tall Women”, Custom Made Theater Company)

It is not easy to play three versions of the same woman but this trio of ladies, under the direction of Custom Made veteran Katjia Rivera, brought so much magic to the stage that the leap of faith required for Act Two of Edward Albee’s classic was not only easy to make, you made it with a song in your heart! This is a lovely show, but one I rarely feel enthusiastic about, energized by, and these three performers, working so well together, in such total tandem with one another, sold me on this show in a way it’s never been sold to me before. Michaela Greeley was uncomfortably good at playing the frailty of her character in Act One and the fierce stubborn vitality in Act Two; while Terry Bamberger was an edgy warmth in Act One that ballooned into an explosion of heat and fire in Act Two; Katherine Otis, in the part with the least to work with in both acts, managed to strike the aloof brittleness required in the first act while still laying the foundations for the insecure idealist the second act tears to pieces. But what I may have loved the most was the way these ladies moved, always circling one another, always creating triangles on the stage, each one so aware of the other, having to fill the space one vacated, or rushing to claim a spot before the other could. It was like a dance, like a motorized portrait of the Three Fates and they wove a spell together that was frightening and enchanting all at once.

BEST RISK
Kat Evasco, “Mommie Queerest” (Guerilla Rep/DIVAfest)

Kat Evasco knows how to work an audience, but the audience at her show might not have been ready to get worked so hard. Bravely darting in and out of us, throwing herself around the stage in gleeful and breathless abandon, Kat unravels a personal story about the struggle to discover not only who she is- but who her mother is. And why she needs her mother to know who she is before she can finally accept herself. Co-written with John Caldon, who also directed, the show avoids the bulk of solo show clichés, feeling more like a play where Kat has just been tasked with playing all the roles to the best of her ability, and the audience isn’t really asked to come along so long as commandeered by her at the beginning and let go only when she sees fit. The piece is courageously risky, not only because of the controversial elements within it, but because Kat leaves no fourth wall standing between herself and the audience, and if they don’t run with her on it, her show is kind of screwed. Both times I saw this though, that wasn’t a problem; it’s hard not to jump in both feet at a time with a performer who is so ready and eager to do it.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
Justin Gillman (“The Pain And The Itch”, Custom Made Theater Company; “Blood Wedding” Bigger Than A Breadbox Theatre Company; “Pastorella” No Nude Men; and like a billion other things)

So… how many plays was Justin Gillman in this past year? It seemed like every time you turned around he was being cast in something, including by me, and every time he was pretty amazing in it. I don’t know how he does it. Like seriously, I don’t know how he memorizes all his lines, let alone doesn’t burn out from the constant rehearsal and yet somehow he shows up every night, fresh and ready to perform. Generous with everyone, onstage and off, it’s rare I don’t find him the highlight of a cast, usually finding a way to balance being a somewhat over-the-top character with a deeply human core that is achingly vulnerable when not just a tiny bit scary. In each of the three roles highlighted above, this was the common thread- men at first dismissable, who at sudden turns revealled their fangs, and then wept as they ripped your throat out. Delicious.

The ladies have gotten a lot of attention on this year’s list, which is great, but we like to keep things balanced here at the Stueys so we’re giving two more nods out: Kenny Toll (“Dracula Inquest”, Central Works) and Sam Tillis (“Slaughterhouse Five”, Custom Made Theater Company). In my opinion, both of these gentlemen were the best thing about these two shows, which were solid enough theatrical productions but elevated by fully committed actors. In both cases, both men also played characters who were… well, committed. As in insane. Though the insanity characterizations couldn’t have been more night and day than the plays were (Toll’s was of the by turns wimpering, by turns screeching Bedlam variety, Tillis was the diamond hard, lethally cold, slow burn sociopath kind), both managed to be believable and unsettling without being melodramatic or over-the-top. Toll even managed to be sympathetic, while Tillis managed to be mesmerizing. Either way, it was endlessly watchable, haunting, and impressive.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Cat Luedtke in Anything

Seriously, once upon a time there was no Cat Leudtke and then one morning we woke up and she was everywhere. I think I might have seen her in like six shows this year and in each case she was the walk away discovery, the revelation performance. The tremendous skill of this woman is matched only by her tremendous range, as every role I saw her in this year was different, though perhaps none so piercing and breathtaking as her role in Custom Made’s “Top Girls” as England’s most done-with-it-but-not-lying-down-about-it mother. I’ve also seen her sing and dance, act Lorca, play the 19th century adventurer, the dutiful wife, and more (probably helps that one of the things I saw her in was a collection of one-acts), bringing to each role a personal touch and a universal power, a sincerity and openness of heart that made you feel like you were watching a real person. She’s very much a “real actress”, whatever we mean by that when we say it. I know that what I tend to mean is somebody so good at throwing themselves into something, they transcend and turn into someone else, each and every time.

There is always an embarrassment of brilliant female performances in the Bay Area, so I feel a few other honorable mentions are in order: Mikka Bonel in “At The White Rabbit Burlesque” (DIVAfest), giving a performance as a rabbit that was unlike any performance of anything I’ve ever seen; Ariel Irula in “Blood Wedding” (Bigger Than A Breadbox), whose deeply passionate performance was matched only by the soul of her singing voice; Jean Forsman in “The Pain And The Itch” (Custom Made Theater Company), nailing well-meaning but vapid liberal mom as only someone like Jean could, walking perfectly that line of endearing and annoying; Stephanie Ann Foster in “Slaughterhouse Five” (Custom Made Theater Company), who played both a woman and a man in the show, and was lovely, heartbreaking, deeply sympathetic in each role.

BEST FUSION THEATER PIECE
Now And At The Hour (Christian Cagigal, H.P. Mendoza)

The fusion of theater and film is a tricky one, and I can only imagine how filming a stage show without destroying the magic of live theater must require an excellent understanding of both mediums. Now make that live theater a magic show too and you are truly setting yourself up to fall flat on your face, but H.P. Mendoza’s film of Christian Cagigal’s “Now And At The Hour” flies, it is magical and touching, the decision to interrupt the narrative of the stage show with the narrative of Christian’s life and the important players in it only adding to the emotional punch of this unique variation on “the artist and his work” formula. Beautifully shot, entertaining, unexpectedly poignant, this is a stellar example of a collaboration between artists and mediums.

BEST SOLO SHOW
Kevin Rolston, “Deal With The Dragon” (SF Fringe Festival)

Remember my earlier bit about the Fringe? Here is a glowing example of why going into something blind at the Fringe can sometimes result in stumbling across something truly excellent. I didn’t know anything about this show. It had a fun premise in the Fringe guide (Man moves in with Dragon) and a bad flier design (sorry, it can’t all be hugs and snuggles here) and while I had no expectations what I wasn’t expecting was to be so thoroughly moved and entertained. It does not hurt that Kevin Rolston is an incredibly talented performer with an ability to switch between his three narrators with glass-like smoothness, or that each of the three stories he tells, each with a different take on the idea of a “dragon”, are all funny and unsettling portraits of our tenous relationship with self-control and those things inside us that scare us. An unsettling fable about how our potential for violence and indulgence can also be our potential for strength and transformation, Rolston’s notes in the program claimed the piece is unfinished, but it could actually already stand as is. Here’s hoping the final product is as good as the draft.

And as for Me…

So Usually I end the awards with something about the show I personally worked on that affected me the most, but in all honesty I got so much out of all of them it would be hard to pick one so I kind of just want to take a final look at last year as a whole so I can both make sense of it and kiss it goodbye.

For me, it was an incredible year, but that doesn’t mean I loved every second of it. Far from it. It was as demanding as it was rewarding and at times it also seemed… endless. Like there was just always one more thing to do, to get through and then… two more. And then nine. I got to work with material by the incredible Kristin Hersh this year and that will forever be a highlight of my life but the production itself was a rough process, and the reception was rough, it all kind of placed too much strain on an important relationship in my life and I walked away feeling very differently than I had when I walked in- which was hopeful and desirous to bring a project that meant a lot to me to people I loved who I thought could benefit from it, but by the end I was wondering if I had ultimately done more harm than good by bringing such tremendous attention to something so natal. Then I directed a stellar production of “The Crucible” that made me acutely aware of how resistant critics and audiences can be to seeing a familiar play in a new way, and also how embracing they can be, but by that point I was having a hard time hearing the love and found it easier to focus on the detrimental views. I worked to let it all go, focused on feeling proud of the work my actors and designers had done, which was stupendous, and then just as I was feeling more balanced again, Wily West’s production of my play “Everybody Here Says Hello!”, after a whirlwind of a production process, opened to unexpectedly and ubiquitously positive reception. Suddenly, I was a guy with a hit show on my hands- technically my third this year since “Rat Girl” and “The Crucible”, despite whatever misgivings critics were having, were also big audience successes. For the first time in my career though my writing was the center of attention (I often feel I am mostly known as a director who writes, though I am actually a writer who directs), partly because Rik Lopes, not I, had directed “EHSH”, and so critics had to speak about our separate contributions separately, and that was wonderful but the moment was short-lived: we ended up having two performances canceled and the show only ran 7 times and it became my play everybody “really wished they had made it out to see.” Me too! Though one should never shake a stick at houses full of strangers. But oh… we do this partly because of the friends we hope to show something personal to, don’t we? And, again, I was having a year where it was hard not to keep adding things up in the negative, no matter how well they were actually going.

Anyway, this was then followed by the Fringe, as rewarding and as demanding as ever, which was then followed by the fast and furious (yet incredibly smooth) rehearsal process for my play “Pastorella”, which was the only piece I both wrote and directed last year, and which was well received, actually pretty much adored by audiences, but played to 2/3rds full houses or less its entire run after opening to an audience of 11- my second smallest audience in the history of my theater life in San Francisco (not my whole life- I once played to an audience of 2 in Tucson). The result was a show that, though very economically produced, still ended in the red, something which shouldn’t affect one personally as much as it does. But if you haven’t gathered yet, I’m being truthful here, even if it makes me seem a little petty. So yeah, my final passion project of the year was probably my personal favorite artistic accomplishment but it also cleaned out my bank account, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that 2014 was the year I went freelance/contractor and believe me- it’s been an adjustment. One I’m still adjusting to. Finally we had the fifth installment of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which was wonderful if perhaps more draining than usual, and fraught with an abnormal amount of backstage drama, from some diva moves on the part of some of our participants, to a failure to meet our fundraising goals (first time ever), and then the pique of which, of course, was having our dressing room robbed on, naturally, the night of my reading, which was successful in that it was well done by my trooper cast, but again, sort of middling attended, and a bit anti-climactic as an artist considering it had taken me all year to write it. And did I mention that some of my favorite actors kind of hated the script? Disappointing, but less so than having a “colleague” tell me that working with me was basically bad for businesses because of my strong opinions and tendency to carve my own way, nonsense that nobody who was actually a friend would have bothered to bring up- especially not when I was in the midst of trying to find a way to help them realize their own plans for the local theater scene. But I have occasionally been told my Achilles heel is caring about the band as much as I care about myself.

And somewhere in there I won a TBA Award for “EHSH”, had two works of mine garner bids for film adaptations, threw a delightful birthday party and another successful Easter brunch, but had to cancel a major social event because I got pink eye. Which is only worth mentioning again because in retrospect, it really is kind of funny. I wanted to get more reading done and much more writing, but it just didn’t happen. Best laid plans of mice and men…

So yes, 2014 was amazing but it was also, definitely, a mixed bag. Rewarding to no end, but unforgiving in many ways, most of all in that I had a hard time forgiving myself for just… well… doing my best but not always getting everything the way I wanted it or hoped for. The problem is, when you’re burnt out, stuff that you’d normally brush off or accept as the breaks of the business or just how life is get harder to be blasé about, and I found myself at the end of 2014 feeling accomplished but bruised, lucky but kind of cursed, exhausted and not excited so much as terrified about the future and yet… hopeful. Cause I am hopeful. And I want to stress that and more or less end there, and tell you it was amazing to have 800+ people applaud me for winning an award (even if it was for a play I always considered a bit of a “minor work” and never guessed would be so defining), and it was incredible to walk up those stairs that night, all alone, and think, even as my thoughts came crashing down around me, “Well, you certainly don’t do anything half-assed, do you Stuart?” (even if that means sometimes I paint myself into an intellectual corner with the same gusto I pull myself out of it). Though I definitely experienced a lot in 2014, I often felt like I wasn’t actually learning so much as surviving, and oh, by the way, I had massive writer’s block, and it was writing all that out last Monday that finally cured it… and got us here. And here is not a bad place to be: hopeful, and weirdly confident that whatever happens next, I can probably handle it. I just kind of wish I had a clearer idea of what “it” was. But then we all wish that, don’t we?

Ah well. C’est la vie.

Deep breath.

Happy New Year.


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

Cowan Palace: Drowning Kate and Other Halloween Scares with Morgan Ludlow

This week Ashley talks about scary stuff, plays, and candy with playwright, Morgan Ludlow.

The race to Halloween is on, gang! This is the perfect time to embrace all things scary, am I right? Well, this year, Wily West Productions has taken advantage of this spooky season with a suspenseful new play entitled Drowning Kate and you still have three more chances to see it. But before you do, you can learn a little more about the show and its production courtesy of its playwright, Morgan Ludlow, who kindly answered a few of my questions.

Morgan Ludlow

Morgan Ludlow

AC: So tell us where the idea for Drowning Kate originated.

ML: It actually came from a vivid dream I had about twelve years ago. It’s actually a recurring dream for me. I’m often just an observer in dreams. In this one a man’s wife drowns in a lake. He refuses to let her go. He keeps trying to resuscitate her over and over. Night falls, and finally, she awakens! The husband is overjoyed to have his beloved back. But after a few days he realizes she is different. As they go on he realizes his wife’s spirit actually died in the lake and he is now living with another person in his wife’s body. She looks at him and he knows it is someone or something else…

It’s not quite what my script turned out to be but it was the starting point. Dreams are definitely a source of inspiration for me. I have a notepad by the bed. I often only get fragments that are usable. An image. Sometimes there’s a bit of dialogue. A character. But occasionally an entire story of a dream stays with me and I can write a coherent version of it, and every now and then, I use it as the germinal idea to start a play.

AC: A dream come true! What was the process of getting this show up and running? Did it go through any major changes in the writing process from your first draft to the current script?

ML: This is the oldest script of mine that I have had produced. I wrote it about ten years ago when I took a playwriting class from Gary Graves at the Berkeley Rep School. I was reading Frankenstein at the time, which definitely influenced the play. I found Frankenstein more philosophical than scary. The novel made me think of people who push boundaries and break the rules and that helped me shape my main character for the play. DROWNING KATE started as long monologues with a few scenes. I had several readings in my living room. And the play moved more and more into action scenes. City Lights Theatre in San Jose picked it up for their new play reading series. They gave the play a couple of readings and were very interested in it – they wrote a grant trying to get funding for the play but it didn’t come through. I moved on to other plays. It sat for several years waiting. Then in 2012 we needed a full length for Spooky Cabaret and Wesley Cayabyab really connected with the script and had a lot of ideas for it. The reading for Spooky Cabaret had tremendous potential and made me see new possibilities for the script. Quinn, Wes and I realized that the house was key to presenting both Un-Hinged and Drowning Kate in rep. For one play you are inside the house and for the other you are outside the house. So here we are. The monologues are still there but they are trimmed down and Wes decided to make them into video bites presented on stage. Wes also really got into the wolves (which mysteriously appear after Kate is “revived”) – according to Wes the wolves are trying to lead the trapped souls in Kate’s body into the spirit world. This made a lot of sense to me and adds a great deal to the “spook factor” for the production. Wolves are howling, just outside the door, encouraging Kate’s spirit to cross over.

Colleen Egan and Scott Cox in DROWNING KATE.

Colleen Egan and Scott Cox in DROWNING KATE.

AC: Do you believe in ghosts?

ML: Well, just because I wrote a ghost story doesn’t necessarily mean I believe in ghosts. But in all truth I’m like a multiple personality on that question. Totally and furiously split. My logical “you must go to work” side says, “absolutely not.” The other, more spiritual side of myself that believes in the collective human consciousness, Edgar Cayce, and space aliens says, “not everything is known.” But I think it would be wonderful if the atheists were right. That this is the only dance we dance. That all the events that make up our lives is just random coincidence and not “fate.” Lovely. However I was reading that scientists are discovering patterns in our brains at the quantum level. Apparently this pattern could hold even after death. Is this pattern the soul?

AC: While horror movies continue to dominate the box office and generate millions of dollars, the genre isn’t very popular in the theatre world. Any thoughts about why you think that is? And did it push you to write a “scary” play?

ML: Well, we are all drawn to what scares us. Fear is one of those thrilling and immediate emotions – we are never more aware of being alive than when we are afraid. This is as obvious to Hollywood as it is to newspapers and the media that feed our culture’s addiction to fear. It seems like everything we read is based on some element meant to scare the bejesus out of us. But I don’t think it is just cultural. It is human nature to seek out the thrill of fear. To ride along the edge of death. It’s why we love roller coasters and rock climbing and nuclear power plants.

However that was not the driving force for me in writing the play. I’m well aware of the pitfalls of trying to do a ghost story on stage. There is something about live theatre that makes it extremely difficult to scare an audience. To be honest I’m not sure I can quite articulate why this is so. Perhaps it is that theatre is too immediate – and while we can get into the story – attempts at horror just seem “fake” as we know there are inherent limitations to what can happen on stage. Whereas in movies anything can happen, people can transform into bloodsucking monsters and destroy the city, there’s a lot of uncertainty in horror movies, and the uncertainty is part of the fun. Whatever the case it is extremely hard to scare people with a play. In theatre you can surprise, maybe startle people but that’s about it. So, that wasn’t even a goal of mine. I was working toward the mystery of my story. What happened to Kate? Did she drown herself to prove their methods of resuscitation would work? Did Harry do something to Kate? And what is happening to Kate? Is she brain damaged? Is she a zombie or ghost? Who is in her body now? I was more focused on peeling out the story of these two failed scientists than I was in scaring people. I think as a writer what I learned with this play is that I am not required to answer all questions or find explanation for every mystery. In fact it is better in some cases to leave some interpretations to the audience.

DROWNING KATE after the drowning.

DROWNING KATE after the drowning.

AC: Speaking of scary movies, are you a fan? Do you have a favorite Halloween film?

ML: Yes, I do like scary movies. When I was six years old my Dad took me to ALIEN and I loved it. It seemed like for years afterwards I loved seeing things explode out of other things. ALIENS is one my favorite movies. There is something very compelling about motherhood in that film that has always fascinated me. But recently I saw, THE OTHERS, with Nicole Kidman, which I think is one of my all time favorites.

AC: So what was your favorite part about watching this story performed in front of an audience?

ML: I only got to see one performance of the play but the production has the promise to be quite wonderful. Jason Jeremy created some chilling sounds for the show, the sound of ice slowly breaking apart starts the show, and the set designed by Wesley is amazing. There are always surprises for me as the writer because often the actors and director will see my story in an entirely different way than I do. In this case I think everything is aligned. What I love is that everyone is taking risks along with me and giving the show everything they have. Colleen Egan is giving a wonderful performance as Kate – you really feel like there is something eerie going on with her. It’s keeping the suspense up. And Scott Cox and Genevieve Perdue give really heartfelt performances. This gives the play a real emotional punch at the end.

Colleen Egan and Genevieve Perdue in DROWNING KATE

Colleen Egan and Genevieve Perdue in DROWNING KATE

AC: Along with the relationship of a husband and wife, we also get the chance to watch a relationship between two siblings in an extreme situation. Do you have any siblings of your own? And did they inspire any dynamics that made it into the play?

ML: I do have an older brother, Rhys, but I don’t think any of that came through this play. I think a lot of Harry and Shelley are more my parents dynamic actually. They were both ballet dancers in the New York City Ballet – at the top of their field. And they worked together throughout their careers of being teachers and artistic directors of ballet companies all over the U.S. My father was the dreamer, the experimenter, the choreographer and chaos-creator, the one who would come up with crazy ideas and my mother generally accurately assessed the consequences of those ideas – as she often had to implement them. And I also think I was influenced by my father being a professor at the University of Utah for 25 years. He thought he was going to be working with colleagues who understood his work. Instead there was nothing but in-fighting and petty personal agendas. Apparently it is not at all unusual for faculty within a department to have colleagues who despise one another. Much more so than other work places. It’s complex (and of course dependent on the situation) but generally there is something about the set-up in academia that pits professors against each other – the betrayals, lies and back stabbings are ghastly – to the point that many brilliant ideas and successful programs are destroyed because of politics. I think that is where some of Harry’s bitterness comes from – is that his ideas were never fully considered because of political reasons. But isn’t that what every scientist and great creative thinker is up against? Sometimes it is hard to know when to stop.

AC: The play centers around characters who are very committed to their work; did you find that you had a similar type of focus while you were writing?

ML: This play, for me, is about failure, ego and loss. All things I am intimately familiar with in abundance. I’m drawn to success stories but I’m even more fascinated with stories of failure. As Americans failure makes us uncomfortable. We are geared for ways to “fix things” in our lives, to celebrate only the successful stories. But nothing reveals a character or person more than when they are failing. Especially when they try like hell not to fail. Perhaps that’s why I love Chekov so much. Failure has the ability to completely transform us and says so much about who we are at the core. I wanted to explore how the same elements of success can also lead to failure and loss. In this play our main character, Harry, is basically a failed scientist. He took risks and they didn’t pay off. His colleagues, even his own sister, think he has gone too far. His ego is also telling him to keep going and not give up. That he will find an answer. To take even more risks. It’s sort of Harry’s blind spot in a sense. It throws him off balance. He doesn’t see what is happening right in front of him. His ego kind of engines him through the most horrible consequences – things that make the audience cringe. It isn’t until the very end, when he has lost everything, that Harry can let his wife go.

Genevieve Perdue, Colleen Egan, and Scott Cox: working hard.

Genevieve Perdue, Colleen Egan, and Scott Cox: working hard.

AC: What’s your favorite Halloween candy?

ML: Candy corns. By the wee fistful.

AC: What can we look forward to seeing with Wily West Productions in 2015?

ML: We will be having our annual meeting in January so we are still gathering ideas for 2015. We are going to do some “deep theatre exploration” next season – which means we are going to be reaching out to other artists in the community and seeing where we can partner and collaborate with them and what new directions we can take. We have a lot of wonderful plays by local writers in our vaults and we want to do several staged readings and workshops of some of our favorites. We are going to try some more interactive events where the audience has a chance to participate on the outcome of the evening. We are also going to be trading plays by local playwrights from other cities – like Seattle, L.A., Salt Lake and Vancouver. And we will be doing another production of a multi-authored show in the summer possibly in rep with something else. We will keep our audience updated on our website: http://www.wilywestproductions.com

AC: Tell us what’s next for you! And where we can see more of your work.

ML: I’m working on a Holiday show about Edgar Cayce the famous American psychic. I’m also working on a domestic comedy about a man who thinks he’s found his birth mother. And it seems like I’m always working a zillion short one-acts. I’m going to be directing one of my own plays, THE TERRORIST, in Seattle next spring!

AC: And lastly, why should people come see Drowning Kate?

ML: DROWNING KATE is a “horror story with a heart” which only the coldest of hearts wouldn’t find intriguing. Who doesn’t want to see someone try like hell to save his wife from death? And let me tell you: I think we give you that dark ride and we deliver some powerful emotions about loss and grief to boot. Not bad for $9 bucks.

Drowning Kate, starring: Scott Cox, Colleen Egan and Genevieve Perdue and directed by Wesley Cayabyab, plays October 17, 23, and 25.

Drowning Kate, starring: Scott Cox, Colleen Egan and Genevieve Perdue and directed by Wesley Cayabyab, plays October 17, 23, and 25.

Pictures: All pictures provided by Jim Norrena (excluding Morgan’s Halloween inspired headshot)

Founding Artistic Director Brian Markley On Theater Pub at BOA 2013

The summer is almost over and we’re getting ready for our third collaboration with BOA, the Bay One Acts festival. This year’s project, Shooter, is being helmed by founding artistic director Brian Markley, who answers some questions for us today on the blog. Check back every Monday for the next month or so to find out more about the play, the festival, and the people behind this important annual SF Theater scene event.

First off, for those who don’t know, what is BOA?

BOA is one of the best indy theater collaboration in the Bay Area, and it’s entering its 12th year putting on a two week program of new local plays, all produced by small local theater companies.

How did Theater Pub get involved with BOA?

This will be our third year since (former Founding Artistic Director) Ben Fisher got us involved back in 2010. As a fellow community-minded theater company interested in widening our circle further and also bringing in fresh talent to Theater Pub, it’s an obvious partnership.

What drew you to pick “Shooter” as this year’s contribution by Theater Pub?

Both the director, Rik Lopes, and I were drawn to this piece immediately. It’s emotionally true, really insightful, and feels ripped from today’s news (without being just an “issue” piece). Also, I wanted to meet Daniel Hirsch (the author) after seeing he’s bound to become a successful playwright.

When and how did Rik Lopes come into the process?

I’d worked with Rik before, first as a fellow actor in an AtmosTheatre production of Alice in Wonderland, where aside from his amazing performance as the Mad Hatter, I was super impressed with his insight, maturity and communication style during rehearsals, helping the entire production and building more community among the actors. When I wrote a short piece for Theater Pub’s Pint Sized festival in 2011, I immediately asked Rik to direct. He’s sensitive and badass at the same time, and I think that kind of describes “Shooter” too.

What’s your involvement as the producer?

Not that much really. I’m procuring rehearsal space, tracking the budget, attending production meetings to be sure we’re turning things in on time. It’s the least artistic connection I’ve had to a project, but I’m happy to see such a good product coming together with Rik and Daniel and the cast.

What’s got you excited about bringing this piece to an audience?

I think it’s important, besides being a well-paced, explosive piece of theater. I hope people talk about it in the lobby or at the bar afterwards. I talked to my girlfriend about it for an hour after reading it for the first time.

What else at this year’s festival are you excited to see?

Without checking back on all the great pieces I’ve read, off the top of my head I’d say: Ben Fisher’s piece, because I’m following his whole career as a lesson, and Tracy Held Potter’s piece, because it’s hilarious on paper and I can’t wait to see it with costumes.

What the best thing about working in a festival environment? 

Feeling the family vibe. Among other examples, Quinn (Whitaker) at Wily West is stepping up to provide all the furniture for the run, and Tides Theater (whom I hadn’t met until our first production meeting) stepped in quickly to provide an awesome venue when plans changed for the initial choice. It’s fun to sit around a table where every company wants the same project to succeed, instead of competing for eyeballs and publicity.

How is a Theater Pub show still a Theater Pub show, no matter where it’s done?

Our shows have always appealed to more than the standard ‘professional’ theater-going crowd and this is no exception. Also, I expect our shows will always be followed by discussions over beers and our widening (thanks to BOA) circle of friends

“Shooter” will play, along with an assortment of other excellent one-acts in this year’s festival, September 15, 19, 21, 25, 27, 29 and October 3 and 5 at the Tides Theater in San Francisco. To find out more about this show, and all the great shows that will be a part of this cornerstone event for the San Francisco Bay Area Theater scene, check out http://bayoneacts.org/.

Playwright Kirk Shimano Talks About Love In The Time Of Zombies

We took a moment to chat up Kirk Shimano, the mastermind behind our October rom-zom-com, Love In The Time Of Zombies. This show is actually a first for Theater Pub: a fully produced full length play that isn’t based on prior material (like Boar’s Head and Measure For Measure were), and it turns out it’s not just a first for us…

Kirk Shimano looks nice enough… but his mind is a twisted play-pen of the Devil.

This your first full length to get produced?

Yes it is!

How does that feel?

It’s hard to know where to start! It’s exciting, for sure, but also intimidating. Watching the cast assembling the story in rehearsal has been a little surreal – watching these scenes that have only existed inside of my head being played out by real people. So in a word, it’s exciturrealidating.

Tell us about this play. Like… what is it about?

It starts with four survivors of a zombie apocalypse piling into an abandoned cabin in the woods. But while they’re prepared for the standard finding-love-while-running-from-zombies scenario, they’re not prepared for a mysterious woman who challenges their whole concept of what it means to be human. Lives are changed and people get eaten, but ultimately it’s about how our strongest emotions can either hold us back or propel us forwards.

How did it end up on the Theater Pub stage?

The first incarnation of this story was a one act that was presented by the Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco back in the spring of 2009. I was encouraged by the connection the audience made with the characters, so I decided to expand the story, shifting the focus and adding two more characters to the mix. Two years later, the full length version of this play was presented as a staged reading by Wily West Productions. It was paired with Juno En Victoria, written by Theater Pub artistic director Stuart Bousel. Originally that led to this play being added to the No Nude Men season, but when that fell through the zombies found a new home at Theater Pub.

What’s the process been like so far?

It’s been amazing collaborating with Claire Rice, the director of the piece, and watching her work with the actors. I always find myself surprised by how much there is to fill in – even though all of the dialogue is already on the page, the actors have to construct a convincing reality from moment to moment. I’m fortunate to be working with a director and a cast who see the story in the same way that I do.

Originally, this play isn’t set in a bar, so what have you had to do to make this play doable at Theater Pub?

The biggest change has been to make the audience an active part in the play. The bar environment makes everyone more aware of the other audience members around them and we wanted to use this to help build the atmosphere. We’re having the audience play the part of the zombies surrounding the cabin. It fits right into the story, and hopefully the audience will enjoy the play even more when they get to make zombie noises throughout it!

What is it about zombies that we’re so interested in?

Zombies are the monsters that are closest to humanity. You can tell your friends, “Man, I was a total zombie at work today” and they’ll know exactly what you mean. Try inserting “swamp monster” into that sentence and it just doesn’t work the same. Zombies are people who are just a little more brain-hungry.

I think the closeness is also what makes them terrifying. The person who you trust most in the world could go zombie and turn on you in a second, and you’d understand why they were eating you while being entirely powerless to do anything about it

Can you think of any other zombie plays or movies that might have influenced you?

There wasn’t anything that was a direct influence, but I’ve definitely enjoyed a bunch of zombie things which I’m sure have affected me in one way or another. I like 28 Days Later for proving that there were plenty of new ways to approach zombies and Shaun of the Dead for injecting fun without losing any of the crucial elements of the genre. I really enjoyed The Walking Dead (the comic more than the TV show) for asking the question: “You’ve survived the initial outbreak. So now what?” Also Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive / Braindead for going way over the top and making it work.

What’s your favorite zombie related thing of all time?

I’m going to go with something a little more recent and say the trailer for the video game Dead Island. I never actually played the game it was advertising, but the trailer is really a masterful three minutes of storytelling that provides an emotional wallop. If you haven’t seen it: www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZqrG1bdGtg

Runner up: the dinner scene from Dead Alive.

Who wins in the undead show down- zombies, mummies, vampires or ghosts?

Ghosts are too insubstantial and mummies just don’t want it bad enough. I think a vampire could take down a zombie in a one-on-one cage match, but not being able to go out in the sun is a HUGE handicap. The vampires could pull it off if they have the right leadership, but if even one of the Twilight crew is involved then zombies all the way.

In the event of a zombie outbreak, what is your plan?

Costco.

Don’t miss Kirk Shimano’s Love In The Time Of Zombies, directed by Claire Rice, playing October 15, 16, 22, 29, 30, only at the Cafe Royale in San Francisco.