Theater Around the Bay: Marissa Skudlarek and Adam Odsess-Rubin of “Cemetery Gates”

We continue our series of interviews with the folks behind the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays by speaking to writer Marissa Skudlarek and director Adam Odsess-Rubin of “Cemetery Gates”!

Inspired by the classic Smiths song, “Cemetery Gates” is a vignette about two moody, pretentious high-school seniors who have snuck into a bar with fake IDs in order to try overpriced cocktails, quote poetry, and imagine a world in which they could be happy. Sailor Galaviz plays Theo and Amitis Rossoukh plays Flora.

Skudlarek photo

Writer Marissa Skudlarek goes for a moody-rainy-day aesthetic.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized, or, if you’re returning to the festival, why did you come back?

Marissa: I have a long history with Pint-Sized. The first edition of the festival, in 2010, was also the first time any theater in San Francisco had produced my work. I had a play in the 2012 festival as well, and then last year, I came back to serve as Tsarina (producer) of the entire festival, the first time that it was at PianoFight. I can’t resist the lure of an imperial title and a rhinestone tiara, so I signed on as Tsarina again for the 2016 festival. Meanwhile, I had originally written “Cemetery Gates” as a submission for The Morrissey Plays, Theater Pub’s January 2016 show. The producer of The Morrissey Plays, Stuart Bousel, didn’t end up picking my script, but he said “This is a good play, you should produce it in Pint-Sized this year.” And, well, the Tsarina gets to make those decisions for herself. It’s good to be the Queen!

Adam: I had been an actor at PianoFight in The SHIT Show and Oreo Carrot Danger with Faultline Theater, but I really wanted to break into directing. I studied directing at UC Santa Cruz, but no companies in the Bay Area seem to want to hire a 24-year-old to direct. I sent my resume to Theater Pub and I’m so grateful they are taking a chance on me.

What’s the best thing about writing a short play?

Marissa: I feel like I allow myself to indulge my idiosyncrasies more because, hey, it’s only 10 minutes, right? Last night I was talking to Neil Higgins (a frequent Theater Pub collaborator who directed “Beer Culture” in this year’s Pint-Sized Plays), and he pointed out that both “Cemetery Gates” and my 2012 Pint-Sized Play “Beer Theory” are very “Marissa” plays. They are plays that I could show to people and say “This is what it’s like to live inside my head.” Writing a full-length often means seeking to understand the perspectives of people who don’t think or behave like me; writing a short play lets me burrow into my own obsessions.

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Adam: I love creating theater outside of conventional theater spaces. I’ve worked with Israeli and Palestinian teenagers in Yosemite and taken Shakespeare to senior-citizen centers, but never done a play in a bar. PianoFight is my favorite bar in the Bay Area, so I’m thrilled to be creating theater in their cabaret space.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Marissa: Sometimes it can be complying with the length-limit, though that wasn’t a problem with “Cemetery Gates.” Creating vivid and complex characters while only having a limited space to define them.

What’s been most troublesome?

Adam: My script is six pages. Trying to create a full theatrical experience in under 10 minutes is a really creative challenge for a director. You want a full dramatic arc while also fleshing out your characters, which isn’t easy to do in such a short period of time. And yes, scheduling too. The actors in my piece are both very busy with other projects, so our rehearsal time was limited.

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Marissa: Ooh, that’s a daunting question, so I’m going to re-frame it as “What are the biggest artistic influences on ‘Cemetery Gates’?” Well, there’s the Smiths song, obviously, and the fact that I wish I’d discovered it when I was a teenager rather than when I was about 25. There’s my weird obsession with a clutch of Tumblr blogs run by teenage or early-twentysomething girls who post about what they call “The Aesthetic,” which seems to mean pictures of old buildings in moody light, marble statues, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, modern witchcraft, dried flowers, the idea of being this vaguely wistful girl writing in her journal in a coffee shop, etc. And, while I didn’t consciously realize it when I was writing the play, I think it’s probably influenced by one of my favorite recent films, Xavier Dolan’s HeartbeatsHeartbeats is the story of two very pretentious Montreal twentysomethings — a gay guy and a straight girl, like the characters in “Cemetery Gates” — who both fall in love with the same man. The movie is aesthetically lush and painfully funny. Dolan obviously loves his characters while at the same time acknowledging that they are completely ridiculous — which is exactly how I feel about the characters in “Cemetery Gates.”

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

Adam: I’d love to see Harry Styles from One Direction play Theo in Cemetery Gates. What can I say? He’s just so cute and pouty. It’d be great to see him play an alienated gay teen sneaking into a bar to wax poetic about Oscar Wilde. Molly Ringwald would be an excellent Flora — the ultimate angsty teenager who longs for something better in a world full of constant disappointments.

Marissa: Hmm, the trouble here is that both of my characters are 18 and I feel like I don’t know enough about who the good teenage actors are these days. Maybe Kiernan Shipka as the girl? I loved her as Sally Draper on Mad Men.

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Director Adam Odsess-Rubin is also looking very aesthetic here.

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush? That is… what actor would you love a chance to work with?

Adam: I’m very jealous of anyone who has had the opportunity to be on stage with Radhika Rao. She blows me away as an actor and teacher. She’s such a light in the Bay Area theater community, and such a talented artist. Her passion to create change through her art is what every theater artist in the Bay Area should strive for.

What other projects are you working on and/or what’s next for you?

Adam: I’ll be directing three pieces for the SF Olympians Festival this year, which I am so excited about. My parents gave me a picture book of Greek mythology when I was very little, and so I can’t wait to bring some of these tales to life in a new way on stage. Anne Bogart talks about the importance of mythology in theater, and Anne Washburn touches on this in a big way in Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, which I assistant-directed at A.C.T. and the Guthrie Theater under the late, great Mark Rucker. I was so moved by Washburn’s unique argument for theater as this invincible storytelling form.

Beyond that, I’d love to direct a full-length show next year at a theater company in the area. Artistic Directors, you’ll be hearing from me soon.

Marissa: Revising my long one-act play You’ll Not Feel the Drowning for a staged reading on September 13, part of Custom Made Theatre’s Undiscovered Works program. Finishing a one-act play based on the story of Macaria, Hades and Persephone’s daughter, for an Olympians Festival staged reading on October 14. Planning and hosting a celebration of the Romantic era to take place over Labor Day Weekend. Attending a friend’s wedding in Oregon in mid-September. Trying to keep my sanity in the midst of all this (seriously, it’s a lot right now).

What upcoming shows or events in the Bay Area theater scene are you most excited about?

Adam: I saw Eric Ting’s production of We Are Proud to Present… at SoHo Rep in NYC in 2012 and it was the single greatest production I’ve seen, period. I can’t wait to see his production of An Octoroon at Berkeley Rep next season. I love Annie Baker and am looking forward to John at A.C.T. And Hamilton – my God! I’m not original in saying this, but that show is brilliant.  I’m so glad SHN is bringing it to SF. I don’t know what the smaller theaters have planned for next season yet, but Campo Santo and Z Space produce great work. New Conservatory Theatre Center is an artistic home for me. I’ll see anything they produce.

Marissa: The Olympians Festival, of course! The theme this year is myths of death and the underworld, and I’ve been writing a lot of weird death-haunted plays this year (including “Cemetery Gates”) so that fits right in. Also, a bunch of my friends and I read or reread Pride and Prejudice this year, so I want to plan a field trip to see Lauren Gunderson’s P&P sequel play, Miss Bennet, at Marin Theatre Co. this Christmas.

What’s your favorite beer?

Adam: Moscow mule.

Marissa: The Goldrush at PianoFight — bourbon, honey, and lemon, good for what ails ya.

“Cemetery Gates” and the other Pint-Sized Plays have 3 performances remaining: August 22, 23, and 29 at PianoFight! 

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life (On A Friday): Good Talkback, No Backtalk

Good morning! Please enjoy some displaced Marissa Skudlarek to start your weekend!

On Tuesday night, I attended a developmental reading of my play You’ll Not Feel the Drowning. As one of the four plays that Custom Made Theatre Co. selected for the first year of its new-works development program, it is undergoing a process that includes public readings, talk-backs, written feedback — in short, lots of people whom I may or may not know have the chance to tell me their opinions about my still-in-process script. And considering that the last time I had a talk-back, several years ago, someone publicly accused me of slandering the memory and reputation of a good man… I was feeling a little nervous about the whole endeavor.

By their very nature, even the best-run developmental readings and talk-backs can leave you feeling incredibly vulnerable. Here are some thoughts and tips about how to offset that vulnerability. Note that this isn’t about putting your fingers in your ears and saying “I don’t want to hear your feedback!” Rather, it’s about learning how to accept the feedback from a place of grace and strength, so that you and your script can grow and improve.

First, be sure that you’re in a good head-space before the reading. This is something that I could have done better on Tuesday night. I had hoped to leave work on the dot of 5 PM, which would give me over an hour in which to drink a hot beverage, write in my journal, and examine my anxieties and try to set them aside. But, you know, life and the Day Job have a way of intervening, and I didn’t leave the office till after 6. I felt a bit rushed and un-prepared. I started babbling about random stuff on Twitter, as I do when I’m anxious, and then started worrying that all my Twitter-babbling would make me lose followers. Waiting for the bus would’ve compounded my anxieties, so I took a cab to the reading instead. I hoped that this would make me feel like a fancy glamorous playwright, and it didn’t quite do that, but it was still money well spent.

Plan your outfit carefully. This advice might be more relevant to women than to men: in our society, women have more types of clothing options than men do, and unfortunately, many female outfits that read as “pretty” or “dressed-up” do so by enhancing the wearer’s vulnerability. I’m not saying you can’t look pretty or be comfortable at your own talk-back, but I am saying that those qualities are not of primary importance. What should be your priority is to find an outfit that makes you feel powerful. I have a gray knit dress that I pull out whenever I need psychological armor. It’s flattering and comfortable, yes, but it has become my chain-mail. I wore it to a staged reading in 2014 where I had to stand up onstage in front of the guy who’d dumped me six weeks previously; I wore it in early March, when I was on my first assignment for American Theatre magazine and met producer Carole Shorenstein Hayes; and of course, I wore it on Tuesday night. With high heels and brazen bright-red lipstick, no less. It’s not a frivolous frippery; it’s war paint.

Take notes during the reading: this will focus your attention and give you something to do. Note when the audience laughs; note when they seem lost or distracted. Note the moments where you yourself get lost or bored, and ask yourself honestly: is it the actors’ fault, or is it a flaw in my writing? Remember that, just as your primary purpose is not to be pretty or likable, the actors’ primary purpose is not to be entertaining or virtuosic. Rather, they are there to interpret the script in such a way that you gain a better understanding of its virtues and flaws. Hopefully, your actors (like mine) will be talented and committed people who ask you good questions in rehearsal, but the point is that they are there to serve your work. Listen to your actors, and maybe at the reading, something will click for you, and you’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, that actor was totally right, this monologue is way too long and I need to rewrite it” (or whatever).

As for the talk-back itself, I hope you have a strong moderator who knows how to structure the session and lays out solid ground rules. (Stuart Bousel did a very good job of this on Tuesday night, structuring the talk-back in a focused and precise way that allowed for some give-and-take between me and the audience, but kept everyone’s power in balance.) The moderator should emphasize that while you are interested in hearing thoughts and reactions that may spark your imagination, you are not interested in hearing suggestions along the lines of “This is how I’d rewrite your play.” Continue to take notes during the talk-back, especially when audience members make comments that fire your imagination or reveal a new layer of the play to you. The paper and pen are your shield and sword here.

A word about self-deprecating humor. It’s a defense mechanism, and I use it frequently when I have to speak about my work in front of an audience, but I realize it’s not the strongest armor. Essentially, self-deprecation says “I am pointing out my weaknesses in a humorous way so that you don’t point them out in a vicious way.” Yes, self-deprecation fills awkward silences and can make people think that you are charming, but you’re not there to be charming, you’re there to write a fucking awesome play. I wish I were better at talking about my weaknesses honestly and humbly and without giggling. Or, perhaps, waiting for other people to mention them rather than doing it with my preemptive self-deprecation.

More dangerous than the actual talk-back is the informal discussion about your play that happens afterwards. Maybe someone comes up to you and offers unsolicited feedback, in a format that would never have flown with the talk-back’s moderator. Prefacing everything with “Well, this is just my opinion, but…”, this audience member decides it’s time to tell you everything that’s wrong with your play and how he would have done it better.

Perhaps the best strategy in this case is to say “I don’t want to hear it,” but it can be very hard to tell people to just shut up. An alternative strategy that I try to use is to put up a front. Mantras help: anything from “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” to “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds” – whatever makes you feel powerful. Chant that phrase to yourself as you listen to the criticisms. Smile and nod and say “okay,” like a sweet-natured robot. And let his words go in one ear and out the other, as you put up an invulnerable facade.

If that wasn’t quite effective and some of the criticism got through, niggling at you and sapping your writerly self-confidence, this where esprit de l’escalier comes in handy. Walking home, replay that conversation in your head. Feel the shame and anger. And, after having to listen to that “just my opinion” litany of everything that’s wrong with your play, imagine retorting: “Well, it’s just my opinion, but I think you are a tremendous jerk.”

After all, your words got you into this situation; your words can get you out again.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.