Monday, November 23, 2015


For this year's San Francisco Olympians Festival, whose sub-theme was mythology and deities related to The Wine-Dark Sea, I thought about how many artists have found inspiration in the sea, and decided to put together a playlist of ocean-themed music. Each night of the festival, I posted a video on Facebook and Twitter and tagged it #Oceansongs. Now that the festival is over, I thought I'd post the whole playlist here so that it's preserved and accessible in a slightly less ephemeral medium.

The first year of the Olympians Festival (2010), when I served as box-office manager, I themed my outfit to each night's play. I am trying to figure out what it says about me and my growth (?) over the last five-plus years that I've switched from curating outfits to curating playlists.

One. "Fuor del mar" by Mozart from Idomeneo. Starting off with an old-school classic! ""Saved from the sea, I have an even more fearsome sea raging in my breast, and Neptune does not cease to threaten me." Also, Idomeneo is all about fathers and sons, and so was the Olympians show that night, Triton.

Two. "Surfer Girl," by the Beach Boys. The Olympians Festival show that night was "Bevy of Beauties," a series of short plays about minor sea goddesses and nymphs, so a love song to a beach bunny felt appropriate.

Three. "Under the Sea," from The Little Mermaid. I'm no Disney fangirl, but being a child of the '90s, I couldn't forgive myself if I made an ocean-themed playlist and neglected to include Howard Ashman's clever maritime rhymes.

Four. "The Shipwreck Coast," by the Lucksmiths. This song has no particular connection to that evening's Olympians Festival show, but I love this band and will take any opportunity to promote them, and as Australian indie pop, they bring some musical and geographical diversity to the playlist.

Five. "The Mariner's Revenge Song," by the Decemberists. The show that night was "The Crew" so I posted the sea chantey to end all sea chanteys. I previously wrote about why I think this song is so brilliantly written and constructed (in the context of explaining why I don't think the Decemberists' rock opera The Hazards of Love is so brilliant).

Six. "Seafarer," by Tennis. The show that night, Allison Page's Jasons, was a comic, pop-culture-crazed interpretation of the story of Jason and the Argonauts -- who definitely broke a lot of female hearts as they sailed the seas. Thus, this love song to a sailor.

Seven. "The Tide is High," by Blondie. Because Medea (subject of that evening's show) is not the kinda girl who gives up ju-ust like tha-at. Oh no-o-o-o! Also, this video is amazing. Debbie Harry can't dance, and yet she seems like the essence of timeless cool. The backup dancers move gracefully, and yet they seem tacky and cheesy. One could ponder this paradox for hours.

Eight. "Sloop John B," by the Beach Boys. The show that night was about the ship, the Argo, itself, so here's my favorite song about a boat. This was also the day after the Paris attacks, when everyone I knew was feeling gloomy and hopeless, and it is in such moments that we need the piercing, transcendent beauty of the Beach Boys' a capella harmonies.

Nine. "La Mer," by Charles Trenet. That evening, I was playing a French woman in Delphin: Christian Teen Dolphin-Sex Beach Party, so I had to post a classic French chanson.

Ten. "Never Let Me Go," by Florence + the Machine. One of the Olympians Festival shows that night was based on the sorceress Circe, so Florence's witchy, mystical persona seemed to fit.

Eleven. "The Island," by the Decemberists. This was the night of the staged reading of my own Tethys, or You'll Not Feel the Drowning -- whose spooky subtitle is taken from a lyric in this Decemberists prog-rock opus.

Twelve. "Octopus's Garden," by the Beatles. Another obvious choice for the playlist. I posted it the day of the staged reading of Meg O'Connor's play Pontos, or High Tide, because I have fond memories of singing Beatles songs with Meg and her husband.

Thirteen. "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," by Otis Redding. A special bonus song posted the day after the Festival ended, to make this a baker's dozen, to include Redding's bittersweet and thoughtful tribute to the San Francisco Bay, to thank everyone who participated in and attended this year's San Francisco Olympians Festival.

By the way, the subjects for next year's Olympians Festival have already been announced, and they are underworld and chthonic deities, including a week of Egyptian gods. Which means I'm already thinking about next year's playlist. Hashtag #Deathsongs.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Writing, Acting, and Directing in the 2015 Olympians Festival

2015 is my fifth year participating in the San Francisco Olympians Festival as a writer, but it is the first year I will be acting and directing for the festival as well!

We're advertising it with this Lisa Frank poster
because it's just too perfect.

On Wednesday, November 18, I am acting in the staged reading of Delphin: Christian Teen Dolphin-Sex Beach Party by Anthony Miller (directed by Colin Johnson). If you've ever wanted to hear me talk in a ridiculously thick French accent about having sex with a dolphin, THIS MAY BE YOUR ONLY CHANCE. The show is goofy as hell yet surprisingly sweet, and everyone in it is hilarious. And, I mean, I've always half-jokingly said that my goal in life is to be an intense French woman -- and now, thanks to the magic of theater, I get to do that for forty-five minutes. It's just that the thing I'm really intense about is dolphin-fucking.

"Tethys" poster specially drawn for the
Olympians Festival by Brett Grunig. I love
how dark and grim and rainy it is. I can
almost feel the cold seawater on my skin.
Then on Friday, November 20, I am directing a staged reading of my own Tethys, or You'll Not Feel the Drowning. It's a one-act play that draws upon my love for my home state of Oregon, its tenacious pioneer spirit and its beautifully bleak winter weather; as well as the terror that all Oregonians felt when they read that New Yorker article this summer about the possibility of a great Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. I've got a great cast -- Janice Wright as the formidable mayor of a small coastal town, Alan Coyne as a seismologist with bad news, and Kendra Webb as the schoolteacher who is caught between them -- and while my direction is pretty minimalist, I'm still learning a lot from the experience of directing my own work.

Both Delphin and Tethys are one-act plays, so they'll be paired with another one-act show in order to make a full evening of theater. I should also note that neither of these plays requires any prior knowledge of Greek mythology to enjoy! They explore some of the themes associated with the dolphin god Delphin and the deep sea goddess Tethys, but they don't actually re-tell a specific myth.

The Olympians Festival staged readings are at 8 PM at the EXIT Theatre (156 Eddy St, San Francisco). Tickets $12 online or $10 at the door.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

October on the Theater Pub blog

Happy Halloween!

I wrote three posts this month for the SF Theater Pub blog, all of which I'm pretty proud of:

The Practical Magic of Props: Anecdotes from friends and acquaintances that celebrate the often-unsung work of the props master, who sometimes must find or create some incredibly bizarre or unique objects according to the demands of the script. (See also: my poem "Ode to the Props Master," which I wrote for a Theater Pub show in 2012.)

Uncomfortable Thoughts: A post arguing against the idea (which I've heard some people articulate) that "the point of theater is to make people uncomfortable," and attempting to negotiate the line between "challenging" and "uncomfortable."

Ridiculously Easy, Theatrically Inspired Halloween Costumes: Exactly what the title says. Includes my perennial suggestion of how to dress up like Camille, which I originally wrote about in 2007 (gawd, how time flies) and is still one of my most popular marissabidilla posts ever.

I was a bouncy, ukulele-playing "Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot" for my office Halloween party yesterday, but now it's a gloriously foggy night in San Francisco and I'm off to dress up in Victorian finery and attend a mourning-themed play in a secret living-room theater -- am I doing Halloween right, or what?

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

September on the Theater Pub blog

Two more columns this month!

In "Male and Female, I Created Them," I continued my inquiry into issues of gender and feminism and theater and what we "should" or "shouldn't" be writing. I talk about the first time I wrote a male character that I felt really proud of, and push back against the notion that ideological concerns should govern art. I also describe one of my favorite scenes in the movie Mistress America, which has probably come and gone from theaters by now, but which you should put on your queue because it's super funny and smart.

In my other piece, I wrote a little about Dada and Surrealism, and interviewed actor-director Steven Westdahl about Zurich Plays, his Dada-themed SF Fringe Festival show. (It was a hit and won Best of Fringe!) This also continues my mini-theme of writing pieces for the Theater Pub blog about European avant-garde movements of the 20th century -- earlier this year, I wrote about Parisian bohemia and about Oulipo/Outrapo.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Self-Dramatizers: "The Rehearsal" by Eleanor Catton

I had a good feeling about The Rehearsal from the moment I purchased it from the sale table of Folio Books in Noe Valley. And when the bookstore cashier struck up a conversation about it with me, I discovered that he's a playwright who has read my blog!

And this book is really so good, you guys. So good.

The Rehearsal: A NovelThe Rehearsal: A Novel by Eleanor Catton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I do theater, so I’m pretty much a sucker for any novel (or play, or movie) that tells a backstage story. As its title suggests, The Rehearsal is one of those, though it’s more complex than the typical narrative of a production from auditions to opening night. As the novel begins, we learn that the jazz-band teacher at a girls’ high school has been caught having an affair with one of his students. The book then shows how two different groups of artsy teenagers are affected by this news: the girls who go to the high school, especially the ones in the jazz band; and the first-year class at a local acting conservatory, who create a devised theater piece based on the sex scandal.

The Rehearsal has a lot to say about adolescent sexuality, but it’s not a romance. The jazz-band teacher and the girl he slept with remain peripheral characters. But it’s about a whole lot of other stuff: two art forms, jazz and theater, both of which involve a good deal of lore about how, in order to succeed, you have to use your own suffering and pain in your art. It’s about how sweet, middle-class, suburban teenagers decide that they want to do theater or play jazz, but they haven’t suffered enough to be great. It’s about how the adults in these teenagers’ lives alternate between wanting to preserve their innocence and wanting to educate them in the pain and cruelty of the world. It’s about the differences between the way teenage girls and teenage boys present themselves, and whether we (as an acting teacher puts it) wear “masks or faces.” It’s about how teenage girls are incorrigibly self-dramatizing.

All this is conveyed in prose that flirts with grandiloquence; the characters constantly deliver speeches that sound like monologues from some contemporary play. It’s stylized and heightened in the same way that theater can be, and you probably either love it or you hate it. Me, I’m thrilled to see a novelist taking inspiration from theater, and evoking the extreme emotional highs and lows of adolescence.

Eleanor Catton was just 23 when she wrote The Rehearsal, and it shows signs of being a young author’s work. The aforementioned grandiloquence, the sense that Catton is trying to cram everything she knows about human relationships into this one book, the ambition, the postmodern stylistic gimmicks, the prose that is self-consciously quotable and perceptive, are all hallmarks of a very bright but very young author. Still, it’s amazing that such a wise and self-assured book, with so much to say about the process of how we gain wisdom, should be written by someone so young. Like her characters, she’s curious, burning with ambition, fascinated by sex and psychology and hypocrisy, and too young to know any better.

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 29, 2015

It's The Little Things, or Why I Don't Like Modernized Productions of "Company"

There’s an Onion article, frequently passed around by theater people, called “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play in Time, Place Shakespeare Intended.” Well, I have an idea for a similar man-bites-dog headline: it would say “Production of Company Set in 1970.”

"You Could Drive A Person Crazy" in the San Francisco Playhouse production. Morgan Dayley as April, Michelle Drexler as Kathy, Teresa Attridge as Marta. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.
I’ve seen Company three times: a student production at my college ten years ago; the PBS broadcast of John Doyle’s Broadway revival; and the production that’s currently running at San Francisco Playhouse. None of these productions made an effort to evoke 1970, the year the musical originally premiered; instead, all of them set the show in the present day. And there are plenty of other recent Company productions that feature cell phones and other 21st-century trappings (Terry Teachout reviewed one in Bucks County this summer), but not so many that acknowledge the show’s original time period. (One exception might be the 2011 New York Philharmonic production -- I didn't see it, but production photos show Stephen Colbert wearing a very '70s turtleneck.)

Certainly, this story of a 35-year-old commitment-phobic man, the five married couples he befriends, and the three women he half-heartedly dates, is still relevant for contemporary audiences. If anything, articles like "The Real Reason Women Freeze Their Eggs" suggest that commitment-phobic bachelors are even more of a problem now than they were in 1970. It’s easy to make arguments for why we should continue to stage and discuss Company. But that’s not the same thing as saying that we should set it in the present day.

Sondheim writes in Finishing the Hat, “God is in the details.” Or, to quote Company itself, “it’s the little little little things.” While the big-picture themes of Company are still relevant, dozens of little details in the dialogue and lyrics make clear that Sondheim and Furth are writing about a very specific milieu with specific cultural markers. And this is why I think it’s so hard to convincingly modernize Company.

It’s jarring to see characters wearing contemporary clothes and using cell phones, and then saying things that no thirty-something New Yorker in 2015 would ever say. Nobody these days drinks vodka stingers, or talks about being “square.” Marijuana is no longer an exotic drug, and we call it “pot” or maybe “weed,” but never “grass.” Marta would be crazy about some obscure pocket of hipster Brooklyn, not about 14th Street – and she wouldn’t say “I’ll call you in the morning or my service will explain.” Et cetera.

Over the years, Sondheim and Furth have made a few updates to the book and lyrics to keep them feeling contemporary. The “I could understand a person / if a person was a fag” line has been rewritten, and the dialogue now name-checks some post-1970 celebrities like Madonna and Oprah. But it would take a much more thoroughgoing rewrite to make Company seem like it’s truly a product of 2015. Chloe Veltman spends several paragraphs of her review of the Playhouse production arguing that the musical feels dated because all of the characters are heterosexual – and I agree that if someone in 2015 wrote a musical about modern marriage, they’d probably be sure to include a gay or lesbian couple in the cast. But since the rights holders of Company don’t allow you to change the characters’ genders, or any of the myriad references that sound odd in a 2015 context – why not just set it in 1970 already?

If Company is staged with 1970s costumes and emotionally honest performances, contemporary audiences will relate to it – they will see how what it has to say about marriage and commitment are universal, and they will accept the dated chatter about “optical art” and “telephoning my analyst” and all the rest. But if it’s staged with cell phones and contemporary fashions, the 1970s references can make it hard for an audience to suspend its disbelief.

Bobby (Keith Pinto) and Joanne (Stephanie Prentice) in the San Francisco Playhouse production. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.
Oddly, I can’t think of any other play or musical from Company’s era that gets updated to the present day with such frequency; most other ‘60s and ‘70s shows are now staged as period pieces. This might be because, in its time, Company was considered groundbreaking and progressive. It’s kind of amazing to think that it premiered just two years after Promises, Promises – which the Playhouse revived this past winter, and whose whole story is predicated upon ‘60s sexism. I do think that Company’s portrayal of ditsy flight attendant April is kind of sexist, but most of the other female characters are smart, interesting, and sharply drawn. And because Company’s characters still feel modern and relatable, people think it makes sense to set Company in modern times.

But times change, and 2015 is not 1970. It seems ludicrous to suggest that the life of a man born in 1935 (Bobby’s birth year, if the show takes place in 1970) would be similar to the life of a man born in 1980 (Bobby’s birth year, if it takes place now). Or, since I'm a fan of Mad Men, I try to remind myself that when Company premiered, Bobby and his friends were basically of the same age and background as the younger Mad Men characters: Pete, Trudy, Ken, Peggy.

And that’s the thing: most people who go to see Company at San Francisco Playhouse will have watched Mad Men or other historical-fiction TV shows; or read novels that were published more than 10 years ago; or otherwise discovered that they can relate to works of art that take place in the past. The Playhouse’s slogan is that the theater is an “empathy gym,” where we go to “practice the power of compassion.” But their decision to set Company in 2015 suggests that they think people can’t feel empathy or compassion for these characters unless the story takes place in modern times. Have some faith in your audiences, San Francisco Playhouse. We can handle a slightly more challenging workout in the empathy gym.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

August on the Theater Pub blog

Another month, another two columns.

In "A Monologue of One's Own," I wrote about the whirlwind experience of preparing to play Virginia Woolf in a monologue by playwright Jeremy Cole, part of an evening of pro-choice theater honoring NARAL. I was a replacement for an actress who'd had to drop out a week before the show, so there I was, still not really accustomed to thinking of myself as an actor, opening the show with an 8-minute monologue, portraying a real-life famous person with an accent not my own.

My performance was captured on video (credit: Paul Anderson) -- how do you think I did?

Then, this week, I wrote a something called "An Introvert's Guide to Theater" -- maybe the title is a little far-reaching for what it is, which is a piece about how I'm not anti-social, but I do get run-down after too much socialization. Which can be a disadvantage when you're a theater artist. There are probably more introverted theater people out there than anyone realizes, though, and it's a topic I'd like to explore more in future.

And (if you're reading this in time) come see the Pint-Sized Plays at Theater Pub! I didn't write or direct any of the shows this year, but I produced the whole evening: read all the submissions, selected the plays and directors, sent innumerable emails and put out a fair few fires. The result is a lot of fun and it's been drawing packed houses. We have 2 more performances, August 24 and 25.