Saturday, March 21, 2015

Artists Are Members of a Privileged Class @ SF Theater Pub Blog

I'm rereading Tom Stoppard's Travesties tonight (for a very cool reason which I am not yet at liberty to disclose) and I have to say that it makes for very interesting reading in light of what I wrote for the Theater Pub blog earlier this week.

My Theater Pub piece is about living in an age when "count your blessings" has turned into "check your privilege," acknowledging that being an artist is itself a privilege, and wondering if anything short of total social revolution will change that.

And then I start rereading a play in which Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara debate art and revolution with Henry Carr, a privileged British guy who'd rather talk about his Savile Row suits than about the carnage of World War I. Despite that, he gets in some rather trenchant commentary on art and privilege.

Some choice quotes from Travesties:

"To be an artist at all is like living in Switzerland during a world war." (Carr)

"Art created patrons and was corrupted. It began to celebrate the ambitions and acquisitions of the paymaster." (Tzara)

"Revolution in art is in no way connected with class revolution. Artists are members of a privileged class. Art is absurdly overrated by artists, which is understandable, but what is strange is that it's absurdly overrated by everyone else. [...] What is an artist? For every thousand people there's nine hundred doing the work, ninety doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard who's the artist." (Carr)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The House of Mitford and the House of Black

As I mentioned, when I was up in Oregon last month, I holed up for several days at the Sylvia Beach Hotel. For my first four nights, I stayed in the Virginia Woolf room, which had a kind of French Provincial décor modeled after Woolf's country house, and on my last night I moved to the J. K. Rowling room. I worried that this room might feel too cartoonish and juvenile, but I actually LOVED it -- it had a cozy canopy bed with red satin curtains, a beautiful antique drop-front desk, and plenty of memorabilia to make you feel like you're in Gryffindor Tower. I quickly got in the spirit of things, saying "Hello, Hedwig" to the plush snowy owl in its cage, and waving Hermione Granger's wand around while saying "Expecto Patronum!"

I also started re-reading Book 7 of Harry Potter, which I hadn't read since it came out. (Here's my post from August 2007 about my history with the Harry Potter series and my first impressions of Book 7.) At the same time, I was re-reading Hons and Rebels, Jessica Mitford's autobiography. (I first read it in May 2008.) I'd brought it to the coast with me because I sensed that on my Reading/Writing/Thinking retreat, it might be inspiring to read about a courageous, funny, rebellious woman. I also liked the connection that Jessica Mitford is J.K. Rowling's personal heroine (she named her first daughter "Jessica" in her honor).

In fact, as I re-read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Hons and Rebels, I spotted a detail in Rowling's book that I'm convinced was drawn from Mitford's. In the prologue to Hons and Rebels, Mitford writes, memorably, "In the windows [of my mother's house], still to be seen, are swastikas carved into the glass with a diamond ring, and for every swastika a carefully delineated hammer and sickle. They were put there by my sister Unity and myself when we were children." Later, she describes the room that she and Unity shared -- divided exactly down the middle, one half of it filled with Unity's Fascist memorabilia and literature, and the other half with Jessica's Communist stuff.

I couldn't help thinking of this when I got to Chapter 10 of Deathly Hallows, which describes the teenage bedrooms of Sirius Black and his brother Regulus at Grimmauld Place: "Sirius seemed to have gone out of his way to annoy his parents. There were several large Gryffindor banners, faded scarlet and gold, just to underline his difference from all the rest of the Slytherin family. There were many pictures of Muggle motorcycles, and also (Harry had to admire Sirius's nerve) several posters of bikini-clad Muggle girls." Meanwhile, "[though] Sirius had sought to advertise his difference from the rest of the family, Regulus had striven to emphasize the opposite. The Slytherin colors of emerald and silver were everywhere, draping the bed, the walls,and the windows. The Black family crest was painstakingly painted over the bed, along with its motto, Toujours Pur."

I need hardly point out that there's a connection between the Toujours Pur motto, Voldemort's ideas of magical blood purity, and Nazi racial ideology; nor that Gryffindor's colors, like Soviet Russia's, are scarlet and gold. In the scheme of the novel, Sirius Black basically is Jessica Mitford, and his cousins Bellatrix and Narcissa are basically Unity and Diana Mitford. (Bellatrix and Unity = mentally unstable, with a twisted, unrequited love for the Big Villain; Narcissa and Diana = beautiful cool blondes, married to the Big Villain's loyal lieutenant.)

It seems so obvious now, but I wouldn't have noticed it if I hadn't been re-reading Mitford and Rowling's books simultaneously -- in a canopy bed in a simulacrum of Gryffindor Tower.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Three Brief Reviews of Three Brief Books

Hello! Apologies for my long absence. In mid-February, I was off the grid on a week-long vacation; and for the past two weeks, I've been trying to recover from a lingering head cold.

On my vacation, I stayed at the literary-themed Sylvia Beach Hotel on the Oregon coast, in the Virginia Woolf and J.K. Rowling rooms -- so naturally, I found myself reading the books that were on hand there.

I'm also participating in a year-long book-reading contest with some friends, and every little bit counts...

Virginia WoolfVirginia Woolf by Mary Ann Caws
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In this short bio, Mary Ann Caws depicts Virginia Woolf as an enthusiastic, thoughtful woman who cherished her friends -- counter-balancing the stereotypical image of Woolf as depressed and suicidal. But in so doing, Caws neglects Woolf's work as a novelist and essayist, which, after all, is what made her famous and why we still care about her. If I recall correctly, this book mentions Mrs. Dalloway only in passing and doesn't discuss A Room of One's Own at all, and those are two of Woolf's most notable works. Instead, it feels like most of the book describes the bohemian habits and complicated relationships of the Bloomsbury Group. One perk of this book is that it's lavishly illustrated with vintage photos of all of the people it mentions. But ultimately, it gives you a much better sense of Woolf's milieu than of her own life or her writing.

The Tales of Beedle the BardThe Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As literary fairy tales, the five Tales of Beedle the Bard are far from the most interesting ones I've ever read -- some of them wear their influences too obviously, e.g. "Babbitty Rabbitty" is clearly modeled on "The Emperor's New Clothes." But it's always charming to spend time in the Wizarding World, especially in the company of the beloved Albus Dumbledore, who provides criticism and commentary on each of the five tales. The most interesting element of this book is the "Postmodernism for Kids" aspect of it: it is presented as being written hundreds of years ago by Beedle the Bard, translated recently by Hermione Granger, with Dumbledore's commentary, an introduction by J.K. Rowling, and footnotes by both Dumbledore and Rowling. If I ever have children, I might want to give them this book as an introduction to concepts like intertextuality, literary criticism, subtext, metafiction, etc.

Now All We Need is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That WayNow All We Need is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way by André Bernard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Did you know that John Steinbeck originally wanted to give Of Mice and Men the laughably bad title Something That Happened? Or that both Dorothy Parker and Dashiell Hammett's publisher thought that The Maltese Falcon was a terrible title? Those pieces of title-related trivia, and many more, can be found in this little compendium. One can see how this kind of book would be more useful before the Internet existed (nowadays this would be a Buzzfeed list, not a book), and it feels like the publisher had to pad it out to even get it to be over 100 pages, but it's nice to be reminded that while certain famous book titles may sound inevitable to us now, some of them were anything but.

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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Moved to Tears @ San Francisco Theater Pub Blog

My latest Theater Pub column is about the works of art that make me cry -- something I don't think we talk about enough, in an era that is skeptical of raw emotion. Click over there and read my piece to learn why I made sure to bring a hankie to the performance of Candide I saw last week and how seeing The King and I at the age of 5 utterly ruined me.

(My friend/editor Stuart noted "I think you're the only non-Asian person I know who was traumatized by The King and I... and most of them were traumatized for very different reasons.")

I've also convinced myself that Howard Ashman and Alan Menken must've modeled elements of Beauty and the Beast, especially the ballroom dancing scene, after The King and I -- they were no dummies and, as we all know, "good artists borrow, great artists steal."

In my column, I also mention seeing Rabbit Hole at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when I was in college -- which happened to be the subject of one of my very first blog posts. Crazy to realize that that was almost 8 years ago (also crazy that I haven't been back to Ashland since then, but that's a topic for another day).

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Miss Fisher and Miss Crewe

In my most recent Theater Pub column, I wrote about some of the non-theater things that kept me sane/happy/entertained in January: the f.lux app, trying new hairdos, cleaning my room, and watching Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries on Netflix.

I saw some enjoyable theater, too: Indian Ink at ACT is a good play in a lovely production. Though Arcadia will always be my all-time favorite Stoppard, this one is still smart and entertaining and well worth your time.

Brenda Meaney as Flora Crewe, in ACT's production of Indian Ink. Photo by Kevin Berne.

And I got to thinking about how Flora Crewe, the heroine of Indian Ink, and Phryne Fisher, the title character of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, feel like variations on an archetype: confident, independent-minded, adventurous women of the between-the-wars period. They pursue careers that aren't quite "respectable" (Flora is a poet, Phryne a private detective), but which still allow them to dress glamorously and mingle with interesting people. Flora gets denigrated as an empty-headed "flapper poet" and Phryne gets patronized as a meddlesome amateur, but they do their best to shake off such criticisms and go on with being their awesome selves. They are single but have many lovers; they are not ashamed of their sexuality. They are very fond of stylish automobiles.

Their biographical details are similar too. Indian Ink gives Flora's birth year as 1895; she is 35 when the play takes place in 1930. The Miss Fisher show takes place in 1928 Melbourne, at which time Phryne seems to be in her mid-to-late 30s. (Per Wikipedia, Phryne's birth year is 1900, so she's 28 when we meet her, but maybe that's just for the novels the TV show is based on -- actress Essie Davis is great and looks younger than her real age, but I don't think she can pass for 28.) They both have a beloved younger sister, though Phryne's sister was murdered in childhood while Flora's sister is alive and well. After spending childhood and adolescence in an English-speaking country (England/Australia), they run off to France during World War I and join an ambulance unit. They both remain in France for a bit after the war ends, too, living the bohemian life in Paris and working as artists' models.

Essie Davis as Phryne Fisher.

Here's where the parallels get really crazy. In Paris, Flora poses nude for Modigliani and when the painting is later exhibited, it infuriates her fiancé so much that he buys it and burns it in a bathtub at the Ritz. Phryne poses nude for a fictitious artist, Pierre Sarcelle, which infuriates her lover so much that he resorts to murder to get his hands on the painting. Okay, I can understand how this is a trope (jealous sexist man commits violence when he learns his girlfriend has posed nude for someone else), but it was very odd to see Indian Ink and the Miss Fisher episode about the nude painting less than a week apart, and to note all of these similarities in terms of character, era, etc.

Are both Flora Crewe and Phryne Fisher based on a real-life woman that I should know about? Is there some well-known story about a young Anglo woman who drove an ambulance in France during World War I, then posed for a nude painting that was later at the center of some scandal?

And, to compound the hall-of-mirrors effect, I first became aware of the Miss Fisher actress Essie Davis when I saw her star in a different Tom Stoppard play, Jumpers, on Broadway in 2004. (Her character had a nude scene in that one, too. Stoppard has a reputation as a super-cerebral playwright but there's enough female nudity written into his scripts -- Jumpers, Indian Ink, Coast of Utopia -- that it seems he also has quite an eye for the ladies.)

At any rate, I have two new fictional heroines to inspire me with their independence, courage, and flair.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"The Great Night" by Chris Adrian: San Francisco as Faerieland

Five years ago, I got all excited when I heard that acclaimed novelist Chris Adrian was working on a book that imagined the faeries from A Midsummer Night's Dream under Buena Vista Park in contemporary San Francisco. The novel in question, The Great Night, came out in 2011, and I finally got around to reading it this month...

The Great NightThe Great Night by Chris Adrian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In order to love The Great Night, it probably helps to be a San Franciscan, to have pledged your heart to this hilly, foggy, colorful, magical city. It probably helps to be heartbroken, or at least trying to get over a painful loss. It helps to be the kind of person who bursts out giggling when introduced to three faerie characters named "Lyon," "Oak," and "Fell," realizing that while these are good names for faeries, they are also the names of streets near Buena Vista Park, where the story takes place. It helps to have ridden the N Judah downtown every weekday for the past six years, traveling through the tunnel under Buena Vista Park every morning and evening, and to experience this commuter-train journey with a new sense of wonder as you read about Oberon and Titania holding court in a fantastical palace under this hill. It probably helps, too, to be a theater-lover, whose first experience with Shakespeare was A Midsummer Night's Dream; to have recently written a short play yourself about dryads, oak-tree nymphs, and thus appreciate the novel's depiction of a faerie oak...

I can try to look at this novel more objectively, of course. I can recognize that it isn't perfect, though I may be close to a perfect reader for it, or have discovered it at the right time in my life. The main action takes place on Midsummer Night in 2008, but at least half of the book is taken up with flashbacks that fill in the backstories of its human and faerie characters. The three main human characters, Molly, Will, and Henry, are all about 30 years old and have suffered two major tragedies in their lives -- one during adolescence and one more recently. And the laying-out of their backstories can seem overly schematic, not to mention depressing; clearly, Chris Adrian wants to explore themes of grief and suffering and healing, but sometimes the characters seem like no more than the sum of their misfortunes. The faerie queen Titania, meanwhile, has suffered the greatest loss of all: her changeling son died of leukemia at UCSF hospital, and in her grief, she drove her husband Oberon away.

Though billed as a contemporary take on A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Great Night also seems to draw inspiration from other, later Shakespeare plays. While the rude mechanicals in Midsummer are preparing a play to entertain the king, the band of homeless theater-makers in Adrian's novel wish to "catch the conscience of the king," or rather, the Mayor, with their production of a musical version of Soylent Green. (They are convinced that the Mayor is killing homeless people and turning their bodies into the food served at homeless shelters. This is all the funnier if you pick up Adrian's clues that the mayor in question is Gavin Newsom, S.F.'s slick scion of privilege.) And the novel's focus on themes of grief and loss does not recall the lighthearted Midsummer so much as more "mature" Shakespeare plays like King Lear and The Tempest.

This is an ambitious novel, mixing realism and fantasy and humor and sorrow, shifting its point of view every few pages -- and I can acknowledge that it doesn't always work. But mostly, I'm just so happy to see my San Francisco, the 21st-century Mission and Haight and Sunset, captured in fiction so well and so lovingly. (I love Tales of the City, but it mostly takes place in Russian Hill and Pac Heights, neighborhoods where my friends and I rarely have cause to venture.) Descriptions of the faeries sprucing up a sterile hospital room, or Titania's bad blind date with a Marina bro, feel funny and painful and, in spite of everything, true. Because this feels like the kind of city where such things can happen.

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Monday, January 12, 2015

I'd Like to Thank the Stucademy

Stuart Bousel wrote 5000 words last Monday explaining why he wasn't going to post his Stuart Excellence in Bay Area Theater Awards, a.k.a. SEBATAs, a.k.a. "Stueys," this year. So it was a surprise when, round midnight last night (trust Stuart to post his awards at the witching hour), a post went up on the Theater Pub blog announcing the 14 Stuey winners—including me!

My "Best Breakthrough" Stuey recognizes my successfully self-producing Pleiades last August. "I was blown away by how organized and focused Marissa was, how determined she was to do it as best she could even the first time out," Stuart wrote. "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."

Inspired by last night's Golden Globes and by Stuart's own honesty in always speaking what's on his mind, I wrote an acceptance speech and posted it to Facebook this morning.

In my dreams, this is what I'm wearing to accept my Stuey Award.
Marchesa, Fall 2014.
"And the 2014 Stuey for Best Breakthrough goes to... Marissa Skudlarek, Pleiades."

(Applause. I get up from my seat, glide to the podium. At least I'd like to think I glide. The last time I wore high heels and a long gown, at the TBA Awards, I tripped and fell halfway down a flight of stairs and bruised my ankle. [Fortunately, no one witnessed it.] My friend Maura said this made me the Bay Area Jennifer Lawrence and that made me feel a little better, 'cause who doesn't want to be JLaw, but it's been two months and my ankle is still slightly tender. But this is all a daydream in which I'm wearing a gown that probably costs as much as my whole production of Pleiades so yeah, I glide, OK?)

"Gentlemen and la—wait, the Stuey Awards committee consists of only one gentleman—I gratefully accept the Stuey for Best Breakthrough. Of course, I think it’s kind of funny that in the citation for the award, I am praised for, basically, being a perfectionist and having my shit together—wait, can I say ‘shit’ here, or will I get bleeped?—when I often feel like my perfectionism is detrimental and that I don’t have my shit together at all. Like Stuart says, awards are kind of weird. And there’s a certain existential terror, too, in the idea of ‘Oh my God, if I’ve broken through, now I have to keep doing this.’ But honestly, all neurosis aside, I agree with our illustrious host and one-man awards committee that the Internet has gotten kind of awful recently, full of criticism and judgment and not the good kind of criticism and judgment, the place where you can always, always find someone who’ll tell you why you’re doing it wrong. And in a tough environment, in a tough year, I am genuinely touched that someone is willing to say in public that he thinks I’m basically headed in the right direction. That many of us in this room are headed in the right direction. And maybe this thought, and this award, will help me pick myself up faster in moments when I’m bogged down by neurosis and self-doubt. And in the meantime, yes, if you want to talk about best practices for self-producing, drop me a line and we’ll plan a coffee date. Awards have only as much power as we give them, but if this award can make me more personally hopeful or result in more knowledge about self-production being circulated in our community, then its power will be harnessed to a good cause. Thank you again."

(And I glide offstage.)

A couple of thoughts that I'd like to add tonight:

It's a little odd to get this award from Stuart, because his theater company, No Nude Men, was the nominal producer of Pleiades. It wasn't a financial arrangement. Instead, Stuart granted me the prestige of the NNM brand, with its 10+ years of history in the Bay Area; we had a few producer-y chats over coffee; and he let me text/email him with Silly Newbie Producer Questions as they came up. So I feel like a lot of my achievements as a producer simply involved asking good questions and listening to the advice of someone who's produced indie theater here for over a decade. Maybe that's rarer than it seems (Stuart would know), and maybe it's also a bit nepotistic. Fear of appearing nepotistic or biased, in fact, was one of the reasons that Stuart almost didn't post his awards this year. But hey, they are his awards, this is show business, and both he and I are people who overanalyze our actions, so who am I to quibble?

One thing I haven't overanalyzed, though, is the experience of producing Pleiades. Right after it closed, I became overwhelmed by a health crisis and a breakup, in quick succession. So I didn't really get a chance to take pride in my achievement, or to sort out my feelings about the show separately from everything else that was happening in my life. The wounds from my surgery and my breakup have now healed, and I've integrated those events into my self-narrative—but I haven't fully integrated Pleiades. (I haven't even been able to bring myself to open the script on my computer and incorporate the tiny changes that I made in rehearsals.) So winning a Stuey, having my efforts recognized, feels like an anchor, grounding me more firmly in sanity, reality, accomplishment. Yes. I wrote and produced a play. People noticed. And I shouldn't allow anything else to overshadow that.