Tuesday, August 24, 2010


My friend M.R. Fall, who directed one of the Pint-Sized Plays at San Francisco Theater Pub, just sent me this link:
Why Can't a Pregnant Woman Have a Drink? by Margaret Hartmann, Jezebel.com

"Many medical experts say it's OK for pregnant woman to have one or two glasses of wine a week, and drinking while pregnant is common in Europe. So why is moderate drinking during pregnancy still taboo in America?"
If the article and the related issues pique your interest, you have one more chance to see my play about a pregnant woman who really wants a beer: next Monday, August 30, at Theater Pub.

I think it's interesting that the article, and many of the commenters, say that drinking during pregnancy might be OK if it is "an occasional glass of wine." Wine is sophisticated; wine is decorous. Beer, on the other hand... Well, that still has the power to shock.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

"The Harm that Excessive Candor Can Do"

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the scene in Whit Stillman's film Metropolitan in which all of the characters play a truth-telling game.

(transcribed from the DVD)
SALLY: It's called Truth. You stretch a Kleenex over the mouth of a glass and place a dime on it. And we each take turns burning a hole in it with a cigarette. And if the dime falls in on your turn, you lose. And you have to answer, with absolute honesty, whatever question you're asked, no matter how embarrassing.

CYNTHIA: Yeah. The more embarrassing the better. Sometimes you can find out the most amazing things. It can really be incredible.

AUDREY: I don't think we should play this.

SALLY: Why not?

AUDREY: There are good reasons why people don't go around telling each other their most intimate thoughts.

CYNTHIA: What do you have to hide?

AUDREY: No! I just know that games like this can be really dangerous.

TOM: Dangerous?

SALLY: I don't see what's dangerous about it.

AUDREY: You don't have to. Other people have--that's how it became a convention. People saw the harm that excessive candor can do.

CYNTHIA: You admit that it's basically just a social convention, then.

SALLY: What you say might be true among people who don't know each other well, but surely not with us.

AUDREY: Then it's even worse.

CYNTHIA: Okay, let's discuss this. Basically, what this game requires is complete candor. Which means: honesty. Openness. I don't see how that can be bad.

AUDREY: Well, it can.

CYNTHIA: Well then, don't play. But don't wreck it for everyone else.
Now, why has this scene been on my mind? Well, first, last weekend I made the acquaintance of a guy who asked me several impertinent questions about my salary and my love life. He seemed to share Cynthia's point of view: cynically appealing to my notions of "honesty" and "openness" in order to get me to share things I wasn't comfortable sharing. Most notably, he said that if everybody knew how much money everybody else made, there would be less income inequality in the world, and so I should start things off by telling him my salary. And I found myself arguing Audrey's position: there are some things that are better left unsaid. And even if that is just a social convention, the rules are there for a reason. Sure, it's depressing to realize, as a teenager, that human interactions are governed by a series of rules and social codes--but isn't it even more depressing to think about what would happen if there were no such codes?

Another reason that I've been thinking about this scene is that I am trying to write a play about a bunch of teenagers playing a truth-telling game (Never Have I Ever). As much as I agree with Audrey's opinion that such games are "dangerous" (and they always made me so very uncomfortable and squirmy when I was a teenager), it is because they are dangerous that they appeal so much to me as a writer. Whit Stillman makes a similar point in an interview about the film: "In a sense, Audrey’s right, in the short term, about the truth session. It was a disaster, and everyone—except Cynthia—acknowledges that. Yet, in the long term, it saves her would-be relationship with Tom." From a moral point of view, the characters should not play the truth game. But, from a dramatic point of view--if they didn't play it, the movie would end.

Image: Audrey (Carolyn Farina) attempts to explain why she doesn't want to play Truth.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Things That Are Making Me Ridiculously Happy

  • Today is my 2-year anniversary of moving to San Francisco. I love this city and feel so grateful for my life here--my apartment, my neighborhood, my roommates, my new friends, my old friends reconnected-with, my finding my way into the theater community here, the supportiveness of that community and the great art they make...
  • Speaking of which, the premiere of my play at Theater Pub on Monday night was a huge success. I couldn't have asked for a better cast, director, or venue in which to make my local playwriting debut. I'm still kind of on a high from Monday evening, which is why I haven't blogged about the experience yet... in the meantime, I'm looking forward to the 2 other performances! August 23 and 30th, 8 PM (but get there early!)
  • A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book is finally out in paperback, so I finally am reading it! I started it Monday morning and am about 200 pages in (out of nearly 900). There are a ton of characters and I'm excited to find out what happens to all of them. It's the longest book I've read in quite a while; it's the most excited I've been about a new novel in quite a while; I'm enjoying it so far.
  • I just bought my tickets for a long weekend in NYC at the end of October--my first trip back there since graduation! I look forward to the East Coast autumn, to traveling, to catching up with old friends... Now I've just got to decide what show to get tickets for.
  • The day after I return from NYC, Stephen Sondheim's book about lyric-writing will be published! 480 pages of (as the subtitle has it) "Collected Lyrics, with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes." Not sure I'll be able to wait for the paperback with this one...
  • Whit Stillman, of Metropolitan fame, is preparing to shoot another movie! Working title is Damsels in Distress, a comedy about a "charming, eccentric clique of stylish but possibly quite mad" college girls, whose values "appear to derive from the late lamented Zelda Fitzgerald." Sounds like vintage Stillman (and one of my friends recently described me as "Zelda Fitzgerald without the insanity," so it is any wonder that the description of this new film has me ridiculously excited?)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Furious Improvisation" reviewed

Longtime readers of this blog may recall that I am fascinated by the history of America in the 1930s. Particularly '30s American theater history. Even more particularly the Federal Theatre Project and its director Hallie Flanagan, a former Vassar professor. Therefore I was thrilled and delighted to read a new-ish history of the Federal Theatre Project, Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times, by Susan Quinn.

In the course of my fascination with '30s theater, I had already picked up some of the information contained in Furious Improvisation--but I had never read a popular history book that spells out the whole story of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), its four short years of creativity and struggle. Furious Improvisation is a quick read, full of vivid detail, with an emphasis on the strong personalities that populated the FTP. If the book has a heroine, it is Hallie Flanagan; through reading excerpts of the letters she sent home to her husband, Phil, while she traveled the country, you feel like you really get to know her. Orson Welles, his famous "Voodoo" Macbeth, and his The Cradle Will Rock put in their expected appearances (which are always fun to read about), but the book also tells some less familiar stories from the FTP. I hadn't known anything about the failure of the first Living Newspaper, Ethiopia; or the challenges of adapting Sinclair Lewis' anti-Fascist novel It Can't Happen Here into a play that would open in multiple cities on the same day; or the endeavors of the Federal Theatre in Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco--but I enjoyed reading about all of these topics.

Even better, however, are the last chapters, where Quinn puts forth an intriguing thesis about what really caused the demise of the Federal Theatre. In the late 1930s, conservative Congressmen (many from the South) began to turn against FDR's New Deal policies, accusing him of setting the country on a dangerously Socialist or Communist path. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) came into existence, the committee went after the Federal Theatre and accused it of harboring Communists, and, because of these trumped-up charges, popular opinion turned against the FTP. Halfway through 1939, allocations for the WPA arts projects were removed from the federal budget--and thus the FTP shut down.

Quinn's contribution, however, is to note that what really frightened HUAC was not the idea that the FTP harbored Communists who were plotting to destroy the American government, but rather, that the FTP encouraged "dangerous" equality between blacks and whites:
The issue of race was never far from the surface in the Dies committee's assault on the Federal Theatre Project. In fact, the success of many productions of the Negro units, and the visibility they brought to blacks--not to mention the integration the project sponsored in its casts and in its audience--were all viewed by the committee as signs of Communist influence. In truth, for most on the committee, and certainly for Martin Dies, its chairman, the racial policies of the Federal Theatre Project struck a deeper note of alarm than the alleged Communist infiltration.
Now, what's fascinating about this is that Furious Improvisation was published in July 2008--and therefore written long before it was certain that the United States would elect a black president. And yet, haven't we seen the exact same thing happen, since Obama's election, as happened in the 1930s--conservatives accusing him of "socialism" as a coded way of saying "his policies help racial minorities and hurt Real White Americans"?

History repeats itself, folks. And because of that, Furious Improvisation also can serve as a useful counter-argument to any idealist who says "but why can't the United States be like Europe and devote more of the federal budget to supporting the arts?" Well, because it would set off a political firestorm. It did in the 1930s (even before HUAC formed, there were many political struggles over what kind of art the FTP ought to present), and it would probably be even worse in the current partisan political climate. Don't get me wrong, I'm deadly jealous of the "European-style" model for funding art! But I can see why it wouldn't work in this country, unless we are able to resolve the problems that stymied and killed the FTP. And if even an administrator as enthusiastic, intelligent, bold, and talented as Hallie Flanagan couldn't make this kind of program work for more than four years... how could it work in the 21st century?

Friday, August 13, 2010

My SF Playwriting Debut--3 Days Away!

"Drinking for Two"

Written by Marissa Skudlarek
Directed by Sara Staley
Starring Nicole Hammersla and Derricka Smith

"It's one drink. One drink, with an old friend. And then I am going to pop a breath mint and go home and lie to Jeremy about where I’ve been. My life is not going to end just because I’m having a child. That’s what I’ve always said."

One of the Pint-Sized Plays at San Francisco Theater Pub
nine short plays, by local writers
each performed in the time it takes to drink a beer

8 PM, August 16, 23, and 30
FREE admission, no reservations

at the Cafe Royale
800 Post St, San Francisco

For more information about SF Theater Pub and the Pint-Sized Plays, check out this radio interview with Theater Pub co-founders Stuart Bousel, Bennett Fisher and Brian Markley. Round about the 23-minute mark, you'll hear of a young writer who is making her SF debut with a Pint-Sized Play about a pregnant woman who craves a beer... Yes, my name and my play were mentioned on the radio! Thanks Stuart, Ben, Brian, and 90.3 FM!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Biz Books and "Cariboo Magi"

After Christmas last year, my parents and I drove up to British Columbia and spent a couple of days in Vancouver. While strolling around the historic Gastown district, we stumbled upon Biz Books (which, I now see, is closing in less than a week and will become online-only! madness!), a bookstore specializing in theater and film publications. They had a huge selection of scripts, including one whole wall of Canadian plays.

I was suddenly ashamed of my lack of knowledge of dramatic literature by our northern neighbors. The only Canadian play I could recall reading or seeing was Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet by Anne-Marie MacDonald (and, oddly, Biz Books didn't have any of MacDonald's work for sale). So I asked the saleslady, "Who are some Canadian playwrights who people in the States don't know about--but deserve to be better known?"

The saleslady presented me with a host of suggestions and I ended up buying two books--and, what with one thing and another, only just now have gotten around to reading the first of them. This is the play Cariboo Magi, by Lucia Frangione. I bought it because it was by a female playwright and dealt with Canadian history--it's about an oddball theater troupe that travels to inland BC at Christmas 1870 to perform for an audience of gold miners. So it's also a fable about the power of theater to bring misfits together and heal wounded souls--a bit of a cliche, but one that I have a soft spot for.

Lucia Frangione is an actress as well as a playwright, and wrote herself a starring role in Cariboo Magi: Madame Fanny Dubeau, described thusly in the list of Dramatis Personae:
Fanny is allegedly from Paris, France; she was mysteriously widowed in San Francisco and started her own reputable saloon in Old Town, San Diego, with "terpsichorean artiste" dancing girls and a small repertory theater company. Since Horton opened his hotel in New Town, her business has suffered greatly and she's being forced to close it down. Her elegant veneer thinly hides a cunning, avaricious businesswoman. She's been twenty-six for at least five years.
What fun! I mean, if you're going to write a role for yourself, better make it enjoyable to play. (When reading Cariboo Magi, I pictured Fanny as looking like Jeanne Moreau.) But the other three characters of Cariboo Magi are also vividly drawn. There's Joe Mackey, a mixed-race Canadian miner and lovelorn poet; Reverend William Teller, an alcoholic, grandly defunct minister; and Marta Reddy, a hot-tempered German girl who played juvenile roles in Fanny's theater company until she got knocked up.

As long as we're talking about plays in which theater redeems a group of social outcasts on the wild fringes of the British Empire, I would not rate Cariboo Magi as highly as Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good. (For one thing, it's less complex.) But I believe it would be entertaining to see, and a worthy and unusual choice for a theater's "Christmas slot." The climax of the play, in which the characters present a show that mixes up the Nativity Story, Hamlet, A Christmas Carol, and The Last of the Mohicans, is funny and sweet. Just enough holiday cheer, without being cloyingly Christmassy. And although the play is set in Canada (well, the first act takes place in San Diego) and there are some references to things like British Columbia's desire to join the new Dominion of Canada, I think a production of Cariboo Magi could also be effective in the United States. Particularly in regions that were once associated with gold rushes or the "frontier": California, Alaska, the West in general. There aren't really a lot of plays that focus on this period of American/Canadian history, are there?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"Anguish Is the Universal Language"

What's this? I actually liked a poem published by The New Yorker? And, furthermore, it's a love poem, that most clichéd of genres?

Yep. "Claustrophilia" by Alice Fulton, in the July 2 issue. Not only is there a lot of truth to it, it is memorable, quotable... and taught me some new words, too ("moxibustion").

See also the New Yorker blog's interview with Fulton about her work.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Additions to the Blogroll--August

Under the category "Friends' Blogs":
  • An Informal Cuneiform, the blog of the multi-talented Claire Rice, a local playwright and director whose gorgeous play about Demeter was one of the highlights of the recently-concluded San Francisco Olympians Festival.
  • The China Monologues (great name huh?), the blog of a dear friend of mine from high school who has just gone to teach English for a year in Shenzhen, China. (which is right next to Hong Kong, in case you were wondering.)
Under the category "San Franciscans":
  • Rants, Raves, and Rethoughts, the extremely active blog of playwright J.C. Lee, whose play This World Is Good I will be seeing later this month, produced by Sleepwalkers Theatre. He has some very astute things to say about theater--I really related to his post The Short Play, smart writing about a topic that I have been pondering a lot this year.
Speaking of which... my top priority this month is to complete another one-act play, so I can't promise tons of blogging. Then again, I may blog to distract myself from the things I should be writing. You know how that goes.