Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Theater, the Thief of Time

In 99Seats' post on Parabasis today, he mentions a theater teacher of his who "told me that theatre must justify its theft of time. Theatre, he argued, was a time-intensive, not at all convenient, required dressing up (back in the day, anyways). It asked a lot of its audience and needed to repay that with worth. This has stuck with me and leaves me irrationally angry at bad theatre. It smacks of disrespect to me."

Tony Kushner said something similar when I heard him speak earlier this month. He wasn't talking so much about bad theater as about boring theater, but he made the same point as 99Seats: because theater is a time-intensive activity, bad or boring theater is a moral outrage. It's not just that you're giving your audience nothing in return for their attention -- you are in fact taking something from them, their precious leisure time, and that's something they can never get back. Or, as Kushner put it in his memorable, hyperbolic way, "This is what I tell my students: let's say you have a bad play that takes 2 hours to perform, and it's playing eight shows a week for an audience of 500*, well, you can do the calculations and figure out how many of their hours you're wasting, and it doesn't take long before you've killed a two-year-old child."**

*Of course I think Kushner was being wildly optimistic about the size of audiences that a young playwright can expect to receive in this day and age!

**Calculations, for the math geeks in the house: 2 hrs/show * 8 shows/week * 500 people/show = 8,000 man-hours. A 2-year-old child = 2 yrs * 365 days/yr * 24 hrs/day = 17,520 hours. The show would need to play for only a little more than two weeks in order to have wasted two years' worth of its audience members' time!

Monday, November 29, 2010

"Maybe it's 'cause you're a girl"

I spent Thanksgiving with friends that I met doing theater, meaning that before the turkey came out of the oven, I got into a debate with someone about whether The Light in the Piazza is a great musical or not. I am an enthusiastic fan of this musical; my friend is not all that impressed with it. At one point in our conversation, he said, "Maybe it's 'cause you're a girl."

"Really?" I said. I felt slightly patronized.

"It's just, in my experience, the people I know who've loved this show the most have all been young women. And I have to wonder if it's because this show is an unabashed, sentimental romance, and we don't get a lot of those in the theater nowadays, so it feeds some kind of hunger."

"Huh, maybe," I said. "I can see your point. But I don't just relate to it on the level of romantic fantasy. It's not that I want to be Clara--"

"Of course you don't, Marissa--you'd never want to have the mental age of a 10-year-old!"

"Ha, ha -- I mean, the reason I like the show is not because I want to go to Florence and fall in love with a handsome Italian. It's really the mother's story, after all... and I thought that that was very well done."

I do see my friend's point about The Light in the Piazza feeding a hunger for a musical that is a real, rapturous love story. After all, I saw it when I was still in my teens, and far more liable to be swept off my feet by romance. I remember that the guy I had a crush on at the time told me he'd been to see The Light in the Piazza, and hated it -- he'd left at intermission. "Oh no!" I thought. "How can I possibly be in love with someone who hates The Light in the Piazza?" It was as though by rejecting this musical, he had also rejected me, and my love, and the way I feel and express love. Which would seem to prove my friend's theory correct. Nowadays, though, I'm still a fan of The Light in the Piazza, but it wouldn't bother me if I had a crush on a guy who hated it!

But I want to return to my friend's other comment, "maybe it's 'cause you're a girl," and my feeling vaguely patronized by that remark. I want to ask: did I have a right to feel patronized?

On the one hand, I bristle at the suggestion that men and women have inherently different reactions to works of art. It seems awfully reductive, saying that gender trumps all. Also, it's a slippery slope from "because you're a girl, you have different taste than me" to "because you're a girl, you have worse taste than me." We were trying to have an argument about aesthetic merit, after all.

On the other hand, don't I praise works of art that I feel capture the essence of being a woman, plays and novels that touch something in me that stories about men do not? (Of course, I can also be moved by works of art that feature male protagonists! But I must admit that they move me in a different way.) Aren't I annoyed when theater companies produce far more male than female playwrights in a season? Don't I always say "Female playwrights are still in the minority, so I think it's very important to tell women's stories in my writing?"

Well, I can't have it both ways. Either women and men are inherently different, or they're not. If I want to go on touting the importance of women's stories and female authors, I must realize that such stories don't necessarily speak to a male audience, and not be bothered when someone suggests that I might have liked a certain work of art "because I'm a girl." Conversely, if I feel patronized when someone suggests that I liked something "because I'm a girl" -- that is, if I want to take gender out of discussions of artistic merit -- I can't complain about theaters that produce plays by men four times as often as they produce plays by women, as long as the work that ends up onstage is good.

It's a thorny issue, and logical consistency is a real pain.* I guess I just can't decide whether it is more feminist to say "I am a woman, I am proud to be a woman, hear me roar," or to say "I am so secure in who I am that I don't need to keep mentioning that I'm a woman, and the best way to stop sexism is to stop insisting that the sexes are fundamentally different."

*I was going to say "logical consitency is a bitch," but that would just open up a whole 'nother can of worms about gender and language and whether I am a self-loathing female if I use the word "bitch" in this context!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Glad I Got 'Em Into My Life

I've been having to work a lot of overtime at my job lately, which I can't say is much fun. But it feels like some kind of compensation that the Beatles are finally on iTunes. I'm adding their music to my iPod and it's really helping me get through the workday.

Prior to this, I'd had some Beatles music in my collection: Sergeant Pepper, The White Album, Abbey Road, and Let it Be, which I had ripped from CDs in my parents' music collection. But they don't own CDs of the other Beatles albums, and I hate buying physical CDs because I think that wastes natural resources, and I don't believe in illegally downloading stuff (and don't care if that marks me as hopelessly uncool [though if I were really concerned with legality, I wouldn't have ripped these four CDs in the first place]). I longed for the day when I could finally have the rest of my favorite Beatles songs in my collection, legally and conveniently.

Moreover, I had recently come to realize that I was unfamiliar with a good portion of the Beatles' output. OK, I was by no means as unaware as a friend of mine who claimed that she didn't recognize "Hey Jude" when the rest of us were singing it at karaoke last year. But, for instance, I don't think I'd heard "Got To Get You Into My Life" until this past spring -- when I heard someone sing it at karaoke. Or, I recall a post of Mead Hunter's from June, where he discussed the Oregon weather, and linked to a video of the Beatles singing "Rain." I was floored: here was a terrific mid-period Beatles song, with gorgeous harmonies and lyrics that indeed touched my Oregonian soul, that I had never heard before.

Yes, though I was raised by baby-boomer parents who introduced me to the Beatles at a young age, there were still great songs I had yet to discover. (I remember my mom giving me Beatles 101 lessons, teaching me how to tell the difference between "a John song" and "a Paul song," and schooling me in the "Paul is Dead" mythos.) My lack of exposure to Rubber Soul and Revolver struck me as particularly problematic. So those were the first two albums I downloaded when the Beatles came on iTunes, plus a few of my favorite individual songs: "Rain" and "Ticket to Ride." I don't know why, but I am obsessed with "Ticket to Ride" -- it's become my favorite song to listen to at the start of a workday. And one night last week, when I left my office at around 6:30 PM, and outdoors it was dark and rainy, I turned my iPod back on and listened to "Rain" loud as I splashed through the puddles. Nothing could have been more exhilarating.

One thing that's been interesting to see on iTunes is which Beatles songs and albums are most frequently downloaded. It seems like uplifting ballads and late-period songs/albums are what's most popular with customers. So, at the time I'm writing this, the most frequently downloaded Beatles song is "Here Comes the Sun," followed by "Let it Be," "In My Life," "Come Together," and "Blackbird." IMO, the top three are excellent choices (and isn't it nice that it's a ballad apiece from George, Paul, and John), but there are lots of Beatles songs that are better than "Come Together," and "Blackbird" is sentimental drivel. Moreover, the Beatles made some of the most exuberant and joyful pop music that's ever been created, yet none of the top five songs really evoke that -- so this list gives a skewed sense of what the group could do. The most frequently downloaded albums are Abbey Road, Sergeant Pepper, and The White Album, followed by two greatest-hits compilations.

Again, you can't really argue against the greatness of those three late albums, and yet, I feel compelled to stick up for the mid-period Beatles, the ones I have been enjoying the most lately, on Rubber Soul and Revolver. I get the sense that people think it's cooler to like late-period Beatles, when their lyrics were oblique and psychedelic and their music rocked harder and heavier. But The White Album is so fragmented and full of novelty songs, and Abbey Road has a kind of darkness to it... you can tell that these are products of a troubled band. So I'm throwing in my lot with the mid-60s Beatles, when they had started writing about subjects other than romantic love, and were experimenting with different instruments and production techniques, but were still a cohesive and tight group that loved making music together. To me, this is when the Beatles achieve the sublime (what can I say, I'm a sucker for great harmonies).

I've been excitedly touting the Beatles to my friends this past week, and I feel a little weird doing that. First, doesn't everyone already know that the Beatles are the greatest rock group of all time -- don't I look like a bit of an idiot for talking about how great they are? Second, doesn't it make me sound pathetic to be talking about a group that split up forty years ago -- that my parents listened to in their youth? Shouldn't I be seeking out hip new indie music from 2010?

But the Beatles are classic, and they still crop up everywhere. Last night, I finally got around to seeing The Social Network -- one of the first major Hollywood movies to deal with my generation, Generation Y, and our attitudes toward class and gender and friendship and business and the Internet. And what song did David Fincher choose to play over the final moments of his film that attempts to hit the Zeitgeist sweet spot, to define those of us who came of age during the mid-2000s?

"Baby, You're a Rich Man." The Beatles, 1967.

Somehow, I felt vindicated.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"The Tempest" at Cutting Ball: A Freudian Wet Dream

The Cutting Ball Theater opened its 2010-2011 season with a three-actor version of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Taking place in a therapist's office at the bottom of a swimming pool.

Come again?

This was perhaps the most unusual directorial conceit of any Shakespeare production I've ever seen -- and I thought it was terrific.

(The usual disclaimers apply: I'm on the literary committee at Cutting Ball, think they are a fab bunch of people, and got invited to the gala opening of this production -- paid for my ticket, but still.)

As director Rob Melrose sees it, The Tempest is full of plots and subplots that reflect one another. To take an obvious example, Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban plot to overthrow Prospero in a bumbling, comic fashion; while, fifteen years ago, Antonio and Alonzo successfully overthrew Prospero in a way that wasn't funny at all. Or, Prospero must relinquish his control over his daughter Miranda and his sprite-servant Ariel... both of whom are young, feminine figures who have grown under Prospero's care, and now clamor for freedom. Melrose writes in the playbill: "Our three-person Tempest hopes to illuminate the many connections between the characters, encouraging a reading of the play similar to Freud's reading of fairy tales, where some characters are treated as aspects of other characters."

This Tempest is a slippery production that allows resonances and double meanings; sometimes it requires you to hold two contradictory ideas in your head simultaneously. Are the characters on a Mediterranean island, or in a therapist's office? (The early scenes imply that Prospero is a psychoanalyst and Miranda is his patient -- she hallucinates the tempest that opens the play, writhing about on the therapist's couch. But this conceit seems forgotten for large chunks of the show.) Is it a story about a middle-aged patriarch (Prospero) who must relinquish his daughter (Miranda/Ariel) to the young man who loves her (Ferdinand/Caliban)? Or could all of the characters even be aspects of one person, and the whole play be the story of a man who must learn how to integrate his id (Caliban) with his superego (Ariel)?

I knew that this concept had the potential to confuse the audience -- even to confuse me, because I do not know The Tempest by heart. I've never studied it, and had seen only one prior production, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2001. (Tangent: When Julie Taymor's movie of The Tempest comes out next month, people will make a big deal that Helen Mirren plays the lead role as "Prospera." Well, OSF did this nearly 10 years ago. And it turned Prospera's usurping sibling into "Antonia.") Nonetheless, I didn't reread the play before going to Cutting Ball. I truly believe that good theater should be accessible to anyone, even if it is "experimental" theater, even if the audience hasn't "done their homework."

But I wasn't confused by the Cutting Ball production, except in the aforementioned sense of having to hold two contradictory ideas in my head simultaneously -- which is, I think, intentional confusion, a workout for the brain, rather than incoherence. The brilliance of Shakespeare's play still came across and the doubling threw certain themes into high relief, such as "is Man inherently good or inherently evil?" And I finally realized why the last words of the play are "set me free"; no other line could be more appropriate.

Much has been written about how The Tempest is Shakespeare's last play, and Prospero's magical artifice is a metaphor for the playwright's artifice, and Prospero's decision to renounce magic represents Shakespeare's farewell to the stage. The Cutting Ball production adds another layer by suggesting that therapy = magic = theatre. When I realized this, I was moved, perhaps because my roommate is in training to be a therapist and she and I have had many fruitful conversations about the intersections between therapy and theatre.

This is a very clever production, yet what amazed me the most is the way that the cleverness reinforced the themes and the emotion of the play, rather than detracting from it. One could say that Melrose has "deconstructed" The Tempest, yet "deconstruction" implies something far colder and more clinical than this production. Melrose doesn't neglect the hilarity of the Trinculo and Stephano scenes, or the sweetness of the Miranda and Ferdinand ones -- though he does imbue them with other layers, due to the double-casting. For instance, there's a scene in the original script where Trinculo hides with Caliban under his overcoat when it starts to rain. When Stephano comes across them, he is confused to see four legs sticking out from under the coat, shivering from the cold. But Melrose stages this in such a way that you wonder: are they shivering, under that coat, or are they having sex? Because Trinculo is also Miranda, and Caliban is also Ferdinand, and Stephano is also Prospero...

There are two especially dazzling moments in the second act. First is the wedding masque Prospero stages for Ferdinand and Miranda. In this production, the masque is a fragmented, sped-up version of the play we have just seen: there are audio and video snippets of the actors reciting key lines from earlier scenes. Second is the climax, which is the only moment in the entire production when one of the actors must "have a conversation with himself" (i.e. switch rapidly back and forth between two roles, playing both sides of a dialogue). It's amazing, on a technical level, that Rob Melrose was able to adapt The Tempest for three actors and only require someone to "have a conversation with himself" the one time. But it's even more amazing on an emotional level. Along with the masque scene, it reinforces the themes of coming to terms with the different aspects of one's self, integrating the many roles one plays into a coherent whole. These scenes make everything fall into place.

Still, I realize that this production might best be understood by people who are familiar with other experimental theater, or have an affinity with abstract and dream-like art. (In his director's note, Melrose name-checks David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, and Haruki Murakami.) If I were younger, I think I would have complimented the production by saying "it was really cool how the actors were able to each play so many different roles." Well, it is cool. But the point of the doubling is not just to prove that Cutting Ball's actors are virtuosos, or to do the play on the cheap--there's more to it than that.

Still, much credit is due to actors David Sinaiko (Prospero/Alonso/Stephano), Caitlyn Louchard (Miranda/Ariel/Gonzalo/Trinculo/Sebastian), and Donell Hill (Caliban/Ferdinand/Antonio). Sinaiko speaks the Shakespearean verse with great ease and naturalness; his is a more accessible, low-key Prospero than one might find in other productions. Louchard excels in a very difficult assignment: five different roles, and each one of them a character who is caught in the middle between Sinaiko and Hill. She makes each of her characters distinct, using different voices and physicalities, and also has a lovely singing voice in Ariel's songs. I found Hill most convincing when he played the genial Ferdinand (he also played the genial Mr. Martin in The Bald Soprano at Cutting Ball last year, again opposite Louchard) and didn't think he had quite enough twisted rage in him to be an ideal Caliban. But then, maybe that's the point of this production: every young man has potential to be both Caliban and Ferdinand.

I found Cutting Ball's three-actor Tempest weird and delightful, rich and strange, in the way that theater should be... and particularly in the way that any good production of The Tempest should be! O brave new world, that has such theatre in it! It is rough, but real, magic.

The Tempest has been extended at Cutting Ball through December 19.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Playwriting is Lasagna

"[Tony Kushner] has compared the [playwriting] process to making a proper lasagne: 'All the yummy nutritious ingredients you’ve thrown into it have almost-but-not-quite succeeded in overwhelming the design. A play should have barely been rescued from the mess it might just as easily have been.'"
--"The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide To Himself," New York magazine
"If I think I'm going to do research for a particular play, my inner child rebels and I won't do it. So I do research by constantly reading things that excite and interest me and I don't know yet if it's going to be a play. [...] I just kept sort of laying in all this reading because of being excited and not knowing for sure a play would come out of it. But then I realized I was getting close ... It's like making lasagna. One book is the noodles and a couple of movies are the sauce... And then one day, suddenly, I know it's the moment to put it in the oven and start writing."
--Liz Duffy Adams, quoted in the Magic Theatre's playbill for Or,

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Playwrights in Person, part 3: Tony Kushner

I hope neither Brooke Berman nor Liz Duffy Adams would feel offended if I said that, in retrospect, seeing them in person felt like the soup and salad courses of a fancy dinner, and seeing Tony Kushner speak at the Herbst Theater on November 6 felt like the main dish. (This, despite the fact that I chatted with Berman and asked Adams a question during a talk-back, whereas I didn't directly communicate with Kushner at all.) Face it, Tony Kushner is the author of the most important and influential American play of my lifetime, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to hear him speak in person.

Kushner had come to town for the opening of a new exhibit at the Museum of Performance and Design, "More Life! Angels in America at Twenty" (which I have not yet seen). His talk on Saturday took the form of an hour-long chat with the museum director, with some time for questions from the audience.

I was disappointed that the Herbst Theater was only half full--I'd thought that the San Francisco gay community would have turned out in force. I sat with about six of my friends toward the back of the theater; so the "young San Francisco theater community" made a respectable showing, at least.

One gets the impression from reading Kushner's work, or articles about him, that he is extremely intelligent, agonizingly self-conscious, and never quite at his ease. Seeing him in person bore this out; the applause embarrassed him, and his three-piece suit was a little too big for him. And yet, it is so fascinating to listen to him talk and argue, to hear him employ million-dollar words and instantly quotable phrases. For instance, he said that if he were writing Angels in America now, he'd have a harder time feeling sympathy for the Mormon characters, because the Mormon church nowadays is so much more politically active than it used to be (cf. Prop. 8). But, twenty years ago, the Mormon church "did not yet engage in the kind of sulfurous evangelism that has come to define them." Yes, Tony Kushner can come up with phrases like "sulfurous evangelism" when speaking off the cuff. I was dazzled.

I'm always fascinated to learn what shaped my favorite works of art, especially when it happened in unexpected ways. Kushner talked about how the Eureka Theater, in San Francisco, commissioned him to write Angels in America when all he had was the seed of an idea for a play about AIDS and Roy Cohn. Even though this original idea implied a lot of gay male characters, the Eureka had three resident actresses, and Kushner was instructed to include parts for all of them. Thus, we get Hannah, Harper, and a female Angel. And I think the play is immeasurably stronger--it becomes universal--because it includes such great roles for women.

He wrote the early drafts of the play while living in San Francisco, going to the Café Flore (an always-bustling café on a street corner in the Castro--it still exists) and doing his writing there. Evidently, early drafts of the play have a whole parallel plotline that takes place in S.F., before Kushner decided to set all of it in New York City (and assorted metaphysical realms). I've always wondered, though, if he ever considered having any of Angels in America take place in Los Angeles--the City of Angels?

San Francisco is still a presence in the finished script; there's the Angel's "Heaven is a City Much Like San Francisco speech" (sound familiar?), and Harper's decision to move there at the end of the play--where San Francisco is presented as a place of hope and healing.

"Poor Harper," joked Kushner, "someone pointed out to me once that she leaves her gay husband only to move to San Francisco... I mean, what was she thinking?"

At one point during the talk, Kushner defended himself against the charge that he "preaches to the choir" by saying "Historically, haven't some of the most renowned preachers been the ones who preached to the choir?" This must be one of his new "things" to work into his speeches; I found a similar quote in a recent LA Times article. "A great preacher starts with the doubt and uncertainty and skepticism that are the necessary concomitants of faith... He starts in the scary places, in the places where God is silent, in the places where God seems cruel, in the places where the world is not just and where people are ground to dust by monstrous, even satanic, forces where God doesn't intervene. Or where you ceaselessly betray God in your heart and your actions. You start there and progress toward whatever hope for change and light you can find. It's true of the prophets, it's true of John Donne, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King. And it's true of artists."

(Of course Kushner didn't put it quite the same way when I heard him speak, though I do recall that he specifically mentioned John Donne that time, too.)

One of the audience members asked whether Kushner tries to convey a message with his plays, and if so, what it is. Kushner replied that he doesn't think the theater is the right place to convey messages. "If I really had a message," he said, "if all I were trying to do with my plays were to say something like You Should Be Nicer to Gay People, Because Gay People are People Too, I'd put it on a billboard... I'd write it on a fortune cookie! I wouldn't make people sit through a seven-hour play! And then everyone could read their fortune cookies and see the message and go home and watch Project Runway. And they'd probably be a lot happier... although maybe not this year." Whereupon Kushner launched on a hilarious tangent about how much he adores Project Runway, how excited he was when he met Michael Kors recently, and how much he disagrees with the most recent choice of winner. I must say, I had expected Kushner would talk about his disappointment with recent election results... but the results of the 2010 midterm elections, not the results of Project Runway!

I think it is disingenuous of Kushner to say that his plays are not meant to convey any message. Because I think that drama can be a subtler, but more effective way, of getting a message across. Reading a slogan like "Gay People Are People Too" takes five seconds and is quickly forgotten. But to see a seven-hour drama about the lives of five gay men--all of them fascinating, complex characters who are defined by so much more than their sexual orientation--that conveys the message "gay people are people too," and in a much more compelling way. I feel like Kushner probably knows this, but for whatever reason, he won't say it in public.

Kushner concluded by saying something similar to this passage from the above-mentioned LA Times article: "I don't think my plays are polemical. I don't think you can be if you deal in paradox and contradiction. Everyone has principles, an ideological program to which they are more or less consciously adherent, ways in which they fail or ways in which their lives don't fit comfortably with what they profess to believe. And if you're not nuts and you have some kind of inner life, you experience those contradictions as internal stresses that have to be reconciled."

But I recall it as being even more beautifully phrased than this. Something about how it's terrible to write a play about something that you have a black-and-white opinion about... but the only thing that's worse is to write a play about something that you don't have a black-and-white opinion about. It's a contradiction, a paradox, and if you're going to be a playwright, you have to embrace this ambiguity.

It was the perfect note on which to end the talk. I turned to my friend in the seat next to me and we both breathed "Wow..." simultaneously. Tony Kushner. There's no one like him.

For more on Kushner and his unique position in the American theatre, I also recommend this New York Magazine profile of him from last month.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Playwrights in Person, part 2: Liz Duffy Adams (plus "Or," at the Magic)

When I went to see a preview performance of Or, at the Magic Theatre on Friday 11/5, playwright Liz Duffy Adams was in the house, and participated in a talk-back after the show. I have actually met Liz Duffy Adams on two other occasions, not that she would remember me -- first when I was an intern at JAW the summer they workshopped her play The Listener, and then last February at a Playwrights' Pub Night. So I didn't say hello to her, though I did ask her a question during the talk-back.

Or, (yes, that's the title) is a farce inspired by the life of Aphra Behn, the first woman to earn a living as a playwright. According to the show of hands at the talk-back, I was one of only 2 people in the audience to have read any Aphra Behn -- chalk it up to my majoring in drama at a former women's college, and being a proud female playwright with a nerdy interest in my predecessors. Under the "favorite quotes" section on Facebook, I have had, for several years, this morsel of Behn:
If I must not, because of my sex, have this freedom, but that you will usurp all to yourselves, I lay down my quill--no, not so much as to make comparisons, because I will be kinder to my brothers than they have been to a defenseless woman--for I am not content to write for a third day only. I value fame as much as if I had been born a hero, and if you rob me of that, I can retire from the ungrateful world, and scorn its fickle favors.
I am no longer sure if, like Aphra, I "value fame as much as if I had been born a hero." But I am amazed at the guts it took for her to write this in the late 1600s--I find it inspirational, and so I keep it on my Facebook profile.

Clearly, Liz Duffy Adams also finds Aphra Behn an inspirational figure (and Or, has Aphra speak this very quote). The Aphra of Or, is a confident, alluring woman who can seduce both men and women, help thwart Catholic plots against King Charles' life, and, in between all this romantic and political intrigue, find the time to write masterful plays and poems. Yes, she is a superheroine! But somehow, that made me less interested in the play. I have often thought that if your reason for writing a play is to tell other people "So-and-so (or Such-and-such) is Really Awesome," the resulting play is not likely to be very good, because it will lack dramatic tension. So, watching Or, I already knew that Aphra Behn was Really Awesome, and therefore wanted more from the play. Considering the difficulties of being a female writer in 1600s England, I thought that the play's Aphra should have had more moments of vulnerability, instead of sailing through her life with such aplomb. Somehow, she manages to "have it all": enough time for indolent sensual pleasures, and enough time for writing! OK, I'm jealous.

One of the gimmicks of Or, is that this classic door-slamming farce is performed with just three actors; one (at the Magic, Natacha Roi) plays Aphra, and two others take on all the rest of the parts. Maggie Mason was hilarious and captivating in the female roles: saucy actress Nell Gwynne, surly housemaid Maria, and imperious impresario Lady Davenant (whose mile-a-minute monologue was the highlight of the play). But I thought that Ben Huber, in the male roles, didn't do enough to distinguish King Charles II from secret agent William Scot, and his voice sounded dismayingly Southern California. (The actors in this production employ their natural accents. Roi and Huber are American; Mason is English.)

At the talk-back after the show, I asked Liz Duffy Adams a very muddled, very playwright-nerdy question that went something like this: "When you're writing a play that's set in the past--and clearly you did a lot of research for this--how do you balance the desire to be faithful to what you know of the past, and to teach the audience about it, with the desire to just tell a story, you know, the requirements of drama?"

"I don't know, that's something I was asking myself all through the writing process," said Adams. "Did I succeed? You tell me."

I asked this question for a couple of reasons. Partly because I wrestle with this question when writing a play that's set in the past -- how to balance my desire to cram all my research and tons of themes into the play, with the need to make things clear and not leave too many loose threads. (I was recently talking with a friend about my play that takes place in the 1930s, agreeing with him that it suffers from my trying to cram everything in.) For, while I like big, ambitious, geeky plays, I also think that the primary purpose of theater is not to educate. Or, at least, not to educate about historical facts... it is to educate about human behavior and the human heart.

And I wasn't sure whether Adams had completely succeeded at achieving this balance between cleverness and emotion -- despite the breezy, farcical, "this is not a staid old history lesson" tone of her play. It seemed, from the questions people asked during the talk-back, that their primary interest in Or, was historic: they wanted to know if these events had "really happened" (Was Aphra Behn really a spy? Was she really King Charles' lover?). And they valued Adams not so much for her original writing and construction of a farce plot involving these characters, but rather for introducing them to Aphra Behn, and to an era of British history that many people are not familiar with. Wouldn't it have been better if they were so taken with Adams' writing that they had been full of questions about how she came up with this plot, these characters in these configurations? Or if they had talked about what the play made them feel, not what made them think? Or am I just an unredeemable playwriting-nerd?

Well, if I can be a woman and an unredeemable playwriting nerd, I guess I have Aphra Behn to thank for that.

Image: Maggie Mason as Nell Gwynne, Natacha Roi as Aphra Behn. Photo by Jennifer Reiley (found on the Magic Theater's Facebook photos page).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Message from the Universe?

Yesterday morning, as I walked to the train, I turned a corner and found myself looking at this:

It's partly painted over now, but you can still see that the graffiti said "SKUD." A.k.a., the first four letters of my last name. A very unusual combination of letters for the English language.

It was very disconcerting to see this on a wall just a little way from my house. I couldn't help wondering if the Universe was trying to tell me something. Will have to keep an eye out for this graffiti tag in future.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Damn The Torpedos, I'm Doing NaPlWriMo

  • In 2007, I signed up for NaPlWriMo, didn't play by the rules (I had already started working on the play before November 1) and didn't end up finishing it that month, either.
  • In 2008, I signed up for NaPlWriMo, worked on a play that I thought I should be writing (a family drama with an all-female cast) rather than what I actually wanted to write. Well, I don't know what I wanted to write in 2008, but it wasn't that. Plus I had just moved to SF, I was lonely, I didn't have any artistic friends, and was living in a house that reeked of anti-intellectualism.
  • In 2010... I'm signing up for NaPlWriMo again. Yes, even though I only began my play last night and am thus working with a major handicap (75 pages in 22 days, not 75 pages in 30 days). And even though I have a busy November in front of me: plays to see, other blog posts I want to write, a personal life that I want to live and then record in my diary! But I want to write this play, too. After a year in which I worked only on short pieces, I am looking forward to writing a full-length that represents where I am now as a writer. After all, my last full-length was completed 2.5 years ago!
I probably should be telling myself, for motivational purposes, "Marissa, you WILL make it to 75 pages, no doubt about it!" But of course I have my doubts. Nonetheless, if I have even 45 or 50 pages by the end of the month, I will be a happy writer.

As for the play itself, it's a modern, mildly sci-fi interpretation (e.g. it's sci-fi in the sense that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is sci-fi) of an old legend... but it is NOT an Olympians Festival play. And that's all I'm going to say for now.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Playwrights in Person, part 1: Brooke Berman

Over the last couple of weeks I've seen a few playwrights in person--I mean you-may-have-heard-of-these-people playwrights, East Coast-based, award-winning, establishment playwrights--so I'm going to do a little series of blog posts about these encounters.

First up: Brooke Berman. Over the summer, Terry Teachout raved about Brooke's new memoir No Place Like Home, and even though I was not familiar with any of Brooke's plays, I vowed to check it out--because there aren't a lot of firsthand accounts of what it's like to be a young, female playwright, struggling to make great art at the same time you're struggling to just figure out LIFE. So, when Brooke Berman did a promotional reading at the downtown San Francisco Borders last month, I made sure to attend and buy a copy of the memoir.

The reading was sparsely attended, which enabled me to introduce myself to Brooke and chat with her for a bit. (Also, because Brooke was 7.5 months pregnant, that gave me the opportunity to tell her that I had just had a short play produced about a pregnant woman who craves a beer!) She read the opening pages of the memoir, as well as a brief passage about a summer when she drove cross-country with her boyfriend and ended up, broke, in San Francisco--then signed copies of her book.

I began reading No Place Like Home on my East Coast trip--which was perfect, because it is a New York book. Most of the "39 apartments" described in the book's subtitle are in New York City, and Brooke writes with an evocative sense of place, reserving particular affection for downtown, bohemian Manhattan. The memoir grew out of a New York Times article about Brooke's peripatetic life; the different living situations provide the backdrop to a coming-of-age story.

It's a hard-won coming of age, brought about by much struggle--partly because being a young New York artist often means scraping by on very little money in tiny apartments, and partly because Brooke had at least two instances of really bad luck. (When she was 24, someone broke into her apartment and raped her; later, a roommate got leukemia and made her move out of a beautiful loft apartment.) I was put in the weird position of thinking that, compared to Brooke's, my life as a young female artist has been pretty stable... and wondering if I too am "cruising for a bruising." Or, alternatively, wondering if I should live my life with a little more risk and daring, even if that would mean giving up this stability.

No Place Like Home is meant for a "general" audience, for people who can relate to Brooke's story of being a young woman and finding her way. Therefore, it doesn't contain as much information as a geek like me would desire about the specifics of playwriting, or Brooke's opinions about the theater. For instance, Brooke pretty much glosses over her two years of schooling at Juilliard. Or, according to the New York Times article, Brooke once worked as playwright Maria Irene Fornes' assistant--but Fornes is never mentioned in the memoir. Indeed, because Brooke has to cover so many years and so many apartments in 250 pages, it sometimes feels like a lot of stuff has been left out. The entire book is written at a dogged "and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened" pace, so that sometimes it is hard to keep track of just which of these years, and these apartments, are most important to Brooke's story.

Still, there are some good insights into the playwright's or artist's life. I loved Brooke's comment "My job is to create a world that other people can live inside of--without me. It feels like my housing: entering a space, making it my own, and then leaving it to someone else's care. Leaving an imprint, then moving on." Or, when she says of a friend, "He understands how my plays are put together and why, which is like understanding how I'm put together and why," I just thought yes, exactly.

One other thing that No Place Like Home made me realize is how my life has been lacking in a spiritual dimension lately. Throughout the memoir, Brooke talks about how she has been helped by yoga, meditation, New Age philosophy, and other spiritual practices. I realized that I spend a lot of time alone, and yet, I don't spend enough time taking care of myself, being good to myself. I am privileged to have a peaceful and stable home, and yet my room is always a mess! Wouldn't I be happier if I lived in a tidy room, if I finally hung pictures on my walls, if I tried to cultivate my spiritual side and not just my intellectual/artistic side? It is something to think about... and San Francisco will clearly welcome me with open arms if I want to look further into spirituality.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Additions to the Blogroll -- November

  • Brooke's Blog, written by playwright and memoirist Brooke Berman, whom I met two weeks ago and whose book No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments, I just finished reading. (More on this later.)
  • Restricted View, the blog of Mollie Wilson O'Reilly, who writes witty posts about New York theater and New Yorker articles -- two of my favorite topics!
  • LitDept, the blog of Malachy Walsh, a Bay Area playwright who writes insightfully about this odd profession that we've gotten ourselves into (or are trying to get ourselves into) and is knowledgeable about what's going on. It's thanks to reading Malachy's blog that I learned that Brooke Berman was in town and promoting her memoir at Borders. Merci!