Monday, December 31, 2012

"The N I Love" (With Apologies to the Gershwins)

This is what happens when you let me out of work two hours early on New Year's Eve, and I get bored on the subway platform, and think about how much time I've spent waiting for the N-Judah in the four years I have lived in my apartment:
Some days it comes along
The N I love
It's made of steel so strong
The N I love
And when it comes my way
It's only after long delay 
It runs for seven miles
From Bay to sand
And it takes quite a while
To cross this land
I know it seems absurd
But MUNI's as slow as you've heard 
And it's even slower Sunday
Then on Monday
It breaks down
Yeah, they're sure to fix it one day
But on Wednesday?
That's an "it depends" day 
But still, it takes me home
And downtown too
From east to west I roam
It pulls me through
And so all else above
I'm waiting for the N I love.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Gone in 60 Seconds: The 2012 SF One-Minute Play Festival Video

I hope you are having a great holiday season!

Here is a gift for you from the San Francisco theater community: the video of the 3rd Annual San Francisco One-Minute Play Festival. 72 plays, 40 writers, 40 actors, innumerable acts of creativity.

Watch live streaming video from newplay at

This year, the video has title cards to identify each play and playwright. But if you just want to know what my plays are, they're "Welcome Home," at 19:40 on the video, and "Those Americans" at 1:21:45. "Welcome Home" was in the group of plays directed by Jill McLean; "Those Americans," by Desdemona Chiang.

Discussing Chiang's clump of plays, festival artistic director Dominic D'Andrea said "They are all like little kicks in the pants: each one hurts a little bit." Which is one of my favorite things anyone has ever said about my work.

Some other personal faves this year:
  • Geetha Reddy's hilarious play about yoga might have been the best thing in last year's festival. This year, she continues to prove a master of the one-minute form with two very different, but excellent, plays.
  • My friend Tim Bauer got primo placement: one of his comedies kicks off each act of the show!
  • Christopher Chen proves that his knack for writing odd, haunting, messed-up plays extends even to the one-minute form.
  • I don't know who David Perez is, but "Cackle" is hilarious (with a great performance by Kate Jones).
Thanks to Playwrights Foundation for sponsoring the festival, and to Dominic D'Andrea for organizing the logistics and generously supporting all of the artists.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Feminism & Other Frustrations @ SF Theater Pub Blog

Just popping in to post links to some of my SF Theater Pub columns that have been sparking lively discussions.

This week, I used my column to come out as a feminist (well, in case you didn't know), inspired by the larger conversation about feminism in theater that seems to be going on everywhere this month.

Having neglected to do so at the time, I also wanted to link to my November 1 column, "Community Theater vs. Indie Theater," which has proven one of my most popular columns with readers & commenters.

In his intro to the earlier column, Stuart Bousel wrote that I was "tackling that mixture of love-hate, pride-frustration, glory-despair that characterizes a life in the Indie Theater world."

And I think that life as a feminist in the 21st century is also characterized by a mixture of love/hate, pride/frustration, and glory/despair. My column is, perhaps, an attempt to make sense of that tangle of emotions.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Month to Wear a Crown

So, this happened:

That is, I appeared on the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle's December 6 arts section wearing a bedsheet toga, a crown, and a goofy expression. Flanked by my friends and fellow playwrights Stuart Bousel and Claire Rice (both working different variants on a "Who does that bitch with the crown think she is?" attitude).

Inside, the Chron published a lovely article about the Olympians Festival, as well as another photo. The most delightful surprise was that I got name-checked in the article as an "established playwright." The first time that the Chron prints my name, and they already consider me an established playwright! This, in an era when any playwright whose work hasn't appeared on Broadway is typically referred to as an "emerging playwright"! Many playwrights chafe against the "emerging" label, finding it condescending. So there is something deeply satisfying about seeing a major national newspaper refer to me, in print, as "established."

I had worried that appearing on the cover of a newspaper arts section while crowning myself (like Napoleon) is an act of overweening hubris, and surely the gods would see fit to punish me for my pride and vanity. But instead, December has been kind of a charmed month for me. The reading of my Aphrodite screenplay was a success, and won the audience vote at the end of the night. I'm as busy as I've ever been, seeing great new work at the Olympians Festival, meeting interesting new people, running into people I used to know, winning raffles, experiencing all kinds of fortuitously karmic moments.

And with that, I'm off to see the final performance of this year's San Francisco One-Minute Play Festival, which includes two plays of mine. That's another delightful surprise. I must've gotten left off an email thread somewhere, because I had been led to believe that only one of the two plays I'd submitted had been chosen for production. It was only this afternoon that I found out that both of my plays are in the festival!

I know I'm a lucky girl, and I'm trying to be grateful for all of the overwhelming-in-a-good-way things that are happening to me.

Photos by Russell Yip for the S.F. Chronicle.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

69 Reasons to See "Aphrodite, or The Love Goddess"

The staged reading of my screenplay Aphrodite, or the Love Goddess is taking place on Friday, December 7, and I would love to see you all there! (if you can make it to the Exit Theater in downtown San Francisco at 8 PM.) Still need convincing? Here are 69 reasons to show up.

  1. It's the first screenplay ever written for the San Francisco Olympians Festival. History in the making!
  2. It's also the first screenplay I've written since I was a teenager, so it's your chance to see me work in a new medium.
  3. Besides, when was the last time you saw a staged reading of a screenplay?
  4. The "hook" of the piece (what I pitched last year in order to win the commission to write it): "The Aphrodite-Ares-Hephaestus love triangle, re-imagined in 1940s Hollywood."
  5. If you are a 1940s movie buff, you'll have fun playing "spot the reference" to try to figure out which films I am alluding to / stealing from.
  6. In fact, it probably features a lot of what you love about '40s movies, including: a romantic scene set on a train;
  7. scenes of glamorous people enjoying themselves;
  8. roles for character actors straight out of central casting;
  9. wiseacre quips;
  10. shadowy city streets in the wrong part of town;
  11. a love triangle involving a beautiful woman, a sexy bad boy, and a cuckolded sap of a husband;
  12. a cynical and fatalistic p.o.v.;
  13. and other film noir elements.
  14. There are also a few Greek-mythology in-jokes that will amuse people familiar with the lore.
  15. The reading is on December 7 -- Pearl Harbor Day -- and the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor appears at a key moment in the screenplay.  
  16. It's only 55 minutes long,
  17. but it has the most sex scenes of anything I've ever written,
  18. plus some '40s-style innuendo in the vein of "Just put your lips together and blow,"
  19. so it's probably a good choice for a date night?
  20. At the same time, my parents are going to be in the audience, so you can have fun watching me (and them) try not to cringe during the sexy moments.
  21. Our director, Sara Staley, has come up with dynamic but appropriate staging to bring the text to life,
  22. and put together a great cast, which includes:
  23. the beautiful Shay Wisniewski as the starlet Rosalie Seaborne (Aphrodite),
  24. the masterful Dan Kurtz as writer-director Fritz Vollkin (Hephaestus),
  25. the charismatic Paul Jennings as movie mogul Mr. Zusskind (Zeus), and
  26. the debonair Brian Thomen as war hero Lt. Harry Mars (Ares).
  27. Because the character of Fritz is a mild-mannered German-Jewish immigrant, Dan will do a German accent,
  28. and because the character of Harry is an R.A.F. pilot, Brian will do a Scottish accent.
  29. The versatile Patrick Barresi will play all of the other male roles, including a fast-talking studio flack,
  30. a self-absorbed matinee idol,
  31. an adorable little old man,
  32. an aw-shucks hick,
  33. and a ratty-looking hotel clerk;
  34. and the equally versatile Siobhan Doherty plays all of the other female roles, including a snippy secretary,
  35. a little old lady,
  36. and an officious bobby-soxer.
  37. To top it all off, Stacy Sanders Young will guide you through the screenplay by reading all of the camera directions,
  38. including two bravura montage sequences.
  39. Exercise your imagination by picturing the movie in your head as we describe it!
  40. This is the first Olympians Festival experience for my director Sara and many of our cast members. I have so enjoyed working with them and bringing them into the Olympians family.
  41. Unlike many '40s screenplays or even 2010s screenplays, this one passes the Bechdel test (if just barely).
  42. And the team who's putting this together (writer + director + cast + poster artist) is majority-female too.
  43. If you saw my play Pleiades last year, you'll remember how the Zeus character in that is an altogether nasty piece of work. Aphrodite features a much kinder, gentler Zeus.
  44. After the reading is over, I hope to do some blog posts about how I taught myself how to write a screenplay and what I learned from the experience. If you see the staged reading, these posts may make more sense to you.
  45. I'll be at the reading, and I plan to wear an amazing, absurdly appropriate 1940s vintage dress (thanks to the ladies at Ver Unica).
  46. I mentioned my dad will be there. Did I also mention that he'll probably be wearing a bow tie?
  47. And he has a great laugh.
  48. Almost as great as Claire Rice's (who will also be there).
  49. Our Box Office Babe, Tracy Held Potter, will sell you your ticket with a smile,
  50. and you'll want to check out what she's wearing, too, since she's theming her outfit to each show.
  51. Tickets are just $10 at the door,
  52. and for that price, you'll see two shows! Aphrodite, or the Love Goddess will be paired with Amy Clare Tasker's one-act Phoebe & Theia, or How To Get to Tartarus.
  53. This isn't the place to do a full-on pitch for my rival's show, but let me just say that Amy is very cool, and Phoebe & Theia will be very different in tone from Aphrodite, and I look forward to sharing the evening with her.
  54. After seeing both plays, the audience gets to vote for their favorite! So yes, I'm trying to pack the house with friends and supporters.
  55. That's right, you have the ability to award me a glorious victory or shame me with an ignominious defeat!
  56. The writers receive a cut of the box-office proceeds, and so do the actors -- another reason we hope to fill every seat in the house.
  57. Stuart Bousel will provide a brief introduction to the evening's subjects (Phoebe, Theia, and Aphrodite) -- his insights into Greek mythology are always worth hearing.
  58. You'll have the opportunity to buy raffle tickets and win a copy of our beautiful poster, by Kelly Lawrence (above),
  59. or our special "Aphrodite" themed raffle prize, a vintage 1940s art deco hand mirror.
  60. Did you know that if you see 4 Olympians plays, you'll get to see a 5th for free? See my show and you're on your way to taking advantage of this deal.
  61. Food and drink are for sale, and allowed into the theater;
  62. may I recommend the Exit Theater's champagne cocktail as particularly tasty and appropriate for a '40s play?
  63. After the show, we encourage audience members go out drinking with us at the White Horse, on Sutter Street,
  64. which is the perfect chance to share your reactions and feedback with the artists!
  65. This is a one-night-only event -- a unique experience.
  66. Indeed, I sincerely doubt this screenplay will ever be produced as a film, so this may be your only chance ever to experience this project of mine.
  67. Unless you are (or you know) a deep-pocketed film producer who would love to produce a 55-minute, Greek-mythology-based, 1940s period film? If so, please show up!
  68. But most importantly: theater and film are nothing without an audience.
  69. And I'm proud of what I've written, and I want to share it with you.
Once again, this one-night-only event is taking place on Friday, December 7, at 8 PM at the Exit Theatre, at 156 Eddy St, San Francisco. I hope to see you there.

Credits: Aphrodite poster art by Kelly Lawrence.  I also need to credit the inspirations for this post, which are twofold:
  • Evidently, the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs was originally going to be 100 Love Songs, but that sounded excessive, so they dropped it to 69. Similarly, this post was originally going to be 100 Reasons to See Aphrodite, but...
  • The other inspiration is my friend Megan Cohen and her habit of going on creativity blitzes. Sitting down and thinking up 50 or 100 ideas at a time, even if you only need one. I decided I would try doing the same.

Monday, December 3, 2012

White Magic: "The White Snake" at Berkeley Rep

Mary Zimmerman has to have one of the most passionately devoted fanbases in the American theater. At least, in the circles I move in, we've been anticipating her newest play The White Snake for over a year, ever since the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced it for their 2012 season. There were hastily planned road trips to Ashland to see The White Snake ASAP; there was much rejoicing when Berkeley Rep announced The White Snake as their 2012 holiday show; there was me deciding to become a Berkeley Rep subscriber for fear that the show would sell out otherwise; there were my non-"theater geek" friends getting just as excited about the show as I was. Finally, after all these months of anticipating, I saw the show at the end of Thanksgiving weekend. It was worth the wait!

The White Snake is a 100-minute adaptation of a Chinese folktale about a learned snake who takes human form, marries a mortal, becomes a loyal wife and respected citizen, but arouses the suspicions of a fanatical Buddhist monk. This story is very popular in China and, although it is not so well-known in the West, it echoes other folktales about animal-women who marry mortal men, like John Keats' "Lamia" or the Japanese folktale of the Crane Wife.

Zimmerman's adaptation features a multi-ethnic cast (most of whom did the show in Ashland), Chinese-inspired music, beautifully crafted costumes and props, and her trademark innovation in staging and imagery. For instance, at the beginning of the show, the snake characters are represented by some completely adorable puppets -- snake-phobics have nothing to fear from this show -- as well as by having the ensemble, carrying painted umbrellas, form one big "snake."

In its final moments, the play does that thing that every Zimmerman show seems to do: it reaches for transcendence, for a moment of painful beauty, and achieves it. As all good folklore-based theater must, it also resonates in ways that go beyond mere narrative. The protagonist's struggle whether to tell her husband that she is really a snake in disguise echoes the fear that we all have when starting a new relationship: will my partner accept me once he knows who I really am, deep down? Or will I frighten him away?

The White Snake is a kickass heroine: a scholar, magician and herbalist who goes on a quest to save her husband's life and engages in an epic battle with the monk -- and does it all while pregnant. She also has a sidekick, her stubborn, outspoken, and fiercely devoted friend the Green Snake, who takes human form as servant "Greenie." Indeed, The White Snake might be an excellent show for getting girls interested in theater. They'll initially be attracted to the romance and magic of the folktale, and along the way they'll hear a story of strong female characters told by a beloved female writer-director. Take your daughters/nieces/pre-teen friends! (When I saw the show on Sunday the 25th, the audience was mostly full of Berkeley retirees. I wish there'd been more young people and children there!)

Unlike the other Zimmerman works that I'm familiar with, The Arabian Nights (which I saw in Berkeley in 2009) and Metamorphoses (which I've read), The White Snake tells just one story, rather than a collection of them. Yes, it's a story with several twists and turns -- like a snake! -- but there were a few moments where the pace seemed to slacken or my interest flagged, which is something that I never felt in The Arabian Nights. For this reason, and also because my first encounter with the theatrical magic of Mary Zimmerman will forever have a place in my heart, I probably would rank The Arabian Nights slightly higher than the new show. Nonetheless, The White Snake is a beautiful piece of theater that will surely expand the Zimmerman fanbase even more.

The White Snake plays at Berkeley Rep until December 30. Top photo by Alessandra Mello. Bottom photo by Jenny Graham. Featuring Amy Kim Waschke as White Snake and Tanya Thai McBride as Green Snake.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

He wrote the libretto, now he'll write the book

Ever since the whole Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark fiasco happened last year, I've been saying, "I really hope Glen Berger publishes a tell-all book about it."

Guess what? He is!  Per the New York Times, Berger's Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History will be published in 2013.

Berger is the musical's co-librettist and one of the few people to be involved with the show throughout its long journey to opening night. When the producers fired Julie Taymor, they retained Berger, though they brought in a new librettist (Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa) to collaborate with him.

Because of this -- and because, y'know, he's a writer -- I've always felt that Berger is the ideal person to write the tell-all book about the Spider-Man musical. And, face it, this is a saga that's crying out for a tell-all book.

I should also note that I took a playwriting master class with Berger several years before this all happened and found him to be a likable, unassuming, smart, somewhat nebbishy man -- totally not the kind of guy that you'd picture writing the most expensive Broadway musical ever produced. He came to prominence writing whimsical Off-Broadway plays with a kind of shabby-nostalgic aesthetic (Underneath the Lintel; O Lovely Glowworm) and then found himself working with Bono on a multimillion-dollar superhero musical with flying and special effects.

I can't wait to hear what he has to say about all of it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Work-Art Balance (Theater Pub column)

My latest San Francisco Theater Pub column, "The Work-Art Balance," went up on Thursday and is provoking a lively discussion. In the column, I reflect on my four years of attempting to balance the demands of my 40-hour-a-week office job with my playwriting ambitions.

I can't say that I have it all figured out at this point, so I'd love for you to read the piece and chime in in the comments. How do you find the time and energy for your art? Psychologically and practically speaking, how do you deal with living in two different worlds, having two different careers? How do you ensure that your stability does not slide into complacency?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Collective Nostalgia

Terry Teachout's recent musings on nostalgia, particularly the thought that "the English language needs a word whose definition would be 'nostalgia for that which one has not experienced,'" made me think of the novel Prague, by Arthur Phillips, and this passage in particular:
To quantify nostalgia, to graph it backward into the misty and sweet-smelling past, to enumerate its causes and its expressions and its costs, to determine the nature of societies and personalities most affected by the disorder -- these were Mark Payton's obsessions, and he wove academic laurels from their leaves. He strained to establish laws as measurable and irrefutable as the laws of physics or meteorology. He strove, for example, to determine whether there was, within a given population, a ratio, p/c, that could predict the relationship between individuals with a "strong" or "very strong" leaning to Personal Nostalgia (i.e. nostalgia for events within one's own past) and those with a commensurate leaning to Collective Nostalgia (i.e. nostalgia for eras or styles or places that were outside of one's personal experience). In other words, if you were likely to be affected by recollections of your Hungarian grandmother's sour cherry soup served in the Herend bowl with the ladybug at the bottom, were you more or less likely to feel fondness for movies that treated with tender, nearly eroticized affection the life of English aristocrats in their country houses prior to the First World War? Payton felt certain he could arrive at a predictable ratio p/m, the relationship between a strong tendency to Personal Nostalgia and the possession of an objectively good Memory. Either hypothesis (that the relationship was direct, or that it was inverse) seemed feasible to him. Finally, the ratio c/h, the relationship of an individual's propensity to Collective Nostalgia and his or her actual Historical Knowledge of the place-era for which he or she felt this nostalgia, was theoretically determinable, and here the scholar strongly suspected an inverse proportion: The less you knew about life in those country houses, the more you wished you had lived there.
Prague explored the theme of Collective Nostalgia -- and in particular, the nostalgia that Americans have for beautiful European cities -- ten years before Midnight in Paris did, and with even more wit and insight than the film. Mark Payton's quixotic quest to quantify nostalgia, which eventually drives him insane, is not the main plot, but it underlines some of the book's key themes. After all, the story takes place in Budapest, and most of the characters are convinced that they'd be far happier in Prague. They yearn for a change of place, while Mark yearns for a change of time.

Collective Nostalgia is something I find myself thinking about a lot. (Conversely, I am not very prone to Personal Nostalgia -- e.g. I had a good college experience, but seldom have I ever wished I could go back there.) As a kid, I loved time-travel stories -- not the sci-fi ones that involved traveling to the future or investigated philosophical conundrums like the grandfather paradox, but the ones that were really historical fiction disguised as time-travel fantasy. I desperately wished that it were possible to visit other historical eras, and I would still like to do so -- but, as Terry Teachout says, to visit, not to live. No 21st-century feminist woman can sincerely say that she would prefer to live in an earlier decade -- the idea of traveling to the past and making a home there is totally a white-male privilege. (Interesting, then, that in Midnight in Paris, the character who chooses to stay behind in the past is a woman. But then, I have some issues with that movie -- I didn't love it as much as you might assume.) I am grateful for civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, secular humanism. I would never want to turn back the clock to a more racist, sexist era. I may decry some of the uncouth excesses of the modern world, but I realize that, to a large extent, they are the price we pay for freedom. And I am willing to pay that price. I may wish that people used their freedom more prudently and thoughtfully, but that is no reason to take their freedom away.

Yet at the same time, I have that intense collective nostalgia for so many aspects of the past -- culture and customs that I never experienced for myself. I wonder if it would be possible to bring back some of those things without bringing back the less enlightened parts of the past, or whether they are inextricably linked. Is swing dancing a super fun way of socializing with friends and dates, or is it an expression of a patriarchal culture? (the man leads, and is strong and stolid! the woman follows, dizzy, frilly, twirling!) More to the point: if partner dancing became popular once again, would it lead to a renewed ossification of gender roles?

In short, I wonder if it is possible to be both a confirmed nostalgist, and a modern-day progressive liberal. Does my attraction to the past mean that, deep down, I am more conservative than I'd like to admit? Can I resolve my contradictions, or do I hold, within me, some kind of time-travel paradox?

See also: my post from 2008 about watching Mad Men and imagining living in that era.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

"Wild" Adventures

Scene: My local Indian-food joint, 9:30 PM on a Saturday night. I have a habit of going there for a late supper and feeling like the modern-day equivalent of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks." I am eating Mutter Paneer and reading Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild, thoughtfully sent to me by my mother last week.

SERVER: You know he dies in the end, right?

ME: (assuming this is the standard joke my server makes whenever he sees someone reading a book in the restaurant) Ha ha...

(Then it occurs to me that my server might actually be a literature-lover who has fallen prey to the dread Title Confusion.)

ME: You know, this isn't actually the book where he dies in the end.


ME: That one is Into the Wild -- about the kid who goes to the Alaskan wilderness and dies there. This one is just Wild. It's a memoir, by a woman, about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail -- so you see she couldn't die in the end, or there wouldn't be any book!

SERVER: Oh gosh! I'm so sorry! I didn't mean -- I wasn't even thinking about that other book--

ME: It's OK... I thought it was funny, how their titles are similar.

SERVER: It's just something I always say when I see people reading.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Taking Characters from Greek Mythology

"How can you copyright an enterprise, a profession? I must be free to film a story of a newspaper publisher. If I am restrained, it will force us all to go back and take our characters, say, from Greek mythology. And even then I suppose somebody would contend he was Zeus."
--Orson Welles, quoted in Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu by Simon Callow
 Working hard on my 1940s play that depicts Zeus as a movie-studio boss (ooh, how meta!).

See also the New York Times' recent review of a film book, Gods Like Us, about movie stardom, abounding with Greek-mythology references.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

We & Orson Welles (Theater Pub column)

I'm finally managing to read Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu, one of the books I meant to read this summer, and I'm finding it totally engrossing. Going into it, I had the question, "How did Welles become so accomplished at such a young age?" and it turns out that, in large part, the answer to that is "because he was a self-promoting, workaholic, egotistical jerk." So, fortunately, rather than filling me with envy and resentment of Welles' success, this book is making me feel better about the choices I have made and am continuing to make.

More of my thoughts about this book and about the young Welles are in my latest column over at SF Theater Pub.

See also: my review of Me and Orson Welles, the 2009 film about Welles' 1937 Julius Caesar production with the Mercury Theatre.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

J'adore the Flore (Theater Pub column)

If you want to see me pay tribute to the Cafe Flore, admit to my latest beverage addiction, and make grandiose comparisons between my writing habits and those of Tony Kushner and Stephin Merritt, check out "J'adore the Flore," my latest column at the SF Theater Pub blog.

(One must also note that I named my column after a Stephen Sondheim song and I watched a Judy Garland documentary on TV tonight. I swear, my soul is that of a middle-aged gay man.)

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Books I Meant to Read This Summer

Labor Day always holds a kind of melancholy for me -- growing up, it was the night before the school started, and the crickets would chirp as I lit a sparkler saved from the Fourth of July and said goodbye to summer -- so tonight I find myself thinking of what I never got around to doing this summer. Like uploading my photos from my Europe trip, or writing that blog post going into my Pint-Sized show in more detail. And for some reason, I feel compelled to compile a list of all the books I meant to read this summer and never did.
  • Something by Charles Dickens: I was going to read a Dickens novel (maybe Bleak House?) when I was in London, as it is the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth and the place where I stayed was around the corner from the Dickens museum. As it was, I packed Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus instead, barely got through a few chapters (when I'm traveling, I always think I'm going to read more than I actually do) and haven't touched a Dickens novel in years.
  • Other People We Married, by Emma Straub: Straub's debut novel, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, is coming out tomorrow, and as you may recall I'm super excited to read it. But I wanted to read her first book, a short story collection, beforehand.
  • Wallflower at the Orgy and Crazy Salad, by Nora Ephron: Last summer, when I was writing Pleiades and seeking resources about the early '70s, the fabulous Megan Cohen told me to read  Ephron's first two collections of essays. I never got around to it, but when Ephron passed away in June, and several tributes mentioned just how terrific her journalism was, I publicly pledged (on Twitter) that I would read these essay collections this summer. Especially because I would also be revising Pleiades. But I couldn't find these books in any bookstore, and now I'm about to give the revised version of Pleiades to my publisher, and am irrationally freaking out like, "If only I'd read Ephron, my play would be better!"
  • Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu and Orson Welles: Hello Americans, by Simon Callow: These biographies have gotten terrific reviews; Welles is a fascinating figure for anyone who cares about theater and cinema; and I'm writing a play about a 1940s Hollywood starlet and, lest we forget, Welles married Rita Hayworth. Plus, I turned 25 this summer, Orson Welles was 25 when he made Citizen Kane, and I want to figure out how the hell he did it. All compelling reasons to read these books... but it hasn't happened yet.
  • Cultural Amnesia, by Clive James: I've had this erudite tome of essays on my bedside table for over a year now and keep telling myself that I will read one essay per night before bed. Then, when I was in London, the story broke that Mr. James has leukemia and does not expect that he can fight it much longer. As it is always nicer to read and appreciate someone's work while he is still alive (instead of saying, as I did with Ephron, "Oh, I always meant to read her book, and now she's dead!"), I recommitted myself to reading this. But it's a rare night when I actually do read one of these essays before bed.
My parents would probably tell me to focus on what I accomplished this summer and stop beating up on myself, but Labor Day is a time for melancholy, and I have no sparklers or crickets at my disposal, so let me think, with a sigh, of these unread books.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Revisions are Revitalizing

I'm always processing several life lessons at once, but one of this year's big lessons has been about understanding the fears that hold me back, and how my mind inflates these fears far beyond their actual consequence. In other words, It's Never As Bad As You Think. This goes for a lot of things, whether it's cleaning the bathroom, or phoning a cute guy, or sitting down in front of the blank page to write. (Why do you think I am writing this blog post? Because I finally managed to stifle the fear that my next post would have to be one of real consequence and earth-shattering importance in order to atone for my absence from the blogosphere.) I always, always inflate my minor trepidations into major obstacles -- and then, when I finally force myself to do what I need to do, I always, always find joy in the journey. For, if you never do anything, how can your life have any purpose or narrative zest? And I do love a good story.

And so it is with revising Pleiades. After several months of feeling like I should sit down and do a new draft, I now have an urgent reason to do so: it's going to be published! Volume 2 of Olympians Festival plays will be coming out this autumn (buy volume 1 here), with Pleiades as one of the ten scripts therein. Labor Day is my deadline for submitting a revised script to the publisher -- so I have one more week to get it into a form that will be printed on actual paper and sold in actual bookshops. (Eek!)

And for a long time, I dawdled. The reading of Pleiades last fall was generally successful and I knew the revision wouldn't involve major structural overhauls, yet there were also moments that didn't land correctly, moments that could use more pop. I was stymied, however, when it came to figuring out how to solve those problems. I'd think for a while, not see a way to resolve it, despair of ever getting the script into a form I could be proud of -- all without actually opening up the document on my laptop and playing around with it. I fell into a fatalistic mood, convinced that the problem was intractable, and felt slightly panicked whenever I thought about my deadline for delivering the script.

But when I finally forced myself to look at the actual script, I found my instinct guiding me to where I needed to edit. Change a few words here, get rid of that overwritten passage... and hey, wait a minute, maybe if I approached the scene from this angle... if a character reacted to that revelation with fury rather than fear... if I wasn't so concerned with keeping the play under a certain number of pages, if I gave my climactic scene a bit more space to breathe... could that solve the problem that had given me such grief?

It was not a flash of insight, more a steadily growing certainty that I knew what to do to fix the scene. I had read about this kind of thing happening to writers, but I guess I'd never quite believed I'd experience it for myself. My old enemies, again: fear and mistrust. I doubted myself, I feared the worst, I forgot how good it feels to come up with a new idea, test its strength, and finally say, yes, yes, I think this will work.

Only a couple of days before that, I'd read a quote from Hemingway about how to write: "Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start." Bah, humbug, I thought. Yet perhaps that quote provides an explanation for what happened to me: my subconscious, not my conscious mind, discovered what I needed to do to fix the scene.

The famous advice "Kill your darlings" has also been attributed to Hemingway. And the great thing about returning to a script after several months away is that killing your darlings becomes less painful to do. You find yourself attacking the script with Occam's razor. Anything needlessly complicated or weakly motivated will stand out in a way it didn't before. Things that seemed so important when you initially wrote them now cause you to ask yourself, "Why was I so convinced that this was the only right choice for this moment?"

For instance, in Pleiades, I had a very difficult time getting one of the characters onstage for the climactic confrontation. This scene needs to happen, in order to wrap up the plot and provide a catharsis, and yet one of the characters (Bruce) has good reasons to avoid the other character (Moira) entirely. When I initially drafted the script, it took me a whole afternoon to figure out how to get Bruce onstage -- finally I decided that he would have a preexisting appointment with Moira's father, so he'd show up at the house and run into Moira. But this raised other problems: Moira's father is an unseen character in the script, mentioned several times but never appearing. If I used him to motivate the climactic scene, wouldn't the audience then expect to see him come onstage and play a part in the climax? Wouldn't the audience start to wonder where he was, and then say "Oh, right, he doesn't appear in this play because then they'd need to hire another actor, and this play has nine characters already," and then wouldn't that shatter the illusion that I was constructing?

I realized that the less I mentioned Moira's father, the less these questions and doubts would grow in the mind of the audience. Very well -- but then that brought me back to my old problem of how to get Bruce onstage. And then, suddenly, the solution seemed blindingly obvious. As I said, it's not a two-character play, it's a nine-character play. So instead of having an appointment with the unseen character of Moira's father, why couldn't Bruce have an appointment with one of the characters who does appear onstage -- Moira's sister Elena, say? And then that would allow for a nice little character beat between Bruce and Elena, too...

Plays are about action, not thought. And so, too, is life. You can't get any sense of how to revise your play from merely thinking about revising it. You have to open up that document and hack away.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Top 10 Cultural Experiences - July 2012

Trying something a little different here with my blog (After 5 years, can't I mix it up a bit?). I want to keep writing about the things I am seeing and doing that inspire, entertain and stimulate me, but I don't feel up to the challenge of cranking out thousand-word essays multiple times a week, the way I used to do. So I'm thinking that each month, I'll post a round-up of my top 10 cultural experiences, with a short explanation of why I enjoyed each one.

The list will be eclectic and draw from a variety of genres. A brilliant episode of a new TV show could be sandwiched between an old movie I just saw for the first time and a particularly thought-provoking Internet essay.  The only rule is that I have to have read/seen/experienced this thing during the designated month, and I have to have enjoyed it.

So here goes: Top 10 Cultural Experiences - July 2012

1. "Black Box" by Jennifer Egan (short fiction). When is the last time I got so excited about a New Yorker short story? Oh yeah -- "Escape from Spiderhead," by George Saunders, December 2010. Clearly I have a thing for futuristic sci-fi stories about people with things implanted in their brains -- not what most people think of when they hear the phrase "New Yorker story."

Indeed, in its structure and its voice, "Black Box" is like no story I've ever read before. It is masterfully controlled, a distanced and elliptical way of narrating a thrilling spy-adventure plot. Somehow, this only serves to ratchet up the tension even more. I started reading it on my lunch hour and didn't have time to finish -- I was in agony for the rest of the afternoon!

Though the story was published in June and I didn't read it until July, I'd somehow managed to avoid hearing that the unnamed narrator is a grown-up version of Lulu from A Visit from the Goon Squad. Reading the story, I was very proud of myself for figuring out that connection on my own. And the themes of "Black Box" dovetail with those of Lulu's Goon Squad chapter in interesting ways -- I wonder if Egan would ever consider adding this story as an addendum to Goon Squad, that novel's praise and Pulitzer notwithstanding? Because this story deserves to be read by as many people as possible.

2. Pint-Sized Plays at San Francisco Theater Pub (theater). Is it OK to put your own show on a list like this? Oh well, I'm doing it anyway, because the Pint-Sized Plays were a big part of my month. They represented the longest run ever of one of my plays: 7 performances, including a special presentation last Saturday at the Red Poppy Art House. And, because I didn't attend every performance, it's also the first time my work has been performed without me present. The five performances I did attend, however, caused a surprising range of reactions in the audience, which taught me a lot (I hope to do a longer post on this later).

Moreover, I was honored to be included among so many other funny, idiosyncratic plays. Highlights included Megan Cohen's BEEEEAR, starring Allison Page as a dancing bear who gets "growling-tipsy after the day's grueling toil," and Tim Bauer's Play It Again, Friend, a character study of a douchebaggy businessman (played by Cooper Carlson) who nonetheless claims "I see the good and then reflect it back -- I'm a mirror with eyes!" Special mentions also to Neil Higgins' hard work directing one play (Bill Bivins' Celia Shits) and acting in three others; and Matt Gunnison and Kirsten Broadbear's performances as the title characters in Sunil Patel's witty Man vs. Beer.

3. Olympics Opening Ceremony (TV/theater). I had a ridiculous amount of fun watching the Olympics ceremony while lying on my couch, drinking Cabernet, and live-tweeting it with some friends. Danny Boyle certainly knows how to put on a show! (I wasn't too fond of the screenplay or acting in Slumdog Millionaire, but thought that that movie gained whatever merit it had from Boyle's kinetic direction.) And I do consider this a piece of theater that just happened to be televised, with many astounding moments of stagecraft. Although it paid tribute to the expected, beloved icons of British culture, it managed to seem offbeat and loopy and idiosyncratic rather than corporate. I especially loved how uncontroversial its liberal political slant (with tributes to suffragettes and the NHS) turned out to be. And the Parade of Nations moved quickly while allowing me to indulge my Geography Nerd, French Nerd, and Fashion Nerd tendencies all at once.

4. The Scottsboro Boys, at ACT (musical). It's difficult to say that you "enjoyed" this show without sounding like you are making light of a very dark moment in our nation's history, so maybe "admired" is a better word. Kander and Ebb can still deliver biting but catchy songs, although as a whole the musical does feel like a bit of a throwback to their '70s "concept musical" heyday. Susan Stroman's minimalist staging was lively and brilliant, and Clifton Duncan gave a powerful performance in the leading role. Due to the subject matter and the casting and staging demands, I doubt that this musical will get many future productions after this tour is over, and I feel grateful to have seen it.

5. The Song is You, by Arthur Phillips (novel). I really love Arthur Phillips' writing: above all, when you read his novels, you can tell that he had fun writing them, devising plots and characters and set-pieces and opportunities to deploy puns and other curlicues of language. Yet his worldview also contains a sense of melancholy and loss. I am a total sucker for playful-but-melancholy art, because it chimes with my own worldview, so Phillips' novels really speak to me. And as it happens, the theme of The Song is You is about how it feels to find art (music) that speaks to you and changes your life. The main character is an emotionally numb middle-aged man who becomes obsessed with an up-and-coming rock singer and turns into a kind of anonymous Svengali for her. While the plot is a bit preposterous, Phillips gets a lot of other things right about our contemporary culture. I liked how he portrays the singer, Cait, as a hardworking young artist rather than just an object of desire; and how what she wants (or thinks she wants) more than anything is someone to mentor her and call her on her bullshit. And the novel wraps up in the way that I was rooting for, too.

6. The Canadian, at the SF Silent Film Festival (movie). On my birthday, I won a pair of free tickets to the screening of this obscure silent movie. I invited a Canadian-born friend of mine along to the screening, which packed the Castro Theater on a Saturday afternoon. We enjoyed it, with no need for any caveats like "it was really good for a silent movie." (Although the live musical accompaniment on piano and accordion was terrific!) The leading actress had a neat trick of looking out from under half-closed eyelids, which she used to great effect to look haughty and supercilious (in the first part of the movie); and stricken and pained (in the second part of the movie). Also, the weekend we saw this, that whole controversy about Daniel Tosh telling a rape joke had just blown up, and in the movie, the main character rapes his wife. (They've entered into a marriage of convenience where she locks herself in the bedroom and makes him sleep on a bench -- but it's the kind of movie where once you see that bedroom door close, you know it's going to get broken down.) After this startling scene, there's an intertitle: "The next morning wasn't just any day." And because of the hilarious understatement of this -- of course the day after you get raped is not going to be just any day -- everyone in the theater laughed. "Now that is how you make a rape joke," I said afterwards.

7. Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter (novel). Angela Carter is another author I really like. I began reading Nights at the Circus in London -- appropriate, as its larger-than-life heroine is a proud Cockney -- but finished it back in the U.S. This book has all the magical realism, stories-within-stories, theatricality, glorious excess, and love of life that you expect from Carter -- just a terrifically good yarn, full of vivid detail. The opulence, intricacy and fantasy of a Faberge egg -- an object which actually ends up playing a role in the story. Oh, I just know that I'm reiterating everything that has ever been written about Carter, but it's all true, even if her books are fantastical.

8. Cling to Me Like Ivy, by Samantha Ellis (play script). A few days after I met my blog-friend Samantha in person for the first time, I bought a copy of her play Cling to Me Like Ivy at the National Theatre bookshop. It's the story of a young Orthodox Jewish woman in crisis just before her wedding day -- a fairly intimate tale of family and friendships, though there's a stunningly theatrical climax at the end of Act Two. The heroine is believably caught between her respect for her cultural traditions and the temptations of modern-day London culture (represented by her best friend, who was born in India but is now thoroughly assimilated). Also, you know the old adage "To write a play, put a man up a tree at the end of Act One, throw stones at him in Act Two, and get him down in Act Three"? Well, Ellis does exactly that in this play, only with a woman instead of a man -- can't help but think this is a clever playwriting in-joke.

9. Brave (Pixar film). I saw Brave toward the end of July, so was not able to read or participate in all of the discussion earlier in the month about The Feminist Implications of Pixar's First Female-Driven Story. Which might be just as well, because that seems almost like too much freight for one movie to bear. (Pun on "bear" not intended.) Brave is not my favorite Pixar, I think because its script and story are more predictable, less dazzlingly constructed, than their best films. As someone who read a lot of fantasy stories about Rebellious Tomboy Princesses when I was a girl, I felt like Merida's struggle was somewhat familiar, even if I found her sympathetic and wanted to cheer when she stepped up at the archery contest to defend her right to remain unmarried. But the movie was gorgeous to look at and I liked the complexity that they gave to the character of the mother, positing that "feminine" skills like diplomacy are as valuable as "masculine" skills like fighting. More than anything, I hope the movie's box-office success will allow more female-driven movies to be made, till we get to the point where they are no longer remarkable or anomalous.

10. Salomania, at the Aurora Theater (play). Mark Jackson's latest play takes the #10 slot on my list, partly due to residual affection from how much I loved his play God's Plot earlier this year. Also because it allows me to note that I am having a surprisingly Salome-ish 2012: the "Cult of Beauty" exhibition at the Palace of the Legion of Honor featured Aubrey Beardsley's original illustrations for Salome, and I attended the premiere of Al Pacino's Wilde Salome at the Castro Theater in March. (Both the exhibition and the film would have appeared on earlier editions of my "Top 10 Cultural Experiences" list had I been doing it back then.) I found Salomania a weaker play than God's Plot -- it didn't hang together as well -- but I like Jackson's approach to complex historical dramas that show how life and art influence one another.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Quick update to my post on the Bush Theatre

Today, the Bush Theater saw the rather critical blog post I wrote about them and BushGreen contacted me about it via Twitter. Yes, they are updating their submissions policies but still accepting unsolicited, unproduced scripts (one per playwright) from around the English-speaking world. They also stated that the Bush had commissioned Dominic Savage's Fear because his "process of improv was of great interest to us and we wanted to chart new and experimental territory." It was "part of an initiative to make new work in new ways."

If Fear was indeed developed through an improv-based process, that could account for some of the weaknesses I found in the script. When you commission improv-based or devised work, you never know what you're going to get, and sometimes the experiment will fail. All the same, it was odd that Fear's origins in improv weren't mentioned in any of the reviews I read or in the Bush's publicity (though I didn't buy a playbill, so maybe that would have included something about Savage's development process. P.S., Brits, what is with your insistence that people have to pay for playbills?)

I can't exactly fault the Bush for thinking that as a "new works" theater, they should explore alternative means of creating work, rather than relying solely on the scripts that are submitted to them. At the same time, I can't help being a bit disappointed that they're not devoting 100% of the slots in their season to producing some of those thousand scripts they receive in their slush pile each year.

Of course I could now segue into a discussion of the increasing prominence of devised work in U.S. and U.K. theater, and the implications of this. But I don't really feel like getting into that right now. For the time being, it sounds like we can still go ahead and submit our scripts to the Bush Theatre via BushGreen, and they will continue to be read and considered... but BushGreen isn't the theater's only source of plays to produce.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

"Fear"? More like Disappointment: My night at the Bush Theatre

When I arrived in London last month, I secretly believed the stereotype that the Brits are better than us at everything theatrical. And why shouldn't I think that? I'd seen several excellent productions by U.K. theater companies on tour in America. But the first play I ever saw on British soil -- Fear, at the Bush Theatre -- was mediocre and thus, a terrible disappointment.

Probably it's good for me to get over my American inferiority complex and learn that the British theater can offer up a dud now and then. To realize that the touring productions I'd seen were, duh, the cream of the crop; and that any theater scene as rich and vibrant as London's (oh, how enviably rich and vibrant!) is bound to produce as many duds as masterpieces.

And although I found the production mediocre, my experience of attending the theater in London was great. I got to meet my lovely blog-friend Samantha Ellis in person; eat tasty, inexpensive chicken stew and browse the shelves of plays in the Bush Theatre café; stroll around Notting Hill in the twilight of the longest day of the year; and finish up the evening with thick hot chocolate that the waitress at Carluccio's gave us for free!

But all the same, Fear was disappointing. And I've been wanting to blog about my disappointment, but hesitated for a few reasons.

One, I saw the show's first preview, and maybe it just needed a few more nights in order to gel. I'm thinking of a moment where a character took off her elastic belt and struck another character with it -- but it was laughable because the actress was obviously flailing the belt as weakly as she could in order to avoid injuring her co-star. That seems like something that could be easily re-blocked to look more realistic.

Two, I'm trying to move away from writing "reviews" of shows where I just list what I liked and didn't like about them -- especially shows that most of my readers won't get the opportunity to see. Fear was at a small "fringe" theater in London, and lately my blog has been much more San Francisco-focused.

Three, I'm trying to move away from writing negative reviews in general, because, after all, I have my own reputation as a playwright (not just as an amateur critic) to consider, and wonder if I can afford to alienate anyone... even a fringe theater across the pond.

But the Bush Theatre isn't just any fringe theater. It is one of London's top-rated new-writing theaters, and, moreover, a couple of years ago, American playwriting blogs were abuzz with enthusiasm for its "BushGreen" endeavor. (see, e.g. this post by my friend Marisela Treviño Orta.) BushGreen is an online play submission system and a social networking site for playwrights. Using this platform, the Bush has a remarkably open submissions policy: they will accept any English-language play that has not had a full production in the U.K. They receive -- and read -- over a thousand scripts a year.

So when a theater that has such an open, laudable submissions policy decides to produce a mediocre script, I feel like I have every right to be particularly disappointed.

Moreover, I had to wonder whether factors other than the quality of the script affected the Bush's decision to produce Fear. This was the first play from writer-director Dominic Savage, who is better known in the U.K. for his work in television. The week before Fear opened at the Bush, Savage had a show called True Love air in prime time on the BBC -- five short semi-improvised dramas starring such well-known British actors as David Tennant. Was the Bush trying to cash in on Savage's fame by producing his first play? I can totally understand why a theater would consider this a smart business move, but at the same time, it's a disappointing choice from a theater that portrays itself as a new-writing venue where unknown playwrights can get their big break.

If you want to get some idea of what I disliked about Fear, you should read the What's On Stage review, which says, "It’s the kind of schematic, confrontational class warfare drama which might strike you as lively and promising in a schools, or youth drama, context -- where it would also seem more authentic -- but which shrivels in the spotlight at an establishment fringe venue." The play contrasted the lives of millionaire financier Gerald and his pregnant wife, with the lives of some young hoodlums who mug people like Gerald. There was one interesting scene where one of the thugs schooled his friend in the art of sizing people up to see whether it's worth the trouble of robbing them. I liked this scene because it was unexpected yet plausible. It was amusing to realize that criminals, just as much as fashionistas, must learn to identify this season's "It" handbag or shoes on sight. But other than that, the script was predictable, the dialogue unmemorable. Again, a theater that receives a thousand scripts per year should, statistically, receive many plays that are far livelier and more interesting than this one.

Evidently, the Bush Theatre has a new artistic director and is going through a period of transition -- they recently had an open forum event to discuss potential changes and updates to BushGreen. I just hope that Fear was an anomaly rather than the new normal for the Bush Theatre; that they will continue to have an open script policy and make good on their pledge to produce great plays by undiscovered writers; that they can continue to be one of the U.K. companies that causes Americans to sigh with envy, and not sigh with disillusionment.

UPDATE, August 6, 2012: please see my follow-up post here after BushGreen contacted me on Twitter.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

"Beer Theory" in SF Theater Pub's Pint-Sized Plays Festival

I'm back! Miss me? I have had an incredibly busy month or so: family reunion, Europe trip, several birthday celebrations (including my own), friends and family coming to visit, and, last week, the opening of my latest play! This is "Beer Theory," a 10-minute play included in San Francisco Theater Pub's Pint-Sized Plays Festival.

I love Theater Pub and their annual Pint-Sized Festival -- they produced my play "Drinking for Two" in 2010, my first production in San Francisco. This year, Pint-Sized is bigger and better than ever: ten plays, six performances, live piano music, a dancing bear, a talking beer, corporate sponsorship from Good Vibrations, and a reappearance of the audience-favorite Llama character. Last week the show even went on tour to the Plough and the Stars on Clement Street -- I am thrilled that we got some theater west of Van Ness Avenue and also thrilled that, at six performances, this is the longest run any play of mine has ever had.

As for "Beer Theory," I can think of no better way to describe it than the tag line that producer Julia Heitner devised: "Boy Meets Girl. Apollonian Meets Dionysian." It's a meet-cute play with a twist, and, more than any play I've written, it gets at what it's like to be inside my head. It's inspired by A Visit from the Goon Squad and the Magnetic Fields concert and Sexual Personae and my own neurotic/over-thinking tendencies and a lot of other stuff besides. It's also my attempt to get over my fear of writing direct-address monologues!

"Beer Theory" has been sensitively directed by Katja Rivera and stars Rachel Ferensowicz (who once again proves that she is one of the most charming actresses in San Francisco) and Geoff Nolan (who plays one kind of romantic lead in my play and a very different one in "Circling," another of the Pint-Sized offerings).

Pint-Sized has received a lot of great publicity. Theater Pub did email interviews with me and with Katja. Lily Janiak profiled the festival in SF Weekly and gave us a nice review on her blog. Megan Cohen blogged about the audience reaction to her dancing-bear play, and that play made a new fan out of Rachel Bublitz. And we got some very mysterious and unexpected publicity from SF Daily Secret!

In short: you should come to one of the three remaining performances! Our brief foray into the Inner Richmond is over, but we'll be at Cafe Royale in the Tendernob on July 23, 30 and 31. Don't miss it!

Photo: Actors Rachel Ferensowicz and Geoff Nolan (with an innocent bystander in the middle) in "Beer Theory."

Friday, June 15, 2012

"A Writer Never Has a Vacation"

Ionesco said, "A writer never has a vacation. For a writer life consists of either writing or thinking about writing."

Well, I'm off to go prove Ionesco wrong -- or try to.

Taking 15 days: San Francisco to New Jersey to London to Paris and back to S.F.

This has been a crazy month for me -- planning my trip, cramming in lots of theatergoing before my departure, the Olympians book was released, there's some stressful personal/family stuff going on -- which may somewhat explain my lack of blogging.

(You should check out my latest Theater Pub post, "Why Songs of Hestia Should Be On Your Summer-Reading List," though, if you haven't already.)

I don't know what my internet access will be like for most of this trip and I think my focus during my travels might be on personal journaling rather than public blogging... but I do hope at some point to write about some aspects of my trip. (I've already got tickets to see 2 plays in London!)

OK, so maybe I won't be proving Ionesco wrong after all. Writing is always a big part of my travels and while I may not be doing any playwriting while I am away, I still won't be able to turn off the journaling/blogging/putting-words-together part of my brain.

I'm exhilarated at the thought of returning to Europe after five years, but also exhausted from the busy month I've been having. Hopefully I can get a good night's sleep on the red-eye to London Sunday night and arrive there alert and wide-eyed and ready to take it all in!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

SF Olympians III on IndieGogo

We at San Francisco Olympians Festival are currently running an IndieGogo campaign to raise funds for the festival's third edition, coming this December. (Featuring my new play The Love Goddess as one of 24 original one-act plays inspired by Greek mythology.)  There are four days to go until the campaign concludes and I'm pleased to say that we're just $200 away from our goal!  But don't let that stop you, if you're moved to contribute: any additional money we earn will go to paying the festival's writers, directors, actors, and poster artists. I think I can speak for everyone working on the festival to say that we will be so grateful for any contribution. Once again, our IndieGogo campaign ends on Thursday, so please don't delay!

A $48 contribution, by the way, gets you a copy of Songs of Hestia, the new book of five plays from the 2010 Olympians Festival, and my debut as a published author. (I wrote the introduction.) The book is also available on if you'd prefer to get it that way -- or if you need to buy additional copies for your friends!

Monday, June 4, 2012

"Tenderloin" at Cutting Ball: Voices of a Neighborhood

The week that Tenderloin opened at Cutting Ball Theater, I published a column for San Francisco Theater Pub that could be seen as disparaging the Tenderloin neighborhood. (It was mostly about how having so many S.F. theaters in the Tenderloin puts our artform at a disadvantage, since it's hard to entice people to visit the neighborhood and it doesn't get good foot traffic.) The timing of my article vis-a-vis the opening of Tenderloin was purely coincidental and I hope that no one made the mistake of interpreting my piece as a veiled swipe at Cutting Ball. Nonetheless, you could say that I seemed to set myself up in opposition to their play. My article took the conventional bourgeois attitude toward the Tenderloin; Cutting Ball's play is designed to counteract this.

Tenderloin has been over a year in the making. Led by director and documentary-theater specialist Annie Elias, the six actors in the piece interviewed Tenderloin residents and other people with a connection to the neighborhood, then shaped the interviews into a theater piece. In the tradition of other documentary-theater artists such as Anna Deavere Smith, they worked to reproduce the exact phrasing, cadences, vocal tone and overall affect of the interviewees.

The result is absolutely stunning from a performance standpoint. MVPs include Tristan Cunningham, who portrays a sad-eyed homeless beatboxer, an irrepressibly cheerful Filipina motivational speaker, and a cynical street-cleaner; and Rebecca Frank, an actress in her mid-twenties who somehow manages to transform herself into 86-year-old Leroy Looper, the "Mayor of the Tenderloin." Meanwhile, David Sinaiko, a middle-aged man with gray hair, plays Leroy's doting wife Kathy. Michael Uy Kelly plays a transsexual waitress, a retired police officer, and a Tenderloin resident with a hilarious story about being asked to take care of a baby. Siobhan Marie Doherty excels at playing tenderhearted female characters (a young woman in an abusive relationship; a massage therapist who provides services to Tenderloin residents) while Leigh Shaw plays more authoritative or powerful women (an activist lawyer; a pastor at Glide Church).

I also found the piece interesting from a playwriting perspective. After all, none of it was conventionally written, but it was wrought out of dozens of interviews -- the speakers are often juxtaposed in interesting ways so that they seem to be in dialogue with one another. I found the structure of the piece effective overall. Moreover, these people speak in fascinating, idiosyncratic ways, which I see as encouragement to be bolder in my own writing. There are times when I'll write a line and then strike it out, saying, "No one would ever say that in real life -- it's too weird/too flowery/too nakedly emotional/etc."  But, it turns out that when you interview real-life people, they do say weird, flowery, emotional, expressive things. And of course, this heightened language works great on stage.

As for the political and thematic messages of Tenderloin? Clearly, the piece is designed to display often-overlooked aspects of the neighborhood -- the architectural heritage, the children who are growing up there (little kids on bouncy-balls and a bubbly high-school student both appear in the play), the many acts of kindness and compassion that take place on a daily basis. The piece also comes out against city policies that have turned the Tenderloin into a "containment zone" for the poor and downtrodden and the social services that cater to them. It used to be that halfway houses and soup kitchens were scattered around the city, but starting in the '70s, they became concentrated in the Tenderloin, amplifying the neighborhood's problems. I found this point especially striking and persuasive because it parallels what I said in my Theater Pub column. I believe San Francisco would benefit if its theaters were located in neighborhoods across the city, rather than just in the Tenderloin; and I can now see how the city would benefit if there were soup kitchens or drug-rehab clinics outside of the Tenderloin, too. Moreover, if the Tenderloin has become synonymous with "everything people don't want," and the majority of San Francisco theaters are located in the Tenderloin -- does this also mean that theater is something that "people don't want," that they'd rather not have in their neighborhood? Something to think about.

Yet at the same time, I felt like Tenderloin sometimes went a bit too far in trying to make us love the neighborhood. We hear from a young woman from Palo Alto who feels safe and welcome in the Tenderloin... but we don't hear from any women complaining about getting catcalled or stared at, which has frequently been my experience. (OK, the catcalling is usually mild, along the lines of "Hey beautiful, give me a smile" rather than anything disgustingly sexual. Nor have I ever had the sense I would be physically assaulted. Nonetheless, it's not exactly fun to walk past a dozen guys loitering on the sidewalk and staring at you.) I wish that that perspective had been represented somewhere in the patchwork of stories that make up Tenderloin.

At the beginning and end of the show, the actors portray what we might think of as "typical" Tenderloin denizens -- drunks, prostitutes, the homeless and mentally ill. In the final scene of the performance that I attended, actress Rebecca Frank (whom I know somewhat) was playing one of these characters. She spotted me in the audience, caught my eye, made some comment about how tall I am, came up the aisle, and asked me to give her a hug. I complied, but at the same time, I was all too well aware that I was hugging Rebecca, a nice young woman pretending to be a homeless drunk, rather than an actual homeless drunk. Which, I think, says something about the limitations of theater. Tenderloin certainly taught me a lot, introducing me to some fascinating real-life people as channeled through the skillful performances of six talented actors. Perhaps I empathize a bit more with the Tenderloin now. But I'm not going to embrace any homeless drunkards any time soon.

Tenderloin has been playing to sellout crowds and was just extended for 2 more weeks, June 14-24. Tickets here.

Image: Rebecca Frank and David Sinaiko as Leroy and Kathy Looper. Photo by Rob Melrose.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Ode to the Props Master

Here's "Ode to the Props Master," my other contribution to Theater Pub's "Odes of March" show celebrating all of the different people who make theater possible.

What would Hamlet be without a skull?
What would The Seagull be without a gull?
And Hedda Gabler’s famous for her pistols,
As Laura, for her menagerie of crystal.
For farce, you need a slapstick to cause mirth;
For Sam Shepard, a buried child to unearth.
The Angel of America needs her book,
And Captain You-Know-Who must wear a hook.
What would Willy Loman be without his cases?
Or Damn Yankees sans bats and balls and bases?
R and J without a dagger is a bore,
As is Titus without gushing blood and gore.
Othello needs the fatal handkerchief,
And ingénues their smelling salts to sniff.

The Props Master takes care of all these things --
Flowers and asses’ heads and fairies’ wings.
(These are the props that you need for Midsummer;
I say this for the benefit of newcomers.)
He scrounges, cadges, buys what can be bought,
Finds everything he can, and makes what he cannot;
Brews tea, which actors then pretend is whisky,
Since real booze on the stage is far too risky.
Or he’ll take paper and dye it in more tea
So it seems from another century.
‘Tis he who knows the source to get a sword,
And fifty nifty uses for cardboard.
He sees each object’s soul; and makes it fit in
With what the director’s staged and writer’s written.

And then he lays the props upon a table
And makes for each a designated label
And a space marked by lines of masking tape
Befitting each odd item’s size and shape.
And then the props master begs and implores:
“Do not move any prop – unless it’s yours!”

If only life were like this! If only we’d
Have someone else to find the things we need
And lay them neat and tidy on a table
For us to use, and thus our acts enable;
To see to every object, trinket, token;
Keep it in trim; repair it if it’s broken.
If only we could organize our things
And place them on a table in the wings!
O world edged by these masking-tape borders!
O props master, o paragon of order!

He gives us props; let us give props to him!
For this is the whole purpose of my hymn.
I praise him for his zeal and his proclivity
For mixing discipline and creativity.
Salute him then with twenty-one fake guns
And drink his health with tea – not Jameson!
  • I chose to write the Ode to the Props Master because I thought it'd be fun to make rhymes about things (all of the different objects that the props master must find), mixed in with references to well-known plays and the props they require. Very quickly, I came up with the lines "What would Hamlet be without a skull? / What would The Seagull be without a gull?" and therefore, determined that the poem would need to be in heroic couplets.
  • Heroic couplets are FUN to write. I can totally see how Alexander Pope churned out line after line of them.
  • Only later did I realize that the form of the poem also suited the message I was trying to convey. Heroic couplets have a very orderly, neat and tidy feeling, and my poem is about how the props master keeps everything neat and organized. And then I felt very clever -- without even realizing it, I'd followed Sondheim's key principle of "content dictates form"!
  • As with my Costume Designer ode, the demands of poetic form superseded my desire to invert traditional gender stereotypes. Thus, I used the singular masculine pronoun "he" at all times to refer to the Props Master.
  • Surprisingly, I did not come up with the silly pun on "He gives us props; let us give props to him!" until very late in my process of writing the poem. This might be the most ridiculous line in the whole piece -- the semicolon adds to the ridiculousness, I think -- and thus it is my favorite.
  • My original idea for staging this piece at the Theater Pub show involved having one person recite the poem while two Assistants pulled props out of bags as they were mentioned, tossed them around, and engaged in general tomfoolery. This had to be toned down a bit for the actual performance -- the Cafe Royale didn't want us throwing things around, and we were not able to source all of the props mentioned -- but the general idea remained. Neil Higgins recited the poem, while several of the other actors that night brought out prop pieces and eventually put them into a masking-tape grid. Unfortunately, I was seated behind a pillar and didn't get to see any of this (!) but it got a good reaction from the crowd. Especially the rubber chicken that we used for the "seagull" and the baby doll wrapped in rags that was the "buried child." (Dead animals: great for comedy!)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Ode to the Costume Designer

Hey, remember when I wrote two poems for San Francisco Theater Pub's show in March? I always meant to post the poems on my blog when the "Odes of March" project was over... so here, albeit belatedly, is "Ode to the Costume Designer."
Cinderella and others got dressed in their finery
By magic, by fairies, by sprites.
In theater, our fairy’s the costume designer; she
Makes clothes to enchant and delight.

Her taste is eccentric and never generic. Her
Knowledge of costume impresses.
And many an actor first gets into character
By wearing the right shoes or dresses.

She knows how to flatter your hips, breasts, or pelvis
By artfully adding some trim
And when a director hates actors in velvet
The costumer humors his whim.

Like one of the mice in The Tailor of Gloucester
She stays up all night sewing seams
She sheds not a tear for the sleep it will cost her
Making raiment of radiant dreams.

Clothes are not silly; a character’s fashions
Can show us the depths of his heart.
So let’s pay homage to the costumer’s passions,
Her talents, her efforts, her art.
  • I tried to be clever with the rhymes but I worry that some of them are a bit too precious ("finery" / "designer, she"). However, I will defend "Gloucester" / "cost her" till my dying day.
  • I wrote stanza #4 first, and it's still my favorite -- not only for the "Gloucester" rhyme, but for the "raiment of radiant dreams" line.
  • The rhyme on "Gloucester" and "cost her" also dictated that the costume designer in my poem is female. Which made me feel like I was reinforcing gender stereotypes, in a way that I would prefer to avoid, but my rhyme-snobbery won out over my feminism :-)
  • The reference to the velvet-hating director is an in-joke about my friend Stuart.
  • On performance night, this ode was performed by Aoife Davis as the costume designer, dressing Jessica Rudholm in a beautiful gown.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Hitting the Sweet Spot of the Nostalgia Cycle

It seems time to pronounce a rule about American popular culture: the Golden Forty-Year Rule. The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past. [...] Forty years past is the potently fascinating time just as we arrived, when our parents were youthful and in love, the Edenic period preceding the fallen state recorded in our actual memories.
--Adam Gopnik, "The Forty-Year Itch," The New Yorker, April 23, 2012
My play Pleiades is set in 1971. I didn't know about the forty-year nostalgia cycle when I was writing it, but I definitely felt that there was... something extra-resonant about writing about that era. It was a conscious effort to write a play about my mother's generation of women when they were my age: early twenties, not quite fully formed, finding their way. While I don't think that Pleiades betrays much genuine nostalgia for the early '70s (Gopnik's definition: the belief that an era "is not simply a good setting for a story but that it is a good setting for you") it does feel like we're coming to a time in our culture when we can reevaluate the '70s. When I was growing up in the '90s, my mother would dismiss the '70s as a decade of bad fashion, bad music, and bad faith. But I have to believe there's more to it than that.

Pleiades was my effort to write about my mother's generation as young women; The Rose of Youth, my '30s play, was about my grandmothers' generation. (Here's a post I wrote in 2007 discussing the parallels between Grandma's generation and my own.) Forty years in the past, and eighty years in the past. Yes, there's something to Gopnik's theory.

The new season of Mad Men prompted this New Yorker piece on nostalgia. Can I just say that the use of music in Mad Men is making me feel better about the way I used music in Pleiades? The play is bookended with two songs from a Judy Collins album, which set the mood and make thematic points, but I wondered if I was being too obvious and predictable. (Seven young women in 1971 -- of course they listen to Judy Collins!) But then I realized that Mad Men isn't always subtle in its musical cues either -- and it's not a problem. "Satisfaction" in Season 4, or "Tomorrow Never Knows" last Sunday, are iconic songs that suit the show, the themes, the characters. And I'm glad that they form part of the Mad Men sonic landscape -- that they've been deemed necessary and appropriate, rather than predictable and obvious.

Though I also appreciate how they mix iconic songs with more obscure ones -- I know a thing or two about yé-yé music, but I'd never heard "Zou Bisou Bisou" before it appeared in the Mad Men season premiere!

I do need to do a new draft of Pleiades, but Judy Collins won't get edited out.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Everything Amazing is Happening at Once

Hiya! I've been busy trying to make amazing things happen. And all of a sudden, they are! Let me tell you of them:
  • A BOOK I COPY-EDITED IS AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER ON AMAZON.COM! Sorry for shouting, but this is basically the coolest thing that has ever happened to me. Songs of Hestia: Five Plays from the 2010 San Francisco Olympians Festival is being published later this month and is currently available for pre-order. I copy-edited the book and wrote the introduction. The text of's "Book Description" is taken from my introduction! Contains plays by Nirmala Nataraj, Bennett Fisher, Stuart Eugene Bousel, Claire Rice, and Evelyn Jean Pine.
  • The other book I copy-edited this year, the Bay One-Acts (BOA) Anthology, is available for purchase at the BOA Festival. Both books have covers designed by Cody Rishell and, with their similar color schemes, I must say that they would look fabulous next to one another on your bookshelf. Also remember to get your BOA tickets, and check out the playwright interviews that I did for the BOA website!
 So yes, I'm busy, but I've got amazing stuff going on. Follow me on Twitter (@MarissaSkud) so you don't miss any of it!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Highly-Anticipated Movie Reviews: "Damsels in Distress"

The latest in an occasional series comparing my anticipation of a movie with the post-viewing reality...

Title of movie: Damsels in Distress 

Reason(s) for anticipation: NEW WHIT STILLMAN MOVIE! His first in 14 years!

All right, technically speaking, I didn't wait a full 14 years for this film. I first saw a Stillman movie (Metropolitan) just two and a half years ago -- but it was love at first sight. Since then, I've discovered that several of my playwright friends are equally as enamored of Stillman's screenwriting as I am, and I even co-hosted a Metropolitan-viewing party earlier this year. (We ate deviled eggs, dressed up in 1980s prom gowns, and danced the cha-cha.) I was thrilled to learn that Stillman would have a new movie coming out and interested to see what kind of story he would tell about young women of my generation. And of course, with the release of this movie, I'm loving the renewed attention paid to Stillman's filmmaking and all of the new interviews with him that are being published.

The premise: At a third-rate private university, three female students -- ringleader Violet, imperious Rose, and dippy Heather -- are on a self-imposed mission to bring good cheer and old-fashioned sociability to the benighted student body. The girls befriend Lily, a transfer student, and include her in their schemes, such as tap-dancing lessons for depressed students and scented soap for stinky boys. (It is typical of Stillman's deadpan humor that none of the characters ever point out that all of the girls are named after flowers.) But their attempts to impose order on the world run up against a host of problems, mainly male ones: dumb and smelly frat boys or disreputable "playboy-operator types." Lily also turns out to be more skeptical, less tractable, than foreseen.

My reaction: Has Whit Stillman been reading my mind? How has he possibly put so many of my pet preoccupations into one film?  Here's a movie where the characters wear sundresses with full circle skirts, worship Fred Astaire, read "flit lit" (dandy literature like Waugh and Wilde), hang Paris maps on their walls, and use Truffaut's Stolen Kisses as a seduction technique.

So many of the movie's little details resonated with me in an almost spooky way. In an early scene, the girls are at a frat party, where the '90s song "Another Night" by The Real McCoy is playing. "Ooh, a golden oldie! I love these!" cries Violet. Now, I have a very powerful Proustian-terpsichorean reaction to "Another Night," because when I was in fifth grade, some friends and I made up a dance routine to that song for a gym class assignment. This is the closest I have ever come to trying to start a dance craze. (This was the year that the Macarena came out and I feel like the gym teacher's assignment, as well as my dance moves, were vaguely Macarena-inspired.) And, later in the movie, Violet reveals that her greatest ambition is to start a dance craze. Odd, right? Out of all of the '90s golden oldies that Stillman could have chosen, why did he pick "Another Night"?

And it went on from there: a joke (I won't spoil it) that will make me and my parents laugh for an entirely different reason than it will make everyone else laugh; a revelation that one of the principal characters is from Portland, Oregon (my home town)... Of course, because I enjoy Stillman's sensibility, I'd expected that I would enjoy Damsels in Distress. But I had not expected to feel like Whit Stillman had been reading my mind!

So, here's the conundrum. Damsels in Distress is an extremely strange movie: it's Stillman's broadest comedy, presenting lots of preposterous characters and situations with a straight face. Many reviews have remarked that it seems to be set in some kind of idiosyncratic fantasy world. It's utterly sui generis, and yet it felt like it had been made for me. It's not even that Damsels in Distress reflected my own college experience to any significant degree -- just that it's chock-full of the material signifiers and abstract themes that tend to preoccupy me.

And, furthermore, it's decidedly odd for me to feel this way about a movie made by a man my parents' age, and not, you know, by Lena Dunham.  On the other hand, I was quite pleased to be confirmed in my feeling (which I've had ever since watching Metropolitan) that I am a half-step away from being a Whit Stillman character myself.

So what does that mean, "a Whit Stillman character"? Perfectionists, idealists. People who believe and say utterly ridiculous things, but with great conviction and impeccable grammar. People who are concerned with the viability of virtuousness in the modern world. (I once said to a friend of mine in college, "I feel like I am on a constant quest for self-improvement." "Oh yes, me too," my friend replied, and I remember thinking No, it's not the same thing. Because she meant it in a New Age, spiritual-growth sense, and I meant it in an old-fashioned Protestant Work Ethic sense.) Stillman may gently mock his characters' more outlandish theories, but unlike so many other American filmmakers, he will not mock anyone for being too intellectual, too idealistic, too exacting. In a typical romantic comedy, Violet would be demonized as a prig in need of a comeuppance, but in Damsels, she's the heroine. Indeed, the movie could be subtitled "The Vindication of Violet." She gets the only guy in the movie who's worth having (no spoilers, but I will say that many American movies would demonize him, too), and gets to start her dance craze, the Sambola. The Sambola scene, shot in shades of red, gold, and black, might be the most visually lovely thing Stillman has ever filmed.

Violet is the sort of person who'd rather light a (scented) candle than curse the darkness. The movie's comedy arises from her failure to understand that some people just don't like candles, and from her tendency to singe her own fingers when lighting the match, but the point stands: she has an optimistic, generous, can-do spirit. I strive to be this way, and it seems like Whit Stillman does, too. If you read between the lines of interviews with him, you can tell that he doesn't like much modern cinema, but he's too much of a gentleman to go off on some curmudgeonly rant about "kids these days and their sex and violence." Rather (after fourteen years of struggling with matches that won't light), he's made the kind of film that he'd like to see. Which, as it turns out, is just the kind of film that I'd like to see. Anyone want to Sambola with me?