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!