Tuesday, December 31, 2013

"Shake 'Em Up": High-Spirited Civil Disobedience

I decided recently (prompted by a viewing of The Palm Beach Story on TCM) that my goal in life is to be one-half of the madcap couple in a screwball comedy. For Christmas, my parents gave me a book that might help me achieve that: a genuine Prohibition-era cocktail-party guide.

(And of course, it was the perfect book to read on New Year's Eve. Happy New Year to all!)

Shake 'Em Up!: A Practical Handbook of Polite DrinkingShake 'Em Up!: A Practical Handbook of Polite Drinking by Virginia Elliott

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Shake 'Em Up" is a book of cocktail recipes, party-giving tips, and hangover remedies, first published in the United States in 1930 -- when Prohibition was still the law of the land. Authors Virginia Elliott and Phil Stong even advise on what mixture of herbal extracts will give your bathtub gin the most authentic flavor, which got them in trouble with the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Truth be told, a lot of this book consists of recipes for cocktails and canapes that probably won't appeal to a modern palate, which is why I'm only giving it 3 stars. The recipe for a "dry" martini would be considered outrageously "wet" these days (two parts gin to one part vermouth), and the appetizers are mostly variations on "slice white bread, butter it, and put something salty-fatty-savory on top."

Still, there's enough historical interest and insouciant 1930s wit to make this slim book worthwhile. For instance, to introduce their section on drinks for cocktail novices, the authors write "Tender young things, who have just been taken off stick candy, prefer complicated pink and creamy drinks which satisfy their beastly appetite for sweets and at the same time offer an agreeable sense of sinfulness. If you have any creme de menthe or creme de cocoa about the house, make them up some kind of a mess of it and push them under the piano to suck on it."

Civil disobedience has rarely been so cheerful or such good fun.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 23, 2013

Macbeth is a Middle-Aged White Guy @ SF Theater Pub Blog

Over at the San Francisco Theater Pub blog I lay out my theory of why Macbeth gets produced so much more frequently than the other "great" Shakespearean tragedies: because Macbeth is a middle-aged white guy. It's a simple explanation, but not necessarily an obvious one. (I haven't heard anyone make this argument before, and was pretty pleased when I came up with it.) Agree? Disagree? Go over to the Theater Pub blog and tell me about it in the comments.

Bonus links:
My 2008 review of Patrick Stewart's Macbeth
A post from 2007 in which I discuss the three productions of Macbeth I had seen up to that date (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, high school, and college)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

"The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterward" - The Only Movie-Novelization That Matters

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know that I'm a major Whit Stillman fan. As such, I was thrilled when my friend Stuart (at his own birthday party!) gave me a copy of Stillman's out-of-print novel The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterward. It was all I could do not to stay up all night reading it. My review:

 The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian AfterwardThe Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterward by Whit Stillman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whit Stillman is one of America’s great cult filmmakers. In the last 24 years, he has written and directed four indie movies, and published this novel, based on his 1998 film The Last Days of Disco. He’s met with critical acclaim (one Oscar nomination, two films in the Criterion Collection) but has never become widely popular. Several of his films were financial flops*, and the novel is out of print.

Which is really a shame, because it’s a lovely entry in the kinda-pretentious-young-people-coming-of-age-in-the-big-city genre. The setting is Manhattan, circa 1980. The characters work in crappy jobs and live in crappier apartments, but as long as they can dance till dawn at the hottest nightclub in town, everything seems beautiful. They fall in love and break up and overanalyze one another’s motivations and try to figure out the proper way to live in the world as an adult.

Of course one of the major charms of Stillman’s films is his dialogue, and the novel faithfully reproduces classic scenes like the one in which a character argues that Lady and the Tramp “programs women to adore jerks.” But Stillman’s voice shows through even in the more narrative sections. E.g., describing the aftermath of a fight outside the Club: “The cops jumped out, but it was almost all over except for the mercurochrome.” There are also plenty of good moments in the novel that don’t appear in the film – I couldn’t stop laughing when I read the scene where Alice, our modest and virtuous heroine, kicks a dog** while jogging in Central Park.

So you can think of this book as something like the DVD extras or “deleted scenes” from The Last Days of Disco, but I even think it’s good enough to stand on its own. If you didn’t know better, you could almost think that it’s a minor-classic novel that got turned into an indie film, rather than the other way around. I know I said it's a shame this book is out of print, but I also feel like that somehow adds to its mystique. After all, it’s a story about the rare, precious, fleeting moments of one’s young adulthood – so it’s oddly appropriate that this book should be a rare and precious object itself.

View all my reviews

*CORRECTION 12/9/13 (morning): Via Twitter, Whit Stillman (!) writes to say that of his four films, "only Disco was unprofitable."

**CORRECTION 12/9/13 (afternoon): Via Twitter, Palacio Rojo Blog points out that the dog-kicking scene did appear in the movie. Oops! It's been a few years since I saw the film and I didn't recall that moment; perhaps the scene makes a bigger, funnier impact in the novel than in the film. (Stillman tweeted in reply that the dog was "a bad actor.") Oh well, another excuse to rewatch the film.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Turkey Day, Quirky Friends

Mead Hunter posted this whimsical image on my Facebook wall yesterday. Ever since I wore a mini-dress and colorful tights to visit him one day in the mid-2000s, he's been convinced that I am the 21st-century embodiment of Marlo Thomas in That Girl! Hence, this photo of Thomas with a turkey.

"Quirky" is an overused word, but I am thankful to have friends who are both so thoughtful and so quirky.

Brussels sprouts with bacon are currently roasting in my oven, and then I'll be off to an "orphan's Thanksgiving" with some other delightfully offbeat folks.

(Finally having a smartphone means that I am now more likely to document my life in Pinterest-y images such as the above. Credit my roommate for buying the sunflowers, though.)

Monday, November 25, 2013

We Will Never Be Royals @ SF Theater Pub Blog

I'm taking the week off from my San Francisco Theater Pub column, due to the Thanksgiving holiday, but in the meantime, here's a column from a few weeks back that I never posted to marissabidilla.

The column is titled "Theater-Goers of the World, Unite!" for a taste of Marxist rabble-rousing, but then the next day I heard Lorde's ubiquitous song on the radio and thought maybe I should've titled my piece "We Will Never Be Royals" instead?

After all, the point I was trying to make feels similar to what Lorde is singing about -- how the media (pop music, big regional theaters) present an image of elitist wealth that is out of reach of "average" people, especially in an era of rising income inequality. But shouldn't we be making art for the average person in the first place?

(It was about a year ago that I first heard and became obsessed with Pulp's song "Common People." Evidently I like my pop music with a good helping of socioeconomic commentary.)

Whatever you want to call it, my column got a good response and high marks from my editor, so go check it out.

Monday, November 18, 2013

How the Bechdel Test Made Me a Better Playwright @ SF Theater Pub Blog

Here's a blog post I've been meaning to write for nearly a year: How the Bechdel Test Made Me a Better Playwright.

The post tells how I wrote the closing scene of my screenplay Aphrodite, or the Love Goddess to make it comply with the Bechdel Test. The scene worked like gangbusters, and I probably could not have arrived at it if I hadn't been thinking of the Bechdel Test. I'd love it if other playwrights considered using the Bechdel Test in this fashion, as a way of sparking their imaginations and leading them down pathways that they hadn't previously considered.

(An anecdote that didn't make it into the column: At the time I had the first living-room reading of Aphrodite, I hadn't written the final scene, but I was mapping it out in my head. I told my cast, "I want it to show Rosalie with another woman, because that hasn't happened yet," and everyone in the room went "ooooh," really salacious-like, because it sounded like I was saying that the scene would depict Rosalie with another woman sexually. I blushed like crazy and said "No! Not like that!"

Well, I suppose one does have to wonder: if Aphrodite is the goddess of love and many of the gods are bisexual, why are there no myths that show Aphrodite with female lovers? [Answer: the Greeks were a patriarchal culture in which it was OK for men to be homosexual, but not for women to be lesbian. Another answer: there is something very homoerotic about paintings that show Aphrodite and the Three Graces all clad in mere shreds of gauze, isn't there?] Nonetheless, that's not the direction I wanted to go in with my screenplay. Maybe it would've been more courageous -- and still Bechdel-test compliant -- if I had.)

Anyway, like I said, I've wanted to write this post for a year and I ended up doing it for my Theater Pub blogging gig, so go check it out.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween Reading: "Vampire City" by Paul Féval

Happy Halloween! I usually make a point of reading some classic gothic/mystery/horror fiction in October or November, but this year, my choice was a little more bizarre than usual. I read Vampire City, by Paul Féval, after acquiring it from my friend Stuart at his annual book-giveaway some months ago. I hadn't heard of Féval (a 19th-century French pulp novelist) or this book until Stuart brought it to my attention – and I'm always intrigued by books that complicate my understanding of French literature and the history of fiction in general.

So just in time for the spooky holiday, here's my Goodreads review of Vampire City by Paul Féval.

Vampire City
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Vampire City is an obscure work of horror-comedy-metafiction written in France circa 1870, and if that description doesn't pique your interest, what are you doing on Goodreads?

Paul Féval imagines Ann Radcliffe, the English Gothic novelist, running away from home on the morning of her wedding day to rescue two of her childhood friends, who have gotten caught up in the schemes of a nefarious vampire. Féval's vampires glow green at nighttime, have their own civilization based in Vampire City, and can duplicate themselves. It's a far cry from the typical, Bram-Stoker-influenced vampire – although the section where Ann and her companions rely upon a vampire's victim to guide them to Vampire City is reminiscent of the end of Dracula, when Mina uses her telepathic connection with Dracula to guide the heroes to his castle.

The villain's scheme is a bit confusing and all of the characters are one-dimensional, but the tongue-in-cheek narration is full of gems like "Knowing themselves to be guilty of impropriety, Ned and Corny kept their intention [to elope] hidden from their friends. Please do not think me capable of excusing in any degree something which is not done, but I feel bound to point out that they had to contend with an unscrupulous fraudulent bankrupt, a female living in sin, and a vampire. It has to be admitted that their situation was difficult."

Not necessarily a must-read, but pretty entertaining, and an excellent reminder that the 19th century was far weirder and funnier than we usually imagine it to be.

View all my reviews

Sunday, October 20, 2013

I'm a Theater Widow @ SF Theater Pub Blog

While I've been busy this month with writing projects and the like, my boyfriend has been busy too, playing bass four nights a week for Custom Made Theatre's production of Next to Normal.

Thus, I've become a theater widow—something I never intended to be, considering that a few years ago I adopted an informal policy of not dating theater people.

In my latest piece for SF Theater Pub's blog, I write about my experience of theater-widowhood. Fortunately, it's coming to an end soon. I'll still be busy in November—the San Francisco Olympians Festival will take up most of my free time—but at least I'll be seeing the Olympians plays together with my boyfriend.

(This is all part of my campaign to make "theater widow" a more widely-known and widely used phrase, by the way.)

And if you've missed out on Next to Normal, there's still one more weekend to see this production!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"Dreaming in French": the American girl in Paris

I started this blog about a month after I returned from studying abroad in Paris. The transition from living in one of the world's most beautiful cities, with its elegant and easily navigable Métro system, to living in a suburban subdivision, was not an easy one to make. I felt terribly bored, and terribly lonely, and burst with thoughts that I had no way of sharing with anybody. Thus, a blog was born. For this and for many other reasons, I definitely feel like my time in Paris marked and changed me as a person... yet perhaps not as much as it did for the three women discussed in the book Dreaming in French...

Dreaming in FrenchDreaming in French by Alice Kaplan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Dreaming in French" is more analytical and scholarly-minded than its romantic title would suggest. It's a study of how three important mid-century American women were shaped by spending time in Paris in their early twenties. The women are considered as individual personalities, but also as stand-ins for the different types of young women who tend to become attracted to French culture: Jacqueline Bouvier the aesthete, Susan Sontag the intellectual, and Angela Davis the revolutionary.

In the case of Bouvier, author Alice Kaplan does her best to sift the facts from the myths that have sprung up around this glamorous, Francophilic first lady. Still, I disagree with some of Kaplan's conclusions. She unearthed a French translation that Jackie made of an American pop song, and claims that it shows Jackie's special sensitivity to the poetry of the French language, but, in my opinion, it seems like a fairly literal and schoolgirlish translation job.

Of the three women, Susan Sontag kept the most extensive diaries and journals from her time in Paris. This is good, because it enables Kaplan to use Sontag's own words to tell her story, but it also made me wonder if I shouldn't have just read Sontag's journals (which have been published as "Reborn") instead.

I really didn't know anything about Angela Davis before reading this book, and I found her story fascinating. Kaplan makes a convincing case for how living in France awakened Davis' social consciousness; and then, how Davis became a cultural icon among French people (to a much greater extent than in the United States).

I myself spent a semester abroad in Paris (in 2007) and enjoyed reading about how the day-to-day experiences of these three illustrious women were similar to and different from my own. Still, I realize (and I think Kaplan does, too) that the profound effects that Paris can have on a young woman's psyche, may be too personal and intimate to be dredged up by an academic historian. Kaplan bases this book on primary-source documents: letters, diaries, newspapers, interviews, transcripts. But no primary source can convey the feeling of what it's like to ramble around the Latin Quarter, or sit down to dinner with a French host family, or, indeed, to dream in a foreign language.

View all my reviews

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Dangerous Drifting @ SF Theater Pub Blog

As you might have guessed from my infrequent postings here, I have been juggling a lot of theater-related commitments lately. During the month of September, I found myself scattered in at least four directions: completing my SF Olympians Festival scripts, writing for the Fringe Festival newsletter, conducting email interviews for the Bay One-Acts, and participating in Theater Bay Area's ATLAS program for playwrights.

And that doesn't even include other things like switching to a new team at work, having my parents visit last weekend, trying to maintain a semblance of sanity and a personal life... And I'd dared to hope that October would be less busy than September, but honestly, this month doesn't show any signs of letting up.

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that I wrote my Theater Pub column this week about being overscheduled. (Oh yes! Because I'm still writing for that venue every other week, too!)

More specifically, I wrote about how it's possible to be overscheduled and still be drifting through life. How sometimes we overschedule ourselves in order to avoid confronting our fears and doubts -- we keep busy, and do what other people tell us to do, because that's easier than making decisions for ourselves. It's really, really scary to say "I want this and I'm going to fight like hell to get it," because then there's a chance you might not get it... it's easier to just take the opportunities that are handed to you, feeling like you ought to be grateful for them. That, in fact, it would be selfish to strike out on your own, or to try to cut back on the number of things you're trying to accomplish at any given time.

Had I googled "drifting through life" before I wrote this column, I probably would have tried to work in a quotation or citation of Gretchen Rubin's (The Happiness Project) post about drift—she, too, makes the point that even if you seem to be working really hard or busy all the time, you can still be drifting.

In the meantime, I'm going to try not to let October kick my butt—and within the next three weeks, I'm going to come up with a five-year plan that, I hope, will get me back on course and make me feel less scattered.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Script Evaluation 101 @ SF Theater Pub Blog

Another week, another Theater Pub column. This week, my topic is "Script Evaluation 101" -- the basic questions, rubrics, and biases that I use when I'm evaluating play scripts. Read my column and you, too, can become just as qualified as I am to judge new plays!

Or, if you disagree with the sweeping generalizations, unsubstantiated opinions, and blatant prejudices that I use to evaluate scripts, why don't you tell me your rules for evaluating plays, and we can hash it out in the comments?

Monday, September 16, 2013

"Wendy and the Lost Boys": Wasserstein's stranger-than-fiction life

If you're an American female playwright, particularly one who went to a Seven Sisters college, you're going to have to grapple with the legacy of Wendy Wasserstein. We all have our literary forebears that we do battle with in that "Anxiety of Influence" kind of way, and Wasserstein is one of mine. Not the only one, certainly. But Uncommon Women and Others was a big, big influence on me when I was writing Pleiades, and I wrote a college term paper on The Heidi Chronicles. And Wasserstein is the archetypal Baby Boomer female playwright, and I am a daughter of Boomers, so in some sense, it's like she is my mother...

As such, I had wanted to read Julie Salamon's biography of Wasserstein, Wendy and the Lost Boys, ever since it came out two years ago. But I was also hesitant: I read reviews stating that the biography made Wasserstein out to be a sadder and more complicated woman than she ever let on. Is this what it meant to be a female artist? (Must a female artist suffer?) Would reading the book just depress me? I knew that Wasserstein never found romantic love, and I too was suffering bad luck in my love life, and in my more cynical moments I'd repeat to myself, "Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe, and Wendy Wasserstein died alone."

Maybe I finally allowed myself to read Wendy and the Lost Boys this month because I am secure and happy in a relationship, so the story of a romantically-frustrated female playwright now has less power to trigger my neuroses. Anyway, here's my Goodreads review of the biography.

  Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy WassersteinWendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein by Julie Salamon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Wendy and the Lost Boys" is a fascinating biography that ferrets out some of the secrets and sorrows that Wendy Wasserstein hid beneath her giggly, lovably self-deprecating public persona. In some respects, Wasserstein was a typical Baby Boomer woman, breaking the glass ceiling in the '70s, giving up her bohemian roots and becoming part of the Establishment during the '80s and '90s, etc. In other respects, she was completely atypical. Her parents, siblings, friendships, and romantic relationships were all far more complicated than she ever revealed to the public, either in her plays (which were often semi-autobiographical) or her magazine essays.

Julie Salamon tells this story capably, bringing to life the vivid "cast of characters" that made up Wendy's world. Many of Wasserstein's famous friends, such as Christopher Durang and André Bishop, spoke to Salamon and provided valuable insights. (Dishiest piece of gossip: around the time "The Heidi Chronicles" was on Broadway, Wendy had a lengthy affair with Terrence McNally -- though McNally was gay, and had formerly been Edward Albee's boyfriend!)

Salamon's writing shows some signs of fatigue in the later chapters of the book -- lots of one-sentence paragraphs, things like that. Nevertheless, the final chapters are surprisingly suspenseful, as Wendy has a "mystery" baby and then a "mystery" illness, all within the last six years of her too-short life. Her secretiveness about the pregnancy and about her baby's father is mirrored by her secretiveness about the lymphoma that killed her. If this were a play, you might not believe it -- but this is Wendy's uncommon life.

View all my reviews

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Shitstirring (lots of it) @ SF Theater Pub Blog

What happens when two verbose, overeducated people who always want to have the last word start to argue about the ethics of stirring shit up, our responsibilities to ourselves and to our fellow humans, and the best way to live in an imperfect world?

You get me and Stuart Bousel, my editor at the Theater Pub blog, going head-to-head in the comments section for several rounds.

The argument started when I used my Theater Pub column this week to quibble with some aspects of Stuart's earlier piece "In Defense of Stirring Shit Up." Then he responded in the comments section to quibble with some of my points, etc. It got very heady and somewhat heated, but I am proud of what I wrote, and I think it's worth reading.

Go over there and enter the fray... if you dare.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Goodreads and less-good ones

Popping in to say that I joined Goodreads a couple of weeks ago, at my boyfriend's urging. I always keep lists of everything I read (which reminds me, I never posted my 2012 list on my blog) -- so why not do it using Goodreads' interface, and get exposed to new books I might like via Goodreads' fancy book-recommending algorithm?

Posting reviews of what I'm reading on Goodreads also feels more comfortable, somehow, then posting them here on marissabidilla. When I write a blog post here, I feel like it needs to be a well-researched, well-organized piece of writing that makes a clear and interesting argument. You (the reader of my blog) aren't interested in just hearing my random thoughts about whatever book I happen to be reading, I think... so my post needs some other justification for existing beyond "I felt like writing a book review." As a result, I can't remember the last time I wrote a book review on marissabidilla.

Whereas, when I write a review on Goodreads, the "why" of the review is self-evident ("because I just finished reading this book, and this website wants me to rate and review it"). And I don't need to worry about making my review a perfect piece of writing, since it is just one of dozens or hundreds of reviews on the site. I can simply write 250 or so words about the book, listing some of my thoughts and attempting to justify the star rating I gave to it.

My first Goodreads review is for Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Straub, a book I wanted to read as soon as I heard about it. Unfortunately, I didn't think it lived up to the hype.

Laura Lamont's Life in PicturesLaura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked up this book because I enjoy classic movies and wanted to read a novelist's take on Hollywood in the 1940s, but Emma Straub seems more interested in her protagonist's domestic life than in her film career. The novel goes into great detail about Laura Lamont's (née Elsa Emerson) small-town childhood, her marriages, and her children, even to the point of rehashing the same themes and emotions over and over. (Regarding Laura's troubled son, Junior, on page 292 we learn that "Hearing his name from someone else's mouth felt like a hole through Laura's lung," and ten pages later, "Sometimes he looked so much like his father that it poked a hole straight through Laura's heart.") Meanwhile, the novel is comparatively silent on subjects like Laura's filmography, her professional relationships, or the actual extent of her talent as an actress.

The novel follows Laura into the 1950s, '60s, and beyond -- decades during which various tragedies strike her family, and she loses her fame and beauty. For much of the book, she is a lost and melancholy woman (I lost count of the number of times she weeps). While this makes emotional sense for the character, pages and pages of a woman wallowing in grief and regret doesn't always make for compelling reading. I also thought there was a rather off-putting subtext of "being a woman, a wife, and a mother, means a life of suffering and sorrow."

I had hoped that this novel would offer me vivid characters, snappy dialogue, and/or sweeping emotional climaxes, which are some of the things I love best about 1940s movies, but I was unfortunately disappointed.

View all my reviews

(What do you think? Should I keep cross-posting my reviews from Goodreads onto marissabidilla?)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Confessions of a Copy-Editor @ SF Theater Pub Blog

One reason that postings here have been so intermittent is that I've been busy this summer copy-editing two anthologies of plays:
  • the Bay One Acts anthology, which will be available for sale in the lobby and is also a reward for our Kickstarter donors. A $25 donation gets you a ticket to the festival AND a copy of the anthology. Such a deal!
  • Heavenly Bodies, an anthology of plays from the 2011 Olympians Festival, including my own Pleiades. Needless to say, I'm really excited about this one, and will post more details (publication date, etc.) as I have them.
And, for my latest Theater Pub column, I decided to write about my adventures as a copy-editor of play anthologies. Read all about it!

I've spent so much time copy-editing lately that it affects the way I see the world. I've become ever more conscious of typos in the things I read for pleasure. Moreover, after I read that New York Times article about new research indicating that Shakespeare wrote some 325 lines of The Spanish Tragedy, my takeaway was "Just think, if copy-editors had existed in Jacobean England, we wouldn't have this proof." (The text of these lines is riddled with errors and misprints, but the researcher thinks that most of them came about because the printers had trouble reading Shakespeare's messy handwriting.) So perhaps I shouldn't beat myself up if an occasional typo slips into the books I edit? Writers' typos and errors are unique, personal signatures; and as a copy-editor, you develop a very intimate relationship with the text.

And two different friends recently sent me that Onion article about "4 Copy Editors Killed in Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence." Thing is, though, I'm a freelancer. I have no stylebook. I make my own rules. I'm an outlaw gunslinger, and it's a lonely world.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Obscure Sorrow of Turning 26

"I'm thirty," I said. "I'm five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor."
—Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby
I turned 26 last month. This, I'd thought, was not a particularly remarkable birthday to celebrate—turning 25, a quarter century, is what gets all of the hoopla. Yet in recent weeks, I've seen several references to the idea that one's twenty-sixth birthday marks the end of foolish youthful hedonism.

There's this humor piece on The Hairpin, "Thank You So Much For Being With Me to Celebrate My Twenty-Five-and-Twelve-Month Birthday," by Julia Meltzer:
As a twenty-five-and-twelve-month-old, it is completely appropriate that I spend Saturday nights locked in my apartment with the five of you and two boxes of Franzia playing Settlers of Catan, Drinking Rules Edition. Max and Joe, I still think that longest road trade was sketchy! No but seriously, when I turn twenty-six that will all be over. I will start going to casual dinners at sophisticated restaurants with friends I haven’t seen in soooooo long, having One or Two Cocktails, and heading home to watch an independent film with my serious boyfriend before knocking off a quick journal entry and falling asleep in a haze of contentment. 
(As many 26-year-olds do, I alternate between the "watching indie films with my serious boyfriend" phase of my life and the "drunken Settlers of Catan" phase. Nonetheless, I relate to what Meltzer is saying about the gap between our real lives and our ideal lives. It's one of my favorite subjects.)

Then there's this, from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:
Midsummer, n. A feast celebrated on the day of your 26th birthday, which marks the point at which your youth finally expires as a valid excuse—when you must begin harvesting your crops, even if they’ve barely taken root—and the point at which the days will begin to feel shorter as they pass, until even the pollen in the air reminds you of the coming snow.
(Are you familiar with The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows? I only just discovered it, but it is the best. It puts words to all the secret aches and regrets and doubts that characterize life as a sensitive soul in the 21st century, yet so often go unacknowledged. The kinds of delicate, poignant, but universal emotions that I want to write plays about.)

Maybe this is just confirmation bias, turning 26 and then suddenly becoming more aware of/interested in other writers who talk about this.

Or maybe it's that I was born into a huge cohort of Internet-equipped, navel-gazing youths, all full of So Many Feelings, all convinced that we're the first people ever to feel this way, and compelled to share our uneasy angst with the world. We're attending our five-year college reunions, and listening to the new Vampire Weekend album, and watching things like Frances Ha and Girls that speak to the anxieties of our generation; and we link to Buzzfeed articles about "growing up in the '90s" and wallow in nostalgia for a childhood that suddenly feels so far away; and I'm amazed that we don't all melt into one quivering blob of jelly, overwhelmed by the weight of all these obscure sorrows.

(Nota bene: I originally typed "quivering blog of jelly." A Freudian slip.)

And when the more practical voice in your head speaks up to tell you that nostalgia is a foolish waste of time, that your life is actually going pretty well, that you have no reason to castigate yourself for being an "irresponsible youth" because you're a type-A perfectionist who's had maybe two hours of true irresponsibility in your entire life... well, it can be tempting to wish that that voice would just shut up, even though it speaks the truth. Angst and nostalgia are so seductive, and it seems like it'd be so beautiful to stand with everyone else, in confusion and misery, and feel All the Feelings.

As a matter of fact, today is my five-year anniversary of moving to San Francisco. I love it here, and I also realize that during these five years I have matured, ridding myself of many of the self-delusions and false beliefs that held me back, and generally becoming a much happier, better-adjusted person. I'm more outgoing and confident; I have a better understanding of others' motivations, as well as my own. In many respects, I feel like I lead a charmed life (for which I try to cultivate gratitude). This anniversary should be cause for a (responsible) celebration! Yet my joy is tempered with a sense of "Okay, Marissa, you've had five years as an aimless flâneur; now it's time to get down to business, figure out what you want out of life, purge yourself of everything extraneous, and for God's sake, start saving for retirement! You are going to need to push yourself a lot more in the next five years in order to accomplish everything you want to do in your twenties."

In the first blog post I ever wrote after moving here, I quoted Angels in America: "Heaven is a city Much Like San Francisco."

And now, five years on, I'm saying to myself, "The Great Work begins."

And here's another question: now that I am 26, am I too old to refer to myself as a girl? My blog header calls me "a girl with an answer for some things and a question for most things," and in my Twitter bio I'm a "would-be girl-about-town," but at what point does that word start to become ridiculous when applied to a grown, adult woman?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What Makes a Play a "Marissa Skudlarek Play"? And Other Thoughts on Personal Branding

In my latest piece for San Francisco Theater Pub's blog, "Branding Upon the Brain," I contemplate the pros and cons of branding yourself as a writer. Is branding a means of identifying and promoting your strengths, or is it a distraction? Does branding yourself mean pigeonholing and caricaturing yourself?

(Does asking all these questions make me sound like Carrie Bradshaw?)

This piece ties in rather well with this marissabidilla post from 2010, "What kind of plays do you write?" Funny: in the older post, I wrote, "Being a young writer, I am fortunate that I can hedge and say 'Well, I feel like I'm still learning, and finding my voice.' But I don't have too many more years in which I can get away with this." How right I was. It's three years later, and I feel like I have passed the point where I can just smile winsomely and say "I think I'm still finding my voice."

After my post went up on the Theater Pub site, I received a very kind and thoughtful Facebook message from a friend who wished to comment on it in a non-public way. While I respect my friend's desire for anonymity, I also really liked what s/he had to say, and I don't want the message to get lost in the depths of Facebook. And when someone tells you something really smart about your own work, I think you have the right to post it on your blog. This is what my friend wrote:
Your work as I know it has a strong brand and a strong feeling to it, from the pregnant lady drinking a beer to the '40s movie star, and it's related not to how you tell your stories (place, time, style) per se, but to what you tell stories about. At least so far, I would say your work is marked by an obsessive exploration of how social expectations prevent selfless connections between people. I see that in almost all your plays: the war between the selfish and the innocent, or maybe between the selfless and the cruel, sometimes between those tendencies within one person, set in a terrain of social/historical confines, looking at how these absurd or arcane social norms are a breeding ground for cruelty and frustration. It doesn't mean you can't try something new and keep growing, but that particular subject matter seems to matter to you in most of your plays, and there's nothing wrong with being pretty sure about what matters to you!
I love it when other people can explain me to myself. Seriously, this is explains so much about my body of work, both its flaws and its virtues. (When writing about "the war between the selfish and the innocent," you have to be careful not to tip over into melodrama, hyperbole, or gratuitous cruelty.) It explains why I am so proud of Pleiades and why feel, somehow, like only I could have written it. It explains why I write so many plays that take place in different eras — the deeper purpose that historical fiction serves for me as a writer. Heck, even the first play I ever wrote, Deus ex Machina, was about greedy, selfish television producers versus an innocent teenage girl, and the absurdities of peer pressure and media influence.

And it's odd, isn't it? I say I don't want to brand myself because I don't want to constrain myself — yet my brand, it seems, is writing about people who feel constrained, and therefore dissatisfied and unhappy.

Also: in my Theater Pub column, I make reference to my participation in the ATLAS Program for Playwrights, a career development initiative. In July, at the ATLAS Playwrights' Showcase, I spoke a little bit about my work and read the first five minutes of my play Beer Theory (which is definitely about "looking at how absurd social norms can breed cruelty and frustration," oh boy). Local actor Don Hardwick attended the showcase and recently wrote it up on his blog. Thanks, Don!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Looking at Art Through Rose-Colored Glasses @ SF Theater Pub

When I rate movies on the IMDB, it's rare for me to give them a score below 7 out of 10; and I can't remember the last time I wrote a negative review on this blog. Yes, it's true: I have a tendency to "round up" my opinions of works of art from neutral to positive, or to give people an A for effort rather than an A for achievement. But I'm not sure if that actually does anyone any favors.

In my latest Theater Pub column, I discuss my tendency to "convince myself that I really liked something, when I might have felt only mildly positive about it." Which might be a defense mechanism -- it means that I don't have to own up to my disappointment and my ennui, and that I avoid feeling like a crotchety old crone.

Check it out, and feel free to post about your own experiences in the comments. I'd like to remain positive and optimistic -- but I'd also like to know how to be more honest with myself and with others.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Sortes Virgilianae for the 21st Century

"Sortes Virgilianae" (Virgilian lots) is an ancient method of bibliomancy — opening up a book to a random passage, and taking it as your fortune — using The Aeneid for its text. I think I first heard about it via one of Lauren Cerand's tweets; she's also written about it in a blog post here. As with most things Lauren Cerand writes about, it struck me as highly sophisticated and a very good idea, and I filed it away for future reference.

I was feeling a little blue the other night, and decided that perhaps some sortes virgilianae was in order, to reveal my fate and perhaps perk me up. But my copy of The Aeneid is packed away in a box in Oregon, and my classics-major boyfriend is out of town, so I can't ask to borrow his copy. Moreover, though I love books and refuse to own an e-reader, I wondered if the act of opening a physical book can ever be perfectly random. Aren't most books bound so that they fall open to certain pages more easily than to others? Also, how does language and translation come into it? If I performed this trick with an English-language copy of The Aeneid, could I truly be said to be doing "sortes Virgilianae"? If my translation were corrupt, would my fortune be corrupt too?

Fortunately, we live in a fascinating era, and so, herewith, I provide six easy steps for doing Sortes Virgilianae in the 21st century, using only your computer and an Internet connection:
  1. Go to the Random Number Generator (www.random.org) and generate a random number between 1 and 12.
  2. This is the book of The Aeneid where your fortune will be found. Go to the Latin Library's Virgil page and click on the designated book.
  3. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to see how many total lines (t) are in this book.
  4. Use the Random Number Generator again, to generate a random number between 1 and t.
  5. Scroll up till you find the line that the Random Number Generator has designated. Highlight and copy the line.
  6. Paste the text into Google Translate (yes, it can handle Latin), and read your fortune.
When I tried this on Tuesday night, the Random Number Generator directed me to Book 10, line 770: "Obuius ire parat. Manet imperterritus ille." Translation, courtesy of Google: "Prepares to meet. Undaunted he abides."

I think this is why The Aeneid is so popular with practitioners of bibliomancy: it is an epic poem full of people doing noble and heroic deeds, and therefore, full of inspiring lines like "Undaunted, he abides." At any rate, receiving this line as my sortes virgilianae on Tuesday night did much to boost my spirits and buck me up.

There ought to be a sortes virgilianae app that automatically performs the 6 steps above, but this procedure will do for now.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Greek mythology isn't brain surgery... or is it?

From Rivka Galchen's article on Elmhurst Hospital, The New Yorker, May 13, 2013:
A young, very dark-skinned patient was jogging lightly up and down the hall. His brain appeared to be herniating out of his skull and, indeed, it was, because he had had a portion of his skull removed, with the goal of safely accommodating brain swelling. [...] The swelling goes down; the piece of skull bone, having been stored in the patient's thigh, is eventually returned to its proper location.
So wait. If you have brain swelling, first they cut your skull open, then they store a piece of it in your thigh? OH MY GOD, THIS IS LIKE ATHENA AND DIONYSUS IN ONE.

It's enough to make me want to get a swelled head.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Questions, Reactions, Explorations of Race in Theater (new Theater Pub column)

Who'd have thought that a madcap, farcical comedy would prove to be one of the more controversial plays in New York? But when a Filipino-American actor wrote a blog post revealing that he had been passed over for the role of a "tribal chief" in favor of a white performer, it caused a stir on Facebook and Twitter.

Despite reading the actor's post and thinking I'd probably boycott this play if I ever got the chance to see it, I unwittingly ended up buying tickets to the show, and saw a preview when I was in New York last week.

Of course, I had to write about the experience -- my thoughts, my questions -- for my new Theater Pub column. What should I have done when I realized that I had bought tickets to a play whose casting reflected values that I do not agree with?

Feel free to post your suggestions in the comments of my Theater Pub post. The comments also contain a more straightforward review of the show in question (The Explorers Club by Nell Benjamin) as well as brief thoughts on the other play I saw while in NYC -- Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.

Friday, June 7, 2013

A Decade of Loving Arcadia (and Septimus) @ SF Theater Pub Blog

I am really, really proud of my latest Theater Pub column. In it, I write about seeing ACT's production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia exactly ten years after I read the play for the first time, and having So Many Feelings.

If you've ever experienced a decade-long love for a work of art, wondered if a staged production of your favorite play would live up to your expectations, or just had a massive crush on Arcadia's Septimus Hodge, this one is for you.

I was also glad to finally take the opportunity to write about one of my favorite plays, and my biggest literary crush of all time, at length. Here are some links to other, briefer posts I've written that have to do with Arcadia:

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

East Coast Girl (at least for a week)

Tomorrow, I'm traveling to New York for a week to attend my 5-year Vassar reunion (where did the time go?!), catch up with East Coast friends, see some Off-Broadway theater, avoid getting attacked by cicadas... you know, the usual.

There'll probably be no new posts while I'm away (well, except for a link to my new Theater Pub column when it's up). But I do hope to have some fun adventures, and to share them here once I've returned home!

Song for the moment, a.k.a. New Favorite Song: "East Coast Girl" by Cayucas.

When I first heard this song on the radio, a couple of months ago, I liked it a lot, but I also thought "This band sounds like they are trying to out-Vampire-Weekend Vampire Weekend." Turns out I'm not the only person who thinks that: the good people of Pitchfork have come to the same conclusion regarding Cayucas' musical style. Unlike the snooty Pitchforkers, though, I'm not so bothered by the way that Cayucas sounds like a breezier, less substantial version of one of my favorite bands. Music need not be epic or groundbreaking to have value, and it's hard to hate such summery, charming indie-pop.

I bought Cayucas' album, Bigfoot, the week it came out, and listened to it while I was on my way to a hipster barbecue in the Mission District. The sun was shining. I was wearing cut-off jean shorts. I rode the J-Church train past Dolores Park and saw San Francisco's golden youth spread before me, day-drinking and sunbathing on the grass -- full of beauty and promise and entitlement and absurdity. And with Bigfoot playing in my ears, it was a perfect moment.

This isn't to denigrate "darker" or more ambitious music -- in fact, I love the way that Vampire Weekend's new album, Modern Vampires of the City, deals with twentysomething angst and despair and "the nagging pressure to make the most of their finite youth." Goodness knows, I've been feeling a lot of that lately, as the realization "Marissa, you graduated college five years ago" sinks in, deeper and deeper. But sometimes you need an antidote to such negativity: lilting music that speaks of summer fun, a weekend reconnecting with old friends and celebrating the good things that have happened in the last five years.

That's what I hope Reunion will be like, at least.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Are Bad Reviews a Badge of Honor? (new Theater Pub column)

My new Theater Pub column is up, over at the usual place. In this one, I investigate the attitude that bad reviews are a badge of honor, and the somewhat related attitude that there's a direct correlation between a work of art's "shock value" and its merit.

I titled this column "Greet Me with Cries of Hate," after the famous last line of Camus' The Stranger. And if you read the comments section, you'll find that this post was greeted with... well, not cries of hate, but definitely more of a rebuke than my columns usually provoke. I accept the criticism, and hope that I won't lose friends over it. That'll teach me not to base columns on conversations that I have with people after I've drunk a glass of wine or two...

Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Blackbird Fly" Music Video Shoot: Mad Tea Parties and Three-Piece Suits

Last November, I got an urgent email from my friend Meg O'Connor. She was producing a music video for a local singer-songwriter, and one of the actors had just dropped out. Would I be interested in waking up early on Saturday, going out to Thornton Beach, and spending the day as an extra in a "mad tea party" scene? I seemed like the kind of person who'd be up for that sort of thing — not to mention the kind of person who could put together an appropriate "mad tea party" costume on short notice.

I was intrigued by Meg's offer and, as it turned out, I had recently dressed up as a suffragette for Halloween, so I had just bought a long Victorian-ish skirt that would work well as the basis for my costume. Meg and her boyfriend picked me up at 7:30 AM on Saturday and I spent a sunny, windy day at the beach, chatting with my fellow extras, pretending to drink tea and eat treats, and trying not to freeze to death.

Despite the cold, the shoot was a lot of fun. So, a month later, when Meg put out a call for dozens more extras for a nightclub scene, I decided to go to that shoot, too. It was a work night; the Olympians Festival was in full swing; I was very busy, and very tired... but something compelled me to participate anyway. "Maybe you'll meet somebody interesting," I told myself. "The reason you live in San Francisco is to take advantage of weird-but-cool opportunities like this."

And as I stood around in the nightclub waiting for filming to begin, I caught sight of one of my fellow extras, a man in a gray three-piece suit and a fedora. And he caught sight of me. I contrived some kind of excuse to chat with him, and soon the conversation was flowing naturally. I learned that he was a high school teacher and a former Classics major — he thought it was so unbelievably awesome that I was involved in a Greek-mythology theater festival. Throughout the night, we continued talking, and discovered more and more points of similarity and connection (we're both from Portland; we went to rival high schools!). Film sets are actually great places for getting to know people — you have a lot of time to stand around and chat with the other extras.
We exchanged numbers and had our first date later that week, seeing Meg O'Connor's Olympians Festival play. Long story short, we continued to see each other throughout the winter, and as of the vernal equinox, we officially became boyfriend and girlfriend.

Needless to say, we are both so glad that we chose to go to the film shoot on that December night, and we love that there's videographic documentation of the night we met! After several months of post-production, the video has finally been completed and released to the Internet. Here it is:

Volary - Blackbird Fly [Official Music Video] from Independent Art Film Productions on Vimeo.

There are several shots of me in the tea party scene (from about 2:00 to 2:40), including a nice close-up. In the scenes at the club, my boyfriend and I can be seen briefly at 1:29 and 3:22, with a slightly longer shot from 3:26 to 3:28 (we're behind the singer, standing against the brick wall).

Here's a behind-the-scenes photo of us on that night (flanked by other friends/extras) if you need a better idea of who to look out for.

My boyfriend and I are well aware that this is one of the most ridiculous "meet cute" stories ever. At the same time, we like to think it's a good story. And it proves the old truism that the best way to meet people is to keep busy and force yourself to do interesting, unusual things.

And maybe the following isn't a truism, but it should be: sometimes, after years of having a love life that is either bad or boring, a man in a three-piece suit will come along, and you'll be smart enough to take notice, and he'll turn out to be a better fit for you than you ever thought possible.

I'm a lucky girl.

Friday, May 17, 2013

See my play "Horny" at SF Theater Pub on Monday, May 20

My latest short play, "Horny," will have a one-night-only performance in San Francisco on Monday, as part of The Pub From Another World.

It's a play about sex and unicorns. Obviously. What happens when you're a young woman who really, really wants to have sex with your boyfriend... but, if you lose your virginity, you can never touch your pet unicorn again?

The Pub From Another World is an evening of eight sci-fi, fantasy, and horror short plays, produced by Sunil Patel. In addition to my unicorn play, there's plays about psychos, superheroes, time travelers, and mad scientists. Plus a play by four-year-old Audrey Kessinger that went viral on BoingBoing.

It should be a really fun evening and I suggest getting there early, as it's bound to get crowded. The performance is at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale, 800 Post St. (at Leavenworth).

"Horny" is directed by Meg O'Connor and will feature actors Sam Bertken and Olivia Youngers. Making out. Lots of making out.

Image: "Young Woman with Unicorn" by Raphael.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Day in the Life of My Ideal Self @ SF Theater Pub Blog

Another bit of (charming?) neurosis from me in my latest San Francisco Theater Pub column. I discuss the gap between my idealized vision of myself and the messy reality. Sometimes the gap seems so large as to be unbridgeable -- sometimes it seems like it'd be so easy to bridge, yet I still can't do it.

If anything, the pressure of writing a twice-monthly column is making me very aware of the flaws and habits that are holding me back -- "maladaptive perfectionism" chief among them. See, for instance, my old post "Playwriting, Failure, and the Fear of Failure." Perfectionists are so afraid of failure that they often feel stuck or paralyzed -- and I know that feeling well.

I tell myself things like "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," encouraging myself to cross just one item off my to-do list and thereby feel more accomplished.

And then I get stuck in one of my perfectionistic-paralyzed moods and wait an entire week even to write a brief marissabidilla post linking to my latest Theater Pub column...

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Goddess from the Machine in Berkeley Rep's "Pericles"

Readers of this blog probably know what the term "deus ex machina" means and where it comes from. But just in case you don't... it literally means "the god from the machine," and it refers to the practice, in ancient Greek and Roman theater, of lowering an actor dressed up like a god onto the stage using a giant crane, and having the god or goddess character resolve the plot just when everything seemed hopeless. Nowadays, of course, we use the term in a looser sense, for any contrivance that comes in at the end of a story to wrap up the plot in an arbitrary way. (I also have a long-standing fascination with the term because my first play was titled Deus ex Machina.)

We've all seen plays and stories that employ a deus ex machina in the second, looser sense -- but I never expected that I would ever see a real "god from the machine" being hoisted onstage via a crane.

And then I saw Pericles at Berkeley Rep last Sunday. As Pericles is not one of Shakespeare's strongest or most psychologically intriguing works, Mark Wing-Davey's production gains its interest from its lively staging, performed by an ensemble of eight actors. There are masks, there are puppets, there's a platform on springs that doubles as a bed (for a sex scene) and the deck of a ship (for a storm scene)... and there's a giant crane that swings round at various moments to pluck something offstage or lower something on.

The script of Pericles incorporates a shameless deus ex machina: the goddess Diana appears to Pericles in a dream and tells him where he can find his long-lost wife. And, as I said, the crane got quite a workout during the production: most memorably, in the scene where Marina is suddenly kidnapped by smugglers, the actress got trapped in a big net and then hoisted into mid-air.

So I really should've seen it coming, that this production would employ the crane one final time, for the deus ex machina scene at the end of the play. Nonetheless, I was amazed and delighted when Diana swung into view, dangling from the end of the crane and giving her wisdom to Pericles.

My boyfriend, even though he is a classics scholar, professed to be disappointed by the effect. He said it looked very inelegant, to have the goddess dangling from the crane like a sack of potatoes.

"But that's the way it would've looked in ancient Greece," I said. "Though they wouldn't have said 'sack of potatoes' because potatoes are a New World food..."

Perhaps audiences these days are accustomed to more elaborate, smoother flying effects, using the latest technology. But I was thrilled to see a bit of ancient theater history repurposed for a 21st-century production.

Pericles plays at Berkeley Rep through May 26.

Photo: Jessica Kitchens as Thaisa, David Barlow as Pericles, Anita Carey as Gower. (There are no pictures available online of Diana on the crane, so I selected this photo instead -- because Ms. Kitchens also plays Diana, and isn't her Thaisa costume gorgeous?) Photo courtesy of mellopix.com.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Epic Plays, Small Theater: "Coast of Utopia" at Shotgun Players

While reading this profile of Blanka Zizka, artistic director of Philadelphia's Wilma Theater, I was most struck by the section that described Zizka's production of the Tom Stoppard play The Invention of Love.
Though the play had a successful run in London, no theater in New York took it up. "People kept thinking that Invention of Love was dry as toast," says New York actor Martin Rayner, who portrayed the elder [A. E.] Houseman. "Nobody wanted to touch it in New York. Blanka took it and made it this vibrant thing."
It would become the highest-grossing show in Wilma history, and it prompted Andre Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater -- who had passed on the play because he thought it too difficult and complicated -- to drive to Philly to see it. Not long after the lights went down, Bishop remembers, "Suddenly the play, which had made no sense to me in London, made total sense to me now. I don't honestly know how. The design was much simpler. The theater was smaller. It wasn't that the actors were better than the British actors. They were clearer. They had an emotional life."
The reason this passage struck me is because Bishop's experience seeing The Invention of Love at the Wilma mirrors what I've been telling people about the experience of seeing Stoppard's plays Voyage and Shipwreck (the first two parts of his Coast of Utopia trilogy) at Shotgun Players. The Wilma Theater has 300 seats; Ashby Stage, where Shotgun performs, has 150. I feel like 125 to 300 seats is really the ideal size for a theater: large enough to make you feel like part of an important communal experience, but small enough to still feel intimate.

And maybe that intimacy is especially important when staging one of Stoppard's challenging and cerebral plays. At least, I connected far more with Shotgun's production of Voyage, last year, than I did when I saw the play in its New York premiere at Lincoln Center Theatre in 2006.

In New York, I think there were something like 60 people in the cast, including famous faces like Ethan Hawke and Jennifer Ehle. The production was lavish, sparing no expense; it opened with an elaborate effect of ocean waves swirling and spiraling around Brian F. O'Byrne (who played the trilogy's protagonist, Alexander Herzen). But, aside from Billy Crudup's brilliant performance as Vissarion Belinsky -- he spoke some of Stoppard's most complex monologues as if he was actually coming up with the words on the spot -- I wasn't really able to connect with the play. The bigness, the lavishness, the constant emphasis on "we are doing something epic and highbrow," overpowered the story. My friend Lexi, who went with me to the show, thought that the opening special effect was the best part of the whole thing. But special effects should not be the reason that you go see a Stoppard play.

The Coast of Utopia features much discussion of intellectual topics, which can make it seem dense and confusing. But it also bears a Chekhovian influence -- there is poignant human drama amidst all of the storms and streams of talk. That element of it, though, got swallowed up by the massive Lincoln Center production. But in Shotgun Players' 150-seat house, the epic grandeur and the human intimacy of the play are balanced. Shotgun may have only 20 cast members instead of 60 (and face it, 20 actors is still a freakin' huge cast). Their set is bare-bones, their costumes are serviceable but perhaps not 100% historically accurate. But the play is clearer. It has an emotional life.

I wanted to love Voyage when I saw it in New York, because I love Stoppard and I love big intelligent plays... and, I guess, I respected that production, but I didn't love it. (Billy Crudup excepted.) It didn't even bother me that I had to miss seeing the other two parts of the trilogy in New York when I left to go study abroad.

Nowadays, I have immense respect for Shotgun for daring to tackle this epic trilogy in their mid-size East Bay venue. Moreover, I am connecting with what they're putting onstage -- getting caught up in the characters' emotional predicaments as well as their intellectual jousting.You can bet that I'm already looking forward to Salvage, the conclusion of the trilogy, which they'll produce next season. In the meantime, Voyage and Shipwreck are playing at Shotgun Players through the end of this weekend (May 5).

Image: Joseph Salazar as Mikhail Bakunin, Patrick Kelly Jones as Alexander Herzen. Photo by Pak Han.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Orphée Wrap-Up @ SF Theater Pub Blog

In my latest column for Theater Pub, I discuss my internal debate over whether to cut the line "Someone had to throw a bomb" from Orphée after the Boston Marathon explosions took place on the day of the staged reading. Which leads into a larger discussion of artistic and moral courage (with a slight digression about how awesome my boyfriend is).

And though the show is over now, I also wanted to link to the other posts on the Theater Pub blog about Orphée:

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Bon Anniversaire, Cody Rishell

Today's post is dedicated to my friend Cody Rishell, because it's his birthday and because I haven't properly thanked him, on this blog, for all of the ways his art and his friendship have enhanced my life over the past three years.

The first real memory I have of Cody is working the Olympians Festival audition sign-in table with him in 2010. He was talking a mile a minute about The House of Mirth (he had just watched the heartbreaking Gillian Anderson film version) and "California Gurls" (the song had just been released and Cody already had it stuck in his head). Not many people can talk with equal authority and enthusiasm about Edith Wharton novels and Katy Perry songs -- so Cody immediately piqued my interest as someone I'd like to know better.

Since then, we have bonded over our mutual love for Alphonse Mucha, La Traviata, The Great Gatsby, indie theater, and much more. Last year, I served as copy-editor and Cody did the layout for the Bay One-Acts play anthology -- we had a ridiculously quick turn-around time to put the book together (one week) but we ended up having a surprising amount of fun doing it. When I discovered that I could use Google Docs to compile a list of typos as I found them, and Cody could see the list update automatically as I typed, he wrote that his "head was exploding with unicorn glitter sex." Yes, it is that much fun to work on copy-editing a book with Cody.

Cody coordinates all of the art for the Olympians Festival each year, meaning that he recruited the artists who did the beautiful posters for my plays Pleiades (Emily C. Martin) and Aphrodite (Kelly Lawrence).

This year, Cody did black-and-white portraits of me, Stuart Bousel, and Meg O'Connor to serve as the promo artwork for our "Behind the Curtain" mini-festival at the end of March. I love the portrait he did of me (based on my headshot photo), especially the eyebrows!

"I was trying to channel '1960s French secret agent go-go car racer girl,'" said Cody when I complimented him on the way he drew my eyebrows.

Because Cody says fabulous things like that. And then the only thing I could do in response was send him this YouTube video of Anna Karina singing "Roller Girl." (I cannot find a version of this online that I can embed in my blog. But click the link, it's worth it.)

Cody also had an art show last year called "Everyone Worth Knowing is a Mythological Creature in Disguise," which is a pretty great philosophy, n'est-ce pas?

I particularly like his drawings of the sexy minotaur girl who goes around carrying a parasol, which she wields like a weapon in defense of the less fortunate.

Cody also does all of the artwork for San Francisco Theater Pub, and I have to confess that one of the most exciting things about producing a show at Theater Pub was the prospect of seeing what Cody would draw for the program. His illustration for Orphée this month was even better than I could've hoped: it was double-sided, with Orphée on one side of the paper and Eurydice on the other. So if you hold it up to the light, the image of Eurydice shines through the paper like a ghost. I can't find a picture of this online (and that wouldn't be the right format for it, anyway) but trust me, it was amazing.

So happy birthday, Cody, you mythological creature in disguise, and thank you for all of your beautiful artwork. Here's to many more years and much more beauty.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Bicoastal Playwright-Producer-Translator

I think I mentioned a few weeks ago that my play Pleiades was selected by the Atlantic Stage Co. in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for their New Voices Play Festival. At this very moment, 1:30 PM on the East Coast), the staged reading of Pleiades is beginning in South Carolina...

...and I can't be there, because I am at the Cafe Royale in San Francisco in my capacity as the producer of San Francisco Theater Pub's April show, my new translation of Orphée. (OK, fine, I wrote this blog post in advance and have timed it to go up on Sunday morning.)

Tech rehearsal for Orphée on one coast, a staged reading of Pleiades on the other. Weekends like this don't come along very often.

And it should be no surprise that this beautiful song has been stuck in my head all week: "South Carolina" by Tennis:

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Cocteau Times Two @ SF Theater Pub Blog

I have not one, but two posts on SF Theater Pub's blog this week, because my production of Jean Cocteau's Orphée is happening there on Monday night, April 15!

First, Stuart conducted an email interview with me about translating and producing Orphée. I got to discuss why I decided to translate Orphée in the first place, why it's such a crazy play, my other favorite adaptations of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and additional fun topics. I really had a good time doing the interview -- it's so much easier to write when you have someone else asking you questions or giving you prompts!

Then, in my column this week, I noted that Cocteau disowned his first two books of poetry, and used that as the jumping-off point for a discussion of whether it's healthy for artists to disown work that they made when they were younger. I also mention my recent experience directing the staged reading of The Rose of Youth, which I wrote five years ago. (I'll never disown that play, but there are certain passages that now strike me as embarrassingly bad.) The comments to this post, on the blog and on Facebook, mostly involve my friends confessing the embarrassing things they wrote or directed when they were teenagers -- and now I wish I could read these works in all of their awful, naive, teenage glory. Don't disdain your younger self! Embrace her!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

You're Doing It Wrong, You're Doing It Wrong @ SF Theater Pub Blog

Here's Part II of my piece about "the Information Age blues" (as my editor tagged it) for SF Theater Pub's blog. It deals with criticism, negativity, feminism, and the struggle to make art when you wonder if you can ever please anybody. Important stuff, in other words!

I was in a better mental state when I wrote this than when I wrote Part I, and I think it shows. I wrote this piece from a place of confidence rather than one of anxiety... and it feels good.

I'm also happy that this piece has gotten a good response -- lots of people have contacted me about it, whether via the blog's comments, via email, or in person. Maybe I can please some of the people at least some of the time...

Friday, March 22, 2013

She Fills Her Head With Culture, She Gives Herself an Ulcer (New SF Theater Pub Column)

My latest column (part 1 of 2) is up at the Theater Pub website. Recently, I've been feeling overwhelmed by the Internet and the mentality that it encourages in us. "We’re living in an information deluge, and the salt water is starting to fill my lungs," is, I think, the key line in the piece. (I titled it "Sur Moi, Le Deluge.")

This was a difficult column to write. I was in a weird mental state at the time, and wanted to convey that, but in such a way that readers wouldn't just say "Marissa, do you need to get therapy?" It also has less to do with theater than my Theater Pub columns normally do.

The day after I wrote this column, I was listening to BBC 6 and heard the song "At Home He's a Tourist" by Gang of Four. Couldn't help thinking that one of the couplets perfectly summed up the mental state that I was trying to describe in my column:

"She fills her head with culture / She gives herself an ulcer." Oh yeah.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Upcoming: "The Rose of Youth," "Orphée," "Pleiades"

 Apologies for the lack of posting, but 2013 is turning out to be busier than I anticipated. I spent much of this afternoon in a coffee shop, revising my translation of Jean Cocteau's Orphée in preparation for its staged reading at Theater Pub on April 15. The sunlight streamed through the beveled edge of the coffee shop's glass door, casting rainbows on my computer screen and making me think of the glass panes of Heurtebise, the guardian angel-glazier character in Orphée.

It's slightly odd to return to my translation of Orphée after I first translated it two years ago. The initial translation project might be one of my favorite bits of writing I've ever done, though, just because I accomplished it in such a stress-free, orderly fashion. Every night, I would translate one page of the script, and in a little over a month (it's not a long play) I had a finished translation. Instead of making me insane, it actually made me feel saner and smarter. Though I don't like admitting it to myself, I need routines and patterns. Maybe I should do more translations; maybe I should just be better at setting aside a dedicated time to write.

Moreover, because it's a translation, I feel less of an emotional connection to the writing than I usually do, so it isn't too difficult to go back and revise it. Often, what I write is intimately linked to my emotional state at the time, so revisiting a work years later means I must make an effort to remember my mindset when I first wrote it. With Orphée, though, returning to the work does not mean dredging up the past, because I've always viewed the work rather objectively.

Perhaps one theme of 2013 is seeing artistic projects come to fruition years after I first conceived them. I decided in 2010 to translate Orphée, worked on the translation in early 2011, and only now am I actually getting to present it publicly.

Furthermore, I have my staged reading of The Rose of Youth coming up in less than two weeks, on March 29. And, as I've said before, I wrote that play during the 2007-2008 school year, saw it as the culmination to a great four years studying drama at Vassar, and never expected anything more to come of it. But here I am, five years later, directing a staged reading of it.

I also wanted to announce something else exciting that I have coming up this spring. Atlantic Stage, a theater company in Myrtle Beach, SC, will present a staged reading of my play Pleiades on the second weekend of April, as part of their New Voices PlayFest! (I wrote Pleiades in 2011, if you're counting.) This marks the first time my work will be seen in the South, and makes Pleiades one of the many San Francisco Olympians Festival plays that have gone on to have a continued life. And I kind of love that the play, which takes place in the Hamptons, will be performed in a different East Coast beach town. I practically danced around my room when I learned that Atlantic Stage had selected my play, and I hope to have more information soon. Unfortunately, I can't jet off to Myrtle Beach to see the reading -- I could really use a beach vacation after the busy month I've been having!

Image: Jarvis Cocker, holding a French dictionary. Yeah, one reason I wrote this post is to have an excuse to use this picture.

Friday, March 1, 2013

I Am My Own Director @ SF Theater Pub Blog

Announcing my upcoming staged reading of The Rose of Youth (March 29!) here on this blog, I confessed I was a little nervous about directing it myself.

In my latest Theater Pub column, I delve a little deeper into the stress and worry that comes with directing your own work. Including some musings on whether gender comes into the equation — are women more hesitant to take on the authoritative role of the director?

I had a minor freakout a few days ago when I fully grasped that February is a short month, meaning that my staged reading is happening in just four weeks. If any of you more experienced directors have words of wisdom for a newbie like me, especially when it comes to dealing with this kind of stress, feel free to leave them in the comments of my column.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

New Favorite Song: "Needle in a Haystack" by the Velvelettes

Maybe I've got girl groups on the brain because it's the 10th anniversary of my singing girl-group pastiche songs in Little Shop of Horrors. But then, you know, I've always had a weakness for the girl-group style. So when I heard an obscure but totally awesome Motown girl-group song last week (thanks to Lauren Laverne on BBC 6) it made my day. This is my new jam: "Needle in a Haystack" by the Velvelettes.

I love the backing vocals, love the harmonies, love the stomping rhythm. I listen to it over and over and try to decide whether the lyrics can be interpreted in a proto-feminist way (a girl warning her friends to stay away from men who are bad news) or whether they're just garden-variety early-60s sexism (assuming that men have just one thing on their minds and girls ought to "play hard to get").

Oh, who am I kidding. Really, I listen to it over and over because it's a great Motown pop song. I think it deserves to be much more widely known, so give it a listen, why don't you?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"Rose of Youth" Staged Reading on March 29

Mark your calendars, 'cause I have exciting news! My full-length play, The Rose of Youth, will be presented in a staged reading at the EXIT Theatre in San Francisco on March 29.

If you're a longtime reader of my blog, you might recognize that play title — though I haven't mentioned it, or thought about it, in years. The Rose of Youth was my senior thesis play at Vassar. I wrote it in fall 2007, and it received a production as part of the Drama Department's Dynamo Theater Lab project in spring 2008.

And after that incredible experience, I honestly expected that I'd put the play in a drawer and forget about it. I had written it specifically for my college: it's a backstage drama about Vassar's 1934 production of Antony and Cleopatra. But its huge cast means that no professional or indie theater company would consider producing it, and even if cast size were no obstacle, I thought it was just too "Vassar" for anyone else to care about it.

Well, never say never. Or something like that. The Rose of Youth will be one of three staged readings on the last weekend of March, as part of a mini-festival of backstage comedies that we're calling "Behind the Curtain."

The festival came about when my friend Stuart Bousel posted on Facebook that he'd written a new backstage comedy about a theater company producing Arcadia. Another friend of ours, Meg O'Connor, congratulated Stuart and added that she'd written a backstage comedy as her senior thesis play in college. "How funny, Meg," I wrote in response, "I also wrote a backstage play as my senior thesis. We should trade."

But where my instinct is just to say to Meg "Let's read each other's scripts," Stuart's instinct is to say "Let's put on a festival!" (This is why we love him.) He secured the EXIT Theatre for the weekend of March 28-30, and now "Behind the Curtain" is happening. Meg's In the Wings is the Thursday show, and Stuart's Pastorella is Saturday. Here's the festival poster (by Cody Rishell):

So this is going to be a trip and a half. It will be so strange and wonderful to return to The Rose of Youth, five years and three thousand miles later. This also marks the first time that I'm directing my own work in God knows how long. I mean, having produced the play five years ago, I already know that the script works and I'm not planning to make any changes or revisions to it. All the same, I'm a little bit nervous about directing! I'll be the only person to blame if things go wrong!

Casting is still in progress, but so far, Patrick Barresi, Jan Carty Mash, Travis Howse, Theresa Miller, and Jonathon Brooks are lined up to appear.

Look for more updates as March 29 draws closer.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Kids Are All Right @ SF Theater Pub Blog

Funny sometimes how life works. It'd been years since I saw any high school theater productions, and then last weekend, I saw two of them in two days. Schoolteacher friends of mine invited me to both In and Out of Shadows, performed by the Marsh Youth Theater, and The Boy Friend, produced by the Bay School.

I wrote about the experience in my latest column for San Francisco Theater Pub's blog, and got a little sentimental about youth theater in the process.

BONUS: here's a photo of the cast and crew of my high school production of Little Shop of Horrors. It must've been taken almost exactly 10 years ago: we performed the show in late February of 2003. I am second from the right, in the pink dress and platinum blonde wig. I don't think it suits me.