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

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.