Monday, January 27, 2014

The Starry Messenger takes just two months to arrive

I very much enjoyed Nicholas Schmidle's recent New Yorker article about a forged copy of Sidereus Nuncius ("Starry Messenger"), the groundbreaking treatise in which Galileo described the craters of the Moon, the moons of Jupiter, and the new stars that he had discovered with his telescope.

(And not only because my post about Galileo's discovery of the moons of Jupiter, as portrayed in Brecht's Life of Galileo, is in my top 5 most-read posts of all time. Or because Galileo was the first person to look at the Pleiades through a telescope.)

Mainly, I enjoyed the article for its account of shady dealings in the rare-book world, complete with a talented but completely unscrupulous con man with a terrific Italian name (Marino Massimo De Caro).

But also, I was intrigued to learn the publication history of Sidereus Nuncius. Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter in early January 1610, and two months later, he had written up his observations in Latin, found a publisher, had the book typeset, commissioned copperplate etchings as illustrations, reviewed the proof copies, and published the book. Two months to publish a book that would change the course of science! Granted, Sidereus Nuncius is only 60 pages long... but still.

People say that culture moves much faster in the digital age than it ever did before; we have this idea that, in the olden days, writers were more careful and thoughtful than they are now. And, sure, in the 21st century you can publish something instantaneously on a blog and have it available to the entire world, rather than dealing with the slower processes (production and distribution) of print media.

However, for anything to get published in a scientific journal these days, it must go through a lengthy peer-review process. And even if you're self-publishing, two months is an awfully quick turn-around time to write, illustrate, proofread, and publish a book. In some ways, then, the culture seems slower than it was in Galileo's time. It's the same thing I was writing about in my Theater Pub column earlier this month: we think it was fine for Shakespeare to write and produce two plays a year, but there's an expectation that modern playwrights will spend years workshopping a single play. And, we think it was fine for Galileo to publish his scientific observations two months after he made them (without any peer review), but modern scientists would never get away with having so little data.

Image: the pages of Sidereus Nuncius that depict Galileo's drawings of Orion and the Pleiades, cropped from the original image at the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology. So cool! I've just adapted it as my Facebook and Twitter cover photo.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Coming up in 2014: "Dryads" and "Pleiades"

I'll be writing for the San Francisco Olympians Festival again this year: a short play on the subject of dryads. The play will have a staged reading on November 5 as part of the festival's opening night ("Nymphs! Nymphs! Nymphs!").

A little information about my Dryads project just went up on the Olympians Festival website. If you're wondering "what is a dryad?" "how does Marissa plan to write about dryads?" or even "who is this Marissa person, anyway?" you'll find the answers there.

But November's a long way off, and dryads are not at the forefront of my mind, because I'm in the midst of getting a production of my play Pleiades off the ground for a summer 2014 opening. Pleiades was my contribution to the 2011 Olympians Festival and I haven't been able to put it behind me -- I've revised the script, and found a director, and am proud that it will be my first full-length play produced in San Francisco.

I'm excited about this project but also, quite frankly, terrified. Being the playwright, and the producer, and a perfectionist... that's a difficult combination of things to be. I've been lying awake in bed at night, consumed by thoughts like "where the heck can I source cheap Adirondack chairs?" (Or is this the set designer's responsibility? See, I don't even know.)

The image above, by the way, is what I'm using for my "Dryads" author photo, because it's thematically appropriate... but, looking at it now, it also reminds me of the old rule-of-thumb for dramatic structure: "Act One: get your protagonist up a tree. Act Two: throw stones at him. Act Three; get him down from the tree."

This self-producing business is getting me up a tree, all right.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Actor Stipends and the Minimum Wage @ SF Theater Pub Blog

In my latest SF Theater Pub column, I discussed one of the ethical quandaries that faces indie-theater producers these days: how can I support a higher minimum wage and a more equitable economy, and then pay actors a stipend that is far less than minimum wage?

It's a thorny issue and I'm not sure that I got to the bottom of it in 800 words, but I wanted at least to get the conversation started; money is something that people don't like to discuss, but I believe that we have to start talking about it if there's any hope of making the system more fair.

In my last paragraph, I quoted Jessica Mitford, and that's sent me off on a bit of a Mitford sisters kick tonight. I just passed a pleasant half-hour drinking tea, eating chocolate, and listening to Jessica's Desert Island Discs episode. Any woman who loves both socialist anthems and Fred Astaire is tops in my book.

Monday, January 20, 2014

"If I’m a grilled cheese sandwich, she’s duck confit"

At the end of 2013, in an epic meeting over sangria at the marvelous Cafe Flore, we Theater Pub bloggers stopped feeling like individual wordsmiths rushing to meet column deadlines, and started to feel like we were a Thing. A tribe. A collective. To cement our newfound camaraderie and celebrate a very successful year for the blog, we agreed that our last post of the year should highlight the best writing of 2013, both on our blog and on the Internet at large.

I had the honor of writing in praise of Will Leschber, one of the newer Theater Pub bloggers, who writes about the connections between theater and cinema. I also singled out a Howlround piece by local theater critic Lily "Lightning Rod" Janiak as my other must-read piece of theater-related writing from 2013.

And I received this lovely write-up about my own work from Allison Page. Each time I read it, I still glow a little inside and then vow to try to live up to this praise:
Marissa Skudlarek and I communicate differently, but we think about a lot of the same things. If I’m a grilled cheese sandwich, she’s duck confit. She has the ability to say things that I know I’m also feeling, but haven’t brought myself to express properly without the use of a lot of F-bombs and references to Murder, She Wrote. Generally speaking, I like to accentuate the positive rather than wallow in a pool of the negative, so when her article “You’re Doing It Wrong, You’re Doing It Wrong” (technically the second half of a two-part article. The first one is also worth reading, but the second really drove it home for me). The internet, and the world, can be a dark and dismal place. Some days it feels like there’s nothing to be happy about; nothing that’s going right. In a world that seeks to find the worst in everything, Marissa seeks out the subtle nuances of her theatrical experiences, and of the world around her. It’s refreshing and thoughtful, and a big reason I love reading her posts. Not everyone is doing it right wrong. I like to think Marissa is striving to do it right; for women in general and for herself.
Go to the Theater Pub blog to read the whole piece, including my paragraphs in praise of Will and Lily, and many other encomia. There is also a pretty great photo of me sitting on a dinosaur while wearing a '60s sheath dress and holding a parasol.

And if I may say so, the Theater Pub blog has been seriously killing it in the New Year, so if you have any interest in independent theater (whether you live in the Bay Area or not), you should bookmark it and visit it regularly. I am honored to be part of this collective of smart, thoughtful, honest, curious, and yes, positive writers.

And P.S. I think a grilled cheese sandwich with duck confit sounds like the best thing ever.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

"Orpheus and Eurydice" by Jeremy Dobrish: Mythology for Hipsters

I've spent a significant portion of my life over the last four years involved with a theater festival that commissions new plays based on Greek mythology, and I translated Jean Cocteau's Orphée and produced it at Theater Pub last April. So it's no surprise that my friend Stuart (founder of both the Olympians Festival and Theater Pub) dug up a copy of an obscure Orpheus and Eurydice adaptation that played off-Broadway circa the turn of the millennium, and gave it to me with an "I think you should read this."

Orpheus And Eurydice
by Jeremy Dobrish
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jeremy Dobrish's Orpheus and Eurydice is a modern, hipster adaptation, in which Orpheus is the frontman of In Your Thrace, a popular rock band. (Jason and Hercules are the other band members.) This version is fast-paced, theatrically savvy, and laden with in-jokes and unusual choices. Despite being one of the title characters, Eurydice is a silent role (the other characters are fond of reminding us that "traditional mythology has very little to say about her"). Orpheus narrates the first part of his trip to the Underworld in a long monologue, but we never hear him sing or play any of his music. Instead, toward the end of Act Two, Death and her two assistants perform an elaborate song-and-dance routine called "What Is Love?"

The depiction of Death and her assistants, by the way, is pretty clearly ripped off from Jean Cocteau's play Orphée. I can't decide whether this is a fun homage or an act of plagiarism, just as I can't decide how I feel about many of the other aforementioned choices (Eurydice's silence; Orpheus' Underworld monologue; Death's song-and-dance).

Still, I'd be interested in seeing this script performed (preferably in a black-box theater by my local hipster company) in order to see how it works onstage, and to make up my mind. Overall, I'd say that it reads like the work of an overeducated twentysomething theater-and-mythology nerd, but hey, I'm one of those myself.

View all my reviews

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Development Hell Of Our Own Making @ SF Theater Pub Blog

My Theater Pub column this week is my longest column yet! Even better, it's also one of my most widely-read and -discussed columns, too, after @2amt (2 AM Theatre) tweeted a link to it. I am really proud to have written something that started some conversations. I am also really proud of the fact that, according to Google, I am the only person who has ever used the phrase "a development hell of our own making."

And that's the theme of the piece, basically: we are told not to self-produce our plays until they are "ready," and that we should put them through multiple drafts, readings, and workshops before production. But is it possible to take that too far? There seems to be a trend of telling writers that they must develop a play for years before it can be considered stageworthy—and that has dangerous implications for the theater.

The column also contains this theory/metaphor/analogy that I am really proud of, because
it's offbeat and slightly offensive and as close as I'll ever come to making a dead-baby joke in a serious essay:
You’ve probably heard people compare writing a play to having or raising a child. And, in the olden days of high infant mortality, parents would have lots of children and then try not to get too attached to them, for fear that the child would die. Discipline was severe, and parents expected their kids to grow up fast. Nowadays, people plan for their children carefully, have just one or two kids, lavish them with attention, and overthink every aspect of parenting. Likewise, in the olden days, playwrights expected to write plays at a steady pace, have them produced regularly, and then move on to their next play. But, nowadays, we are encouraged to write fewer plays, and become “helicopter parents” to the plays we have written.
The column, by the way, is titled "I Don't Want to Wait," and now most of you probably have that '90s Paula Cole song stuck in your head and scenes of Dawson's Creek flashing before your eyes (YOU'RE WELCOME). But it's also pretty close to the title of a song by my friend Robin Yukiko – "Don't Wanna Wait" is from her new album, and the video just came out:

My boyfriend appears briefly in the video as a stern, disapproving librarian... very out of character for him, I must say. (Well, the bookishness and the good dress sense is not out of character, but the stony-faced attitude is!)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Theatergoing (and Theatermaking) 2013

I've already seen one play and one staged reading in 2014, which means it's time that I posted my annual round-up of shows that I saw in 2013!

As for what my favorites among these were, I won't be making an official "best of" or "top ten" list, but I did write up five of my most memorable 2013 theatergoing moments for the Theater Pub blog.

Links are to other reviews or pieces that I have written about these shows.

  1. Troublemaker, by Dan LeFranc, at Berkeley Rep 
  2. Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, by Christopher Durang, at Custom Made Theatre Co.
  3. Manic Pixie Dream Girl, by Katie May, at ACT’s Costume Shop 
  4. In and Out of Shadows, by Gary Soto, at the Marsh Youth Theater 
  5. The Boy Friend, by Sandy Wilson, performed by the Bay School of San Francisco
  6. The Heart Plays, adapted by various contributors from Heiner Muller's original, at Theater Pub 
  7. Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare, at Theater Pub 
  8. Fallaci, by Lawrence Wright, at Berkeley Rep 
  9. Eurydice, by Sarah Ruhl, at Custom Made 
  10. Shipwreck, by Tom Stoppard, at Shotgun Players 
  11. Pericles, by William Shakespeare, at Berkeley Rep 
  12. The Arsonists, by Max Frisch, at Aurora Theater 
  13. You’re Going to Bleed, by Melissa Fall, at DIVAfest 
  14. The Helen Project, by Megan Cohen and Amy Clare Tasker, at DIVAfest 
  15. Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, at ACT 
  16. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, adapted by Dave Malloy from Tolstoy's War and Peace, at Kazino 
  17. The Explorers Club, by Nell Benjamin, at Manhattan Theatre Club 
  18. Prelude to a Kiss, by Craig Lucas, at Custom Made 
  19. By and By, by Lauren Gunderson, at Shotgun Players 
  20. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, by John Ford, adapted by Oren Stevens, produced by Bigger than a Breadbox Theatre 
  21. Dear Elizabeth, adapted by Sarah Ruhl from the letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, at Berkeley Rep 
  22. Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, at Cal Shakes 
  23. Sea of Reeds, by Josh Kornbluth, at Shotgun Players 
  24. Pint-Sized Plays IV, short plays by Christian Simonsen, Sang Kim, Kirk Shimano, Peter Hsieh, Carl Lucania, Dan Ng, Megan Cohen, and Stuart Bousel, at Theater Pub 
  25. A Maze, by Rob Handel, at Just Theater 
  26. The Fantasy Club, by Rachel Bublitz, produced by All Terrain Theater 
  27. The Age of Beauty, by Stuart Bousel, produced by No Nude Men 
  28. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, by Stephan Elliot and Allan Scott, national tour
  29. Lady Windermere’s Fan, by Oscar Wilde, at Calshakes 
  30. StormStressLenz, adapted by Martin Schwartz from J. M. R. Lenz, at SF Fringe 
  31. Babies, the Ultimate Birth Control, by Rachel Bublitz and Tracy Held Potter, at SF Fringe
  32. O Best Beloved, adapted by the cast from Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, at SF Fringe
  33. Philia, adapted by Evangeline Crittenden from a short story by Traci Chee, at SF Fringe
  34. Volcano, by Aram Krikorian, at SF Fringe
  35. Cinnamon and Cigarettes, by Jenny Newbry Waters, at SF Fringe
  36. A Man, a Magic, a Music, by Movin' Melvin Brown, at SF Fringe
  37. Serving Bait to Rich People, by Alexa Fitzpatrick, at SF Fringe
  38. Next to Normal, by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, at Custom Made
  39. Everything Go Boom, by John Pennington, at SF Fringe
  40. With Held, by Jeremy Greco, at SF Fringe
  41. Bonnie and Clyde, by Adam Peck, at Shotgun Players
  42. Bay One-Acts Program 1, featuring plays by Tracy Held Potter, Sam Leichter, Daniel Holloway, Bennett Fisher, William Bivins, and a piece adapted by Allison Combs from T. S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
  43. Bay One-Acts Program 2, featuring plays by Nancy Cooper Frank, Lauren Gunderson, Michael Phillis, Megan Cohen, Daniel Hirsch, Jeff Carter, and Ignacio Zulueta
  44. What Every Girl Should Know, by Monica Byrne, at Impact Theatre
  45. Scamoramaland, by Eve Edelson, at Performers Under Stress
  46. Strangers, Babies, by Linda McLean, at Shotgun Players 
  47. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare, produced by the Bay School of San Francisco
  48. Peter/Wendy, adapted by Jeremy Bloom from J. M. Barrie, at Custom Made
  49. Troilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare, at Impact Theatre
  50. Tristan and Yseult, adapted by Emma Rice, Carl Grose, and Anna Maria Murphy from folklore, by Kneehigh Theater at Berkeley Rep
  51. The 4th Annual San Francisco One-Minute Play Festival, featuring 90 short plays by 52 writers.
  1. Pajanuary, by various contributors and adaptors, at Theater Pub 
  2. The Showdown, short plays by Susan Jackson, Charles Lewis III, Ignacio Zulueta, Patricia Milton, Jaene Leonard, Bridgette Dutta Portman, Kirk Shimano, and Marissa Skudlarek, at Wily West Productions
  3. The Actual Stuff, by Megan Cohen, produced in SF Playhouse’s “Our Voices, Our Stories” Festival 
  4. In the Wings, by Meghan O’Connor, part of the "Behind the Curtain" Festival
  5. The Rose of Youth, by Marissa Skudlarek, part of the "Behind the Curtain" Festival
  6. Pastorella, by Stuart Bousel, part of the "Behind the Curtain" Festival
  7. Orphée, by Jean Cocteau, translated by Marissa Skudlarek, at Theater Pub 
  8. The Pub from Another World, short plays by Timothy Kay, Audrey Kessinger, Sang Kim, Allison Page, Sunil Patel, Bridgette Dutta Portman, Kirk Shimano, and Marissa Skudlarek, at Theater Pub
  9. The Dead, adapted by Jeremy Cole from James Joyce, at Theater Pub 
  10. The Carmine Lie, by Claire Rice, at the Garage 
  11. Greeks Bearing Gifts, short plays by Charles Lewis III, Barbara Jwanouskos, Robert Estes, Joel Street, Daniel Hirsch, and Marissa Skudlarek, at the Olympians Festival
  12. Megan Cohen’s Totally Epic Odyssey, by Megan Cohen, at the Olympians Festival
  13. Under the Gods’ Golden Cleats, by Rachel Bublitz, at the Olympians Festival
  14. Trojan Women, short plays by Patsy Fergusson, Carol Lashof, Peter Hsieh, Ashley Cowan, Sarah McKereghan, Tonya Narvaez, and Marissa Skudlarek, at the Olympians Festival
  15. Prince of the City by Bridgette Dutta Portman and The Judgment of Paris is Burning by Kirk Shimano, at the Olympians Festival
  16. Cassandra, by Claire Rice, at the Olympians Festival
  17. The Tools of War, short plays by Meghan O'Connor, Tracy Held Potter, Neil Higgins, Sunil Patel, Helen Noakes, and Allison Page, at the Olympians Festival
  18. The Plains of Ilium by Jeremy Cole and The Immortal Wall of Troy by Madeline Puccioni, at the Olympians Festival
  19. Ellen’s Undone, by Sam Hurwitt, at the Olympians Festival
  20. See Also All, by Stuart Bousel, at the Olympians Festival
I also saw two operas this year, both at the San Francisco Opera: Tales of Hoffman and The Flying Dutchman.

And because I like seeing it all in one place and congratulating myself on a busy year, here are my personal theater-making credits of 2013:
  • actor/participant in Pajanuary
  • writer of "Harriet's Flying Cacti" for The Showdown
  • writer, director, and producer of The Rose of Youth staged reading
  • translator and producer of the Orphée staged reading
  • member of the Pub From Another World reading/submissions committee and writer of "Horny"
  • member of the Bay One-Acts reading/submissions committee, copy-editor of their anthology, and interviewer for their website
  • writer for the SF Fringe Festival newsletter, The Daily Starr
  • writer of "Teucer" for Greeks Bearing Gifts
  • writer of "Laodike" for Trojan Women
  • writer of "Oblivious" and "Cultural Baggage" for the One-Minute Play Festival
Plus, my play Pleiades got a staged reading at Atlantic Stage in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina!

See also my previous theater roundups: 2012, 2011, 2010

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Prose Is Not Verse (Even If It's Shakespeare)

I've written before that when The New Yorker prints "vocal chords" instead of "vocal cords" (something I have witnessed twice), it makes me think that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

And now I have witnessed an even more shocking error in this publication, which caused me to throw down the magazine and storm off to blog about my fury.

From Hilton Als' review of Twelfth Night (in the Nov. 25, 2013 issue): "Olivia dodges the entreaties of her visitor, a youth whom her steward, Malvolio (Stephen Fry), drolly describes as 'not yet old enough for a man, nor young / enough for a boy, as a squash is before 'tis a peas- / Cod, or a codling when 'tis almost an apple.'"

Do you see what happened there? The magazine printed Shakespearean prose as though it were verse! Dividing the word "peascod" with a slash and a hyphen, even, for no apparent reason! (Shakespeare will enjamb lines of verse, but he never splits a word down the middle between lines of verse.) But there's no verse structure, no rhythm or meter, underlying these words! It's prose, dammit!

Who's to blame, I wonder? This suggests that the magazine's head theater critic, or possibly his editor, doesn't know the difference between prose and blank verse (or perhaps they mistakenly think that all of Shakespeare is written in verse). Which is a disturbing thought, to say the least.

Especially because when I heard Hilton Als speak in 2009, he suggested that "plays should be treated as literature" and that it's therefore OK to read them instead of seeing them. (A very strange attitude for a theater critic to take, I thought.) And if you are reading a Shakespeare play, rather than seeing it, you should definitely be able to tell the difference between verse and prose!

So I hope that this error is just the work of some entry-level bozo at the copy-editing desk, so I can go on with my faith in The New Yorker undimmed. (And there are some nice insights and turns of phrase, as well as an appreciation for the "poetic reality" of live theater and the craft of acting, in the rest of Als' review.)

Monday, January 6, 2014

New Links and Mentions for the New Year

Out with the old, in with the new! A fine motto, but I still have a lot of end-of-2013 business to catch up on. (In general, I want to be better about blogging relevant links, rather than just posting them on Twitter or Facebook, since a blog is a less ephemeral, more easily searchable medium... Ten years ago, who ever thought there'd come a day when blogs would seem like islands of permanence and stability in a sea of online ephemera?)

Anyway, here are a few links to some recent posts from friends and acquaintances in the San Francisco theater community that I wanted to preserve:

Thursday, January 2, 2014

How to Be a Minor Jane Austen Heroine

"All were contented to pass quietly and carefully down the steep flight, excepting Louisa; she must be jumped down them by Captain Wentworth. In all their walks, he had had to jump her from the stiles; the sensation was delightful to her. The hardness of the pavement for her feet, made him less willing upon the present occasion; he did it, however. She was safely down, and instantly, to show her enjoyment, ran up the steps to be jumped down again. He advised her against it, thought the jar too great; but no, he reasoned and talked in vain, she smiled and said, "I am determined I will": he put out his hands; she was too precipitate by half a second, she fell on the pavement on the Lower Cobb."
—Jane Austen, Persuasion, ch. 12
This is by way of saying that yesterday, as I was jumping around on a concrete barrier at the beach at Pacifica, I slipped and fell and banged up my leg pretty bad. As I lay on the sofa with an ice pack on my swelling leg, I tried to make the best of it by thinking of myself as a 21st-century Austen character — because it was all very much like the scene where Louisa Musgrove slips and falls while jumping around on the seawall at Lyme Regis.

If only I'd had some Jane Austen bandages at my disposal, huh? (I saw these in a gift shop when I was in Oregon over Christmas.)

So, this clearly shows that I'm someone who thinks too much about literary heroines and how I may or may not resemble them. That's why I'm eager to read the new book by my friend Samantha Ellis, How to Be a Heroine, which was published in the U.K. today! (Will it find a U.S. publisher or should I just order it from, I wonder?) It's billed as "a funny, touching, inspiring exploration of the role of heroines, and our favourite books, in all our lives – and how they change over time, for better or worse, just as we do." In other words, it sounds like the kind of friendly, feminist, literary-nerd book that I've always wanted to read. Congratulations, Sam!

Sam's publisher has also put out a "which literary heroine are you?" quiz to promote the book; according to it, I'm Anne of Green Gables.

Bonus link to one of my blog posts from 2007: Am I a Jane Austen Heroine