Saturday, December 13, 2014

Happy Holidays from THE DESK SET

The rumors are true: I'm going to be appearing in a play next summer for the first time in years. I'll be playing the supporting role of Elsa and serving as Dance Captain in a production of the classic 1950s office comedy The Desk Set, by William Marchant. The production will be directed by Stuart Bousel, produced by No Nude Men, and presented at the EXIT Theatre in San Francisco.

Above is a photo of the full cast (I'm standing, second from the right). The Desk Set takes place around Christmastime and though our production happens in July, we decided to start our promotional campaign early by doing a holiday-themed photo!

We also took photos of smaller groups of characters. Below are the four main women: Jeunee Simon as Sadel, Kitty Torres as Ruthie, Megan Briggs as Peg, Allison Page as Bunny.

Here I am with my fellow supporting women: Carina Lastimosa Salazar as Miss Warriner and Lisa Drostova as the Mysterious Lady. I am wearing one of my grandma's cocktail dresses from the '50s. It always amazes me that she had such a va-va-voom dress (there is a nude-colored fabric lining underneath the black lace, and the illusion is quite realistic in person) but Elsa is the office sexpot, so it's character-appropriate! Though also a little strange -- I have never played a sexpot or had to do a stage kiss before.
And here are our handsome gentlemen: Abhi Kris as Mr. Bennett, Andrew Calabrese as "Shirtsleeves," Nick Trengove as Abe, Alejandro Emmanuel Torres as Kenny, and Alan Coyne as Richard.

Randomly and bizarrely, we discovered that a teenage Barbra Streisand played my role, Elsa, in a summer stock production of The Desk Set just a few years after the original Broadway production. Here's a picture from the office-party scene of that production; Barbra is dancing, second from right.

And if you want to know the plot of Desk Set or what I think of it as a play, here's the review I wrote on Goodreads.

The Desk Set: A Comedy In Three Acts by William Marchant
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For a mid-century, middlebrow comedy, The Desk Set is kind of a bizarre play. On the one hand, it's loaded with 1950s kitsch: female employees running out of the office midday to buy party dresses at Bonwit's; jokes about philandering executives and sexpot secretaries; a rather un-PC joke about Mexicans. The main character is a super-smart, capable, acerbic woman named Bunny (something that really puzzled me when I saw the film version as a child -- how could the no-nonsense Katharine Hepburn play a woman with such a silly name?) who spends a bit too much time hoping that her boss/boyfriend, who's clearly not as awesome as she is, will put a ring on it.

On the other hand, The Desk Set is a play about four intelligent working women who fear that they are going to be replaced by a computer, which is a surprisingly modern problem. The depiction of Richard, the character who wants to install computers in the office, also feels perceptive about how "techies" behave: he's not a bad guy, but he's kind of single-minded and socially awkward. While the play has a happy ending that suggests that people and technology can coexist, 21st-century audiences may find it a little more poignant than originally intended. After all, the women in the play work for the research department of a broadcasting company, where their job is to do fact-checking and answer queries like "What are the names of Santa's reindeer?" (The play takes place around Christmas.) But these days, you can just pull out your iPhone and ask Siri.

All photos (except for the Streisand one) by Cody Rishell.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Happy 80th Birthday, Joan Didion -- On "The White Album"

It's Joan Didion's 80th birthday today and, as it happens, I've spent the last few weeks reading and rereading her essays. My Didion phase came about thanks to that controversial Theater Pub column I wrote, in which I combined analytical criticism and more personal confessions—and then, in the comments section, was criticized for my "heightened emotional state and hypersensitivity." (The implication being that I was crazy or hysterical. It was even suggested that "the full moon" was to blame for my emotional response!) Not to sound like an egomaniac, but it struck me that this whole experience was somewhat Didion-esque. After all, she's the model for young female writers who want to blend cool analysis with descriptions of their obsessive thoughts, feelings of doom, and moments when they've burst out crying; and she's received both praise and criticism for it. As I craved some reassurance that this style of writing is both valuable and powerful, I picked up a copy of The White Album.

The White Album: EssaysThe White Album: Essays by Joan Didion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoy Joan Didion's first essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but in The White Album she seems to come even more fully into her unique voice and style. And, while these essays are products of the '60s and '70s, their insights frequently had me nodding my 21st-century head in recognition. Whenever I see one of the beautiful old Victorian houses in my city gutted and re-built with an "open floor plan" and "luxury finishes," I'll be tempted to quote Didion's deliciously snarky words about the ranch-style house that Ronald Reagan built to serve as the new California governor's mansion: "It is a monument not to colossal ego but to a weird absence of ego, a case study in the architecture of limited possibilities, insistently and malevolently 'democratic,' flattened out, mediocre and 'open' and as devoid of privacy or personal eccentricity as the lobby area in a Ramada Inn." But just when you think that Didion is composed entirely of acid, she displays a more vulnerable side, praising Victorian houses where you can imagine "writing a book, or closing the door and crying until dinner."

There is great vehemence, great passion in Didion, and you get the sense that her writing is the way she lets it out. In the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she describes herself as "so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests." In life, Didion may be a quiet, petite woman, but on the page, she can indulge in power-tripping fantasies of building shopping malls or controlling California's water system or mastering a difficult exit on the Santa Monica Freeway. Those aren't things that I've ever thought about doing, but Didion's passion is infectious, and she makes me want to do them, too.

Be it freeways, waterworks, shopping malls, Hollywood, or the women's movement, Didion is always trying to figure out and explain how the system works. Or how new systems replace the old ones but often replicate their same failures and blind spots (this, in a nutshell, is her rather damning indictment of second-wave feminism). She's skeptical of trends and received ideas, and rather aloof toward humanity as a whole; she admires the Getty Villa's antiquities collection for demonstrating that "not much changes. We were never any better than we are and will never be any better than we were."

Speaking of systems, the famous opening line of the famous opening essay, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," basically acknowledges that an essay is itself a system, a way of deriving meaning and order from a series of images or events. Didion's blessing, and her curse, was to be a writer of probing intelligence in a place and time (the late '60s in Los Angeles) when all the systems seemed to be collapsing. Always frank, sometimes frightening, occasionally fragmented, The White Album is the result.

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Sunday, November 30, 2014

November Spawned a Monster

I didn't write a Theater Pub column this Thursday, because of Thanksgiving. And also because the editor needed to run the VERY VERY SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT that after a hiatus of a year and a half, Theater Pub will return to presenting free live theater in San Francisco bars as of January 2015. (HUZZAH!)

Four weeks before that, I wrote a column that I didn't link to at the time, because I realized I was kind of phoning it in. ("Horror Vacui," from October 30. Read it if you want to read my thoughts on some memoirs I've read recently, or what I did the night the Giants won the World Series. Gosh, doesn't that feel like ages ago?)

But two Thursdays ago... ah, two Thursdays ago, I wrote what is now the most-read (and I believe most-commented) piece in the history of the Theater Pub blog. I took blogger George Heymont to task for failing to perceive the clearly feminist message of Megan Cohen's "Centaurs, or the Horse's Ass," which had greatly affected me when I saw the script in its Olympians Festival staged reading. Heymont responded in the comments section and the back-and-forth got pretty heated.

I attended all of the readings of the 2014 Olympians Festival and it seemed like one of the key themes this year was female anger. Maybe that's appropriate: Stuart Bousel likes to point out that the Greeks had a lot of female monsters, more than most other cultures. The entire final week of the festival was devoted to female monsters, and other plays re-imagined the centaurs, Geryon, and the Minotaur as female. The spontaneous applause that broke out after a feminist rant in Veronica Tjioe's Minotaur play was one of the most satisfying moments I've had in a theater in 2014.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Autumn is for Gothic Fiction: "The Woman in White"

I often try to read some classic Gothic or horror fiction during the autumn months -- it seems like the right time of year for it. This year, my decision to start reading The Woman in White in late September also had something to do with the fact that I'd just gotten dumped by a fellow who loves to read but hates nineteenth-century novels. (I'd always tell him that he didn't know what he was missing.) What better way to start the healing process than to read a book that my ex wouldn't like?

The Woman in WhiteThe Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Woman in White could easily have been a run-of-the-mill Gothic potboiler about a scheming baronet out to steal the fortune of an innocent young lady, but it rises above the mundane thanks to Wilkie Collins' gifts for atmosphere, humor, and characterization. As in Collins' The Moonstone, the story is related in a series of first-person narratives; some of the narrators are sympathetic and relatively "normal" (upstanding Walter Hartright, courageous Marian Halcombe), while others are wildly eccentric and unreliable (selfish hypochondriac Frederick Fairlie; jolly megalomaniac Count Fosco).

The notes to the Penguin Classics edition say that when the novel was published, several gentlemen wrote to Collins and asked if he'd based the character of Marian on a real-life woman, because they wanted to marry her -- which gives me a much better opinion of Victorian gentlemen than I had possessed hitherto. Marian is intelligent, passionate, brave and hard-working -- but she is ugly, and she constantly reproaches herself for being too headstrong. To learn that some Victorian readers preferred stubborn Marian to her conventionally sweet and docile half-sister Laura is very heartening. And perhaps it's what Collins wanted, too; after all, the novel suggests that Laura could have avoided many of her tribulations if only she'd stood up for herself.

Sir Percival Glyde, the fortune-hunting baronet who marries Laura, isn't much of a villain -- he comes across as a whiny brat. But his crony, Count Fosco, is a magnificent creation. Singing opera, eating bonbons, petting his white mice, and cooking up dastardly schemes the whole time, he's truly a villain you love to hate. Wisely, Collins has Fosco narrate one of the later sections of the novel, and makes his downfall (rather than Sir Percival's) the book's climax.

Collins wrote in his preface to The Woman in White that he thought a novel would succeed only if it presented interesting characters. This long, twisty, absorbing mystery story admirably bears out his theory.

Previous marissabidilla posts about reading Gothic fiction in the fall:

Vampire City by Paul Féval, October 2013
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, October 2010

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Everything's Coming Up Rosie: Overthinking My Halloween Costume

For Halloween this year, I dressed up as Rosie the Riveter. So did a lot of other young women in San Francisco. There were two other Rosies at the Halloween party I attended on the Potrero Hill edge of the Mission; two other Rosies on the subway platform as I was coming home from work. (This embarrassed me so much that I quickly scooted down the platform so we wouldn't all wind up in the same subway car.) I was filled with a mix of pride at having successfully embodied the Zeitgeist and shame at realizing I was less clever and distinctive than I thought I was. And, naturally, I began to over-think the larger sociological forces that might have led to this spate of Rosies in San Francisco this Halloween. My conclusions:
  • Ease of putting the costume together. The day before Halloween, I wasn't even sure that I would dress up -- and then I realized that I had all of the components of the "Rosie" costume already in my closet.
  • Applicability to women of all ages, races, and sizes. Unlike many costumes, you don't have to have a certain body type or hair color to be recognizable as Rosie the Riveter -- all you need is the red bandana and blue work shirt.
  • It's an explicitly feminist costume that enables you to demonstrate how you're not into the whole "Halloween as an excuse to wear lingerie in public" thing, but it still allows you to look attractive -- wear red lipstick, show off your muscle.
  • Millennial-generation nostalgia for the "Greatest Generation" 1940s. Think about it: we fetishize handicrafts and the artisanal; we name our Etsy stores after our grandparents; we put up "Keep Calm and Carry On" posters. I also saw a lot of A League of Their Own "Rockford Peaches" this Halloween -- a costume that occupies a comparable place in our cultural iconography to Rosie the Riveter.
  • Amy Poehler's character on Parks and Recreation dressed up as Rosie the Riveter in 2012. I don't watch Parks and Rec, but you can't underestimate the influence of pop culture.
I also thought about how, when I moved to San Francisco six years ago, it seemed like every young woman dressed up like Frida Kahlo for Halloween, but I didn't see any Fridas this year. Could there also be a cultural significance in the shift from Frida to Rosie over these six years?
  • Dressing up as Frida Kahlo does require you to possess certain physical characteristics: you've pretty much got to have long, dark hair. And, if you are brunette but not Hispanic, you may also worry that dressing up as this iconic Mexican artist constitutes cultural appropriation. At least when you live in a city that is so consumed with debates over gentrification.
  • There was a big Frida Kahlo exhibit at SFMOMA in 2008, which might have contributed to all of the Fridas I saw that Halloween.
  • Frida and Rosie are both feminist icons, but they represent two different kinds of feminism. Kahlo's art often depicts the female experience as one of pain and suffering. (My most-read post of all time is called "Must a Female Artist Suffer?", written in response to the 2008 Kahlo exhibition.) Rosie the Riveter is about rolling up your sleeves and getting shit done. Which seems in tune with the forcefulness that feminism has attained in the last half-decade.
  • Six years ago, fashion was much more in tune with Frida's boho style than with Rosie's utilitarian workwear. But now, the tide has shifted. Clothes have gotten more minimalist, more tomboy. Call it a shift from Anthropologie to J. Crew. I didn't own a "Rosie the Riveter" blue button-down six years ago, but now it's one of my favorite shirts.
Mostly, though, I'm amazed at how a pop-culture character, intended to boost home-front morale in a war that happened 70 years ago, can resurface in 2014 and embody current cultural trends. This autumn has been marked by intense, Internet-fueled anxiety over various aspects of feminism and an even more fraught anxiety over the sociological category of the "basic bitch." If feminism (a radical ideology) is the thesis and basic-bitchness (the unthinking acceptance of feminine tropes) is the antithesis, a Rosie the Riveter Halloween costume is the synthesis. She's the feminist icon that everyone can embrace. A basic costume for basic, feminist girls like me.

Photo of me as Rosie at my office Halloween party taken by my colleague, Abdul Bassa.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

"Les Belles-Soeurs" -- Fifteen Squabbling Quebecoises

After reading and enjoying Michel Tremblay's play Albertine, in Five Times, I decided I should read his most famous work for the stage, Les Belles-Soeurs. Les Belles-Soeurs

Les Belles-Soeurs by Michel Tremblay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Michel Tremblay’s play Les Belles-Soeurs is raucous, energetic, and boisterous -- and, because women so rarely get to be boisterous onstage, it’s revolutionary. The play plunks you down in the kitchen of Germaine, a middle-aged housewife in 1960s Montreal. She’s just won a million department-store coupons in a contest, and she’s invited fourteen of her neighbors to help her paste the coupons into booklets. Gossip, squabbling, scandal, and even a brawl ensue.

John Van Burek and Bill Glassco have translated Tremblay’s working-class Quebecois French into working-class North American English. Generally, it’s effective, but sometimes it makes the characters sound like refugees from a 1930s B-movie: “Sure, he promised me the moon. We were gonna be happy. He was raking it in, I thought everything was roses.”

There aren’t a lot of admirable characters in Les Belles-Soeurs. At times, Tremblay seems to mock these women and encourage the audience to feel superior to them. Yet the play ultimately blames the women’s faults -- their small-mindedness, their hypocrisy, their catty jealousy -- on the society they live in. Poverty, Catholicism, provincialism and patriarchy have conspired to make these women what they are. The high point of the play is the monologue where Rose, a self-described “class clown,” drops her façade and reveals her underlying rage and despair: “Goddamn sex! It’s never that way in the movies, is it? Oh no, in the movies it’s always fun! Besides, who cares about a woman who’s gotta spend her life with a pig ‘cause she said yes to him once? Well, I’m telling you, no fucking movie was ever this sad. Because movies don’t last a lifetime!”

I don’t think I’d like to spend a lifetime with Germaine and her friends, either, but I didn’t mind spending two hours with them.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

"The Dryad of Suburbia" - staged reading Nov. 5

2014 is my fourth year participating in the San Francisco Olympians Festival as a writer. My contribution this year is a 10-minute play, The Dryad of Suburbia, which is part of the festival's "Nymphs! Nymphs! Nymphs!" night on Wednesday, November 5.

(At least two people have already inquired whether there will be nudity on this evening. Highly unlikely, as it's a staged reading. But I'm pleased that the evening's title has done its job and grabbed people's attention.)

You can find out more about The Dryad of Suburbia on the festival's website. Yes, that page has changed since the last time I linked to it, back in January. Back then, I thought I was going to write a play about a Dryad encountering a Druid. I clung to that idea for months without writing a word -- because I was unable to hear my characters' voices. At the eleventh hour, I scrapped that idea and banged out The Dryad of Suburbia in a mad rush. I wrote about this experience in more detail for my Theater Pub column this week.

My new play is about a contemporary, suburban couple whose young daughter has become convinced that she is a "tree spirit." When I was writing it, I had no idea that Cody Rishell, the poster artist for Nymph Night, was designing a suite of posters that show little girls playing with their nymph friends! It's like we were tuned into the same wavelength. The Dryads poster (above) is astoundingly perfect -- I am a very happy playwright! You can check out all of the Nymph posters on Cody's website.

The reading of The Dryad of Suburbia will be directed by Valerie Fachman and feature actors Colleen Egan and Nick Trengove. The other "Nymphs!" playwrights are Sam Bertken, Leah Halper, Sam Hurwitt, Carol Lashof, Bridgette Dutta Portman, Jennifer Lynne Roberts, and Siyu Song.

It's all happening at 8 PM on November 5 at EXIT Theatre in San Francisco's scenic Tenderloin. RSVP to the Facebook event here. Tickets $10 at the door.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Playwrights and their Gallbladders

The lack of posts here on marissabidilla in 2014 doesn't mean that my life has suddenly become boring. Rather, it means that life has been pretty overwhelming this year, events and feelings all happening too fast for me to blog about them. E.g.: I self-produced a play, and then four days after it closed, I was in the hospital getting my gallbladder removed.

Despite all the things that life is throwing at me, I've continued to write for the San Francisco Theater Pub blog every two weeks. I'll try to be better about linking to my pieces as they come out, but in the meantime, here are links to three of my columns that center around my recent health crisis.

I wrote "Through the Fog, Step by Step," in late August, two days after getting diagnosed with gallstones. At the time, I didn't feel ready to discuss my condition publicly, so I wrote in more abstract terms about the feeling of wanting the summer to be over, and the need to take things one day at a time. (My editor noted that I wrote this piece on "four hours of sleep." Yeah, because my gallstone pain had kept me up half the night.)

The day after my surgery, I begged off of writing a column and asked my editor to post a short video clip from Scrubs that seemed relevant. (It was ostensibly Comedy Month on the blog. Not that I had a lot to laugh about.)

In "Things of Darkness and of Light," from two weeks ago, I wrote more directly about the experience of getting diagnosed with gallstones, and how I made peace with it.

Oddly enough, British playwright Mark Ravenhill also wrote an essay this month about getting his gallbladder removed. His experience of gallstones resonates with me so much: the terrible pain that comes as soon as you lie down, the way you attribute it to "indigestion" at first, the way you avoid food in the hopes that the pain will go away. Plus, just like Ravenhill, having gallstones caused me to muse on medieval medicine's "four humours," in which the black bile of the gallbladder was thought to make people melancholy (melan means "black" and chole means "bile" in Greek). His piece is also good on the science-y stuff (he and I both know more than we ever wanted to know about what the gallbladder does and why it's not essential), then takes a philosophical turn.

I also appreciated the gallbladder comics on The Awkward Yeti, forwarded to me by a sympathetic friend a couple of days before my surgery. Poor little gallbladder!

Monday, October 13, 2014

"Albertine, in Five Times" -- A French-Canadian "Three Tall Women"

Edward Albee's Three Tall Women has been on my mind this past week. Marian Seldes, who starred in its original production, passed away; and my friend and collaborator Katja Rivera will be directing the show next month at the Custom Made Theatre. Browsing the Plays section of a local used bookstore on Friday night, I came across a play I'd never heard of whose premise sounded strikingly similar to that of the Albee play. Of course, I bought and read it... and I'm very glad to have discovered it!
Albertine in Five Times

Albertine in Five Times by Michel Tremblay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The easiest way to describe Albertine, in Five Times might be to call it the French-Canadian equivalent of Three Tall Women. Like Edward Albee's award-winning play, Albertine is a character study of a woman born in the early 20th century, in which multiple actresses play the protagonist at various ages of her life. The five Albertines (plus a sixth actress who plays Albertine's sister, Madeleine) converse with one another across space and time. They argue and accuse and debate the best attitude to take toward life and its hardships. Should you act with rage or with resignation? Blot out the past or confront it?

Although written by a man, Albertine is a fiercely feminist play, full of anger at the limited options that the patriarchal society of mid-century Québec afforded to women. I was also intrigued to learn that Michel Tremblay has written many other plays and novels about Albertine and her extended family, and that they are based on his own relatives. (Does this mean that Tremblay is the French-Canadian August Wilson, rather than its Edward Albee? Tremblay's series is called "Traversée du Siècle" -- Crossing the Century -- while Wilson's plays are the "Century Cycle"...)

In the circles I run in, there are a lot of conversations going on lately about women in theater, feminist-themed plays, the lack of good roles for women in general and for middle-aged or elderly women in particular, etc. Albertine, in Five Times features six powerful roles for women between the ages of 30 and 70, and as such, I think it deserves to be better-known outside of Canada. 40-year-old Albertine is bitter and exasperated; 50-year-old Albertine has turned her back on the past and is determined to make the best of things; 60-year-old Albertine, her past having caught up with her, has started popping pills. Even the 30-year-old Albertine is no ingenue; she's a war widow with an 11-year-old daughter. Each of the five Albertines represents a specific age and a specific point of view. But together, they show us the complexity of this woman's life.

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Running Down a Dream" -- a Saturday Write Fever monologue

I went to Saturday Write Fever last night for the first time in over a year and was given the prompt "Running down a dream." I wrote the following monologue in 30 minutes. It was performed by a woman named Loretta (whose last name I didn't catch).

The speaker is onstage at a TED-type conference. He/she uses a wheelchair.

"Ah, the irony of fate. Ah, how the gods are laughing." That's what everyone said, or thought, after I got in the accident that snapped my spinal cord at the fifth vertebra and left me unable to use my legs. Me, the world-famous ultramarathoner! Winner of the Ironman triathlon three years in a row! That, on my record-breaking fourth attempt, my bike and I should go careering off the side of that volcano... that I should be paralyzed for life, incontinent, as helpless as a baby... Ah, how the gods laughed!

There were many times I wished I had been killed rather than paralyzed.

There were times I tried to finish the job. See these scars on my wrists? Or the hours I spent trying to rig a noose that would tighten if I whizzed away in my electric wheelchair...

For months, for years, there was only one experience that made me happy. When I slept. When I dreamed. In dreams I could walk! In dreams, I was whole! I got a prescription for sleeping pills. My legs had already withered, now my other muscles withered too, as I spent more and more time flat on my back in the realm of dreams.

And then a kind friend introduced me to the concept of lucid dreaming and I learned that I could not only walk, I could run! I could FLY! I could climb and jump and dance like Fred Astaire and Mikhail Baryshnikov rolled into one!

But lucid dreaming is not easy. To catch a dream in the right way. To be both aware and not-aware. To think. To not wake up. And then, even if you do get the knack of it... you still have to wake up eventually! You still have to eat, or use the toilet...

But each time I awoke from a lucid dream, each time I opened my eyelids and saw my broken body, it hurt me afresh. It snapped my spinal cord all over again.

There is so much pain in being awake, why do we even allow ourselves to wake up at all? Why did we not evolve to live forever in the limitless world of dreams?

And that is when I discovered my true purpose. It was not, actually, to run races and win triathlons. It was to unlock the world of dreams for everyone. To make it so you can fall asleep and have sweet, restorative, refreshing dreams for months!

Working with a team of scientists at Johns Hopkins, I have developed Somnola -- a pill that allows uninterrupted sleep of up to 500 hours at a time, and also enhances lucid dreaming. With no side effects!

Somnola will end wars and violence and hatred. It will end misery and poverty and anguish. We will all be asleep, dreaming our beautiful dreams. And in that sleep, what dreams may come!

And gods, who's laughing now?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Marian Seldes and the last of the grande dames

When I took a course on Fairy Tales in college, we spent a class session performing scenes from Ondine, by Jean Giraudoux. I secretly hoped to be cast as Ondine because Audrey Hepburn originated the role on Broadway, and I'd idolized Audrey since I was four years old. So at first, I was slightly disappointed to be cast as Bertha, the "other woman" in the play's love triangle. Then I saw that the role of Bertha was originated by Marian Seldes, and I decided that that was probably better, anyway. Wasn't it better to be a complex and passionate human woman instead of a naive, unworldly water nymph?

I never got to see Marian Seldes onstage, and this memory may not sound like much, but I remember it as a decisive moment in my personal development. Be striking, be "handsome," be impressive. Don't be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

With the passing of Seldes, Elaine Stritch, and Lauren Bacall this year -- grande dames who each, in their own way, exuded a larger-than-life theatrical personality -- it truly feels like the end of an era.

RIP, Ms. Seldes.

Seldes as Bertha in Ondine, 1950s.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"Kitchen Confidential" -- Tasty but Not Quite Fresh

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary UnderbellyKitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When "Kitchen Confidential" came out in 2000, bad-boy chef Anthony Bourdain scandalized the restaurant-going public with his revelations about what it's really like to cook for a living. These days, with Bourdain a familiar presence on television and his most shocking claims now common knowledge, it's a little harder to see what all the hype was about.

Bourdain can certainly write with verve. His voice is very engaging: snarky and vivid, sometimes hyperbolic, sometimes self-deprecating. But the book is weirdly organized. Partly, it's a memoir (loosely but not strictly chronological) of Bourdain's personal experiences as a chef. And partly, it's a series of short essays about different aspects of the restaurant life: lists of kitchen slang, advice for aspiring chefs, etc. I tended to find the "essay" chapters more interesting than the "memoir" chapters -- I didn't always care about Bourdain's crazy escapades, but I do care about why restaurant sauces always taste better than the sauces I make at home (hint: they use a lot of butter).

One of Bourdain's most quoted pieces of advice is not to order the fish special on a Monday, because that fish is probably several days old and past its prime. And that seems to me an apt metaphor for "Kitchen Confidential," fourteen years since its original publication. Dished up by a talented chef, parts of it are pretty tasty. But it isn't quite fresh.

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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"To Say Nothing of the Dog" -- Catnip in Book Form

Does anyone else find it odd that Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love and Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog -- two works that both make several allusions to Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat -- came out within one year of one another, in 1997 and 1998, respectively? What was going on in the space-time continuum in the late '90s to make that happen?

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh my goodness, this book is wonderful. It reads like Tom Stoppard and A.S. Byatt had a love child and then brought that baby up on a diet of classic screwball comedies (including Bringing Up Baby). It’s a time-travel story whose romantic elements are sweet and charming, rather than tragically tear-jerking. It will even appeal to both cat-lovers and dog-lovers.

I read To Say Nothing of the Dog during a difficult and stressful time in my life, and I couldn’t imagine a more congenial companion. The mystery is absorbing, but the overall tone is lighthearted. I could tell that nothing really bad would happen to the characters and that there’d be a happy ending, even if I couldn’t predict how all the threads would come together.

And there are a lot of threads: Victorian decor; literary allusions; discussions of historical causality; the Nazi fire-bombing of Coventry Cathedral; human and animal behavior; the stability, or lack thereof, of the space-time continuum; and plenty of comic hijinks and wry asides. The protagonist, time-traveling historian Ned Henry, is a likable fellow who nonetheless makes for an amusingly unreliable narrator, at least when he’s suffering from “time-lag” in the first part of the book.

To Say Nothing of the Dog tends to be shelved in the sci-fi section of the bookstore, and the paperback boasts ugly, incomprehensible cover art. Which means there’s a chance that readers who don’t consider themselves “sci-fi fans” may overlook this book, and that’s a shame. If you’re a nerdy Anglophile who appreciates obscure history and wishes you had a time machine so you could go back to the past and look around – something that describes many of my friends – you will love this book.

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

If the "Pleiades" Characters were Jane Austen Heroines

Inspired by Lily Janiak's blurb calling Pleiades "the love child of Jane Austen and Wendy Wasserstein," and a conversation I just had with my boyfriend about Mansfield Park*, I give you:

If the Attlee Sisters were Jane Austen Characters: A Study in Correspondences
  • Moira = Elinor Dashwood. Loving, responsible eldest sister who keeps a lot of secret sadness locked up in her heart. 
  • Elaine = Marianne Dashwood. An idealistic romantic determined to follow her heart, despite any warnings or cautions she may receive.
  • Teresa = Lizzy Bennet. Outspoken and lively; she loves her sisters even though they often frustrate her.
  • Alison = Mary Bennet. Awkward middle sister who is usually the odd one out, and whose sisters scorn her musical tastes.
  • Kelly = Emma Woodhouse. A ringleader who feels very secure and contented in her position and her family.
  • Sarah = Catherine Morland. She still believes in fairy tales.
  • Meredith = Margaret Dashwood. The archetypal kid sister.
FYI, I have always identified with Elinor but wished I were more like Lizzy... that's something you might want to keep in mind if you come see Pleiades.

Tickets to the show (August 7 to 30 in San Francisco) are on sale at

*I realize I need to add this to the list of Ways In Which I Am Really a Whit Stillman Character.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

PLEIADES: Website, Indiegogo, and Our First Blurb!

Finally, an explanation for why it's been so quiet around here recently:

I've been readying my play, Pleiades, for its world premiere production at the Phoenix Theater in San Francisco -- and serving as its lead producer. We started rehearsals last week and will open on August 7 for a four-week run. Katja Rivera is directing, we have a wonderful cast of 9 young actors, and you can find out much more about the show at

We've also been running an Indiegogo funding campaign. With four days left to go, we're closing in on our goal (83%) but are still looking for a few more contributions to push us over the top! If you've appreciated my work in the past and want to support independent, female-driven theater in the Bay Area, please consider making a contribution. $35 will score you my eternal gratitude AND a reserved seat at the show!

(And I don't mean to be manipulative, but Saturday is my birthday, and it would make me very happy to wake up on that day to a fully funded Indiegogo campaign, so...)

Fundraising pressures aside, the production process is going well, and we just received our first press attention! Lily Janiak listed Pleiades as an Editor's Pick in the July/August issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine, calling the play "the love child of Jane Austen and Wendy Wasserstein." (I'll take it!)


I'll try to be better about keeping you informed about Pleiades-related news in the weeks to come.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Those Awkward Post-Show Greetings @ SF Theater Pub Blog

I love and respect the English language. I try to say what I mean and mean what I say. I want to wield my words accurately and honestly.

I can also be a rather socially awkward person.

The combination of these two factors means that greeting and congratulating my friends after a theater performance can cause me excruciating anxiety.

I wrote about the problem of knowing what to say -- and some solutions I've tried out -- in my Theater Pub column from May, "After the Show, the Drama Begins."

After I posted this piece, several friends told me on Facebook that they feel the same anxiety and thus, many of them just default to saying "Congratulations." Which is always a lovely thing to say, but if it's your default response, it will eventually become meaningless, won't it? Theater-makers spend so much time and effort trying to create meaning, trying to make you think or feel something new, the least we can do is offer a few unique and heartfelt words to them after the show...

Also, here's something funny I learned recently: according to the strictest rules of etiquette, it is improper to say "congratulations" to a bride, though you may say it to the groom. It all has to do with pesky old gender roles: the man should pursue the woman and propose to her, and it's undignified for a woman to aggressively pursue a man. " 'Congratulations' has the improper implication that the bride has won something in snagging her groom and carries the unfortunate connotation that the bride is social climbing. Congratulations should be extended to the groom, because the groom has accomplished something specific in obtaining his bride's hand in marriage," the explanation goes.

I'm a feminist, so I ought to find this utterly ridiculous, but for some reason I find it oddly charming. I like arcane rules, I collect old etiquette books, and while this little shibboleth is an outgrowth of the patriarchy, it seems like a relatively harmless one. I've attended two weddings in the last six months, and have another three weddings to attend before the year is out (yes, I am in my mid-to-late twenties, how did you guess?) and I have a feeling that I'll be keeping this protocol in mind...

Monday, May 12, 2014

Theater Pub Roundup (Yee-Haw)

It's been a while since I posted any links to my Theater Pub columns here, so it's time to do a big old roundup of the stuff I've written over the last two months.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about racial and gender diversity (and my confused, guilty-white-liberal feelings about them) in A Nice Day for a White Wedding?

In the column before that, Declaration of Independence, I wrote about what I see as a growing anti-corporate sentiment among young people, and whether we makers of indie theater can use that to our advantage.

In App Happy, one of my more lighthearted pieces, I envisioned three theater-related apps that I wish existed in real life, complete with cute app names: Anachorrect, Venuse, and StageSeen!

During the week that my inbox was exploding with actors trying to sign up for audition slots for my show, I wrote a post urging aspiring theater producers to Be Regular and Orderly In Your Inbox.

My piece Truth and Kindness is a response to and endorsement of my fellow blogger Ashley Cowan's exploration of "how to be both honest and kind" when participating in an artistic community.

Finally, in March, the Theater Pub blog published its 500th post. To mark the occasion (and cash in on the March 2014 mania for Silly Buzzfeed Quizzes), we put together a quiz called What Theater Pub Blogger Are You? Admit it, you've always wanted to know...

Friday, May 9, 2014

Welcome to Westeros

Sometimes I do want to be in on that pop-culture thing that everyone's talking about! A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I started reading A Game of Thrones, I joked that I was finally getting back in touch with my childhood self, who devoured fantasy novels by the dozens. However, as you might have heard, this isn't a book for children – and moreover, its plot is driven by political machinations far more than magic or fantasy.

Indeed, I thought the conceit of “a world where the lengths of seasons are unpredictable and summer has lasted ten years” was one of the weakest parts of the book. (Although it does allow House Stark to have a bad-ass motto, “Winter is Coming.”) It just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny: a year in Westeros seems to be about the same length as a year on Earth, but if the seasons are so unpredictable, how do the people there count years? However, I liked many other aspects of George R.R. Martin’s world-building, e.g. his description of an impregnable mountain castle and its terrifying prison cells.

The most impressive thing about this book, though, is its characterization and narrative technique. It's a sprawling, epic tale, but it’s structured as a series of self-contained episodes. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a single character, often as he or she faces great danger or difficulty. I noticed early on that the point-of-view character is often the least powerful person in the room, which effectively heightens the tension. Writers are often encouraged to leave out the boring parts of the story and only keep the good parts; Martin adheres to that advice like a pro.

The eight point-of-view characters manage to be insiders and outsiders at the same time – they are born into noble families, yet they lack true power, or are caught up in events beyond their control. Daenarys Targaryen is a princess with “the blood of the dragon” in her veins – but she is in exile, struggling to adapt to the alien culture of her warlord husband. Tyrion Lannister is one of the smartest characters in the book and is brother to the queen – but he is a dwarf, and thus the subject of mockery and disrespect in a culture that values physical strength. Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark is the right-hand man to King Robert Baratheon – but his principles of honor and righteousness make him an outlier among the crafty politicians of the royal court. The stories of Ned’s wife Catelyn and daughters Arya and Sansa give three different perspectives on how feudal noblewomen deal with the limited roles that their society offers them. Ned’s lovable seven-year-old son Bran becomes crippled in a horrifying accident, and his 14-year-old bastard son Jon Snow undergoes much angst about his illegitimacy.

Though Martin writes about a patriarchal, hierarchical, violent, and unfair world, it’s clear that his sympathies lie with the outsiders and underdogs. (Witness the unexpectedly touching conversations between Jon and Tyrion about the nature of being an outsider.) As such, I can’t agree with the criticism that this book is a work of foul misogyny. Are these the best female characters I’ve ever read (whatever that means)? Perhaps not. But they have credible and varied personalities, their actions influence the plot, and their point-of-view chapters make up nearly half the book. I also like that the book doesn’t fall prey to the fallacy that women are only worth paying attention to if they kick ass or disdain traditionally feminine things. It asks us to sympathize with a feisty sword-wielding tomboy (Arya) and with her obedient goody-two-shoes sister (Sansa) – just one example of the complexity of the world that Martin has created.

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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Drink With My Doppelganger @ SF Theater Pub Blog

I was drafting a piece for SF Theater Pub tonight when I realized I'd never posted a link to my Theater Pub column of two weeks ago.

This one was "Chestnut Tea with the Other Me" – a reaction to a Theater Pub blog post that local playwright Peter Hsieh had written earlier that week. Peter had imagined taking "Other Peter" out for drinks and discussing playwriting, and he made some good points, but the whole thing was overlaid with an exaggeratedly macho attitude that rubbed me the wrong way. I decided to air my objections in a playful way by imagining a conversation between me and "Other Marissa" about Peter's piece.

Marissa is on the left; Other Marissa is on the right.
It was a fun piece to write! (and represents the most sustained piece of playwriting, or at least dialogue-writing, that I've done in several months.) I tried to characterize Other Marissa as the person I wish I was, while the "original" Marissa is me in all my neuroses. Other Marissa is a little blunter and sassier than I am; she's also compassionate when the original Marissa has a bit of an anxiety attack. I'd like to be that way. I'd like to be honest but compassionate with myself.

I had drinks with an arts-writer friend at House of Shields last night after work and couldn't help thinking about this Theater Pub column. (It didn't hurt that House of Shields is just across the street from the Palace Hotel and that I'd ordered a gin gimlet.) Conversations with friends are even livelier and better than conversations with your imaginary doppelganger; for one thing, the talk, and the drinks, are real.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"Hir" at the Magic Theatre: Neither here nor there

The Lily's Revenge, Taylor Mac's 4.5-hour carnivalesque fantasia that the Magic Theatre produced in 2011, is still one of my favorite theatergoing experiences in San Francisco. It turned me into a raving Taylor Mac fangirl and filled me with anticipation for his new play at the magic, Hir. I knew that this would be a very different piece from Lily's; Mac isn't starring in it, and it's a two-hour dysfunctional-family drama with a streak of dark comedy. Still, what I loved most about The Lily's Revenge was how smart and well-constructed the script was – it had great bones, underneath all the sequins and makeup. I looked forward to seeing what Mac would do when working in a more realistic mode. I hoped that Hir would be intelligent and insightful and, in its own way, as revolutionary as The Lily's Revenge.

Jax Jackson as Max. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
Hir tells the story of Isaac, a soldier who returns from a 3-year tour of duty to find his home in disarray. His father, Arnie, has suffered a debilitating stroke. His mother, Paige, is refusing to clean the house, running the air conditioner full blast, and abusing and neglecting her invalid husband, all as revenge for the years of domestic abuse he inflicted on her. And his teenage sister is now his teenage brother, Max, a "transmasculine fag" who insists on the pronouns "ze" and "hir."

In its title and its marketing, Hir purports to focus on gender-identity issues. But Max isn't the protagonist; ze's the last character to enter, and at times, hir story feels like an afterthought. Paige's ego and personality dominate the play, and she seems to do most of the talking in Act I. Meanwhile, the character it's easiest to identify with is Isaac – he's shocked to discover how crazy and dysfunctional his family has become, and we're right there making those discoveries alongside him. What this means, though, is that the character we identify with is the only person onstage who's a young, able-bodied, heterosexual, white, cisgender male. I have to believe that Taylor Mac is too smart not to have done this on purpose – but I can't figure out why, after making his name writing plays that speak from the perspective of "drag queens, freaks, queers, mermaids, shamans," he is now asking us to identify with a straight white dude.

Ben Euphrat as Isaac, Nancy Opel as Paige. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
And, in the end, there were a lot of things about Hir that I just couldn't figure out. It's a perplexing, unsettling play – in the sense that I never understood why the story was being told or what it aimed to accomplish. (The rest of the audience seemed to feel the same way; the applause was the most half-hearted, "WTF was that?" applause I've ever heard.) The Lily's Revenge felt revolutionary both in terms of its form and its content: revolutionary in its empathy, its inclusiveness, its sense of community. Hir feels like a throwback, despite the references to 21st-century issues like the Iraq war, crystal meth, and transgender teens. To a large extent, it's a "they fuck you up, your mom and dad" play – and we've all seen plays like that before.

I suppose it's refreshing to see a play in which a soldier has been made more empathic, rather than more brutal, by the experience of war; and in which a suburban mom embraces her child's gender transition rather than being freaked out by it. But that isn't enough to make Hir a compelling evening of theater. Moreover, Paige's commitment to Max's gender identity may defy stereotype, but in many other respects, she's the biggest cliche of all: the smothering, self-absorbed, monstrous mother, Mama Rose on steroids. Paige is depicted as someone who's read a lot of feminist and postmodernist theory and then completely misinterpreted it, e.g. she thinks that because her husband beat her, it gives her the right to make his life miserable after he has his stroke. You can imagine a conservative pundit watching Hir and then saying "see, feminism turns women into man-hating monsters!" I'm sure that this can't be Taylor Mac's intent… but then, I'm not sure what his intent is. Is Hir supposed to depict the here-and-now? Because it really felt neither here nor there.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

John Hodgman on Only Children

I am an only child. And when you are an only child you have an unusual relationship with your parents. There are only the three of you, and you come to rely on one another for company as much as for anything else. You spend a lot of time traveling together, going to movies together, and watching public television together, with your dinner in your lap. Your mother and father are not so much your parents as they are your weird, older roommates. Or better, a pair of older cats who wander in and out of the rooms of your house. They silently judge you, but they can't stop you from whatever it is you're going to do.
—John Hodgman, from "Downton Abbey with Cats," The New Yorker, 1/13/14

 The New Yorker characterized this as a "Shouts and Murmurs" humor piece, but it was far wiser and deeper than those pieces tend to be. (It begins, "Look, I never want to tell stories about my children, because it always seems a little lazy. Children tend to be sort of dumb, and, in the end, the stories are always the same: children say hilarious things, and I am old and dying." That's funny, sure, but it also cuts close to the bone.)

And the paragraph I've quoted above made me realize how little writing I've read about the experience of being an only child -- despite the Internet-enabled proliferation of first-person essays about coming-of-age and parenting and all that stuff. And, even though only children make up an increasing share of the population (about 20% of American kids these days will be only children) there still seems to be a sense that it's "better" for children to have siblings, or that being an only child is not "ideal." Think of how newlywed couples get asked "Are you planning to have kids?" not "Are you planning to have a kid?" (Which is pretty presumptuous on the part of the asker – there's no guarantee that any couple will be able to have one healthy child, much less multiple children.) I'm trying to think of ways I can personally help dismantle the stigma around having only one child, without coming across as an agenda-driven douchebag.

But I know I am agenda-driven, because I'm an only child who never wished for siblings, and I feel like many of my better qualities (my creativity and ability to spend time by myself) are attributable to my being an only child. Some people may read the Hodgman quote above and discount it because it's part of a "humor" piece; others may read it and say "Look, it says that only children have an 'unusual' relationship with their parents; I don't want that for my child." But I feel that my life was enriched by being around adults so much at a young age, and if my parents were "a pair of older cats" -- well, I've always been a cat person.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Revisiting Christopher Durang

Anyone else do the thing where you buy someone a book for their birthday or Christmas, and then the book you choose looks so interesting that you end up reading it yourself before giving it to them? My youngest cousin turned 15 this month, and he's a theater kid, so I decided I ought to give him some Christopher Durang. (I absolutely love having a teenage theater fan in the family and I am relishing my self-appointed role as "cool twenty-something cousin.") But then I couldn't resist reading the book myself before I sent it off to my cousin -- being careful not to get it dirty or break the spine, of course.

Laughing Wild and Baby with the Bathwater: Two PlaysLaughing Wild and Baby with the Bathwater: Two Plays by Christopher Durang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first encountered these plays when I was in high school and Christopher Durang was a favorite among the theater kids. I laughed at the irreverent, naughty absurdities of "Baby with the Bathwater," and a friend of mine did the "Laughing Wild" tuna fish monologue in acting class. Returning to these plays ten years later, I am no longer so enchanted by their kooky irrationality, but I am more attuned to their undercurrents of sorrow and outrage. I can also see their flaws a little more clearly: as Durang notes in his afterword, both of these plays were originally written as one-acts and then expanded into full-lengths, and especially in the case of "Baby with the Bathwater," the seams show.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Pop-Culture Obsessions, February 2014

 When I was a teenager, I hated bluegrass music and I hated Nirvana. But for some reason, I'm absolutely obsessed with Patti Smith's apocalyptic-bluegrass cover version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Well, I love a good upright bass, and the Americana arrangement makes it clearer than ever that this is a timeless youth anthem. I saw Patti Smith perform live at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2012 (though I don't remember her singing this song, appropriate though it would have been). I want to be her when I grow up.

Watching the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, I fell in love with ice dancing, and particularly with the gold-medal winners, the Canadian team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. So I was VERY excited for their epic re-match this week with Meryl Davis and Charlie White, their American rivals who train under the same coach.

I do like the Americans, who won the competition this time. The final sequence of their long program was super impressive: they skated full-tilt and did one cool trick after another. But ultimately, my loyalty still lies with the Canadian pair. The Americans are hard-driving; the Canadians make it look effortless. They have sprezzatura. Tessa Virtue's smiling face seems to say "I can imagine no experience more blissful than being flung around an ice rink in the arms of Scott Moir." I know that the Olympics are an athletic competition, but unfortunately, I've always been more interested in aesthetics than athletics. Is it unfair to judge athletes on the basis of grace, beauty, elegance, and how much I want them to just kiss one another already? Probably. Do I do it anyway? Yes.

Ice dancing is ridiculously heteronormative and sentimental, yet I love it to bits. There's drama in the choreography, drama in the question of "are they in love or just extraordinarily talented actors?", drama in the judging. The routines must include a lot of specific technical elements, yet art still manages to emerge from within the constraints. If only I could figure out a not-ludicrous way to depict ice dance on stage, I'd make it the subject of my next play.

Photo of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir's free dance by Richard Lautens of the Toronto Star. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

In Praise of Harmony @ SF Theater Pub Blog

I know, it got a little quiet around my blog this past week, but that's because I was on a business trip to Dallas. Our Lone Star State colleagues showed us true Southern hospitality and lavished us with Texas-sized amounts of food; so, while I didn't have a lot of free time or opportunities to see tourist sites in Dallas, I had an excellent trip overall.

I did manage to write a brief piece for the Theater Pub blog, inspired by what I was doing in Texas ("harmonizing" business operations between my office and the Dallas one), and some recent thoughts I've been having about how to navigate a playwriting career with calm and confidence, rather than fear and anxiety.

In my piece, I wrote, "If the odds are so bad, if it’s difficult to achieve either fiscal or artistic success as a playwright, the only thing that we can do is treat ourselves with care, and try our best to enjoy our lives in the theater." I started having thoughts like this after I read Outrageous Fortune four years ago (it's actually four years to the day since I attended the Outrageous Fortune community discussion hosted by Theater Bay Area) and they've only intensified since then. That shouldn't be seen as justification for slacking off or throwing up your hands in defeat; but it should be a reason to build a career on your own terms.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Slavic Love at the Opening Ceremonies

I adore the Parade of Nations in the Olympics opening ceremony because it allows me to geek out about two of my favorite things: geopolitics and fashion.

For instance, I'm still wondering if it was intentional, or just a happy accident, that the Czech and Slovak teams both had heart motifs on their opening ceremony uniforms:

 The Czechs

The Slovaks

The sentimentalist in me likes to think that the similarity was intentional, and the heart motifs are a message to the world that, even though Czechoslovakia split over 20 years ago, their two countries are still united in love! Aww. Or perhaps a more likely explanation is that the hearts are a subtle form of protest against Russia's brutal anti-gay laws (though interestingly enough, Wikipedia tells me that the Czech Republic is much more liberal on LGBT issues than Slovakia is). At any rate, these uniforms are too adorable, and my own Czech heart is touched.

But I think my favorite uniforms among the Slavic countries might be Poland, combining a chic snowflake motif with the colors of the Polish flag and gray, my favorite neutral.

Speaking of gray... France, you know I love you, and those jackets with the nipped-in waist and the big Lacoste tricouleur crocodile are pretty fantastic, but I just CAN'T with the khakis. Put these athletes in navy blue pants, though, and it'd be a win.

Photos of the Czech, Slovak, and Polish teams by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images. Photo of the French team by Mark Humphrey/The Associated Press.

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