Saturday, December 31, 2011

What I Liked and What I Didn't about Martin Scorsese's "Hugo"

  • The opening shot took my breath away and the first scene is the best example of over-the-top cinematic Francophilia since Moulin Rouge. I wasn't even paying attention to the plot or characters at first -- I was just luxuriating in the art direction and the 1930s atmosphere. That train station! That café!
  • As far as I could tell, every bit of printed text in the movie (signs, books, posters) was in French. Amazing attention to detail and I appreciate that they resisted the temptation to make things easier for an English-speaking audience.
  • Two of my favorite time periods, in terms of art and aesthetics (and I think this is true for a lot of people) are the Art Nouveau fin-de-siècle and the Art Deco 1920s-30s. Hugo has a plot that accommodates both periods, and is set in Paris, the epicenter of both of these movements, to boot.
  • Hugo is the second 3-D movie I've ever seen (Avatar was the first) and IMO it used the medium very, very well. By the end of Avatar, I was kind of over the 3-D, but Hugo kept surprising me with innovative ways of employing it. At the same time, it knew when to hold back and revert to a flatter picture plane, e.g. for the more intimate scenes in Papa Georges' house.
  • Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths as two late-middle-aged folks striking up a tentative romance in the train station. This plot has no purpose other than to be charming and delightful, and it delivers. It's even more charming if you saw and admired these talented character actors in The History Boys -- I was so happy to see them working together again.
  • My friend Stuart saw Hugo last week and posted on Facebook that it made him "think a lot about Marissa Skudlarek as there is essentially a character who is her (tall, big vocabulary, wears a beret)."  Ha!  He was referring to Isabelle (played by Chloë Grace Moretz), a young girl who befriends Hugo. She's a type of character we've seen in other movies -- spunky, bookish, romantic, precocious. In the scene in the bookshop she reminded me so much of Disney's Belle And when Hugo asks Isabelle why she's helping him, I could predict Isabelle's response before she said it: "Because this is an adventure!"  So she's not the most original character, but she's an archetype that I enjoy. And even if she is a 13-year-old girl, she's one of Scorsese's few female characters that it's OK to be compared with. I may have just found my Halloween costume for next year (and if I do dress up as Isabelle, I will carry the vintage 1930s edition of Les Miserables that Stuart gave me for Christmas).
  • Early on, I was convinced that I caught a glimpse of someone costumed and made up to look like James Joyce. Sure enough, "James Joyce" is listed in the credits. So is "Salvador Dalí" but I guess I missed him. (It could not have been as memorable as Adrien Brody's portrayal of Dalí in Midnight in Paris!)
  • I also enjoyed playing "spot the cinema reference" throughout the movie. E.g., I'm pretty sure that an allusion to Vertigo was intended during the final scene with Hugo in the clock tower.  Making Hugo the second 2011 film that owes a debt to Vertigo, after The Artist swiped Bernard Herrmann's music for the climactic sequence.
  • Another similarity to The Artist: the fake-out dream sequence in Hugo is very well done.
  • Innuendo that would only be mildly amusing in an adult movie is somehow made funnier by being in a kids' movie, where you know it will go over the heads of the children in the audience.
  • Throughout the whole movie, I was convinced that Olivia Williams was playing Mama Jeanne, Georges' wife. Turns out that the role is played by Helen McCrory, an actress I was not familiar with before. She gives a lovely performance.
  • I had a teenage crush on Jude Law and he is still an incredibly good-looking man. (He appears in a flashback as Hugo's father.)  Hey, this movie is all about cinephilia, and one reason we love the movies is that they let us stare into the faces of beautiful people whom we would never have met otherwise.
  • I'm not sure it was a good idea to have the character of the Station Inspector, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, function both as the movie's principal villain (chasing Hugo through the station and threatening to send him to an orphanage) and as its principal comic relief (in his amusingly awkward flirtation with a pretty florist played by Emily Mortimer). While I appreciate the desire to depict the Inspector as a real person with some complexity and some heart, as opposed to an incarnation of evil, we can't take the Inspector seriously as a threat to Hugo if he is also a harmless buffoon.
  • The first part of the movie hinges on an Idiot Plot. When Papa Georges discovers Hugo's notebook, accuses him of stealing it, and demands to know who drew the pictures in the notebook, why does Hugo remain silent instead of saying "My father did those sketches"? I know that Hugo is a cautious, scared little boy who is still mourning his father, but he never promised to keep the notebook secret, and would it have hurt anyone if he admitted that it was his father's?
  • Much is made of how Hugo likes to "fix things" and how his repairing the broken automaton parallels his healing the broken and depressed Papa Georges. Yet I never got a sense that Hugo genuinely loves fixing things and playing with clockwork and gizmos. He repairs the automaton because it is his last connection to his dead father, he fixes the train station clocks because he sees it as his duty... but I never felt that he took sheer delight in mechanical things for their own sake. The character of Isabelle is on hand to supply plenty of wide-eyed wonder, but I could have used some of that from Hugo as well.
  • When Hugo uses the word "panache," the script missed an opportunity for Isabelle to respond "Panache! Just like Cyrano de Bergerac!"  I may have been the only person in the theater who would have appreciated this joke, but I would have loved it SO MUCH.
  • The little boy next to me was very bored by the movie and began sucking noisily on the dregs of his soda until I had to tell him to knock it off. In fairness, his parents shouldn't have taken him to the 8:30 show and they shouldn't have bought him the industrial-size Coca-Cola. Nonetheless, if this is a "family film," it should not bore children. Even I thought that the movie moved too slowly in parts and contained a few too many scenes of Hugo being chased through the train station and Hugo fiddling with clockwork.
  • Now is the time to mention that the international terminal at the San Francisco airport currently has an exhibit of vintage French automata on display (was it timed to the release of this movie?) and if you're there you should check it out. I stumbled upon it last week on my way to Portland and even got to talk with the exhibition's "registrar" (its caretaker) who happened to be unlocking the glass cases and inspecting the automata at the time.  It was super cool, but it also made me realize that the automaton depicted in Hugo is a bit of an exaggeration.  The automata in the museum display can do nifty things, but nothing nearly as elaborate or complex as the automaton in Hugo. And, all right, it's a movie, we can't expect it to be 100% accurate, but it annoys me that the filmmakers felt that the automaton had to be even better than it would be in real life, when real automata are plenty amazing on their own. In fact, the same goes for the portrayal of silent cinema in Hugo -- Scorsese makes it look even more exciting than it actually was by using brief snippets, concentrating on Meliès' special effects, showing several films that were hand-tinted rather than black-and-white, and 3-D converting some of the Meliès films. Will a child who wants to see a silent movie after watching Hugo be bored by the real thing?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Vaclav Havel's Ethical Politics

In the wee hours of December 18, 2003, I was finishing up a research paper on Vaclav Havel for my high-school English class. Eight years later, in the wee hours of December 18, 2011, I came home from an evening of theater- and party-going to read the breaking news headline that Mr. Havel had passed away. For obvious reasons, Havel was one of my heroes, and I am working on a new blog post in response to his death. In the meantime, though, I'm posting my old research paper. I went back and reread it this week and, considering that I wrote it as a teenager, I still think it's a pretty good piece of work. The last paragraph, especially, stands as a fitting memorial to Havel's legacy. But because it's long and because it's from my high school days, I've put most of it after the jump.

Differing Reactions To Václav Havel’s Ethical Politics 
by Marissa Skudlarek, 2003
In addition to his role as the first post-Communist president of both Czechoslovakia (from 1989-1992) and the Czech Republic (1993-2003), Václav Havel has been an award-winning absurdist playwright, a dissident activist, a political prisoner, and an instrumental figure in Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution.”  Indeed, his help in winning Czechoslovakia’s independence from the Soviet satellite system launched him to the presidency.  A further factor was that he had become much admired—by both his compatriots and the Western intellectual community—for the many essays he had written summarizing his thoughts on the ideal role of politics. Seeing the post-totalitarian Communist government as full of lies and lacking legitimacy, he encouraged the Czechoslovak people to “live in the truth,” performing morally obligated acts of civil disobedience.  This ethical perspective on politics led the Czechoslovaks to believe that Havel would be their ideal first president.  Yet while leading Western figures continued to admire Havel’s morally-based policies, these same principles caused him to lose popularity in his native land.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

OMPF on New Play TV

I'm about to head over to Potrero Hill to see my play in the One-Minute Play Festival.

This is just a quick note to say that there may still be a few tickets available for tomorrow, or, if you prefer to watch these plays from the comfort of your own home, tomorrow's 2 PM matinee will be streaming on New Play TV!

That's 2 PM Pacific / 5 PM Eastern. It's pretty cool to be a theater-maker in the 21st century, n'est-ce pas?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Rapunzel's Existential Crisis

I know I have been blogging infrequently. I've been busy. I've also been confused -- undergoing some of that "I'm three and a half years out of college; now what?" angst. In some ways I feel remarkably tied down: I have a job that keeps me busy, plenty of extracurricular stuff going on, there's always something hanging over my head. But in other ways, I feel "the unbearable lightness of being": I am single and childless, I am not really beholden to anyone, if I chose to abandon some of my responsibilities and do something else (or even do nothing), would it really matter?  I suppose that this truly is an "existential crisis"-- in the sense that existentialism is a philosophy that starts from the idea "I'm free; now what?"

In such moments, I convince myself that maybe I'd be happier if I gave up some of my freedom and followed "the rules." Not that rules exist these days the way they did fifty or a hundred years ago (especially in an anything-goes town like San Francisco), but if I went looking for rules and order, I'm sure I could find them. Settle down. Marry a nice man. Build your character. Stop whining so much. Volunteer to help the unfortunate. Stop wasting time on the Internet. Listen to classical music. Read great literature. Stand up straight. Make your bed. Stop questioning things, stop brooding. Stop insisting on freedom; it's only making you unhappy. You spoiled, selfish Millennial girl, who are you to think that you can live so heedlessly?

So I feel confused a lot, and guilty a lot, in that existential way.

I feel guilty that I haven't written about Ladies in Waiting, the latest No Nude Men show, which is closing this weekend -- as many of my friends are involved in it and I really do have things to say about it.
Ladies in Waiting is an evening of three short plays by women: "Woman Come Down" by Claire Rice, "Night in Jail" by Alison Luterman, and "Oily Replies" by Hilde Susan Jaegtnes. Specifically, I wanted to talk about "Woman Come Down," which really gets at all the issues I was discussing above: the existential terror of freedom; the tension between wanting to play by the rules and wanting to break them; the need for every young woman to negotiate her own way of being in the world.

All that, in the form of a fractured fairy tale.

In Claire's play, Little Red Riding Hood, rather than being a child, is a somewhat aimless young woman. She's dating the woodsman, Henry, but feels ambivalent about the relationship; she may not want to settle down and get married, but she finds it hard to articulate what she actually wants. Then, as in the original tale, Red goes to visit her grandmother, encounters a wolf (here portrayed as a rather sleazy traveling salesman with secrets of his own), and ends up taking a different path from the one she planned. Specifically, the wolf tells her about a nearby tower which imprisons a beautiful maiden -- Rapunzel!

Rapunzel has been indoctrinated to hate and fear anyone who isn't her "mother," the witch. She has never questioned her imprisonment. So it takes Red a while to break through to Rapunzel, but eventually the two women have what amounts to a philosophical debate about security and freedom, imprisonment and choice. And Red helps free Rapunzel. And later, at Grandmother's house, Rapunzel helps free Red.

It is a beautiful play, telling me what, deep down, I know to be true: I don't want to follow rules I don't believe in just for the sake of an easier life. "Down is complicated," says Rapunzel, but isn't it better than being isolated in a tower? The play acknowledges that imprisonment can be seductive and that achieving freedom can require pain and sacrifice. (Rapunzel has to cut off all her hair -- her most salient feature -- in order to make the rope ladder to free herself.) But doing only what society tells you to do, and not what you know you must do, is a recipe for a life of quiet desperation. While I must develop a set of rules for living in this world (because I do not want my present state of confusion to last forever!), I need not conform to some externally imposed list of rules.

"Woman Come Down" is directed by Stuart Bousel, with Kirsten Broadbear as the hip, bike-riding Red and Theresa Miller as the daffy, stubborn Rapunzel.

As for the other Ladies in Waiting plays, "Night in Jail" features a flamboyant performance by Broadbear as Marie Antoinette, but this character tends to overshadow the other two characters in the piece: a modern-day "celebutante" who has been arrested for drunk-driving, and the prison guard assigned to her cell. "Oily Replies" is an experimental play, a twisted ontological detective story that takes place on an oil rig. (I find it hilarious that Jaegtnes, who is Norwegian, wrote a play about an oil rig.) Fortunately, it's an experimental play that has a sense of humor about it, including a narrator who keeps losing control of the story, body parts that mysteriously go missing, and three virgins who may or may not have dandruff. Special mention to Karen Offereins for enacting a drowning-by-proxy on dry land (this will make more sense, albeit not total sense, if you see the show).

But mostly, it's "Woman Come Down," and its feminist interpretation of Red and Rapunzel, that will stick with me. It's funny, speaking of revisionist fairy tales, I love Sondheim's Into the Woods. But that show has a conservative, community-oriented message: "No one is alone."  "Woman Come Down," on the other hand, proposes that everyone is alone, individual, free -- so now what?

Ladies in Waiting plays through tomorrow night (December 17) at the Exit Theater, San Francisco. Photo of Red (Broadbear) and Rapunzel (Miller) by Claire Rice.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Creative Cancerian

Free Will Astrology is a not-so-guilty pleasure of mine. Always erudite, positive and well-written, and sometimes uncannily accurate. Of course, that could all just be confirmation bias. Nonetheless, when I read this as my horoscope the week that I begin writing a play that takes place in the WWII era, I can't help but take it as a good sign:

CANCER: "Dear Rob: Is there any way to access your horoscope archives going back to 1943? I'm writing a novel about World War II and need to see your astrological writings from back then. - Creative Cancerian." Dear Creative: To be honest, I wasn't writing horoscopes back in 1943, since I wasn't anywhere near being born yet. On the other hand, I give you permission to make stuff up for your novel and say I wrote it back in 1943. Most of you Cancerians have good imaginations about the past, and you're currently going through a phase when that talent is amplified. While you're tinkering with my history, have fun with yours, too. This is an excellent time for members of your tribe to breathe new life and fresh spin into a whole slew of your own personal memories.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bonjour "Adieu"

A while back I posted a music video from French-Canadian singer-songwriter Coeur de Pirate, whose album of piano-driven chansons quickly became one of my favorites. I just learned that she has a new album out, Blonde. Here is the the first single, "Adieu":

Judging by this, it sounds like her sound on the new album is a little less folk and a little more '60s pop -- and who doesn't love '60s pop?  And the music video casts her as a sassy, tattooed version of Samantha from Bewitched.

Even better, the actor who plays her cheating boyfriend in the music video also plays the cute guy at the center of the love triangle in Les Amours Imaginaires (Heartbeats), which I think is my favorite movie I've seen in a theater all year. (Not that I've ended up seeing a lot of movies this year, but still.) I keep meaning to blog about Les Amours Imaginaires. Maybe all it does is prove that Québecois hipsters aren't much different from American hipsters, but the film has really stuck with me.

According to her website, Coeur de Pirate also sings on a new Christmas album, Noël! Noël!! Noël!!!, from legendary French composer Michel Legrand. Looks like her track is only available on the French edition of the album, though; the English edition has Rufus Wainwright singing "White Christmas" instead of Coeur de Pirate singing "Noël blanc". Other than that, the album seems to have the potential to become a Christmas kitsch classic, what with the lush orchestral arrangements, the First Lady of France crooning about Christmas trees, and Iggy Pop singing "The Little Drummer Boy." If there are any campy Francophones on your Christmas list, get them this album and a DVD of Les Amours Imaginaires and they will love you forever.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Announcing Aphrodite

Guess what's happening exactly one year from tonight?

The San Francisco Olympians Festival will present a staged reading of a new one-act play about the goddess Aphrodite... written by me!

The theme for the 2012 Festival is Titans vs. Olympians. Each evening will pair two one-acts (45-60 minutes), one based on an Olympian god and the other based on a thematically related Titan. At the end of the evening, the audience will vote on its favorite play. Aphrodite will be paired with Phoebe and Theia, by my friend Amy Clare Tasker.

It's a great lineup of writers next year, a good mix of fresh faces and Olympians favorites, and we're already getting into the competitive spirit -- there's been a lot of incredibly geeky trash-talking between Team Titans and Team Olympians.

I don't want to give too much away, but the general idea for this yet-to-be-written play (working title: The Love Goddess) is that it will depict Aphrodite as a 1940s Hollywood starlet and retell the story of the Aphrodite-Ares-Hephaestus love triangle.

Yes, it's another "historical" play for me. As you know, my research often spills onto my blog (there were lots of posts about the 1930s while I was writing The Rose of Youth and about the 1960s-70s when I was writing Pleiades), so I expect there will be some blog posts about the 1940s in the coming months. I'm already putting together a list of movies I need to see (Rita Hayworth figures heavily) and books to read.

And I find it appropriate that the staged reading will take place on December 7, since that date is indelibly associated with the 1940s.

Mark your calendars, and wish me luck as I begin this new play!

Image: The Rokeby Venus by Velázquez, one of my favorite paintings of Venus/Aphrodite.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

One-Minute Plays for the Holidays

Can you believe it's December already?  Three weeks to Christmas... and two weeks to the San Francisco One-Minute Plays Festival!

I will have two plays in the festival (to be directed by Evren Odcikin and Christine Young), and several of my playwright friends are also participating, including Tim Bauer, Megan Cohen, Bennett Fisher, Marisela Treviño Orta and Ignacio Zulueta.

I love the mix of writers that are involved this year and it is an honor to be in the same festival as some much better-known Bay Area playwrights like Eugenie Chan and Philip Kan Gotanda.

Saturday December 17 at 8 PM and Sunday December 18 at 2 PM and 7 PM, at the Thick House on Potrero Hill.  Tickets here. As Ignacio pointed out, it's a 99-seat house and only 3 performances, so get your tickets now!

That's really all the information you need -- I can't tell you what my plays are about, because it's really easy to spoil a one-minute play!

Also check out the One-Minute Play Blog.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Sondheim Weekend

Listening to: NPR's stream of the new Follies CD (Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, et al). I've only ever heard the truncated 1971 recording, so this is a revelation for me!  Reading the Follies chapter in Finishing the Hat, one can come away with the impression that this is the strongest set of lyrics that have ever been written for an American musical, due to Sondheim's dead-on pastiche of all of the lyric writers who came before him, plus his own inimitable genius.

Reading: Look, I Made a Hat, volume 2 of Sondheim's collected lyrics, which came out on Tuesday.  It is just as full of odd, interesting insights as Volume 1 and is going to have an equally prized place on my bookshelf.  I brought it to a Thanksgiving party of theater people on Thursday, where it was a big hit. As a friend of mine says, "The only thing better than having these books by Sondheim is if we also had a book by Shakespeare titled How I Wrote My Plays."


Ring Round the Moon, the Jean Anouilh/Christopher Fry play that Sondheim and Hal Prince wished to adapt into a musical. When they were unable to obtain the rights, they adapted Smiles of a Summer Night instead -- it has a similar theme of romantic entanglements at a European country house.

I found Ring Round the Moon completely delightful. Its witty aphorisms made me laugh out loud several times, and I love the idea of having one actor play the identical twins Hugo and Frederic. (You'll recall that the one-actor-playing-twins was my favorite part of my experience working with Un-Scripted Theatre last summer!)

My copy, above, is an adorable 1950 edition, I believe the first American edition, which I found at Readers Café and Bookstore. Why do I never hear anyone talk about this used bookstore? It has some amazing items (I once saw a 1910 edition of Playboy of the Western World there!) and the proceeds go to a good cause.

Speaking of supporting a good cause: In 1981, Stephen Sondheim founded Young Playwrights Inc., to foster the work of American playwrights 18 and under. In 2006, I won their National Competition with my first play, Deus ex Machina.  And last week, the Young Playwrights office, on Fifth Avenue in New York City (right across from Lord & Taylor) was gutted by a fire.

This news is very sad, especially because Young Playwrights, like many arts nonprofits, always seemed to be a bit of a shoestring organization and, I know, was having difficulties in our current economic climate. (Young Playwrights used to present full productions of the plays that won the contest, but they have not been able to do that for several years.)  As they rebuild, they are taking donations through PayPal.

In order to thank them for the amazing two weeks that they gave me five years ago (a workshop of my play in New York, tickets to 10 shows, a downtown hotel room with a balcony...) and to support them in their rebuilding efforts, I'm going to give Young Playwrights some money this holiday season. Would you consider doing the same?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The secret miracle of Charlotte Salomon

Last month I attended an extraordinary art exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, on loan from the Netherlands Jewish Historical Museum: some 200 gouache illustrations by Charlotte Salomon from her Leben? oder Theater? (Life? Or Theater?) magnum opus.

Salomon was a playwright without a stage. A graphic novelist before such a thing existed. A young woman struggling to find and claim her voice, to affirm herself and her existence. It is no surprise that her work -- with its themes of theater, creativity, love, feminism, identity, and history -- should resonate with me; these are things that I think about a lot.

Salomon was born into an upper-class Jewish family in Berlin in 1917, part of that wonderful cultured Mitteleuropean milieu of the early 20th century. Her father was a surgeon; her stepmother was an opera singer; and Charlotte attended art school. But, needless to say, by the 1930s, Berlin was a very bad place to be a Jew. Salomon's father lost his medical license, Charlotte had a school prize taken away from her on account of her religion, and shortly before she turned 21, her family sent her to the south of France for safety.

What makes Salomon's story really interesting, though, is its more personal details. Not only did she live in a dangerous and tumultuous era, but her family had its own tragedy: virtually all of the women on her mother's side of the family killed themselves. This information was concealed from young Charlotte until she was an adult (she had always been told that her mother died of influenza). When she learned the truth, she wondered if she too was destined to commit suicide. In a state of shock and crisis, she decided that she had only two options: either to kill herself, or to "undertake something eccentric and mad." She chose the latter option. She holed herself up in a hotel on the French Riviera and spent several months creating the hundreds of illustrations of Leben? oder Theater?

The narrative starts with Salomon's family history (the suicide of her mother's sister; her parents' meeting) and continues through her childhood and young womanhood, up until the moment she undertakes the Leben? oder Theater? project. Much of the narrative concerns Salomon's love for her stepmother's voice teacher, Alfred Wolfson, or "Amadeus Daberlohn" as he is called in the paintings (all of the Leben? oder Theater? characters have thinly disguised pseudonyms). Wolfson/Daberlohn was a World War I veteran whose philosophies about art, creativity, and finding one's voice had a great influence on Salomon. She paints his face obsessively, but also seems able to view him with a certain objectivity and humor -- you get the impression that he was a brilliant but also a pompous man. There's a memorable series of gouaches where Daberlohn is stretched out on a couch, pontificating on art and life:

"It is part of my nature as a man among men to remind them of suffering, which in our day we like to pretend does not exist. Yet I have never forgotten to emphasize that I love life and affirm it threefold. In order to love life completely, one must also embrace and comprehend its other side, death, including suffering. This is how my oft-repeated words must be understood those whom I love to undergo bitter experiences so that they will be forced to follow the path into their own depths."

These ideas would come back to Charlotte Salomon when she was at her lowest point and influence the creation of Leben? oder Theater? For, in the end, she followed the path into her own depths, learned about the death and suffering that haunted her family, and rather than being swallowed up by the darkness, made the choice to love and affirm life. The final panels of Leben? oder Theater? remind me of the closing scenes of a Chekhov play, where the young woman (Nina in The Seagull, Sonia in Uncle Vanya) clings to optimism and hope despite all the suffering that has befallen her.

Charlotte urges her grandmother: "Look at the flowers in the meadow. So much beauty, so much joy. Look at the mountains up there, so much sun, so much light."

As with Chekhov's plays, Salomon's paintings gain an extra bittersweetness because we know that their creator ultimately died far too young. After Salomon had completed Leben? oder Theater? and entrusted it to a friend, the Vichy France authorities discovered her. She was transported to Auschwitz, and killed at the age of 26.

Charlotte Salomon's story is a tragedy, but also, somehow, weirdly inspiring. They killed her. She didn't kill herself. Despite her family history of suicide, despite the grave dangers that she faced, she chose to self-create rather than self-destruct. She attempted to understand and redeem her family history, to break the cycle rather than perpetuate it.

The thought of Salomon, hiding out in the Riviera hotel, obsessively painting her gouaches, knowing that her life was in danger and time was perhaps running out (you can see the brushstrokes get wilder and more frantic as the series progresses) reminds me of a real-life version of Borges' story "The Secret Miracle." In that tale, a Czech-Jewish playwright is condemned to die before a Nazi firing squad, and his only regret is that he never finished the verse drama that he was writing. At the moment the bullets are fired, God grants the playwright's wish: he stops time and allows the playwright to take as long as he needs to compose the play in his head. So, too, by some miracle, Salomon was granted the time and the resources and the energy she needed to make Leben? oder Theater?  (She already had the artistic skill.) It is also miraculous that the work survived, and that it holds interest from so many points of view -- artistic, narrative, historical, feminist. I confess I was less interested in the portions of the work that focus on Hitler's rise to power and the persecution of Jews, and more interested in the parts of it that reveal Salomon creating art, finding her voice, falling in love.  A lot of art, up to the present day, deals with the Holocaust and the historical events surrounding it. It seems far rarer to view a museum exhibition about a young woman's coming of age.

Clearly, my blog post can't do justice to the full richness of Salomon's achievement. I'd tell you to see it for yourself, but the San Francisco exhibition closed two days after I saw it.  However, the Dutch museum that owns it has scanned and posted every page online, and even included English translations of the text -- an amazing resource and well worth your time to browse.

Images from the website of the Joods Historisch Museum.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Soixante petites secondes

Spending today working on my submissions for the San Francisco One-Minute Play Festival. We are encouraged to think about what can happen in a minute -- how short it can feel, how long it can feel.

Here is a song that lasts only 60 seconds -- Carla Bruni's "La dernière minute":

Friday, November 4, 2011

Sam Shepard and the 99%

WESTON: I remember now. I was in hock. I was in hock up to my elbows. See, I always figured on the future. I banked on it. I was banking on it getting better. It couldn't get worse, so I figured it'd just get better. I figured that's why everyone wants you to buy things. Buy refrigerators. Buy cars, houses, lots, invest. They wouldn't be so generous if they didn't figure you had it comin' in. At some point it had to be comin' in. So I went along with it. Why not borrow if you know it's coming in. Why not make a touch here and there. They all want you to borrow anyhow. Banks, car lots, investors. The whole thing's geared to invisible money. You never hear the sound of change anymore. It's all plastic shuffling back and forth. It's all in everybody's heads. So I figured if that's the case, why not take advantage of it? Why not go in debt for a few grand if all it is is numbers? If it's all an idea and nothing's really there, why not take advantage? So I just went along with it, that's all. I just played ball.

-- from Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard (1976)
edited to note: I read Curse of the Starving Class for the first time this week and this monologue really struck me as appropriate to our current era. As it happens, Charles Isherwood also quoted this speech in his review of the 2008 revival of the play at ACT, but I didn't read Isherwood's piece until after writing this blog post.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My Olympians Festival Post on 2AMTheatre

I know I've been AWOL from my blog for too long, but you can check out 2AMTheatre today to see a post I wrote about the Olympians Festival (which is what kept me so busy in October)

Greeks and Geeks: The San Francisco Olympians Festival

Many thanks to Tim Bauer for suggesting that I write this post and to David Loehr for his stewardship of 2AMTheatre.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Third Quarter

One of the many eccentricities of my high school education was the emphasis it placed on memorizing and reciting poems and other classic texts. Just about the first thing we did in freshman English was to memorize the school's official Bible chapter, I Corinthians 13, in the King James translation. (Adding to the eccentricity: it was a secular school in every other respect.) I have always had a good memory and I had been acting in plays since I was 6 years old, so I did not have much trouble with the memorization, but many other students struggled. At that point, my teacher offered us a tip. "The hardest part of anything to memorize," she said, "is the third quarter of it, the part between 50 and 75 percent. So start memorizing halfway through and then work your way around to the beginning."

This has stuck with me, not as my preferred trick to use when memorizing something, but because I've discovered that this rule, this "the third quarter is the most difficult part" principle, holds true for other situations. In particular, for playwriting. With all of my full-length plays, the most difficult part to write has been the third quarter -- the beginning of Act Two. If you aren't a playwright, you might assume that the most difficult scenes to write are the most emotionally intense ones, at the end. But those are relatively easy to write (especially if, like me, you have a streak of melodrama in you). And of course, the exposition scenes at the beginning of Act One present their own challenges. But, in general, once you've gotten past the hurdle of laying out your exposition without being boring or inane, you can quite easily finish the rest of Act One.

And then you get to the beginning of Act Two, and you think you'll never manage to finish it. It's tricky, delicate work, like being a demolitions expert on a secret mission. You have to set up all of the elements of your play (the characters and their motivations) so that they explode just right at the climax. You are dealing with volatile material and you have to be careful that it doesn't explode too soon, or fizzle out anticlimactically and too late. You have to set all of the bombs in place without it being obvious that that's what you're doing, or else no one will be surprised when they go off. But at the same time, you want to offer little hints of foreshadowing, to flatter the audience's intelligence and get them on your side. The audience should want the bombs to detonate, should want the building to explode in a fireball, when the climax occurs. You shouldn't lure the audience into a trap and then give them a load of shrapnel to the face. You should make them your accomplices on your mission.

(The above may be the most violent metaphor I have ever constructed and I hope it doesn't get me in trouble with the authorities. But playwriting is dangerous work, folks.)

"Second-act problems" are a proverbial part of playwriting, but I propose that we could also call them "third-quarter problems." When people say "second-act problems," they don't mean that the very end of the second act sucked (when that happens, they just say "the ending sucked") -- they mean that the playwright had trouble getting through the second act, managing the climax without bungling it. Maybe the playwright meandered for a good portion of Act II and then the climax came out of nowhere -- that's one of the most common second-act, third-quarter problems.

I was talking to my roommate about my theory of "third-quarter problems" and she told me that she ran track in high school, the 400-meter dash, and always found the third quarter of the race (meters 200 to 300) the hardest part. I think that it is human nature to plateau during the third quarter of anything. You've been running hard and you know you've accomplished something sizable. (If you were competing in the 200 meters -- or if you were writing a one-act play -- you'd be done by now!) The finish line is in sight, but still far off, and you feel like you deserve to slow down and catch your breath and marshal your strength for the finale. But that doesn't work if you want to be an all-star sprinter, and it doesn't work if you want to be an all-star playwright. Plays can't plateau during their third quarter. The action has to keep rising up, up, up until the end.

A few weeks ago, my Pleiades script had some major third-quarter problems that I felt like I would never resolve. But as October began and the third quarter of 2011 drew to an end, I managed to work hard, push through the problems, and come up with a draft of the script that I am satisfied to hear aloud in public. I invite you to join us for our reading on October 22 -- which, I note, is on the third weekend of our four-weekend festival.

Playwrights have been having second-act or third-quarter problems since our profession existed -- frankly, you could even make the case that Hamlet has third-quarter problems, what with Hamlet being sent to England, captured by offstage pirates, etc. And human beings, too, have always had third-quarter problems; indeed, isn't a "midlife crisis" the archetypal "third-quarter problem"? Third-quarter problems -- the plateau, the struggle, the eventual breakthrough -- are common to most people and most narratives. So, despite everything, they bring us together. So, despite everything, they're problems I love to have.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Olympians are Omnipresent!

The San Francisco Olympians Festival is well under way and it feels like it has been taking the city by storm! You can check us out at the following locations...
  • On your iPhone: Thanks to playwright/programmer Kirk Shimano, we are the world's only mythology-inspired theater festival with its own (free) app! It features schedules, cast lists, and festival artwork. Search for "olympians" at the App Store.
  • In Bay Stages: There's a 1-page feature on us in the October issue of this new-ish local performing arts magazine. Also free! Pick up your copy here.
  • In American Theatre Magazine: We made it into a national publication! The article isn't available online, but pick up a hard copy of the October issue and turn to pages 14-15 for a few nice paragraphs on the Olympians Festival.
  • At the Cafe Royale (800 Post Street): We had our opening party here, and all month long the cafe gallery is hosting a show of the original Festival artwork. It is just stunning to see in person, particularly Molly Benson's Perseus glass mosaics and Emily C. Martin's original Pleiades drawing, featuring real gold leaf!
Photo by Claire Rice. That's me kneeling at front, with some of my fellow Olympians playwrights: (l-r) Maria Leigh, Christian Simonsen, Neil Higgins, Bryce Duzan.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Possible preview of my day tomorrow

I'm taking a vacation day tomorrow, with starry-eyed visions of working on my play and not having to fight for a seat at the coffee shop. But this funny video, from local sketch comedy troupe Killing My Lobster, tells me I oughtn't get my hopes up.

Seriously, when you work a traditional 9 to 5 job in San Francisco, you can feel like an anomaly, and, instead of feeling lucky to have a "real" job, you can feel like you went wrong somewhere. (Because everyone else in the city seems to have so much lovely free time to hang around the Mission and drink coffee!) My co-workers think of me as the weird artsy one who does theater after work, and my theater friends think of me as the weird corporate one who spends all day in an office. On a good day, I feel like a superhero with a secret identity. On a bad day, I feel like I have no identity at all.

But tomorrow, I get to live in my superhero playwright identity for the whole day, so, crowded coffee shops or no, I think it'll be a good day.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Links: Playwriting, "Pleiades," Personals, Paris...

Links to tide you over as I ignore my blog in favor of revising my play. The staged reading is happening one month from tonight!
  • Pleiades is set in 1971 and I've been getting my daily dose of visual inspiration from the Sighs and Whispers blog, which posts scans of old fashion magazines, with a heavy focus on the late-'60s early-'70s era. Because my play is about seven sisters, I especially liked "Seven Faces of Beauty," an ad campaign from 1972.
  • Far more contemporary: N+1 Personals. I love these people. I hate these people. I want to slap these people. I want to date these people. I have more in common with these people than I would like to admit. Is this a ruthless "Stuff White People Like"-style examination of the preoccupations of young, overeducated, underpaid Americans? A collection of desperate lonelyhearts who name-drop Derrida and Pynchon in order to conceal their fear that they're dull and empty inside? An assortment of vibrant individuals who would be my new best friends if we ever met in person? And before you ask, no, I am not the "latter-day Aphra Behn seeking straight Kit Marlowe." I wish I were clever enough to describe myself that way!
  • Thought-provoking HowlRound post by the brilliant Taylor Mac. Quote: "I would go one step further and suggest not to read plays until after they’ve committed to producing them. Instead get to know artists and their body of work. Give them a date on the calendar for when their new play will be produced and… trust. If you’ve liked plays they’ve written in the past, chances are they’ll write something you’ll be interested in again, and if not, the production will be over in a couple months but the relationship with the artist may last decades." You know, this is kind of how the Olympians Festival works -- we were given a year to write our plays and, come hell or high water, they'll have staged readings in October. And I am immensely grateful for, yes, the trust and faith that our Festival producer has placed in me throughout the process.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Psychedelic "Pleiades" Poster

I love, love, love Emily C. Martin's poster art for Pleiades! (Click for a bigger version.) And how amazing is it that the Olympians Festival creates such stunning artwork for what is, in essence, a one-night-only staged reading?

Our Festival art coordinator, Cody Rishell, asked us if we had any guidance for the artist, and I responded with an email about the early 1970s, psychedelic rock posters from that era, Alphonse Mucha, Art Nouveau, maxi dresses, and long-haired girls. (My decision to set Pleiades in 1971 was inspired by a photograph of my mother's six beautiful female cousins wearing long dresses in the early '70s.) I worried that I was demanding too much... but you can see that Emily Martin was able to capture all of that and more! I especially like the swirling mandala-like design.

The first show of the Olympians Festival is in exactly one month and Pleiades is taking place on October 22. Come to my show and have a chance to win a copy of this poster in a raffle!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The final reel at the Red Vic Movie House

Vivre sa vie
Sita Sings the Blues
Let the Right One In
Inglourious Basterds
The City of Lost Children
The Fall
Small Change
Tiny Furniture
Harold and Maude

It looks paltry when I just write down the titles, but I believe that that's the complete list of all the movies I saw at the Red Vic Movie House, from the time I moved to the Inner Sunset in January 2009 until the cinema (sadly) closed at the end of July. Consider this a belated obituary.

I feel like there were dozens more movies that I could have or should have seen there (and then maybe, my magical thinking goes, the cinema wouldn't have closed), but this list represents some amazing movies and some indelible memories. I remember seeing Vivre sa vie on a lonely winter Saturday when I was still quite new to San Francisco and finding my way. The heroine is an elusive, mysterious character, and not a role model -- except that I could relate to how she finds solace or catharsis by sitting in a cinema and watching movies. After all, that was what I was doing myself.

Looking at the list I am struck by how many of the movies I saw at the Red Vic have to do with cinephilia or at least have scenes set in movie theaters. Vivre sa vie: the unforgettable scene of Anna Karina watching The Passion of Joan of Arc. Inglourious Basterds: a cinephile's fever dream, with an elaborate climax taking place inside of a movie theater. The Fall: another cinephilic fever dream, a movie that became a cult classic at the Red Vic, its breathtaking images demanding to be seen on the big screen. Small Change: the movie theater provides the backdrop for many of the children's everyday adventures. Inglourious Basterds and The Fall also have strong messages about the power of cinema for good or for ill, how stories capture our imagination and can hurt us or heal us. As does the backstory of Sita Sings the Blues, an animated film made by a woman struggling to get over a bad breakup, transforming her pain into cinematic art.

Holidays were another running theme of my Red Vic moviegoing experience. Let the Right One In as a just-before-Halloween scary treat. The Fall on New Year's Day 2010, the cinema filled with lonely souls. My birthday this year, celebrated with classic cocktails at the Alembic followed by a screening of Vertigo at the Red Vic -- my "HitchCocktail Party." The next day, the Bay Guardian interviewed one of the Red Vic's owners about the cinema's upcoming closure. She said "It's been a long, slow, steady decline. Then again, I worked last night and it was pretty busy for Vertigo." Can I and my party take credit for that?

I wasn't too impressed by The City of Lost Children (amazing set design and visual sense, but I found the story lacking), and Small Change is fairly minor Truffaut, but other than that, I will gladly recommend all of the above movies. And just look at the range of movies that the Red Vic showed! While many of its screenings were of recent-ish indie-ish films, it always made time for the classics. How could I not love a movie theater where I first experienced both a French New Wave classic and a film (Tiny Furniture) made by a young woman who graduated from college the same year I did?

I was there on the final weekend to see Harold and Maude, the cultiest of the Red Vic's cult classics, and I miss the Red Vic Movie House already. So, with Anna Karina, let's shed a tear for what we witnessed on the silver screen:

and with Harold and Maude, watch the sun go down on this piece of San Francisco history.

Monday, August 29, 2011

"Suddenly, Greek gods can be just as interesting and relevant as real people"

A Metafilter thread today led me to this passage from the novel Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, that deals with the continuing relevance and power of Greek mythology to the modern world. An extract:
"Okay. So the Athena that you honor on your medallion isn't a supernatural being--"

"--who lives on a mountain in Greece, et cetera, but rather whatever entity, pattern, trend, what-have-you that, when perceived by ancient Greek people, and filtered through their perceptual machinery and their pagan worldview, produced the internal mental representation that they dubbed Athena. The distinction being important because Athena-the supernatural-chick-with-the-helmet is of course nonexistent, but 'Athena' the external-generator-of-the-internal-representation-dubbed-Athena-by-the-ancient-Greeks must have existed back then, or if she existed back then, the chances are excellent that she exists now, and if all that is the case, then whatever ideas the ancient Greeks (who, though utter shitheads in many ways, were terrifyingly intelligent people) had about her are probably quite valid."
It goes on from there and is thought-provoking. A nice thing to read as the San Francisco Olympians Festival draws nearer.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Feliz Cumpleaños Borges

Today's Google Doodle doesn't look the way I think a "Borges" illustration ought to look -- somehow it's too sci-fi. Yes, Borges wrote speculative fiction, but he was steeped in erudition, enthralled by the thinkers who had come before him, and fascinated by dreams and mysticism and conspiracies... The image above is too bright, too orderly, too futuristic.

Nonetheless I am happy that Google chose to honor him on this day. "The Aleph" might just be my favorite short story of all time -- I think it is absolutely perfect. And, as a playwright, I find myself thinking about "The Secret Miracle" an awful lot, sometimes praying for a secret miracle of my own!

I read the complete short stories of Borges the summer I was 17 and keep meaning to do a lengthier post on him. But I can't afford to do so at the moment: there are no secret miracles, and time marches on apace. And besides, you'd be better served by reading the actual JLB than by reading my opinions of his work. I encourage you to check out the above two stories -- and feel free to come back and tell me your thoughts on him. Or let me know your personal favorite Borges story.

Other great writers born on August 24: Jean Rhys (someday, too, I'll write about why I think Wide Sargasso Sea is overrated and Voyage in the Dark is underrated) and A.S. Byatt (a favorite of mine; see all my Byatt posts here).

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Radiant Sisters

Clearly, my blog has gone into abeyance while I work on Pleiades, but to tide you over, here's a poem, "On the Beach at Night" by Walt Whitman, that I found while doing research for mentions of the Pleiades in literature.
On the beach at night,
Stands a child with her father,
Watching the east, the autumn sky.

Up through the darkness,
While ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading,
Lower sullen and fast athwart and down the sky,
Amid a transparent clear belt of ether yet left in the east,
Ascends large and calm the lord-star Jupiter,
And nigh at hand, only a very little above,
Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades.

From the beach the child holding the hand of her father,
Those burial-clouds that lower victorious soon to devour all,
Watching, silently weeps.

Weep not, child,
Weep not, my darling,
With these kisses let me remove your tears,
The ravening clouds shall not long be victorious,
They shall not long possess the sky, they devour the stars only in apparition,
Jupiter shall emerge, be patient, watch again another night, the Pleiades shall emerge,
They are immortal, all those stars both silvery and golden shall shine out again,
The great stars and the little ones shall shine out again, they endure,
The vast immortal suns and the long-enduring pensive moons shall again shine.

Then dearest child mournest thou only for Jupiter?
Considerest thou alone the burial of the stars?

Something there is,
(With my lips soothing thee, adding I whisper,
I give thee the first suggestion, the problem and indirection,)
Something there is more immortal even than the stars,
(Many the burials, many the days and nights, passing away,)
Something that shall endure longer even than lustrous Jupiter
Longer than sun or any revolving satellite,
Or the radiant sisters the Pleiades.
Of note: my play is about Jupiter (Zeus) and the Pleiades, and long before I read this poem, I had planned for my play to take place in a summer house on Walt Whitman's native Long Island, with some key scenes occurring "on the beach at night."

Also of note: I found two different versions of this poem online, the one above, and a version where the Pleiades are referred to as "delicate brothers" and "radiant brothers." I had heard that Whitman compulsively revised his poems, but never seen such a clear-cut example! It seems that when the poem was originally published in Leaves of Grass in 1871, it was "brothers," but twenty years later, it had changed to "sisters." Did he revise it to make it less shocking/controversial? After all, if the Pleiades are always referred to as the Seven Sisters, it's a gender reversal to portray them as brothers, and a phrase like "delicate brothers" would have served as a big sign-post pointing to Whitman's homosexuality.

Then again, according to another website I found, the Pleiades have always had an association with homosexuality -- I suppose because they are seen as such a strong feminine influence that, when they appear in a man's astrological chart, they signify effeminacy or homosexuality? But I enjoyed this astrologer's positive re-interpretation of the Pleiades (seeing them not as victims, but "divine sisters on a voyage to true individuality and rebellion against social expectations... a reminder to those who would follow in their steps of revolution, promising that all burdens endured would lead to a greater brightness that would withstand the darkness of man's own ignorance") and his discovery of an ancient text that assigned a virtue and a color to each of the seven sisters. One of my challenges while writing Pleiades has been to develop each sister as an individual character -- when the myths don't give them much in the way of individual personality. And I get a kick out of this esoteric astrological stuff.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Manifestation of a Script

So! Last week my script was featured in Un-Scripted Theater's "Act One, Scene Two" project. It was an unusual, surprising, fun, and very valuable evening. I'm so pleased with how it all turned out.

The Un-Scripted Theater Company specializes in long-form improv: improvising a full-length, 2-act play in a specified genre or style. "Act One, Scene Two" is a new thing for them:
Each performance features a different guest playwright with Act One, Scene One of an unfinished play. The Un-Scripted Theater Company interviews the playwright onstage, performs their scene while reading it for the first time, and then goes on to finish the play -- now without a script -- starting from Act One, Scene Two. It's a blend of scripted and un-scripted that exposes the electric heart of live theater.
Writing my scene for "Act One, Scene Two" was actually a really good playwriting exercise. I had to devise a premise interesting enough that it could self-evidently sustain a full-length play, even though I had no idea what the remainder of the play would be. My scene -- required to be under 8 pages -- would have to establish characters, setting, style, and tone, provide some kind of action, and drop hints or dangle plot-threads that the improvisers could pick up. I quickly realized that the opening scenes of my existing full-length plays wouldn't work: they were too slow-moving or didn't have a clear enough "hook." So I wrote a new scene, titled "Manifestation."

The scene begins with two female friends, Annie and Elise. Annie believes in "manifestation," understood to be some kind of New Agey, The Secret-type philosophy where "the universe exists in order to manifest our deepest desires" and if you want something enough, you'll get it. For this reason, Annie asks Elise to envision and describe her "ideal man." But Elise doesn't believe in Manifestation, and thinks it's wrong to spend your time dreaming about an ideal that will never come true. Finally, she says:
ELISE: OK, if this is my ideal man we’re talking about, he is a good cook. He is also the heir to a billion-dollar fortune, owns a flying carpet, and gives me an orgasm every time he touches me. But I have to be practical. It makes no sense to daydream about a man like that. So, sticking to the realm of the possible, and being careful not to set myself up for disappointment… it’s nice if he can cook. But it’s not necessary.
And then, wouldn't you know, a good-looking man (Jake) shows up on a flying carpet, and he's the heir to a billion-dollar fortune, and when he shakes Elise's hand... yowza! Jake and Elise ride off on the flying carpet, and Annie is left feeling confused and resentful.

It's kind of silly, and I'm sure that this same basic premise has been used before. And I don't usually write plays that violate the laws of physics, with things like flying carpets. But at the same time, this felt like a "Marissa" play. It has female protagonists, and suggests that female friendship can be complex and involve emotions like envy or competitiveness. It has a heterosexual-romance element to it, and somewhat cynical or dissatisfied characters. The "Manifestation" theme is there to give it a bit more philosophic depth than just "two girls talking about their love lives," as well as to provide a sort-of explanation for why Flying-Carpet Jake shows up.

The Un-Scripted actors received my script about an hour and a half before curtain time. The show itself began with me being called to the stage and interviewed about my writing. I said that I enjoy playwriting for the characters it allows me to create, and that I particularly like telling women's stories, and exploring "flawed" or "unlikable" characters. Thus, I told the Un-Scripted troupe not to be afraid of acting unlikable: "Don't have the audience love you because you're so wonderful, but because you are interesting and messed-up."

"That's a pretty good philosophy for life in general," said one of the actors.

I was also able to drop a few hints as to how I envisioned the arc of the play. For instance, I said that I thought either Annie or Elise could be a compelling protagonist, and I wanted to see how this incident affected their friendship.

Then I returned to my seat, and the show began. There were five cast members that night: Mandy Khoshnevisan as Elise, Stacy Mayer as Annie, Aaron Saenz as Jake, and Joy Carletti and Merrill Gruver in a variety of smaller roles. Mandy had a wonderful array of incredulous grimaces that she used to convey Elise's amazement at her "ideal man"'s sudden appearance. Aaron did a very funny parody of a smooth-talking romantic hero, pointing up the absurdity of this stereotype. Stacy managed to be sweet and likable (okay, maybe I do want the audience to like my characters?) even when playing a sad-sack who felt like she'd gotten a bum deal.

As you can see, there were four women and one man in the cast that night. I knew this going in, so I figured that Aaron might have to play multiple roles. What I could not have guessed is that Aaron would decide that his character, Jake, had an evil identical twin who matched Annie's description of her ideal man! Utterly brilliant. The revelation that Jake had a twin brother came right before intermission, and I couldn't wait for Act II to begin and allow us to meet the evil twin. Un-Scripted knows how to use the tricks of dramatic structure to hook an audience.

Not everything about the show was necessarily "the way I would have written it." The last scene felt tacked-on, though this is probably an occupational hazard of long-form improv and the need to wrap things up. And the play ended with Elise happily married to Jake and the mother of twins, whereas, cynic that I am, I would probably have broken the characters up -- Elise would realize that she and Jake are incompatible and that it is indeed ridiculous to daydream about "ideal men." But I really appreciated that the troupe decided to follow both Annie and Elise's stories. You couldn't say that one woman was the protagonist and the other was the sidekick; they were both protagonists, and I loved that the show had two women at its core.

One of the most interesting things about Un-Scripted's shows is that they often end up becoming meta-theatrical -- somehow commenting on the act of live performance and improvisation. Seeing the show, I made a connection that hadn't consciously occurred to me when I wrote my scene. "Manifestation" is the act of creating something just by saying that it exists. Well, isn't that what theater is -- particularly improvised theater?

(There were a couple of funny, coincidental "manifestations" surrounding the show, too. Without knowing the subject of my play, Stacy had brought the New Age book A New Earth to read on the bus that day, and she ended up using it as a prop -- it's exactly the kind of thing Annie would read! Another odd manifestation: the entire cast decided to dress in purple shirts. How could they know that purple is my favorite color?)

Long-form improv is a high-wire act, full of risks. But the folks at Un-Scripted are so talented and quick-witted that they can make amazing things manifest.

Image, from left to right: me, Aaron Saenz, Joy Carletti, Mandy Khoshnevisan, Merrill Gruver, and Stacey Mayer, after the show. Photo by Scott Keck.

Monday, July 25, 2011

David Foster Wallace, Romantic Hero

From, 7/20/11:
There's a David Foster Wallace character in Jeffrey Eugenides' new novel. Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, his long-awaited follow-up to 2002's Middlesex, arrives in bookstores in October [...] The protagonist, Madeleine Hanna, is a graduating senior at Brown who loves nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels and her scientist boyfriend, Leonard Bankhead. She is loved in return by the religiously minded Mitchell Grammaticus. Grammaticus shares some qualities with the author himself. Like Eugenides, Mitchell's a smarty-pants of Greek descent who attended Brown and grew up in Detroit [...] But the Bankhead character is more recognizable still, as David Foster Wallace. Leonard Bankhead is a philosophy double major who chews tobacco, wears a bandanna, disdains ironic detachment, and has a history of mental illness that has led to multiple hospitalizations — just like David Foster Wallace. [...] Certainly, Leonard is distinct from DFW in a number of ways as well — the particularities of his family situation, his being a total stud, that he's a manic-depressive, not just a depressive, that he's not a writer, and all the vagaries of the plot — but the similarities are so iconically David Foster Wallace (a bandanna and chew are not common accoutrements) that Eugenides, who did not have a well-known or documented friendship with Foster Wallace, must intentionally be calling him to mind.
Well, isn't this what I said when an excerpt of The Marriage Plot appeared in The New Yorker a year ago? ("Did the character of Leonard in this story (Madeleine's love interest) make anyone else think of David Foster Wallace? I mean, he's an overachieving, somewhat obsessive, double-majoring, tall guy who chews tobacco--sound familiar?") Score one for me!

Eugenides' novel will add to the Wallace mystique, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. Last month I was talking with a friend about David Foster Wallace and his lasting influence on our generation (the Millennials), even intruding into Millennial mating rituals. That is, my friend and I have both had memorable experiences involving cute boys and David Foster Wallace (cute boys telling us to read DFW, us telling other cute boys to read DFW, becoming closer to a romantic partner by reading DFW with him, etc). And we feel that other women like us have had similar experiences, that this is becoming a "thing" or even a cliché. Prediction: Within the next five years, there will be an indie romantic comedy that features a scene of characters reading Wallace.

On the surface of it, there's no reason why David Foster Wallace should become associated with young lovers. (This is not Goethe and The Sorrows of Young Werther.) In his New Yorker essay on Wallace, Jonathan Franzen pointed out "the near-perfect absence, in [Wallace]'s fiction, of ordinary love. Close loving relationships, which for most of us are a foundational source of meaning, have no standing in the Wallace fictional universe. [...] David's fiction is populated with dissemblers and manipulators and emotional isolates." Yet Franzen goes on to say, "The curious thing about David's fiction [...] is how recognized and comforted, how loved, his most devoted readers feel when reading it. [...] This very cataloguing of despair about his own authentic goodness is received by the reader as a gift of authentic goodness: we feel the love in the fact of his art, and we love him for it."

And thus it does make sense that we Millennials, in love or hoping to be, would make Wallace a part of our romances. In sharing our love for Wallace with a potential lover, we signal what kind of person we are: "I love David Foster Wallace" has become shorthand for "I am impressively smart, but also achingly vulnerable, deeply caring, and worth getting to know, despite the difficulty." Plus, reading Wallace and finding an understanding boyfriend or girlfriend have the same end result -- of making us feel less alone in the world. So Wallace and romance and our sense of self all get mixed up together.

And then, maybe the logical next step is for David Foster Wallace himself to be depicted as a young lover and a romantic hero -- as he is, it seems, in Eugenides' novel.

Well, it might have taken Jeffrey Eugenides to make Wallace a small-r romantic hero, but society already treats him like a capital-R Romantic hero. That is, every generation needs someone whose life plays into the Romantic myth of the artist as a tormented individual who sees more clearly than his fellow man, but suffers greatly for it. David Foster Wallace has become that figure for my generation. The myth goes, "Wallace understood and wrote about The Modern Condition better than anyone else, and because he perceived the truth too profoundly, he was doomed to die. He stared into the sun and went blind from what he saw."

Adding to Wallace's mystique and myth are his notable eccentricities -- not just his stylistic quirks as a writer, but external stuff like the bandannas and the chewing tobacco. (After all, it was the mere mention of chewing tobacco in Eugenides' story that got me wondering, "Was this character based on Wallace?") And so I'm beginning to wonder if there will come a time when Wallace's mythos will overshadow his actual work.

Last week I was considering Ernest Hemingway -- another American author with a highly recognizable prose style and several personal eccentricities, who died by his own hand -- and the way that Hemingway's persona now overshadows his work. Hemingway is no longer A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, he is Bullfights-Mojitos-Safaris-Masculinity-Monosyllables. Will there come a time when David Foster Wallace is no longer Infinite Jest and Consider the Lobster, but merely Bandannas-Tobacco-Tennis-Depression-Footnotes? And does making him into a romantic hero and a Romantic hero just hasten the onset of that?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

And Now the Final Frame

Tributes to Amy Winehouse are tending to center around two things: The Voice (raspy, smoky, sexy, old-school, a big bluesy voice in a tiny little body, capable of holding you spellbound without resorting to show-off diva tricks) and The Problems (drugs, addictions, fights, self-destruction, a knack for being her own worst enemy). What has not been mentioned as often as it should, I think, is that she was an amazingly talented songwriter. "Rehab" is that rarity: an extremely catchy pop song that isn't annoying when it, inevitably, gets stuck in your head. (In summer 2007, it got stuck in my head so often that I wrote a parody of it.) And in her ballads she found memorable turns of phrase to sing about that oldest of subjects, the pain of love. I particularly liked her use of alliteration: "I tread a troubled track" from "Back to Black," or "Memories mar my mind," from "Love Is a Losing Game."

"Love Is a Losing Game" just might be my favorite of her songs -- there is something almost classically beautiful about it, in the purity of its sadness and its hard-won wisdom. The lyrics sit perfectly on the music. Not a word is wasted.

Here is her demo recording of the song:

And here she sings unplugged versions of her four biggest hits: "Back to Black," "Love Is a Losing Game," "You Know I'm No Good," and "Rehab":

In performances like the ones in the video above, she was so present -- clearly connecting deeply with the songs as she sang them, she varies the phrasing and the melody from the album version. Seeing this, it's all too easy to lament the times she took the stage and wasn't fully present, due to drinking or drugs -- and also lament that we won't get any more Amy Winehouse performances, sober or not. We ask, how could she write songs that were so beautifully crafted and displayed such wit and insight -- then live a life that was so out-of-control and such an inevitable downward spiral?

She lived fast and died young, and while I find it ghoulish to speculate upon the appearance of her corpse, she did leave behind a beautiful body of work. And it's the work of an old soul.

As I read elsewhere on the Internet earlier today, Back to Black has just become the saddest album of the '00s.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Under the Sea: "Salty Towers" at Thunderbird Theatre

Pity poor Poseidon. After he and his two brothers defeated Cronus and divided the world between them, Zeus gained dominion over the heavens and was crowned king of the gods. Hades gained dominion over the underworld and an everlasting bad-ass reputation. And Poseidon gained dominion over -- the ocean? Well, maybe some gods would have made the best of it, but Poseidon doesn't seem to have been too happy. Most of the myths about him depict him as an angry and resentful god, unleashing mighty storms upon unlucky mortals (Odysseus, Hippolytus, Idomeneo). And in perhaps the most famous myth featuring Poseidon, he loses the contest to become patron god of Athens when he gives the city a spring of salt water (whereas Athena provides an olive tree). Not very impressive, to be sure.

For their play Poseidon in the San Francisco Olympians Festival last summer, authors Bryce Alleman, Dana Constance and Kathy Hicks decided to accept that Poseidon is an underdog among gods, and mine that for comedy. As they see it, Poseidon is the beleaguered proprietor of a shabby undersea hotel. He hopes to win the right to host the Olympics and thus get revenge on Athena, but complications arrive in the form of his venomous wife Medusa, his mischievous hotel staff of sea creatures, and several troublesome guests.

Twelve months later, Thunderbird Theatre is giving this play a full production, having hilariously re-christened it Salty Towers in the meantime. Yes, it's a parody of Fawlty Towers, with Poseidon in the John Cleese role. I should note, though, that I've never seen an episode of Fawlty Towers but didn't feel lost or confused during the play. (And yes, this also means that the plays of last summer's Olympians Festival are now batting 3 for 12 when it comes to full productions!)

Salty Towers authors Bryce, Dana, and Kathy are all company members of Thunderbird, which was founded over 10 years ago with the goal of producing original comedic plays. Not black comedies or drawing-room comedies, but unabashed broad humor, farce, and parody. As such, Salty Towers was written in "Thunderbird style," featuring a large cast and a story that is more a succession of incidents than a complex narrative. New characters and sub-plots are constantly introduced throughout the play, and then everything gets resolved by a deus ex machina: Poseidon accidentally gets knocked out for two days, has a dream sequence, and when he comes to, everything is OK. You could argue that the Greeks invented the deus ex machina and thus it is brilliantly clever for a Greek-inspired play to employ this technique, but I feel like that would be overthinking things. Though it would be more challenging, I did wish to see the characters work their conflicts out organically.

The large cast of characters parading across the stage, though, provides a great showcase for Sara Briendel's witty costumes. The gods wear 1970s styles on top and togas on the bottom, while papier-mache and puppetry allows actors to portray sea creatures. As for the characterizations of the gods -- always one of my favorite parts of an Olympians Festival play -- I liked the comic depictions of Dionysus as a Jim Morrison-quoting stoned hippie and Hestia as a giggling, frumpy nerd. But I'm not sure I understood the decision to portray Hermes as a snooty closeted homosexual (usually he's more of a trickster jock), and while it was briefly amusing to hear fire-stealing Prometheus talk like a 1930s Chicago gangster, the portrayal was overly broad. Meanwhile, Poseidon himself is sympathetic, but not the most memorable or compelling character in the play. Throughout it, he's essentially reacting to the crazy hi-jinks of his customers and staff, not making decisions of his own.

One of Poseidon's employees at the undersea hotel is a Portuguese man o' war. In the real world, this jelly-like creature has long venomous tentacles, but in Salty Towers, it's portrayed more like an electric eel, with tentacles that light up and deliver electric shocks. And maybe that's a good metaphor for Salty Towers as a whole. It has the capacity to deliver jolts of wit, laughter, and electricity. But the play also lacks an internal structure that would give it a more solid shape.

Salty Towers is playing through July 23 at the Exit Theater. See for more info.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Script for Un-Scripted

The Un-Scripted Theater Company is producing my script.

It sounds like an oxymoron, but it's real, and coming up soon: July 28 at 8 PM.

The Un-Scripted Theater, San Francisco's premiere improv theater group, is collaborating with playwrights for the first time ever. For their Act One, Scene Two project, they asked local playwrights to submit the beginning scene of a play. On the night of the performance, the Un-Scripted actors will do a cold reading of that scene and then improvise the remainder of the play -- 90 to 120 minutes, including intermission!

Moreover, the goal is to improvise a play the style of that evening's playwright, so at the very beginning of the show, I'll have to get onstage and answer questions about my writing style, common themes in my work, etc.

I saw opening night of Act One, Scene Two on July 9 and can attest that the Un-Scripted improvisers are super talented, amazingly quick-witted, and sure to provide a memorable evening of theater.

The scene I wrote for this project is titled "Manifestation" and while I can't reveal too much about it (it's supposed to be a secret until the night of the performance), I can say it's a little sillier than what I usually write, but also has some of my favorite themes/motifs. Oh, and don't bring small children or your easily offended grandma :-)

I can't wait to see the play that results from my little scene and the Un-Scripted actors' boundless imaginations -- and if you're in San Francisco, feel free to join me for what is one of the weirdest, but most exciting, opportunities I have ever had as a playwright.

As I said, this is a one-night-only deal, Thursday July 28, at 8 PM. (If you can't make it, I urge you to check out another Act One, Scene Two show -- it's playing well into August and there are lots of great playwrights in the lineup.)

The Un-Scripted Theater Company performs at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available here.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

One Constant, If I May

A few New Yorker-ish things:

* The short story "Homage to Hemingway" by Julian Barnes from the July 4 issue was very thought-provoking. A combination of fiction, literary criticism, playful meta-textuality... good stuff, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Hemingway's death. And I loved this little passage:
He told them his theory of writers and cooking. Novelists, who were in it for the long haul, were temperamentally equipped for stewing and braising, for the slow mixing together of many ingredients, whereas poets ought to be good at stir-fry. And short story writers? someone asked. Steak and chips. Dramatists? Ah, dramatists – they, the lucky sods, were basically mere orchestrators of the talents of others, and would be satisfied to shake a leisurely cocktail while the kitchen staff rustled up the grub.
Bonus link: Julian Barnes reads Hemingway's "Homage to Switzerland," which inspired "Homage to Hemingway."

* Paul Muldoon, the magazine's Poetry Editor, gave the commencement speech for the Bennington College writers' program -- in terza rima. Actually, this poem is a meta-textual homage too, to W. H. Auden's poem for the 1946 Harvard commencement, "Under Which Lyre". I'm not sure Muldoon's poem will endure as long as Auden's (there might be too many snarky pop-culture references in it), but I enjoyed several passages from it, especially this one:
The challenge is how to kick-start
ourselves and name some grand ambition shining there
at which we may, albeit briefly, set our caps
before throwing those same caps in the capricious air.
and the concluding advice:
think outside the frame
unless you’re a photographer; be frugal
in everything but praise; never jump a small claim;
always write “some pig” of the least porker
in the barnyard; remember those who fly far look like fair game;
refuse to pay corkage; make every line a corker;
let your main tactic be tact
and—one constant, if I may—read The New Yorker.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

"Tales of the City: A New Musical" - San Francisco in Song

Shortly after moving to San Francisco in 2008, I read Armistead Maupin's first Tales of the City book and then learned that it was being adapted into a musical -- which I thought was a great idea. So I was very excited to see the world premiere, at the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) here in town through the end of the month.

Adapted from Armistead Maupin's columns and novels, the musical has a libretto by Jeff Whitty and a score by Jake Shears and John Garden, of the 1970s-influenced band Scissor Sisters. (After writing this and Avenue Q, Whitty has cornered the market on musicals about young urbanites exploring their identities while living in a crazy apartment house presided over by a gender-ambiguous proprietor.) Shears and Garden draw on a mix of musical styles for the score, not limiting themselves to Scissor Sisters' glam-rock/disco sound. In an interview in the playbill, they make the point that the 1970s were a diverse era in music and that '70s Broadway composers (Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, John Kander) wrote music influenced by pop, rock, folk, jazz, traditional Broadway, etc. Thus, the score includes such items as a thumping disco number for the famous scene where Michael "Mouse" Tolliver participates in a jockey shorts dance contest, Janis Joplin-style blues-rock for Mona Ramsey's songs, and an outrageously campy Broadway-gospel song called "Homosexual Convalescent Center." Lyrics are more functional than brilliant, though I liked the rhyme of "marijuana / co-ed sauna" in a song where Mary Ann Singleton's friends enumerate the good things about San Francisco.

The Tales of the City characters are so beloved that it must be intimidating for actors to portray them, but this new musical is perfectly cast in its central roles. Betsy Wolfe is a sunny Mary Ann and her clear, pure voice suits her character's innocence. Wesley Taylor is an adorable Mouse, making his character's romantic woes instantly sympathetic. Judy Kaye is warm and dignified as Mrs. Anna Madrigal. At first, for all her kindness, she seems somehow distant from the other characters, but when Mrs. Madrigal's big secret is revealed at the end of Act 1, everything makes sense. Mary Birdsong captures Mona Ramsey's cynical, self-destructive side and delivers the funniest lines in the show.

The smaller roles sometimes suffer for not giving the performers enough to do or otherwise being underwritten. The character of DeDe Halcyon-Day gets two broadly comic songs and Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone plays them to the hilt, but she functions more as comic relief than as an integral part of the show. DeDe's husband Beauchamp (Andrew Samonsky) duly performs his plot function of seducing Mary Ann, then basically disappears from the show. A brief scene in Act II shows Jon Fielding (Josh Breckinridge) and Beauchamp hooking up at a gay bathhouse, but this should probably be cut because it raises more questions than it answers. One of the key features of the Tales of the City stories is their blend of high-society characters with marginalized, outsider characters. But the musical often seems to wish that the upper-crust characters didn't exist, in order to go back to having more fun with those crazy and wild folks on Barbary Lane.

Indeed, that's the pitfall of adapting Tales of the City into a musical. Yes, the '70s atmosphere is fun, yes, the characters are lovable and relatable, yes, the big events of the plot give them something to sing about. But there's just too much plot and the creators still haven't found the best way to shape and balance it.

For instance, most of the reviews have mentioned as an emotional high point Mouse's "Dear Mama," where he sings his coming-out letter in the form of a simple folk ballad, unrhymed and all the more affecting because of it. I could hear grown men in the audience crying during this song. But the trouble, from a storytelling perspective, is that we never find out Mouse's mother's reaction to the letter. Does she accept her gay son, or spurn him? It's a good song, but a weak choice to have Mouse sing it to Mary Ann and Mrs. Madrigal (he wants them to hear the letter before he sends it). Much better for him to sing it as a soliloquy, or else directly to his mom.

Then there's the question of whose story this really is: Mary Ann's, Mouse's, or Mrs. Madrigal's? The musical starts off seeming like it will be Mary Ann's story (the "wide-eyed girl in the big city" opening number that I predicted back in 2008) but by Act II, the other characters' stories have become more compelling. The different storylines also present conflicting messages. Mouse and Mrs. Madrigal gain the courage to stop hiding who they really are; they tell the truth and are rewarded for it. Meanwhile, Mary Ann learns that she needs to hide who she is, to tone down her innate good cheer and stop being so trusting. In most of Tales of the City, San Francisco is portrayed as a hippie paradise of love and acceptance, but in Mary Ann's story, it's full of horrible people who try to take advantage of her. Does this make the musical intriguingly complex -- or thematically muddled?

A friend of mine says that she thinks the treatment of Mary Ann, vis-a-vis Mouse, is unfair. By the end of the musical, Mouse has acquired a handsome, successful, loving boyfriend, while Mary Ann has had relationships with two complete scumbags. I can see my friend's point -- as a straight woman, I too identify with Mary Ann and want her to be happy. However, I also appreciate seeing an ingenue heroine whose character arc is not "move to the big city and find Mr. Right." In San Francisco, Mary Ann learns to stand up for herself and acquires wonderful new friends, but she also becomes increasingly hardened and cynical. In her eleven-o-clock number, "Paper Faces," she laments how we all put on masks and personae in order to survive. "Paper Faces" also makes use of one of my favorite musical-theater tricks: the chorus joins in, the orchestra drops out, and everyone keeps singing in soaring harmonies. It gets me every time.

I talked about the characters' arcs, and while that's a good thing to have in a conventional play or musical, maybe that's wrong for Tales of the City -- which after all is based on a loose, rambling, episodic narrative, the first serialized story in a daily newspaper since the 19th century. Though Tales of the City sounded like a slam-bang idea for a musical, it really did take a lot of work to squeeze it into a conventional musical-comedy shape, with character arcs, a happy ending, and a 3-hour running time. To their credit, the creators have obviously worked hard, and not just coasted on the nostalgia that some San Franciscans feel for this era and these characters. (Even though Tales of the City is not a great musical, it could be far worse than it is and still make money in this town, due to the nostalgia factor.) But just as Mary Ann Singleton learns that a 5-day vacation in San Francisco cannot compare with actually living here, a 3-hour musical of Tales of the City, by definition, cannot really be Tales of the City.

Photos by Kevin Berne. Top: Judy Kaye as Anna Madrigal and Mary Birdsong as Mona Ramsey. Bottom: Patrick Lane as Brian Hawkins, Betsy Wolfe as Mary Ann Singleton, Wesley Taylor as Michael "Mouse" Tolliver and Josh Breckinridge as Jon Fielding.