Tuesday, February 26, 2013

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"Rose of Youth" Staged Reading on March 29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look for more updates as March 29 draws closer.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Kids Are All Right @ SF Theater Pub Blog

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"The Chapter In Your Life Entitled San Francisco" - there's more to the story!

On Saturday night, I was at a small party hosted by a friend of a friend, in an apartment north of the Panhandle. A framed book cover, hanging on one of the kitchen walls, caught my attention, and I went over to investigate it.

The cover was plain but elegant: light blue, with a cream-colored rectangle containing the book's title, written in a fine italic script: The Chapter In Your Life Entitled San Francisco.

All at once, I started freaking out. The good kind of freaking out, that is. Because, last spring, I fell head-over-heels for a song called "The Chapter In Your Life Entitled San Francisco," by the Lucksmiths, a band from Melbourne. For a long time last year, they were my new favorite band and "The Chapter In Your Life" was my new favorite song. I couldn't believe I'd never heard it before. I wanted to tell everyone I knew (particularly all of my San Francisco friends) to drop everything and listen to it ASAP. In short, I am probably one of the few people in the United States who is an evangelist for this song, so it felt like some kind of gorgeous serendipity to stumble upon that framed book cover in that apartment kitchen.

The owners of the apartment had no idea that there was a song called "The Chapter In Your Life Entitled San Francisco," so I made them find it and watch it on YouTube as I sang the excellent lyrics under my breath. "Are you ever coming clean? / Or will I never know the meaning of the lines you scribbled out / So that I couldn't read between?" Brilliant stuff.

They also took down the picture frame and opened it up, to show me the Chapter In Your Life Entitled San Francisco book. It's a slim guide to the city and its sights, dating from the late 1940s. You can get a copy on Amazon. I didn't get to look at it for very long, but it's probably fascinating — I love vintage travel guides! The woman who lives in the apartment told me that some New York friends had given the book to her when she moved to San Francisco.

Knowing that the Lucksmiths stole the title of their song from an old book doesn't diminish my appreciation of their music. In fact, I enjoy learning where artists get their ideas. And because you really can't ever have too much Lucksmiths, here's the video again:

Monday, February 11, 2013

Sylvia, You Deserve Better

My recent obsession with Jarvis Cocker led to my discovering the show he hosts on BBC Radio 6 Music, which then led to my discovering 6 Music in general. And it's pretty great: a commercial-free alternative-rock station, playing lots of new indie music plus some fun, unexpected oldies. I now frequently listen to it at work, instead of relying on my iPod. When I arrive at work in the morning, it's late afternoon in the UK, and Radio 6 is playing the "teatime" show hosted by Steve Lamacq. (And how charmed am I that they call it the teatime show rather than the drive-time show? Very charmed.)

One regular feature that Lamacq does is called the "National Anthem," where he reads a news story (typically a kind of whimsical human-interest story — not a major headline) and invites his listeners to suggest songs whose titles/lyrics have something to do with that situation. For instance, last week Lamacq found a news story about a cosmetics company that plans to market perfumes based on the '70s, '80s, and '90s, and the listeners decided that the appropriate National Anthem for that story was "Smells Like Teen Spirit." You get the picture.

Meanwhile, I've also been following the controversy about the new U.K. cover for the 50th-anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, which ignores the book's sad and serious themes in favor of a colorful, frivolous image of a woman with a powder compact:

(Personally, when I saw the Bell Jar cover, what it most reminded me of is the cover of the 50th-anniversary edition of Breakfast at Tiffany's, another book that people want to pretend is far more full of Midcentury Manhattan Glamour than it really is. But at least the Tiffany's cover is a bit darker-colored and more serious-looking; the Bell Jar one is a total mismatch for the book's themes.)

And then, well, you know I've been listening to a lot of Pulp lately, and I realized that if the Bell Jar cover controversy were a National Anthem story, I knew the perfect song for it. What could it be besides Pulp's "Sylvia"? The one whose chorus goes "I know that you deserve better"?

Obviously, the Sylvia that Jarvis Cocker is singing about isn't Sylvia Plath, but I wonder if Plath is the reason he chose that name for the character in his song. If you're writing about a beautiful and troubled girl, your lyrics will gain an extra resonance if you name the girl "Sylvia," patron saint of the beautiful but troubled. It's a lovely name, and sounds similar to trendy names like "Sophia" and "Olivia," but it's rarely used, perhaps because of its tragic associations.

Which is really a shame. As are so many things related to Sylvia Plath. "You deserve better" is what I'd like to say to her on this, the 50th anniversary of her death. A better book cover. A better marriage. A better era in which to be a female artist.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Why Torture is Wrong" at Custom Made: Every woman adores a Fascist

Custom Made Theatre has decided to celebrate Obama's second term by producing Christopher Durang's anti-George-Bush play from 2009, Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them. Well, if there's one surefire way to stir up a San Francisco audience, it's by producing an anti-Dubya play that paints its right-wing characters as ludicrous cartoons — indeed, one of them speaks in Looney Tunes voices.

We in the theater community refer to the play casually as Torture (which makes for some odd-sounding conversations — over the last few months, my friend Claire Rice, who directed this production, regularly said things like "I'm busy with Torture all weekend") or maybe by the first half of its lengthy title. However, I responded to the play not for its satire of the War on Terror, but more for what's suggested by the second half of its title, The People Who Love Them. Walking into the theater, I didn't think the title made much sense (and the grammar is definitely odd), but now I think it was a perfect choice on Durang's part. Because the play implies that we live in a world where men do the torturing and women fall in love with them anyway. It's a bleak vision, even for Durang, whose comedy has always rested on a foundation of darkness and dread.

The play begins when a young woman, Felicity (played by Eden Neuendorf in Custom Made's production), wakes up after a drunken night on the town to discover that she's married to Zamir (Sal Mattos), who is possibly a terrorist and definitely a nasty piece of work. Felicity runs to her parents for help, but her mother Luella (Jennie Brick) is scatterbrained and ineffectual, and her father Leonard (Paul Stout) is a blustering right-winger with a hair-trigger temper. The situation steadily disintegrates until Zamir is held hostage in Leonard's secret torture lair upstairs. It's all fun and games until someone loses a finger?

Felicity's parents are so dysfunctional that it's a wonder that such a normal young woman came from such a messed-up background. At first, Luella seems like a typical Durang ditz; in the original New York production, she was played by Kristine Nielsen, who's made a specialty of such roles. Try to have a serious conversation with Luella, and she'll start chattering about the plays she's seen recently. But this isn't just a way for Durang to shoehorn in all his witty quips and opinions about American theater. Instead, in Jennie Brick's excellent performance, it becomes clear that Luella is a desperately unhappy woman who spends all her free time going to the theater in order to escape her troubled marriage. And yet, despite Leonard's blind bloodlust, another character, Hildegarde (Teri Whipple), has a crush on him. And despite Felicity's mistreatment at the hands of Zamir, and her father's insanity, her instinct is to try to reconcile the two men, rather than to run as fast as she can from what is obviously a bad situation. As a woman, she's been socialized to be a peacemaker — and as her name "Felicity" implies, she's an optimist who seeks a happy ending.

Leonard and Zamir keep their women subservient by means of threats, coercion, and violence. Meanwhile, Reverend Mike (Jonathon Brooks) initially comes off as one of the saner characters onstage — yes, even though he's a minister who moonlights as a hardcore porn producer. But when Mike urges Felicity to forgive Zamir in the name of Christian charity, I found him just as hateful as the other men in the play. Religion, Durang implies, is just one more tool that the patriarchy uses to oppress women.

In the world of this play, then, men are torturers, women are their Stockholm-syndrome-besotted victims, and nothing can end well. Nonetheless, Durang constructs an ending in which Felicity, with the help of the play's omniscient Narrator (Christopher P. Kelly), turns back the clock and tries to rewrite the story. In an interview with the Blank Theater, Durang stated, "As I was writing the play, Felicity and I became one — we BOTH didn't want the play to spiral down into darkness that the actual torture seemed to necessitate dramatically. She and I wanted the play to end differently. In my 20s, I was more cynical/despairing (even though I still wrote comically), but I often sent audiences home with rather dark last moments. After a while, though, I don't want to send the audience home bummed out or distressed... I want to see what's hopeful."

I wasn't sure what to make of this ending choice when I saw the play. On the one hand, it felt like a simplistic cop-out: unwilling to face up to the darkest implications of the situation that he constructed, Durang quickly tagged a happy ending onto the play. On the other hand, the ending is deeply disturbing: Felicity (and Durang) can think of no way out of her predicament that doesn't involve rewriting the laws of space, time, and human behavior. And that might be the most terrifying thing of all.

Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them is playing at the Custom Made Theatre through  February 17. Disclosure: I received a press comp to this show.

Friday, February 1, 2013

How to Host a Living Room Reading @ SF Theater Pub Blog

I am not Martha Stewart, but I have the same initials. And in my latest column for SF Theater Pub, I offer some tips on how to successfully host a script reading in your living room.

Because a living-room reading is the first time that we playwrights hear our work aloud, it can be a surprisingly nerve-wracking process. My tips are about how to calm your jitters and ensure that you and your guests/actors have both a pleasant and productive time.

Go check it out, and feel free to add your own tips in the comments. I'd love to hear from actors or directors about what they feel makes for a successful living room script reading!

And Bay Area residents, mark your calendars for April 15, 2013 -- that's when my new translation of Jean Cocteau's Orphée, which was the subject of my living-room reading on Wednesday night, will be produced at Theater Pub!