Sunday, December 13, 2015

"O Come O Come El Niño" (With Apologies to John Mason Neale*)

A torrential wind- and rainstorm woke me up this morning--the best kind of weather to wake up to, frankly--and inspired me to compose a brief song parody while brushing my teeth. A hymn that expresses the prayer in the heart of every citizen of this drought-ridden state.
O come, O come, El Ni-i-i-i-ño
And drop your load of ra-a-ain and snow
We parch in thirst and wo-o-rry here
Until your clouds and sto-o-orms appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! El Ni-i-i-i-ño
Shall come to make the ri-i-i-vers flow.
*Per Wikipedia's** insanely thorough article about "O Come O Come Emmanuel," John Mason Neale wrote the familiar English lyrics for this song (adapting the Latin "Veni Veni Emmanuel").

**Wikipedia has beguiled me and educated me and (because I often write plays about obscure mythological or historical figures) it has saved my ass so many times. They're having their annual fundraiser right now; I just donated and you should too.

Monday, November 30, 2015

"How To Tell If You're In a Stoppard Play" Now Up at The Toast!

The Toast illustrated my piece with a still from the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern film, but this is my blog so I'm illustrating it with a picture of Rufus Sewell as the original Septimus Hodge. You're welcome.

This is the "fun piece" I alluded to this morning!

For The Toast's famed How To Tell If You're In a Novel series, I wrote and submitted How To Tell If You Are In a Tom Stoppard Play.

The piece begins:
You have devoted your life to translating Ovid, but your guilty pleasure is ‘60s bubblegum pop. 
You are a young woman who’s not shy about displaying her intellectual gifts or her perky breasts.
Thinking of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, you burst into tears.
And continues with many more items of Stoppard-related literary criticism in the guise of silly jokes.

This piece is, I believe, the first thing I've ever written for the Internet that I'm getting paid for, and I couldn't be more thrilled to have that happen with a bunch of Tom Stoppard jokes. I also think I talk more about sex here than I customarily do, and again, I'm amused that this is what it takes to get me to write about sex.

The piece also seems to have found its audience -- closing in on 3,000 social media hits as I write this --  which is so flattering and gratifying. I love that so many of the people who've shared this piece said something like "I always knew I was a Stoppard character" -- I've always intended that as the subtext of the piece: if you love Stoppard's work, if you think these jokes are funny, you're probably a lot like a Stoppard character yourself.

All of the Toast's commenters have been lovely and smart and supportive too -- if only the whole world could be like the Toast's comments section! I'm especially pleased that the "bad Czechs" joke is getting so much love, because it's the last item I added to the piece, after a late night of drinking hot toddies and thumbing through my Collected Works of Stoppard. (After I submitted the first draft, the editor asked me to make it longer, and I feared I didn't have any more good jokes left in me.) And to the person who commented "Somehow this is both a devastating skewering of Stoppard's tropes and a heartening reminder of his genius" -- yep. That's what I was aiming for, and I'm so glad I may have hit the target.

Further reading:
Wishing you a happy and delightfully nerdy December!

November on the Theater Pub blog: "Sense and Sensitivity"

Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, I wrote just one piece for the Theater Pub blog this month: "Sense and Sensitivity." Partly inspired by a Howlround piece about young women experiencing harassment when they performed an outdoor Shakespeare play, partly inspired by that "spoiled Millennials should suck it up and not complain" attitude that has roared up with a vengeance this year, and has been getting me down.

An excerpt:
Certainly, a large part of what is meant by “maturity” is learning how to suck it up and deal with it. A mature person knows how to pick her battles. But that’s not the same thing as saying that mature people never battle or protest. Sometimes the only way to deal with something is to mount a spirited objection to it. The amount of outrage and overreaction in the culture these days can be both fatiguing and depressing — but I don’t think the solution is to suggest that people should stop reacting entirely. Mature people know how to manage their sensitivity, but they do not disown their sensitivity. 
(I think I may repeat that last sentence to myself in times when I am feeling low and then feeling guilty for feeling low -- though perhaps quoting my own writing makes me a 'narcissistic Millennial'!)

But! I've got something else up my sleeve this month. Later today, something fun and silly and theater-related that I wrote will be published on a popular website. I can't wait to share it with you!

Monday, November 23, 2015


For this year's San Francisco Olympians Festival, whose sub-theme was mythology and deities related to The Wine-Dark Sea, I thought about how many artists have found inspiration in the sea, and decided to put together a playlist of ocean-themed music. Each night of the festival, I posted a video on Facebook and Twitter and tagged it #Oceansongs. Now that the festival is over, I thought I'd post the whole playlist here so that it's preserved and accessible in a slightly less ephemeral medium.

The first year of the Olympians Festival (2010), when I served as box-office manager, I themed my outfit to each night's play. I am trying to figure out what it says about me and my growth (?) over the last five-plus years that I've switched from curating outfits to curating playlists.

One. "Fuor del mar" by Mozart from Idomeneo. Starting off with an old-school classic! ""Saved from the sea, I have an even more fearsome sea raging in my breast, and Neptune does not cease to threaten me." Also, Idomeneo is all about fathers and sons, and so was the Olympians show that night, Triton.

Two. "Surfer Girl," by the Beach Boys. The Olympians Festival show that night was "Bevy of Beauties," a series of short plays about minor sea goddesses and nymphs, so a love song to a beach bunny felt appropriate.

Three. "Under the Sea," from The Little Mermaid. I'm no Disney fangirl, but being a child of the '90s, I couldn't forgive myself if I made an ocean-themed playlist and neglected to include Howard Ashman's clever maritime rhymes.

Four. "The Shipwreck Coast," by the Lucksmiths. This song has no particular connection to that evening's Olympians Festival show, but I love this band and will take any opportunity to promote them, and as Australian indie pop, they bring some musical and geographical diversity to the playlist.

Five. "The Mariner's Revenge Song," by the Decemberists. The show that night was "The Crew" so I posted the sea chantey to end all sea chanteys. I previously wrote about why I think this song is so brilliantly written and constructed (in the context of explaining why I don't think the Decemberists' rock opera The Hazards of Love is so brilliant).

Six. "Seafarer," by Tennis. The show that night, Allison Page's Jasons, was a comic, pop-culture-crazed interpretation of the story of Jason and the Argonauts -- who definitely broke a lot of female hearts as they sailed the seas. Thus, this love song to a sailor.

Seven. "The Tide is High," by Blondie. Because Medea (subject of that evening's show) is not the kinda girl who gives up ju-ust like tha-at. Oh no-o-o-o! Also, this video is amazing. Debbie Harry can't dance, and yet she seems like the essence of timeless cool. The backup dancers move gracefully, and yet they seem tacky and cheesy. One could ponder this paradox for hours.

Eight. "Sloop John B," by the Beach Boys. The show that night was about the ship, the Argo, itself, so here's my favorite song about a boat. This was also the day after the Paris attacks, when everyone I knew was feeling gloomy and hopeless, and it is in such moments that we need the piercing, transcendent beauty of the Beach Boys' a capella harmonies.

Nine. "La Mer," by Charles Trenet. That evening, I was playing a French woman in Delphin: Christian Teen Dolphin-Sex Beach Party, so I had to post a classic French chanson.

Ten. "Never Let Me Go," by Florence + the Machine. One of the Olympians Festival shows that night was based on the sorceress Circe, so Florence's witchy, mystical persona seemed to fit.

Eleven. "The Island," by the Decemberists. This was the night of the staged reading of my own Tethys, or You'll Not Feel the Drowning -- whose spooky subtitle is taken from a lyric in this Decemberists prog-rock opus.

Twelve. "Octopus's Garden," by the Beatles. Another obvious choice for the playlist. I posted it the day of the staged reading of Meg O'Connor's play Pontos, or High Tide, because I have fond memories of singing Beatles songs with Meg and her husband.

Thirteen. "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," by Otis Redding. A special bonus song posted the day after the Festival ended, to make this a baker's dozen, to include Redding's bittersweet and thoughtful tribute to the San Francisco Bay, to thank everyone who participated in and attended this year's San Francisco Olympians Festival.

By the way, the subjects for next year's Olympians Festival have already been announced, and they are underworld and chthonic deities, including a week of Egyptian gods. Which means I'm already thinking about next year's playlist. Hashtag #Deathsongs.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Writing, Acting, and Directing in the 2015 Olympians Festival

2015 is my fifth year participating in the San Francisco Olympians Festival as a writer, but it is the first year I will be acting and directing for the festival as well!

We're advertising it with this Lisa Frank poster
because it's just too perfect.

On Wednesday, November 18, I am acting in the staged reading of Delphin: Christian Teen Dolphin-Sex Beach Party by Anthony Miller (directed by Colin Johnson). If you've ever wanted to hear me talk in a ridiculously thick French accent about having sex with a dolphin, THIS MAY BE YOUR ONLY CHANCE. The show is goofy as hell yet surprisingly sweet, and everyone in it is hilarious. And, I mean, I've always half-jokingly said that my goal in life is to be an intense French woman -- and now, thanks to the magic of theater, I get to do that for forty-five minutes. It's just that the thing I'm really intense about is dolphin-fucking.

"Tethys" poster specially drawn for the
Olympians Festival by Brett Grunig. I love
how dark and grim and rainy it is. I can
almost feel the cold seawater on my skin.
Then on Friday, November 20, I am directing a staged reading of my own Tethys, or You'll Not Feel the Drowning. It's a one-act play that draws upon my love for my home state of Oregon, its tenacious pioneer spirit and its beautifully bleak winter weather; as well as the terror that all Oregonians felt when they read that New Yorker article this summer about the possibility of a great Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. I've got a great cast -- Janice Wright as the formidable mayor of a small coastal town, Alan Coyne as a seismologist with bad news, and Kendra Webb as the schoolteacher who is caught between them -- and while my direction is pretty minimalist, I'm still learning a lot from the experience of directing my own work.

Both Delphin and Tethys are one-act plays, so they'll be paired with another one-act show in order to make a full evening of theater. I should also note that neither of these plays requires any prior knowledge of Greek mythology to enjoy! They explore some of the themes associated with the dolphin god Delphin and the deep sea goddess Tethys, but they don't actually re-tell a specific myth.

The Olympians Festival staged readings are at 8 PM at the EXIT Theatre (156 Eddy St, San Francisco). Tickets $12 online or $10 at the door.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

October on the Theater Pub blog

Happy Halloween!

I wrote three posts this month for the SF Theater Pub blog, all of which I'm pretty proud of:

The Practical Magic of Props: Anecdotes from friends and acquaintances that celebrate the often-unsung work of the props master, who sometimes must find or create some incredibly bizarre or unique objects according to the demands of the script. (See also: my poem "Ode to the Props Master," which I wrote for a Theater Pub show in 2012.)

Uncomfortable Thoughts: A post arguing against the idea (which I've heard some people articulate) that "the point of theater is to make people uncomfortable," and attempting to negotiate the line between "challenging" and "uncomfortable."

Ridiculously Easy, Theatrically Inspired Halloween Costumes: Exactly what the title says. Includes my perennial suggestion of how to dress up like Camille, which I originally wrote about in 2007 (gawd, how time flies) and is still one of my most popular marissabidilla posts ever.

I was a bouncy, ukulele-playing "Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot" for my office Halloween party yesterday, but now it's a gloriously foggy night in San Francisco and I'm off to dress up in Victorian finery and attend a mourning-themed play in a secret living-room theater -- am I doing Halloween right, or what?

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

September on the Theater Pub blog

Two more columns this month!

In "Male and Female, I Created Them," I continued my inquiry into issues of gender and feminism and theater and what we "should" or "shouldn't" be writing. I talk about the first time I wrote a male character that I felt really proud of, and push back against the notion that ideological concerns should govern art. I also describe one of my favorite scenes in the movie Mistress America, which has probably come and gone from theaters by now, but which you should put on your queue because it's super funny and smart.

In my other piece, I wrote a little about Dada and Surrealism, and interviewed actor-director Steven Westdahl about Zurich Plays, his Dada-themed SF Fringe Festival show. (It was a hit and won Best of Fringe!) This also continues my mini-theme of writing pieces for the Theater Pub blog about European avant-garde movements of the 20th century -- earlier this year, I wrote about Parisian bohemia and about Oulipo/Outrapo.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Self-Dramatizers: "The Rehearsal" by Eleanor Catton

I had a good feeling about The Rehearsal from the moment I purchased it from the sale table of Folio Books in Noe Valley. And when the bookstore cashier struck up a conversation about it with me, I discovered that he's a playwright who has read my blog!

And this book is really so good, you guys. So good.

The Rehearsal: A NovelThe Rehearsal: A Novel by Eleanor Catton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I do theater, so I’m pretty much a sucker for any novel (or play, or movie) that tells a backstage story. As its title suggests, The Rehearsal is one of those, though it’s more complex than the typical narrative of a production from auditions to opening night. As the novel begins, we learn that the jazz-band teacher at a girls’ high school has been caught having an affair with one of his students. The book then shows how two different groups of artsy teenagers are affected by this news: the girls who go to the high school, especially the ones in the jazz band; and the first-year class at a local acting conservatory, who create a devised theater piece based on the sex scandal.

The Rehearsal has a lot to say about adolescent sexuality, but it’s not a romance. The jazz-band teacher and the girl he slept with remain peripheral characters. But it’s about a whole lot of other stuff: two art forms, jazz and theater, both of which involve a good deal of lore about how, in order to succeed, you have to use your own suffering and pain in your art. It’s about how sweet, middle-class, suburban teenagers decide that they want to do theater or play jazz, but they haven’t suffered enough to be great. It’s about how the adults in these teenagers’ lives alternate between wanting to preserve their innocence and wanting to educate them in the pain and cruelty of the world. It’s about the differences between the way teenage girls and teenage boys present themselves, and whether we (as an acting teacher puts it) wear “masks or faces.” It’s about how teenage girls are incorrigibly self-dramatizing.

All this is conveyed in prose that flirts with grandiloquence; the characters constantly deliver speeches that sound like monologues from some contemporary play. It’s stylized and heightened in the same way that theater can be, and you probably either love it or you hate it. Me, I’m thrilled to see a novelist taking inspiration from theater, and evoking the extreme emotional highs and lows of adolescence.

Eleanor Catton was just 23 when she wrote The Rehearsal, and it shows signs of being a young author’s work. The aforementioned grandiloquence, the sense that Catton is trying to cram everything she knows about human relationships into this one book, the ambition, the postmodern stylistic gimmicks, the prose that is self-consciously quotable and perceptive, are all hallmarks of a very bright but very young author. Still, it’s amazing that such a wise and self-assured book, with so much to say about the process of how we gain wisdom, should be written by someone so young. Like her characters, she’s curious, burning with ambition, fascinated by sex and psychology and hypocrisy, and too young to know any better.

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 29, 2015

It's The Little Things, or Why I Don't Like Modernized Productions of "Company"

There’s an Onion article, frequently passed around by theater people, called “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play in Time, Place Shakespeare Intended.” Well, I have an idea for a similar man-bites-dog headline: it would say “Production of Company Set in 1970.”

"You Could Drive A Person Crazy" in the San Francisco Playhouse production. Morgan Dayley as April, Michelle Drexler as Kathy, Teresa Attridge as Marta. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.
I’ve seen Company three times: a student production at my college ten years ago; the PBS broadcast of John Doyle’s Broadway revival; and the production that’s currently running at San Francisco Playhouse. None of these productions made an effort to evoke 1970, the year the musical originally premiered; instead, all of them set the show in the present day. And there are plenty of other recent Company productions that feature cell phones and other 21st-century trappings (Terry Teachout reviewed one in Bucks County this summer), but not so many that acknowledge the show’s original time period. (One exception might be the 2011 New York Philharmonic production -- I didn't see it, but production photos show Stephen Colbert wearing a very '70s turtleneck.)

Certainly, this story of a 35-year-old commitment-phobic man, the five married couples he befriends, and the three women he half-heartedly dates, is still relevant for contemporary audiences. If anything, articles like "The Real Reason Women Freeze Their Eggs" suggest that commitment-phobic bachelors are even more of a problem now than they were in 1970. It’s easy to make arguments for why we should continue to stage and discuss Company. But that’s not the same thing as saying that we should set it in the present day.

Sondheim writes in Finishing the Hat, “God is in the details.” Or, to quote Company itself, “it’s the little little little things.” While the big-picture themes of Company are still relevant, dozens of little details in the dialogue and lyrics make clear that Sondheim and Furth are writing about a very specific milieu with specific cultural markers. And this is why I think it’s so hard to convincingly modernize Company.

It’s jarring to see characters wearing contemporary clothes and using cell phones, and then saying things that no thirty-something New Yorker in 2015 would ever say. Nobody these days drinks vodka stingers, or talks about being “square.” Marijuana is no longer an exotic drug, and we call it “pot” or maybe “weed,” but never “grass.” Marta would be crazy about some obscure pocket of hipster Brooklyn, not about 14th Street – and she wouldn’t say “I’ll call you in the morning or my service will explain.” Et cetera.

Over the years, Sondheim and Furth have made a few updates to the book and lyrics to keep them feeling contemporary. The “I could understand a person / if a person was a fag” line has been rewritten, and the dialogue now name-checks some post-1970 celebrities like Madonna and Oprah. But it would take a much more thoroughgoing rewrite to make Company seem like it’s truly a product of 2015. Chloe Veltman spends several paragraphs of her review of the Playhouse production arguing that the musical feels dated because all of the characters are heterosexual – and I agree that if someone in 2015 wrote a musical about modern marriage, they’d probably be sure to include a gay or lesbian couple in the cast. But since the rights holders of Company don’t allow you to change the characters’ genders, or any of the myriad references that sound odd in a 2015 context – why not just set it in 1970 already?

If Company is staged with 1970s costumes and emotionally honest performances, contemporary audiences will relate to it – they will see how what it has to say about marriage and commitment are universal, and they will accept the dated chatter about “optical art” and “telephoning my analyst” and all the rest. But if it’s staged with cell phones and contemporary fashions, the 1970s references can make it hard for an audience to suspend its disbelief.

Bobby (Keith Pinto) and Joanne (Stephanie Prentice) in the San Francisco Playhouse production. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.
Oddly, I can’t think of any other play or musical from Company’s era that gets updated to the present day with such frequency; most other ‘60s and ‘70s shows are now staged as period pieces. This might be because, in its time, Company was considered groundbreaking and progressive. It’s kind of amazing to think that it premiered just two years after Promises, Promises – which the Playhouse revived this past winter, and whose whole story is predicated upon ‘60s sexism. I do think that Company’s portrayal of ditsy flight attendant April is kind of sexist, but most of the other female characters are smart, interesting, and sharply drawn. And because Company’s characters still feel modern and relatable, people think it makes sense to set Company in modern times.

But times change, and 2015 is not 1970. It seems ludicrous to suggest that the life of a man born in 1935 (Bobby’s birth year, if the show takes place in 1970) would be similar to the life of a man born in 1980 (Bobby’s birth year, if it takes place now). Or, since I'm a fan of Mad Men, I try to remind myself that when Company premiered, Bobby and his friends were basically of the same age and background as the younger Mad Men characters: Pete, Trudy, Ken, Peggy.

And that’s the thing: most people who go to see Company at San Francisco Playhouse will have watched Mad Men or other historical-fiction TV shows; or read novels that were published more than 10 years ago; or otherwise discovered that they can relate to works of art that take place in the past. The Playhouse’s slogan is that the theater is an “empathy gym,” where we go to “practice the power of compassion.” But their decision to set Company in 2015 suggests that they think people can’t feel empathy or compassion for these characters unless the story takes place in modern times. Have some faith in your audiences, San Francisco Playhouse. We can handle a slightly more challenging workout in the empathy gym.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

August on the Theater Pub blog

Another month, another two columns.

In "A Monologue of One's Own," I wrote about the whirlwind experience of preparing to play Virginia Woolf in a monologue by playwright Jeremy Cole, part of an evening of pro-choice theater honoring NARAL. I was a replacement for an actress who'd had to drop out a week before the show, so there I was, still not really accustomed to thinking of myself as an actor, opening the show with an 8-minute monologue, portraying a real-life famous person with an accent not my own.

My performance was captured on video (credit: Paul Anderson) -- how do you think I did?

Then, this week, I wrote a something called "An Introvert's Guide to Theater" -- maybe the title is a little far-reaching for what it is, which is a piece about how I'm not anti-social, but I do get run-down after too much socialization. Which can be a disadvantage when you're a theater artist. There are probably more introverted theater people out there than anyone realizes, though, and it's a topic I'd like to explore more in future.

And (if you're reading this in time) come see the Pint-Sized Plays at Theater Pub! I didn't write or direct any of the shows this year, but I produced the whole evening: read all the submissions, selected the plays and directors, sent innumerable emails and put out a fair few fires. The result is a lot of fun and it's been drawing packed houses. We have 2 more performances, August 24 and 25.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Theater Pub Posts, May through July, 2015

Yes, I've been having a busy summer. Yes, I feel bad for neglecting this blog. Yes, I've kept writing my twice-monthly column for the San Francisco Theater Pub site. Here's a link roundup of my pieces from May through July.

May 14, How Theater Became a Good-Girl Pursuit: an attempt to figure out how "theater went from being considered on par with prostitution, to being considered on par with the chess club," as my editor put it.

May 28, Forewarned is Forearmed: by popular demand (i.e., I asked my Facebook friends what I should write about, and they suggested this topic), I wrote about the contentious subject of trigger warnings, and what place they might have in theater.

June 11, She Submits to Conquer: as part of the ongoing conversation about gender parity in theater, I revealed the inspiring submission statistics for the Pint-Sized Plays, the short-play festival I'm producing this month. The gender breakdown of submissions was 60% female, 40% male, and the festival lineup also reflects that ratio. I also offered some ideas for "best practices" that will encourage women to submit. (Also of note, American Theatre magazine linked to this article on their Facebook page!)

June 25, Give Him A Great Big Kiss: about taking on my first acting role in seven years, sexy secretary Elsa in The Desk Set, rehearsing my first stage kiss, and playing a sexpot when I tend to consider myself a nerdy late bloomer.

July 9, The Tech Set: a brief column listing all of the seemingly ridiculous things that people discuss at tech rehearsal, especially when it's a show with as many props as The Desk Set! As a side note, this was a conscious attempt to write a column in the style of Allison Page, my smart and hilarious fellow blogger (and The Desk Set's leading lady).

July 23, My Dance Card Is Full: I basically took the week off from writing my column, though I did submit a picture of me in costume for my minor role as a business journalist in The Desk Set.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Will the Burqa Be Banned in Berlin? Some Limericks

Today, The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Anna Sauerbrey titled "Will the Burqa be Banned in Berlin"?

This is a bad headline for two reasons:
  1. The article isn't talking about burqas (full-body garments, covering the whole face and eyes), it's talking about headscarves (covering the hair and neck).
  2. With its alliteration and its anapestic rhythm, it sounds more like a Dr. Seuss poem or the opening line of a limerick than like a serious newspaper headline.
So, naturally, I had to write some limericks "On German Anti-Headscarf Laws."

Will the burqa be banned in Berlin?
Will Deutsch xenophobia win?
Through secular bias,
Must girls who are pious
Uncover their necks and their chins?

Do Hamburgers hate the hijab?
Will Nuremberg nix the niqab?
Chanting atheist sermons,
Will these good Germans
Turn into a bigoted mob?

Monday, May 11, 2015

"Eros the Bittersweet" by Anne Carson: The Invention of Eros

A couple of weeks ago, I was in my local curry joint rereading Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll, and had just come to the passage where two characters discuss Sappho's invention of the word "bittersweet," when "Bittersweet Symphony" came on the restaurant stereo. Then I went home and saw that one of my Goodreads friends had put a book by Anne Carson called Eros the Bittersweet on her to-read list. What a collision of serendipity! I took it as a sign that I should read that book too.

Eros the BittersweetEros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet begins as an examination of what classical Greek poets had to say about eros (romantic desire), but expands into a meditation on time, metaphor, imagination, the distance between self and other, and what makes life worth living. In modern times, we think of romantic love as the emotion that makes you want to settle down and create a family with somebody, but the Greeks felt very differently. To them, eros was overwhelming, disruptive, and more to be feared than welcomed. And yet, they kept desiring, and reflecting on their desire, and writing about it in poetry and prose.

Carson provides English translations of all of the Greek passages she quotes, but she also prints the original Ancient Greek text. I therefore decided to take the opportunity to teach myself how to sound out Ancient Greek. I found a chart of the Greek alphabet online, printed it out, and taped it into the back cover of the book for reference; eventually, I got to the point where I could sound out the Greek without referring to my alphabet cheat-sheet. As for the words I was sounding out, many of them remained incomprehensible, yet it was worth it for the times when I recognized Greek roots that are also used in English, and had a holy-shit-I’m-reading-and-understanding-something-that-was-written-two-millennia-ago moment. Reading a line of Aeschylus (the first playwright!) that goes “eumorphon de kolossoi,” and understanding how it means “well-shaped statues” – well, that’s an amazing feeling.

Indeed, there’s a lot of stuff in Eros the Bittersweet about the connections between eros, learning, reading, and writing. Our imaginations, and our reach that exceeds our grasp, spur us to fall in love and also to pursue academic interests. This idea really resonates with me – after all, two of my favorite authors are Tom Stoppard and A.S. Byatt, whose plays and novels often focus on the connections between eros and education. But if you don’t get a quasi-sexual pleasure out of learning and knowledge, Eros the Bittersweet is probably not the book for you.

My biggest complaint about Eros the Bittersweet is that it doesn’t devote enough attention to Greek drama. Carson extensively considers the formal qualities of ancient Greek lyric poetry, novels, and philosophical dialogues, but she does not analyze Greek theater in the same way. For a work so concerned with paradoxes and the relationship of eros to time, this seems like a major oversight. After all, theater has an inherently paradoxical relation to time: a script can endure for millennia, but a performance is ephemeral. At one point, Carson analyzes a passage of Sophocles (calling it “Sophocles’ poem,” ignoring the fact that it comes from a stage play) that compares desire to “ice-crystal in the hands / […] you can’t put the melting mass down / you can’t keep holding it.” Isn’t the ephemeral pleasure of theater similar to the ephemeral pleasure of melting ice?

It is to Carson’s credit, however, that her book inspired me to want to learn more, to forge new connections, to exercise my imagination and have new thoughts of my own. Which means that – by Carson’s own definition – it’s a book that inspires love.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

April on the Theater Pub Blog

The way the calendar for April 2015 shook out, I ended up writing 3 posts on the SF Theater Pub blog instead of my usual 2. Here's the links:
  • I interviewed Thrillpeddlers' Artistic Director, Russell Blackwood, about his company and their Paris-themed burlesque musical revue Jewels of Paris. I loved that when my editor received the Jewels of Paris press release, he took one look at it and said "this is definitely an assignment for Marissa!"
  • Continuing the "Parisian avant-garde" theme, and tying in with Theater Pub's experimental April show, I wrote about the French playwrights' collective Outrapo -- the Workshop of Potential Tragicomedy -- and my attempts to get in touch with the Outrapistes when I was an exchange student in Paris in 2007.
  • On the last day of April, I wrote about how my political beliefs and my tastes in theater aren't always 100% congruent; sometimes I feel like a bad feminist when I don't like a play that has a message I agree with... or when I enjoy a play that I know is politically iffy. This practice of reducing a work of art to its sociopolitical message seems pretty common in the two locales where I spend most of my time: in the SF Bay Area, and online. I yearn for criticism and conversation that explores other dimensions of works of art.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

"The Wilder Shores of Love": Romance and exoticism, what did you expect?

The Wilder Shores of LoveThe Wilder Shores of Love by Lesley Blanch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Believe it or not, I decided to read The Wilder Shores of Love because it got quoted in the J. Peterman catalogue next to an illustration of a fancy nightgown. And after reading the book, that doesn’t seem like a bad place for it. Like the J. Peterman catalogue, it is fanciful, romantic, ardent, and full of exoticism. It is seductive yet also a guilty pleasure, due to the way it traffics in outdated stereotypes about ethnicity and gender.

Lesley Blanch takes for her subjects four well-bred European women who discovered that their “destiny” lay in the Middle East. First is Isabel Burton, a devout Catholic girl who fell madly in love with Richard Burton, the dashing explorer and Orientalist. Posterity has reviled Isabel because she burned Richard’s notes and manuscripts after he died, but Blanch shows that she was more than just a prudish Victorian wife.

Next we learn about Jane Digby, a beautiful aristocrat who had a string of scandalous romances that took her from England to France to Germany to Greece, and who finally found stability and contentment as the wife of a Bedouin tribesman.

Then comes Aimée Dubucq de Rivery, a French girl who was shipwrecked, kidnapped by pirates, sold into the Ottoman Emperor’s harem, and eventually saw her son become Sultan. It was fun to read about the intrigues and treacheries of the Ottoman court, like a real-life version of Game of Thrones. But alas, this section of the book seems to be pure speculation. There is no conclusive proof that Aimée Dubucq became an Ottoman concubine, yet Blanch keeps discussing what Aimée “must have felt” or “might have done.”

The book finishes with the brief, febrile life of Isabelle Eberhardt, a Russian-Swiss woman who roamed around Algeria dressed as a man, taking many lovers and trying to become a Sufi mystic. Even though all of the women in this book led unconventional, adventurous lives, Eberhardt is the strangest and most complex, and I’m not sure that Lesley Blanch fully understands her. Burton, Digby, and Dubucq get slotted as the Passionate Wife, Sexual Amazon, and Sly Sultana, respectively; Eberhardt doesn’t fit into a box like that.

Blanch tries to explain Eberhardt by frequent references to her “melancholy Russian soul,” but to a 21st-century reader, that just sounds silly and stereotypical. So, too, do Blanch’s invocations of “Oriental cunning” or “Arab fatalism.” This book tells of four women whose love for the Middle East included large doses of romantic exoticism; but in reporting their stories, Blanch often falls into the traps of exoticism herself.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Artists Are Members of a Privileged Class @ SF Theater Pub Blog

I'm rereading Tom Stoppard's Travesties tonight (for a very cool reason which I am not yet at liberty to disclose) and I have to say that it makes for very interesting reading in light of what I wrote for the Theater Pub blog earlier this week.

My Theater Pub piece is about living in an age when "count your blessings" has turned into "check your privilege," acknowledging that being an artist is itself a privilege, and wondering if anything short of total social revolution will change that.

And then I start rereading a play in which Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara debate art and revolution with Henry Carr, a privileged British guy who'd rather talk about his Savile Row suits than about the carnage of World War I. Despite that, he gets in some rather trenchant commentary on art and privilege.

Some choice quotes from Travesties:

"To be an artist at all is like living in Switzerland during a world war." (Carr)

"Art created patrons and was corrupted. It began to celebrate the ambitions and acquisitions of the paymaster." (Tzara)

"Revolution in art is in no way connected with class revolution. Artists are members of a privileged class. Art is absurdly overrated by artists, which is understandable, but what is strange is that it's absurdly overrated by everyone else. [...] What is an artist? For every thousand people there's nine hundred doing the work, ninety doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard who's the artist." (Carr)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The House of Mitford and the House of Black

As I mentioned, when I was up in Oregon last month, I holed up for several days at the Sylvia Beach Hotel. For my first four nights, I stayed in the Virginia Woolf room, which had a kind of French Provincial décor modeled after Woolf's country house, and on my last night I moved to the J. K. Rowling room. I worried that this room might feel too cartoonish and juvenile, but I actually LOVED it: it had a cozy canopy bed with red satin curtains, a beautiful antique drop-front desk, and plenty of memorabilia to make you feel like you're in Gryffindor Tower. I quickly got into the spirit of things, saying "Hello, Hedwig" to the plush snowy owl in its cage, and waving Hermione Granger's wand around while saying "Expecto Patronum!"

I also started re-reading Book 7 of Harry Potter, which I hadn't read since it came out. (Here's my post from August 2007 about my history with the Harry Potter series and my first impressions of Book 7.) At the same time, I was re-reading Hons and Rebels, Jessica Mitford's autobiography. (I first read it in May 2008.) I'd brought it to the coast with me because I sensed that on my Reading/Writing/Thinking retreat, it might be inspiring to read about a courageous, funny, rebellious woman. I also liked the connection that Jessica Mitford is J.K. Rowling's personal heroine (she named her first daughter "Jessica" in her honor).

Indeed, as I simultaneously re-read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Hons and Rebels, I spotted a detail in Rowling's book that I'm convinced was drawn from Mitford's. In the prologue to Hons and Rebels, Mitford writes, memorably, "In the windows [of my mother's house], still to be seen, are swastikas carved into the glass with a diamond ring, and for every swastika a carefully delineated hammer and sickle. They were put there by my sister Unity and myself when we were children." Later, she describes the room that she and Unity shared -- divided exactly down the middle, one half of it filled with Unity's Fascist memorabilia and literature, and the other half with Jessica's Communist stuff.

I couldn't help thinking of this when I got to Chapter 10 of Deathly Hallows, which describes the teenage bedrooms of Sirius Black and his brother Regulus at Grimmauld Place: "Sirius seemed to have gone out of his way to annoy his parents. There were several large Gryffindor banners, faded scarlet and gold, just to underline his difference from all the rest of the Slytherin family. There were many pictures of Muggle motorcycles, and also (Harry had to admire Sirius's nerve) several posters of bikini-clad Muggle girls." Meanwhile, "[though] Sirius had sought to advertise his difference from the rest of the family, Regulus had striven to emphasize the opposite. The Slytherin colors of emerald and silver were everywhere, draping the bed, the walls, and the windows. The Black family crest was painstakingly painted over the bed, along with its motto, Toujours Pur."

I need hardly point out that there's a connection between the Toujours Pur motto, Voldemort's ideas of magical blood purity, and Nazi racial ideology; nor that Gryffindor's colors, like Soviet Russia's, are scarlet and gold. In the scheme of the novel, Sirius Black basically is Jessica Mitford, and his cousins Bellatrix and Narcissa are basically Unity and Diana Mitford. (Bellatrix and Unity = mentally unstable, with a twisted, unrequited love for the Big Villain; Narcissa and Diana = beautiful cool blondes, married to the Big Villain's loyal lieutenant.)

It seems so obvious now, but I wouldn't have noticed it if I hadn't been re-reading Mitford and Rowling's books simultaneously -- in a canopy bed in a simulacrum of Gryffindor Tower.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Three Brief Reviews of Three Brief Books

Hello! Apologies for my long absence. In mid-February, I was off the grid on a week-long vacation; and for the past two weeks, I've been trying to recover from a lingering head cold.

On my vacation, I stayed at the literary-themed Sylvia Beach Hotel on the Oregon coast, in the Virginia Woolf and J.K. Rowling rooms -- so naturally, I found myself reading the books that were on hand there.

I'm also participating in a year-long book-reading contest with some friends, and every little bit counts...

Virginia WoolfVirginia Woolf by Mary Ann Caws
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In this short bio, Mary Ann Caws depicts Virginia Woolf as an enthusiastic, thoughtful woman who cherished her friends -- counter-balancing the stereotypical image of Woolf as depressed and suicidal. But in so doing, Caws neglects Woolf's work as a novelist and essayist, which, after all, is what made her famous and why we still care about her. If I recall correctly, this book mentions Mrs. Dalloway only in passing and doesn't discuss A Room of One's Own at all, and those are two of Woolf's most notable works. Instead, it feels like most of the book describes the bohemian habits and complicated relationships of the Bloomsbury Group. One perk of this book is that it's lavishly illustrated with vintage photos of all of the people it mentions. But ultimately, it gives you a much better sense of Woolf's milieu than of her own life or her writing.

The Tales of Beedle the BardThe Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As literary fairy tales, the five Tales of Beedle the Bard are far from the most interesting ones I've ever read -- some of them wear their influences too obviously, e.g. "Babbitty Rabbitty" is clearly modeled on "The Emperor's New Clothes." But it's always charming to spend time in the Wizarding World, especially in the company of the beloved Albus Dumbledore, who provides criticism and commentary on each of the five tales. The most interesting element of this book is the "Postmodernism for Kids" aspect of it: it is presented as being written hundreds of years ago by Beedle the Bard, translated recently by Hermione Granger, with Dumbledore's commentary, an introduction by J.K. Rowling, and footnotes by both Dumbledore and Rowling. If I ever have children, I might want to give them this book as an introduction to concepts like intertextuality, literary criticism, subtext, metafiction, etc.

Now All We Need is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That WayNow All We Need is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way by André Bernard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Did you know that John Steinbeck originally wanted to give Of Mice and Men the laughably bad title Something That Happened? Or that both Dorothy Parker and Dashiell Hammett's publisher thought that The Maltese Falcon was a terrible title? Those pieces of title-related trivia, and many more, can be found in this little compendium. One can see how this kind of book would be more useful before the Internet existed (nowadays this would be a Buzzfeed list, not a book), and it feels like the publisher had to pad it out to even get it to be over 100 pages, but it's nice to be reminded that while certain famous book titles may sound inevitable to us now, some of them were anything but.

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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Moved to Tears @ San Francisco Theater Pub Blog

My latest Theater Pub column is about the works of art that make me cry -- something I don't think we talk about enough, in an era that is skeptical of raw emotion. Click over there and read my piece to learn why I made sure to bring a hankie to the performance of Candide I saw last week and how seeing The King and I at the age of 5 utterly ruined me.

(My friend/editor Stuart noted "I think you're the only non-Asian person I know who was traumatized by The King and I... and most of them were traumatized for very different reasons.")

I've also convinced myself that Howard Ashman and Alan Menken must've modeled elements of Beauty and the Beast, especially the ballroom dancing scene, after The King and I -- they were no dummies and, as we all know, "good artists borrow, great artists steal."

In my column, I also mention seeing Rabbit Hole at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when I was in college -- which happened to be the subject of one of my very first blog posts. Crazy to realize that that was almost 8 years ago (also crazy that I haven't been back to Ashland since then, but that's a topic for another day).

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Miss Fisher and Miss Crewe

In my most recent Theater Pub column, I wrote about some of the non-theater things that kept me sane/happy/entertained in January: the f.lux app, trying new hairdos, cleaning my room, and watching Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries on Netflix.

I saw some enjoyable theater, too: Indian Ink at ACT is a good play in a lovely production. Though Arcadia will always be my all-time favorite Stoppard, this one is still smart and entertaining and well worth your time.

Brenda Meaney as Flora Crewe, in ACT's production of Indian Ink. Photo by Kevin Berne.

And I got to thinking about how Flora Crewe, the heroine of Indian Ink, and Phryne Fisher, the title character of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, feel like variations on an archetype: confident, independent-minded, adventurous women of the between-the-wars period. They pursue careers that aren't quite "respectable" (Flora is a poet, Phryne a private detective), but which still allow them to dress glamorously and mingle with interesting people. Flora gets denigrated as an empty-headed "flapper poet" and Phryne gets patronized as a meddlesome amateur, but they do their best to shake off such criticisms and go on with being their awesome selves. They are single but have many lovers; they are not ashamed of their sexuality. They are very fond of stylish automobiles.

Their biographical details are similar too. Indian Ink gives Flora's birth year as 1895; she is 35 when the play takes place in 1930. The Miss Fisher show takes place in 1928 Melbourne, at which time Phryne seems to be in her mid-to-late 30s. (Per Wikipedia, Phryne's birth year is 1900, so she's 28 when we meet her, but maybe that's just for the novels the TV show is based on -- actress Essie Davis is great and looks younger than her real age, but I don't think she can pass for 28.) They both have a beloved younger sister, though Phryne's sister was murdered in childhood while Flora's sister is alive and well. After spending childhood and adolescence in an English-speaking country (England/Australia), they run off to France during World War I and join an ambulance unit. They both remain in France for a bit after the war ends, too, living the bohemian life in Paris and working as artists' models.

Essie Davis as Phryne Fisher.

Here's where the parallels get really crazy. In Paris, Flora poses nude for Modigliani and when the painting is later exhibited, it infuriates her fiancé so much that he buys it and burns it in a bathtub at the Ritz. Phryne poses nude for a fictitious artist, Pierre Sarcelle, which infuriates her lover so much that he resorts to murder to get his hands on the painting. Okay, I can understand how this is a trope (jealous sexist man commits violence when he learns his girlfriend has posed nude for someone else), but it was very odd to see Indian Ink and the Miss Fisher episode about the nude painting less than a week apart, and to note all of these similarities in terms of character, era, etc.

Are both Flora Crewe and Phryne Fisher based on a real-life woman that I should know about? Is there some well-known story about a young Anglo woman who drove an ambulance in France during World War I, then posed for a nude painting that was later at the center of some scandal?

And, to compound the hall-of-mirrors effect, I first became aware of the Miss Fisher actress Essie Davis when I saw her star in a different Tom Stoppard play, Jumpers, on Broadway in 2004. (Her character had a nude scene in that one, too. Stoppard has a reputation as a super-cerebral playwright but there's enough female nudity written into his scripts -- Jumpers, Indian Ink, Coast of Utopia -- that it seems he also has quite an eye for the ladies.)

At any rate, I have two new fictional heroines to inspire me with their independence, courage, and flair.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"The Great Night" by Chris Adrian: San Francisco as Faerieland

Five years ago, I got all excited when I heard that acclaimed novelist Chris Adrian was working on a book that imagined the faeries from A Midsummer Night's Dream under Buena Vista Park in contemporary San Francisco. The novel in question, The Great Night, came out in 2011, and I finally got around to reading it this month...

The Great NightThe Great Night by Chris Adrian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In order to love The Great Night, it probably helps to be a San Franciscan, to have pledged your heart to this hilly, foggy, colorful, magical city. It probably helps to be heartbroken, or at least trying to get over a painful loss. It helps to be the kind of person who bursts out giggling when introduced to three faerie characters named "Lyon," "Oak," and "Fell," realizing that while these are good names for faeries, they are also the names of streets near Buena Vista Park, where the story takes place. It helps to have ridden the N Judah downtown every weekday for the past six years, traveling through the tunnel under Buena Vista Park every morning and evening, and to experience this commuter-train journey with a new sense of wonder as you read about Oberon and Titania holding court in a fantastical palace under this hill. It probably helps, too, to be a theater-lover, whose first experience with Shakespeare was A Midsummer Night's Dream; to have recently written a short play yourself about dryads, oak-tree nymphs, and thus appreciate the novel's depiction of a faerie oak...

I can try to look at this novel more objectively, of course. I can recognize that it isn't perfect, though I may be close to a perfect reader for it, or have discovered it at the right time in my life. The main action takes place on Midsummer Night in 2008, but at least half of the book is taken up with flashbacks that fill in the backstories of its human and faerie characters. The three main human characters, Molly, Will, and Henry, are all about 30 years old and have suffered two major tragedies in their lives -- one during adolescence and one more recently. And the laying-out of their backstories can seem overly schematic, not to mention depressing; clearly, Chris Adrian wants to explore themes of grief and suffering and healing, but sometimes the characters seem like no more than the sum of their misfortunes. The faerie queen Titania, meanwhile, has suffered the greatest loss of all: her changeling son died of leukemia at UCSF hospital, and in her grief, she drove her husband Oberon away.

Though billed as a contemporary take on A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Great Night also seems to draw inspiration from other, later Shakespeare plays. While the rude mechanicals in Midsummer are preparing a play to entertain the king, the band of homeless theater-makers in Adrian's novel wish to "catch the conscience of the king," or rather, the Mayor, with their production of a musical version of Soylent Green. (They are convinced that the Mayor is killing homeless people and turning their bodies into the food served at homeless shelters. This is all the funnier if you pick up Adrian's clues that the mayor in question is Gavin Newsom, S.F.'s slick scion of privilege.) And the novel's focus on themes of grief and loss does not recall the lighthearted Midsummer so much as more "mature" Shakespeare plays like King Lear and The Tempest.

This is an ambitious novel, mixing realism and fantasy and humor and sorrow, shifting its point of view every few pages -- and I can acknowledge that it doesn't always work. But mostly, I'm just so happy to see my San Francisco, the 21st-century Mission and Haight and Sunset, captured in fiction so well and so lovingly. (I love Tales of the City, but it mostly takes place in Russian Hill and Pac Heights, neighborhoods where my friends and I rarely have cause to venture.) Descriptions of the faeries sprucing up a sterile hospital room, or Titania's bad blind date with a Marina bro, feel funny and painful and, in spite of everything, true. Because this feels like the kind of city where such things can happen.

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Monday, January 12, 2015

I'd Like to Thank the Stucademy

Stuart Bousel wrote 5000 words last Monday explaining why he wasn't going to post his Stuart Excellence in Bay Area Theater Awards, a.k.a. SEBATAs, a.k.a. "Stueys," this year. So it was a surprise when, round midnight last night (trust Stuart to post his awards at the witching hour), a post went up on the Theater Pub blog announcing the 14 Stuey winners—including me!

My "Best Breakthrough" Stuey recognizes my successfully self-producing Pleiades last August. "I was blown away by how organized and focused Marissa was, how determined she was to do it as best she could even the first time out," Stuart wrote. "Marissa strategized and planned, gathered information, raised funds, and was just in general super smart about it all. Was anyone surprised? Not really. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take one more moment to tell her she did an amazing job. Everyone looking to produce a show in 2015: call Marissa. She knows what she’s doing."

Inspired by last night's Golden Globes and by Stuart's own honesty in always speaking what's on his mind, I wrote an acceptance speech and posted it to Facebook this morning.

In my dreams, this is what I'm wearing to accept my Stuey Award.
Marchesa, Fall 2014.
"And the 2014 Stuey for Best Breakthrough goes to... Marissa Skudlarek, Pleiades."

(Applause. I get up from my seat, glide to the podium. At least I'd like to think I glide. The last time I wore high heels and a long gown, at the TBA Awards, I tripped and fell halfway down a flight of stairs and bruised my ankle. [Fortunately, no one witnessed it.] My friend Maura said this made me the Bay Area Jennifer Lawrence and that made me feel a little better, 'cause who doesn't want to be JLaw, but it's been two months and my ankle is still slightly tender. But this is all a daydream in which I'm wearing a gown that probably costs as much as my whole production of Pleiades so yeah, I glide, OK?)

"Gentlemen and la—wait, the Stuey Awards committee consists of only one gentleman—I gratefully accept the Stuey for Best Breakthrough. Of course, I think it’s kind of funny that in the citation for the award, I am praised for, basically, being a perfectionist and having my shit together—wait, can I say ‘shit’ here, or will I get bleeped?—when I often feel like my perfectionism is detrimental and that I don’t have my shit together at all. Like Stuart says, awards are kind of weird. And there’s a certain existential terror, too, in the idea of ‘Oh my God, if I’ve broken through, now I have to keep doing this.’ But honestly, all neurosis aside, I agree with our illustrious host and one-man awards committee that the Internet has gotten kind of awful recently, full of criticism and judgment and not the good kind of criticism and judgment, the place where you can always, always find someone who’ll tell you why you’re doing it wrong. And in a tough environment, in a tough year, I am genuinely touched that someone is willing to say in public that he thinks I’m basically headed in the right direction. That many of us in this room are headed in the right direction. And maybe this thought, and this award, will help me pick myself up faster in moments when I’m bogged down by neurosis and self-doubt. And in the meantime, yes, if you want to talk about best practices for self-producing, drop me a line and we’ll plan a coffee date. Awards have only as much power as we give them, but if this award can make me more personally hopeful or result in more knowledge about self-production being circulated in our community, then its power will be harnessed to a good cause. Thank you again."

(And I glide offstage.)

A couple of thoughts that I'd like to add tonight:

It's a little odd to get this award from Stuart, because his theater company, No Nude Men, was the nominal producer of Pleiades. It wasn't a financial arrangement. Instead, Stuart granted me the prestige of the NNM brand, with its 10+ years of history in the Bay Area; we had a few producer-y chats over coffee; and he let me text/email him with Silly Newbie Producer Questions as they came up. So I feel like a lot of my achievements as a producer simply involved asking good questions and listening to the advice of someone who's produced indie theater here for over a decade. Maybe that's rarer than it seems (Stuart would know), and maybe it's also a bit nepotistic. Fear of appearing nepotistic or biased, in fact, was one of the reasons that Stuart almost didn't post his awards this year. But hey, they are his awards, this is show business, and both he and I are people who overanalyze our actions, so who am I to quibble?

One thing I haven't overanalyzed, though, is the experience of producing Pleiades. Right after it closed, I became overwhelmed by a health crisis and a breakup, in quick succession. So I didn't really get a chance to take pride in my achievement, or to sort out my feelings about the show separately from everything else that was happening in my life. The wounds from my surgery and my breakup have now healed, and I've integrated those events into my self-narrative—but I haven't fully integrated Pleiades. (I haven't even been able to bring myself to open the script on my computer and incorporate the tiny changes that I made in rehearsals.) So winning a Stuey, having my efforts recognized, feels like an anchor, grounding me more firmly in sanity, reality, accomplishment. Yes. I wrote and produced a play. People noticed. And I shouldn't allow anything else to overshadow that.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Is Sex Necessary": Dated Advice on Dating

On New Year's Eve, for the first time ever, I posted a tweet that went viral -- a beautiful E.B. White quote about midnight on December 31, which I had originally copied out of an old New Yorker and posted on this blog in 2007. Partly because of this, I decided to make E.B. White's first book, Is Sex Necessary?, which he wrote in collaboration with James Thurber, the first book I read in 2015. Also because it had been sitting on my shelf for about five years and, at the age of 27, I have finally gotten over being embarrassed about reading a book called Is Sex Necessary? while on public transportation.

Is Sex Necessary? or Why You Feel the Way You Do by James Thurber and E.B. White
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

E. B. White's essays, children's books, and Elements of Style writing tips are justifiably classics, but I can't say the same for his first book, Is Sex Necessary?. Hastily written in collaboration with his friend and colleague James Thurber (they wrote alternating chapters), fitted out with Thurber's rough cartoons, and published around the time of the stock market crash in 1929, it's dated in the way that only a humor book from 85 years ago can be. Thurber and White were evidently parodying the pop-psychology and pop-sexuality books of the '20s, but because those books and ideas are no longer in vogue, the parody thereof mostly falls flat, too. (Samuel D. Schmalhausen, who seems to be White and Thurber's main target, doesn't even have a Wikipedia page.)

Is Sex Necessary? has some amusing passages, mostly relating to absurd "case histories" that the authors claim to have witnessed or carried out. Investigating the admonition to "look out for the Quiet Type," Thurber spots a quiet woman on a bus, approaches her with the line "Madam, I would greatly appreciate making a leisurely examination of you, at your convenience," and is rewarded with a slap. There is also a funny (if incredibly dated) story about a young bride whose husband must disabuse her of the notion that babies are brought by lilies and bluebirds. And the section about women who become neurotic due to society's conflicting messages about sex (is it a lyrical expression of romantic tenderness, or is it a casual animal instinct?) still rings true today. That's also one of the only passages in the book that views women with understanding and sympathy; most of the rest of it is written from the perspective of a commitment-phobic man.

But often, it's just too hard to cut through the straight-faced parodies of dry scientific writing, and the vast differences between courtship in the 1920s and nowadays, to reveal the underlying humor. A pun about women having Narcissism and men having Begonia-ism fails because it's difficult for a 21st-century reader to wrap their head around the idea of young bachelors staying home and cultivating begonias (which was evidently a thing in the '20s). In a historical sense, it's interesting to be reminded that the sexual revolution didn't begin in the 1960s; young people in the '20s thought that they were leading a sexual revolution too, rebelling against Victorian morality. But despite the illustrious reputations of the men who wrote it, I too often found Is Sex Necessary? a historical curio, rather than a timeless classic.

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Friday, January 9, 2015

2014 Ends, 2015 Begins @ SF Theater Pub Blog

In late December, we SF Theater Pub bloggers revived our tradition of doing some group posts to honor our favorite theater moments, posts on our blog, and posts on other blogs from the past year.

For our compilation of Top 5 lists celebrating highlights of Bay Area Theater, I contributed my Top 5 Design Elements from plays I saw in 2014. ("That's right, you're kind of like our style columnist, aren't you?" said my editor when I pitched this. I ended up covering way more than just fashion/costume design, though!)

Then, for our round-up of favorite posts from our blog and elsewhere, I wrote about Barbara Jwanouskos' busy year of breaking through barriers, physical and mental (she does kung fu); about Moss Hart's memoir Act One; and about Frank Rich's article on the backstory to Act One. Ashley Cowan, meanwhile, wrote about some of my Theater Pub blog entries, including the one from October where I decided to talk about my gallstone crisis publicly. It was one of the more emotionally vulnerable posts I wrote in the difficult year of 2014 and I am honored to be recognized for it.

Ashley praised me for "staying positive" and "searching for stars in seemingly dark skies," but honestly, that's not always easy. It's not like I can find a sense of positivity and peace and then hold onto it forever -- my equilibrium is fragile and I easily spiral into negativity. Indeed, my first Theater Pub post of 2015 has me wondering if I'm backsliding, wondering if I'm losing my mind, wondering if I have anything to say... wondering a hell of a lot of things, actually. Ever since I started this blog seven and a half years ago, it's borne the tagline "a girl with an answer for some things and a question for most things." But I don't think I've ever before publicly shown you the extent of my self-questioning the way I did in my Theater Pub post this week.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

"Let's Bring Back": The Fundamental Things That Apply From Times Gone By

The turning of the year feels like an excellent time to think about style, elegant living, and the best elements of bygone days.

Let's Bring Back: An Encyclopedia of Forgotten-Yet-Delightful, Chic, Useful, Curious, and Otherwise Commendable Things from Times Gone ByLet's Bring Back: An Encyclopedia of Forgotten-Yet-Delightful, Chic, Useful, Curious, and Otherwise Commendable Things from Times Gone By
By Lesley M.M. Blume
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Considering that I am known among my friends for drinking GIMLETS, writing with a FOUNTAIN PEN, and carrying a PARASOL on sunny summer days, it's not surprising that I enjoyed Lesley M. M. Blume's Let's Bring Back. Based on her popular Huffington Post column, it's an eclectic compendium of items, foods, phrases, and even qualities (ELEGANCE) that she'd like to see more of in the modern world.

Many of Blume's Let's Bring Back choices would be both easy and fun to revive (PENNY LOAFERS, ROCKING CHAIRS); a few are included for sheer outlandishness ("CHARIOTS: the ultimate status vehicle, especially when drawn by lions or elephants"); some have vanished from the earth and will never be seen again (THE FOX THEATER in San Francisco... sob!). Some of the entries feature historical trivia and straightforward arguments for why we should bring these things back; others are wryly amusing one-liners ("BUTLERS: they provide the household with an air of refinement, so you don't have to").

The nostalgia on display here mostly centers around Victorian quaintness (THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS) and early-20th-century glamour (SATIN PAJAMAS). Bold and stylish women like BANKHEAD, TALLULAH and VREELAND, DIANA get plenty of shout-outs. While Blume frequently bemoans how casual and sloppy modern life can be, it's also clear that she's grateful to be a 21st-century woman who can drink cocktails, wear trousers (preferably WIDE-LEGGED ones), and indulge her VICES ("I'd rather be Scarlett O'Hara than Melanie Wilkes any day of the week"). It's about bringing some sophistication and thoughtfulness into your everyday life, not about turning the clock back wholesale.

Organized alphabetically, Let's Bring Back is the kind of book that it's easy to dip into and out of -- ideal for keeping on your bedside table and reading a bit of every night before you go to sleep. (Perhaps it will bring you glamorous dreams.) And because it's all about nostalgia and things that stand the test of time, it won't go out of style any time soon.

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Friday, January 2, 2015

"Wild" Adventures, part deux

The dread Title Confusion strikes again... read this post first to enhance your reading experience.

Scene: My office, this afternoon. The IT guys are trying to fix a problem with my computer, so I've wandered over to a neighboring cubicle to chat.

CO-WORKER 1: Did you do anything fun yesterday?

ME: Oh, yeah, I went to go see Into the Woods with a friend.

CO-WORKER 2: How was it? I heard it was really good.

ME: Well, my friend and I are both theater people, in fact she actually played Little Red Riding Hood this summer, so we probably have waaay too many opinions about it, but--

CO-WORKER 1: What's it about?

CO-WORKER 3: It's about Little Red Riding Hood?!

ME: Yeah, it's based on the Sondheim musical--

CO-WORKER 2: Basically, it's about this woman who really hates her life, nothing is going right for her--

ME: (thinking, This is a rather unique way of looking at Into the Woods, but I guess it kind of describes the Baker's Wife, or Cinderella...)

CO-WORKER 2: --she just divorced her husband and is fucked up on drugs, so she decides to take this big hike through the wilderness--

ME: What?! No... not Wild... Into the Woods! The fairy-tale musical!

(General laughter at Co-Worker 2's expense)

Thursday, January 1, 2015

One Midnight (of 2015) Gone

Happy 2015!

I spent the first afternoon of the year at the movies, seeing Into the Woods with my friend Corinne Proctor. She's a professional musical-theater actress who played Little Red Riding Hood at San Francisco Playhouse this summer; I'm a Sondheim junkie for whom Woods was the gateway drug. Needless to say, we were both "excited and scared" for the film adaptation!

After all, we'd spent December participating in Theater Pub's big Into the Woods blog-roundtable. Together with local theater luminaries Stuart Bousel, Brian Katz, Oren Stevens, and Nick Trengove, we analyzed the intricacies of this multi-layered show. Our discussion, in three parts:
And, now that the movie has opened, there will likely be a Part IV later this month, where we'll re-convene to discuss what worked and didn't work in the cinematic adaptation. So, while normally I'd write up my thoughts tonight as the latest installment of my Marissabidilla blog feature "Highly Anticipated Movie Reviews," you'll just have to wait a bit to find out what I thought of the film.

Also, if the above three links aren't enough Corinne and Marissa for you, she and I made an additional appearance on the Theater Pub blog in December, when I interviewed her about playing "Marge" in Promises, Promises at San Francisco Playhouse. Our discussion touches on vodka stingers, holiday movies, and glamorous stage names... as well as less frivolous matters like Corinne's decisions to join Equity and move to New York City. She'll be in S.F. for another week finishing out the run of Promises, Promises, and then heading back to the East Coast. I'll miss her -- it's always sad when a friend who loves Sondheim and Stoppard as much as you do leaves town.